Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Neil Gaiman, Storytelling and the World Weird Web

Warning to the folks who come here looking for bicycle stories. There is very little bicycle content in this long, strange, true tale. But, for better or worse, this is the main place I tell stories on the internet and I think this is a tale worth telling, if only so someone (myself perhaps) can point to it from some other place and remember how odd the world was in 2012.

At some point in my life I became aware of Neil Gaiman. I'd see his books in bookstores and I'm sure I picked up at least one and read the back cover, but I didn't buy the book then. Sometime later, I recall being on a bike ride with Mark Vande Kamp, one of our rides where we talk of a good many things, and Mark mentions Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman. "It's very good," Mark says, "I think you'd really like it." The book makes its way onto my mental list along with hundreds of others. My brain is full of unread books. It is large, it contains multitudes.

In one of my 6 Books in a Backpack sessions last year I get a copy of "Good Omens" a collaboration of Neal Gaiman and Terry Pratchett. Again, I don't get around to reading the book. My physical collection of unread books is not as large as my mental collection, but it is still large and contains multitudes. Pratchett is another fellow who is still on my "I've heard good things, I should read his stuff" list.

Somewhere along the line, I start following Neil Gaiman (@neilhimself) on Twitter. I still have not read any of his books, but I read his tweets. Neil tweets that an episode of the Simpsons in which he appears as a character is available for view online. I basically stopped watching TV several years ago so I'd have more time to read books, but I always enjoyed the Simpsons, so I watch "The Book Job". It is clever & fun but it doesn't make me think "Oh man, I have to read this guy's stuff right now."

A few weeks ago Neil tweets something like "Hey the 10th Anniversary Edition of American Gods is $2 for the next day or so on the Kindle." I download it. Then we get hit with a big snow and ice storm here in Issaquah and our power is knocked out. The streets are icy & no power means the bike shop is closed and I'm not going to work. I read American Gods by headlamp on my Kindle. Neil describes his book as being a long piece of prose with something wrong with it, but I can't quite figure out what that thing is. My overall reaction is "Dammmnnn that was good."

Our local library has Kindle downloads so I download Anansi Boys. More fun than American Godswith a lighter story. I like it better in some ways, but American Gods seems like the better book.

Next from the library, M Is for Magic. Holy crap, this man can sure write a short story. Somebody do a DNA test because I'm pretty sure Ray Bradbury is this fellow's father.

One of the stories in M Is for Magic is something that becomes the core Neil's novel The Graveyard Book. All of the copies of The Graveyard Book are checked out of the library and I don't even pause for a second before downloading it at full price full price from Amazon. It was that or Neverwhere and The Graveyard Book is a bit cheaper. And I want to see where the story goes.

While I'm reading The Graveyard Book, Neil tweets something like "Hey Amazon just knocked the price of Neverwhere to three bucks on the Kindle." Again, zero hesitation. Neil and Amazon get my money.

I finish The Graveyard Book. It's my new favorite. I immediately buy another Kindle copy for Christine. So glad to send Neil some more of my money, glad to find a book that makes me go "Christine will love this." It is, as I tell her, "a sweet, wonderful, dark tale that begins with pretty much an entire family being knife murdered."

Authors get most of their readers through word of mouth and I've become a big mouth fan of Neil Gaiman. My friends are getting the "Whoa, you should read this guy's stuff" raves from me. Yeah, I know I'm late to this party, but I don't care. Think of this blog post as more of that rave.

Now here's where the story gets weird and pays off in a weird way. If you've been keeping score, my Gaiman fandom up to this point in my story has cost me a grand total of about $21 plus some tax ($2 for American Gods, $16 for two copies of The Graveyard Book, and $3 for Neverwhere). The enjoyment I've gotten from these works, plus the others I've gotten from the library is far, far greater than the meager sum I've paid.

But we live in a very, very weird world. On a much smaller scale than Mr. Gaiman, I also tell stories and I don't tell them nearly as well. And I mostly write non-fiction but I do a bit of fiction now and then and it almost always involves bicycles. And I've got a story now that will be something, not this story but another one that you'll get to read another day and it involves bicycles and graveyards. And I think it is a story worth telling and it is what it is in part because of Mr. Gaiman's odd stories. So I'm getting value there as well.

But that's not the weird part. The weird thing is how that $21 has already come more than come back to me in just plain old, crass American dollars. And as @neilhimself will tell you, the American Dollar is one of the American Gods.

