Success at the Bike Project!

Jackie and I made good use of the Bike Project last week.

I’m not quite sure how to describe the Bike Project. Let’s try this: It’s a group of people and a collection of tools, using space in the Independent Media Center, serving as a resource for people who want to repair their bikes, or learn how to repair bikes.

We needed to make use of it because I broke Jackie’s front shifter last week, during a test ride after cleaning her chain.

With help from the folks at the Bike Project, we found a similar shifter in a bin of scavenged parts, ran a new cable through it, and swapped that out for the broken shifter and cable on Jackie’s bike. We paid $6 for the parts.

Among the things that I learned:

  1. The front shifter is not supposed to come apart. (Jackie’s had, and I’d assumed it was supposed to—that you were supposed to open it up to thread the cable through. That turns out not to be the case—once it’s opened up, it’s probably done for.)
  2. Getting the cable tension right is pretty easy, at least if your derailleur has previously been adjusted correctly. (All we did was pull the cable snug, cut it off, and crimp on a cable-end, at which point it pretty much just worked. I may have given the barrel adjuster a turn.)
  3. Grip shifters are mostly crappy plastic items that can be expected to fail if you actually use them.

Overall, it was a great experience. The place was full of people fixing their bikes, and there was a lot of positive energy in the shop.

They have a Build-a-Bike program, where you pick out a scavenged frame and then build it out with scavenged components (buying new components where desired). It was a key idea behind the project when it was being founded, and I’m sure you can still do it if you want to, but they also have a bunch of rebuilt bikes available for purchase, and I’ve heard that they tend to guide people interested in Build-a-Bike to those.

There were some downsides. In particular, one of the big advantages is supposed to be that they have stands to use while working on your bike, but the stands were 100% occupied for the whole 90 minutes we were there. Still, we’ll certainly join the Bike Project next time we need to get some work done on our bikes. It was a lot cheaper than going to a bike shop, and despite taking that 90 minutes, it was still a lot quicker than making an appointment at a bike shop to get the work done in a week or two.

Open Wireless

Both my brother and the local makerspace’s Brian Duggan shared the link to the EFF’s Why We Need An Open Wireless Movement. Steven, because he’s the only person he knows who actually does run an open access point for his home network, and Brian because the local meshing network access point project is already able to provide this part of the necessary functionality.

At the meeting last night with some of access point folks, we got a quick demo of how to configure an access point running OpenWrt so that it provided both a closed network with access to the LAN and an open network that only had access to the WAN (hence, no access to local servers, printers, etc.).

The demo didn’t go as far as to show how to configure the system with quality of service limitations on the open network (so that random strangers can use your network, but can’t suck down all your bandwidth). Figuring that out will be one of my next steps.

There’s some info on OpenWrt’s quality of service page, but it’d be really nice to have an example with some appropriate settings that would allow some basic email and web surfing while leaving most of the bandwidth of a typical cable or DSL connection available for the connection owner. I haven’t found that yet. (Actually, I think I understand why it doesn’t exist. The upload and download speeds are set in kBits/s, so the correct values depend on the speed of your underlying connection. Values that shared 10% of a fast cable-modem connection could consume a large fraction of a DSL connection. Still, it’d be nice if there were some suggested values for typical configurations.)

Maker fair

independent Media Center
Independent Media Center in Urbana

Jackie and I spent Saturday morning at the Maker Fair at the Independent Media Center in downtown Urbana.

I’m late to the Maker movement. Being very much not handy, I’ve always avoided making things. It’s part of the reason that both writing and software have always appealed to me—you don’t have to actually make anything.

Gradually, though, I’ve been coming around.

For one thing, I’ve come to appreciate two ideas: Getting help, and starting by learning the narrowest possible skill set (which can then be expanded if you enjoy the activity).

Me wearing the scarf I wove
Me wearing the scarf I wove (photo by Jackie Brewer)

For example, a couple of years ago, I wove a scarf. I say I wove it, and that’s technically true: I did all the weaving. However, I had quite a bit of help with the other parts. In particular, Jackie wound the warp and put it on the loom. (I came up with the design myself, based on some scarves that we saw for sale that were surprisingly inexpensive for handwoven. The key to the modest price was that they used fuzzy yarn set very wide—about 4 threads per inch. That meant that it both used less yarn and took less time.)

If I’d had to wind my own warp and put it on the loom myself, I doubt if I’d have made it. I’d have had to learn three new skills, and I’d have had to execute all three without making any unrecoverable errors. Instead I got gentle introductions to two of those skills, and actually learned the third. And I made a scarf.

