Fenix HM61R Headlamp review

I’ve been rock climbing, backpacking and back country skiing since 1976. I’ve seen a lot of headlamps come and go over the decades. My latest was a $100 Black Diamond Icon with 500 lumens. It is still working, but like many of these new chip embedded plastic lights, it has so many functions that it will refuse to turn on occasionally, and my only recourse is a reboot by removing the battery. It’s also heavy with 4 double AA cells. This new Fenix HM61R weighs much less at 5 ounces, has over twice the lumens and is built much better. The engineering on this light is remarkable. Even down to how the threads are milled. Top notch manufacturing.
Pluses:
(1.) It has a lockout safety feature…you just unscrew the cap three quarters of a turn;
(2.) It has 7 different lighting modes including the red;
(3.) It has a magnet for attaching to a car hood;
(4.) The battery lasts forever in low light mode;
(5.) It will also run on disposable CR123 cells;
(6.) Press the button and it tells you the charge level;
(7.) It rotates smoothly and securely to a much wider range of angles than any BD or Petzl headlamp.
(8.) Crazy stupid bright on the highest setting. Who needs that much light?
(9.) Only weighs 5 ounces…lighter without the top head strap
(10.) Lens seems hardened…likely to resist scratching
(11.) Really pretty to look at…beautiful machining
(12.) Has a cool magnetic charger. Like a Macbook magsafe plug. So much better than a mini usb!
Cons:
(A.) The rubber strap that keeps it snapped in seems weak. As a rock climber descending a cliff at night, my life may depend on the headlamp. Easily solved with a zip tie, see photos.
(B.) It’s a tiny bit uncomfortable on the forehead if worn for hours. Easily solved with a glued on piece of foam.

On my last trip, I read for several hours a night for 5 days in a row on the lowest setting. It still had a full charge. That is one heck of a good battery, I bought a spare. Amazon does not sell just the battery, but Fenix does. My wife got the smaller Fenix headlamp…the one without the magnet and red function. It also seems great. I would buy these again in a heartbeat. If you are looking for the best headlamp, you found it.

UE Fits Earbuds review

I just got a pair of these UE Fits. For reference, I’ve had the original Air Pods, which always fell out, and some sound isolating ISOTunes Pro.
Bottom line is I think they are worth the money…especially if you have had trouble with ear buds falling out and or hurting. I’ve worn them for 4 hours straight, very little pain, and the sound is fine. I’m not an audiophile. I’m mostly deaf in one ear, and the other one has some age related loss. I do love music though…who doesn’t?

Now the bad:
I could only get one bud at a time to pair on my iPhone XS. I was sweating the ‘light exposure’ warning for about an hour as I tried to get both buds to pair simultaneously. Finally both right and left paired, but there was a ghost right and left showing up that couldn’t pair. I had 4 buds showing in my iPhone settings, two of them paired, two not paired.

Fortunately the UE Fits app said they were both found so I went forward to the next step. Then the app said the battery was dead. Arg!!
Back in the charging case they went for 10 minutes.

Finally I was able to get all the way thru the fitting process.

EDIT Oct 10, 2021: I returned these. I found that they let in far too much wind noise while bicycle riding. I now have a pair of In Ear Monitors (IEM). My reasons for getting the IEM ear buds are complex, but mostly related to my deaf left ear and my need for complete sound isolation when riding my bike outside, and for allowing me to hear other musicians while performing live music. Casual use, I got a $60 pair of Soundcore Life A2 NC buds.

Back to the good:

That was quite cool…warm actually. And they passed the head shake test…like, really shaking…gave me a headache shaking…didn’t fall out.

After that initial pairing weirdness I’ve had no problems. The app is a bit slow to reflect whether they are in my ears…it has to ‘scan’. But the buds themselves play music as soon as they are in my ears, and they stop playing when I put them in the case. I can also do one bud playing music, the other charging.

I do like the way I can see charging levels of both buds and the case…3 values.
They stop music (or talking book) when a call comes in, and resume music when I hang up. Wife said my voice sounded normal.
So far they are the best buds I’ve owned. I sew backpacks on an industrial machine, and I like the way they mute the hum of my machine. I haven’t tried them next to my drill press…but the profile is so low I suspect I could wear shooting muffs over them.
I’ll edit this review if I change my opinion.

Ever wanted to build a website from scratch?

For the last 18 years I’ve been teaching college students how to build websites, no prior experience required. I’ve written a step-by-step textbook on the process.

My book is not just another pretty face. The design and content has been tested under fire. When something broke, I re-wrote it. My students are quick to call me on errors. They are my best editors!

