Sunday, December 02, 2007

Bethel Spring Series - Technology

I've threatened to try and improve both the racer and promoter experience at the Bethel Spring Series. One of the things which really impressed me last year was Jonathan Adler's "live" updates during the torrential downpour on April 15th. Until recently such a thing would have been close to impossible, if only because there was only a very weak cell signal in the area. In 2007 we were pleasantly surprised when we arrived at the course and found ourselves with a strong cell signal. I figure someone finally sold out and let the carriers put a bazillion antennas on their property nearby.

For the racers, this means a few things. Probably the most important thing - your cell phones work! So if you need to call home to report that you just won, feel free. Or, if things didn't go so well for you, well, the phones will work then too. And for those who have broadband air cards (that's what we call them at work - I don't know what they're supposed to be called), you can browse the 'Net while you're waiting for your race, so if you're leaving home while one of the Classics is just getting started, you may be able to follow along on your laptop at the race course.

For the promoters, the air card means something completely different - a way to update the website with results while still at the race.

Okay, that isn't really that innovative. I mean the big boys like Cyclingnews or Velonews do it all the time. But for the promoters, especially the one that does the results, it's very significant because it allows the results guy to post results while at the race. This saves said guy from having to type things up after returning home.

Since said guy is moi, this is a significant development.

I alluded to this card idea already so it's sort of old hat. The air card idea had a catch though - such an air card is useless without a computer that can utilize it. I briefly contemplated setting up a rig so I could carry my desktop in the van - a mini office if you will. But such a thing is a bit difficult to set-up, especially in our space limited van. Plus desktops aren't designed to be moved around a lot so they're not quite as receptive to bouncing around in a van. Laptops get abusive testing - dropped from a desk, coffee poured onto its keyboard, screen jabbed by an errant pen. Their hard drives are more shock resistant, just like the rest of the chassis/components, and it won't mind a bit of moisture. Desktops were good for desks.

I rapidly concluded that I need to buy a laptop for this work (brilliant, right?). A few factors helped in coming to this decision. First, I've been eyeing newer laptops since I resurrected an old 700 MHz (yes, 0.7 GHz) laptop, building it with a reasonable hard drive, 500 MB of RAM, and XP. It works fine if you don't mind waiting for type to appear, the cursor to move, and can view things in something like 256k colors. 10 years ago this thing would have been worth a fortune. Now it's barely able to browse the web (I disable Java to help it along - it's that bad). So I knew that a new laptop was sort of necessary. I placed a "perceived" value on such a laptop - a figure that I felt a laptop should cost. My number ended up at the $1000 range.

Second, this is the pre-Christmas "blow out sale" time. With retailers anxious that people are more worried about their mortgages than their gift-shopping, they've been slashing prices and trying to draw shoppers in, even before Thanksgiving ended - to open from 9 PM to midnight on Thanksgiving evening, that's desperate. To think that I was considering going out there, well, I won't comment on that. I did wake up at 4 AM the next morning to drive to Warwick, RI (and no, I wasn't staying at home, so it wasn't that far) to buy a $450 or $500 laptop. At half my perceived value, this was worth a shot. I got there before the 5 AM opening time and found myself in a packed parking lot with at least a hundred people in line. So much for that idea. I resigned myself to spending in the $650-$700 range and bought what seems to be a nice HP with all sorts of cool features. The two important features: a big screen for registration and the ability to edit html using NVU. Other significant features include video editing CPU power (possibly for finishline camera use), built in wireless (so the air card can use the single PCMCIA slot), and two hard drive bays (so I can eventually run a mirrored disk setup).

Note: Although the laptop came with Vista, it may or may not stay. I may be converting the old laptop to a much more CPU friendly Linux operating system, possibly one that doesn't require a hard drive, freeing up the XP Pro license currently running on it for this new HP (and the harddrive for a second drive on the HP). Although eventually I'd like to run Linux for everything, the reality is that I'm used to XP and don't want to make things more difficult for me. The goal, after all, is to make things easier.

Third, I could do a post on the laptop.

Okay, I'm just kidding.

Seriously though, there's an element of "this is work" or "this is play" when I'm editing or working on Bethel stuff on either my personal or work computers. By isolating a single computer for Bethel (and I've decided to expand that to "Bike Stuff"), the laptop will be my go to machine whenever I need to do work on the site.

There are other advantages for using just the laptop for bike stuff. With my home computers (two which I actively use), my work computer (yes, I edited pages on that), and a sorry attempt at editing pages on the old laptop, I always ran the risk of not updating the correct version of the page. By using a dedicated computer for Bethel, I didn't have to worry about version control for the web pages.

In the past I've updated a page, uploaded it, and then realized I uploaded a modified old page - so the uploaded page was a mix of regressive and progressive information. Not only that but the only version of the original page was sitting on a computer 50 miles away, so I had to recreate the page (or wait till I got to the other computer - home or office) until I fixed things.

When I updated a page incorrectly while in California... well, let me just say that I was extremely unhappy. With the laptop being the sole source of page editing, I know that when I update a page, it really is updated. Since I usually travel to do a spring training camp or two, having a decent laptop will enable me to get things done while recovering from my latest ride.

Part of the laptop's duty will be blog posting too, so this is the first post from the new laptop. Cool, eh?

I've been thinking of more things for Bethel as well. In fact, in a sleepless (most-of-the) night, I ended up scrawling ideas and plans across eleven (!) pages of paper. Even for Mister List-Maker, that's a lot of stuff. Realistically one or two pages will become reality, but if they do, it's a page or two of things which will make the Bethel Spring Series experience a better one for everyone there, both us as the promoters and you as the racers.

And ultimately, that's my goal.

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