Sunday, February 28, 2010

Boblbee Backpacks

Two things I really appreciate in the "stuff" I own is the ability to be repaired if it breaks and the ability to be modified or customized. Though, I'm not necessarily a customization fiend, especially if the modification compromises function. One item I have had for years that seems to really embody that ethos is my Boblbee backpack. It's an early silver Megalopolis I bought in Japan more than a decade ago right when they came out. It's survived just about every environment imaginable and come through like a champ. Air travel literally took a chunk out of the shell the one and only time I checked it but other than that it's been great.

It keeps my delicate camera gear safe and actually makes me feel a bit more safe as well. A weird and disturbing thing pickpockets were, probably still are, doing was slashing open travelers backpacks while they were on their backs and then making off with whatever fell out. Good luck with a hardshell. It also sheds water pretty well until the top gets really soaked. A rain cover would solve that but I never bothered.

When they first came out the design wasn't patented and it was just the name that was protected by copyright. That led to at least one company making a near identical knock off still available today. The Ergo Tech copy of the Megalopolis was initially pretty close but quickly fell behind as it's production was cheapened and the Boblbee improved. None the less if you want something close with a substantially lower price tag you could google them up and find one. They show up on eBay sometimes. If you do decide to go that route the add ons and parts are interchangable on the early models but I don't know about later Ergo bags. The Boblbee was essentially designed right the first time and hasn't needed to change much. Though, if you are like me, you'd get the cheap copy and not be satisfied until you had a legitimate Boblbee.

My veteran bag is finally showing some wear on the harness and I've slated it for an overhaul. You can get parts from Boblbee or you can find them with a simple web search. Some companies offer custom painting options but any automotive paint shop can match a shell to your car, bike or scooter. While my silver bag does look a little too much like a Paris Metro trash bin, yeah that was weird, it also easily matches helmets and doesn't clash with the various vehicles I've had over the years. (Friendly FYI, that isn't my image but rather one from a Flickr user. I'd have named them but they use a symbol instead of their name.You can see their photostream here.)

One word of caution, it is not the most aerodynamic backpack you will ever own. Boblbee markets it for motorcycle use but the shape lends itself to a lot of drag at more than about 35 or 40 mph. It was a real surprize for me the first time I accelerated up to highway speeds on a ramp and had the bag yanking me backward. I've never experienced that with any other backpack and while you can account for it and "get used to it", I'm not sure it would ever be very safe. Luckily the bags easily strap down to seats and tanks where they aren't a problem at all. I do wonder if I had a different style of harness with a more convex shape at the top if it might solve the problem. Though the overall shape is a lot like the familiar airfoil shape we see on all sorts of wings, aka "lift surfaces".

All in all I still think it's a great backpack and the range of add-ons and options is without peer. Considering how long mine has lasted it seems well worth the somewhat high price tag.

Images via and Original URL's of images linked and may be seen through images properties.


It's probably hard to not be a bicycle enthusiast while living in San Francisco. I've ridden all kinds of bikes over the years but have been mainly a mountain bike guy. There is a single reason for that, I lack finesse on a bicycle. Hard charging, hanging on and playing rough, no problem. Not flattening my tires because I wasn't looking out for road hazards and minding curbs... not so much. I developed my break neck style mainly over one summer in the 90's when I just kept upgrading bikes until they stopped breaking. I still ride the survivor. A now somewhat vintage, rigid frame, Specialized StumpJumper M2. I did have a much newer Canondale and a fun 1952 Schwinn Spitfire but someone decided I no longer needed them. No worries, life happens right? Well, the time has come to put a little diversity back in my bicycle stable. Even though the "fixie craze" is going mainstream, that'll be interesting, in true bay area style I'm adding a fixie to the mix.

I do have my doubts as to fixies ever really going mainstream. The "masses" don't typically adopt things that take a lot of practice or discipline and from everything I've seen being a fixed gear rider takes both. Though, we might see a lot of bikes at rock bottom prices being sold off by people who thought it was a good idea. It may indeed be to "extreme" to go mainstream. Either way...

