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Tuesday, August 07, 2007

New Bike, and stuff

I'd meant to post something about why it took 50 years of transistor technology to get us an iPhone. Something about why the features and form-factor of the iPhone make it a highly derivative bit of technology that's just happened to find its unique moment in time. Something about technology, like memes, like Frankenstein, as a living thing. But as usual edge.org got there first a la Kevin Kelly, said much more authoritatively than I could have:

(you'll have a happier future if you follow the link and read the whole thing)
"The main question that I'm asking myself is, what is the meaning of technology in our lives? What place does technology have in the universe? What place does it have in the human condition? And what place should it play in my own personal life? Technology as a whole system(emphasis mine), or what I call the technium, seems to be a dominant force in the culture. Indeed at times it seems to be the only force - the only lasting force - in culture. If that's so, then what can we expect from this force, what governs it? Sadly we don't even have a good theory about technology."

Instead, I'm going to write about my new bike.

About three months back, for no specific reason, I developed a need for a bike. And when I say need, I actually mean the sort of need an addict feels. I needed something to get that monkey off my back. So, with the monkey firmly on my back, I dialed up Cheeky Monkey - Transport on my internets to see if they had a back scratcher worthy of the task at hand.

Me: Looking for a thing to modify one of my current rides. Or a new bike with the thing already. What's the thing? Fixed gear. This means no freewheel, no coasting. And this is important, because I'll be waxing poetic about this later.

cheekytransport: you pick, we have the thing to make your current bike a fixed gear, but it's not in stock and it costs about half as much as a new bike with the thing already installed which we have in stock.

A modified form of the old micro-economics koen came to mind: I'll give you $100 now or $160 next month. Which do you take? In my case the the equation was (new bike)/2 = (old bike) + (new part) = still mostly old bike. OR 2(new part) = (everything new bike). I've left out a lot of utility variables, but some of them would have canceled out with the new thing anyway (i.e. old bike also has the kids' seats on it, but we can't have kids around a fixed gear bike, so... )

With the above equation quietly occupying the monkey, I trundled on down to the store for a look. In truth, I was sold before I left the house and was determined to come home on a new bike. Frustratingly, they didn't have one in my size on the day. This is the way I shop. I'm a man. We go to a store and buy what we're after. Then we leave the store. I will literally walk into a store, look exactly where the thing I'm after should be. If it's not there, I leave. If it is there, I pick it up and buy it and leave. That's man shopping. Of course there are exceptions. Of course I'll go to a bike store with the intention of browsing. But if I'm after something, that's the way I play it.

Jump forward one week. This time I actually do "need" to go to a bike store to buy a specific thing, a rack, for someone else. So, I figure to myself, don't go to the store where they might have that bike you're looking at because it'll just wake up the monkey. No, go to a store far away from the boutique gen-x-gen-y-urban-transport-bike-courier-magnet that is Cheeky Monkey - Transport. Go to a family bike store where they sell safe brands of no interest to me like Jamis and Raceline and Trek. Go to the old BJC, which has been taken over by who-knows-who and is now clean and efficiently run by people who don't know my name.

I walk to the back of the store, racks, locks and pumps to my left, bikes to my right. What do I see? The SE Lager. The very object of my monkey's affections. It's a sign from the universe. I'm not deaf to signs. I look. I listen. And in this case I buy. I bought. Now I ride the sign from the universe.

But having done the thing I was so compelled to do, having gone through the buyer's remorse for making a purchase I didn't (still don't) fully understand, and now having ridden a fixed gear for more than one day. What is it? What have I done? Where have I gone? What has been revealed?

The answer to all of these questions is a memory of the Olympics('80?, '84?). Fittingly, this memory was today unlocked on the grounds of the 2000 Olympics. I was circling around the back of the main stadium, on a mostly disused road. A bus was passing, the only traffic within sight. I hooked up behind the bus, and with a tail wind behind me I was able to get the bike up to full chop.

Now, as I was leaving the bike store, after having bought what is actually a very primitive bike, everyone in the bike store was chanting "keep pedaling, keep pedaling". They even hollared down the street after me "keep pedaling". Their repetition and concern is/was not without reason.

With a fixed gear bike there is no coasting. The pedal is connected to the crank, the crank to the chain-ring, the chain-ring drives the chain, the chain drives the rear cog, the cog drives the wheel. And that connection is solid. It works in reverse as well as it works in forward. So, if while riding down the road, you decide to stop pedaling the result is that sure the bike slows down a little, but you get lifted up and out of the saddle by your back leg. If you've managed to lock your knee, as is common, and you're going quite fast (maybe having just shot through a yellow light), the result can be pretty dramatic.

So, here I am peddling like a madman, the bus steadily pulling away from me ( I never had a chance. He was doing about 20km better than me to start with) and I start to feel that burn in the quads. I decide, OK time to give up the sprint. Pack it in, spin down. Very happy to say I did not stop pedaling, but even so, it's difficult to relax at 120rpms. Until you've had your legs pedaled for you at such a high rate, you just can't know what that's going to be like. It's strange. But I managed. Did it. Just a bit of fun. But then I arrived at a memory.

