Friday, February 22, 2008

Recycled Bicycles

Good bicycles are wonderful things. They get you to biology class or the corner store without noise or pollution. They give you a sense of freedom and self-sufficiency. They help you lose weight, feel healthier, look better, sleep more soundly and perhaps live longer. They might save you money by allowing you to do with one less car as you exercise your way to the office. In congested cities, they bypass traffic jams, providing not just low-cost mobility, but sometimes more mobility than a car. Their technology is comprehensible to anyone who made it through junior high school. If they aren’t left out in the rain too often, they can be maintained for generations with basic hand tools. They have a fascinating history. Evolving from "Velocipedes" – toys known as "bone-shakers" to those who rode them over cobblestones - through dangerous high-wheels and "safety bicycles", they were finally made practical when a Scottish veterinarian named John Dunlop invented pneumatic tires. By 1895, bicycles as we know them had arrived - ball bearings, chain drives, variable gears, cable controls, and air-filled tires on wheels with wire spokes. Mass production techniques made them affordable, and suddenly the working class had unprecedented mobility, their practical radius as pedestrians multiplied by a factor of about five. Bicycles were well on their way to supplanting horses as personal transportation before they were in turn superseded by the internal combustion engine. Bicycles didn’t require pastures, barns or a winter supply of hay and oats. They didn’t kick, bite, or run away. (They still don’t kick or bite, but they seem to have learned to run away if you don’t keep an eye on them.) Even after the advent of affordable automobiles, bicycles continued to be thought of as utilitarian transportation in some parts of the world, like the Netherlands and Japan. In wealthy North America, though, they were once again relegated to toy status.

 Then during the 1970’s, the OPEC oil embargo and environmental consciousness hit the baby-boomers at about the same time, and there was a second "bike boom". Millions of "ten-speeds", more properly called "road bikes", went into the garages of America. Many of them were of very high quality, and many of them were never ridden much as gas prices came back down and their owners aged.

 Nowadays, road bikes are out of fashion, and mountain bikes are all the rage. But again in the American tradition, they tend to be thought of and designed for sport and recreation rather than as serious transportation. People put them on automobile roof racks and drive them places to play with in the dirt. The features that make them fun off-road are disadvantages on pavement. Fat tires and knobby treads have greater rolling resistance than thin, slick tires. Upright handlebars permit only one body position, no matter how long the ride or what conditions or winds are encountered. Short wheelbases are uncomfortable and tiring. Shock absorbers and 21-or-more speeds add unnecessary weight to be propelled up hills. Trendy or not, three-decade-old road bikes will dramatically outperform state-of-the-art mountain bikes on hard-surfaced roads. They are a superior choice for anything but bombing down debris-strewn dirt trails.

There are many other types of bicycles serving many other purposes. BMX for racing on dirt tracks, recumbents, tandems, etc. My focus has been very specific: High end ten- and twelve-speed road bikes from the 1970’s and early 1980’s. Such a bike will have drop handlebars and 27" wheels, and a rear freewheel cluster with five or six sprockets, and will commonly weigh close to twenty pounds.

 The basic geometry of these bikes had been established by the time of the first world war. Since then, millions of people have ridden billions of miles, all the while trying to figure out how to reduce weight and increase speed, efficiency, comfort and reliability. Although the technology was mature well before the 1970’s, incremental improvements and refinements continue, of course. Road bikes being manufactured today have freehubs, with cassettes of seven or more cogs, as opposed to freewheels with clusters of five or six sprockets. And rims have gone to the European standard, with metric sizing now being the norm.

 Old road bikes are thus outdated as well as out of fashion. They have very little resale value, and dealers are reluctant to even take them in trade. Uncountable multitudes of them are therefore languishing in garages or basements, or being hauled to landfills. Yet, in some ways, those older bikes are superior to even the newest versions. They tend to have better frame clearance in case you’d like to add fenders or slightly wider, more comfortable tires. Their frames are more likely to have threaded eyelets with which to attach fenders and racks. They were made before liability concerns outweighed common sense and affected the form of things like front forks and bottom brackets - today’s bikes, in some ways, are designed by lawyers.

