Russell's Blog

New. Improved. Stays crunchy in milk.

Protect your noodle

Posted by Russell on October 31, 2007 at 12:58 a.m.
Yesterday afternoon, my little sister was hit by a car while riding her bicycle across the University of Oklahoma campus. She suffered lacerations and abrasions to her face, lost a couple of teeth, and a number other injuries. She also has a serious concussion. She is now experiencing memory loss, disorientation, extreme nausea, and huge amount of pain.

All of this is, in a sense, good news. She was very, very lucky, given that she was not wearing a helmet. The prognosis is that she will recover completely after some unknown amount of time. My mother flew out to Oklahoma on the first available flight, and she'll be staying with Anna at least throught next week.

She is an exceptionally smart girl, and she knows perfectly well how important helmets are. When we were little, I witnessed her flip her bike and pile-drive her head into the sharp point of the curb in front of our house. She was not hurt, but her helmet nearly split in half. We still have that helmet, even thought it is ruined. The seven inch long, two inch deep gash across the crown makes it perfectly clear that Anna would have died that day, had it not been for a geeky-looking early 1990s vintage Bell helmet. The very first serious email I ever wrote was to thank Bell Sports for saving my little sister.

Now is not the time to wonder why she wasn't wearing her helmet yesterday. Maybe she lost it, or maybe she figured she was only going to ride a short distance, or maybe she didn't expect any cars on campus. We may never find out, given that she doesn't remember the accident. For now, we're focusing on when we can take her out of the hospital, and how long it will take her to recover.

I am writing this here today to ask you, dear reader, to always wear the proper safety equipment. Concussions are not funny. Shit happens. Protect your noodle.

I am going to go ahead and shamelessly plug Bell helmets. Bell has been making helmets since 1954, and they invented the modern bicycle helmet in 1975. Bell saved my little sister once, so they've got my vote for life. Buy a helmet, and make sure it is on your head whenever you so much as handle a bicycle, in case you are overpowered by a sudden uncontrollable urge to peddle around. In fact, buy two, just in case you loose one, or for variety, or for the hell of it.

If you are wondering how to make bicycling safer, you can do two things. Wear a helmet, and bicycle more :

The analysis undertaken in this study suggests that policies which lead to an increase in cycling will not increase the likelihood of cyclist crashes. From the work reported here, it seems the more cyclists there are on the roads the lower the risk that any individual cyclists will be involved in a collision. Road safety professionals concerned about reducing the likelihood of cycle crashes might consider measures that increase cycling.

Food for words

Posted by Russell on October 25, 2007 at 3:59 a.m.
Go to FreeRice and see how good your vocabulary is. Every time you answer correctly, you earn ten grains of rice for the UN World Food Programme from the site's advertisers.

I can't wait to say, "My, you look positively vermicular today!"

(via TreeHugger.)

Bus racing

Posted by Russell on October 23, 2007 at 7:14 p.m.
On my way home from UCLA today, I decided to see how fast I ride my bike from Westwood and to the terminus of the Metro Purple Line on Wilshire and Western. Particularly, I was interested to see if I could get there quicker than the 720 bus. To make it fair, I waited until there was almost no traffic for the bus to get mired in. Rush hour now lasts well into the late evening, so traffic was heavy but not jammed at 9:00 PM.

I waited for a 720 bus to pull into the station, and then took off. It was pretty much a dead heat until the Starbucks at San Vincente, and I got a couple of lucky breaks from the walk signals. I beat the bus to Western by about four minutes, completing the trip in 43 minutes without breaking a sweat. Oh, and it's mostly an uphill ride with lots of pedestrians to which one must yield.

Up in smoke

Posted by Russell on October 23, 2007 at 5:12 a.m.
The upper atmosphere was pretty think with smoke today, though I don't see any ash falling in Pasadena or near UCLA. 500,000 people have been ordered to evacuate from what may be the worst outbreak of fire in California history. A constellation of fires are burning from Santa Barbara to the US-Mexico border.

