Big media loves to celebrate big breakthroughs. The Internet. The electric car. The smartphone. These truly are big breakthroughs (though not without their side effects).
Big media also loves to celebrate future breakthroughs. Revolutionary new battery technology. Private spacecraft. Quantum computing. Nanotechnology. Some day, these amazing technologies will be commonplace. Worth writing about? Absolutely!
But what about all the little breakthroughs—innovations that are here and now, improving people’s everyday lives? Big media can only cover big topics. So that leaves covering little breakthroughs to blogs or forums or niche web sites, like this one.
I like little breakthroughs, so here are a few of my favorites, ones that I use every day:
The Electric Bike
For most of my career, I have commuted by bicycle, sometimes combined with mass transit. However, I recognize that many people consider bike commuting impractical. In addition to taking longer than driving, it can take a lot longer if you have to add a shower at one or both ends of the ride, which is necessary for longer or hillier rides.
Enter the electric bike. I bought an electric bike 4 years ago when recovering from a leg injury. I still use it, because I live at the top of a steep hill.
Many families own two or more cars. Commuting with a bike (electric or otherwise) can reduce that number to one. That obviously translates into large savings each year, while adding a little exercise and fresh air.
Electric bikes in some form or other have been around for a few decades but they were weighted down by very heavy batteries until a decade ago. Thanks to new battery technology, the battery on most new electric bikes weighs 10 pounds or less.
When you shop for an electric bike, there’s a few things to look for:
- Get one of the modern, lighter batteries: Lithium Manganese or Lithium Iron Phosphate. Lithium Polymer is even lighter but more prone to safety issues, so carefully research before considering Lithium Polymer.
- As with any bike, make sure it fits.
- If you want to get exercise while riding, be sure to test pedal-assist mode to see if it works well for you. In pedal-assist mode, the bike provides motor assistance only when you pedal.
- More can go wrong with an electric bike than a regular bike so service is important. Therefore, buy local. I live near Berkeley, CA so I purchased a Terra for $1000 from Pacific E-bike. I’ve been very happy with their service and post-purchase support.
The Best AA Batteries and Chargers
Consumer Reports frequently tests AA batteries but has not tested Eneloop or any other low discharge NiMH rechargeable batteries. I consider this to be one of Consumer Report’s worst recent failings, as they’ve had ample time to review this type of battery since it was introduced in November of 2005.
Regular NiMH rechargeable batteries are very annoying to use for most applications because charge rapidly depletes even when not being used. Eneloop and its low self-discharge NiMH competitors discharge very slowly when idle.
Why is this so great? It means you only need to replace batteries after heavy use, just like single-use Alkaline batteries. But unlike Alkaline, you don’t have to throw them out when done. They cost more upfront but you can recharge them over 1000 times, so cost is considerably less over the long run. Also, the impact on the environment is obviously smaller.
I could go into much more detail about Eneloops and the types of AA battery chargers that will help you get the most out of them. In fact, I already have:
Daypacks are Way Better than they used to be
Most daypacks I’ve used have been uncomfortable, disorganized, and not particularly durable. In early 2008 I decided that enough was enough. It was time to get a good laptop daypack.
I researched. I was amazed by daypack quality.
Not all models are great, of course. You’ll be hard pressed to find a great daypack for less than $50. And sometimes paying up means paying for style, not substance. But if you do spring for a $50 – $150 model and choose wisely, you can get terrific design quality, technology and durability. The quality level 20 years ago was not even remotely close to what’s been available in the last 10 years or so.
The model I purchased is only now beginning to show signs of wear, despite over 6 years of daily use:
Swissgear makes a few models so you’ll have to choose which one is the right size and shape to fit your needs. Synergy is one of the larger models and fits my 5′ 10″ height perfectly. It fits notebooks with 15.6″ diagonal displays and has ample room for books, notebooks, and clothes. Here’s why this model has been great for me:
- Very comfortable to wear on my back, thanks to shock absorbing shoulder straps and large pads on the back to allow air flow. The latest version doesn’t include chest clips but mine has them.
