Tuesday, May 31, 2005
Some bike paths are fun to ride. They carry riders on scenic routes away from "civilization," often along rivers or through forests. My upcoming book, Biking Illinois, will have a 50-50 split between road and trail rides, focusing on such scenic paths. But too many "bike paths" are just glorified sidewalks, particularly in urban and suburban areas. They are neither safe nor fun to ride. Their only purpose is to get bikes off the roads.
Many cyclists and cycling lobbyists reason that new bike paths are good because roads are "too dangerous" and more paths will get more people on bikes. But a lot of motorists like them, too. They see bike paths as a way to get bikes off "their" roads. As a cynical cyclist, I view bike paths as nothing less than a trojan horse offered to the pro-bike movement. Once these "separate but equal" facilities are constructed, it will be easy to pass laws forcing cyclists to use them. And once cyclists accept those laws, the next round of legislation may very well declare that bikes are only allowed on off-road paths or trails.
It is already happening. Lake Bluff, an upscale Chicago suburb, is crossed by several paths. The roads are as wide as or wider than those in neighboring towns, traffic is not particularly heavy, and the speed limits are 45 mph at most. Although these would be good roads for cycling, bicyclists can't use them. When a road rider reaches the village limits, he encounters "no bikes" signs that force him off the road and onto a parallel bike path.
But bike paths are not ideal for many riders. Cyclists who cruise the streets at 15-25 mph cannot ride nearly as fast on paths without endangering themselves and others. Paths are full of walkers, runners, rollerbladers, and children, and many have sharp curves with limited visibility. Sidepath users are less visible at intersections than road users, which makes every street crossing inherently more dangerous on a path. Forcing cyclists onto paths in essence makes them second class citizens by denying them access to the roads their taxes have paid for (it is a common misconception that gas taxes fund all highways; a large portion comes out of the general fund).
I can't see why more people in the cycling community, particularly lobbyists, do not recognize the danger of bike path proliferation. Paths turn bikes into mere recreational vehicles or toys, when instead we should be looking at bicycling as a viable, healthy means of transportation that doesn't depend on fighting wars in the Middle East. We should be putting our efforts into programs like Complete Streets that strive to accommodate rather than segregate bicyclists (and pedestrians) with better roadway designs.
Saturday, May 28, 2005
Not content to punish her own body, my wife has been trying to get me to take at least one lesson. I have nothing against horses, but they are huge animals that can hurt a person without even trying. I watched her once last year and tentatively petted her huge horse (he was part Clydesdale). Just getting that close made me a little nervous.
Friday, against my wishes and wisdom, I joined my wife for a horseback riding lesson. This time I intended to do more than spectate and take pictures.
We went to a different stable than last year. At this stable my wife has been riding a great horse named Gabs. He was once a world champion quarterhorse worth $50,000. After years of touring the country to compete, he suddenly decided to retire. How does a horse "decide" to retire? Well, Gabs had his own way. Whenever someone would ride him into the show ring, he would buck until the rider fell off. These weren't ordinary riders, either, but Gabs threw them all regardless. Clearly, he didn't want to do any more shows. Now he's 15 years old and spends his days as a leisurely school horse. Outside of the show ring, Gabs is fine. He's muscular but gentle, a little over 16 hands tall. In fact, his only problem these days is that he's "more whoa than go"--he'd rather stand or walk than trot or canter. Of course, that was perfect for someone like me who would rather sit on a pommel horse than a moving one.
My wife brushed Gabs while I watched and tentatively stroked his neck. Then Jamie, the instructor (and Gabs' owner), put a big western-style saddle on him. We led him into the indoor arena. There were no other horses, so Gabs wouldn't be distracted. Boy, did he look tall. I could see the top of the saddle, but barely. Jamie set up the mounting block on Gabs' left side and held him in place. I stepped up on the block, put my left foot in the stirrup and swung my right leg over his thick body. It wasn't as hard as I expected to get on. Now I was sitting on a horse! And I was scared to death.
