Random Night Photo


The back end of Berkeley Horticultural Nursery–sort of odd that they have their most prominent sign in the rear–taken a week ago last Friday.

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Idiosyncratic Bike for Sale

As posted on Craigslist (though not for long — the bike sold in about an hour):

For sale: Idiosyncratic Bridgestone RB-1, $600

Bridgestone RB-1

Year: 1991

Size: 59 cm


–Built up as a 40×15/40×17 fixed gear with a retrofitted horizontal rear dropout.

–Wheels: rear is a Mavic MA-40 built around a Sansui Pro-Training 36-hole hub; front is an Araya RC-540 built around a 32-hole Shimano 105 hub.

–Crankset: Shimano 600 53/40.

–Brakeset: Diacompe aero levers. Front brake: Shimano 105 sidepull. Rear: Diacompe 986 cantilever. Brakes are set up “cross-handed”: right lever controls front (explanation below).

–Control Tech aluminum stem (approx 100mm), Icon drop bars approx 44cm).

–Lovely pre-distressed Brooks B-17 saddle, once handled (and perhaps even sat upon) by Grant Petersen himself.

–One-of-a-kind, non-factory paint job.


I have not made many impulse bike-related purchases. In 1991, I bought a British-racing-green-and-ivory Bridgestone RB-1 at The Missing Link in Berkeley. I had just started to do some long-distance cycling and somehow thought that that bike was just the ticket for me. It had a late Suntour 7-speed rear drivetrain, and with younger legs I did manage to do some hill climbing with a bailout gear of 42×23. I stopped riding for years, got back into it in the early 2000s. In 2003, I ripped everything off the bike, had it repainted in close to the same scheme by Ed Litton in Point Richmond, and rebuilt with a triple-crankset randonneuring machine (again by The Missing Link). I rode that bike in Paris-Brest-Paris 2003, and kept doing brevets on it until I finished a 300-kilometer ride in Santa Cruz with a huge crack through the bottom-bracket shell.

So, I stuck with that horse until it couldn’t run anymore. In the meantime, I had found two other 59-centimeter RB-1 frames: a built-up beater that the owner had unconscionably refitted with a lousy aluminum fork, and a unique Joe Bell-painted frameset that a former Missing Link mechanic was trying to unload. When that first frame broke, I just took everything off of it and put it on the Joe Bell frame and commenced riding that. That was my mount for my unfinished 2007 PBP and for a 1,000-kilometer brevet in Colorado in 2006 that earned me a Randonneur 5000 award.

I mentioned my lack of impulse bike purchases. That’s less a product of virtue than necessity. Once upon a time, I went out and test-rode a bunch of bikes I knew I couldn’t afford, including a cushy early Merlin titanium frame. I also coveted high-end Masis and have looked on in semi-envy at friends’ custom Rivendells and Calfees. I’ve never felt justified in plunking down $4,000 or $5,000 for a bike, though–and I understand that’s no longer top-of-the-line money.

In the case of the bike I’m selling now, though, I had an impulse and acted on it. How did it happen?

Somewhat euphoric and more than usually brain-addled after PBP ’03, I chanced to read an email from Grant Petersen of Rivendell Bicycle Works in Walnut Creek, California. He was selling a few custom items to raise money. Among them was a 59-centimeter RB-1 — my size — set up as a fixed gear. The bike had a history, too: the fixie was a project undertaken by a one-time California bicycle writer. The email identified the writer, but I won’t because I have a feeling he’s sensitive about how his name is used and I haven’t gotten his permission.

