Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Guns and Bicycles

After years of mental drought and increasing depression, I suddenly received a request for some cartoons to be used in political advertising by a local group. They wanted clear, simple cartoons to illustrate various current political issues.

The first one was easy. It supports environmental science in governmental policy. I was able to spruce up a piece I'd sent them as a sample and submit it as the pay copy. But the second assignment supports gun control. I wrote about this dilemma on Brain Lynt today, so I won't repeat the whole essay here.

I researched hunting rifles so that I could try to present a nuanced situation as fairly as possible in a literally black and white graphic. The political group takes a firm position, but the case is far from simple. The two sides throw statistics and Constitutional interpretations at each other, and neither side is convinced. One single sentence in our constitution has made the country a great place to be a homicidal paranoid. The group that has hired me supports the "assault weapon" ban, and other measures to restrict firing rate and magazine capacity. Those seem sensible, so I wanted to see what the counter-arguments were.

Being a peace and love hippie type, I never got into guns and gun culture. I've shot guns, and had them pointed at me, but I wasn't turned on by the hardware or the activity. I have a couple at home for defensive purposes, but there again I'm more likely to grab something else when I hear a noise at night. Maybe I'll regret my life choices when civilization collapses next month and we're all suddenly living in the wild west again, but I do hear that it's easy to get a gun whenever you want one. That's one of the primary arguments against gun control. Apparently, you can go to just about any shopping center parking lot and find an arms dealer peddling Glocks out of his trunk. Maybe. Probably not.

As I read through various lists of "best deer rifles" I saw how the reviewers included something for everybody. Militarily-styled rifles were on every list, but they were never the first choice. The reviewers included them for people who were already inclined that way.

Outsiders come at the gun control debate viewing gun owners and users as a monolithic block, the way outsiders come at debates over cycling viewing all riders as a monolithic block. As soon as you look a little more closely you find gun owners who support various controls, based on their own point of view, just as you find riders who support specific types of riding. You can find regular users in either general category -- gun owners or bike owners -- who will support points of view held by outsiders who are partly or entirely unfamiliar with the details of either activity. Because ownership of either guns or bicycles encompasses such a huge cross-section of the population, there are few broad-brush proposals that don't severely inhibit the freedom of some users. When you're dealing with an activity protected in the Bill of Rights, you can't just brush it off unless you want to consider letting some other constitutionally-protected things get brushed off.

Not every gun user likes all guns. Not every gun user uses them for their lethal potential. All guns do basically the same thing, go bang and make a little projectile come flying out of the tube, but the power and destination of that little projectile can differ widely. Bicycles all appear to work basically the same way and do basically the same thing, until you look more closely at where they're ridden and how.

Guns still kill more people than bicycles do. Even if a gun owner doesn't use it for its lethal potential, they weren't invented just for perforating paper or plinking cans. The desire to control their use is understandable. I support the concept. But the solution will not be something simple enough to depict in a single panel cartoon. As long as they're considered a legitimate part of daily life, and possession is enshrined as a right, any limitation on them risks impinging on what would be a justifiable use. Even militarily-styled weapons apparently have non-homicidal uses for lead-heads who want to deliver a lot of rounds in a hurry. If you're hunting something with no bag limit, that moves fast, you might want that quick-firing, shorter weapon. While I am not into killing for fun, and I wish no one else was either, that's a philosophical debate that can go on for several more centuries. In the meantime, it's legal in a lot of places.

Friday, September 14, 2018

More anti-cyclist infrastructure on the Cotton Valley Trail

As if riders didn't have enough to handle at the rail crossings, now they've added these slalom gates. Gossip says that the intent is to guide riders to the exact crossing point. The goofy yellow paint and the "no shit Sherlock" arrows are more unhelpful attempts to deflect liability by belaboring the obvious.

I will say that I have observed riders winging through the crossings at stupidly oblique angles and foolishly high speeds. The ones I saw managed to pull it off, but they obviously had no idea how lucky they were. So the gates prevent a rider from slicing off the corner. But they constrict traffic during heavy use periods, when the path can be a log jam of pedestrians and riders. And any minor error in alignment -- that you might have been able to correct -- risks catching a pedal on those orange posts. They're springy, to reduce the chances of impalement, but not so floppy that you could hook a pedal and just ride through it.

