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Posts from — June 2008

My Brompton

Last saturday, I purchased a Brompton M6L folding bicycle. It’s my first purchase of a bicycle since I was in middle school. In about 30 seconds, the bike folds down to be roughly the size of a small suitcase: this means I can take it with me during rush hour on the Metro, when regular-sized bikes are otherwise prohibited.

Brompton, unfolded and ready to ride

(image from bfold website)

I traveled to New York City to purchase the bike, from bfold, a small dealership that occupies a basement apartment near Union Square.1 They specialize in folding bicycles, and keep several dozen Bromptons in stock, along with a few other makes.

Although it’s always good to have a reason to take Amtrak up to New York City, I would have liked to have bought locally. One of the 20 or so nationwide Brompton dealers is around here, College Park Bicycles,2 and although their website suggests you “Come in for a test ride” of a Brompton, they don’t actually have any in stock,3 and they don’t know how long it would take to get one in. 

Through online research, I was mostly convinced that I wanted a Brompton: they have the most compact and elegant folded form of any of the folding bicycles. Notably, when folded, the chain is in the middle of the package, between the wheels. The rear wheel assembly is hinged: when riding, it is held by compression against the main frame, but when the rider dismounts it’s easy to swing the rear wheel under the rest of the bike in order to park it.

A folded Brompton

Top view of folded Brompton

(images from Brompton website).

But still, I wanted to actually see and feel one, and see the folding and unfolding, before the purchase. So off to bfold it was. The folks there–I think there are only two–are great. Talking with the shop owner on the phone, I got the impression that they are folding bicycle enthusiasts who decided to open a store, and not bicycle racers who work in a bike store that happens to sell folders. In the store, we talked about the available options, and they demonstrated the folding and unfolding maneuvers. Talk about elegant! In their hands, at least, the folding and unfolding were very fluid, giving the impression of a very well engineered and built machine. 

The folks at College Park bicycles, who also sell Dahon and Bike Friday folders, did make a few valid criticisms of the Brompton: first, in order to achieve its folded state, it uses several custom-built, proprietary parts. If one of these parts needs replacement, it has to be obtained from Brompton, and if you’re not close to a Brompton dealer, this could mean your bike is out of commission for a while. And a number of these parts are made from plastic instead of metal. I consider myself handy enough to do my own bicycle maintenance, and with several US dealers willing to do mail order of replacement parts, this wasn’t a serious drawback for me.

At 27 pounds, my Brompton is best described as luggable. It’s easy enough to pick up and carry for short distances. It has six speeds, which it achieves through a combination of two-speed derailleur and three-speed Sturmey-Archer hub arranged in a half-step gearing pattern. That is, the ratio of the two derailleur gears is half that of the ratio between the steps on the hub, so that the full range of gears–from 40 to 86 gear inches–is covered evenly with no overlaps. I consider this another touch of elegant design.

By way of comparison, my other bike weighs in at 39 pounds, in its present configuration (with rack, fenders, toolkit, spare tube, pump and lock, but without lights). Both front and rear gears have been replaced several times over the years, such that the gearing pattern is more installed than designed, covering the range of 26 to 92 gear-inches with a theoretical 21 gears, some of which are unusable and some of which overlap. A comparison of gearing:

I’ll write in a future post about the way the Brompton changes my commute. I’d certainly recommend bfold, for anyone interested in a folding bicycle. If you want to seriously evaluate the various makes, and test ride them and so forth, it would be a good idea to call ahead and let them know what you’d like to do and when you’d like to come in: with only two staff and a growing interest in folding bicycles, the store can become quite hectic with only a handful of customers. I also think I should have purchased a model with a rear rack and EZ-wheels, which allows the folded bicycle to be rather easily wheeled about.


  1. Rents are high in Manhattan, of course, but with a wide variety of re-purposable spaces, such as the one bfold occupies, small entrepreneurs do have places to start. I don’t know if a similar business could make it in DC. []
  2. which otherwise looks like a really cool bicycle shop []
  3. I realize that small businesses can’t devote unlimited time to their websites, but I also think that lots of long-established businesses just don’t understand how much people like me depend on the web, and how irked we get when websites have misleading information. I much prefer to look at a store’s website than to look them up in the yellow pages and call, and I would guess that for routine questions like hours and products stocked, it takes less employee time to maintain the website than to repeatedly answer the phone. In fact, I hardly ever use the yellow pages anymore. []

June 21, 2008   6 Comments

A tree falls

As predicted, our heat wave was broken in dramatic fashion last night with the arrival of some intense thunderstorms. At about 7pm, a series of small-ish storms came in. We lost power for perhaps a minute–not long enough to fetch a flashlight–but our neighbors down the street didn’t fare quite so well.

A large street tree came down during the storm:

This tree came down in the storms of 10 Jun 2008

Fortunately, the tree fell in the street, not on a house.

