Avatar, Christmas


I saw Avatar Saturday and I give it an enthusiastic thumbs up. I was expecting just a good eye-candy movie, but it's better than that.

The story is solid but familiar, with a few twists. From what I'd heard about the plot, I was wary it would be a message movie, gladly I only rolled my eyes a few times.

The buzz about Avatar has been the formidable technology used to create it. (Popular Science has a good article on it. My favorite was the LCD tablet Cameron used to see the rendered motion captures set in the computer generated scenery as he roamed the stage to preview the performance and establish the camera shots.) My expectations were high and the movie exceeded them. Every scene looks gorgeous - filled with both lush outdoor environs and detailed sci-fi tech. The art in this movie is astounding in detail, scope and quality.

I saw the movie in RealD 3D and enjoyed the experience. With so many big scenes, the 3D depth added to the film. Sometimes objects looked a little blurry, but usually everything was crisp. RealD uses circular polarization so you can tilt your head and the 3D still looks great. The glasses resemble wayfarers and were comfortable for the whole 3 hours.

The world Cameron creates feels real, or perhaps super real. As I exited the theater into a dreary Winter day, I wanted to go back to Pandora (the planet location for the movie). I want to see it again.


We had a good Christmas. The kids seemed happy with their presents.

We got a new TV. A 42" LCD. I've been watching these big TVs for years and finally this year the price dropped to where I couldn't resist. So far I'm pleased with it. And I'm already becoming a hi-def snob - the sharpness and detail is amazing.

For me the big gift is the new bike. Last post I mentioned the frame. It arrived and I was amazed how light it is. I bought a Medium 2008 HiFi from Kieth and I'll be moving the parts over to the Large frame the next week or so. Can't wait to ride it. Road trip down south anyone?


I've been pondering my next bike move for a while. I like my Prophet - plush suspension, high BB clearance, feels good to ride. But this year I tried a 29er (Gary Fisher X-Caliber) and was quickly sold on the big wheels. Going back to hard tail has been fun, but it doesn't suit me for long rides and rough stuff. So I've been looking at full suspension 29ers.

Today I pulled the trigger on this Gary Fisher 2009 HiFi Pro frame.

It has a custom paint job.

I could pull the components off the X-Cal, but I want to keep it running and some of it's components wouldn't be a good match for the HiFi (specifically the old fork). Instead I'm planning to either buy a bike for the parts or start scrounging for cheap components over the Winter.

Hopefully having a bike project will keep me sane during the Winter.

How To Know You're In Utah Valley

Let's say you're driving through Utah on I-15. Your friend is driving and you fell asleep a ways back but just woke up. How would you know if you were in Utah Valley?

If it's day-time you might recognize the majestic profile of Mount Timpanogos.

But let's say it's dark. And there are no highway signs. But there are plenty of billboards.

Sighting this billboard just south of the Point of the Mountain (Utah / Salt Lake County line) I would instantly know I was home.

A few more miles south I'd be reassured of my location from yet another Maakoa billboard. (Looks like Maakoa is trying to steal Omniture's green thunder.)

If you happen to be heading north and getting close to Salt Lake County, Maakoa's got you covered there too.

And while Maakoa has the most billboards, there are other players too. Here's one for FuzeUtah (it says "Make MLM $$$ .... Keep Your Friends" - nice).

There's also a Go-yin billboard (sorry, no photo).

Yes, the place I call home and have lived most of my life, is the nutritional supplement MLM (Multi-Level Marketing - think Amway) capitol of the world. We've got NuSkin (the grand-daddy), NEWAYS, Tahitian Noni, Xango, and the above mentioned Go-Yin and Maakoa.

I'm not a fan of these products, but I guess some people are happy with them. Growing up I knew a few too many natural medicine / herb people that were total nut-jobs so this turned me off to the whole idea. Perhaps I've thrown the baby out with the bath water (what a bizarre idiom), but we're all shaped by our experiences.

I worked at Nature's Sunshine in high school. I ran a machine that cleaned off the capsules after they'd been filled with bee pollen, ginseng, licorice root, etc. One day I was cleaning capsules filled with cayenne pepper when the dust collected in the sweat line at the cuff of my vinyl gloves. I didn't notice until it started to sting - like acid. I had a burn around each wrist for days. That was fun.

My neighbor told me he tried some Noni juice and it gave him a bad case of the runs.

And I'm definitely not comfortable with the MLM sales method. But then I'm not comfortable selling anything, so I don't need to go into "dream circles", "diamond level", etc. The few times I've done charity fund-raisers it was difficult. Frankly, I don't like selling stuff at all. People have attempted to recruit me a few times, but my reticence to sell was usually the biggest decider in the "no" column (there were other factors too).

I mean no disrespect to the people who work for these companies or sell these products. I know several people who do. It's just not for me. And it's undeniable that there are a lot of nutritional supplement MLM companies in Utah Valley. That's all I'm saying.

White Elephant Bullseye

I went like a lamb to the slaughter.