Even when a horse stands, it still moves plenty. As Gabs shifted his weight from one foot to another, his body moved beneath me. I started to panic. There was nothing to hang on to if I lost my balance, no way to steady myself in the saddle other than to sort of ride out the waves. It was like canoeing on a big lake. Although I wasn't likely to fall, I felt like I was constantly about to slide off the side. People compare the balancing to bicycling, but there is a huge difference--my feet can reach the ground from a bicycle! My nerves began to frazzle, and I asked if I could get off. Jamie encouraged me to stay on. As someone who has been riding for over thirty years, she probably couldn't understand the anxiety I felt. My wife encouraged me to take deep breaths; she could see that I was going to hyperventilate if I didn't relax. My fear grew stronger. I felt like a rodeo bull rider trying to hang on even though the horse was standing still. Gabs didn't do anything unusual, but I was terrified nonetheless. I looked down at my left leg in the stirrup. It was shaking uncontrollably. I kept glancing at that leg until I couldn't take it anymore. My fight-or-flight reaction was to abandon ship. "I-I-I've gotta get off," I said, my voice wavering. If Gabs had taken a single step, I would have broken into tears. I was that scared.
I pulled my right leg out of the stirrup and swung it over the horse and back onto the mounting block. I pulled my shaking left leg out and stepped down (I resisted the urge to kneel and kiss the dirt). Dismounting turned out not to be as hard as I had expected. If only the part between mounting and dismounting had been so easy! My wife rode for the remainder of our lesson, and I took a few pictures standing on solid ground. I cannot imagine ever sitting on a horse again, much less riding one. I feel like a bit of a failure, but I know getting off was the right thing. Don't expect DJRider.com to change focus from bicycles to horses anytime soon!
Thursday, May 26, 2005
While there may be 400,000 frozen embryos in the U.S., many others are simply discarded. Bush's test-tube babies represent a population of less than 100 kids who have been born to women using the embryos of other couples. There obviously isn't a huge demand for these extra embryos. Besides, the House bill does not force couples to hand over their precious embryos to the mad scientists who wish to save lives using biowaste (sorry, but that's what those discarded embryos end up being). Couples aren't even allowed to sell them, although that might be a nice way to recoup the expense of in vitro fertilization, which averages more than $10,000. I guess that prevents a cottage industry of embryo production from forming in the bathtubs of rural America (any viable embryo would probably be killed by meth lab residue in the tub anyway).
This whole episode makes me wonder: either Bush is too stupid to understand this concept, or he thinks the American people are. I'm not sure which is worse.
Want more? Okay, here's an analogy: Say I bake ten apple pies (okay, say my wife baked them, because pies aren't my forte). I decide I'm only going to eat one of them, or maybe two if I'm hungry. I could freeze those extra pies, but maybe I don't have room in my freezer because it's full of Edy's Samoas Girl Scout Cookie ice cream (it's only available for part of the year, so I have to stock up). I could just toss the pies in the trash, but in a charitable moment I go next door and offer my neighbor the pies that I'm not going to use. My neighbor happens to be conducting some sort of research to use baked apple pies to cure Alzheimer's disease. Odds are that my neighbor's research will come to naught, but why not give her the pies anyway?
Wednesday, May 25, 2005
One man born more than 20 years after Stalin died brushed aside the massive purge of political opponents: "This was right and necessary in this period. These were enemies of the people and the state. It was not possible to investigate and try them all." There is a slight discrepancy between the official number killed (which this young man cited) and the number historians believe: officially 750,000 died, but historians say it was more like 20,000,000. Then again, I suppose Stalin apologists might argue that those would just be more mouths to feed, so we should be glad they aren't around.
Russia also suffered perhaps 26,000,000 deaths during World War II (according to a recent, no longer free Los Angeles Times article, volunteers still search for ID tags). Unmentioned in the story of Stalin's resurgence in popularity was the likelihood that Russian losses would not have been so great had Stalin not killed so many of his best military leaders in the purges before the war. They may have threatened his absolute power, but apparently he didn't consider that he might need them someday.
