Friday, March 30, 2018

RIP Jon Williams - Drillium Revival

Photo from the Biciak blog. There's a nice article
there about Jon and his work.
The vintage and classic bicycle world lost a good friend this week. Jon Williams, whom some may know through his Drillium Revival work, died suddenly of a heart attack while riding his bike Wednesday. I don't know exactly how old Jon was, but he was young enough that his sudden death comes as a real shock. Jon had really built a name for himself with the vintage cycling crowd for his creativity and taste in modifying bicycle components.

I won't go into a lot of clich├ęs about how a man's death reminds us to live every day like it could be our last. And I can't give a lot of biographical info about Jon. He was a friend and regular contributor to the discussions on the Classic Rendezvous group, and I have exchanged a few emails with him over the years, but we never actually met face to face, and I can't say that I really knew him personally. But like a lot of people, I did admire his work and had thought about having him drill and modify some components for my Mercian 753 Special - of all the bikes I own, that one seemed like it would have been the one for which some tastefully lightened parts would have been the most appropriate. Now I really wish I'd gotten that done.

I mentioned Jon's work a few years ago in an article about drillium, and he had a lot of pictures of his work on Flickr. I don't know how long that account will remain available - but I'd like share a few of my favorites:

Really nicely drilled Campagnolo Record crank. Notice that the spider arms are slotted all the way through.
This Nuovo Record derailleur almost looks like it was made of lace. This would pair up nicely with the crank shown above.
Another angle. Like I said - like lace.

I'm pretty conservative when it comes to modifying something like a stem, where breakage would be exceptionally bad for one's teeth - but the milling on this Cinelli is tasteful and not too excessive.

Jon didn't just modify vintage components - he would sometimes modify current production pieces as well, like this more modern Campagnolo Athena crank. . .
. . . or this Compass Bicycles Rene Herse style crank. This one was only minimally modified as a special touch for a Peter Weigle-built bike that competed in the Concours de Machines Technical Trials in France. You can see the bike at Jan Heine's blog.

For those lucky enough to have examples of his work, Jon's artistry will be a lasting reminder of the talent that was lost this week.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Self Driving Car Death

It was just last month I wrote about the potential problems that surround driverless cars. Even as automakers and tech companies are racing forward on the technology, they admit that they still have a long way to go to make sure that driverless cars are as safe as promised. That doesn't seem to be slowing them down any, however. One of the biggest problems these autonomous cars have is recognizing and properly reacting to pedestrians and cyclists.

As it happens, Sunday night, a woman in Tempe, Arizona became the first pedestrian to be killed by a self-driving car. It was one of the self-driving cars being tested by Uber, and according to a police statement, it was in full-autonomous mode with a vehicle operator behind the wheel. Neither the car nor the human operator reacted to avoid the woman, 49-yr-old Elaine Herzberg, who later died at the hospital from her injuries.

The first reports to go out after the incident claimed that the woman was on a bicycle, and the photos showed a damaged bicycle in a heap on the side of the road. That was not quite accurate, however, as it was later reported that while she was a cyclist, she was walking across the road and pushing the bicycle at the moment she was struck by the car. Ultimately, though, a woman is dead and it's a pretty minor distinction.

Police have said that the car was going about 40 mph at the time of the collision, and there was no indication that either the car or the driver attempted to slow down before the woman was hit. Reports are also saying that the driver showed no signs of impairment, and that prosecutors will review the case for possible charges.

Immediately after the crash, Uber suspended all of its self-driving car operations. Until this announcement, the service was running self-driving test operations in San Francisco, Pittsburgh, Phoenix, and Toronto.

I have no doubt that the Uber suspension will only be temporary, and that the other tech companies and the auto companies will continue their own testing and operations in the meantime. I hope that this death underscores to them all how important it is that they get this stuff right before unleashing it on the public. Consider that all of this technology is still in the experimental phase - but they're currently using our public streets as their laboratory. I wouldn't be disappointed if this incident slowed things down a little.

There are thousands of pedestrians and cyclists killed each year by living, breathing humans. The promise of self-driving cars is that, unlike so many cell-phone-addled drivers, they don't get distracted so they'll ultimately be safer. But this death is a stark reminder that we aren't there yet.

I don't think there's any question that self-driving cars are still coming. Despite this woman's death, the companies will keep pushing it. However, my fear is (and I hope I'm wrong) that we will likely see others get killed or maimed before they truly get it right.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Bikes and Guns

No mistake about it, the Retrogrouch blog is about bicycles. Any grouching and occasional ranting that happen here mostly center on debates about older bicycles vs. new. "Old school" vs. "new school." I have some pretty strong opinions on bikes, and this blog is a good outlet for them.

I have some pretty strong opinions about other topics, too - but as they don't usually have anything to do with bikes, this blog generally isn't where they get vented. That makes it the unfortunate role of my friends and family to have to put up with them. Retrogrouch readers, consider yourselves lucky!

Guns wouldn't seem to have anything to do with this blog, so that is a subject of which I usually steer clear. But in the wake of the Parkland, Florida school shooting, there have been some interesting facts and ethical issues that have come to light - and they could have an impact on cyclists.