I'm an Amazon affiliate and if somebody buys something from Amazon after following a link on my blog or something I've tweeted, Amazon knows I sent you. Amazon knows a really spooky number of things. Amazon doesn't charge you more but I get a small percentage of the purchase price as a referral fee. depending on the item it may only be 1.5% or as much as 10%. In the case of books & ebooks, it's usually 6 or 7%.

So a few days after Neil's tweet about Neverwhere, I notice it's still at the low price. I tweet:

Neverwhere by @neilhimself is still only $2.99 on the Kindle. A great price for some really great writing. amzn.to/zGrvSs

If any of the 1600 or so people who follow me on twitter follow that link and buy the book, I'll make a few cents. I'm happy to spread the word about a good book and if I make a little money in the process, that's fine too.

@neilhimself noticed my tweet and retweeted it to his 1.6 million followers. It only takes a small percentage of 1.6 million people to buy something for it to be noticeable. Amazon tells me that at least some of those people didn't already have a copy of Neverwhere.

And that, my friends, is how you sell books in the 21st century. In that one click, Mr. Gaiman has paid for every book of his I'll probably ever buy. And I have this strange, true story to tell you.

By the way, I'm reading Neverwhere now. It's fabulous.

Keep em rolling,

Kent "Mountain Turtle" Peterson
Issaquah, WA USA

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Bikes Plus Transit

While walking and bicycling are great ways to get around and are the means by which Christine and I do most of our travel, we often use some of our region's mass transit options to extend our horizons. Bainbridge Island is lovely, and while paddle bikes exist, it makes a lot more sense for us to take the Washington State Ferry when we want to go there. And while I've bicycled from the Seattle to Portland on several occasions, Amtrak provides a quick and civilized connection between these two cities. Within the Puget Sound area there are a range of options for using the bus, train or ferry system in combination with a bicycle to make long commutes or other adventures fun and practical.

If you've never taken your bike on a train, bus or ferry before, you may be wondering how it all works. Here are a few links to pages that explain the mechanics of bringing your bike with you on some of various systems:

As with many things, the first time doing something may be the hardest, but in general the systems are quite easy to use. The bicycle is a great machine for getting out in the world. Combining the bike with some of our region's mass transit options can bring more of that world within reach.

Keep 'em rolling,

Kent "Mountain Turtle" Peterson
Issaquah WA USA

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Grant Petersen: Just Ride

Grant Petersen is one of the great souls in the world of bicycles. He's been called a retro-grouch but I've never actually found him to be grouchy. The retro label fits better but in an industry obsessed with faster, better, lighter and newer, a considered consideration of the notion that some old values might still have value is a welcome perspective. For years, at Bridgestone and more recently at Rivendell, Grant Petersen has provided that consideration and put products out into the world that he finds to be "simple, practical and proven."

And now Grant has expressed some of his thoughts and philosophies in a book called Just Ride: A Radically Practical Guide to Riding Your Bike. The book isn't out yet but I've been a fan of Grant's writing and work for years so I'm anxiously awaiting the book's May 8th publication date. Until then, this brief except published in the Atlantic gives a good hint of what's to come.

Keep 'em rolling,

Kent "Mountain Turtle" Peterson
Issaquah WA USA

Sunday, February 19, 2012

The High Cost of Cheap Gas

Jennifer S. Roberts wrote one of those posts that gets me up and blogging at 4:00 AM because, to my mind, it manages to both illustrate the problem of gas prices and miss the main reason why someone like me, who is fairly depicted as a cycling advocate, welcomes higher gas prices. In her post

Jennifer argues that people won't change their behaviors, a lot of places have lousy car-only infrastructure and poor people get hurt by high gas prices. The point that I think Jennifer fails to make, the point I am hoping to make here, is that the way out of the trap is to recognize the true costs of the trap.

Brad Pitt made this point quite nicely in an appearance on The Daily Show where he was promoting his film Money Ball. Mr. Pitt asked:

"What if we invented the automobile today? Would we say, I know, we’ll run it on finite fossil fuels, we’ll export a half-trillion dollars of our GDP, we’ll spend hundreds of billions of dollars a year to protect that interest, and it will pollute the environment?”

I can think of a few more questions. Would we build a national system that kills one person every 13 minutes by "accident", spews poison into the air every time we drive, paves an area larger than the state of Connecticut just for parking and makes it so a person like Jennifer and millions of others like her are routinely doing 29 to 50 mile commutes?