Sure, Stalin led Russia to victory in World War II, but I suspect that the Russian people deserve more of the credit and that another leader could have succeeded with a lesser loss of life (a pretty safe bet considering the millions who wouldn't have been purged before WWII even started). And Stalin certainly shoulders plenty of the blame for starting the Cold War, a struggle that poised the world on the brink of nuclear destruction for a quarter-century after his death. So let's not put him on the fast track for sainthood.
Thursday, May 19, 2005
The Chicago Tribune has a story online that portrays their tale as the struggle of immigrants. While I am sympathetic to those who come here to do the dirty or back-breaking jobs we don't want to do ourselves for lousy pay, I can't muster any support for the card snappers. Fruit pickers and Wal-Mart janitors serve an important role in maintaining our spoiled American lifestyle, but I can't say the same for these guys.
The article says the ACLU has defended them in the name of free speech. That's fine, but there should be stricter laws governing their behavior. I don't deny escort services the right to advertise, but the card flickers are just annoying. What amazes me is that they actually attract enough clients to earn their admittedly meager pay. I mean, I know why the business attracts customers, but I don't see why anyone would hire the escorts advertised in this intrusive way when there are many more to choose from in the free ad papers (Vegas has hundreds of newspaper boxes full of them) or even the phonebook. Is hiring an escort really such an impulse purchase that people don't think of it unless it is literally shoved in their faces?
I was on my way to see Celine Dion at Caesar's Palace or maybe the water show at the Bellagio, but then this kid jumped in my face and snapped a card at me. I thought, heck, I'd just blow this wad of dough in the casino anyway, so why not get an escort instead? Thanks, kid. I never would have considered this entertainment option without your helpful input. You just made my night!
I wouldn't open a checking account at a bank where someone stood outside and snapped business cards in my face. I also wouldn't support a business responsible for so much litter in the street. But then again, somebody is making it worthwhile for e-mail spammers to continue filling my inbox with offers for mortgages, pharmaceuticals, wild teens, and body part enhancement products. Maybe the problem isn't the card flickers. It's the idiot consumers who answer their call.
Yesterday I broke in a new pair of hiking boots by exploring some recent improvements. The city completed underpasses at Peterson Avenue (6000N) and Lincoln this spring. The path runs right beside the channel between them, with trail users protected by a black, wrought iron fence (Mayor Daley's preferred barrier). With lights and a wide, concrete path, the underpasses should be relatively safe. Now there are no at-grade street crossings from Argyle to Lincoln. This may be the longest uninterrupted path in the city aside from the lakefront.
Funding is available for a new pedestrian/bike bridge over the channel north of Lincoln, but word on the street is that Alderman Bernard Stone does not want to build it. This is ridiculous considering that the money will be lost (as opposed to being directed elsewhere in his ward) if the bridge isn't built. Instead, runners and cyclists have to cross on the Lincoln Avenue bridge to continue up the west side of the channel into Skokie and Evanston. Cyclists will have to brave Lincoln's heavy traffic (I'm thinking particularly of the younger ones; it's not a bad street for experienced riders). Runners and walkers will have to use the bridge's north sidewalk, which is more narrow than the path, and dodge the streetlight poles. Local cyclist Bob Kastigar has photographically documented the problem.
