Africa Bike Drive

For the last 12 years, I’ve been riding this 1996 Gary Fisher Kaitai – a bike I bought from my editor during the BeOS Bible project. We’ve been through thick and thin together: A lot of rain and mud, a bunch of repairs, and countless daily commutes from El Cerrito to UC Berkeley and back. But despite the fact that my body and this bike are virtually united, I’ve been hankering lately for a new ride — something actually fitted for my body.


But every time I get on that bike, I feel guilty for even contemplating giving it up. There’s nothing wrong with it. I have a relationship with this bike. Just a few days ago, finally decided to keep riding it until it wore out.

Today, riding a few miles along the Bay Trail with friends and family, coming down off one of the amateur wheelies I like to pop from time to time, I heard a loud cracking sound. Suddenly, the handlebars didn’t turn the front wheel anymore. Uh oh. Got it home and opened up the top tube to find the handlebar stem badly cracked. Took off to find a replacement stem at local bike shops.

It was then I was reminded why standards matter and proprietary variants suck. For a couple of years, Gary Fisher had experimented with a non-standard stem size of 1 1/4″, rather than the typical 1 1/8″ or 1 1/2″. One shop after another gave me the same bad news: “I’ve never seen a stem that size.” “Good luck finding a replacement.” “I doubt even the Gary Fisher company themselves have them in stock.”

Was beginning to contemplate an internet hunt, when the sales manager told me about Mike’s Bikes Africa Bike Drive, which takes tired old Bay Area bikes and sends them to Namibia, where mechanics piece them back together and give them to Africans in need of reliable, inexpensive, eco-friendly transportation.

A remote village in Namibia is the location of our new Sister Shop, a place where there is little access to telephones, much less bicycles. Erasmus and Ludwig are our point-men on the ground along with Peace Corps Volunteer Kami. They are thrilled to have an opportunity to bring a better life to their community through the power of the bicycle, which is our philosophy exactly. With your help and generosity, it’s going to be a beautiful partnership.

Tax-wise, it worked out pretty well. We estimated that the tax savings would approach what I would have made by selling the bike on craigslist — after going through the twin hassles of fixing the stem and finding a buyer. Decided then and there to let the old Kaitai go. In a few weeks, it’ll hopefully have a new home with a person in Namibia who needs it more than I do.

And, of course, this was exactly the sign I’d been waiting for that it’s finally time to go bike hunting. The Renovo Panda makes my heart skip a beat, but eyes and ears are wide open to other options. Got a favorite commuter bike to recommend?

Unloading the shipment from last year’s Africa Bike Drive.

Ditch Your Car for a Better Life

In the United States, 220 million adults own 247 million vehicles. Do we really need all those cars? Many of us do. And many, I suspect, only think they do.

According to Jane Holtz Kay’s book “Asphalt Nation,” by the time you finish this sentence, [all those cars] will have traveled another “60,000 miles, used up 3,000 gallons of petroleum (products) and added 60,000 pounds of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.”

The Orange County Register has an inspirational story about an average family (not a family of athletes or outdoor enthusiasts) that got sick of dumping money into their car, bought a couple of bikes and a bike trailer, and dove in feet-first.

Within two months they paid off two credit cards. No car meant no car bills. It also meant no quick trips to Taco Bell. No morning jolt of Starbucks. No impulse buys of jeans or toys at Target.

One day Jess had a strange complaint: too much money in her wallet and no place to put it. Erick figured out they were recouping more than a third of their income.

“It’s as if your boss came in,” he says, “and asked if you wanted a 35 percent raise.”

Sometimes I wonder what aliens arriving on Earth would think of the way we’ve let cars completely take over our landscape. I wonder if it’s even possible to measure what percentage of vehicle usage is avoidable. How much of it is necessary, how much is merely convenient but negotiable, and how much is just plain habit? For example, a lot of people seem to think they need to use a car to go on quick grocery trips, even when buying less than two bags of groceries, even when they live less than half a mile from a grocery store. A trip like that is easily done by bicycle w/backpack. But many grocery stores don’t even have bike racks outside. How did we get to this point? What will it take to get Americans to re-examine their habits? Why is the Cave family an anomaly, not the rule?

