Saturday, August 16, 2014

1990 Toei

“Why do you ride to work?”

(incredulous) “Because it’s too far to walk.”

It has taken some time to understand the wisdom in that reply. 

1990 Toei built in the grand style of the classic French randonneurs.

With luggage.

Those of us who live in an environment dominated by motorised transport, irrespective of whether we ride a bicycle or merely tolerate those that do, view commuting by bicycle as a particularly hazardous endeavour. For the commuting cyclist rides his bicycle at the time of high traffic flows. 

Professional cyclists of the racing, couriering and showboating (aka street trials) variety put up with the risks of mingling in fast-moving traffic. It’s part of their job. And they have a certain set of skills the average punter does not possess. For the rest of us the commute to our day job is a necessary chore. And although some of us may see the bicycle as an integral part of our identity - whether its arguing the little details in bicycle technology, galavanting with mates, hanging out with race-team groupies and wannabes, or indulging in some other inane aspect of so-called “bicycling culture” - we often don’t see the ride to work as a part of that identity.

Conversely, the average commuting cyclist does not see himself (or, not infrequently, herself) entrenched or affiliated with any form bicycling culture. As a group they ride a vast assortment of bicycles: from fold-ups to recumbents, from battery-assisted carbon creations to the rusty steel steeds of yesteryear. Yet there is a commuting cyclist stereotype. They might have heard about the Tour de France (and may occasionally tune into it) but see it as a rather pointless test of human endurance albeit courageously fought on the backdrop of some pretty spectacular scenery. They don’t follow race bike technology. And are immune to marketing hype. They know how to fix a flat, and can adjust brake pads and trim derailleurs. But they cannot tell you how many cogs sit on the cassette. Or what groupset they ride (much less know where to find a replacement part when that groupset becomes obsolete). They don’t take a particular aesthetic pleasure in their bicycle. Nor anyone’s bicycle for that matter. For them the bicycle is a utilitarian necessity. They are outward-looking, egalitarian, and liberal-minded. They eat eggs from chickens that roam free in their backyard. They either tend to a vegetable patch or yearn for one. They value recycling, renewable energy and composting. And earthworms. And they sure as hell don’t bother reading blogs like this.

But I bet even they will appreciate this bike.

For this here is a practical bike. It has a front light. And a rear reflector. Some mudguards, a water bottle, a pump, sensible gearing, good brakes, and places to put stuff. 

And it is made by a company that has been doing the same thing for the past sixty years or so. 

The bags come from a company that has also been plugging away at the same sort of thing for about the same period time.

Same cotton canvas..

.. and leather trim..

.. with the convenience of a modern quick-release system.

Nice rack.

You don’t need to be a luddite to like this.

There is something rather special about craftsmen so confident in their ability to fillet braze a clean joint that they feel no particular inclination finish it. That’s not to say that the craftsmen at Toei won’t go out of their way to refine their work (they file the fillets used on their - more expensive - lugged frames), it’s just that there is no real real need to provide that service on the less expensive models. For a company that has brazed together frames for discerning types like a bullet train designer and (allegedly) the Emperor of Japan, this is less a display of cut-price workmanship and more a statement of technical competence.

The morning light comes in at a steep angle.. 

.. allowing a critical eye to scan the surface for flaws.

Steady hands. The story of oxygen, acetylene, a welding torch, brazing rods, and flux. 
A thin coat of paint reveals the ebb and flow of brass pushed, tugged, and otherwise coaxed into a juncture. 

Honest work. No file marks anywhere on these fillets.

A couple of months back I had a good conversation with a colleague of mine. We both share an understanding that action is better than intent when taken from the perspective of the recipient. (well.. umm.. Duh..) A person that gives $100 for a good cause as a means of elevating his position or social status does more for the cause than someone who means well but is unable to provide anything. The person that decides to ride a bicycle to work for fun or fitness does more for the environment than the many (self-congratulatory people) who turn off their lights during Earth Hour only to return to their wasteful ways for the remaining 8,759 hours of the year.

I don’t understand the details of altruistic behaviour but, taking the perspective of a narcissistic egotist bereft of emotion and empathy, I like to think of it as a rather pleasing mixture of chemical and electrical activity within the brain of socially advanced animals. Some get that neurological kick from serving in soup kitchens during their free time. Some get the same pleasure from stroking a dog (the equivalent of chimpanzees grooming each other in accepted human society). That might not be altogether correct (accuracy has never stopped me from posting in this blog) but I think most agree that altruistic and collaborative behaviour (along with a big brain and dextrous hands) is Mankind’s stamp on the evolutionary tree. 

