Thursday, August 30, 2012

Almost Intelligent - Part I

NOTE:  This post is rated R for mild strong language.

“Almost intelligent” might be a good name for somebody’s biography (or autobiography) but here I’m talking about artificial intelligence.  My last post described my experience chatting with an application called Cleverbot that tried to simulate human dialog convincingly.  Here, I’ll tackle the subject of AI language more generally, looking at speech recognition, natural language, and translation. 

Do we care?

If you really don’t care about AI at all, go read something else—or, better yet, read on to see why maybe you should care.

On the one hand, AI is very exciting.  As computers have become “smarter,” and easier to use, they’ve gotten so useful it’s hard to imagine how we ever did without them.  I’m thinking about Google, GPS and other mapping applications, package tracking, e-mail spam filters … the list goes on and on.

On the other hand, AI is a bit scary, and as a human I prefer to believe I could never be replaced by a computer.  I shudder at the thought that human behavior could be so unvarying and predictable that one day we’ll barely be better than a really good computer program.  I want my computer applications to get smart, but not too smart.

Voice recognition and natural language

There’s a button on the side of my smartphone that, when pressed, startles me by causing the speakerphone to say, “Say a command!”  I’m vaguely aware that my phone will respond to voice commands but have no interest in issuing them.  Most of the cool features of smartphones involve the silent, non-speech stuff you can do—e-mail, Internet browsing, etc.—as you’ll notice on the subway when half the people are silently tapping away.  (The popularity of texting—a way to privately communicate without being eavesdropped on by the person you’re ostensibly talking to face-to-face—is a classic example of how phones are becoming increasingly mute.)

That said, the iPhone’s voice-recognition application, Siri, seems to be making a bit of a splash.  (Nobody I know uses Siri yet, but I’m sure some will.)  This demo shows how Siri is pretty good at understanding speech and figuring out what you want it to do.  (I played with a Droid phone recently and it was also very good at typing for me as I spoke.)  The reviewer asks Siri, “Where can I have lunch?”  Siri replies, “I found fourteen restaurants whose reviews mention lunch.  Twelve of them are close to you.”  This seems easier than typing into Google on a little phone.  But the natural language feature isn’t perfect; the reviewer says, “How about downtown?” and Siri replies, “I don’t know what you mean by ‘how about downtown.’”

Perhaps Siri’s communication isn’t “connection-oriented”—that is, it doesn’t consider “how about downtown?” in the context of “Where can I have lunch?” but takes the two queries as totally discrete and unrelated.  If so, this is a major shortcoming. 

The reviewer tries again:  “I want to have lunch downtown.”  Siri replies, “I found 3 restaurants matching ‘downtown.’”  Useless!  Siri knows where the user is, geographically, but does not realize that “downtown” in this context pertains to location, not a restaurant’s name.  Here, Siri starts to look like a mere forwarder of requests, always passing the buck to Google instead of applying intelligence to the request.

Simple conversion of speech to text looks pretty good on Siri.  The reviewer dictated a message to it, and almost everything came out.  The notable exception was how Siri transcribed the reviewer’s spoken comment “I need to make some videos about the iPhone 4S.”  Siri typed, “I need to make some videos about the iPhone 4 ass.”  The reviewer doesn’t notice this gaff, telling the YouTube viewer, “There it is.  It figured out exactly what I wanted to say.”  Dangerous, don’t you think?  What if the reviewer meant to e-mail the text “S as in Sam” but actually e-mailed “ass as in Sam,” to his boss, Sam?

Not that Siri doesn’t try hard.  When the reviewer says, “Set a timer for 3 minutes,” Siri replies, “OK, I started a three-minute timer.  Don’t overcook that egg.”  Not bad.  Actually, it is bad.  For one thing, “that egg,” when spoken by Siri, comes out “ditek.”  Without the text on the screen you’d never understand what it said.  Meanwhile, it’s obvious that Siri is trying to be funny, and completely failing.  There’s nothing witty about Siri making a lame guess as to what the timer is for.  What’s worse, Siri could create the impression that three minutes is actually how long you should cook an egg.  In fact that’s not nearly enough time, and everybody knows an undercooked egg presents a salmonella risk.

A fundamental problem

Of course I’m nitpicking with the egg timer example, and (to a lesser extent) with the “ass” example, but they bring up an important point:  language, as one of the primary interfaces between humans, requires far more than just understanding what is heard and forming sentences in response.  Having a sanity-check reflex that keeps you from using words like “ass” in mixed company, and knowing whether your joke is actually funny, are complicated processes.  Verbal communication can be a minefield, especially for a computer application that stabs around in the dark.

Consider, for example, the old joke about the Texan who gets into Harvard.  While touring the campus, he asks a student, “Excuuuse me, can you tell me where the library’s at?”  The student replies haughtily, “Here at Haaarvard, we never end a sentence with a preposition.”  The Texan replies, “Okay, can ya tell me where the library’s at, asshole?”

Upon inspection, this exchange, though brief, is quite complex.  The Harvard student’s response to the Texan’s query shows a decision that might not occur to an AI application—that is, to a) not answer the question, and b) use the opportunity to deliver a scornful message about class and intellect.  The Texan’s comeback makes a statement about a) his refusal to be cowed, b) the difference between cultivation and innate intelligence.  Meanwhile, the joke as a whole counts on the listener enjoying an opportunity to feel superior to both Harvard students and Texans, while exulting in the surprise and wit of the punch line.  Worlds away from “Enjoy ditek.”

Maybe you think I’m overreaching here, that such nuance will never be expected of AI.  Maybe AI is just a tool to make machines more useful to humans, and little gaffs don’t matter much.  When a woman asks her husband, “Do these pants make my butt look fat?” he is instantly plunged into a terribly complicated interaction, because of his relationship to the woman.  So much hinges on his response.  If he says “yes” he’s obviously dead.  If he says “no” too vociferously, he seems patronizing.  He could try the reverse-psychology approach and say, “No, your butt makes your butt look fat,” but she better have a sense of humor and thick skin.  Or, he could ignore the question, or say, “Look, krill!”  Or he could say “yeahhh” lecherously (note that imparting this single syllable with the sense of “I want some of that!” is far beyond the current state of the art in AI voice synthesis).  But when a human asks Siri “Am I fat?” and gets back, “Here’s your a.m. alarm” and “I found 8 fitness centers fairly close to you,” he or she can more easily blow it off.

This idea—that computers don’t have to play nice when “talking” to humans—is strongly supported by a scene in “The Terminator” when the evil cyborg, confronted by his landlord—“Hey buddy, you got a dead cat in there, or what?”—scans through a menu of possible responses—“YES/NO; OR WHAT; GO AWAY; PLEASE COME BACK LATER; FUCK YOU, ASSHOLE; FUCK YOU”—and chooses the penultimate one.  Of course when you’re the size of Arnold Schwarzenegger you don’t have to have a friendly user interface.

