Thursday, January 26, 2012

Perfectly Comfortable

I don't particularly like cars. I don't like the way they smell, on the inside or the outside. I don't like the feeling of being trapped in a sheet metal-and-vinyl box, my body slowly warping to the shape of a bucket seat. I don't enjoy the visually unexciting and inhospitable environment of highways or the boredom of spending hours gazing at asphalt markings and highway signs. I particularly dislike the insect-like behavior that cars provoke in people, reducing their behavioral repertoire to that of ants who follow each other around, their heads in close proximity to the previous insect's rear end. Nor do I enjoy having a mechanical dependent that I have to feed and house all the time, even though I rarely have need of it. I do sometimes need to use a car, and then I rent one or use one from a car-sharing service that charges by the hour. The most enjoyable parts of that exercise is when I pick it up and when I drop it off. Cars end up costing me a few hundred dollars each year, which is a few hundred dollars more than I would like to spend on them.

I do like bicycles. They are about the most ingenious form of transportation humans have been able to invent so far. I especially like mine, which I bought second-hand, from a friend, for something like $150. That was about 20 years ago. It still has a lot of the original parts: frame, fork, chainrings and cranks, bottom bracket and hubs. The spokes and rims were replaced once; the cables twice; the freewheel and chain five or six times; the tires a dozen times or more; I've lost count of the inner tubes, which don't last long thanks to all the broken glass on the road from cars smashing into each other.

Over time, I've upgraded various bits. Nice titanium break levers from a used parts bin at a local bicycle school set me back $10. One of the down-tube shift lever mechanisms fell apart (it was partly made of plastic), and I replaced it with an all-metal one from a nearby bin at the same establishment. The original rear derailleur was by Suntour, which no longer exists, and so I replaced it with a Shimano part, for $60, I recall. Ruinous expense, that! (The front derailleur is still the original Suntour.)

The frame is made of very high quality chrome-molybdenum alloy of a sort rarely encountered today. Chrome and molybdenum prices have gone up by a lot since then, and steelmakers have found new ways to cut corners. It survived a ride up and down the East Coast aboard a sailboat, exposed to the elements, without a problem. It looks like a beat-up, rusty old road bike—not something bicycle thieves normally find interesting—and that's exactly how a bicycle should be made to look even when it is new.

I ride something like 7 km just about every weekday of the year. Sometimes I ride quite a bit farther, spending half a day meandering through the countryside or along the coast. I've ridden as much as 160 km in one day; that was a bit tiring. I rarely take the shortest path, preferring meandering bike paths that go through parks and along the river. I do ride through traffic quite a bit of the time, and have developed a style for keeping safe. I pay minimal attention to traffic signals and lights (they wouldn't be needed if it weren't for cars) and mostly just pay attention to the movements of cars. (Traffic lights are sometimes useful in predicting the behavior of cars, but not reliably, and not so much in Boston.) I also tend to take up a full lane whenever a bicycle lane is not available (cars are not a prioritized form of transportation, to my mind). A person who is in a hurry, here in Boston, would get there sooner by riding a bicycle. I understand that this annoys certain drivers quite a lot, raising their blood pressure. Perhaps the elevated blood pressure will, in due course, get them off the road, along with their cars, freeing up the space for more bicycles.

In the summer, my riding attire consists of a tank-top, shorts, and flip-flops. I've tried various combinations of pedals with toeclips, clipless pedals and bicycle shoes with cleats, and eventually settled on the most basic pedals available and flip-flops. I've also experimented with padded bicycling shorts and jerseys made of Lycra, and found them too confining. Also, I just couldn't get over the feeling that I shouldn't wear such outfits, no more than I should be going around in tights and a tutu, and so I went back to wearing hiking shorts. But it can be a fine show when Balet russe comes rolling through town. When it rains, I put on a Gortex bicycle jacket that evaporates the sweat while keeping the rainwater out. The hood goes under the helmet, keeping my head dry as well.

