Tuesday, August 29, 2017

A (blank) is a hole in the (blank) into which you pour money

The phrase is applied to boats (a hole in the water into which you pour money), aircraft (a hole in the sky into which you pour money), horses (a hole in the field into which you pour money), and pretty much anything else you can think of.

This week, for me, a car is a hole in the road into which you pour money. My mechanic had already told me we should schedule a timing belt pretty soon, and there was a little piece of exhaust system basically right off the manifold that hadn't gotten changed during the last exhaust system project in the spring, when the older exhaust system had failed prematurely and been replaced under warranty. The car was sounding sportier and sportier as I tried to find time to schedule the repairs.

Thursday night, on the way home from music class, I was buzzing up Route 16 at the mode average speed of 60+ when the car suddenly got much louder. Beneath the roar of the engine was another component that I couldn't identify.

I had to stop for a few groceries, so I slowed when I got to the shopping center. At that point I could hear that the undertone was scraping metal. The exhaust pipe was dragging on the road. One big plus: people don't tend to tailgate you when you have a fountain of sparks billowing out from under the rear of the car. Big minus: you have a fountain of sparks billowing out from under the rear of the car. Actually, I don't know how showy it might have been. I saw nothing in my mirrors to tip me off.

I scraped my way to a parking spot and peered beneath the car. Then I called my mechanic. That's the advantage of going to a guy who is basically nocturnal. I can call him from a supermarket parking lot at 8 p.m. to discuss the situation. Of course I am totally out of luck if I have a problem before lunch time...

On the drive from the supermarket to the house, I discovered that the Ossipee road crew had spent the day dumping tons of chip stone on Elm Street. It looked like a gravel road. I had to assume there was some sort of tar sealant under several inches of loose rock, but you couldn't detect it. I crawled along, listening to the loose pipe bounce around, hitting various things on the undercarriage. I waited for it to take out a tire, a brake line, or the gas tank. With both a bike and my fiddle in the car, I would have had to move fast if the vehicle burst into flames. But it didn't.

I pulled into the driveway in an arc, so that I could pull out again without backing up, but I wasn't about to take the car back out on the road without securing or removing the dangling 4 feet of muffler pipe. It had detached just ahead of the muffler.

The next evening after work I devised a rig with a pipe and wire, some toe straps and duct tape, to hold the loose section up while I piloted the car to Gilford. Then I went to bed early so I could get up and out of the house by 6:30 in the morning. That was the plan, anyway.

The jury rig on the exhaust pipe held up perfectly. Traffic was a little slow in a couple of critical places. I got to Gilford knowing I couldn't sprint the 27 miles to Wolfe City by 9 a.m., but at least the car was there for the mechanic to examine as soon as he got the chance. I don't really need it until September 6, but it might come in handy before then. The mechanic works alone, and he was buried in big jobs that had come in ahead of mine.

I slammed my remaining 12 ounces of morning coffee and started down the road. After a hundred yards or so , I realized that I'd locked the car with the spare keys inside it, so I whipped around to unlock it with the key fob on my own set. I heard the locks click open, and started off again. I'd forgotten that the doors would automatically re-lock if I didn't open one of them within about 30 seconds. I was well out of earshot when the car made that noise.

For some weird reason, I felt really strong and did not have to stop for a whiz every four miles. I'd worried about that when I guzzled the coffee, but it was a good cup. Now I was finding out how good. On my hefty Surly, with lights, fenders, and the day's supplies of clothing and food, I was pushing 19-20 mph quite a bit of the time. Purely unintentional I assure you. I let any climb slow me down as much as it wanted.

Despite a pretty sporty performance for an old fart on a heavy bike, my average was not good enough to get me to work anywhere near on time. But my shame-fueled efforts on arrival were good enough to mollify the high command, after a bit of scratchiness.