Saturday Mark and Rachel hosted a Christmas party. I thoroughly enjoyed the party, food (Rachel is an accomplished practitioner of the culinary arts - the title of her blog, Kitchen Addiction, makes this perfectly clear), people, conversation and the white elephant gift exchange, even though I suspect it was all a setup to make sure I received this:

(A LoToJa water bottle, hanger [which I made fun of here], and window sticker.)

If you're new to this blog you may be unaware of my lampooning of LoToJa (a 200 mile road race/ride from Logan, Utah to Jackson Hole, Wyoming). Here's my LoToJa anthology: No Transfers For You, LoToJa Owns The Road, Transfer Clamp-Down, LoToJa Hangups. Because I dared criticize the hallowed LoToJa, I've been branded the anti-LoToJa-ite (or other such appellations). So there's the history, now back to the party.

Before the gift exchange Mark announced they do it a bit differently - when it's your turn you give a gift, an unopened one or steal an opened one from another guest, to the person of your choosing. Another guest had picked Mark's LoToJa goodie box and given it to Aaron, but when it was Mark's turn he re-gifted it to me.

It was a funny moment since many of the guests know of my thing with LoToJa. And I'm sure when Mark wrapped up those LoToJa items he knew exactly who he wanted to receive them. But how deep does this go? I suspect Mark setup (made up?) the re-gifting rules to enable his intended goal. And did he give himself a high number to assure I got the goods? Was the dinner just a rouse to legitimize the white elephant gifts? Were all the other invitees in on this? I know I was had, but how had was I? What, me paranoid?

Credit must be given and I say to Mark, well played my friend.

I did get a little payback as I targeted Mark with my gift of a 1980s home entertainment package consisting of a VHS player (broken, of course), Jiffy Pop, and an ugly basket loaded with a fine selection of VHS movies (some from our own dwindling collection, others from DI). One locally produced movie, The Buttercream Gang (really, it was at IMDB?), featured a girl Mark dated - how's that for Karma, fate or something?

dug got hit with some collateral damage of the unusual rules.

My wife scored this sweet bike pad. Check out that cavernous "cutout" and the beyond-generous amount of padding. I think we can call this a grandma pad.

Back to the LoToJa goodies - what to do with them? I won't ever be able to put the bottle on my bikes, I'll probably give it to one of the kids. The hanger, uh, I guess I'll use it - stuffed in a closet is fine with me. But the sticker is a puzzler. I certainly will not put it on my car unaltered. I could simply stick it upside-down. Perhaps I could modify it somehow. I'm open to ideas.

Adjust LED Flashlight Spot Size

Prompted by a question from Mark, I found an easy way to adjust the spot size of the TR-810 LED flashlight I use for night rides on my bike. (Learn more about the TR-810 here)

Mark is looking to buy a new light and is considering the TR-801 but would like a larger spot size so he asked me if it could be modified. I tinkered with the larger flashlights (the ones I bought before the TR-801) and only had limited success enlarging the spot diameter. I found a comment on DealExtreme reporting that unscrewing the reflector ring changed the spot size. It works very well, as you can see in the following photos.

The only trick is to be sure to unscrew the reflector ring and not the LED base. In this photo I've dissembled the front so you can see all the parts. Note that the LED base threads into both the Body and the Reflector ring. I found it easiest to take the flashlight apart like this then thread the LED base into the Body and tighten it snug. Then I screwed the Reflector ring on lightly.

This is what the flashlight looks like with the Reflector ring unscrewed 1/2 turn. Note the gap between the Reflector ring and the LED base. The gap is small enough that the Reflector ring is still contacting the o-ring on the LED base and I feel confident it is creating a water-tight seal.

The TR-801 has an even beam spot that is large enough to cover a trail from edge-to-edge. But I have noticed it is a bit tight. Now with this easy adjustment I can easily make the spot a little larger. The TR-801 just became an even better bike light.

At $14.56 this light is a bargain, and cheaper than last year when they were $17.52. In fact, the whole setup has dropped almost $10 and is now only $55.56.

Read what Watcher had to say about the lights.

SlowStick R/C Airplane - Parts

Last week I mentioned that I crashed the remote control (R/C) airplane I built (from a kit) and DB wanted to know what parts I bought, so here goes.

All the parts except the SlowStick airplane kit came from Hobby King (a discount R/C shop in Hong Kong). I bought the SlowStick from a local hobby store because I wanted to start building right away. You only need the slope glider kit (no motor or propeller) since you can buy a better, more powerful, brushless motor for cheap. The best price I found online for the SlowStick kit is $22 at ALL e RC.

