Book Review: In the City of Bikes

In the City of Bikes - Pete Jordan

If you’ve followed Pax Plena for any length of time, you probably know that I harbor a long-suffering interest in cycling. In good faith, I can’t call myself an avid cyclist having ridden all of 21 miles since I picked up a road bike here in New Zealand. But it is fair to say that I’m a cycling enthusiast. Naturally, when I received word about Pete Jordan’s somewhat autobiographical history of cycling in Amsterdam, well, it didn’t take long to catch my attention and post a review, once the book had traversed the Pacific.

I usually don’t review works of non-fiction, but Jordan’s book In the City of Bikes: The Story of the Amsterdam Cyclist (Publisher: Harper Perennial; On Sale: April 16, 2013; Cost: $15.99), was a pleasant exception to the stereotype of the somber historical tome. Jordan ably makes the history of cycling in Amsterdam an entertaining read. As a survivor of high school AP European History, lo, so many years ago, I can personally attest to the fact that making history ‘fun’ is not an easy task. I’m honestly not really sure why this is the case. In most situations, history/reality are more entertaining than even the best of fiction, as recent debacles involving the Obama Administration indicate.

Even so, Jordan opens the book with a bit of autobiography explaining his love of all things bike and his incipient, young hope of making American cities more cycling friendly. It’s all quaint really. Like most urban planning majors, Jordan was without a permanent place of employ upon graduation. And, having recently gotten married, it apparently seemed a swell adventure to fold up shop, under the thin auspices of a university study abroad program, and move to Amsterdam, Cycling Mecca of the World.

Once there, however, Jordan tacitly adopts a mistress as he falls head-over-heels in love with the Venice of the North. The rest of the book follows suit accordingly, mixing an abiding love for Amsterdam with the honestly fascinating history of the city’s own love affair with cycling. I realize, having described the work so far, that it would be easy to dismiss Mr. Jordan as an overly libidinous Bill Bryson. This is my fault, not Pete Jordan’s. His history of cycling in Amsterdam is actually quite poignant in its own right. Consider this brief excerpt from the book describing the end of the Nazi occupation of Amsterdam: 

During their time in Holland, the Nazis had stolen everything that hadn’t been nailed down. If it had been nailed down, they got a crowbar, pried it free and stole it – then they stole the crowbar. Factories were picked clean of both finished products and the machinery itself. Hospitals, museums, laboratories, libraries, etc. were looted…and of the 4 million bicycles, only 2 million remained, most of which were – as one observe at the time put it – in “extremely poor condition.” p.237 – 238.

Though this excerpt isn’t exactly ‘fun,’ it is quite intriguing to gain such a pithy understanding of the depth and breath of the Nazi occupation of the Dutch and their principle means of transport. As Jordan describes the increasingly desperate situation of the Germans during WWII and the increasingly draconian regulations they placed on the Amsterdam cyclists, it’s quite easy to grasp and sympathize with their plight even though the events occurred some four generations ago. By the by, instances of history like this make me eminently thankful for America’s much maligned Second Amendment. 

Fortunately, not all of the history is entwined with the atrocities of World War II. Among Pete Jordan’s more autobiographical accounts, he explains his wife’s choice to cycle to the hospital to deliver their first-born son – who, incidentally, was not wrapped in swaddling clothes and placed in a bike basket:

Two weeks after the baby’s due date, we went to the hospital to have the labor induced. To get to the hospital, we could have taken a bus or a taxi. But since she’d been cycling pretty much every day since the baby’s conception – this day seemed no different – Amy Joy rode her bike to the hospital to give birth. Eventually…out came a baby boy. We named him Ferris. p.289.

Aside from the fact that his son enjoys a certifiably awesome name, the conversant style above is typical of the vast majority of the book. Readers not only gain a better understanding of the history of cycling in Amsterdam, but also a fine insight into the author and his family during what was surely a formative time in their lives. It’s enough to hope one can cycle down to the local pub and grab an Amstel Light with Jordan, et al. Well, certainly grabbing a brewski with Mr. Jordan at any rate. Amstel Light is crap beer. 

Review: The TiGr Lock

Back in February I wrote about the story of an interesting new bike lock that I had been following on Kickstarter. Today, I’m glad to say that my TiGr Lock finally arrived, and I’ve spent most of the afternoon reviewing it.

The first thing to mention about the TiGr lock is its size. The two feet long titanium bow was deceptively larger than I had expected. But upon picking it up, it was clear right away that the materials were solid, well-crafted, and quite sturdy. The bow itself even has a rubberized exterior to prevent scratching.

