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Observations Observations

Bicycles and Italian Cars

March 22nd, 2015
A brief comparison.

How Italian sports cars and bicycles are alike: You always have something to do in the garage on a Sunday afternoon.

How they are not alike: If you accelerate through the corners on a bike, you get pedals that look like this:

smashed pedal

My right pedal. The outer metal part used to be rectangular.


It has proven very difficult for me to shed the habit of powering through corners.

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Idle Chit-Chat Idle Chit-Chat

Big Wednesday

March 19th, 2015

I got on the scale yesterday morning, and all I could say was, “ugh.” Feasting on Chinese food the night before had its consequences. “What is it about Wednesdays?” I asked myself. It seemed like I’d seen a few Wednesdays like this.

But had I? This is how urban legends are born. You start to get a feeling that something is true: “I tend to gain weight on Wednesdays” or “More babies are born when the moon is full.” Then every time you see something that corroborates the impression, the more sure you get. Meanwhile, you don’t notice the unremarkable Wednesdays when weight follows its usual pattern.

However, having measured and recorded my weight consistently since last June (well, mostly consistently – more on that in a bit), I had the data to actually measure whether Wednesdays were Big Wednesdays or not. It took a little fiddling (I am not the spreadsheet-jockey that many of my coworkers are, and Apple’s spreadsheet, Numbers, lacks an obvious function that would have made this much easier), but I ended up with this graph:

Weight by Day

My weight change by day of week. (For me, negative is good.) The horizontal blue line is the average for all days.

It turns out Wednesdays are net-gain days, but not as bad as Mondays or Tuesdays. It’s odd that despite my having lost 13 pounds over that time, the first half of the work week still shows a net increase in plumpness. Notice also the shorter error bars Wednesday and Thursday; for whatever reason (or for no reason at all) the numbers are in a closer range on those days.

As you look at the graph, keep in mind that I weigh myself first thing in the morning, so the weight change is a reflection of the choices I made the day before. So while I show the most weight gain on Mondays, it’s actually what I do on Sunday that leads to it.

There’s also a subtle measurement bias that makes the weekend look better at the expense of Monday. I sleep in on the weekends, so my body processes a measurable amount of extra water before I climb on the scale. So, Saturdays may not be as good as they seem in this graph, and Mondays may not be as bad. Even so, it’s hard to ignore the trend that shows up here, and it makes me wonder a couple of things.

First, I’m not aware of anything I do substantially differently on Thursday than I do on Monday, yet the outcome seems quite different. This suggests to me that the lag time between decision and consequence is often more than twenty-four hours. That bulge early in the week may be the previous weekend catching up to me. Or it may not; there’s no way to tell from this data. I may try to research this further out there on the Internet.

Second, is this information actionable? Can I look at this little graph and make better life choices on Mondays? Probably I can, but honestly, I probably won’t. This graph will likely remain for me a mildly-interesting little factoid, and as long as my week-on-week numbers stay in the green, I’ll not worry so much.

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Observations Observations

Passed by a Fat-Tire

March 17th, 2015
Sometimes appearances can be deceptive.

When I started riding to work, I was one of the slower ones out there. When stopped at a light, there was little doubt who would be pulling out first when it was time to crank. After a while, though, there were a few other riders where things were not so clear-cut. I started to look for clues while stopped, to know if I should be getting out of the way, or working to get in front while it was safe.

A couple of lessons I learned: 1) some of those fat-bottomed girls pack a lot of muscle down there; 2) don’t even think about trying to pass someone on skinny little racing tires.

But there is one category I feel pretty comfortable pushing ahead of: guys wearing sweatshirts who are riding bikes with fat tires. Most of them are commuting, like me, but they’re just not in as big a hurry — if they wanted to go fast, they’d have equipment designed for that. I assume they are not going as far.

On yesterday’s ride, however, as I pushed up Willow at (for me) a pretty good pace, a dude in a sweatshirt riding a bike with fairly wide tires passed me in style. I looked at his receding form, his near-effortless cadence as he pushed his pedals, and was impressed. He would have shamed a lot of the spandex crowd.

The Gods of Traffic favored me, and I caught up to him at the next light. No ambiguity about who should be at the front of the pack here. I waited behind him, and when the light changed he moved out effortlessly.