In 1979 my college graduation present to myself was a 12 speed. I still have it, and it was well-maintained until I was hit by a car fairly recently. (Okay, technically I hit the car, but the end result was the same.) Once my road-rash cleared up, I went to the local bike shop in need of new wheels, fork, brake and crankset. The proprietor no longer stocked either 27" wheels or freewheels, but he let me in on a trade secret: The best place to get those parts is the local dump or at yard sales. He told me that he himself literally threw away about fifty bikes a year. Sure enough, I started looking over the scrap metal pile at the local recycling center on trash day, and within a few weeks I’d found everything I needed. And the quality was better than that of the originals. Hmmm, I was on to something. Since then I’ve assembled several more bikes for myself, and one for my daughter to take to college this fall, and I’ve upgraded our components when opportunities presented themselves.

 If you’re interested in the economic and ecologic sense of alternative transportation and don’t already own a bike, this is a chance to experiment without a large investment. If you have an old bike with sentimental value in your attic – a friend that’s carried you thousands of happy miles – maybe it’s time to put it back in service with upgraded brakes, wheels or drive-train parts. If you already have a nice bike, you might also want a "beater" to ride in the rain, or where theft is a concern. The uglier the better, but it should still be in excellent mechanical order. Get over the pride thing, if that’s an obstacle. Re-using is the ultimate form of recycling, and good for everyone concerned. Consider the energy and material resources it took just to mine the ore for a bike’s metal, let alone to manufacture, market, package and ship it. You’re doing yourself and the world a favor by rescuing and resurrecting one.

Now, back to the scrap metal pile: One might get lucky and find a complete bike in good order, but usually parts are missing or damaged - most often wheels, saddles and pedals, so grab those whenever you see any worth grabbing. Frames will occasionally be of aluminum, but usually of steel. Avoid cheap spot-welded frames with stamped components. While they can be made rideable, they will never be rewarding and aren’t worthy of your time and effort. Good steel frames will be "lugged" – made with sockets that strengthen the joints between tubes, the areas of highest stress. Another quick way to recognize quality is to look at the right crank and "spider" – the starfish-shaped piece that the front chainwheels are bolted to. If they’re cast as one piece, it’s a decent bike. Look, too, for wheels with alloy rims and stainless spokes. Steel wheels are heavy and unresponsive. (Hey, I think I was married to one of those once ….) If a bike’s frame is the wrong size for you, maybe it’s the right size for someone you know. Or maybe the components are worth salvaging.

Give any older bike a thorough going-over. The bearings should be cleaned and repacked with grease. New brake pads are always a good idea. Even if they aren’t worn, they harden with age. Modern cables have stainless steel wires surrounded by a low-friction liner, conducive to clean, quick shifting and braking. Older unlined cables should be replaced. The handlebars will likely need re-wrapping. Look in used book stores for a repair and maintenance manual with a copyright date in the appropriate date range. While you’re at it, get a book or two about how to ride – there’s more to it than you might think. The mysteries of adjusting derailers and servicing headsets will be solved once you sit down with a book and your bike and follow the procedures step by step. You may feel more comfortable if you dissect a junk bike first, just to see how things work, before you begin on your legitimate restoration project.

Once you have what you’re looking for, throw away anything on it that adds useless weight. Those brake extension levers on some bikes, for example. At best, using them will teach you poor riding habits. At their worst, they can be dangerously inefficient. If you prefer straight handlebars and upright brake levers, you can create a hybrid. If the front derailer is damaged, save yourself some weight and complexity and do without it. Remove it and one of the front chain rings, and you own a five-speed. Do you really need any more? If you don’t have many hills to contend with, consider going all the way to a single speed. This will relieve you of the need for the rear derailer, all the rear sprockets but one, and the shift levers and cables. It will save a few additional ounces with a shorter chain, too. A singlespeed is noticeably more efficient than a multispeed in the same gain ratio because of it’s lighter weight and the lack of drag from derailer pulleys. There are several websites that will guide you through the process so that you’ll end up with the requisite straight chainline. Maybe you’ll recapture some of the simple fun you experienced with your singlespeed childhood bicycles. If not, all that’s lost is some time spent in enjoyable, stress-relieving tinkering. Another option for a missing or damaged rear wheel is to replace it with one that has a more modern cassette-style freehub. This may involve spreading the stays of the frame to accommodate a wider axle, but it’s not rocket science and again there’s plenty of information on the web.

