Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Cool Way to Save Cash: Groupon.com

Our local San Francisco Bay Area news radio station, KGO, interviewed the founder of groupon.com, and the concept peaked my interest as one who does not turn down free or discounted opportunities. What's the catch? None. Just register at the site picking your city (or one very close to you), and away you go. What is a groupon? It's a portmanteau of "group" and "coupon" ... effectively, businesses will offer a discounted deal to a group of people for a finite time period (usually 24-hours); the actual groupon is good for about a year or less much like a gift certificate. What kind of things can you buy? The daily emailed offerings vary, but they have been for things such as:
  • Farallon Island boat tour
  • Yoga sessions
  • Spa treatments
  • Coffeeshops
  • Restaurants
  • Hotel stays
  • Rafting trips
  • Car services

The best part of all is they're all at a discounted price. For example, I bought a $50 (face-value) Groupon for Pucinella's restaurant in San Francisco for $20 (a 60% discount). This is great for my wife and I as we like to go out on a regular basis, and we're not breaking the bank. One of the best parts is that purchasing the current groupon is very easy. After logging in, you simply indicate the quantity that you want to buy, and click one button. Your credit card info is stored by Groupon so you won't have to enter each time. Today's San Francisco groupon (Dec 15, 2009) is for a 2010 Snowbomb Tahoe Card (regularly $40 on sale for $20); it includes a bunch of free stuff including a lift ticket at Dodge Ridge. Where can you find a lift ticket for $20??? If you're interested in gettting these deals, sign up here: Groupon

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Three infectiously great things

1. Peter, Bjorn & John - Young Folks

2. Budweiser song "Anthem"

3. Glengarry Glen Christmas

Sunday, July 26, 2009

VW Jetta Diesel

Driving Impressions: 2009 Jetta Diesel

Diesel: what’s old is new, only better
I’ve been unintentionally green for a few weeks now; my beloved 2000 Audi A6 is in the shop getting major surgery including a transmission rebuild, new power steering rack, and catalytic converters. So I’ve been cycling and train-riding to work for the past few weeks. Unfortunately, the train station is quite a ways from work, so I’ve been riding a minimum of 9 miles, and sometimes 40 miles a day depending so I’m pretty tired.

Luckily, my backside got a welcome break with the chance to test the 2009 Volkswagen Jetta. But the “green” didn’t take a break with this frugal VW. It’s a fantastic car that offers plenty of room front and rear, fold down seats to easily put the bike into, excellent handling, and a thoroughly entertaining diesel engine. Entertaining? Diesel? Yep-this sucker features a turbocharger that kicks in for some prodigious torque. While the 2.0 liter 4 cylinder has only 140 horsepower, it packs a whopping 236 foot pounds of torque. While it lags a bit off the line, at highway speeds, the torque makes passing a joy. It is an ideal highway cruiser. Even more impressive, despite my notorious lead-footedness (I infamously logged just 22mpg in the ’08 Honda Fit), I averaged a stunning 37.5 mpg!

Then and now
In 1990, the president of the company I worked for swore by two things—PC’s instead of Macs and diesel instead of regular fuel. He drove a gargantuan Mercedes diesel 300 SEL and kept it for 15+ years. And he forbade Macs in the workplace. Years later, PCs have definitely dominated while diesels are just now coming back in to vogue. Back then, diesels were stinky, slow, and pumped out a lot of pollution. However, as my favorite mechanic points out, because of the trucking industry, getting diesel gas is relatively easy because the network of stations exists throughout the nation.

With the advent of the recent energy crisis and heightened awareness of conservation, European car companies, such as VW, Audi, BMW, and Mercedes Benz, are now re-testing the waters here with diesel offerings. Reportedly, over 50% of cars in Europe run on diesel, so the technology has already been widely deployed. Better still, diesel is now much cleaner; ultra-low sulfur diesel now burns 97% less sulfur and is widely available. And the CO2 emissions of this Jetta, while not the lowest, compare favorably to the miserly and clean burning Honda Civic, as seen in the chart below (statistics courtesy of : fueleconomy.gov)

The only real concern with newer “clean diesel” is the addition of ammonia (urea). Clean diesel engines require a separate source of ammonia which breaks down Nitric Oxide, a common air pollutant, into harmless nitrogen and oxygen. There concern is with maintenance issues and car owners making sure the ammonia is refilled.

