The Making of Bicycle Things

Over the last two years or so, I’ve fallen in love with dirt road riding.  In the Sierra Madre and Barrancas del Cobre of Chihuahua, the fire roads of the San Gabriels in SoCal, and now criss-crossing the continental divide here in Colorado and Wyoming.  I’ve pushed my trusty Long Haul Trucker further into the dirt than it really wanted to go.  I love the quiet, the near total lack of motorized traffic.  The long, rhythmic heavy breathing of going up up and away, focused on staying in motion, focused on staying upright.  And so I’m building a new bike, more dedicated to vanishing into the hills, and crawling along the vast majority of the world’s ways and roads, which are unpaved.  I’m calling it a Trohlloff (a Surly Troll frame fitted with a Rohloff hub) inspired by Cass Gilbert’s most recent steed (Bryan and I just happened to ride part of his route through Mexico last spring, and I’ve been following him, mesmerized, ever since).

I’m fascinated by supply chains and the globalization of nearly everything, and I have all but sworn off non-German bike parts, as they seem to be of consistently excellent functional design and build quality (vastly better than their US competitors), and I think Germany does a much better job than most countries with their labor and environmental practices (again, including the US).  So it’s interesting to me to learn more about where some of these bits that I buy on the interwebs actually come from.  Two examples, in the YouTube format.

The Rohloff Speedhub is an archetypal Made in Germany product: fabulously expensive (it costs considerably more than an entire brand new Long Haul Trucker!) and even more fabulously well made.  To celebrate the manufacture of the 100,000th Speedhub, the company recently threw a party and invited anybody who had ridden their hub more than 60,000 km.  A number of participants had ridden theirs more than 100,000 km.  Even some of their first batch of 20 prototype hubs had clocked up this many kms, and were still running strong!  To date, they have never had a hub fail in the field.  This is a testament to the power of good design.  Heirloom design.  Barring loss or theft, I won’t be surprised if the hub outlasts my legs, and this makes the up-front investment worthwhile.  It only makes sense to use highly paid manual labor when the value of the labor embodied in the product isn’t swamped by the value of the energy and materials that make it up.  When relatively low-skilled factory workers have good healthcare and lots of vacation time products have to be extremely well designed, and/or made from intrinsically expensive materials.

Schwalbe is another German company, and is the only tire manufacturer in the developed world that only makes bicycle tires.  Their tires are very well designed, durable, and unsurprisingly, expensive (a set of two will cost you $100 or so).  Interestingly, only the design of the tires takes place in Germany.  They’re actually manufactured in long time rubber producer Indonesia… by a Korean company!

I wonder what Rohloff’s thinking is behind keeping their entire operation in Germany.  Do they believe it’s impossible to train a foreign workforce to be as exacting as their German one, even with strict quality control measures?  Or is it more of a craftsman style operation, kept at home for aesthetic reasons?  I suspect the latter.

Automotive Death Revealer

We hide many of the financial costs of our automobile culture, such as the exorbitant true price of parking, but just as much, we hide the cost in human lives.  By far, the most common source of violent traumatic injury and death in the developed world is our beloved motor vehicle.  In the US alone, every year 10 times as many people are killed by cars than were killed in the World Trade Center attacks, 10 times as many as have been killed in the Iraq war.  Every two years we kill more Americans with vehicles than we did in all of the Vietnam war.  Every three years, more than WWI, every ten, more than WWII.

Why do we deem these losses acceptable?  They aren’t inevitable.  The UK, Iceland, Sweden, Japan, the Netherlands, Germany, Ireland and Switzerland all have vehicular death rates less than half of our 12/100,000 people per year (which puts us on par with Bangladesh…).  We can re-design and re-build our cities and our streets to avoid this carnage, for a fraction of the cost of our ill-fated War on Terror, and many other governmental actions supposedly undertaken in the name of keeping us safe.  Safe from threats which do not really exist, in a statistical sense, but which loom large in our monkey minds.

