Gotta Ride, Part 4: Riding!

It was before noon when the package arrived. My new bike. “I’m pretty excited,” I told the FedEx guy.

“New bike?” he asked as he lifted the large box.

“Yeah.”

He handed me the box with no thought about whether a dumpy gray-bearded guy could handle it. It was bulky, but not very heavy. I opened the box and set to work.

It took me a while to get everything put together. This was mostly because I wanted to be very careful, and partly because there were parts in the shipment that didn’t apply to me, that I had to come to terms with mentally. At the bottom of the box was a pistachio shell. The human touch.

But before long the bike was assembled, and almost ready to ride.

“Almost” because this bike does not use traditional cables to shift gears, instead it uses an electrically-actuated system that can make subtle adjustments based on the gears selected. Which means my bike uses batteries, and the batteries were shipped with no charge.

The good news is that the day cooled somewhat over the three hours it took to get the batteries charged (I will need to recharge them monthly or perhaps more often if I ride a lot, but I can plan ahead and not be held up again.)

Finally, the batteries were charged. Then came the firmware updates. I now have an app on my phone for my bike’s drivetrain.

You might be wondering whether this hassle is worth it, but I have been waiting for three months now for a tool to help me maintain the cables on my other bike. It will get here eventually. In the meantime, I have a bike with no cables.

Batteries charged, firmware installed, it was time to ride!

My first trip was a loop around the neighborhood to get a feel for the bike and think about seat height. It was unlike any other experience I had ever had on a bicycle. First impression: This bike wants to turn. I’m going to have to get used to such a twitchy ride. Second impression: This bike wants to move. With tires hissing as I pedaled I was going faster than I had before.

A lot of that has to do with weight, obviously; the new bike weighs half what my faithful Giant, loaded with commuter gear, weighs. But there was a time when I weighed less, and the combined weight of rider and bike then was not that different than me on the Fezzari now. But this is an entirely different feeling.

I got home from the loop, nudged the seat up a bit, loaded up with beverages, and headed out for adventure. As I did, I made two mistakes. Afraid of damaging the carbon-fiber frame, I did not crank down the seat post clamp hard enough. It could happen to anybody. The BIG mistake was that I didn’t bring the adjuster wrench with me. As a result, I was soon riding with a seat much too low, and my brand-new seat post got some pretty bad scratches in it as it moved with my pedaling.

On the maiden voyage on any bike, bring all the tools.

But oh, what a ride. You know what you don’t worry about when you’re commuting? The lines you take through corners. And while my default route is pretty flat, there is one small climb that I literally laughed out loud while climbing — I reached for the granny gear on the bike and it was way too low. I pulled up that brief slope with confidence.

Were it not for the seat problem, I would have added a more serious climb at the end of my ride.

Strava runs on my watch while I ride, and every once in a while I would look at my wrist and just shake my head. I had to remind myself to be a responsible rider when other people were on the trail ahead of me.

Toward the end of my ride, back on urban streets, I caught up to a man who had his headwear held on by a scarf that went under his chin, his sandaled feet pushing the pedals of his bike. We stopped a light together, and I said hello.

“How are you today?” he asked.

“I am very happy,” I said.

He was a little surprised at my response, I think, but after he adjusted. He smiled. “That is good,” he said, as the light changed.

1

Gotta Ride, Part 3

Ohmygod ohmygod ohmygod, my new bike os ON THE WAY.

Quick recap for those just joining in: I have a very nice bike, a sturdy number with a massive cargo rack and a cushy seat and good mechanicals and several thousand miles of bonding time. But I need a new wheel, and what I thought would take days has instead taken weeks.

While I waited for my faithful bike to be road-worthy, I started drooling over much fancier bicycles. Bicycles I could buy RIGHT NOW and be riding again. But then I started looking for American small businesses, accepting that maybe I would pay yet more but I would be supporting something I believe in. In my search I found a bike that had my ideal drivetrain and glowing reviews for about 60% the cost of the big guys.

I am not one to underthink anything. I searched and scrabbled, but these guys seemed real. Finally, I placed my order. That included providing many, many measurements, so they could get the bike set up as close to perfectly as possible without actually meeting me.

First note about Fezzari – if anyone there has any doubts about the bikes they are building, they do a damn fine job of hiding it. The pride in what they do oozes from every communication. Second note – they take customer service seriously. They are a friendly and enthusiastic bunch.

