Review: A month with MonkeyLectric LED Light System for Bikes

m132s_live3.jpg

In Flann O’Brien’s surrealist masterpiece The Third Policeman, the anonymous one-legged protagonist (who is also dead, but don’t worry too much about that) incites a riot in the Irish countryside amongst his fellow one-legged countrymen. The local constable, thinking quickly, puts the riot down the only way he knows how: he paints his bicycle an impossible color and rides it by the rampaging amputee horde. Consequently, they all go mad.

I’ve always wanted a bike like that. Perhaps not one that turns onlookers minds into a gelatin-like slurry, but a surrealist bicycle. Because, if you think about it, there is something inherently weird about the bicycle. With its chittering gears, bristling spokes and spinning chains, there is something insect-like about its workings… a mental connection evoked by its best synonym, velocipede… a synonym which seems to share both etymologic and entomologic phylum with the centipede.

I’m not the only one to be fascinated by the bike’s innate oddity. Bicycles are often used in art as symbols of the inherently absurd: children’s books are filled with magic or living bikes, and the penny-farthing is such a marvelously implausible method of transportation that it is constantly used as the butt of jokes in television shows. The penny-farthing was also the logo of Patrick McGoohan’s hallucinatory sci-fi spy series, The Prisoner: the bike, by itself, was a symbol of the surrealness to come.

There are few pleasures in life purer than bicycling around on a bright, brisk day. This is because bikes are already just wonderfully odd inventions… making a bike even stranger is less an act of mechanical eccentricity than an attempt to pass the pleasure of riding one to the people you cycle past, emphasizing to them what they forgot: the bicycle’s marvelous strangeness.

I wanted a bike like that. So I started looking for ways to transform my own bike into something weirder. But I have no real mechanical skills, nor could I really afford some custom bizarro mod. There’s also the mundanely practical: in Berlin, a bike that you actually intend to ride must either be locked up every day or have its excellence camouflaged from nomadic bicycle thieves. Any bike that looks one of a kind will be stolen, repainted and sold at the Mauer Park flea market within moments.

Ultimately, then, I decided upon the MonkeyLectric m132s LED Light System as my paint coat of impossible color.

The MonkeyLectric is made and sold by known home-brew joygiver Dan Goldwater, the founder of Instructables. The website describes the device drily: “The MonkeyLectric m132s is a revolutionary bike light that keeps you visible – and in style. Its ruggedized design is perfect for daily commuters, urban cyclists, casual evening riders, BMX, festivals – anyone that wants to be visible after dark and not feel like a second class citizen.” But the pictures and movies are what do the selling: bicycles with wheels like hallucinatory, out-of-control Ferris Wheels. An electric kool aid acid test contained within your bike’s spokes.

I was sold. I got two, one for each wheel.

Turned off, the m132s is decidedly more subtle than the pictures on the MonkeyLectric site make it out to be. In fact, the MonkeyLectric is only a black, weatherproofed circuit board that the official instruction sheets commands you to tie to the inside of your spokes with plastic pulls. The battery case is exposed, and three AAs are actually velcroed in place to power it (a curious design decision, since the batteries are not weatherproof, and seem to easily short out in even a light misting). A straight line of LEDs aligns with a spoke; they can be triggered on-or-off by pushing a number of plastic buttons on the circuit board, each of which push the MonkeyLectric through a random oscillation of colorful blinkings and spun rainbow patterns.

One of the disappoints someone who purchases a MonkeyLectric will have to face is that one m132s is not enough to turn your wheel into a polychromatic spool of LED flame. At least two are needed per wheel to get anything close to the pictures on the website. After installing the MonkeyLectrics on both wheels, I wasn’t happy with the results, and instead decided to shift both boards to the front wheel. The end product was exactly what I wanted: as I gave the wheel a test spin, I was confronted with a drum of psycho-photonic cotton candy that cast the courtyard in wonderfully weird, brightly colored gloamings.

It made me giddy. I remember thinking to myself that this was a real gadget. It didn’t just temporarily fill a consumeristically produced void in my ego; it caused a genuine emotional reaction, like a pretty girl or a puppy, and that made my heart to quiver with fondness. I got all giggly. I wanted to share it with someone. So I ran upstairs, knocked on my neighbor’s door, and asked him if he’d bring his three-year old son outside. I spun the wheel for him: he sighed, giggled, then started wildly laughing and jumping up and down. His pupils glowed like plasma globes. I knew exactly how he felt: I was sharing the MonkeyLectric with the peer of my own inner child.

But what happened next shook me. As I kept on spinning the wheel faster and faster, the kid extended one purply finger and tried to touch the light. He was hypnotized. I reacted quickly, stopping the wheel with my hand before the extended digit could be spit out in meat paste out the other side of the spoke.