The bicycling outfit gets more complicated in wintertime. The Gortex jacket is still there, but underneath it is a hoodie, under that a wool shirt and thermal underwear (microfiber works best). The shorts are replaced with jeans, with Gortex zip-on pants over them for messy weather. The flip-flops are replaced with insulated, waterproof half-boots, with two layers of wool socks. Add ski gloves and a ski mask, and the outfit is complete.

Oddly enough, bicycling on a frosty but dry winter day is even more enjoyable than on a balmy summer day. Firstly, in the winter cooling is not an issue, so I can ride as fast as I want without breaking a sweat. If I start feeling too warm, I can unzip the jacket partway and get all the cooling I want. Secondly, there is the realization that bicycling in wintertime is more comfortable than walking, since I can generate as much heat as I need to keep warm simply by going faster. The one somewhat unpleasant part of winter riding is the wind: cold winter air is a lot denser than warm summer air: a 20 km/h headwind is hard to pedal against in the summer, but much harder in the winter. (I recently rode across town in a gale, and it was not unlike a mountain climb, grinding away in the lowest gear. The ride back was all downwind, and I was flying, riding the brakes the entire way.)

Snow and ice present an interesting set of challenges to a two-wheeled vehicle. I've experimented with studded tires, fat cyclocross tires with deep treads and regular road tires. Road tires won. Studded tires on both front and back are a huge performance killer, making a fast road bike into more of a stationary exercise bike. Putting the studded tire just on the front (which is where it is really needed the most, since the rear can fishtail all it wants without compromising stability) helps quite a lot. But overall, studded tires create a false sense of security; it is better, I have found, to keep the regular road tires on and simply learn to recognize and adjust to the conditions.

High-pressure road bicycle tires have tiny contact patches, and apply tremendous pressure to the road surface—enough to indent packed snow, creating side-to-side traction. It's still not possible to bank steeply, but it is quite possible to keep balance by slowing down. Fore-and-aft traction is not quite as good, making rapid acceleration and braking unlikely. On a slippery surface, the game becomes to avoid breaking friction between the road and the tire. Tires with a deep tread seem to work well on mud, but do not seem to help at all on snow, because the tread becomes packed with compacted snow, causing a lot of rolling resistance but not much traction. With regular road tires, the only truly frictionless surfaces I have found so far are smooth ice covered by water and oiled steel plates. When I encounter either of these, I get off and walk, having once wiped out quite badly on an oiled steel plate, in the middle of summer, in fine weather.

If any of this seems strange to you, then there may be something funny going on inside your head and you should get it checked out. Around the world, for over a century, people everywhere have used the bicycle to get around in every kind of climate and weather. There are year-round bicyclists in the Sahara, as well as in Edmonton, Alberta. Bicycling year-round is very much a solved problem everywhere. Here in Boston I know dozens of people who commute by bicycle year-round, and I see hundreds of people out on bicycles, every day, at all times of the year.

And yet with just about any random group of people I encounter the idea of bicycling through winter is regarded as very strange: somewhere between suicidal and heroic. (The fact that driving a car is far more dangerous, and suicidal on multiple levels, does not seem to register with most people.) What can I say? To each his own. As for me, I am perfectly comfortable riding a bicycle year-round.

Sunday, January 08, 2012

Dance of the Marionettes

It's election season in the US, which means that I have the unwelcome task of wading through well-intentioned though off-topic comments devoted to things political: who might be the next president, and whether or not it matters who the next president is (it doesn't). And rather than bear it quietly, I thought I'd say something about it.

Electioneering in the US is steadily expanding to fill more and more time and space even as it provides worse and worse results with each election cycle. The Congress is made of some of the least popular people on earth, who are manifestly incapable of achieving anything useful. They do seem quite ready and willing to pass laws that erode human rights and enhance the powers of the police state, but this is because they are paranoid. Perhaps their one point of consensus is that sooner or later their constituents will want to open fire on them.

