Thursday, August 27, 2009

How far off are we?

I think the difference between perception and reality is very interesting, and that by studying that difference we can learn an enormous amount about ourselves and our surroundings. I have observed that by hypothesizing first and measuring second the measurement is much more meaningful. For example, imagine standing in the fairway on a golf course, looking across a small pond to the flag in the middle of a large green protected by bunkers front and left. If you are not a golfer, who cares, just play along. A good golfer, or caddy, can look at that flag and say, “its about 125 yards.” But a beginner can’t. You could just tell the beginner, “that flag is 124 yards,” and he could then try and remember what 124 yards looks like, and use it as a reference in the future. Or you could ask the beginner, “how far to that flag?” His response will tell you and him a great deal about how well he’s been doing with distance recognition. If he says, “160 yards” then he is clearly over estimating, and will know immediately upon learning the true yardage that he has a lot to work on. If you just tell him, “124 yards” he won’t every really know how far off his judgment is.
I bring this up because I recently calculated the amount of money my wife and I spend on automobile ownership, and it came out to about $800 a month. We lease one car and own one outright. I drive much less than the average person (maybe 300 miles a month), so our fuel and insurance are less than they would be if I commuted in my car. And the fact that we own one of our cars probably makes our monthly total somewhat less than normal. Beany had a great post about cost of car ownership a couple of days ago with links to AAA and other sites that spell the numbers out nicely.
Now to bring this all together. . . I asked my wife one day, after I’d come up with my $800 figure, how much she figured we spent on car ownership each month, just her gut reaction guess. She started adding up all the various numbers and I asked her to stop adding, and just guess. She doesn’t like to guess at things, so this was asking a lot of her, but she graciously played along and guessed $500. My reason for making her guess, as I’ve already tried to point out, is that the fact that her guess-timate was much lower means something. It means that she wasn’t realizing the true financial impact that owning two cars has on our lives. She knew the cars weren’t cheap, but she didn’t, at her gut level, know how much they really cost. Neither did I, by the way, when I first tried to figure it out. $800 is a large part of our monthly budget!
Tom Vanderbilt discusses the differences between reality and perception frequently in his book Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us). For example, people are very bad at perceiving distances, especially greater than 100 yards, and men and women err in different ways. We are pretty bad at estimating speeds, and at timing merges. Most of us understand that we don’t have built in radar guns, and that our estimates of vehicular speed are not amazingly accurate. What we don’t necessarily understand is by how far off our estimates really are. It’s that discrepancy that is really the important thing to know. I feel safer knowing that I really don’t know how fast a car is approaching, rather than feeling like I’ve got a pretty good guess.
I use this technique - forcing a hypothesis before allowing a calculation - often with my students because I think the resulting calculation has a lot more meaning, and is much more memorable compared to the students' preconceived notions. Try it next time you are wondering about something quantifiable. You may learn more than you set out to.

This has been quite the long winded post. Thanks for reading it.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Some more "creative" writing

Here's another piece from my recently finished creative writing class at SD City College. The assignment was to write Flash Fiction, a relatively new brand of fiction that is confined to less than 1000 words, sometimes fewer. My attempt comes in at just under 700 words.

disclaimer: This has nothing to do with bicycles! Feel free to stop reading now. . .


