On Biking in New York

June 30th, 2009 § 1 comment § permalink

When I was about seven years old, I took the National Cycling Proficiency Course. It was a six-week program which taught you how to ride your bike safely on the road, offered through my primary school. On the third or fourth week, once we had demonstrated that we could stop, start, and turn left and right around cones arranged in the playground, the instructors led us out in groups of two or three onto the road to let us practice hand signals and turning on a real street. Our route took us in a short loop around the school, which involved turning right across oncoming traffic (remember, this was the UK) from the moderately-busy street that ran through the village. Of course, this involves stopping toward the center of the road and waiting for a gap in traffic big enough to make the turn safely. When it came to be my turn, I dutifully stopped to make the appointed right turn, right hand stuck out to indicate my action. As I was waiting there, a fire engine with lights and sirens blazing crested the hill just in front of me, and came tearing by at full tilt, inches from my outstretched hand. Somehow I managed to pull myself together enough to make the turn before I wilted into a quivering mass on the curb.

At the conclusion of the course, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents award me a handsome enamel pin and an official-looking certificate which would entitle me, should I choose, to ride my bicycle to school and back.

Similar experiences are to be had daily, I’ve found, on the streets of Manhattan. Except nobody gives you a pin for your troubles. With much gratitude to Pat, I’ve recently acquired a used but quite-functional mountain bike, and I’ve been commuting to work on it for about a month now. Though I’m far from a seasoned veteran at New York bike commuting, here are a few thoughts for anyone who’s thinking about giving it a shot:

1) Wear a bloody helmet, and install some flashy lights for the evenings.

Even if you’re only riding on bike paths or bike lanes. In my relatively short time riding around the city I’ve had some close calls and seen even closer ones. Sure, you get helmet hair, but it’s better than the alternative. Also, nobody can see you in the dark unless you have lights. Install some; I found some on eBay for $7. This should be intuitive.

2) Assume all other road users are on a mission to knock you off your bike, and act accordingly.

This includes police cars, buses, little old ladies crossing the street, parents pushing strollers, and other bicyclists. For some reason, nobody thinks to look for a bicycle at a crosswalk, when changing lanes, making a turn, et cetera. Assume you can’t be seen, or if you have, assume the driver/pedestrian/hipster-in-crosswalk doesn’t care. Look behind you, on both sides, before changing lanes. Ring your bell, shout, scream, and make a fuss if someone’s about to pull out or walk in front of you. Pull over if you have to. Be ready to stop quickly at all times. And for god’s sake don’t listen to your iPod on your bike.

3) Obey traffic laws

This dovetails nicely into #2. It makes you a much harder target to hit, and should you be obeying traffic laws, feel free to occupy the moral high ground when other road users attempt to kill you. Or yell, swear and/or flash dirty looks at other said road user. Your choice. Oh, and don’t wuss out and ride on the sidewalk. It’s illegal, and signifantly more dangerous given the amount of pedestrians milling about (who, don’t forget, are out to kill you).

4) Don’t get doored

I refer you again to #2. The danger from drivers does not end when the driver has taken the keys from the ignition. In fact, the oblivious driver is still unlikely to check for oncoming bicycles when he opens his car door into the bike lane. Give parked cars at least four feet lest you find out what it’s like to wear a car door internally. Be particularly wary of stopped taxis, as their passengers don’t even have to pay for the door if you break it, and don’t even have a mirror to look into before stepping out.

5) Bring a change of clothes to work

Or at least a clean shirt. Your colleagues will thank you.

6) Rock the 1980s pant-leg-rolled up look

It keeps your pant leg out of your bike chain. This will not only keep your trousers clean, it will prevent the dangerous scenario of pulling your chain off the chainwheel mid-ride because your errant pant leg got snarled up in it. You could also find a pant clip if you’re that sort of person. Or wear shorts. But if you wear bike shorts to work, please don’t come to my office. I don’t need to see that.