At least one crossing also has the heavy wooden sign post inconveniently -- not to say dangerously -- close to the crossing itself. Cyclists dismount indeed. That crossing is further out, closer to Bryant Road.

The intent is always to get riders to dismount. A rider who isn't riding isn't bothering anyone. That's true on roads or paths. But it isn't really true when a knot of pedestrians and riders tangles up in the confined space of a crossing that was already too small before the addition of the slalom gates.

The drive-to-ride crowd can drive somewhere else. Mountain biking has become entirely drive-to-ride. As dedicated trail networks proliferate for purely recreational forms of cycling, large blocs of the pedaling population are neatly removed from the traffic mix and feel less need to advocate for the freedom to ride everywhere.

Long distance transportation cycling isn't highly practical for the vast majority of people, but infrastructure should still be built to accommodate riders no matter what. A rider might make short hops on a long road, and long distance riders have rights, too. Most attention gets paid to built-up areas with denser populations. This compartmentalized approach is as wrong as wildlife management plans that focus only on one species, or too small a piece of habitat. Any trail that connects two relatively major points of interest needs to be considered from the transportation as well as recreation angle. Any trail that can be connected to the rest of the transportation network is part of that network.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

This could be yours

This stem, custom made in the early 1990s for a guy who is about 6-foot-14 1/2 inches tall, has been abandoned by its owner as part of a weird mutant bike built at the family compound on an old Sterling frame. He scraped off a bunch of the family's old junk on us, most of it early '80s road bikes with enormous frames.

They're a tall bunch.

The whole bike isn't worth much, but it has a couple of parts that could be useful for a home mechanic who wants some solid components from before The Great Cheapening. For instance, it has a forged crank, 74-110 BCD. Probably 175mm crank arms, so it's too long for me. And the derailleurs  are made of actual metal. It has top-mount, indexed thumb shifters with friction option. Early production mountain bikes were practical. They had indexing for convenience, but could be switched to friction if the indexing went out for any of a number of very possible reasons. The earliest models didn't even have indexing, because the first crack of dawn of the mountain bike era arrived just as index shifting was starting to make its way onto road bikes.

Plenty of room to mount your electronics on that long stem. Hell, sling a hammock.

They had this first-generation Rock Shox hanging around. A full inch and a half of travel! Ooooooh! Pump it up to about 12 psi. The first shock pumps used plastic syringes. The air valve was a rubber plug like you'd find on a basketball. And shock forks had to have a stop for the bridge wire of cantilever brakes. Check those crown bolts before every ride! You don't want the fork legs falling off, or the fork suddenly shortening so the tire hits the fork crown.

This bike has to handle very weirdly. That stem is totally crazy. I had a 150 on one bike, during the long stem era. Lots of mountain bikes had short top tubes, long stems, and narrow bars. Frame design evolved in the mid '90s, to longer top tubes and shorter stems. As evolution continued, stems got even shorter as bars got wider. I just packed a Karate Monkey for a guy who had sold it to someone on the west coast. Its handlebars are 31 inches wide. That's just ridiculous.
Too bad they're 31.8s. They would make a great combination with the crazy long stem.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Sensitivity Training

Still mulling over last Saturday's slapstick comedy in the parking lot.

Because human evolution has been physically invisible for longer than we've even had a name for it, we have to think about what we're doing and why we're doing it instead of just doing it. Not only do we have lots of instinctual behavior, we have philosophies attached to it and reflexive behavior taught to us to further complicate the candor of our reactions. And we haven't even figured out where our instinctive promptings reside. Some of us have mental and emotional images that don't match their physical bodies. Even the big fat blob in the middle of most bell curves has its own curves that make up that very average average. How much of what feels instinctive now is attached to physical brain and neural structures, and genetic coding, that could in time disappear? I don't mean a lifetime. I mean thousands of years, if we don't manage to annihilate our species well before then.