Several studies have shown that helping another person (at a given cost) contributes to emotional and, dare I say, spiritual, well being of the provider. Whether you call it altruistic behaviour or choose to call it something else it is a proven scientific fact that the act of giving makes one feel good about oneself.

That much Chris and myself agree on. What we don’t agree on is whether this can be broadly accepted and enacted within a truly secular society.

Chris has a wife, four kids, a nice house, and a tractor. He takes no particular interest in bicycles.

Once a month Chris and I work together. I tell him I write a blog about bicycles.

This here is a bicycle with the capacity to tote luggage.

And a drink bottle.

Imagine this: a society of individuals that share an understanding that helping another individual for no material gain (or at a contained cost) is of benefit to both benefactor and recipient. And that such action achieves a sense of well-being as a simple consequence of how the human brain happens to be wired up (providing an evolutionary advantage for a socially-interdependent naked ape). Structured social services cost time and money and is grossly inefficient (and, in general, remains largely inadequate). Imagine this: the mobilisation of armies of volunteers through the broad reach of social networking with plenty of good stuff being done without political or religious agenda. Imagine a world where social services aren’t stigmatized and volunteers play a dominant role leading to lower costs for the taxpayer. Imagine a world where everyone wins.

A utopian ideal worth striving for? Yep. 

Do I see it happening within my lifetime? Nope.

Whether this is a matter of education and thereby teachable or a matter of self-actualisation and thereby attainable only if one can stand back from a world driven by marketing, I really cannot see this being achieved on a mass scale without resorting to the default option of religion. The concept is easy to understand but harder to put to practice. And no man is an island. Religious indoctrination makes the whole thing a whole lot easier.

This strikes a raw nerve.

Everyone has a button that say “do not push”. It takes a certain art to find it.
Then lean on it.

Chris believes that the grand experiment with religion has failed. Or rather, that the blind or unreasoned following of ideologies has done it’s time and does more to hold back humanity than enhance it. I agree. In wholly unsatisfactory reductionist terms, religion (amongst other things) filled a gap as the capacity of the prefrontal cortex dramatically increased during the course of human evolution. Making sense of the world and the survival requirement of a social structure meant that a creature with really no idea about how the world worked required a higher order of things. Now that there is another means of understanding the world (with maths, measurement, and the scrutiny of testable hypotheses) it is time for religion (or more accurately: the obdurate deference to religious doctrine)  to take a back seat.

I’m (mostly) on board with this but not entirely convinced of the practicalities of its application.

Many years ago my world revolved around a bicycle.

(ok not this one, but this one)

Sure, I had to eat, and study, do family stuff and housework, but one (Saturday) morning a week I pinned a number on my jersey and pedalled my bicycle as fast as I could around a closed circuit. Any discretionary time was whiled away riding my bicycle, or thinking about bicycles, or reading about bicycles. 

I remain rather fond of bicycles.

Normandy hubs.

Honjo fenders.

But the world is a lot bigger than that.

I am fortunate to meet many young people during the course of doing my job. As a result I see many grow up to take on key roles in positions of responsibility. Some do so through a formal training process. Many more do so informally (and incrementally) by rising to meet the challenge of a task at hand. The saddest thing is to watch them fall back down because there is either a lack of encouragement or a breakdown in the process that is not of their making. A shortfall in external support (real or perceived) that cannot be compensated by a lack of internal control.

Reward and discipline. Nourishment and resolve. External support and internal control. A bit of both. That’s how it works.

Well, not always. And never quite as simple as that. Although there are many (nay, innumerable) nuances the basic framework of extrinsic and intrinsic factors drives how an individual behaves, interacts, acts, and responds the way they do. 

Wait a moment. Stop. Take another umm.. duh moment. That stuff is influenced by what lies inside and what lies outside applies to everything whether it be animate or inanimate. Such blunt terminology is best reserved for horoscopes and self-help books where meaning can be found when we crave it but adds nothing to the open, inquisitive mind. The point I want to make is that although extrinsic factors - like education through which we gain such useful things as insight and tolerance - may be changeable,  intrinsic factors - like those attributed to human nature or a personality profile - are impossible or, at the very least, exceedingly difficult to change. 

