Unfortunately, this CharlieCard isn’t valid for usage with in the system

The MBTA has for years now had available a “stored value” type of card for subway, buses, commuter rail, etc. All very neat. You can go to a vending machine at subway stations and refill the card with cash or use a debit or credit card. It’s even possible to refill them on the bus, but I always get flustered trying to do it, and the drivers are often impatient about it. More recently, they’ve added a web-based system for refilling your card, which sounds pretty handy. But I’ve tried many times to enroll my ancient CharlieCard, only to get an error back. I assume it was because it was too old, and pre-dated when the started allowing access via the web.

Yesterday, I was on the bus and ran out of money on the card, so I went to refill it. I was asking the bus driver “What do I do next?” but he wasn’t really answering me. I failed to follow the correct sequence, and ended up with a paper ticket with $5 on it, minus the cost of the bus fare. Argh! When we got to Harvard, I picked up a *new* CharlieCard, so I’d be able to enroll it in their system. When we got home, I did try to enroll the card only to get the same error message back. Sheesh!

I emailed the support email address listed on the site, holding out little hope that I’d actually receive an intelligent answer. But less than 10 minutes later, I did get a response: “Unfortunately you would have to grab another card at the station. This error is due to a glitch in the MBTA’s system, and there’s no way to tell in advance which cards are compatible with the online system and which ones are not. I apologize for the inconvenience. Thank You”

So, kudos to the MTBA (or their partner) for providing an “answer” so quickly! Generally, at best I’d expect a response about a day later, telling me that the company had received my inquiry, and telling me how important I am to them, etc., etc. And then I may or may not hear back in a reasonable timeframe. However, the MBTA (and/or their partner) get a failing grade for the content of the response.

Guess I will be picking up a stack of cards next time…

Hell Toupee

There were still patches of snow on the ground from the weekend’s Ocsnowber Nor’easter, but it was a nice night for trick-or-treating, at about 45 degrees. I had our light on from 6-9 but still only served 10 kids, and 6 of them were in one group! I do my best to be a welcoming house: porch light on, jack-o-lantern out, and I always play some “appropriate” music, but very few kids come through our neighborhood for some reason. My “All Hallows Eve” playlist includes:

Bad Moon Rising — CCR
Bela Lugosi’s Dead — Bauhaus
Black Magic Woman — Santana
Bright Yellow Gun — Throwing Muses
Burnin’ For You — Blue Oyster Cult
Culling of the Fold — Decemberists
Don’t Fear the Reaper — Blue Oyster Cult
Everyday is Halloween — Ministry
Gallows Pole — Led Zeppelin
Hell — Squirrel Nut Zippers
Highway to Hell — AC/DC
Institutionalized — Suicidal Tendencies
The Mariner’s Revenge Song — Decemberists
Monster Mash — Bobby Pickett
Monsters in the Bathroom — Bill Harley
One Halloween Night — SteveSongs
People Who Died — Jim Carroll
Prince Nez — Squirrel Nut Zippers
Psycho Killer — Talking Heads
Run Like Hell — Pink Floyd
Shankill Butchers — Decemberists
Werewolf — SteveSongs
Werewolves of London — Warren Zevon
Zombie — Cranberries

In the afterlife
You could be headed for the serious strife
Now you make the scene all day
But tomorrow there’ll be Hell to pay

–Squirrel Nut Zippers, Hell

My Bike

Having largely completed Clara’s bike, I moved on to my bike. This is the bike I bought in High School, early 1980’s, from the bike shop that was at the edge of our neighborhood (The Bike Rack). It cost me about $300 at the time. I rode it all over during my High School year, or at least as far as I ranged back then. I wasn’t allowed to have a driver’s license until I was 18, so there wasn’t much driving for me in High School, though of course I did get rides from friends. Anyway, back to the bike. It got a lot of use in those years, and I brought it up to college with me, though with some trepidation given the reputation Cambridge had for bike theft. I didn’t use it a lot in those years, but when I needed to get off campus on my own, or even to the other end of campus, it was handy. One of my roommates borrowed it once, and the back wheel got stolen. He graciously replaced it, even before bringing the bike back, but that made me even more anxious about riding it. Or more precisely, parking it. I had a Citadel “u-lock” and the idea was you’d remove the front wheel and lock it up along with the back wheel and the frame to something sturdy. But what a pain, and you end up scratching up the fork ends.

