Ebikes – a tipping point, or another Segway?

Being a bit of a bike geek, I’ve been researching the surprisingly varied models of electric-assist bikes on the market. These are basically pedal bicycles that have an electric motor and battery to provide extra power to the wheels. Some can be run purely off the battery (no pedaling required), while others are “pedal assist” systems – power is only applied to supplement pedal power. They’re still a bit pricey for my taste and budget (decent ones run close to $3,000), but there are also much less expensive DIY kits available that one can add onto an existing bike frame.

This has me wondering whether we’re on the cusp of another transportation revolution. The Bay Area had a high density of early adopters when the Toyota Prius first came out (I myself bought one in its 2nd year of production). Early Prius owners would give each other “the nod” if we pulled up next to one another; there were plenty of web-based discussion boards on topics such as optimal tire inflation, hyper-miling (squeezing every last MPG out of the car), and the like. Nowadays, the Prius is so commonplace nobody bats an eye. Today it’s the Tesla, Nissan Leaf, and other pure electric vehicles that get some notice, but even they are becoming more commonplace.

With the economy on the rebound, Bay Area traffic has gotten horrible. The relationship between cars on the road and traffic snarls is non-linear – it only takes a small increment of cars on the road to really foul up the traffic patterns. I’ve altered my current commute to take more surface streets this year, as the main freeway is simply no longer the fastest route (according to Google Maps transit times, which I’ve found to be accurate). And I’ve certainly noticed that in stop-and-go traffic, a bicycle commuter can more or less keep pace with me over several miles.

All of this has me wondering whether the time is right for a new segment of the population to discover bicycle commuting. I don’t know what the statistics are for bike commuters (in terms of average distance traveled, time used during commute, etc.)… Oh, wait, The Google know all. This page claims in 2014, the national average bike commute was just over 19 minutes, with most commutes falling in the 10-14 minute range. Assuming a fairly casual average speed of 10 mph (which might be reasonable if stop signs and traffic lights are factored in), that means the average bike commute is a bit over 3 miles.  Maybe 4 if the speed goes up a bit.

Ebikes have the potential to change that range dramatically. There are essentially two speed classes recognized by a recent CA law, those limited to 20mph top speed, and those limited to 28mph.  I’ve tried bikes in both categories and believe me, it’s pretty easy to get to the top speed by just exerting the effort I would expend going 8-10 mph on a normal bike.  This means that a 3 mile commute at 10mph (18 minutes) could become a 6 mile commute at 20mph, or nearly 9 miles at 28mph. Inside that ring from 3 to 9 miles out from home are a lot of potential commutes that could be done nearly as quickly by ebike.

That’s the hopeful view. A pessimistic view (spurred by an editorial I dug up – and lost the link to – while researching ebikes) wonders whether ebikes are the next Segway. In the author’s mind this is not a flattering comparison. The initial promise of the Segway was to revolutionize urban transportation. Instead they became associated with mall cops and airport security; the public perception of Segway riders is somewhere between a dork and an overweight couch potato. I have no data to corroborate the author’s claim of public perceptions, but the paucity of Segways on the sidewalks and bike lanes speaks for itself – I almost never see one in the wild, except for an occasional organized tour of a city.

Personally, I don’t see ebikes going the same route as the Segway. First, they come in a variety of styles, from cruisers to road bikes to real workhorse bike/trucks. Anybody interested in one can find one that fits their perception of what a “cool” bike should look like. Most importantly, the “e” part of the ebike can be made fairly unobtrusive – it would take a hard second look to realize a person’s bike was electrically assisted. Also, while the U.S. is not a bike commuting culture in the same way that, say, China is, bikes are common enough that one doesn’t call attention to oneself riding one. A Segway definitely catches people’s eye – a bicycle, not so much.

As for myself, I clocked my commute to Stanford at about 7 miles one way, and timed it at about 35 minutes on my carbon road bike riding at a moderate touring pace (around 12mph, including stop signs and lights). I’m a recreational/fitness cyclist, so that’s well within my range for an easy bike ride. For starters, I’m going to try commuting the old-fashioned way with pure pedal power. If I decide there is real value in cutting the time in half, maybe I’ll consider a plug-and-play e-motor kit, but for now I just don’t think I’m in the right demographic/commute range to justify that. Stay tuned.