“‘What do you value more, honesty or compassion?’” he read aloud, sure to shade his delivery with deep cynicism.
“What does that even mean?” she chided, wryly.
“Honesty, clearly,” he responded, clicked the corresponding box, and scrolled down to the next question. She sat in his lap in the folding chair at their flimsy card table desk while he filled out the internet dating service’s “compatibility profile” they had finally dared each other to complete. They laughed together, and he snuggled his face against her soft shirt, felt her ribs with his cheek, and absorbed the warmth of the low afternoon sun that shined through the window on her long blond hair.
“Your turn,” he said as he finished. “It’ll never match us to each other- you’re too dumb to land a catch like me.”
“Yeah, hopefully I’ll get someone good looking!” she teased. She bent toward him smiling, kissed him on the forehead, and took the mouse.
After dinner they returned jovially to the office to check the computer generated results. The setting sun dimly lit the small room and the two resumed their cozy pose in the worn chair. Over buttery pasta and a four dollar bottle of pinot they had joked about their potential “e-matches.”
“It makes me sad that people will pay a computer to find what we have,” she had said. Now they furtively anticipated confirmation that their union was Cupid’s handiwork. He opened his “compatibility portfolio”. There were twelve potential matches, but she wasn’t among them. Realistically they both expected this to be the outcome, but the subtle pang of the revelation caused her to shift on his lap none-the-less.
“What do computers know of love?” he proclaimed theatrically.
“Apparently they think you love small hippies,” she jabbed as they scrolled through his matches, each one a slightly varying version of an outdoorsy, creative, brunette. He ran his hand through her blond hair and felt her tense when he squeezed her slender thigh.
“Yeah,” he quipped, “they’ve obviously got me pegged.” Restlessly, she shifted again on his leg, and opened her profile. She smirked proudly at her striking list of prospects. The computer determined that she would be perfectly coupled with tall, dark, handsome business men, one after the next intelligent, educated, and successful.
“What about you?” he pried dramatically, “I guess you’re just slumming down here with me.” His voice wavered, betraying an irritation that she enjoyed.
“I guess I could get used to BMWs and caviar,” she replied, only half joking.
Under the bright, fluorescent bathroom light he stood at the sink, lethargically brushed his teeth, and studied the mirror. He searched for something that resembled tall, or dark, or classically handsome. Sitting on the toilet, painting her freshly filed finger nails, she startled the striking silence by asking, “Does it bother you that I don’t go camping?”
“No,” he said too quickly, irritated by her pretense. Defensively, he fired back, “Would you rather be with someone who could fly you to Rome every weekend?”
Her reply didn’t come quickly. The pause hung in the air like a falling kite. “No, of course not,” she said quietly, “I chose you.”
“Yeah, I chose you too,” he said heavily. He finished at the sink, dried his face, and turned toward the door.
“You like my blond hair”, she probed, “right?”
“Uh huh,” he grunted, annoyed, “and I’m sure you like mine.”
As he walked away she softly replied, “Yeah,” and blew gently on her wet nails.
She was already under the covers when he finally sulked into the dark bedroom. He took off his worn t-shirt, stuffed it in the cramped closet, and got quietly into his side of the big bed. He could smell her lotion, the pillow cases she washed too often, and her long, clean, golden hair. She rolled toward him and said quietly, “Good night, sweetheart. You are my best match, you know.”
“I know, baby. I love you,” he whispered back.
They touched lips requisitely, and then rolled willingly away from one another. Back to back, both pairs of tired eyes stared sleeplessly into the quiet darkness.

If you finished it, Thanks! As always, comments are more than welcome.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Greening With Envy

This morning on the ferry I read the following article from this month's Atlantic:

Greening With Envy - The Atlantic (July/August 2009)

To paraphrase: When given information comparing an individual's eco-friendliness/energy efficiency to his neighbors, the individual is likely to change his behavior to fall more in line with the normal.

And I thought, "I wonder how one could apply this to other aspects of the movement towards sustainable living?"

(ed note: I despise the use of the words "sustainable" and "green" as synonyms for environmentally friendly, but as they have become the convention, I'll acquiesce.)

Could you leave notes on the windshields of F-250 pickups comparing their use of oil to the neighborhood average? Could this practice curb the over watering practiced by several apartment complexes around my home?

Better yet, could you lie about what "normal" is, thus forcing a change in perception? That's basically just advertising, but it could be pretty effective. For example, a billboard that says, "50% of San Diegans ride a bike every week, do you?" or, "3 out of 5 drivers pass cyclists no closer than 3 feet." Who said that advertisements have to be accurate?

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Long time no blog

Wow. I've been quite neglectful of this blog for months! I think a large reason for my absence from the www was my presence in a creative writing class at SD City College. I was doing a fair amount of writing, but I didn't post anything. So here goes. As this blog has taken on a fairly cycling specific flavor (not necessarily on purpose) I'll post a piece I wrote for the class. I wrote the piece as creative non-fiction and because a smart person once said, "write what you know," I chose to write about cycling in San Diego. So I'll throw it up here. It's long, so you may want to read in chunks. I'd love feedback. The more critical the better, either of my writing or my point of view. Thanks.

DISCLAIMER: Please don't get your feelings hurt by anything you read here. I may seem critical of all these groups of cyclists, but its only because I identify with aspects of each. Obviously, a stereotype is not represntative of each individual on which it is built.
Also, I stole the name from Thom's blog, The World Awheel. Sorry, but I dig the phrase.