While I have a generally minimalist philosophy, there are some things that are worth adding to a bike. Flat tires are by far the most common mechanical malfunction, so a patch kit and tire levers should be in a small bag under your saddle, and a frame-fitting pump on the seat tube. On a long ride, your hands will appreciate rubber brake hoods. Toe clips are considered obsolete by some, and take some getting used to, but they’ll convert the energy you use just to keep your feet on the pedals into forward motion. (Clipless pedals are even better, but require special shoes that you won’t want to walk around in at your destination.) A water bottle will fuel you so you can fuel your bike. Lights are necessary at night. Those with LED’s are remarkably efficient and long-lasting. I’m ambivalent about fenders and racks – if they make sense for you, put them on. Small fenders are useless, but full ones will keep you drier and your bike cleaner if you’re not just a fair-weather cyclist. If you carry paperwork or lunch or clothes, a rack will keep your center of gravity lower than a backpack will. Locks are an unfortunate necessity.

"When I see an adult on a bicycle, I have hope for the human race."

--H.G. Wells

Canoe camping

When I backpack, I travel very light. It's just not fun if I'm a human mule, struggling with balance and too exhausted to enjoy the scenery. My last trip was a four-day hike through mountains, and my pack weighed 27 pounds. I've gotten so I'm not completely miserable when I settle in for the night with minimal gear, but it's... well, minimal. 

Backpacking campsites tend to be less than ideal. Sometimes they're overused with hard-packed ground and picked clean of firewood. There's almost always litter. It's often difficult to find level ground. Sometimes there's not enough water to wash up well with. And even if there is, all I carry to heat it in is a one-liter titanium pot. (One of my pet peeves is crawling into a sleeping bag sweaty and dirty. I don't care how grimy I get during the day, but I like to go to sleep clean.) 

Canoes are my favorite way to travel. You can carry enough gear to be truly comfortable in any season, and still get into places larger boats never see. My favorite camping sites are on gravel bars and beaches. There's usually plenty of driftwood for fires, and of course unlimited water. We have a 17' kevlar canoe that paddles very easily and quietly. For longer trips, we have a Grumman square-stern canoe with a 2 h.p. Honda outboard. Aluminum is relatively heavy and noisy, but it's saving grace is that it's almost indestructible. Kevlar or aluminum or whatever, modern canoes are the best of old and new. A design refined over millennia, built of space-age materials.

An upside-down canoe makes an instant shelter. With a campfire reflecting in front of it, it's downright cozy. With a tarp stretched over it, there's plenty of room for at least three people, without the usual drudgery of pitching and striking a tent.

Long spruce poles go in the bottom of our canoe. They keep our duffles up out of any sloshing water, and they'll be the frame of our tent or tarp shelter if we put one up. Weight and volume aren't a factor unless portages are involved. The three of us could each bring a hundred pounds of gear, double sleeping pads and even pillows without coming close to the limits.

The bottom of a canoe is a huge cooler for food. The constant gentle movement will get your sourdough perking like it never does at home. You can often troll for a fish dinner. We've seen otters playing, an eagle catch a fish, a bull moose swimming, mink patrolling the shore, fishers hunting for squirrels, snapping turtles cruising along the bottom. We've salvaged life jackets, paddles, anchors, and all kinds of interesting gear washed up on windward shores. Our five-year-old feels good about picking up trash along our way.

The first thing I'd like to do when I retire is to take a month-long canoe trip.

Pearls of Survival Wisdom

I took a survival course from the author of my favorite outdoor-skills book, Mors Kochanski. Here are my notes:

In a survival situation, your goals are to make yourself comfortable enough to sleep and to keep drinking water. If you can sleep and drink, you have it made.

Use your survival kit. Use it until it wears out. "I've done that" is far better than "I know that". 