I'm using an old Giant with a lugged steel frame for the build up and going with a flip flop hub rather than just a fixed gear. No dilusions about powering around never needing to coast a little. I'll also hold off on the oh so extreme "no breaks" style that gives you a slick looking clean bike but not so much in the way of emergency stopping power. Just doing a basic bike on the cheap unless I get the bug to make it interesting and grab some fab parts from some of our local bike builders or maybe spec out some pieces to a machine shop. Mission Bicycle has given me good advice so far and they've got a lot of shiny things just waiting to be brought home and bolted on. For custom parts, even if we didn't have great machinists in San Francisco there's always eMachineShop or any number of other "online" machine shops. Just something cool about designing, uploading and then getting "your" parts in the mail. I'll post again as the parts arrive and I begin the build. Should be nicely timed with the tail end of my motorcycle project!

Image via 

Friday, February 26, 2010

A Cabin in the woods...

Since before I can remember I've thought it would be incredible to live in the "woods". The concept has taken on various forms at different times but the more communication technology progresses the better the idea seems. Unlike the most common version of that fantasy, one of my hedges against doing it has been not wanting to be a hermit.

I never wanted to be totally cut off from the world. I like people, cities and especially coffee shops. I'm getting pretty solid with my own coffee related creative urges but that's another post... In short, as long as I could maintain some form of web access, fairly reliable shipping and somehow make a living I'd be alright with lving in some version of the wild that is close enough to civilzation to get regular urban interaction and expect regular visitors.

As I've learned and developed more skills this lifestyle seems more and more possible. An obvious missing link in my skill set is knowing how to build a log cabin and what kid hasn't thought building, or at least living in, a cabin would be awesome at some point in their life?

The thought occured to me that thousands of settlers did it without decades of experience and training so it can't be all that hard. There weren't droves of cabin contractors on the American frontier and while safety and health concerns are worlds improved, so are the methods and finishing materials available. As it turns out there are a number of cabin building schools out there and they don't even cost a fortune.

Great Lakes School of Log Building has a ten day course priced at $1,150 and a stone masonry course at $750. That seems doable even if you are working a full time job. "Giving up" a vacation to learn one more way to make your entire life more like a vacation seems pretty worth it. That's also less than most would spend for a week in Vegas or some other poshy fun place. There are other costs involved but even at three times the course fee you'd still be doing well. On the other end of the spectrum is a twelve week course in Indiana for about $5000 William M. Lasko School of Log Building. Having a look over at almost anyone can likely find something in their budget and relatively accessible. They have links to other things as well, land, furniture and contractors if you'd rather hire it out.

To be fair, I did spend about eight years volunteering and then working for a living history program in Fort Wayne, Indiana. I logged thousands of hours in a "log cabin" style environment and, while I never built a cabin, there are likely skills and experiences related to this type of architecture that I take for granted or think of as more "normal" than they actually are. Never the less, for the motivated individual(s) it's doable!

Now all I need is a grant/scholarship to document this historic art!

...and I still think Lincoln Logs are awesome.

Image via

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Adventures in motorcycle mechanics

I'm a motorcycle guy, not a biker per se but I've had motorcycles and scooters since I was a teenager. I've worked on them on my own most of the time with welcome advice from friends and family in the know. It's admittedly become part of my identity over the years and I feel sort of awkward and out of sorts if there isn't a bike with my name on it near by.

Like my cars I prefer my bikes to be of the older sort. I do like newer bikes but the fun ones within my budget constraints are more often than not vintage bikes. Not too long ago I bought a great old Yamaha DT 250 enduro with my father in law. It was a great find, a for real Arizona "barn" bike that had been sitting around for ages. Everyone hopes those sorts of things will be stories that involve some fresh gas and a new battery and off you go. Not so much this time but far from as much of a project as it could be.

The main difference for me this time is that I have to call people or email for advice and I'm pretty much on my own fixing it. That's been a good thing and had provided some welcome "therapy" time. So far it's gotten a battery, oil seals, tires, seat cover, cafe bars and a new tail light. Some of that wasn't necessary but I like the look of cafe racers and flat track bikes and since it was nice but not minty concourse original I went ahead and made some changes. It was running great but when I tried to move it I noticed the clutch had gone a bit wonky.

After quite a bit of trouble shooting I figured out it just needed a new one. I got a new clutch assembly and the gasket for the cover but decided to try to limp it down to the DMV to confirm the VIN and get the plates on it. No, I have no idea why I would do something that addle brained. In any event, the old girl thought it would be wiser to just stay home and refused to start.