The Maker Fair was great. There’s all kinds of cool stuff going on in Champaign-Urbana. We had great fun talking with Jonathan Manton who was making paper polyhedrons using Inkscape images of the flat shapes of the faces, software he’d written that added tabs and slots, and then a digitally controlled paper cutter to cut out the shapes. He called the whole thing the Large Hedron Collider.

One of the most interesting things that I hadn’t been aware of is the FabLab, a community facility sponsored by the University (and many other organizations) that has various fabrication devices—computer-controlled cutters, routers, engravers—available for use by members of the community. We’re definitely going to spend some time there.

Brian Duggan (one of the organizers, and a guy I know from work) told me that there was a group there working on deploying a meshing networking system, an important technology for protecting our rights. (See my recent post on whether civil unrest would threaten our network connectivity).

Lots of other cool stuff: model rockets, zines, art, music, etc. I’m going to have to get more involved with all this. In particular, I’m planning to start going on Thursday evenings to get involved with the meshing networks project.

Fingerless glove design

We keep our apartment cool, in the interest of minimizing our contributions to both resource depletion and global warming. Plus, Jackie likes to wear her woollies, which isn’t practical in a warm apartment. The only real downside is that, in a cool apartment, my hands get cold when I write. To address that problem, Jackie offered to knit me some fingerless gloves. (Click any of the pictures for a larger version.)

Fingerless gloves
My first fingerless gloves

My first pair of fingerless gloves were knitted to my precise specifications. It’s made of fairly course yarn, which I figured would be fine for my purposes, and it has the fingers truncated almost completely, which I figured would make it easier to type.

Unfortunately, even just the row or two of knitting that formed the finger holes turned out make them a little uncomfortable for typing.

Since those weren’t quite satisfactory, I came up with a new design—fingerless gloves that not only had no fingers, they didn’t even have finger holes.

My Rosebud Wristlets

Jackie made these most lovingly. She not only spun yarn by hand, she spun it by hand while attending a science fiction convention (WorldCon in Toronto). The main color was hand dyed as well (with brazilwood). The yarn is wonderfully soft and fine. I got to pick the colors, and I picked these colors so that I could call them Rosebud Wristlets.

My Rosebud Wristlets were a complete success, and they’ve been my main fingerless glove for seven years (they were a Christmas present in 2003).

I liked them so well, I got Jackie to make a second pair that we gave to Kelly Link.

My 2010 fingerless gloves

Not having fingers at all was great for leaving my fingers free for typing, but had a downside: My hands stayed warm, but my fingers sometimes got cold. So, I asked for yet another pair of fingerless gloves, this pair with fingers, but made from yarn so fine that it wouldn’t force my fingers uncomfortably far apart.

So, Jackie knit me this pair of fingerless gloves. Each glove finger extends out to the last knuckle of my finger. They’re made from machine-spun “fingering weight” yarn (perhaps called that because it’s the right weight to use when knitting glove fingers).

They’re wonderful. They’re not more wonderful than my Rosebud Wristlets, but they do keep my fingers warmer. So far I’ve been alternating between them, depending on whether just my hands are cold, or my fingers too.

For a while I’d imagined that I might design the ultimate fingerless glove, but it turns out, as usual, that the best tool for the job really depends not only on the precise details of what you’re trying to do, but also the precise circumstances under which you’re trying to do it.

Safe automatic backups with Scrivener

In a blog post that’s no longer available, David Hewson described a great alternative to keeping manuscript files in your Dropbox (which seems slightly risky, even though there is a local copy as well as one in the cloud) while still getting the benefit of having an up-to-date copy in the cloud if you unexpectedly want one.

Since the original post is gone, I thought I’d update this post with a quick description of the idea.

First, get an account at Dropbox. (Another cloud storage place would probably work just as well.)

Second, go into Scrivener’s Preferences and point the location for backups at a folder in your Dropbox folder. (Choose to save as a zip file; choose to include the date in the file name; choose to save some reasonable number of copies.)

I’ve been running with Scrivener set this way for a couple of years now, and I really like it.

My master copy is on my desktop machine, not vulnerable to any glitches on the internet. But every time I close Scrivener, a copy is zipped up and put in the cloud. It’s reliable enough that I don’t bother put a fresh copy of my file on my laptop when I head out to work off-site somewhere. When I’m ready to work, I just grab the latest backup off my Dropbox, unzip it, and work on that file. When I get home, I do the same thing again, grabbing the latest backup (the one saved at the end of my off-site work session), unzipping it, and swapping that file in for my master copy.