The mechanic called around 1 p.m. to ask where I'd left the key, because the car was locked. I cursed the automatic security feature, but I appreciated the sitcom aspect. The audience would have gotten to see and hear the car re-lock itself after I rode away. I asked if he needed me to call AAA.

"No," he said. "I can get in."

"With a brick?" I asked. He knew I was kidding. I was ready to wing a brick at the car just for that automatic locking trick.

"No, I have a real lock-out kit." He also told me where he stashes the key on cars of this type, to avoid such problems in the future.

The riding season began with a couple of periods of forced carlessness. Now another one puts a closing bracket around at least the summer. As usual, I will keep riding as long as I can into the cold and darkness.

The chip-stone on Elm Street improved only gradually over the next couple of days. I rode out on Monday on a fixed gear with panniers to get more grocery items. Drifts of stone at the right edges made it dicey when traffic forced me over there. I've mostly quit trying to herd them. The ones who will be safe will be safe, and the ones who will be assholes turn into even bigger assholes when you try to force them to be safe.

On the way home from the grocery store I saw the Ossipee road crew with a street sweeper and a couple of dump trucks, trying to tame the mess a bit. I'm sure residents along the road have been screaming. Parked cars are covered with an inch of dust. The clouds of grit have settled on lawns, shrubbery, and buildings close to the road.

The horseless carriage was an improvement over the horse because it was durable, repairable, and did not need to be fed while it was idle. But cars now are not durable or repairable, and they rot and harbor vermin when they're left idle for very long. We shell out thousands of dollars every few years to buy new ones, and spend millions on roads and shelters for them. The horse starts to make economical sense again.

The bicycle is what really makes sense. Called "the poor man's horse" in the late 19th Century, when sales of the relatively expensive machines were surprisingly strong among people below the luxury class, bicycles represented transportation independence and increased cruising range that made them worth the investment. They were simple, durable, easily repairable, and did not eat when idle. They could fit in a shelter much smaller than a barn.

We can't have the lower classes living well on modest incomes, now can we? Goodness knows it's hard enough to get the lazy sluggards to put in an honest day's work for their pittance, and keep striving for more. Who knows what mischief they'll get up to if they aren't constantly toiling to purchase expensive necessities from companies owned by their employers and social superiors? We can't do company towns and stores anymore, at least not overtly, but we can certainly build infrastructure that serves only a certain size and speed of vehicle really well.

This trap was not planned. It grew from the prosperity of industrial societies. The fact that this prosperity was digging industrial society into a hole was talked about very little as life just seemed to be getting better and better among the demographic sectors attractive to advertisers. Screw the rest of the world. Right here in Happyville, things are going great, and they're only getting better.

Holes seem to be a theme here. Consumer society is a hole in the planet that you pour money into. Unfortunately, it grows from natural instincts to devour, trample, shit, and walk away. Because our salvation depends on being smarter and better than that, what we will get instead is a Malthusian collapse, and a species reduced in numbers and destructive powers, but probably no wiser. We can and will rebuild our numbers and destructive powers. It's what we do.

I can imagine instead a rational civilization in which motor vehicle use is limited to necessities like maintenance of the non-motorized transportation system, emergency vehicles, and not much else. Hell, I can imagine a lot of nice things. And I like to. I just know better than to hope or expect. I'll keep the idea alive for whoever might find it before the beacon goes out.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Riding in the wrong direction

First off, congratulations are due to Alice Lethbridge on breaking Beryl Burton's 1967 record for longest distance cycled in 12 hours. A 12-hour ride is a serious physical challenge.

On a social media comment thread, I took some serious jabs for pointing out that the carbon fiber spaceship Lethbridge rode is a far cry from Beryl's 1967 rig. Some riders got what I meant, but the modernists called me an "armchair cyclist" and a "bellend." While I do love British insults, the modernists and the worshippers of competitive achievement miss my point, as usual.

