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Thursday, December 01, 2022

Review: King Arthur - History and Legend

 I started watching King Arthur - History and Legend out of curiosity and got sucked in and ended up watching all 24 episodes on Kanopy. The lecture series started with a description of all the myths about the King Arthur of history that are in popular culture that probably never had any correspondence in history. That was enough for me to decide that it was worth listening to the rest of the series.

What was interesting, for instance, was how little we knew about the origins of the myth, and what was tacked on much later. So for instance, Lancelot was introduced by French writers and added to a myth that was borne across the water into Brittany by people who were escaping the invasions of Britan. Dorsey Armstrong would provide rules of thumb about how much time it takes to travel over water vs land, and noted that it meant that interaction between Wales and Brittany were much more frequent than between Wales and London!

The description of the King Arthur legend as a giant vacuum clean sucking in many unrelated stories from the Celts was a sticky concept that helps you remember that for instance, the story of Tristan and Isolde was probably from a completely unrelated origin that got attached to the King Arthur framework. So in some sense the Arthur legend was the original shared world universe created by writers.

It helps that the lecturer Dorsey Armstrong has good taste --- she calls Monty Python and the Holy Grail one of the best King Athur movies ever made. She praises Camelot 3000, a comic book series I read as a teenager that at that time seemed radical in its gender bending.

My major criticism of the work is that there were many places where I wanted better visual aids (such as in her description of Arthuriana in Medieval Art), but she never makes good use of the video medium to provide more detailed pictures of said art.

But regardless, it's an enjoyable watch and educational. Recommended.

Monday, November 28, 2022

Review: Energizer X400 Headlight

 I was looking for a headlight on my Roadini, and the Energizer X400 was onsale for about $10, which is even cheaper than my usual cheap Blitzu lights. It comes with a rechargeable tail-light as well, which will be useful for the kids' bike, and a dual-head USB cable - USB-A on one end, and twin micro-USB on the other, so you can charge both head and tail lights together.

The headlight mounts using a rubber clamp, and is easily adjustable, and stays put. I was impressed by how bright the light is --- it's definitely brighter than my old Bitzus, and bright enough that you can do a descent on the road with it. I also appreciate the beam pattern --- there's a cut-off at the top like many higher quality European lights which have to conform to European standards.

The light doesn't charge fast, but it's good for about an hour or so on full brightness, which is enough for any commute, but not enough if you're going to go out at night. On flashing mode it'll last pretty much forever.

The light will not hold a charge for 2 days. That means the best strategy is to keep the light on the charger until you need it. That's not a big deal for this light --- unlike other lights the mount is very quick to use.

I will note that Blitzu has upgraded their lights, and you can now get their USB-C rechargeable light for about $19. (The Energizer is $21 full price but frequently there's a coupon for $5 off, making it cheaper) If you're touring, the USB-C port makes it easier to travel without carrying more cable tips, so I think that's the way to go. But if you can replicate my $10 deal, I think the Energizer has a lot to stay for itself. Recommended.

Thursday, November 24, 2022

Review: Spiderlight

 Spiderlight is Adrian Tchaikovsky's high fantasy novel. It's revolves around the small D&D dungeon party (complete with cleric, thief, paladin, ranger, and wizard) who attempts to rid the world of its current lord. The complication, for anyone who knows Tchaikovky's work, is that they need the help of a spider being to do it.

Most of the adventure is fun, with plot twists and unexpected (and expected) events turned on its head, including meeting people in inns, as well as an unexpectedly genre defying climax and conclusion that is a more than competent payoff for making it to the end of the book.

The characters are a bit cliche, and while they do develop a little bit, sometimes it feels as though they develop for purposes of the plot, rather than being organic.

Nevertheless, it's an easy short read that's worth your time. Recommended.

Monday, November 21, 2022

Putting together my Roadini

 After I broke my Ti frame in January, I decided that I should get a backup road bike. Anyone who's broken 2 titanium frames in around 12 years should probably have more than 1 road bike. Or at least, anyone who was completely unhappy about having to ride his mountain bike around for 2 months should have a backup.

I settled on the Rivendell Roadini. Other bicycles that were considered were either a Rock Lobster custom steel frame (and fork), or a R&E cycles Rainier. Both would have cost more, and while a A Homer Hilsen was available in May, I finally decided against that as well, not because of the cost, but because it used 135mm spacing and I only had 130mm wheels.  The Roadini had downtube shifters and I decided that I might as well take advantage of them.  I've had a long history of liking the way Grant Peterson's designs ride, and even though prices went up to $1300, considering the bike came with a headset, fork, and seatpost, I was happy to return to the Rivendell fold, after I'd sold my Heron Touring bike way back in 2008.

While waiting for the Roadinis to arrive, I built up or scavenged the parts:

When the frames arrived, I had a call with Will from Rivendell, and after realizing that I was going to put a drop bar on the bike he decided that the 54cm would work better for me than the 57cm frame. I didn't object --- a look at the geometry diagrams indicated that the 54cm was indeed a better match for my Strong ti frame than the 57cm would be. I would have a lot of seat post showing, but it looked normal to my 1990s-trained eyes.

The frame, fork, and headset weighed 7.1 pounds straight from Rivendell bicycle works. The bike after having built up and hung with a bottle cage and a topeak mini morph pump  (but no water bottle) came to 23 pounds even. By contrast the Strong ti bike was 20 pounds. (The Ti frame with headset and BB is 1540g), so just the frame and fork easily accounts for the 3 pound difference between bikes!

The frame  came without a frame cable guide, so I had to walk down to the local bike shop in the middle of the build to get a guide. To my surprise I had to use 2 KMC boxes of chains (these were the ones with 118 links each) --- I had to extract 2 links from the second box and use 2 sets of quick links to stitch enough chain to wrap around the derailleur and the biggest sprocket. The extra long 45cm chainstay definitely meant that you needed all that chain.

Shimano's 11s Duraace chains do come with 126 links, but I'm boycotting Shimano chains for being directional, which I consider to be an unnecessary burden --- you do not need a chain that can be put together wrong. Rivendell does sell 11s 130 link chains from FSA, but you can easily find SRAM PC-1110 11s chains for about $10 each, so in the long run that's probably cheaper.

I adjusted the stem height and the saddle height, and took it for a ride. The bike rides really nice off pavement, but I spent the first ride on the bike adjusting the seat post as it kept tilting up. It wasn't until I got home and used a really long handled allen wrench that I could torque down the seatpost clamp to the point where it would survive a ride of any length without coming out of adjustment. I suspect that I have to get a Thomson elite seatpost in order to get good behavior out of the bike.

To my disappointment, I measured the 700x30 tires on the front with calipers, and they came out to 27mm wide. The 700x28mm tires on the back did measure around 28mm.

The bike has a long front center, so as a result, even though my saddle to handlebar distance is the same on both bikes, my knee is significantly behind the pedal spindle on the Rivendell as compared to the Strong frame. In practice, this is no big deal, but I'd have to ride hard and compare both bikes to figure out if there's any difference in physiological efficiency.

Steel bikes have a riding resonance that's very different from titanium bikes. I find that when I ride a steel bike, there's a "ring" that emanates from the steel tubes of the  bike in a way that the titanium frame doesn't. It's not a good thing or a bad thing, but if you prefer steel frames that's most likely one of the reasons. Regardless, when I took the Roadini over the dirt road from Montebello over to Page Mill road, there was a surefootedness that definitely wasn't there on the titanium Strong frame. It could be the longer wheelbase or the wider tires. The bike, however, doesn't seem to climb as nicely standing up for short steep efforts --- it prefers for me to sit and spin. This might have something to do with the extra long chainstays.

The Diacompe shifter downtube shifter is responsive. A little nudge and the bike shifts. I have to over-shift a bit when shifting to lower gears. Again, it's something to get used to, but I definitely like how fast the bike shifts. The downtube shifter was a deliberate attempt to make the bike lighter, and to some extent I succeeded. Of course, that means that you have to move your hands low when you shift. Not a big deal, but you will shift less often.

