Since we live in a new development in Bloomington, the City hasn’t officially taken ownership of our street. The portion of South Dunn between Driscoll and Hillside wasn’t there two years ago. It was an empty field. (I can remember visiting the site shortly after the groundbreaking ceremony with Laura and my folks to see all the junk people had left in the open land.) The last time I checked with Matt Press, the South Dunn Developer, the city was demanding a specific gradient to the alleyways before they took over. The last I heard, that was on target to be fixed in Autumn 2008. Not yet.

In the meantime, we’re left with a private trash hauler, despite paying city taxes. Don’t get me wrong. It’s nice to not have to do the 11PM rush to O’Malia’s because you’ve run out of trash tags for the city haulers, but it really sucks to not have recycling pickup.

Bloomington has an awesome recycling program. Any plastics from 1 through 7 can all be mixed together with cardboard, magazines, green glass, clear glass, and newspaper. That means no sorting. And they get it every two weeks so it doesn’t pile up.

Our solution has been to take things to the county recycling center on South Walnut. In addition to being far less convenient, they have more restrictions on what they’ll take: plastics 1 and 2 only. I cringe every time I throw out a perfectly good Pizza Express cup because the county won’t take it. I’m not quite sure why there’s a discrepancy. My guess is that the city and county outsource their recycling differently.

I may need to make friends with someone on the street next door and just start walking my recycling over to them if this lasts much longer.

Update: After a few well-timed e-mails to the City of Bloomington, HAND, and the Bryan Park Neighborhood Development, we’ve finally gotten the city to initiate services on April 13th. The neighbors seem to think I did this singlehandedly, though it came about after a lot of lobbying by Matt Press and others on our street. Yeah!

I’ve been slipping into an OCD spiral with regard to our finances lately. This is probably 10% a reaction to the state of the economy and 90% a reaction to having a child and realizing how little money is left over at the end of the month. This was all precipitated by “The Quicken Disaster of 2008” when I reformatted my hard drive a month ago and completely forgot to backup the last five years worth of quicken data. The last time I had backed it up was three years ago. (Hey, I’m not claiming to be a genius) I started to dive back into reformulating my financial profile and realized I had never really thought much outside of the Quicken for Mac bubble. I’d heard of sites like Mint.com and Quicken Online before, but had kind of ignored them since I already had a five year investment in Quicken. I sort of welcomed the chance to take stock. I very well could write a post titled “Why Quicken for the Mac sucks more than anything on the face of the planet”.

Thusly, this has kicked off one of the most annoying and frustrating comparison exercise of my life. To say that I’ve become more obsessive about my financial profile would be a vast understatement. I check graphs and formulate alternate budget scenarios three or four times a day. (Actually, that’s a lie. It’s more like 20, but that’s incredibly embarassing) I seriously like to visualize data. I’d done it a bit with Quicken 2007, but had always been averse the data entry piece. Receipts would pile up until I had no choice but to enter them. I’d actively encourage the use of cash for small purchases so I wasn’t entering 20 receipts for $1.20 bagels.

I started with Mint. It seemed to be the answers to my prayers. Enter my bank account info, it sucks data down, renames the ugly bank-speak to something pretty, categorizes based on community (or my) input, and presents some pretty graphs. This led me to the reverse philsophy on debit cards. Charge EVERYTHING! Put every insignificant purchase on the credit/debit card and I get an automatic and current view of where my money is. This instant gratification drove me to do more budgeting and obsessively staring at the data. So, now I care more about where my money goes than I ever have before.  A good thing, right? Yes and no. Good because I’m paying attention, bad because none of the sites can really follow through with a perfect system.