Tuesday, May 17, 2005
What are the dividing lines between Chicago's major "sides," North, Northwest, West, Southwest, South and East?I have wondered about this because my neighborhood is north-northwest of the Loop, and I'm not sure whether to say I live on the North Side or the Northwest Side. Zorn talked to Christopher Devane, who makes a popular map of Chicago neighborhoods (I have one), and he looked at maps from Chicago's Department of Planning and Development. I won't quote the entire long answer, but this is most relevant to me:
North Side: Devane and the city map agree that North Avenue (1600 N) marks the southern boundary of the North Side. But the city map puts the western boundary at the north branch of the Chicago River until it crosses Devon Avenue (6400 N), at which point the boundary is Kedzie Avenue (3200 W) up to the city limits. Devane argues, preposterously in The Exterminator's opinion, that the North Side extends west to Cicero Avenue (4800 W) and the Eden's Expressway on the west.According to the City, my confusion is legitimate--I am just barely a North Sider, living four houses and one street east of the Chicago River's north branch. From his description, however, I think The Exterminator got a little confused looking at the map. North of Foster Avenue, he is actually describing the North Shore Channel rather than the Chicago River (the river crosses Devon 3.5 miles west of Kedzie). The map he links to in his Notebook confirms this. It's a common mistake--when I first moved to this neighborhood I referred to the bike trail along the channel as "the river path" (my forthcoming book, Biking Illinois, will include this trail). I agree with The Exterminator that Cicero Avenue is too far west to consider "North Side," even though that would make me less of a "fringe" North Sider.
There is a curious footnote to this. The Chicago River's current bed is not natural. It was relocated by the Sanitary District of Chicago in the first decade of the 1900s. Libby Hill's The Chicago River: A Natural And Unnatural History includes a map showing the old and new course of the river (page 144). Had this project not been undertaken, I would live on the Northwest Side rather than the North Side (judging from the real estate values of my neighborhood, Ravenswood Gardens, and the neighborhood across the river, Ravenswood Manor, my house would be worth an extra $50,000 or so). Coincidentally, Lake Claremont Press, the publisher of Hill's excellent book, would also be on the other side of the river and consequently a different "Side" of the city.
UPDATED 05/19/2005 - In a follow-up column today, Zorn included my correction about the North Shore Channel. He also wrote about the negative connotations of the "West Side" and noted
In fact, these borders shift in the media depending on what type of story is being reported. In Chicago's Near Northwest, if a trendy new restaurant opens, it's on the "North Side," but if someone gets shot, it's on the "West Side." This is true even if the shooting occurs north and east of the restaurant!It reminds me of the name game that realtors play. The boundaries of popular neighborhoods are forever expanding, while less popular ones shrink. When I lived at LaSalle Drive and Oak Street, I delighted in calling my location "Cabrini East" since it was much closer to the notorious housing project than to the wealthy Gold Coast preferred by my building's leasing agents.
Tuesday, May 10, 2005
"If you take a frog and try to dump him into a pot of boiling water, he immediately will jump out. But if you put the frog in a pot of cool water and heat it gradually, he doesn't jump out and eventually he gets boiled," said David Schulz, executive director of the Infrastructure Technology Institute at Northwestern University.I'm sure you've heard that story at least a hundred times. But it's not true! At the venerable Urban Legends Reference Pages (aka snopes.com), Dr. Victor Hutchison, a man who should know, says
The legend is entirely incorrect! The 'critical thermal maxima' of many species of frogs have been determined by several investigators. In this procedure, the water in which a frog is submerged is heated gradually at about 2 degrees Fahrenheit per minute. As the temperature of the water is gradually increased, the frog will eventually become more and more active in attempts to escape the heated water. If the container size and opening allow the frog to jump out, it will do so.The Tribune blew this one. Just because it's a quote doesn't make it acceptable, either. Repetition by people who should know better is what perpetuates such myths. Politicians, educators (the guy quoted is from Northwestern University, for goodness sake), businessmen, and other so-called authority figures repeat this story regardless of its falsehood. In the name of Kermit, I demand a correction/clarification by the Tribune!
(Full disclosure: As a teenager, I used to imitate Kermit's voice for my brother and his friends, so I may be biased in defense of frogs and their intelligence.)
Monday, May 09, 2005
The Trib editorial notes that PBS and its government support produced great shows like Sesame Street and Mister Rogers' Neighborhood. Then it says that nowadays with cable television there is no need for PBS. It is true that certain cable channels offer programming similar to PBS' evening shows (the Trib mentions Discovery and The History Channel, among others), but as far as I know, no one has educational programming like PBS. Nickelodeon and Disney offer entertainment for kids, but I don't think they teach anything. This seems to be an error in logic on the part of the Trib's editorial board--their argument would have been better had they used Nova as an example of a program with cable competition.