What about alternative fuels?
Here in the U.S., though ethanol was broadly marketed, it’s nearly impossible to find a station that provides it. Elsewhere in the world, ethanol is popular and common-place in Brazil, and propane is used widely in India. But here in the US, we don’t really have another choice except electric or diesel. The vaunted hybrids such as the Prius and pure electrics like the Tesla, while very economical, pose a new question. What do we do with the batteries once they are “used up”? How long will they last? And how much will they cost to maintain? More importantly, how do we dispose of them? Suddenly, once stinky diesel seems appealing. With the pre-existing fuel network, lower emissions, excellent fuel economy, and the prospect of bio-diesel, diesel does have a lot working for it as a new standard of economy and efficiency. Perhaps there really is something here.

Life with a diesel.
So what’s it like to live with a diesel? This VW is impressive. While there is a slight “dieseling sound” at start up, it is not much louder than a standard engine. No smoke an no smell. Once underway, the diesel “clatter” is mostly muted and hardly noticeable. When I did have to find a station that offered diesel, it was slightly problematic. I visited three stations before I found one that carried diesel. If you are planning a trip in a diesel vehicle, it might be a good idea to look up gasbuddy.com to find stations along the route. Regardless, once at the station, I found the price to be $2.75/gallon, the same price as regular unleaded. Mid grade was $.10 more and Super was $.20 more per gallon. Only at the station did I detect the faint smell of petroleum jelly that is characteristic of diesel.. In any case, the price of diesel has come down, which is yet another reason to consider it. Additionally, with the VW’s 14.5 gallon gas tank and 30+mpg, you won’t need a fill up for close to 500 miles—that’s impressive!

So would I buy it? The Jetta was a very impressive car. It has great handling, plenty of space for four, and is a great freeway commuter. If I had to do long commute miles and used this car primarily for commuting, it would be extremely tough to beat.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

2009 Tour de France predictions

What are your predictions for the TDF? Here's our little contest:
- 1 point each for naming the top 3 riders
- 1 point for each position
- 1 point each for green and polka dot.
Max of 8.

Steve LeFevre:
1. Sastre
2. Evans
3. Armstrong
Points: Devolder
Green: Cavendish

Conrad Essen:
1. Contador
2. Evans
3. Sastre
Points: Moncoutie
Green: Cavendish

Michael McHenry:
1. Armstrong
2. A. Schelck
3. Contador
Points: Moncoutie
Green: Freire

1. Contador
2. Menchov
3. A. Schleck
Points: A. Schleck
Green: Cavendish

Gary Chan
1. Sastre
2. Contador
3. Amrstrong

Jimmy Dworkin
1. Amrstrong
2. Contador
3. Kloden

Derrill Stepp
1. Contador
2. Armstrong
3. Evans
Points: Gesink
Green: Tyler Farrar

Eliott Jones
1. Contador
2. Evans
3. Armstrong
"Menchov gets nailed for doping"

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Cool Free Service: 4INFO

What's the address and phone number of that restaurant? What are the movie times? These are questions I often faced while out and about with my wife. I didn't have a data plan on my antiquated, push-button only phone nor did I want to pay $2 for a directory service call to my carrier. I was frustrated with a lack of options until I discovered 4INFO. 4INFO is a Silicon Valley startup that provides a free query service to find information (similar to a web browser on your pc) via text messaging. Did I mention that it's free! Okay, nothing is "free" so what's the catch? A small advertisement at the bottom of the resulting text message is all you have to endure. Say I'm at the Redwood City Starbucks on Whipple Avenue, and want to find the movies in Redwood City (California), I would text: movies 94062 (or a shortcut is M 94062) to 44636 (4INFO's short code). Subsequently, I replied "1" to the text message to get specific movie information at the Century Redwood City 20.

