Jackie and I made good use of the Bike Project last week.

I’m not quite sure how to describe the Bike Project. Let’s try this: It’s a group of people and a collection of tools, using space in the Independent Media Center, serving as a resource for people who want to repair their bikes, or learn how to repair bikes.

We needed to make use of it because I broke Jackie’s front shifter last week, during a test ride after cleaning her chain.

With help from the folks at the Bike Project, we found a similar shifter in a bin of scavenged parts, ran a new cable through it, and swapped that out for the broken shifter and cable on Jackie’s bike. We paid $6 for the parts.

Among the things that I learned:

  1. The front shifter is not supposed to come apart. (Jackie’s had, and I’d assumed it was supposed to—that you were supposed to open it up to thread the cable through. That turns out not to be the case—once it’s opened up, it’s probably done for.)
  2. Getting the cable tension right is pretty easy, at least if your derailleur has previously been adjusted correctly. (All we did was pull the cable snug, cut it off, and crimp on a cable-end, at which point it pretty much just worked. I may have given the barrel adjuster a turn.)
  3. Grip shifters are mostly crappy plastic items that can be expected to fail if you actually use them.

Overall, it was a great experience. The place was full of people fixing their bikes, and there was a lot of positive energy in the shop.

They have a Build-a-Bike program, where you pick out a scavenged frame and then build it out with scavenged components (buying new components where desired). It was a key idea behind the project when it was being founded, and I’m sure you can still do it if you want to, but they also have a bunch of rebuilt bikes available for purchase, and I’ve heard that they tend to guide people interested in Build-a-Bike to those.

There were some downsides. In particular, one of the big advantages is supposed to be that they have stands to use while working on your bike, but the stands were 100% occupied for the whole 90 minutes we were there. Still, we’ll certainly join the Bike Project next time we need to get some work done on our bikes. It was a lot cheaper than going to a bike shop, and despite taking that 90 minutes, it was still a lot quicker than making an appointment at a bike shop to get the work done in a week or two.

I’ve got a quandary. It’s in the area of civics.

I was on jury duty last month, and was in the pool of potential jurors for a cocaine possession case. Several of the candidate jurors mentioned that they had issues with drug prohibition, and were excused from serving on the jury—whether or not they said they could set their personal feelings aside and follow the law. (I wasn’t taking notes, but my recollection is that the ones who said they didn’t think they could follow the law were excused by the judge while the ones who merely expressed personal reservations about drug prohibition as a matter of public policy had to be peremptorily challenged by the prosecutor.)

I too think that drug prohibition is terrible public policy. It’s harmful to society at every level. It corrupts the police and the judicial system. It clogs the courts and the prisons. It drains money that could be better spent on useful things (or left in the hands of the people who earn it). It adds yet another layer of harm onto drug users—people who are already suffering—making it harder, riskier, and more expensive for them to either go on using drugs or seek help to quit.

Most especially, criminalizing commerce in drugs means that makers and sellers of drugs have no recourse to the police or the courts when they’re robbed or defrauded. That produces another whole layer of violence—one that only occasionally touches people who aren’t buying or selling (or stealing) drugs, but that would be completely absent if drugs were legal.

Despite all that, as I imagined my answers to the questions they were asking, I found that I was inclined to say that I could give both sides a fair trial—meaning that I thought, if the prosecution proved beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant was in possession of some amount of cocaine, I could vote to find him guilty.

I thought about why, and eventually decided it was because I think democracy is important.

I’ve got no doubt that drug prohibition is a dumb idea, but I’ve also got no doubt that the right way to fix it is by changing the law. I’m pretty sure that screwing around on the edges of the law, such as by acquitting people who are technically guilty, is the wrong way to solve the problem. And yet, each time someone like me applies the law, another person who already has more than his or her measure of problems gets another few—a felony conviction,  loss of access to things like public housing and school loans, and most likely a prison sentence.

And so my quandary. Is democracy worth that much? It’s worth a lot, but is it worth wreaking that much harm on someone who was merely self-medicating because they hadn’t found a better way to deal with life?

I find I’m not sure.

I decided that I wanted to try barefoot running.

Of course, I didn’t want to actually run with bare feet. That seems stupid (although I suppose it’s another capability that might be worth developing, just in case circumstances arise where I might really need to run in bare feet).

No, what I wanted to do—like many people who have read Christopher McDougall‘s book Born to Run—was try running with the stride that one would use if one were barefoot.