Whether a secular society values the act of giving depends on a number of things. Some are changeable. Some, I suspect, are not. 

Suntour Cyclone c1980.

With TA Specialties double chainset.

Some green rubber thing.

The Suntour Cyclone RD.

Lightweight, reliable, inexpensive, effective.

And rather beautiful in its own way.

Why a sometime blogger that purports some knowledge about bicycles writes on a subject that he clearly knows nothing about (and a massive, open-ended one at that) is a humbling question. A proper discourse requires a solid grounding in the social sciences and, in particular, relies on a clear understanding of (the concepts proposed by) evolutionary psychology, the heuristic mechanisms employed in human decision-making (two areas that will eventually be drawn under the umbrella of behavioural neurobiology), and a handle on that slippery notion of free will. Such a person would probably have read Steven Pinker’s “The Blank Slate”. And probably made constructive comments about it. 

Unless such information was somehow subtly scripted into Transformers 4: Age of Extinction that person isn’t me.

Tim, another colleague that works occasionally with me, gives me an excuse. A couple of weeks back when this topic resurrected Tim made the astute observation that “horizontal” advice (advice from non-experts) increasingly supplants traditional “vertical” advice (advice from presumed experts) in the decision processing of the thoroughly-modern, highly-connected society. This was in regards to the patients that visit his practice (with preconceived ideas about vitamins, antioxidants, and flu-alleviating medications) and also applies as a general comment about how we choose to receive information. I like the terminology very much: it allows a clear differentiation of the source of information and provides me with a useful tool to state my case - albeit an exemplar of what Tim would describe as horizontal opinion.

The Panaracer Col de la Vie Randonee in a 650A.

Japanese for AYHSMB.

I think most would agree that the value of giving is widely accepted. But for the act of giving to become widely practiced (in a secular society that sees no higher cause to do so) it first needs to be quantifiable. To pre-empt criticism of setting up a straw man to push home a point (after all random acts of kindness - such as helping an elderly person cross the street, steering a blind person who has momentarily lost his way, or placing an earthworm back onto soft soil after it has squiggled itself onto a concrete footpath - will continue to occur even if it goes largely unrecognised and remains unquantifiable) I shall restrict this discourse to acts that involve a conscious calculation that the cost incurred will leave the actor at a measurable disadvantage - financial-wise, time-wise or otherwise - i.e. at a “survival disadvantage” in evolutionary parlance. (Likewise acts of heroism - like rescuing comrades on a battlefield, pulling people out of a burning house, or swimming out to save someone being attacked by a shark are all extraordinary acts but do not appear to be made through a conscious calculation of costs - lie outside this discussion). For such acts to become widespread I will argue that they first need to be quantifiable.

So, to be clear:
  1. random acts of kindness (acts that incur minimal cost to the individual) - not discussed.
  2. acts that benefit non-kin (non-related) recipients at a measurable cost (or “survival disadvantage”) to the benefactor  that's what we are talking about
  3. acts of heroism (extraordinary acts by extraordinary people or by ordinary people placed in extraordinary situations) - not discussed.
The topic for discussion is (2). Although the existence of (1) and (3) makes (2) a surprisingly plausible proposition.

Random acts of kindness (which occur frequently) and acts of heroism (which, by definition, occur infrequently but carry huge implications for the benefactor and the recipient) hint that the functioning human is not hard-wired to be purely self-interested. Yet to give time and/or money for a cause takes some convincing. Especially so for the average joe who often feels short of both. This becomes a bigger challenge if the cause lies outside a person’s realm of experience. The decision to engage (or ignore) comes about from comparing a quantifiable cost (time, money) against what may well be an unquantifiable gain. Such a decision can be made in microseconds.

Furthermore, if there is an increased focus on time and/or money (material goods also being a de facto for money) then the decision and subsequent action leans towards saving that known quantity at the expense of contributing to a cause whose benefit carries little or no weight. It’s not helpful to call such a response selfish (or the reverse selfless) but to consider such a decision as being made on the basis of relevance and experience

Let’s take two examples. 