I mean, literally effortlessly. He didn’t pedal at all. His bike had an electric motor. He could go faster than cars do on that stretch, and he had the go-to-the-head-of-the-line benefit of the bike lane at traffic lights. Not a bad way to travel.

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Observations Observations

Return of the Ugly

March 14th, 2015

The other day I was using a car to get home from work, and in front of me at a traffic signal was a Cadillac with what might have been the Single Ugliest Rear End of All Time. This honor was once held firmly by the Pontiac Aztec, but in recent years our friends in Asia have produced some marvelously hideous-looking cars. Mind-boggling, to tell the truth.

So I guess the boys at General Motors decided to give the guy who made the Aztec another shot at glory. (This Caddy’s rear definitely had some of those Aztecan sensibilities.) They managed to find the storage room where they’d been keeping him, brushed most of the dust off him, and turned him loose on the newest Caddy. I thought I’d go to the Cadillac Web site and poach a picture so we could all appreciate the grotesquery.

Only, when I go to the Cadillac Web site, I see that while their CTS-V coupe rear (the closest match to what I saw) is by no means pretty (vast plains of plastic, almost no glass), it lacks those finishing details of the one I saw that put it into the running for all-time ugliest. Which means that they’ve already thought better of the horrid design. Maybe GM put it out for one year to reclaim the ugly crown, then backed off to merely “rather ugly” so people would buy the car. If someone were to say to me, “You know, I kind of like that look”, I would merely shrug and wonder quietly to myself what the hell is wrong with that person. But I know those people are out there.

On the subject of ugly cars, every once in a while I put “Electric Roadster” into my search engine to see if there’s any news on a viable electric replacement for my aging Miata coming down the pike. The answer is, alas, “not yet.” Tesla has announced a retrofit to it’s lotus-based roadster to put in better battery technology, so that’s progress.

The search engine results provide a wide range of things claiming to be electric roadsters. Most of them are not. Golf carts are not roadsters, even when they look like this:

http://californiaroadster.com/rlimo.php

If it can’t go more then 25 mph, it’s not a roadster. http://californiaroadster.com/rlimo.php

And then come the ugly ones. Boy howdy. The overall trend in automotive design these days is to add fiddly bits and creases to the car until there’s no surface area left to add bits to. Take this monstrosity:

From the highest branches of the ugly tree.

Pride forbids me from considering this vehicle. http://torqev.com


It is clearly designed to appeal to men, and the performance numbers are quite impressive. But… wow.

Along those same lines, only much more expensive, we find Detroit Electric’s entry in the field.

Detroit Electric SP:01

Maybe in person it wouldn’t seem so ugly. http://detroit-electric-group.com/sp01.html


There are some angles that make this car look kind of nice. Others, bleah. The Detroit Electric Web site seems to be aware of this, and you have to dig to see a view of the car from more than two feet off the ground. But holy crap, the performance numbers are mighty impressive. What a pleasure it would be to be stuck in stop-and-go traffic in this baby.

The Europeans, meanwhile, are heading off in a distinctly different direction. While this vehicle doesn’t fit my definition of ‘roadster’, that hasn’t stopped other people from calling it that:

Volkswagon electric concept

Just a concept car, but wow. Mashable


A car like this will not grace our streets any time soon, and while I’m not too sure about this design, at least it’s ugly in a different way that I find encouraging. More ugly-because-it-doesn’t-look-like-anything-we’ve-seen-before ugly, than ugly-because-we-had-to-add-more-fiddly-bits-to-make-it-distinctive ugly.

Finally we have this car, a one-off unconstrained by having to conform to any laws, that shows that out there are still some automotive designers who haven’t fallen into the more-is-better trap. We can thank the Italians for this one, and we can thank the Germans for paying them to build it:

bmw mini superlegga

Awesome inside and out – unconstrained by practicality. Design Boom


This is actually not the most flattering picture of the car, but it does show a lot of the design elements. It really is a clean design, and the interior of the car, especially the control panel, are awesome. The article linked in the picture caption is interesting as well, showing the process of building the car.

Music to my ears:

‘In this car all unnecessary equipment or decoration is sacrificed, as performance is gained through lightness and efficiency of the bodywork and interior.

Who knows? That might be my next car, right there, if they can keep the original aesthetic intact and get it to market.

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Observations Observations

Tugging the Heart-Strings

March 12th, 2015
In some cases, I'm not ashamed to be manipulated.

