Bicycing Is Only As Expensive As You Let It Become

About an hour ago I got home from a two-hour bike ride. Tonight it was a little above forty degrees here in Minnesota. I am turning into Calvin’s father.

It’s funny how cycling gets to be addictive. One day you pedal into downtown and back, and before you know it you’re covering seventy miles in spandex. Tonight I was riding my Cannondale, trying out my new pedal system. It sounds really snobby to use the phrase “pedal system,” but by that I only mean the pedals, cleats, and cycling shoes. Yes - sigh - I own cycling shoes. I own two pair, actually. I didn’t plan for that to happen, but the snookering corporate cycling giants pulled a fast one on me.

I bought a pair of used road pedals off of craigslist early in the summer to use with my track bike. I knew next to nothing about pedals, so I assumed they would work with any old cycling road shoe. After I bought the cheapest pair of road shoes on Amazon.com, I found that this was not the case. See, I had bought a pair of older Shimano Ultegra pedals that were fairly high-end. And, as it turns out, you need higher-end road shoes to fit higher-end pedals. I had bought shoes that could not possibly accommodate such high-end pedals. I did some more research and found out that there are three or four different pedal/shoe systems out there, so I had to go out and buy different pedals (Keo Look) to fit my shoes. I used that combination all summer.

This week, however, I was again browsing craigslist when I found a guy selling brand new carbon fiber road shoes for a fraction of their original cost. These were high-end shoes that would work with my higher-end pedals that had been sitting under my bed all summer, so I snapped them up. I then go to attach the pedal cleats (the part that you screw on the shoe so it can click into the pedal tightly) only to find that the cleats are A) in pretty poor condition and B) missing parts. No big deal, I say to myself, cleats should only be a few bucks.

Well, new ‘new’ cleats are only a few bucks. New ‘old’ cleats are more than a few bucks. By the time I finally got my pedal system ready to go tonight (many thanks to Grand Performance), I had put over $100 into it. Thankfully, it turns out to be a pretty great pedal system, and hopefully I’m not just saying that to avoid admitting that I spent a lot of money for nothing.

This brings me an actual point, which is to highlight the needless “improvements” that the cycling industry markets on a yearly basis. I would flesh out my concerns in full, but the gloriously irreverent cycling blogger BikeSnobNYC has already done it for me. He did it last year, too. Even if you don’t know much about cycling, they are good reads.

It is truly ridiculous how expensive some of these bikes are getting, and how all the new parts are perplexingly incompatible with the old ones that fulfill the exact same function. Performance is one thing, but we are talking about machines that essentially do the same thing they were doing in the seventies - converting "circular pedaling" motion into "rolling wheels" motion, steering said motion, and stopping said motion. There’s a guy riding in my area who has a nice road bike with 30,000 miles on it. He obviously doesn’t see the need to “upgrade”, and after my pedal fiasco, I’m not sure I do now either.


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Buying a New (old) Razor Brings Increased Savings!

Recently I saved a bunch of money, reduced waste, improved my personal hygiene, learned a new skill, and stuck it to the Man. In short, I decreased worldsuck in one swift minimalist blow. What did I do? you may ask. I’ll tell you. I bought a new razor.
It’s true, decreasing worldsuck by buying a new razor seems a but far-fetched, but it’s not! Allow me to explain, for those of you who didn’t stop reading after you saw that I “improved my personal hygiene.”

I used to shave with a Gillette M3Power vibrating razor. It required 1 AAA battery to vibrate the blade, supposedly to help facial hairs stand up so they could then be shaven off. The Amazon.com copy for this razor reads like some dude rushed to finish his 4:45 assignment before squealing his tires in search of a cheap happy hour.

"World's best shave. The first micro-powered shaving system from Gillette, for a totally new shaving experience and Gillette's best shave ever. Micro-Power: Turn on it's tiny motor and feel the micro power. In just one M3POWER stroke, you get a closer and more thorough shave. So thorough, there is less need to reshave, which means less irritation. PowerGlide Blades: Patented blade coating produces Gillette's smoothest blade surface for incredible glide, and a level of comfort that only M3Power can give. Indicator Lubrastrip with Vitamin E and Aloe. Gillette's best shave ever - the M3Power razor plus PowerGlide blades."