Designing a System

In addition to knowing how much money I’ve spent on haircuts in the past year, I want a fairly simple view of five general categories of expense:

  • Recurring (generally predictable costs; e.g. bills, subscriptions, mortgage, etc.)
  • Debt (money toward paying short-term debt)
  • Essential (variable costs that must be paid; e.g. groceries, fuel, dog food)
  • Discretionary (variable costs that are more optional; e.g. dining out, shopping, entertainment)
  • Savings (money put toward savings)

This allows for easy budgeting and keeping things straight. I take a short-term view when it comes to budgeting. Translate monthly targets into weekly targets, and then to daily targets. I want to visualize the weekly targets. I want to set up a simple budget for a week, and have the system e-mail me daily reports on all those targets. I want those reports to be pretty, with useful graphs. I want those reports to show how much of the spending is coming from me, how much from my wife, and how much we share responsibility. I also want my wife to get these reports and have an account where she can login and view the data. Sounds fairly simple, right?

Mint.com

Mint has some of the strongest and weakest visualization around. It’s strength is in its flash-based pie-chart graphs that let you drill through your costs like its nobody’s business. You can add subcategories (given a recent system upgrade) but not top-level categories. You can define a set of tags and apply those to individual transactions. It’s easy to edit multiple transactions at once. Mint remembers the names that you give each transaction (most transactions from the bank look like this “ANGEL AS KINKY DOLLHSE- AXGHBD0001923”) and the categories you assign it. When you fix one, it fixes all of them.

Now, onto the drawbacks….

  • The support sucks – read through the Mint forums and you’ll immediately be greated with 4.7 million posts about banks that don’t work and features that are buggy. You’ll also find about 10 responses from Mint staff.
  • No way to do pending or future transactions – all I can see is what’s been spent. There’s no way to anticipate checks or future bills
  • Can’t assign a transaction to multiple categories – This precludes me from doing both the granular categorization (haircuts) and the general categorization (discretionary) at the same time.
  • Can’t Learn Tags – Ah, you say. But there are tags. Create tags for the five general categories. Well, yeah, but you have to do them one by one. It’s too many clicks to get to the tags to make that useful. You click, wait for the dropdown to show, click on the tags, then apply.
  • Can’t budget based on tags – The budgeting system is OK in general, but it can’t budget based on tags at all. So, I can’t do what I really want: create a budget for Discretionary expenses.
  • Can’t do anything other than monthly budgets – this really sucks. All I can do is set a boundary on the first and last day of the month. That gets rid of my ability to do weekly expense budgets. But it also poses other problems. My wife and I get paid monthly, on the last day of the month. We have a lot of expenses that are due near the first of the month. If the last day of the prior month falls on a Friday or weekend, I need to pay my next months’ expenses *before* I get paid so my bank’s billpay system has enough time to get the funds to my payees. That means budgets tend to clump costs in wrong months periodically and throws off my analysis.
  • No way to get intersection of tags – If I want to visualize, say, how much money I’m spending on discretionary items versus my wife, you might think I could just create a tag for myself and one for my wife. I can, but I can’t visualize it or filter on that in any way. All I can see is all costs sourced from me, and all discretionary expenses. Lame.

Summary: Mint has some great potential, but it’s budget visualization and lack of advanced tagging features really torpedoes it for my purposes

Quicken Online

Quicken seems like such a dinosaur, but it’s interface has improved since I first looked at them months ago. Like Mint, they also learn your transaction mapping to readable names and categories. They have really good budgeting features and show you your monthly averages. It’s easier to show custom date ranges on the visualizations and reports. You can add manual transactions that haven’t made it to your bank yet. They just added a new feature on November 21st (2008) that shows a line graph of your available cash for the next two paycheck cycles (yeah!) that takes into account all your upcoming transactions. It shows very clearly how much cash you have left over when all your future obligations for the upcoming budget cycle are met. This is IMMENSELY useful since I normally just do all this in my head.

But no one is perfect…

  • No Subcategories – What? You can’t do Auto:Fuel and Auto:Repair costs. It’s all just Auto. Weird.
  • No Transaction Splits – Huh? Costs are all in one of the already crippled categories.
  • Can’t assign a transaction to multiple categories – This precludes me from doing both the granular categorization (haircuts) and the general categorization (discretionary) at the same time.
  • Pie charts aren’t as useful – They only show the top 6 categories. You can’t drill down into them. Why would you want to? There are no subcategories!
  • Budgets are monthly – Can’t choose a budget cycle on anything other than the 1st through the last day of the month.