Maybe the problem is the way records themselves are recorded. We get a name, a date, and a distance or time. The format itself implies equivalence in all other factors. If that were true, then the entire aero bike segment of the industry is a giant scam. If it's not a scam, then the bike needs to be featured prominently as a huge contributing factor. Yes, it diminishes the athlete. Athletes accept diminishment all the time for the sake of technologies that will make a grueling task slightly easier. One would expect -- all athletes being equal -- that improved technology would make records fall at regular intervals. But Beryl's record stood for 50 years.

Photo credit: Road cc.
took 50 years to beat this:

There have been plenty of intermediate steps in aerodynamic evolution. No rider in all that time managed to exceed the performance of the phenomenal Beryl Burton. That leads to another point: If records are the province of phenomenal people, what do they really mean for the rest of us? They indicate a high point attainable by the right person with the right training, and they give us something to say gee whiz about. But athletes will perform on whatever is available. I bet if you compared the relative prices of Beryl's bike and Alice's, Alice's would still be more expensive, even allowing for inflation. How does that trickle down to the majority of riders?

In automobiles, evolution led to vehicles that are lighter, faster, more fuel efficient (sometimes), flimsier, harder to work on, and basically disposable. Early cars were made to stand up to the abuse of the roads they had to use. Later, the makers still stuck to the old standard under which people built things to last. Only decades of consideration led to planned obsolescence and relentless marketing. I guess it makes sense, when an industrialist has invested in a factory to produce millions of units. You want to keep that line rolling.

Automobiles are very rewarding to the average consumer. You sit in a comfy seat. You control a powerful engine. You can have climate control, an entertainment center, and arrive at your destination smelling about as good as you did when you left home. We've been trained to expend thousands of dollars on our rolling couches, and designed a whole system of plumbing through which to flush ourselves at the best speed attainable by our mechanical conveyances. That speed is influenced by the number of other conveyances in a given pipeline, not just by terrain and weather.

Bicycle designers have taken up the idea that the bodywork should obscure everything else, because air drag is the ultimate enemy. Even in bikes not designed solely to race against the clock, as much as possible gets stuffed inside. Most riders don't do their own work. I've asked before, and still not answered, whether most riders who seem hard core and fully committed only do it for the ephemeral lifetimes of one or two of these modern crustaceans.

Conspicuous consumption is one of the great shames of industrial society. There's a serious parallel to income inequality in a recreational bike that costs thousands of dollars versus a sturdy, durable ride that can still offer a bit of sporty handling, but also carry a couple of panniers full of groceries.

This summer has brought me the whole range of the modern bike experience: chasing air bubbles out of hydraulic lines, seating tubeless tires, snaking cables through the unseen labyrinth of internal routing, and performing exorcism on some electronic shifters. Meanwhile, I hear the same thing all the time about actual riding in the real world: it's scary, it's hard, and a few hundred dollars seems like a lot of money to a lot of people.

The answer is not just swan-necked, step-through cruiser bikes and crushed stone paths. And it certainly isn't "categories." I have built myself several different bikes for different applications, but they all started from basic platforms. Got a chunky one for the roughest surfaces I considerable reasonable to ride. Built a fixed gear for wet and cold weather. Got a road bike for unencumbered sporty rides. Got a go-anywhere commuter/light touring rig. All steel, all simple, all readily maintainable. That's a lot of options, and I bet that all of them together cost less than one top-end bike in road, mountain, or time trial categories.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Unwanted kindness

White supremacists can all go fuck themselves with a stick of dynamite. Their philosophy has no place in the government of this country. Their dream of a monoculture may draw on threads from our country's past, but those should have been stripped out of the weave a long time ago.

As I rode home yesterday, contemplating what I'd seen and heard coming out of Charlottesville, I thought about how I wouldn't mind busting an ax handle upside some neo-Nazi's head. I know we should be trying to set a better example for the hopelessly primitive bastards, but they're immune to reason and have no negotiable points. Many of us are facing economic challenges and a government that has long been corrupted by corporate influence, but white nationalism is its own separate piece of unadulterated shit. You can solve all the problems of government corruption and the glorification of greed, and pathologically white people will still find reasons to be assholes.

