Sunday, February 09, 2014

Happy B'day Mac

The thirtieth anniversary of the Mac has come and gone, and if you missed the special on and you're a Mac geek, you should really check it out. It's beautifully done, and I really enjoyed clicking through the years, and I felt a whole lot more nostalgia than I thought I would. But I'm a longtime Mac user, born and raised a stones throw away from Cupertino, so I guess I'm prone to that sorta thing.

It got me reminiscing (like so many others) about the Macs I've owned and enjoyed over the years, and I could't help but compile a list for your reading and my writing pleasure.

Mac Classic








Macintosh Classic  Looking back now, it's kinda funny that they called it "Classic". But I guess even back then the Macs that came before it were already old and yellowing. The Classic had that familiar all-in-one appliance-y shape, and when my dad brought one home in a giant box (why the hell was that box so big?) we were all excited. The only other computers I'd ever played with were the Apple II's we had at school (You have died of dyssentary!), the PCs that belonged to my friends, and dad's Osborne 1*. So this was quite a departure.

There were two things that I found particularly striking about the Classic. The first was its clean design. All the computers I'd used before were these ugly, finicky things with wires hanging off the sides. But the Classic was so beautifully put together, and you could just turn it on and start using it without having to mess around with a command line. And yes – when I switched it on, it smiled right back at me.

The second thing that struck me was the screen: it was small, and only black and white, but it was so sharp! I've read that Steve Jobs was really picky about typefaces and font rendering, and I always thought "whatever". But I realize now that I loved staring at that screen with it's smooth, unpixelated (well, less pixelated anyway) type. It was a huge contrast to PCs which always had these bland and fuzzy typefaces. Looking at type on a Mac felt far more … adult.

I wrote a lot of papers and played a lot of Test Drive on the Classic. I would have browsed the web, but of course it hadn't been invented yet.








Macintosh IIci  I didn't really get into computers until high school, where in my first year I accidentally enrolled in a digital multi-media class (I thought I was signing up for drafting … but this was way better). It was a room full of Mac IIci's with 13 inch color monitors, loaded up with Macromedia Director and what would one day become the Adobe suite. We built interactive projects that were pretty cutting-edge at the time. It was fun, and somehow I managed to convince my parents that I needed a IIci for home so I could work there too. We bought it from my friend Ross who upgraded to a Quadra 840AV, which felt like a Cray supercomputer by comparison.

I was glad to finally have a computer that I could call my own. Unfortunately, it only had 4mb of memory (that's 4 megabytes, yo) and you really needed 8 to do the stuff we were doing at school. But upgrading from 4 to 8 was really expensive back then so I just had to live with it.

Duo 280C








PowerBook Duo 280C  The Iici lasted through high school, and when it was time for me to go to college, it was time for something new. The internet had arrived, and we were all excited to fire up our modems and log in. You could even use this new thing called Netscape to "surf" the "web".

I was leaving multi-media behind and heading off to study computer science, which meant that I'd be doing my work on the CSC department's servers, and using my machine as a dumb terminal. That meant I could switch to a laptop, and I was fascinated by the notion of a truly portable workspace. There were a few PowerBooks then, but it was the PowerBook Duo that really captured my imagination.

The moment I saw the Duo, I new that I'd found the setup of my dreams: a tiny laptop (it weighed only 4.1 pounds; the 13” MacBook Air weighs 3) that could be docked on the desktop. The Duo Dock even increased the CPU speed and hard drive space. Genius! Go out into the world with your laptop, then come home and turn it into a full-on desktop.

At least it was perfect in theory. Back then the technology just wasn't there to really make it fly. I didn’t by the Duo Dock … in fact I don’t think anyone bought it – it was far too expensive. Though I did buy this little Micro Dock thing so I could plug into the network and my little StyleWriter II printer. What a great little printer that was – so simple, and such a lovely design.

Ironically, I only ever used the Duo at my desk. I guess I felt too conspicuous sitting in the library with a laptop. The only people who had laptops back then were business stiffs and techy show-off types, and I certainly wasn't either of those. Besides, the battery probably only lasted like two hours anyway.

Power Computing Something








Power Computing Something  Back then, working on a laptop really did mean sacrificing performance and storage for portability. And since I wasn't taking advantage of the Duo's portability, halfway through college I went back to a desktop.

Apple had (finally!) begun licensing it's OS to other hardware manufacturers, and PowerComputing had the most convincing line of machines out of all the cloners (they also had the best advertising by far).

I think mine was a PowerCenter 166 or 180. It was just an ugly beige box, and performance-wise, it was rather unremarkable. But when it came to the price-to-performance ratio, it was a breakthrough. I remember it being much cheaper than a comparable machine from Apple, and while I still had a big allegiance to Apple, it just felt like such a bargain to get a Mac so cheaply. The so called "Apple premium" was real back then, but the Apple machines at the time just didn't justify it.


PowerBoook G3







PowerBook G3 ("Pismo”)  I graduated and got a job as a software developer which meant I was sitting at a desk in front of a crappy PC all day, and the only way to recover from that was to go home and sit in front of a really great Mac all night, amiright? And hopefully not at a desk.

Laptops had come a long way – especially the PowerBook G3, which I think I bought from my brother. It was just a gorgeous piece of equipment – curvy in all the right places, and built with a really delicious combination of plastics. There was the black plastic that made up most of the body, there was the darker plastic that ran down the center of the lid with a really cool velvety feel, and then there was the transparent brownish plastic that made up the keyboard and trackpad button. Finally, after years of wandering through the valley of beige plastic boxes, Apple had gone back to making Macs that weren't just trying to blend in (thanks Steve!). And the PowerBook really stood out next to every other ugly-ass laptop in the world at the time. This time Apple had stopped allowing clones, but this thing was so great I didn't mind paying extra.