It's fast, free, and easy-to-use. There are shortcuts you can look at on their website. Here are some examples you could text to 44636:
  • N CHI (for current news about Chicago)
  • W 94062 (for weather in Redwood City) or W NYC (weather in New York City)
  • STARBUCK 94062 (list of the Starbucks in Redwood City)
  • AAPL (to get the current or closing price of Apple Computers)
Besides these simple queries, you can also set up alerts that are regularly delivered to your mobile phone for specific information such as weather conditions, stock prices, sports scores, jokes of the day, etc. When you no longer want the alert, you reply STOP to the specific alert or manage all of your 4INFO alerts through their management interface: Manage Alerts

Anyways, it's a cool service that I use all the time now. Try it out. You may get hooked (and it may save your marriage while trying to locate places!).

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

eecycle works eebrake

This is a review of the eecycle works eebrake
These are Craig Edward's latest creation, the eebrake. Craig was originally known for his "Sweet Wings" cranks that came out during the early '90's. They were superlight cro-mo cranks that featured an integrated bb design that has since been copied (incidentally, he is also working on a new and lighter crank due later this year). His manufacturing and design talent can now be found in these stunning new brakes.

* Cost: $519 MSRP (without brake pads)
* Unique industrial design
* Exclusiveness; different
* Excellent performance
* Made in the USA
* Light weight: 162 grams (pair) without pads; 182 grams with Dura Ace pads
* Very easy to change out brake pads (for those that have alloy trainers and carbon racers)
* Adjustable reach to fit many bikes


Unfortunately, the brakes didn't come with pads so I purchased a Dura Ace set. Installing the pads was incredibly easy; the holders have wide tolerances that make it easy to slip the new pad in--which you do at an angle. You then pivot the rear section down and snap them in to place. The holders have a "no-screw" feature that makes it easy to install or replace. Yet the pads definitely feel secure. These brakes would be ideal for folks that like to switch between training wheels with alloy braking surfaces and carbon rims for racing.
The rest of the documentation was a bit daunting but proved easy once the front set was installed. The major hurdle is you need to remove a retaining nut to free up a the bolt that fits into the fork or rear stay. The retaining bolt features an eccentric design that allows you to pivot the bolt up or down, extending the "drop" of the brake if needed. It also allows fine-tuning for out of true wheels. Luckily I didn't have to remove too many links from my Nokon cables (PIA alert) to fit these brakes in place of my Zero Gravity Ti's.

Dialing in the brake pads was on par with any other brake set, and the cable length was easily adjusted (though different) with the large barrel adjuster.

Thanks to Zero Gravity, who really disrupted the space about 5 years ago, there is now a lot of innovation and choice with brakes, ranging from the ultra expensive to some great stand-byes.

On my scale, the eebrakes weighed 164 grams without pads and 184 grams with. For comparison, my Zero Gravity Ti's were 2 grams heavier. Below are actual weights for these two along with MSRPs and claimed weights (pads included) for other brakes that folks may be considering. (Note: Zero Gravity produces excellent products and has fantastic customer service. I fully support their products. Additionally, I own Zero Gravity Ti, Negative Gravity Ti, and Mavic SSC brakes).

Brake MSRP Weight $/gram
* AX-Lightness Orion $1,600 144 $11.11
* M5 $ 740 202 $ 3.66
* eebrake $ 519 184 $ 2.82
* Zero Gravity Ti $ 430 186 $ 2.31
* Negative Gravity Ti $ 400 230 $ 1.74
* Dura Ace 7900 $ 440 284 $ 1.55
* SRAM Red $ 295 265 $ 1.11
* Campy Record Skeleton $ 300 275 $ 1.09
* Dura Ace 7800 $ 235 314 $ 0.75
* Mavic SSC $ 190 310 $ 0.61

As you can see, the eebrakes are toward the upper end of $/gram. This being said, Shimano 7900 is certainly raising the price bar on "mass produced" brakes. And if you are paying $440 for Dura Ace, suddenly $100 more doesn't seem so far out of the question.

I think the closest comparison to the eebrake is the Zero Gravity Ti. Zero Gravs have stood the test of time with great industrial design, incredible light weight, and very good stopping performance. How would the eebrake compare?
From my testing, the eebrake provides superior braking performance (much stronger braking), good modulation, and a slight decrease in weight. They also have a much stronger return spring; the return spring helps "snap" the brake lever back into place and creates a very stable and secure feel. This feature would be very useful with TT brake levers that rely on cable tension versus return spring. And, as stated, braking performance was excellent.