Some of the Vista Outdoor brands.
(graphic from Boulder Cycle Sport)
Before I get into that, I'm going to state something for the record and get it out of the way: I don't own guns, and have no desire to own them - but I do have friends who own guns. They're good folks, and there's no reason to judge. I believe in the 2nd Amendment -- but unlike some of the more vocal proponents of the 2nd, I don't ignore its first clause -- you know the one, the one that says "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free state. . ." I believe it is dogmatic to claim that regulations on gun sales and ownership (such as universal background checks, mandatory registration, gun databases, and even restrictions or bans on certain types of guns and ammo) are somehow a violation of the 2nd Amendment. People may endlessly debate the point about exactly what does or does not constitute a "militia" - but the words "well regulated" make it pretty hard to argue that the government has no right to impose restrictions on guns.

OK, now that you know that, you can decide whether or not that colors your opinion about the rest of what I'm writing about here.

So back to bikes. In the wake of the Parkland shooting, advocates for more gun control have been promoting a new strategy - to use boycotts to push for change. And in that interest, news has recently surfaced that a number of products and brands used by many of us cyclists have connections to the gun industry, and this has come as a surprise. Notably, that Vista Outdoor, a conglomerate corporation which owns one of the US's largest gun and ammo manufacturers also owns such bicycle-related brands as Bell and Giro, Blackburn, Camelbak, and CoPilot. The revelation originally came from Aaron Naparstek, a bicycle advocate who founded the website Streetsblog.

The day after the Florida shooting, Naparstek tweeted out, "The same company that manufactures your CoPilot rear-rack child bicycle safety seat also produces the SavageArms MSR Patrol assault rifle." Another tweet: "It's just jarring to me that when I bought @GiroCyclingUK, @BellBikeHelmets, @CamelBak and CoPilot products, I put money in the pockets of a domestic arms dealer."

According to the BikeBiz website, Vista purchased Bell, Giro, and Blackburn in 2016. They've owned Camelbak since 2015. The company has a PAC that funds the NRA and politicians who promote the NRA agenda.

Naparstek has called for a consumer boycott of all Vista's bicycle-industry brands, and word has been spreading. Some bicycle shops and chains have announced that they will stop carrying the brands.

From Outside Online.
Now, rather than start preaching that everyone should support such a boycott - I'll just say people should really consider such an issue carefully and make their own choice in the matter. To that end, there was an interesting article on the Outside website that looked at the pros and cons of such a boycott, and the ethics associated with it. The Outside article contained opinions from several business and ethics professors, and there was not unanimous agreement on the subject. I recommend reading the article, and I won't re-cover the whole thing here, but I will touch on a couple of points brought up.

Here was one thought: should a person who buys a Camelbak or a Giro helmet feel in any way responsible for the actions of Vista's guns or ammo businesses - or violent actions that happen with their products? No - of course not. The fact is, that whether someone buys Vista's bicycle accessories or not, the manufacture and sale of firearms will continue. But if one is against guns, or supports gun control measures, and they can buy a helmet or a new tire pump without supporting the gun industry and its lobbyists, it may be worthwhile to choose a different brand because dollars can make a difference. One of the ethicists in the Outside article, Sarah-Vaughan Brakman of Villanova University, states: "If we believe something is wrong, and if together our purchasing power can significantly change the bottom line, then consumers should change their habits."

Although two of the ethicists in the article seemed to support the idea that a consumer boycott can be effective in producing change, one seemed to see the issue as a little more complicated. Jason Brennan, of Georgetown University's McDonough School of Business, said, "Boycotts attempt to impose a cost on the corporation. But a corporation is not a person--it has no body to kick or soul to damn. It's extremely difficult to impose a cost in such a way that the cost falls on the CEO rather than some janitor working at the firm."

Brennan added that things get even more complicated when the boycott targets a company that is merely a subsidiary company of a larger conglomerate, as is the case here. "Targeting one subsidiary company with the goal of hurting another is roughly on par with beating up someone because you dislike his or her cousin," said Brennan. "It's highly unlikely you'll end up hurting the other subsidiary you actually despise." Ultimately, Brennan stated, if people really want to see changes, they should push for change through legislation. That would include voting for people who support the changes you want, and applying pressure to lawmakers to see it through.

So - support the boycott or not? My own feeling on it is that I don't support the NRA, and I don't want to support, either directly or indirectly, the gun industry -- they get plenty of money without my help. Knowing that a portion of what I spend on a new bicycle helmet or some other accessory for my bike goes to support a gun company that lobbies against meaningful gun control, and promotes a stance on guns that I don't agree with is problematic to me. When it comes to helmets, I've long been a fan of Giro helmets -- they seem to combine the look and fit that I'm usually after. And I have other gear from the company, which also markets shoes and other clothing that I tend to like, so I'm a bit disappointed. I'm not an "active" boycott supporter, but the next time I'm looking at helmets or accessories, I think it would be hard for me to ignore the gun-industry connection, and that might cause me to look a little more closely at alternatives from other brands. As to whether other people support a boycott, or even wear a helmet at all - well, that's up to them. No, it's not a really strong stance - but it seems to me that the issue is just muddy enough to make it hard to get overly strident about.