The natural running stride, it turns out, is quite different from the walking stride. In walking, you land on your heel, then rock forward and push off with your toes. If you wear cushiony, padded running shoes, you can run like that too, but it’s not the natural way to run.

The natural running stride is easy to experience—just run in place for a few seconds. You’ll land on your forefoot, absorb the impact with the muscles of your calf and thigh, and then launch yourself off again with those same muscles.

I’ve been trying to run with more of a forefoot strike since I started running again this spring, but it’s hard to do if you’re wearing ordinary running shoes. The heel is not only all cushiony, it’s thick. That means that, unless you exaggerate your forefoot strike, you’re still going to land on your heel.

So, I went to the shoe store, meaning to try out one of the many new “minimalist” running shoes with thinner heels and less cushioning that are now on the market.

Happily, we have a great running shoe store in town called Body and Sole. After trying on three pairs of shoes with progressively less padding and structure, I tried on a really minimalist pair, which felt wonderful. I tested them in the concrete parking lot, taking a turn around the outside of the building, and then a second turn, and then a third. I told the salesman, “That first pair was fine, and I would have bought them. But this pair was the pair that made me want to keep running laps around the building.”

So, now I need to adjust to this new stride. It demands a bit more strength and endurance in the calf muscles (and no doubt in the muscles that keep the bones of the foot correctly arranged as well).

The shoes I ended up, a style called the Road Glove, are made by Merrell, which also provides an extensive website on barefoot running. They feel just like you’re barefoot, except that there’s a sole to protect your feet from sharp/hard/abrasive road hazards.

Following their advice, I just ran half a mile yesterday. I certainly feel it in my calves today. They don’t feel bad, though. Just tired and sore like I got a good workout yesterday. And my tendons and joints don’t feel sore at all.

The timing is perfect for doing a few low-mileage days. On Sunday I ran 5.25 miles for my long run (in my old shoes), so Monday and Tuesday would have been light running days anyway.

Plus, on Tuesday we went for a long bike ride. We rode to Philo and met some friends for lunch at the Philo Tavern. That’s a 28-mile round trip, which we did in an even three hours. (I wrote about an earlier bike ride to Philo in my old Clarion journal.)

Here’s us, on the road to Philo:

Cyclists on the side of the road
Me and Jackie on the road to Philo

And here’s a pretty ladybug that I noticed while we were paused to get that picture:

Roadside Ladybug

I’ve already sent that picture to the Lost Ladybug Project, which is trying to gather data on the native ladybugs, whose distribution is changing due to the importation of non-native ladybugs and climate change.

Siam Dragon Peppers
Siam Dragon Peppers
We keep harvesting them, but every time we return to the garden a few more of our Siam Dragon Peppers are ripe.

I like to joke that I no longer multitask at more than one thing at a time.

Related to that, I recognized years ago that a certain amount of monomaniacal focus was really useful for successfully completing a large project (such as a novel), but that being able to focus on more than just one thing was important to being more broadly successful.

This is all the more true if you want to accomplish more than just one thing (if you want to, for example, write a series of Wise Bread posts, write an occasional short story, and become physically fit, in addition to writing a novel). And yet, each one of those things requires focus, if I’m to accomplish it.

Basically, I need to be able to be monomaniacal about three or four things at a time.

Like most people, I find that I get caught up in whatever I’m doing, both on a minute-to-minute basis and a day-to-day basis.

On a minute-to-minute basis, when I’m writing something, and especially when the writing is going well, I want to press on. I feel this way, even though I know from both things others have said and personal experience, that it’s always best to stop in the middle of things—to leave a ragged edge, so that I return to the work with a clear entry point, already knowing how the next bit goes. Convincing myself to do this routinely would really help with being monomaniacal about multiple things: I’d be quicker at ending the first thing so I could switch my focus to the second, and I’d be quicker at resuming the first thing when I came back to it.

Just lately, my day-to-day monomaniacal focus has been on running. I don’t run every single day, but I’ve had to make it the first thing I do on the days that I do it, because otherwise it’s too hot to run. It’s been working very well for building fitness, but doing it first has tended to result in it preempting my writing.

I’m not quite sure why. Partly it’s because a good workout leaves me feeling tired. Partly it’s because a good workout leaves me feeling like I’ve accomplished something (so I’m less driven to accomplish something more). Partly it’s just that I’m only at my best first thing in the day, so whatever I do first always ends up being the main thing I do that day.