It is supposed to provide, via “micro-power”, the world’s best shave. Gillette’s best shave, even. I can tell you one thing - using it, I didn’t feel any micro-power. I felt a vibrating, $10, plastic razor. Actually, it came with two blade cartridges, so make that a $5 plastic razor. The glide was, however, incredible.

But, man, the blades killed me. Sixteen cartridges would cost me close to forty bucks. You have to call them cartridges nowadays because they pack multiple blades in one cartridge. The M3 carts had three blades each, and they are spring-loaded. I am not making this up. They are spring loaded, coated with Easy-Glide (“for your pleasure”, I am assuming), and had an “Indicator Lubrastrip” that told you when they were dull and useless. Also, did I mention they were $2.50 a pop? Assuming I got five good shaves out of them (I got, at most, four), that would equal $.50 a shave. A fun equation for this overall cost, for use later, is 10(cost of razor)+2.5x(cost per blade).

I decided to switch razors because this cost was getting ridiculous, the blade cartridges were wasteful, the thin spaces between the blades were hard to clean, I didn’t want to pay for batteries, and the micro-powered, “world’s best shave” was irritating my face. So I decided on a new razor. I admit that I was a bit hesitant about the change, because I had never used any other razor but the M3Power. (Well, excluding that run-in I had with an electric one back in ‘04. )

This is that new razor.

This, ladies and gents, is a Merkur 178. Amazon’s copy for it is remarkably straightforward!

"The Merkur Safety Razor has a chrome finish. Its double edge design provides a very close shave. Its comfortable handle is designed for a non-slip grip. The safety razor has a straight edge especially great for an extra close shave. Blade replacement is so easy - simply turn the knob on bottom of handle turns to screw or unscrew head. Comes with one stainless steel razor blade. Made in Germany. Razor 3" in length."

Three re-reads later, I am still not quite sure if the razor provides a “very close” or “extra close” shave, but I suppose it does not matter. What matters is that the razor is 3” long, which is precisely the amount of space I allot on my sink for shaving devices.

ANYWAY, this razor is everything the M3Power is not: durable, pretty, good for my face, easy to clean, and cheap in the long run. And have you seen prices for straight-edge blades recently? You can buy one hundred for $17. One hundred! And you know these blades are razor-sharp, because they are open-source.

You know how razor companies are always adding more blades and selling new, “better” models of razors? And every new one advertises to be the “best ever” shave, right? My brother has a theory that every time a new model comes out, the blades on the older models get slightly duller on purpose. Think about it. How long does each blade touch a grinder to be sharpened? Milliseconds, maybe? So, if the company reduces sharpening time from 750ms to 550ms, the blade is slightly duller, the assembly line moves more quickly, and the newest razor lives up to its promise of being the “best ever.” Of course, blade cartridges are proprietary property, so, Gillette, perhaps, can restrict anyone else from making them, thus eliminating competition. The blades for my new razor suffer no such fate. Multiple companies make them, so they are motivated to make their blades the sharpest in order to get ahead of the competition. The consumer wins!

At $35 the razor is considerably more expensive, but it’s durable. And I still get about four shaves to the blade, making the cost equation super awesome, coming out to something like 35+.17x. Let’s look at this on an eye-ruining graphing calculator.

Hey, Mr. WebAdmin, that color scheme makes math considerably less cool. Of interest, though, is that graph. The really vertical one represents the M3Power, while the more-horizontal one represents the Merkur. The intersect of those two lines is at 10.7, meaning that as long I can limit my lifetime usage of the M3Power to 10 blades, I have less net spending. The minute I need to use that eleventh blade, however, I save money by using the Merkur. It is not micro-powered, but I think I can live with that.