In my previous installment in this series I mentioned that I would have to wait a few months to get my bike. After I placed my order I got a phone call to go over what I had requested and whether I had any questions. I had a couple, and the guy had easy, technically-trustworthy answers. We parted happily. A few seconds later, I got another call from Fezzari. Same guy. It seems he had forgotten to ask me an important question: If I was willing to forgo the teal color highlights in favor of olive, I could have my bike in four weeks instead of four months.

Big “fuck yeah” to that. In anticipation of the arrival, I ordered from my local bike shop pedals to match my shoes and light mounts so I could move lights from one bike to the other.

Four weeks shrank to four days, and now FedEx is bringing me my bike. Delivery estimate: Sunday. Day after tomorrow.

I was ready to wait months for this thoroughbred, confident that my trusty pony would have its new wheel any day now. My Giant is a great bike, and will always be my commuter vehicle, when the day comes that I commute again.

But I am giddy with excitement. I have planned my first ride on the new bike, which is essentially my default ride with a hill-climb option at the end. I have started to worry about not having padding in my pants. I’m telling my knee that soon all will be well.

My Fezzari arrives Sunday, some small amount of assembly required. If it’s late in the day when my new ride arrives, I’ll have to take Monday off. Mental health day.

Gotta ride.

I Voted Today

I was careful to deposit my ballot in a drop box that was not a fake. It seems the Republican Party in California has admitted to putting out drop boxes falsely marked as “official”.

That… appalls me. Sure, voter suppression has long been a favorite tactic of the aging-out Republican minority to stay relevant, but to literally steal ballots is another level entirely. If no one spends serious jail time over that, I will not vote for a Republican for the rest of my life. (I had previously vowed that no Republican would get my vote until they got rid of Trump. Later in this rather muddled episode I will also introduce other ways Republicans can lose my vote. It comes down to “run honest campaigns and stop lying.”)

For fifty years the Republican Party has leaned more and more heavily on dirty tricks to stay in power. And the corruption has worked itself deep into the courts, as well. Take Texas. There’s a rule there right now that there can only be one ballot drop box per county. That means one drop box in Houston, a city of you-look-it-up millions of people. A judge ruled that this was a silly rule that had no justification other than voter suppression. Then other “conservative” judges overruled that rational decision.

They said pretty much, “you’re lucky to have drop boxes at all!” while ignoring the fact that in some (traditionally Republican) places there’s a drop box for every few thousand people, while in traditionally Democratic places, there’s a drop box for hundreds of thousands or even millions of voters. It’s just ridiculous.

But even that’s not stealing votes. And yes, in Pennsylvania seven Trump votes and two others were stolen and the election officials in charge immediately did the right thing and there was no cover-up and we can all talk honestly about it.

The California GOP says these “official” drop boxes are a “service”, but it undermines the provenance of the votes placed in them. I put my ballot in a box with a seal on it, and it will be recovered by an election official, and will never be “off the reservation.” I put my signature on the envelope, I put it in the box, and it is not touched again until it is in the hands of election officials. If someone else drops off my ballot in an official box, it requires another pair of signatures on the envelope. So, legally, none of those ballots in the GOP boxes should count. Thanks for your service, Republican Party!

Rambling on, I am encouraged by the huge turnout of early voters. Many of those motivated to vote early are those who have reason to believe that shenanigans are afoot, and before intimidation and suppression can really ratchet up in urban communities they are getting their votes in. Getting votes counted on Election Day will also affect the inevitable rants our current Presidential Embarrassment spews out.

January 20: the day Twitter can suspend Donnie’s account.

Meanwhile, the Senate might flip. Mitch will still be there, barring a miracle, and I wouldn’t bet against Lindsey, for all I hate them both. But they will be hoping that the populace forgives the Republicans for the last few years of criminal looting of our nation.

They will find no forgiveness from me. I will vote for no Republican at any level of government until Mitch and Lindsey are purged from the Republican roster. Oh, yeah, and Tom Cotton, too. He’s worse than all of them. No party with those people will ever get my vote. Ever.

Someday I will be an issues and governance voter again, I hope. I just need there to be more than one party playing that game.

My best-case scenario, which I genuinely think is possible, is that the Republican Party implodes and in that void the Democratic Party schisms. I’ve mentioned it before; already the best, most honest debates about the future of our nation occur within the Democratic Party. I would love to watch a throw-down between Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Joe Biden, when they didn’t have to be nice because the Republicans were watching.