- Very well padded in every place that matters, especially laptop compartment.
- Stands up when empty or evenly loaded, thanks to a thick bottom pad that keeps the main compartment wide at the bottom. A waterproof base keeps the contents dry when it’s on a wet surface.
- Superbly designed compartments make it easy to stay organized. Includes outer mesh side pocket on each side for water bottles and a zippered pocket just inside of that (ideal for sunglasses). Includes 2 mesh “compartments within compartments” for cords. Includes 3 layers of outer compartments which go from medium, to small, to wallet sized. The small one has several organizer pockets and a clip for hanging keys or other items.
- My favorite compartment is the top compartment for easy access to phone and other common items. It includes an ear bud port which I never use.
I could go on but I’ll stop here with a few words of advice if you’re in the market for a daypack:
Get a high quality model.
Every brand, including Wegner Swissgear, makes a wide range of daypacks which include junk. Wegner’s best models are Ibex, Maxxum, Pegasus, Scansmart, Synergy, and Valve. The rest go downhill from there, from what I’ve been able to gather from reviews. Targus and Samsonite are two other brands that make some good models.
There are likely other good brands but I’ve been so happy with my Swissgear Synergy that I haven’t had any reason to look into them. Thanks to the durability of my model, it may be a few years before I need to buy another.
How about a Bike in a Daypack?
Two days after writing this post, I discovered that a team is attempting to make an electric bike so small that it fits into a backpack. They are currently raising funds for this portable bike on Kickstarter. So I just had to add in this section.
This bike, called the “Impossible,” is aptly named. The prototype is 17″ high when folded, and the hoped-for weight is 5 kg (11 pounds). A bike this size and weight would quite comfortably fit in my Swissgear Synergy.
To keep the weight down, chain and pedals are eliminated, and a custom motor is required. The battery specifications imply use of Lithium Ion cells.
Can this team achieve 5 kg? Can they use Lithium Ion cells safely? Will the custom motor work as intended? Time will tell, but if they do manage to pull this off, it might qualify as more than just a “little breakthrough.” Even if this team does not achieve their goals, perhaps their efforts will inspire more innovation in this area.
UPDATE: 6 weeks later, the “Impossible” Kickstarter was pulled. The “Impossible” is impossible at this point in time . . .
Mass Transit Cards
What could be more boring than talking about mass transit cards? Actually, the question you should really be asking is “What could be more annoying than frequently buying and inserting several different types of flimsy cards into machines?” Wouldn’t it be great if you could just have a single credit-card sized piece of plastic that takes care of all your transit needs without all the buying and inserting?
In the San Francisco Bay Area and some other U.S. metro areas, it’s close to reality. I use Clipper Card. It’s simple: wave the card over a scanner while entering a bus or walking through a BART turnstile.
Clipper Card pays for my occasional East Bay or San Francisco bus rides and my more frequent BART rides. It automatically assigns a 25 cent discount when I transfer from BART to a bus, which used to be such a hassle that I didn’t bother. It handles the new BART extension to the Oakland airport (the old shuttle bus didn’t accept Clipper and required exact cash or ticket fare). Most importantly, the card automatically refills with cash when low, charging your credit card.
The technology behind the four products I described above is mundane now but was not possible 30 years ago. Yet, I wish for more.
Take Clipper cards, for example. I wish it would also take care of the electronic bike lockers found outside many BART stations. I wish it handled my local bridge toll system, FasTrak. Even better would be to somehow put this all into an iPhone app so that I would need to carry nothing more than my iPhone.
Ah yes, the smartphone that can do it all. The Swiss Army knife of the digital age.
By the time a smartphone can take care of mass transit fares, perhaps it will also be able to transport me and all of my equipment via teleportation, powering itself and every other device I own with an internal cold fusion reactor . . . in which case this post will be utterly obsolete.
Yes. Smartphone advances are definitely worth writing about.
But, at least for the time being, there’s a few other little breakthroughs worth writing about too.