I had zero desire to write a book. But to do the job, I needed one, and I was tired of buying books from other authors that didn’t work in my classrooms. I needed a textbook that explained, in the shortest possible time,  how to build a state of the art web site…to total beginners.

My computer savvy students can race through it at their own pace. However, the book is written so well that even students who are less confident can still follow along, page by page.

Here is my book on Amazon

Speidel Twist-O-Flex watchband for Apple Watch – review

When resizing your Speidel Twisto-Flex watchband to fit your Apple watch, read the PDF directions first on the website. Do not rely on the YouTube video. YouTube is wrong.

I wanted the black band but read reviews that the paint would wear off over time. As a rock climber and back yard mechanic I knew I’d beat up the watchband…so it was a no brainer to get the silver brushed metal band. Paint will always wear down to metal, even if it’s anodized paint. Might as well start with bare metal.

The width is perfect for my Apple Watch Series 5. The ‘slide in and snap’ ends on the band are flawless, right up there with standard Apple quality.

I ordered the XL band for two reasons:
(1) I didn’t want to take a chance on miss-measuring my wrist
(2) I wanted lots of extra links to practice on while resizing it

It arrived with two inches of extra band, I could have warn it on my legs. There are 3 youtube tutorials about resizing a Speidel band. I tried it that way initially using a bright light and magnifying bifocals but it was uber frustrating. I began to wonder if I’d have to give up and take it to a jeweler.

After a long walk to let my brain cool off I remembered there was a scan-able code in the box to directions online. Low and behold, the pdf was amazing! I was doing it all wrong.

This Twist-O-Flex band has a double top side, face plate, that is removable. When you follow their directions and pull that off, it cuts the work down to one quarter of what it was following youtube. You only have to unbend two end tabs, and on reassembly, just one end tab and one u clip. Super easy. A standard small pocket knife, small needle nose pliers and set of mini screwdrivers is all you’ll need.

Once the watch band is in two pieces, lay it on your wrist, pull it snug (not tight) and note where it overlaps. Mark with a sharpy pen where it needs to be ‘cut’. If in doubt, go a link shorter. You can see my fading pen marks in the photos. My band sits on my wrist snug, but not stretched. I nailed it first try. It’s tight enough that all the apps work, such as exercise rings and sleep monitor.

The silver brushed metal looks fabulous on my gray watch, which is covered with a black rubber otterbox. No more fighting with buckles to take the watch off. I can slide the watch up to my elbow to get it out of the way, and putting it on is as easy as pulling on a sweat band.

When I’m climbing at the gym, skiing, or working on cars, I cover the watch with a slide on nike elastic sweat band. Any watch band can get badly scratched or knocked loose, and I don’t want to lose a $600 watch because of my active lifestyle.

Editing my book, Apple watch review

I had some great students this quarter. A bunch of them recognized the power of what I was teaching and really ran with it, creating stellar websites. Especially considering that I only saw them 3 days a week for 11 weeks.

After a 3 year delay I finally buckled down and did a huge rewrite on my textbook…or at least the first 150 pages. It was probably 5 full days of work, and I did the editing  on the weekends and evenings after work. The biggest thing was that I learned how to do an automatic Table of Contents. This allowed me to break the book into numbered chapters that matched the lessons I grade in my classes.

All of this work is unpaid overtime of course. I plan to sell the book on Amazon, and my first task (after some time off) is to study some Lynda classes online on how the self publishing industry functions. I’m writing in Adobe Indesign, but many people write books in Microsoft Word. Many years ago McGraw Hill asked to publish my book, but they wanted me to extract all the text out of Indesign and send it to them in Word, double spaced.

I declined their offer. It’s classroom ready, I give the 214 page PDF to my students every quarter, why would I tear it apart? I get that I need an editor…but at the time I would have had to take a summer off to publish it their way…and that wasn’t happening.

As usual all the overtime made me want a reward. We work hard, we get a big paycheck right? Or at least that’s how it worked in the printing industry. Not so much in the book writing business. Not that I’m complaining. I know what I signed up for. If I write it well, I’m confident it will sell.

The only downside of writing is that I stopped painting. I guess there’s only room for one creative outlet at a time in my strange little brain. I’ll be painting in a few day though. It’s going to be awesome.

Now on to that reward

I’ve been saving money and splurged on the Apple Watch Series 5 with cellular. I’m not sure it’s really ready for primetime, but it’s a fun toy.

