Monday, June 8, 2015

Upcoming posts

My apology for a lack of posts since summer 2014. In the coming weeks, I am looking forward to sharing some new posts on the following topics:
  • Our epic China and SE Asia trip and cruise in January-February 2015
  • How we stay connected when travelling
  • Career change
Thanks for your patience, and stay tuned!

Thursday, August 14, 2014

After 2 years and 5000+ miles of cycle commuting

It just dawned on me that I have logged over 5000 miles (8000 km) of cycling in London. It has been over two years since I started my 4-days a week commute to and from the office in Central London, through sunshine, rain, snow and everything in between. It covers a distance of about 6 miles (10 km) each way; just far enough to get a decent workout. Here is a quick review of the experience over those miles:

Conditions on the Road

  • West London drivers have generally been good. Driving in Central London is not easy for drivers, so don't do anything to add to their busy workload. The key things are - be visible, patient, predictable, and courteous, and the gesture will be returned in kind. Unfortunately, many cyclists do not do themselves (and other cyclists) favour in this regard. 
  • Act proactively for your own safety - own the lane to control passing traffic only for as long as necessary, don't ride between moving vehicles, watch turn indicators, observe (changing) angle of the front tires, pay attention to driver body language, make eye contact, pass parked vehicles with at least one door width gap, etc.
  • Too many fellow cyclists are nuisance. Their bad behaviour reflect badly on law-abiding regular cyclists. They run red lights. They don't shoulder check. They ride on pavements (sidewalks). But probably better they cycle than drive or ride those awful scooters.
  • Pedestrians are the biggest menace. One walked right into me outside Hyde Park because she crossed the road (not at a pedestrian crossing) without watching. No serious damage, but still weeks of painful recovery from scraps, bruises and sore ribs. Lucky for her it wasn't a car/lorry/bus. So watch out for pedestrians.

The ride and accessories

Tern Joe P24 folding bike -
  • 26" wheels mean it is a faster commuter and more comfortable than a Brompton-like bike. Being able to fold it for storage is a requirement in my rather crowded household with 3 other bikes. Though a bit on the heavier side for a road bike, this bike has been bulletproof. Good specs with decent quality components. 24-speed is about 21-speeds more than I need for my commute. Disc brakes have been awesome but it took a while to get the right settings after cables stretched. Learn to adjust the brakes yourself because the busy bike shop mechanics will never get it right. I like the brakes to engage early in the level travel, as I ride with only two fingers on each brake lever (motorcycle habit). I went through a period of 8 months when I kept breaking brake cables every 2-3 months, but I think that was due to worn pads and mal-adjustments placing undue strain on the cables. Since I started a regiment of replacing pads every 6 months and adjusting the cables fortnightly (while performing other basic maintenance), the cables have stopped snapping. I replaced both brake rotors a couple weeks ago, but after 5000 miles, they were due for replacement.
  • What would I do differently? Get a 700c-wheeled and lighter folding bike, such as the Montague. Carbon belt drive with an 8-speed internal hub will be nice as well, but can be very pricey. Maybe hydraulic disc brakes instead of mechanical ones, but those have their demons and messier when broken.

Shimano M324 SPD Pedals -
  • The single-sided SPD pedals have performed well. The left side has been adjusted to release a bit easier. Never a problem with release during emergency situations. Though engagement has been generally easy, there have been days when I found myself constantly taking off on the wrong side (i.e. non clipped) of the pedal.
  • What would I do differently? Just go for double-sided SPD pedals. 

SKS Xtra Dry Rear Mudguard -
  • It looks cool, easy to install (clips to the seat post). Probably effective but still have to wipe off sprays and grit from my courier bag after a wet ride. I suppose it would have been worst without any mudguard.