Take away the dinosaur party, and the Democrats split in a nanosecond. Somewhat less likely is that Actual Conservatives form a meaningful party, or take over the Libertarians or the smoking remains of the Republican Party, and offer their voice to the discussion. I would have no problem with that, either. I just want to hear debate with substance, honest disagreement between parties who want a better nation but disagree on how to get there. That’s what politics is supposed to be.

We can disagree. We should disagree. That’s the thing people don’t seem to get. But it has to be honest. Stealing votes is not debate; it is oppression.

And dang, I got so caught up in the national stuff that I’m having to amend this post to talk about local issues. First: Uber can’t just spend money to counter a law it doesn’t like. Second: although it will destroy an entire genre of fiction, cash bail is evil, and I hope it ends in my state.

I voted for a couple of bonds (now is a favorable time to take out a loan) for long-term projects, but not bonds for spendy-money, and I voted for open space. The idea that protecting open space affects homelessness is disingenuous, pretty much a lie, which is when I stopped reading the “against” arguments. In generaI I voted against tinkering – “yeah the law says this, but this is better!” And of course I followed the money. The money doesn’t lie. When prison guards ask you to make laws that put more people in prison, it’s time to step back.

I voted today. If you disagree with me, you better get your ass to the polls.

2

Gotta Ride, part 2

Since the previous episode, when I had my eyes on a fancy bike that was sold right out from under me, I did not stop lusting over fancy bikes. I pored over the bike shop’s listings so thoroughly that when I went in there a few days ago to check on my wheel progress (I am unbiked right now while I wait for a wheel) I recognized individual bikes in the inventory. “Oh, that’s that sweet demo model with the 58cm frame!” (Too big for me.)

Side note: while I was at the bike shop, a family was shopping for the kid’s first bike. A big moment! They were looking at a few models but none was perfect. “If we order the other color, how long?” Mom asked. “About a year,” the bike store guy replied. “September 2021. Bikes are hard to find these days.” Dang.

I saw a matte gray bike from their “high-performance pack mule” line. I had studied the range of gear ratios between the two drivetrains offered at the top of this line — the SRAM 1×12 and the Shimano 2×11 drivetrains. For the nerds: SRAM has a lower granny gear, Shimano has a taller top end and smaller steps between gears. But you know how to stop having problems with the front derailleur? Don’t have one. 1×12 is simpler and lighter. And more expensive.

In person, I was struck by just how dang graceful the offerings from Trek are these days. Those are some pretty bikes. And there they were, just one credit-card transaction away, as I learned that one of my wheels was still in transit, and the other wasn’t set up yet.

(Iso-speed, a voice whispered in my head. Trek technology that reduces vibration reaching the rider, thus improving endurance.)

I had walked to the store, I could have ridden home. I did not. I might have given in, but I had already found a new object of desire, one that demanded less in return. Today I did two things at the same time: I ordered a new bike and I became one of those people who rides way more bike than he has any business riding.

The bike comes from Fezzari, an outfit out of Utah, known mainly for mountain bikes. They pioneered a construction technique that, rather than make carbon-fiber elements and join them together, builds the frame all in one go. No joints. The version of the drivetrain I most wanted in the world comes at an enormous discount on this frame, compared to Trek, Specialized, Giant and the rest.

This frame-is-a-single-piece thing allegedly also reduces vibration and rider fatigue, along with blah blah blah bike stuff. And this frame has apparently passed some series of mountain bike strength tests. Most road bikes could not pass those tests, my new best friends at Fezzari assure me. While true roadies might not find this important, I sometimes fall over. A tough frame can be nothing but good. Especially if the frame weighs less than two pounds.

Aesthetically, where Trek is a dolphin, Fezarri is a stealth fighter, angular and aggressive. In the almost-inconceivable world where my bike frame aerodynamics make a difference, I might have to upgrade again. In that world, I’m a professional bicyclist and someone else is picking up the cost.

This bike will be a pretty good climbing bike. Were it not for the big belly I carry around, I would have a climbing physique. I’m kind of… itching to climb. (Not so keen on descents.) I’m already scouting hills in my neighborhood. While long climbs around here involve interaction with cars, there are some great sprint-climbs nearby with no traffic. When I get my wheel I’ll start measuring myself on them with my current bike. When the new bike arrives a few months from now, I’ll be ready for the polka-dot jersey.

Yeah, a few months. The wait time is 16-18 weeks. Not a lot of uncertainty, but a lot of waiting. It is NOT the instant gratification I set out looking for; it is not the get-me-riding-right-now fix that started me on this quest. But the new bike will provide a riding experience that I think will keep me over the wheels for years to come. Although I will have to adapt to riding a bike that has no kickstand. Weird.