[Updated 25 February 2013 to remove the dead link and provide a description of the procedure originally described by David Hewson.]

Cool Scrivener feature: show stamps

Tobias Buckell’s recent post on chapters was not only interesting in its own right. It also brought me to Scott Westerfeld’s valuable post on pace charts. Even more cool, though was a tidbit in a comment on that post, with details on a cool feature of Scrivener: You can show stamps on the note cards!

Scott’s example involved marking the note cards to indicate what sort of tension was driving each scene. With that information he could see if there were long stretches without an action scene (or if his action scenes started falling too much into a simple rhythm). That gave him useful information for adjusting the pacing—keeping things moving, mixing things up, etc.

I’m going to be using this all the time now. For example, the story I workshopped last month is both a heist story and a love story. This feature gives me a way to mark the scenes so that I can see which aspect of the story is being advanced and then view that aspect of all the scenes:

Screen capture of Scrivener corkboard
Scrivener corkboard

I was completely unaware of this feature, even though I use Scrivener all the time, so I thought I’d spell out how to do it.

  1. Make sure that the “Inspector” is being displayed.
  2. In the Inspector under “General” find the “Status” pop-up menu and select “Edit.”
  3. Add whatever status items you’ll need.
  4. Go through your scenes, setting each Status as appropriate.
  5. In the Menu select “View->Index Cards->Show Stamps.”

It was step 5 that I was completely unaware of. That’s what causes the diagonal overprinting of the status to be shown across the cards.

I can see using this a dozen different ways to illuminate the story structure.

The Google-free option

Zen Habits has a fresh post up on becoming Google-free. It’s a pretty good look at the key resources that Google provides—Gmail, Google Docs, Google Reader, Google Calendar, Picasa, etc.—and for each one provides Leo’s choice for a replacement, along with mentioning a few other alternatives.

On the one hand, this is just the sort of thing I’m a bit too prone to worry about. For me, security, privacy, and reliability are right up there with functionality. On the other hand, it had scarcely crossed my mind that I’m so reliant on Google that becoming Google-free was an important issue. So, seeing Leo’s article prompted me to give it some thought.

To me, the more fundamental issue is choosing to keep your data on your own hardware or to keep it in the cloud.

It used to be that the cloud was a loser on all four issues (security, privacy, reliability, functionality). In just the past few years, the cloud has made great strides in the latter two. I haven’t seen a careful analysis, but my sense now is that the cloud is about as reliable as your own hardware, albeit with different failure modes (less chance of a bad disk drive losing a bunch of data, more chance of the provider deprecating the tool or simply going bust). Functionality is a different kind of question—all you care about is whether the tool provides the functionality you need—but my sense again is that tools like Google Docs do fine at providing the most important functionality.

On issues of security and privacy, though, it seems to me that the cloud can never win. Well, maybe in one narrow sense: Servers in the cloud can be professionally managed with security in mind, so there’s a better chance that security patches will be applied promptly and less chance that they’ll be configured in an insecure way out of carelessness or ignorance. Except for that, though, all the cloud can offer is an unenforceable promise of security and privacy—and it rarely offers even that.

Because of that, I’ve always ended up choosing to keep mission-critical work on my own hardware. I use various cloud services, but they’re all in some way either publishing or else secondary.

Where what I’m doing is publishing (such as this blog, my account on Flickrmy account on Twitter, and so on), the privacy issues are moot—I’m explicitly making the stuff public. I still care about security, but my security interests are closely aligned with the provider’s security interests, so I feel reasonably comfortable relying on the provider to get security right.

All my uses of cloud-provided tools are non-critical. I have a Gmail account, but it’s a backup account for use when my main email account is unavailable for some reason. I have a Google Docs account, but I only use it occasionally to view a Word document or make a graph with the spreadsheet facility. I don’t use Google Calendar (I use iCal). The one Google tool that I’d really miss if it disappeared is Google Reader which I use every day, but even losing that wouldn’t be a catastrophe. I could go back to reading blogs on the websites themselves (!) until I picked out a new RSS feed reader. My latest backup of my subscriptions was really old (I just now grabbed a current one), but I’d be able to recreate the important ones easily enough.

The upshot is that going Google-free seems to be a non-issue to me. I could do it in five minutes and scarcely feel the loss. I’m glad to have been prompted to think about it, though.