Consumables and breakages -
  • Replaced one chain after around 1,000 miles as a preventative measure.
  • Snapped a chain at around 3,000 miles. Replaced rear cogs as well; took the opportunity to install closer ratios, no real need for any cog bigger than 28-tooth in West London. Lesson learned - Must be disciplined about replacing the chain every 1,000 miles and oiling fortnightly.
  • Worn out four set of brake pads.
  • Broke four front brake cables. See above for detail.
  • Finally replaced brake cable housings recently.
  • Replaced front and rear derailleur cables and housing after 5000 miles.
  • Proactively replaced SRAM X7 rear derailleur with the same due to signs of wear. Front derailleur should be replaced as well as it has a bit play, but I use it so infrequently that I will wait until the next service in a few months.
  • Bike will be in the shop tomorrow to get the headset bearing replaced.

Lighting -
My key criteria for lights is that they must be USB rechargeable.
  • Moon X300 - Flashing mode mounted on the handle bar during day time and lamp mode after sunset on top of my helmet. 300 lumens helps to make sure I am visible, especially when I direct it at my mark.
  • Cateye HL-Rapid 1 Single Front LED - Mounted on the handle bar, this small Cateye acts as a backup to the X300.
  • Electron Milli Rear Light (red) - Clipped to the courier bag. This helps to make sure anyone coming up from behind can see me.
  • Knog Blinder Rear LED Light - Clipped to the courier bag, this is a backup to the Electron.
  • Finally received the pre-ordered Blaze Laserlight in May. This gizmo projects the outline of a bike on the road a few meters ahead. Too bright to use it now, but looking forward to using it during the darker months of the year.

Horn -

  • The Hornit 140db has been handy, especially to wake up zombie pedestrians. The remote trigger allows me to use both hands for steering. The first one broke after 18 months. Hornit generously sent me a replacement unit even though the warranty period was only 12 months. The trick to using Hornit is to emit shot blasts instead of long continuous (angry) ones.
  • The ORP horn I bought from Kickstarter project is cute but not loud enough to command serious attention and the lack of remote trigger makes it a non-starter for me. This one will probably end up on a kid's bike.

Helmet -

  • The first Specialized Echelon saved my melon after the pedestrian collision. It did its job as there was a crack along the side where my head impacted the road surface. It wasn't even a hard landing (as my knee and shoulder absorbed most of the force from the fall). I didn't waste time getting another Echelon. Don't ride without a helmet!

Gloves -

  • Still using the original pair of Louis Garneau Biogel RX Mitts. Starting to smell bad, so I will have to replace it soon.
  • The SealSkinz Ultra Grip full fingered gloves have been great during the coldest and wettest months.

Shoes -

  • The Specialized BG Tahoe Sport MTB Shoe have worked well with SPD pedals. I should take better care of them but they work so well I don't give much thought to them. Tip - after a wet ride, give the shoes a quick wash, shake off excess water, then stuff the inside with newspaper, leave in a warm dry room, they will be dry enough to ride in by morning.

Clothing -

  • The Louis Garneau Metro 2 Short Sleeve Jersey and the less expensive Mountain Warehouse short sleeve jersey have held up well after regular hand washing with mild soap. Long sleeve jerseys of the same brands have performed reliably as well.
  • Special mention to the Helly Hansen Men's HH Warm Ice Crew Thermal Baselayer Top. It is a godsend during the coldest wettest months. Merino wool construction means it stays warm even when wet. I can only wear this when the temperature is under 8C or I will overheat.
  • Endura shorts and liners have been comfortable and easy to care for. Don't ride in unlined shorts!
  • Mountainlife Active high visibility breathable rain coat has been great during the winter months. I recently bought a very lightweight Endura Pakajak rain coat for spring/summer rain, but it is not breathable so I find myself not bothering to use it and just ride through the rain instead.

Gadgets and apps -

  • As a techie, I wanted to use my iPhone 4S 32GB for the ride. So I bought a BioLogic Bike Mount for iPhone 4 at the beginning. I tried using the iPhone with Navigon Europe,  Cyclemeter, Bike Brain, and Bike Hub. All fine apps, but after the first week, I left all the gadgets off the bike and found the ride more enjoyable.