Cool things the watch does with  iPhone off:

  • While skiing up the Muir Snowfield. I called Sue from 8000 feet on Mt Rainier, with the watch only, Dick Tracy style
  • I worked out on the stairmaster and listened to my songs on bluetooth headphones, while it counted my heartbeats and calories burned
  • I can add and edit tasks using the native Apple Reminders app, which syncs on iCloud.com, my macbook, my phone and the watch…amazing!
  • It has an Electocardiogram function. My ER nurse kids found this fascinating
  • I can get 36 hours of life out of it, easy, if I turn off cellular. Watch cellular is only needed if I don’t want to carry the phone.
  • It has gps, altimeter and compass
  • A vibrating alarm that actually works!
  • Really fun watch faces with infinitely variable ‘complications’ you can add. Like the time, plus buttons for music, reminders, exercise sessons (stair stepper), texting, calling, etc.
  • The Activity app, closing my rings. Seriously, this is amazing! Look it up on youtube. It tracks your exercise and shows you trends, who knew this could be so cool?

Cons:

  • The battery life
  • The screen is too small to do anything serious, like composing a long email. But I say that about my iPhone too

Harmonica Holder review

HarpArm EZ-Rack Pro Magnetic Harmonica Holder – Review

I play guitar and harmonica together, Bob Dylan style. I’ve had harp holders since 1972. Up until yesterday my best one was a $50 Hohner harp holder, but the screws kept falling out of it, rendering it useless.

I did a search online discovered the new magnetic harp holders. But it was $50. I went to Guitar Center and decided it was so close to my broken Hohner holder that I could do some modifications and save money. Because it was only $24, I bought the Harp Arm Magnetic Mic Stand Harmonica Holder.

I removed the broken missing screw parts from my Hohner, cobbled together some wood and aluminum and built a Frankenstein holder that seems quite good.

MacGyver’d Magnetic cell phone mount

I have wizgear cell phone mounts on my dashboard, but they depend on a plastic ball joint on a plastic neck. My recent vacation driving bumpy dirt roads broke the plastic neck. My solution? Remake the ball joint and neck from 9/16″ aluminum rod.

Rotring Isograph pens for Illustration art

I got my Rotring Isograph pens from Germany today. Shipping took about a week. I’ve been using a hodgepodge of pens up until now: Dip quill pen, Pigma Pen, Pentel Hybrid ballpoints. But after pouring some ink into these Isograph pens I’m sold big time. They flow sooooo well. The Pentels Slicci pens were quite good but they tended to have flow issues at times, especially the 0.25 size, which is my favorite.

Drawing on gray paper

These Rotrings are the cats meow. This is the first time I’ve tried drawing with ink on a toned paper. The paper is Strathmore Series 400 Toned Gray, medium surface. By starting on  a neutral ground (gray) I can add dark to push away, and white to pull highlights toward me. Any gray mid tones are already there…the paper is colored gray. This saves a tremendous amount of work, as compared to drawing on white paper. On white, you have to preserve the highlights by drawing around them, and then draw all the other tones, from darks to midtones. The technique has been around for centuries, but I recently discovered this new paper while studying the works of  Kevin Keele. He also uses Prismacolor markers in a shade slightly darker than the paper…I’ve not mastered that yet, but I do like the idea.

Clean up

I’m not sure how much trouble these Isographs will be to clean up. It took me 20 minutes to clean two pens, but it was my first time. If I was using them tomorrow I’m sure they’d be fine overnight. There are rubber seals in the caps. And the caps don’t just snap on, they screw on. People write online about using these pens for 30 years straight. This guy on YouTube says you can leave the ink in them for up to a week.

I’ve ordered some rOtring white ink so I don’t have to use the ballpoint Sakura Gelly Roller whites. They tend to ball up like most ballpoints, though I do like them. But pouring rOtring white ink into my Isograph should be far superior. I’m going to try it out today, as it just came in the mail. Or rather I should say, I had it shipped to the Amazon yellow box at Safeway.

Drawing from photos

On a side note, I swore years ago to never draw from photos. But similar to my rule about never top roping in climbing, I had to break my ‘draw from life’ rule to do dog portraits. They don’t hold still worth a darn. Plus I’ve got a bad cold, and don’t have the energy to stand out in the studio doing a still life…which was my other option today. I can do these dog studies sitting on my soft couch.

Anyway, here are the drawings, I’ve shown the 4 step progression of the drawing of Mary’s dog. Honeybear (my brothers dog) needs another couple hours work:

Free Solo Movie

I just saw the Free Solo movie in a theater this weekend. It’s an excellent documentary style movie about what is probably the hardest, most dangerous human achievement ever recorded on film.

I can’t think of a single dangerous activity and or extreme sport that compares to what he did. Extreme base jumping in a squirrel suit comes close, but even that has some safety margin built in. You can fly away from the cliff and pop your chute early. And you are falling through the air, so peak physical strength is not a requirement.

