Gotta Ride, Part 5: 300+ Fezzari Miles Later*

Coyote Creek Trail

There is a section of my favorite bike trail, a sinuous stretch that winds between ancient trees, that is far enough from picnic spots that there is little foot traffic or large family bicycle outings. Along that stretch, I am occasionally able to flout the local speed limit and really have fun. Or to be precise, a different kind of fun, because it fills my heart with gladness to see a whole family out there enjoying the air and the trees and some of the good things about life.

And now there are bike helmets for kids that are awesome. I saw a young girl with a unicorn lid today that was just plain cool. I could be tempted, is all I’m saying. I’m never going to grumble about having to slow down for groups like that; in ten years I’ll be the one getting in the way of the girl who has eschewed her unicorn for an aero helmet. Hakuna-matata, or something like that.

But I digress.

I am thankful for the quieter stretches, on this trail and elsewhere, over which I can put my head down a little bit, and see what I can do. The stretch on Coyote Creek Trail was always one of my favorites, but then I got the new bike. The Fezzari Empire changes things in ways I could never have imagined.

The Coyote Creek segment is flat by bicyclist standards, but it rolls a bit, with rises that seem gentler than they used to, and descents that seem more fun than ever. Ascending, rather than drop down a couple of gears and pedal enough to preserve some of my momentum, I’m more inclined now to stand up and mash, the challenge to never break my cadence as I attack the slope. Often now I’m going faster when I get to the top of these minor obstacles and my heart is pumping harder and I feel good.

Then through the twists and turns, and as confidence increases (see Rule 64) I find myself slicing through the corners, my bicycle eager to carve a path as my tires hiss over the pavement and my shirt ripples with the wind. It is a singularly awesome moment.

I mentioned somewhere in Part 4 that the new bike loves to turn. In fact, it is much like the little two-seat sports car that is buried under bike stuff in my garage. Quick, twitchy, and communicative, if a little more demanding and rougher than my good ol’ Giant commuter bike. The Fezzari is talking to me all the time, and listening as well. And if I don’t pay attention, things go astray much more quickly than when I am on my other bike. Kind of like my storytelling.

Perhaps now is the time to mention, for people who don’t know me, that when I speak of my recent triumphs on my new bicycle, that the successes are relative. I will not be competing in the Tour de France any time soon; I am a gradually-less-overweight guy with skinny little legs who has earned his long white beard. Most of the Spandex Crowd** still passes me. (Hehe… most.) I’m probably not saying anything here that experienced cyclists don’t already know. But maybe the experienced cyclists out there have forgotten just how awesome getting on a good bike and riding really is. And that joy is what I’m here to tell you about.

On the subject of communication with a bike: Never has a chain lube given such instantaneous gratification before. I had not considered that the repair stand I owned would not work on a bike with a through-axle, and I suddenly found myself scrounging. It was 250 miles before I did the first cleaning/lube (factory chain lube is supposed to last a while… right?) and I had identified a rumbling feeling coming through my cranks. I thought it might be an alignment problem with my fancy derailleur, but nope, after routine chain maintenance it was like I was pedaling a cloud. A badass cloud. The sound of the tires actually rises and falls with my pedaling cadence. Zhoosh-zhoosh-zhoosh.

Along the Guadalupe River Trail there is a brief, very steep slope up from the river to the top of the embankment. The other day I stood up and mashed, increasing torque on the pedals by pulling upward on the handlebars. The front wheel was lifting off the ground as I pushed up the slope, and I leaned forward to put more of my weight over that wheel.

Like a real goddam cyclist. For the rest of that outing, my longest single ride ever, I was taking it easy to conserve energy, especially while fighting a fierce headwind for the first half, but for the few uphill bits I turned into a maniac.

How does my Fezzari compare to a Trek or Specialized with similar components? Honestly I have no idea. Fezzari is a smaller outfit out of Utah, and they make a big deal of their production techniques. The marketing copy sounds convincing, anyway, and there are some good reviews. And for a bike with the same components I’d be out at least another $2000 to go with the big name. Probably more. That’s a lot of dollars. And the water I carry weighs more than the frame does.