Summary: Quicken is showing some potential. The lack of subcategories, splitting and multiple categories is still too limiting to be useful.

Wesabe

Wesabe takes a bit of getting used to. It’s entirely tag-based. You rename and tag each transactions. Tags are categories and categories are tags. But tags can be more. I could tag something as “Haircut” and “Discretionary” at the same time. There’s a tag cloud on the sidebar so you can see the relative ratio of your expenses. Clicking on any of the tags brings you to a good summary page that shows a line graph at the top with all the transactions listed below. The line graph can be put into Yearly, Quarterly, Monthly, (wait for it) Weekly and Daily granularity. So, you can visualize your weekly spending in your discretionary budget.

Almost there, but still some limitations:

  • The budgeting gets the biggest suck – seriously, it’s almost not there. You set a prose goal, say “save up for my hair transplant” and tie tags to the goal. You set whether you want to get to a value or stay under a value. When you get to that level, the goal completes and you start another goal. You can’t do anything recurring and you can’t define any time-based bounds to the goal. There’s also no alert system based on goals.
  • Can’t get the intersection of tags like Mint, there’s no way to say “show me all the discretionary expenses that are attributed to me”. This makes using tags for sub-categorization difficult. A minor annoyance, but it’s a little less useful. EDIT: Thanks to the comment from Marc Hedlund, CEO of Wesabe, it looks like I missed this in the documentation. You can do some rather powerful boolean searches in your transaction list. You can’t do it yet in graphs, as far as I can tell, but this helps with identifying tags.
  • Tagging could be a lot easier – it takes a lot of clicks. I want to be able to tab through things without my mouse.
  • Finding untagged items is difficultI don’t mean completely untagged items, though that’s buggy, too. I mean, finding things that didn’t get assigned to one of my five most important categories. The tag filters don’t let you do any logical operations. EDIT: this concern is removed by the more powerful boolean editing that was pointed out in the comments to this posting by Marc Hedlund.
  • Maintaining tags is really difficult – my first iteration ended up with 80 tags. It’s difficult to maintain consistency across all that. Let’s say you come up with a great way to label your haircut. Then, you decide you want to look like an 80s rock star, so you grow your hair long, tease it up, and put your money towards codpieces and hairspray instead. When you get laughed out of the rotary club and get your haircut again, you have to remember that awesome tag from 8 months ago. (You looked like that for 8 months?!?)

Summary: Wesabe is the closest. It has the right visualization, but no good alert system. No good budgeting system. I have to check it myself.

Sumary 2.0: After seeing the advanced search parameters that Marc Hedlund points out, I’m no longer concerned about the organizational aspect of the system. It’s much easier to keep the tag base up. The visualization still needs some work. If Wesabe let me use the powerful searching in its visualization, and let me memorize that view as a report and let me e-mail that report on a user-defined basis, I’d be in heaven. The budgeting stuff still needs work, but I can live without that if I can get regular reports. Wesabe is clearly ahead of Quicken and Mint in this regard.

Conclusion

They’re almost there, but they still suck. I looked at Yodlee, Buxfer, Mvelopes and several others, but they were immediately bad. The three above are the best out there. And that’s depressing. If someone could unite the tagging features of Wesabe with the budgeting features of Quicken and the visualization features of Mint, they would have a super personal finance tracker that would be poised to take over the world. All services lack a really good custom reporting and e-mailing system. None of them have iPhone apps, though they have seriously reduced iPhone optimized websites (that suck even worse).

But I still have hope. I’ve eradicated all my tags from Wesabe and am just using it for my top 5 categories. That will be my weekly budget view. I’m continuing to maintain Mint for the great visualization and spending breakdown, and Quicken for the budgeting. One could argue that I’m doing more work now than I was doing entering all those receipts…and they would be right. This won’t last long, so I’ll continue to hammer on each of the systems to fix their flaws and come up with something truly useful.

