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When science finds problems that don’t exist

Several people emailed me with a link to this article in Scientific American.

I am familiar with some of the people and the work outlined in the article, because five years ago I wrote a piece about it.

Jim Papodopoulis, (Left.) featured in much of the Scientific American article, wrote an extremely lengthy 2,200 word response in the comments section and invited me to reply.

At the time I stated that I was not prepared to write a similar length reply, but would discuss the subject over the phone. There never was a follow up phone call.

There is an old British saying that goes, ‘Bull shit baffles brains.’ And clever sounding waffle can impress, especially if published in a notable magazine. But analyze the piece and it says nothing of value. The SA article states:

Everybody knows how to ride a bike, but nobody knows how we ride bikes. 

Of course there are people who know how we ride bikes, but most just do and don’t try to over think it. One of the purposes of this blog is to explain the workings of a bicycle in a simple manner.

So how do we balance on a bike? The gyroscopic action of the spinning wheels is only one little piece of the equation. Actually, when riding slowly, (As slow as you possibly can.) The slowly turning wheels generate hardly any gyroscopic force, and so have little or no effect on staying upright.

It is a simple balancing act, like balancing an upturned broom on your hand. You constantly move your hand to keep it under the center of mass. (The broom head.)

In fact it is easier to balance a broom than it is to balance a broom handle without the head. Therein lies a clue. It is because the center of mass is high above the palm of your hand. Just as when riding a bike the center of mass, (The rider’s body.) is some four feet above the point of contact. (The tires on the road.)

It is almost impossible to ride a bike slowly in a straight line. It is a constant steering the bike left and right to keep the wheels directly under the center of mass. You can even ride slowly ‘no hands.’ It then takes movement of the hips and upper body to remain balanced. Much the same way as riding a skate board, which has very little gyroscopic help from its tiny wheels, or a surf board that has no wheels.

Then as you gather speed it is the momentum of the body’s mass that keeps you upright and going straight. The faster you go the easier it is to balance and to steer left and right by simply leaning left and right. A surfer too, when going slow is constantly moving his body to stay upright. As soon as he catches a big wave and is traveling at speed, he easily stays upright and steers left and right by leaning in that direction.

So how we balance on a bike is no huge mystery, it is a kin to surfing, skating, and many other human activities that become second nature with a little practice. And yes, things like frame geometry and gyroscopic action enter into it. Here is a link to a previous article I wrote on head angles and steering, that explains further. It also explains counter steer, which according to the Scientific American article is another mystery that no one knows about.

I did a quick YouTube search to see if there was any progress on the work on the “Riderless Bike.” I found this little video from last year.

The bicycle, one of the simplest and most efficient machines ever invented by man. Two wheels make it efficient, more efficient than three or four wheels that most other vehicles need to stay upright.

For all useful purposes it requires a rider in order to stay upright. And although it will stay upright for a brief moment without one, if it does not have a rider, what is the point of a bicycle or motorcycle? It is not a practical vehicle to carry anything other than a human passenger.

The bicycle is a mechanical extension of the human body. Riding one is a simple skill that even a small child can master. Once learned it becomes intuitive, a skill that lasts a lifetime, no more difficult than walking or running.

The bicycle has changed little over the 130 odd years since the chain driven bike appeared. There is a reason for that. It has to do with the old saying that goes. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Even if the math doesn’t add up.

I believe science, in this case, is trying to find answers to problems that don’t exist. The fact that the world wide bike industry is not exactly lining up to buy into the new tech is another clue that nobody cares.


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Curious goings on

Bizarre scenes in the Tour de France this week, embarrassing almost, with Chris Froome running up Mount Ventoux in a blind panic. I wanted to yell out, “Go back and get your bike.” Everyone knows in a bike race you have to have a bike with you at all times, you can’t just dump a broken bike and continue on foot.

It would have been hardly fair, and would certainly have spoiled the whole Tour if Froome had been disqualified, but you would think someone would have fined him a few thousand Swiss francs. Just a token way of saying, “You can’t do that.” I mean, what would have happened if he had run all the way to the finish. Would someone have asked, “Where’s your bike? You do know you have to cross the finish line with a bike.”