TV playing silently in front of me, showing an ad with a kid, maybe twelve years old, on the baseball diamond throwing out the ceremonial first pitch at a big-league ballgame. The kid did a pretty good job, a little low and outside, but with some zip. The catcher scooped it out of the dirt and held it up the way catchers do to show the umpire they have it. Then the catcher took off his mask and the kid lost his shit. It was his dad, back from military service overseas. Joy ensued.

I have no idea what that ad was selling. I wish I did, because if it isn’t shitty beer, I’d buy some.

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Rumblings from the Secret Labs Rumblings from the Secret Labs

Another Baby Step Toward Email Privacy

March 11th, 2015
Maybe we're getting closer. Maybe we're almost there. I'd appreciate it if some of you out there could help me test this system.

Email is frightfully insecure. Anything you write can and will be read by any number of robots or worse as it bounces across the Internet. Gmail? forget about any shred of privacy. While the Goog champions securing the data as it comes to and from their servers, once it’s there, your private life is fair game.

It doesn’t have to be that way. We can encrypt the contents of our emails so that only the intended recipients can read them. I’m not sure how many more embarrassing corporate, government, and university email hacks will have to happen before people start to take this seriously, but remember, those were only the illegal hacks. Other people are reading your emails all the time already. This bothers me.

Sorting out a solution to this problem has been like having a big jumble of puzzle pieces on my coffee table, and while I’ve pushed the pieces around to get them to fit together, it’s become apparent that there’s a piece missing — until (perhaps) now. To understand the puzzle piece, it’s easiest to start with the hole it needs to fill. Some of this you may have read in posts from days of yore.

Here’s a simplified illustration of how email encryption works. Picture a box with two locks, that take two different keys. When you lock the box with one key, only the other key can open the box again. If you want to send me a message, I give you one of the keys, and you put the message in the box and lock it. Since I’m the only one with the matching key, only I can unlock it. Sorry, Google! You just get gibberish.

Of course, there’s a catch. How do I get your half of the key pair to you? If I put it in an email, any bad guy could switch the key before it got to you, and then your secret message would only be readable by the bad guy. He’d probably pack the message back up and lock it with my key and send it on, so I might not notice right away that that the message had been intercepted.

What’s needed is either a foolproof way to send my public key to you, or a way to confirm that the key you got really came from me.

If there were a foolproof way to send the key, we’d dispense with the whole lockbox thing and just send the original message that way. So until that foolproof way arrives, we are left with the need to authenticate the key I send you, through some trusted, hard-to-fake source. There are competing ways to accomplish this, and they all have flaws. This is the hole in our jigsaw puzzle.

The most common way key-verifying is done is through a series of Certificate Authorities, companies entrusted with issuing and verifying these keys. This works pretty well, as long as every single Certificate Authority can be trusted. The moment one is hacked, the entire system has been compromised. Guess what? CA’s have been hacked. There are also several governments that are CA’s, meaning those governments can listen in on any transaction on the Web today that uses https:// – which is just about all of them. Any of those entities could send a fake key to you and your software would trust it. I don’t know which makes me more nervous, that China is on the list or the United States.

So if you can’t collectively trust a few hundred companies and governments, who can you trust? There are several competing systems now where you and all your friends only have to trust one company. As long as you and I both set up with that company, they will quite effectively safeguard our communications. Your privacy is as good as the security and integrity of a single corporation — unless a jealous government shuts them down, anyway, or they get bought by a less-scrupulous company, or a pissed-off engineer in their IT department decides to drop their corporate pants. Having a single entity hold all the keys is called the “key escrow problem”.

At the far end of the spectrum is crowd-sourcing trust. There exists a large and (alas) floundering network of people who vouch for each other, so if you trust Bob and Bob says my key’s OK, you can choose to trust my key. I’ve tried to participate in the “Web of Trust”, and, well, here I am, still sending emails in the clear.

But now there’s a new kid in town! I just got an invitation to join the alpha-testing stage for a new key-verification service, keybase.io. Let’s say you want to send me a message. You need the public key to my lockbox. You ask keybase for it, and they send you a key. But do you trust that key? No, not at all. Along with the key, the server sends a bunch of links, to things like this blog and my twitter account. The software on your computer automatically checks those links to see if a special code is there, and if it is, invites you to go and look at those links to make sure they point to things I control. You see the special code on Muddled Ramblings or Twitter or whatever that only I could have put there, and you can feel pretty good about the key. You put your own stamp on the key so you don’t have to go through the manual verification again, and away you go!

