I like the blog the Bike Snob. I ride a bicycle a couple times a week and I’m a snob, so it fits. The Bike Snob is heavy on witty trash talking. One of his favorite techniques is to make something ridiculous up, for instance imagining the septuagenarian founder of the Paris Review, George Plimpton riding around on an ugly Trek Y-frame.
Anyway, when my friend (I do actually have a friend) forwarded me the Paris Review post, my first thought was, “So by some extraordinary coincidence did George Plimpton actually ride a Y-Foil?” Then I wondered, “Maybe I didn’t make up the quote after all and I just think I did because it seems like something I’d come up with.” Finally though, it became clear that somehow the current editor of The Paris Review must have come across my bullshit quote and accepted it as fact. Furthermore, now that it’s actually been published on their website, everyone else will accept it as fact as well, and thanks to a certain popular search engine poor George Plimpton will be forever associated with one of the ugliest and Fredliest bicycles ever made.
It really makes you think about the complex relationship between reality and absurdity. Take religion for example. Sometime back in the Iron Age some wiseass probably made a joke about milk and meat, and now thousands of years later Jews need to have two dishwashers.
I’m feeling this little essay in the Atlantic on the history of pants. Turns out bicycles, horse riding and new rights for women were partially to blame for the development of this constricting fabric!
What all these examples suggest is that technological systems — cavalry, bicycling — sometimes require massive alterations in a society’s culture before they can truly become functional. And once it’s locked in, the cultural solution (pants) to an era’s big problem can be more durable than the activity (horse-mounted combat) that prompted it.
This is the University of Maryland’s Gamera II, a human-powered helicopter breaking a world record for human-powered flight.
Yep human -powered.
It makes me want to quit my job and start building my own Max-o-copter.
Of course yesterday while women scientists were helping to make the Gamera II fly for the extra couple of seconds it takes to break the world record, the European commission decided to unveil their “science: it’s a girl thing” campaign. I won’t insult you with a link, but it is a stunningly sexist take on why women might be interested in science. Pink clothes, music videos and lip gloss.
s.e. Smith has the insightful analysis of this video over at Tiger Beatdown:
This patronising, pathetic campaign in which science was swaddled in pink sparkles and packaged as something girls can totally do was ridiculous and self-defeating. The video focused entirely on fashion and cosmetics, and the organisation’s site was littered with pinkness and more cosmetics promotion, even though the actual profiles of real women scientists on the site focus on topics like veterinary virology and food security, all of which are fascinating and interesting and might attract interest from young women who would be totally turned off by the offensive framing, and thus are unlikely to see them.
Young women and girls do not in fact need everything to be wrapped in pink in order to be interested in it, nor do they need to see highly traditionalised performances of femininity to believe that something is ‘for them.’ In fact, for girls thinking about science, such displays could be a turnoff; maybe they aren’t interested in performing femininity, or they aren’t conventionally attractive, or, hey, they’re actually smart and independent enough to care about science regardless as to what scientists look like and what they wear in the damn lab, because they’re interested in the research, not the clothes.
In contrast to the human-powered copter, this misstep seems particularly noxious. Rather than simply including women in science projects, mentoring women, and encouraging all students to be inquisitive about the world around them, the desire to condescend helps to protect the sciences as the realms of sexism.
Humans are pretty awesome animals and when we get thinking creatively, wonderful stuff emerges. Cheers to those who believe that everyone is an intellectual. Cheers to those who trust and like women. Cheers to those who build flying machines without oil. And cheers to Zombie Marie Curie who told us all about this years ago . . .
Premise number one: automobile culture as we know it in North America is unsustainable.
Ken Bensinger’s three-part series in the L.A. Times about exploitative auto dealers and the poor underscores just how much automobile-centered living has cost America. The series is pretty clear: working poor are screwed without cars and the industries which prey on those needs are evil. Not to mention the ecological damage, strip mall culture, distance between humans, high-speed culture, and consumer identity that are entwined with the lifestyle of the car.
Premise number two: the transition away from automobiles is going to be very hard for people, particularly in the U.S..
We set up this nation to be focused on individual-based car transit. We can’t be too surprised that people hold onto their perceived right to drive a car with surprising firmness. I was teaching a social movements class and showed a short video of activists in the United Kingdom protesting a church celebration of the automobile. One woman on the film seemed particularly eloquent to me. She spoke of losing her child to a speeding car. When the class started discussing the video, I was surprised to find that most of the students wanted to blame this woman for “letting” her child go near a road.
Suddenly I realized that they were feeling judged and they wanted to undercut this tragic voice because they didn’t want to think about their participation in automobile culture.
The need to change car culture in the United States will be met with shallow innovation rather than actual change. I suspect that we’ll just tweak things in the era of declining oil returns. We’ll have more electric cars reliant on natural gas and nuclear power plants to make energy. We’ll have many more bio-diesel vehicles and probably new farm subsidies for vegetable oil producers.
