22 February 2009

are we living in the most progressive times?

Here is a letter sent by then US president Theodore Roosevelt to the government printing office.
Oyster Bay, August 27, 1906

To Charles Arthur Stillings
My dear Mr. Stillings: I enclose herewith copies of certain circulars of the Simplified Spelling Board,which can be obtained free from the Board at No. 1 Madison Avenue, New York City. Please hereafter direct that in all Government publications of the executive departments the three hundred words enumerated in Circular No. 5 shall be spelled as therein set forth. If anyone asks the reason for the action, refer him to Circulars 3, 4 and 6 as issued by the Spelling Board. Most of the criticism of the proposed step is evidently made in entire ignorance of what the step is, no less than in entire ignorance of the very moderate and common-sense views as to the purposes to be achieved, which views as so excellently set forth in the circulars to which I have referred. There is not the slightest intention to do anything revolutionary or initiate any far-reaching policy. The purpose simply is for the Government, instead of lagging behind popular sentiment, to advance abreast of it and at the same time abreast of the views of the ablest and most practical educators of our time as well as the most profound scholars—men of the stamp of Professor Lounsbury. If the slightest changes in the spelling of the three hundred words proposed wholly or partially meet popular approval, then the changes will become permanent without any reference to what officials or individual private citizens may feel; if they do not ultimately meet with popular approval they will be dropt, and that is all there is about it. They represent nothing in the world but a very slight extension of the unconscious movement which has made agricultural implement makers write “plow” instead of “plough”; which has made most Americans write “honor” without the somewhat absurd, superfluous “u”; and which is even now making people write “program” without the “me”—just as all people who speak English now write “bat,” “set,” “dim,” “sum,” and “fish” instead of the Elizabethan “batte,” “sette,” “dimme,” “summe,” and “fysshe”; which makes us write “public,” “almanac,” “era,” “fantasy,” and “wagon,” instead of the “publick,” “almanack,” “aera,” “phantasy,” and “waggon” of our great-grandfathers. It is not an attack of the language of Shakespeare and Milton, because it is in some instances a going back to the forms they used, and in others merely the extension of changes which, as regards other words, have taken place since their time. It is not an attempt to do anything far-reaching or sudden or violent; or indeed anything very great at all. It is merely an attempt to cast what sleight weight can properly be cast on the side of the popular forces which are endeavoring to make our spelling a little less foolish and fantastic.
Sincerely yours
At that time, the President's wish was ignored until Congress passed a bill revoking this attempt. Since then, progress which had been made in spelling over the last centuries far almost stopped and this in spite of the support of eminent figures such as Mark Twain, George Bernard Shaw and Andrew Carnegie.
We think of our time as being a very advanced and progressive one. But is this really true?

Source 1, Source 2, Source 3
Some words in Roosevelt's 300 list are: tho, altho, thru, thruout, thoro, thorofare, program, catalog, decalog, demagog, pedagog, prolog. Some of which made it into American spelling.

18 February 2009


Driving home from work, stephen's car rolled slowly over the pavement. red lights, stop and go, rush hour downtown. the sidewalk full of people. some hurrying by from work to home, some from errand to errand, others dipping into the shop windows without slowing their pace. there, a book shop. stephen remembered the poem which was on his mind this morning... while his thoughts slipped away, the car stopped. stephen got out, put the car on the sidewalk and entered the shop.
How confused he was after a day of work! this shop only carried non-fiction. but there should be others nearby, stephen thought, pushing his car along while walking past more shop windows. he now remembered the entire first stanza. the cars on the street were so slow, they weren't even noisy. stephen crossed a little park and lifted his car up a few steps to "the downtown book shoppe". by now the entire poem had come back to him. he bought the book anyway.

Interpretation aid: this is common reality for people who commute by bike.

Dedicated to Justin Ward.

16 February 2009

corollary from the last post

Adam Smith teaches that individuals behaving egoistically also benefit everybody else. Now we have to realise that individuals being benevolent towards others (everybody except the most ungrateful) will first and foremost benefit themselves! Directly by the satisfaction that blesses the benefactors. And indirectly when some of their actions some day lead to more benevolent behaviour of others.(*)

Smith's law might still be a valid principle of economics, but it's inverse is a principle of human nature that's ever-more important in our era-of-plenty. The social matters more than the economic! (Remember, Obama's campaign was won with grass-roots participation, not with high-valued donations.)

(*) I write "some of their actions lead to an indirect pay-off sometimes" because if there was a guaranteed result, the action would not be benevolent, but just an egoistic calculation. Feedback of benevolence works only on average and in the long term (and it's rewards are positive surprises as opposed to the expected outcomes from calculated action). But the direct satisfaction of doing something good always works.

on the fate of humanity

I stumbled upon a set of three lectures given by economist Richard Layard in 2003 and titled "What causes Happiness?". Here are the links (PDF):
  1. What is Happiness and are we Getting Happier?
  2. What Causes Happiness? Rethinking Public Economics
  3. What would make a happier society?
This mostly advocates (and justifies with scientific findings) a change in public policy. One of the points mentioned is an education reform which covers what I have recently thought of. Teaching values (again) and emotional intelligence (finally) to all children.