Luckily there was a Time-Trial the next day that sorted everyone out. Froome proved he was worthy of the Yellow Jersey, and more important I think Bauke Mollema did a great ride that put him where he deserved to be, in second place.

Tomorrow’s a rest day, then it will all be over by next Sunday. There is another Time Trial and three big mountain stages. The outcome is still not a forgone conclusion, anything can happen. I just hope there are no more embarrassing running men scenes.


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So far, so good

Nine days of racing, and the Tour de France has reached the first rest day. The Yellow Jersey has been worn by four different people, four stages were won with pretty spectacular solo breakaways, and all top ten riders in the General Classification are a minute and one second apart. (Actually Teejay VanGarderen is 11th with the same time as Alejandro Valverde in 10th.)

A pretty good start I would say. Mark Cavendish won on the first day and took the Yellow Jersey for the first time in his career. The next day World Champion Peter Sagan won the stage and took over the race leader’s jersey. The so called curse of the Rainbow Stripes does not seem to affect Sagan.

Peter Sagan would wear yellow for three days until Greg VanAvermaet won Stage 5 with a long solo breakaway that took over five minutes out of everyone else. Enough of a lead to allow the Belgian rider to hang on to the lead for three more days, even though he is not noted as a climber.

Stage 7 was won by British rider Steve Cummings with another solo break. VanAvermaet came in 5th that day and actually took more time out of the top contenders, but he would lose it all the following day.

Stage 8: The first big mountain stage that went over four major climbs, including the Col du Tourmalet. However, it was on the descent from the final climb of the Col de Peyresourde to the finish, that Chris Froome took 13 seconds out of the second place rider, to take the Yellow Jersey.

Stage 9 was held in torrential rain. Tom DuMoulin gave us another solo victory, while the GC contenders duked it out further down the mountain. Chris Froome attacked several times, and Nario Quintana seemed to follow him each time with comparative ease. But Quintana never attacked himself, and when Dan Martin, Adam Yates, or Richie Porte attacked the Colombian let Froome do the chasing.

I think Quintana is holding back to see if Froome breaks later on in the race. Dan Martin is an exciting attacking rider, so I don’t rule him out for a podium place. Adam Yates too could be near the top, and he must surely be a future TDF winner.

Richie Porte is climbing well but is over two minutes down in 18th place. He is gradually clawing his way back to the top ten after losing 1 min. 45 sec. with a puncture near the end of stage 3. It wouldn’t surprise me to see the Aussie in or near a podium spot.

Whatever happens, I am looking forward to the rest of it. What say you?


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What’s in a Name?

Bike racing in the UK and the rest of Europe was always traditionally a working class sport, certainly up until the 1950s.

Working class people, for example your average factory worker would use a bicycle as transport to and from work each day.

It was natural that some of them would be into bike racing. Frames for racing bikes were often built by a local framebuilder. Many of these framebuilders were ex bike racers themselves. Well-known personalities who put their first and last name on the frames they built.

Names like Bob Jackson, Harry Quinn, and Freddie Grubb. Notice the first names were always abbreviated in true working class tradition. The name on the frames did not read Robert Jackson, Harold Quinn, or Frederick Grubb, that would have been far too grandiose for their working class customers to relate.

So quite naturally I followed suit when I started building frames and put ‘dave moulton’ on the frame, all in lower case letters which made it somewhat distinctive. Being working class myself, I was always known as “Dave.” Only my mother called me David.

I came to the US in 1979, and two years later in 1981 I was in Southern California, building frames under my own name again. I was essentially starting over again from scratch. The general populous did not have a clue who Dave Moulton was, only a handful of people in the bike business knew of my work.

There was an immediate resistance to the name. I got comments like, “Why do you put your first and last name on there, people will think it is my name.” “My name,” meaning of course the customer. “Not exotic sounding enough,” was another comment I heard all the time.

I even had requests to build frames without my name on it. I stood my ground there, and refused those orders, and in a relatively short time my reputation as a framebuilder grew, and the resistance to the name disappeared.

However, I was reminded of this just last week. For this last year I have been designing cycling related tee shirts. I found bike tees are often lacking cleaver design and sometimes quite lame when it comes to any kind of a message. I am trying to come up with interesting and different designs. Conversation pieces if you will.

So when I recently had a request for my four “m” logo on a shirt. I thought it might be an idea to add something extra to the design.

