A little venting about a little movie

I know where and when I was hit broadside by the realization that I was a bass player. I was taking bass guitar lessons at Creative Music in Wethersfield, CT. It was a big deal for me. Bass was the only instrument that I enjoyed playing. I had washed out of playing both guitar and drums, but it was pointed out to me that I played guitar like a bass. After taking some local lessons with a guitar player/teacher I got a chance to take a block of lessons at Creative Music in Wethersfield, CT, which was where you wanted to study if you were into jazz, and especially electric jazz. I had been playing a bad P-Bass copy for a year or so, and had a loaner double bass from the school system. Creative was a great shop with great teachers, but next-door was Integrity ‘n Music, an amazing record shop. It was there, waiting for my lesson slot, that I saw the self-titled Jaco Pastorius album. I knew his name because he was on the credits for my favorite Weather Report album “Black Market”. That album blew the top of my head off.

Within a month I had ripped the frets out of my bass, filled the slots with glue (aided by the use of a heatlamp), and I have been playing fretless bass ever since. That was about 1979 and was as close to my predecessor’s “saw the Beatles on Ed Sullivan” apocrypha as I will ever get. I had a similar experience with Mingus’ music but I had neither the skill or the patience to do more than listen to those compositions. But Jaco, there was a cat you could get down with. I still have not a single Jaco-like lick in my bag. I never learned PoT, I never developed a harmonics workout… but I knew that you could play fretless electric bass and make it somehow your own.

Lately there is news afoot that bassist Robert Trujillo is producing a biographical film about the life of Jaco Pastorius. I am totally behind that concept. Recent movies like Standing in the Shadows of Motown have been heavily influential on both me and the music world at large. I just saw the HBO film about James Brown, Mr. Dynamite, and it was as good a 2-hour course in funkology as you will find. If a Jaco movie does nearly as well it would be a huge success. Jaco is undeniably a one-man genre and deserves this kind of recognition in spades.

My issue is not with the movie, but with Robert Trujillo’s place in the pantheon of bassists. He has been remarkably successful as a musician. He has played with the top names in heavy rock, and is immediately identifiable by look of not by sound. But he was at the center of one of the great scandals of modern rock history, and I can’t help thinking that it damages the concept of a homage to Jaco.

In 2002 Trujillo was the bassist for Ozzy Osbourne, and the event was the 20th anniversary of the Blizzard of Ozz and Diary of a Madman albums that put Ozzy back on the map after leaving Black Sabbath and then not having much to say. Ozzy was never much of a songwriter. He may have had a few lyrics to his name but he was a rock frontman first and forever. While the Sabs were inventing the power-ballad with Ian Gillian as vocalist (Born Again, underrated jewel), Ozzy was looking for a new band. What he had was guitar prodigy Randy Rhoads, and bassist Bob Daisley who were working on writing songs and finding a drummer. They found Lee Kerslake, a journeyman who fit like a glove.  The albums they produced are still staples of rock-radio airplay. Randy Rhoads became a guitar superstar. Ozzy was back, with albums that were successful beyond his wildest dreams. You would think that he would have been kissing Bob Daisley’s feet…

No. When the 20th anniversary of those albums came out, Ozzy, with his wife Sharon holding the whip, decided to photoshop Bob Daisley and Lee Kerslake out of the picture in both artistic and financial terms. Robert Trujillo along with drummer Mike Bordin recorded new bass and drum parts for both albums, effectively eliminating the contribution of Daisley and Kerslake, and with Randy Rhoads dead, left all the credit and royalties to Ozzy/Sharon. Unsurprisingly the oblivious Ozzy can’t even decide if he knew about the decision. Sharon Arden Osbourne thinks she was at the Blizzard recording sessions, when she wasn’t, and denies making the decision to do this while everyone else says it was her idea/mandate. Her father was rock promoter/magnate Don Arden, so you can be forgiven for thinking that she has a feel for the darker regions of the music business.

