Tuesday, October 30, 2012

It's a good story

Pictures or it didn't happen. That's the saying, isn't it? Well, I've got no pictures, so say this didn't happen. Call it fiction, it's easier that way. Better.

I'm not going to tell you exactly where this happened, I promised a buddy I'd be vague.

So here's what happened. Uhm, didn't happen. I'm still getting the hang of this fiction thing.

My pal Andy and I used to ride together a lot, back when we worked at the same place. I was doing code and he was doing art and we both spent way too many hours per week making pixels move a certain way on certain screens and when we couldn't take it anymore we'd throw the bikes on the rack on the back of Andy's jeep and head for someplace green and rocky and far away. When the roads got real small and eventually ran out we'd park the jeep and hit the trails on the bikes.

Andy is fearless, way better at descending than me and the man can find trails like nobody else. One time, we were riding north of Roslyn, up and over the ridge that I'm sure they've built condos on by now. Andy was in the lead, turning onto smaller and smaller game trails, trails an elk would have a hard time sneaking through but somehow Andy would find a gap just a bit wider than his handlebars and slip on through. Eventually we wound up splashing across the Teanaway river and popping out at the campground there. “Where y'all coming from?” a camper asked. “Roslyn,” Andy replied. “I didn't know there was a trail between here and there,” the camper said. “As near as I can tell,” I told the fellow, “there ain't.”

Eventually the company we both worked for got bought. I moved onto another company and then another company after that and finally got around to making a living with wrenches instead of a keyboard. As I tell my old software pals, the nice thing about working on bikes is that these days most of my problems are hardware problems.

Andy's still a pixel-pusher and he wound up moving to Vancouver. When he's not staring at screens he's out on a bike, flying down trails I'm not sure you could rightly call trails.

He calls me up last week, says he is in town for a conference and has a few hours. Would I like to go riding? Of course I say yes.

Andy says he knows a spot, down near Rainier. Even if I wanted to I couldn't tell you exactly where we wind up going. Andy is navigating with his mixture of GPS, a hand-drawn map he'd gotten from a buddy of a buddy and a kind of dead-reckoning that seemed to involve a lot of staring at the sun and sniffing of the air.

So there we are bushwhacking and by that I mean we are getting whacked by bushes as we push and scramble behind our bikes up one hell of a ridge. At last we clear the crest, well “clear” isn't the right word, we're still surrounded by trees but Andy sees a gap that points down and lets out a whoop with all the certainty of Brigham Young seeing the Great Salt Lake and declaring “this is the place.” Andy hops on his bike and goes tearing down what I'll generously call the trail.

Andy is a fast and fearless descender. I am what I like to call cautious, what Andy likes to call a “weenie.” Weenies are the guys who call 911 when their buddies hit a bear.

And that's what I would have done if we were in cell range instead of on the backside of some ridge somewhere in western Washington.

It takes me a minute to process the scene. Andy is crumpled in heap about six feet downhill from his bike and his arm is sticking out at an angle that doesn't look right at all. The front wheel of his bike is what we in the business call a taco, the result of sudden impact with a very big, very brown, very stunned bear.

Holy shit, that bear is not very stunned. It is getting up.

Holy, holy shit, that bear is not a bear.

I never knew anything that big could move that fast. Even if my legs were working, even if my mind was working, I couldn't have out run it. One second it is a heap, the next instant it has grabbed me and is lifting me off my bike.

The eyes are big and very brown. The creature is big and very brown. It's got to be eight feet tall and it hasn't grabbed me with a paw, it's grabbed me with a hand. It's...


The thought is clear in my head, but there is something else, something odder even then being held and studied by an eight foot tall hominid that any school child could recognize. There is another voice in my head and it is not my own.

 “You won't believe that I'm a bear?”

“Jesus!” I squeak.

“No,” the voice continues but the creature's lips don't move, “you had it right the first time.”

“You talk?” I ask, surprised at my own composure under the circumstances.

“No,” the creature sighs without sighing, “I think, you understand. You talk, it's a more primitive form of communication.”

“Holy...” I begin.

“No,” the creature interrupts, “This is nothing holy or supernatural. I'm just here and so are you. I prefer to stay clear of your kind. Your lives are so...” here the thought seems to be reaching.

“Messy?” I venture.

“Cluttered,” the creature counters. “You make things so cluttered with houses and gadgets and complexity. I don't understand why you need all that.”

“It makes us comfortable,” I explain.

“Well,” the creature thinks at me, “it makes a lot of the rest of us uncomfortable and perhaps if you'd spend more time thinking and less time talking and making yourselves comfortable you'd see you're not actually making yourselves comfortable at all.

“I never thought of it that way,” I confess.

“I'm not surprised,” the creature sniffs, “your kind is not very good at thinking. But enough of this. Let's help your friend.”

Andy is still out cold but the sasquatch takes his twisted arm in one huge hand and grabs his shoulder with the other. There's a quick tug and a sound like a clutch being popped and now Andy's moaning but his arm is pointed the right way.

“He'll be fine,” the creature thinks at me, “but you two have to roll out of here.”

This last thought is not a suggestion, it's an order.

I undo the quick release on Andy's wheel. It's bent, but no spokes are broken and the tire is holding air. I whack it against the trunk of a tree. No change. The creature sees what I'm trying to do and takes the wheel. Grabbing the wheel in his massive hands, he gives it a twist and a tug. Not bad for a first time mechanic. Not perfect, but it'll roll.

“Your friend is coming to,” the creature thinks, “I'm leaving now. Go home. Don't come back.”

“I won't,” I say.

“Good,” the creature thinks as he fades into the gloom of the woods, “just tell your friend he hit a bear. It's a good story.”

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Of Batteries and Brothers: Bright Lights, No City

I started out looking for a little battery powered USB charger for my phone and my Kindle, some way to keep these devices charged up while I'm out on my bike tours. I actually found two interesting chargers and one hell of a good story.

I've written previously of solar charging and most of the time I use the solar panel to charge a couple of AA NiMH batteries during the day and used those charged cells in an "emergency" cell phone charger to charge the phone or the Kindle. The problem was the little AA cell phone charger I was using had a flaky connection and not enough juice running NiMH cells to reliably charge my devices, so I went questing for something better.

Of course "questing" these days mostly means using Google and Amazon, clicking links and reading reviews. This process led me to the Burro Mobile Charger, a small bright green device with a very low price and (at the time) nothing but good reviews.  It runs on 4 AA cells, it is priced at ten bucks(!) and as you can see below, it charges my Kindle:

Clicking around I also found that Burro has a smart AC charger for AA or AAA batteries. Various devices these days, including a lot of nice LED headlamps and bike lights, use 3 batteries and a lot of chargers (even some so-called "smart" chargers) only charge 2 or 4 batteries. The Burro charger can charge up to 4 batteries but has smart charging for each battery and works fine charging an odd number of cells. This AC charger was only fifteen bucks so wound up adding it to my Amazon order as well.

Burro's product descriptions mentioned their work in Africa and a few more clicks on Amazon led me to Max Alexander's book Bright Lights, No City. Max is the brother of Whit Alexander, an ex-Microsoft guy who went on to be the co-creator of the board game Cranium. Whit's current project is Burro, a company founded to sell affordable goods and services to low-income villagers in Ghana, West Africa. Whit is one hell of a businessman and Max is one hell of a story teller.

The story of Burro is not one of charity, although the folks at Burro are clearly doing good work. It is a story making the world better through business, of working hard, being honest and making a difference. The book also happens to be very, very funny. Whit's big brother Max is a keen observer and he tells the tale with warmth, honesty and humor.

If you have the slightest interest in business, you should read this book. This is the opposite of a dry business tome, it is a real human story with real people solving real problems. Max notes:

Nothing in Africa gets thrown away, because there is no money to buy new, so Africans have learned how to repair just about anything. Ghana’s manufacturing sector may be sadly underdeveloped, but its knowledge base on how stuff works, based on the country’s vibrant repair business, is profound. The console television that Ray the Repairman serviced in our living room was made in America. It seems reasonable to observe a correlation, and perhaps causality, between a society’s ability to fix things and its ability to make things. Could it be mere coincidence that our throwaway culture parallels the demise of our manufacturing sector?

What success Burro achieves comes not from imposing outside solutions, but in learning the ways of the land and the locals. Africa is not America, something that becomes obvious to Max on one of his first Ghanaian car trips with Whit:

“You gotta get the horn thing down,” demonstrating with a short blast while swinging wide around a man on a wobbly bicycle balancing a large piece of lumber on his head. “You know, to a bicyclist there’s nothing worse than jerks who honk when they pass,” I said. “You think a guy on a bike doesn’t know a car is coming?” “Not the point. It’s a conversation,” he said, flipping his thumbs across the horn buttons in a staccato rhythm. The conversation. It has been observed that in Africa the car horn takes the place of the brake, but I think it is more than that. The horn is more like the muse of the African driver. Honking, which Ghanaians call hooting, in the British manner, constitutes a tribal language of its own, with grammatical rules.

Over the course of a few hundred pages Max profiles not just his brother and his business, but various Ghanaians from all walks of life. This is a book filled with fascinating people.

I started out looking for a gadget and I found not just one, but two that I like. Both the little green boxes I bought from Burro do exactly what they should and I'm happy with them. While I'm happy with the gadgets, I really love the book. I learned a lot of things I didn't know about another part of the world and the story is really inspirational. As one Amazon reviewer wrote, "The problem with this book is that it so made me want to go back to Africa!" I think Max's vivid descriptions of some of the difficulties encountered there will keep me from jumping on a plane, but this is a book that will make you think hard about just what you can do to make the world a better place. As Max writes near the end of the book:

"With Burro growing rapidly, Whit can’t yet envision the day when he can spend less time coaxing a green truck through red mud, and more time in Seattle sipping lattes. Burro has taught all of us that while there is a business to be made serving the world’s poor, it’s not a get-rich-quick scheme. It’s not for people who wither in the heat, worship Wi-Fi, and like their food cooked just so. It’s not for me, in short—but I admire my crazy kid brother for making it his."

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Bike Talk: Build vs Buy

Dean H. Saxe (@n3rd1ty from twitter) asks:

When is it better to build a bike vs. buy complete? Advantages/disadvantages to either?

This is, at its core, a bike geek question. Only folks who geek out on details and like to think about each little part of the bike even think about building a bike. And by build, in general, we're not talking about building completely from scratch, like the guy who built a toaster and wrote a book about it, we're talking about getting a frame from some place, a nice set of wheels from somewhere else, a seatpost, deraillers, shifters, cables, etc and putting it all together. If you really like to geek out, you can build your own frame and lace up your own wheels.

Here, as I see it, are the advantages to "building" your own bike:

You'll get to spend A LOT of time and effort doing it. If you find this kind of stuff fun, you'll have A LOT of fun. You'll get to talk to A LOT of folks about it. You will learn A LOT. Do you know about seatpost diameters and setback? Do you understand the relationship of seat tube angle to front shifting performance? Do you understand what the chain wrap capacity is of various derailleurs? Do you understand the relationships of bottom bracket spindle length and crankset design? These and a few thousand other questions will be asked and answered as you build your bike.

You will stimulate the economy. You will learn by experience and unless you are very, very good, very, very experienced, or very, very lucky, you'll guess wrong and buy some stuff twice. And if you are very, very experienced, you're well past the point of asking if this is a good idea.

The biggest theoretical advantage of building your own bike is that you get exactly what you want. In practice, your bike, like any real object in the real world is constrained by budget, time, and the laws of physics and mechanics.

Despite my pessimistic tone in the past few paragraphs, if you're a true bike geek, you're going to go for it. If that's you, go for it, you'll have a ball.

But here's the other side of the coin and the route I recommend:

Buy something off the shelf with something wrong with it. This is astoundingly easy to do because everything has something wrong with it. And by wrong I mean it has some feature you don't like or that doesn't work for you. Buy the flawed thing and fix the flaw. Or even better, try the flawed thing and see if the flaw really messes up the bike for you. It might not and you might be surprised.

Here are some of the advantages of buying off the shelf:

You can test ride. The bike is right there, you can ride it. You can feel how smooth or rough the shifting is, you can see how tight the brakes feel, and see how the bike handles a corner.

You take advantages of the economies of scale. Guess what? When Trek or Specialized buy a derailleur from Shimano, it costs them less than it costs you or me. Because they buy thousands of them at a time and they put them on thousands of bikes. If you buy one frame and one rear derailleur and one seatpost and so on, you'll spend a lot more money than you would if you buy a whole bike from the big guys who buy in volume.

By the way, those folks at Trek, Specialized, Giant or whomever? They've got a lot of experience figuring out what components work on what bikes. Yeah, they want to hit a price point and that may be why the bike doesn't have component X that you wish it had. So buy the bike and change out component X.

If you want to find a good deal on a bike, find last year's bike on close out. If it was a good bike then, it is still a good bike now even if something newer is out. And your local bike shop is motivated to move it.

The best way to buy a bike's worth of components is to get a whole bike. I once bought an entire bike that was completely the wrong size for me, transferred wheels, drive-train, etc to a proper sized frame and then sold the big frame and came out money ahead on the deal. I bought an entire bike at a thrift store once just to get the pair of Phil Wood CHP pedals that were on it. I came out ahead on that deal as well.

In the end, I think every bike is a bit of mix of build vs. buy. We buy when we like the bike more than we like the money it'll cost to buy it. And I think we really make the bike our own not in the buying, but in the ways we tweak it to make it our own and make it last.

Keep 'em rolling,

Kent "Mountain Turtle" Peterson
Issaquah WA USA

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Port Townsend Tour: Day 10 Illahee State Park to Issaquah

After breakfast we pack up the bikes. It's a quick ride from Illahee State Park to Bremerton, followed by a lovely ferry ride to Seattle.

The morning fog has burned off by the time we get to Seattle.

We work our way through the busy streets of the city, stopping to refuel at the Specialty's Bakery. One of the shortest arguments I make in favor of bicycle travel over car travel is the quality of the fuel stops. Would you rather stop at a bakery or a gas station?

We roll out of town on the Mountains to Sound Greenway.

We roll through the tunnel.

And stop to take in the view.

Now it's time for another big bridge crossing.

The trail across Mercer Island is quiet and car-free.

We roll over the bridge to Bellevue.

There's a good bit of climbing but there's a reward at the end.

The last few miles are a long coast down Newport Avenue.

And we're back on the home trails of Issaquah.

It's very fun to travel, but somebody sure missed Christine.

She missed him, too. It's good to be home.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Port Townsend Tour: Day 9 Kitsap Memorial State Park to Illahee State Park

Today's trip has us rolling along the lovely Big Valley Road and returning to Pouslbo to resupply at Sluys Bakery.

I've been working harder than usual this day to keep up with Christine and the back end of my bike feels especially bouncy, so I deduce that my rear tube has developed a slow leak.

We stop in Poulsbo, get our baked goods and I determine that yes, I have a thorn in my tube and a bike pump that has been neglected too long. You can read the full story here.

After changing the flat in the lovely park by the marina, I strap our new, big pump (which Christine has christened "UffDa") to my rear rack and we roll out of town.

We've decided that rather than backtrack to Bainbridge Island, we'll head south and revisit Illahee State Park, where we'd camped last fall.

After going more than a year without a puncture, I manage to get my second flat of the day by running over a small tack on the road to Brownsville. It only takes a few minutes to patch the tube and a few strokes from the mighty UffDa to get us rolling again.

We'd conveniently repressed the memory of the huge damn hill we have to climb to get to the park and as we're pushing our bikes up this beastly bit asphalt, a portly fellow on a big Harley coming the other direction comments that we're "supposed to be riding those things, not pushing." Christine, who is more saintlike than me, does not reply with the first two words that come to her mind, while I mumble something about "big talk coming from a fat man with a motor." I'm sure Mr. Harley isn't really interesting in our thoughts on the matter even if he could hear us over the over the rumble of the big bike's engine.

In camp we typically run three loads of water through the Kelly Kettle, the first being used to re-hydrate the evening meal and the second two going into the thermoses for coffee and cocoa. Tonight's dinner is frugal and filling, instant Rice-a-Roni with a can of chicken tossed in for added protein. And, of course, we have bakery cookies for desert.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Port Townsend Tour: Day 8 Fort Townsend State Park to Kistap Memorial State Park

The morning is bright and dry. After breakfast Christine and I pack up camp and explore a bit more along the water at Fort Townsend State Park before we roll off down the road.

Strictly speaking it's really too early for us to be stopping for lunch at the Chimacum Cafe but it's certainly time for elevenses and if you've never had a slice of pie from the Chimacum Cafe then your life just isn't as good as it could be. I love my wife even more than I love pie, I want what's best for her and until now she's never been to the Chimacum Cafe. Of course we stop.

We split an order of biscuits and gravy, which actually turns out to be too much food for us because we also each have pie, blueberry for Christine and coconut creme for me. Then we waddle out to our bikes and roll south on Center Road.

After a lovely stretch of riding on Center Road we turn east on SR-104 which is busy and hilly but features a good, wide shoulder. After a bit we come upon a broken down Toyota pickup on the shoulder, lights flashing, hood up, driver distraught. "I've been here at least an hour and no one has stopped," she explains, nearly crying. Apparently the driver, Christine & I are the last three people on earth without cell phones (I run my phone as wifi only & use my Kindle for email and Twitter in the boonies) but I promise we'll call the State Patrol as soon as we get to a spot with a phone. We roll on and at the information center by the junction of SR-104 and the Beaver Valley Road I call the troopers and report the driver's plight.

After the traffic and drama of SR-104 it is very nice to turn onto the quiet and beautiful Shine Road.

Of course there's one wickedly steep leg stretching section.

Back on SR-104, Christine bravely tackles the Hood Canal Bridge.

We're back at one of the lovely and secluded hiker/biker sites at Kitsap Memorial State Park for the rest of the day. We set up camp and make dinner.

The low sun shines on the still waters of the Hood Canal and we settle in for another quiet night in the woods.