I peeled off into the grounds of the main stadium and I just cruised at whatever rate the bike wanted to go. In my mind I got a feeling that I realized why I was still pedaling, why the fixed gear fixation. The memory was of watching Olympic track bike racing in the 80's. The fluid motion, the stalking of dual sprints, that languid and potential movement of people turning over a big gear in slow motion, staging for a race. The image was of hyper-aerodynamic athletes spinning down in elation after breaking a world record or beating a cold war rival. The fixied gear pushed that impression of the bike, the rider, the track all being one thing, pushed it through the TV and into my brain.

There's a feeling of grace when the riders are done abusing their track bikes, when all that energy is given back. And that's what I got. It was just a moment, but I felt some sort of grace. There was a sort of ghost of my effort in the past that continued to push the pedals. And that brought up some other ghost of Olympics past. This was something that I'd been looking to get for a long long time. It's one more thing to tick off the list. Satisfying.

There's one last chapter to this story. It should get written in October. I'm planning to take my fixed gear experience to the track - the Dunc Grey velodrome - for a training session. I've always wanted to ride the banked turns of a velodrome. And the Dunc Grey is one of the best in Australia. Magic. Stay tuned.

Below is the thing I wrote in response to the Kevin Kelly piece after I read it, which replaced the thing I was going to write about iPhones and was waylaid by one of those sublime moments in life described above.

One thing to pay attention to in this article, the conclusion. He uses a lot of words that suggest he's talking about entropy (freedom, and degrees of freedom are synonymous with entropy). When he talks about the technium being a wash, he's essentially talking about the ability of technology to put things in order (negentropy).

There's a going theory that life is a maximal entropy system (sorry can't find source right now). We are entropy machines. And there's no better example of life being an entropy machine than a two year old, or GW Bush for that matter (would you look at that mess! You clean that up, right now!). If Kelly is supposing the technium as another kingdom of life, I think he'll need to follow the information/entropy path. If he does that, and if he's right, I believe he'll find technology is in the set of maximal entropy system.

Why is it important for life/technium to create entropy? Because the second law of thermodynamics says roughly something sort of like "things fall apart". There are certain subtleties to the actual law that I'm not including, but in general, in everyday life, we see that over time the kitchen doesn't get cleaner, your car doesn't get newer, your memory doesn't get better. But because the sun keeps delivering energy into our system, we do see the dessert bloom, the milk the honey, all the fruits of life that are so intricately assembled.

How can a "law of nature" violate itself? It doesn't. The sun is charging our planet with information. Yes, just like every other planet in the system. But in the case of our planet, there is an abundance of different stuff here (elements). And that stuff hasn't gone away. That stuff gets itself very full of the sun's energy and interacts with other stuff in ways that start to resemble organization (negentropy).

But things fall apart, so the macroeconomic picture must come down on the side of entropy. Given sun-netted-negentropy lifts the landscape beyond a baseline resolved by simple atomic radiation, something else must come to bear. The result is a complex self-catalytic homeostatic self-reproducing system that's tailor fit to a highly energetic environment. The sole purpose of this system, if I'll be allowed "purpose", is to spend down those degrees of freedom, to extra-radiate, to crack molecules, to mulch, to aggressively stomp on this bubble-wrap landscape of potentialities.

Analogy: People are happy to make a $2 bet based on the toss of a coin. They're rarely happy to make a $10,000 bet based on the toss of a coin (even if they're in the market for a $10,000 bet). Someone willing to make a $10k bet will inevitable tend towards a contest or system that is highly regulated, organized and complex. Examples: horse race, football game, or lottery. In the case of the lottery, it's very similar to multiple coin tosses, but the machinery is much more complicated. Somehow, the value of the bet, or the payoff, relate to the complexity of the game. The value of investment requires that the system lifts off of a simple baseline of "coin toss" even if the outcome is indistinguishable from a coin toss. In our case, circumstances are betting heavily on Earth. We are here in order to resolve the wager.

That is our purpose. It's explicit, violent, selfless, amoral, inhumane and entirely essential in the grand balance sheet of the universe. We, each in our own right, a pot-belly furnace, constantly incinerating a broad cascade of other life forms, also sustain on our shoulders the Technium that Kevin Kelly describes. No matter how "sustainable" we'd like to imagine our future, the right now is not satisfied with the entropic powers we've managed to bring to bear. Earth can sustain more, the landscape is hungry to fall apart, the technium is well able to heap some more destruction on the scene.

Kelly tries to forward an argument for self preservation for the technium. Fair enough. But he assumes, as do most people, that we have a drive for self preservation as a whole. I don't think we do. I think we each individually have that drive. I think we extend our individual drive for self preservation to the extent to which it forwards our own purpose. Perception and market forces play a huge part in this. They also play a huge part in preserving individual technologies. But as a whole, I think it's just as naively assumptive to ascribe some sort of collective drive for self preservation to the technium as it is to any category of life (see my previous comments "There's no reasonable way to define the group "we"").

I can see I'll be needing to write something on why it's impossible to define the group of people called "we" - as in "We need to do something about climate change." and therefore why "we" can't assume responsibility for what "we" (don't) do on a global scale. And I promise, this isn't a perspective of despair. The perspective of despair that I hold right now is in seeing the best minds continue to front strategies that are based on wrong assumptions that lead to wrong methods, strategies, and conclusions.

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