Thursday, February 11, 2010

Moving in the oposite direction...

"Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius, and a lot of courage, to move in the opposite direction." Albert Einstein.

As I was watching a news segment on the recalls that Toyota is facing, the above quote by a pretty smart guy came to mind. While the computer generation has made the ability to create and communicate instantly, I have to ask, at what cost? What was so awful about mailing a letter? What was wrong with looking at a map to navigate unknown roads (well, the refolding was always a pain and took 2 or 3 times to get it folded correctly)? What was wrong with going to the library to look up information on a subject? What was wrong with a car that you could see the ground through the engine bay when you opened the hood?

Nothing. Nothing was wrong with any of that. What was wrong was that someone wanted something faster, quicker... Impatience changed our lives. The need to have something now. The need to always have something new and "better."

Cars are infinitely more complicated today. Bikes are becoming the same. Electronic shifting for bikes is here and is sure to proliferate. Electronic shifting, while proven to be faster shifting than manual shifting, has no backup in case of batter failure or a software glitch. Luckily a software glitch in an electronic bike shifter is unlikely to cause the problems that some Prius owners have experienced.

Are all of the "new and improved" gadgets really improving our lives? I don't think so. How much time did you used to have to ride your bike? The concept of "free time" is becoming more and more foreign. Now everybody is instantly connected with mobile phones that allow you to take your work with you. I used to be an outside sales rep in the days before cell phones. It was, in retrospect, actually pretty fun. I got to drive all over the county. I made appointments ahead of time to meet a buyer. I showed up, got a written order, drove to the next destination. If I needed to touch base, I stopped at a pay phone and called the office. Sometimes, I brought my bike in the van because you never knew if the opportunity to ride in a different part of the county would present itself at the end of the day.

But the most important thing was that between appointments, I had time to myself. I wasn't distracted with a cell phone call. I mean really how important are any of the cell phone calls that people make? Are they made because the call is urgent and information is required NOW? Unless someone is bleeding to death or their car is perched on the edge of a cliff, virtually everything can wait. In the words of Simon and Garfunkle, "slow down you move too fast, you've got to make the morning last." Is there an app for that?

I try to run Black Mountain Cycles simply. I chose a simple selection of parts and accessories to offer. I chose a simple, focused area of the bicycle market on which to focus. It is infinitely easier to try to be everything for everyone, have a huge variety of goods...basically, just stock everything for every possible situation. It is much more difficult to streamline your inventory, narrow the focus of your business, and stick to your guns. Sometimes you have to send a customer to a another shop when they ask for a product you don't sell and can offer no alternative. Operating simply is giving me more time to ride my bike and it sure makes it easy to say no to a sales rep trying to sell me something that doesn't fit my business focus.

(What's playing: Led Zeppelin Candy Store Rock)


efuentes said...


Live by it, die by it.

Anonymous said...

Can I give you a hearty "Amen" to that? This is the reason I read your blog.

Sure, I like bikes, and all things bikey, but in your posts I see a man who values the simple things in life. Whether it's the joy of a short bike commute with your dog or the sense of accomplishment that comes from freeing a stuck seatpost or improvising parts for a repair.

Many of us struggle against the "new and improved" in our lives, not because we are anti-technology, but because we have learned that while these "gadgets" may deliver on the promises of improved efficiency, or power, or shininess, they fail miserably when you consider the complications involved, not the least of which is the dependency we develop on the new product or on its developers when things break.

I think we have to realize too that sometimes the older technology is the better way. Tradition? Yes. But not for tradition's sake alone. Dean Torges, in his book "Hunting the Osage Bow", argues for the simple wooden bow as an effective and ,in fact, superior hunting weapon as compared to its modern fiberglass counterpart. "A well-made self bow surrenders nothing in cast or any fiberglassed longbow..." Torges is especially referring to the wooden bow's ability to cast a hunting-weight arrow efficiently and effectively. A wooden bow, ancient technology, a stick and a string, more efficient? More appropriate to its purpose than a modern fiberglass bow? Yes.