When climbing, the Roadini feels fine. The "ring" I mentioned earlier offsets the heavier bike. Off pavement, the stability of the frame makes even deepish gravel feels rideable. Standing up though, the longer chainstays definitely makes you feel like the rear wheel is further away than on a shorter chainstay. Because Grant switched from a 73.5 head tube angle to a 72 head tube angle and increased the fork rake to 50mm, he was able to get the same geometric trail as my Carl Strong frame with a 73.5 head tube angle and 43mm rake. But the result of that change was that I have no toe-clip overlap. At low speed, I'd have to mount a much bigger tire or turn the wheel more than 90 degrees to get my toes to touch. Not that the toe clip overlap on the Strong frame ever bothered me --- I'm a good enough bike handler that touching the toes of my tire was just no big deal. But the Roadini can handle much larger tires and tighter turns at low speed as a result.

When descending, the Roadini is actually slower than my Strong frame. The extra 5mm of extra BB height doesn't feel as nice, and of course, I'm still not used to the bike so I may not be descending at my full potential.  I would later measure the BB and discover that it was 13mm higher off the ground than on my Strong --- 8 of those mm of additional height came from the tires! There are people who'd swear up and down that it's not humanly possible to feel the difference in BB height but for me the difference is night and day. I would later swap over the wheels from my Strong frame and with a 10.75" BB height the Roadini rides much better, so the increased BB height does affect how the bike feels quite a bit. With 25mm tires, the Roadini rides very nicely, but isn't as plush.

Upon braking, I was prepared for the longer armed Tektro 559 brakes to feel squishier, but they do not. They feel great and no worse than my standard reach caliper on my Strong frame. Part of it could be because I sprung for the super-expensive BC-9000 brake cables. I'd bought those because they got me over the free shipping limit for getting an extra pair of Specialized RECON 1.0 shoes. They were a little finicky to install but fortunately my cable needs were such that I had plenty of spare cable to screw up on. After using the Roadini for awhile I did a back to back comparison against my Strong frame and realized that I needed to do the same thing for my Strong --- the brakes felt so much better!

The SRAM 900 brake levers were great! I was leery at first since the Campy Record carbon brake levers were what were on my triplet and single, and I was worried that I wouldn't like the SRAM 900s. Turned out they're very comfortable. Even the strangely shaped levers that look like they're biased the wrong way turn out to be great.
Over time, as I rode the bike more, I got to appreciate the plush quality of the ride as well as the way it handles. Frequently riding the bike feels like riding on a leaf spring --- the bike removes chatter from rough roads and unpaved roads --- I set PRs coming down Fremont Older. I can definitely see myself riding the Stevens Canyon MTB track with a set of 700x38mm knobbies.

Needless to say, buying the Roadini was a good decision. It's given me sufficient data about how to get similar handling and correct some of the deficiencies of past designs, while giving me insight as to what I really like about bike geometry. After a week of riding I discovered a chip in the paint on the head tube which I didn't know how it got there. It's another reminder that I'm just not kind to bicycles and all sorts of damage appears that I don't know about. I want the frame to be lighter, not need paint, and I would like the BB drop to be lower, especially for using big tires. The chainstay could stand to be about 1cm shorter. But I'm not sure I'd change anything else about the bike!

I frequently have to remind myself that I'm very spoiled. I've ridden/test ridden many bicycles, but had the luck to ride a Grant Petersen designed bike early on, and have essentially been riding a variant of one of his bikes for much of my adult life. If you've never ridden a Grant Petersen design you owe it to yourself to ride one. He's a legend for good reason. The Rivendell Roadini is sure to be sold out completely by the time you read this, but it's worth the wait!

Thursday, November 17, 2022

Nelson Lakes Backpacking Trip

 I'd failed to take the kids camping this year. I actually had one organized the weekend before our Tour of the Alps, but I actually got sick a week before that and was on medication, and when the forecast called for rain I called it off since I didn't want to jeopardize a very expensive upcoming tour. So when Arturo suggested a High Sierra backpacking trip I signed up and so did Bowen and Boen. Boen, of course, is famous for changing his mind at random, so he eventually backed out, opting for a sleepover with a classmate instead. This actually would make my load lighter, so i didn't mind.

On Friday, we picked up Bowen from school, and immediately drove south towards Clovis. It was clear that traffic had resumed to pre-pandemic levels, and the carpool lane didn't help any. In Clovis, it was time to charge his car, and we had dinner at the Pieology next to the Tesla superchargers. We then drove to pick up the ranger permits, and found a campground near the road to camp for the night. The stars were pretty amazing.

The next morning, we drove the rest of the way to the trailhead, and repacked our gear --- we discovered that the 3 of us fit into the MSR Freelite, so Arturo could leave his tent behind. I decided to bring the hammock but not the sleeping accessories for it. This was a good thing because after the first mile it was quite clear that we had complete de-acclimated from altitude after our cycle tour, and would Bowen couldn't carry his sleeping bag and sleeping pad, so Arturo and I had to take those items out of his backpack and onto or into ours.

We had hoped to make it to the upper Nelson lakes, which by all accounts was quieter and had a better swimming platform, but it was clear that Bowen wasn't going to make it. After an hour and a half we made it to the burnt patch, which was ugly but thankfully short and surprisingly well shaded.

From the burnt area it wasn't a long walk to Nelson Lake, but Bowen was whining. Fortunately once you got to the lake it didn't take us long to find an established campground that looked ideal -- sheltered, somewhat shaded, with an obvious cooking area. We pitched the tent, setup the hammock in ideal conditions, and then moved equipment around.

After that, we hiked to Upper Nelson, which as Arturo promised featured a nice granite entry into the lake for swimming.

The lake was impressively warm! I got in and swim hard expecting to be cold like in all Sierra lakes, but halfway across the lake I realized that while my feet were cold my arms weren't! As an experiment I flipped on my back and did a deadman's float and realized that the water in the first few inches of the lake were much warmer! So if you did a breast stroke on your back you could lay back and enjoy yourself. I stayed more than 10 minutes in the lake.
After that, we hiked around the lake and walked back to the camp. Bowen loved campfires and Arturo and he got going on the campfire and gathering firewood while I got to relax and finish the rest of the book I was reading in the hammock.

The next morning was nothing short of stunning when I woke up, with a beautiful reflection in the morning in the lake and mist rising from the water. Even in the cold it was worth it to walk around and take pictures. I made a cup of coffee and enjoyed reading in the hammock again.

After that, we made breakfast, broke down all the equipment, packed it away, and said goodbye to the lake and hiked out.

The hike backdown took about half an hour less than the previous day, but the last bit back to the parking lot was all uphill, and the whining started. Clearly 2 nights at altitude wasn't enough to acclimate us. But we got back to the car and drove back home, eating lunch in a local park on the way. All in all it was pretty good.

Tuesday, November 15, 2022

Monday, November 14, 2022

Review: The Three Escapes of Hannah Arendt

 I checked out The Three Escapes of Hannah Arendt from the library because lots of people kept referencing her with respect to the current state of the GOP, but I bounced off every book she wrote. If I was looking for an understanding of why she was so great, I was sorely disappointed.

The book does a good job relating the events of Arendt's life, from growing up, to encountering Martin Heidegger and becoming is lover, to her escape from Nazi Germany, to her time in a concentration camp and her escape to Portugal and arrival to the USA and becoming famous.

The book doesn't explain why she's considered amongst the smartest philosophers of her age, nor does it clarify how she thought about herself as a philosopher or as a political theorist. There's a scene where she meets Einstein, for instance, but there's no followup on what Einstein thought of the encounter.

The art was OK. It's nothing great, nor is it so bad that I'd consider it unreadable. It's just meh.