Climate change is real and most people accept that if nothing is done about it then the world will get warmer and the consequences will be significant. Yet few people make an attempt to reduce their carbon footprint or offset it by paying a voluntary levy. This is because the effect of climate change is not palpable on a day to day basis and the actual implications for the future of mankind (let’s be honest, that’s all we appear to be interested in - fcuk the frogs, polar bears, mushrooms and other lifeforms) are impossible to predict with any accuracy. As such “climate change” has become a slogan that carries little real weight. If climate change lead to the sudden devastation of crops with a massive hike in the price of food or an equally fantastical scenario of a gargantuan comet with a direct trajectory for New York then one suspects that “climate change” would be less a slogan and more a call to arms.

A second example is the group of so-called neglected tropical diseases. The World Health Organization describes them as diseases that afflict "primarily poor populations living in tropical and subtropical climates” that could be “prevented, eliminated or eradicated with improved access to existing safe and cost-effective tools”. There are, of course, significant logistical issues but these are not insurmountable given adequate determination, time and money. But they occur in countries and involve people with little political clout. Hence the descriptor “neglected”. (The eradication of malaria, on the other hand, is a much bigger and more complex problem but it does have some big benefactors.)

In both examples the most useful benefactors for the cause (ie the ones with the most money, the most resources, the biggest capacity to reduce or offset carbon emissions) do not have a direct experience of the consequences of inaction. And therein lies the problem. Money and time are commodities that lie firmly within the daily experience and can be weighted. A cause with benefits that float in the ether of a world removed is much harder to get a lock on. Quantifying it gives it weight. And it does this by establishing a presence and by defining the benefits for both recipient and benefactor. The former helps draw attention. The latter helps to bring about engagement.

Hey look! Old skool, non-blinky, rear reflector.

Reliable brakes.

Seat stay mounted dynamo.

Links found on a Google search of “Toei/bicycle/randonneur”:東叡社-campagnolo-super-record-50th/ 

For a most excellent summary on the evolutionary basis for biological altruism look here.

And here’s a link to Penny In Yo Pants.

The wire goes in here..

.. travels around here..

.. and comes out here.

Coupling to the wire routed under the fender.

Fender-mounted plastic fantastic.

I don’t think Chris and I necessarily disagree about the decision-making heuristic (which, by definition, makes it an intrinsic factor) so the question then becomes what, if anything, can be done about it (ie what extrinsic mechanisms can be used to change that dynamic)? Where Chris sees opportunities I see stumbling blocks. One possible way of changing that dynamic is to root a cause (the cause, any cause) into the public conscience by quantifying it. In many ways that is already happening.

Tim’s terminology of horizontal vs vertical advice (or opinion) gives a handle to discuss how this is happening. Clearly both forms of information transfer have existed since the dawn of human society. The traditional understanding is that vertical advice from a presumed expert would carry more weight than the horizontal advice received from an inexpert friend, relative or passing acquaintance. Although that format has largely remained intact there certainly appears to be a growing influence of horizontal advice in the decision processing of a highly interconnected generation. Like many things, it has arisen from an interplay of cost and availability: in this case the uploading and accessing of information. 

The ease of which information and events can be documented, stored, and accessed electronically has plummeted especially so over the past 5-10 years. Rapid advances in technology (hardware and software), an ever-expanding and highly competitive global market (driving down costs), and the self-perpetuating nature of information uploads means that there is an enormous amount of information available - assuming you have the appropriate means of accessing the internet. Not so long ago we pottered along quite comfortably through an epoch of physical documentation (which spanned the preceding 5,000 or so years). Information that was stored and transferred had a tendency to be more or less vertical because of limitations in cost and access. The removal of physical barriers with the arrival of the internet and the more recent decimation of financial and technological barriers to the uploading and the accessing of “stuff” means a lot more horizontal information (taking the form of the written word, pictures/photos, data/infographics, film/video) gets shared. Especially through social networks and their kin (facebook, twitter, instagram, reddit, strava..). 

Whether you choose to differentiate useful information and fact from entertainment and fiction (and whether we tend to seek out the latter in preference to the former - and whether that really matters or not) would make an interesting discussion but lies outside this already ridiculously long post. The point is that there is a lot of information out there available to be accessed: some may be described as more or less vertical and some more or less horizontal. By using search engines with their fancy algorithms we may choose to access bits of information that allow us to become, in essence, pseudo-experts or “semi-vertical” (go on, say it: “oblique”..). If, say, for example’s sake, you developed an annoying creak in the EBB (eccentric bottom bracket) of your 2012 tic-tac orange Santa Cruz Chameleon then you may choose to 1. wrench it blind (with or without an equally clueless but perhaps more confident companion in the classic horizontal reference), 2. drop it off at your LBS (the local bike shop being the prototypical vertical reference), or 3. learn to live with it. Or you could do a quick internet search, find this (, then wrench it proper like the mechanic god-king you were always meant to be.