Bag -

  • The Chrome Mini Metro Messenger Bag has performed without fault over the last two years. It is roomy but not bulky on the outside. I like the chunky metal buckle. The bag still looks good as new.
  • Since day one, I have relied on the EAGLE CREEK Pack-It Folder 15 black to transport shirts without introducing wrinkles. I actually started using the Eagle Creek during my many overseas business travels. I can transports 3-4 shirts without wrinkles!
  • I acquired a Freefold + CTS Messenger a few months ago. It looked impressive in reviews and on the website. It is good for transporting suites and blazers, but I tend to leave those in the office and transport/wear replacements on my Tube days. The CTS messenger bag is much too bulky for everyday use. So probably decent products but not the right fit for me.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

How a techie family travels

For the last 3+ years, our family of five have been travelling with the following assortment of tech gear...
- My work laptop... Lenovo Thinkpad T440s, before that a T410s
- My wife's MacBook Air (2012)
- Kids' laptop
- 2x 3G iPads (gen 2), occasionally joined by a gen 3 wifi iPad
- 2x iPhone 4 and an iPhone 4S
- Nintendo 3DS an assortment of digital cameras (Canon point-and-shoot with Eye-Fi card, and more recently a Panasonic Lumix GX7 that truly sucks at wifi but takes great pictures)

You wouldn't want to be behind us at the airport security checkpoint :) But we have been practising so we should be able to clear the checkpoint in not much more time than a well-rehearsed F1 pit crew.

So how do we connect the above motley crew to the Net? I have had an unhealthy collection of travel routers that I will probably write about in a separate post, but the one that has served us well recently has been an unlocked Huawei E5776 4G mifi router. It's predecessor, the E585 3G mifi router (which we still keep as a backup), has worked well but only limited to 5 wifi devices whereas the E5776 supports up to 10 wifi devices. For reasonably affordable international 3G SIM cards that meet our need, I have successfully used KeepGo in Jersey (UK), Lisbon, and Amsterdam over the last five months. I have also used Tep Wireless in the past for mifi+SIM rentals, but in the last year, they seem to be going through management challenges resulting in ineffective delivery and services.

I have had mixed success with sharing paid hotel wifi connections. The Asus WL330N3G and its predecessor the WL330gE have worked on occasions but not consistently. Luckily, most hotels I stayed at recently, have wised up to the fact that many travellers have more than one wifi device requiring Internet connectivity.

To power/charge the aforementioned devices, I have found travelling with a power strip to be the best option, as most hotels/flats do not have enough outlets. I use an international 6-outlet 110-250V power strip with surge suppression and 2 USB charging ports, that I bought from eBay. It fits easily into my trusty Briggs & Riley carry-on roller board along with a week's worth of clothing. I also have to mention that I have been a big fan of the PlugBug for my wife's MacBook Air power adapter.

Is Amsterdam the perfect model of cycle-centric society?

I have just spend the last five days in Amsterdam. It is truly a beautiful city and beats to its own drum. I can definitely see myself returning to the city many times in the future. I love the ease and grace with which the Dutch ride their bicycles. Two-up (with the passenger side-saddle on the rear rack) is no problem. Perching a toddler on the top-tube is alright as well. No need for Lycras, fast bikes and helmets. Everyone just seems so natural and healthy.

Many cities, including London, look to Amsterdam (and Netherlands in general) as a model implementation of a cycle-friendly society. As a bicycle commuter in London, I am mostly comfortable sharing the road with other road-users (motorised or not) and certainly not afraid to be proactive for the sake of my own safety, but I wouldn't want to subject my family to the same arrangement. The mostly segregated cycle lanes/paths in Amsterdam are much safer options for the majority of the general population. So what is holding me back from fully embracing the Dutch cycle-centric-society model?