Via Neat-o-Rama

Music: Kraftwerk :: Franz Schubert

Balance Bike

Balancebike Seeing more and more of these Skuut balance bikes around – kids learn to balance with their feet from the get-go, and never have to go through the training wheel stage at all. Here’s a higher-end option. Seems like such an organic, natural process to me – wish I had known about these a few years ago. Just watching kids on them makes me jealous — wonder if they make them in grown-up sizes? Should hook up with the gang at woodenbikes, maybe they have a kit? I can just see myself hurtling down Hearst Ave., trying to stop with my feet.

Music: John Fahey & Cul De Sac :: Gamelan Collage

Two Wheeler

Two-Wheeler Miles has been riding with training wheels on his bike for half a year now. Somehow, a sunny summer evening seemed like the perfect time to try ditching them and flying free. He had a bit of trepidation, and after his first wipe-out he declared his “new” bike “stupid” – said he wanted to give it as a present to a 7-year-old. Then he said he wanted to try again. Riding on the grass turned out to be the magic ticket, and made wipeouts fun. Within half an hour he was flying free and ecstatic. Strange, almost comical coincidence – practically every crash was complemented by the ping of a baseball on aluminum bat in the diamond we shared a field with.

Bike Commute, Pushing Codecs

Had a few ideas about ways to present multiple views of GPS data in a multimedia project, part of which involved videotaping my bicycle commute along the Ohlone Greenway from handlebar-eye-view, then speeding up the 27 minutes of footage to a more watchable five minutes. Mounted a camera with a very sturdy professional cam clamp left over from a long-ago project and set off. Hit a bunch of snags, and am not sure whether they might be show stoppers for the whole project. What I had hoped would capture a lovely ride turned into a struggle with the outer limits of the most advanced codec technology, and ended up looking like total dooky.

Problem #1: Because camera is rigidly attached, it picks up every little bump in the road. This mounting method is inherently shaky.

Problem #2: Because camera is on handlebars rather than on my head, the camera view doesn’t track my line of sight, which is very disconcerting for the viewer (or maybe just for me, since it doesn’t match my experience at all).

Problem #3: Video doesn’t account for a human’s peripheral vision, which accounts for so much of the experience not shown here. Again, disconcerting (makes it seem much more dangerous than it actually feels).

Problem #4: The natural side-to-side pumping action of bicycling adds to a seasick, high-motion effect not actually experienced by the rider.

Problem #5: Once the footage was speeded up, pauses at stop signs pass by in a blink, making it look like I ride with total disregard for both death and the law. Not so! Though I do do some rolling stops, I’m actually very careful at intersections, especially because the Ohlone Greenway cuts across streets a ways away from the “real” intersections, so most drivers aren’t in the headspace to be expecting cross-traffic (despite zebra stripes and big yellow warning signs). I wear an orange safety vest and treat those intersections with kid gloves.

Problem #6: Video codecs rely on data similarities between frames, and none of them perform well under high-motion conditions. What could have more motion than shaky footage played back at 5x? Thought I could convey a beautiful morning experience, but this looks completely pixelated and smeared-out, even though I used the usually gorgeous h.264 codec. Of course, YouTube also apply their own compression, but my local version doesn’t look much better than this one. The only version that came out looking passable was the version with no compression at all — and it’s 750 MBs.

The footage is also a bit over-exposed, but that’s operator error rather than endemic. Hope to have access before long to a helmet-mountable lipstick camera, which should help a lot with problems 1, 2, 3, and 4, but will do little for problems 5 and 6. Back to the drawing board.

Music is “High Water” by Bruce Lash – Bruce gave me permission to use his stuff in projects back when I was at Adamation, and he now offers a bunch of downloadable music free for personal use.

Bikes Inherently Dangerous?

San Francisco is home to the world’s most aggressive bicycle activists. It’s also home to one of the world’s most aggressive anti-bike activists. Dishwasher and blogger Rob Anderson has succeeded in convincing a judge to put a temporary halt to construction of any new bicycle lanes in the city, on environmental grounds (the lanes allegedly have “not received the level of environmental review required by the California Environmental Quality Act”).