I welcome higher gas prices because the artificially low prices we've had created the dismal landscape Jennifer describes. The true cost of cheap gas is seen in the poor quality of life we've built for too many Americans.

Here in the Seattle area we are "lucky" because we have light rail running from downtown to the airport. It took us years to get that "luck" and we would have been luckier, sooner, if gas prices had been higher. And the neighborhoods along that light rail corridor are seeing more growth now. The McMansions in the 'burbs? Not so much.

I had a couple in my bike shop yesterday asking about my walk-to-work, walk-home-for-lunch life. A few decades ago I decided $1.25 (or whatever it was) was too much to pay for a gallon of gas. Actually, I decided my life was too valuable to waste sitting in a car. This young couple are not alone in looking for ways they can live without spending so of their life and their dollars supporting their car.

High gas prices do hurt. But cheap gas has been killing us for years.

Kent "Mountain Turtle" Peterson
Issaquah WA USA

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The Thoreau Calculation

I was in college the first time I really read Thoreau, working my way through Walden when I suppose I should have been working my way through something else. I count those hours long ago as time well-spent, for Thoreau's empirical approach to the problem of making one's way in the world resonated with something in my nature. When I read:
There are nowadays professors of philosophy, but not philosophers. Yet it is admirable to profess because it was once admirable to live. To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust. It is to solve some of the problems of life, not only theoretically, but practically.
I knew that being a professor of philosophy was not my goal or my calling. But this being a philosopher thing, that seemed like a good way to spend a life. In the intervening years I've lost track of many of my fellow students from those days but I like to think that some are mathematicians and some are carpenter's wives. I managed to leave the university with a degree that said I'd studied a fair bit of philosophy and somehow I've been good enough at solving certain kinds of problems to remain adequately fed and housed for the thirty years since I first read Walden.

The subject of Economy makes up the first chapter of Walden and pervades the work. The notion that I find the most persuasive in Thoreau's work is the calculation of the relative values of money and time. There is an exchange rate between the two and often we are tricked by haste into spending our time poorly. Thoreau illustrates the problem in the tale of a trip to Fitchburg:

One says to me, "I wonder that you do not lay up money; you love to travel; you might take the cars and go to Fitchburg today and see the country." But I am wiser than that. I have learned that the swiftest traveller is he that goes afoot. I say to my friend, Suppose we try who will get there first. The distance is thirty miles; the fare ninety cents. That is almost a day's wages. I remember when wages were sixty cents a day for laborers on this very road. Well, I start now on foot, and get there before night; I have travelled at that rate by the week together. You will in the meanwhile have earned your fare, and arrive there some time tomorrow, or possibly this evening, if you are lucky enough to get a job in season. Instead of going to Fitchburg, you will be working here the greater part of the day. And so, if the railroad reached round the world, I think that I should keep ahead of you; and as for seeing the country and getting experience of that kind, I should have to cut your acquaintance altogether.

Such is the universal law, which no man can ever outwit, and with regard to the railroad even we may say it is as broad as it is long. To make a railroad round the world available to all mankind is equivalent to grading the whole surface of the planet. Men have an indistinct notion that if they keep up this activity of joint stocks and spades long enough all will at length ride somewhere, in next to no time, and for nothing; but though a crowd rushes to the depot, and the conductor shouts "All aboard!" when the smoke is blown away and the vapor condensed, it will be perceived that a few are riding, but the rest are run over—and it will be called, and will be, "A melancholy accident." No doubt they can ride at last who shall have earned their fare, that is, if they survive so long, but they will probably have lost their elasticity and desire to travel by that time. This spending of the best part of one's life earning money in order to enjoy a questionable liberty during the least valuable part of it reminds me of the Englishman who went to India to make a fortune first, in order that he might return to England and live the life of a poet. He should have gone up garret at once. "What!" exclaim a million Irishmen starting up from all the shanties in the land, "is not this railroad which we have built a good thing?" Yes, I answer, comparatively good, that is, you might have done worse; but I wish, as you are brothers of mine, that you could have spent your time better than digging in this dirt.

Now I, for one, am glad of the Irishmen (and others) who built those railroads for I was able to ride some of those rails across a great country more than a century after Mr. Thoreau spent two years, two months and two days living in cabin he had built on his friend Mr. Emerson's land. And I'm very glad that Mr. Thoreau took the time in those years to distill from his journals the work that became Walden and that work contained the wildness that preserved this section of the world. I was also glad that I was able to ride my bicycle to the shores of Walden Pond and to tread the same paths Mr. Thoreau trod many years before.