Although I am a little more well-known in the US than I was back in the 1980s, probably only a fraction of one percent of the general population would have even heard of Dave Moulton, much less be familiar with my logo.

So put a large four “m” logo on a shirt, and occasionally someone will recognize it as Dave Moulton’s logo. Everyone else will not even give it a second look, because to them it is a meaningless symbol. My thought was to combine the logo with a design based on something called a “Celtic Knot.” (See top picture.)

Someone might say to the wearer, “That’s a cool design on your shirt, does it have a meaning?” Which is what I mean by a conversation piece. Others in the know, might give the shirt a second look, then realize, “That’s the Dave Moulton logo in there.”

But when I asked for feedback on the Dave Moulton Bikes Facebook page, the pure fans of my bikes hated it. “Too busy.” And, “Takes away from the simplistic beauty of the original logo.” Were typical comments.

My thoughts were. I’m no longer selling bikes. My logo does not have to jump out and grab you by the throat. It can be a little more subtle. But on the other hand, this is a tee shirt with my logo on it. Who else will it appeal to except fans of my bikes?

Oh well, back to the drawing board.


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Should a robot decide who lives or dies?

A recent survey asked the following hypothetical question. If a driverless car is headed on a collision course with a group of pedestrians, and it is impossible for the car to stop. Should the car be programed to plough into the pedestrians, killing many of them, or swerve off the road to avoid collision and possible kill the passengers in the car?

People answering the survey no doubt thought this way: “I am not a sociopath therefore I don’t want my car to kill people, but on the other hand I don’t want it to kill me and my family, so I won’t buy one.”

But shouldn’t this question have been asked long before now when buying an SUV that is as big as a small house, and built like an armored truck. People buy these vehicles to protect themselves and their families. Protect themselves from the other driver, that is.

The fact that these larger, heavier vehicles are then a greater hazard to every other road user, pedestrians and cyclist especially, and even smaller compact cars. The question doesn’t even arise because each individual SUV buyer sees himself as a good and safe driver, it is always the other driver that is the problem.

Isn’t the whole purpose behind the driverless car to eliminate driver error? The cause of the majority of collisions ever since the automobile was invented. You notice I said “Collision” and not “Accident.” This is deliberate.

When human error is a factor it is easy to say “Whoops-a-Daisy” it was just an accident. As I previously pointed out most people are not sociopaths they don’t intend to kill people. But drive in a reckless and dangerous fashion and someone’s death is a likely outcome.

But what will happen when the robots take over and all cars are driverless? Without the human error factor you can no longer call it an accident when someone dies, either inside or outside the car. Who gets sued? Not the driver, because there isn’t one.  The robotic system will have failed, so the car manufacturer will be responsible.

And can a corporation even program a computer controlled car to decide who lives or dies? I can see that one going all the way to the Supreme Court.

If cars become driverless, speeds will have to come down dramatically. A pedestrian hit at 30 mph. or less has a good chance of survival. Above that speed the odds become less, and above 50 mph. death is almost certain.

Robotics does not overcome physics. A vehicle traveling at 50 mph. still needs 125 feet to stop. That doesn’t include human driver reaction time, I am assuming a computer will react faster.

Another factor to consider. Cars may be robotic, but not pedestrians and cyclists. Will pedestrians learn that if you step out in front of an approaching driverless car, it will stop? Will cyclists realize that by riding in the middle of the lane, a car on auto pilot will not pass unless safe to do so? How will that go over on a morning commute? Following a cyclist at 10 or 15 mph.

I think fully driverless cars are a long way off. The delay will not be a technical issue, it will be one of, “Will it be accepted by the general populous, is this what people want, and will they buy it?”

A more sensible approach would be to concentrate on reliable and low cost public transport. (Possibly driverless to cut costs.) Another way robotics could come into play is to restrict speeds in heavily congested areas. The current system of everyone driving at least 5 mph. over the limit is ludicrous.

Maybe put a few slow moving driverless cars into the traffic system just to slow everyone down. You can honk and cuss at a robot as much as you like, it won’t do you any good. Speed is the culprit, if everyone was forced to drive at 20 or 25 mph. there is time to react and avoid collisions even when the other driver makes a mistake or does something stupid.


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