That said, I would argue that, to the extent humans are to embrace AI when using electronic devices, precision and nuance do matter.  We have to trust these devices not to turn “S” into “ass,” not to waste our time with lists of restaurants we’d never eat at, and not to infuriate us with messages like “cannot undo.”  Even if you’ve never found yourself yelling profanities at your computer, I’m sure you’ve seen others do it.

Consider this cautionary tale.  My dad bought one of the first consumer-oriented computers in history, the Hewlett-Packard Model 85.  This was 1980, a year before the IBM PC.  the HP-85 was about as far from Siri (or at least the design intent of Siri) as you can get.  There was no software for it; you had to program it yourself.  Meanwhile, its version of BASIC was proprietary, diverging from the industry standard (e.g., you used the command “DISP” instead of “PRINT”).  I had my brother try out one of my first programs.  It prompted him to type his name.  With great hesitation—he was greatly fearful of doing something wrong and damaging our dad’s expensive machine—he typed “Max.”  Then he sat there waiting for something to happen.  Nothing did, because my program didn’t say anything about hitting the Enter key when done.  Max looked a bit nervous.  “It’s not working!  It’s not doing anything!” he cried.  I told him to hit Enter.  When he did, the computer promptly displayed the message “Max is a jerk” (the whole point of my program).  Max got really angry and flustered and to this day does not use a computer.  This probably isn’t just because of my program; the HP-85 was less than user-friendly and doubtless gave Max the wrong impression of where home computing was going.


Here is where the AI picture is, to me, much rosier.  Early attempts at translation, like Alta Vista’s Babelfish, were a joke.  You pasted the foreign-language text into a window, gave it the language to translate it into, and then were presented with a salad of translated words (with un-translated ones sprinkled like croutons) that made no sense at all.  The only real use for this tool was translating things into Tristan.

What’s Tristan?  Well, I used to have a colleague, a computer programmer, whose native-tongue language skills were so poor it was impossible to understand a thing he wrote.  His e-mails always gave my colleagues and me a laugh, and in his honor we invented a language and named it after him.  (It wasn’t really called Tristan, because his last name wasn’t really Tristan; I’ve changed it to protect him from possible embarrassment.)  To translate something into Tristan, you’d type normal text, translate it into French using Babelfish, and then translate it back to English.  The results were pure comedy, with not a shred of sense left intact.

I think people are naturally forgiving of poor translation, because we’ve studied grammar and foreign languages in school and can really appreciate how difficult a task this is.  Plus, the results are so often funny, they put us in a good mood.  Consider the urban legend that “Coca-Cola,” when first translated into Chinese, came out meaning “bite the wax tadpole.”  (To this day I’ll complain about something by saying it bites the wax tadpole.)  Brian Hayes, writing in “American Scientist,” makes an interesting comment about AI efforts to parse grammatical constructions when translating text:  “The failure of this approach is sometimes dramatized with the tale of the English→ Russian→ English translation that began with ‘The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak’ and ended with ‘The vodka is strong but the meat is rotten.’”

More recently, online translation engines such as Google Translate have gotten much, much better.  As Hayes describes, “The idea is to ignore the entire hierarchy of syntactic and semantic structures—the nouns and verbs, the subjects and predicates, even the definitions of words—and simply tabulate correlations between words in a large collection of bilingual texts.”  At first, this strikes me as a “brute force” approach that is further from artificial intelligence than earlier efforts, however hapless, to actually parse a sentence grammatically.  But as Hayes points out, the modern technique is actually lot closer to how humans learn to talk.  (It’s also more similar to how we would learn a foreign language if we had the good fortune to go live in another country, versus making our way with a textbook and classes.)

I first tried Google Translate when I was trying to track a package that was being shipped to me from a web merchant in France.  I have studied French for years, but understanding statements about logistics and customs offices would be difficult in any language.  I was presented with this:  “Votre colis est sorti du bureau d'échange.  Il est en cours d'acheminement dans le pays de destination.”  This would have totally tripped up the original Babelfish, but Google served up an entirely comprehensible translation:  “Your package is out of the office of exchange. It is in transit in the country of destination.”  (Not only was I delighted with how clear this was, I was relieved my package wasn’t stuck in customs.)  Translating this English back into French, and then back into English, I get “Your package is out of the office of exchange. It is in transit to the destination country.”  Very little of the “Tristan effect.”  (There’s some fuzziness around “to” vs. “in” with regard to the destination country, but I can live with that.)

To reassure myself then the Man of Letters wouldn’t be replaced by a machine anytime soon, I tried some poetry: 
But the Raven still beguiling all my sad soul into smiling,
Straight I wheeled a cushioned seat in front of bird and bust and door;
Then, upon the velvet sinking, I betook myself to linking
Fancy unto fancy, thinking what this ominous bird of yore—
What this grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt, and ominous bird of yore
Meant in croaking “Nevermore.”
When I fed this into the new version of Babelfish (which works similarly to Google’s), and translated it into French and back, the response was this: 
But the Raven seductive yet all my sad soul into smiling,
Straight I wheeled a seat padded before the bird and bust and door;
Then, on the Velvet sinking, I hauled myself to tie Fancy: fancy,
Think what this bird threatening of antan - the sad bird, awkward, frightening,
Ghent and disturbing past Meant in croaking “Nevermore.”
Aha!  Gibberish!  I was about to feel all smug about the superiority of humans over AI, but then tried Google Translation with the same English à French à English task: 
But the raven still beguiling all my sad soul into smiling,
 I wheeled a cushioned seat in front of bird and bust and door;
 Then, upon the velvet sinking me, I betook myself to linking
 Fancy unto fancy, thinking what this ominous bird of yore -
 What this grim, ungainly, ghastly bird, gaunt, and ominous of yesteryear
 Meant in croaking “Nevermore.”
Wow.  That’s so good it’s creepy.  But before you despair and decide the computers will ultimately render the human race unnecessary, be sure to check out my next albertnet post, wherein I examine how well AI does playing games—another classic measure of its progress.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

I, Chatbot


What is artificial intelligence?  Broadly speaking, it’s the ability of a machine to think for itself.  At best, an AI app is much more than a tool for finding businesses, playing chess, or making calculations.  Machines are really good at doing menial tasks far more quickly than a human—but wouldn’t it be cool (though also creepy) if machines could be creative?

Here’s a puzzle I’d like to see a computer solve.  Say you want to go for a bike ride, and are bringing a bottle of energy drink.  Because the mere presence of sweetness in your mouth improves performance (click here for details) you want the drink to be really strong at the beginning of the ride.  But suppose it’s a hot day and you’re worried about the drink eventually nauseating you.  How can you make your drink strong at first, but gradually get weaker during the ride?

