Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Happy Old Year! Life as Epic Journey

You gonna ride onto some rocks sometimes...

Once told a girl I would write her a poem....

I took Lovely Bicycle's advice and went for a Happy Old Year ride. I shared that sentiment with several people along the way. The route I chose was a familiar one, a path along the Arizona Canal that I've taken so many times that I've sometimes thought of it as my default route. Today, though, December 31 and nearly 70F, sunny warm and still, it felt somewhere in the neighborhood of perfection. 

And I thought: rather than cling to the thought/hope/illusion/construct/standard that tomorrow, next month, next year, will be better than today because it has to be, what if I looked at life as an epic journey instead? What if the story so far, with its ups and downs, good and bad, is the first part of the epic, and what comes after is the rest? 

Happy Old Year! The last day of the first part of the epic!

What I think, so far:
  • Seize opportunities when they arise.
  • You never know what effects seemingly small actions will have
  • If you seek a new path, then you have to take that unknown turn

The path less taken: I took it today. Yeeeeee haaaaaaaaaa.

Sometimes life on the rocks is beautiful

...still working on that poem.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Einstein's Eidolons: Vacation Dilemmas

First choice: reading about the end of the world

Vacation presents unique opportunities and challenges centered around the need to make choices between activities as diverse as extended bicycle rides, house cleaning, and catching up on reading about nuclear war. Grabbing a soft teddy to offer some comfort, I dove into "Command and Control" by Eric Schlosser. This book hit me like a megton of bricks. It's incredible. 

Not only would I agree that it deserves all the positive reviews it has received, but I would rank it as one of the best. It's possible I feel that way largely because the timeline covered by the book is almost exactly my own, and that it's a subject that has fascinated and horrified me since about the time I was able to duck and cover. 

In addition to those personal factors, though, the book is extremely well-written and researched. Schlosser uses the Titan II missile explosion at Damascus, Arkansas, on September 18, 1980 to power through a history of nuclear weapons safety. It reads more as an action-packed page-turner, rather than a history of political infighting and technical glitches and missteps that have repeatedly pushed us to the brink of ultimate disaster, but it also presents a cold and necessary portrait of the 17,000 or so nuclear devices which currently live in our world: while none (that we know of) has detonated accidentally or at the hands of a madman (a fact which seems almost inexplicable after reading the book), past performance is no guarantee of future results. 

Given that actual security locks (PALs and strong-weak links) on all American nukes is a relatively recent event, and when you learn that the code to unlock all the missiles for launch was 00000000, and when you think about Cold War Europe with soldiers near the front armed with Davy Crockett M-28 nuclear devices, and review the long list of accidents/fires/explosions, the bike riding option, the one in which you get to spend time outdoors enjoying the warm sunshine under clear blue skies feeling alive while it lasts, sounds pretty good.

An earlier book that had a great influence on nuclear me

At some point between Nixon resigning and Reagan reluctantly leaving office, we collectively decided that civil defense in preparation for nuclear war is a crock. We stopped storing tins of saltines and dried beef in basements of public buildings along with Geiger counters and shovels; we slowly and without much fanfare took down the yellow and black fallout shelter signs that used to adorn back stairwells and alleyways. Reagan proposed a $4 billion CD plan in 1982 to evacuate the residents of major cities to rural shelters, but by that time, the concept of decamping to the countryside while the hydrogen bombs rained down was wearing thin.

The end of the Cold War certainly hastened the end of CD-thought. Culturally, I would date the acceleration of the demise of CD-thinking to between the movies "WarGames" (5/7/1983) and "The Day After" (11/20/1983). The first one cemented in the concept that we (and it is us, no one else to blame, right?) could destroy humanity due to a bumbling series of unfortunate events, while the latter burned in the imagery of multiple white exhaust plumes of ICBMs growing like columns out of the prairie as the first and only sign that everything, and everyone, would be wiped out within four to six hours. 

The anti-CD development ran counter to my Boy Scout upbringing, which firmly engrained in me that to Be Prepared was a great virtue, that through dint of learning, practice, pluck, preparation, discipline, and the right tools, by golly you can make it through anything. Eventually, though, we came to recognize that between the massive gigatonnage overkill, the gamma rays, EMP and radioactive fallout, to the Nuclear Winter, and all the anti-human effects which would occur between and after those, the tins of saltines and shovels wouldn't help much.