Saturday, November 12, 2022

Books of the Year 2022

 This year I read about 81 books, which is more than a book a week. When you read this many books, it gets actually pretty hard to choose which books are the best. In the non-fiction category, I really thought A A Brief History of Equality was the most important, in terms of introducing ideas that I'd never thought about, and questioning the existing social orders (for instance, the unquestioning idea that corporations should exclude labor from their controllers)  It's not a fun book to read, since many parts of history are depressing, but neither are many of the books that cover the state of the world today.   For fun, I really enjoyed Self-made Man, a courageous, gender-swapping story of a woman who succeeded in passing off as a man and the observations she made of male society.

Another great book was Crying in HMart. The story was great and the description of Korean culture entertaining. I read it at almost the same time as Himawari House, which is easily the best graphic novel I read this year. If you have to choose, Himawari House is the better novel. But the best thing about books is you never really have to choose between two great books. Read both!

When it comes to fiction, the best book I read all year was Exhalation. That's cheating since it's a re-read. I would say the best new book was Inhibitor Phase. Alastair Reynolds comes back to the revelation space universe and I love it.

Audio Books played a huge part of my year this year. Easily the best production was The Sandman. I am still in awe that Amazon managed to reproduce a comic book in audio format. I have yet to see the Netflix series, but for it'd have to be ridiculously good to top the graphic novel.

Other honorable mentions for the book of the year: Amusing Ourselves to Death, Dying of Whiteness, and Science Fiction as Philosophy all immediately come to mind as being well worth the time.

I had a great year of reading, and I hope you did too!

Thursday, November 10, 2022

Review: The Perfect Predator

 The Perfect Predator is a memoir of the author's successful attempt to shepherd her husband through a horrifying encounter with a multi-resistant bacteria. What comes through in the book is that both the author and her husband are adventurous in ways that make you wonder how they survived this long:

The few mosquito bites on the back of my thigh had started out as minor irritations. Several weeks later they were infected masses the size of golf balls, then baseballs. I kept telling the doctor that whatever it was, it was eating me. I could feel it feeding, especially at night. Occasionally, it hit a nerve and my leg would jump like a marionette being manipulated by a sadistic puppeteer. At such times, I would slap at my bulging thigh and the thing would lie dormant for a little while. The doctor thought I was nuts at first, but when a one-inch pupae with three double rows of epidermal spines suddenly emerged while I was on the examining table, he was stunned. Turns out I had been afflicted with an infestation of Dermatobium hominis, a botfly that ingeniously captures mosquitoes and lay its eggs on their underbelly. When the mosquito bites its host, the newly hatched botfly larvae crawl into the wound, feed on their host’s flesh, and then pupate. Yum (Page 241)

I expected the encounter with multi-drug resistant bacteria to be in some exotic location, and in fact, the Thomas Patterson first ends up in the hospital in Egypt. There, his wife Steffanie discovers that there's a pseudo cyst that's been in his body for goodness knows how long that's finally caused gastronomic distress. He goes from bad to worse and is medically evacuated first to Frankfurt, and then back to San Diego.

There's never a definitive answer as to where he picked up the multi-drug resistant bacteria, but the suspicion was clearly raised that it was likely to be in the Egyptian clinic where he was first diagnosed. What follows is an exercise in understanding what it takes to gain access to these phage therapies. First, you'd have to be capable of reading and searching through research papers. Secondarily, you have to be well known enough (Strathdee is an epidemiologist and is well known to the UCSD hospital system) that when you send e-mail to researchers and various approval agencies for compassionate use of a previously untested drug, the response is quick and in the affirmative. Then you have to get lucky. There were several places in the narrative where Patterson was declining and the doctors had to make a decision as to whether to proceed with phage therapy or to stop it. The decision to stop would have been fatal.

Phage therapy is pretty cool stuff, but it's definitely not a panacea --- the author describes having multiple teams at work searching for viruses that could infect and defeat the drug resistant bacteria. 2 teams came up with two cocktails of 4 phages each, that were then IV'd into the patient's body in various places. But the bacteria eventually became resistant to both cocktails of phages, resulting in another search for more viruses that could do the job. What finally finished it off was a combination of another set of phages along with an antibiotic (in becoming resistant to the first batch of phages the bacteria had lost some of its protection from antibiotics). The recovery still took years. You don't walk out of a 9-month stay in the ICU without consequences, but the authors eventually went back to their risk-taking lifestyle.

The book highlights how bad the post-antibiotic era is going to be. You're probably not socially connected to one of the best medical research centers in the world and get this type of treatment:

A post-antibiotic era. That’s how some of the world’s top health officials, including former CDC director Tom Frieden, describe the global threat of antimicrobial resistance (AMR). By 2050, one person could die from a superbug infection every three seconds each year, making AMR a more immediate threat to humankind than climate change (page 304)

There are many lessons in this book --- first about how important it is to have someone advocating on your behalf when you're in dire straits in a medical system. Second, I thought that medically affiliated people would be inclined to take less risks in travel. Clearly I'm wrong! Lastly, antibiotic resistant is a big deal. The author admitted to bringing cipro while travelling, and at the end admits that she was contributing to being part of the problem. 

The book is compelling, if harrowing reading. Well worth your time.

Monday, November 07, 2022

Review: Limited Wish

 Limited Wish is the sequel to Mark Lawrence's One Word Kill, which I enjoyed but only remembered to read when it was put on sale. Like that novel, it's written in a breezy style, easy to digest, but doesn't tie up as nicely as the previous book. The book picks up a few months after the events of the original book, and immediately dives into more Time Travel paradoxes while picking apart the happy ending the first book finished with.

The teenage angst and 3-sided romance aside, I thought the author did a poor job of presenting time travel this time, with lots of gobbledy gook and mumbo jumbo and of course, the breaking and entering of a nuclear facility facilitated by an unlikely time traveler.

The best part of the book was the author's depiction of D&D games, but it's not enough to carry the novel. I didn't exactly want my time back but I certainly wished I hadn't spent $2 in Amazon credits on it.

Thursday, November 03, 2022

Review: Arbitrary Lines

 Arbitrary Lines is M Nolan Gray's book about zoning. It begins with the story of Sim City and how it gave the impression that zoning is the be-all and end-all of city planning, and then goes on to explain how zoning was created (and then promoted) by Berkeley California in order to successfully exclude Chinese laundries and other undesirable from otherwise high class neighborhoods. The book has an entire appendix in order to explain of what zoning is, and how it differs about environmental protection laws (on which Gray has nothing to say), or historic preservations.

The book covers the evils of zoning. You've probably lived it --- too few houses being built, insufficient density, urban sprawl, and car dependence. If you haven't lived it, then you definitely should read this book because he covers it better than I could in a summary.

What's most interesting about the book is the section on Houston, which is apparently the only large unzoned city in the USA. It turned out that zoning was put to a referendum there, and voted down not once, but multiple times, each time with the poorer people voting against it, indicating that citizens in a democracy can tell when the rich people are trying to screw them. The adoption of zoning in other cities throughout the nation was only because they were never put to a vote.

Eventually, Houston got out of the cycle of having to have repeated referendums on the topic of zoning by allowing the rich areas that really wanted zoning to have their cake. A district that wanted to impose rules on building could do so with a supermajority vote and then from then on all the onerous restrictions they want to impose on themselves would have to be made known to any buyers of property in that district, and the city would actually enforce those restrictions by refusing to issue permits and fining those who violate those restrictions.

The rest of the book is about how to get out from the culture of zoning. Since it's popular amongst the rich voters who own houses (by restricting the number of houses you drive up property values), it would seem hopeless. Gray suggests things like tying funding to the removal of zoning ordinances. That would definitely get people's attention. I can imagine Cupertino's Asian population (famously non-political until schools are involved) actually voting if education funding was increased in exchange for getting rid of zoning. So things aren't impossible, you just have to bribe enough people to make it happen.

The entire book taught me a ton of stuff I didn't know about zoning, and is short and easy to read. It's well worth your time. Recommended.