After college, the bike saw even less use. And after getting married (or maybe it was just before), Susan and I bought snazzy new Specialized mountain bikes, which meant that the old bike really languished after that, sitting in basements, attics, and other random storage areas. I had a $10 price tag on it at a yard sale once, as it had gotten a little rusty in some parts, and someone offered me $5 for it. I hate yard sales. As if $10 wasn’t enough of a bargain. I couldn’t let it go for that, so it sat in the basement some more, but its presence there began to bug me. So a few years ago, I stripped it of all its parts, and began to strip the paint from the frame. It sat for another year or two, and last summer I got “inspired” to turn it into a single speed/fixed gear bike, and did a lot of research. The trickiest bit was getting a special rear hub that would allow some front-back adjustment of the cog (to tension the chain properly) even though the rear dropout was essentially vertical. I eventually bought a set of wheels on eBay where the rear wheel had this special White Industries Eccentric ENO hub. The pair of wheels, all built up, cost about a third less than the hub alone would have, brand new. Seemed like a good deal. But then it sat some more. Oh, and the new wheels are size 700c, while the old ones were 27″ so the conversion necessitates a longer reach brake.

This summer, we bought Clara an old road bike that she and I fixed up for her. Part of that job was having the frame painted (or more accurately, “powder coated”). I thought I could perhaps get a discount getting more than one frame done, so I got both frames ready. That didn’t turn out to be the case, and it turned out to be quite a bit more expensive than I’d hoped, but I’m very pleased with the end result. After essentially finishing her bike, I started on mine. I bought about half the parts via eBay, and others through a couple of online bike shops, and even some parts/tools from local shops. At this point, there remain but three original parts: the frame, the fork, and the seatpost binder bolt. After that, there are a few things I bought used: the wheels, the seatpost, and the saddle. Beyond that, everything on the bike is new. Which means the project cost more than it was worth, but it has been a fun and interesting project, and I learned a lot doing it. Plus, I still have my old bike and all the sentimental value that carries.

I rode it for the first time last Friday. I had it set up in fixed gear mode, but felt a little freaked out in that mode, so I switched it to single speed (by simply flipping the rear wheel around!) until I could get comfortable with the bike as a whole. Hope to make the switch and get some practice riding “fixie” soon. I expect it will take some time to get used to it.

Here’s a listing of most of the components:

Frame: 1981 Panasonic DX2000
Fork: original Tange
Rims: Mavic Open Sport
Rear Hub: White Industries Eccentric ENO
Front Hub: some Nashbar sealed bearing hub
Headset: Velo Orange Alloy Headset, in JIS size (not many choices in that size!)
Stem: Nitto Pearl 120mm
Handlebar: no-name Bullhorn style
Bar Tape: Arundel cork
Bottom Bracket: Tange sealed cartridge
Crankset: Sugino XD
Pedals: MKS Sylvan Prime Track Pedals
Toe Clips: MKS (NJS Stamped :-))
Brake: Tektro R536 Caliper
Brake Level: Tektro RX 4.1
Cross Lever: Cane Creek
Seatpost: SR Laprade
Saddle: Selle San Marco Island Ponza


Clara’s Bike

Ever since she briefly rode a friend’s road bike on vacation last year, Clara has been wanting a road bike of her own. There are kid-sized road bikes available, but they run $700 and up! So I scoured Craigslist, and eventually came upon a 1977 (I think) Fuji Junior, which is a kid-sized road bike, built on 24″ wheels. Nice. Picked it up for $60. Seemed like it had been garaged for a long time — grease was very dry, but the bike and its parts didn’t seem beat-up or anything. So, Clara and I took the bike completely apart with the intention of getting the frame painted nicely and generally overhauling all the moving parts.