To update the reality of nuclear holocaust to the present age for a new generation: not only will Facebook, Google, Twitter, Amazon, etc cease to exist, but even the smart phones will go dark, as the networks to support them will black out, at the same time that there won't be anyone else left to text, anyway. This is a clear and undeniable symptom that the weapons won: our destruction in the event of nuclear conflict is assured, and that assurance may be the single factor deterring it.

Speaking of deterrence, I am receiving a text about cleaning the house. It's currently about 65F and sunny in Phoenix. Who's up for a bike ride? All personnel considered essential.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Power of Quiet, Civil Dialogue

Of peaceful, civil streets I speak

The driver right-hooked me on my bicycle clean off the street and out of the bike lane like the tip of a kielbasa with a sharp knife. It was my evening commute home from work. I was all shiny-reflective, lit up, and blinking brightly, while, as I swerved to a stop in behind him, I noticed he was still yakking on his cell phone. Somehow didn't see me, or didn't care, or couldn't be bothered. Anger, rage, urge to yell and gesture, to chase after him and scare the crap out of him, at least. I'm big, shock factor was on my side, I probably could have could have caused him quite a stir.

But wait. Calm down. Breathe. Keep riding. Ignore it. Notch it up to just another oblivious, or clueless, or inattentive, or passive-aggressive, human behaving badly on his way home, too distracted to care about another human just riding his bike home from work after a long day, who just wanted to see his family, to get home and to take a break, like everyone else. It's cool,  you're the better man, ride on peace dog, it's all good, right? You reacted like a champ, avoided catastrophe with a combination of skills, cat-like reflexes, and a dandy new helmet mirror that showed his encroaching headlights over the left shoulder like nobody's biz. Let it go. Joy to the world and so forth.

But wait, that's hardly satisfying. Go back and stomp the shit out of him and the car he drove in on. Dude did it into his OWN DRIVEWAY, pretty easy to find that jerk. Yeah, that's what you should...no, no, that's ill advised, and won't accomplish anything, and cannot turn out well. On the other hand, if you do nothing, he'll probably keep on doing it, right? Maybe next time he right hooks a kid, or you, in a closer call, at a higher speed, when good fortune and excellent defensive technique are not on everyone's side. Maybe next time it doesn't turn out half so well. So what then?

Imagine this: he slices me off the road like a kielbasa again. I follow in right behind him, then stop behind him in his parking place. As he gets out, he sees me writing down his license plate, vehicle color, make, model, time, date, place, and situation, while I'm dialing 911. About the time he approaches me, the operator says to me, "911, what's your emergency?" and I report my name, and that I was just run off the road by a driver who caused me to crash** my bicycle, and now I'm standing behind his vehicle. All stated in a calm, rational, objective voice, reporting the facts, responding respectively and in a level voice. Not snide, not know-it-all, not entitled, but firm and confident, assured. No, I don't know if I'm injured, right after an accident it's difficult to tell. Yes, I would appreciate that, thank you.

The 911 operator says whatever she says, and just about then the driver finally speaks to me, after he decides his play. No matter what he says, though, no matter what his mood, his voice, his approach or strategy, I speak to him exactly the same way I spoke to the 911 operator, all the while staying on the line, by the way. I speak to him exactly as I would wish to be spoken to: calmly, respectfully, evenly, rationally, civilly. You reap what you sow. "Yes, I'm just calling in this unfortunate event, reporting it to the proper authorities. Would you be so kind as to share your personal information with me? I would like to see your ID and your insurance information." I don't expect that many people would comply with that request in that situation, but that's part of the deal: to stay calm, rational, civil, respectful even, no matter what he does. The power of that fills me with confidence. And it's all on the 911 tape.

Rather than accusing the driver of anything, or responding in any aggressive or angry manner, I would stay civil, and say something like, "Yes, unfortunate event, I agree, perhaps you just didn't see me, really should keep an eye out, shouldn't we? But these things do happen."

