Blog Archive for August 2012

Getting Around and Staying Fit with Nice Ride

Somewhat-reputable sources list the Minneapolis/St. Paul area as one of the "most liveable" cities in the country. I'm not sure if I believe that; I've seen many places that seem just as nice, although this is the only city I've lived in. Other places have listed the metro as a very "bike-able" area, and I'm starting to believe that. I know I've had some minor hostility from drivers on the road and some genuine hatred towards bikers from my friends who drive, so we probably still have a bit to go as well. However, a new development in the last year or two has shown that cycling is at least growing and somewhat popular and maybe even a sustainable business can be mad with it. This morning I got a chance to try Nice Ride for myself, and it seems like a valuable service to urban members of the Twin Cities.

Nice Ride Rider and Station (from cedwardmoran's Flickr)

Nice Ride is an organization heavily funded by local companies, including flagship sponsor, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Minnesota, who spends a lot of money on marketing to encourage Minnesotans to stay active, and whose logo appears on each Nice Ride bike. Nice Ride currently operates 145 stations in and around both downtown Minneapolis and downtown St. Paul, including the six miles or so between downtowns. From any one of those stations, you can rent a bicycle and return it to that station or any other station when you are done.

For a one-time newcomer such as myself, a payment of $6 to my credit card will get me unlimited rides for the next 24 hours. Longer-term users of 30 days or the whole April-November bicycling season pay $30 or $65, respectively, which is much more reasonable. Additional trip fees are incurred if the bike is away from a station for more than 30 minutes, so the program is definitely geared towards folks who just need to take a short ride around town, not for long-term cyclers. Monthly or yearly subscribers also receive a small, plastic key with an RFID tag for their account which gives them immediate access to a bike from any station; less frequent users have to put a credit card into a card machine at one end of the station to gain access to a bike. Many other cities across the country and the world have similar programs, so you can get locations of stations and availability of bikes data from the SpotCycle app for your smartphone.

The bicycles themselves are simple but functional. The bike is rather heavy and well-built. It comes with only three gears, so don't expect going very fast. But you can get the bike going fast enough; there's just not that acceleration that you would get from a fancier bike. The bike does not have large treads on the wheels and is thus designed for the many trails of Minneapolis/St. Paul and the city streets. The bike does come with a rack on the handlebars with the potential to carry a bag, although it seems to me you would need to have a bit more tools with you to secure something on there. Overall, it's a functional bike, but nothing you'd want o own personally. After my ride, I did read on the Nice Ride FAQ page that I'm actually a bit over their maximum weight limit, but I'm not sure that this will stop me from using the service again.

This morning, I was able to take a city bus to a nearby Nice Ride station. From there, I biked 3-4 miles into downtown to run some errands. Since my bike is currently broken, it was nice to be able to just pick up a bike, go on a ride, and then just leave it at my destination and take the bus home. There are stations nearby many bus and train stops, and especially for downtown, there is a Nice Ride station within a block or two of any location. Since I am personally uncomfortable biking after dark due to my poor eyesight, I can see myself biking to a concert or other evening event and then being able to take the bus or light rail home that night. You don't have to worry about locking up a bicycle and it getting stolen, you just deposit the bike at a nearby station.

Yes, it's a helpful service, but will I be getting a yearly subscription? Not right now. I currently live in the Highland area, a couple miles from the nearest station. If there was a station only a short walk from my apartment, I would be very likely to purchase a subscription and use it for a bit of fresh air while heading around town. It definitely makes sense to start up a service like this in the downtowns and more populated neighboring areas, but I hope it continues to expand throughout the cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul.

Another question about this service is: Can it be profitable? Yes, it is organized as a non-profit right now and is heavily supported by local corporations, but is it profitable? Could it be profitable? A non-profit can be one way to kickstart a business, but but is this always something that will be around as usage grows and the donors dwindle? It seems that most other U.S. metros that have similar programs have them set up in a similar way, so only time may tell, I suppose.


The Olympics Broadcast: Is It An #NBCfail?