Are there disadvantages to using the Merkur? I suppose a few. You have to take care of it - wash it, take it apart, dry it, etc. Handling the blades could be dangerous. You have take more time to shave and be more careful with it so as not to cut your face open. But this is where the skill comes in. Electing to learn a skill rather then solely rely on technology is minimalist because you enrich yourself instead of a corporate pocketbook. The more I shave, the faster and better I become at it. Shaving has no longer become a chore, but rather an opportunity to improve a skill.


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Moving Towards Abstraction

The world around us is fascinated by that which is not there. By this I mean that which is not tangible; a sliver of representation of something meant to be found in real space. That which is an abstraction. As culture morphs and flows it seems to progressively strip down concepts, ideas, and images until they are shells of what they once were.

Take modern art for instance, as this article does. It follows paintings of trees as they move from depictions of real trees to lines meant to represent the tree in abstract. Your mind has to fill in the blanks. Or take this gorgeous image, for example.

It is a person, but only when you don’t look directly at it. In being incomplete, it is wide open to interpretation. Each individual viewer is encouraged to supply their own completing fetal image.

Stuart Ewen’s fantastic book All Consuming Images highlights this trend of abstraction as well, citing several examples.

-The fashion world used to advertise with paper dolls dressed up is rich, detailed depictions of clothing. Gradually the designs moved onto magazine covers, and sketches of clothes became more and more about the lines and less and less about the textures and colors. Nowadays two lines can represent a woman’s body and the clothes covering (however much of) it.

-Old cathedrals used to be stately, solid, stone buildings. They were imposing structures, meant to convey the power of the church. Then the Gothic style took over, and rather then using stone to impress, architects turned to light. How light filled the place - how God filled the place - became significant.

-Important buildings used to be built with a huge floor plan, but now they are built narrow and tall. These buildings, skyscrapers, make the pedestrian look up at the tops of them, where the buildings often end in a vanishing point. Abstraction.

-Money, an abstraction of value in itself, used to be coinage and then paper currency. But we deemed cash too weighty and created credit cards, an abstraction of an abstraction. Green-colored cards, like laminated dollar bills, are the entry level cards. The higher up we go in terms of card class - Silver, Gold Platinum - the more valuable our abstraction is. When we hit the top, the Black credit card, we reach nothingness. Void. It is the point where money must not matter. And now we have PayPal and online cash transfers, and if they take over we might never have to see visual representations of money again.

Having electronic money is easier, they say. In fact, the less humans have to handle things, the more efficient the world is. Everything is becoming more and more digital, and hence, they tell us, more efficient. You used to have to go to a theater to see a film. Then you could rent it on video. Then DVD came along. Now you can download Blu-Ray movies from iTunes. Amazon’s Kindle device lets you download and read books in digital, clicking buttons to turn pages. How efficient is that? You never even have (or get) to touch what you buy.

Folk and rock music are often recorded in a way to recreate experiences. Classical music has definite themes and is meant to evoke certain images. It has emotion. Techno, on the other hand, combines sounds and rhythms that don’t happen in nature - they are synthesized, making the listener create a virtual soundscape. One person can listen to a track and say they hear a freight train going through a tunnel of suspended water; to another person, like Simon Reynolds(link), that track could depict “an ice cream truck doing rounds on one of Saturn’s moons”. It is abstract music for infinite, subjective, interpretations.

The Internet is full of these abstractions. They are what “social news” sites like Digg and reddit are based around. When everything on the Internet is screaming in demand for your time, you have to choose what you will spend it on based on interesting abstractions. What ends up being popular are things that can be effectively condensed into a (preferably witty) fifteen-word summary sentence. The problem here is that not every great, worthy idea can be
  • A) be condensed in this way or
  • B) be given the treatment by someone who knows how to do it effectively.
Equally problematic is when someone who knows how to condense effectively is working on nothing but inane “news” items and, more often then not, they conjure up misleading sentences that do nothing but grab attention, resulting in us reading disappointing-yet-effectively-packaged non-news items and passing up the important ones. I have to face this dilemma on my blog all the time - how to construct interesting yet not blatantly misleading post titles.

Before friendship moved online, it used to mean bowling or playing board games on Friday nights. Then it meant playing video games together. Now it means having a digital Facebook connection. Facebook is an abstraction of a social circle.

