What I Did On My Summer Vacation

img_2674

I’ve been fortunate to be traveling around the West since March of this year – sort of a pre-retirement tour of places we already love or have always wanted to visit. Typically, we rent a house or apartment for 4-6 weeks and this gives us a chance to get to know the community. One good way to learn about a town is to volunteer – it’s a great way to meet the locals, learn what is important to them, and understand how they treat others in the community. There are a lot of volunteer opportunities from helping at a food bank to one-on-one literacy tutoring. My favorite volunteer activity has been working at bike co-ops. I enjoy the co-ops because I get to wrench on bikes and directly help people. Plus, I see immediate results from my efforts. I particularly enjoy teaching and helping others learn how to troubleshoot. I’ve worked with 5-year-old kids, families, retirees who use a bike as their primary transport, and a few homeless folks who hardly own more than the bike they rode to the shop.

I’ve helped at bike co-ops in Silver City, New Mexico (Bikeworks), Boise, Idaho (Boise Bicycle Project), and Missoula, Montana (Free Cycles Missoula). All three have distinct personalities that reflect the needs of the community, their funding, and the goals of their employees, founders and boards. You don’t have to know anything about bikes to help in any of these organizations – they will put you to work to the level of your knowledge and train you along the way. Some have structured volunteer programs and some assign you to where you are needed on any particular day. If you don’t have a lot of experience, you might initially be taking pedals off bikes or patching inner tubes.

In a typical day at Free Cycles Missoula, I would show up and start working on bikes they would later sell and also help folks who walked into the shop. In one day, I helped a Mom and her whip-smart 8-year-old daughter fix a flat, an Englishman on a cross-country bike tour, and a Sophomore at the University of Montana who was building a bike for himself in the ‘Build-A-Bike’ program. He was tearing the bike down to the bare frame and had a lot of work to do but was enjoying learning how to do it.

As a kid, I tinkered a lot and learned mechanical skills from my father, friends, and books but I think that in this era of ubiquitous electronic devices many kids don’t get the opportunity to work with their hands. Learning how to build and maintain a bike is empowering and fun for both kids and adults. Boise Bicycle Project has a great program for kids to teach them how to build up their own bike – they tear the bike down to the bearings and know every single part on the bike once they are done. At Freecycles, one 5-year-old boy let me help him build his bike. He was so proud when he jumped on it for a test ride that he giggled as he rode around. With that much pride, you know that he’s not going to leave his bike outside to rust in the rain.

During my time at the Boise Bicycle Project, I still remember what I learned from Charles Mitchell, the shop manager, and this theme is repeated at all 3 co-ops to different degrees; A volunteer or donor may initially see the co-op as a place that helps people fix their bikes, but the mission is grander than that. The mission can be about education in troubleshooting, self-reliance, patience, working with others and giving people control over a part of their lives. I also see that the co-ops can bring a broader cross-section of society together than many endeavors. In my work as an engineer over many years I was mostly around medium to high-income people, whereas at the co-ops I was fortunate to work with and learn from people across a much broader spectrum.

For a bike geek like myself, it’s also a chance to see different bikes from past decades since the co-ops get donations of all sorts of bikes and can be like a mini museum of bike history.

I had never seen this BMX bike with rear suspension but this almost mint example was at Bikeworks

2017-05-04 18.04.24

Every co-op has a large collection of donated bikes and parts and these ‘boneyard’ bikes are an important source of parts for repairs and new bikes

2017-07-25 13.58.11-2

These also provide an almost endless supply for art projects, parade floats, tall bikes, choppers and the like

2017-05-04 17.25.09-2

Or this parade float at Free Cycles powered by a side-by-side tandem

2017-07-25 13.58.07

One day in Missoula, I even met Erick, a fellow Tufts graduate, who had just finished his degree and was on his way to Seattle. It was great to help him a bit with his bike and see him get back on the road.

2017-08-15 16.28.26-1

I have never had a more satisfying volunteer experience and I strongly recommend you check out a bike co-op near you. Every child I’ve ever seen build a bike – it doesn’t matter how old it is, how bad the paint is or if the tires don’t match – EVERY kid has smiled when he or she rode that bike for the first time. I’ve seen down-and-out guys come in with barely functioning bikes and with a little help they walk out proudly knowing they fixed their bike and this means they can get to a job.

So, if you’re looking for a way to give back and at the same time learn more about bikes you can’t do better than to volunteer at a bike co-op. Have you done it? If so, let me know – I would love to hear what you learned.

Advertisements

Self-Driving Cars Will Need A Jackass Setting

google self-driving car

I’m a big believer in the future of self-driving cars. There is clearly a lot of risk turning a complex and unpredictable task over to a computer and all the attendant sensors, but we already accept a huge amount of risk letting easily-distracted and self-centered humans continue to do the damage they do.

