Thursday, December 8, 2011

Rebel LED Headlamp

Avid followers of this blog (hi Mom!) may remember my earlier post about the project that I did to replace the guts of an old Petzl Zoom incandescent headlamp with a rechargeable battery and a high output quad LED array. It worked pretty well, the headlamp is now a real barn burner which I use regularly for running at night and outdoor adventures. While naturally the new electronics are pretty buttoned up (aside from slowly melting the bulb housing where the LED now sits; thermal modeling is not one of my strengths), the old Petzl case which I retrofitted has some shortcomings. Namely, it is big and clunky, having been designed for a much larger battery and incandescent bulb. The new electronic assembly makes it lighter, but I really need a redesigned case as well.

As it would turn out, my brother Trev is a mechanical engineer who likes building stuff, and he also has an interest in nighttime outdoor activities. He had been working on a headlamp project also where he was designing and building the housings but then using stock electronics, the inverse of my approach. So, we naturally decided to combine forces and build the ultimate headlamp. I have created a board which is an updated version of the one I did for the Petzl headlamp, it is in fabrication and should be back in a week or two. In the meantime, to allow Trev to start designing the battery housing I found some really cool software for exporting 3D models of PCB layouts from Eagle. Here are the results:

It exports into Google Sketchup, but from there you can export it as a .STL file which can be opened by Solidworks and other CAD packages. Pretty awesome! Trev has also been busy on his end, machining the LED housing and whipping out some CAD for helmet, head, and handlebar mounting options. He had them rapid prototyped by Shapeways, check out the results on his blog. We're pretty excited to see it coming together, I'll post some updates as we continue to build them up.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Costa Rica - Day 8

After rolling out of bed and enjoying a nice breakfast consisting off the remnants of the food we had purchased during the trip, it was time to head to the Tamarindo Airport to catch our flight back to San Jose so that we could spend a day exploring the city before flying back to Seattle on the next day. After a nice chat with the owners of Los Villas (Isabelle and Alejandro) we hopped in the BeGo and headed out in search of gas for a refill before returning it. We had assumed that Tamarindo would have a gas station, being a sizeable town, it does not. We had then assumed that Playa Flamingo had a gas station after having been informed that it did by a few travel websites, it once did but is now closed. One our last attempt before giving up and returning the BeGo with an empty tank we finally located one in El Llano, and then headed back to Tamarindo to return the BeGo. It was a sad morning to part with our trusted friend, Roanne even penned a heartfelt little tune called "The BeGo and Me" (ask her to sing it for you next time you see her). Here I am enjoying one last quiet moment with the BeGo before being shuttled off to the airport:

We arrived at the Tamarindo airport to find that it set a new record for most rustic airport we had flown out of (except maybe for a ski plane on a glacier in Alaska, but that doesn't really count as an airport). However, the single propellor plane that we would be flying on did arrive on time and looked quite new, so we happily climbed on board for the one hour flight back to San Jose. Here is the view out of the plane's window after we had boarded, at the only other plane on the airstrip that sunny morning:

We both had window seats (in fact, everyone did, because in a plane that small every seat is both a window seat and an aisle seat) and so were afforded some nice views of the countryside as we took off. Here is a view of the airstrip that we had flown from:

And another looking back out toward the coast:

We had a smooth landing in San Jose, and after disembarking (much more fun on a small plane like that where you get to climb down 3 steps onto the runway) we hailed a taxi and headed into San Jose for our final Costa Rican accommodations at the Hotel Grano de Oro. We have made a tradition of staying in an upscale hotel on our last night in a big city on our vacations, and the Hotel Grano de Oro was no exception, being an immaculately maintained building with really nice rooms, friendly staff, and a great restaurant. After a short snooze in our room we then headed out to explore San Jose, first making our way through a few markets and down some of the busy, pedestrian-only streets:

We then conducted a general walking tour of the city, making our way past the National Museum which had some nice outdoor sculptures with one of the granite spheres that archeologists have found in Costa Rica:

We also saw some nice outdoor murals:

And numerous other sights. As dusk started to fall we made our way back to our hotel, which had some nice outdoor Christmas decorations:

Costa Ricans seem to be crazy about Christmas, every hotel that we stayed in had Christmas trees already up and decorated, decorations on room doors, and all throughout the hotel. We had a nice dinner that night at the hotel restaurant which served French food (though not as good as the night prior in Tamarindo) and then headed off to bed.

The next morning we woke up and after a delicious breakfast we packed our bags one final time and began our journey back to Seattle. We really enjoyed our time in Costa Rica, and if I had to distill all of the travel advice we would pass on into one sentence, it would be: Check out the rain forests and go surfing. Adios!