I am not a huge fan of that genre, and have never been a big fan of Ozzy, but I feel like I know a good rhythm section when I hear one. Those albums had the power and swing to match heads with any Iron Maiden track or any Van Halen, Black Sabbath, etc… That band had a great sound. It was due to some excellent songwriting and excellent execution by the band. For Trujillo to have knowingly taken part in shanking a fellow bassist is, to me, unforgivable. In what should have been a victory lap for the songwriter behind two of the biggest selling rock albums of all time, it was a deeply shameful episode in a business full of shameful episodes.

SO while I think a Jaco movie is a great idea and hope for the best, I can’t help feeling that the project is tainted by this backstory. I have had feedback that Trujillo was just doing his job, just earning a paycheck, just a sideman, just, just, just… But he had a decision to make. He took the paycheck at the expense of the original artist. It makes me queasy just typing that. I hope the project succeeds, but while Trujillo is out looking for crowdfunding dollars to float the project, he won’t be getting penny-one from me. I should be breaking my wrist getting my wallet out of my pocket to help fund this, in the same way that I have for other projects ranging from the recent Wrecking Crew movie to a time many years ago when I contributed to a fund for Rocco Prestia’s health care (a situation that is re-appearing after many years, and I am sure I will help again). But I am reluctant, actually refusing, to support the producer of a project I would otherwise be all-in for, and it is not a good feeling. Jaco deserves the recognition, but I still think he deserves better than this.

Fuchsprellen Colog-nuh

A quick update on the adventures of Fuchsprellen. If this band is wrong I don’t wanna be right…

We secured a date at Cafe Nine in New Haven, on very short notice, and played a double bill with Light Upon Blight on November 9. LUB is Jeff Cedrone’s project, and I have been playing bass along with Peter Riccio on drums. Normally we would have Neil McCarthy on alto sax but he couldn’t make it for this gig. This means that the Fuchsprellen rhythm section opened as a trio under Jeff’s direction, then we switch back to Fuchsprellen mode with the Fuchsprellen Horns. This could go horribly wrong, but so far it has not. Jeff’s concept with LUB is heavier, darker, and more brutal than 90% of anything Fuchsprellen does. The result is improvised “doom jazz” in power trio format.

Note: this is an expanded version of the “Mother’s Day Debacle” show where LUB and Fuchsprellen played trio sets in the same way: LUB trio, followed by Fuchsprellen trio. Just as a musician can train for sight reading, or chord chart reading, or soloing over set forms, there is a strong New Haven area improvisational tradition that has New Haven Improvisor’s Collective at its core. All of the musicians I have been involved with through NHIC have improvisation backgrounds and ambitions, but the formalized work done at NHIC has helped with both vocabulary/skill building as well as providing context for musicians to launch their own projects, like LUB, and Fuchsprellen, among many. But I Digress…

We had a trio of reeds for the Fuchsprellen set: John Venter on tenor sax, Richard Brown on Alto, and Steve Chillemi on bass clarinet. The rhythm section is there to provide support for the horns, and keep them flying for the entirety of the set. One thing is for sure, these guys are ready to rock from the downbeat. The hardest thing we face is giving the rhythm section a chance to settle in before the horns get down to bid-nezzzzz. We did a great job at finding balance at this gig (audio to come, real soon now, and maybe video too).

Huge thanks to Michelle and the good folks at Cafe Nine, and all the people who turned out for the gig. We had an excellent crowd for a Sunday , and I expect that we will be back at the Nine over the winter. Hooo-Yeahhhhh!!!!

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Light Upon Blight – photo by Hank Hoffman

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The Fuchsprellen Horns – photo by Hank Hoffman

Can Politics ever really reach Bottom?

As the results trickle in from Connecticut’s 2014 midterm election I can’t help but wonder if the process can get any worse. It was impossible to find substantive discussion on either side. Republican candidate Tom Foley apparently spent the past four years in cryogenic suspension because he was less informed about every issue that he was when he ran four years ago. He either refused to answer questions about actual state policies, or admitted ignorance but made references to his problem solving skills, and gave no example of them but trust him they are impressive. Incumbent Democrat Dannel Malloy fell into a trap of taking the bait on nonsense issues. His record might not be the kind of thing that voters are thrilled about (sheparding a state back from a global economic meltdown without making things worse) but it is his record. His approach has worked, but it required state tax increases and a slower pace of deficit reduction in exchange for shielding the state’s 169 towns and cities from funding cuts. Since all property taxes are assessed locally this means that the citizens of Connecticut were spared mil rate increases that impact the poor and working poor especially hard.

