Monday, September 23, 2013

Two Wheels, Human-Powered

Back in 2008, I was rehabbing a quadriceps tendon surgery and looking for some variety in my cardio exercise, and I went to a "spinning" (indoor cycling) class at my local YMCA branch.  I was immediately hooked.  It was intense cardio, it was fun, the instructor was (and remains) just about the most beautiful woman ever to walk the earth, and my knee got very much stronger, very fast.  I've been spinning at least three mornings a week at 5:15 am ever since, and my day-job retirement didn't change that at all.  But it wasn't until early last year that I bought the first actual bicycle I've owned since I was a kid.  I found it on Craigslist and paid $50 for it -- turns out, after I learned what ancient road bikes actually sell for, I overpaid substantially -- and rode it all the 2012 season and the first half of 2013 as well.

My ancient Huffy 626: weighs a ton, 1.25-inch tires, and I mostly loved it.
A few months ago, I got to hankering for something lighter and more modern, and I turned once again to the ever-reliable Craigslist.  There, I found a 2010 Raleigh Grand Sport for which I was able to negotiate an agreeable price.  Aluminum frame, carbon front fork, and modern shift arrangements: this one should see me through my riding days.

The new ride.  Lighter, faster, twitchier, and I completely love it.
When we were children, of course we all rode bicycles.  Why ride now as a grownup?  Well, there's the exercise; you can work as hard as you want, just by adjusting your speed.  There's always at least a small chance that your fellow-citizen, piloting a couple of tons of steel and plastic, perhaps daydreaming or texting or just really annoyed at being slowed down by cyclists, may end all your troubles very abruptly, using his or her front bumper or fender.  You may still like dogs; if so, you won't be riding very long before you're cured of that.  You may find races to enter, and there's absolutely nothing that can compare to the endorphin high you get just over the finish line of a race in which you had a satisfying finishing sprint ("satisfying" meaning you're pretty sure you're about to die) and you think you did well.  But here's the real reason: you'll be riding very early on summer mornings, right around sunrise, while very few cars are moving, the air is cool and still, and you'll see things that'll just knock your eyes out.  And since you're carrying your newfangled mobile phone in the pocket of your bike shorts, you might even grab a picture every now and then.

Looking north on Hand Road in northwest Allen County.

Looking east from the same spot.  Not quite sunrise yet.  Plenty of mist in the air.

From Old Lima Road.  Sun's just up now.

Another day (September 21, in fact, just a few days ago).  Westbound on Hursh Road, on the interstate overpass.  That moon will be setting soon.
So, if you're situated such that you could possibly get out and ride, allow me to recommend it.  If nothing else, it will develop your humility to be seen in public, wearing a bike helmet: headgear so supremely goofy that even those guys in the Tour de France look like clowns in them.  It builds character!

Friday, September 20, 2013

And Now, For Something Completely Different

I'm still antistate, but I find this morning that I can't bear to write about the hideous crimes of our rulers.  In fact, that's been the case for weeks now ... hence, no posts.  No doubt I'll be back at my old familiar lemonade stand soon enough.  Meanwhile, I'll discuss engineering.

I'll start by saying that my wife and I are the "owners" (slaves might be more like it) of one cat, but we have two cats living in our house, and have had since March of this year.  That's because my sister-in-law is also a cat-owner, but encountered profound medical problems in March that did not allow her to care for her cat.  So we acquired a long-term guest cat.  Ours is an upper-middle-aged male named Tybalt:

Yes, Tybalt's name was stolen from Shakespeare.
The guest cat is a young calico female:

Meet Eleanor, or Ellie as her friends call her.  No idea where that name came from.
Tybalt is and always has been devoted more or less exclusively to my wife; he's very much her cat.  Ellie, on the other hand, is fairly partial to me.  As a result, I'm not sure how I'm going to give her back when the time comes; I am smitten.  But that's a heartache for another day.  And I claimed I was going to discuss engineering, so I will do that now.

Cats have individual bathroom habits and practices, and when Ellie arrived, we found that her litterbox style differed substantially from Tybalt's.  Ellie is quite energetic and enthusiastic about burying her waste.  Indeed, she buries it so wholeheartedly that the litter tends to be launched from the box.  She's a thrower.  At first, I attempted to mitigate this tendency by spreading newspapers under her box.  It quickly became clear that, in order to be effective, this approach would require half the room to be carpeted in newspaper: unsatisfactory.  So I put on my engineer hat and dreamed up a solution: the Litter Retention Superstructure, or LRS.  Here we see the prototype.  As you can tell, I'm a better engineer than I am a craftsman.  Most things that I build look as though they were constructed by unusually-clumsy orcs.

LRS prototype, as implemented by the Fighting Uruk-Hai.
Now, as rough as this thing looks, it proved supremely functional.  It's big enough for both cats' litterboxes, the cats liked it, and the litter stays inside, where it's easily cleaned up using the little whiskbroom and dustpan visible at left.  A few months ago, when my sister-in-law's problems prematurely appeared to be over and I thought Ellie's return to her was imminent, I constructed LRS Production Model 1 with the intention of sending it home with her.  That didn't happen, so it's still stored in my garage.  It's scaled down for a single litterbox and constructed with a little more attention to detail and finish.  I must apologize for the garish primary-yellow color; but when you purchase your latex enamel by the one-quart can, you must choose from the colors found on the shelf, and the palette was pretty limited.

Hey, Grizhnak made himself a cat's-paw stencil!  Cute.
But now, here's the engineering lesson learned.  Notice that little platform attached to a corner of each LRS unit?  In the case of the prototype, it was obviously added after the original construction, no?  What happened was, I noticed that when a cat wanted to use the litterbox, he or she would first jump up and balance on an LRS wall edge in order to reconnoiter the interior and choose a place to land inside.  Reasonable, right?  So I thought, a cat would like it better if there was a larger and easier place to jump up on and look things over before going all the way in.  So I added the Hesitation Platform.  After I did so, both cats ignored it completely.  I'm guessing that, to a clever and agile creature such as a cat, balancing on the edge of a piece of 3/4-inch plywood is trivially easy.  By the time it was established that the cats had no use for a Hesitation Platform, I had already built LRS PM1 ("The Yellow Submarine") with one included.  This doesn't mean that the Hesitation Platform has no function, however.  The one on the prototype LRS has proven ideal as something against which I can bark my shin if I'm careless while walking past, or servicing the litterboxes within.  So it's a character-enhancement device for me.

Actually, two engineering lessons are available:

  • Never assume that your customer wants a particular design feature just because it seems desirable to you.
  • Sometimes, you have to incorporate a feature in order to discover what its true function really is.  Solzhenitsyn said, "Things know their place;" I will venture to add, "things know their function, too."