But when it’s raining, or when I need to carry stuff, or when I need my head up in traffic, my faithful old Giant will be there. It’s a great bike, and shall always be loved. While the Fezzari will become my bicycle, the Giant will remain my car.

3

Health Care and Global Competitiveness

It’s those damn liberals, again, shouting about how access to medical care should be a right, about how no one should die because they don’t have insurance. We know the real problem in this country is JOBS! It’s just plain cheaper to move manufacturing to Asia.

Consider this: when unions in this country won health insurance from employers, it seemed like a great victory at first, but it was a disaster. It let our society off the hook. If you are worthwhile, if you are employed, then you will be taken care of. The rest of y’all are just freeloaders.

Now, imagine you are going to start a manufacturing facility somewhere. It’s well-documented that American workers are very productive. If you’re selling the end product in the United States, there are plenty of other cost savings, from transportation to tariffs, to reward making your widgets right here. No one wants to pay freight for the widget, all else being equal. (We will leave rational energy policy as a way to equalize world trade for another day.)

But to make your widgets you’re going to need workers. If you open your plant in the US, you will have to pay those workers a 1970’s-level wage, and you will also have to pay for their health insurance. If you open your plant almost anywhere else, the health insurance burden is lifted. The government of that country is covering that.

Universal health care in this country would make it a lot cheaper for companies to do work here.

“But!” you say, and I nod as you say it, “universal health care creates a tax burden and that will hurt those same companies!” And that is true. At that point, the companies have a choice: recognize that the tax burden is offset by their savings on payroll, and further understand that their taxes are going to support Americans no matter who they hire so they may as well get value out of those taxes by hiring Americans, or the companies can leave, and go somewhere else that also has universal health care.

Kids, any company that was going to leave over this issue already has. What remains are the companies that want to stay. Let’s make it easier for them. Nationalized health care means real jobs.

2

Gotta Ride

Supply chain issues have sidelined my bicycling. I’ve been exercising every day, but in all my biking years I have never pined for the trails the way I am pining right now. It’s different this year.

I love my bike. It’s tough, all-weather, and it’s rigged to carry a lot of stuff. The only gripe I have about it is that currently it has only one wheel. My Local Bike Shop is working on that problem, but I’m getting impatient. So when that same shop sent out their weekly email with the section “bikes in stock” in my head I jumped straight to “bikes I could ride today.” I had to take a look.

Because of those same supply-chain issues, the only bikes in stock are the high-end ones. And honestly, were I to buy a second bicycle, it would have to be an upgrade, and fill a fundamentally different role than my mighty commuter rig. It would have to be my joy-riding bike.

I looked though the offerings, filtering by “In stock”. One bike came up that checked all my wish-list boxes, with style.

A recent episode here mentioned the Velominati Web site. Rule 12: the correct number of bikes to own is n+1.

I went out to the garage. One of the two bikes would have to be, at any given time, hoisted up and out of the way (as long as there are two cars, as least). Would that stop me from riding one of them? When commuting resumed, would I be able to hang up my sports car and get back in the practical plodder?

I’m pretty sure the answer to the latter question is yes. The right tool for the job. Plodder for commute, plodder for the rain. And I will always appreciate my Giant. It is a great bike.

But (I tell myself), the fact I’m pining so badly to get back on the trail, to be pedaling again, shows that maybe it’s time to level up. Maybe it’s time for a non-commuter bike, especially since it will still be months before I’m commuting.

But on the other hand, I’m riding for my health, and a lighter bike means less exercise. Unless I go farther, faster. Which would be SO MUCH FUN! But then other riders would see a big beer belly plodding along on a high-end-bike and roll their eyes about someone with more money than sense, and they’d be right. Until I rode that belly off. And my long gray beard flying in the wind earns me some pretty good slack.

But… it’s a lot of money. And my current bike will be ready to ride eventually.

But… it’s an awesome bike. An expensive awesome bike. It’s in stock in my size. I could walk to the bike shop with my pedals in hand and be off on a new adventure shortly afterward.

The Official Sweetie of Muddled Ramblings and Half-Baked Ideas naturally has some say in this decision. Mostly, I leave the budget stuff to her. I haven’t talked numbers with her, except for a cringy “yeah, north of that” to her pretty-high guess, but she is not against investing in health. And in this case, this year, mental health is just as important as physical health. Just being about to ride has lifted my mood lately.