Would it be different if we left the corpses out on the roads to rot?  If we hung the out skeletal remains as a ghastly reminder?  Some software developers in Moscow are trying to do just that, with a mobile augmented reality app called the Death Revealer:

(via Copenhagenize)

Open source phone/laptop anti-theft software

The Prey Project is an open source package that lets you turn your laptop or phone into a location aware spying machine, tracking its own motions, and reporting on the usage of the person in possession — screenshots, webcam photos, network captures, etc. — in the event that it is stolen or lost.  Sounds great!  Of course, it also lets you turn somebody else’s computer into a spying machine, so you can watch them, if you can manage to get it installed without their knowing.  Kind of creepy… given that they’ve got a “pro” version that lets you track hundreds of machines simultaneously.

Open-Source Camouflage From Computer Vision by Adam Harvey

Open-Source Camouflage From Computer Vision.  As facial recognition becomes more popular as a means for police state identification, innovative makeup and hairstyle fashions can be deployed to foil the Orwellian algorithms.  Talk about weird.  Now we’re going to be dressing for the machines?

Philips has won the DOE’s L-Prize

The US DoE set up the L-Prize, modeled after the X-Prize, for durable, high quality, low power lighting.  Philips just won it, with a remote-phosphor LED bulb.  Warm white light, 900 lumens bright, for less than 10 Watts.  Now if only they can get someone other than Home Despot to carry them!

Star CSP Hotline for Bicyclists

Bicyclists are encouraged to use the *CSP hotline to report aggressive drivers to the Colorado State Police (just dial *277 on your mobile).  You must obtain the license plate of the vehicle and describe the aggressive behavior.  Location, direction of travel, and a driver description are good too, but not mandatory.  After 3 reports of the same vehicle, the registered owner gets a warning letter.  Subsequent reports will result in a state trooper visiting them in person and taking “appropriate enforcement action”, whatever that means.  If you’re not on a state highway, make sure you get them to enter the info into the database before you’re transferred to local law enforcement to make a report.  Hopefully they’ll make some kind of annual report as to what actions this system has actually resulted in.

Scientific Civil Disobedience

Tens of thousands of academic papers from Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society are being shared via BitTorrent thanks to the work of someone going by the name Greg Maxwell.  All of the papers are out of copyright — they date from the time of Newton up through 1923.  Nevertheless, they have until now been locked up behind a paywall.  Hopefully others in possession of such troves will follow suit.  Scientific publishing is long overdue for this kind of shakeup.

A Space Aged Hiatus

Like a lot of scientifically inclined technophillic folks, the space shuttle’s last flight makes me feel a little melancholy.  I believe there are very good reasons to send people off world.  If we are both lucky and conscientious then in the fullness of time humanity — or whatever inherits our history — will mediate the migration of the terrestrial biosphere beyond this pale blue homeworld.  In doing so, we will ensure, or at least increase the probability, of life’s persistence into deep cosmological time and space.  This goal, or something akin to it, is what has motivated a lot of people (myself included) to work on space exploration over the last half century.  It is an enduring motivation, but to the public at large and to policymakers, I think it comes off as esoteric, cultish, or at least eccentric.

Continue reading A Space Aged Hiatus

George Church’s Evolution Machine

George Church wants to automate evolution, in the same way that we’ve now automated genome sequencing.  Any trait that can be easily and automatically screened for should be susceptible to the technique.  You give the machine a rough draft, and let it mutate the genome in fast forward, and iterate with screening/selection.  They’ve already used the technique to engineer a couple of pigments (indigo and lycopene) much more effectively than straightforward genetic designers.  Mmm.  Custom evolved babies.  And virus-proof replacement livers.  Sweet, in a creepy kind of way.

Discounted cashflow analysis of scientific programming

Software Carpentry does a little math describing the value of teaching scientists how to build good software.  Even with very pessimistic assumptions, it’s clearly worthwhile.  With realistic assumptions, it’s a frigging research bonanza.  WTF?  Why don’t advisers and administrators make sure everyone is on board?