Friday, July 31, 2009

This doesn't bode well...

...for justice in Asheville. An (unnamed) judge reduced Charles Diez' bail from $500,000 to $200,000 so he could get out of jail. Still no word on if he's still being paid. I have some problems with a culture that looks the other way and allows people to render mayhem with guns on the public at large just because they are "public servants". As alleged, this is a serious crime, and (according to news accounts at least) the facts of the matter do not seem to be much at issue.

Throw the book at this guy. He's proved that he's a menace.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Words can't express...

...the outrageousness of this story.

Charles Diez, an Asheville, NC fireman shot a bicycle rider on a Sunday morning because he was upset that the victim was bike riding with his child on a heavily traveled roadway.

The good news is that the fireman has been arrested, charged with attempted first degree murder, and has had bond set at $500,000. The bad news (well I should say more bad news) is that the fireman has been placed on paid investigative leave pending the outcome of an investigation.

The weird but great news is that the intended victim was hit in his bicycle helmet, according to police.They said the bullet penetrated the outer lining of the helmet but did not actually hit the victim's head.

Based on not a lot of data, let me do some rampant speculation of my own by making some observations and questions:
  • No doubt there were words exchanged. If it were me and a stranger came up in a car and accused me of endangering my child by carrying him on my bike, I'd no doubt call him (I think accurately enough) an "asshole".
  • The only child endangerment going on is being perpetrated by the guy with the gun.
  • Domestic terrorists? Bike-shooting gunmen? What the heck is going on in North Carolina? I've visited Raleigh on a couple of business trips and found it pretty pleasant, even a little hip for a Southern city. Obviously, I was missing something.
  • Traffic on a Sunday morning on any street in a town of 75,000 can't be that heavy.
  • There are inevitable perceived parallels to the Cambridge police / Gates story as it relates to potential abuse of power by public servants. (I wonder what race the bike rider, who is not identified, was?)
  • This is a great example of a great reason for background checks not only to purchase a firearm, but also background checks to renew a license to own and use a firearm. (In other words, the owner, not the hardware, should be registered and should periodically have to prove that he is not a menace for owning the weapon.)
  • Paid leave? Come on! What's to investigate? Chief, read the police report and cut your losses!
  • I want a helmet like the one the bicyclist had!
It's worth going to the story link above to read the 14 or so pages of comments. They are very telling. (The fireman actually has some defenders.)

I have to ask the question, how can this happen in a city named the "most vegetarian-friendly small city in America" by the PETA?

Saturday, July 25, 2009


Is it just me who finds the new Toyota Prius ads creepy? Apparently.

Yes, I know that the Prius is the most fuel-efficient car out there. Yes, I know the Munchkin-like seething mass of humanity is mostly computer-augmented, just like the Coliseum crowd effects that won the Oscar for the movie Gladiator. But it still creeps me out.

Part of what I know about the Prius is this: It's a car. (well, duh.) And that means it's big and heavy (relative to my scrawny transporation system, that is.) Think about it this way: A Prius hauling a single person (most of them do) is getting (let's say) 50 person-miles per gallon of gas, (which contains 31,548 kcal), or 31,548 / 50 = 630 kcal per mile. On a bike, I can cover roughly 15 miles per hour burning 700 kcal, which works out to 700 / 15 = 46.7 kcal per mile. So my system (for a single passenger) is 13.5 times as efficient as a Prius. So if a Prius gets 50 mpg, I get "675 mpg". (I know that's a bit of a red herring.)

In honor of this ratio, I'vc created a graphic. You can download the high-rez version here, if you want to put it on a t-shirt or something.

But the latest data point about hybrids is a truly unexpected one: according to insurance statistics, hybrid drivers drive more, get more tickets, and have more accidents than non-hybrid drivers. (Perhaps they are distracted by their hypermiling techniques?) According to the study cited here, the decreased guilt associated with improved fuel-efficiency increases the number of discretionary trips by up to 25%, largely offsetting any petroleum savings.

