Tuesday, November 25, 2008

MSF Basic RiderCourse

I took the $280 15 hour Motorcycle Safety Foundation (MSF) course this past weekend at Arizona Honda.

[Purchased the day before the course.]

And picked up my motorcycle endorsement a day later at the DMV.

Surprisingly, unlike other places, there is no progressive engine capacity restriction in the United States. And you don't even have to take this excellent course, so bad habits etc. might not get corrected. I say: what a country!

Motorcycle skills take time to acquire. Maybe a lifetime to perfect. So I'm looking to get a beginner machine and work my way up.

The classroom study led by the instructor (5 hours) is of course just common sense sound advice. No tricks. 50 questions on the exam. I believe there were 10 people in my class. I think there were only two wrong answers in the whole group, i.e. the class scored 498/500.

Out on the range, it was a bit less straightforward. I drive a stick shift car and I have ridden a road bike for many years. So I'm very familiar with the principles. But that's all theoretical, I've never actually ridden a motorcycle before. Muscle memory-wise, it was both harder and easier than I'd imagined.

Glancing at the MSF webpage,there's about 10 hours of practice exercises and a 4-part test. There were two instructors, euphemistically referred to as "RiderCoaches". Our group of 10 were divided between them for instant feedback aka "coaching".

It is quite grueling actually if you think about it since the total time spent (excluding travel time) is 15 hours over just 2 days. It's still fairly hot and dry out here in Tucson in late November (28C), lots of water needed, and we finished each day just as the sun was setting.

[Waiting to be called to review our tests at the end of day 2.]

(Unfortunately,) you get to use the same bike on both days:

I truly hated my Honda Rebel. It wouldn't go into neutral unless I used the kill switch, and randomly balky into 2nd. Pretty sensitive throttle with a lot of slop. I guess these range bikes were a little beat up.

Moreover, I disliked the ergonomics of the Rebel. I could not reach the front brake with all four fingers (required), and the lever's reach was not adjustable. The seat was painfully wide, seemingly designed for a wide load only. The handlebar height was wrong for maintaining a horizontal/straight wrist. Seat height was commendably low though.

The instructors (Ray and Ron) were truly excellent though. Serious and professional. I got my money's worth. They jumped on errors immediately, hammered me mercilessly for every sign of an emerging bad or sloppy habit, spotted every moment of throttle hesitation or roll-off through a corner, and critiqued every wobble no matter how small. (My biggest problem turned out to be looking down: either at the controls or the cones - especially during the slower-than-walking-pace small box double u-turn maneuver.) I can't imagine learning anywhere near this fast on a cul-de-sac somewhere and of course bad habits would have developed unchecked in that case.

By contrast, the test for the license (at the end of the 2nd day) is rather hard to flunk. You have to have more than 20 points deducted or drop the bike to fail. But that's not the point. Over the two days, I had gone from zero to a lot of new skills.

My personal notes? Let's see. No deductions for the figure of 8 u-turn test, i.e. no foot down or maneuvering outside the box. The swerve test turned out fine (eventually). I lost 2 points on the brake test (2 ft further) - I had managed to lock the rear of the Rebel in practice. And I lost 5 points on the timed curve for slowness though I was told my technique was perfect. So 93/100 for 3rd place in my group of 10. And I came out with a lot of respect for the skill of the motorcyclist who make things look easy or has beautiful technique.

The Southwest is a great place to ride a motorcycle. Distances are larger than what I can do on a road bike. For instance, 300 miles would literally take me all day on a road bike.

And every day, I see so many motorcycles being used for commuting - Americans no longer taking cheap gas for granted - though I can only see myself commuting on one if I have a running workout scheduled for the same day. Today, I spied these 8 motorbikes parked just behind the building I work in:

And they got me thinking about what kind of motorcycle I want. On some days, there is even some pretty exotic machinery...

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Nike+ iPod Nano and wireless headset

Over the last couple of years, I've been in search of my personal holy grail in terms of running-related gadgetry. In short, I've been looking for:
  1. the lightest and most compact iPod that
  2. supports the Nike+ sensor/running shoe hardware, and
  3. supports the use of a wire-free, sweatproof stereo headset
Before I describe the solution, let me briefly explain why this is hard to do.

Currently, only two members of the iPod family support the Nike+ sensor: the Touch 2G and the Nano (I have a 2G model). The smallest iPod is the Shuffle but it doesn't work with Nike+. The iPod Touch 2G comes with built-in support for Nike+ but is considerably more bulky than the Nano, plus I already have a iPhone 3G which is basically the same hardware as the Touch 2G plus a phone (and GPS). Unfortunately, the iPhone is not Nike+ compatible.

Next problem: the Nano doesn't support wireless stereo because it doesn't have a bluetooth chip. Actually, none of Apple's iPod/iPhone models can play music wirelessly even if the model happens to have bluetooth. Go figure.