TiGr Bow

The end of the titanium two consists of two symmetrical prongs that fit into the locking cylinder. Naturally, the prongs are made from the same titanium that has been cast to produce the entire bow. This adds a degree of manufacturing continuity that gives the bow its overall stable feel.

TiGr  End of Bow

The locking cylinder itself is made out of stainless steel, with each cylinder uniquely matched to its keys by order number – should it ever becomes necessary to replace a missing key.

TiGr  Key in Cylinder

The craftsmanship of the cylinder lock is impressive in its own right. The picture below does not demonstrate this clearly, but the opening ring of the cylinder is actually narrower than the inside of the casing. This allows for the prongs to nestle into place before the steel pin in the center is depressed. Once the pin is depressed, the prongs cannot be removed from the cylinder because the opening ring entrance is too narrow.

Tigr  Cylinder

Once the prongs have been inserted, the lock looks like the photo below. The cylinder lock freely rotates around the prongs, but there is no way to remove them from the cylinder given the narrowness of the entrance.

TiGr Cylinder Size Comparison

Of course, what makes the TiGr lock a superb product is that it is incredibly light-weight and can be stored on the bike while riding. This is accomplished by two velcro straps that affix the bow to the tube of the bicycle.

If there is a down side to the TiGr lock, it has to be the velcro straps that secure the lock to the bike. Frankly, at $200 per lock, I expected something a bit sturdier – something akin to the quality velcro one might get from a Timbuk2 messenger bag.

Still, the velcro seems to do an adequate job. I haven’t really felt it coming loose on a ride, and it’s true that there are other alternatives for securing the lock should one really not trust the velcro straps that come with it. In the great scheme of things this is a fairly minor critique since the lock functions incredibly well. The picture below shows the straps and the lock on my bike.

TiGr  Stored

Since the bow is attached to the bike tube, I suppose it’s possible to lose a bit of leg room while pedaling, particularly on smaller framed bikes. But on my road bike, I haven’t noticed this to be an issue, even though the lock attaches and leaves a small gap in places.

TiGr  Stored Overview

Finally, here is a picture of the TiGr lock firmly securing my bike to one of my dining room chairs. I’m sure this picture will become too embarrassing to leave up at some point, but for now I haven’t thought to take a picture of my locked bike while out and about. You’ll notice that the lock is plenty long and flexible enough to secure the bike to the metal arm of the chair. Not only does it secure the frame, but it also secures both tires as well. The nice thing about this is that you no longer need to carry around a cable to secure that extra tire to a D-lock. With the TiGr’s flexible titanium bow, you can secure everything with only one instrument.

TiGr Locked

Finally, the TiGr lock comes with a pretty nifty key fob. And if you don’t like key fobs, then I’m pretty sure that makes you un-American.

TiGr  Key Fob

In all, I am rather impressed by the TiGr lock. It came exactly as advertised. It’s light, weighing all of 1.5 lbs. It’s secure, benefitting from both high-grade materials and excellent craftsmanship. And it’s extremely elegant in its simplicity – as all elegant things are.

Not bad for a product that was only in the concept stage one year ago. I love innovation.

Update: As promised, here’s a photo of the TiGr in action at my local Starbucks. 

IMG 0106

Innovation in America: The TiGr Lock Story

I’ve been staying up inordinately late the past couple of nights, devouring the Suzanne Collins series The Hunger Games Trilogy. I think my approximate bedtime each night has been between 3:30am and 4:15am. I understand that moderation is the appropriate virtue that I should be seeking to develop – particularly with Lent beginning tomorrow. Still, there’s something very satisfying about greedily reading a book into the wee, small hours of the morning.

After realizing that my long blinks were becoming increasingly longer, I decided to hit the sack. But a final check of my Email suddenly left me wide awake. Extricating myself from the vice-like snuggle of our pooch, I padded down the hallway as not to wake my wife. I fired up the computer, and in the dead of night I logged on to an obscure website called http://tigrlock.com/.

The TiGr Lock is a kickstarter project that I have been following for almost nine months. The vision of a father/son duo, their goal was to create and market a bicycle lock that hit the holy trifecta of cycling – a bike lock that is secure, light weight, and aesthetically pleasing. Anyone who has cycled will immediately understand how such a lock has the potential to change the game in terms of bicycle security.

The problem is that most bike locks on the market tend to be large and cumbersome – think massive chains, and weighty U-Locks. Needless to say, such prophylactic devices are hardly very convenient when riding around on a road bike that is engineered to be light weight and relatively minimalist in stye.

