Thursday, February 07, 2008

R.I.P. Sheldon Brown (July 14, 1944 - February 3, 2008)

OK, I know, every bicycling blog, organization or spammer on the planet has already beat me to the punch with a report, commentary or diatribe related the passing last weekend of the late, great Sheldon Brown into the great bicycle track in the sky.

But, as you regular readers of Underground Science (all three of you -- you know who you are) know, this blog is not the place to look for the scoop, for late-breaking news, or for information found here first and nowhere else.

Nope, Underground Science prides itself on getting the dirt to you last, or at least, well after some other folks have already posted on it about a thousand times. We like to be an entertaining and moderately useful secondary source. You can keep your primary sources in your a href tags, thank you very much!

So, in that spirit, I present to you some of my favorite aspects of the Sheldon Brown website.

First off, he was a pioneer in many fields of bicycling... including, as you may have noticed from the title photo of this post, riding a tandem solo, from the rear seat. He, in fact, built many tandems by combining two separate bicycles into one, and describes how to do so here. As he says, "If you are not already a tinkerer who can fix most anything that can go wrong with a bike, you are not ready to build a tandem. This design is best suited to teams with small stokers, because a large or even medium-sized stoker will likely feel cramped by the short rear top tube. In addition, the single-bicycle parts may not give good service with a heavy team."

He goes over in detail why you would want to do such a thing in the first place (ride a tandem, that is):

Why Ride A Tandem?

Riding a normal, single-rider bicycle is a very rewarding experience, but a tandem bicycle adds a whole new dimension to cycling. Different tandemists choose the long bike for different reasons:

* A tandem allows two cyclists of differing strength and ability to ride together, pleausurably. The faster rider doesn't need to wait for the slower one; the slower rider doesn't need to struggle to try to keep up with the faster rider.

* A tandem turns the basically solitary, individualistic activity of cycling into an mutual experience that may be shared by a couple.

* A tandem allows handicapped people who couldn't otherwise ride a bicycle to share in the joy of cycling.

* A tandem can allow a parent to share cycling at an adult level of speed and distance with a child.

* A tandem is the ultimate rush for cyclists who enjoy the sensation of high-speed cycling.

Whatever your reason for choosing (or considering) a tandem, this article will attempt to cover some of the things that every tandemist should learn.

Sheldon also was a huge advocate of fixed-gear bicycles, as well as fixed-gear tandems! And, as an experienced tandem Captain, he is well aware that a tandem is, in fact, a bicycle ridden by _two_ people:

The rear rider is commonly known as the "stoker." Other names for the rear rider include "navigator", "tailgunner" and "rear admiral" or "R.A." The rear rider is not a "passenger", but is an equal participant. The stoker has two main responsibilities:

* The stoker serves mainly as a motor. Since the stoker is not called upon to control the bike, this rider should be able to actually generate more power than the same rider would on a single bike. Depending on the strength and endurance of the stoker, this may take the form of a steady output or may be held in reserve. If the stoker is acting as a "reserve," it is OK to take it easy for general cruising, so long as the stoker can help out with a burst of power for the climbs. Since starting up on a tandem is a bit trickier than on a single, the stoker should apply as much smooth power as possble when starting up, to get the bike up to maneuvering speed quickly.

* The stoker's other major responsibility is a negative one: The stoker must not attempt to steer! Unpredictable weight shifts on the part of the stoker can make the captain's job much harder, and can lead to crashes, in extreme cases. The stoker should keep in line with the centerline of the bicycle, and lean with it as it leans through corners. When the stoker needs to shift position on the saddle, or adjust a toe strap, or take a drink, it is vital that they do so without disturbing the equilibrium of the bicycle. These activities should not be attempted at all while the captain is dealing with tricky traffic situations or narrow spaces.

The stoker can also do a bit of back rubbing now and then, as well as taking photograhs, singing encouraging songs, reading maps, etc.

He also includes advice on starting from a dead stop on a tandem, including "common incorrect techniques," including "The Cowboy Mount, which involves standing next to the bike, putting one foot on a pedal, then swinging the other leg over the saddle while the bicycle is in motion. Try this on a tandem, and you'll kick your stoker in the head!"

Sheldon Brown's most prized innovations often were released on April 1st. Since that's a little ways off, however, I'd like to present some of my favorites here...

If you've got a tandem, you might be tempted to ride it for a long while. Perhaps even overnight. But, you've already got the weight of two people on the bike. Why add extra stuff? Go credit-card touring! And if you do so, you might want to use Sheldon Brown's extra-light drilled-titanium credit card.

But, say you've got a baby... not a kid, but an actual baby, much too small to hide away in a trailer, much less plop on a seat and expect it to pedal. Then, you'd need a carrababy, to allow you to comfortably carry your child on the bicycle.

And finally, if adding a stoker to the back of your bicycle (by home-building a single-speed rear tandem addition onto it, of course) doesn't quite give you the speed increase you desire, if you travel mainly in north/south directions, you could use a Geomagnetic Booster device!

Rest in peace, Sheldon. You will be missed. Especially on April 1st. :-)


Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Super Fat Tuesday

Happy Super Fat Tuesday!