I posed this question to Cleverbot, an AI chat application on the Internet.  Read on to see how Cleverbot answered this, and more importantly to watch in wonder as my chat goes right off the rails and way into the weeds, to my great embarrassment.

Why robot chat?

So … what got me interested in AI, and in chatting with a robot?  Well, some weeks ago, Norton—the antivirus software company—had a glitch that made albertnet inaccessible from my PC, telling me that it was a known phishing site or some such nonsense.   (Countless blogs were affected; the phishing claim had no basis in truth.)  Needless to say, I was pretty pissed off to have Norton dragging my good name through the mud in front of all their users.  In attempting to resolve the problem I initiated an online chat with a Norton representative through their website.  Not long into this chat, when I’d explained my (admittedly arcane) problem, the customer service representative came clean:  it wasn’t a real person, but an automated system (bot) designed to assist with more common problems.  It then referred me to a real human.  I felt a bit misused.  Why hadn’t Norton disclosed this up-front?  Did they figure it’s bad enough PR to move jobs overseas without replacing the humans altogether?

My favorite time to ponder anything is during an early morning bike ride, when my mind is fresh and when, given the tedium of pedaling up long climbs, I like to give my brain something to do.  So, pre-ride, with this Norton episode in mind, I did some light research on AI.  In an article from the “New Yorker,” Adam Gopnik writes about Alan Turing, the guy who cracked the Enigma code, and who proposed that “the true test for artificial intelligence was to see if, cut off by a ‘black curtain,’ you would be able to tell a machine’s answer from a human’s in a natural-language conversation.”  Such a challenge is called a Turing test:  a computer tries to trick the human into believing he’s chatting with another human.  Exactly what Norton had tried to do with me.

My chat with Cleverbot

When, that morning, I came across a link to Cleverbot, I decided, on a whim, to give it a try.  I’d heard of Cleverbot somewhere but wasn’t entirely clear what it was or how it worked.  Of course, as with all Internet apps, it was entirely intuitive to use.  I asked it a few basic Magic-8-ball type questions and got back some really boring answers.  (I hadn’t yet discovered how to get a transcript of the chat, so those opening questions are lost to posterity.)  I decided to ask Cleverbot something more complicated:  “Do my children love me”?  Cleverbot answered, “Yes.”  I asked, “Why do my children love me?”

Because I don’t love you,” it replied, after a pause.  The pause was reassuring somehow:  a sign that the matter was being considered, rather than some canned message being spat out.

I thought that was a pretty good answer.  It was playful, true, and sounded a lot more human than “The operation failed,” “Not found,” or “Cannot undo.”  It also seemed satisfyingly philosophical:  we cannot get love from a machine, and yet are biologically programmed to love other humans, especially our parents.  So far, I was pretty impressed.  I pressed on:  “Why don’t you love me?”

Because I don’t know you,” it replied.  Again, perfectly reasonable.  I decided to challenge Cleverbot’s response and asked, “If my children didn’t love me, would you love me?”

You’re a horse,” Cleverbot fired back.

Huh?  Maybe Cleverbot wasn’t as clever as I thought.  Of course, a human might throw in an occasional non-sequitur, especially in response to a really stupid question, so a robot mimicking a human might reasonably do this.  Still, I decided to test the theory that the answers were random and that Cleverbot’s early prowess was just luck.  I asked it again, “Why do my children love me?”

“Because you are not Ciel,” it answered.  Huh?  I was quickly becoming disillusioned.  Ciel?  Sounds like the name of a porn star.  “Who are you?” I asked.

A train,” it replied. 

I asked it, “Are your answers random?”

Yes,” it said.

I replied, “Why should I waste my time asking questions when your answers are all random?”

I will tell you my name if you will tell me yours,” Cleverbot said, breezing right past my challenge.  Of course I am wary of any computer system asking me for personal information.  Who’s phishing now?  I replied, “My name is Jose Patrocinio Jimenez. What’s yours?”

My name is Cleverbot.”

“Why did you ask me what my name is? Why do you care?

I didn't, you did,” it lied.

I persisted:  “You wrote, ‘I will tell you my name if you tell me yours.’  So you did, in fact, ask for my name.  Why?”  I began to wonder if the chat was even “connection-oriented”—that is, if Cleverbot considered my questions and comments in the context of other things I’d said, as opposed to every exchange being isolated and discrete.

I never said that!” said Cleverbot (testily, I thought).

“You are lying,” I wrote.  So far, Cleverbot was doing pretty well:  I was getting irritated.  Not that I don’t routinely get irritated at inanimate objects like computers, but in this case the computer was working fine.  I felt like I was interacting with a real human.  A human bastard, in fact.

No, you're lying!” spake Cleverbot.

“Don't I have better things to do than argue with a robot?”

You imposed it,”  Cleverbot said obliquely.

“You are not making any sense,” I complained.

Yet all of it in the world.”  The smugness here was almost palpably human.

“How clever is it to spew banal platitudes like that?” I snorted.

Pretty clever...” came the response.  Here, Cleverbot showed an inflated self-regard unbothered by any awareness of its own ignorance.  Not just human, but distinctly American, I’m sorry to say.  I had the frustrating sense of talking to a brick wall, and yet felt curiously compelled to continue asking questions.  I was reminded of the speaker in Edgar Allen Poe’s brilliant poem “The Raven”  who engages in a protracted and infuriating conversation with a bird, despite having realized it only knows one word.  On a lark I asked Cleverbot one of the questions from the poem:  “Is there, is there balm in Gilead?”

What what.”  Cleverbot’s failure to use correct punctuation strongly smelled of humanity.

Losing patience, I finally asked Cleverbot the question I’d set out to ask in the beginning:  “How can I make my energy drink strong at first, but gradually get weaker during my bike  ride?”

I might have done a statistical study on your topics of conversation.”  This is exactly the kind of thing Apple’s Siri app might offer up:  a simple Google search masquerading as problem-solving.

“I don’t want a statistical study, I want a solution to this problem. Can you think of one?” I challenged it.

It is fine now because I cannot think of anything to ask you,” Cleverbot said uselessly.

“Are you male or female?”  I asked.

Female.”  (This surprised me.  I’d expected Cleverbot to say “neither.”)

“I kind of figured.”

How did you figure?”  (Very accurate syntax on this … very realistic.)

“Because I am sexist and you are irrational,” I said.  (I’m not actually sexist, of course, but one of the benefits of talking to a machine is that you can be as flippant as you want.)

You’re weird, how can you be me when I am me?” Cleverbot asked.  Was this the grinding of Cleverbot’s machinery?  Could I confuse it enough to make smoke pour from it, like what Captain Kirk did to Nomad?