If all this seems a bit improbable, I'll say this about the alternatives. The middle finger is an ineffectual and inflammatory gesture. Likewise, yelling curses at the rapidly retreating rear window of the vehicle of the offending driver has never accomplished anything positive or of lasting good. On the other hand, plenty of people have progressed from these initial pissed-off responses to road rage, actual fights, and worse, but no one, ever, has altered their driving habits in a positive manner one iota in response.

Quiet civility. Rational, respectful response. When I contemplate the dialogue above, I am filled with hope that it might turn out differently, that such an approach might actually have the potential to make a difference, sometimes. Please, sir, don't act the cad. Objective reporting of the events which occurred. I believe in the largely untapped power of civility and calm dialogue to enact positive change. Next time I'm treated like a kielbasa, I plan to act the civil human, and not the screaming savage. We'll see how it goes.

Last blog post for the year. Work, family, time off, all that. Happy holidays, and peaceful, civil, and joyful* riding to all.

Note: I composed most of this post before I noticed that Tucson Velo has a post up called "The importance of having a conversation" , a similar view, from a similar space, at a similar time.   

*or grimly determined, facing into the biting cold wind, if that's your thing

**my actual experience did not involve a crash, for the record, but my 911 dialogue sounds better with one in there 

Sunday, December 15, 2013

The Pomegranate Cycle Remains

Every year in December, I wonder at these

Ancient symbols of many things, full of seeds and bright crimson meaning, signs of fertility (full of seeds), portents of paradise, mystical in number, and confused sweetness inside. In December in Phoenix in some places, they hang like Christmas ornaments drying in the sun.


Slowly slowly down to ground they bend

Against the sky, visited by birds until gone

Year after year I pass by and see them. By December, they're scarlet husks hanging in the sun. Yet hanging: not faded though, still blazing on the surface if not inside. Like some familiar ritual of autumn passing into finally winter for me, an image of the passage of time itself. On a quiet side street I pause on my bicycle late on a Sunday afternoon to ponder the red globes against the golden leaves and blue sky as the birds congregate for their dusk chorus. Spheres against the sky, waxing and waning on a cycle of one year. 

Compare/contrast another sphere putting on a show over Camelback Mountain on my Sunday ride, rising up, glowing bright, showing off its monthly cycle while I'm on my daily.

We're all just turning here. Returning, and slowly fading in the sun. I gather into a sphere, and orbit the canal on my bike.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

My Bicycle Helmet Mirror Shows the Path to Venus

The way is clear. Long ride ahead.

Venus brightens the December sky just after sunset. The alternate to using the helmet mirror as a portal to observing humans behaving badly, BOLO, is as an imagining device for inverting what's moving away behind you into a portal moving up and ahead. To the gorgeous evening sky, to the stars. I'm certain that more gear, and a significant supply of snacks and coffee, would be needed, but more than that: would I be mentally prepared for the journey? Could enough baggage be cast off to enable the trip? 

According to wolframalpha, the current distance is 35.66 million miles, or 3.2 light minutes. That means it would take me 271.39 years to ride there @ 15 mph, so, I'm looking more toward warp factors to lower that toward the 3.2 minute range. As Venus nears its closest approach to earth, this would appear to be the time to do it. The moment is right. The mirror makes it look so feasible. The deep blue sky is so inviting. Ride, dreamer, ride.

That's a Bike Peddler Take A Look mirror zip-tied to my helmet. New perspective, fresh views, added safety, etc.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Bike Book Haulage with the Burley Travoy

I had a so-called "book problem" long before the n+1 bike situation kicked in. A product which would enable both at the same time seemed like an ideal item for me, so I picked up a Burley Travoy bike trailer with the plan of using it to ride over to a VNSA book sale to stock up. Because, I guess, while I don't really need more books, or an excuse to go for a bicycle ride, both together help me to achieve critical mass or something.

Since this trailer is supposed to be able to carry 60 lbs, it sounded like enough of a limit to control my frenzy somewhat. After all, whatever I bought, I would have to pull home. Events, though, have so far precluded an actual VNSA outing with the trailer. So I decided to try it out instead for carrying books to one of the VNSA donation stations, to give some back.  