(Shouldn't need to explain it, but -- it's Super Tuesday, with primaries in ~24 states, as well as Fat Tuesday, which I will freely admit I know nothing about except that it's somehow associated with Mardi Gras and New Orleans. And, I dunno, probably Catholicism or something. I'm not going to even bother Googling it. Just tell me if you really want me to know.)

As an Oregonian reporting from the San Francisco Bay Area today, I've got a rather unique perspective to offer, I think. My day started off by hearing Senator Obama on the KFOG morning show (interview is archived here: and finding out that all of the surviving members of the Grateful Dead turned out last night to do a benefit concert for him!

So, first the entire Kennedy clan (including California's first lady, the wife of the guvernator) -- then the Dead?

What's next, the Dead Kennedys?


I've been asking everyone I talk to how they voted, or intend to vote. It seems to be about nine-to-one in favor of Obama.... now, that's of course a very slanted sample, but even a few weeks ago, a lot of people were on the fence. Now, they've decided... and some of them have been huge surprises to me! (Like my buddy, whom I thought was a Libertarian... but who told me that, in all reality, he's not a member of any organized political party. He's a Democrat -- to quote Will Rogers.)

Personally -- I'm an Oregonian, I don't vote until June. Not my horse race today.

But I do think it's interesting how much momentum Obama is picking up.

It reminds me of the time that Bill Clinton and Al Gore came to Portland for a rally in Pioneer Courthouse Square. I was in school then, and a bunch of us got excused from class to go down and check out the rally (hey, we were MLC'ers). It was the biggest... celebration... that I'd ever been a part of. People were so exuberant to have the opportunity to shake the hands of either of those great men! They were absolutely ecstatic about them coming to Portland, and appearing for free in Pioneer Square for everybody to meet & hear them! Especially after twelve years of Reagan/Bush (this must have been in 92...), it was so cathartic.

Maybe Obama has the charisma to bring about times like those again -- times of optimism and hope for the future, under a responsible new president who really inspires people to believe that he will make a change for the better. And maybe that's more important than Clinton's much-vaunted foreign policy and domestic policy skills. I don't know, but I do know that I'm very excited to find out what the results are of the elections today!

Yes, Obama's health plan is not as good as the Edwards plan, which Clinton basically copied. However, there's a good case to be made that if Obama is elected, Clinton may become Majority Leader in the Senate, so her health care plan could be the one that gets enacted after all, following the sausage-making of the legislative process. And I don't think that Obama would go so far as to veto over the details in a health care proposal.

So, as much as Krugman has been spilling ink (and bits) to poke holes in Obama's health care and other domestic policies (Social Security, etc.)... and I don't dispute that he's right... I don't think this election should be confined to one issue. And maybe hope, optimism and change really should count and be defining characteristics, as long as positions on the issues aren't absolute deal-breakers?

I'll conclude with a quote:

Clinton's great successes, the ones he and his wife tout on the campaign trail, were really the fulfillment of Reagan's principles. It was Clinton, after all, who declared, "The era of big government is over," and was able to back that up with actual decreases in the size of government. It was Clinton who actually balanced the budget, who reformed welfare. Reagan set the politics; Clinton played the steward. This is not, it should be said, an attack against Clinton. He governed in a difficult ideological atmosphere—in Reagan's America, not his own. And in Reagan's America, Newt Gingrich and his followers were intent on enacting a far crueler version of Reaganism. Clinton, sensing their threat, smartly co-opted their principles and refashioned them as part of a relatively progressive and unquestionably compassionate agenda. In doing so, he succeeded in making some admirable policy advances (the State Children's Health Insurance Program, a rise in the minimum wage, the expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit) and staving off their most dangerous initiatives.

Hillary Clinton, similarly, means to govern within the ideological confines of the moment and to tirelessly work to implement better policy. Happily, compared to 1992, it is a moment more amenable to the progressive agenda, largely thanks to George W. Bush's eight-year project to discredit conservatism. (As John Kenneth Galbraith once said, "liberalism is, I think, resurgent. One reason is that more and more people are painfully aware of the alternative.") A talented bureaucratic leader may prove best able to press the advantage and transform sentiment into substance. And Clinton is, by all accounts, exactly that. Her understanding of the bureaucracy is deep, and her command of the relevant policy is masterful. Given the circumstances, she will push, with savvy and determination, for the best policies possible.

But she largely accepts the circumstances, or at least her inability to change them through the application of her own charisma. Obama, by contrast, focuses more on changing the circumstances in which the legislation is made. The promise of his presidency is less its capacity to change our policies than its capacity to change our politics. He is the more likely to address, forcefully and eloquently, a culture that accepts grotesque CEO pay and rampant inequality. She is more likely to push workable solutions aimed at curbing those blights. She promises to ride the bureaucracy; he promises to drive the mood. He promises to replace Reagan's vision of an individualistic economy with the progressive dream of an interconnected economy; she promises to work tirelessly to redress the inequities of our current economy. She promises to care for our economy; he promises to change its values. She wants to be the more liberal Clinton; he wants to be remembered as the progressive Reagan. To choose between them requires not so much an analysis of their policies as a judgment call on our politics. It requires deciding whether our country needs a talented steward or a visionary.
(from Ezra Klein's post today.)