Asleep yet? I wouldn’t be surprised. Malloy has stayed true to his “good government” blue collar roots. In return he has been largely tuned out by the electorate.

Foley had one pitch: “that stuff you don’t like, I wouldn’t have done that”. See. Easy to digest. No policy angle. You can go on with your day unencumbered by facts, figures, data, policy details, or anything else that can vaguely be pulled under the heading of “reality”. His track record is either sketchy, hazy, or negative. Six months heading the Provisional Authority in Iraq, where U.S. lucre was hauled away by the wheelbarrow load by… well, nobody knows who. But billions of dollars were unaccounted for. This was also over a decade ago, and the entire venture was largely undocumented. And he is a corporate guy. A business guy. All we really know about his corporate ventures is that he made millions upon millions of dollars and played hardball with labor.

But they had debates.That should have proved edutaining! Errrrr, No. The debates were like mud wrestling without the charm, and the voters found out nothing the really needed to know to make an informed decision. Nobody seemed to care. They were too busy staking out some imaginary high ground. There is no high ground. There is only swamp land.

So you have a showdown between a sitting Governor who was not that able to frame his policies in a way that appeals to voters, and a guy who has never held any elected office and who couldn’t remember his running mate’s name with three weeks to go before election day. Surprised that the election will be a nail-biter?

Good Night. Good Luck. Good Grief.

RIP ISO?

Digital cameras have become ubiquitous, to the point where it is almost impossible to be somewhere out of reach of someone’s camera. It has reached the point where Panasonic has announced a cellular phone with a 1″ sensor camera (actually, a camera with a GSM chipset), replete with Zeiss optics. Whether that appeals to you or not it is a sign of the widespread commodification of technology that was only available in specialized camera gear just a few years ago.

With that backdrop it has become truly rare to see an advance that changes your mind about where the technology will be in two years from now. For me, that happened when I watched this video:

Nice video, yes. But it was shot on a Sony A7s mirrorless camera, with a full moon as its only light source. Yes, f/1.4 optics and dizzying ISO numbers are employed. The author states that the bulk of the video, apart from the opening two scenes were shot at 1/30th, f/1.4, ISO 12,800 (I’m assuming that 1/30th is based on 30fps video). That is “bonkers” as we say in my neck of the woods.

Sony release their own video showing a dawn campfire scene, with similar dropping of jaws:

“Bonkers” aside, it points to a benchmark for the next generation of sensors that will be in cameras like my Oly E-M10, and not just in a $2500 USD Sony body. Not that $2500 is astronomical money. You would spend much more on the pro offerings from Nikon or Canon, and the good folks at Leica will gladly take 8,000 Tricky Dick Fun Bucks in exchange for a bare M8 body. None of those cameras will do what the A7s does in this video. The implications of this kind of high-ISO performance: Setting Auto ISO with an upper limit of 12,800 and actually using it, not paying a brutal price in terms of noise and digital “grain”, and not needing a shutter speed that would make Edward Weston weak in the knees… That is where this video points.

And as nerdly as that idea is, it has real implications for those of us who shoot primarily in available light. I might shoot with flash once a year. Maybe not even once a year. So rarely, in fact, that I started practicing with a flash for no reason other than I didn’t want to completely forget how to use one. It has implications for me personally as I shake down my E-M10 and compare images to both the geyser of images on the internet taken with similar mirrorless systems, and my archive of images taken with my Nikon D300.