San Diego Awheel

The beach towns of San Diego’s North County enjoy beautiful ocean sunsets, replete with all the colors of an amateur painter’s lavishness. This means that their sunrises, forced to sneak over North County’s elevated terrain, are brushed in a more subtle pallet. But on weekend mornings the rising sun brings out of the highlands an array of hues not normally found in temperate climes; the blues and greens, pinks, yellows, reds, and tangerines usually reserved for tropical fish, birds, and flowers flock to the awakening coast on two wheels. The great Saturday Morning Bike Ride migration descends, in Audis, Subaru’s, and 4Runners on parking lots all along the 5 and the 101. In every coastal town, on steeds of carbon fiber and titanium, spandex wrapped cyclists form packs, aggressive and fast, and take to the hills like salmon to the spawn. As the sun trundles toward its zenith the painted and panting swarms spill back down various tributaries to the 101, stopping in Solana Beach, Del Mar, or Encinitas for tall tales of two wheeled heroism around hot cups of espresso or cold smoothies. Their testosterone and legs spent, they retreat back to their sport wagons and SUVs for the drive home. They have worn tight shorts, sweated, bustled and jockeyed, yelled and been yelled at, and communed thoroughly enough to carry them through the next six days of family obligations, meetings, and crowded commutes. They’ll be back next weekend.
An all-together different breed of cyclist goes unrepresented in the hormone fueled Saturday morning battles. They are nursing hangovers from last night’s show at the Ché (Jim Beam shots dropped in PBR) and are unwilling to rise with the sun. Besides, most have to stamp their time card by one. Like the roadies, their uniforms also mimic forest dwellers- not birds, but lumberjacks. Denim and plaid flannel, but they do prefer their jeans just as tight as the Saturday morning crowds’ spandex. Despite requisite piercings and tattoos, the distinguishing characteristic of these cyclists is the code by which they ride: Fixed gear. One cog, one chainring, no derailleur, no freewheel, and often, no brake. They spin through traffic on modified track bikes, unimpeded by technology or reason. Like the “spandex” crowd, these hipsters practice a weekly communal ritual. Every Tuesday evening, from early Spring through late Fall, they gather in scores on the wooden bleachers and grassy hillsides overlooking the velodrome in Balboa Park. The track bikes raced here are the motivation, inspiration, and justification for the fixed gear phylum. The crowds wash down burritos with Tecate, ogle one another’s Deep-Vs and Sugino laced whips, and every once in a while, they look up and notice there’s a race going on.
Uncomfortably crammed between the hipsters, in small, smokeless pockets of the bleachers, you can often spot yet another variety of cyclist. If they weren’t at a bike race, you probably wouldn’t have known they were into cycling, and that ambiguity is a valued aspect of their style. These are utilitarian cyclists. Utilitarian not in the Benthamian vein, but in that for these riders the bicycle is a utility, a tool, a means of transport. Of course, as bicycles do, the tool becomes much more important than the utility it provides, and thus these cyclists find themselves drawn from rush-hour streets, farmers’ markets, and city counsel meetings to this place of communal bicycle worship. You could call these folks “commuters” but that would be like calling soccer hooligans “fans.” You’d be missing most of the picture. When people take to the bicycle as a mode of transport something changes. Whether the change takes place within their personal paradigms or the external universe is difficult to say, but for these enlightened cyclists the world looks different, and they seek others who share the view. This quest for community draws them to the velodrome on Tuesday nights.
Humans, as a species, yearn for community. If the cycling community in San Diego has a body its organs are the city’s bike shops. Bike shops provide parts, service, organization, and representation. They are temples, shrines, and oracles. Like livers, hearts, lungs, and guts, each shop fills a different role in the community, but like organs, they compete for the same blood and oxygen - money. In the shops of San Diego’s Up Town, hippsters, track racers, and old-school utility cyclists collectively salivate at rows of vintage Italian steel frames and display walls adorned with British leather saddles. In the big box stores, scattered like Hansel and Gretel’s crumbs along the 5 and the 8, Saturday morning warriors buy carbon bits of feather-weight wonder and a new pair of flame embroidered socks. Beach cruisers are sold like tacos to sunburned college kids in flip-flops on every other corner in Pacific and Mission Beach, where the inclusion of a beer koozy can make or break a deal. There’s the track racing shop, the fixed gear shop, shops for mountain bikes, BMX, wonderbikes, recumbents, and tricycles; all filling a niche but with enough overlap that competition can be, and has to be, fierce. Shops sometimes work together to promote an event, or a group ride, or a race, but for the most part they desperately need those few dollars that are up for grabs from the “independent” cyclists. Clearly the body is healthiest when all of its needs are met by functioning organs, but in a pinch, who really needs two kidneys?
Among most groups of cyclists there is an oft heard cry for community: stronger community, more active community, a lobbying, organized, respected and acknowledged community that, through bicycles, can change the city, the country, and eventually the world. In a Saturday morning pace line you can hear the call to organize for fewer potholes and wider bike lanes. Suburbanites want more bike paths. The cry comes loudest from the every day cyclist, the commuters and utilitarians. These are the cyclists who battle the lonely and dangerous city streets day in and day out and truly understand what a car-centric world we live in.