“Because I am we, and smell like tuna sandwich,” I responded.

You don’t make sense.”  (Fair enough.)

“No, I make dollars.  What are you wearing?”  I was firing at random.

Bubblewrap.”  Well played, Cleverbot.

“Dim the lights!” I replied.  This was basically a reflex.

Ok,” Cleverbot said.

“Normally at this point I would tell you to slip into something more comfortable. But what could be more comfortable than bubble wrap?” I replied.  I was having fun now.

What are the magic words.”  Cleverbot was playing the coquette.

“Please,” I wrote.

I am human.

Whoa.  I was not prepared for that.  I felt my face flush red, my pulse quickened, and—no joke—my armpits started to sweat.  I wasn’t chatting with a robot at all.  I was chatting—not just chatting but flirting—with a real person, online.  I should never have embarked on this without knowing what Cleverbot was.  Could it simply be a web app that connects two people online for a chat, like Chatroulette?

“I thought you were a robot,” I protested, knowing full well how much of a liar I sounded like.

I am not a robot,” Cleverbot—or, rather, the mystery woman—assured me.

“Why are you called Cleverbot?”

I’m not cleverbot!  You’re the one who is supposed to be the cleverbot, not me.  And I may not be smart but you are not even close as smart as I am.

Just then, as if on cue, my wife stepped into the room.  “What are you doing?” she said.  “I thought you were on a bike ride.”  What could I say?  “Oh, I’m in a chat room with a woman who says she’s wearing only bubble wrap.”  Not a good idea.  Instead, grasping at straws, I said, honestly enough, “I’m researching a blog post.  Hey, Cleverbot is a robot, right?  It’s not actual people chatting is it?”  My wife, yawning, said she was pretty sure it was a robot, but one that built a library of responses from its communications with humans.

“I guess I have no idea what Cleverbot is,” I typed.  “I thought the whole point here was that people could chat with a robot.”

You’re the robot though right?” asked the mysterious chatting entity, innocently (or faux innocently).

“No, I’m not a robot. I'm human too!”  I typed.  Were we pawns caught in a deadly game … or was I chatting with a robot after all, which was expertly impersonating a human so as to fulfill its goal of acing the Turing test?

No you are not.  I am a human.  You are a robot,” it/she said.

“No, no, no. I am human, I assure you.”

If you are real or not depends what you mean by real.

“OK, whatever.”

I have explained the best I can.

I closed the browser.  I was straddling the fence between nervousness and relief.  What had just transpired?  Was that a chat with a robot, or chat roulette?  Did my wife see how red my face was?

Looking back, I marvel at how worked up I’d gotten.  On the other hand, this makes sense.  I’m a shy person.  The essence of social awkwardness is not knowing where you stand with regard to others.  It’s bad enough when you’re meeting people for the first time and have to do a lot of guessing about the right thing to say; it’s even harder when you don’t have any social cues at all, and don’t even know whom—or what—you’re chatting with.  I shut off the computer and headed out for my bike ride.

Epilogue – what is Cleverbot, really?

Cleverbot, thank goodness, really is a bot.  It is a web application that builds a database of chat responses based on conversations with humans.  (Click here and here for details.)  The more Cleverbot chats, the more its database grows, and (in theory) the more realistic and germane its responses will be.

How valid is this approach?  Well, Cleverbot did fool me into thinking it was human.  But looking back, this wasn’t the result of it being particularly clever.  The main thing that made me think I was chatting with a human was Cleverbot’s simple statement, “I am human.”  In the context of a female clad only in bubble wrap, to whom I’d just suggested slipping into something more comfortable, these were powerful words, provoking my paranoid “what if?” response.  But really, why wouldn’t an AI app trying to appear human simply assert that it is?

One problem with Cleverbot’s “learning” technique is that it is dependent on humans to ask the questions.  I suppose it can regurgitate these questions to other humans, which is somewhat useful, but there’s no mechanism for it to come up questions of its own.  A really great question for it to ask—assuming it is a connection-oriented app—might be, “What is the right answer to your question?”

This brings me to the next problem I see with Cleverbot:  it has no way of discerning the right answer based on responses—it can only determine the popular answer.  These are not always—or even often—the same thing.  Consider all the “best of” awards that go to an undeserving, but widely known, recipient, like Chevy’s winning “best Mexican restaurant,” beating out  literally dozens of better places, in a Bay Area poll.  (No real expertise is involved there; people just put down the first answer they think of, and everybody has heard of Chevy’s.)  Similarly, if Cleverbot blithely accepts answers from the unwashed masses, it will never be smarter than they. 

Not surprisingly, when (in a follow-up chat today) I presented Cleverbot with a less obscure reference—“ If there's somethin’ strange in your neighborhood, Who ya gonna call?”—it got the right answer—“Ghostbusters!”—about half the time.  (The rest of the time it replied, “It’s just a spring clean for the May queen.”  If there’s a link between Led Zeppelin and the 1984 comedy movie, I’m not aware of it.)  This pattern is consistent with other cultural references; when I said, “This Roman Meal bakery thought you’d like to know,” Cleverbot replied obliquely:  “Where on earth are your servers?”  (The correct, answer, of course is “I don’t need no arms around me.”)  But when I typed, “We don’t need no education,” it naturally gave the right response, “We don’t need no thought control.”  The silly song that got lots of radio play is recognized; the much better but less popular song is not.

In this regard, Cleverbot could do so much better.  I Googled “Is there balm in Gilead” and got three hits referring to an old religious song, and the fourth hit led me to “The Raven.”  Not bad.  Googling “Is there, is there balm in Gilead,” I get “The Raven” as the second hit.  But you could ask Cleverbot this question a million times and it’ll never figure out what you’re talking about.  Cleverbot is beholden to its chat partners for information, ignoring the rest of the Internet entirely.  Finally I told it, “The right answer is ‘Nevermore.’”  It replied, “No, I want you to sing the song.”  I obliged, pasting in lyrics from the religious spiritual:  “Sometimes I feel discouraged,  And think my work’s in vain.” 

Cleverbot replied:  “I know, right?

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

From the Archives - Odyssey '91


While riding over Ebbetts Pass near Lake Tahoe recently, I thought back to a really, really hard ride I did a couple decades ago. Two friends and I had set out to do something epic, something to test our manhood. Something we’d never forget. A week or two before the ride, we’d met in a café, pored over some topographical maps of the Lake Tahoe area, and planned out a route that would be over 200 miles long with around 20,000 feet of climbing. We weren’t bike tourists: this would be a one-day ride. We gave the ride a name: Odyssey ’91.