Alternate view of fallen tree

The tree did take some electrical wires down with it, to the point of ripping a neighbor’s meter box from the side of the house. I suspect their power outage lasted longer than a minute:

A meter box ripped from a house after tree takes down power lines

June 11, 2008   1 Comment


To be fair, it did cool to 77 degrees Fahrenheit. But that was at 6 in the morning, at the very minimum of temperature, after a whole night of radiative cooling into the night sky and before the sun has had a chance to warm things up again. And with 84% humidity, there was no relief to be had stepping into air during this moment of relative cool. By the time I leave the house, just before 8, it’s already 80 degrees. By 11am, it has hit 90, a mark it won’t drop below until the sun sets. The weather’s been at this for a few days now, and with each successive afternoon bake, the overnight relief becomes more meager. 

To keep the house habitable–which has meant keeping the (upstairs) bedrooms at or below about 81 degrees, I have to keep the downstairs at about 76. Such is life when your house is under-insulated, and your central air system is grafted on to early 1940s ductwork that was put in place presuming the house would only be heated.

This evening brings a chance of thundershowers: if they’re big enough, we will get cooling, but if they’re too small, then all we get is an increase in humidity.

To do this summer: install ceiling fans, and upgrade the insulation.

June 10, 2008   No Comments

“We should” vs. “I will”

“We should”: one of the most counter-productive phrases in existence.

As a progressive, and with my student days behind me, I’ve come to feel that civic engagement shouldn’t be considered optional. I’ve looked to local organizations for involvement: while in DC, I’ve volunteered with three organizations, plus one political campaign,  and will probably work with others as my priorities nd responsibilities evolve. 

In every setting that involves a group of volunteers–or more generally, a group of people in which the individuals each decide how they will invest their time–the words “we should” are a sure path to inaction. What the words really mean is “I won’t but hope someone else will,” but without the candor to admit that the speaker, in fact, won’t do whatever it is he is suggesting. 

These words are usually spoken in meetings, gatherings that many people claim to disdain. The fact that nothing actually gets done during meetings compels some to ask if everyone shouldn’t really use their time to actually do something. Someone might suggest meetings every other month, instead of monthly.  If a project does require the input of more than one person, however, you need meetings. In the case of volunteer groups, in which everyone has a myriad of other obligations and interests, the truth is out-of-sight, out-of-mind. Nobody’s time is so carefully managed that he could take the time that would have been spent in a meeting and use it on a project: there are plenty of other things that rush in to fill the temporal void. One might read a few more threads on Daily Kos, or watch the television program that comes on after your favorite program, or skim through catalogs you get in the mail instead of sending them straight to the recycle bin. The way things get done in a volunteer organization is through mutual accountability: we agree to take on tasks, and follow through because we value the value of our word.

Meetings are necessary: the trap is to think that meetings are sufficient. I think that even the complainers like their volunteer meetings, perhaps secretly. For one, it’s a chance to hang out with like-minded people for a few hours. There is also a sort of perverse satisfaction from attending a meeting: you get to feel that you’ve accomplished something but you actually haven’t had to expend much effort. You’ve spent a few hours getting updates and making plans for next steps; you’ve thought about the issues at hand, so it seems like you’ve done your part. 

And truthfully, for many, that’s all they do, as the meeting is the only space they’ve made in their schedules for the issues at hand. Of course, we’re all so busy, and it’s tempting to just be thankful that they care enough to show up, but if everyone at the meeting is like this, nothing will get done. Some would do well to re-evaluate their own priorities–they do so much, they get nothing done.1

Calling out the “we should”s, and insisting on “I will”s is one tool with which to separate the do-ers from the rest. Perhaps meeting organizers should keep tallies of each phrase. Each time “we should” is uttered, put the utterer on the spot, and ask if he’s volunteering to do the task he suggests. Now, this is not to say that someone can’t have good–even inspiring–ideas that he can’t carry out himself,2 but in such cases he should simply say so.

A particularly pernicious form of “we should” are the obstructionist “we should”s–that when person A volunteers to take on some task, person B pipes up with an impractical pre-condition that “we should” do before beginning on person A’s task. More than just a waste of time, this could actually derail a real action. In physics, we are occasionally encouraged to “make mistakes as fast as possible.”3 That is, you won’t learn anything, and you won’t get anything done, without doing something. So do something. Say that you will do something, and do it, and if it turns out to be not quite the right thing, then you can do something else.

  1. One of Paul Sally’s graduate school advisors apparently told this to him, when in his early grad student days he wasn’t getting much mathematics done. []
  2. One idea I’ve had for the organizations I’ve worked with, but can’t do myself, is to create a coloring page based on your organization’s work, so that if you’re tabling an event, and a parent comes by with his or her child, you can let the child color the coloring page (supply crayons) while you talk to the parent about the organization. []
  3. A sentiment attributed to the late John Wheeler. []

June 5, 2008   No Comments