They also complain that PBS is boring. I hardly ever watch television, but whenever I hear about an interesting show on PBS, I watch it. And I almost always find myself watching another show or two after the one I tuned in to see. I don't know, maybe that makes me boring.
PBS "gets 15 to 20 percent of its budget--$350 million to $400 million a year--from the federal government," according to the editorial. This is a common trick used in political arguments (Amtrak being another recent example). While that number sounds huge to Joe Sixpack (who probably doesn't watch PBS since they don't cover NASCAR or pro wrestling), it is a tiny part of the federal budget. Compare those millions with the trillions required for Bush's proposed social security privatization plan. Killing PBS would reduce government spending about as much as eliminating paper clips would help the average household budget. In essence, every American taxpayer contributes $2-3 a year to fund PBS. I don't think that's such a bad investment, especially considering that many subscribers pay $75-100 per month to "fund" cable television. I think the Bush administration should stop interfering with PBS, and they certainly shouldn't eliminate its funding.
Sunday, May 08, 2005
Hurry in to your Lincoln Park Performance Bicycle and save on even more incredible gear during our Spring Fever Sale! Now through Sunday - 4 days only - we've added some incredible blowouts to our massive Spring Fever Sale! Check out these incredible 4-day only Blowouts!Doesn't it sound like they are advertising really lousy tubes or tires? Personally, I expect to get at least a solid week out of mine, and I would prefer a simple flat instead of a blowout. If Goodyear or Firestone advertised "4 Day Only Blowouts," would you shop there? Maybe Performance Bicycle should hire a copywriter who thinks about these things!
Saturday, May 07, 2005
Anyway, the man at the counter (server? cashier? donut wrangler?) filled up my box (10 cinnamon powdered and 15 chocolate glazed, if you must know), rang up the total, took my cash, gave me change, and said, "Have a good day, sir." I wished him the same, but before I could turn around and walk out, he asked, "Would you like a receipt, sir?"
In his comedy routines, Mitch Hedberg used to say
I bought a donut and they gave me a receipt for the donut. I don't need a receipt for the donut - I'll just give you money and you give me the donut. End of transaction. We don't need to bring ink and paper into this. I can't imagine a scenario in which I would need to prove that I bought a donut. Some skeptical friend? "Don’t even act like I didn't buy a donut, I've got the documentation right here. Oh wait, it's back home in the file... under 'D', for donut."I had to chuckle as I said, "No, thanks." The man is gone, but the laughs go on. Rest in peace, Mitch.
If you want to play around with this, visit the "Malkovich Mediator." You can fill just about any HTML page with the message of your choice (from Instapundit by way of Media In Trouble).
Friday, May 06, 2005
- I tried to play around with notebook configurations on their web site. I even registered so I could save them. Every time I saved one, the previous one would vanish. Screw Dell.
- As I said, I have a Dell laptop. It never was very reliable (it ran Windows Me, for starters). I haven't used it for several years. Guess what? Now it won't even turn on, even when it's plugged in. Screw Dell.
- Michael Dell is a huge backer of President Bush and the other Republicans who are rewriting the laws of our country to benefit their crony capitalist pals. Bush even calls Mr. Dell for tech support. Screw Michael Dell, and screw Dell.
Anyone have any suggestions for a notebook? The most taxing thing I will do is edit photos, but as a former programmer I can't bring myself to buy anything too cheap--something in the $800-1100 range. I am thinking seriously about an HP zv6000 with an Athlon 64 chip. Carly Fiorina isn't that much better than Michael Dell, but HP fired her.
UPDATE 06/21/2005: I finally ordered an IBM ThinkPad T43 last week. It cost about 50% more than I had originally planned to spend, but IBM's quality and durability are head and shoulders above the manufacturers I had been considering. It should last a long time, and it has a three-year warranty (which would have cost an extra $180 from HP). The IBM has a higher resolution, matte screen, which I prefer. Battery life will be much better with a Pentium M than with an Athlon 64, too.