Every camera system is a web of trade-offs. Your parameters are physical size, resolution, focus speed, max shutter speed, low light performance and other dynamic range considerations, firmware/processing/raw specs, and overall ergonomics. I’m sure there are more but those are the big ones that come to mind. Accessory issues like lens selection, flash system, compatibility with legacy lenses… those also play a part. But if you shoot in low light and want to be able to use normal shutter speeds without suffering with noisy images, then you really care about dynamic range and noise, and as long as you get a few good lenses you can call it a day.

So there it is. Sony, the company known for horrible user interfaces, worse software, and even worse tech choices (minidisc, beta-max…) kicks sand in the face of the cool kids over at Nikon, Canon, and Leica. Sure, those guys all use some of Sony’s sensors. But they don’t have this kind of performance. I give them  a huge amount of credit, maybe enough to put their camera on my wish list (I still have PTSD from some earlier Sony purchases).

How big is Micro-Four-Thirds?

I began to share my experiences with my Olympus OM-D E-M10 in two previous posts. The transitions from my Nikon APS-C gear has been a mixed bag. Technically it has been fairly easy. Artistically it has been more challenging.

My expectation was that the steepest part of the learning curve would be adapting my Nikon routine to a new system. And sure, the Olympus menu system is different, and in some ways more complicated/arcane. That turned out to be  a one time thing. How often do you really rework your everyday settings? For me, not often. I now know the Olympus menus well enough to get what I need most of the time. I have been thrown off a few times but once you remember that all the time/bulb/comp modes are in the manual shutter settings it solves most of those problems too.

The real joyride has been artistic, with a side of camera capability. The photos from the Olympus have a different look. The exposure curve is different. It does not demand a maniacal devotion to underexposure the way the Nikon does. I don’t think I ever intentionally used a positive exposure compensation on the Nikon. That would be suicide in anything other than deep overcast conditions. You would be asking for a world of blown highlights.

Conversely the Olympus seems to have broader latitude, and a more accurate matrix metering system. There is a caveat: areas of high tone seem to block up without being clipped. If I am shooting an area of white, like clouds or sea foam, the image will lose detail in that bright zone.

the SABINO, Mystic, Connecticut

Here is a photo of the steamboat Sabino. The image is not overexposed, but the chine of the hull is lacking detail. It doesn’t look awful, but it does lack depth. This would not have happened with my D300.

On the other hand, I took a few images at an indoor farm market, under mixed lighting, where I was not expecting much and the result is:

Wild Mushrooms, Matane Public Market

Beautifully saturated colors and crisp detail, without having to resort to much in the way of post-processing. That is the kind of image that has kept my D300 in the bag.

The difference between my two systems reminds me of the differences between color print films, or color transparency films. You liked Kodak, or Fuji. You probably did not like both. With DSLR you probably fall in with Nikon or Canon. I think of Nikon as Kodak and Canon as Fuji. You get more pop and saturation out of the Canon. You get a warmer, natural image out of the Nikon. If that is the case, then the Olympus is leaning more toward Canon. The images out of the camera look amazing. Sure, the M43 systems give up some resolution, and the images seem a little noisier. But the combination of the glass, sensor and firmware combines to generate some extremely pleasing images.

Speaking of glass, I sprung for a Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 pancake lens and it is very nice. Sure, the automatic focus can be glacial, and the manual focus control feels like a greasy zoom control. However, the images are very good, very flat (in terms of distortion) and the focus speed only becomes an issue in low light. In combination with the OM-D it is a lot like shooting with my old Oly 35SP rangefinder: light, fast, crisp, and easy. What it leaves me wanting is a real old-school manual focus control, and having the aperture on the lens barrel would be cool too. At least I know what I want out of my next fast prime.

Fox Tossing, and other musical concepts

Over the past two years I have been pursuing my musical goals with more focus, specifically on my commitment to “free music” and improvisation. I caught the free jazz bug early in life and it has continued to be a fundamental force in my musical life. One of the things that has become more clear as I continue to perform music is the gradation within any artistic medium or genre.