Monday, October 31, 2022

Review: Shimano PD-ES600

 My Shimano M520s have been the mainstay of my cycling pedals for years and years. They have wrench flats, last pretty much forever (suviving multiple titanium frames in the case of my single road bike), and are double-sided, letting me just stomp and go. When contemplating building a steel bike as a backup road bike, however, I found the Shimano PD-ES600 on sale for about $60 shipped. They come with SH51 cleats, but for reference just a pair of SH56 cleats cost about $19! One of the reviews I read said that the shoe's wider platform meshed nicely with the lugs on a MTB shoe to give a firmer connection with the pedal, which was enough (along with the 100g weight savings and the improved pedal clearance --- something to consider when your favorite frame geometry has an 80mm BB drop) to tip me over to purchase a pair.

When they arrived, I had to get out my allen wrenches in order to install them, as the pedals do not have wrench flats. I didn't need to change the tension on the pedals as the default felt right for me. The pedals are single-sided, which means you can't just stomp and go, but the firm connection definitely feels nice! After a week of riding with them on and off pavement, I went out and ordered a second pair. I tried those on the triplet for one long ride and a couple of commutes taking the kids to school an bought a 3rd pair for the roadini.  Interestingly enough, the difference is much less with my stiff-soled SIDI dominator than with my Recon 1.0s, indicating that it makes the biggest difference when your soles aren't as stiff. The single-sidedness can be a problem for some, but what I discovered was that my feet naturally find the correct side about 75% of the time --- this is because the spindle is just stiff enough that if you step down on the other pedal the alternate side will be in the correct side to receive a cleat --- the people who don't step down in order to start a bike (which is the correct method) would probably have much more trouble. The other 25%, I can tell by feel that the pedal is flipped over, and it's not a problem to flip it over without looking at the pedal. Even on gravel/off-road riding it was not a big deal. The lack of wrench flats probably bothers me more than anything else. The improved pedal clearance might also make a difference though to be honest since West Alpine road is closed I haven't had a chance to test it in extreme conditions --- note that pedal strikes never actually bothered me much anyway.

I wouldn't have paid list price for these ($100), but at $60 included taxes and shipping, these are a good deal. I'll stick with M520s for the mountain bike, and if I were riding the tandem triplet with a new cyclist I'd probably still go for the M520s but my sons and I are so coordinated by now that we can feel when I need to stop pedaling to flip over the pedals as needed (which hasn't been often), and on the triplet the extra firm connection feels even more needed! I ended up getting these for all 3 of my road bikes. My brother tried them once on my single and decided he wanted a pair as well! Here's another indication of how effective it is --- once I had them on all my bikes, I stopped switching to the super-stiff SIDI shoes whenever I went on a road ride, preferring my touring shoes instead!

Recommended. If you've been riding M520s, these are the first pedals that felt like a real upgrade.

Thursday, October 27, 2022

Review: An Immense World

 An Immense World is Ed Yong's book about various senses in the animal kingdom. It's a surprisingly long book, covering how various animals see, smell, and feel very differently than we do. I read a short passage in it aloud to Boen about how a particular wasp could sting a cockroach in two places, one in its body, and one in its brain, in order to turn the cockroach into a zombie. Boen responded hugely positively to this and went around telling his friends about it.

The book is at its best when it covers senses that humans can't possibly have, such as echolocation (the book does describe a blind person who developed echolocation as a child), remote touch via electric field, sonar, and magnetic field detection senses. The book thoroughly describes how scientists involve prove the existence of those senses by manipulating them, and also explains why magnetic field detection is so hard to work with --- the earth's magnetic field is so weak that even hypothesizing how an animal could detect it is hard!

I enjoyed the book and thought it was worth reading, not just for the part about senses, but also some of the ancillary details about how marine mammals evolved and came to be so big. Recommended.

Monday, October 24, 2022

Review: Sci-Phi Science Fiction as Philosophy

 I saw Sci-Phi: Science Fiction as Philosophy as one of the great courses offering on Kanopy, and tried one lecture and was blown away. The lecturer, David Kyle Johnson, took apart Inception, analyzed it, demonstrated in detail the pieces that were self-contradictory, and demonstrated his thesis in the movie, while using the movie to ask the question about how it's possible to have knowledge in the face of multiple competing theories. And he did it all in 30 minutes, some of which was spent explaining the plot of the movie!

The rest of the 24 lecture course covers everything from Pacifism, Women's Rights, Free-Will, and other topics, using many movies/TV shows you may have heard of or watched. To my surprise I'd actually seen a lot of those movies, and the ones I didn't Johnson explains enough of what you didn't watch that you can follow along his points. Johnson is a great lecturer, clear, perfectly paced, and great to listen to. His logic is easy to follow, and his conclusions (or in some cases, lack of conclusions) made a lot of sense to me. I enjoyed how much of different philosophers' ideas, books, or statements made it into even the most kitschy science fiction.

Definitely worth your time. Look at the list of movies he analyzes and if those movies appealed to you, this lecture series will as well.

Thursday, October 20, 2022

Review: Amusing Ourselves to Death

 Ezra Klein kept mentioning Amusing Ourselves to Death, so I had to check it out from the library. The book is a criticism of the television-oriented culture we find ourselves in, and compares it unfavorably with the age of print/age of rationality. In some ways, it's got a rosy eyed view of the age of rationality/age of print, since that coincided with much of the population enslaved and unable to read.

One of the interesting statements the books make is that the telegraph was in many ways just as bad as twitter is today:

the contribution of the telegraph to public discourse was to dignify irrelevance and amplify impotence. But this was not all: Telegraphy also made public discourse essentially incoherent. It brought into being a world of broken time and broken attention, to use Lewis Mumford’s phrase. The principal strength of the telegraph was its capacity to move information, not collect it, explain it or analyze it. In this respect, telegraphy was the exact opposite of typography. (kindle loc 1299)

He laments the introduction of photography, since once that became widespread and it was possible to distribute newspapers with photographs that are printed, the photograph naturally became much more popular than the printed word. Television, of course, combines the worst of both worlds, with the instant imagery transmitted across the globe.

In courtrooms, classrooms, operating rooms, board rooms, churches and even airplanes, Americans no longer talk to each other, they entertain each other. They do not exchange ideas; they exchange images. They do not argue with propositions; they argue with good looks, celebrities and commercials. For the message of television as metaphor is not only that all the world is a stage but that the stage is located in Las Vegas, matter how grave any fragment of news may appear (for example, on the day I write a Marine Corps general has declared that nuclear war between the United States and Russia is inevitable), it will shortly be followed by a series of commercials that will, in an instant, defuse the import of the news, in fact render it largely banal. This is a key element in the structure of a news program and all by itself refutes any claim that television news is designed as a serious form of public discourse....You would try to make celebrities of your newscasters. You would advertise the show, both in the press and on television itself. You would do “news briefs,” to serve as an inducement to viewers. You would have a weatherman as comic relief, and a sportscaster whose language is a touch uncouth (as a way of his relating to the beer-drinking common man). You would, in short, package the whole event as any producer might who is in the entertainment business. The result of all this is that Americans are the best entertained and quite likely the least well-informed people in the Western world...television is altering the meaning of “being informed” by creating a species of information that might properly be called disinformation. I am using this word almost in the precise sense in which it is used by spies in the CIA or KGB. Disinformation does not mean false information. It means misleading information—misplaced, irrelevant, fragmented or superficial information—information that creates the illusion of knowing something but which in fact leads one away from knowing. (kindle loc 1623, 1789-1839)

You'll find ;yourself nodding away at the statements above, since American society does seem incredibly superficial and obviously obsessed only with the beautiful people. I'm the kind of person who'd much rather read a book than watch a documentary or video, so of course I would agree with Neil Postman. I think his analogy that Huxley's "Brave New World" is much more relevant us than George Orwell's "1984" is correct:

 What Huxley teaches is that in the age of advanced technology, spiritual devastation is more likely to come from an enemy with a smiling face than from one whose countenance exudes suspicion and hate. In the Huxleyan prophecy, Big Brother does not watch us, by his choice. We watch him, by ours. There is no need for wardens or gates or Ministries of Truth. When a population becomes distracted by trivia, when cultural life is redefined as a perpetual round of entertainments, when serious public conversation becomes a form of baby-talk, when, in short, a people become an audience and their public business a vaudeville act, then a nation finds itself at risk; culture-death is a clear possibility. (kindle loc 2566)

 Postman, however, doesen't have any answers or solutions for us. His luke-warm proposal is that we education children to be able to distinguish between truth and lies. But of course we're not very good at teaching children in schools! Furthermore, it's not clear to me that even education can have much impact. For instance, you can know that something is an optical illusion, but your eyes still see that illusion and think it's real. You can watch a movie knowing that it's entirely fictional, but that won't reduce the emotional impact of the movie. In that sense, you can come away from the book quite pessimistic.