It is, after all, just a car.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Hardware, Software, Wetware

My twin brother Willie (who runs teams of engineers that design highly-sophisticated silicon chips) used to say that there were three kinds of computer "ware": hardware, software, and wetware. Hardware and software (and their distant cousin, firmware) you already know about, if you're using the Web to read this. Wetware is, of course, the user of the computer, and ultimately where the rubber meets the road, so to speak.

It seems to me that when one thinks about bicycle-commuting systems, the same three levels impose themselves. Let's consider them in reverse order:

There's the "wetware" crowd, the people who get out there and "just do it". Sometimes referred to as "vehicular cyclists", they insist that all that they need is the road and the rules for it, which exist everywhere. They tend to be skeptical of structured solutions. The most radical among them can be rather vocal in their beliefs that structure is bad, and will give the powers that be the ability to segregate cyclists to a second-class status. (I count myself in this crowd, although to be sure not one of the radical ones.)

Then there's the "software" crowd, the ones who think that to be safe, cyclists need the protection of bike lanes and striping -- clear demarcations that differentiate cyclist territory from motorist domain. Sometimes referred to as "infrastructuralists", they don't commute as much as vehicular cyclists, simply because bicycling infrastructure isn't so widespread as it could be. Those among this group who do commute regularly therefore are geographically distinct -- they tend to be located out West, in Oregon, Colorado, and parts of California and Washington. Sort of like rare birds with a distinct habitat.

Finally, there's the "hardware" group -- those who think that to be safe, bicyclists need their own separate and independent bikeways. These can be bike paths (typically engineered for about 8 mph, and leading to recreational destinations, not so great for commuting, really) or fully separate bike lanes (preferably with curbs to physically separate them from cars). The Achilles' heel of these approaches is usually the place where they have to come back to the "standard" roadway system. Rejoining the regular transportation system is the most critical aspect of any separated system, and often times it is under-engineered (the "engineering" consisting of a wheelchair ramp at the curb.)

I have a 3/8 mile stretch of bike path paralleling a busy road that I use on my daily commute, and I have learned that rejoining the traffic from that path is by far the most treacherous part of my daily ride.

Recently, a couple of designers have gone quite a bit further and proposed systems that totally separate bikes from the quotidian automobile infrastructure. (Maybe I should categorize these as "super-hardware" people.) Personally, I find them amusingly naïve and impractical. Naïve, because these people are convinced that public financing can be found for these schemes when it's hard enough to find money and will to do simple striping. Impractical, because I don't see where these structures provide the motiviation to ride. If one is motivated, he or she tends toward the "wetware", and all these other things just become (in their absence) excuses not to ride.

I'm not trying to be mean here, it's just my belief that since the advent of the first commercial "safety bicycle", the bike has evolved into a pretty efficient system which works pretty well quite on its own, thank you very much. When I see a new idea to improve the system, I'll be the first to doff my helmet. but it's not so easy to get excited about ideas that just tinker around the edges.

Anyway, let's take a look at a couple of these visionary pretexts for not riding.

Vel0-City is a system of elevated enclosed tubes proposed for Toronto. To its credit, it seems to have the macro-planning thought out in that it appears to be integrated into the mass transit system as a whole. To be fair to the envisioners of this project, I think that protection from the elements in the winter in Toronto is a winner of an idea, but I wonder if the good taxpayers of Toronto will support yet another mode of mass transit, in addition to its existing bus, tram, and metro lines. Like any of those other mass transitways, I suspect, graffiti would pose an ongoing problem.

Remarkably, Velo-City promises a perpetual tailwind, with one-way tubes somehow creating a "dynamic air circulation loop." I could use some of that, but I wonder about the physics!

The Shweeb (no, I don't know where the name comes from -- it seems vaguely German in its tendency to clear the throat) is a pedal powered monorail that exists as an amusement park ride in Roterua, New Zealand. Two pedal-powered capsules swing around a 200M monorail racetrack. Frankly, this looks like quite a bit of fun. The fun rumor is that someone in the London Development Agency has latched on to this idea as a means of mass transit in London. (Don't you just love the "science-fiction pulp magazine cover" look of the rendering at right?) I think this idea works much better as an amusement park race than as a mass-transit system. I'd hate to get stuck behind the little old lady who's doing some urban sight-seeing when I'm in a hurry to get to work. And as much maintenance as Velo-City would require in removing graffiti, Shweeb would require in spades. Believe me, you don't want the capsule that's just been given up by the vomiting drunk!