It wasn't the fastest machine ever, but it got the job done, and it had some cool features like the two bays in front that offered you a choice of a battery and CD-ROM, or two batteries for ultra long battery life (like what, four hours?). And it was the first machine I'd ever had with wifi, which must have felt like magic the first time we hooked it up (so to speak).








PowerBook G4 (Titanium)  If the PowerBook G3 stood out because of its curvy plastic, the TiBook stood out because of its distinct lack of curves, and the wonder metal from which it was made. This was a huge change. So thin and light! Those precisely carved corners! That widescreen! And the cyclist in me was so excited to own something made of the uber-exotic Titanium. It was a joy to work on with its big G4 processor, and easy to slip into a bag for some on-the-go working action.

Years later we all came to realize what a flimsy machine it was. Titanium, turns out, is a lousy material to use for the body of a laptop. It was too soft and too thin and too easy to dent and scratch. I remember seeing people pick up the early versions of the TiBook and watching it sag like a piece of Dominoes pizza. And then a year later the paint would start flaking off all the white bits.

But I’ve never been hard on equipment, so mine stayed in pretty good shape, and it really was a pleasure to use.

PowerBook G4 Aluminum

15" PowerBook G4 (Aluminum)  This was my workhorse throughout ad school. I had to upgrade because suddenly my Mac had gone from a high tech toy to my main work machine. I was doing a lot more surfing and writing, and on top of that I had to comp up stuff in the Adobe suite. The new aluminum PowerBooks were a great upgrade – fast and really well built.

I could have gotten away with the 12", but I was fine with taking a weight penalty to get the bigger screen and more power. It was a really sturdy machine – not noticeably lighter than the TiBook, but solid as a rock. I travelled the world with it, and didn't get a single ding or scratch. My inner-cyclist kept telling me that going from titanium to aluminum was a downgrade, but it became obvious that aluminum is a much better material to use when building a computer. And apparently Apple would agree with that sentiment.

Black MacBook

13" Black MacBook  Once I got a job at an ad agency I was back to using a company machine all day**. So when it was time for a new machine I didn't need anything too fancy. And a funny thing happened – after a lifetime of wishing I could buy the fastest, bestest machine, I realized that I no longer needed the most powerful machines to do the stuff I needed to do. It was a relief for my budget.

However, at the time Apple had just discontinued the white iBook, and replaced it with a new plastic MacBook in white and black. The black version came at a $200 premium, and it was so totally worth it – what a great looking machine.

It had cool new features like the chiclet-style keyboard, MagSafe power adapter, and the non-mechanical magnetic latch. On their own, these weren't big breakthroughs, but they came together with the decent Core Duo processor and 945M graphics chipset to make a wonderful little package. I won NaNoWriMo on that thing. And when I started doing freelance work, I took it with me all over Germany. And even years later, people at ad agencies would still say things like "Woah, is that a black Mac? Did you paint it?"


MacBook Air 2010





13" MacBook Air (2010)  Years ago, laptops were big, chunky, slow, and clunky. But I remember thinking to myself that thanks to the unstoppable march of technology, one day I'd have a laptop where the screen and the base were no thicker than cardboard, and the whole thing would be light as a feather. It would probably be a bit tricky to open the lid, but it would be totally worth it. And when Apple announced the first MacBook Air in 2008, I new we were almost there. The first version was full of compromises – the CPU was hobbled, and the SSD was crazy expensive. But the vision was there.

And sure enough two years later it all came together. I've read that with the domination of the iPod and iPhone, Apple was able to help drive down the price (or at least their price) of flash memory to reasonable levels, which is why an SSD in every MacBook Air was finally possible. And now you can only get and SSD in a Mac portable. Wow.

Anyway, the 2010 MacBook Air was the computer I'd been waiting for all those years. Improbably thin, impossibly light, unbelievably snappy. The processor wasn't exactly lightning fast, but the SSD was. And together they made for the fastest computer I'd ever owned. For the first time in my lifetime, choosing a laptop meant no sacrifice in performance. In fact, I bet it was faster than the iMac at the time. Battery life was fantastic – truly a leap forward – and I took that thing with me everywhere. It was my workhorse machine for almost four years.

It finally started showing its age in the last few months. Mavericks seemed like a bit too much for it, and using iBooks Author was like walking through a muddy swamp***. Time for an upgrade.

MacBook Air 2013

13" MacBook Air (2013)  In a way, upgrading to the new Air was a bit disappointing because from the outside it’s practically indistinguishable from the old one. That’s never happened to me before with a computer, although I've experienced this with the iPhone – with each generation, the hardware differences are less and less noticeable, and because the software is replicated, each upgrade becomes less and less impactful. Still, it’s great because my MacBook Air experience has become snappy again, and battery life is even better.

I splurged and got a Thunderbolt display, and I even got one of these things to mount the Air on the back of the display. After all these years, I have the perfect portable machine, and the perfect desktop setup. Total computing nirvana****!




* It had a 5 inch screen, and two 5 1/4 inch floppy disk drives with a handy dandy slot underneath each drive for storing extra floppy disks. Despite the fact that it weighed over 20 pounds, it was "portable" – the keyboard attached to the main unit, and it had a handle. Even in the late 80s I found that hilarious.

** The first company computer I got was a … wait for it … eMac. It was NOT EASY for this Mac lover to not throw a hissy fit for the two years or so that I was on that thing. Eventually they let me upgrade to an iBook. Ad agencies always seem to think that us copywriters don’t need anything more than an old beat up bottom-of-the-line machine. I think this is a big part of the reason I eventually became a freelancer.