Regardless, the book makes many great points and is well worth reading. It was written before twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and other social media, and yet managed to predict that these technologies are ultimately detrimental to civil society and our politics. Any book that can predict the future that far in advance should be on your must-read shelf.

Monday, October 17, 2022

Review: Language Families of the World

 I've enjoyed most of John McWhorter's work, so when I saw that Niniane's Goodreads mentioned The Great Courses' Language Families of the World, I searched for it and discovered that my library gave me access through Kanopy.

Kanopy has no download option, and the entire thing was on video, so I watched/listened to it on my FireHD tablet. The audio course definitely walks you through every language family in the world, and corrects any misconceptions you might have about (for instance) the relationship between writing systems and spoken languages. For myself, I used to say that Chinese had no grammar, since there's none of the conjugation, agreement, and prefix/suffix clauses found in Indo-European languages, but McWhorter points out that the numerical classifiers are indeed a form of grammar!

The course focuses mostly on spoken language, and I enjoyed the world tour of various languages, but wished that he spent more time on the details on how linguists discovered the family relationships between languages, and disentangled the difference between languages exchanging words versus being evolved. I learned that there's a language that doesn't have words for numbers!

All this is presented with McWhorter's usual sense of humor and personal history. I enjoyed every minute, even if my retention isn't as good as I wanted it to be. Recommended.

Thursday, October 13, 2022

Review: Shokz OpenMove

 Shokz OpenMove is a set of open ear bone conducting headphones. These leave your ears open so you can still hear traffic, etc., so you can use them while cycling or running on the roads and still retain aural situational awareness. I'd been intrigued by them, so when Prime day sported a sale for these at under $60 I gave them a try.

The sound quality is reasonable, but not nearly as good as a single-ear Jabra 65t.  I used them for a video call and enjoyed the experience. They're not very comfortable under a helmet --- the bone conduction parts press against your temple. Ultimately, that's what caused me to end up returning these. If these had been waterproof to the point where I could use them swimming I might not have, but the swimming versions of these are $150 and weren't on sale during prime day.

Monday, October 10, 2022

Review: 84 Charing Cross Road

 84 Charing Cross Road is a collection of letters between Helene Hanff and the staff of Marks and Company, from right after the second world war until approximately 1970. Hanff is looking for cheap second hand books, and starts off by asking for some clean copies. The response from the book sellers and the exchange spread out like ripples in a pond, drawing in not just the staff members but also their families.

The exchanges are at times funny, flirtatious, poignant and literate, sometimes all 3 in the same letter. You see the rise in the standard of living in the UK in the mid 50s, where suddenly they tell her not to send them food any more, as they can now buy whatever they need. You see the lack of healthcare in the USA, where Hanff can no longer visit England as she has to pay her dentist.

The book ends somewhat abruptly, and upon reflection, it's also about the need to seize the day and travel and visit your friends while they're still alive, instead of living with your books and your work. Hanff, for instance, was a writer, and could have worked from anywhere in the world, yet never prioritized visiting the people who kept sending her books she asked for.

It's also a reminder of the times when real people would be the ones who'd pick books off the shelf and ship them to you. I remember once calling a bookstore and having the bookseller pick up the phone and upon hearing my name say, "Oh, you're the one buying those books with such taste and verve!" Of course, shortly after that they were overtaken by and interactions like that would never happen today.

The book is short, and the audio performance is amazing, with different actors representing each letter writer. Well worth your time.

Thursday, October 06, 2022

Review: The Rider

 I'll admit that I can only watch bicycle racing in tiny youtube clips. The long form videos bore me to tears, but I'll happily read about bike racing any time. The Rider is Tim Krabbe's novel about a fictional bike race, but the protagonist of the novel is also named Tim Krabbe!

The book describes all the grandeur and pettiness of a bike race. Whether to work together to defeat a rival, whether it's more important that a rival lose than that you win. It also beautifully brings together the thoughts of someone putting together hard physical exertion:

On a bike your consciousness is small. The harder you work, the smaller it gets. Every thought that arises is immediately and utterly true, every unexpected event is something you’d known all along but had only forgotten for a moment. A pounding riff from a song, a bit of long division that starts over and over, a magnified anger at someone, is enough to fill your thoughts. (kindle loc 404)

Lots of cycling history too, involving famous racers from the past, as well as relevant incidents that tie into the events of the single day race the novel describes.

The book's short but compelling. I found myself reading it in one shot one evening, and it would be a perfect airplane novel. Recommended. Strangely enough, I went in search of other novels by the same author and they're all out of print now in English!

Tuesday, October 04, 2022

Touring Review: Pixel 6

Throughout this year's tour, we used the Pixel 6 as a backup for photographs (especially when it was raining, since the Pixel 6 was waterproof and the Ricoh GR3 wasn't), payments, navigation in a pinch, booking hotels, phone calls, and general use. As a backup camera the Pixel 6 was superlative, and while I wish it was higher resolution and had a bigger sensor, I don't think any of the other smartphones would have done a better job.

For navigation, we discovered that Google Maps had many limitations, much of which was that it would suggest routes that might be doable on a mountain bike but not for a road bike, and definitely not for a triplet. Even worse, the battery drain would mean that Xiaoqin's phone would drain by the middle of the afternoon on a long day. We tried turning off WeChat, and turning off the 90MHz display, but those changes made marginal differences to the battery life. Once in a while we would have to top up the battery using a battery extender.

For payments my phone worked but Xiaoqin's didn't, probably having to do with the setup for credit cards on it. For booking, we discovered an interesting limitation --- our T-mobile connection would let us browse's app and select places to stay, but to finalize a booking required a WiFi connection. I found myself searching for WiFi in various places to complete a booking.

One big disadvantage of the Pixel 6 was completely unexpected: when I cracked my screen protector (but not the screen), the phone was so exotic in Italy that I never found a place that sold replacement screen protectors. I had a spare protector at home, but it just shows that the Pixel 6 doesn't have sufficient distribution to the point where you could expect to easily get support for the device in Europe. On the other hand, the phone calls always worked, and various times the $0.25 per minute T-mobile roaming phone call charge would save us 20 EUR in hotel stays, making the ROI on those calls well worth the price.

When in Feldkirch, we used the instant translation feature to have conversations with doctors, nurses and pharmacists. This is an amazing feature and well worth the price. I also never ran out of storage.

To my dismay, the phone does not support FAT32 or exFAT, and it could not read the SD card from either the Ricoh GR3 or the GoPro, which made it very difficult to use the phone as a photo processor. I would later read that the Nexus Media Explorer would be able to read it, but too late for this trip. I never had any trouble reading SDcards with Samsung phones, so this is a limitation unique to the Pixel 6. It seems that Google's ideological commitment against paying Microsoft royalties has led it to serve its customers badly, another illustration of how Google PMs must not use their own products. The GR3 had a wireless mode that worked well, but the GoPro didn't.

For myself, the phone battery was more than sufficient since I would depend on the Garmin for navigation most of the time. The few times I needed it I'd pull out the phone for isolated use, and it never failed me. All in all, I think the Pixel 6 is a reasonable phone to travel with, but for the various reasons outlined above, I suspect the Samsung phones are still a cut above for not having flaws and workarounds that you'd have to spend a ton of time researching. 