So, I’ve been doing photography as both a hobby and side profession for about five years now. I’m sometimes asked what my best photograph is. Longtime Herald Times readers will no-doubt be familiar with my photograph of the Monroe County courthouse with a lightning strike in the background. Without a doubt, it’s the most visited photo on my smugmug account and I heard a bizarre story about a friend happening upon a conference in Las Vegas where a speaker from the Pacific Northwest was using it in a powerpoint slide.

So, yeah. You might think that’s my favorite. But it isn’t.

I’m rather fond of this photograph of an American flag hanging in a window of a closed up shop in Madison,Indiana. Being in the downtown, it signified the simultaneous American dream of small business ownership, and the American collective choice to destroy that dream by ignoring Main Street and buying in the outlying “shopping donut”.

But that’s not my favorite photo either.

I constantly go back to this shot of Bok Tower in Florida. The clouds were a beautiful contrast to the deep blue hue of the sky. The tower itself is an interesting story, rising so gloriously out of the Florida flatlands, looking misplaced amongst the sprawl and neatly trimmed lawns. The angle of the photograph makes it look ever more impressive, and the duo-tone treatment I gave the photograph provides a very distinct contrast that both obscures and highlights the treeline in the lower right. The tower is purposefully cropped off the top edge to give the impression that there’s more to it.

I take pride in all three of these images. They’re all fine photographs that (to me anyway) deserve to be listed in my top ten favorite images. But none of them carries the same weight, or the same meaning as the following image.

Technically, it’s not that interesting of a photograph. The ISO is pushed way too high and the framing is off on the original shot. I added some strong vignetting in the corners to focus attention to the middle of the shot. I had to punch the colors up and correct them a bit because the tungsten lighting rendered a bit too yellow-ish. It’s sharp, but it could be better.

But, it’s clearly, the most important image in my collection. The subject: my 3-minute old daughter who opened her eyes for the first time to see me and grab my hand. I can’t think of a more pleasing image than that in all the stock photo archives, art museums, and online galleries in the world….

As part of my effort to be productive this weekend. I decided to finally paint the dining room. We chose a very pleasing golden base coat when we built our house, so we haven’t felt a pressing need to slap more color on the walls. We’d talked about doing blue or purple in the dining room for a while. In the end, we went with purple- two shades, to be exact.

It went fairly well, though Laura really had to spend all her time keeping Olivia entertained. So, it was a one-man job. At first, I was really worried that the room was going to start needing some unicorns on the walls to complement the pastel-y purple colors. Was beginning to look a bit like a girls room. But after the paint dried, and we moved the furniture back in, it looks quite good.

One note: we have one entire blank wall that we’re reserving for a future upright piano purchase. That may be a year or two off, so we have to brainstorm temporary configurations. It definitely needs a wide painting or photo. I proposed tonight that I work up a black and white panoramic shot of downtown Bloomington. Thinking of something like this old shot I did last year, but with a more interesting sky.

Bloomington from 7th and Walnut Garage (stitched from multiple images)

Bloomington from 7th and Walnut Garage (stitched from multiple images)

Someone should be fired. Seriously. The Obama campaign has been gifted with all this media attention over the past week about his pick. It’s talked about everywhere. And for the first time in history, people are waiting on text messages to get the announcement. We’re hovering over our phones, waiting for that nectar of press release.

So, the natural thing to do?

Send the damn thing while most of America is sleeping! Of course: send it at 3:47AM (by my phone’s time) so people either miss it and feel left out of the glee of hearing the news, or wake up and get pissed they weren’t part of the shared experience. In my case it’s both. I woke up when it came in, and ignored the message. It’s not like my life depended on this or anything, but I’m just amazed at how stupid its timing was, given the opportunity. They don’t get to capitalize on the online posting rush. Instead, I’m sitting here typing how badly they screwed up.