There are more features to prevent bad guys from other shenanigans like hacking my blog and twitter before giving you a fake key, but you can read about them at http://keybase.io.

The service is still in the pre-pubescent stage; I’m fiddling now to see if I can use keybase-verified keys from my mail software. Failing that, there are other methods to encrypt and decrypt messages you cut and paste from your email. Kinda clunky.

Having set up my keybase identity, I have been given the privilege of inviting four more people aboard. Good thing, too, since otherwise I’d have no one to exchange messages with, to see how it works. I’d be grateful if one (or four!) of y’all out there would like to be a guinea pig with me. Drop me a line if you’re interested. Let’s win one for the little guy!

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Observations Observations

Like a Duck

March 5th, 2015
The man is keeping us from... um... I'm not exactly sure what.

Let’s pause for a moment to talk about Quack Science.

We’re all about facts here at Muddled Ramblings and Half-Baked Ideas, so this afternoon I went in search of a factoid I’d heard tossed out in an advertisement, upon which I hope to one day base an episode. That little bit of analysis will have to wait, however, because I stumbled across another, shinier trivium, and while “researching” that (also known as drifting through Duck-Duck-Go results), I stumbled across a Grand Conspiracy.

The interesting nugget: 99% of the molecules in your body are water. Most of the time we hear about the composition of the body in terms of mass, where water can account for somewhere in a very broad neighborhood of 60% (how much fat is in your body being the major variable). But water molecules are relatively small, compared to all the proteins and whatnot, so if you just want to count the sheer number of molecules, well, they’re mostly water.

While digging into my research I discovered that just by telling you that little fact, I am a rebel. It seems Modern Science doesn’t want you to think about the water in your body that way. I found a site that leads with

Settled Science has some very strange fixations about water and mass.

Uh, oh, I thought. I believe I hear ducks in the distance. Apparently comparing body composition using the masses of the constituent chemicals is a fixation. Using Wikipedia as the reference for what Settled Science wants you to believe, the blogger goes on about how widely the number varies from person to person, and so forth. He doesn’t say why this is bad, just that it’s “quantitatively meaningless”.

Step one to selling people quack science: pick a straw man and throw insults at it. “Science says this! But that’s not true! So trust me instead!

I kept reading, because I was curious what the guy was selling.

Apparently, it’s much more quantitatively meaningful to count the number of molecules rather than their mass. The reason for this is unclear. Never mind that his number is based on exactly the same measurements, with exactly the same variation, just doing a little math on the results. His own tables even show this.

Step two in selling Quack Science: baffle them with bullshit. The numbers look different. He’s got more decimal places (a sign of bad analysis). He must be on to something!

Presumably, this curious charade of mainstream misdirection is undertaken so that the casual reader doesn’t realise that 99% of molecules in the human body are water.

First, I love the phrase “curious charade of mainstream misdirection”. I’m gong to use it, I promise. Second, what a bizarre presumption. Why in the name of all that’s holy would anyone bother to prevent casual readers from pondering this mildly-interesting trivium? Curious indeed. Perhaps even nonsensical.

Step three in selling Quack Science: Set up the Establishment to be toppled by the white-night rogue scientist.

Thankfully, Dr Gerald Pollack [University of Washington Bioengineering] is far more direct.

OK, then! Now we’re about to get the sales pitch.

Only what we get is a video by Dr. Pollack showing how he can make water do crazy stuff, and thoughts on ways his discoveries might be useful, increasingly speculative as the presentation continues. Desalination definitely got my attention. (If I were a billionaire, I’d spend my lucre building bulletproof, low-maintenance solar desalinization facilities in communities around the world that need them most.)

And our colorful blogger who spent all this time tilting at windmills? He just fades away, leaving me without a final conclusion to mock. Rebellion was his only product, and in the end, doing an extra step of math on the mainstream numbers and calling it rebellion was his only trick.

But then for bonus points I found a whole bunch of products that are loudly quoting (or misquoting) Dr. Pollack to sell fancy water bottles and crap. Often they will have a sentence that starts out with his quote, then adds to it, putting words in his mouth.