An example is “painter”. You meet someone, it turns out that they are a painter. Once you determine that it is “artistic” painting, not house painting or interior painting (an art in itself), what do you really know? Do they work in oils, watercolors, acrylics, natural pigments…? Do they paint people, landscapes, futurist fantasy, naturalist tableau…? Are they working in an established tradition, or school? Otherwise all you know is that they apply paint to a substrate and consider it to be their art.

Music is the same, and might be even harder to pin down. When people hear that I play music they first ask if I am in a “band”. At any time that answer could be “no”, “several”, “yes, kinda”, or “I am a band”. Either way, it is almost never the kind of band they are thinking of, rocking out Mustang Sally to beer-soaked Hartford fratboys. Even if they have a broader conception, they might not get that my band does not have “songs”. In many ways each artist can be considered their own genre. Even if I have been highly influenced by Zappa, Art Ensemble of Chicago, Sun Ra, Last Exit, and Charles Mingus? Those artists have produced an incredibly broad variety of musical art (OK, maybe not Last Exit 🙂

I have made this statement as a idee-fixee regarding musical influence: “I love what Mingus was doing in 1964, but he never had to worry about being influenced by Led Zeppelin or Jimi Hendrix”. And he didn’t. I do. All the time.

As a result I spent most of my life playing improvised music and avoiding those influences. Starting in the late 90’s I began to examine and embrace those influences, and act out on them in live performance. I took advantage of an opportunity to play the music of Don Van Vliet (Captain Beefheart), and that led to opportunities to delve into the music of Frank Zappa from the performance end of the operation. In there was the opportunity to play “indie rock” with The Sawtelles, and get exposed to a huge array of “indie rock” music that was incredibly diverse. All through that period I was digging deeper into my early influences. The huge array of “unreleased” and “re-issued” Sun Ra recordings continues to be a wonderland of freaky jazz. Getting my ears around the music of Kawabata Makoto and his various Acid Mothers Temple projects was equally revelatory. Stuck in the middle of this period was a seven year string where New Haven Improvisors Collective was my primary outlet for improvisation and structured chaos in music.

I also found out that I have certain skills and priorities that can conflict with musicians at the more “laconic” end of the spectrum. One way in which I have found myself separated from my peers is in my insistence on urgency and timelines. I will literally lay out rehearsals in terms of “we have X rehearsals, totaling Y hours, until date Z to prepare this band”. I believe that results do not happen accidentally, especially when learning to play the work of other composers. Nailing a version of a Frank Zappa composition is not done by accident. Jamming and getting “close” will not suffice. It is my inner Project Manager reaching into my artistic life and getting all pragmatic on the process.

As well, I am aware that each musician I have met and worked with has a very personal set of motivating concepts. Some want to be “the guy”, in the spotlight performing technically difficult material with seeming ease. Some want to validate their love for the party lifestyle. Some want to control others’ actions and occupy the head chair of their personal musical fantasy land. Those motivations are always underlain by other needs, experiences, compensations… And, for better and worse, exposure to those people has allowed me to better understand my own desires and motivations.

That decade of self-education was the densest and most exciting I have experienced. It allowed me to expand my performance opportunities and abilities, and develop a small but exciting network of like-minded muso nutjobs. It allowed me to do something I have done on a regular basis since I was a boy: throw it away and start over.

Not unlike the abstract painter, I feel like there are plenty of other people to participate in the music equivalents of hyper-realism, landscape, portraiture, pop-themes, etc… I have the desire to make music “on the spot” and leave the world of highly structured compositions to other musicians. Following this approach is not easier, at least not in my experience. Just as a Motown band needs a bass player versed in Jamerson, a free music ensemble needs to have members who are versed in the confidence of their ears and reflexes. That is much easier said than done. It is definitely not “easier”.

My current attempt at this musical pathway performs under the name “Fuchsprellen“, an old German word for “Fox Tossing”. You can look it up, or take my word for it that it was a blood sport of 16-17th Century royalty in which small woodland creatures were introduced to a walled compound where royalty would use cloth straps to launch them into the air. This was typically fatal for the animal. But the sheer absurdity of it struck me in a way to use it as a name for my band. It also sounds bad-ass.