Say, on the other hand, that we have stalled physically, and all further evolution will have to continue to be philosophical. That makes all of it optional, especially as it pertains to personal freedom and interpersonal respect.

For behavior to be deemed improper, society must have standards of propriety. As we fumble our way toward a genuine respect for women, we come up against instinctive promptings that are a source of both outrage and comedy. We could always laugh at our instincts. The outrage is much newer, even if it is long, long overdue. Right now we've begun overthinking it as we begin to compensate for thousands of years of underthinking it.

"Trust your instincts" is some of the worst advice imaginable.

Question normality. You may affirm it, but make it justify itself. To tangle you up even more, never forget that it's your own brain analyzing your own brain. It's enough to make you say "screw it," and do what feels like it comes naturally. Let the audience decide.

While I joke that my recoil was prompted by the admonition to avoid uninvited physical contact with someone of the opposite sex, I also don't particularly like to grab onto people at all. I'll take it from my huggy friends, but it's not my first impulse. And I'm so accustomed to falling in various contexts without anyone there to catch me or help squeegee me up afterwards, I actually forget what it's like to be in a mutually dependent group. I vaguely recall that it could be nice. But it went away. It's too easy to fall into habits of isolation. Even when I'm with people I have this weird sense of looking at them from a distance, or through a screen. Oh wait, this is real? Oops.

Even at work, I spend most of my time working individually on the gratuitous complexities of machines that their own inventors don't even seem to understand. The longest conversations I have except on the day when I have another mechanic in the backshop are with my cats. It has its good points, but certainly a down side as well.

Saturday, September 08, 2018

You train yourself

You train yourself all the time, whether you are purposely practicing a discipline you want to perfect or just thinking about concepts you want to incorporate into your behavior.

As long as I have been in the bike business, articles in the trade publications have talked about making shops more welcoming to all sorts of riders. Female riders in particular criticized the elitist and sexist characters they met in some shops.

Because I learned most of my basic mechanical techniques and riding skills from a woman, I never thought that "girls" were inferior or did not belong in the pure realm of cycling. But just being your  average horny idiot is a gateway to inadvertent acts that could be construed as creepy by someone particularly sensitive. And any time you find yourself even temporarily being an above average horny idiot you can be sure that you've already made a pile and skidded through it. The job offers many opportunities to stand too close, or talk about personal things, or even lay a hand on someone under the pretext of biomechanics or bike fit.

The more attractive you find a person, the more you need to focus on the professional necessities of the encounter. It's fine to be friendly, but remember why the person came to the shop in the first place.

The recent surge of awareness of the constant barrage of unwanted male attention faced by so many women highlights the need to maintain a certain distance and reserve. Almost 30 years ago, I wouldn't hesitate to flirt with a customer I found attractive. I figured I was a good looking guy with a bright future, what's not to like? History has proven otherwise, but that shouldn't be the only reason I take a much more reserved approach. I figure that women need a break from even the hint of lust. The deeply buried horny center of my brain still tries to get my attention, but now I enjoy thwarting it while I laugh at its promptings.

Last week, a very attractive and friendly woman came into the shop on a ride with a male companion. They seemed like a couple, but not a gooey cooey kind of couple. They were on interesting bikes. Hers was an old Trek 520 touring bike. His was a Bridgestone XO. She asked questions about how riding position might relate to some calf pain she was having. She's a yoga instructor, and they both seem to work in fields where anatomy is important. They could name muscles that I used to be able to locate, but now the names are more like people I used to party with that I haven't seen in years. Soleus? Oh yeah, we used to hang out together. And gastrocnemius. I could tell you stories about gastrocnemius, oh yeah. I've had to cram my head with so much bike anatomy that my knowledge of human anatomy has faded like a fax in the sun.

The woman was riding in running shoes. I suggested that the pain started because she was trying to ride some stiff climbs in floppy shoes. Because she was using calf muscle to stiffen and stabilize her foot as well as provide power in the pedal stroke, it was shortening and tightening the muscles. We turned out not to have bike shoes to fit her, but while she was sitting to try on what we did have, she spotted a road bike hanging on a display hook. She ended up test riding the bike and putting it on hold.