Because if you’re 99% water, that makes what you drink that much more important. Some of the products are blink-blink ridiculous, some are just portable water softeners. One kickstarter offered “Living” water. Yikes.

Get this: “Far-infrared emitted by the <product’s magic beads> enliven your water to improve your bodies natural healing capabilities” Never mind that every object at room temperature emits infrared; what does that even mean? What’s the difference between enlivened and non-enlivened water? How does that affect you, physiologically? IS IT SAFE? Are people going to start having aliens explode from their guts because of ‘enlivened’ water? And dudes! LEARN SOME FUCKING GRAMMAR!

That company also thought oranges were alkaline, and conveniently glossed over the part where the water is immediately dumped into a pool of acid when you swallow it. The more alkaline the input, the more acid your stomach creates.

I’ll let you research those products on your own; I don’t want to boost their search engine ranks with a link.

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Reading Reading

I Broke a Solemn Vow

February 19th, 2015
I hope you can forgive me.

A few years ago I read the novel Step on a Crack by (ostensibly) James Patterson and (reprehensibly) Michael Ledwidge. It was awful. Really, really horrible. After reading it, not only did I vow never to read anything with James Patterson’s name on it ever again, I vowed to stay clear of anything published by Little, Brown and Company, as clearly there was no editor there, just marketers trying to find ways to put Patterson’s name in larger type on the cover.

So-called critics gushed over the steaming pile of poo, which shows how professional critics make a living.

In fact, before I get to the actual subject of this episode, let me step into the way-back machine and relive just how ghastly awful Step on a Crack was.

Let’s you and I imagine for a moment that we are bad guys — wait, no, we are criminal masterminds. Let’s also imagine that criminal masterminds have a place they like to hang out and discuss evil plots. We’re sitting, having a beer, discussing which root certificate authority is the most vulnerable, when a new guy bellies up to the bar.

“Got a big thing going on,” he says.

“Oh?” You ask, not wanting to be rude.

“I know some stuff about this Cathedral,” he says. “If I can get a bunch of A-listers and world leaders in there all at once, I can do some damage.”

“Nice,” I say. We’re all evil here, and this sounds promising.

“How you going to get them in there?” you ask.

“A funeral,” he says, and that appeals to both of us. “Former first lady. Beloved the world over. She dies, the world comes callin'”

“Nice,” I say again. I’m not terribly creative.

“So you’re going to kill the former first lady?” you ask.

“Damn straight,” our newcomer says. “There’s this restaurant they go to every year. Anniversary or something like that.”

“And you’re going to shoot her at the restaurant,” you say.

“Even better,” the man says, “She’s allergic to peanuts.” You start to get that sinking feeling. Real masterminds keep things simple.

“You don’t say,” you say.

“Yep. I’m going to get a guy hired there as a cook, and he’s going to put peanut oil in her food.”

Questions start to bubble up in your mind. How does this man know that his peanut-oil slinger will be scheduled to work that day? How does he know that he will be on the line and get that dish? What if the chef decides to do the one for the first lady personally? This plan is starting to sound pretty fishy. “Or you could shoot her,” you suggest.

“Then people will know it’s murder. There will be too much security at the funeral.”

“Huh,” we say together. “She’ll have an Epipen,” I say. “One blast of adrenaline and she’ll last long enough to get to the hospital.”

Our fellow mastermind shakes his head. “I’m thinking what with all the excitement of the anniversary and all, she’ll forget it.”

“Isn’t she protected by the Secret Service?” you ask.

“Sure, but they won’t know about her life-threatening allergy. They’re just there to protect her life.”

“So…” I say.

You sum it up. “Your entire plan is predicated on the assumption that no one will be able to handle a food allergy, even though there will be several people there with a vested interest in being prepared for it, and she will die as a result.”

“What about your guy on the inside?” I ask. “They’re going to grill him pretty hard.”

“Nah, why would they?”

“Because he killed the former first lady.” You remind him. “They’re going to put the entire kitchen through the wringer.”

“I don’t think they’ll bother,” our fellow mastermind says. “Accidents happen, you know.” He slaps the bartop. “And that’s only step one! Wait ’till I tell you how we get away!”

The above part of the “mastermind’s” plan gets us though the first few preposterous pages of the Patterson/Ledwidge farce Step on a Crack. I read the whole damn thing, and I promise you it doesn’t get any better. Thus I vowed to boycott the whole Patterson swindle.