Someday in the future I will haul my pedals down to visit my roadie friends in San Diego, and try not to destroy their gear as we ride about more slowly than they are accustomed to. Maybe then I can do a comparison. In the meantime, I can only gush about the game-changer I’m riding now.

The Fezzari folk are awfully friendly as well, although I think this road bike is new for them. In a couple of cases I feel a bit like a beta tester — a couple of conversations with their staff were a little confused, the assembly instructions didn’t apply to this bike at some points, and the brace for the seat post needs a little design work. The front derailleur was not adjusted properly when it arrived, but they may have been rushing because I was pestering them with “is it ready yet?” messages every seven minutes and they just wanted to give an excitable old man his bike.

Would I recommend the Fezzari Empire to other cyclists? Oh, heck yeah. Am I the guy other cyclists should be taking advice from? Only if you love to ride.

_____

* As well as a fair number of miles on my old Giant.
** The term is not to disparage; I will be a member of this crowd soon enough.

In Parting, a Nod to Operation Warp Speed

If you’re not familiar with the name, “Operation Warp Speed” was what the Trump administration dubbed its all-out blitz to partner with the pharmaceutical industry to create a coronavirus vaccine. And historically, even given the head start we had working on other similar vaccines, OWS has been a pretty monumental success.

Had this been part of Trump’s coronavirus response, rather than the entire response, we might actually be (guardedly, with qualifiers) saying nice things about our president right now. Had our president not amply demonstrated that his only interest in the vaccine was to be a feather in his cap to get him reelected, we might be a little more inclined to give credit where due.

But despite the fact that Donnie has once again demonstrated that he doesn’t care whether people live or die, he did do this one thing right, if perhaps for the wrong reason.

Goodbye, Donnie. I hope your prison tweets fracture the Republican Party beyond repair to give room for a new ethical conservative voice to rise. But thank you for Operation Warp Speed. Perhaps it will come in time to save a few of the people you would otherwise have killed.

2

It Sells Itself

Centrum vitamins and Red Bull should combine to make an energy drink aimed at seniors. The name: Fossil Fuel.

5

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.

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

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

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.

Well, THAT was a Month.

July, we hardly knew ye. It was a pretty big month, but you wouldn’t know that based on the cone of silence that has descended on this humble blog. In fact, one and a half Very Big Things happened.

First was summer camp. For three weeks I spent much more time writing fiction than writing code. I hung out with a bunch of talented people from all over the world, learned a few things, got encouragement, and generally worked on my craft.

To be honest, I feel a little presumptuous these days calling what I do “craft”, but it gave me the right chance with the right people to go back and find structure for my very favorite project. I have about 150K words for my 80K story, but now I can see which of those words fit together into a story. Much of the rest is pretty much self-fanfic (without apologies — that’s fun to do), and enough ideas to carry into sequels. It’s the kind of story where a publisher will be happy to hear that there are sequels, should the first book succeed.

Often I travel to Kansas for Summer Camp, but of course this year it was all remote. While I absolutely missed the chance encounters that lead to great discussions, the late-night movie gatherings, and the nights where we read our work for each other, the remote version had some surprising dividends. Naturally, there’s the refreshing absence of “why can’t people clean up after themselves?” type of frustration that one finds when sharing a kitchen.

But there were other benefits as well. People who live far away could be with us. Successful writers and busy editors added a depth of experience, enthusiasm, and shared dread. One woman actually went through an absolutely hellish book launch while summer camp was happening. (Hellish because of the people involved, not the book.)

And because of the nature of this summer camp, unbound by geography, when it was over… it didn’t end. As I have typed this, messages from campers have gone by in little bubbles at the top-right of my screen.

I haven’t participated in those conversations very much, though. The great feelings and strong ideas I came out of summer camp with ran directly into work. But that leads me to the other Exciting Half-Thing!