There’s also the unfortunate matter that bicycle security devices, in general, aren’t terribly reliable. Security cables can be cut, and the ever popular U-Lock can be easily picked. As the market stands today, locking up a bike is more about theft deterrence than actual security.

Enter the TiGr Lock.

In preliminary testing, the TiGr Lock outperformed the typical U-lock in a series of three tests, using common bike theft tools: a tungsten-carbide handsaw, an angle grinder, and a (massive) pair of bolt cutters. And aside from its security benefits, the lock itself weighs about 1.5lbs  (or 24oz as the manufacturers cleverly note). The video below shows a side-by-side demonstration of the tests.

Aside from the potential to revolutionize bicycle security, one of the things I find most exciting about this project is the way in which the TiGr Lock story so closely mirrors the adventures and misadventures of countless entrepreneurs. The scrappy idea began in the workshop of its father/son inventors John and Bob Loughlin. Realizing they were on to something, the two inventors first sought outside investment capital from grassroots supporters to get the project off the ground. In a matter of weeks, supporters funded the TiGr Lock Kickstarter program at roughly 300%.

Sensing the lock’s obvious momentum, the next step for the team was to follow their Kickstarter program by doing live product testing using complimentary product samples for the same supporters who originally backed the project. After mailing sample locks to supporters of a certain donation level, they obtained device feedback over a period of several months. In the meantime, the team formed its own LLC, and sought patent and trademark protection from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

Finally, last night, the TiGr Lock website went live, offering customers the company’s first product run. Assuming the launch is a success, the rest may well be history. Already, the TiGr Lock story has been featured in a number of major publications including the Wall St. Journal, Forbes, and USA Today. Let it not be said that innovation in America is dead.

After my clandestine rendezvous in our home office and another hour of reconnaissance, I quickly ordered my own TiGr Lock before slipping back into bed. Seeing as I neglected to inform my wife of the purchase, the $200 question will be how long I can keep a secret…

Just a Typical, Tucson Bike Ride

Tucson had its first signs of fall today. Rather than topping out at 106 degrees, it was a balmy 103.

The weather seemed ripe for a bike ride since my trusty steed had sat dormant due to the extreme heat. I also needed to mail in the rent check, so a stop by the post office was on my to do list as well. As Uncle Dave Ramsey says, in a pinch, one can skimp on some payments, but rent should never be among them. I think his rationale is that it’s a lot harder to do without shelter than it is to do without an iPhone. I’m not sure that he’s entirely right. But it seems wise to pay rent all the same.

As I etched my name to the corner of the check, and sealed up the envelope, it occurred to me how antiquated the notion of check writing is. My landlord and I could easily set up a balance transfer, and she would have the money as soon as I authorized it. Yet, we opt to play the game of formalities once a month, and I write the check for her to cash.

I made my way out the door and realized that 103 degrees isn’t terribly different from 106, so I rode my bike a little slower. The post office is located conveniently along the River Bike Path so I took my usual route through the foothills. As the sun beat down on my back, and the cacti and lizards greeted me along the way, I wondered whether my experience was similar to the pony express riders who carried mail through the desert west almost two centuries ago. It probably wasn’t much similar at all, but it was a fun thought. After all, we have roads. And ponies smell.

In short order, I made my way out of the foothills, and headed toward the River Bike Path’s entrance. Access to the path isn’t direct for me, so I dutifully walk my bike along a twenty-yards stretch of sidewalk. It’s quite illegal to ride a bike on the sidewalk, and nothing annoys me more than cyclists who break the law. While walking my bike, I noticed an oddly clad young man who was himself walking in the middle of River Road. He was asking cars that had pulled up to the stop light for a ride to Campbell Avenue. The request seemed a bit odd, seeing as Campbell Ave. is less than a mile away from this particular intersection. I don’t think he was mentally stable. Still, I felt sorry for the man, until I re-remembered that it was a balmy 103 degrees. Of course, I then re-realized that 103 degrees isn’t much different from 106, and I silently re-hoped that someone would give him a lift – even if it was less than a mile away. Much to my surprise, someone did. The good samaritan was a surly looking man, driving a mini-van in such a way that he he told the world how depressing his life was. Still, I was glad the somewhat unstable young man had found a ride, even if his benefactor did reminded me a bit of John Wayne Gacy.

After reaching the post office, I noticed a postal worker schlepping mail from the curb-side mailboxes. I quickly rode up to her, gave her a bright and friendly greeting, before asking her to include my envelope with the other items in her cart. After making this utterly reasonable request, one of Jane Austen’s famous lines came to mind. “It is a truth universally acknowledged that an employee of the U.S. Postal Service is among the most miserable of human beings to walk this planet.” Jane Austen didn’t write that. But it’s a universally acknowledge truth all the same. True to form, rather than addressing me, or otherwise acknowledging my existence she pushed her cart past me, grunting in a way that only female postal workers can, and indicated that I should put my envelope where the sun doesn’t shine – presumably she meant in the mailbox, which as luck would have it had yet another pick up time at 5:00PM.