*** Though to be fair, I think this might just be a poorly written hunk of software. I tried doing some basic tasks in iBooks Author on a new Mac Pro at the Apple Store, and it was still shockingly sludge-like.

**** Though it would be EVEN COOLER if the MacBook Air came in black anodized aluminum, dontcha think?



Saturday, June 11, 2011

A long day in a good way.

Saturday, June 4th.

4:45am. Wake up. Didn't sleep much last night. Dinner didn't agree very well with the ol' tummy. Raw veggies, hummus, pesto, and crackers. Sounds pretty harmless, right? But one of the veggies was broccoli which, despite its impressive resume of vitamins, minerals and being hated by children, is a bit difficult to digest when eaten raw. I know this. But I was caught up in a quest to get more iron into my vegetarian system and I forgot.

The problems began while laying in bed; there was churning and burbling, there was gas generation without expulsion. I lay there with my hands on my belly feeling it expand like a fleshy balloon.

And that’s uncomfortable physically, but it’s also uncomfortable mentally given all the ruckus created by the recent and "worst-ever on the planet ever for reals" outbreak of e-coli here in Europe. Germany has been hit hardest, and Switzerland is right next to Germany. The problem? Animal feces on vegetables. What did I eat last night? Note to self: in case of severe intestinal cramping and/or bloody diarrhea, cancel fun bike ride in alps.

5:35am. Catch the first of three trains that will take me to St. Moritz. You know you're living in the boonies when the train station platform isn't long enough for the train. As usual, the bicycle car is at the ass end of the train. Unfortunately the end of the train was past the end of the platform. So I get on the train, but I have to stand there with my bicycle next to the door for a bit. I can switch at Rotkreutz, the nice man informs me. It's only two stops away, so no problemo.

INTESTINAL STATUS UPDATE: So far so good. Internal pressure lowered following atmospheric venting. Fortunately, the train is uncrowded.

6:22am. Train number two. A less fancy train. No bicycle car this time, just the luggage car. A rather unsophisticated and not-so-elegant way to transport my highly sophisticated and elegant road bike. Also a great way to transport a side of beef.

IMG 1612

Oh yeah. I'm totally comfortable with that.

The luggage car is two cars away from where I actually sit. Thanks to Caroline for recommending that I bring a bike lock. Still. Must. Resist. Urge. To check. Bicycle. Every. Five. Minutes. But people don't steal things in Switzerland, right?

7:58am Train número tres.


IMG 1613

Ah, that's better.

Bike safe, and in a much better spot. Two hours to St. Moritz. Scenery spectacular. Lakes full of crystal-clear water. Giant rock formations looking down on us silently. So much water, so much green. Everywhere I look is a postcard.

IMG 1618

If you suffer from motion sickness or are afraid of heights, this is totally the train for you.

View alternating between typical postcard and output from weekly oil painting class at the retirement home.

IMG 1623

A buddy for my buddy. That great looking mountain bike belongs to the woman sitting on the other side of the aisle.

IMG 1624

First sign of cyclists outside the train! I see them out there on road bikes rolling up from hairpin to hairpin. Happy to think that that'll be me soon.

9:49am. Fourth and final train to Pontresina. Of course mountain bike lady switches to the same train I do. We are two cyclists on a mission. Almost there!

10:05am. Arrived! And! The train stops right in front of my hostel! Oh Switzerland, I love you for your looks AND your convenience. Check-in goes smoothly, and I frantically change into my cycling gear and ride to the fancy hotel where my friends Arnd and Daniel are staying.

10:15am. On my bike on the way to the hotel I experience typical mountain weather. The mountains are like a crazy weather whirlpool - temperature, wind, and precipitation are constantly shifting. It's tough to ride in because you Have to strike a balance between enough clothing to stay warm, but not too much so you can stow whatever you're not wearing in jersey pockets. It can be surprisingly hot going up, and unbelievably, brutally cold going down. Ideally you have a sag car ... But that only happens on organized group tours or if you can somehow manage to have a mate that is willing to give up the whole weekend to drive, stop, wait, drive, stop, wait, drive, stop, wait, for the whole damn weekend. Oh, and he or she has to like cycling enough to want to go, but not so much that he or she would rather ride. Oh, and you need a car.

Some people ride with a small rucksack hanging from their shoulders. I prefer to bring only one bottle, and use the second water bottle cage to hold my rain jacket. The rain jacket works great on descents because it's totally water proof and therefore totally wind proof. Arm warmers, knee warmers, and wind vest can all go on or come off and be stuffed into pockets.

Anyways, we decide on a 90km route that will take us over two medium sized climbs, into Italy (!), to a restaurant for lunch, back into Switzerland, through the Swiss National Forest, through the valley, and home again. Like this. Arnd and Daniel H go upstairs to get dressed, and I go back to pick up my passport and some knee warmers.


One last check of the ol' email. Can't help it.

10:30am. We have lift-off. Arnd and I head out of Pontresina towards Passo del Bernina, with Daniel H driving his car. Poor guy! He caught a cold shortly after arriving at the cycling vacation that he organized and isn’t up for riding. So he’ll drive and meet us at a few stopping points along the way, and then we'll do lunch. He’ll go back home after that, though, so no sag car. But he has graciously offered to take awesome pictures of us along the way.

The weather is cool and we have a pretty good tailwind. The scenery is gorgeous - we're in a valley, so Alps with snowy hats surround. Arnd and I are at about the same fitness level, and we work well together from the first pedal stroke.

There's more traffic than I was expecting, and more motorcycles than I've ever seen. It's a little noisy when they fly past us, but they are respectful, which I appreciate. They wait until it's safe to pass, give plenty of room, and I didn't hear a single honk the entire weekend. Arnd yells at them anyway, calling them fat idiots and pointing out repeatedly that while we are huffing and puffing up the mountain, they choose to puff on cigarettes. Apparently this is because they are "lazy assholes". Fortunately the bikes are loud enough that the riders can't hear Arnd's rage against them and their machines.