So, I have to believe that we will all be safer when computers take over. The occupants of cars are much safer in a crash than they were when I was young, but the safety advances haven’t benefited pedestrians and cyclists. We are just as likely to get hurt when a car hits us as we were 50 years ago. I’m hopeful that autonomous vehicles could be a significant safety advance for those outside the car.

Thus, I look forward to the safety benefits that automated cars should bring. However, I worry about adoption of the new technology. Will a robot car be allowed to speed? Will it be allowed to make unnecessary lane changes to move one car ahead of the ‘dipshit’ ahead of it? What about yellow lights? Can you set it so that it will ignore them? How will the industry get aggressive, type-A drivers to adopt technology that forces their car to drive as if they cared about the safety of those around them more than beating the car next to them to the next traffic light?

The solution is to have at least two control settings; One (of course) would be the ‘law-abiding’ setting and the other would be the ‘Jackass’ setting. Using this setting would allow the computer to take every advantage, no matter how small, that the Type-A driver would take so that the owner felt he was beating the guy next to him. Over many weeks or months, the algorithm could adjust to a safer driving mode until the car was following all the laws and even common sense. This is somewhat analogous to the sales technique supposedly used by successful Chevette salespeople many years ago; the buyers knew the Chevette got good gas mileage – that’s why they were at the dealer. You sold it by accelerating hard and whipping around corners – this answered the buyers unspoken concerns about the performance of the small car.

Don’t sell the robot car based on safety and convenience – sell it based on the advantage it gives the buyer over the schmucks who can’t afford a computer car – this will lead to much quicker adoption.

Idle Thoughts

2016-12-23-13-08-47

The only thing more common than lifted diesel pickups and car washes on every corner in suburban Utah is the sight of cars idling. They idle at the drive thru’s, in front of businesses, houses, schools – everywhere. They idle in all weather – hot, cold and perfect. They idle with people inside them and with people running an errand.

When I first got here from the San Francisco Bay Area it was summer so I thought it was just the heat that was getting to people and they just had to keep the AC running. But I soon realized it was just custom. People in Utah just don’t think about the environment the way they do in California. I think a lot of people in California believed that their individual actions did have an impact. Maybe it was years of dealing with water shortages or seeing LA go from a smoggy disaster in the ’60’s and ’70’s to having relatively clear air today that led people to think they had to do something. Well, living in Utah is like stepping back 50 years in time. Car culture is big here. People spend big money on their cars and they take care of them. Within a mile of me there are at least 4 car washes (or Auto Spa as some are called) and they are always busy.

And talk about going back in time – there are more drive-thru’s here than the set of ‘American Graffiti’. I could see it if it was a time saver but when you see 10+ cars lined up I KNOW it takes less time to park the car and actually walk into the store to order. So, it’s not about convenience – there’s something else going on here – people just love being in their cars.

You see these signs all over SLC but I don’t know if they are having any impact at all

idle-free

Doesn’t anyone make a connection between their actions and the pollution we get here along the Wasatch front? Utah is a pretty red state so there is a lot of blather about being business-friendly, but isn’t individual responsibility one of the (supposed) attributes of the Right? If so, when are the drivers in Utah going to take some ownership for the pollution they cause and our terrible air in the Winter months?

 

Incubating

Interesting first visit to The Startup Building co-working space in Provo today to attend a Million Cups event. I met the building owner, Tom, and his family who seem to have made the space quite successful in the 4 years that they have owned it. Surprisingly, ‘Startup’ is the name of the family that started a chocolate company in the building 100+ years ago, and are still producing today.

I got a quick tour after the Million Cups event and was impressed by the number of entrepreneurs and students who have made this building in Provo their home.

One of the great things is the location. Right across the street from the Frontrunner train stop. Sure made getting to and from the event easy!

Meeting space:

Startup meeting room.jpg

Along the Wasatch Range you almost always have a view:

Startup building with view.jpg

More information on the co-working space is here Startup Building

10 Rules for Utah Drivers

I moved here from California just over a year ago and was surprised to find that Utah drivers are worse than California drivers. They are more aggressive, less careful and more dangerous to other road users. The ONLY good thing is that it’s very rare to see someone get flipped off – I’m guessing that is mostly due to the old adage of ‘An armed society is a polite society’.

If you are new to the Beehive State here are some rules that will help you fit in:

  1. Speed – all the time. It’s your right.
  2. Don’t slow down for congestion. See #1.
  3. When entering the highway, merge IMMEDIATELY to the fast lane. Those drivers in front of you are too slow.
  4. Is there someone in front of you? Pass them no matter what speed they are going.
  5. Are there double lines on the road? See #4
  6. Are you pulling a trailer? See #5 then #4
  7. Turning left across a road? Just do it – that approaching driver will slow down.
  8. Stop in the crosswalk. Pedestrians are wimps.
  9. Right turn on red after stop in Utah? Yes. But drop the ‘after stop’ part.
  10. Driving a pickup? Jack it up. Then jack it up again.