Survival kit should essentials: 
50-100' paracord
fire and tinder
woven poly (like Tyvek, for shelter-building)
mosquito net

First aid kit essentials:
ophthalmic ointment
10 Telfa pads
safety pins

Know these knots, and know how to make them slippery as well:
Figure 8

Camping gear should include:
fire and tinder
first aid kit
navigation tools
more tools
rope (50 meters)
paracord (50 meters)
cord, 200# test nylon (50 meters)
stove wire (5 meters)
brass wire (5 meters)
knife sharpener

Walking staff: Used to lift pots, to carry pack, as a tent pole or to prop up tent. Diameter of a pitchfork handle. Wrap with paracord (emergency cordage) and inner-tube (emergency tinder).

beaver 9-10" loop, 2-3" off ground (if in water, 1/3 of loop above water)
coon 6-8" loop, 3-4" off ground
anchor snares to trees with 11- or 12-guage wire
support wire can be fastened to tree or speared into ground

"Sedges have edges, rushes are round.
Grasses have joints when police aren't around."

Knife use: Rule of "follow-thru". Do not carve on thigh. For heavy cuts do not put your thumb on back of blade - hold the knife in your fist, keep your wrist rigid and use more of your body. When limbing branches use a scooping motion to avoid nicking and weakening branch. 

Sawing: Guide the blade but do not bear down. Push and pull strokes should sound the same. Saw small pieces of wood by moving the wood on the saw blade instead of the saw blade on the wood

Twisting birch: (for use as wythes) Scrape a strip of bark off first

Splitting wood: Hit the near edge, vice the center or far edge.

Scatter fire when not needed to slow burning and conserve fuel. Push logs back together when you desire heat or light again.

Birch bark containers: Hold near fire to make bark flexible, fold, staple instead of using clamps, sew with spruce roots.

Almonds will work as candles, burned pointy-end up. And then you can still eat them.

Lashing: Flatten sticks where they will bear against each other. If you want a 90-degree angle, lash first at a lesser angle so it will tighten up when you increase it to 90.

To make a bow saw you'll need to bring: Blade, bolts, nuts, nails, non-stretch cord.

Pack frame: Can be carried with a walking staff. Use a curved stick for the bottom piece to keep it away from your back and provide a "shelf" for loads. To pack, put your tarp on it "diamond-wise" vise "square-wise". Use a 7-arm-span cord tied to the bottom to secure the load. Use a 7-arm-span rope for the shoulder straps and waist band: Double it, tie an overhand knot in the free ends, loop it through and over the top of the frame, put the pack on your back, hook the bottom of the frame on both sides, and tie around your waist.

Don't limb the saplings you use for shelter. "Rope" them for strength.

Boughs for beds: Use a chevron pattern for the most "bounce per ounce". 

Collecting boughs: Use a push-pull to break them off rather than cutting them with your knife.

Fire by percussion: Look for white rocks that reflect light.

"It's too late to learn to swim when the boat is sinking."

"The forest is foreign to city people, the city is foreign to forest people."

Guard against "Nature Deficit Disorder"

Parachute shelter:
two layers, stretched tight, not touching, both breathable
entrance crotch-high to conserve heat
door that falls closed
bottom logs raised and leveled by short logs.
11 1/2' radius cargo chutes work best - they're less spherical

Rope lean-to: Two sharpened poles can be used in the bottom of the canoe to keep packs dry, then used to construct a lean-to for the night. Drive them of them into the ground at an angle on the outsides of two appropriately-spaced trees, tie them to the trees, then tie ropes between them to support the roof.

Pots should have a bail and a lid with a ring (vice a knob).

A cave-man's knowledge would be about:
70% flora
5% fauna
1% rocks
20% techniques (fire, bindcraft, shelter, hunting, gathering, etc.)

Red Osier Dogwood: Very flexible when green, very hard when dry. Good for baskets and arrow shafts.

Cattail roots: Place them on coals until they char, peel off the charred part and eat.

Freshwater Mussels: Place on coals until they open and smell like bacon.

Quick ladder: Tie to poles together loosely at the tops, so they can be leaned against a tree with one pole on each side. Run a series of marlin hitches down each pole to support rungs. Place the rungs in the marlin hitches as you climb.

