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.

Don’t write that.

“Don’t talk about politics or religion on Facebook”

I’ve read a spate of articles lately offering rules for social media. Near the top of the lists are always admonitions to avoid political or contentious topics. We are told: “No one wants to see your political rant in their feed!” Occasionally this warning includes sports, or vacation pictures, or even pictures of grandkids.

Maybe this is true, which begs the question of exactly why social media exists. If your favorite subject irritates someone – even a lot of people – should you shut up? To avoid giving offense, should you confine your online expression to things that don’t matter to you?

Relax – you’re OK

To be clear, it’s fine if you want to “keep it light”. If you only like to post music videos and pictures of your pets, your kids, or your vacation that is perfectly OK. There’s no rule that says you have to “put it out there” or risk anything at all online. How heavy you want to be is entirely up to you.

A corollary is that when you see embarrassing pictures of some other person online, cut them some slack. Someone acting silly with a beer in their hand is not worth getting worked up over and it certainly isn’t worth a ding on their performance review.

…and so is that guy worked up about the environment

Some people are passionately interested in birdwatching. Some people are just interested in their grandkids. I grew up immersed in science and politics. My friends and my new friends know this. I’m pleased when others share my interests but if you don’t want to see my posts that’s fine.

What I have a difficult time accepting are online etiquette rules that insist on everyone being bland and inoffensive. Social media has begun to be a historical fulcrum of change. Entire governments have toppled on revolutions driven by Facebook or Twitter. US elections are influenced by people clicking “Share”. This is big news. It’s like living when the printing press was invented; information is democratized in a new way.

here are my social media etiquette rules:

  • Life is short, and if something really matters to you, it ought to be OK to say so. If you think the status quo is just great, fine – but if not, you have the right (and sometimes the responsibility) to speak up.
  • No one is forcing you to read my posts. A corollary is that no one is forcing me to read your posts either. Much resentment derives not from disagreement, but from perceived obligation. If you tell Facebook to show you fewer of my posts – or none at all – that is OK. As noted before, life is short, and I have other friends. I would appreciate an explanatory email, but that’s your choice.
  • Don’t troll. If you disagree with someone, you can say so in comments, giving a good reason and maybe a supporting link. That’s fine, but just one or two. When you’re on someone else’s thread, let them have the last word.
  • If it’s a chronic disagreement with another person, say what you want to say in your own space. You aren’t going to convert the other person to Jesus or socialism or Siracha sauce or whatever. But you might give the bystanders something to weigh in comparison.
  • It’s OK to delete another person’s comments on your feed. Social media is free, and you don’t owe them a platform.
  • Especially avoid arguing with friends or colleagues. There’s no way that story ends well. You have a whole internet full of jerks out there to make fun of – but please not the person in the cubicle next to yours.  I’ve occasionally told friends; “I’m not going to argue with you.” Perhaps not often enough.
  • Realize that what sounds uncontroversial to you might, to someone you know, even be offensive. So think twice before taking personal offense. Ask a question, maybe.

Social media can actually help you build meaning in your life, by engaging with society and history. It’s a chance to collaborate in imagining the future – a messy process.

Next post: how much personal information is too much?

Muscle Powered Transportation

Regarding BBC: Why Is Cycling So Popular In The Netherlands? 

Streets pre-date cars. But for many Americans, it is impossible to imagine a city that was not made FOR cars. Our laws and customs drive us to pay any price at all so we can go even short distances on a car. As a result, our bicyclists live a sort of chance, outlaw existence. But different societies are possible. If there is another fuel crisis, the Dutch are going to be laughing at us.

Elite transportation is muscle – your muscle. For too long we’ve let our cars dictate where we live, what we wear, where we shop, how we handle traffic, even what income we need to have. We think that being owned by machines is something from science fiction, but if you can’t go up two flights of stairs on your own power without getting out of breath, what else would you call it? So break loose, already.

“Mach-S, the speed at which stress can’t keep up, is simply forward motion. But it has to be self- propelled. Note that people in cars are still stressed.”
— Jef Mallett, author and artist of comic strip Frazz

(Reposted from my old blog, my photos, and from Facebook)

Waging Peace

Regarding Ian Welsh; Bin Laden’s Insights And The Egyptian Coup

The points made in this excellent article stand on their own (please read it) but I would like to make one more. I don’t know if Bin Laden wanted to be listened to, but as a writer and thinker he did have something to say. The problem is that we are so busy hating him for his violent acts that we cannot listen to him. Bin Laden BAD!!! GRRR!!!

This is also true of the Unibomber, who wrote a manifesto that made several good points worth considering. Have you read it? Probably not, because Ted Kaczynski sent bombs through the mail, maiming and killing people. Violence utterly obscured his message.

The United States carries a message about freedom, about the common good, and about a better world not based on group hatred. But at the same time we’ve projected power violently in both overt and covert ways. You think the victims of a US-backed oppressive regime care what we have to say about anything? How about the parents of a child killed in a drone strike?

To the rest of the world, we are Bin Laden. We are Ted Kaczynski. They can’t hear us over the screams of torture chambers, or the ringing in their ears from explosions. When our medium is violence, what is our message?

If we want to be heard, we need to figure out how to wage peace.

Reposted from G+. h/t Mike The Mad Biologist for the link.

Social networking is no substitute for a blog – but it can compliment one

In the Fall of 2012 I suspended my long-running Decrepit Old Fool (DOF) blog for a hiatus, which ends with the page you are reading now. In the meantime I explored social networking on Facebook, G+ and Twitter. (I’ve since archived my DOF blog as static html; you can peruse it if you like.)

Social networking has some awesome advantages for connecting with people. I believe it will continue to expand its position in human society; we are, after all, social beings. But there are a couple things that social networking lacks: permanence and control. You might get up one morning and find out the bright minds at Facebook or Twitter have decided to change how everything on your feed is displayed. And there is little assurance that you will always be able to link to (or even find) something you have written. For a quick aside, this is fine – but for a carefully-written essay, not so much. 

The objection could be raised that is the same way, on a longer time-scale – and that is true. Hence downloading backups. If necessary, I can go back to running my own WordPress blog, but I’m just as happy to let them take care of system patches, etc. I do enough system maintenance at work, thank you.

Thanks for visiting and reading! I hope you’ll visit again, and look for me on G+ and Twitter.