Part of the writer’s project was to doctor the original Bridgestone logo with the logo of bike and parts maker Salsa. The red frame carries the legend “Salsbridge” on the down tube. It’s also adorned with numerous flashes of white, green, and yellow paint. I’ll be honest: the Salsa reference loses me, as the bike as presented to me has zero Salsa components. (The secret might be contained in a long-ago story about this bike by another Northern California bicycle writer, a legendary randonneur who left the Bay Area to take up residence in northern Nevada. This second writer contacted me after I bought the bike and promised to send a laminated copy of the story; I long ago stopped waiting for that to happen; I only hope that he just couldn’t find the thing, or that he was always too busy to send it, instead of him deciding that I’m some sort of undeserving jerk. Why undeserving? Well, to be honest, next to the two writers, and many riders, too, I’m just a dabbler at this whole bike thing.)

Another aspect of the project is easier for me to understand. The brakes are what I’ll call cross-handed. The right lever operates the front brake, the left the rear — and that’s the opposite of the usual arrangement. However, it’s the standard set-up for motorcycles, and, sure enough, the writer/creator is a moto enthusiast.

The stories that come with the bike are almost good enough to keep it around. But not quite. Why? Let’s go back to Grant Petersen and 2003.

After reading his sale email, I called Rivendell, out in the Contra Costa suburbs–the region my younger son dismisses as “the 925.” I talked to Grant himself, I think, and he told me he still had the bike. Hold on to it, I told him, I’ll be out after work. And I was. I rode BART out to Contra Costa and walked the two blocks over to the glorified garage that served– still serves–as Grant’s shop. The bike was there. Nondescript, to my eyes, and not nearly as special as the RB-1 on which I’d just done PBP. But the new bike was a fixed gear; just the thing, I thought, to branch out in the sport that I suddenly felt rather accomplished in. I paid and left to get back on BART. It was probably a sign that I could barely get on the thing and control it as I rolled down a short sharp slope to the street. I wound up walking most of the way to the station with my newly claimed prize.

And in the years since, I have never quite gotten the fixed-gear thing. For a long time, that has made me feel like I’m less as a cyclist than others are (to be honest, I find plenty of reasons to think that). To engage in bike riding in all its subtlety, shouldn’t I master the art of having my feet locked to pedals that will keep turning as long as the back wheel is moving? I have seen some amazing feats of long-distance cycling on fixed gears: multi-day tours with lots of climbing. I’ve watched fixie riders go away from me on the climbs, and I have overtaken them, their legs in an unsettling 160 rpm blur, on big downhills. Bottom line: While those climbs and descents might be a challenge and some sort of joy to others, I’m too much a creature of the freewheel to partake. I just never got the hang of the fixie. And beyond that, yeah, I can use the money now, too.

Thus, the for-sale ad, and this writeup.

If you’ve got any questions about the bike’s history or provenance, I’ll answer them all. I’ll even disclose the names of the above-mentioned writers. Including the one in Nevada, just in case you can convince him to send his old story about how this bike came to be.

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Big Screen

From the Associated Press:

NEW YORK – A Wal-Mart worker was killed Friday when “out-of-control” shoppers desperate for bargains broke down the doors at a 5 a.m. sale. Other workers were trampled as they tried to rescue the man, and customers shouted angrily and kept shopping when store officials said they were closing because of the death, police and witnesses said.

Sale-crazed holiday shoppers trample a store employee. As Wal-Mart says, it’s a “tragic situation.” It’s also too easy a target. Yeah, there might be something wrong in people’s head when they’re so heedless of people’s safety that they’ll run over them. But there’s also something wrong in the way this whole event is framed in the AP’s lead.

The motive for the shoppers’ behavior? Desperation. For what? Bargains. Think it through: You’re being told that there are people out there so starved for price breaks on big-screen TVs, or whatever else was piled up inside, that they turned into animals? I’m not buying it. There’s something selfish, callous and crass going on in mobs like that–but desperation? No.

Interesting to try to square it with everything else we’ve seen here in the last few months: the crash of the housing market and the ensuing economic crises; the anything-goes bailouts; the suggestion that our last redoubt of heavy industry, the car companies, is about to collapse; the rising above differences that seemed to be one of the forces driving the outcome of the presidential election. I’m sure that Wal-Mart shopping crowd fits in there, but I just can’t figure where right now.