So, now I have a "real" project on my hands. I'm invested now and at that "Oh, yes. I will do this." stage. Determined my problem to be soggy points this time. Going after gasket material to be a real DIY sort of guy and just fab up my own gasket. It's just the gasket for the ignition cover so I'm hoping it won't be that big a deal. We'll find out!

Wrench in hand I'm wading in to new territory with the clutch and I've never needed to work on my ignition before other than adjusting timing or swapping out electric ignition parts. Either way I'm determined to be on the road soon. I'll try to snap a few images of my mechanical exploration as it proceeds.   

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Hacking Solar

Portable solar rigs like those from Voltaic and Reware are truly cool. As are smaller gadgets like the Solio and things with built in charging systems like the LightCap. They also tend to be expensive. With solar cells becoming increasingly ubiquitous and cheaper every day, it's easy enough to scrounge some up and build your own portable solar projects.

If you are using pre-made solar cells the tech is pretty simple. You can make your own cells but I wouldn't recommend it. So, find some cells laying around and dig in. It's just basic wiring and relatively safe DC power. There isn't all that much to it. You can buy photo-voltaic cells on the web and at places like Radio Shack or reclaim them from broken road signs, yard lights or every solar powered calculator in your neighborhood dollar store. Maybe ignore that last option... unless you really like to do delicate soldering.

I got some great polycrystaline cells from a Volkswagon dealership! They were shipped with the cars to prevent the batteries from going dead from factory to dealership. They are designed to plug into the OBD2 diagnostic port. In this case, two of those units live on and get used far more often than they were intended. Poly-crystalline cells have a lot shorter lifespan than the more expensive mono-crystalline cells but even if they conk out after 4-5 years of continuous use I'll be in good shape. I don't use them constantly anyway. Ultimately they are good for simple apps like portable solar but maybe not so great to cover the roof of your house. As far as I can tell these are meant to be throw away cells once they reach the dealership.

Cars should probably all have this tech built into their superstructure anyway. Even if consumers don't like the look it's not difficult to hide functional cells in plain site as trim and accent pieces. Either way, the consumer will like the added feature of a self tending battery that charges while the car is off. It also makes sense to be able to continue to put a small amount of power into a car battery even when the engine has broken down. It could be used to power hazard flashers, the radio or possibly a socket plug to charge a life saving cell phone... but back to the project at hand.

Once you have your photo-voltaic cell you'll need to make sure it has a couple of wires (leads) coming off so you can put it to use. If it doesn't you may have to gently solder some on. This is delicate because it's easy to damage cells with the heat from a soldering iron. So, be gentle and be quick. Some cells may have an intimidating looking dog ear plug or other complex contraption sticking out of them. Fear not, there are still just two wires inside that thing coming from the cell itself.

You may want to grab an ohmmeter, put your cell in full sun and see what kind of power it's putting out. If you feel it's too much to risk your MP3 player, cell phone or game gadget you could wire in a resistor that will limit the power going to the device. This is probably not necessary but that's a decision for you to make. You can buy resistors or pull them from old electronics. It will take quite a solar array to charge something even as small as a laptop, so in most cases this will just be overkill. The point I'm making is that solar is often so simple even someone with relatively no electronics skills or education can put together useful projects.

I got lucky with my ICP Solar Technologies cells because they already have a battery charge controller installed. I also have solid specs on the output (Voc: 23V, Isc: 296 mA, Pmax: 4.3W, Vmp : 18V, Imp : 240mA) but it's not all that important for my application. So, in this case I just lopped off the offending OBD2 plug and wired in a lighter socket from Radio Shack. This allows me to charge anything that you could charge with a standard car charger. I've charged my PDA, iPod, camera batteries and even manged to charge my vintage Sony Vaio (an early PCG C1X). The set up easily straps to a messenger bag, backpack or the top of a stroller, yet another item that should come equipped with a solar charging array.

If one of the major issues with going solar is that it won't scale to power the grid, then maybe we should look into abandoning the grid? It's a good time to go out and hack yourself a portable solar rig!

Note, the photo is of an identical unit produced by ICP for Nissan. Image via