Once there’s a break in the heat, I want to get back to writing first of all. If I can put that together with taking a fairly early break (leaving the work paused at a ragged edge) and then running (or walking or bicycling or lifting or doing taiji) and then returning for a second session of writing, I think I’ll be more productive at the writing without any loss of success at the fitness thing.

Exactly on topic for the above is Tobias Buckell’s latest meditations on designing a daily routine that provides both writing time and exercise time, while also allowing him to work on different aspects of his work at whatever time of day he’s most effective at that particular thing. Toby is a great writer, but he’s an absolute genius at measuring his productivity and then using that data to tweak his work habits.

I need to improve my own data collection. I already track my productivity at writing, but I need to get a bit more fine-grained about it and track productivity per work session (rather than per day). I’m sure I’m most productive in the first session of the day, but I don’t have any evidence, and I certainly don’t know how much less productive I am during the later sessions, nor to I know whether my productivity declines less if I work on non-fiction (or editing, or research).

The picture, by the way, has nothing to do with this post. I just thought the blog needed another picture, and I’d brought the camera to the garden today.

Jackie started noticing some years ago that waiters seemed not to understand that cream is an actual, specific thing. Waiters would offer her cream for her coffee, and then bring some industrial concoction of water, corn syrup, tropical oils, and mono- and di- glycerides (sometimes including some milk solids).

She learned to ask for milk instead, because even waiters seem to understand that milk is an actual, specific thing.

This week, for the first time, we observed the reverse. The waiter offered to bring “creamer,” so Jackie said she’d drink her coffee black. I’m new enough to drinking coffee that I’ve never had creamer, so I figured I’d give it a try and said, “Sure, bring some creamer.”

The waiter brought actual cream.

I can see restaurant owners urging waiters to offer cream when what they’re bringing is some much cheaper substitute, the same way they tell waiters to claim that the vegetables are fresh when they’re actually frozen. But no one would think it made sense to offer some cheap substitute and then bring the real thing.

The only explanation I can think of is that people these days don’t know what cream is. And I guess that makes sense. When my parents were kids, people still got unhomogenized milk, where the cream would literally rise to the top, so they knew it was an actual, specific thing. But we’re now two generations removed from that. Plenty of time for people to forget what cream is.

I’m one of those annoying people who always responds to any suggestion that we “do something” about gun violence or terrorism by pointing out that we allow 40,000 motor vehicle deaths per year, and that maybe we should do something about that problem first.

I don’t do this for tactical reasons. (I recognize that, as a tactic, this argument is a dead loser.)

I do it because I really, really care about motor vehicle deaths—given my lifestyle, I figure they’re the most likely cause of my own premature death.

I walk a lot, and a lot of my walking is along roadways. I also bicycle a lot, and a lot of my bicycling is along roadways. (I walk and bicycle for transportation, not merely for fitness. If you’re walking or bicycling to get somewhere, you’re going to end up going on the roads that lead from where you are to where you need to go.)

The number of people who die of gunshot wounds in the US is high, but very few of those deaths are random. A majority are suicides. The overwhelming majority of the remainder are criminal-on-criminal homicides.

It’s easy to reduce your risk of being shot to a level so low as to be statistically insignificant, and the steps you need to take are all perfectly sensible things that everyone should do anyway:

  • Seek treatment if you’re suffering from depression
  • Don’t commit crimes
  • Don’t do business with violent criminals
  • Don’t hang out with violent criminals

Do those things and your risk of being shot drops to the level of other risks that you largely ignore, like the risk of being struck by lightning or the risk of being gored by a bull.

There is no similar set of things you can do to similarly reduce your risk of being killed or injured by a motor vehicle. (If anyone can provide one, I’d be delighted to hear it.)

Besides the fact that I (apparently perversely) view motor vehicle deaths as the larger problem, I also don’t see any good, simple way to reduce firearm deaths. (Except, you know, the way I just mentioned which is highly effective at reducing them on an individual basis.)

I think a lot of people would be glad to see guns disappear (as has largely happened in Australia) or at least be very strictly limited (like in the UK or in Canada)—but that’s not going to happen. In a democracy such major changes require not just a majority vote but a broad consensus in society.

At a minimum, a lot of people suggest, if we’re going to allow people to own firearms, there should at least be some “reasonable regulation,” like there is with cars. I object to such schemes, on the grounds that there’s no way to enforce them without using police-state tactics.

It is not, I wish to emphasize, just about firearms that I feel this way. I object to any scheme where citizens are required to keep their papers in order, or are required to show their papers when demanded by some official. The immigration debate raises the same issues, and I feel the same way in that case as well.