On the last Friday of every month, in a swirling mass of wheels, bells, horns, and hollers, the San Diego bicycle community swarms around the big fountain in Balboa Park. Parents and kids, BMXers flipping tricks, fixed gear riders with bags of canned beer, utility cyclists with trailers carrying radios and dogs, and everyone in between, riding anything they can dream, gather for Critical Mass. “CM,” as it’s known on the forums, attracts a huge number (sometimes as many as 1500) of cyclists under the premise of “taking back the streets.” The idea is that by riding en mass bicycles can, once a month, rule the car-dominated realm. The churning throng rides West out of the park, and for the next few hours proceeds randomly around the city-blinking, ringing, honking, and hollering- staking the bicycle’s claim to the roads.
If there is a whole community event in the San Diego velo culture, this is it. And yet, even in the context of Critical Mass, the community is not complete. As in other historic calls-to-arms there are draft dodgers and conscience objectors. Conspicuously absent are the spandexed weekend warriors. For them cycling is a recreational pursuit; a means of staying in shape and competing against others for high thrills and low stakes. Monday through Friday, for the most part, they are members of the ruling car-driving majority. Also missing from the mass are those who believe the intended significance is lost on the participants. Can drunken college kids and aggressive teens on dirt bikes ever convince the auto-blind convention that the bicycle, as a legitimate means of transport and conveyance, has a real and useful place on the roads and in society? Many think not and choose non-participation as their voice against what has become, at least in their minds, an excuse for condoned anarchy and rebellion.
Obviously, within a medium as varied as the modern bicycle, the practices, methods, ethos, and creeds of its patrons will cover a wide span of experiences. For some, a bicycle is akin to a tennis racket. For others, it’s an accessory, like a skateboard, or Air Jordans. A bicycle, depending on the build and design, can careen down rocky mountain trails, jump over urban ravines, descend flights of concrete stairs, or climb high alpine passes. Bicycles carry men to glory on the cobbled Champs d'Elysées, and they carry men to work on dew wet early morning roads around the world. People carry their children, their groceries, and their aspirations on narrow inner tubes and aluminum wheels. For every different way of utilizing a bicycle there is a corresponding conviction about the machine’s ultimate purpose. With those deeply held beliefs come powerful insinuations against people who use the bicycle differently. Racers disdain commuters for their plebian employment of the beautiful instrument. Utility cyclists scorn the carbon-fiber weight weenies and their five thousand dollar toys. Everyone who hasn’t tried one, and some who have, considers fixed gear bikes a nonsensical and impractical ornament of modern pop anti-culture. Down hillers think cross country riders are dorks. Climbers think bombers are lazy and crazy. Not even BMXers respect other BMXers. On cycling forums, blogs, and bike shops bulletin boards riders claw for community, but on the streets of San Diego they avoid eye contact, sprint past, and judge every other person they observe employing the bicycle in a way different than their own.
The cycling community in San Diego is as diverse as the city itself. Across the beaches, the valley, the uptown mesa, Downtown, South Bay, and East County people on bicycles race, pop wheelies, jump onto and off of rails, ride dirt, street, vert, and track. Curmudgeon ancients on old English three speeds, like the suspendered grandpa at the family gathering, decry any use of post war technology. Black haired hoodlums on urban stunt bikes fill the role of the mischievous little brother. The cool, older siblings race without brakes, wheel to wheel, on the banked concrete of the velodrome. Strange cousins ride recumbents and double-decker monstrosities built in basements. The Mom and Dad of this dysfunctional family are the conscience commuters who halt at every stop sign and red light, signal turns, and wear reflective helmets. San Diego’s cyclists are a dysfunctional collection of preference and personality, and so resemble a real family much more than a mere community. Every family is rife with infighting, jealousy, and contempt. But families are held together by love. In the case of the bicycling family, it’s the love of freedom, of breaking the mold, of shifting the paradigm. No family is perfect, but with a little understanding, patience, and grace, all families progress toward a common goal. Family trumps community any day.
As the sun rises behind the hills and peeks between the sky scrapers of the Finest City and across the Big Bay, men and women, driven by some combination of economy, fitness, convenience, and philosophy converge on a single point on North Harbor drive, on the Broadway Pier. The riders arrive on suspended mountain bikes and high-end race bikes. They come on old-school steel and space-age carbon. Nearly every ideation of bicycle carries a cyclist to the ferry landing, bound for Coronado. They all board the boat together, and slip their wheels into the single bike rack in the middle of the main deck. Clad in full spandex racing kits, gym shorts and tee shirts, cutoffs or slacks, they take their seats and settle in for the ride across the peaceful bay. The ferry leaves, and for twenty tranquil minutes the family enjoys the sparkling view, and contemplates the day to come.

If you read the whole thing, thank you. If you wish to comment, please do.
I'll probably post some other stuff I wrote for the class in the next couple of weeks. Not about bicycles, but the world isn't all about bicycles, just mostly.