Gravel Grinder

A quick post with a pic of my latest bike mod.  I have been in a quandary about my Specialized Tricross. It is a very nice bike with components I like, but it never fit me correctly. Not horribly small (56cm, vs a 59-61 which I really fit on), but a little undersized and the bars sat a little too low for an old fart like me. After an attempt to sell it, admittedly half-hearted, I decided to make some small but functional mods and see if it changed my mind.

Specialized Tricross "Gravel Grinder"

Specialized Tricross “Gravel Grinder”

I actually saw my first “gravel grinder” reference after I finished the bike, but that matters not. It accurately describes the bike, though I would also accept “Suburban Assault Vehicle”. The only mods were swapping out the Crabon Composite fork for a Surly Cross-Check all-steel and beautiful unit, and swapping the stock wheels for a “niner” wheelset and 700×35 Conti CyclocrossPlus knobbies. All parts courtesy of eBay, and I had Berlin Bicycle perform the fork swap so I could rest easy about that phase. As it turned out I still needed to set up the headset tension, but not much else.

Ride Report: Yep, these tires are kinda draggy, and I have made a few tweaks to the fender setup to get the spacing right. Under hard acceleration there is the occasional rub of rubber on fender/brake, and I am not sure why. The good news is that it is a blast to ride, feels like it is on rails, and swallows up bad road surface like yours truly swallows up rum punches. That means, with alacrity. The Surly fork let me keep an uncut steerer, and that got me about an inch of stem height. My back and neck are very happy about that.

Final Analysis: Great mod, easy to execute, achieved desired result, and didn’t cost much. My Rivendell is still a better bike for my style of riding, and I could run these wheels as a second option with not much more than a brake adjustment. Which is pretty much where I am ending up. It is still a great bike, but I think I have to make a full-hearted attempt to find it a good home, and in stock trim with the original wheelset.

Anybody want a good deal on a clean Tricross?

Lemoncello Brain Dump

After a few questions about the not-so-fine art of homemade liquors, here is a quickie brain dump on the ubiquitous and simple Lemoncello:

First, it is not rocket science. Extract citrus zest with vodka, sweeten with simple syrup. Ballgame. There are some fine points that can help with the appearance, color, and depth of flavor, but you could read that sentence and make a good Lemoncello.

I live in an area with no indigenous lemons and no indigenous neutral spirits, hence, my approach is based on the ready supply of imported lemons and commodity hooch. Good lemons should smell like a lemon. Easier said than done in New England. But never fear, look at places selling quality produce and take your chances. Even average lemons get the job done. Any mid-grade vodka will do. Nothing too cheap or too fine.

I have used grain/everclear and the results were drinkable but I found that the high proof spirits extracted too much oil. It works, and the end product is much stronger. Proceed as you wish. I have toyed with using Grappa… I will report back if I dare go down that rabbit hole.

Zest, not peel, 6-12 lemons. Zest means not taking the white pith away with the peel. Don’t stress, just use a sharp peeler and try to avoid too much pith. It is easier than it sounds. Too many lemons is waste unless you are heading towards a 2L+ extraction.

Add zest to a half-gallon widemouth jar and top with 750ml to 1.5L Vodka. The proportions are not super-critical, but you will end up with almost twice this volume of finished Limoncello (this is a good case for starting small and scaling up). Cover and allow this to extract for at least 2-3 days, and a week is a good target. A funnel with a piece of cheesecloth will help you make a clean transfer to a mixing vessel. You can also transfer to a bowl, clean the jar, and then transfer it back for mixing (my preference).

Ahead of the transfer, make a batch of simple syrup. 1:1 water and sugar heated to dissolve, short simmer is ok. Don’t boil. You are not making candy. Cool syrup.

Now comes the part that will help you zero-in on the character of the finished product: Start at 1 part syrup to 2 parts vodka extract. If you used a 750ml bottle of vodka, start with no more than 400ml of syrup. Mix well. Let it stand. Mix again (agitating the bottle us fine). Using that big widemouth jug makes this easier.