There aren't enough firefighters, and, as has been the case for a long time now, much of California's National Guard is in Iraq. The Guard that is still here is also missing a lot of vehicles and equipment, because the equipment is in Iraq now, or because it was destroyed in Iraq. The Guvonator had to order 200 guardsmen away from patrolling the US-Mexico border, and people's homes are still burning without a firefighter or a guardsman in sight.

For those readers outside of California who are chalking this up to the various "natural" disasters for which California is famous, I'd like to offer a little explanation. Southern California is a desert. Specifically, it is biotic system called chaparral. Normally, it looks sort of like this :

The land is loosely covered with scrubby sagebrush and small, knotted trees. Small clumps of grasses or wildflowers grow here and there, but mostly the surface is exposed rock. There is almost no water whatsoever. One of the peculiar features of this kind of land is that it is supposed to burn. Chaparral plants evaporate volatile oils -- turpentine -- into the air to encourage fires. This is why Chaparral smells so nice, and why it fucking burns all the time.

So, the problem is this: What kind of idiot would build a house in the middle of a place that is supposed to burn to the ground every four of five years? The answer is that it isn't the idiots, it's the assholes. The people who built those houses (and whole towns, in many cases) knew exactly what was going to happen. But they slapped the houses together and sold them to regular folks looking for a place to live. They've been doing this for a hundred years.

For the New Englanders who read this blog, think of it this way. Rivers are supposed to flood periodically, usually into special areas called floodplanes. These areas have plants and animals that are adapted to life in a place that floods from time to time. In fact, many of them would die if there weren't floods. We know all this. Nevertheless, people still build houses in floodplanes. Usually, though, the home owner isn't the one at fault. They just moved in, and then one year, their house floods, and everyone says, "You idiot, you built your house in a floodplane."

Well, chaparral is sort of the same thing. Instead of a floodplane, it's a fireplane. It's a really, really stupid place to build a house.

But of course, the homeowner didn't build anything. Usually, a gigantic multinational corporation, like KB Home, is responsible for developing the site. No, you say, no developer would knowingly build in a floodplane, or in a fireplane, or some other obviously dangerous place. Allow me to direct your attention to one of their developments in Arlington, Texas :

According to plaintiffs' attorneys, the land that KB Home developed into the Southridge Hills subdivision was once owned by the U.S. government and was part of a naval training range. Commonly known as Five Points Field, it was used as a military practice bombing range during World War II, the firm said.

The government sold the property in 1956. Lawyers said in its deed to the purchaser, the U.S. government acknowledged that the property was subject to contamination by the introduction of unexploded bombs, shells, rockets, mines and charges. The government recommended that the target impact area be restricted to "above surface" use only, the firm said.

They built homes on top of fucking bombs, and then sold them to people without telling them. So, do you think they have any qualms about selling people homes in floodplanes, chaparral, and hurricane highways?

Now, I'm not against building homes or against multinational corporations building them. However, it is worth noting that if my IBM ThinkPad exploded and burned into a cinder because the battery charging circuit was defective, no one would be shocked or surprised if I expected IBM to replace my laptop with one that doesn't explode. Houses placed in unstable locations are defective. Whoever built them should be expected to replace them with houses that aren't defective. If we held companies like KB Home to the same standards we hold Apple and IBM, then we wouldn't be evacuating 500,000 from regions that are naturally supposed to burn.

Two weeks on a folding bike

Posted by Russell on October 21, 2007 at 6:29 a.m.
Since I am now commuting to UCLA from Pasadena, I've spent a lot of time wondering how to cut down of the time, expense and misery of commuting. Most of that pondering happened while trapped somewhere on the Ventura freeway, or the perhaps on driving aimlessly around Westwood looking for a parking spot.

To that end, I've started using the Metro as much as possible. The Metro Gold Line is fantastic, and gets me from Lake Street in Pasadena to Union Station downtown in about 20 minutes (less if I catch an express). The Purple Line gets me as far as Koreatown, and this is where things start to suck. From Wilshire and Western, it's about seven miles to UCLA. During business hours, the 720 bus takes about an hour and 45 minutes to traverse this miserable stretch of urban leprosy. The worst part is Beverley Hills, which I would gleefully bulldoze if given the chance.

It's maddening. The first 22 miles of the trip take about 30-45 minutes, depending on intervals between trains. The last six and a half take three times that.