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Costa Rica - Day 7

As you may have noticed in the pictures up until now, I uncharacteristically have a mustache. The reason for that is because I was participating in Movember, a month-long event in which brave men grow mustaches for the purpose of raising awareness for men's health issues such as prostate cancer. While I had semi-enjoyed my monthlong attempt at growing a mustache, as it was now December, the time had come to shave it off (much to Roanne's delight).

And, dear reader, while I have your attention, let me quickly explain my rationale in growing a standard-issue, no-nonsense police officer's mustache as opposed to something more elaborate. My explanation is motivated by criticism I have received along the way, particularly from my lovely wife who complained that I wasn't growing a "funnier" mustache. The reason for that is, in my opinion, by growing an obviously "funny" mustache with handlebars, soulpatches, or other accoutrements along for the ride, you are immediately communicating to the world that your mustache is intended only as a joke. By making your mustache so clearly ironic, you are dissociating yourself from it, as if you had an accompanying sign that said "don't worry, I never normally have a mustache". To me, it takes more bravery and courage to grow a "serious" mustache, so that when people see you they think maybe you always have a mustache and it is just your standard look. Anyway, enough pontificating about the philosophy of moustaches, here it is enjoying it's last few rays of tropical sunshine before the appointment with my razor and shaving cream (actually, with Roanne's pink disposable razor and some soap since I had brought neither a mustache nor shaving cream on the trip):

Here I am spreading the soap and getting ready to whip out the lady bic:

And finally, the pink scythe goes into action and makes quick work of the fruits of my Movember labours:

With my newfound cleanshaven look we were off to the beach, which was just across the road from our residence. Along the way we passed a pretty sizeable lizard:

And then made our way along a nice boardwalk through a lagoon:

To finally reach the beautiful white sand beach of Playa Avellanas:

Upon reaching the beach we had a stroll up and down it and then set up shop in some shade under a tree where Roanne set about her chosen activities of alternate reading and snoozing:

And I rented a surfboard and headed out to get pounded by the waves:

The surfing was a lot more fun here than the previous day in Playa Carmen, as it involved trying to paddle into real waves instead of just riding white water (which is pretty easy and not legitimate surfing). It was a lot more difficult and a lot more work, but there were lots of waves and not many people out so there was no pressure and on the rare instances when I did catch a wave it was really fun. Here I am paddling for a wave:

And here I am riding in to shore on the white wash, unfortunately the odds of me catching a real wave at any time were sufficiently low that it was never caught on camera:

We had the entire day at the beach so I was able to surf for an hour or so then come in and recover while lounging on the beach, and then repeat, broken up in the middle of the day with a delicious lunch at a beachside restaurant called Lola's (so amazing, I forgot to take any pictures but everyone should go here if they get a chance). The afternoon brought more of the same, here is my freshly shaven face posing with my approving wife during some relaxing:

As the sun began to drop the tide was nearing its high point which made for better waves in this location, as evidenced by the increasing numbers of local rippers out in the waves:

So, it was clearly necessary to don the rash guard one more time:

And head out to catch a few last waves on our final full day on the beach:

Good times! After returning the board we made our way carefully back across the boardwalk in the near-darkness, and headed back to our Villa. For dinner we headed into the nearby beach town of Tamarindo and ate at an amazing French restuarant called the Langosta Beach Club, also highly recommended. We then headed back to our Villa with the final notable event of the day being the discovery of a frog staking out the tap in our open air bathroom:

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Costa Rica - Day 6

After a great sleep in our ocean view room we had a leisurely morning lounging on the deck before heading up to breakfast at the open-air restaurant associated with the lodge that had an even better view than our room did:

Here we are kicking our feet up as we enjoy some delicious pancakes and tropical fruit for breakfast and soak in the view:

We had been told that visiting Malpais and not surfing was like visiting the Sistine Chapel and not looking up, so in order to avoid making that flagrant error I booked a surf lesson for that morning before setting off in the BeGo to work our way further north along the peninsula. I have done a few surfing trips in North Carolina, B.C., and Washington mostly at the prompting of my brothers who are much more into it than I am, so I am halfway competent at the basics and even own a board (which my brother made for me, thanks Trev!), but I decided that it would still be worthwhile to take a lesson as I had never benefited from any formal instruction.