Brought the frame in to the powder coater just before we left for two weeks of vacation, and picked it up shortly after we returned. It looked awesome! It cost more than I expected or hoped, but it was beautiful. Clara picked out a nice teal, which doesn’t seem to be rendered quite accurately in the photos below. We’ve been working together over the past couple of weeks to clean and re-grease all the components and re-install them on the frame. It’s come along very nicely.

The biggest headache, somewhat surprisingly, has been the wheels. The new standard in wheel measurement is from the E.T.R.T.O. and is now an ISO standard. Wheels labelled 24″ may be one of (at least) 4 different sizes: 507, 520, 540, or 547. These numbers represent the “bead seat diameter” in millimeters. Turns out, the version of 24″ on this bike is the 547, which is by far the least common. It seems to also be known as “S-5” a proprietary Schwinn size. After much searching, I came upon one tire that would fit, and ordered a pair plus tubes, even though they are bigger (wider) than I’d like. They are more like “comfort” tires than “road” tires. They are listed as 1 3/8″ where the old, cracked ones on the bike were labelled 1 1/8″.

On the plus side, the tires do fit on the rim properly. On the down side, they are so much bigger, that the rear tire rubs against the brake hardware. I’m currently searching for a better option. Over the long term, I’d hope to upgrade from these heavy, chromed steel rims. Not only are they heavy, but chrome rims are notorious for bad braking performance. Seems that the best option for wheels that offer a better selection of road tires are the 520mm variety. The rear wheel wouldn’t be much trouble — everything is fairly standard on the back, most importantly the hub spacing is 126mm, for which hubs are still available without *too* much trouble. On the front, however, the hub spacing is an odd size — 91mm, which shows up in references as a “low end” hub. No hope of replacement there, which means to replace the front wheel, I’d have to re-lace the current front hub to a new rim. But even putting together all these parts leaves the issue of whether the new wheels would be too small — brake reach is the key issue here, because I’d be losing 13.5mm in radius, thus requiring brakes with 13.5mm more reach, which I suspect will also be tough to find.

So for now, the bike is going back together with all the original hardware, with wear-and-tear items replaced: tires, tubes, brake shoes, cables, housing, handlebar tape, and ball bearings. Probably didn’t have to replace the bearings, but wanted to do a good/complete job. But it’s honestly been a bit hard putting all these old (& often heavy) parts back onto this new-looking frame. I hope, over time, to replace a lot of the components with new, improved, lighter ones. But almost certainly by then, I’ll have spent as much as (if not more than) a new bike would have cost, and Clara will have outgrown it. But perhaps it can be sold at a premium on Craigslist as a small but nice bike for a small woman, or a generous parent…


More Pony Tails than an NFL Game

We’re here at Dilboy Stadium in Somerville to watch the Boston Militia take revenge against the DC Divas. The Divas beat us in our opening game, and gave us our only defeat on the season. Tonight’s game is the last of the season. It’s clear that these are the two most competitive teams in the league. The Divas haven’t lost, and in fact only two teams (the Militia being one) have scored on them at all. And our results are pretty similar. Our most recent win was something like 70-0.

Anyway, good family fun at a reasonable price, and walkable (< 2 miles) from our house! 20110611-062533.jpg


On Thursday (2 days ago) I ordered an electronics prototyping kit based around an Atmel ATmega8U2 microcontroller. The kit is called an Arduino, and I ordered it from Adafruit Industries (funny name, I know), and paid for UPS ground shipping. I’m glad I didn’t pay for 2-day or 3-day “Priority” shipping, because it arrived Friday, the very next day.