Even though the gas-guzzler is fundamentally offensive, we won’t challenge the right to guzzle gas, we’ll just provide new “clean” justifications. People who drive electric cars drive more. That’s right! When people buy a new energy-efficient vehicle they tend to use it more. When we have the moral problems cleaned up (in our minds) we revert to unbridled consumer desire. “Oh, lets take the Prius on the road trip — it’s so efficient.”
Alternative: thinking about the closed loop, Ecotopia and transportation
Ernst Callenbach’s Ecotopia books are interesting day-dreams on what a future might look like. One reason the book is useful is the visioning component involved in future-fiction thinking — every reader is invited to disagree or re-envision.
In my Humboldt bioregion we have the Kinetic Sculpture Race where dozens of bicyle-driven human powered sculptures must prove themselves capable of traveling over sand, water and many miles of roads. It isn’t hard to imagine this fleet of bike vehicles shared, rehabilitated and helping to move goods and people around the North Coast.
This suggests to me that the collapse of oil-based transportation might not be all that terrible in this place. My daydream is that the transition isn’t just about keeping gas pump-dependent, individuality-centered, automobile culture alive, but about being open to something else growing in it’s place.
Remember when you were a kid and you just rode your bike? Meandered? Wandered? Crossed a parking lot and then rode in circles? Have you actually done that lately?
I’m not trying to be a smart-ass. I think this is part of the loss of car-dependent culture. Most of us are so stressed out paying for cars, or paying for gas, or dealing with the extra hidden charges in our automobile insurance this month that we don’t get around to fun bike rides. Or to imagine that the problems of transportation aren’t unique.
I bet you can think of a time in the last few weeks where you were stymied by a lack of transportation. I think this is what most of us have in common. We want mobility, freedom to move. The chance to just go and get where we need.
Rep. Gwen Moore (D-Wis.) has tried for years to get the government to help the poor buy cars. In 2005 and again in 2007, she sponsored legislation to provide $50 million a year for low-income car ownership programs. Both bills died in committee.
She said she has faced resistance from, among others, environmental organizations that insist mass transit is a better solution.
“Public transit is not practical in Milwaukee where the wind chill can be 45 below and you have to drop three kids off at day care,” Moore said. “We really have a crisis with respect to getting people to their jobs.”
This is probably what underlies the vicious defensiveness about personal car ownership — this desire for freedom and escape. Solidarity in modern capitalism can be seen in the unfulfilled invitation to freedom. And the daily needs of living in the world that in fact seem to necessitate a car of one’s own.
So how do you challenge the cultural norm while still supporting the need of the poor to have safe and reliable transportation? I guess the daydream is that we could actually start talking not only about the costs of automobile culture, but also the threads of other ways of living that are visible slightly below the surface. Mix a little utopianism with newspaper reports. Encourage people to talk about the impossible and pretty soon it isn’t impossible.
Cuba has endured a U.S. embargo for a couple of decades. The mutual antagonism between the governments of Cuba and the United States has created a fascinating window into an alternative way of being. I’m not oblivious to Cuba’s poverty and problems. In terms of organic agriculture and in this case, automobiles, the resilient Cuban people (different than the government) have shown what is possible.
But since Cubans couldn’t legally sell their vehicles, they learned to do everything possible to keep them on the road.
Nelson Ramos, a car enthusiast and former economist in Havana, says cars in Cuba are “like members of the family.”
“Cars stay in the family forever. And you take care of the car, you fix the engine, and we probably have the best mechanics in the world,” Ramos says. “This is probably the only country in the world where you don’t have a junkyard for cars. We simply get the wreckage and put it on wheels and drive it again.”
I try not to be a purist. In my ideal world all transportation would be bicycles, but I know that isn’t realistic for most people. So instead, I would put forward a dream of a transition inspired by justice. The needs of a community being organized around those who needed help first. I envision a few electric cars, or biodiesel vehicles that might operate as ambulances or as transit for those who have need. We don’t need any new cars if what Cuba shows us is possible. People will be hand-carving door handles out of wood for the bicycle-powered buggies of the future.
I’m getting ready to take off on my bicycle to seek records. I’m drinking coffee and hanging out on the internets. I ordered the first two records from the UK reissue wunderkind-label Spoke. Spoke records is obviously a labor of love — focusing on 45s in honor of a lost comrade.
But they are also information nerds — and the interview with composer John Cameron comes up with this nice moterbike gem about just how fast life was in the high-speed seventies.
I even had a string section that used to ride motorbikes with their fiddles on their backs so they could get from one three hour session to another and then another so they could do three sessions in a day. It was Pat Halling’s lot. They were the guys who were on all the Heatwave and Hot Chocolate stuff. They literally used to motorbike from one gig to another.
I follow the clever blog: Bike snob. It is wry, and bicycle oriented, so obviously not for everyone. I like this little rant on cyclists drafting behind other random cyclists.
I couldn’t agree more with this so-called “malcontent.” You are not automatically at someone’s disposal just because you are both on bikes–the normal rules of society apply. Is it OK to follow someone at a distance of two inches when you’re walking just because you’re both wearing sneakers? No it isn’t.