Don't think I don't realize that greater acceptance of diversity will lead to its own problems through the weaknesses of human nature in general. But, taking race and ethnicity out of the equation, we will be more free to react to someone positively or negatively just based on whether they're an asshole. It really will be better. It's one baby step closer to discussing issues on their own merits rather than labeling them and assigning them to one side or the other of a polarized political atmosphere.

Giant steps would be better. We may be making baby steps out of the path of an avalanche.

So there I was, thinking my hippie-commie-peace freak thoughts and pedaling my zero-carbon-emissions vehicle down the side of the highway, when a big, black, battered, loud pickup truck came up from behind, with a huge Confederate battle flag waving over the truck bed.

I heard the truck's tires contact the centerline rumble strip, indicating that the driver was giving me as much room as he possibly could with oncoming traffic. His speed was steady. He did not blip the throttle, downshift, cut in on me, yell, or throw anything. As much as the implications of the flag made me want to lob a hand grenade into the truck bed, the driver was being admirably responsible. He did way better than the little old lady with the Jesus fish on the back of her compact car, who had squeezed me to the curb the day before. Not that I trust any religious symbols to guarantee saintliness, but if you saw those two vehicles, which one would you expect more trouble from?

Experienced riders know to expect trouble from all of them.

With the Internet and broadcast news, people can take sides in real time and spread a conflict at least symbolically to every corner of the country, and beyond. Doing nothing does not make you neutral. But conflicts are laid over conflicts laid over conflicts. If I had looked brown from behind, would I have gotten as much room? Or was the flag display a misguided piece of "free speech" by someone young and foolish? Sure, you have every right to interpret a piece of colored cloth any way you like. But it's piss-poor timing if you want to wave that thing around the day after murder and mayhem in the name of racism, and don't want to be lumped in with the racists.

I used to like rainbows. Then those colors in that order became a symbol of a movement. It's one I happen to support, but now every rainbow is suspect. The fucking spectrum has been politicized. We all have to make adjustments in the constant debate over our past, present, and future beliefs. The Nazis were sharp dressers and had some cool hardware. Not every member of the armed forces of the Third Reich was a foaming fascist fanatic. But the gang in charge was rotten to the core, and the cause was unjust. No piece of regalia can be separated from its origins. 

At some point, we have to quit arguing over how wrong the wrong sides were in past conflicts, and in what ways, and declare that from this point forward we will quit being shitty to each other. The parents in the front seat have to tell the kids in the back seat, "I don't care who started it, both of you shut up or I'm pulling this car over right now! Keep your hands to yourself!"

It's either that or ax handles, machetes, firearms, Molotov cocktails, IEDs, and never sitting with your back to a door or a window.

For hours after the incident -- or lack thereof -- I felt the conflict of suspended outrage. As a rider, I want every driver to pass thoughtfully, generously, and smoothly. Before the election, when the odds seemed to favor a different outcome, I wrote about the strangely good behavior of drivers displaying stickers supporting the candidate I hoped would lose. At the time, I hoped that basic humanity would prevail, and that we would get past the eruption of ugly sores that had become a trademark of the campaign. The months following the inauguration have shown that my hope was in vain. We're going from ugly to uglier, en route to ugliest, which could be terminally ugly. It does not have to be, but anyone close to the levers of power seems disinclined to prevent it.

Those of us opposed to racism tell ourselves and each other to confront it at every opportunity. I've done my share, working for years with someone who might, with little provocation, spout sexist, racist, homophobic drivel like some waste product no longer adequately contained by aging sphincters. When it's right there in front of you, you can have the conversation.