Still, the elections provide a spectacle, the media are conditioned to lavish attention on the candidates, and the people, being weak-willed, are once again beguiled into thinking that it matters who gets elected. A few years of Obama impersonating Bush should have taught them that it doesn't matter who the Prisoner of the White House is. Likewise, watching the sad spectacle of Congress trying to raise the debt limit or to reign in runaway deficit spending should have taught them that this institution is no longer functional. (The US is about to bump up against the debt limit again; does anyone even care?) All of this should have been enough to make it clear to just about everyone that wondering what might be different if, say, Ron Paul got elected president, is like wondering what might be different if the moon were made of a different kind of cheese—your favorite kind, of course.

Leaving aside the meaningless question of who the next Figurehead in Chief might be, let's look briefly at what is perhaps the most corrupt institution the US has: the US Senate. Everyone knows that senate seats are for sale: as soon as a senator gets elected, he starts fund-raising, to finance his reelection campaign. Since each state, whether huge or puny, gets two seats, these are variously priced: the two seats for a large, populous state, like California or Texas, are very expensive, while the two seats for the puny State of Potatoho or some such, with its zero million inhabitants, are more reasonably priced. Since the senators themselves decide nothing and are simply mouthpieces to the moneyed interests which buy their seats, and since this is a very divided country, they are unable to achieve compromise, making the Senate completely useless as a deliberative body.

Let's face it: the senators are just marionettes controlled by giant bags of money. Their seats are definitely for sale, all of them, all the time. But then an odd thing happened about a month ago: the ousted Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich was sentenced to 14 years in prison for allegedly attempting to sell the senate seat that was vacated when Obama was elected president. It seems like a stiff penalty for something that is a routine, daily occurrence, does it not? It is especially odd since other miscreants who actually caused serious damage, like former senator Jon Corzine, who looted investors' accounts to cover his gambling debts in the futures market, are still at large. What set Blagojevich apart is that he violated a taboo. Just like any normal criminal syndicate, the US Senate has rules by which the members preserve their positions and keep each other in check. As with a criminal syndicate, these rules have nothing to do with serving the public interest. One of these rules is that it is not allowed to sell a senate seat if it is unoccupied. Essentially, senators get to sell senate seats, governors don't. It is a tribal taboo: “Of course we can have sex with our underage daughters—we all do it—but not when they are menstruating! We are all good decent God-fearing Troglodytes!” Rod Blagojevich is the exception that proves the rule: senate seats are for sale.

It stands to reason, then, that the way to influence this political system, in its current advanced state of degeneracy, is not through the political process, which is just a pro forma activity that determines nothing. Armed with the understanding that it doesn't matter who gets elected, we should ignore the elections altogether. To get the government to respond, it is far more effective to organize around issues, pool resources, and hire lobbyists.

As for the rest of us, who do not have the means to hire lobbyists, there are still a few things we can do: we can starve the system by withholding resources from it, and we can bleed the system by extracting payments from it. If we are clever, we can also find ways to frustrate the system by artificially generating complexity. The system has been gamed to our disadvantage. We are not going to win by playing along. But we all win whenever we refuse to play the game.

If you simply can't resist the temptation to play the game, don't play it to win. Play it strictly for the entertainment value. Ignore the front-runners and focus on all the amusing types that have zero probability of being elected. Encourage them, give them airtime and attention. And if anybody wonders why their candidacy matters, use the opportunity to explain to them why none of these political marionettes matter at all.

Friday, January 06, 2012

Where did the money go?

[A timely guest post from Gary, with all the anti-Iranian sabre-rattling going on. Spurred on by its political parasitic twin Israel, Washington seems poised to shoot itself right in the wallet. I believe that's called a "beauty shot."]

The lesson that the United States desperately needs to learn is that their trillion-dollar-a-year military is nothing more than a gigantic public money sponge that provokes outrage among friends and enemies alike and puts the country in ill repute. It is useless against its enemies, because they know better than to engage it directly. It can never be used to defeat any of the major nuclear powers, because sufficient deterrence against it can be maintained for relatively little money. It can never defuse a popular insurgency, because that takes political and diplomatic finesse, not a compulsion to bomb faraway places. Political and diplomatic finesse cannot be procured, even for a trillion dollars, even in a country that believes in extreme makeovers. As Vladimir Putin put it, “If grandmother had testicles, she’d be a grandfather.”