I have a friend with a super-fancy bike from a previous era. He doesn’t ride it. I’m pretty sure now he would not be able to ride it even if he wanted to. So a fancy bike is a challenge and a commitment. Gotta ride it. Gotta ride it enough so that I will always be fit enough to ride it.

… ah, dang.

I just reloaded the bike shop’s page. Someone bought the bike I was agonizing over. Jerk.

2

Keeping it at 50

If Kentucky chose to secede from this great nation, I might be all right with that.

Kentucky is a beautiful place, and friendly (to people like me). Yet while they hate Mitch McConnell, they will vote for him anyway. Because R. Swap the letters after their names and change nothing else and it would be McGrath in a landslide.

If Kentucky left, maybe we could swap in Puerto Rico. The island isn’t nearly as liberal as the press would have you believe, so it would be no surprise if a Republican senator (maybe even an actual conservative) came from there. But I have to think that whoever they send to represent them would be better than the Kentucky Kountry Klowns that we have now.

3

It was Supposed to be a Day of Triumph

As I write this, I am sipping, breathing the last of my 18-year-aged scotch whiskey. I have been looking forward to this day for a long, long, time. A project I have been working on is going live. And… there’s no euphoria.

The project is not truly finished, but it has reached its most significant milestone, and from here on out “finished” will be a gradient. Software is that way, sometimes. At the end of the day this is not a triumph of coding but a triumph of finally defeating a bureaucracy.

A big day. A day I have been looking forward to. Whiskey I bought accidentally and have no regrets about. I’m on the patio, watching a tiny crescent of a moon chase the sun toward the horizon, the air not awful, the breeze is rustling the leaves of the tree over my head.

But the triumph, anticipated for more than half a decade, seems small now, in the face of all the other stuff. I don’t want to make today’s events about me, because they are not, and deserve their own space. So I will not go into them here, except to say I am sad and angry and exhausted, and January 20, 2021 seems a long, long way away.

3

Hockey Stick

How will the future treat the year 2020? Here in the middle of it we see a wannabe dictator trying to usurp the world’s largest economy, we see hundreds of thousands dying from the novel coronavirus, and we see marginalized people shouting for reforms that actually mean something.

Big things. Things I am passionate about. But honestly, I think fifty years from now the human race will look back on 2020 as the hockey stick year. I knew this year was coming, but I hoped I would be old enough that I would not have to witness the aftermath. It seems I am not so lucky.

The Hockey Stick. It’s a reference to a graph of global temperature that gets gradually worse until a threshold is crossed and things get really bad really quickly. The graph looks like a hockey stick.

This is the year “Fire Tornado” was added to my vocabulary. Vast swaths of forest are being converted to atmospheric carbon dioxide, in a feedback loop of disastrous consequence. “But forest mismanagement…” you say. Fine. But the fucking tundra is on fire. Permafrost is melting, and Putin’s pipelines are rupturing.

The only way through this is with strong leadership and a full-on investment in adaptation. Our planet is heating up, there’s no getting around that now. The question is, what are we going to do about it?

Important to note here, that Putin and Trump’s other “friends” make their money from oil. Apparently they don’t give a fuck about their children. Or your children. Or anyone under the age of 60. Because those rich bastards are woking really hard to live like kings now and screw the consequences. Apres moi, la deluge. In the case of Florida, it’s far more literal this time.

Here we are. Forests burning, hurricanes wailing, rivers flooding. Glaciers sliding into the sea faster than ever before. Not unpredicted. Our coastal cities will do what they can to suffer the sea level rise, but the storm surges will destroy them. I said, after Katerina, (quietly, to myself, or maybe in this blog), that we should not bother rebuilding that city. It is lost, like Miami, like much of Manhattan. Dead cities.

It is time to stop playing what-if games and understand that humanity is facing its most grave challenge ever. It is a challenge many human civilizations have failed before, but this time the peril is global. The planet we got comfy on is gone. It is time to suck up petty nonsense and accept that our only way out of this mess is forward.

2

Idiot

I spent the evening poking at the keyboard, trying to wrangle a new Tin Can story, the first in that series for years. But I couldn’t get my head in the game. First it was sports, then it was politics. Scandal broke around the president today (again), but it was a scandal he could easily have avoided were he not a narcissistic idiot. It was Bob Woodward, for crying out loud.