As a postscript, here's a different take on bikes-as-infrastructure: Hybrid-squared. This system proposes a public bike system (think Vélib) whose bikes have a combination of dynamos and regenerative braking to charge ultracapacitors that then dump their stored energy back into the grid when you return the bike to its station. It's a neat gedankenexperiment, and envisions a credit system where bike-commuting pays for mass transit use, which is a clever scheme. But I wonder if the net energy would amount to a hill of beans, enough to ever pay back the investment in infrastructure. (Is anybody running the numbers on these flights of fancy?)

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Practical Cycling Defined

I define practical cycling most succinctly as "cycling miles that displace motor vehicle miles."

A group of six (only six?) high-school counselors has done a significant bit of practical cycling by touring college campuses (in my stomping ground, in Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Delaware) to check them out for their student counselees. Twelve days, more than a dozen colleges. 400 miles. (Now that I think about it, although that's only 33 miles a day, it still would take some selling to convince most people not doing serious cycling already that they could handle that.) This is significant. Yes, it's billed as "combining a serious tour with their love of bicycling," but this is ordinary people doing a sustained tour at 1/4 to 1/3 the rate of the Tour de France.

The story in the New York Times is here.

I'm impressed, and I hope their numbers grow next year.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Tripping the Lights Fantastic

Trip it as you go On the light fantastic toe -- Milton, L'Allegro

If you do much urban riding, you've probably encountered one of the practical cyclist's banes: embedded loop sensor activated traffic signals. Which is to say, loop sensors that ignore (or rather, fail to detect) bicycles.

There's one on my daily commute home. If I'm a little late on the way home and motor-vehicle traffic is diminished, I can wait through a couple of cycles. Nothing is more frustrating.

Apparently, this is a widespread problem for cyclists. There have been some gadgeteer approaches to this problem involving gluing very strong magnets or large metal plates to the bottom of your cycling shoes. Hm. I carry a laptop in my left pannier, and I'm reluctant to expose it to strong magnets.

So what to do? I've done some research, and have some information to share. I've come to the conclusion that this is a three-stage process; Keep advancing until you find a satisfactory solution for you.

1. Optimize your placement. First and foremost, know where to put your bike on the loop. (This is where I was going wrong.) The green zones in the diagram at right are optimal. (I was using a "Dipole" position on a "Quadrupole" loop. If you are seeing a "Diagonal Quadrupole" loop, you probably live in Davis CA, Boulder CO, or Portland OR.)

2. Know when you can "Cheat". If you use optimal position as noted above, yet you pass through an entire cycle and the traffic signal fails to let you through, then the signal can be considered "defective". Most jurisdictions allow running the light in such a situation. If you do this, be doubly careful! Watch most carefully for traffic that doesn't see you!

3. Contact your local Traffic Engineers. The good news about inductive traffic loops is, they're easy to adjust. The bad news is, you may get ignored by your local traffic engineers. When I emailed my county engineers about the light I'd been having trouble with, their advice was to dismount, walk as a pedestrian across 3 traffic lanes, and actuate a pedestrian call button. I hope you have better luck when and if you have to call them.

Here are some more avenues for research, if you want to dig deeply into the physics of embedded loops:

Goodridge article, "Detection of Bicycles by Quadrupole Loops at Demand-Actuated Traffic Signals"

Tracy-Williams article, "Traffic Signals"

John Allen article, "Traffic Signal Actuators: Am I paranoid?"