Today they came to pick up her new road bike. She had new shoes that she'd picked up during the week, so she bought pedals to match. She'd never ridden clipless before. I gave her the usual instructions and warnings before we went down to the back parking lot to check her position on the bike.

"Remember that you have to twist your foot outwards," I said. "And release both feet when you're getting ready to stop, in case the bike happens to tip the opposite way from the one you'd expected."

She circled and landed successfully once. Because she was also practicing getting into the cleats, stopping and starting as we dialed in her riding position gave her a good opportunity for repetition. Around she came for another landing. She unclipped a foot...and it was the wrong one. Over she came, toward me.

"Never touch a woman without her consent," was the first message to my brain in the split second as she toppled toward me.

Yeah, so she hit the parking lot. She might have bounced off of me a little bit, but I had it so engrained in me to keep my hands to myself that it never occurred to me to grab her. I wasn't even sure if I should help her up. She's an athlete and a yoga instructor after all. And in the scrabble to regain dignity after suffering the newbie cleat fall, isn't it more empowering to let her take control as quickly as possible? Yeah, that's it: it was empowering. Empowering is good, right?

R-e-s-p-e-c-t. Yeah, buddy.

Fortunately, she was only a little scuffed up, and the bike was barely scratched. Scratched is even too strong a word. There was a bit of grit on it. I brought her some hydrogen peroxide to wash out the minor scrapes while we joked about how I had totally blown the trust fall.

Talking about it with my coworker afterward, he said, "So you weren't a creep, but you weren't a hero either."

The couple left on their shakedown cruise. They reported back just before closing time. It went well. So that's good. The goal is to put people happily on bikes.

Monday, September 03, 2018

Is the sad truth unavoidable?

A cartoonist and art teacher whose work I admire recently posted a piece in which he reveals that making art -- even making funny art -- for a living turns into as much of a boring grind as any job.

When I got to work last Wednesday, I thought, "There's nowhere else I'd rather be right now, and that makes me sad as hell, because I damn sure don't want to be here."

In all my years of incarceration in search of income, I either found things to like about what I was doing or could easily imagine what I would prefer to be doing as soon as I got the chance. When neither of those is true, what's left is bleak. I'm slogging forward out of nothing more than force of habit and the unfounded optimism of living things.

A few years out of college, I wrote to my independent study professor to suggest that the creative writing department include a course called The Day Job. While he responded to various other communications over the years, he never responded to that one. By basically drifting downstream rather than knowing where I was going and how to paddle effectively, I had ended up majoring in poetry rather than fiction. The professor, a poet, said that he'd been having to do a lot of academic writing and found that it drained his poetic energy as well. So even though his day job was closely related to his chosen creative path, it ended up as an obstacle to the kind of creativity he had expected to pursue.

The unfounded optimism of living things. Depression is manageable as long as the endless dull ache of an unidentifiable longing is preferable to the finality of nonexistence.

I believe that burnout is a function of temperament. Some people in nearly any profession you can name remain energetic and happy. It's probably another bell curve, with a blob in the middle experiencing fluctuating satisfaction, while each end reflects either a hum of happiness or unrelieved gloom.

As my work week began I felt like I was washed up and hadn't ever been much at best. I will still acknowledge that this might be true, but by the end of the week I felt like I regained some ground in my accidental profession. Modern bike componentry is a disease more than a cure, but I can bring myself to study it and treat it, because the sufferers still need succor. Because the symptoms are mental as well as physical, most of the sufferers don't know that they've been afflicted with an industrial disease. They think that they've purchased state of the art marvels that will serve them well for years, the way bikes always used to. Or they don't care if it lasts, because their interest won't either.

As recently as about 27 years ago, you really could spend top dollar on a bike -- particularly a road bike -- and have something that would give you pleasure for the rest of your life. Then came STI and the steady addition of cog after cog.