Five years ago, I picked up a project that someone else had already been working on. Maybe six years ago by now. When you see the code now, you would never imagine the long and winding road that is also a car wash and you’re in a convertible and there are random naked electrical lines dangling down I have been through. Here’s a brief synopsis of what the writing community calls a try-fail cycle:

  • Helpful Tech Person: This is how you do this.
  • Jerry struggles to do this, calls in help from all over the company, costing everyone time. After a few weeks he ALMOST succeeds, but then the underlying rules change.
  • Helpful Tech Person: Why aren’t you doing this the easy way?

There’s one guy at my company that it’s probably just as well I didn’t know where his workstation is. It would not have ended well.

I have to say that one reason I’m finally so close to finishing is because I’m working with someone on the other side of the api who is both knowledgeable and invested in my success. I need to figure out the right gift to send him when this goes live. It’s tricky now, because it should be something he can share with his team, but, well…

But that’s the other half-thing, a thing that will someday soon become a fucking huge thing. This whole goddam mess will be going live soon. I have told my boss that for a few days after that happens, I may be hard to reach. The last of my 18-year-aged Scotch will be consumed in celebration. And I’ll renew my Summer Camp connections, and get my novel moving forward again, and hey, maybe take a few photos as well. Summer Camp opened up a lot of the creativity that work and current events had crushed. It’s time to get back in the saddle.

1

Dogs and Tennis

I’ll admit it, yesterday I snuck over to Facebook to see what people have been saying about my more recent episodes (I probably log in to Facebook as often as once a month these days). In response to my recent episode about getting creative with sports, Candace Reedy said, “I always thought golf and tennis would be greatly improved by retrieving dogs…”

I agree wholeheartedly. And dogs and tennis balls? It’s as natural as beer on Friday. I once wrote somewhere in the million-plus words of this blog, that if dogs could raise a statue, it would be to honor the person who invented the tennis ball.

The Round Mound of Hound in intensive training.

So — dogs and tennis. Obviously a good idea. But how, exactly, would it work? I’m here to help make that real. You don’t have to thank me, it’s what I do.

Overall, I think dogs would add two things to the game: chaos and slobber.

Let’s think about slobber. You’re going to have wet-ball players and dry-ball players. When you serve a ball that is sodden with dog drool, it will feel like you’re hitting a lead weight. If you serve with the usual overhead motion, you will be launching a slug and while it might not get over the net quickly, when it touches the surface on the other side, it will drop flatter than a biological slug. The ultimate dream of topspin players to keep the ball low to the surface on the bounce; with a drool-ball there will hardly be a bounce at all.

But when you toss that saturated ball over your head, dog spittle spinning off, droplets shining in the sun, your opponent will know what is coming, and rush the net. So what do you do instead? The lob-serve. Hit it deep, keep it squishy, and your opponent will be forced to hit it on the volley rather than let it “bounce” – a relatively tough shot.

But here’s were things could get tedious. Your opponent is just as restricted as you are concerting shot options. She will be sending a lob right back. Not exactly the recipe for excitement.

Except, of course, there are dogs on the court! And the right dog for this game will be expert at shagging lobs. But then what happens? Simple: If the dog catches the ball on the volley, it’s a point for the dog’s team. If the dog catches it on the first bounce, no points for either side, a do-over. The dog can enjoy the ball for a limited time, juicing it up, but when her teammate says “drop”, the ball is returned to play.

Imagine you’re Roger Federer, able to serve a thousand miles an hour, give or take. You’re a dry-ball player. Your dog is an Australian Cattle Dog, nimble as all get-out and filled with energy, but is well-trained to give the ball back before it is too sodden. Your dog’s name is something like “Ace.” 

Today you’re facing an up-and-coming dog-tennis player named Casey, a scrambler in the Michael Chang mold, and his canine teammate Luna, a youngster of uncertain parentage with strong legs and an almost limitless supply of drool. Casey is good at deflecting hard serves so that Luna can have a shot at them, and Casey’s scrambling style will eat you alive once things get sloppy. A classic wet/dry showdown!

Stuff like that is what sport is all about.