What's truly amazing, though, is that despite it's 5-pivot design, there was no flex or "slop" in the brake. I find this incredible because each pivot should introduce some degree of "play". Yet there was none with this remarkable brake set.

These brakes do their functional job extremely well; I don't think there really is a set of better stoppers out there. This being said, this brake isn't for everyone. They are very expensive. And they have a polarizing look; some may think it's ugly, others might think they are beautiful. As my friend said, "They aren't brakes. They are artwork"--I couldn't agree more.
On my carbon Cervelo R3, I found these brakes to look a bit out of place; something so classy and mechanical on a modern black carbon frame. Where these brakes would truly be at home is on a classic lightweight steel or Ti frame--Schwinn Paramount, Indy Fab, Colnago, Moots, or Cervelo Prodigy. It would be outstanding to see these calipers on the latest Reynolds 953 steel frames.

These brakes offer outstanding performance, a unique look, and exclusivity--but at a price.
If you are lucky enough to afford components in this price range, the eebrake is a compelling choice.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Fizik Antares Saddle

Fizik Antares Saddle

  • Cost: $199 MSRP

  • Comfortable yet very light weight

  • Natural Leather Seat Cover

  • Made in Italy

  • ICS bag compatible

  • Weight: Claimed 175 grams. Actual: 177.

This is a review of the Fizik's latest saddle, the Antares.
It's supposed to be the "third dimension" between Fizik's excellent Airone and Aliante. I'm not sure what the third dimension really means but what I discovered that it's really a comfortable alternative to minimalist saddles like the Selle Italia SLR.

I decided to compare the Antares not only to it's brethren but also to the
Selle Italia SLR. Here's how they measured up:

  • Antares: Width: 140mm, Length: 275mm, 177 Grams

  • Aliante: Width: 135mm, Length: 265mm, 215 Grams

  • Airione: Width: 128mm, Length: 302mm, 241 Grams

  • SLR: Width: 125mm, Length: 275mm, 135 Grams

Comparing the saddles

My first experience with Fizik saddles was the Airone. It's a great
looking saddle that is much longer (25mm more than the Antares and SLR) than
most saddles. I suppose this is to give you more freedom to move for/aft for
spinning or pushing big gear. But despite it being the narrowest of the four--and with it's built in "wing flex", I've found that this saddle hits in the wrong places and is actually a bit of a disappointment; I tend to "get numb" when riding this saddle, especially when on the trainer. Lastly, the Airone isn't ICS compatible. ICS is Fizik's built-in adapter that allows you to clip in Fizik brand accessories like saddle bags and lights. The other two models are
ICS compatible.

I purchased the Aliante about 9 months ago -- and found it to be the
absolutely most comfortable saddle I've ever tried. I believe the secret to the
Aliante's comfort is its suspension; the seat is suspended like a hammock.
Notice the gold mesh in the picture above; it's essentially a fabric weave that
allows floatation. The Airone and Antares have more traditional carbon shells
(as does the SLR). The Aliante is supremely comfortable whether pushed back
against the upraised back or pushed forward on the padded nose. With the Aliante, it feels like you sit "in" the saddle versus being perched "on" it. I can't say enough great things about the Aliante.

So how would the Antares fair? Oddly, the Antares is the widest of the
bunch and slightly longer than the Aliante. It has a much slimmer profile and
weighs a very respectable 177 grams (there is a carbon railed version with a
claimed weight of 145 grams that costs $30 more). At first look, I thought it
would mimic the feel of the Selle Italia SLR: ridable but not exactly
comfortable. Amazingly, the Antares was fantastic. Despite it's slim profile,
the padding is dense yet comfortable and it's width fully supports your sit
bones. As with the Aliante, it was comfortable sitting toward the rear yet still
offered enough padding in the nose for spinning up hills. The saddle was very
comfortable over a 40+ mile ride, something I could never say about the Selle
Italia SLR. I'm looking forward to trying this on my tri bike--as I the nose has
more extension than the Aliante while also offering enough cushion for forward
position aero-bar riding.

Overall, I still think the Aliante is the most comfortable road bike
saddle--ever. The Antares is my second favorite saddle -- a lightweight
alternative for the weight weenie crowd that might even prove to be a good
solution for triathlons and time trials. I'll update this review when I've spent
some time on the tri bike with it.