I follow an NBC News Cameraman, Jim Long, on twitter. He’s been camped out at Biden’s house for three days now waiting for an announcement. It’s been amusing to see his updates about the boredom of speculatory journalism. Even he wrote this morning: “back at Biden’s. txt came in while i was asleep!”

A friend pointed out some current speculation that the Obama camp was thinking of holding off on the announcement until next week since they felt they already had a really good thing going with the McCain “Number of Houses” gaffe (which is totally, illegitimate, IMO, and should be dropped immediately). The concern was that they were going to get such good press and attention out of this VP announcement that they would be crowding too many good things together. I never, for a second, thought they would have actually moved the announcement, but it does highlight the attitude that this VP announcement is viewed as a huge opportunity for a bump in the polls. So, why waste the opportunity to send the text message at a rational time.

Ah, the silly things we didn’t have to worry about in the last election.

As promisted last Sunday, I’ve had a week with the new bike and wanted to share my thoughts. The Giant Twist Freedom Dx is an electric assist bike aimed at the urban commuter market. It’s not meant to win races or make me look like a lycra-wearing badass every time I ride down Kirkwood. It’s upright design is made for point-to-point road riding. The electric assist is made for fatties like me that can’t get our giant frames up Bloomington’s hills.

Giant Twist Dx in my cluttered garage

Giant Twist Dx in my cluttered garage

First, a little background on me. I’m 5’10”, weigh 240 lbs (down 12lbs in the last 6 months, thank you) with little day-to-day physical activity. I’ve wanted to get into biking for a while now, but every time I hit the slightest incline, I got discouraged and parked my bike in shame. Yeah, I’m lazy. I’ll admit it. But I’m principled, too. So, I did what every American does when confronted with an insurmountable problem: I bought my way out of it.

I had been looking at electric bikes for a while. The leading contender was the eGO Cycle 2, a pedal-less moped-like bike in a bicycle-like frame. But there are no Indiana distributors and they seem to impose restrictions on sending these across state lines. I didn’t want to get something that I couldn’t service more locally anyway. Enter the pedal assist bikes. There are a lot of them showing up, lately. The Giant Twist seemed to have the highest rated distance between charges and looked the sleekest. More importantly, they had one at Bicycle Garage Indy, to my absolute delight. I took a quick test spin in their parking lot, convinced my wife to let me buy it, and cajoled my mother into driving it back to Bloomington in her station wagon. (At this point, I have to commend the staff at BGI for not being elitist bike snobs. I was a bit nervous that a bike shop would scoff at the girly bikes, but they seemed impressed with it. That may have had a bit to do with the righteous sale they just made, but I’ll assume the best of them since they’ve been nothing short of awesome on all prior purchases)

The Ride

Riding the bike is….like riding any other bike. OK, so there’s a small motor on the front wheel that helps pull you along. But, for all intents and purposes, it just feels like riding any other traditional bicycle. The motor really shines most when you’re starting out from a hard stop and want to get going quickly. That makes it

The motor on the front wheel

The motor on the front wheel

easier to tolerate all the stop signs and obey the traffic rules. No longer is a stop sign a reminder that you have to get going again.

I would compare the pedal assist most closely to a stationary exercise bike. It makes going up inclines a little less strenuous, and helps even out your pedaling. To be clear, the bike never takes over on its own. There’s no throttle that you can open up and prop your legs up for a relaxing coast down the street. You have to pedal if you want to go. With the motor, you just have to pedal a little more gently.

Hills

It depends on the hill, of course, but the bike generally gives you enough oomph to get you up most of the hills in the Bryan Park and IU Campus areas. That doesn’t mean that it’s always a walk in the park. I’ve found myself down in first gear a few times (the bike has 7 gears) as I get near the top, eeking by at 8 or 9 mph. It’s not like the bike completely removes all effort from your ride at all. It’s just the right amount of help to stop me from having to stand up and grind on my pedals to get moving over the crest.