11amish. We arrive at the top of Passo del Bernina. Perfect climb to start the day with - not too steep, not too long. There's restaurant at the top, as there so often is, and we pee and put on our descending gear. The backside is just like the front - neither too steep or too long. So far I'm feeling good. The roads are wet, but not dangerously so.


12ish. Climb number two, which seems to be the second part of Passo del Bernina, is steeper than the first. For the first time we get passed by a pretty professional-looking rider - a woman. My male hetero ego penis brain insists that I tell you we were stopped at the time, eating bananas*. I wave as she passes, which is something that I try to do whenever I see another cyclist. Feels good to know we're all in this together, brother/sisterhood, camaraderie, etc. She acknowledges my wave with a nod, and is polite enough to only call me "wanker" in her head.


1pmish.  Arrive in Livigno. Italy! Still find it odd to say "we rode to Italy". But it's really just like riding from Northern California to Southern Oregon.

But it's the descent into Livigno that is the highlight of the ride. The rain is coming down hard and sad at the top of the climb. Arnd and I quickly put on everything we had and headed down a wet, wet mountain. This descent is mostly straight, so you just have to sit there, watch out for bad pavement and think warm thoughts. There are thin streams of water crossing the street and juuuuust enough traffic to make you worry that one of these motorcyclists might try to make a balls-out pass right into your 3T Ergonova drop bars.

But then a wonderful thing happens: the rain dissipates and the pavement dries as I approach a mild left-hand bend. Dry pavement means no more nerves. And the turn leads to a valley full of sunshine. No kidding folks, it’s a northern Italian valley bathed in warm, golden sunshine. Green fields kissed by wildflowers. Road magically empty. Coasting, I sit up, drinking it in like a perfectly crafted cappuccino and thinking to myself "this is why we do this". Elliot and ET have nothing on me.

For some reason, Arnd brakes on descents when the road is straight. He says it's because he has kids and that one day I'll understand. I think it's a matter of choosing which risks one feels more comfortable taking; I choose to go fast in a straight line, while he chooses to yell at bikers that outweigh him threefold. Anyway, he catches up to me in my moment of bicycle euphoria, and we gawk at the scenery like kids on a field trip.


Libere indeed.

2pmish. Lunch in Livigno. The thing about Italy is: the waitstaff is very disappointed in you and your order and probably your outfit. I first noticed it on a trip to Rome where every time I walked into the coffee bar and ordered an espresso, the guy would role his eyes and reluctantly pull a shot. And I always thought dude, I'm sorry, but I want an espresso, and I want to pay for it, and you are the man who makes the espresso and takes the money. Amico, we are both just pawns in this larger coffee reality. And besides, I'm the only one here, and that Italian accent that I whipped out when I said “Espresso, per favore” ain't bad enough to get snooty.

IMG 1636

It takes about four tries to tell Mr. Waiter Man what I want to order. He was clearly disappointed in my choice of vegetable soup and mixed salad, and positively insulted that I didn't want something drink. The whole ordering process is an awkward mix of English, German, Italian, and feigned enthusiasm.

IMG 1635

Food’s good though, and we have a nice lunch and then a tour of the local bike shops. The thing about this part of the world is: they take road cycling seriously. So the two bike shops we went to had serious, seriously beautiful road bikes on display. Fantastic! Not like most shops where you find a ton of bread and butter commuter bikes laced with a few higher-end mountain bikes and then a single token mid-range road bike with reflectors and a layer of dust. Oh no. The first shop has a rack of Colnagos, with the high-end Specialized Tarmacs serving as the bread-and-butter line. That's what I'm talking about! And FYI: no kidding, everything in Livignio is duty free. I don't know why, but it seems like a good place to buy a new road bike and not ask any questions.

3pmish. Daniel H leaves us, and Arnd and I are on our own for the ride from Livigno back to the Swiss border. This takes us past the long and skinny Lago di Livigno, on a road that is mostly covered in one of these strange half-tunnel structures. It’s a tunnel built into the edge of the mountain so there’s a wall on your left side, a ceiling, and it’s open to the right. The scenery is part beautiful, part wasteland.

We get passed by a team car from the MCipollini - Giordana women’s cycling team, with a rider riding only a few centimeters from the rear bumper. They are FLYING. Someone’s getting in her high-tempo training. They pass us in both directions, twice. Impressive (and fun!).

After half an hour or so of this long half-tunnel thingy, we arrive at the Italy/Switzerland border. But it’s not just some typical border crossing - It’s a border that goes accross a huge dam, and into a tunnel that’s too narrow to allow cyclists. So there’s a shuttle service consisting of a van for riders and a trailer for the bikes. We wait a bit, trying not to get cold. The sun is appearing and disappearing, and there’s the occasional cool gust of wind which always signals that it’s about 4pm and it’s time to ride in a homeward direction. The van arrives, and we go through a very narrow tunnel.

IMG 1646


4pmish. The ride through the Swiss National Park is gorgeous - a curvy road with a gentle rise through a big beautiful forest that goes as far as the eye can see. The sun is shining again, so the layers come off again, and are stuffed into pockets again. You get used to it.

The climb is spectacular, but the descent is spectacularer! Fast, fast, fast, with excellent hang-it-all-out corners and good pavement. Funny thing about the pavement - if you close your eyes, you could tell whether you're still in Italy, or crossed the border into Switzerland. Because the pavement goes from shitty to shit-free.