After dropping the check into the mail, I immediately felt lighter – around $850 lighter, in fact, and I quickly made my way to Gwyn. I rode quickly because I had a slight, nagging fear that Helga might come back with her Norsemen chums from the Post Office break room, and I didn’t want to be anywhere near the vicinity when they returned.

In all, I made fairly decent time getting to my wife, arriving five minutes early. This earned me only about a ten minute wait in the sun, and a quarter-mile walk to the truck, but I still call that a win. At least I wasn’t standing in the middle of the road asking errant motorists for rides.

Thoughts on Blogging, and Time

Wasted Time

Earlier this week my wife was twenty minutes late getting out of work. I took my typical 11 mile bike ride to reach her office by 4:30PM, only to swelter for twenty minutes in 106 degree heat. By the time she emerged from the cavernous enclave better known as Tucson Medical Center, the water in my water bottle tasted like a hot cup of tea, minus the tea.

To understate matters, I was upset. But not with my wife. The lone thought that came to mind over and over while I baked on my favorite bench was how much I hate wasting time. The situation was a bit like Dostoyevsky’s white bears, no matter how hard I tried not to think about wasting time, I ended up thinking about wasting time. This may seem a bit compulsive, and it really is, but I realized from a young age that time is the only thing in life that you can’t get more of. You can get more money. You can acquire more possessions. If you are lonely, you can fill your life with with more relationships. The super lonely, like former NY Gov. Spitzer, can even pay to fill their lives with more relationships.

But as ex- Apple CEO Steve Jobs demonstrated yesterday, you can’t get more time, and that’s why time is life’s most important commodity.

It’s a bit dramatic to say that a few minutes in the sun profoundly shifted how I think about blogging. But in some ways it did. Over the past week I started thinking seriously about this blog, the time I’ve devoted to it, and most importantly what I hope to see from it – not only in the coming days and weeks, but in the months, and hopefully years still to come. While I have changed templates, and layouts many, many, many times, I have never tried to make the blog anything more than it is: a place where I can opine, and hold court on whatever topic strikes my fancy. And I’ve done this for nearly seven years, come December 24th.

In that time span, I’ve made just under 2600 posts. My traffic has gone from an anonymous voice crying in the wilderness (NH) to a voice with a slightly bigger bullhorn, crying in a different wilderness (AZ). Our readership is still fairly modest, averaging only about 2500 hits per month. But that’s still much better than when I averaged only about 40.

Given that our blog isn’t very topical, it’s probably a small miracle that anyone reads Pax Plena at all. The bulk of my posts concern politics, music, faith, book reviews, cycling, and the occasional Lolcat of the Week. But Pax Plena isn’t devoted to any one of these topics in particular. Still, in the greater blogosphere, the actual range of blogs and their topics is as wide and as varied as the internet itself. Some blogs are very narrow in scope, covering niche areas like the intersection of life and career building, and the affairs of a specific technology company (guess which company). Stiil, other bloggers cover broad topics like Indian Lawpoliticstechnology, cycling, faith, minimalism, sports, sport teams, etc.

I guess my conclusion is that that after seven years of blogging, it’s time to start narrowing down the focus here at Pax Plena. To be clear, I’m not worried about missing out on traffic. That’s not the point. But I am interested in developing the blog into something that is more engaging, more interesting, and more useful to readers. I want Pax Plena to maximize the effort and time I put into it. And I think I can do this with a couple of adjustments.

Let me add, I don’t feel these seven years have been wasted. (Although, I have, at times, been wasted during these past seven years.) I sincerely appreciate each and every hit that comes my way. You readers make the whole exercise worthwhile. My itch for change stems primarily from the fact that I don’t want to waste the next seven years of blogging because I didn’t create a vision for Pax Plena when I had the chance.

My task over the next few weeks will be to figure out what exactly this means in terms of content, and quality. I suspect it will mean higher quality pieces (e.g., no more short posts containing only snarky links for your perusal). And, in terms of content, I suspect that the blog will cover a narrower range of topics, in effort to become more topic-specific. Or at least more topic-specific. But for you the reader, this simply means what it always means. Stay tuned.

And, regardless of which direction the blog takes, let not your hearts be troubled. Lolcats of the Week are here to stay. Your blogger loves you.