So I was trying to get my head to a creative place. After being distracted by the surprisingly-compelling Tour de France coverage of stage 12 (kid from Switzerland taking his first ever TDF stage and looking like a beast in the process — he was zooming down narrow, poorly-paved roads fast enough to challenge the lead car, only to mash up the next hill, while the Big Names launched futile attacks and fell farther behind), I turned off the television and set to writing.

And checking the news. It seems that our Stable Genius President sat down with Bob Woodward, a journalist instrumental in bringing down Nixon. They didn’t talk just once, oh no. Not five times. Eighteen times Donald Trump talked to this guy. And our President went on to tell this Journalist, on the record, a bunch of astonishing things.

I will not go into the astonishing things here. Mostly it’s stuff we already knew, but this time it came directly out of Trump’s mouth.

Instead, let’s discuss what a monumental idiot our fearless leader was to have the interviews in the first place. I imagine a conversation somewhat like this:

Bob: Hello, Donnie?
Donnie: Yeah, that’s me. [Donnie doesn’t ask who Bob is, because if Donnie doesn’t know who he is already, the guy is not important]
Bob: I’m writing a book about you!
Donnie: That’s great! Beautiful! All the best writers want to do a book about me. When will you be done?
Bob: Well, that’s the thing, Donnie — if we want the book to be awesome, it needs more of you in it. I need to talk to you. Get inside your head. Really feel the genius.
Donnie: Call me any time. Except when I’m golfing.

Jared or Ivanka could have stopped him; they didn’t. They just let him spend hours talking to Bob “Watergate” Woodward about whatever crossed his mind at the moment. And Bob, bless his heart, was not hostile. He actually tried to guide Donnie around the worst land mines, to give Donnie an escape hatch. Donnie would have none of that.

This episode shows a new and different kind of stupid for our president. Sure, he’s always been a sucker for flattery and a racist and a liar and honestly pretty stupid, but before he’s at least shown enough intelligence to not spill his guts to a man who has already brought down a president. This isn’t Entertainment Tonight.

3

Camera Lenses by the Numbers

The Official Sweetie of MR&HBI has been getting behind the camera quite a bit lately and is starting to get a feel for it. She knows, for instance, that when the f-stop is lower, the picture is brighter. She knows that the 85mm lens is zoomed in closer than the 12mm lens is. But why? What do the numbers actually mean?

It’s all about pinholes.

As a thought experiment, imagine poking a pencil through a piece of paper, then holding the paper up to your eye. When you hold the paper far from your eye, you can only see a little tiny bit of what is beyond. As you move the hole closer, you can see more. A “wider angle”, you might say. That distance from the hole to your eye corresponds to the focal length of the lens. A lens with a short focal length will show a wider angle of the world beyond it, while a long focal length will just show a tiny detail.

So far, so good. Perhaps the most mystifying number in photography is f-stop. I think the “stop” part of the term comes from the mechanics of early cameras, and doesn’t help matters. Let’s get back to the pinholes.

Let’s say your pinhole camera was built around a really, really big pin. In fact, let’s say your hole is a whole damn mile across. Obviously that’s going to let a lot of light through. You’ll overexpose your shot for sure!

Unless your mile-wide pinhole is 100 miles away. Suddenly that hole doesn’t seem so big, and the amount of light hitting your sensor is actually pretty small. In fact, your f-number is 100 – tiny tight. To get f-50 you could either double the diameter of the hole, or move the hole so it’s only 50 miles away. Either way, four times as much light will reach your sensor – the apparent diameter of the hole is doubled, but the amount of light is a function of the area of the circle. The f-number is a simple ratio, aperture/distance, and each integer you go down quadruples the amount of light that reaches the sensor.

A more reasonable pinhole camera would be a 0.3mm aperture at 50mm distance, or f-166. Light is slowly leaking through. To take a picture with a pinhole, you have to be ready to wait for a while.

Knowing where those numbers come from, we can appreciate the glass in our lenses all the more. Here at Muddled Central we have in our stable several (well, four) lenses that can go to f-numbers 2 or below. To accomplish that with a pinhole camera is simply preposterous. A “pinhole” 25mm across, mounted 50mm from the camera just wouldn’t work. Imagine holding a card with a hole the size of a quarter two inches from a white piece of paper. Do you see an image? You do not. But with glass we can make a lens that acts as if it were a 25mm pinhole 50mm from the sensor, and that’s pretty damn awesome.

Similarly, we can create lenses that don’t physically change in length, at lest not all that much, but with a twist of a ring act as if they could be stretched from, say, 24 to 105mm, the way my favorite Swiss-knife lens does.