While some travel swiftly by foot, I have a fondness for the wheel and find the pleasure in the complexities of spokes and tires and chain and grease. I have found the bicycle to be a rewarding piece of machinery, asking little and returning much. Another philosopher, a Mr. Mercury, noted that "I like to ride my bicycle, I like to ride my bike. I like to ride my bicycle, I like to ride it where I like." Wise words.

In making Thoreau's calculation, figuring the best ways in which to spend our life's currency, the time we have been given, it is good to remember that Einstein tells us that time is relative. He stated this in general and special ways, in equations and very lovely mathematics. He also explained it this way:
“Put your hand on a hot stove for a minute, and it seems like an hour. Sit with a pretty girl for an hour, and it seems like a minute. THAT'S relativity.”
We all build the world in which we live, our choices become our actions and inform our lives. I think some of my friends and relatives were surprised thirty years ago when I found the pretty girl who still makes the hours pass like minutes for me. Somehow they were thinking I was headed for a cabin by a pond in the woods but the value to me always seemed to be not in the cabin or the location, but in making the best choices with the time we have. I have now spent the better part of my life married to Christine and it has been, in every way, the better part of my life.

Thoreau wrote that:
"It would be worth the while to build still more deliberately than I did, considering, for instance, what foundation a door, a window, a cellar, a garret, have in the nature of man, and perchance never raising any superstructure until we found a better reason for it than our temporal necessities even."
I think that Thoreau's enduring value lies not in the answers he found, but in the questions he asked. A bicycle is more complex than a walking shoe and being married is, as most folks will agree, more complex than being single, but ultimately the wisest thing we can do is spend our time, our treasure, with the people we most value, doing the things we value most. Thoreau's life would have been simpler if he'd chosen not to spend so much time writing in those journals, but the world would be a poorer place if he had.

I do not live a solitary life in a cabin by a lake. My Walden has wheels and I hold hands with the woman I love when we get off our bicycles and hike on trails that are new to us and try to solve the problems of life, not only theoretically, but practically.

Keep 'em rolling,

Kent "Mountain Turtle" Peterson
Issaquah WA USA

Sunday, February 05, 2012

The Worst of Times...

When it comes to getting your bike repaired or tuned up, I have this bit of advice: The worst of times is the best of times. When the weather is cold or lousy and most people aren't thinking "hey, I should go to the bike shop" it is the best time for you, as a customer, to think "hey, I should go to the bike shop."

Now, as a bike mechanic, this advice is somewhat self-serving. We scrape out a living in the cold months and tend to be slammed with business in the warm months so if we can balance that business out it can make my life a bit less manic. But what's good for me is also good for you in this case. Allow me to elaborate.

Picture a day in July. The skies are clear, the days are warm. If your local bike shop is like a lot of the shops around here, it's jam packed busy. We're selling a lot of bikes and repairing a lot of bikes. We may have a two week backlog of repairs and a shop full of customers. I'm probably doing six tune-ups a day, plus a bunch of walk-in flat-tire repairs, routine derailleur and brake adjustments and while I certainly be doing my best to do the best job on each bike, I'm not going to have a whole lot of time to chat. My suppliers may be low on certain parts and our back room will be jammed with bikes awaiting repairs.

Now picture a day in February. It's cold and maybe it's raining or snowy. The sun might say the days are short but at the bike shop, the days are long. I may have spent most of my day inventorying and organizing our supply of spokes or alphabetizing the sunglasses display. If you do bring your bike in for a tune-up, it may be the only bike I'm working on that day.

I do my best on every bike that comes my way, but honestly the bikes in winter get more attention because I just plain have more time per bike. I have more time per customer. If you want me to show you how a barrel adjuster works or give you advice on toeing in brake pads or you want to debate the merits of various tires, I'll be happy to do it year 'round but I have much more time to chat on the dreary days. In July you get the Clif-Notes version, in February you get the Post-Grad thesis version.

Ironically, we're having our annual week of gorgeous February weather as I write this, but it won't last long and soon the grey days will return. They're the worst of times, but they can be the best of times to bring your bike to the bike shop,

Keep 'em rolling,

Kent "Mountain Turtle" Peterson
Issaquah WA USA

PS. The shop where I work, the Bicycle Center of Issaquah, is offering 10% off all bike service and parts used for repair in the month of February. I can tell you for certain that we won't be offering a deal like that in July.