So good..

Hubba, hubba..

Quantifying an activity gives it weight. And it does this by establishing a presence and by defining the benefits for both recipient and benefactor. The former helps draw attention. The latter helps to bring about engagement. The practicalities of doing so are more nuanced.

Most acts that might be described as altruistic (in the vernacular sense) are small and usually performed by people who make no claims to fame and fortune. While such acts may patch a local situation they (virtually without exception) do little to change the big picture. In general, they do not have the sexiness, or sensation, or fascination to garner a broad appeal and establish presence. As such they are easy to pass by and/or forget. But the ability to document such things on the internet opens it a wider readership and thus the possibility of traction. In particular, such actions lend themselves to horizontal transfer. For the ability to share an experience that brings joy and passion goes deep into the roots of humanity.

Setting up nodes or gathering points for like-minded people is one of the great strengths of the internet. Another is the ability to match a seller with a product or service to a buyer in need of such product or service. I’m not sure if one exists for matching areas of need to people with the capacity and will to do so (pro bono or thereabouts). At least not one without a religious or political agenda. And not necessarily demanding the commitment required of establishments like, say, Médecins Sans Frontières (although there are good logistical reasons, such commitment excludes the many possible contributors with lives that cannot accommodate that degree of devotion). Such a site would benefit from the backing of an angel benefactor with deep pockets, resources, and good connections. 

The argument on the flip side of the all-mighty, all-reaching internet is that we are now saturated with information and we tend to seek comfort in what we know best. The capacity for automated algorithms to predict what we would like to see in the future by data-mining what we have searched for in the past means there is the capacity to seek enrichment in areas of interest and on matters of opinion that we already hold. When used judiciously such profiling can bring a sense of community and contribute to our lives. When used in isolation it becomes a form of entrenchment. This, of course, is not something that happened with the arrival of the internet and does not only apply to the virtual world. 

A corollary to this is that those who are open to acts of altruism might already be seeking opportunities to do good. Whilst the establishment of documented deeds on the internet might make the choice easier it does not expand the client base simply because those that aren’t interested simply aren’t visiting those sites. Again this behavioural dynamic is not restricted to the virtual world. Medical defence companies in Australia (the companies that insure doctors against litigation) used to run regular seminars to teach doctors how to avoid litigation by outlining and discussing the various aspects of patient management. They were well-received and well-attended. They no longer exist mainly because the doctors that attended the seminars were already mindful that this was an area worthy of dissection. Those that didn’t (and had the highest litigation rates) were, well, never there. Medical defence companies found they were paying good money to preach to the converted.

1990 Toei. From a time before the rise of the net.

Internet users per 100 inhabitants.

The internet isn’t the be all and end all of things but it is the biggest force of change that mankind has experienced in recent history. However the capacity for change does not necessarily translate to a change in behaviour. Especially if there are intrinsic factors that are difficult to overcome.

It’s debatable whether true altruistic behaviour exists as a one way street - i.e. a form of sacrifice that benefits the recipient at the expense of the benefactor. Thinking of it as a human trait that evolved as a social adaptation - i.e. a two way street where the benefactor also benefits from a sense of well-being - will help expand such behaviours and probably make the world a better place. Certainly there appears to be a growing body of evidence to suggest that this is the case. 

But also bear in mind that research suggests that  the scale of contribution does not seem to make a huge difference to establishing a sense the well-being for the benefactor but it clearly makes a big difference to the recipient. So if you can’t afford much then give a little. If you can, then give more. In particular, it also helps to remember that clicking a facebook “like”, turning off lights for just one hour a year, and all other token gestures also delivers a sense of well-being (and communal spirit) but contributes very little, if anything, to the cause.

There are two established ways to push behaviours in a certain direction. 
One is called social engineering. 

The other is religion.

Ultimately we all want something that makes us happy and gives a sense of fulfillment. Thinking of solutions from the standpoint of our basic biology before factoring the practicalities of daily living and the constructs we create around us is probably a good place to start. And our capacity to rationalize should not undermine an ability to reason.

"Why do you ride to work?"

(incredulous) "Because it's too far to walk"

It has taken some time to understand the wisdom in that reply.