Tuesday, May 24, 2016

On the Glorious 25th of May: What Sir Terry Taught Me




May 25 is Geek Pride Day, where all of us who love Fantasy, Sci-Fi, Cosplay, Gaming and what have you are free to let our freak (geek?) flags fly, though I would kind of argue that's pretty much every day. It's also Towel Day, when we celebrate the life and works of Douglas Adams, which is a noble and worthy cause, of course.

But for another subset of geek culture, a large, but often relatively quiet fandom compared to the t-shirt-wearing, movie-quoting masses, the 25th of May is significant for another reason. It marks the date of the People's Revolution of the Glorious 25th of May, from Terry Pratchett's 2002 book, Night Watch.

Pratchett has long been one of my favorite authors, and Night Watch probably remains one of my favorite books from his Discworld series. It confronts some pretty grim subject matter, but still manages to maintain humor and humanity, and it closely examines a lot of our issues and assumptions about politics, revolution and human nature. It's got a bit of Les Miserables about it, a bit of English history, a bit of the '60s and a lot of Pratchett. Read it, you won't regret it.

Aside from just this book, though, the Discworld series and associated books have taught me a lot over the nearly 20 years I've been reading them, and Pratchett's death a year ago hit me pretty hard (especially as it came at a time when I was still mourning a more personal loss). But some of the lessons from his stories have become core parts of who I am. Among them:


  • There are many ways to sin, and many ways to be evil, but they all start with treating people as things. Once we stop seeing people as individuals and look at them as pawns in a game, as stereotypes, as means to an end, we head down the wrong path. Sometimes even if we set out with the best of intentions. 
  • Darkness isn't the opposite of light, it's simply it's absence. It's up to us to be a light in dark places, and to not let indifference or complacency make us part of them. And, when all is said and done, and the odds are against you, sometimes it's better to light a flamethrower than to curse the darkness. 
  • Stories matter. They make up who we are and tell us why we're here. And sometimes belief and faith are extremely important, including belief in things that we may objectively know not to be real. You can't weigh justice, you can't measure out a cup of mercy but those things are important to making us human. Our belief in these things gives them a reality which, although it may only exist within the confines of our own skulls, has the power to shape the world, and lets us become what we are, the place where the falling angel meets the rising ape. 
  • Personal isn't the same as important. This is a harsh truth and one that can be hard to live by. Sometimes what matters most to us isn't what matters in the grand scheme of things. 
  • At the same time, the small things do matter. In a vast, uncaring universe our tiny, insignificant and brief lives are all unique and precious. And the fact that we have the ability to look up into the night sky and contemplate infinity, fully aware of how tiny we are in the face of it all, and in the next breath return to wondering what we should make for dinner is not a flaw. 
  • People, even when they don't look like what you may think of as "people" are pretty much the same everywhere. For the most part they want the same things, a good meal, the company of friends, and to go about their day knowing that the world they live in is relatively sane and stable from one day to the next. People are also different from "The People," in that nobody's actually met the latter, but it's a phrase often used by those who think they know what's best for "The People" regardless of what actual people want (which is another road to Treating People As Things). 
  • The most powerful magic is understanding how people think. Failing that, actual magic is pretty cool, but a big stick is often more useful. 
  • Ideals and ideas are wonderful, but somebody still has to bake the bread and clean the privy (preferably not at the same time). 
  • It's very tempting to divide the world into Us and Them, and to think that all of the bad things are the fault of Them. It's more comfortable to blame it all on Them, but in reality there is not Them, there's only Us. 
  • Real Freedom includes the freedom to suffer the consequences of your decisions. The freedom to suceed goes hand in hand with the freedom to fail. 
  • Don't give up, in order to have a last-minute change of fortune, you have to take your fortune to the last minute. 
  • Making bad choices for good reasons makes it easier to make them for bad reasons later on
  • Sometimes the best answer is a more interesting question
  • Knowing how bad you can be is the best encouragement for being good. 
  • Doing the right thing can mean your lose everything, but doing the wrong thing can mean you lose  yourself
  • The best way to face everything, good or bad, is with curiousity, humor and compassion. 
How do they rise up? 

Sunday, September 2, 2012

The Towpath Scorcher: my Country Road Bob

I've owned any number of bikes over the years, but probably my favorite has been the Van Dessel “Country Road Bob” in its various incarnations. I got the frame used from a local racer seven or eight years ago, and had actually had it off the road for nearly a year, as some parts were worn out and others got scavenged to build up my Cannondale road bike, but recently acquired some new wheels, cranks and bars to build it up again. 
Not a bike for the shy.