Conservation of household book mass: books in should equal books out

Book cargo weight, well below the rated max, probably a good middle weight to try out

Pulling 34 lbs, the weight of one or two bikes, felt quite stable. It felt different than I thought it would--the load is quiet stable and tracks behind like it's part of you, and doesn't bounce around much, or carry on with its own ideas of where it wants to go. It just follows along behind, exerting a smooth, steady, noticeable drag. Stopping was good. I suppose since I added mass I also added stopping distance, but there was no problem or even sensation that the load was going to cartwheel around me sideways or something when I stopped. About the only odd sensation was the inchworm feeling if I went through a dip or over a bump slightly shorter in length than my combined bike-trailer length. It's not a big deal, but you can feel the bike-trailer combo flex a bit vertically, which I think it's meant to do. This is probably an essential characteristic of the design, which prevents it from bouncing around too much. 

The V where the handles join also mounts a rear-facing blinky light

The trailer folds up easily and neatly, then stows into its own bag. The folding bits are retained with clever catches which are engaged and released by turning the black handles, or in the case of the bottom shelf, by pulling on a release line underneath. It's both easy and seems sturdy.

It comes with a big gaping bag that mounts on the little pegs that stick out the sides. Other sorts of bags might be fitted or attached, although I haven't spent much time on that yet. It will be necessary to ensure that they fit between the wheels without rubbing. I plan on trying out different combos and attachment methods to work out how to carry the books back home from the next sale.

The trailer's name comes from the sled made by native Americans by lashing together two poles to pull loads behind. For me, for some purposes like hauling 40 or 50 pounds of books, this trailer works very well. I can't imagine trying to manage that type of load on my bicycle in a backpack, or even on my rear rack, which isn't rated for that much weight. Which turns out to be a good thing, since I found three loads of kids' books waiting for me to haul back to the donation box when I returned home. It seems that the idea of me hauling books by bicycle is popular in my house. That's fine by me: it will make more room for new books, while hitching up the Travoy and riding over to the donation box will give me more practice for a big load returning home from the fairgrounds in February.

Reflectors underneath. The trailer sits at about 45 degrees, so these appear to be visible but low to the ground.

Stowed inside itself. Light and easy to carry. This bag comes with, others available optionally.

I purchased this product myself at full price. See my disclaimer for more information.

Friday, December 6, 2013

I Hear the Broken

Bip posing in front of Arizona Falls. Sound of falling water.

Riding along in traffic sometimes, the sounds of broken things stand out and catch my attention. The most common are brake pad wear indicators, and power steering pump squeals. Also very often are engines that just don't sound right idling at stoplights. Less common, but still notable, are people yelling or crying into cellphones while also driving their cars. I don't try to eavesdrop. However, particularly at stoplights where we're both waiting, if they are loud and the windows are down, I do hear. I also hear broken or breaking bicycles: dry crunchy chains, ultra untrue wheels rubbing on everything on every revolution, grinding and squeaking sounds that just can't be good.

One night on the commute home this week, early dusk, I was waiting for traffic to clear on my side so I could make a brief street crossing righthand turn to get across and into the left turn lane to get to the street I needed to reach. To my left, the light was red, and a bunch of vehicles were already there waiting at the light. My side cleared complete, so I went across and then merged into the left turn lane. At that point, the oncoming lane in front of me was clear, leading to the stopped/waiting vehicles at the light. There was an old Suburban SUV headed my way, a fair ways off, so I signaled and went ahead with my left turn. As I crossed, I heard the SUV driver mash the gas pedal, clearly having seen me, clearly seeing the red light, clearly seeing the bunch of other vehicles waiting in front of him. Gas pedal mashage, or its opposite, sudden gas pedal de-mashage, are two important occurrences to me on my bicycle, so I listen all around me for them nearly constantly. 

After a quick flurry of non-constructive thoughts in response, calming down at least to "Dude where the heck are you planning to go to so fast?" I landed on "I hear the broken," along with some calmer recollections of the sounds of other broken things I hear on my daily commute, like the above short list.

It was almost, but not quite, a sad little monkey award scenario. Instead, for the rest of the ride home, I just contemplated possible responses to breakage. While wondering still, a bit, about aggressive red light gas pedal mashing.