For a little contrast with a situation that does convey true fear and desperation, I recommend The New York Times’s excellent photographer’s journal on the Mumbai attacks. Especially striking, somehow, the final two frames of a crowd of onlookers.

[Later: Peter S. Goodman, a Times writer, later made a game attempt to explore and explain the tragedy. He puts the desperation into a much larger and far more convincing context.]

Guest Observation: Russell Banks

From “Cloudsplitter,” a fictional memoir of Owen Brown, one of the sons of radical abolitionist John Brown. Not a new book–it came out ten years ago–but I just started reading it the other day. It’s beautiful and charged with the strangeness and rage of John Brown’s story.

“… Though there was never a man so detached from the sinner who so loathed sin, when it came to the sin of owning slaves, which Father labeled not sin but evil, all his loathing came down at once and in a very personal way on the head of the evil-doer. He brooked no fine distinctions: the man who pleaded for the kindly treatment of human chattel or, as if it could occur naturally, like a shift in the seasons, argued for the gradual elimination of slavery was just as evil as the man who whipped, branded, raped, and slew his slaves; and he who did not loudly oppose the extension of slavery into the western territories was as despicable as he who hounded escaped slaves all the way to Canada and branded them on the spot to punish them and to make pursuit and capture easier next time. But with the notable exception of where a man or woman stood on the question of slavery, when Father considered the difference between our way of life and the ways of others, he did not judge them or lord it over them. He did not condemn or set himself off from our neighbors. He merely observed their ways and passed silently by.

“And he knew all the ways of men and women extremely well. He was no naif, no bumpkin. My father was not the sort of man who stopped up his ears at the sound of foul language or shut his eyes to the lasciviousness and sensuality that passed daily before him. He never warned another man or woman off from speech or act because he was too delicate of sensibility or too pious or virtuous to hear of it or witness the thing. He knew what went on between men and women, between men and men, between men and animals even, in the small crowded cabins of the settlements and out in the sheds and barns of our neighbors. And he knew what was nightly bought and sold on the streets and alleys and in the taverns of the towns and cities he visited. The man had read every word of his Bible hundreds of times: nothing human beings did with or to one another or themselves shocked him. Only slavery shocked him.”

Guest Observation: August Wilson

Went with some friends to the Berkeley Repertory Theater this afternoon to see “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone,” part of the playwright August Wilson’s historical cycle of African-American life. It was a great show — and I’d say see this or any other production. A favorite passage:

” … When you look at a fellow, if you taught yourself to look for it, you could see his song written on him. Tell you what kind of man he is in the world. Now, I can look at your, Mr. Loomis, and see you a man who done forgot his song. Forgot how to sing it. A fellow forget that and he forget who he is. Forget how he’s supposed to mark down life. Now, I used to travel all up and down this road and that … looking here and there. Searching, just like you, Mr. Loomis. I didn’t know what I was searching for. The only thing I knew was something was keeping me dissatisfied. Something wasn’t making my heart smooth and easy. Then one day my daddy gave me a song. That song had a weight to it that was hard to handle. That song was hard to carry. I fought against it. Didn’t want to accept that song. I tried to find my daddy to give him back the song. But I found out it wasn’t his song. It was my song. It had come from way deep inside me. I looked long back in memory and gathered up pieces and snatches of things to make that song. I was making it up out of myself. And that song helped me on the road. Made it smooth to where my footsteps didn’t bite back at me. All the time that song getting bigger and bigger. That song growing with each step of the road. It got so I used all of myself up in the making of that song. Then I was the song in search of itself. That song rattling in my throat and I’m looking for it. See, Mr. Loomis, when a man forgets his song he goes off in search of it … till he finds out he’s got it with him all the time. …”


The book (at Amazon.com)

The Berkeley Rep production

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Times Five

Brief historical note: I posted my first entry here five years ago yesterday. A basic stat for the Infospigot era: 1,679 posts. An average of 336 a year, or 28 a month. I’ve never figured the average number of words per post, but I think I’ve mixed it up: a smattering of short ones, long ones, and in-between ones. Plenty that were mostly about the pictures I was putting up. I’ll make a ballpark guess and say the average length has been 350 words. If true, the total verbiage here totals something like 600,000 words. That’s the equivalent of 2,400 typed pages: a very long book, but with no plot, no central subject, little action, and a dimly understood protagonist. All I can say is thanks for reading. Thanks for returning. And thanks for all the responses along the way.