Most of the bigots I've known personally are passive aggressive. They would not go to a rally, burn a cross, or even openly discriminate against someone coming into their business. A small business can't afford to lose any sales, even from Satan-worshipping communist lesbian baby-murderering ****ers. Your average bigot, in addition to the truly destructive practice of voting for candidates who turn those beliefs into policies, will just say shit to be annoying. If they know that you don't like their point of view, they'll throw out remarks just to get a rise out of the opposition. Because they find your outrage amusing, the best reaction is deadpan.

On the day after the inauguration I wrote about the possibility of escalating violence. We seem to be getting there. I wouldn't ride a bike to a tank battle, so I'm still relieved when the tank gives me a wide berth. But if I plastered my jersey with inflammatory symbols that courtesy would probably evaporate. Not one for pointless sacrifice, I'll separate the rules of the road from the rules of engagement.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Why Mechanics Drink

When I arrived at work yesterday, there were about 15 bikes in the repair queue. We checked in a new one about every 20 minutes for the rest of the day, leaving us more buried at closing time than we were at opening.

Anyone who wants to blurt that it's great to be busy should try being force fed.

Highlights from the past couple of weeks include:

This rider wanted to sit up higher, so he raised his threadless stem and left this gap. Front end noise? What front end noise?
The upper bolt is clearly completely above the top of the steerer tube. Let's go trail riding!

When a roadie complains about funky shifting, the answer is frequently within:
Internal cable routing has turned a routine task into a time-consuming chore. Thanks, Bike Industry!

The new fashion for routing the shift cables under the bar tape has not eliminated the problem of cables fraying inside the shifter.
Shi-no has made access to the mess a little easier, reducing the chances that leftover fragments will jam an expensive mechanism permanently, but I did find pieces of an old cable inside a brifter that I was servicing. They had been in there from a previous break. That explained the intermittent crunching and imprecision.
OEM cables all seem to come with this bullshit coating on them. It quickly scrubs up into lint balls inside the undersized 4mm cable housing that the industry is trying very hard to turn into an inescapable standard. Many high end bikes won't accommodate an upgrade to 5mm.
Here's what came out of this brifter: potential Strands of Death, plus wads of scuffed-up coating. Thanks, Bike Industry!

Someone thought it would be a good idea to shove a stack of cable doughnuts onto the shift wires inside the sleek, black Trek in which I spent close to an hour spelunking. You have to run your guide tubing up the old cable, if it's still there and not too frayed. Otherwise you do a lot of blind fishing to get cables to feed. And hurry up! Someone's waiting to have a flat tire fixed immediately, and six people are renting bikes.
Hire more staff, you say? I'm writing this in stolen minutes before scampering off to work, so I don't have time to explain the particular economy of scale that keeps us from heeding that logical suggestion.

People don't need us until they need us. Then they need us right away. This customer bought this bike on line and assembled it at home. Hey! The left crank arm fell off! Is it supposed to do that? Gosh, between on line sales and You Tube experts, why does anybody need a bike shop anyway?

The forced adoption of disc brakes brings its own time-sucking extra steps. On bikes with adjustable bearings, the rotor bolts almost always block the wrench flats on the inner cone. The mechanic can try wiggling a worn cone wrench in there at a slight angle, or remove the rotor, complete the proper adjustment, and reinstall the rotor. Or, as most likely happens, fudge it in some way and send it down the road.

Yesterday, parts had finally come in for yet another improvised ride that some kid had bought used. The parts, individually, had at one time been decent, but the way in which they had been combined, and some of them mangled, left me zigzagging through the underbrush in search of a path forward that was safe and reasonably priced.
It had obviously been built by someone with only the beginning of an idea how things go together, who pummeled it for a while and then scraped it off on its current owner. Its problems can be summed up nicely by the fact that the crank arms were two different brands and two different lengths.

Looking through the archives for component compatibility information, I found this piece of copy editing I did in 1998 or '99:

The pile awaits. I have to rip out of here and go burrow into it again. Grease be with you.

