Monday, November 21, 2022

Miles per gallon

 As someone with a conflicted relationship with motor vehicles, I have tried to spend as little as possible to buy one. But I need one because of the distances I have to cover in challenging conditions, so they can't just be thrashed pieces of junk.

For the past several cars, I've picked up ones that various members of my family were discarding as they contributed to the used car market by buying new ones. It was an agreeable parade of small Ford station wagons, which mostly succumbed to the long months sitting in the dirt driveway while I'm using the bike for transportation, and the inexorable rust that consumes all New England vehicles that face the tide of brine flooding our roads every winter. The price tended to be pretty affordable, which suited my underlying reluctance to chip in much of anything to the moto-centric culture and polluting, speeding, jostling, sprawling environmental disaster that is transportation in America.

The latest -- and last -- of this line sits in the driveway now. It's far more car than I would ever buy, but the gas mileage is as good as the last Ford Focus that finally rotted out underneath the bodywork. Behold The Shuttlecraft:

"Nice car," a friend and colleague said as we headed out after the last zoning board meeting.

"Thanks. I had to kill my father to get it," I said. Dad was a Ford man. He died at the end of May. My mother is 93, and has decided to quit driving because, as she says, "I'm 93 years old. If anything happens, it will be my fault even if it isn't my fault." My sister is on hand to drive the two of them around. So this car, this space craft full of electronics and automated features, was available for ...really cheap... just as my mechanic was telling me that he couldn't sticker my old car anymore because the frame was almost gone.

There's a lot to get used to.  The speedo and tach are analog, but all other data comes at the driver through two screens. One is a small one centered above the steering wheel. The other is the now ubiquitous touch screen in the middle of the dash.

In the cellist's Honda CR-V, she can punch up a readout that tells her about fuel consumption: miles remaining at current rate, and miles per gallon. She has to ask for it. In The Shuttlecraft, that display is constant. I suppose I could turn it off, but I find it fascinating.

Miles per gallon tells you about the energy required to accelerate a mass against the force of gravity and the other factors that inhibit forward motion. As a cyclist, you have an intuitive -- and very tactile -- awareness of the toll that hills and headwinds demand. Through the readout in The Shuttlecraft, I can see the dramatic difference between uphill and down, and any acceleration. Going down a hill, the mpg readout will max out at 99.9. Woo hoo! Going up a hill it drops to lows like 11, 9, 7, or sometimes 3. It just drains. And any short hops or stop and go driving drops the total from a creditable 30-31 down into the "sorta might be okay" upper 20s. The Focus was surprisingly no better, especially with snow tires, but the Shuttlecraft is undeniably more of a bourgeois armored personnel carrier. It's really hard to find a nice small station wagon these days but I still wish Dad had had a bit more varied taste in cars. A nice Passat wagon logging 40 mpg, perhaps.

Well, po' folks can't be choosers. In an alternate timeline, I stayed in a more built-up area and never bought a car at all. But then I'd have to live in a more built up area. Nature called.

Around here, I've fallen in with the tree huggers to try to defend a natural environment where there still is one. When I moved here, it was the country. Now, 35 years later, it's more like heavily wooded suburbia. That makes our efforts all the more important, because the economy depends increasingly on subdividing large parcels of land and increasing population density. More roads aren't being built, but the ones we have are getting a lot busier all year. Residential development is piecemeal for the most part, a house here and a house there, but larger tracts are proposed as the state grapples with a lack of "workforce housing." Workforce housing is a nice way of saying shacks for the scantily paid grunts who perform the essential but disregarded tasks of actually making civilization and the economy run. If it had existed in Annapolis in the 1980s, I might never have moved away. But Annapolis was obliterated by explosive, poorly planned development. I saw it coming and ran for the hills, literally.

Ironically, the tree huggers do a lot of driving. It's the norm. In rural areas, the distances demand it. In winter country, however degraded the winter might be, the weather favors a heated, enclosed vehicle, too. Some of the environmental folk have electric or hybrid vehicles, but most of us drive used, internal combustion vehicles. Their designs reflect the American norm. Mine is hardly the largest. You can only be so much of the change you want to see before you are so far beyond the leading edge of societal evolution that you're just a freak out there, with no infrastructure and no momentum of social change behind you. So for now, the environmentalists drive to work and drive to public hearings and educational presentations and off to their environmentally appreciative recreational activities.

When I get out of the car every spring, I immediately have less time for other things. Commuting takes at least twice as long. It provides beneficial exercise, but cycling is not complete exercise. A bike rider needs to do weight bearing, stretching, and resistance exercise to preserve bone density and avoid muscle imbalance. And the route takes me longer and leaves me more tired than it did when I was in my 30s and 40s, or even early 50s. Freedom isn't free. It's an investment decision no matter what type of freedom you choose.

Thursday, November 03, 2022

Cause of death: snake bite. Or was it?

 A regular customer brought his bike in to be checked after he’d had a flat tire out on the road. He’d put in his spare tube and pumped it up to full pressure at a nearby friend’s house before he made his way home, but wanted a professional eye to make sure that he hadn’t missed anything.

By his account, he’d done all the right things. But the holes in his punctured inner tube were a classic snake bite, when he is conscientious about proper tire pressure, and did not recall hitting anything like a stone or a pothole.

It was the rear tire, as usual. I pulled the wheel out and examined it carefully. He had not perfectly noted which way the tube was oriented, so I had to look in both directions from the valve stem. There was a faint scratch on one end of the arc and an almost imaginary ding at the other end, corroborating a snake bite either way.

No debris showed on the outside of the tire. The twin holes that we’d all seen would have needed a thin but long object, like a finishing nail, to have gone and and fallen out again before he stopped. Yep. This had to be the snake bite that it appeared to be.

A responsible mechanic always checks the casing, regardless of the cause of the flat. It takes maybe an extra minute. I was perfunctorily sweeping my fingers through the tire when I felt like telltale poke of sharp debris. Wire? Thorn? I had to pull it down through the casing because absolutely nothing stood up above the tread. It was pointy, dark, and ferrous. Not the usual skinny wire fragment, but possibly thicker wire in its youth.

Because the rider had traveled 13 miles home after fixing the flat, he could have picked up this little ninja on that part of his ride, and just been lucky that he didn’t flat again.

Feeling like a crime scene investigator, I clamped the snake bite holes in his old tube and pumped it up. After a careful search, feeling for the faintest breath of escaping air, I found the tiny pinhole of the initial puncture that started his misadventure. It was like one of those crime shows where the cops find a victim with obvious wounds and build a scenario based only on those and then the smarty pants detective finds the other thing that reveals the true perpetrator.

My theory is that the rider hit the poky debris without realizing it. Air very gradually escaped until pressure was low enough to get the obvious and faster-acting snake bite from a surface hazard that might not have imperiled a fully inflated tire.

It’s only trivial bullshit, but it provided a bit more entertainment than your average flat tire.