I suppose one might say, like that Dell employee did, that by buying an IBM/Lenovo I am giving money to the Chinese government (a part owner of Lenovo, which now owns IBM's notebook and home PC businesses). On the other hand, somebody has to give them money to spend on U.S. Treasury Bonds as our nation drowns in debt.
Tuesday, May 03, 2005
In April 2003, DynCorp was also awarded a multimillion-dollar contract to build a private police force in post-Saddam Iraq. Potential officers do not need to speak Arabic and must be U.S. citizens and current or former police officers, according to the London Observer. Private police provided by DynCorp working for the U.N. in Bosnia were accused of buying and selling prostitutes, including a 12-year-old girl. Others were accused of videotaping the rape of one of the women.They are looking for police officers with five years of experience to do police work in Iraq, Afghanistan, Liberia, and East Timor. Another Chicago police officer said he was planning to go to Afghanistan for a year. He could make $100,000 in a year with no federal taxes since he would be out of the U.S. The pay in Iraq is even higher, up to $120,000. He offered to hook her up with his recruiter to get her "on the fast track" so she could start within a month. Greed was getting the best of her, and she was actually considering it.
My role here was obvious: "Oh, please honey, don't go, it's too dangerous!" Ha! As if I could utter such hysterical words. I was busy figuring out which new computer to buy with that extra cash. No, I refused to play along. Besides, since she let me take my cross-country bike trip three years ago, who am I to stand in the way of her adventure? At her request, I visited the recruiting web site and printed a dozen pages of information.
Naturally, my apparently apathetic reaction made her mad. Despite her college minor in women's studies, she said, "I want you to be a caveman." So I grabbed her by the hair and dragged her around the house for a while. No, actually I just told her I knew she was trying to elicit an emotionally charged response, and I wouldn't indulge her: "You can do whatever you want to do." I knew she would never do it anyway. We can't go on vacation for a week without her missing the dogs. She could never leave them behind for a year abroad, especially the older one. She could live without me, but not without them.
When she floated the idea to her mother today, she got the reaction she had wanted from me anyway. And I refuse to be the worrywart that my mother-in-law is. In fact, I made a conscious decision when I met my wife that I was not going to worry about her job. It's probably the best choice I've ever made regarding my mental health.
By the time she left for work tonight, she seemed to be talking herself out of it. I guess I won't be getting that new computer after all.
Sunday, May 01, 2005
According to the article, the no-fun Repubs complained about Nelson's "fondness for drinking and smoking, and active campaigning for Democratic candidates." Drinking? Do they want to bring back Prohibition, too? That worked so well the first time. And Hank's reputation for drinking certainly didn't stop Alabama from honoring him. Smoking? Well, the article dances around the issue with that single word. I'm sure what they oppose is his marijuana smoking. He even does public service announcements for NORML that argue for decriminalization and legalization (NORML calls Willie "our most beloved marijuana smoker"). Heaven forbid they name a highway after a pot smoker! (For the record, I have never smoked pot, and I really don't care either way about the issue.)
As for Nelson campaigning for Democrats, why don't you just grow up, you partisan hacks! Besides, most good musicians are Democrats (as opposed to the rah-rah, flag-waving suck-ups in Nashville), and a founder of Farm Aid like Willie couldn't sleep at night supporting the big business party (I know the Dems take a good chunk of change from corporations, but the Republicans, particularly the two mentioned at the beginning of this post, have raised corporate butt-kissing to an artform).
And before anyone offers the "he's not dead yet" argument, note that the state legislature designated a Nolan Ryan Expressway in Brazoria County in 1995. There is also a Nolan Ryan Expressway in Arlington (I'm not sure who named it) running past the stadium that Bush built with taxpayer money as part-owner of the Texas Rangers. Did I mention that Ryan is a Republican? I recognize that Ryan's strikeouts and no-hitters have nothing to do with that. Why can't these state senators see that Nelson's singing and songwriting achievements (not to mention his general reputation as a Texas icon) have little to do with his politics? Let Willie have his highway!