We’ll soldier on, despite a recent newsflash that blogging is dead. Let’s see what the next five years brings.

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Seasonal Lights


On Beverly Place in North Berkeley. I first noticed these about a week ago. I could see these staying up long beyond the coming holidays.

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Now It’s Done

Last weekend, NPR aired a segment on the Depression-era ballad “Brother Can You Spare a Dime?” I’ve heard the song forever; I think my mom and dad had a recording of The Weavers’ Eric Darling singing it. The melancholy in the tune and lyrics always made an impression; and I always felt that my parents had a direct connection to the song, that it was about a time they had lived through. Our very own economic crash prompted NPR to do its piece: online, the segment is titled “A Depression-Era Anthem for Our Times.”

They gave the subject 10 minutes of air time, and used it well. Rob Kapilow, a composer and student of popular song, deconstructed both words and music. His summary: “Lyrically, it’s the entire history of the Depression in a single phrase: ‘Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?’ ”

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Our American Perspective

I edited a story that aired on KQED this morning about a Lebanese-American man, a U.S. citizen, who was seized by state security in the United Arab Emirates nearly three months ago. The man, named Naji Hamdan, has not been charged, and the Emirates haven't seen fit to explain why he's in custody. One reason for that may be that the United States asked the UAE to pick the guy up because the FBI considers him a terrorism suspect.

That surmise aside–the allegation is made in a lawsuit that's supposed to be filed today on Hamdan's behalf by the American Civil Liberties Union–the U.S. embassy in the Emirates seems in no hurry to find out what's happening to an American citizen held without charge by the local secret police. It took the embassy 51 days after the arrest to meet with Hamdan in prison. In response to inquiries from Hamdan's family and Rep. Maxine Waters of Los Angeles, a consular official described the meeting, the prisoner's status, and then offered this perspective on the situation:

"This extended detention, while very unusual from our American perspective, does not run counter to the laws of the United Arab Emirates."

See? The situation only seems unacceptable because of our American perspective. If someone disappears you, accuses you of being a terrorist, roughs you up, and god knows what else–well, you have to understand that's the way they do things in their own country.

Put our pretensions to global omnipotence aside. Put aside, too, our rhetoric about democracy and due process. Still: wouldn't you hope for a little bit more from your government if you found yourself tossed in some hole without explanation?

Here's a story on the case from McClatchy: Did U.S. Push Detention of American Without Charges?

Here's the link to our story, by Rob Schmitz of KQED's Los Angeles bureau: Naji Hamdan case.

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‘Revolutionary Suicide’

Thirty years ago today: the Jonestown mass murder. Last week, the San Francisco Chronicle posted an MP3 of what I guess is popularly known as the Jonestown death tape. I listened this morning for the first time. Three things I wasn’t ready for: the fact that just one of the 900 people who were about to die is heard resisting Jonestown leader Jim Jones and trying to talk him out of the course he had decided on; Jones’s lisp; and the funerary music playing in the background throughout the proceeding. The recording is 44 minutes and 29 seconds long. The final two minutes are silent except for the music and what may be a distorted voice on a shortwave radio in the background. Jones’s final recorded words:

“… Take our life from us, we laid it down, we got tired. We didn’t commit suicide. We committed an act of revolutionary suicide protesting the conditions of an inhumane world.”

Here’s the tape, by way of the Internet Archive:

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