Consider the violin: Certain violins and other stringed instruments in the violin family from the 17th and 18th Century can command staggering prices not just because they are pretty pieces of cabinetry, but because they have all the audible and operational qualities that make a musical instrument desirable. Violins much younger can perform just as well, but they do so by adhering to qualities established centuries ago. You can also buy various mutants that make interesting and enjoyable noises, but the basic pattern remains so desirable that its extinction does not appear imminent. You can play all genres of music on it if you know the technique. You want to select one in your price range with the best playability and tone you can get. Then you meet its simplicity with your own willingness to practice.

The road bicycle frame was perfected before the middle of the 20th Century. All the strange looking frames you see today are still putting all of the critical contact points in the same position relative to the rider and the riding surface. But I've ridden that Draisine to death.

Mountain bikers face a bleaker future when it comes to technological enslavement. They're not going to be able to ride the way they want to ride without all those pivots, shock absorbers, and shifting and braking systems. All of those require maintenance or replacement at frequent intervals. Your hydraulic fluid goes bad even when the bike is stored. At least the DOT stuff does. It goes bad in the container and in your bike. If you've ever had brake fade, you created gas in the system that supposedly reabsorbs when the fluid cools, but never completely. And the absorbed water that made the brakes more prone to fade is still there, getting reinforcements by the day.

Shock seals dry out and pivot bearings rust, even in storage. You will pay in money and time to keep up with all of this relentless deterioration.

I, on the other hand, take my trusty road bike off the hook, pump up the tires, double check the chain lube, and go for a ride. The Cross Check even sees quite a bit of unpaved road and trail, and still gives very little trouble. I just replaced its original bottom bracket, installed in 2001, probably about 18,000 miles ago. I vaguely recall putting another one in there, but I don't seem to have written it down, and the one I took out is the right vintage to be 2001. But I could have stockpiled it. So maybe I only had 9,000 or 10,000 hard miles on the BB. Still pretty good, though.

The day job still eats my creative time and energy. When I could get by on less sleep, I could at least try to scratch out a drawing or a piece of writing in the scraps of time before or after work. I still held out the hope that I could produce something of publication quality in either genre. But now I find that a real professional is someone who has done so much for so long that it's less enjoyable than the morning bowel movement. It's more like just scooping the mental litter box for hours. I missed my opportunity to burn out on being a creative professional.

On the other hand, I entered the Union of Concerned Scientists cartoon contest four times and made the calendar three. I have actually gotten paid for some cartoon work, and for some writing. It was never enough to qualify as my living for tax purposes, but not because I was trying to pull a fast one. I just kept getting blown out of the groove.

Robert Pirsig is famous for basically one book. So is Harper Lee. So even if you don't manage to reach saturation and feel imprisoned by your former passion, you can still contribute works of value to humanity as a whole.

The basic problem facing cartoonists is the crappy pay scale. A few -- very few -- might manage to hit syndication and licensing deals, as well as crossover productions, that bring them financial comfort and actual fame. If a cartoonist springs to your mind, and you're not a fan and student of the art, you are probably naming one of these few. There's not much middle class in the cartooning world. Even when there was, the ink-stained wretches did have to slave at the drawing board for workday hours. It was their job, just like the steel mill or the garment factory or the offices of IBM. So the whole free expression part of it was always a bit elusive. A cartoonist for a big newspaper or commercial art house lived as a king's favorite, with the threat of beheading always in the background.

My friend suffers from the additional burden of artistic standards. He has a masters degree in fine arts. He composes his panels with all of those principles in mind. His draftsmanship is depressingly precise and clean. He has mastered not only the traditional techniques of ink and paper, but the digital techniques now de rigeur in graphic design. That means investing in hardware and software and spending time to learn how to use it.

Digital art and art editing make a piece of line art multiply useful because the digitized image can be copied and toned and colored in multiple different ways without having to be redrawn. The original can then be finished using traditional techniques and be available for gallery viewing or sale. I have not mastered any digital techniques. My old scanner might still work. The computer to which I had it hooked up is an old XP machine that I don't let out to play on the Internet anymore. My tentative attempts to use some software that a friend gave me didn't go well. And then concerns of daily life dragged me out of the studio because it wasn't my livelihood, so I couldn't shut the door and insist on finishing projects that never really coalesced anyway.