Such objections may seem like a weird fantasy of an America that never was, but that’s not the case. Until quite recently, it was entirely possible to get along in the United States without any sort of government-issued ID. Even now it’s possible, although it requires giving up things that are tough to get along without.  (It’s tough to open a bank account or to get a job without ID.) But that’s a problem to be fixed, not an excuse to go on adding to the list of things that require papers.

I don’t just complain about this stuff. I’m active locally in the community of people advocating for better bicycling and pedestrian infrastructure. I work to improve the laws to make things safer for bicyclists, and I work to educate both bicyclists and drivers on safe riding and driving.

I would encourage you to do so as well. Even if you’re not a bicyclist you know some, and everyone’s a pedestrian.

If you do—if you’re one of the many people who’s making significant and ongoing contributions to bicycling and pedestrian safety—I promise to listen thoughtfully and give serious consideration to anything you’ve got to say about reducing gun violence.

I have been on-and-off reading about “paleo” diet and exercise programs (also called “primal”).

I think there’s a lot to paleo, on an evolutionary basis. On the other hand, there are an awful lot of post-paleo lifestyles that have proven to be entirely successful, in the sense that generations of people have eaten all manner of particular diets and been healthy. (Native Americans ate corn, beans, and squash. Scots ate oats and kale. Lots of people ate rice and lentils.) Given that, and the fact that paleo diet programs doesn’t match well with what I like to eat, I’ve only paid a bit of attention to them. Basically, I’ve let them reinforce my preconceived notions.

I have a similarly divided appreciation of paleo exercise programs, but there I think I’ve worked out what was bugging me.

The half I agreed with is that very short bursts of very intense activity should be a key part of an exercise program. I’ve only made limited moves to incorporate this insight into my own workouts, but only because those sorts of intense bursts are hard.

I suspect it would be a really good change to compress my current 20-minute lifting workout into 10 minutes, which I could do if I really hustled between machines and counted the first set of the three leg exercises that I do as a warm-up.

To do so would require some additional mental toughness. It’s really hard to jump off the leg extension machine with your quads burning, and then jump on the leg curl machine and make your hamstrings feel the same way, and then hurry on to the leg press. Taking an extra thirty or forty seconds between machines to recover is a lot easier. (Not to mention inevitable, if you’re working out in a fitness center where you have to adjust the seat and set the weights on each machine.)

The half I disagreed with is the half that seems to dismiss endurance exercise.

Now, it may be that my reading of paleo exercise programs has simply been so cursory that I missed the paleo version of endurance exercise. But it sure seems to me like a large fraction of the paleo folks don’t merely dismiss endurance exercise, they actively disdain it.

That puzzled me, because it seems to me that the paleo human was the quintessential endurance machine.

As I say, I think I’ve come to understand the objection, which is that you can’t do high-intensity endurance exercise unless you eat loads of carbs. The paleo folks think you should do endurance exercise, as long as you keep the intensity level at a level where you can perform on a low-carb diet. Further, they seem to think that the appropriate level supports walking or hiking, but doesn’t support endurance running.

That’s crazy, although it’s understandable. The modern way of training to run is all about prompting the body to mobilize glycogen stores, by depleting those stores and then eating a high-carb diet to replenish and boost them.

That is not the only way to run. You can also engage in endurance activity powered mainly by fat stores.

Begin bonus anecdote:

When I was in high school, I decided to bicycle to Saugatuck, see a play, camp out overnight, and ride home the next day. I didn’t have a cyclometer in those days, and have always claimed that the distance was 75 miles each way. Google Maps tells me that my route (or very close to it) is 69.3 miles. Close enough.

I knew nothing about carb or fat metabolism. I made no plans to get food along the way, and in fact ate very little.

I headed out early in the morning, did just fine for a bit more than the 36 mile I was used to riding, and then bonked at about mile 40. (Bonking is what cyclists call it when you exhaust your body’s glycogen stores. It’s the same thing marathoners call “hitting the wall.”)

I was exhausted. My speed dropped from 14–17 mph down to 7–8 mph. And it stayed there.

That’s the important part of this anecdote. It stayed there. I rode another 30 miles or so that way. I rode it at less than 8 mph, but I rode it. I got up the next morning, still exhausted, got back on my bike, and rode a few miles to a breakfast spot and ate my only proper meal of the whole trip. It didn’t help much. I rode the whole way home at 7–8 mph.

End bonus anecdote.