The hardware is “open source” and there are many freely available open source tools for programming it. Tyler and I played around a little with it last night, and made it blink an LED. I played a little more after he went to bed and made it light up a series of LEDs in various patterns. Cute. The programming environment is C-based, so it is pretty familiar to an old programmer like me. Today (Saturday), I spend a couple of hours (chopped up into 5, 15 or 30 minute increments) and was able to make something, well, useful. It also uses a separate LCD display that I also purchased (seemed like it could be a fun add-on), and a temperature sensor that came with the kit. Using the display meant also using my nice new soldering station to solder 21 connections! Here it is:

It is a thermometer that displays the temperature when you press a button. It displays for 5 seconds, then the display turns off to conserve the battery.

I was partly inspired by a friend who also bought a kit and has been enjoying it. I had heard of Arduino starting a few years ago from the Make: blog and magazine. It is very popular among hobbyists and artists of a certain bent. It has lots of useful means of interacting with the real world, and a bevy of enthusiasts who have contributed lots of code and made add-on hardware for the platform. We have plans for a much more involved project, but for now, these little steps are still exciting.

We’re An American Brand!

Growing up, my mom always bought me Toughskins. They may have had their own ads, but boy did I lust after Levis. I couldn’t even bother to ask — I knew there wasn’t enough money to buy me “expensive” pants. There did come a point however, maybe it was junior high, when there was perhaps a little more money, and when my desire to fit in outweighed my need to resist asking for non-essentials. There was a store, I don’t think it was actually a Levis store, but that’s about all they sold, at the local strip mall (the Hamden Plaza). At that age, I was given some money and allowed to walk there and buy my own pants. It was honestly something of a relief to be wearing the same pants that most everyone else was. At least the boys. For the girls, as always, there was more freedom. Chic, Jordache, etc. For boys there was Levis, and the occasional Lee or Wrangler, but by and large, it was Levis.

Thus began my relationship with the brand. They had done their marketing well. They presented themselves as American as apple pie, as the saying goes. So aside from dress pants, I wore Levi’s exclusively for decades.

But back in the 1990’s, Levi Strauss and Co. began using offshore manufacturing, while still using the Made in the USA label. Thus began my disillusionment, though I didn’t act on it for a long time. A few years ago, though, I did a little research and came across a web site that listed companies that still made jeans here in the U.S.A. Check out the list if you want to help keep your fellow Americans employed.
I’ve bought jeans from both All American Clothing (including their select Carhartt jeans that are Made in the U.S.A.) and Pointer Brand, and have been happy with all of them. The All American jeans are pretty close in character to the Levis I used to know and love so well (though no rivets). The Carhartts are also Levis-like, and the only black jeans I could find in the crowd. I don’t see them listed on the site any longer. I have 2 pairs of the Pointers, one is the funky Hickory Stripe (think railroad engineer…), and the other are the regular jeans. My only complaint about them is that the pockets aren’t as deep as I am accustomed to, though the smaller (watch?) pocket is quite roomy.

Turning the Tables

For my recent (45th, but who’s counting…) birthday, I received a gift that I specifically requested — a deluxe box set of the Decemberists’ latest release, The King is Dead.
Happy Birthday, Tom!
Among other items, it features a pressing on “180 gram white vinyl” which is very cool. Records are making something of a comeback, among audiophiles and a younger crowd to whom they have that coveted “retro chic.” One of the nicest things about records is that the album covers are BIG and therefore the artwork on them is that much more enjoyable than the little CD’s we’ve grown accustomed to. Or worse yet, the thumbnails available on downloaded music. In this case, it’s just a photo of the band (a nice one, though), so perhaps the canvas wasn’t used to best effect, but it’s a pleasure to hold and see nonetheless.