I actually kind of prefer it that way. I bought a pedal assist because I want to get some exercise. A co-worker once told me how he considers one of the environmental challenges to be health-related. That makes some amount of sense. If I’m going through the trouble of ditching my car and taking a longer route to work, I should get some reward out of it.

The Day Care Challenge

I knew going into this that it would be challenging to completely ditch my car. For one thing, my wife is not planning on taking up biking. So, it’s not like we can do family outings to Kirkwood on anything other than our walking feet. Getting to and from work was going to be easy, but picking up my daughter from day care required a bit of thought. I looked around at a lot of options, weighing the safety and logistical concerns of child carriers (both rear and front) and child trailers. I ultimately went with a trailer, partly because of the viewpoints represented here, and partly because bike mounted carriers just didn’t seem to mesh well with the Giant Twist’s frame. The iBert Safe Tseat, which everyone seems to really like, doesn’t look like it will work with the spacing on the front stem. I’m sure a more mechanically inclined person could make it work, but I didn’t want to chance it. Given the fairly short commute to her day care, and the lightly traveled roads, the trailer seems a good fit.

The bike handles just fine with a trailer on it. Again, it rides like any other bike, just with a little less pedaling effort. I haven’t noticed that the batteries run down any faster when I’m toting my daughter around. It doesn’t seem to affect the performance of the bike at all.

Battery Life

One of the two rear batteries with the pannier cover removed

One of the two rear batteries with the pannier cover removed

The first question most people ask me is: how long do the batteries last. The bike has two 5 lb lithium-ion batteries that hang off the rear bracket. Giant supplies custom panniers that lay over the batteries to help keep them dry. I don’t see any reason why you couldn’t ditch them for larger panniers, as long as they keep the batteries reasonably dry.

The batteries are charged by an external charger. Being lithium-ion it remains cool to the touch. There are all sorts of warnings about not charging for more than 24 hours. I’ve read that this is more of a problem on the charger than anything else, since most of them will go into a trickle mode that will retain some sort of memory of the upper limit of the battery. Giant claims 600 charge cycles. I’ve not yet let the batteries drain completely, but I would estimate that I would get 20 miles out of each battery. That’s enough to get me to work and back, to lunch, and an evening errand on a single battery. I generally alternate back and forth, charging the left battery one night, and the right battery the other night. That should be enough for 1200 days worth of riding. If I average 5 riding days a week (a high estimate if my assumptions about my desire to ride in the winter are correct), that should yield 4 1/2 years at the current charge levels. The batteries will degrade to some level, so it’s likely in the 3-4 year range.

The super-technical charging bench.

The super-technical charging bench.

The amount of power is controlled by two factors: the mode you have the bike in, and the amount of pedaling you do. Pedaling is straightforward. If you pedal fast, you go fast. There are three power modes: Eco, Normal and Sport. The Eco mode supplies the least amount of assist to the pedals and makes you do more work. The Normal mode is Normal (duh), and the Sport mode gives more power, but sucks down the battery more. I generally leave it in Normal mode. The difference between Eco and Normal are noticeable, but I don’t find the Sport mode has a ton of additional oomph. I should point out that the 75 mile range estimates are for relatively flat terrain in Eco mode, using both batteries. I’m getting 40 because I’m using the Normal mode, I’m hitting some hills, and I’m a heavier rider.

right handlebar battery selecter and gear shift

right handlebar battery selecter and gear shift

The handlebar has a display mounted on the left hand side that lets you select the mode. It also has 5 red LED lights to indicate how full the currently selected battery is. The right handlebar has a toggle switch to choose the left or right battery, or to turn the motor off.  It generally takes 2-3 hours to recharge a battery that has two “bars” left. I’ve not yet fully discharged a battery.

left handlebar mode select

left handlebar mode select

The batteries are loaded into a plastic holder on the rear by angling them in at a 45 degree angle, then pushing them toward the bike until they click. There’s a lock on the bike for each battery so no one steals them while you’re parked. Each battery has a small handle at the top that folds out to be carried. The batteries do have a sealed charger outlet, so water shouldn’t seep in. I’m not planning on driving the bike into a lake, regardless.