Anderson’s premise is that bicycles are inherently dangerous and will therefore never become a realistic mass transit option. Apparently it’s never occurred to him that bikes are inherently dangerous primarily because of the extreme proliferation of cars?

Only thing worse than an irrational person is a mean irrational person. With power.

Wooden Bikes

Woodenbike1 Surfacing one of my favorite highlights from the Maker Faire, sports a dozen or so bicycles with frames made from driftwood logs, 2x4s, hunks of plywood, and old patio furniture reconstituted as recumbents, unicycle variants, suspension units. The bicycle is a perfect low-tech hackable for beach bums and weekend welders, and for reasons I can’t put my finger, has got my cranks turning (pardon bad pun). Miles and I could have a gas on the Rear Captain Tandem. Looks like Dylan and Co. got to ride a few last weekend, though they weren’t allowing rides when M and I were there. Guess I’ll just have to MAKE one.

Music: Radiohead :: How To Disappear Completely

Amplified Bicycle

Mallet On the second night of the recent Matthew Sperry Memorial Festival, cellist Theresa Wong played an amplified bicycle, in a performance that brought many in the house to tears. Wong, who studies performance at Mills College, had been playing the amplified bicycle prior to having known of Matthew or his death. I had been storing the bicycle from which Matthew was struck in our garage for quite some time.

After the performance, I offered Matthew’s bicycle to Theresa to use as her instrument; she accepted. I spent Saturday afternoon getting the wheels rolling again, chain disentangled, brake pads unstuck, and cleaning up the road grit. Rested my hands on the grips – the last things Matthew ever touched – and took the bike for a spin, meditating on his life. Sunday I delivered the bike to Theresa’s Oakland loft.

Theresa found the bike resonant, full of surprising sounds. After a few minutes of orientation, she improvised a piece for Matthew. A wild dove had been hanging out in the loft for a few days, and we imagined it to be Matthew’s visiting spirit.

Pansy Bikes

Took out time with baald to test-drive a couple of scooters today: The Aprilia Mojito and the Kymco People — both 50cc, both a bit over my budget, and both totally anemic. Haven’t been on a bike since I cracked up the R1100R, and even though I knew a scooter would be a pale shadow of that magical creature, wasn’t prepared for just how pathetic a commuter scooter would feel. Head up an SF hill, open it up.

“Baby, is that really all you got?”

Sad, but that was the goal after all. Efficient, not fast. Of the two, was surprised to find the Kymco more peppy, and better handling than the Aprilia. Kinda fun, but felt like a pansy. Felt like I should have a cell phone with little baubles and tassles hanging from the handlebar. One of them even had a little hook for hanging your pink plastic grocery bag from. Kind of hoped no one I knew would see me on it. That’s not where I want to be. So, two lessons learned:

1) Can get a 150 or 200cc scooter on the used market for less than a new 50cc.

2) Want something that’s been through the mod wars. Original styling, not retro plastic, and with battle scars. Fixer OK, if it’s a proven work donkey.

Still, time well spent. Had to ride them to know.

Music: Nils Petter Molvær :: Kakonita

Matthew’s Ghost Bike

In June, I posted about Pittsburgh’s Ghost Bike project, in which activists memorialize bicyclists killed by cars. To create a ghost bike, an old bicycle is painted solid white and chained to a pole along with a sign designed to raise consciousness of passing motorists.

A couple of months ago, Matthew’s widow and I retrieved the bicycle Matthew was killed on from police storage, and discussed the possibility of making it a ghost bike. Then last week, passing through Emeryville, I discovered that someone had already put up a ghost bike at the site of Matthew’s death. Asking around, I heard it had been up for a few weeks, but still have no clear idea who set it up.

To whoever set this up: A heartfelt thank you from all of Matthew’s friends and family. I snapped a couple of images of the bike today:

Ghost bike

(Note: This is not Matthew’s bike – I don’t know where this bike comes from. Matthew’s bike is safe in my garage, spookily undamaged, or almost).