Friday, July 3, 2009

Online Bike repair guides

In the old days, when there weren't so many bike shops and the Internet was a green-screen geeks-only paradise that offered only email, FTP, and Usenet discussion groups, getting information on how to fix your bike was difficult. Bicycle repair was a matter of lore, and virtually all serious riders were competent mechanics (at least to a degree.) For the first 20 years of the Tour de France (1903 - 1923), a rider was in fact required to do his own repairs. (Thanks Chairman Bill.) Perhaps this custom that riders be self-sufficient is why John Forrester's seminal book Effective Cycling has so many of its pages dedicated to bike maintenance and repair.

Now, of course, if you don't want to get your hands dirty, it's a quick trip down to the local bike shop to get that drivetrain fixed or those brakes adjusted, or maybe even a trip down there to get diagnosed what is wrong in the first place. This is fine if you have the money, or lack a mechanical aptitude gene. (It also keeps the local bike shop in business, which isn't a bad thing either.) So you, dear reader, have choices, and an excellent choice is an on-line bicycle repair website. The web is full of them, some good, some very good, and some quite generic (the "generic" ones are the ones that list "bike repair" up alongside "gutter repair" and "13 uses for baking soda".) I've surveyed several of the bike-specific sites here and hope you find the overview useful:

Park Tools Repair Site:
This ia an encyclopedic, professional bike repair web site. Not surprising when you consider the source -- Park tools have a deservedly excellent reputation and there's no better way to sell and support tools than to show people the proper way to use them. The Park website has a nifty interactive Flash-based "bicycle map" that hightlights the parts of the bike that may need repair and navigates you to the "chapter" of the website where you can see the specific topics on that part.
This website is very old-school. It has a chaotic layout, with ads sprinked about. Topics are hit-or-miss. The illustrations are both sparse and of marginal quality, looking like they were created with a DOS-based paint program on a VGA screen. There are a few interesting sections, though, including a section that deals with diagnosing what's wrong with your bike based on how often you hear noises.
This is easily the most "social web" oriented of the repair sites. Most if not all instructions include downloadable videos. Note the "tags" below the image-map of the bike at right. All instructions allow comments by users. This site has some general topics, such as "how to shift gears" and "how to tune up your bike", as well as the specific highly-categorized topics.

Utah Mountain Biking:
This site has a large selection of topics; each topic is well-illustrated with lots of well-cropped photos. I like that the graphic bike-parts index includes "Chad". Definitely a focus on mountain bike and downhill stuff here -- this is the place to go to get info on disk brakes and shocks.

Jim Langley's Bicycling Site:

This is definitely an "old-school" site with a pleasing personality. Lots of old-bicycle-poster eye candy, lots of mini-articles about bikes, with a focus on antique bikes. He does have a page calling out bike terminology, but unlike the other sites, he doesn't use this as a clickable index. This won't suit everyone, but the information given, although you may have to hunt around a bit to find it, is good. He has a number of topics on bicycle fit and adjustment.

Sheldon Brown's Fixit Pages:
The late, great Sheldon Brown of Massachusetts' Harris Cyclery had a collection of pages on the Harris website. The range of topics is by no means encyclopedic, in fact it's hit-and-miss, but if Sheldon Brown covers a topic, it's worth taking a look, because the depth of his topics is extreme (including things about the history of each component, going back to the English/ French/ Italian standards of the 1950s). Each topic is more like a brief "white-paper" style treatise on that kind of bike component or situation. For the experienced cyclist, this will be elucidating and enjoyable, but it's not for beginners who are looking for a "step-by-step" approach.

Wheelpro Wheel Building Guide:

I'm going to wrap this up with a single-topic website, or rather, a reference to an excellent book on perhaps the most important maintenance / repair topic, and that is wheels and wheelbuilding. Roger Musson, a British bicycle wheelbuilder and mechanic, has written the final word on building bike wheels.

It's not free, but neither is it expensive, and it comes with a money-back guarantee. It's packed with useful information and guarantees you that if you follow the instructions, you can build a wheel that will be straight and true for its lifetime (i.e., until the rims wear out.) If you like riding on round, true wheels and want to build wheels that are better than those you can buy, this is the reference for you.

Summary Chart:
For those of you who have made it this far, here's a chart summarizing the topics covered in all the sites listed. Click the image for a high-resolution, printable version.