Taste and assess. You can always add more syrup if it is a little too astringent. Also, you will have a less dilute product by starting on the low end of sweetness and working up if necessary. Viola! You have a house-made liquor to amaze your friends.

Variations: Oranges and limes work very well. My kumquat experiment, not so much. Live in a climate with local citrus? Use that. This technique is applicable to a variety of flavors. I am partial to citrus, but you can experiment and find a cool variation. Pawpawcello might be good. You tell me. I will take your word for it.

American “Helmet Culture”

Having suitably pimped for the excellent Urban Velo magazine, I can now get into one of the things that really caught my eye: The November 2012 issue, and John Greenfield’s excellent interview with the “pope of urban cycling” Mikael Colville-Andersen. And like the pope, he hails from the Vatican City of Bikeolicism, Copenhagen, Denmark.

Being a bike evangilist in Copenhagen is like being a cheese evangelist in Paris. Lots of choir to preach to. So when I read about Mikael getting irate about our American “obsession” with helmets, well, I think it lacks context. Going on the obligatory rant about why he is a charletan is pointless because he isn’t, and I both respect his expertise and appeeciate his opinion. But the upshot is that he misses the point. If we had Denmark’s bicycle infrastructure and were all nerded up about helmets and Spandex, his comments would be apt. But we don’t. And purposely or not he makes a badly drawn criticism of our dilemma.

The dynamic has alot to do with both the history of America, and the current state of the discussion over transportation. We have a history involving half-baked concepts of “rugged individualism”! Which is a problem now that corporations are people, and they get massive government handouts, but if you are a regular ‘murrikin individual you go without a bike lane and any of that candy-ass shit and strap on a styrofoam helmet and roll the dice. Denmark has, I am sure, plenty of rugged individualists, or maybe more specifically, rugged socialists. They have made a massive committment to public services in all sectors, but you see it in transportation infrastructure immediately and clearly. I have heard that when you buy one car in Denmark, you pay for three. The usage taxes roughly triple the cost of purchasing a car. They have made a committment to socializing the cost of the automobile, and using the proceeds to maintain roads, and diversify transit modes. I saw it firsthand in 2009 and it was a shocke to be on a divided highway, and seeing a parallel bike path over the entire length. As well, it was roughly parallel to a train route.

If you haven’t noticed, the discussion in America is about maintaining the infrastructure we have, or at least it should be. There is a bit of head-in-the-sand going on in the current infantile political morass we are being subjected to. But we can at least pretend that there are adults involved… Whether it is bridge maintenance, paving, safety measures… much of it is either lacking or failing, so improving and diversifying it just doesn’t get onto the radar. This collides with the fact that most Americans who want to ride a bike are doing it on motorways. Those roads are designed for, optimized for, automobile traffic. It is the kind of place where a bicyclist might need to take evasive action, or even lay their bike down. They can be rough, potholed, and if you ride on the shoulder or breakdown kane, strewn with jagged debris. Since most cities have ordanances prohibiting bicycles from sidewalks (a bad place to ride a bike anyway) you are sharing a lane with cars, and often parked cars as well. This can put you into the “door zone”. There, an inattentive driver will flip open their door, right in front of you, and you get a “door prize”, aka a “dooring”. How do you feel about helmets now? You will ride on roads with poorly enforced speed limits, where traffic hits highway speeds in residential neighborhoods. Helmet? What color? Despite your day-glo specialty clothing, which Mikael especially loathes, you are left dodging potholes and texting drivers, stoned teens, golden-agers, and all sorts of fun folks, while trying to predict their behavior and “ride safely”. Visor, or no? Urban cool or road racer style? Why double down on a broken collarbone with a side of TBI if you don’t have to?

So without belaboring the point, there are many reasons why an American bike rider would wear a helmet. Looking past the criticism of the device, the helmet, I am totally fine with the point behind the snark: could we build effective infrastructure for modes like the bicycle or walking, lessening the need for excessive safety equipment, and making those modes more accessible to all? That is a dynamic that has the power to shine through even the densest, sootiest, Scandinavian Smug.