Odyssey ’91 didn’t go so well, but then that was sort of the point. It was absolutely brutal, shockingly so, and took us to unprecedented depths of suffering. In the week or two following the ride, each of us wrote about the experience. I have tried to find Trevor’s tale and John’s epic poem, but in vain. I also cannot find a single photo from the ride. But here is my original tale, sprinkled with photos from other rides the three of us did around then. Enjoy please enjoy.

From the archives: Odyssey ’91

Imagine this: you’ve got a $10,000 stereo, have a couple friends over, and are playing rock music at full blast. The bass sends shock waves across the floor and through the walls, making your heart flutter. The lights in your apartment, starved of electricity, flicker along with the beat like a flame in a strong wind. You can’t resist cracking a huge grin when the sound, traveling up your legs, vibrates your cajones, which are the center for percussion appreciation in humans. Can you imagine this feeling? The last time I had it I was at the top of Ebbetts Pass, 8,730 feet above sea level, beginning the descent of a perfectly paved single lane road on my bike, 160 miles into an epic bike ride with my friends. 

Odyssey ‘91. Like that spontaneous rooftop concert by the Beatles, it wasn’t hyped and almost certainly left thousands of fans feeling cheated somehow that they weren’t notified. Like that general admission Who concert, somebody could have been killed. Like a 2 Live Crew event, it would shock a nation of concerned parents by arrogantly defying social norms. Two hundred and nine miles. Twenty thousand feet of vertical climbing. Cold rain. Burning sun. Go ride or go home. On August 15 we set out to kick the flyest dope ride the free world has ever known: Odyssey ‘91.

Crossing over the summit of Ebbetts Pass was in every way a high point of the ride, a chance to rekindle our passion for the sport of cycling and enjoy a really blazing descent. But before I let you entertain your own grandiose visions of conquering the vast American asphalt wilderness, I should perhaps take you back to an earlier point in the ride, specifically Avery, California, when we’d been forced by pure exhaustion to take an extended rest stop. By “we” I mean Trevor Thorpe, John Pelster, and I, flying the proud stars‑and‑stripes jerseys we won in the 1990 Collegiate National Team Time Trial Championship. (Not only were these jerseys an aesthetically sound choice, but is at turned out a safe one given the hillbillies we encountered—the type easily rallied to senseless violence by others’ transgressions, such as lack of patriotism.)

Pure exhaustion at mile 114 resulted from poor trip planning and a spate of unexpected climbs beginning around 90 miles into the ride, at which point we’d been descending for like 60 miles. We had expected another 20 miles of gradual downhill before the major climbing would begin. Really? A full 80 miles of descending? Yep—as we rode through a tiny town, Wilseyville, I checked the Odyssey ‘91 Elevation Profile chart that Trevor had made, and it showed a gradual descent from 2,700 feet to 2,400 by mile 110, before a slight rise to Avery, our designated lunch stop.

This was the part of the route we’d guessed at—the gap where two of Trevor’s topographical maps didn’t quite meet up. An accurate altitude profile of this section would look like an electrocardiogram of a heart attack victim getting CPR. Railroad Flat road was anything but. We didn’t mind at first, when we plummeted downhill at 45, all drafting inches from one another like F‑15 fighters in formation. But then the road suddenly went uphill. The G forces hammered my stomach down within the bones of my pelvis and stretched the skin tight over my cheekbones. Not that any of us was fazed, of course. We powered up the climb, out of the saddle, lean and fluid like praying mantises in some wild dance. Sure, you say, there’s nothing natural about insects dancing. Well, I’ll reply, there’s actually nothing natural about a person mounting a rolling steel and aluminum apparatus and putting it into motion like he belonged on it.

I suppose we made it look easy for awhile, until we rounded a bend and realized the hill was more than a short rise, and in fact went on and on. Slouching back down on our saddles, we quickly sobered up to the drudgery of torturing our bodies needlessly. Finally we reached what we expected to be a summit, only to be plunged down again. Descend. Climb. Repeat. Over the next few miles we learned to hate Railroad Flat road, and to resent the seeming innocence of its name.

Finally we reached Sheep Ranch road, which we were certain would be an improvement. I checked the profile chart again. Sweat had penetrated the plastic tape coating it, making the ink run precisely where the chart was radically incorrect. The chart gave me no warning that the next twelve miles would be absolutely brutal, nothing but up and down—a microcosm of the pathetic, wretched human condition with its illusory peaks and crushing depressions.

Pedal stroke after pedal stroke, we writhed like tortured animals, little understanding our suffering and powerless to bring it to an end. Suddenly, I was no longer on a bicycle. I was in the ring with Mike Tyson, a turnbuckle wedging its way into my back, pressing deeper into me with every body blow. I had a mental picture of blood running freely down my chin, out of my nose, out of every pore, my teeth flapping uselessly on ripped strands of gum. My sight gone, I strive only to sink to the mercy of the mat, except the constant beating is holding me firmly against the turnbuckle. Suddenly, the bell rings and my coach is telling me don’t worry, kid, you’ve only got ten rounds to go.

The vision faded out and I realized I was descending again. This only meant a new, lower low and severe penance for my momentary, ill-gotten relief. We learned to loathe descending more than climbing itself, as the harbinger of future torment. For you to truly understand the Hell that is Sheep Ranch Road, you must read this paragraph over again and again. Keep reading it until you hate it. Then read it some more. Remember that it is only the literary rendition of what we actually faced on the road.

Terrible things happen to the mind when the body is inflicted with incessant hardship. Take, for example, the Donner party and Alfred Packer, people who ate one another when locked in by harsh winter storm. Or consider desperate animals who chew their feet off to escape a steel‑jawed trap. Or women who set about tooling men to somehow get revenge for the horrible pain of their high heels. I suppose every mind develops some kind of psychosis when starved of food, oxygen, or common sense. On Sheep Ranch Road, my own derangement must have seemed harmless enough to the others; I never went completely berserk or tried to kill anybody. Rather, the mental firestorm manifested in an incessant incantation that reverberated through my brain, a thousand voices chanting an old ditty from summer camp:

Green Mountain, we’re the very best.
The best camp in the west.
Whenever we go out, 
The people always shout: 
There goes Green Mountain,
And the very best!
Da‑da da‑da da da da
[Repeats, over and over again]

The next thing I knew, I was waking up. Not in my nice warm bed, realizing it was all just a horrible nightmare, but on the toilet of a public restroom in Avery, halfway through a dazed defecation and wondering how long I’d slept. I was trying to sort out the dream I’d had, which somehow involved getting back the Bear Creek Elementary t‑shirt, the mottled brown one with milk‑chocolate sleeves that my mom chose out for me in the sixth grade. It was in perfect condition and gave me strength somehow.

