Build The Right Monument

Until things change, this is pretty much my last word on 9-11. (Re-posted from 2011 entry on my old blog)

Annual 9-11 monument on campus
Annual 9-11 monument on campus

Do you care what I was doing when I heard about the September 11 attacks? I won’t be offended if your answer is “No”. Among hundreds of millions of people, practically every activity you could possibly think of was in progress when the planes crashed.

But there will be a lot of memorial services, monuments dedicated, special newspaper sections printed, and somber editorials. Cable television will be smoking-hot with replays of 9-11. Millions of little plastic flags will be planted. My dentist even sent out a memorial email.

On 9-11, innocent people died, who had nothing to do with conflicts between Muslim extremists and US foreign policy. We have a human need to make sense of it all, if we can, and try to steer a course to a better world from that awful day. If we can.

Almost every incident of mass death attracts monuments because the human race has a powerful forgettery. We forget context, we forget (or never knew) how it looked for the other side. We can forget the whole damn thing with astonishing ease. Battle of Antietam? 23,000 Americans dead in a single day in an area barely 8 miles square? Few remember that, but we remember symbolic acts like Washington throwing a coin across the Potomac… which did not even really happen.

So how best to remember 9-11? How best to honor the dead and elevate the living? I have a modest proposal.

When we’re done with the bronze and marble and granite and limestone, build another monument in our global moral standing and our daily freedoms. When we arrest someone, citizen or not, on our soil or not, let’s set the global standard of human rights instead of trying to maneuver around it. When someone points a video camera at a policeman in uniform on a public street, let the rest of the world see that our authorities are not afraid of accountability. When we talk on the phone let’s be certain that no one is listening without getting a warrant. Let’s not hide censorship behind corporate welfare. Let’s stop crotch-feeling 8-year-olds in airports and calling it security.

Bush was right about one thing: our enemies DO hate our freedoms. But in exercising those freedoms we will discover friends we never knew we had. A blogger, a gay couple living openly without fear, a citizen asking pointed questions of a politician or a policeman, peaceful Christian and Muslim neighbors, are all in a way ambassadors for our country. Every exercise of rights sharpens the distinction between us and our enemies.

Let’s get back to declaring war as Congress’ job – and pay for our wars on the books in real time. Let’s never again be manipulated and goaded into a vastly disproportionate response. Let’s recognize false pretext to war as a criminal offense. A former president in jail would send a powerful message to our allies and enemies: we really do believe in justice. You can trust us.

We spend more on “defense” in this country than the next 19 countries combined, while scientific questions go unanswered. In 1969 the physicist Robert Wilson had to explain to Congress why we should spend money on a National Accelerator Laboratory “It has only to do with the respect with which we regard one another”, he said; “the dignity of men, our love of culture. It has to do with: Are we good painters, good sculptors, great poets? I mean all the things we really venerate in our country and are patriotic about. It has nothing to do directly with defending our country except to make it worth defending.”

In asymmetric warfare, the moral high ground truly is the defensible position: there is more power in trust than in any weapon. Battles and even wars might be won on the battlefield, but the future is won by the elapsed time between the last American shame and today’s date on the calendar. It is won by using our power to elevate others. It is won by our courage not to back down from our principles in search of an illusion of security. Our real strength isn’t anything that explodes; it’s something that only endures as long as we insist on it.

Let’s make it a flag worth waving. That would be a “monument” worthy of a day we really do need to remember.


NOTES and updates:

  • In Hiroshima there is a monument that says, optimistically; “Please rest in peace. The mistake will not be repeated.” No mention of whether they meant Pearl Harbor or The Bomb. Or the oil embargo that led to Pearl Harbor? Or their expansionism that led to the embargo? Atrocity always has antecedents.
  • Luckily the cable news networks are going to be responsible and low-key about this. They’re going to mention it, in a “this day in history” sort of way, without endless “Man In The Street” interviews and egregious repetition of horrifying videos. They won’t run up ratings by making life miserable for people with PTSD. Which is a lot of people, given that two of the four attacks happened in one of the most populated spots on Earth.
  • (Sorry, that last link was satire. You know the networks will milk this anniversary for all it’s worth.)
  • Mike the Mad Biologist nails The Hardest Thing about remembering September 11, 2001
  • Stephanie Svan’s meditation on The Importance of Forgetting: “We do not always learn the right lessons from history”. And Dana Hunter’s on Why We Have To Remember: “A terrorist act cannot destroy a country. A country can only destroy itself.” If you only have time to read one, read both anyway.

Design and job creation: bicycle edition

It’s Labor Day, and I want to write about something I actually know about, so here’s a bicycle. I promise this does relate to labor issues so please bear with me.

Bike in a dumpster

Schwinn Varsity, circa 1975
Schwinn Varsity, circa 1975 – click to embiggen

I found it in a dumpster with its wheels still on but otherwise as shown at right. It is a Schwinn Varsity, around 38 years old, and it was in pretty rough condition. The back wheel was dented and out-of-round from being ridden quite some distance on a flat tire. All the bearings were out of adjustment and the grease had dried up years ago. It had loose spokes but none were broken, and the tires were rotted. The derailleurs were rusted and could barely move. Someone had replaced the old steel drop-handlebars with a nice aluminum upright bar but otherwise it was all-original.