If you have already guessed by the title of this episode that I broke that vow, congratulations! You are smarter than any character in Crack. A while back I was early to pick up an order at Panda Express (as Chinese as McDonalds is Scottish, but some days nothing else will do) and I needed something to read. iBookstore was quick to tell me that the latest Patterson was FREE! I decided, for science, to see if the opening few pages of the latest work compared with Crack.

So I downloaded Private, only realizing later that by doing so I participated in the swindle. I helped produce inflated numbers for the book, which will ultimately lead to more people paying money for the rot. You see, each Patterson book is called a #1 best-seller because book stores order lots of copies, not because people buy them. THEN people buy them because it looks like the book is really successful. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Anyway, I read the prolog. The first sentence was really quite good. I stopped to savor the moment before continuing. The rest of that first very short chapter wasn’t too bad either, although the contortions the writer went through to make the protagonist as heroic as fuckin’ possible got pretty ridiculous. In one paragraph the dude is dead from unspecified war-related injuries, heart stopped and everything, then maybe three sentences later he’s knocked his buddy down and is running toward a burning helicopter. I think if the author could have worked in puppies in mortal peril he would have.

Still, better than Crack. The writer at least has some sort of voice.

In the second chapter of the prolog he visits his father in prison and learns he will inherit fifteen million dollars and a (thoroughly discredited) private detective agency (named “Private”) that caters to the rich and famous. His n’er-do-well twin brother is not to know about this.

There’s a few hundred pages after that, but I don’t think it’s necessary to read them to know what’s going to happen. Hot movie star almost-girlfriend imperiled by evil twin, (only of course that’s the big surprise), yadda yadda.

Not bad for a Patterson, though, I’ll give ‘em that.

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The Great Adventure The Great Adventure

It’s a Tough Life

February 17th, 2015

I mentioned to the light of my life that I was craving burgers to replenish my strength after my last (for a while) visit to the colon doctor.

For most people, the response would be, “where do you want to get them?” Not so my sweetie. Her response: “I’ve been wanting to make burger buns!”

And so she did.

IMG_0925

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Idle Chit-Chat Idle Chit-Chat

An Entropic Milestone

February 14th, 2015
Taking pride in wearing things out.

I was riding to work, waiting at a traffic light. Due to the geometry of that intersection, it is safest for me to declare myself in the actual traffic lane rather than sit meekly to the side where cars are willing to brush me aside to pass. Fifty feet after the intersection, there is plenty of space for me to move over. All I have to do is move out smartly and keep with the flow for fifty feet.

On a bike, it’s surprisingly easy to do just that. Watch the light, and when it changes stand up on the pedals, pull up on the handlebars to add arm strength to the power being delivered to the crank, and you as a cyclist can be the fastest vehicle of the cluster to reach fifteen mph. Past fifteen, cars have every advantage, but by then you’re through the danger zone, the motorists behind you appreciate your effort, and everyone parts friends.

Except on this particular ride, at this particular intersection, that’s not quite what happened. The light changed, I stood on my pedals with my skinny (but, I hasten to add, deceptively strong) legs, and began to pull through the intersection. Then… SKPOW! SCHWANG! My chain jumped right off the sprocket! (Not sure if it was the front or rear sprocket; I was too busy trying to not be killed.)

After a half-turn of the crank the chain caught again and the driver behind me did a good job not killing me. But I was a bit rattled.

A mile later, the chain jumped again. WTF?

One advantage of working at a big-ass company: There are company discussion groups about just about everything. I joined the bike-commute group (novices welcome) and asked what might be going on. I mentioned that my bike only had 3600 miles on it.

First came a response from someone asking for more details about my bike. Shit, I had meant to put in my first question, but spaced it.

How about this for a detail? My bike is a 30-speed. Thirty. Three gears in front (excuse me, ‘chain rings’), and ten in back. When I was a kid, there were two kinds of bicycles: bikes and ten-speeds. That was the entire taxonomy of the two-wheel world. My bike was a purple Scwhinn with a banana seat. It was awesome. One by one, however, my friends graduated to ten-speeds, and eventually I did too. Ten-speeds were the bosses of bikes.