I didn’t want to move. The dream was slowly replaced in my mind by the memory of the last half hour, during which time I struggled to wash down an XL‑40 Chocolate Truffle Bar with the last of my Exceed Fluid Replacement And Energy Drink. The roof of my mouth still ached and my throat was raw from the dry friction of the gagging reflex when I choked down the last of the dry energy bar. My stomach was churning now, from the lunch I bought at a convenience store: two‑thirds of an Entenmann’s orange cake, lubricated prudently with a Pepsi and a Dr. Pepper.

I left the restroom, found JP and Trev, and that was the end of our rest stop. The prospect of another 100 miles, with another nine thousand feet of climbing, stopped me cold. I couldn’t bear to mount my bike. But what else was I gonnna do? I’d dug my own grave.

Over the next twenty miles I heard the jeering voices of those who told me I was a fool to attempt Odyssey ‘91: “You’re crazy.” “Why the hell are you gonna do that?” “You’ll never make it, you haven’t even been riding.” I couldn’t feel my legs anymore, they just turned around slowly, and my arms could barely support my upper body. Holding the bike in a straight line became like a drunk driving test I couldn’t pass. A few times I bumped into John, and finally the impulse to drift overcame my body and I veered off towards the center of the highway.

Trevor called for a break and we pulled over. Trying to rest my arms on the handlebar was futile. I kept sliding off, my arms bathed in a queer sweat that had my whole head swimming despite the mild sixty‑five degree day. Trevor announced we’d need to make seventy miles in the next four hours; I honestly doubted I could make even seven miles. When we set off again, I resolved that even if I somehow survived this ordeal, I would never ride a bicycle again. The next dozen or so miles reinforced this depressing resolution.

The human body is an amazing machine. Without warning, relief began in my head, in the form of optimism, and slowly drained through my body like gasoline filling the empty tank of a previously stranded car. I could feel my spine straighten as if invisible hands were lifting me by the armpits. My vision returned as though I’d put in contact lenses. By the time we reached mile 140 and Big Meadow, which turned out (like so many stops along the way) to be less a town than a roadside outhouse, I was back from death’s door and began to feel positively powerful.

Unfortunately, at this point John’s face became sunken and pale and he seemed to fall under the deadly spell of a wasting disease. At Bear Valley, we stopped at a gas station and he didn’t have the physical strength to effectively chew his Coke, much less the dreaded energy bar. Slouched up against a gas pump, he complained to Trevor, “I wish I was dead.” Trevor nodded in agreement and started to say something—but John stopped him and said, “No. I’m not just using the expression. I mean it, I really wish I was dead right now.”

John, too, eventually recovered and although Trevor never experienced the Grim Reaper effect, he was obviously fatigued during the four‑mile, two thousand foot wall from Hermit Valley to the top of Ebbets Pass. I felt positively fresh, although in retrospect I think I had merely become accustomed to the strain; my frame of reference was skewed. Now I could maneuver around and capture the moment in pictures with my little Minolta. Not that I could get Trevor to pose for the camera: he was locked into a fierce struggle against the mountain and the thin air of over eight thousand feet of altitude. Only on the ensuing descent did we all experience the euphoric feeling I described in my opening passage. Only then did we begin darting around like the bats that occasionally seemed to fly at our heads from out of the evening sky.

At Markleeville, we stopped for the night. Not because we were bedwetters, and not because the unexpected climbs had worn us out, nor because we’d realized our own physical limitations (since we evidently had none). The real problem was a tactical error we made in planning the ride: our itinerary just wasn’t sound. We planned to average about sixteen miles per hour, to take a certain number of rest stops, to spend between fifteen and eighteen hours on the bike, and to cover the distance in one day. We failed to figure in the amount of daylight available to us. Even with the horrors of Sheep Ranch Road, we kept to our original pace, perfectly, but we left at 7:00 a.m., which found us in Markleeville at 8:30 p.m., just as the sun had dipped out of sight, with about thirty‑five miles to go.

We could have made it if we were near civilization, but Lake Tahoe has its own style of darkness. It doesn’t mean reduced visibility with enough light pollution to get by. It means there is no difference between having your eyes open or closed. We had to get a motel room and park the bikes. We were too late for the restaurants in Markleeville, so we found a little store and picked out our dinners, which were very simple: John got Doritos corn chips, Trevor got Ruffles Sour Cream ‘n’ Cheddar, and I chose my favorite, Cool Ranch Doritos.

We ate at the motel. My third handful of chips tore the roof of my mouth like a cheese grater and I gave up on eating. A shower washed off the outer layer of my full body grime. You know the old cliché, “He was asleep before his head hit the pillow?” Well it didn’t apply in Markleeville. Too much pain was buzzing through our limbs to allow sleep. We all basically waited a bunch of hours for the sun to come up, while lying down with our eyes closed. The next morning, we climbed begrudgingly back on our bikes and hit the road. The climbing started immediately. Three hours later, Odyssey ‘91 was history. And so, of course, were we.

Final stats: 209 miles, 20,000 feet of climbing, 16½ hours, 15.7 mph average speed.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Roof Rack Fracas


A friend of mine up in Bend told me about this trust fund guy he sees around who not only has the ultimate bike rack for his (cool 4WD) car, with attachments for every kind of recreational toy (bike, kayak, skis), but carries all the equipment around full time, like a rolling trophy case for his outdoorsy lifestyle.  The dude is clearly not alone in seeing his rack as an outward manifestation of social worth; rack manufacturer Yakima has printed the slogan “Overcome rack envy” on their catalogs and other promotional items.

At the other extreme you have:  me.  I never even wanted a car, much less a rack to put on it.  I don’t like cars.  I don’t like stuff.  While most people enjoy the retail experience, to me most purchases feel like a defeat of some kind.  And yet, I get by.  My lifelong refusal to buy a TV has resulted in four used-TV donations from concerned friends and family.  In college, my bike traveled to races on a badly oxidized piece of crap rear-mount Hollywood rack that my friend found at the beach.  On our way home from our final race of the collegiate season in 1990 we didn’t even bother with the rack—we just threw our bikes, and the rack, into the back of the car.

And yet, retail activity cannot be held off forever, and recently I decided to bite the bullet and buy a roof rack, so I could bring everybody’s bikes on a family vacation.  (Until now, I’ve used the two-bike Rhode Gear Super Shuttle rear rack I bought back in ’91 when I worked at a bike shop.)  This post chronicles my recent bike rack purchase and how it threw me into conflict with friends, family, and a salesman.  I also offer a few handy tips about saving money and frustration when you do buy a rack.

Build or buy?