In any other extreme athletic activity you can name, there is always room for a couple small errors. They won’t immediately kill you. What Alex did has zero room for errors. Oh sure, there were easier sections, but on the crux moves, like that boulder problem, he either nailed it or he died. Bouldering is normally done on boulders, literally 15 feet high, max. And there are piles of landing pads underneath you, with friends to help catch a fall. Alex calling that move a boulder move is strictly for Hollywood effect.

I hesitated to even buy the ticket because I knew I was contributing in a small way toward encouraging him to do more free soloing. As they say in the movie, all the best free soloists have died, with maybe a few exceptions. That guy he was talking to named Peter Croft has been soloing for decades and is still alive. Back in the eighties I used to see Peter every few weeks free soloing routes that I couldn’t even climb with a rope. He was a really nice guy, and would talk with average climbers like me and my wife if we had a question about a route.

We also used to see John Bachar at Joshua Tree every year at Xmas. He would be free soloing hard routes like left ski track. He looked so solid I would have felt safe on his back. As they said in the movie, John is dead now, he fell on a route in his late forties, ropeless.

Alex knows all this stuff. He knows all about our tribe of climbers. Some might consider him one of our leaders, though I’m sure he would scoff at the idea.

While I have tremendous respect for his skill and dedication to achieving his goal. I am troubled by the low value he places on living. We all have our ups and downs. But in general, I really like being alive. I hope to live to a ripe old age. Life is endlessly fascinating to me. I feel like my best years may still be ahead of me. This is in regards to my painting, which is just coming into it’s own in my mid sixties.

But regardless of your hobbies, or lack thereof, life always has something interesting coming around the corner. You might not even know what and or who it is…but it will be worth waiting for.

Alex does not seem to see life that way. He is, in the movie at least, so focused on his goal that he is willing to make that ultra dangerous  boulder move, or die trying. And to me, that means (normal) life is just not that fun for Alex. I could walk away from climbing tomorrow and still enjoy my life.

I have my hobbies, my amazing kids and my lovely wife…all of whom are climbers. But we also have other interests. Life is not focused solely on climbing. I love climbing, it’s the best sport in the world! But I’m intimately aware that it could kill me at any time. One small lapse in judgement and I could die. And I climb doing it the “safe” way, with ropes. But there is still plenty of danger. We try to minimize the danger as much as possible. But at a certain point, you have to just say: “These rap anchors held the last party as they rapped down, why would they fail on me?”

Some of the above words may sound like I’m passing judgement on Alex. I don’t mean to do that. We each get one chance at life. I’d like mine to be long, gosh, I keep hoping I’ll have time to finally get it right. Alex is different. He has goals, and he achieves them…so far. I have no right to tell him, or all the other free soloists and base jumpers how to live their life.

I do however feel sad for them. Life is a grand adventure. It stays good for a long time, it’s still good for me, and I’m twice Alex’s age. To be his age and already be willing to give it all up for a silly rock climb that you want to do without a safety rope. It just strikes me as sad.

Addendum:

On a side note, I should mention that I have done some free soloing. Back in my twenties Paul and I used to free solo some short sixes, and even a short 5.9. I was young, bold and dumb back then. I’m not proud of it, but it did happen. Even today, there are approaches to rock climbs that come close to free soloing. It would take too long to get the rope out so we simply “scramble”, knowing we are unlikely to slip. We call it dangerous hiking, or “approach pitches”. But most of the time a fall would not kill us. We’d break some bones…and spend some time in the hospital…so we tread very carefully.

I like to think that the kind of climbing I’ve done for 40 years can be compared to driving a car in bad weather at 60 miles an hour on a two lane road. One twitch of the steering wheel and someone could die. So we try to stay very focused on safe driving…and hope the other guy is doing the same. 37,400 people die in the US every year driving cars.

When climbing with ropes, we normally have layers of safety. If we slip, the rope will catch us. If we bang our head, we have a helmet on. If some of our gear rips out, we have more gear to back it up. If we think the climb has become too hard, or it starts to rain or gets dark, we build an anchor and rappel down. We are never faced with an all or nothing situation: Do this move cleanly or die right now. I value life too highly to get in that situation. I hope Alex gives up free soloing and lives a long happy life. He should have plenty of money now after this movie takes off.