If you haven’t trained your body to use fat stores for endurance activity, you’ll be pretty slow—as I was on my ride. And you’ll never be fast the way someone who has trained to build up glycogen stores can be. But with a modest amount of training, you can be plenty fast enough to run.

There are times when it is convenient to be able to run for an extended period. If you want to have that capability, you need to run—and not just occasional short sprints during your walks.

We don’t have much direct evidence of what paleolithic humans actually did, but I have no doubt that, in addition to walking a lot, they ran a lot. The human body is just too well adapted for long-distance running for it not to have been a key capability over an evolutionarily long period.

We went to the garden early, to harvest and water. (Right now, anything you want to do has to be done early, because of the heat.)

We took a lot of sunflowers—and these are on top of the flowers we got two days ago, and the ones from a couple days before that. We’d given away a bouquet to a woman with a garden plot near ours, and two bouquets to Jackie’s mom (one for a neighbor of hers), but we still had so many flowers that Jackie had to be quite inventive to find enough containers to use as vases, and enough places to put the vases.

So, I thought I’d take a picture of each bouquet, and then take a spin at using the blog’s ability to display galleries of images, and show off the many sunflowers currently decorating every room in our apartment. They’re not the best photographs ever, but with such a pretty subject as sunflowers, it’s possible to get nice pictures anyway. Click an image to embiggenize it.

All my life, starting in childhood and continuing through college, my career as a software engineer, and my career since then as a full-time writer, some of my friends and acquaintances have been busy. They were always hard to schedule anything with, because they were always already scheduled to attend Junior Achievers or to volunteer at the soup kitchen or to meet up with the group they’re joining for a trip abroad or whatever.

I, on the other hand, was not busy. That made it possible to schedule things with these guys, because if they could find a clear spot on their calendar, odds were it was free on my calendar too.

I generally found that to be okay, although sometimes I’d feel a bit taken advantage of. (In particular, when I had to move stuff that I’d planned to do, simply because it was at least possible to adjust my schedule, whereas theirs had no adjustablity.)

In what I now think was an odd reaction, when I was younger I felt kind of jealous of these guys. Sometimes I even went so far as to fill up my own schedule, so I could be one of the busy guys. I think I was just reacting to the fact that everything ended up having to revolve around them, and felt like at least sometimes everything ought to revolve around me.

I’ve since changed my mind. Not being busy is vastly preferable. Plus I no longer feel taken advantage of, because I’ve largely given up trying to do stuff with the busy folks.

Starting way back when I was in high school, I noticed that these unadjustible schedules could suddenly develop adjustability when the right opportunity came along. I mean, sure, if you’re invited to accept the Nobel Prize, of course you clear your schedule. But it didn’t take an invitation for dinner at the White House for these people to shuffle around their schedules. Faced with any sufficiently exciting opportunity, their schedule would suddenly develop some of that hitherto unavailable adjustability.

So, many years ago, I started letting it be a little test. Was spending time with me sufficiently exciting to produce a little schedule adustibility?

I don’t think I’m a jerk about it. Everybody has some immovable items in their schedule—that’s fine. But when so many items on someone’s schedule are immovable that it becomes difficult to make a plan, I become doubtful.

Writing a whole post about it may make it seem like I pay more attention to this than I actually do. In fact, I scarcely think about it at all any more. I pay no attention to whether the busy folks schedules are more adjustable for others than they are for me. (I did briefly, when I first noticed the phenomenon, but that was long ago.)

I just spend more time with people who are easy to schedule time with, and less time with people who are busy. And I make sure that my own schedule has enough adjustability in it that other people can schedule time with me.

We’ve grown two kinds of sunflowers in our garden. One kind makes one enormous head for seeds. The other kind—this kind—is for cut flowers.

We discovered the first year we grew them that it’s critical to cut off the initial flower at the top of the main stem. Otherwise it just makes that flower as large as it can—not unlike the other kind of sunflower. But if you take that flower, the plants start making numerous medium-sized flowers on side stems. If you have four or six sunflower plants, you can expect to be able to harvest a few flowers every day for most of the summer.

After Jackie broke her wrist last summer, we had to abandon our garden, and our sunflowers didn’t get harvested. Instead, they bloomed, made seeds, and dropped them in the garden. The result is that this year we have lots of volunteer sunflower plants. Lots. I haven’t counted, but it’s more than four or six.

I don’t seem to have any sunflowers in the study yet, but I think every other room in the house has a vase of flowers, and I’m sure the study isn’t far behind.

Tomorrow we’ll have more flowers. And more the day after that.

I like sunflowers.