7) Buy a decent lock

I suggest a beefy chain and/or a beefy U-Lock. The Kryptonite brand seems to the the gold standard. An $80 lock is much cheaper than a new bike. If you have quick-release components, lock them up or take them with you. There are pages and pages on locking technique. For an good, yet irreverent video on the topic, I suggest this one by Streetsblog.

8) Enjoy yourself

I’ve found that commuting by bike makes the 30 minutes between home and work something other than dead time where I zone out and sip coffee on the train. I like that sometimes, but I always feel much more ready to actually do work when I arrive by bike. If you’re finding yourself exhausted and sweaty when you arrive, slow down. Take in the view. What’s the rush?

Photo on SFist

April 7th, 2009 § 0 comments § permalink

Hey, cool, a picture I took this weekend was featured on sfist.com:

ShmooCon 2009

February 12th, 2009 § 8 comments § permalink

Last weekend I attended ShmooCon 2009 in Washington, DC with my colleagues Brian and Mike. For my years in, around, and studying the computer underground, I’d rather embarrassingly never actually attended a hacker conference before. This, then, was an excellent opportunity to go to a local one with a reputation for openness and friendliness–and on someone else’s dime to boot. Some highlights:

  • Matt Blaze’s keynote around arcitecture, secrecy, and telecommunications was excellent. Mr. Blaze didn’t provide deep technical analysis, but rather told a series of loosely-connected anecdotes under the theme “system design matters more than most people think”. To give an example: CALEA is a policy that layers a set of specific technical requirements on top of a system architecture that has grown organically and provided natural security controls. Prior to CALEA, law-enforcement had to request a phone tap, which was placed close to the subscriber’s line using a loop extender, and then that loop was manually recorded at the requesting police station. CALEA mandated a convenient, instant, standard interface for tapping telephones, which sounds lovely, but is expensive, and gives an easily exploitable view into phone switches. When that hole was exploited, hackers got to say “I told you so”.
  • ShmooCon gives attendees the ability to dispense what it likes to term “instant feedback”. Sure, you can go to the conference website and fill out a feedback form, but that’s boring. If, during a talk, you feel that the speaker isn’t being entirely truthful, you can hurl a conference-sanctioned ShmooBall at the hapless presenter. The organizers do provide speakers with perspex shields, however. Some attendees build pneumatic, fully-automatic launchers to ShmooBall their friends into oblivion, which really takes heckling to a whole new level in my view.
  • Meeting some heavy hitters in the InfoSec field. RenderMan even commented on my hat.
  • Brian, myself, an anonymous friend, and Mikes arm and leg

    An anonymous friend, Brian, myself, and Mike's arm and leg

    Getting the latest beta version of BackTrack 4, then using it to great effect to score second place in the “Hack or Halo” challenge on Saturday evening. Brian, Mike and I formed Team NYU and popped some boxes, somehow managing to score 14/17 points in under two hours. When Brian and I sat down, we decided that since we were unlikely to place very high in the contest, we should kick back, hang out, grab a beer, and see how many puzzles we could solve. Twenty minutes in, we glanced at the scoreboard, saw we were tied for second, and hit the afterburners. Mike joined us, scoring key points cracking a WEP key, and, most famously, calculating the Fibonacci sequence on his phone, and summing the sequence on his calculator for an epic win in the binary analysis category.

  • Attending Jay “MF” Beale’s talk and witnessing the long-awaited release of Middler, then meeting Jay the following day.

Many thanks to the Shmoo Group for hosting a fantastic conference. All things being equal, I’ll be returning next year.

EDIT: Thanks also to foobar42 for graciously allowing me to use a couple of his photos; I was too busy hacking to take any.


August 3rd, 2008 § 1 comment § permalink

My good friend Patrick recently signed up for Zipcar, and this week he invited me along for his first test drive. I’ve considered joining myself, especially under pressure from Chris, who’s been a member for some time, and I knew that Zipcar offers BMWs, so we decided to take one for a spin to see how it performed.