What the glass in the lenses allows us to do is virtually create a huge pinhole and focus that light on the sensor.

As if has a sweet spot. In modern SLR’s the back element of the lens is about 45mm from the sensor, give or take. That means for those cameras it’s easier to create a lens with a focal length in the neighborhood of 45mm — there’s less magic to do.

In general, the creators of modern lenses choose to provide flexibility in one of the two measurements: They will create a lens that can cover a wide range of focal lengths (a zoom lens), or they will create a lens fixed at one focal length that has a wide range of apertures (often called a “fast” lens because it can let in enough light to allow faster shutter speeds, but Sigma has starting calling them “bright” lenses, which I like better).

Finally, and critically, there is a side effect of aperture that can turn you from a snapshot-taker into an artist*. I learned it as “depth of focus”, but others call it “depth of field”, and I might like that term better. Here’s an oversimplification: The more different ways light from a thing that’s out of focus has to get to the sensor, the blurrier it will be. When you close down the aperture, you reduce the “wrong” paths the light can take from the object to the sensor, so it is less blurry. When you open things up, objects even just a tiny bit out of the focal plane start to smear all over the place.

That observation ties us to the math of the photographer’s intent. The photographer who did my brother’s wedding had that mastered. In every shot there was no doubt who the subject was. I watched him for a while at that event, as he moved around, ghostlike, his camera in a sound-suppressing enclosure.

Not everyone has that luxury. When a lens is wide open, it lets in more light. That means you can shoot with a faster shutter, but your depth of field is reduced. What if you’re a sideline photographer at a sports event? You need the fast shutter to freeze the action, but you also need to capture all the action; usually you’re not trying to isolate one athlete in a blurry, confused world. For these people, even the most expensive lenses can only do so much.

That leads to the third leg of the exposure triangle that I’ve been dancing around (the first two being aperture and shutter speed). If you open up the lens, you get more light, but you get a shallower depth of field. If you need to stop action, you have to have a short time your shutter is open. So if you can’t take a long exposure, and you can’t open up the aperture too much, what are you going to do?

If you distill the question, you see that it really asks. “How can I take a good picture with less light?” We are asking our cameras to build a picture with less input, which to them means less information. This is the biggest difference between digital and film photography (other than the film). With film, you choose the tradeoff between quality and expedience before you even loaded your camera — you could choose a high ISO film that sacrificed image detail for speed, or you could choose film that would take abundant light and really reward it. If conditions change in the middle of your roll, you’re out of luck, Bunky. With digital, you just push a few buttons.

On the other hand, back then if you needed yet higher sensitivity you didn’t have to buy a new camera to get it. Before, light sensitivity was intrinsic to the film, now it’s intrinsic to the camera’s sensor.

Almost all digital cameras have an ISO adjustment — the name not accurate but harkening back to the ratings of film sensitivity. And super-high ISO (that doesn’t suck) is a little corner where camera manufacturers really throw down. “I can make that picture with three photons!” For a while Nikon really had the pixels but Canon had the ISO and then Nikon jumped ahead and then Sony said “hey guys, we’ll be waiting at the finish line.” It will never end.

Mostly, I just use lights.

I hope this was useful to someone. There is math in photography; it is a convergence of art and technology, as Steve Jobs used to say. You won’t be doing algebra on your shoot, but understanding the math and the fundamental tradeoffs can inform your decisions when you’re in the shoot, and provides new opportunities to make something great.

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* In my early days in Prague, I walked around a sprawling cemetery while it snowed, and took a lot of pictures. Reviewing the results, I lamented that I could not isolate the subjects of my shots from the tangled trees in the background. Had I only understood!

3

I Once Hit a Squirrel — or, should I say, He Once Hit Me

I was riding my bicycle along a very pleasant path, winding between shade trees, when I heard rustling in a bush next to the path. Suddenly, even as I was passing by, an orange-brown ball of fur shot from the underbrush, headed right for me.

“Whoa! Hey buddy!” I shouted even as the rodent went into my spokes. The impact knocked him up and away from the wheel, to glance off my shoe. By the time I was stabilized enough to turn around, the squirrel was gone.

I was not far from here when I first wrote in this blog about the Suicide Squirrel Death Cult, back in 2004. (It is an episode worth revisiting, if only for the comments.) Now they are throwing themselves at passing bicycles as well.

I see a pattern among squirrels, a rule that goes something like, “whatever side of the path you are on, it is safer on the other side, and there is no limit to the risk required to justify getting over there.”