Reinventing Collapse, 2nd ed., p. 41

Military Keynesianism and America’s Declining Infrastructure

In August 2007, the nation was stunned by the collapse of a major Minneapolis bridge, killing thirteen. The bridge had been rated structurally deficient by the U.S. government as far back as 1990, and it was only one of 72,868 bridges (12.1%) across the country with that rating.  They also rated 89.024 bridges (14.8%) as functionally obsolete. Here closer to my home the eighty year old Champlain Bridge, also known as the Crown Point Bridge, was closed in October 2009 due to extensive corrosion of two structural piers. At least it was condemned before it fell down.  Two years later a replacement bridge has been completed, but not without substantial inconvenience and economic loss to business and workers on both sides of the bridge.  People were forced to take a ferry during reconstruction.  The DOT states the average design life of US bridges is 50 years with an average current age of 43.  The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that it would take nearly $930 billion to fix the country's failing bridges and roads over the next five years.  With estimated spending of $380.5 billion, they predict a shortfall of $549.5 billion. 

Where did all the money go?  The recently deceased Chalmers Johnson called it "Military Keynesianism".  For those who don't follow arcane economics lingo, Keynes was a British economist who said that in a period of slow or declining economic growth (recession or depression), that government spending was needed to "prime the pump" of the economy.  The US recovery from the Great Depression with help from WWII military spending gave credence to this analysis.  Except now we have permanent Military Keynesianism.
Johnson cites an incredible statistic from the late Seymour Melman, the Columbia University advocate of military conversion, and the "peace dividend".  "By 1990, the value of the weapons, equipment, and factories devoted to the military was 83% of the value of all plants and equipment in American Manufacturing.  From 1947-1990 the combined US military budget amounted to $8.7 trillion...Military industries crowd out the civilian economy (ed-and other government spending like bridges) and lead to severe economic weakness.” Consider that the US military is now spending over $1 trillion per year including all black and related expenses, which is more than the entire rest of the world combined.  The next biggest spender is China at $91.5 billion according to Chinese figures.  Johnson summarizes, “Devotion to military Keynesianism is, in fact, a form of slow economic suicide."

But isn't war good for the economy as former President George W. Bush told Argentine President Kirchner in Oliver Stone's recent movie "South of the Border?"  Johnson quotes historian Thomas Woods,  "According to the US DOD, during the four decades from 1947 through 1987 it used (in 1982 dollars)  $7.62 trillion in capital resources.  In 1985 the Dept of Commerce estimated the value of the nation's plant and equipment and infrastructure at just over $7.29 trillion.  In other words, the amount spent over that period could have doubled the American capital stock or modernized and replaced its existing stock."

Johnson cites a study by economist Dean Baker of CEPR in 2007 that concludes, "In fact most economic models show that military spending diverts resources from productive uses, such as consumption and investment, and ultimately slows economic growth and reduces employment."  Why would this be?  Think about nuclear weapons.  The best possible use for them is not to use them at all.  At the peak the US had 32,500 nuclear weapons.  Think about the massive cost of something that then (thankfully) sits on the shelf and provides no use to anyone.

Finally Johnson quotes Harvard economics professor Benjamin Friedman, "Again and again it has always been the world's leading lending country that has been the premier country in terms of political influence, diplomatic influence, and cultural influence...we are now the world's biggest debtor country, and we are continuing to wield influence on the basis of military prowess alone."  Think about that when you pay your family's $10,000 per year contribution to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. 

Back in the 1980’s Gorbachev cut Soviet military spending, and predicted that the US would continue to spend itself into oblivion.  Who will stop the madness of military Keynesianism? Obomber or Romney? LOL. Johnson concludes, "Our short tenure as the world's "lone superpower" has come to an end."  All that's left is for the fat lady to sing, when the US goes broke.  It won't be long now.

All quotes from Dismantling the Empire, by Chalmers Johnson, Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt and Co. 2010

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

The Rise of Tricycle Pushcarts

[Guest post by Albert. I spent some time as Albert's guest on the little island of which he writes. It is one of my favorite places in the world.]