Patrick picked up the car, which bore the unfortunate name Burl (Zipcar refers to its cars by name), but which was a nearly new 328. We drove

along the West Side Highway, over the GWB, and up the Palisades Parkway, stopping at an overlook before turning west and driving through Bear Mountain State Park.

The lookout by the Hudson River had some pretty spectacular views. I’ve lived in New York for nearly four years now and I rarely leave the city limits, so this was fairly new to me. The Palisades are two-hundred to five-hundred foot cliffs that rise vertically from the western bank of the Hudson to a plateau at the top. From the lookout, you can see south back toward Manhattan and the Bronx, and northward into Rockland County.

There was a couple seated in lawn chairs next to some graffiti sprayed on the short wall designed to stop visitors from wandering aimlessly over the cliff edge. The text read “Norma + Paul”, and had two dates scrawled next to the names, about a year apart. I wondered if the couple sitting there were, in fact, Norma and Paul. I think they might be, but you be the judge:

After a trip through the park, we headed west to the Delaware River, near the intersection of New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania at Port Jervis. We tried to find something to eat but came up a bit short. We walked into Arlene ‘n’ Tom’s Restaurant, which purported to be the home of the Meanyburger. Unfortunately, they close at 9, and we walked in at two minutes past. The only open establishment we could find was a Port Jervis Pizza, where we grabbed a slice and hit the road again. I did spot a shop which sold puppies, and judging by the age of the signage, has been selling puppies for some time.

From Port Jervis, we headed south along the river, along River Road which is a good windy stretch of highway perfectly suitable for testing the handling of the BMW. We were impressed with the sport shifting and the performance of the car close to the redline. By this time it was pitch-dark outside, and we were driving through woodlands which probably were home to a fair number of animals which might wander into the road. Neither of us felt like explaing to zipcar why a deer ended up through the windscreen, so we kept the speed to a reasonable level for most of the drive through the woods. We ended up on Route 15, heading south, and ended up skirting around the edge of Jefferson, Alex’s hometown, finally getting on I-80 back into the city.

I’m generally impressed with the zipcar rental concept, and the cars they have available. I’m not yet convinced that I need to sign up myself–I can think of few occasions where I particularly need a car–but you never know.

Hacking the iPhone Proves Useful Again

March 27th, 2008 § 0 comments § permalink

When I traveled to Australia over Christmas with my mum, though we understood that cellphone calls overseas would start to rack up an impressive bill, we neglected to realize that SMS messages would incur a similarly hefty charge, being billed at something like $0.75 per message, including both incoming and outgoing messages. By the time we returned to the states, we’d sent and received enough text messages to generate a whopping bill from T-Mobile. So when Alex and I went to London last week, I figured out a solution: use my unlocked iPhone in the UK by purchasing a domestic pay-as-you-go SIM card, pop it in, and I’d be good to go. Instead of hundreds of dollars in call and SMS charges applied to my T-Mobile bill upon my return, I paid £10 for the SIM card and £10 for call credit, and that was more than enough to last a nine-day trip full of SMS messaging and calls.

Interestingly, I didn’t have to register with O2 in any way at all, I simply plunked down a £20 note and got, in return, a UK telephone number; the transaction took roughly two minutes. Thanks to the excellent ZiPhone software, all I needed to do was exchange my T-Mobile SIM card for the O2 one, and I was away. There was an über-nerdy moment where I exchanged SIM cards on the street, using one of Alex’s earrings to pop out the SIM door on my iPhone.

It’s fairly easy to see why US carriers are scared of SIM-unlocking; their International business, in particular, stands to suffer when consumers are free to choose their own carrier on-the-fly when traveling. It appears not to make a great deal of sense from a customer-retention standpoint, either. Since most US cellular customers pay on a monthly contractual basis, not allowing them to use their GSM phone with another carrier if they wish seems foolish, since they are already obligated to continue paying their bill until the end of their contract. In the US, this is only really applicable to T-Mobile and AT&T, the only two networks that operate a GSM-compatible network. Still, I think it would be healthy for competition if both networks and their hardware vendors allowed open access to phone handsets.