One stretch when I saw no squirrels today was when I was 20 miles into the ride and the shadow of a large bird of prey fell in next to me as I pedaled, and followed me for a while. I suspect it was one of the larger hawk varieties, but I had seen a buzzard on the ground earlier in my ride. Hopefully I wasn’t looking like the bird’s next meal, but rather something that might cause a rodent to do something stupid. Because they will.

Also on my ride today I saw a large number of water fowl, doing water fowl stuff, and chickens, raised by a homeless family between the creek and a golf course. Then there was the Caballero riding his dancing horse. He was an older gentleman, with ramrod-straight posture, plaid shirt over blue jeans, a white straw caballero hat protecting him from the sun. The horse was a big bay with a light step and plenty of moves.

At the southernmost point of my ride, I was debating whether to turn back or push on a little farther. That was decided by a friendly park ranger who told me that the path was closed, due to fire risk and some “hazard trees”. I’m assuming those are trees at risk of lighting up due to sparks. He told me that I could take the road and rejoin the trail a few miles south in Morgan Hill; I just laughed and turned around for home.

It’s not unusual to have a story after a ride, but today had Extra Story Density.

3

Sweet-o-Meter Fixed!

There is a lot of shit code in this world. This blog uses some of it. I have fixed one aspect of the shittiness, so now you can once again voice your appreciation for words well-spoken. I will look into the problem with the comment upvote thingie… later. It could also use a face-lift, I think, so people even notice it’s there.

1

Rule 6

In a bike-related email thread at work, titled “A Cautionary Tale”, I first learned of the Velominati. I was first introduced to Rule 64: Cornering confidence increases with time and experience. The rule goes on to note “This pattern continues until it falls sharply and suddenly.”

Curious what the other rules might be, I moseyed over to Velominati.com to take a look. Needless to say, not many of the rules apply to plodding commuters who can’t even decide if they’re riding a mountain bike or a road bike. (Commuter bikes are sort of a hybrid, with the posture and drive train of a mountain bike but narrower tires for the road.) And many of the rules were far too worried about the appearance of riders for my taste.

But there were quite a few rules that I thought applied universally, and there was a lot of fun to be found. There is Rule 9: If you are out riding in bad weather, it means you are a badass. Period. I actually enjoy riding in the rain, and when it’s cold in the morning that first mile is uncomfortable, but then it’s all good. So, every once in a while, I’m a badass even to these semi-pro riders.

One of my favorites (that doesn’t even remotely apply to me) is Rule 42: A bike race shall never be preceded with a swim and/or followed by a run. There is further expansion of the rule, and if you allow me, I’ll just paste it here: “If it’s preceded with a swim and/or followed by a run, it is not called a bike race, it is called duathlon or a triathlon. Neither of which is a bike race. Also keep in mind that one should only swim in order to prevent drowning, and should only run if being chased. And even then, one should only run fast enough to prevent capture.” I might amend that rule to say “… one should be the second-slowest runner involved.”

Beer makes an appearance in several rules. Rule 47 recognizes the importance of beer with no shortage of wit, and can be paraphrased, “don’t drink shit beer.” And there are the two cornerstone rules, Rule 5: Harden the fuck up, and Rule 10: It never gets easier, you just go faster. The second of those is a quote from Greg LeMond, one of cycling’s greats. Rule 5 (sometimes written Rule V) is the core ethic of the Velominati.

For me, those rules apply (although I would substitute “farther” for “faster”), especially since I’m so soft that sneezing will harden me up (although I’m noticing definition returning to my calves!), but the best rule of all is Rule 6: Free your mind and your legs will follow. At its heart this is the rule I need more than any other. Plan, prepare, then ride. “Your mind is your worst enemy. Do all your thinking before you start riding your bike.  Once the pedals start to turn, wrap yourself in the sensations of the ride – the smell of the air, the sound of the tires, the feeling of flight as the bicycle rolls over the road.”

When I achieve that, I always have a great ride. I get home tired but mentally refreshed, my brain even more a beneficiary of the ride than my legs, heart, and lungs were. Yesterday, after a gnarly weekend, I told myself before I started that I was taking a Rule 6 ride. It was, as the kids say, just what the doctor ordered.

So here’s to Rule 6. A rule written for over-thinkers like me. And while my definition of “feeling of flight” might not be the same as the feeling the authors of the rules experience, it still applies.

Perspective

I think, as the death toll crosses a politically-minimized 150,000, that we have to accept that the horror we felt when we watched the towers fall was about the buildings, not the people.