Getting Creative with Sports

I’m writing a story with a lot of swimming in it — specifically swimming under water. It got me to thinking about things that have nothing to do with the story, about swimming and sports and whatnot. I knew some competitive swimmers back in the day, and I remember watching one of those guys traverse nearly the entire length of the pool without breaking the surface. That was a long time ago.

Less long ago, I read that in swimming competitions the rule makers now mandate that swimmers have to come to the surface a specified distance after they dive in or after they turn. Why? Because all that splashing on the surface slows you down. Underwater is faster.

The Swimming Czars put rules into effect because swimmers will otherwise exploit the limited size of the swimming pool and spend half their time submerged. Understandable, but… you want to know who does the butterfly fastest? Put them in a nice, calm lake and point to a buoy.

Maybe this has already happened, but I think swimming can learn from the biker kids over at the velodrome. I went to a few events when I lived in San Diego, and those bicyclists have some crazy competitions (motorcycles on the course, unknown race length, slingshot your team mate, it goes on). If there’s a way to cheat, the riders at the velodrome will have a competition to see who does it best. It’s actually a lot of fun to watch, even if you don’t understand everything that’s going on.

If the lords of the swimmin’ hole adopted that ethic, there would have to be a competition that disallows breaking the surface except on turns. I think that would be hugely entertaining. You have the best conditions for world-record times, but swimmers only get to take a breath once every fifty meters. Mess up your turn and don’t get a full fresh lungful, and you’re in a world of hurt for the next fifty.

I encourage the ruling bodies of every sport to consider events like this. Body-checking in a marathon? Making sounds in golf? Team bowling? We could revolutionize sport itself!

Damn You, Bauhaus

I’m trying to write an episode that is actually interesting, but it hasn’t been going well. And that was before “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” came on the TV/Internet/Radio music distribution system.

It all starts with the simple bass line and the clock-ticking percussion, and I get sucked in. Then Peter Murphy takes direct control of my brain. It’s haunting, and even when it’s loud it’s all somehow far away.

It’s over now, and I just have to remember what I was writing about.

Robots and Safety

Earlier this month I mentioned that the streets of San Jose are awash with robot cars (five out of a sample of several thousand along a particular high-robot-volume street qualifies as “awash”).

I mentioned that one of the cars was a test vehicle for an outfit called Nuro, and I further mentioned that almost all the content on their Web site is a big treatise on safety. I went on to say that I had not read that document.

Well, today I was thinking more about it, and I went back to Nuro’s site to poke into their safety information. First impression: A document for non-experts that tackles very complex technical issues, but it seemed pretty legit.

Final impression: Nuro must have some pretty serious cash behind it, to take this long and winding road to achieve public trust.

The safety paper opens with the observation that 20% of car trips in the United States are people going shopping, and another 20% are people running errands. For many of those trips, the human is there simply to ferry stuff around. If robots can accomplish that task, that directly reduces the exposure of people to injury in automobile accidents — they’re not in their cars at all! Instead they are home moving the American economy forward by playing Candy Crush.

Nuro also mentions near the start of the document that 94% of all traffic accidents are due to human error. Remember that number when someone someday says, “30% of all robot-car crashes are due to software failure!

Nuro is creating a vehicle that doesn’t have people inside it. That gives it some very interesting advantages in the safety realm — the vehicle can choose to crash into a light post rather than hit the idiot that ran out in front of it. Self-sacrifice is an option for a vehicle without people in it. And the vehicle itself can be squishy, since it doesn’t have to protect occupants. The “windscreen” is a shiny panel on the front of the vehicle designed to give humans visual cues about the behavior of the car, but it doesn’t have to be layered tempered glass. It’s just shiny bouncy plastic.

Not having an impatient human to appease means the robot can putter along at a speed that increases decision time and shortens stopping distance. I think that’s important… but 25 mph max might be a little too slow for the streets around here, until we can get rid of all the impatient humans.