5pmish. We arrive in Zernez, and turn left. I'm starting to feel it. Whereby IT, I mean the early start, the long ride, the climbs, the cold, the heat, everything. And unfortunately, this begins the long drag through the valley, back to Pontresina. For the remaining, 30km, theres a headwind, cold and strong. And just plain rude. Arnd and I do our best to slipstream through it, taking turns pulling, trying to laugh it off. But it's just brutal, and it seems to last foooooreeeeeeverrrrrrr.

I try to think of other things, happy thoughts, but the roar of the wind in my ears blows them away and brings me back to reality. It's a long struggle that has me questioning again why we do this. But brief thoughts of the descent into Livigno, and dreams of the hot shower that awaits (Arnd and Daniel H's fancy hotel has a fancy Hamam, and Arnd thinks he can get me in!) keep me going.

6:30pmish. At last, we arrive in Pontresina. Total time in the saddle - about seven hours. Quick internal check from head to toe: Eyes dry, face salty, neck tired, shoulders tight and painful, belly delightfully recovered, low back tired, ass sore, legs depleted.

We go to the fancy hotel to ask about me and the Hamam. I can get in for 10 francs (the cheapest thing all weeked!) but it's closing at 8. So I have an hour-and-a-half to rush back to the hostel, change into some normal clothes, rush back to the fancy hotel, get a robe and a towel and a tour of the facilities, and enjoy some steam rooms and stuff. Seems worth it. And it is.

IMG 1648

Back at the hostel. A few minutes later I'll be smiling again. And then we'll eat Risotto!




* Male hetero ego penis brain would also like to inform you  that "eating bananas" is not some sort of sexual slang - we were literally eating bananas. One each, hence the use of the plural.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Mountain biking is so dumb.


Yeah, that was me. I said that, partly because I think it's true, but mostly to get the goat of Mike and Ian, two of my favorite mountain bikers who were in the room when I said it.

I've always been a roadie, you see. Even when I owned a mountain bike and rode it, the smile on my face was mostly forced; there to mask the grimace underneath. Mountain biking looks fun, but it's so ... bumpy and dirty. Ew! Yucky. Tires slide. Trees and bushes reach out and poke, ticks and poison ivy are standing by just waiting to attack. And there are bugs. Lots and lots of bugs.

When I was racing road in college, I decided to give the mountain biking thing a try. Mike, Ian, Tom, Kenny  and basically everyone else on the planet really loved it. I don't remember how I got my first bike, but it was a year-old Specialized aluminum Stumpjumper hard tail. It had a pretty light "metal matrix" frame. It might have been the fancy and very racy S-Works model. We built it up with a decent set of components, I bought shoes,  pedals, and a Camelbak, and off we went into the beautiful mountain sides of San Luis Obispo.

And it was fucking terrible! Sure the bike was light-weight and it looked super cool. But it was also hard as a rock, like federal pound-me-in-the-ass prison. The suspension fork was hard and rubbery. The seat was also hard and rubbery. Every ride on it made me wonder why anyone would want to do this. There were roots and ruts strategically placed to suck the fun out of every ride, and there were even more bugs than I thought. So many bugs!

And to make it even worse, I found mountain biking to be  EITHER steep uphill OR steep downhill. But the thing about that is: I was a terrible climber (compared to all my awesomely talented cycling buddies like Mike an Ian, who seemed to have been born not from a womb so much as an altitude tent) so I got dropped on all the climbs. And the only thing that I was worse at than climbing? Descending! So I would get dropped on the climbs AND the descents!

Thankfully that bike was stolen out of my garage not too long after the first ride. Here's how much more popular mountain biking was than road riding at that time: the thieves didn't steal my Dura-Ace laden Kestrel 200Sci which was parked right next to it. What a bunch of self-mutilating morons.

About two years later it was time to graduate from college, and finish my road racing career. I was pretty burnt out on road riding, and by this time the latest and greatest mountain bikes had dual suspension. It seemed a bit excessive to me, but Mike and Ian convinced me to give it a shot. And it seemed like the kind of thing that would prevent the bike from trying to insert itself into my rectum. I got a screaming deal on a Specialized Stumpjumper FSR XC.

I barely finished test riding it in the parking lot when Mike snatched it away tossed the stock tiresreplaced them with some wider, cushier downhill tires (this was before downhill tires turned into fucking motorcycle tires).

Back at home Ian sat me on the bike and pumped up the rear shock to the appropriate level, and off we went. And holy motherfucking shit, it was a revelation. Suddenly, the bike wasn't trying to eject me from planet earth like a bull on Red Bull. The rear suspension did indeed take the hit out of all the bumps, roots, and ruts, the tires gripped nicely instead if ricocheting off of every little pebble. It didn’t change the bug situation, but I actually sorta kinda started to enjoy being out there on a mountain bike.

I was still living in San Luis Obispo at the time, which will always be a fabulous, beautiful, perfect place to ride both mountain and road, and I was surrounded by several mountain biking friends. I bought full fingered gloves and my own shock pump. We went on epic night rides through muted moonlit forests. And yet mountain biking never really set my heart on fire. Maybe I was burnt out on cycling in general after all that road racing. Maybe it was all that dirty dirt, and the fact that every damn ride I did really was uphill both ways.

Eventually I moved to the Bay Area (also fab for riding) where I sold my mountain bike to my friend Brian. Then I loaned the ol' road bike to Ian to take to Australia. I took a long cycling hiatus.

Fast forward to today - I've moved to Switzerland and started riding road again. I bought a fancy new road bike and have been riding once or twice per week. The hills around the mountains are a welcome change to the unending flatness of northern Germany. Road riding is celebrated here, and the mountain biking is supposed to be some of the best in Europe. And guess what I've had the urge to do! Yeah, that was me who said Mountain biking is so dumb. But now I'm in Switzerland and it seems I'm going to have to eat those words (and a lot more cheese).