Mike, you used the words "simple" and "easy" a number of times in your post and it quickly brought to my mind Torges' book. You get it. And he gets it too when he writes,"Indeed, the first misstep would be to confuse simple with easy. If you want music, a concert master's baton is simple, the electrical switch on a CD player is easy. If you want game, a stick and a string are simple, a rifle is easy."

Indulge me just a bit longer as I conclude with more of Torges' words I believe you'll find apropos to your post. "The virtue of quick-and-easy escapes me, except as a powerful selling point to the dumb and lazy. I can't think of much worth doing that qualifies as such, and it bothers me to see the bowyer's craft- ancient, proud and demanding- sold like carnival gizmo. Let's not punch time clocks in our sport as though it were indifferent to our best effort, at least not until we also value praying or loving as fast as we can."

By the way, I can see the ground through the engine compartment on both of my 1995 Chevy vehicles. Does anyone else still open the hood on their vehicles?


blackmountaincycles said...

Nicely written. Years ago, I received a hand-made wooden bow that my grandpa made many, many years ago. I loved the feel of the time-polished wood. It was a simple tool that was extremely effective. Because I was too young to really understand it and what it represented, I neglected it and the wood split where the string attached at one end. We still have it and it still feels the same as I remember.


blackmountaincycles said...

And thank you for reading and taking the time to comment, David.

Anonymous said...

My pleasure Mike.


Jason said...


I have been to your shop and appreciate your approach. Thanks for taking the time to call to my attention the dependence on my own impatience. I often think back to my afternoon visit to PRS and wish I were able to live in a place like that. When I want to escape the rigorous pace of the Twin Cities, I remember the simplicity of your town and the relaxed atmosphere of your shop. You are a lucky man, Mike. I appreciate the short repite from life here everytime I get to read your blog.



Jerry said...

Very well said. I enjoyed reading this.

my world is books. Some people think these ebooks and kindles are all the rage. Yet the printed book survives on 500 year old technology and it still works. I challenged a kindle owner one day. I held a book at arms length and he did the same with his kindle. I dropped the book on the floor, picked it up and said "look it still works I can read the book. try that with your kindle." we laughed. call me a retrogrouch, but life is okay.

Doug said...

I keep telling my wife I'm going to write a book titled "Technology does not make your life easier". It would be ironic if people ended up reading it on a Kindle.

comstock2005 said...

Dear Zen-Dogs:
Peace, love and understanding to all of you. One of my lifelong complaints is how marketing departments whorify the original work of an artist/designer by tarting the product up with bells and whistles until an exquisite cello for a soloist becomes some rattletrap contraption for a one man band. Bigger! Louder! Witness the 1964 mustang, the corvette, the t-bird. Bicycles by their very essence share the direct user/tool interface of the bow. Just like my 1986 Prindle catamaran. My everyday vehicle is a 1973 Chevy Step van. Aluminum body, no radio, ac, heat, power anything. The search for the simple is elusive but rewarding.
Thank you, Mike. Your blog resonates with joy and clarity. And thank you, David, for reminding me of some of the happiest and most honest hours of my life (40 years ago!)spent 50 paces away from four bales of straw and a bullseye.

bhc said...


I continue to check in on this site because of a bicycle I have that you designed, the Haro Mary. I have the SS version. I like it for all the reasons you just wrote about. I can fix and maintain it. (I think anyone with basic intelligence could)

Could it also be that as we get older, I am 46, we just don't get as impressed with the newest and latest. Rather just to be happy with the tried and true.

Keep on enjoying the simple things, they generally are the best.

Antoine said...

Hello Mike

What a well written and thought provoking post, I enjoyed it immensely.

Somewhat ironic that as I sat down to write the final post on my own cycling-blog your title caught my eye and I spent another fifteen minutes in front of the computer, the very thing I am seeking to avoid!

I took my sons to a classic car show today here in Auckland. An amazing array of beautiful vehicles from Model T's to Ferraris but all with something in common. In another fifty years or more those same cars will be lined-up on the grass with a fresh coats of paint, new wiring, another layer of chrome, refurbished woodwork and probably running better than ever.

Their modern equivalents with multitudes of plastics and electronics will be landfill, despite the "recyclable" marketing spin they are sold with.

- Antoine