There are many, many words used in the document about when the robot decides it can’t operate safely and will pull out of traffic until a remote human operator can take over. While I see the necessity of that short-term, I expect with a few improvements to civil traffic control (flagman signs that can interact directly with robot cars springs to mind), that before too long the robots will learn to outperform the human backup.

I chose the word “learn” because there is a sort of cyber-attack I had not heard of before. You have probably heard of machine learning, although it’s frequently (and incorrectly) labeled artificial intelligence. Many companies have developed sophisticated systems that, after exposure to countless examples, are able to generalize information. It’s super-slick.

Nuro’s cars work that way. They are constantly gathering data from the environment and using that to refine their behaviors, and they share that information with the rest of the fleet.

But when your data comes from the environment around you, assholes can manipulate that environment to teach the machines falsehoods. Sometimes yield signs are octagonal and red, things like that. (Although to be successful the false data would have to be about something subtler, I suspect. I can easily imagine college-me arranging traffic cones differently every time a Nuro vehicle passed by. It’s an obvious parallel to my “yeeech” experiment, which shall not be documented in this episode.)

Of course there’s all the other usual stuff to keep the vehicles from being hacked, and one advantage of “safety as a priority before the first line of code is written” is that security also can be built in at the ground level.

Also mentioned more than once: the “whole widget” concept. If the software and the hardware are developed together for a single focussed purpose, it will work better and be safer. Steve Jobs would be proud.

And if you consider air quality to be a safety concern, then something like this makes everyone safer.

Nuro recognizes that the biggest obstacle to their success is social. Will people seeing Nuro’s placid robot cars poking along through the neighborhood think good thoughts or bad thoughts? Will appreciation of reduced traffic congestion, better air quality, and a more convenient life outweigh the fear of a robot uprising, and perhaps even worse, the fuming rage of being stuck behind a little robot car doing 25 in a 35 zone?

Just Another Commute in Silicon Valley

Today as I used public transportation to go to work, I saw five robotic cars, operated by three different companies.

Three of the five cars were Urban Automated Driving vehicles operated by Bosh and Daimler, running (human monitored) robot taxi service along the same corridor my bus takes. The Mercedes c-class vehicles are equipped head-to-toe in lidar units (lidar is like radar… with lasers!) and if I loaded the app I could ride in one. Which… is tempting, for purely journalistic reasons. My biggest question: How bored is the human monitor? Super-bored means things are going smoothly; super-bored also means that the human will never spot the emergency in time.

The second company was Nuro. The vehicle was a Toyota or whatever with sensors all over it, but what the company is actually developing is an autonomous vehicle that doesn’t have seats in it at all. Their dream: order your groceries and have the robot bring them to you. The vehicles are electric and since there is no need to account for human comfort, they could theoretically be much, much cheaper. It is easy to imagine that many companies that sell stuff would be interested in having something like that. Nuro’s Web site doesn’t have a lot of information, except for a pdf with a major discussion of safety (that I didn’t read).

There was a third, but my most humble apologies, dear readers, I don’t remember the company name painted on the car. It was not Google; I haven’t seen one of those in a while. Apple, should they even still have experimental cars, would keep them anonymous (which, as I think about it, would be just as definitive as putting a neon logo on the side — no other company would operate vehicles with a bunch of extra gear strapped on without missing the chance to brag about it).

As cities go, San Jose and the rest of the unplanned, disorganized sprawl that is Silicon Valley is… meh. And the cost to live in meh is staggering. But one thing I do enjoy is that it feels like we are just a little bit closer to the future here. And there’s nothing like Bay Area traffic to make you really, really, look forward to the day when people are not in control of giant deadly machines.

“It was CRAZY up there!”

I remember a time, long ago, walking along a beach that had a huge amount of rotting vegetation. My friend commented on the stench, and I wondered, not for the first time, if perhaps my sense of smell just wasn’t as good as most people’s. This week I got my answer.

If you have been around me for any amount of time at all, you know that I will sometimes sport a lingering cough that goes on for weeks. During the course of my malady my lungs are clear, but there is a steady stream of grot flowing down my sinuses and into my throat. Even when I don’t have a cough, I have an irritated throat most of the time.