I started poking around the bike shops here, beginning the investigation into mountain biking's current state of affairs. And I’ve found that it’s reached rather impressive technical heights. Everything is lighter and more solidly made. The bikes are turning into well-integrated cycling units, as opposed to a frame with a bunch of rattly crap hanging off of it. Specialized bikes basically have active suspension. It’s mechanically active, but with the rise of Di2 and power meters and wireless cycle computers that can all talk to one another, you just know that eventually the suspension is gonna wanna get in on the action.

So yeah, the bikes are better than ever before. But now there’s a thousand categories of bike to choose from. I remember when there was one category: mountain bike. Then two - with and without front suspension. Then there were hard tails and soft tails. But now, it’s Cross Country, Trail, Singletrack Trail, Technical Trail, All mountain, Gravity, Recreational, Race, Sport, Gravity, and Dual Sport.

Then the web sites asks me what kind of rider do I want to be and what kind of riding I want to do. Well obviously I want to ride cross country on a trail with some technical singletrack across all types of mountains, with occasional use of gravity for my own recreational purposes while feeling very sporty. But no racing, and only one sport at a time. So that narrows it down, I guess. Also sixteen inches of travel seems a bit excessive.

Price is a good way to narrow down the field though. I set myself a limit of 4000 Swiss Francs. Ideally that’ll cover the bike, shoes, and pedals. I’ve begun the investigation at several local bike shops. The good news is you can get a hell of a bike for 4000 Francs, and all the shops will let you take a bike for the weekend to try on the local trails. And I can go with my pal Pablo who lives nearby.

So far, these are looking promising:

Price Marathon

Specialized Epic

Specialized Stumpjumper


The Santa Cruz Superlight also looks intriguing. But for some reason its price doubles on the plane ride over. I guess it flies first class or something.

And I guess mountain biking is looking a lot less dumb than it used to.



Saturday, October 09, 2010

Workspace Wuv.


Watch this:

It's beautiful, isn't it?

There's a romance about the workspace that seems to have popped up over the last few years, spawning blog entries, entire websites, contests, documentary films, overly deep discussion, and serious self reflection that takes itself FAR too seriously (this little ditty, for example). And I am such a fucking sucker for this stuff, that I have bookmarked it all, clicked through every picture, watched too many movies, and all too often found myself perusing the workspaces of others like some sort of binoculared pervert perched in a tree. And it's always, always while sitting at my own desk avoiding the very work that would go a long way in bringing the fantasy to completion.

What fantasy is that? I think it's the delicious promise of productivity. For me, that would be ideas conjuring up words, words forming sentences, forming paragraphs, sliding onto the page and magically transporting the ideas in my head into someone else's. Easily, effortlessly. And looking cool while doing it, of course.

When you're working well, really well, really into it, there's that feeling of time disappearing and leaving you alone for a while. And when I see the right combination of windows, surfaces, tools, and wall color, I feel that possibility. An open MacBook. A perfectly placed Moleskine. A cappucino with latte art. I know, I know, BARF-O-FUCKING-RAMA, right? I'm right there with you.

And yet I can't help it: every time, I just keep clicking, picture after picture, putting myself in there for a moment and wondering if that 8000€ stainless steel hanging pendant lamp would help me be a better, more inspiring, and more inspired manboy.

I seek the perfect work space, a perfectly solid desk, not too heavy, but never flimsy, the right amount of sunlight, a lamp that says I have taste, but don't take this stuff too seriously (because that would be so embarrassing) and a chair, designed by someone you may have heard of, that holds my ass in a perfect balance between style and comfort.

SIDENOTE: Aeron chairs with that mesh material, insect-like design, and a seemingly cult following have never worked for me. They always feel like a slingshot that's trying to press my ass cheeks into a single unit. Is that just me?

It is the perfect setup, the perfectly set-up space that I crave. A well organized (that's how I roll, YMMV) group of beautiful things that make others say (as I have said so often) wow, your workspace is so inspiring! And then I want to sheepishly grin and pretend that it's just something that sort of happened. When in reality it's been a subject of life long study, made easier by the internets for making it possible to sneak around the offices of famous people, and by a higher income, which make it easier to buy things not made by Ikea. And pursued with the (mostly) genuine belief that designing and executing the perfect workspace will have a positive, measurable effect on my output.

And I know it's all bullshit. Massimo Vignelli can talk all he wants about his deskular situation, and how he loves it and it loves him (oh, hot productive man-on-desk action!). But we all know that it's just a bunch of ginned up romance and that his desk is, relatively speaking, a transient part of a long successful career based on talent, luck, and a lot of hard work. This is not like how 51% of the reason Nigel Mansell won the '92 F1 championship was because he had the best car. This is more like Picasso having basic access to decent paints and a brush that didn't stab him in the eye.

So I'll keep watching and clicking like some kind of fucked up office voyeur. And I'll keep dreaming of my MILK desk and wireless peripherals, VESA-mounted hi-res display and a sleek and silent laptop. And surely over time I'll spend an unwarrantable amount of money on all of them. And they will make me a little bit happier.

But I know that really, I should just write more.

Friday, October 01, 2010

Lancing Free.


So, I'm a freelancer now. Funny to write that after approximately eighteen years of being an official member of the official workforce, and always working for someone or some organization. I've always been a full-time or part-time employee somewhere; somewhere that determines my working hours, pay rate, start date, career direction, and daily activities. When is it okay to go to lunch? What format would you like the documents in? Can I have a nicer computer? Can I have a raise? These are all questions I used to nervously ask my employer.  And invariably, they would answer in a fatherly tone Hmm ... we'll have to think about that.