Cost

Cost is the achilles heal of the bike. I paid a shade over $2200 for the bike itself. The way I look at it is this: a new electric moped would cost just as much, if not more. Yeah, I can get a noisy old moped for under $1000 fairly easily, but one of my requirements was noiseless operation. There’s a jackass that rides up and down Henderson St. on the noisiest bike I’ve ever heard. It wakes my daughter up almost every time. (I’ve not heard from him recently, though. Perhaps someone popped his tires)

My Subaru Outback gets roughly 20mpg in Bloomington’s core. At $3.75/gallon, that equates to roughly $0.19/mile. I estimate that I normally drive about 12-15 miles/weekday at a cost of $2.25-$2.81/weekday. (Those numbers are actually severely low given that I tax myself on gas to keep it artificially at $6/gallon, but that’s a post for later) Using those numbers, if I were to ride every day to work, I would save roughly $585 in gas. That doesn’t factor in wear and tear to the vehicle. But, I probably won’t ride to work every single day that I can. It will rain, it will be wet, I will need to travel outside Bloomington. So, that number is high. If I assume that gas will go up (it will), the savings get better. At $6/gallon (what I artificially pay), the savings are $936/year using the 12 miles/day number.

At any rate, the bike should pay for itself within about 4 years, maybe sooner. Right around the time I’ll need to replace the batteries.

Comfort

I don’t have much to compare the bike to, but it’s comfortable enough for me. It has a pretty nice suspension on it, which my other bike doesn’t have. I get the sense this would be a fairly high end commuter bike even if it didn’t have the motor on it. Both wheels have wrap-around fenders to keep road grime off your back in the rain (which I haven’t had to ride in yet). The gears and chain are enclosed, so I shouldn’t get grease on my pants.

Rear rack with the pannier on

Rear rack with the pannier on

Cargo

As I mentioned, the bike is sold with special panniers on the rear rack that cover the batteries. They’re hard-shelled, so they provide a bit of additional protection. I’ll probably replace them at some point or move the bags off my other bike to give me a bit of additional room. The rear rack isn’t supposed to hold anything over 35 lbs, but that may be standard language. Rear child carriers don’t look like they’d work, but I haven’t figured out the marketing language from the reality. I’m thinking of getting a B.O.B trailer or something else to carry groceries. Right now, my backpack does fine for the small things I’ve been picking up.

The Social Factor

Don’t ride one of these bikes if you don’t want people to ask questions. I’ve struck up a lot of discussions with people at stop lights asking me how I like the bike, how it works, how much it costs, etc. I’ll probably just print out some cards with a link to this review since our encounters are brief. There seems to be a lot of interest in electric assist bikes lately. CNN just ran a story last week entitled “Electric Bikes Provide Greener Commutes“. This makes my wife think I’m a trendy bicycling hipster, which I’m all for. I showed it to a friend at work, let him have a test ride, and I heard later that it was the buzz of the local HAM radio scene that he’s wired into.

Eventually these will become more commonplace, and people will go “meh”, but I’m riding my 15 minutes of local fame. Maybe there’s an 8-year old out there who will see me and grow up to work in a factory where they make electric bike charger plugs. Or maybe a sorority girl will put down her vendi triple machiato espresso Red Bull and say “I wish I ran over that little shit when I had a chance, he makes me so upset at my 8mpg beast”. And maybe one of the local bicycle cults will amend their charter to allow electric bicyclists to attend their chapter’s monthly spandex party at Laughing Planet Cafe.

Drawbacks

You knew it was coming. This isn’t the Jesus bike. It has some foibles.