In general, those coughs have been triggered by sinus infections. I recently began to wonder if there might be a structural issue in my face that made me more susceptible to infection, and made the infections linger beyond all reason.

So at last, after about 50 years of just rolling with the problem, I went to see a nose doctor.

Dr. Carter, who is a hoot, peered up my nostrils and said, “Yep, your septum’s deviated to the left.” I was a little surprised at that, only because in general it is the right side of my face that is more constricted. Dr. Carter then ran fiber optics up my nose and down into my throat, looking around. “This is gonna feel really weird,” she said as she guided the camera into my head.

She scheduled me for a head scan and when the results came back, I sat with her and we went over the image. It turns out my septum started to the left, but then veered back to the right and hammered directly into one of my sinuses.

I think perhaps to make the insurance justification easier, Dr. Carter first started me with a regimen of medications and shooting saline solution through my nose. But finally it was time to get the sumbitch fixed.

I mentioned I was having the procedure to a few friends, and two of them immediately set out to temper my expectations. Sure the results were great eventually, but both my friends warned me that the recovery could take a long time — even months.

Eight days ago I checked in at the surgical center and, after a delay, I was wheeled from a crowded pre-op holding pen into the gleaming, science-fiction-worthy operating room. As is procedure, the OR staff chatted amiably with me while the anesthesia did its magic. Vacations was the topic.

… and then I was somewhere else, not in pain, but profoundly uncomfortable, with unrelenting pressure behind my eyes. I reached up and began to massage my besieged eyeballs, really working on them, when someone said in an alarmed voice, “Don’t rub your eyes!” Apparently that was not the right thing to do.

That post-op time is a little hazy for me, but the Official Sweetie of Muddled Ramblings and Half-Baked Ideas got to meet the esteemed Doctor Carter, and was also impressed. OSMR&HBI reports that Dr. Carter used the phrase “all kinds of wonky in there” to describe the state of my under-face, but also she said that the surgery had gone well.

In my nose at that point were two splints, tied together by a suture through my septum. The splints had airways built in, but let’s not fool ourselves — all that blood and mucus was going to get in there and plug those suckers.

[Get-poor-quick aside: how hard would it be to create a tool to allow the patient at home to safely clear those airways? It would have made a huge difference to me.]

Home, I settled onto the couch, propped myself up, and that became my home base for the next four nights. For the first two nights, sleep was pretty much impossible. I could put my head in a comfortable position, but when I dozed off my tongue would block my airway and I would wake up after a few seconds in a suffocation panic, or I could tilt my head back, cpr-dummy-style — but them my throat was so open I would dry out after a few breaths and begin to cough (I wasn’t supposed to cough).

Eventually the inflammation lessened and I was able to get at least some air through my nose. That resulted in a suffocation emergency after a few minutes, rather than a few seconds, and that made a big difference. Never was I so glad to get two hours of sleep in a single night.

In the kitchen three days ago, I opened the container for my traditional second cup of the morning, a blackberry and sage infused tea, and… I smelled it. I mean, I really smelled it. Even with my nose stuffed with plugged-up hardware, I smelled it. Later, I ate a very-ripe banana and it tasted weird. Like no very-ripe banana I had eaten before. I almost chucked it when I realized that it wasn’t the banana that was different.

I got pretty excited. I had just been looking forward to breathing better and maybe not having a wracking cough 10% of the time. I had not considered that my actual sense of smell might be enhanced.

I mentioned that to my boss via chat, and his response was, “You should grab an IPA, really test that baby out.”

Which tonight I have done. I went in to have the splints removed this afternoon, and Dr. Carter regaled me with stories of just how messed up my nasal structure had been. “It was crazy up there!” she said. She described bony masses, chiseling, sinuous septums, and a bunch of other stuff. “How have you made it this long without having that fixed?”

I shrugged at that. How was I to know that breathing could be so easy?

Because holy dang, when the splints came out, the breathing commenced. And the smelling just got better. And the IPA? Magnificent.

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