The Dog from Hell

While I was away on a business trip, my soft-hearted bride thought it would be a good idea to visit the dog pound and bring home a half-starved Great Dane with fleas and a broken tail. They charged her a $375 "adoption fee". That's after the vicious/disease-ridden/disfigured discount. We had him neutered ($300) and the tail amputated ($600). I call him Stumpy Sadsack now. We bought him a crate ($200), but he didn't fit in it, so we special-ordered the biggest crate they make ($300). He pulled the bandages off his tail and wagged a truly remarkable amount of blood on the entire interior of my truck, my pants, coat, hat and gloves, our son's pants and coat, the leather chair, ottoman and sofa, all the kitchen appliances and cabinets, two Oriental carpets, four walls and even the ceiling. The stump became infected, so we had it shortened again ($600). I didn't keep track of what the vaccinations, heart worm pills and flea medicines cost.
The thing is so big it stands with all four feet on the ground and drinks out of the kitchen sink. Our son (hereafter known as "Private Root Beer") wears his ski helmet most of the time because it frightens him when the new dog takes his head in it's mouth. It doesn't bite him, it just slobbers his entire head. Still, it's dominant behavior that must be modified. Easier said than done. When Private Root Beer passes by the dog, he flattens himself against the wall and says "Excuse me, excuse me, excuse me." When Stumpy Sadsack fights with our old dog, my job is to wrestle him into a submissive posture on his back while my wife jumps around flapping her arms and yelling "Don't let him win!". She bought me a Dog Whisperer DVD to show me how easy it would be if I did it correctly. If I express anything other than rapturous enchantment with our new canine friend as I'm picking up turds the diameter of beer cans, she bursts into tears.

I think I'll stir up the Bible People...

Philosopher Friedrich Nietzche advised us to "philosophize with a hammer", to "test idols to see if they ring true". The Buddha taught that "logic is the great instrument for knowledge of the truth" , and to "Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it, unless it agrees with reason and common sense." 

So let's jump right in with the most controversial subject there is: Religion. History is driven by the "Two G's" - Gods and Greed - and the former are conduits for the latter. 

Religions are social institutions designed to control people. Notice that they all preach submission and obedience. They all promise rewards in another life, not this one. They all use the powerful indoctrination technique of repetition. They all stress faith over facts.

Religions are, at the "Leadership Level", a path to power, prestige, and wealth. If you can make others believe that you ARE a god - Emperor Hirohito, Xerxes, Haile Selassie, etc. - you have ultimate control over them and an almost unlimited ability to exact tribute. Nearly as effective is 
representing a god as a priest, prophet, imam, shaman, Grand Mufti, whatever. Knowing what the gods want others to do gives you enormous importance as well as the ability to collect offerings. 

So what do the followers get out of this? At the "Believer Level", religions are a reaction to stress. In a fearsome, uncertain world, there is comfort in believing that an all-powerful parenting figure can explain the unknown, love and protect you and even make you live forever. The appeal is certainly understandable. Religions also satisfy our strong innate needs to belong and to obey - we are pack animals, like all primates.

Extreme religiosity is a character disorder that crosses the line into psychosis. Such people feel compelled to not only suppress any dissonant thoughts, but also to attack anything that threatens their beliefs, because their mental health is so invested in being "right". 

The good news is that religions can perform a valuable "law enforcement" service. People tend to behave better if they think a supernatural being is watching everything they do. It works with kids and Santa Claus, right? The cops can't be everywhere, all the time. But gods and Santa can.

The bad news is that if people are trained to disregard facts in the spiritual area of their lives, they tend to disregard facts in other areas as well.

really bad news is that religions can empower people to do horrific things, by giving them the authority of a god, the legitimacy of a group, the magnified intensity of a mob, and absolution from guilt.

These two gentlemen said it better than I can:

"If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is an intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense. If, however, the existence of such a teapot were affirmed in ancient books, taught as the sacred truth every Sunday, and instilled into the minds of children at school, hesitation to believe in its existence would become a mark of eccentricity and entitle the doubter to the attentions of the psychiatrist in an enlightened age or of the Inquisitor in an earlier time."   Bertrand Russell

"The reason organized religion merits outright hostility is that, unlike belief in Russell's teapot, religion is powerful, influential, tax-exempt and systematically passed on to children too young to defend themselves. Children are not compelled to spend their formative years memorizing loony books about teapots. Government-subsidized schools don't exclude children whose parents prefer the wrong shape of teapot. Teapot-believers don't stone teapot-unbelievers, teapot-apostates, teapot-heretics and teapot-blasphemers to death. Mothers don't warn their sons off marrying teapot-shiksas whose parents believe in three teapots rather than one. People who put the milk in first don't kneecap those who put the tea in first."    Richard Dawkins