This is what I would consider the absolute minimal parts list:

$29.991$29.99Radio set, 4 Channel (Mode 1 or Mode 2)
$5.991$5.99Brushless Motor
$8.991$8.99Electronic Speed Controller (ESC, 25-30Amps)
$7.182$3.59Micro Servo (HXT900)
$8.291$8.29Battery Pack, Lithium Polymer, 1000mAh
$4.491$4.49Battery Charger
$1.20Propeller, 11x4.7
$66.13 TOTAL

Here is a parts list with a few inexpensive extras that are well worth the money:

$32.951$32.95Radio set, 6 Channel (Mode 1 or Mode 2)
$2.891$2.89USB Programming Cable (for 6 channel radio only)
$5.991$5.99Brushless Motor
$8.991$8.99Electronic Speed Controller (ESC, 25-30Amps)
$7.182$3.59Micro Servo (HXT900)
$16.582$8.29Battery Pack, Lithium Polymer, 1000mAh
$4.491$4.49Battery Charger
$9.991$9.99AC Power Supply, 12 VDC @ 5Amps
$4.804$1.20Propeller, 11x4.7
$1.991$1.99Prop Saver
$2.201$2.20Pushrod Snap Connectors, (5 pack)
$98.05 TOTAL

Notes about the parts:

Radio set - Includes the transmitter (the controller you hold) and the receiver (mounted on the plane to receive signals from the transmitter and control the servos and ESC). 2.4 GHz radios use spread spectrum technology to avoid interference. It is powered by 8 AA batteries (you can buy NiMH AA batteries for cheap at Hobby King). A Mode 1 transmitter has the throttle (no spring return) on the right stick, Mode 2 on the left (more info). Only 3 channels are needed for the SlowStick so the 4 channel radio is good. I got the 6 channel radio because it was only $3 more (actually $6 because I had to buy the USB programming cable), but I have no idea what I'll use the other 2 channels for. The 4 channel radio has reversing switches on the front panel so if a servo is moving the wrong way it's easy to change without having to connect to a PC, run software and reprogram the transmitter like the 6 channel radio.

Brushless motor - Ordinary DC motors have brushes (contacts) that wear out eventually, but brushless doesn't so they last longer. But the main reason you want this motor is for the greater power over the stock motors. The holes in the included plastic mount didn't line up with those of the motor so I had to drill a hole or two - not a difficult modification, but weird that it didn't match up.

Electronic Speed Controller (ESC) - Translates throttle signals from the receiver to control the amount of electricity to the motor. Includes a safety feature that prevents the motor from running when you power up the plane (that could otherwise be a nasty surprise). It will also shut down the motor when the battery gets low so you still have power for the controls to (hopefully) glide the plane down and land it.

Micro Servo - Translates signals from the receiver into a rotational position for moving the control surfaces (rudder and elevator). There are various sizes of servos, the micro size mounts on the SlowStick OK. Servos are pretty durable, but you may want to pick up a spare just in case.

Battery Pack - Lithium Ion batteries are light and hold a big charge. The 1000 mAh battery is a good value and will last around 20 minutes in the SlowStick. Buy 2 so you can swap in a fresh battery and put the dead one on the charger. And/or buy batteries with more capacity (mAh) for longer flights (if the battery pack is not a 2S or 3S you will need to select a different charger).

Battery Charger - You need a charger specifically for Lithium batteries and the number of cells in the battery pack (this one works with 2S and 3S packs). It clips to a car battery so you can charge in the field. Get the AC Power Supply if you also want to charge at home.

Propeller - The 11x4.7 was recommended to me and seems to work well, but since I haven't really flown the plane I can't be certain. Propellers take a lot of abuse and often break so get some spares - they're cheap.

Prop Saver - Mounts to the motor shaft and attaches to the propeller with some strong rubber o-rings. This adds some "give" to the system and will often prevent breaking a prop. For $2 it seems like cheap insurance.

Pushrod Snap Connectors - Instead of making a Z bend in the pushrods for the rubber and elevator you attach these connectors to the servo horn (arm). A screw holds the pushrod. Makes mounting and adjusting the pushrods much easier. Worth the money. I had to drill out a hole in the servo horn to make them fit.

A few notes about ordering: Hobby King has member discounts on some parts so create an account first before you start adding parts to your shopping cart. The cheap shipping will take about 2 weeks. I selected the faster shipping and it took 5 days.

The kit comes with an instruction booklet, but it's pretty bad (not very descriptive, bad english, typos, etc.). This guide helped. The kit is a bit different now - for one it comes with a clear plastic stiffener that goes between the two halves of the wing.

The guide suggests a number of changes, and most of them are good, but I only used a few. I will agree that the included tape strips didn't stick well and I covered them over with good quality clear packing tape. (The guide suggests using Scotch brand #8959 Extreme Application Packing Tape, but it's not clear so it makes the plane look ugly. I think packing tape works well enough, but if you want to trade some looks for durability then go with the Extreme tape.)

I didn't fasten any of the parts that slide onto the fuselage boom and that was a mistake. When the plane crashed they all slide forward and unbalanced the plane. The instructions say to use glue, but I'd rather use screws or tape so I can make adjustments, if needed.

That's all the major build tips I can recall.

Now I need to repair the crash damage so I can try again.

But before I attempt to fly again I'm going to do some simulated flight to get more familiar with the controls. I just bought from eBay a DYNAM controller that looks just like a R/C transmitter and plugs into a computer (USB). It comes with the open source flight simulator FMS. You can also use FMS with a keyboard, joystick or other controllers (even the 6 channel transmitter with the USB cable can be adapted to work, but it's a bit messy and uses the batteries). As a bonus, I think the kids will have fun using the simulator too.