It's been over two years since the last Olympic Games, and four years since the last Summer Olympics. Broadcasting the Summer Olympics exclusively since 1988 and the Winter Olympics since 2002, U.S. broadcaster NBC has cemented itself as the Olympics network. (Incidentally, NBC has already secured broadcast rights of every upcoming Olympics through 2020.) During the games, for years, they have pre-empted nearly all of their network programming to bring at least 12 hours per day of coverage over broadcast. With the advent of cable TV over the last 20 years, much more coverage has been added on various affiliated cable channels. At this point, NBC really has this Olympics broadcasting thing down to a science. And their broadcasts are great. For the past week, I've watched about 6 hours of coverage per day, maybe even a bit more. If watching NBC is your only exposure to the Olympics coverage, then you have nearly no reason to be dissatisfied. But, then again, with the latest advances of the Internet, we have been taught to demand more.

Without my Elgato EyeTV USB TV Tuner and DVR software, I would probably not be watching any of the Olympics. Through the TV Guide built into the software, I can record all the Olympics I want. I can skip through the commercials. I can press pause whenever I want to make dinner or change the laundry, then come back and resume it later. Most of the world may not have this functionality incorporated with their broadcast TV tuner, but they are increasingly used to being able to find it later on YouTube, Hulu, or other services. In this area, NBC Sports is definitely a bit behind the curve. Yes, their website is full of highlights videos, so I could see the last 30 seconds of last Sunday's Women's Cycling Road Race, but I could not watch the last 10 minutes of the race on demand, which is the part I missed while I was at church. If they were to server the audience as best as possible, viewers could watch any event after it happened. The so-called "experts" at these major media companies say they cannot put the same amount of advertisements into the content, but I disagree. I just want to watch it when I want, and it shouldn't matter to Chevy, Proctor & Gamble, and Visa if I watch it in primetime tonight or during my workout tomorrow morning; I'm still a valuable customer.

One solution I've not yet mentioned is on the NBC Olympics website. They advertise being able to watch every event live and offer the ability to replay many events that are not going to be aired later on TV. However, what they don't mention is that you have to be a subscriber of one of their partner cable providers. That is, if I was buying cable service, I could watch every event live. How does this make any sense? I just checked, and for $20 more per month than I currently pay for Comcast internet service, we could get this feature, but at that price, we still wouldn't get any of the NBC affiliate channels who are broadcasting many events such as Tennis and Basketball live. So, most likely, to get most things via cable, you'd be paying $30/month for cable TV service. Most likely, NBC Universal, which is now at least partially owned by Comcast, gets somewhere between $2 and $5 of that $30 I'd be paying monthly. Apparently, I'm in the 50% of American TV-viewing households who do not pay $12-$60 per year to NBC, therefore I don't deserve access to their content whenever I want. Also, apparently I am not worth being the target of much marketing, because none of that extra money you are paying means that you get to see less advertisements; you pay the privilege to see more content with just as much advertising in it. As far as I can figure, if NBC really wanted to make money off of advertising, they would want me to watch as much content, with ads intelligently inserted. But no, I have to pay to be advertised to maximally. That makes no sense to me.

Also, today's Internet culture makes everything a real-time affair. Enough people around the world are watching live, and if you are on Twitter or Facebook at all, you will find the results before NBC gets around to broadcasting it. This was not a problem two years ago with the Vancouver winter games, where the time is the same as the U.S. West Coast, and therefore nearly everything can be broadcast live. But with a six-hour time difference, most of the night's major events are happening just after lunch on this side of the pond. Again, this works pretty well if all you are watching is NBC's broadcast, but not if you are looking at any other news sources. (Although, NBC has had a problem or two of spoiling it for fans accidentally as well.) This afternoon, when Michael Phelps was competing in the 4x200M Swimming Final, possibly his last competition at the Olympics ever, it was not broadcast live. At least one viewer (who apparently has paid for cable) was complaining on Twitter that the stream was failing. It wasn't that his local internet access was not working, most likely, it was that NBC/YouTube's live streaming servers couldn't handle the hundreds of thousands of Americans who wanted to watch the race live. This, actually, is currently an Internet architecture problem that can be fixed if companies like Comcast put up a bit of money to get IPv6 multicast working across their networks. Streaming live events to millions over the Internet is very hard today, from what I know about networking as it currently stands, and maybe that is why NBC does not want me to watch online. That, or maybe NBC is in bed with the cable companies to make sure they get their $3 from me to sell me more advertising.

Yes, that's a lot of minor problems that NBC has in today's fast-paced Internet world. In future Olympics, they are only going to get worse unless they keep working on this. But until then, I will watch 5 more hours of Olympics coverage tonight and keep watching more tomorrow. I guess I won't be watching in future years, though, NBC, unless you make it easier to catch the action between other live events of my live, which may be busier in the future.