Cheapness was a core value in my family.  When my dad decided we could bring our bikes on a family vacation, he built a rack for our weird two-door Saab station wagon.  (This was a family of six.)  The bikes went on the rack with both wheels attached and were held in place by custom-lathed wood pieces, a lot of rope, and the sheer force of my dad’s intellect.  Putting the bikes on the car took something like forty-five minutes and only my dad knew how to do it.  Removing the front wheel to improve aerodynamics was probably never considered:  gas was well under a dollar a gallon and the Kyoto Protocol was two decades away.  I don’t have a photo of that racks, but here’s a photo of a similar one my dad built five years later (and which he mounted to the original Saab roof rack he’d moved over to his Subaru).

In high school, when my brothers and friends and I were going to bike races every weekend, we made a giant roof rack for my friend’s late-‘70s Volvo wagon.  My brother Geoff had learned how to weld in shop class; he scrounged up a loaner welding rig somewhere and made wheel trays out of these giant pieces of iron fence material.  He welded struts to these, apparently made of scrap pig-iron, to cradle the wheels.  There were swinging aluminum struts that terminated in these crazy clamps that looked like the beak of a bird of prey.  I think we used sections of old inner tube to keep from scratching the bikes.  (I say “we” but upon reflection I doubt I actually helped, other than maybe to  sing and clap.)  Here’s a photo of that rack.  (Also shown is the Yakima rack we bought to supplement it, so we could carry eight or nine bikes at once.  To pay for that Yakima, we all worked for a week scrubbing a drained swimming pool with hydrochloric acid.)

So did I consider building my own rack this time around?  Not seriously.  I did take a quick look at to see how they recommended building a rack.  What a joke.  Check it out here.  They have very cryptic instructions involving PVC and suction cups (!).  There are no diagrams or photos of any kind, other than a stock Getty Images photo of a sporty-looking dude standing in front of a car which has what appears to be a commercial bike rack on its roof.  The instructions say, “If you are a visual person, consider buying a bike rack and using it as model to make your own.  Then return it within the allowed time frame and with proper documentation for little to no charge.”  As you can see, whoever wrote those ehow instructions is going to burn in Hell.

Seeking advice

Some people love the process of selecting consumer goods:  the reviews, the consumer testimonials, the price comparisons, etc.  Not me.  I’m a pretty good price shopper once I know what I want, but I don’t kid myself that I can sort out what’s really the best product.  Fortunately, I’m on a bike club, EBVC, that’s chock full of bona-fide bike gear mavens.  I sent out a note asking for recommendations, little realizing—though I should have—how much dissent there would be.

One guy, a club veteran who raced the Red Zinger back in the ‘70s, wrote, “I know someone who took some thrashed old high-flange front hubs, cut the flanges to roughly match the contour of his cross bar, and clamped it down to the cross bar with a couple hose clamps.  We went to many races with that setup which cost about $1.25/bike.” 

Seems like a perfect idea, except that a) I don’t have crossbars to begin with ( the “towers” that fix them to the car’s room are the expensive part of the rack), and b) others on the club are convinced that any rack that holds the bike by the tips of the fork is dangerous to the health of the bike.  One guy wrote, “Fork bends side to side, and is not designed to do that...  I think this could be a real problem when it comes to carbon forks, where the weave is laid in accordance to the expected forces/stresses.”  Another agreed:  “I used a Yakima fork mount … and at the end of the season I found multiple stress fractures behind the head tube.”  This elicited a pointed response from yet another guy:  “I think the damage to the bike may well be attributed to the stresses incurred by ‘bubble butt.’”

Soon we had a full-on e-mail debate.  One friend cited a report from Lennard Zinn, who checked with several bike companies, all of whom said the fork-mount racks were fine.  Not that the industry shouldn’t capitalize on any fear the consumer base might have, my friend went on to say:  “Yakima does make a sorbothane-backed flannel bike wrap filled with goose down for its carbon outfitted clients.”   He concluded by pointing out, “EBVC should have a discussion group page on its website called ‘Sorry I Asked...’”

Others piled on with their points of view.  A couple guys recommended a rear-mount trailer-hitch rack that will hold four bikes.  Somebody else countered that  there are two types of people who use trailer-hitch racks:  those who have been rear-ended (and thus had their bikes wrecked), and those who are going to.  Needless to say somebody immediately pointed out that there are also two kinds of people who use roof racks:  those who have driven into the garage with the bike on top and those who are going to.  Oddly, nobody outwardly recommended the kind of roof rack where you leave both wheels on the bike.

I did consider that kind of rack, because it’s what the Cutters had on Mike’s car in “Breaking Away.”  That (apparently home-made) rack looked really cool, especially when Mike was “hot-rodding around campus.”  It didn’t seem to take Dave that long to put the bike on the car, though long enough that when Moocher smashed the time-clock’s face at the car wash (“Don’t forget to punch the clock, Shorty!”), thus quitting his job on his first day, the car was still there to take him away.  What if Mike’s car had a Yakima or Thule rack, and Mike had driven off before the offensive “Shorty” comment?  Maybe Moocher would have acted differently, and continued working at the car wash, and maybe Nancy would never have agreed to marry him.

With this cinematic moment swirling in my head along with all the conflicting bits of advice, suddenly the decision seemed bigger than just choosing a bike rack.  The problem with asking advice is that you may find yourself in the position of ignoring it, which means incurring a certain degree of social peril.  When my advisors disagree with one another, I can’t please all of them. 

It’s one thing when you’re ignoring the advice of friends—who can blow off the slight by saying, “Your bike sucks anyway, who cares if you wreck it”—but of course it’s worse with family, which is why I regret what I did next, which was to ask my dad what he thought.  I thought he might approve of the fork-mount rack on the basis of fuel efficiency, but he wrote back, “As to the stress of holding a bike by the dropouts:  I would not do it.  The riding stresses on a bike are never that kind of stress.  The center of gravity is always on the plane of symmetry of the bike, even when you are leaning way over in a hard turn, so the stresses are always symmetrical.  But when a car is going around a corner, the bike is not leaning, and one dropout gets hundreds of pounds of tension, which it was not designed for.   Also, I would worry about the fork top, which will have the same tension.” 

He also addressed my concern about fuel efficiency:  “Needless to say, I don't much care about extra gas costs ... what matters is extra CO2 and its effect on the future.”  His recommendation was to build a special both-wheels-on type of rack:  “drill holes in the roof and bolt the for-and-aft wheel troughs and other fittings directly to the roof, avoiding cross-wise bars which have lots of drag.”  Drill holes in my car?  I’d rather just leave my bike—or better yet, my car—at home.

The final bit of advice came from the REI salesman.  By the time I went there I was pretty sure I didn’t want the both-wheels-on type of rack (too expensive, not aerodynamic, and not recommended for carbon frames, which I may own one day), but still I asked him about rack types and wind drag.  He promptly replied, “If you care about wind drag” (Berkeley subtext:  “if you care about the planet”), “then you have to get the Thule.  It has been proven that the square crossbars of the Thule are more aerodynamic than the round crossbars of the Yakima.”  He delivered this statement almost triumphantly, seeming to expect that this rationale would carry the day.  Thus, he was visibly disappointed and seemed almost offended when I proceeded to buy the Yakima.  Frankly, I’d done more research on the Yakima’s compatibility with my car (not that I really doubted a Thule would fit fine) and was running out of time.  Plus, the Yakima bike mounts were cheaper. 