This means a separate bluetooth dongle is necessary. Fact: there is only one dock connector per iPod. The Nike+ receiver uses the dock connector. The iPod Touch 2G has the Nike+ receiver built inside, freeing the dock connector for a bluetooth adaptor, but the Nano needs to have the Nike+ receiver plugged in at the bottom. Unfortunately, the headphone socket is also next to the dock connector at the bottom of the Nano. Severe competition for limited space:

I settled on a refurbished, i.e. 40% off, Jaybird JB-200 headset. It is sweatproof (very important for long-term use). It may also be ordered with an iPod-specific or a generic headphone plug dongle. (I got both.) It also has a microphone for regular bluetooth headset functionality. And mostly importantly, it also claimed a useful 5 hours of battery life, comfortably long enough for a marathon.

Even at a discount, these things are by no means cheap. And bluetooth's limited bandwidth does not make for audiophile or critical listening quality, but when I'm running do you think I care? (There are high-fidelity headsets based on Kleer's proprietary wireless system but they don't advertise sweatproofing and there are other downsides.)

Funny thing happened inbetween my placing the order and receiving the product. iLounge came out with a negative (C-) review. Given the cost, if it had come out a few days earlier, I probably wouldn't have ordered.

The headset is a bit fiddly but stayed securely put on my midweek ten mile run. And it's wonderful not to have wires to snag and yank your earbuds out.

There is a wire that connects the receiver on the right side to the left side. I had to shorten it using a tie-wrap so it wouldn't drag on my neck and interfere with head-turning.

The generic Jaybird dongle is plugged into the Nano 2g earphone socket with the Nike+ receiver inside my Marware Sportsuit Relay case (which doesn't appear on Marware's website anymore):

The Marware case is wonderful because it allow the Nano to be wrist-mounted - which is more comfortable than bicep-mounting - and is specifically designed to hold the Nike+ receiver as well. Since we've gone wireless, the constant flicking of the earphone cable is no longer a problem.

The generic dongle is about twice the size of the iPod docking connector dongle because headphone sockets don't supply necessary power, so it needs to have an internal battery. The combination looks rather unwieldy but crucially doesn't interfere with running.

Bluetooth reception from the wrist is excellent without annoying interruptions. (Placed in a pocket, you will get dropouts as body parts may temporarily block the signal while running.) Sound quality is running compatible: certainly, the Nike+ voice announcements come through loud and clear, and music does not require a low noise floor given labored breathing.

As for the iPod-specific dongle, I use that with my iPhone 3G for music only. The built-in bluetooth of the iPhone is only for calls.

There are a lot of pieces to lose. Here is the docking station for charging both the headset and the generic bluetooth dongle:

UPDATE: November 24th, I had some problems with the increase volume button, it seems stuck on, As of November 25th, the headset is dead. It charges (red light goes on and then off), but it doesn't turn on anymore.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

The desert and dynamic range: spherical panorama photography

I blogged about hiking on Pusch Peak back in April 2007):
It's hard to capture the scale and immersion of the canyons and peaks with conventional 2D camera technology. One day I plan to get a digital SLR and panohead and make 3D QT VR pictures.

I've since tried a few, small spherical panoramas projects, e.g. MIT's Stata Center and LA's Getty Museum. I've also tested my setup on the east coast in Virginia's Cumberland Gap but I haven't had the opportunity to follow through on Pusch Peak until recently.

So this autumn, I ascended the lower reaches of Pusch Peak with my spherical panorama gear. Unfortunately, the results are somewhat disappointing, revealing significant limitations of my equipment and process.

At altitudes of 1000m to 2000m, the strong desert sun here makes for unrelentingly harsh lighting (except during early mornings and dusk). In other words, rather challenging conditions for cameras, especially if one needs to capture a 360° view within a canyon at mid-afternoon, which will inevitably contain both brightly lit surfaces and deep shadows.

I'm using an Olympus E-510. And I've been taking jpeg images. As it turns out, the dynamic range of this combination has been tested to be well below par, see below:

This hasn't mattered until now.

It appears the solution, apart from getting a better camera, is to use RAW (not jpeg) images and maybe Adobe Camera Raw (ACR) to develop them. Assuming the test results translate well to the real world, I should be able to get nearly 3 stops more dynamic range without having to resort to bracketed exposures (for HDR etc.).

[Update: from discussion on dpreview.com, Jay Turberville pointed out that there must be something wrong with Imaging Resource's result for the E-510. The Olympus E-410, basically identical, tested out with a dynamic range of 5.99 on JPG. Still below par though.]

I will have to issue a promissory note here: to make time to ascend Pusch Peak again with my camera gear. And see if RAW will make a significant difference in real-world testing. (I'd also love to test a camera with state-of-the-art dynamic range but I don't know anyone with a Nikon and fisheye.)

Meanwhile, to illustrate the problem, here are the two least blown-out spherical panoramas from my first shoot.

The first panorama is from lower down on the hike. Since the sun is mostly hidden, this one came out the best:

pano1.mov (10.2MB file, use QuickTime player)
pano1.swf (Adobe Flash)

The second panorama was taken higher up. As you can see, I've diddled around with exposure curves a bit in an attempt to recover as much detail as possible but you can clearly see nasty artifacts such as banding in the sky.

pano3.mov (9.6MB)
pano3.swf (Adobe Flash)