Not anymore.

Well, that's being a bit dramatic, I suppose. I may have worked for corporations, but none of them were very blood sucking or Matrix-like. But it can't be denied that with freelancing comes a certain breezy, romantic freedom. It's a bit cowboy-esque: look at him - a lone gunslinger, a hired hand, a bounty hunter, on the hunt for creative ideas that solve a problem. He can be air dropped anywhere in continental Europe within twenty four hours (though he prefers the train). He brings his own tools. Just give him a network connection and tell him what you need.

None of this is out of the ordinary - each place I've worked has had its share of contractors, freelancers, and consultants. But it's certainly new for me. Freelancers were always other people. The ones who showed up Monday morning with their rolling suitcase and their (always fancier than whatever the company had given me) computers and sat quietly in a makeshift office while they waited for a brief. We all whispered about them - who they were, why they were here, whether they were making double or triple the money we made. We were annoyed that they just trotted in to "help" us and we looked forward to watching them fail. They were, after all, an implicit declaration from our bosses that we weren't good enough.

And now I am one of them (minus the rolling suitcase). I'm a freelancer. Me.

Yep. That's me at that one lonely, forgotten desk, the one that hasn't been occupied since the layoff. It's empty except for a few leftover pens and pencils, and a dirty phone to which no one knows the extension. Mysteriously, the voicemail light is blinking. If it rings, I won't answer it either.

That's me sheepishly asking the regulars how to connect to the printer.  And then asking where the darn thing is.

That's me with the annoyingly specific questions about the project timeline. I'm done on Thursday, you see, and I've got a train to catch.

That's me in the meeting that you didn't get invited to. Sorry. I just go where they tell me.

That's me using whatever software I want on my laptop because it's my laptop and no IT gestapo jerkoff is going to stop me from putting whatever software I want on my laptop. Yeah, sorry, not sure what to tell you about that annoying problem you're having with MS Word ... because I don't use MS Word anymore.

That's me, not coming in to the office on the Friday after Thursday's all-nighter because my booking is over. If you want to torture yourself, go ahead and picture me drinking fresh-squeezed orange juice off the room-service breakfast cart at my hotel. Though we both know that I'm just sleeping.

These are some of the glorious (and exaggerated) benefits of being Founder and CEO of the Oneself corporation. But there are disadvantages too, which I will list out and embellish upon, even though you already know them and the whole thing may sound a bit whiny.

So far I've been to Frankfurt and Hamburg, neither of which are Berlin, where I live. Traveling for work is fun! and exciting! ... for the first twelve seconds of the first trip. After that it's just one frantic jog to the train station or airport after another, with too much luggage in tow, and consequences for being late.

And every move I make costs me money. My money, out of my own pocket. And not only do I have to pay for my own travel, I have to book it too. You know what's more fun than booking travel? Everything, including paper cuts.

And it's easy to look at each bus ticket, train ticket, plane ticket and taxi fare as just a miniscule percentage of my awesomely high freelancing rate. (I'll take a taxi to the taxi stand! I am invincible!) But that shit adds up fast, and that awesomely high freelancing rate is half taxes. So keep your little financial feet on the ground there, fantasy boy.

And it's not just the moving that costs money: the eating does too. And the sleeping, when you think about it. Basically I walk around and hear that cash register KA-CHING! sound all day in my head. Though walking is one of the few things I can do for free. I'm working on solutions to the cash flow problem, and I'll write about them later. Until then, I guess I'll try to take the bus and eat apples from the reception desk.

Still, it's a net positive experience so far. And there's this addictive mentality to freelancing ... this ability to walk away at the end of a project, no strings attached. I limbo right under cheap office politics, and slink right around the office gossip on my way to the candy machine. Don't like my work? That's fine. Go ahead and kill all of it - I'll make more. You cannot hurt me. I am a freelancer. I'm here until one of us decides that I'm done. Now where do I send my invoice?


Monday, September 27, 2010

Six wonderful things that have happened since the last time I blogged, in no particular order:

1. Moved from Hamburg to Berlin with Caroline.

2. Left Jung von Matt after almost four years and became a freelancer.

3. iPad Wifi, iPhone 4.

4. Film shoot in NY and LA.

5. Taught at Miami Ad School Hamburg.

6. Week long bicycle trip through the French Pyrenees.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Back in the saddle again.

In August I officially came out of retirement... out of retirement from my nonexistent cycling career, that is. I rode in the Vattenfall Cyclassics, the "biggest bike race in Europe", held right here in Hamburg. I'm not sure which of its attributes makes it the biggest... but it's probably the number of amateur riders like me who participate in the "Everyman" category like I did. I don't know for sure, but I think there were over 15,000 participants. That's a lot of legs.

There were three distances for us wannabees: 55km, 100, and 155. I signed up for the 100k, figuring that it's only 62 miles, and I used to do that in college all the time. It would require some training - a few rides per week should do it - but I could find 62 miles in these old (hairy) legs, no problem.

Naturally, the training didn't have what one might call military-like discipline. To be fair, it rained A LOT in the months leading up to the race, way more than it should in July and August. And even when it wasn't raining, well, I still worked in advertising, which means late nights. Oh, and the riding here is a bit uninspiring, what with the lack of mountains or even hills, the endless sprawl, the bridges closed to cyclists, yadda yadda yadda. What other excuses can I make? I only had one jersey, and some evenings after work that fucker needed to be washed, and I don't mean perhaps. Can't ride without a jersey right? Right! Pass the ice cream, bitches.