Monday, October 03, 2022

Review: Magicians - New Class

The Magicians: New Class is a comic book series set after the events of the novels. Despite Lev Grossman's name on the Amazon information page, the comic book series was written by Lilah Sturges, with excellent artist Plus Bak. The plot revolves around Brakebills College admitting 3 hedge magicians as 3rd years for the very first time in the college's history, and those 3 magicians are pulled into a private seminar course with 3 Brakebills college students.

There's a certain conceit about how college works which doesn't work for me --- the rivalry between the hedge magicians and the Brakebills regular doesn't ring true to me, but regardless, the writing is clearly targeted towards a monthly issue magazine --- each issue ends with a cliff-hanger, and we get plot twist after plot twist, as well as some references to characters/events from the novels.

Unfortunately, the comic book plot was written with the expectation of a continuing series, but apparently the series got cancelled after 5 books, so there are a lot of loose ends never tied up. The characters and the foreshadowing also don't work well, and there are no clues that you could possibly use to predict the plot twist. I can see why the series got cancelled after such a short time. The book is only recommended for die-hard fans of the Magicians, but even if you are one you might want to set your expectations low.

Friday, September 30, 2022

Review: Amazon Basics Medium Point and Shoot Case

 The worst part of the Ricoh GR3 is how fragile it is. I've had to send it in for a repair nearly every year. One of the damage was caused by my rough handling of the camera when it was in the Black Widow Holster after a hike. I decided then that I needed a more protective case for the camera during the trip. While cycling you don't need a case, since the camera is either in the jersey pocket or in the handlebar bag. But when hiking, it's no big deal to have to unzip a case to get out the camera, so I opted for the cheapest I could find, which is the Amazon Basics Medium Point and Shoot case.

The case fits the GR3 snugly, with an extra pocket for any additional accessories you might need (spare battery, etc) which I didn't use. It's a tight fit, but getting the camera out quickly was never a problem, and putting away the camera doesn't take extra care. I expect to break the zipper sooner or later, but at $10 a case I've already gotten good use out of it.

Modern travelers will probably never go to the trouble of carrying a separate point and shoot camera. I find it's worth it to get good captures of places like the alps, so I'd recommend going to the trouble of getting something like the GR3 and a protective case for hiking around.

Thursday, September 29, 2022

Review: A Brief History of Equality

 I really enjoyed Piketty's book on Capital in the 21st Century, so when I heard about his follow up, A Brief History of Equality, I had to check it out from the library and read it. Unlike that other book, this book is a lot shorter. Also, it has a different translator, someone much worse at turning academic prose into readable English, so unlike the former book, this book reads a lot more awkwardly, which is a pity, because the ideas in this book are well worth thinking about.

Piketty in his interview with Ezra Klein calls his book optimistic. I actually had to struggle to see what he meant. For instance, very early on, Piketty acknowledges that the inegalitarian nature of human society has historically only been changed by violent reprisals from the oppressed:

the most fundamental transformations seen in the history of inegalitarian regimes involve social conflicts and large-scale political crises. It was the peasant revolts of 1788–1789 and the events of the French Revolution that led to the abolition of the nobility’s privileges. Similarly, it was not muted discussions in Paris salons but the slave revolt in Saint-Domingue in 1791 that led to the beginning of the end of the Atlantic slavery system...The experiment of Soviet communism (1917–1991), a major event that runs through and to a certain extent defines the twentieth century, perfectly illustrates these two pitfalls. On the one hand, it was in fact power relationships and intense social struggles that allowed the Bolshevik revolutionaries to replace the czarist regime with the first “proletarian state” in history, a state that initially achieved considerable advances in education, public health, and industry, while at the same time making a major contribution to the victory over Nazism. Without the pressure of the Soviet Union and the international communist movement, it is not at all certain that the Western property-owning classes would have accepted Social Security and progressive income taxes, decolonization and civil rights. On the other hand, the sanctification of power relationships and the Bolsheviks’ certainty that they knew the ultimate truth concerning equitable institutions led to the totalitarian disaster we witnessed. The institutional arrangements put in place (a single political party, bureaucratic centralization, hegemonic state property, and a rejection of cooperative property, elections, labor unions, and so on) claimed to be more emancipatory than bourgeois or social-democratic institutions. They led to levels of oppression and imprisonment that completely discredited this regime and ultimately caused its fall, while at the same time contributing to the emergence of a new form of hypercapitalism. That is how, after being in the twentieth century the country that had entirely abolished private property, Russia became at the beginning of the twenty-first century the world capital of the oligarchs, financial opacity, and tax havens. (kindle loc 278)

This is indeed a view of history I'd never heard expressed before --- that the only reason the West actually has a welfare state and reduced inequality was the explicit competition with the communist system and ideas expressed by Russia, which promised a better life than those in the West who lived in a harsh capitalistic system. I will note that by the time FDR took office, capitalism had effectively failed the majority of people living under the system --- the great depression was neither self-correcting nor humane.

I learned many fascinating pieces of history in the book I'd never encountered anywhere else, not least because Piketty with his French background is much more versant with French colonialism than I ever was, and willing to criticize the European past:

According to a rather widespread fairy tale, legal equality has been definitively established in Western countries since the Enlightenment and the “Atlantic revolutions.” In this narrative, the French Revolution and the abolition of aristocratic privileges during the night of August 4, 1789, appear to be foundational events. The reality is obviously more complex. The republics of France and the United States were in essence slaveholding, colonial, and legally discriminatory until the 1960s. The same was true of the British and Dutch monarchies. Almost everywhere, the equality of rights proclaimed at the end of the eighteenth century is above all an equality of White men, and especially of property-owning White men. (kindle loc 1791)

And here, we come to the optimistic part of the book. He explains how Sweden came from a state of inequality to becoming one of the most egalitarian societies in the world:

On the eve of World War I, the concentration of property was just as extreme in Sweden as it was in France or the United Kingdom (see Figure 17), and Sweden was incontestably the European country that had gone furthest in the constitutional and electoral codification of its inequality.14 Then, during the interwar period, the Social Democrats took control of the Swedish government and put their country’s state power in the service of a completely different political project. Instead of using property registers and incomes to distribute the right to vote, they began to use them to make the richest people pay progressively heavier taxes, all in order to finance public services. These services allowed relatively egalitarian (here again, in comparison to other countries) access to health care and education for the whole of the population. This experiment shows how little anything is fixed. People sometimes imagine that there are cultures or civilizations that tend by nature toward equality or inequality: Sweden is supposed to have always been egalitarian, perhaps because of an ancient passion proceeding from the Vikings, whereas India and its castes are eternally inegalitarian, no doubt for reasons just as mystical that proceed from the Aryans. In truth, everything depends on the institutions and rules that each human community gives itself, contingent on power relationships, mobilizations, and social struggles, within unstable trajectories that would merit close examination. (kindle loc 1943)

He then goes on to show how easily we accepted certain premises about how, for instance, public companies are managed. For instance, the German model has workers/employees have an equal stake in the enterprise at the boardroom level. The fact that we only typically imagine the American/British model of shareholder supremacy means that we've had lack of exposure to alternative methods of management:

nothing guarantees that stockholders are more competent to manage an enterprise than a company’s employees, or that they are more invested in its success over the long term. Often, the opposite is true: an investment fund can put capital into an enterprise and withdraw it again in a short period of time, whereas employees generally invest a major part of their lives, their energy, and their skills. In many respects, employees constitute the company’s first long-term investors. If we look at the big picture, we can only be surprised by this persistence of plutocracy in economic matters.  (kindle loc 2034)

He counters the common conservative criticism of government intervention, that government is inefficient. We all too often forget that schools and elementary education was once a largely private affair:

Vast sectors of the economy, starting with education and health care, and to a considerable extent transportation and energy as well, have been organized outside commercial logic, with various systems of public employment, mutualist or nonprofit structures, subsidies and investments financed by tax revenues. Not only has this worked, but it has worked much more efficiently than in the private capitalist sector. Even if some lobbyists in the United States continue to claim the contrary (for obvious reasons, and unfortunately sometimes with a certain efficacy), everyone who cares about facts now knows that public health-care systems on the European model are both less expensive and more efficient, in terms of well-being and life expectancy, than the private companies in the United States.8 In the education sector, hardly anyone is proposing to replace elementary schools, secondary schools, or higher education with corporations governed by the logic of capitalism (kindle loc 2391)