While I was riding a 720 bus packed with more people than I attended high school with, it occurred to me that 6.5 miles in 105 minutes is a little slower than four miles per hour. I could probably beat that walking on my hands.

So, I bought some new tires for my bicycle, and gave it a try. Sure enough, I passed five or six 720 busses as they sat like flatulent beached whales in the morning rush hour traffic. With all the traffic lights, it's a slow ride, but it takes about 50-60 minutes, so I'm averaging between 6.5-7.8 miles per hour. In West Los Angeles, velocities this high are known to cause Cerenkov radiation. I could go a lot faster if drivers would actually look at the road instead of staring blankly into space while driving their Range Rovers in the bike lane, parking in the crosswalk or on driving on the sidewalk to get around busses (yes, really). It would be certain death for a cyclist if all of this mayhem weren't happening at the speed one can push a loaded dumpster up a hill.

There is just one problem, though. When you're not riding it, a bicycle is miserable thing to carry. You may as well be traveling with an Alexander Calder sculpture.

So, I bought a folding bicycle :

This is a Brompton M6R. It folds up really, really tiny, and has little wheels on the bottom to roll it like a suitcase when it's folded up.

Surprisingly, the small wheels don't seem to make much of a difference with stability. The only difference, really, is that it takes a lot less torque to turn the front wheel, even at speed. This makes it feel "twitchy" at first, but the sensation goes away after about twenty seconds of riding. The Bromptons also have really strong breaks. You have to be careful not to pitch yourself over the handlebars.

Compared to my road bike, the Brompton is almost alarmingly responsive. This makes it ideal for crowded situations -- it's easy to avoid unexpected obstacles, squeeze through narrow spaces, and stop suddenly. When it's folded up, it's nice to be able to walk down the train platform without goring people with the pedals or stabbing them with the quick release levers.

The Brompton has two main disadvantages. First, it's a little on the heavy side. I didn't shell out for the titanium version, so it weighs in at 23 pounds. This turns out not to matter very much, except when lugging it up long flights of stairs. The second disadvantage is that I must answer a never-ending stream of questions about it.

I will write a more detailed review of the bicycle itself in a few weeks.

Trading the tundra for a Tundra

Posted by Russell on October 03, 2007 at 6:05 p.m.
Only a few day ago, I discovered that my wonderful Toyota Yaris probably outranks my mother's (also pretty neat) Toyota Prius in terms of lowest carbon footprint. It appears the Yaris has the smallest carbon footprint of any car available in the United States.

Unfortunately, when it comes to fuel economy standards, what Toyota gives with one hand, it takes away with the other. Thomas Friedman expounds in his op-ed today :

What I don’t get is empty-barrel politics — Michigan lawmakers year after year shielding Detroit from pressure to innovate on higher mileage standards, even though Detroit’s failure to sell more energy-efficient vehicles has clearly contributed to its brush with bankruptcy, its loss of market share to Toyota and Honda — whose fleets beat all U.S. automakers in fuel economy in 2007 — and its loss of jobs. G.M. today has 73,000 working U.A.W. members, compared with 225,000 a decade ago. Last year, Toyota overtook G.M. as the world’s biggest automaker.

Thank you, Michigan delegation! The people of Japan thank you as well.

But assisting Detroit’s suicide seems to be contagious. Everyone wants to get in on it, including Toyota. Toyota, which pioneered the industry-leading, 50-miles-per-gallon Prius hybrid, has joined with the Big Three U.S. automakers in lobbying against the tougher mileage standards in the Senate version of the draft energy bill.

This is one of the reasons it's a bad idea to allow so few companies to dominate such an important market. It virtually guarantees that even the "good guys" to get mixed up in bad business, and no approach actually taken will stand out as clearly the right one. If there were more car companies each with a smaller market share, it would be more likely that at least one of them would hit on the right mix of innovation, marketing and public policy.

Remember, Toyota also makes the unfortunately-named Tundra. Imagine yourself a future history textbook author in a time when there isn't any actual tundra left in the world. Would you pass up the opportunity to bash a company for naming a product after the ecosystem it helped erase from the Earth?