Then there was the Schwinn Stingray 3-speed, with the big ol’ shifter lever. We all grew up knowing a guy from the next street over who had one of those. It was a bike, but it was the king of bikes.

Anyway, forty years later, once I revealed that I was riding a bike with a derailleur (or derailer for the less-pompous crowd), it was generally agreed that 3600 miles was more than I should have expected to get out of a chain, and that I was probably damaging my gears with every stroke of the pedals.

You see, the chain is a series of links with rollers that the sprockets mesh with. The rollers turn on the pins that connect the links of the chain. When the spacing of the teeth on the sprockets and the spacing of the links in the chain is exactly the same, all is happiness and joy, as the power delivered by my skinny-but-deceptively-strong legs is shared by every tooth on the sprocket that is in contact with the chain.

But as the chain turns, mile after mile, the pins that connect the links in the chain get worn down, which increases the spacing between links. Only a tiny bit, but that’s all it takes. Now at any given moment all the force of the pedaling is borne by a single tooth of the sprocket against a single roller in the chain, because the next roller in the chain is just a little to far from its corresponding gear tooth. Push too hard, and that one roller-tooth interface just can’t hold up. SPKOW! Even in normal pedaling, all the force from my muscles is being transferred through a single tooth of the gear, which can wear down the gears really quickly.

One more aside to acknowledge what you all are thinking: Yes, I did write this entire episode to brag about wearing out the chain on my bicycle. You know why? Because I wore out the freakin’ chain on my bicycle, that’s why.

Now I’m shopping for a new chain, and will be regularly. Unfortunately, there are a lot of options. They all are the quietest chains; they all shift the best. There’s one choice that costs twice the average cost of the other candidates, but claims to last longer (Diamond-like coating, whatever that means). Does it last twice as long? Pretty much impossible to measure.

I feel like I’m leveling up in the bike world. I’m a guy who wears out chains. I’m a guy who wears out tires. I’m a guy who knows what ‘chain ring’ means (it’s the gear in front). I’m the guy who flexes his calves in the mirror when no one is looking. I’m a bicyclist.

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Idle Chit-Chat Idle Chit-Chat

Happy Birthday: the Dirge

February 2nd, 2015
It's supposed to be a celebration, dammit!

A woman I work with will not tolerate the singing of the traditional happy birthday song, unless all agree beforehand to try to make it sound remotely happy. It’s a sad fact, when we’re all gathered around the flaming cake, few or none of us are confident in our singing skills. We start off slowly, “haaaaa…” waiting for everyone to find he note, then move only tenuously to the next note once everyone gets there: “py…”. And with those two notes the tempo is set.

As a result, we waddle through a ponderous rendition of what is supposed to be a celebration. We wheeze out a docile song in which “happy” is only another lyric to endure. Behind me as I sit at Stanley’s one such happy moment just played out, crushingly ponderous yet still out of tune.

If you’re going to do it badly, at least have fun! This ain’t no fuckin’ opera, it’s happy birthday! Let’s as a nation make this resolution: We will suck at singing happy birthday. We will kick ass at singing happy birthday.

A humble suggestion: If you are in a group that murders the moment, when you reach the end of the song, shout (and I mean shout), “double-time!” and sing the damn thing again, twice as fast. It will be four times as fun, and eight times as happy. Your ancestors will thank you.

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Politics Politics

Simple Energy Policy

February 1st, 2015
Economics 101

It seems that oil prices are at historic lows. OPEC is dumping their product on the market while fracking is increasing supply in the US, while the growth in China’s demand for oil is falling short of expectations.

There are lots of theories about why OPEC is continuing to pump oil into such a shitty market, but in the end their motivations don’t matter. Oil is cheap right now.

So let’s burn theirs! Let’s sit on our own reserves until the price goes up. The oil under American soil will be worth a lot more later than it is now. A lot more. The US trade deficit is largely about energy, but if you can balance that with an increase in the value of our assets, it’s not such a big deal.

Better, let’s use their cheap oil to produce a crap-ton of photovoltaic cells, and invest in other energy-up-front technologies.

However you figure it, you buy low and sell high if you want to succeed. Right now OPEC is selling low. I’m OK with that. I’d hold off on the domestic fracking; we can destroy our land later if it proves necessary. It will sure be a lot more profitable later.

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Observations Observations

An Inspirational Leader

January 31st, 2015
The who is as important as the what.