Bicycle Thoughts in Deep Winter – 2

One great resource for bicycle reading is Urban Velo magazine out of Pittsburgh. In the great tradition of mags like Tape-Op and Beer Advocate, it is a sharp focus mag with a strong identity and strong opinions. In this case Urban Velo has a fixed-gear focus with a strong undercurrent of Bike Friendly and Bike Awesome development. Check them out, and if you like them get a subscription and support them.

Been There, Haven’t Done That

As much as I like what I see in places where bikes have a place in every day life, it is not lost on me that for every Portland, OR story or Manhattan High Line, there is China. China was bike-dominated until as recently as 15 years ago, and has since given over to the automobile in a huge way. I believe that is an indicator that much of this urge to return to bike-friendly fantasy land could be seen as a First World thing, a luxury item where it is easy to want it when you don’t feel you need it. But the difference, as I see it is about where on the development continuum you are. China is a rapidly growing economy with a huge demand for western conveniences. In time they will want to be less dependent on fossil fuels and want a return to bicycle-scale transport. What “First Worlders” have in spades is the opportunity to become more flexible and less dependent. Bike lanes in places like the US could be like Social Yoga, bringing flexability back to a too-rigid frame.

Aggro Culture

In my small part of the world the bike world is dominated by “racer types”. They are nice folks and all. You know, some of my best friends wear spandex bibs! There is a kind of split in the bicycle world between “racer types” and pretty much everyone else. Everyone else rides for fitness or for enjoyment. Racer types ride in more of a competition mindset, and they typically ride faster (less differential between their speed and the speed of a car). Far from being the spandex mafia (though they are) the racer type is a good fit when you lack bike infrastructure. That physical and mental profile can get you comfortable with sharing roads that lack even the most basic bike facilities, like a shoulder with painted line. In areas with real bicycle infrastructure the rider is able to ride in a more relaxed fashion, in normal clothes, at a more moderate pace. The bicyclists we see in Amsterdam, or Copenhagen, or Montreal for that matter, don’t have to duke it out with inattentive drivers on their commute. The “barrier to entry” is much lower, and in the best cases the barrier is actually higher for automobiles. As opposed to some cases where there is a “chicken or egg” paradox, in transit there is no paradox. The transit follows the path of least resistance. The best infrastructure provides the least resistance. If we had throngs of square-peg dorks on Dutch Bikes clogging up secondary roads it would be obvious, but in the case of suburban New England, the bikes are the effect, not the cause.

Back to the Future

To tie back in with the previous post: In central Connecticut, I think that the pessimism over Fastrak is based on lack of experience with successful transit projects. We have a popular rail-to-trail system that recreational bicyclists love, but it does not act as a commuter route for most users. That is recreation infrastructure (linear park) but it is a bad example for a commuter solution. The target for Fastrak is getting people into Hartford for work or entertainment, and then home safely. As the Capitol of Connecticut, and one of the most commuter-intensive cities I have ever been around, there is hope that demand for a better/cheaper solution to local transportation should be a winner. The on-the-books population of Hartford is roughly 125,000, but the “daytime” work week population gain is anywhere from 70,000 and up depending on your data source. A city that bloats from 125,000 to 200,000 in the morning and then deflates by 6pm. That is a commuter rich environment, and an option poor environment.

One of the weirdest arguments is that nobody will use infrastructure. Every example seems to point in the opposite direction. We have Metro North rail system linking the shoreline from New Haven to NYC and beyond. It is positively clogged with riders, and any increase in capacity is filled in short order. We have rail-to-trail and greenway projects that are again, filled to the brim with walkers, bikers, strollers, birders, and if you want to observe the Yeti-like rollerblade, that’s where you go. The same for State Park infrastructure, rivers with fishing and swimming, and boating opportunities, and infrastructure of their own. So we can assume that if you build it, people use it. Just as in those scenarios we can facilitate that use, just as we have done by connecting hundreds of thousands of rural residents to highways and malls with vast networks of solid two-lane. Nobody is asking for infrastructure at that level, but the scale shows how resources are allocated to support a single mode of transportation.