On the way home from work tonight

Me: [biking down Grace St., commute speed, nothin' fancy]

Richmond Police Dept: [buzzes past me in his SUV, no flashers, hurrying to wait at a red light]

Me: [approaching the red light, slowing, seeing nobody coming, breezing through the intersection past the RPD]

RPD: [runs the red, drives up alongside me, stays there, no lights on, no attempt to interact with me]

Me: [alternately looking in front of me, looking at him, trying to discern his intent without crashing, rolling down the hill, passing him, not braking for him (still no reds-&-blues)]

RPD: [speeding up to catch me, rolling down his window finally] "I could give you a reckless driving for running a red light like you did back there."

Me: "Are you stopping me?"

RPD: "No, I'm just telling you that's a reckless driving."

Me: "Uh...OK" [continuing ride home]

Whose actions were more reckless?

On Obscurity

I was at a vintage bike show last year, chatting with a talented framebuilder whose star is rising. I had bought a t-shirt from him earlier, so I mentioned before we parted ways that I was glad to have expanded my collection of obscure frame company t-shirts*.
From the look on his face it was clear he took my comment a little differently than I'd intended it. Perhaps it wasn't the best choice of words. But he was off with his family by the time I realized my fumble.

I wish I could have explained myself as well as Obama did in today's inauguration address:
Our journey has never been one of shortcuts or settling for less. It has not been the path for the faint-hearted — for those who prefer leisure over work, or seek only the pleasures of riches and fame. Rather, it has been the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things — some celebrated but more often men and women obscure in their labor, who have carried us up the long, rugged path towards prosperity and freedom.
He described better than I can most framebuilders I've come to know. They are doers, makers of things, uninterested in riches and fame. They are obscure but they are kick-ass. Their obscurity is not a liability.  I meant it as a compliment.

This is the kind of person that I strive to be: someone who goes out and gets stuff done and doesn't make a whole lot of noise about it.

*which includes, among others:

Why the Shop

I spend a lot of time in a shop. I consider myself a shop person.  But most of the people in my life are not shop people, with only a few exceptions.

I often think about how to relate to non-shop people about the shop. "Why do you spend so much damn time down there?", they ask. "You always come home filthy." "What's so exciting about screw threading of all things?"  "What's the point of endlessly tinkering?"

It's especially difficult to discuss, perhaps, because the shop is not generally a place I go to accomplish a specific thing. I might go there to work on one problem but end up working on the shop itself. Sometimes the tool I need is broken, so I spend an afternoon making a new one, or fixing the old one. The work is often non-linear; I work on what needs to be worked on.

Not many places are ambiguous in this way. A kitchen is for cooking; a classroom is for learning; a theater is for seeing shows. A shop can be for doing anything, and its purpose can change momentarily.  A shop is for working on things, but that includes the shop itself and everything in it.

Working in a shop can have a wonderfully self-reflexive feeling, of constantly re-examining the tools, the process, the shop--even the people in the shop, including yourself.

A shop is a place where all variables are in flux. A mill, for example, is so versatile that it could be used to produce a copy of itself*. When you're standing in front of a mill, the question is not "What is possible?" but now "What do I want to do?".
In the shop, the only limitation is you. It's up to you to decide what deserves your time and effort. It's a nice metaphor for growing up.

But why machine tools and screw threads and such?  What dispassionate things to study and to have strong opinions about.

There's a feeling I get after I've been using a lathe for a while. I don't mean any lathe, I mean one specific lathe, because each one is a little different. When I first start using it, I take my time flipping every lever, making sure I don't make some catastrophic mistake. But over time the lathe and I come to an understanding. I learn her idiosyncrasies, and she lets me know when I'm pushing her too far. After a few weeks, I'm flipping levers left and right. I know every control without taking an eye off the workpiece. I like to use the words sensual and intimate in describing this feeling. It's a little like raising a dog.

My old machining teacher liked to refer to using a machine tool like driving a car, e.g. "How do I drive this daggone mill?".  For my part I think of it more like flying an airplane.  It's more complicated than driving a car, but the possibilities are greater.  Pilots are an elite, sometimes cocky bunch, much like machinists.  Among those in the know, what they do inspires awe.

Machine tools are anything but cold. It honors me to include myself in a tradition that bears the mark of so many great people, including a few of my ancestors. It brings me closer to a history I don't fully understand yet. It gives me something in common with everyone who's ever made something well.

It's by learning to apply tools well that we have advanced our human condition. Our survival depends on knowing how to manipulate our world with tools, and on continuing to pass on that knowledge.

And by the way:
Besides being essential to everything we do, screw threads are, in one sense, a culmination of all human experiences. Their development is the result of many tiny decisions made by many people over many centuries. The most recent decisions were based on older decisions, which were based on yet older ones. That legacy goes back to the earliest humans. And without exaggerating, it can be said that screw threading standards have made fortunes and lost them.

In fact, every modern tool is a permutation of some simple, primitive tool. It was when we first started using these simple tools that we became technological--that we began a period of ever-increasing improvement upon what came before.

*This is theoretically true, but it's not something that happens often. It would require almost fantastical quantities of metal and time.  Some of the tools used to make machine tools are friggin' huge.