Anyways, I figured out that the ride I managed to do about once per week is about 50k. In the middle are two small 2-3 minute climbs (gawd that sounds pathetic) that I could suffer on, and then turn around and do two or three more times to get that climber's body I've always dreamed about. And the thing about that is, I wasn't the only one making recursive pilgrimages to these tiny little Earth bumps - each time I rode there I'd see a bunch of dudes riding up as I rode down. Then I'd turn around at the bottom, ride back up, and pass them as they went back down. Turn around again, and repeat. And we'd smile at each other - that smile that says "Isn't this silly? I know, right?"

It felt pretty good though, and slowly I felt my condition getting better. I even had a ride or two where I felt really good - dancing on the pedals, you might say. Then it rained and work got busy, and I lost a little. But then I got back into the training rhythm again and started feeling better and then holy toe clips Batman, the ride is tomorrow!

Dirk and his friend Thomas, both Dutchies from Amsterdam, came to Hamburg to ride with me - Dirk and I went to school together, and Thomas is a friend of his. It was a perfect Sunday morning for a ride - bright and sunny and warm. And at 8:30am, the three of us non-German amateurs lined up in our starting block of 500. And what a mishmash of cyclists it was - there were groups wearing matching jerseys, and even some with matching bikes. And right next to them would be a lonely solo rider, trying to avoid eye contact with everybody, trying to stay cool, but obviously wishing he had a mate to pass the time with. There were 7000 dollar bikes and one or two 70 dollar garage-sale bikes, and everything in between. I saw carbon wheels and shaved, veiny legs... and the goofball in front of me who took at least two hundred meters to get his size 50 German tennis shoes from the eighties into hot clips and straps from the seventies. I would have given him a hand, but I didn't want to touch him - I might catch dorky.

Caroline was kind enough to escort us down there, take the jacket I decided I wouldn't need, and even wait up the road to cheer us on after we rolled out... onto the fully blocked-off roads of a professional cycling course. My friends, if you ride, you've gotta do a ride like this at least once so you can experience the awesome beauty of a car-less, pedestrian-free, roadway where all you see are bicyclists riding in the same direction. It was like flying. It was fantastic. Rolling around corners knowing there was plenty of clean road and no risk from cars was like crawling naked into a warm bed with someone you love over and over again for three hours, with a feedzone in the middle (Powerbar anyone?).

So we rode and rode down these beautiful empty roads on a perfect sunny day. There were 15,000 riders spread out on 155km of roads which is enough to always have someone to draft behind (oh those giant square-shouldered Germans!), but enough of a spread to never feel too crowded. And the second best thing to all the people on bikes were all the wonderful people on the side of the road cheering us on. How lovely of them! They yelled and whistled and spun those clackity noise maker thingies and held up signs as we huffed and puffed and hauled our fat asses all over southern Hamburg.

Fifty kilometers is where my body is used to climbing off the bike and spending the next half an hour cramming 47 pieces of toast down my throat while I have an internal argument about whether or not I should actually be taking a shower right now (Answer: HUNGRY! FUCK YOU!) But of course this time fifty kilometers was only halfway, and I certainly felt it. The second half of the ride was noticeably slower and more sedate. No more mad dashing through the streets and much less fighting for position; we went from "We're on fire!" to "Are we there yet?" It was a bit more of a slog, but still exquisite. With twenty kilometers to go, we climbed and crossed the Köhlbrand bridge, which is a tiny bit like the Golden Gate, except it's blue and a lot more modern and designy. More importantly, it's normally closed to cyclists, so it was a real treat to ride across it. Plus, going up and over it is the biggest climb in the whole route. Only in Hamburg would the King of the Mountains competition be decided on a fucking bridge.

It was a fairly epic way to finish off the ride though. From there we twisted and turned our way back into the city. I had lost touch with Dirk and Thomas - one ahead and one behind - so I rolled in in a straggling group of fifteen or so. The crowd was five deep at the barriers by the finish line, and everyone was cheering like we were in a bunch sprint on the Champs-Elysees as I crossed the line. Epic.

After a shower and some lunch, I went back to the race and checked out all the booths set up at Jungfernstieg and Rathaus Markt. I got to try electric shifting of Shimano's Di2. I tried it on a stationary trainer, and it actually wasn't shifting perfectly - the rear derailleur needed some adjustment (or perhaps some new firmware? Maybe a fresh reboot?) but it was obviously just a matter of adjustment to a system that is obviously the wave of the future. Like index shifting, integrating the shifting into the brake levers, email, twitter, and YouPorn, kids born today will one day ask us what life was like in the dark ages when dinosaurs roamed the earth and bicycles had cables that, like, moved things mechanically? OMG WTF DAD!

There were tons of other booths there too - exotic carbon bikes from Pearl and friends, and all the local bike shops, one of which had the Trek Madone I've had my eye on marked down even further. Sadly, of all the problems I encountered over the 100 kilometers - aching muscles, sore ass, tingly toes, mild oxygen debt, low blood sugar, thirst, getting passed by fat people, etc. - not one of them can be attributed to the bicycle I was riding. Which is unfortunate, because there just doesn't seem to be any justification whatsoever for for me to buy the Madone. Or one of these! Or one of these! Or this pretty titanium one! Or maybe something in stainless steel! And that's a damn shame because I so want one with its ultra lightweight carbon everything, and its more upright geometry (maybe that would soothe some of my old-man aches and pains?!), and its ten speeds (one more cog to get over the hills of Hamburg? I mean if there were any?). I'm thrilled to say that I'm so old and slow that even low-end components are plenty high enough for me, which brings nice road bikes down from catastrophically expensive, to merely stupidly expensive. Still, due to my current bank account situation, it seems that if I'm going to scratch my cycling itch, I'm going to have to do it with actual riding on a bike that is not only perfectly adequate, but still a little awesome. Pooooor me.