Still, it had potential so I towed it home* flat tires and all and set about putting it back in ridable condition. I cleaned all the dried-up grease out of the bearings with solvent, repacked them with fresh grease (I use boat-trailer bearing grease for its high stability and water resistance) and reassembled them. One characteristic of old Schwinn bikes is the massive bottom bracket crank bearings – even with no grease they seldom go bad. I replaced a couple pitted bearings** in the back wheel but the cones and cups were OK.

Schwinn Varsity, repaired and modified. Click to embiggen.
Schwinn Varsity, repaired and modified. Click to embiggen.

The rear wheel I bent back into shape using some bench-vise tricks and adjusted all the spokes. I removed the ancient Alvit derailleurs (more on those in a minute) and shortened the chain*** so the bike could be a 1-speed instead of a 10-speed. Scrounging my spare-parts buckets freely and adding a couple tires from Amazon I made it into a ridable bike again.

Bike industry

When this bike was made, the US bike industry was in rapid decline. And no wonder: lightweight, lively bikes were being imported from England, France, Italy, and Japan. Their frames were a super-strong (and therefore light and responsive) chrome-molybdenum steel alloy built with a complex technique of brazed lugs at the joints. For the most part they had Shimano, Suntour or Compagnolo gears and aluminum wheels and they were simply a joy to ride. US consumers had discovered that adults could enjoy bicycling.

This bike, on the other hand, was poorly designed. The frame was made of weak steel alloy, welded at the joints, which meant it had to be heavy and was unresponsive. The forks were made of a solid (!) piece of forged tempered steel, as was the crankset. Schwinn had never attempted to make a multi-speed gear system but their 3-speed bikes at least had a British Sturmey-archer hub. This model was accursed with a particularly heavy and primitive derailler system made for Schwinn by Alvit and stamped “Schwinn Approved”. The wheels were double-walled steel. The seat tube and even the gooseneck were steel. The gear shifters were attached to the gooseneck and forged out of spectacularly heavy… (you guessed it) steel. The thick vinyl seat was “Schwinn-approved” and labeled “Comfort Form” which should have been called “Ultimate Wedgie”.

Once properly adjusted (a considerable challenge where the Alvit deuraillers were concerned) it was ridable on level ground but hardly suitable for hills. Or corners, for the frame geometry needed improvement too. This was not something Schwinn’s factory workers could fix.

Workers and their limitation

The workers in the US factory where this bike was made did a superb job of realizing Schwinn’s design. You could not find better welds this side of aerospace. The paint was flawless and in this example has endured for almost 40 years. The bearings were precisely made in a US factory. The chrome plating was perfect. But despite the obvious pride the workers took in their product they could not build a better bike than Schwinn designed.

It wasn’t that Schwinn didn’t know a good bike when they saw one; the Schwinn Paramount line was equal to the finest of European bicycles (but other than the frame, used only European and Japanese components). But they applied exactly none of that knowledge to their consumer bikes. Schwinn executives couldn’t be arsed to give their excellent workers a better-designed bike to build. With the predictable result that eventually Schwinn closed the factory, and started sticking their name on Panasonic and Fuji bikes built in Japan. And those bikes weren’t bad at all, until Panasonic and Fuji realized they didn’t need Schwinn to sell their bikes in the US.

Other industries

This story coincides, coincidentally, with a similar decline of the US auto industry. And while there have been strides neither has fully recovered. (Before anyone says “Trek!” look at the stickers on some mid-range Trek frames. Only the expensive top-end ones are made in the US. The vast majority are made in Taiwan or China.)

Workers cannot build a better product than their companies design. Apple Computer advertises that their products are “Designed in California” – with the implication that it doesn’t matter where a thing is made if the design is good. And there’s some truth to that, as some Apple products are now beginning to be made in the US again. Car companies Honda, Toyota and others have had factories in the US for years, with the result that the “most American-made car” is actually the Toyota Camry. Start with a good design and a good worker can build a good product. Start with a lazy design and the best worker in the world can’t do much to improve it.

Design is a labor issue in the most fundamental way possible. In that, bad design results in closed factories. It is not the only cause of closed factories, but it’s definitely a cause.


  • Yes this story is a simplification – much has been written about the history of the Schwinn company, let alone bicycle design generally. I am focusing here on the fact that consumer products are built by workers, and what bad design means for that fact. I’ve linked the story on G+ if you feel like discussing or have corrections to offer.
  • * Towing one bicycle while riding another is one of those few activities that are actually easier than they look. Grasp the bicycle being towed by the gooseneck with one hand, and away you go.
  • ** Most of my spare parts are salvaged out of old bikes. It’s handy to have a micrometer around to be sure the bearing is the same size as the ones you’re replacing.
  • *** It rides fine, though I still need to add a chain tensioner. With the changes I’ve made it will be a reliable bike.