I used to really love sitting in a pool of light, working on a drawing with the smell of coffee and India ink mingling around me. I was dragged away from it so many times that being interrupted became the habit. Interruption is the enemy of flow. That's true no matter what you're doing. In every draft of my never-finished novel I would come back from any interruption with a disruptively different view of everything, whether the interruption was a single shift at the day job or months in the service of other people's needs. Eventually starting over becomes too painful because interruption seems inevitable. Why bother when the world has plenty of great creative stuff already made by people who managed to fight their way through the crap or got lucky and found a tunnel underneath it?

Writing does seem to survive interruption more easily than quality artistic rendering does. I don't find drawing easy, which is obvious from the stiff and overworked, yet still crude, look of my finished work. But thoughts in words can be scribbled and then typed, connected and reconnected like mechanical parts to make little vehicles for the mind. Readers can hop on or in them. Maybe when time permits, more elaborate, rooted edifices can be built: mind palaces rather than bikes and scooters and little camper trailers.

I will never give up the hope of enjoying what I do for a living. If it does not reward you in some way other than financially, it probably isn't a very good thing to be doing in the first place.

Sunday, September 02, 2018

Naive bike nerds

At lunch one day I was leafing through a book that Specialized put out to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Stumpjumper mountain bike.

The copy in one of their early ads caught my eye. It was pure biketopian dreaming.

See where it says, "...you'll find you're riding more and driving less." Bike nerds still believed that they could entice Americans out of their automobiles. The leaders of the industry had come through the ten-speed boom of the 1970s. A national organization promoting bike touring had sprung up in 1976 under the name Bikecentennial, which lives on today as Adventure Cycling. Bike nerds knew, we just knew, that if we could just get enough people to try riding that they would abandon their cars en masse and join us in the fresh air and sunshine of a cleaner, more humane world.

Oh, and we're all probably faster than you are, but don't let that discourage you. Just ride more!

Each boom did see a rise in cycling participation in the real world. Mountain bikes, ostensibly designed for trail riding, were based on road designs because the early ones were improvised on road frames. They were not racing frames, but all bikes were a product of the roads and roads were a product of bikes. Once the genre was separated, mutation followed, but it took a while. All life traces to a common ancestor, but a giraffe is not a weasel and a fish is not a bird.

The bike nerds were up against sheer population growth and an economy devoted to the pursuit of wealth powered by an internal combustion engine. Even if wealth meant mere survival at a grub job, of course you would drive to it. And when you got a better job, you'd get a better car. Duh! If you couldn't afford a car, you'd take a bus or maybe ride a bike until you could afford a car. It's called being normal.

The Chinese were famous for their herds of thousands of bike commuters before they embraced creeping capitalism and their economy revved up. The first thing they did was ditch the bikes and get cars. Pollution and traffic deaths soared. But people were getting rich.

It's nice to see the Chinese now taking steps to reverse the environmental damage of their surge of industrialization. Bike sharing has become a major social and economic experiment there. We'll see how it plays out. The level of damage, loss, and wear and tear on the share-bike fleets may have people pining to own their own bikes again because they can control the use and care that they get. But then they're back to the problem of theft.

The lack of safe riding routes and secure parking present probably the two biggest deterrents to transportation cycling. You're as free as a bird on your bike, but whole populations of birds have been wiped out by people with shotguns or nest-plundering predators. Or you get sucked into the engine of a jet.

Humans have a tendency to project the future. The ability to imagine consequences has helped us over the eons, but the problems we create demonstrate the limits of those powers of prediction. We might not know for years or decades whether we've made things fundamentally better or worse by doing something that seemed initially helpful. And every generation judges a future it won't live to see by the standards of its past and present. To the extent that humans have hit a plateau in physical evolution and that our mental and emotional responses seem fairly firmly set, perhaps a generation can suggest standards by which its descendants should live. But the descendants are the ones who will actually be living under those standards, so it's really their call.

I still believe that the bike nerd view was a good one, and that our species has suffered by pushing it aside. But no one can control the outcome. The bike industry itself is the aggregate total of mostly bad decisions. It is a microcosm of society in that way. As an industry, it has to try to survive in the reality of its times.