Monday, August 07, 2017

Gunslinger Fantasy Land

A young man with a bushy chin beard, lots of body ink and a glittering galaxy of facial piercings was examining the display of tires that we offer. I recognized him as someone who had been a regular in the 1990s. Back then he had only started on his personal body decoration project. He was one of those people with pent-up energy that hinted at the possibility of fireworks. He didn't seem angry, but he did seem unhinged.

He must be somewhere either side of 40 now. The energy coming off of him as he stood at the tire display was somewhat cooler. Unfortunately, he is not much more coherent than he was back then.

I'd seen his truck outside. Among the splatter of window stickers was the inevitable Gadsden snake. He is apparently a fan of the young adult fiction of the Tea Party.

When he turned, I saw the handgun stuck in his belt. I thought at first that the gun was naked there, held in only by the webbing. Then I made out the tidy, minimalist holster.

Since New Hampshire did away with the requirement to have a permit to carry a concealed weapon, we've had to get used to the sight of armed men in places one would not normally have expected to see that level of combat readiness. As it was explained to me by a police officer, even an open holster constituted concealment, because the weapon could not be seen from every angle. A long gun over your shoulder would be A-OK. And now, with permitless carry, a handgun is a fashion accessory among those who love to be considered armed and dangerous.

At a public meeting in June, I noticed that the self-styled government watchdog who records many meetings on video and posts them on line also sports a handgun to demonstrate just how free he is. It's a thing now.

At its inception, the Second Amendment was symbolically important as a demonstration to authoritarian governments that, in this new Land of the Free, ordinary citizens would have the right to carry weapons and gather to bitch about whoever was in charge. Even so, I can imagine lobbyists from the National Musket Association jostling elbows at the Constitutional Convention and pestering incessantly to make sure that their interests featured prominently.

America was settled at gunpoint. But someone has to put down the weapon and pick up implements for farming and construction, or else you're all just chasing each other around the woods with guns. As a lifestyle, it could work. Sleep in a lean-to made of sticks. Shoot some animal for food. Shoot people with whom you disagree. But someone, somewhere, has to be a gunsmith, to keep all the trigger-pullers equipped.

America eventually relied less on hot lead and more on inventiveness, resource exploitation, and financial acumen. Into this more varied social environment the bicycle was born.

Growing up, I had the naive impression that we were trying to have a society in which people didn't look forward to shooting each other. I know people even now who don't even own guns, much less carry them everywhere. But my Second Amendment supporting friends assure me that I am living a dangerous fantasy and that a bloodbath could happen at any time. Don't you want to be able to return fire? Personally, I could, until my meagre supply of ammunition ran out, but I still don't think it's a good idea. And I never carry either the .25 caliber handgun that I got in the divorce or the shotgun when I go out. I was advised that the handgun is a better paper weight than a weapon. If the shooting starts, I guess I'll just have to elbow-crawl behind available cover and go in search of clean underwear.

Should I be admitting publicly that I'm not packin'? Now everyone will know that I'm no threat. But I could be lying, to fake y'all out.

If I was planning to make trouble, the first person I would take out would be the guy sporting the obvious gun. Do they think about that when they put on their costume in the morning?

Once I knew the gun was there, I could not forget about it. We looked at tires and wheels for a cheap old road bike he's fixing up, but half my mind was imagining circumstances in which one might whip out the gat and start blasting. Not that I expected him to do that right there and then, but that only fueled my swirl of speculation. If not here, where? If not now, when? I go for months at a time without wishing that I had a gun, and when I do, it's probably a good thing that I don't.

A gun is the very definition of dead weight. A hefty chunk to carry, it's only purpose is to kill. Wearily, its devotees remind us that humans are wild animals and not to be trusted. When they walk among us, armed, the point of view is more than theoretical. They've taken their fantasies out of their imaginations and forced the rest of us to take part. We're in their theme park now.