Dutch cyclists, at least in Amsterdam, are quite aggressive and seem entitled. In London, absent minded pedestrians on Oxford Street during my commute (on the road) can be a source of annoyance, but I am alright with giving them a wide berth (on the road) and the occasional blast from my 140 dB Hornit if it looks like they are about to veer into my path (on the road). After all, I will probably be worse off than them if I was to come off my bike. Dutch cyclists, on the other hand, fully expect you to keep clear of the designated cycle lanes (fair enough) but also tailgate and ring their little bells to bully you out of their way on the pavement/sidewalk or shared pathways (e.g. narrow bridge). It is this aspect of pedestrian-bullying that really bothers me. I find this behaviour counter-productive to the cause of encouraging bicycle transportation. Relegating pedestrians to the place of third-class citizens is very insulting and unnecessary. I hope cycling advocates everywhere actively encourage peaceful integration of all road users through common practise of adherence to rules and decency, rather than a singular focus on one agenda.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Why travel agents are still relevant

Recently, a coworker asked for my help in finding business class deals for the flight to repatriate his family to Canada. He really wanted this to be a nice trip home. We have both been frequent business flyers and knew where to begin the search. But it still took quite a bit of effort and time deciphering all the nuances of various booking systems, and there was a big dose of luck involved as well. This reminded me of the travel agent I almost took for granted...

While living in Montreal, I travelled internationally on business quite frequently. This included many trips to far-flung places in Asia and Europe. In the Internet age, booking your own trip online has been the norm. But for more complex itineraries involving multiple stops, I called on the help of Enzo at Westmount Travel, just down the street from my home. Westmount Travel is an independent agent and I always received Enzo's personal attention. It was unusual for me to pay full-fare for business class bookings because Enzo, more often than not, was able to find the best discounted business class fares that were not readily available online. This helped to put me in the CFO's good book. But Enzo's real value came when things did not go as planned.

When the 2010 Iceland volcanic ash incident started, I was in the midst of a multi-stop European business trip. I had flown into London from Spain, the night before, had a quick meeting at the London office, and was about to leave for more meetings in Malta when the announcement came through that the entire Western European airspace was closed to traffic. My fellow travellers, who had their travels booked through the usual corporate outfits, were on their own and on the phone with their respective airlines for hours on end to sort things out. I emailed Enzo to let him sort out the cancellation of the Malta trip and a few days later, he was able to rebook me on a flight home to Montreal when it was evident the airspace would reopen. I couldn't have picked a better place to be stuck in for an extra few days and my travel agent made sure I didn't have to the sweat the details of rearranging my travels. This incident really made me appreciate the value of using a good travel agent.

So if you are a frequent traveller, my advice is to build a good relationship with a competent independent travel agent to make sure you get the best deal for your bookings. They don't cost much, maybe $50 per booking if I remember correctly, and have access to deals that even the wonderful Google has yet to reveal (though it is a good idea to double check). When things go sideways, you know there is someone you can call upon to help sort things out. Not all travel agents are equal, so you might have to try out a few before you find the one. The agents make a bit more money on cruises and other vacation bookings, so make sure to send some of those business their way to reward their hard work. This is a worthwhile relationship to have in your life, even in the age of Internet travel deals.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

My online accounts have been hacked!

Since I run my own email server, I have the luxury of easily creating a unique email address for every vendor so that I can easily track who has sold me out or if their customer database has been breached, often before any official notice is issued. A few recent high profile breaches of my most trusted online service providers ...

I work in an industry that is under persistent risk of data breaches and leakages, so I am very conscious of the fact that no system can be absolutely foolproof against determined attackers. The key differentiator is whether the vendor has a good plan (aka a runbook) in place to deal appropriately with data breaches.