"Even in backward mining communities, as late as the sixteenth century more than half the recorded days were holidays; while for Europe as a whole, the total number of holidays, including Sunday, came to 189, a number even greater than those enjoyed by Imperial Rome. Nothing more clearly indicates a surplus of food and human energy, if not material goods. Modern labor-saving devices have as yet done no better.

Lewis Mumford, Myth of the Machine : Technics and Human Development, 1967.

In rural México, the number of holidays competes with the number of workdays to see which will find more space on the calendar. Not that the people don’t work, mind you, just that they like to keep hours at any given task as brief as possible, to maintain perspective. As in most agricultural regions of the world, diversity and entrepreneurship is ingrained. When times are especially tight, this instinct goes into overdrive.

I have been wintering in a small Mayan fishing village that is part of a natural reserve and like most villages in México it is laid out on a New England-style town grid. There were no ancient Roman master planners or 1950’s city engineers that surveyed these grids. Nearly all were spontaneous extensions from a single spine road that sent off perpendicular ribs at regular intervals, and those sent off cross-lanes at approximately the same intervals—usually 6 or 8 homes on a side—that created the matrix. Grids like these, as the Egyptians, Greeks, Chinese and Romans understood, enhance the interactions amongst people and encourage a free flow of products, services and information.

Living on one such street, all of them unpaved here, I have noticed a discernible uptick in the number and variety of pushcarts. Here they are called tricyclos. In other places—Denmark or Holland, for instance—modern pushcarts are “cargo cycles.” They can take different forms but the most common is what is known in the bike world as tadpole or front-load trike—2 wheels in front and 1 wheel in the back. These are ideal for food vendors or pedicabs which require frequent interactions with the scene on the street.

A world leader in trike evolution is Christiania, the 800-member urban ecovillage in Copenhagen. Their company, Christianabikes began in 1976 as a small cottage industry to support the alternative community. Today Christianabikes is transnational in reach and constantly improving its designs. For long-hauls, it has low-slung cargo bikes. For vendors like those in Mexico, it has a simple tadpole design that can be customized to meet virtually any use. What we see in Mexico are mostly Chinese-made clones of Christiania’s original design, or Mexican fabrications of the Chinese fabrications tacked together in local welding shops. Creations like these, which date back a century or more, should be acknowledged to be ‘open source’ by now.

What struck me is that I cannot recall a time in the past decade that I have been observing these vendors when there were more of them. Call it a sign of the times, but every few hours another passes by the front of my house, shouting out what he or she is selling. In the morning its newspapers and fresh, hand-made tortillas. Around lunchtime is it fresh garden vegetables, epizote, bread and other kinds of unprepared food. There might be a tricycle for fruits and juices, another for tomatoes, onions and peppers, another for potatoes, beans and rice. By late afternoons they may pass by with fresh sweetbreads, steaming hot tamales, or corn on the cob.

A man with his tricycle grinding stone offers to sharpen machetes, knives, scissors, shovels, or any other sharp objects. A man with a blender (12V but it could as easily be pedal-powered) makes cups of shaved ice with sweet corn or coconut.

You can buy a tricycle brand-new, assembled, already painted in taxi colors of orange and white, and be ready to take a fare straight from hardware store to wherever they are going. The price of a new Chinese-built trike is 3200 pesos, about US$229.32 at today’s rates. The board that goes across the bars for a seat was salvaged from the trash at no cost, but perhaps some cushioned fabric is sewn over to help you through the potholes. Typically a fare pays 20 pesos ($1.43) for up to a 10-block ride.

I asked a tortilla vendor who plies a regular daily afternoon route how much he sells in an average day. “100 kilos” is what he said. His corn tortillas sell for a 3-peso mark-up over the tortilla factory (and there are three of them within a 5-block radius). So if he sells 100 kg, he makes 300 pesos per day, enough to pay for the tricycle in just under 11 days. Perhaps his wife has a masa roller and automated oven at home and he makes his own tortillas and the margin is even better.