But there's much more in those lectures which shows that the current focus in politics (be it conservative or liberal) is in the wrong place: the economy does just not matter as much as everybody claims. People matter much more. I will write more on all this later, but let me just give you a start to reading Layard. In the last fifty years, the economy in the US (and many other countries) has grown by a lot, but happiness of the population stagnated, crime increased, mental illness increased, trust among people decreased. And all those changes are not just significant, but by a factor of two each at least! I don't want to describe where this leads us if trends go on like this. There is a way out and Layard describes it well.

PS: As an extra-perk I noticed in the statistics that three out of the five most happy countries in the world (according to scientific measure) are just those three developed countries that are well-known for their high use of cycling as a means of everyday, everybody transport. Namely The Netherlands, Denmark, and Switzerland! Remember that you don't (just) bike for the environment or your fellow citizens; you bike for your own health and happiness.

15 February 2009

mal was anderes: Geschichte, Krieg und das Finanzwesen

Jörg Friedrich meistert nicht nur die deutsche Sprache wunderbar, er kennt auch einige historische Details und erläutert Zusammenhänge just ein bisschen tief gehender, als man es gewohnt sein mag: "Von deutschen Schulden - Die unendliche Geschichte der Reparationszahlungen aus dem Ersten Weltkrieg in diesem und dem nächsten Jahrhundert" (Berliner Zeitung, 1999)

Mein Lieblingszitat:

Der Verlierer zahlt nach dem Rechtsbrauch, weil er einen Krieg verloren, nicht weil er ihn entfesselt hat.

historical movies

Here's a very profound quote regarding the recent Hollywood-Rendering of the 1944 German "Valkyrie" plot:
"It seemed that [Stauffenberg] was the man who unmistakably wore the mantle of a near-mystic German past, a warrior Germany, a noble Germany, a poetic Germany, a Germany of myth and longing."
British novelist Justin Cartwright is saying this and he has probably a lot of evidence since he already wrote a book about this part of history. His take on the movie can be read in an article he wrotre for the Guardian.

The movie "Valkyrie" has generally been praised for it's historic accuracy. I saw it Yesterday and also think that the movie-makers managed to be quite true to historic facts while still keeping the tension up and making a great Hollywood movie!

Why am I citing the above lines? I think that movies are a great way to learn about historic facts and to illustrate how thrilling history actually is! When I saw the 1944 plotters shortly after the assassination attempt trying to convice other officials to join them and to give up their allegiance to the regime, I was also thinking about the Chinese Civil War between "Nationalists" and "Communists" which the Nationalists lost partly because their army was corrupted, generals would mind their own cause, instead of the common cause. A very similar pattern to that seen in the movie!

While we can easily understand this today, the philosophy and ways of thinking of those people in their time can't be illustrated in a movie. Instead, movie makers have to "translate" words and actions from history figures so they can be understood today. I think this is especially noteworthy when we consider that even Today's philosophy and way of thinking is not consciously known by people. We take many things for granted and think they have always been that way, although notions might have changed a lot even in a very short amount of time, and are still different in different places / cultures of our planet. What we mean by "justice" now is very different from what the 1944 plotters meant and it might again be different in a future society only fifty or a hundred years from now! I think it is actually a very valuable part of history to learn about the evolution of thoughts, of people's self-perception, because it allows us to me more conscious about our own situation. If we take things for granted, we wouldn't think about changing them. But once we realise that it has not always been like that, even that it's not like that in other places of the world, then we are able to imagine an even better world and push for change.

Stauffenberg wished his old, romantic Germany back. Many people probably voted for Obama because they wished their familiar, pre-Bush America back. But their is no way back! Or even if their is, it's much better to go forward, towards a more modern age. To envision that age we have to look behind the surface of change... (There's more to say, but I'll leave that to another post.)

Suffice it to say, I had the same feeling of missing historical philosophy when I watched another movie, "The Duchess". I liked both movies a lot and I hope they will inspire some people to look behind the curtain of history... to understand the world better and understand themselves better.

Understanding is the basis for change!

3 February 2009

is there more convenient transport than a teleporter? (a note about low-maintenance bicycles)

Traffic jams are plaguing all countries, rich countries and poor countries, all countries. People want to get around, faster, farther, and more often. Gone are the times when an emigrant would never be able to go back to his country of origin, since the trip took several months; gone are the times when people would walk many miles for family visits, since horses were transport for the rich only.
A teleporter seems like the paragon of transportation solution, because it takes no time, no matter the distance. But is this technology still humane? Do we not need just a little bit of time to adjust from going from one place to another? Even in modern society, many trips are short enough to walk in ten or twenty minutes and even more trips are short enough to bike in ten or twenty minutes. Walking or biking has a big advantage over teleportation in that it is also a recreational activity! (To some, biking is even a sport.)
Unfortunately, many people see biking only as sport. To them, a bike is a toy which they do not expect to be apt for daily use as a reliable means of transportation. Your bike chain fell off? Well, have to do some other sport today!