Piketty goes on to dismantle the myth that nobody ever paid the 90% marginal tax rate introduced by FDR as part of the new deal:

 What were the real economic effects of fiscal progressivity? Here we must put an end to a widely accepted notion, that the highest tax rates were never applied to anyone and had no substantial effect. It is true that the 70 percent or 80 percent tax rates affected only a small minority, generally the richest 1 percent (or even 0.1 percent).16 But the fact is that at the beginning of the twentieth century, the distribution of incomes and especially of properties was extremely concentrated: the richest 1 percent held more than half the total wealth in France, and almost two-thirds in the United Kingdom. The richest .01 percent held more than a quarter of the wealth in France, and more than a third in the United Kingdom. If we exclude housing and focus on the ownership of the means of production, the concentration appears even greater. In other words, even if the 70 and 80 percent tax rates concerned only the top hundredth or thousandth, these very restricted groups had considerable weight in the inegalitarian regime that characterized the property-owning societies of the Belle Époque. (kindle loc 2497)

 He notes also that there is no evidence that innovation or productivity is hurt by highly progressive tax rates:

 the rise in power of strongly progressive taxation seems in no way to have discouraged innovation or productivity. In the United States, the national income per inhabitant rose at a rate of 1.8 percent per annum between 1870 and 1910 without an income tax, and then at 2.1 percent between 1910 and 1950 after its introduction, and at a rate of 2.2 percent between 1950 and 1990, when the top tax rate reached, on average, 72 percent. The top rate was then cut in half, with the announced objective of boosting growth. But in fact, growth fell by half, reaching 1.1 percent per annum between 1990 and 2020 (see Figure 23). Beyond a certain level of inequality, repeatedly increasing differences in income and wealth has clearly had no positive effect on economic dynamism. (kindle loc 2560)

He further points out that the increased disparity in how much private companies with excess profits can pay versus what government can pay also makes it harder to attract people to government:

If capitalist enterprises in the information technology sector pay extravagant remunerations in order to poach almost all the most expert computer scientists on the market, that can seriously complicate the task of the public agencies entrusted with regulating them (unless they choose to encourage the race toward ever greater differences in pay). The same holds true in finance or law. The fact that salaries have been reduced to a scale of one to five and no longer one to twenty, or even one to a hundred, is not only a matter of distributive justice. It is also a matter of efficiency for public regulation, and it contributes to the construction of alternative modes of economic organization. (kindle loc 2937)

All this is to say that a strongly progressive tax rate is a big deal, and helps much more than it can hurt. The last part of the book proposes many ideas, some of which are very radical but interesting to contemplate. For instance, you could tax wealth estates to redistribute the wealth more equally:

 With the parameters used here, those who currently inherit nothing (approximately, the poorest 50 percent) would receive 120,000 euros, while those who inherit a million euros (which corresponds to the average inheritance received by the richest 10 percent, with enormous disparities) would receive 600,000 euros after taxes and endowment. We see that we are still very far from equality of opportunity, a principle often defended at an abstract and theoretical level, but one which the privileged classes fear like the plague as soon as any concrete application is envisaged. In theory, it would be completely possible (and in my opinion, desirable) to increase much further the redistribution of inherited wealth. It will be noted that the proposed system of financing is based on tax scales similar to those that were already used during the twentieth century, with rates ranging from a few percentage points for assets and income lower than average to 80–90 percent for the highest assets and income. (kindle loc 3030)

The book points out that the current state of the world excessively benefits capital and investment, rather than people who cannot as easily flow across borders untaxed. The results are that people do not trust globalization: 

The heart of the new rules is the free circulation of capital, without any compensation in the form of regulation or common taxation. In sum, states have instituted a legal system in which economic actors have won a quasi-sacred right to enrich themselves by using a country’s public infrastructures and social institutions (such as the educational and health-care systems), and then, with the stroke of a pen or the click of a mouse, to move their assets to another jurisdiction, without any arrangement to follow the wealth in question and to tax it in a way that is fair and coherent with the rest of the tax system. This is, de facto, a new form of censitary power, in the sense that the states that have signed such treaties can, from the moment that they refuse to reconsider the commitments made by earlier governments, wind up explaining in all sincerity to their people that it is strictly impossible to tax the first beneficiaries of international integration (billionaires, multinationals, those with high incomes), and that consequently they must turn once again to taxpayers in the lower and middle classes who have had the good taste to remain quietly where they were. The logic claims to be unanswerable. The reaction of the classes that don’t move their assets around is just as unanswerable: all this leads to a feeling of abandonment and a hatred of globalization (kindle loc 3137)

The scope of the book is incredible. He covers education as well, attacking legacy admissions, and asking the question of why private universities that benefit from being tax-advantaged then have the luxury of hiding their admissions policy behind vague assertions, and allowing legacy admissions, to the point where faculty and academics in those institutions see nothing wrong with the approach:

Although these universities have benefited from multiple sources of governmental financing, they have succeeded in convincing powerful political figures that it is normal to let them do as they please with their admissions algorithms, including giving priority for admission to “legacy students” (that is, the children of alumni or rich donors). In other words, not only do fabulously high tuition fees put the best universities out of reach for the least well-off students (unless they have exceptional grades granting them access to scholarships), but the richest parents can pay a kind of supplement to make up for their offspring’s insufficient grades. Universities explain that the rate of legacy admissions is minimal, even as they deny access to this information and to the formulas used to assess grades and donations...It is striking to see the number of academics in the United States who have become used to this reality: after all, if it provides supplementary funds from generous billionaires who want to have their offspring admitted, why not? It would be simpler, however, to make them pay the same amount in the form of taxes intended to finance education for all, and principally those most disadvantaged (and not the contrary). In any event, these delicate questions should be decided democratically, after transparent discussion of the pros and cons, and not in the smoke-filled rooms of governing boards dominated by donors. (kindle loc 3337-3350)

Ultimately, Piketty expresses hope that because all these deficiencies and inequitable outcomes are a result of human systems and history, he thinks that they can change. In particular, he believes that the West in response to a new competing political system in the form of China, will have to change to become more equitable just as competition with Russia led to the modern welfare state. This is the part of the book I don't buy, since as he stated early in the book, it usually takes violent revolution to get the rich to agree to part with even a tiny bit of their wealth in order to preserve their heads. The result after all that might be a more equitable and moral society (and maybe one capable of tackling climate change --- though there is no guarantee --- Piketty himself provides many examples of historical instances where the result of a violent revolution was an even more corrupt and inequitable set of institutions), but having to live through that period of history can't possibly be comfortable.

In any case, the quality of the ideas in the book make it well worth wading through the frequently turgid prose that the translator failed to alleviate. You should read this book. 

Wednesday, September 28, 2022

Review: Granite Gear Tyre Levers

 I picked up Granite Talon Tyre Levers because 11 speed chains are so tight fitting that I can no longer just undo the chain master links with my hands. These are the cheapest I can find, and much cheaper than the Wolf-Tooth 8-Bit Pack Pliers, which look really cool but I cannot justify a $70 tool. The Pack Pliers by wolf-tooth are $33, more than twice the price!

I never used the tyre levers as tyre levers because I also carried my favorite VAR tyre levers during the tour. However, when I discovered that TSA had lost one of my derailleur cables I used the chain pliers to remove the chain so I could remove the front derailleur, and that worked great, both for taknig off the chain and putting it back on. The tool also cleverly has a place to store a spare set of master-links, which is handy.

The tool works great, and I think it's definitely well worth the extra weight. Recommended.

Tuesday, September 27, 2022

Review: GoPro Hero 8

 Xiaoqin wanted a GoPro Hero 8 for the tour in the hopes of capturing good video. The GoPro Hero 8 had good reviews and was somewhat reasonably priced, and the bike mount for it was also easy to get and use. What was astonishing to me, however, was how easy it is to lose the little pieces associated with the GoPro. For instance, the screw on the bike mount got lost early on during the trip, and we couldn't find a replacement anywhere until I had the idea to buy it from and ship it to a hotel we had reservations for.