Friday at my group’s morning status meeting we spent a lot more time talking about the odds and ends of life than about actual work. One of the topics: what sports my boss’s newborn son would participate in. The Official Boss of Muddled Ramblings and Half-Baked Ideas believes her son’s reckless and pain-oblivious behavior makes him a good candidate for hockey. That gladdened my heart.

I don’t think I brought up martial arts, but I did have something to contribute on the subject.

Before I get to the specific advice I dispensed (at no charge), I’d like to point out that martial arts are an excellent choice for a kid. Way better than gymnastics, especially for girls. Why get them started on something they will have to abandon when they weigh more than 100 pounds? Better to get them into a good dojo and learn confidence and skills they can take to the grave. I think black belts would look fantastic on grandmas and grandpas alike.

But the phrase ‘good dojo’ brings me to my specific advice. On my Wednesday morning route I pass a fitness/martial art studio. Jiu Jitsu is mentioned in one of their signs. In the gray light of early dawn the lights of the studio spill out into the street. This week as I passed I looked in and saw a collection of young students doing exercises on the floor, all clad in their white robe-thingies. Seated next to the mat on a folding chair was the instructor. He was slouched down, his arms folded across his nearly-horizontal chest.

Wow. My first thought was how disrespectful this was to his students, then I thought about how disrespectful it was to his dojo, and to his discipline. Martial arts have a strong spiritual element; training is focussed on the mind as much as it is on the body. At least when it’s done right. Thinking about it now, I think an instructor has two options: Stand over the students, attentive and engaged, and correct their form, or do the exercises with them. The dude may as well have been smoking crack in front of his impressionable charges.

So my concrete advice to my boss was simply, “don’t let a dude like that teach your kid.” I think that message can be applied in a much wider context.

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Observations Observations

Ripoffs are Relative

January 30th, 2015
Sometimes the best advertising has someone else's logo on it.

Most days on my way to work I pass a Shell station that advertises a price per gallon almost a full dollar over the going rate. These days, that’s almost a 50% markup. When I pass in the early-rush-hour morning, there is almost never anyone filling up there.

Across the street is a Chevron station which charges twenty cents less per gallon. That’s still a huge markup over the average price in the area, but I do see people filling up there. The price looks pretty good when compared to the Shell station.

Which makes me wonder…

What if the Shell station was only keeping a token amount of gas in its reservoirs for the occasional blind idiot customer, and the owners of the two stations split the profit on the sighted idiots who purchase the slightly-less-outrageously-priced fuel at the Chevron?

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Idle Chit-Chat Idle Chit-Chat

The Last Thing You Do

January 24th, 2015
It's the punchline to the joke of your life.

A few years ago, a friend of mine was at a funeral. There’s a part of the ritual in which you sit in climate-controlled comfort and gaze upon the corpse, then there’s a procession from that place to the plot where those remains will be interred. Well, slippery roads, a steep hill, an idiot in an SUV, etc., led to the hearse getting t-boned in dramatic fashion. Before the procession could proceed, a new corpse-buggy had to be called for.

It arrived, and that’s when the powers that be discovered that the coffin itself had also been damaged. The seals had been broken. The body had to be taken back to the mortuary to be reboxed. Why? Because the mortal remains of a fine person had been converted to toxic waste, so people could look at the dead person before those remains went into the ground. Really.

What an insult to the soil. It angers me to think that my body may not in its own turn nourish the planet that sustained it. I want to be fertilizer. I should be fertilizer. Run me through a wood chipper, dump me out over the roots of an apple tree, and I promise you I will do my best to make those apples taste better than any others.

Cremation is less of an insult to our planet, I suppose, but it’s hardly carbon-neutral.

I was mighty happy the other day when after a high-fiber meal I had more time for Facebook than usual and I came across a link to this: What to do When You’re Dead: Science Edition. Here’s your chance to make the last thing you do something constructive. Apparently liquid nitrogen is better than a wood chipper. While less dramatic, I’m good with that choice. Note that launching yourself into space is not terribly environmentally sensitive, either, what with the rocket exhaust injected directly into the ozone layer. But it would be cool to be a meteor. With the proper preparation, your friends could watch you streak across the sky and vanish into nothingness. That would be a hell of a way to leave the building.

But whether you choose any of those alternatives or come up with one of your own, think about it: What do you want that last thing you do to say about you?