We have tweets - abstractions of consciousness. Impulsive ideas that we feel need to be broadcast so others can try and decipher our thoughts.

What, you may ask, then, are the implications of this? So what? Isn’t more efficient better? Isn’t making things open to interpretation a more tolerant way of expression? A way of accommodating other peoples’ views and ideas? Perhaps. But we have to ask, “in what direction does that lead us?” If efficiency and single-minded goals are our objective, then we are on the right track. But should everything be streamlined to maximum efficiency?

We are now in an era where seemingly anything and everything can be considered “art.” If you don’t understand it, well, then that art isn’t for you I guess. When ideas are depicted in the abstract, they are often intentionally ambiguous. They are everything to every one. As our ideas of value become less and less concrete, value becomes harder and harder to define. If relativity was the essential theme of postmodernism, then abstraction is the theme of post-postmodernism.

As more and more things in our lives - friendships, art, music, money - move into the abstract, it is easier for even more things, perhaps things never meant to be represented in the abstract, to move there. The abstract is meant to represent something, but if we are conditioned to only think in abstract terms then one person’s abstract is another’s reality. This is only true, however, in a limited sphere, and the thoughts in this abstract sphere are guided by the person or institution from whose hands the abstraction manifests. The creator controls the thoughts.

This shift towards relativity of value, control through ambiguity, and the results of combining them with concrete things illegitimately dragged into the abstract realm is my primary concern. There are some things that, frankly, I don’t think belong in the abstract. I think that the less friendships are ‘open to interpretation,’ the healthier they will be. I have learned that earmarking, highlighting, and writing in the margins of books I own is a valuable memory device. I notice that when I use cash, I am more hesitant to spend.

How many things must their be in our daily lives that we need to pull out of abstraction? Our views of love? God? Life?


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The Worldy Self-Direction Ethos Does Not Work in Your Favor

The other day a regular customer was in my store preparing some nachos. We have a nacho bar where one can decorate nachos with chili and cheese and stuff, and this guy was whipping up a tray of nachos.

“So,” he turned to me and asked, “are these nachos any good?”

“That depends,” I gamely replied, “You get out of them what you put in!”

“That bad, huh?” he chuckled.

“Not really. But if they are, it’s not our fault.”

We both laughed. I said it in jest, but there was some truth to it. It’s actually a rather scary ethos, all things considered.

You get out of life what you put into it. Life is all about you. And now we have a Web, Web 2.0, that mirrors that ethos. What is important is what you contribute to the “conversation”. User-generated content is what counts. In some cases, like Wikipedia, it is good. In others, (90% of YouTube is a good example), it is not. It is junk.

But I digress. The point is that we’re still believing that we are in control of what happens to us. We get out of bed thinking, “Today is a blank slate, and I can sculpt my day to be the perfect day for me! Everything will go well because I say it will.”

This rubs me wrong in two ways. First, I don't like the self-centered vibe it emits, because ‘constructing the perfect day’ usually involves complacent activities like sitting in front of the TV eating ice cream and pizza, or impulse-shopping at the Mall of America. (Current MOA ad slogans include “The road to economic recovery will be long. You’ll need shoes,” “You could probably do without it, but why take that chance?,” and “Is that a new purse, of did you just get more interesting?”)

The main reason that the self-direction ethos bugs me, though, is that it A) doesn’t include space for “random” (read: predestined) events, and B) it places all of the responsibility, and, hence, the potential guilt, of a failed day squarely on you. Just like if that guy had ended up with a crappy tray of nachos, the self-direction ethos dictates that if you have a crappy day, it is completely your fault. After a while, these days start to add up. Week after week, month after month, year after year. If you’re having crappy days, you’re obviously not doing enough to prevent them. The astute reader will make the connection that depression will soon entail, followed by utter hopelessness. The universe, without God, does not work in your favor. However...

-Ephesians 2:10

"For we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do."

-Romans 8:28

"And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose."

-Philippians 2:13

"...for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose."



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