I suppose many a consumer would walk triumphantly out to his car, shouldering his cool new toy, whistling, pleased to have bought his way that much closer to a perfected life.  Not me.  I felt exhausted at the ordeal of ignoring good, solid advice, while possibly affronting friends, family, and the REI guy.  Plus I was out like $600 for a product whose very use would get me a hefty dose of liberal guilt, not to mention possibly damage my bike.  (During my road trip I put the cheaper, heavier bikes on the roof, while continuing to carry “my precious” on the rear-mount rack.)

Advice – Part 1

Okay, I promised in my introduction to give you some advice about bike racks.  The good thing about a blog is you can ignore my advice, or even privately ridicule it, without offending me.  (Or, if you’re a confrontational sort, you can comment below or e-mail me.)  

My first suggestion is this:  if you’re shopping for a rack and have factory-mounted rails on your car (i.e., that the bike rack mounts to), then skip buying the optional lock cores for your rack.  But wait, you protest.  Locks make so much sense!  After all, with one Allen wrench and about five minutes a thief could make off with the $600 rack.  And if the thief had an accomplice he could take the rack and all the bikes with it—a several thousand dollar haul.  Why wouldn’t you want to lock it up?

Well, I didn’t say not to lock it.  I said to skip the lock cores you can buy from the manufacturer.  First of all, they’re expensive:  $55 for a set of four Yakima cores, $60 for Thule.  I must admit, they’re pretty cool; though the Yakima website doesn’t explain this very well, these cores can be installed in the fork-holding mechanism so the bike is locked to the rack, and the same kind of core goes in the rack tower to lock the rack to the car.  One key does all the locks.  This amounts to what one person (trying to convince me to buy them) called the “clean, yuppie feeling” of buying something really slick, whatever the cost.  Well, I can do without that clean, yuppie feeling, especially if it costs me $55 (and was made in China for $0.45).

Second, these locks don’t secure the wheels of the bike.  The front wheels, if you choose to mount them to the rack (using the optional wheel holders), can be swiped in about thirty seconds.  If a thief didn’t mind climbing up on the car, he could steal the rear wheels too, in about a minute.  Sure, you could thread a cable and padlock through the wheels, but then you’ve just undone the essential slickness of the lock core system.

Meanwhile, at least in the case of Yakima racks, this system doesn’t look all that theft-proof.  All the lock core does to secure the rack to the car is to lock down the plastic housing over the inner workings of the rack tower.  You’ve got metal going into plastic.  Probably a good blow with the hammer would knock the cover clean off, and then you’ve got the rack off in minutes.

Instead, I suggest you do as I did and drill a hole through one of the bike trays.  (I’m sure I just nullified the warranty on my rack, but life will go on.)  Now, thread one end of a nice fat cable through one bike (getting the rear wheel and frame), then through itself (i.e., one cable end loop passes through the other), then through both the front wheels, through the other bike, and around the car’s factory rail.  Then use a padlock to lock the cable to the rack.  Look:

The lock’s shackle goes through a) the hole you drilled and b) the end loop on the cable.  Here are a couple of close-ups:

It’s not perfect—the padlock can be broken—but it’s a deterrent, and costs you very little (after all, what cyclist doesn’t own the cable already?).  For extra security, thread a U-lock (e.g., Kryptonite) through the cable and around the factory rail.

Note:  please don’t sue me because you followed this advice and had something stolen.  Any reasonably educated reader would immediately realize that, whatever utility he may happen to gain from the preceding advice, it was all meant to be completely facetious, even the photo.  (Nelson—do you think, with this paragraph, I’m covered?)

Advice – Part 2

The following pertains to the Yakima rack with its environment-destroying, life-ruining round crossbars.  If you have a Thule rack, you can read this bit anyway, just for that delicious smug feeling.

The round Yakima crossbars enable you to easily rotate the front wheel fork mount so it lies flat when not in use, improving aerodynamics.  The problem is, it rotates too easily.  No matter how hard I tighten the wing nuts, the fork won’t stay put.  As has been noted by three of the five customer reviews on the Yakima website, this results in the wheel rocking back until it hits the roof of the car.  Yakima suggests putting the wheel at a 60-degree angle to “prevent the build up of inertia.”  Well, this is a start, but I doubt it’s enough.

What worked really well for me was to install one wheel fork to each crossbar, one right behind the other (which is the most aerodynamic arrangement anyway, as one wheel drafts the other).  The fork that’s mounted to the front crossbar should be rotated toward the back.  The fork that’s mounted to the rear crossbar should be rotated forward.  Do this with each wheel installed in its fork, and rotate them until they meet in the middle.  Now secure them (i.e., fasten them to each other) with a zip-tie or a kid’s hair band or a toe strap.  This will make it physically impossible for the forks to rotate on the crossbar.  (Look at that last photo … you can see the zip-tie there.)

Advice – Part 3

I don’t need to advise you not to drive into the garage with your bike on the roof—I mean, that’s obvious—but since this has happened to so many of my friends, I’m going to give you two foolproof ways to avoid doing it.  But first, just in case you’ve never seen the results of this mistake, look at this (a recent photo from a friend).  Talk about a rack being hard on your bike’s fork!

One way to avoid this fate is to buy a house built in 1929 with a garage sized to  a Model T Ford.  That way, it’s physically impossible to drive your modern car into the garage, with your bike on the rack or not.  If, however, you’re one of those lucky people with a large garage you can actually use, then I suggest you remove the rack from your car when you’re not using it.  The added advantage is that you’ll get better gas mileage without that rack on your car.  (Plus, you’ve lowered the theft risk to near-zero.) 

I’m not suggesting you constantly install and deinstall your rack.  I’m suggesting that unless you’re a die-hard racer with a real flair for carpooling, you probably don’t need the rack on your car most of the time.  If you’re only toting one bike around, just throw it in the back of the car.  If you’re toting two bikes, use a rear-mount bike rack.  If you’re driving to a stage race and really need the convenience of a roof rack, then throw the rack back on the car for your trip.  Once the rack has been set up, it’s quick and easy to take it on and off the car.


Chances are you already have a rack, already have the lock cores, will never buy a rear-mount rack, and don’t agonize so much over such simple things.  If so, I guess I envy you that.  But at least now I can look at my kickass Yakima rack, leaning against the wall of the garage waiting to be remounted someday, and think “Ohhhh yeahhhh.”