Van Dessel, for those not familiar with the company, Van Dessel is a small company based in Mendham, NJ that designs and distributes some unique – and uniquely named – performance bicycles. Most of their bicycles, such as the “Gin & Trombones” (cyclocross), “Drag Strip Courage” (track) and “All Systems Go” (time trial) are pretty race-oriented, but they've always had one or two models like the now-discontinued “Country Road Bob” and it's spiritual successor, the “Whisky Tango Foxtrot” that were a bit weird, but extremely versatile.
The Bob I have, a 2002 model, is a singlespeed-only frame, with horizontal track-style rear drop outs (“fork ends” for the purists), and features a moderately zippy cyclocross geometry, carbon fork and a very distinctive look brought about by a curved tubeset and bold green paint job. 
A 3-inch drop from saddle to bars makes for a  nice sporty ride. .

The joy of the bike, other than it's “look at me” style, is that it's such a great go-anywhere, do-anything machine. I've normally had it set up as a fixed gear, and formerly had road bars on it, but would use it for everything from commuting and sporty pavement riding to cruises down the D&R Towpath to some light singletrack (sometimes I'd flip the wheel around to use it as a freewheeling singlespeed for my off-road jaunts, but more often I'd just keep it on the fixed side).
Not long ago, I was given the gift of a Surly “Open Bar” handlebar, which is a nice wide steel handlebar with about a 50-degree sweep, which is designed with singlespeed bikes in mind. I also acquired a set of fixed/singlespeed wheels and a few other bits and pieces, so I decided it was time to get the Bob back together. 
The curved parts of the bar also make for a surprisingly comfortable secondary hand position.

One of the less-ideal things about the old build, with dropped handlebars, was that it relied on centerpull cantilever brakes, rather than mountain-bike style linear pull brakes. The rear brake, in particular, with its long continuous cable housing and too-low cable stop never quite had the stopping power a big guy like me was looking for. When riding fixed this wasn't a problem, but when the bike was set up with a freewheel, I never felt confident in the brakes when riding at speed.
The new build uses mountain-bike style levers and a set of Promax linear-pulls, which offer much better stopping power.
The swept handlebars and curvy tubes put me in mind of the path racers ridden by turn-of-the-century “scorchers,” as aggressive cyclists were known back then, so I decided to run with it and put on a leather saddle and cork grips. 
Cork grips after a quick dunk into Bullseye Shellac

The saddle is a Velo Orange “Mod 1,” which the company is selling at a discount. I have a black version of this saddle on my road bike, and not only do I find it extremely comfortable for long rides at moderate effort, it has saddlebag loops which allow me to hang traditional-style saddlebags of various sizes on the back, rather than mounting a rack and panniers or trunk bag. For daily riding I just use a small tool bag, but for long commutes, day trips or touring I can add on my Carradice bag. I find that on bikes with sportier geometry, not only does a Carradice-style saddlebag look better but by putting the weight closer to rider rather than on the wheel, the handling is less affected. 
A Minnehaha saddle bag makes the perfect tool bag for day-to-day rides, a Carradice College bag works for bigger loads.

I went with a honey-brown saddle this time, purely because I thought it looked cool, and shellacked the grips to waterproof them and make them match the saddle better (again, rubber grips work just as well, I just think the cork is comfortable and looks cool). 
32mm tires roll over most stuff with no problem

42x17 gearing and 700x32c tires give me just shy of a 67-inch gear ratio, which gives me an on-pavement cruising speed comfortably in the high teens but still leaves me the leverage to get up hills and ride light off road. Right now the as-yet-unused freewheel side of the hub is also a 17-tooth, but I may find a slightly larger cog to give myself a better bail-out gear.
Fixed on one side and a short freehub on the other, with hard-to-find 135mm hub spacing. The wheelset came from a Marin singlespeed.

 Since I've got good brakes and don't need to rely on back-pedaling to help me stop anymore, I no longer feel the need to ride it with clipless pedals, so I have a pair of big, grippy Shimano BMX pedals to keep my sneakers from sliding off. 
Truvativ cranks do the job with just fine.

I've had it on a bunch of short rides and one 30-mile towpath jaunt, and it rides wonderfully. I intend to do a bit of light touring with it this fall, and look forward to seeing where my favorite bike takes me.
Where are we headed today?