Everything was fine. But I was startled. There seemed to be some lesson in this: people react unexpectedly to the unexpected.

The last month has underlined that lesson a dozen times. I’m always happiest with the MonkeyLectrics than when I decide around dusk to take my bike for a spin around the park, and see people stop and point and laugh as I cruise by them, laughing and asking “Wie geht es Ihnen?”

But it’s only in these controlled environments of innocence where the MonkeyLectrics actually make me feel happy, make my bicycle seem more magical. Far more common is cycling past the KulturBrauerei as the disco gets out, only to have club-goers scream insults at me, or dangerously try to block me on the bike path, looking for a fight. Berlin drunks are a consistent problem: by being noticable, you make yourself a target, and I’ve had a couple of beer bottles hurled at me as I’ve ridden home from the pub, late at night. The police have stopped me, complaining that the MonkeyLectrics are flagrant violations of Germany’s rigid bicycle laws. And while I initially shrugged it off, the cops were right: the MonkeyLectrics’ visual noise has made me a more visible bicyclist at night, but contrary to the website’s claim, it is actually to my peril. Motorists don’t know what I am when they see me coming in their mirror. At night, you can’t really see, so you drive primarily by identifying standardized patterns of light and extrapolating from them vehicles and obstacles. But when I use the MonkeyLectrics, motorists see the lights, but I don’t look like a bicycle: their minds go to ambulances and police. They get spooked. They swerve. American bicyclists may be used to unpredictable drivers threatening life and limb, but Berliners are used to bicycles and are comfortable with accommodating them on the roads. That the MonkeyLectrics were actually causing motorists to drive more dangerously around me was undeniable.

The MonkeyLectrics are still on my bike, of course. I do love them. As trite as it may be to say, by making my bike more strange and special, they make me feel the same way. But ultimately, there’s something to the Third Policeman comparison. The MonkeyLectrics do paint my bicycle an impossible color. And it does seem to drive some people quite mad.

MonkeyLectric [Official Site]

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21 Responses to Review: A month with MonkeyLectric LED Light System for Bikes

  1. Anonymous says:

    My wife and I both had MonkeyLectric lights on our front and rear wheels at Burning Man this year. Lots of people stopped to stare (no small accomplishment in Black Rock City), and several asked where they could get some. I was concerned about the durability of the lights under playa conditions, but they held up fine.

  2. padster123 says:

    Nice, but the fact that it is mounted with zip ties means it is impractical in the city. Some dickhead will try to cut it off, and probably succeed.

    Better if it easily clipped and unclipped. Like my other lights.

  3. sushispook says:

    hokeyspokes is doing a promotion where you can buy 2, and get the 3rd for free… i know their site is like slowly jamming skittles into your ocular cavity over a period of hours, but if you dig, you can find the link.

    i had a minor cock-up with my order (no thanks to the flipperbabies at paypal), and within the hour, the owner called me, got it sorted, and put my kit out for shipping. if nothing else, i’m pretty darned impressed with the customer service.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Despite the other people raving about the BBgadgets writing style, I find it overly verbose and that decreases the signal to noise ratio thus making it harder to get details on whatever they are posting about. I read BBG for cool stuff, not commentary on cool stuff.

  5. Waterlilygirl says:

    RangerPretzel- I was being factitous about welding… I can just picture melting my 15 year old Cannondale frame into something totally unusable… not that I ride it anymore since moving outside of the city and either walk or drive everywhere now. How hot does aluminum have to be to melt?

  6. Anonymous says:

    LOL, I was giddy with laughter before I even went to the website and saw the product. Amusing writeup, to say the least. So you had beer bottles thrown at you? Amazing! I love to ride at night, in San Diego we have great weather but the car culture of SoCal has left the streets fairly dangerous and the police have no problem, even commend, the 5 lights at appx. 1000 lumens of led blindness across my bars. I consider it an equalizer vs day riding, when I can’t compete with the visual mass of 4000 lbs of steel.
    Re: security, look at my sig (all bikes are 50lbs!) and why I sort of collect bike locks:
    http://forums.mtbr.com/member.php?u=308709
    you don’t put $3000+ of ti on wheels and walk away from it without serious protection, though I don’t leave it long. Your ABUS are supposedly the best- maybe when the exchange rate is more friendly…. (the best lock…. is two different ones!)

  7. bosteye says:

    Thank you for such a stunning essay especially the first four paras including the comparison to an insect & the bike’s “innate oddity”.

    The language is to die for. I’ve saved a copy in my fav_writings folder to revisit and savor in an uninterrupted luxurious read.