PETZL Sirocco broken buckle fix

I’ve had a PETZL Sirocco helmet for a year and I like it a lot. But my buckle just broke during my yearly Christmas trip to Joshua Tree. Before the Sirocco I had been wearing a 1993 Joe Brown helmet. It blew a rivet, so this Sirocco looked very attractive. It’s super light, and as long as I stuff something inside it (to protect it from crushing), I can pack my pack normally and it survived until last week. The buckle Petzl uses is very fragile. The plastic snap tabs are ultra small. There is a magnet inside the buckle that helps pull it closed. Unfortunately, the magnet also attracts iron ore, of which there is a lot in Jtree. I was constantly having to scrape and blow out the sand stuck to the magnet before it would snap.

Finally, up on the “Heart of Darkness” route, one side of the buckle broke completely. I had to borrow a helmet that day. When I got back to camp I replaced the buckle with one I bought at the jtree climbing store. To get the old buckles off, I shaved down the plastic with a razor knife until I could slide the nylon out of the old buckles. Then I prusiked on the new buckle, extended the strap with some tubular nylon using a water knot and had a helmet again. The repair job is stronger than the original. Here are the photos:

PETZL Sirocco broken buckle fix

PETZL Sirocco broken buckle fix

~

PETZL Sirocco broken buckle

PETZL Sirocco broken buckle

Crossed over to the dark side

Ever since 1976, practically a lifetime ago, Sue and I have been trying to master telemark skiing. We used to do it on cross country skinny skis with 3 pin bindings. It got harder and harder as we got older, natural I guess, since it is such a difficult and dynamic turn. It’s like doing squats, except while hurtling down the ski slope.

There used to be a mindset among my generation during the 80’s when we were young. We shunned the downhill ski areas. They were too crowded and too expensive. We would skin up into the mountains where it was free. There were no crowds, no chair lifts, and we prided ourselves on our hardiness. The only reasonably light ski back then was the cross country ski. We’d buy the ones with metal edges. They were light on the uphill, challenging on the downhill, but that was all part of the fun.

senior ticket to snoqualmie in the rain

senior ticket to snoqualmie in the rain

When we had kids, they followed us up on their skinny skis, but they never really mastered the telemark turn. It requires a lot of practice. As they became adults, with money of their own, they looked at the learning curve in telemarking and went straight to Randonee skis. These are also called AT (All Terrain) skis. You can still skin up into the backcountry, but on the way down you lock your heels, just like a downhill ski binding.

Because they both have great jobs in the medical field, they were able buy downhill tickets and quickly mastered the difficult skiing conditions found in the backcountry. Whenever we took them out into the mountains (usually Paradise at Mt. Rainier), they would leave us in the dust.

5 years ago we bought new telemark gear, the first in 30 years. We thought it would be the ticket to skiing better. It did help a lot. When I bought my yearly downhill ticket I could ski all day on my telegear. That never used to happen on my skinny skis.

But I still can’t even begin to keep up with my kids. The teleturn requires so much practice that it is basically impossible to master without a season pass. And even then it’s not a super fast turn like you can do on downhill skis.

Diamond Helios and Blizzard Zero G 95

Diamond Helios and Blizzard Zero G 95

Long story short, Sue and I pulled some money out of savings and invested in new backcountry AT gear. They feature pivoting toes for skinning up, and  lock down heels on the bindings for skiing down.

I feel a bit guilty for giving up on my dream of being a great telemarker. There is an old saying about skiing: “Free the heel, free the mind”. It’s a bumper sticker seen at ski areas. Supposedly telemark skiing with it’s free floating heel is more of a zen experience. It is lovely turn, no doubt. But at our advanced state of decrepitude, I think we need all the help we can get.

There is another old saying in regards to telemark skiing. When you give up on telemark skiing, and buy skis with lock down heels, you have “crossed over to the dark side”. Still, now that I’m on the dark side maybe I have a chance of keeping up with my daughter. I just need to ride the chair a few times to get the hang of downhill skiing again.

Who knows, perhaps there’s hope for us old duffers. Sue got Black Diamond Helios skis, with the Dynafit speed Radical binding, while I got the Blizzard 95 Zero G skis, with the Dynafit TLT Radical ST 2.0 Binding. I’m dreading looking at my credit card balance after these purchases. But, these skis should be the last skis we ever buy, so it may be money well invested. We’ve skied on them once, in the rain, $40 lift tickets and they worked fabulous. It’s like having brand new downhill skis, which we haven’t had in 35 years. The bindings released correctly twice when I fell. I like the theory behind these Dynafit bindings. I did some research and they’ve been around since the late 80’s. They started as a modification of the Ramer binding, which was my downhill binding up until last week. Ramers had a “tuning fork” that would pivot on some pins. In  a fall, the tuning fork would flex enough to open, releasing the boot from the ski. These Dynafit bindings have a mechanism that reflects that heritage.