Stopping by the largest of the tortilla factories in town — a one-room addition to a family home, which now employs three women from outside the family to turn corn meal masa into machine-stamped tortillas — I inquired how many tortillas they make in a typical day. “Ocho o nueve,” she said, meaning eight or nine metric tons — 8000 to 9000 kilos — and remember, this is just one of three within a short distance, and many people prefer to make their own at home. The entrepreneurial drive explores for available niches and fills them. Many of these factories supply restaurants and grocery stores. Retail home sales pass through bulk buyers at the tortilleria, like my local trike man, who do just fine with the small margin people are willing to pay for the convenience of not walking around the corner.

I noticed that my man sometimes gets lucky and lands a really big sale, however. Maybe someone is throwing a big party (and this happens often) and needs 20 kg. Or a tendajón finds itself short on a holiday weekend and buys 50 kg. His route is pretty small, just a few blocks, but if his son could run his trike in the mornings, or a second trike in the afternoon when he is making his rounds, perhaps he could extend his family’s range and double their earnings. Then again, as I’ve seen, he’s not interested in that, preferring to live quite adequately on 300 pesos per day ($21.50) in a town where the average unskilled worker makes even less than that. Or perhaps he has another job already and is just enlarging the family’s income by putting in a few extra hours while schmoozing with his neighbors.

For me, I’d rather save 3 pesos and ride my bike a couple blocks to the tortilleria, but that’s mainly because, being a writer, I need excuses to force myself out of my chair. As times have become tougher for average people, I’ve also noticed more homes along my bike route opening their front rooms to make tendejóns or comidas economicas. A comida economica provides a home-cooked meal with table service, giving the buyer a plate of whatever the family is making that day. A tendejón is an informal home store. It might have home-grown pigs, chickens or eggs for sale, or garden produce. It shares the same root word, tener (to have), as the more formal store or mini-mart (tienda), but whether for legal reasons or just wanting to keep it more neighborly, a tendejón is an unpredictable collection of wares in someone’s living room, next to their Christmas tree and fluorescent blinking statute of the Virgin of Guadelupe.

Between the tendejón and the tienda lie the more formal abarrotes, or package stores, which usually sell cold beer, insect repellent and junk food. These are usually under a residence or in an adjoining building to the family’s principal dwelling. There are one or more abarrotes, tendejóns and tiendas on nearly every block.

Tricyclos are a common sight in much of Yucatán Peninsula, as they are in Asia, Africa, South America and other parts of the two-thirds world. In the United States you mention a tricycle and people think of Monty Python or Laugh-In. In the global south they are multifunctional and ubiquitous. You see them as fishermen’s friends, beach-roving gear-buckets for surfers, portable crepe parlors, bellhop cabin service, and the poor man’s moving van.

Low-tech Magazine, an on-line compendium, describes many novel uses for pedal power, from archival scans of Sears Catalog pages circa 1892 to a modern recumbent cargo quads. Corn grinding, water pumping and sewer-system cleaning are all potentially portable, pedal-powered services. These are niches that will likely be explored in the South far sooner than when people in North finally decide to come down off of their high horses and get a third wheel.

Monday, January 02, 2012

A Dismal Public Affair

This morning I was honored to participate in a panel discussion [transcript] on what the near future holds with an illustrious panel: Richard Heinberg, Nicole Foss, James Howard Kunstler and Noam Chomsky. And it turned out really dismal, if you ask me! The overall message seems to have been that it doesn't matter what any of us say, because so few people are able to take in such bad news without becoming despondent, so we might as well just let Chomsky ramble on like he always does, as a sort of case in point. And of course the moderator just had get up Kunstler's nose with the usual "so this is all doom and gloom, isn't it?" sort of comment. The one funny bit is around 51:26 where Chomsky calls Daniel Yergin "a very serious analyst" right after Kunstler calls him "the oil industry's chief public relations prostitute." Perhaps this will make Yergin an even better prostitute. And Chomsky is a very serious linguist. Think positive!

Do you want some good news? Here it is: Russia's GLONASS satellite navigation system is fully operational, finally, so we no longer have to rely solely on the Pentagon's GPS to tell us exactly where we are. In fact, the two systems work and play well together. 100% redundancy for 99% of us!