  • It’s only a 7-speed bike, for starters. I’m still not sure that’s really a drawback since it’s aimed at people like me that don’t want to deal with a gear in the front and in the back. Simple may be better.
  • The motor on the front wheel means that flat tires should be interesting. I’ve not yet tried to pop that front tire off, but it’s definitely not a quick release.
  • The batteries do require charging, which means some power suckage (generally at night, when the grid has excess capacity).
  • You have to stay on top of your charging schedule. This is countered by the fact that it does have pedals, so if you forget to charge the batteries, the bike still functions normally.
  • The external charger is exactly that: external. I can’t just plug this in at my office
  • The bike is heavy. It weighs about 50lbs. You won’t be hauling it up stairs. Be thankful for the Americans with Disabilities Act. If not for the millions of people who need to take advantage of wheelchair ramps, for the fact that it saves you from hauling your bike up a few stairs.
  • The fact that the batteries are external and hang off the back mean that you have a little less potential cargo capacity there.
  • I’m not sure the bike is very modifiable. I’d be interested in knowing whether an Xtracycle modification could be made to apply here
  • It’s a bit nerdy. In my case, I embrace that, so it’s a plus. But you may not

Conclusion

I’m not about to say that my new $2k bike is a heap of junk, but fortunately I don’t have to. It’s an outstanding way to get around town and has really helped reintroduce me to the joys of biking. I do wish that the batteries were smaller and werent taking up cargo space, but its an understandable tradeoff. Doing maintenance (flat tire repair) will be a bit more challenging since there are more moving parts. I’m hoping to dive a bit deeper into that shortly, but for now, if I get a flat, I’m calling my wife or a co-worker. I might be nice to have the option for a completely pedal-less throttle available for those days when you just don’t want to bike. But I’m guessing that on those days, it’s not going to be the strength of your legs that’s the difference, but your exposure to the elements and the time it takes to bike. Neither of which are solved by a pedal-less design. The advantages you gain in battery life and in forced exercise far outweigh the drawbacks to missing a non-assist mode.

I wouldn’t recommend this bike to anyone who really wants to get in shape quickly or be totally carbon neutral (after the initial environmental hit to manufacture the bike, that is). There are cheaper bikes for that. Cost is the only big drawback to this whole deal. I’d like to see these come into the sub $1000 range within the next year, and get down into the $500 range shortly after. These bikes are sold by the millions in Asia and are very popular in Europe. As we strain our oil supplies, as gas continues to surge, as we contract our communities, and build out rational infrastructure to support the commuter biker, these will no doubt play a large role in bringing an alternate transport mechanism to the masses.

We had a terrific day today in Indianapolis watching the final Indians weekend afternoon home game. Joe, Laura and I have been talking about going all year, but realized this was our final chance. Olivia has been there once, as a zygote, so we figured she’d enjoy it more now- what with her eyes and all.

Victory Field Panorama from Left Field Lawn

Victory Field Panorama from Left Field Lawn

We met Joe inside around 2PM. I really figured it would be more crowded, though we were able to secure lawn seats just as the Indians took the field. There’s always a really good atmosphere at marginally popular sporting events. I’ve found that the crowd falls into two categories: people who really enjoy the game for what it is, and people who are there for the event and to have a good time with their family and friends. In either case, there’s not a lot of superfan activity that completely destroys most pro-level and college sporting events for me. The jack-assery is held to a minimum. (Though, we did see two high school kids making out for what seemed like the entire 4th, 5th and 6th innings behind the video scoreboard)

Olivia and I share an ice-cream cone to beat the heat

There was a downside to the day: it was incredibly hot. Not temperature hot, but Hole-In-The-Ozone-Has-Moved-Above-Your-Head hot. It was as if Satan himself was holding a giant magnifying glass between left field and the sun and burning us to see if we’d scatter like ants. So, eventually, we wussed out and sought shade behind Right Field, across the sidewalk. You couldn’t see the game as well, but at least you weren’t losing layers of skin to the heat. It was actually quite pleasant.

By the 8th inning, the Indians had scored something like 10 points against their opponents and I realized that I had no idea who we were playing and that I wasn’t paying attention much to the game. Olivia was getting a bit cranky, so we decided to pack it in a bit early. Mom and daughter both fell asleep immediately in the car. Dad had to get us back to Bloomington…