Similarly, we lost the battery cover for the GoPro pretty early on, and it's nearly impossible to get a replacement! All the replacements we found on Amazon were not waterproof, leaving a port open for the USB-C charging port. I guess the main reason people lost the cover was because you have to remove it to charge, and hence the standard replacement eliminates the need to remove the cover for charging. Fortunately, if you want to swim or dive with the GoPro, you simply would buy a cheap waterproof case for it.

In practice, the video captured is very good, as are the sounds captured. However, the biggest problem with video is that you have no idea what's going to be good coming up, so the best bet is to just turn it on and keep it running. Here, the GoPro has several issues. The worst of it is that there's no indication as to whether the unit is recording. When you start it, there's a period of time when it would show the video being captured, but after a while the screen turns off and it's very easy to forget whether or not you have it on. It would be nice if there was a blinking LED to indicate on or off. Similarly, the Hero would bounce and get jerked around and I'll discover after we got home lots of footage of the front wheel spinning against the ground.

Finally, to my mind the biggest issue with capturing video is the amount of effort to be spent editing it. Editing video is mind-numbingly boring, and I could not bring myself to do much of it.

All in all, I think that photos are worth the effort, but you'd have to be a more better videographer than I am to produce good video after something like the tour of the alps. The footage when it is good is good, but there's too much of it for me to be happy to spend time editing. I think bike tours just aren't made for this sort of stuff.

Monday, September 26, 2022

Review: Walkable City

 Walkable City is a book written by a city planner about how to make a city walkable. He has laudable goals but hides an anti-cycling agenda amongst his many platitudes which destroyed his credibility for me. I wanted to like the book. It points out the many penalties of the American lifestyle, where you sit in a car to go anywhere, and end up paying more for cars, paying in increased obesity, increased traffic fatalities, and time spent sitting in traffic. He points out (rightly) that electric cars don't solve the problem --- they might be environmentally less destructive, but you're still stuck sitting in a car.

He even confirms one of my favorite swear phrases, "DLTE" (Dummy Lamb Traffic Engineer), providing lots of ammunition:

While all traffic engineers can be trouble, state engineers are the toughest because they have no obligation to listen to a local mayor or citizens. They answer to a higher authority, which is ultimately the god Traffic Flow. They will typically claim a concern for walkability and “context-sensitive design,” but everything is still viewed through the lens of “level of service,” and level of service means smooth flow. Incidentally, state DOTs are also a huge source of work for planning consultants, which is a big reason why few planners are willing to stand up to them...It seems a bit unfair to blame the city engineer for this situation. Because most of the public complaints one hears in cities are about traffic, it stands to reason that any good public servant would work to reduce traffic congestion. This would be acceptable if efforts to reduce traffic congestion didn’t wreck cities and perhaps also if they worked. But they don’t work, because of induced demand. Most city engineers don’t understand induced demand. They might say that they do, but, if so, they don’t act upon that understanding. I say this because it would seem that almost no traffic engineers in America possess the necessary combination of insight and political will that would allow them to take the induced demand discussion to its logical conclusion, which is this: Stop doing traffic studies. Stop trying to improve flow. Stop spending people’s tax dollars giving them false hope that you can cure congestion, while mutilating their cities in the process. I understand that it might be difficult to tell the public that you can’t satisfy their biggest complaint. (pg 88-89)

For all that, he claims to be realistic, that most American cities don't have sufficient population density to support more than a couple of blocks of walkable downtown. Compound that with city zoning codes that require parking to be built and we end up with the shape of modern American cities today. He also points out that the familiar story of conspiracies of businesses tearing out street cars in order to switch to buses and private car had a very willing accomplice --- the American public:

In 1902, every U.S. city with a population of ten thousand or more had its own streetcar system.5 At midcentury, Los Angeles was served by more than a thousand electric trolleys a day.6 These were torn out in a vast criminal conspiracy that is as well documented● as it was inevitable. It’s easy to get mad at General Motors and forget that, at the time, most cities and citizens delighted over the change from old-fashioned streetcars to streamlined buses. The real transition, of course, was from dependence on a public system to liberation via the private automobile, albeit subsidized formidably with public dollars. We trashed our trains because we wanted to and nobody said we couldn’t. (pg. 141)

 So if you can't achieve the kind of density you routinely see in European cities, why not encourage cycling? Here, Speck buys completely into what John Forester calls the cycling inferiority complex. He claims that cycling in traffic is too difficult and challenging for normal humans to master. So cyclists must be protected by bike paths and bike lanes (bike lanes are insane --- paint can't protect you!). But he gives the "Naked Streets" movement a pass:

Naked streets refers to the concept of stripping a roadway of its signage—all of it, including stop signs, signals, and even stripes. Far from creating mayhem, this approach appears to have lowered crash rates wherever it has been tried. Following Monderman’s advice, the Danish town of Christiansfeld removed all signs and signals from its main intersection, and watched the number of serious accidents each year fall from three to zero. (pg. 176)

So somehow naked streets are great for walking, but not for cycling?!! Worse, his claim that cyclists can't be educated to interact with traffic properly doesn't jibe with what anyone with eyes can observe for himself/herself in European cities. I've watched Italian grandmothers get on their bike and ride into a busy traffic circle at rush hour, in traffic that would make many League of American Bicyclist cycling instructors cower. But somehow the author visited many European cities and never saw the same thing.

I learned many things, such as why zoning was invented (it's not completely evil --- it's to make sure that factories and pollution spewing power plants can't be built next to residential areas). I learned many things about how to make even parking structures work alongside a walking-friendly city. I learned how if you build a house, it's far better to have a sitting-height wall than a full size wall:

 When we built our house, I put a sitting-height wall on both sides, and a prominent sidewalk-hugging bench by the front door. You would be surprised how often someone sits there. Never mind that on occasion that person is a homeless crack-smoking schizophrenic … it was the right thing to do. (pg. 241)

Good luck convincing anyone to do that now that he's admitted that crack-smoking schizophrenics would camp out on your front door.

When I was in my 20s I thought I hated cities. Now that I'm better travelled, I've realized that I don't hate cities. I hate American cities. This book articulates many of the reasons why and many of the culprits. But its amazing hostility towards vehicular cycling and unwillingness to embrace cycling as even a potential solution to problems facing the American city made me frown with discuss over many of the treatment in this book. The book was written before ebikes. With ebikes in the picture even his objections are pretty dumb. Read this book if you must. But keep in mind that it's a non-cyclist prescribing how cyclists should behave, which is suspicious and patronizing.

Friday, September 23, 2022

Review: Walz Technical Cycling Cap

 Cycling caps are under-rated for cycling. Most people don't know the difference between a cycling cap and a baseball cap, because they look so similar. Cycling caps are made of much lighter material, and the bill is specifically designed to be used in two positions: flipped up, so you can get a better view, and flipped down, so that rain doesn't get into your eyes or glasses, or to shade your eyes. On long climbs in Europe, I don't wear a helmet, I wear a cycling cap. The cap wicks sweat out into the bill, and on a hot climb when you're sweating heavily, the sweat drips off the brim of the cap instead of running into your eyes.

There are people who wear cycling caps under their helmets, but I never did so... until I found the Walz technical cycling cap. Unlike the traditional cycling cap which is typically cotton, these are made out of the same technical material that makes up cycling jerseys. This means that they dry even faster than the traditional cycling cap, and are lighter as well.  They also fit better than the cotton ones, because the elastic doesn't need to be as strong because compensating for technical fabric is easier than compensating for the stretch cotton eventually gets with time. They wash easily, and because the material is lighter, fits well enough under a helmet that for the first time, I did a tour without carrying sweatbands, relying on my cap to wick sweat away.

They're comfortable, lightweight, and keep the rain out as well. Their only drawback is that they're costly. But I bought two.  Highly recommended.