    I don’t happen to like bicycle riding, being a devoted walker easily intimidated by those mountain bikers who take over the sidewalks.

    However, the bicycle has always captured my eye with each new giddy add-on. I’ve gone up close with my camera, got down to the ground for straight ahead shots of the wheel and spokes, its shadows making incredible prints on the hot city pavement.

  8. cubby96 says:

    One of the reasons I really enjoy reading BBG is that you guys are some of the best writers in the gadget biz, especially John. Thanks for the continued entertainment.

  9. Waterlilygirl says:

    John, if these lights got you to blog about bicycles like this then you should check out Boston/ New England’s local biking gang called SKUL. Here is a link to the site- their are pictures of some of the chop jobs.

    http://scul.org/pm/index.php

    I’m not a part of it but I it makes me want to find some scrap metal and take a welding torch to my bike frame

  10. lmhooo says:

    At this point the only difference between you and Tim Rogers is the comparatively merciful fact that Rogers kept himself to one subject.

  11. lmhooo says:

    At this point the only difference between you and Tim Rogers is the comparatively merciful fact that Rogers kept himself to one subject.

    http://www.usome.com

  12. lmhooo says:

    These lights would be great for parades, i’m pretty darned impressed with the customer service

  13. Anonymous says:

    At this point the only difference between you and Tim Rogers is the comparatively merciful fact that Rogers kept himself to one subject.

    – JR

  14. Drew Blood says:

    I immediately guessed the reaction you’d get with those things unfortunately. Living in a city where bikers are not common, especially not at night, I already am harassed regularly on my rides, have had bottles thrown (have been hit in the head actually), cars will ride my tail and blow their horn, and have tried to force me off overpasses. The more I ride, the more I agree with the passage early in Stephenson’s Zodiac that recommends riding like you’re being hunted as the safest way to do it. Ride hard, be completely paranoid, and keep all your lights off. The more visible you become, the more of a target you are.

    These lights would be great for parades, or in a city that loves bikes like Austin or SF. West Texas, not so much. Apparently not Berlin either.

  15. John Brownlee says:

    “I read BBG for cool stuff, not commentary on cool stuff.”

    It’s time to start reading every single other gadget blog but BBG then.

  16. RangerPretzel says:

    Waterlilygirl: I ride with SCUL occasionally. Surprisingly, most SCUL Pilots don’t have that many fancy lights for their ships. The leader of the gang does have a very large disco ball mounted to his, though. (It’s super fun to have that thing around…)

    I’ve never heard of these MonkeyLectric lights for bikes, but I do have a set of “Hokey Spokes” for my ride. The effect is the same, I think. They’re a great way to light up one’s bike.

    As for chopping bikes, I don’t think you want to use a torch. I’ve always used a MIG welder to create my choppers.

  17. Anonymous says:

    RangerPretzel@5: I remember finding out about Hokey Spokes and being delighted at the possibilities. Unfortunately, they were too expensive then. How many have you mounted, and what colour(s)?

    Judging from their websites, the differences between Hokey Spokes and MonkeyLectrics seem to be:

    – MonkeyLectric is true full-color, while a Hokey Spoke is either single color or a fixed rainbow
    – MonkeyLectric spokes cycle through their programming independently, while Hokey Spokes synchronize (via infrared, possibly?)
    – MonkeyLectrics look like ruggedized circuit boards with an open battery holder, Hokey Spokes seem to be completely encased and waterproof
    – to get a nice, full spread around most of the wheel at most speeds, you would need two MonkeyLectric spokes at 65$ each or three Hokey Spokes at 30$ each

    RangerPretzel, Mr. Brownlee: any comments on maintenance and durability?

    To me, the MonkeyLectric color patterns look cooler, not only because they’re full color, but because they’re, humm, more alive, less static. But 130$ for a nice full-color flashy front wheel seem no less decadent than 90$ for a nice single-color flashy front wheel.
    One more item on the “should I ever win the lottery” list…

  18. Tensegrity says:

    nice spoilers

  19. Waelwulf says:

    Another genius piece of writing from you Brownlee. It stands among such classics as your previews for Viva Pinata and The WarChiefs.

  20. bobk says:

    Here’s a cheaper alternative: tireflys. They’re led’s (with button batteries) that screw onto your tire valve and turn on when in motion:
    http://www.tireflys.com/bicycle.html
    I saw them on display in Walmart (only looking!) and plan to buy them anywhere else soon.

  21. Pete says:

    The moment I saw the MonkeyLectric system it reminded me of Lady Ada’s SpokePov kits. They are reprogrammable LED displays you insert into wheels.

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