Here's how a reliable bike looks like (not my bike):
Bikes with fully-covered chains have been available in Europe forever, and now finally there is a fully-covering chain guard available that you can just add as an upgrade.

This setup needs virtually no maintenance even when riding through rain and snow-slush. (I did it last winter with Speedy.) It's simply amazing. It also keeps you nicely neat and clean, which is why you can even see people in business dresses riding bicycles. No need to roll your pants up!

To many people this might look like a single-geared bike, but the gears are actually in the rear hub. Again, a technology that Europeans have used for decades and that is now widely available from global manufacturers. (After all, the famous German gear hub factory has been bought by an American company. And the Japanese are now manufacturing gear hubs, too. More on that in a later post.)

Update: In Toronto, Urbane Cyclist has the above-pictured "Chainglider" on stock.

2 February 2009

a quote on geography

Embedded in a long post about one day's commute home a fellow cyclist writes:
Hemingway understood that "It is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best, since you have to sweat up the hills and coast down them. Thus you remember them as they actually are, while in a motor car only a high hill impresses you, and you have no such accurate remembrance of country you have driven through as you gain by riding a bicycle." I would add that you need not have a coasting bike to appreciate this truth and via the exercise of a daily commute, done in a wide range of conditions, one's appreciation of geographic and meteorologic factors become the most ingrained of knowledge.

(His remark about coasting refers to fixed-gear bicycles.)

1 February 2009

why small-wheeled bicycles are better

Why smaller bikes are better:
 - Bike has bigger wheel-distance (given a fixed length of the bike) and its ride is therefore more stable.
 - Accelerates faster (because the wheels have less momentum) and therefore also decelerates faster.
 - The rack (and therefore the cargo) sits lower, making the bike and the ride more stable.
 - Small wheels are more robust (lower leverage of destructive forces hitting the spokes).
 - Hub dynamo turns faster, thereby generating power more efficiently. (A lower-weight dynamo can be used.)
 - Bike needs less space.
 - Most small wheelers can be folded, needing even less space.

Why small-wheeled bikes work so great:
 - Gear mechanism entirely makes up for smaller wheels, resulting in exactly the same development as big wheelers (but more acceleration, as stated above).
 - Wide tires make the ride smooth and even offer full suspension for rider and luggage.
 - Modern frames offer the same riding positions as big-wheeled bikes: be it sporty or casual, small or tall rider; everything is available.
 - Most components are standardized and are either the same as for big-wheelers or go by their own standard. So the bikes can be repaired and tuned as easily as big ones.
 - For example, same standard as big bikes:
   + Bottom brackets, pedals, and chains.
   + Gearing-mechanisms (execept that the gears are a bit higher). So if you want to tune your gearing by replacing chainwheels or sprockets just take any made for big-wheelers.
 - Example for a separate small-wheeled standard:
   + Wheels come in 16 or 20 inches. The selection of tires for those is virtually the same as for big-wheelers. (Equally the selection of hubs and rims, if you want to build your own wheel.)
   + Front hubs are usually narrower than on big-wheelers: 74mm instead of 100mm. But there are still hub-dynamos available (e.g. from Dahon and from SON).
 - Even with the wheel-size fixed, there are still plenty of bikes types to choose from: highly portable ones like the Brompton, others which offer a better ride, but don't fold as well, and then those who don't fold at all, and thereby combine advantages of small-wheels with a one-piece frame. Many of the non-folders can also be packed up in very small packages (e.g. Bike Friday, Dahon P.A.Q.)
 - Recumbents and tricycles nowadays use also 20" wheels. (And recumbents are the fastest bikes on the planet.)
If you use your bike for daily transport (as opposed to sport or leisure), you'll notice that the small size (and the ability to fold the bike) increase your mobility a lot:
 - Partial folding reduces the parking space needed, e.g. fold the handlebars and pedals down when parking in a narrow in-doors hallway
 - Extra points if you have a Brompton: with one simple gesture the bike sits on its rack, takes very little space, and doesn't need a kick-stand. Getting the Brompton to sit is even faster then pulling a kick-stand down!
 - Keep your bike with you all the time. E.g. get a ride with friends and then still be able to bike home. Or take transit and bike the remainder of the way. Possibilities are endless and there's no need to plan ahead!
 - I usually ride the bike over long distances even if there is a subway I could take. The advantage of being able to take the subway back home, just in case, is the thing which matters. 
Too many people are unhappy with their bike because it's not useful enough, or they don't even have a bike, because conventional bikes don't seem useful enough. I will from now on offer free rides on my small-wheeled bicycles to advertise their advantages.