Ironically, I may never get to hear the album this way. The last turntable I owned was also the first I bought, back when I was in high school. We just got rid of it when my parents moved out of their house, and I forget exactly what brand/model it was. But I do remember that it was a “changer” (meaning you could stack records on it to play in turn), and that it had a ceramic cartridge (as opposed to the preferred magnetic). It played 33’s (LP’s), 45’s (singles), and 78’s (oldies — had to flip to the other needle in the cartridge)! I remember that some multi-record sets (dad’s set of Beethoven symphonies, for example) were pressed specifically for record changers, so that you could stack up sides 1,2,3,4 and then flip over the stack for 5,6,7,8, for example. So 8 would be on the back of 1, and 5 on the back of 4, etc. Anyway, records were much more tangible than the recordings we have today. There were people who could look at the grooves on a record and recognize the recording just from that! I still have my collection of old records (somewhere…), so perhaps someday I will buy a turntable. But for now, the record will remain a conversation piece.

I was introduced to The Decemberists back in early 2007, around the time of the release of their Crane Wife album by an interview on NPR’s Fresh Air. The lyrics were so different from most pop music, and so refreshing, that I felt intrigued by a band for the first time in perhaps a decade. Colin Meloy, lead singer and songwriter for the Decemberists, has a unique voice; and while he may throw around “10 dollar words” like they’re going out of style, I prefer his perspective, which to paraphrase, is a desire not to be constrained to using the limited vocabulary currently in vogue. But it’s not just the words, it’s the stories. While it seems to me much of today’s music (and to be fair, not just today’s) can be characterized as regurgitated love songs, the Decemberists explore a much greater range of the human experience, and draw from a wide variety of source material and ideas. Give them a listen, if you haven’t.

Enough Already!

So apparently, this past month, we recorded the 3rd highest snowfall total for a January in Boston. Impressive. I am not generally a winter whiner — I put up with the cold, and the snow. I shovel, I snowblow; I sand and salt; I dress warmly. My 4-wheel drive pickup gets me through most conditions. Part of me misses our old Audi wagon, as the Honda Odyssey definitely isn’t as sure footed.

But this year, we’ve had storm after storm, usually on Wednesdays which complicates clearing the snow and commuting. I spent a good part of late Friday afternoon shoveling snow off our third floor deck. There was between 2 and 3 feet of snow all over the 9’x12′ surface. It was a lot of work to shovel all that snow and chuck it over the railing way into the back yard. Thankfully, the snow storm that was anticipated for Saturday devolved into a small rain storm. We ended up having a weekend of mostly snow melt, which was sorely needed.

When I went out to get muffins this morning (a Sunday tradition), I brought my camera along and took some pictures. These are after some melting, so imagine the piles a foot higher or so, and no pavement visible, etc. Note how far out into the street the banks are.

January Hymn

On a winter’s Sunday I go,
To clear away the snow,
And green the ground below.

On Friday night, Susan and I went with friends to see our favorite band, the Decemberists, play at the House of Blues in Boston. It was a fun night, which started with dinner at the H.o.B. The opening act was a band called Wye Oak, who were interesting in part due to their configuration: a female lead singer/guitarist, with a male drummer/backup singer. And the drummer only used 3 limbs for drumming — his left hand was playing keyboard and/or twiddling knobs. So they had a surprisingly rich sound for a two person band. His drumming looked rather frenetic as well, as he tried to do two arms worth of drumming with one. So they were intruguing, and I even sort of liked the vocalist’s voice, but you (I) could hardly understand any of her lyrics. And she was quite the shredder on guitar; not my particular favorite style. Anyway, curious enough.

The D’s came on at shortly after 9:00, and played until about 10:15 with a brief break. Disappointingly short set, but we learned later that Colin apparently was suffering from a stomach flu. Sorry, Colin. Last time we had tickets to see them, someone in the band got rather sick, and they had to cancel the remainder of their tour. That one was called The Long and Short of It, and it was two nights: one for their long songs, and another for their short ones. We had tickets to both nights, which was quite extravagant for us, and so very disappointing to have it canceled. But again, our feelings were with the band (mostly). We missed them when they came around for the Hazards of Love tour, which certainly would have been fun. Anyway, I can’t claim to be much of a music critic, but we certainly enjoyed the show — it was a good mix of material from their new album, and older tunes. And on the bright side, it saved us some baby-sitting money 🙂