The lesson was arranged through the Nalu Surf Shop with an Aussie guy named Ben as the instructor, who despite being a reasonably nice guy was quite underwhelming as an instructor. It was still fun though, and he did offer a few insights, and Playa Carmen where we did the lesson was a great place to get back into the swing of things a bit as the waves broke pretty far out and there was lots of space to practice standing by catching the whitewater or small re-formed waves. Here we are standing in the surf as Ben imparts nuggets of wisdom on what went wrong on a wave that I didn't catch ("Ah, yeah, there were lots of factors"... perfect, I'll just work on all those unnamed factors for next time):

And here I am triumphantly catching a small wave:

After the 1.5 hour lesson finished I stayed out in the surf for another hour since I was having a lot of fun. In the meantime Roanne was finally getting her relaxing beach time, reading People magazine since she hates the thought of being eaten by sharks. The beach was really nice, totally undeveloped and a great spot to spend the morning:

By the mid afternoon we decided that it was time to load up the BeGo and set out up the peninsula toward our next destination of Playa Avellanas, just south of Tamarindo. We had planned on driving up the coast, but having been warned of how bad that road was, coupled with our 4WD adventure the prior day, we decided that wisdom was the better part of valour and took the longer but faster route of driving inland on the peninsula to a more established road. We arrived in Playa Avellanas just after dark, and after a bit of searching we located our new digs at Los Villas Avellanas and checked in for a good nights sleep.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Costa Rica - Day 5

While the pool and views at Hotel Vista de Olas had been great, a few other aspects of our stay there had not, so on Tuesday morning we decided to pull up stakes and change to another hotel for our second night in Malpais. Our chosen hotel was the Moana Lodge, an African-themed establishment about a km south down the coast. We were soon checked into our room which was amazing and completely solved all of the problems that we had experienced at our previous residence. If anyone finds themselves around Malpais in Costa Rica you should definitely stay here, it was amazing. Here is a shot of the view out our front window:

One of our bed in the super bright bedroom:

And one of Roanne relaxing in the adjoining room as we ready ourselves to set off on the day's adventures:

The place was amazing and we had a notably great experience with one of the owners named Aidan, who was incredibly kind and helpful. After getting settled we loaded up the BeGo and headed for the beach. Nevermind that we had miles of pristine coastline directly in front of our hotel, I had set our sights on a much more remote beach in the Cabo de Blanco national park (the first national park in Costa Rica) which required a 4km hike to access it, and to make things even better I had selected a short cut that we could take on the drive there. All the makings of a good adventure! We set off in the BeGo, but found that despite appearing as a legitimate road on our GPS, after 2 river crossings, lots of steep and rutted sections, and after our 10th time bottoming out the BeGo we decided to give up and reverse our tracks to drive to the National Park the "long" way. We had (barely) been able to make it about halfway across the shortcut, but we were worried that if we kept going we might get stuck (I think the 4WD commnity would use the term "highsided") in ruts, or come to an impasse and then not be able to turn around. Here is Roanne out of the car trying to guide me down a particularly rutted section:

And here I am trying to negotiate a crossing on some rocks that someone had helpfully stacked into the ruts:

Here is one of the river crossings, sans bridge:

And finally, just because it looks like something out of a car commercial, here is the BeGo emerging triumphantly on the other side:

So, while we wasted an hour driving slowly on really bad roads in the jungle, this was my first legitimate 4WD experience, and we took solace in the thought that some people do this kind of thing for fun, so it wasn't a complete waste of time. It was also a remarkable performance by the BeGo, which had been brand new when we picked it up back in San Jose but was now considerably more "experienced" with the undercarriage having the scars to prove it. Good thing they don't check that when you return rental cars!

Back on track, we drove to the Cabo de Blanco National Park and enjoyed our picnic before setting out on the trail instead of on the beach as planned, since our 4WD adventure had put us a little behind schedule. As we were having lunch a weird looking animal came to check things out, I think this is a Costa Rican variant on the raccoon (though they do have standard raccoons also, and are apparently quite fond of them as we even saw them on postcards):

After the picnic wrapped up we set out along the trail, taking in some interesting trees along the way. Here is a large one with the big fin-like buttresses extending out to the sides:

Here is one that was a few feet in diameter and had a trunk that was entirely covered with giant thorns, like the stems on a rosebush:

And here is one with a giant root that formed a natural bridge across a creek, with Roanne posing mid-crossing:

We also heard a lot of noisy howler monkeys as we made our way through the forest, but despite continued attempts to catch sight of one we could never make them out in the dense canopy above us. Finally, just after 3:00pm we reached the beach:

As expected it was completely deserted in both directions:

We didn't have as much time to spend there as we had hoped since it got dark around 5:30pm and we still had the 4km hike back out, but there was certainly enough time for a short game of "Driftwood". This is a terrific game invented by my brother Trev, in which you lie as straight as you can near the shore in the pounding surf and get rolled around like a log. The only downside that I can think of is that your shorts get completely filled with sand, other than that it is just pure fun. Here I am enjoying myself:

After wrapping up my game of driftwood we headed back to the car, reaching it just as darkness was falling. The drive back to the Moana Lodge took about an hour, and on the way back we had the novel experience of seeing a large (about 6 feet long) boa constrictor making has way leisurely across the road. Here he is caught in our headlights:

And then illuminated by the camera flash as he exited the roadway and headed for the forest:

After a delicious dinner at a place called "Mary's" (also highly recommended if you find yourself in Malpais) we called it a night and drifted off to sleep with the sound of the waves hitting the beach.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Costa Rica - Day 4

We awoke on day 4 intent on escaping the rain and heading for the beach, but given that it wasn't raining that morning for the first time on our trip, we decided to hang around the cloud forest that morning for one more experience before driving to the coast: the zip line. For reasons that are not entirely clear to me, zip lines are everywhere in Costa Rica, which made it seem like a uniquely Costa Rican experience that we should indulge in. We settled on one of the more established operators called Sky Adventures, which touted three experiences: the Sky Walk (a hike through the forest with a series of suspension bridges that passed through the forest canopy, much like we had already been on the previous day), the Sky Trek (a series of 10 zip lines that zig zagged back and forth between two ridge lines as they descended a hill side), and the Sky Tram which is used to reach the top of the zip lines (also known as a chair lift).

We wanted to get after it early so that we could catch a 2:00pm ferry across to the Nicoyan Peninsula, so we got up early (we had been getting up around 7:00am most days to take advantage of the daylight, with it getting dark around 5:30pm) and arrived at Sky Adventures to catch the 9:30am tour. This worked out really well, as everyone else had signed up for tours later in the day, so it was a personal tour with the two of us escorted by three friendly Sky Adventures employees. After a short practice zip line to get the hang of it (there isn't really much to get the hang out, you just sit there and slide along the line) it was onto the Sky Tram and up to the top of the longer zip lines. Here is Roanne enjoying the first rainless day (so far) of our vacation:

And here is the Sky Tram disappearing up the hill side as we ride on up:

And here is a view of the countryside that was revealing itself to us for the first time:

The Sky Tram had only been installed 3 years earlier at an expense of 2.5 million dollars, so we were happy that we had made a good choice. Upon reaching the top of the lift we stepped off and climbed up some stairs to the top of the first zip line where we clipped in and were sent zooming off above the rain forest. I have always been a bit skeptical of zip lines but it was actually pretty fun, being so far above the ground and going for so long (the longest one was almost 800 meters). Before long some clouds settled in and it started to rain lightly, but the fog added to the novelty of the experience (and sped up the line a bit by lubricating it). Here is Roanne setting off into the fog:

And here I am setting off on one of the subsequent lines:

Good fun! Before long we were back down at the base area removing our harnesses and helmets. We didn't have too long before we needed to depart for our ferry, but a really kind employee where we bought our tickets had told us we could sprint around the Sky Trek (the suspension bridge hike) for free if we wanted to (normally you buy a combo ticket), so we took her up on that. Here is Roanne ambling across one of the bridges:

And me working my way through the forest to the next bridge:

The suspension bridges were nice also, but by this time I was starting to feel a bit of rain forest suspension bridge overdose, much like the feeling when you have seen one too many old churches in a European city. This could mean only one thing: it was time to escape the rain forest for the sandy beaches of the Pacific coast. We hopped in the BeGo and set off, wending our way through the hillsides on dirt roads as we dropped toward the coast and Puntarenes where we could catch a ferry across to the Nicoyan Peninsula. Here is a shot of the countryside in the ever-increasing weather as we approached the coast:

We could have also driven around to reach the peninsula, but the most remote parts were at the bottom and the easiest way to get there seemed to be by taking the ferry. Being Seattleites it also seemed appropriate the compare the ferries to Washington ferries. We reached the ferry terminal with 45 minutes to spare, and after purchasing our very reasonable tickets ($15 for the hour long ride, with our car) we drove on board and waited for the grand depart. Before long we set sail, and we reveled in the sunshine and wind on our faces as we moved out onto the water:

There were some great views as we moved across the water, and plenty of space to take them in as the boat was not very full:

Soon we were approaching the relatively undeveloped ferry terminal in Paquera, a single dock and building jutting out of the dense forest:

We rolled off on the BeGo and start the drive west to our destination of Malpais on the Pacific side at the bottom of the peninsula. We reached our hotel without any problems (Hotel Vista de Olas), and after a few issues we were finally checked into our one-room villa with an ocean view:

The view from their infinity pool was even better, where we headed for a quick swim before taking in the sunset: