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Thursday, December 31, 2020

Installation Review: Swytch E-bike Conversion Kit (Tour edition)

 Last year, I saw the Swytch Ebike conversion kit on Kickstarter $780 + custom fees (around $30). The reasons to get this over say, a tour capable Calfee conversion were as follows:

  • light weight - mid-drive e-bikes currently weigh over 40 pounds. The conversion kit promised to be 3kg (or 6.6 pounds) with an additional 3.3 pounds for the Tour battery pack, which would grant you a 100km range, more than sufficient for even the most rigorous western wheeler LDT ride.
  • water-proofing - Calfee's conversion was not guaranteed to be waterproof, while the swytch was guaranteed to be waterproof
Little did I know the kit would take more than a year to arrive, between pandemic and the fact that few people ordered the 100km battery pack and 650B wheels (to fit the Cheviot) so we were among the last to receive our kit.

When the kit arrived, I took it out and scratched my head, because neither the battery pack or the wheel setup looked anything like the instructions on the Swytch website. Apparently, the Tour battery pack was an older model, but it wasn't too hard to figure out. I plugged in the battery overnight to charge. Then I figured out that I had to use scissors to cut the hub protectors and zip ties so that I could pull off the nuts and washers.

The worst thing about the Swytch kit is that the axle is designed for 10mm dropouts. My guess is that the target audience is someone who wants to convert a Walmart/Target bike-like object into an e-bike.  Standard bicycle quick release dropouts are 9mm. The net result was that I had to file off 0.5mm of material on 4 sides of the flat part of the axle. Before you ask, this was indeed sanctioned by Swytch. The process took the better part of 2 hours, using a rectangular file, checking frequently for fit. When done the axle fit snugly, and I attached the washers.

After that, the rest of the kit was comparatively easy: snap over the PAS sensor onto the crank, attach the sensor, and run cables up to the battery mount. Looking at the design, I would have mounted the battery on the bottle cage, but of course, many women's bikes have room for only one bottle cage, so it's probably all for the best to have a dedicated handlebar mount, which also serves to slow down most bikes' handling, which is what you want for an e-bike. The PAS sensor secure ring looked ugly, but it stayed on when jumping a curb, so I guess it's better than it looks.

The bar mount, however, is a mess. I had to cut the rubber spacers that came with the device to get it to mount, and the nut and allen head screw came with no way to secure the nut while turning the screw --- a better design would have been a captured nut in a shaped cavity --- again, this is the sign of a kickstarter project that didn't have a good mechanical engineer onboard. I eventually fixed this by getting out a pair of needle nose pliers, and holding it securely. For one of the screws I flipped the nut and bolt positions to get more leverage to tighten it down properly. I tried scheduling a support call to get through the above issues, but their Zoom technician never showed up at the appointed time, so it's a good thing I figured out how to do this without help.

Of course, the kickstand that came with the Rivendell couldn't handle the extra weight of the battery, so I ended up ordering a new double-leg kickstand and installing that as well.

How does it ride? Surprisingly well. The power provided is substantial (250W), and the relatively light weight of the entire kit didn't change the handling of the Cheviot much. The wire sticking out of the hub is unsightly, but it's supposed to bw waterproof, and the PAS sensor is surprisingly sensitive - even a little bit of pedaling will trigger it, which is important to making the e-assist feel responsive --- I would be comfortable starting this bike on the wrong gear on a steepish hill, which I didn't expect to.

My wife complained that having the weight on the front of the bike makes descents feel scarily fast. But of course, weight is weight, whether it's on the front, center or bottom of the bike is going to make descents fast. A lower center of gravity (like on mid-drive bikes) of course is much better than having a battery cantilevered on the handlebars, but that's going to take a purpose built design.

I would be comfortable recommending this kit to anyone using a bicycle for short commutes or around-town riding, where you could opt for the lighter battery (saving 3 pounds). For longer rides on a regular basis, a purpose built e-bike would be better, but now you're looking at more than twice the price and much higher weight! Note that if you don't want to wait a year and are willing to put up with almost twice the weight, you can get a similar kit from a USA for about $900 (without handlebar mount but with a throttle in addition to the PAS sensor).

Monday, December 28, 2020

Review: Post-Truth

 Mike Sojka recommended Post-Truth as a quick short read that explains the Trump era. It is indeed a quick read and covers many topics of interest to current events, tying them together in ways that I've never seen before.

The book was published in 2018, so it covers the events of the 2016 election, but predates the existence of COVID19. McIntyre points out that the era of news being supposed to be accurate is actually an anamoly:

for most of its history the news media has been partisan. Pamphlets were political. Newspapers had owners with business interests and other biases. Indeed, has this ever really changed? Yet we feel entitled to objectivity and are shocked when our news sources do not provide it. But have we been supporting this expectation of fact-based nonpartisan coverage with our dollars? Or really—before the election woke us up—even paid close attention to what was being lost? It is easy to blame technology and claim that “these days it is different.” But technology has always had a role in fake news. (Kindle Loc 1540)

 He points out that the blatant lies being told by the Republican side isn't about misinformation per se:

the goal of propaganda is to build allegiance.42 The point is not to communicate information but to get us to “pick a team.”43 To the extent that Trump is using some of the classic techniques of propaganda (stirring up emotions, denigrating critics, scapegoating, seeking division, and fabricating), Stanley warns that we may be headed down the path of authoritarian politics. The goal of propaganda is not to convince someone that you are right, but to demonstrate that you have authority over the truth itself. When a political leader is really powerful, he or she can defy reality. This may sound incredible, but it is not the first time we have heard echoes of this even within American politics. Remember when Karl Rove dismissed critics of the George W. Bush administration as part of the “reality-based community”? Rove then followed up with the memorable (and chilling) observation that “we’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. (Kinde Loc. 1639)

McIntyre also traces the history of how the media fell into the trap set by the conservatives, by  giving equal time on the air to both sides as though there's any legitimacy to the anti-science movement (intelligent design, anti-vax, and now public health):

it serves the interest of those who are engaging in deception to succumb to the idea of false equivalence. When we say “a pox on all your houses” we are playing right into the hands of those who would have us believe that there is no such thing as truth. (Kindle loc 1693)

He even tracks back the post-truth era to the post-modernist attack on science in the form of science wars. Now, my personal belief is that the scientists won a resounding victory in the science wars after Alan Sokal definitively showed that post-modernist criticism is intellectual garbage, but the techniques used by the post-modernists were then quickly adopted by the right wing in its approach to confusing the public about "Intelligent Design" and then later on, the Anti-Vax movement.

Is there any hope of exiting the post-Truth era back to an environment in which truth is valued and there's a shared understanding of facts? McIntyre offers some hope:

The media stopped telling “both sides of the story” about vaccines and autism once there was a measles outbreak in fourteen states in 2015. All of a sudden, the facts of Wakefield’s fraud made better copy. One could almost see the TV hosts’ anxiety over their earlier complicity. Overnight, there were no more split-screen TV debates between experts and skeptics. False equivalence no longer seemed like such a good idea once people started getting hurt. (Kindle Loc 2436)

 empirical evidence suggests that the repetition of true facts does eventually have an effect. Recall here the research of David Redlawsk et al., which we briefly discussed in chapter 3.8 In the subtitle of their paper, they ask the pertinent question, “do motivated reasoners ever get it?” They acknowledge the work of Nyhan, Reifler, and others who have shown that those in the grips of partisan bias are strongly motivated to reject evidence that is dissonant with their beliefs, sometimes even leading to a “backfire effect.” But are there any limits to this?...although misinformed beliefs can be quite stubborn, it is possible to change partisans’ minds when one “hits them between the eyes” over and over with factually correct information.11 It may not be easy to convince people with inconvenient facts, but it is apparently possible. (Kindle Loc 2452-2465)

Unfortunately, as noted above, this book was written pre-COVID.  In the light of recent news reports about how COVID19 patients deny the existence of the coronovirus right until death, I'm not nearly as optimistic as McIntyre is. But at the very least, McIntyre points out that you cannot allow a lie to persist unchallenged, and that's something we need to do more of. It seems that Randall  Munroe was right after all:

Monday, December 21, 2020

Review: The End of Everything

 I picked up The End of Everything because it was on the Smithsonian list of top science books of the year. About 20 pages in I realized it wasn't about natural disasters, but the extrapolation of current known physics into the far future. A lot of what's in this book was covered already by Sean Caroll's lecture series on Time, but Katie Mack is such a great writer with transparent prose and a frequent wry turn of phrase that I kept on reading anyway.

It turns out that it was worth reading, because once she got past the "Big Crunch", the Big Rip"Heat Death", she got to Vacuum Decay, which became much more real than in the past because of the discovery of the Higgs Boson. I'd never seen that covered anywhere before, so the explanation was great and novel (to me).

The rest  of the book goes on to cover string theory, branes, and possible expanding and collapsing universes. The whole thing was so well written you could breeze through it in a couple of days. A good break from the heavy socio-political stuff that I'm reading otherwise. Recommended.

Thursday, December 17, 2020

Review: Justice - What's the Right Thing to Do?

 After reading The Tyranny of Merit and discovering that it gave me so much to think about, I decided to see what else Sandel (a Harvard Professor) had written. It turned out that Justice is a spin-off from a class he taught at Harvard (by all accounts a very popular one), so I checked out the book.

I wasn't disappointed. Justice isn't actually a book about law or the legal system, but is actually a book about the philosophy of morals. He covers utilitarianism, libertarianism, Kantian philosophy, John Rawls, and then goes beyond them to discuss Aristotle and teleology, as well as a an exploration of why many people feel the way they do when it comes to issues such as gay marriage.

What I enjoyed about the book is that Sandel bends over backwards to treat each philosophy with respect, and works hard to represent that philosophy as well as he can. At no point does he set up any strawman arguments (I myself would find it hard to avoid being snarky about libertarianism, for instance), and when he points out the strengths and weaknesses of each moral philosophy. He then applies it to the real world with a discussion (for instance) about affirmative action, patriotism, conscription, etc drawing in lessons from court cases as well as how laws evolved and what the consequences are of adopting one approach vs another.

Justice is inescapably judgmental. Whether we’re arguing about financial bailouts or Purple Hearts, surrogate motherhood or same-sex marriage, affirmative action or military service, CEO pay or the right to use a golf cart, questions of justice are bound up with competing notions of honor and virtue, pride and recognition. Justice is not only about the right way to distribute things. It is also about the right way to value things. (pg. 261)

Sandel does a particularly good job with Immanuel Kant's philosophy of ethics and freedom, and explains why freedom and morality have to be tied together in a deep and fundamental way. I've read a ton of philosophy in the past but no one has explained it as insightfully as he did in this book. I'd also read about John Rawls and have a lot of sympathy with Rawl's approach to justice, but then Sandel does a turnaround and explain why both Rawls and Kant have a blind spot, which is that their philosophies are basically time-free, where each individual is an island with no connection to his past. You might think that's a feature and not a bug, but he points out, for instance as far as patriotism is concerned:

With belonging comes responsibility. You can’t really take pride in your country and its past if you’re unwilling to acknowledge any responsibility for carrying its story into the present, and discharging the moral burdens that may come with it. (pg. 235)

He points out the inherent contradiction when someone claims pride in being American but then turns around and says that reparations for slavery are pointless because no one owns a slave. Either you own your heritage (which means that you also have the responsibility to correct the wrongs of your ancestors) or you shouldn't pretend to value the past at all.

 All in all the book is great. Heck, I'd label it essential. Go get a copy and read it.

Monday, December 14, 2020

Review: The Shadowed Sun

 The Shadowed Sun is N. K. Jemisin's second book set in the world of The Killing Moon. Narratively,  it's a sequel, as the events take place after those of The Killing Moon, and certain characters reappear. However, you could read it independently as well, since all the information you need is retold, though I'm not sure why you would do that, as The Killing Moon is by far the stronger work.

The story revolves around Hanani (a poor choice of  name as it's very close to the dream goddess that's central to the culture, Hananja, so it's easy to confuse), who's an apprentice healer. She's one of the first batch of female priestesses in the church, though the themes of being a woman pioneer only appear (or become apparent) late in the novel.

The writing is clear and compelling as usual for Jemisin, but is also rife full of plot holes that make no sense to me. In particular, it's not clear what the end game of one of the set of villains really would be, and their actions make no sense. There's a post-facto rationalization of the primary religion's exclusion of women from its founding, which also makes no logical sense. Many parts of the background mythology and archaeology are thus ever resolved, leaving me unsatisfied upon reflection after finishing the book.

I still recommend the book, as it's a great read, but I wouldn't tell you that it's heads and shoulders over other fantasies, unlike her other novels.

Thursday, December 10, 2020

Review: Poppy! And the Lost Lagooon

 Poppy! And the Lost Lagoon is a comic book that reads a bit like a Tintin pastiche. You encounter Poppy and Colt as they come back to New York from one of their previous adventures, encounter Ramses, speaks with a talking mummy head who then sends them off to another adventure revolving around a McGuffin, some misdirection, and various hijinks.

There's plenty of references to the past (and the Poppy's mysterious grandfather, Pappy) that gets gradually filled in as the story proceeds, and there's even a couple of pages of puzzles for you to figure out, but the puzzle is so badly designed (or the drawing of the key is so poorly matched) that I had a hard time deciphering it.

The art is decent, nothing special --- nothing like the bold lines and colors of a Tintin comic, for instance, and the intrigue just good enough to catch the attention of a 5 year old. (The book is marked for Grade 3-7, but I would consider it a bit on the childish side for my 3rd grader)

Overall, it wasn't a total waste of time (anything that can get Boen to pay attention is good), but a real Tintin comic would be much better.

Monday, December 07, 2020

Review: The Killing Moon

 After reading How Long 'til Black Future Month, I did some research and discovered that The Killing Moon was set in the same world that one of my preferred stories was in, so I checked it out from the library and downloaded it to my Kindle.

The novel fleshes out the world of the short story more, and depicts a world based on ancient Egypt, which I thought was great. In a self-interview at the back of the book, N.K. Jemisin explains why:

I don’t have a problem with medieval Europe. I have a problem with modern fantasy’s fetishization of medieval Europe; that’s different. So many fantasy writers and fans simplify the social structure of the period, monotonize the cultural interactions, treat conflicts as binaries instead of the complicated dynamic tapestry they actually were. They’re not doing medieval Europe, they’re doing Simplistic British Isles Fantasy Full of Lots of Guys with Swords And Not Much Else. Not all medieval European fantasy does this, of course—but enough does that frankly, they’ve turned me off the setting. I might tackle unsimplified medieval Europe myself someday… but honestly, I doubt it. I loved the challenge of writing the Dreamblood books, but I’ve learned that I prefer creating my own worlds to emulating reality. World-building from scratch is easier. (pg. 404)

Indeed, the world of the Nile (even though the book is explicitly set not on the planet Earth) where people talk about how many floods they've seen, is as alien as anything I've read, with priests providing euthanasia as part of their services, along with political intrigue, war, and hidden pasts that are revealed as part of the story in the book.

The characters are great, as is the plot, at many points with me expecting the story to end much differently from it did. If there's any weakness at all, it's that at the climatic point of the novel it felt as though the DM fudged the dice in favor of the players to prevent a TPK, but as a long time DM I'm not opposed to doing that when it fits the story, and in this case it does. The story is complete in and of itself, with no loose endings --- very welcome in this age where novel series have entire books where nothing happen and seem to promote "book series as a subscription based business" as though that's a good thing.

I immediately put a hold on the next book set in this world when I finished this. I'm so glad that my bouncing off one of N.K. Jemisin's other series was an anomaly and not the rule!

Friday, December 04, 2020

Review: The Half-Life of Marie Curie

 The Half-Life of Marie Curie is an Audible audio performance from a play. It revolves around Marie Curie and Hertha Ayron. The play is set in multiple scenes, each separated by time, but mostly set after Curie has won her two Nobel prizes. I disliked the early part of the play, where the focus is on Curie's affairs and so on and so forth. The later parts of the play are quite a bit better, but again, there's too little science and too much personal affairs.

The acting is excellent, backed with excellent special effects and fantastic accents. I learned a little bit about Marie Curie, but I'm not sure it was worth all the time spent listening to it. Maybe I should read a biography instead.