If you are one of my vendors, here's the recommended plan of action:
  1. Be honest. Come clean as quickly as possible so that your customers can take appropriate actions to clean up their end of things.
  2. Be truthful. Don't dress things up or cover them up in a feel-good rhetoric. Tell me what really happened and what I need to do to take care of business.
  3. Be transparent. Do communicate what you are doing and going to do to clean up this mess, and your plan to keep this from happening again. Don't overdo it, we are not family. An update every couple of days is good enough.
  4. Act decisively. Figure out what you need to do to fix the situation and do it quickly. Evernote's decisive action to reset all passwords is a good example.
  5. Apologise. We are human, you will be most likely be forgiven. A big discount for the next subscription renewal might help. Heck, think of this as a cost of marketing if you are doing it right.
  6. Show your customers that you don't give up! Customers like vendors who (think they) know what they are doing. Put up a good fight!
  7. Don't take it out on your team. After all, they have only done what you told them to do.
  8. Don't be too hard on yourself. You are only human. But be resolute to not make the same mistake twice. Be humble, seek advice from your peers and the experts.
As the consumer of online services, you know by now that you should not assume those with whom you conduct business, are safe from data breaches, no matter if they are big or small. You have to assume that your information will end up in the hands of unintended recipients at some point. You can be a victim or you can choose to proactively manage your risk. With that in mind, here's the recommended plan of action:
  1. If at all possible, give each vendor a unique email address for each account. This can be a real pain even if you run your own email service. But here's one way to do it with Gmail.
  2. Use a different/unique password for your account with each vendor. This is a pain, but it will spare you much more pain in the long run. There are many password managers that can help ease the pain.
  3. Change all your passwords at least once a year. Again, a pain, but password managers may help.
  4. Use strong/random passwords. This is not that difficult - pick a long phrase, take the first letter from each word - there's your password. Studies have also shown that 8-character or longer passwords are much more difficult to crack than shorter ones. This is a moving target with increasing computing power, but you have to start somewhere.
Bottom line, instead of blaming your trusted vendors or the baddies on the Internet, you are the masters of your own destinies. So much easier to take responsibility for yourself than to blame others. Good luck and take care!

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Krav Maga for Teens

My 11 and 13 year old boys have been enrolled in Dynamic Krav Maga's teens programme for the last month. I have to say I am very impressed by what Aaron is doing. Over the last few years while living in Montreal, my two boys and their sister have participated in other martial arts programmes, namely Karate and Whu Shu. The formality of Karate and the pressure to test for belts were big turnoffs and seemed like cash grabs. Whu Shu was good for a while and it was cool watching my then seven year old daughter doing the moves, but she too became disinterested after a while because of the lack of practical applications.

What is different about Krav Maga?

Krav Maga was founded on the need for practical self-defense against the fascists in Eastern European Jewish ghettos in the 1930s. It was subsequently incorporated into the Israeli Defence Force training programme. The whole back story is available on the Wikipedia page.

Why is Krav Maga good for teens?

  • Practical self-defense
  • Develop confidence
  • Fitness

What is the class like?

Adult Krav Maga training involves quite a bit of aggression and strong language, as "fighting dirty" is a big part of the tactics. Thankfully, the teen programme at Dynamic Krav Maga has been toned down to be more appropriate for the impressionable young minds.

The class starts with warm up consisting of running around and practising some basic moves from previous classes. Then Aaron will present scenarios where new moves can be applicable. It is all very centered on being practical and often built on previous lessons. The new moves are practiced to be committed to muscle memory. The tactics are focused on deflect-then-flee and developing situational awareness (e.g. are there more attackers/bullies), rather than sticking around to pummel all the baddies. The final 15 minutes of the class consists of games to apply moves learned so far. This is usually my boys' favourite part of the class. The entire class takes less than an hour, but everyone gets a good workout and have fun learning practical self-defense skills.

Take a look at this video on why kids should learn Krav Maga

Krav Maga for teens in West London

If you are a parent of teenagers in West London and Krav Maga sounds interesting to you, please head on over to the Dynamic Krav Maga website to register your interest with Aaron. Maybe we will see you on Thursday night!