Meanwhile, here’s my new beast on its first ride out. (Specialized Sirrus Sport Disc)

New commuter on its first time out

New commuter on its first time out


Repotting myself

A number of people have asked me what the new job is all about. Most of my co-workers know the parts of the story, but my social circle extends far beyond Menlo Park. Here’s the scoop.

After finishing my PhD in Education in 2001, I went to work at the American Institutes for Research (AIR) doing contract research in education. This is a job that most people don’t know anything about. Every time you hear of a government study of a new reading program, changes to teacher evaluation practices, technology use in the home, etc., the social scientists who did the actual investigation probably work either at a university or a research institute. In fact, large-scale studies are generally only done by research institutes, as they have large, permanent professional staffers who can take on these multi-year efforts. University professors do their share of this work, but their grants tend to be smaller, and their graduate student research assistants tend to, well, graduate shortly after they’re trained up to the job.

This was actually not my first choice of career path. I was aiming squarely at an academic position – teaching courses and starting up a research program of my own, investigating how to infuse reasoning and argumentation into the K-12 curriculum. But life intervened; my dissertation schedule slipped, such that it was going to be very hard to both finish and get on the job market those last six months of school. I’d also started a promising relationship as I was finishing up, so it seemed like a good idea to stay put for another year or two, get some writing done, and then venture out into the academic world.

Relationship led to marriage, which led to me withdrawing from consideration for an academic job at the University of Hawaii (I was told I was their top candidate at the time). The pace of the contract research work left little time for writing or thinking about my own research agenda, and I didn’t have the desire or fortitude to publish my dissertation work after-hours. I did move to another institute (SRI International) after a few years at AIR, and that is where I’ve been employed for just over eleven years.

At some point I essentially timed out as a viable assistant professor candidate. Ironically, my marriage dissolved around this point, so I was finally “free” to move anywhere in the country.  But I wasn’t publishing enough peer-reviewed work, and my research projects did not add up to a coherent program (that’s the nature of contract research – it’s wonderfully diverse, which keeps life interesting, but it’s not an easy way to build the focal specialties preferred by universities). So I made peace with that change of course, and got involved with some pretty interesting work over the years. My colleagues are both smart and kind (a rare combination!), and I applaud the leadership at SRI for maintaining such high standards of research quality and professionalism.

It’s hard to put a finger on any one thing that made me itch for a change. There were some dissapointments – projects that seemed promising but fell apart internally, or evaluations of hopeful innovations that turned out to not have much of an impact. At one point I found myself telling a colleague “I’m getting really tired of documenting failures.” If there was a turning point, it was probably that – I felt that I was a passive bystander documenting well-intentioned but poorly thought out innovations.

My thoughts turned back to my original intent – to more directly educate students and conduct research on critical reasoning (it’s probably not a coincidence that my interest in reasoning seems to intensify every election season, when I’m continually appalled at what passes for political discourse). To make a potentially long story short, I found a way back into a university setting, this time as a staff researcher.

Stanford University is beginning a process of intensive self-examination, asking it can do better to foster student learning. Here’s a sampling of the questions being asked in this “year of learning“.

  • How do we define “good teaching” and “good learning”? What does current research tell us is most effective?
  • What are “good studying” habits and skills? Which extracurricular factors influence learning outcomes and what does current research tell us to pay attention to?
  • How can faculty and departments recognize effective teaching and encourage it?
  • How and why do teaching and learning vary between disciplines and what is common among them?
  • How can we learn about best practices and diversity of goals in teaching from one another, across different schools?
  • What should we do to improve teaching and learning at Stanford in the future?

Stanford needs thoughtful education researchers to help carry out this mission, and in particular they need someone who can also help faculty interpret the results from a newly overhauled course evaluation system. This list of research questions that span philosophy of education, learning sciences, and data analysis seemed almost tailor-made for what I value and enjoy. It also turns out that a former SRI colleague and good friend is already at Stanford helping to move this inquiry forward. We had a special synergy when working together in the past, and when she alerted me to this job posting it seemed too good to be true.

I’ll be joining the Stanford team in December, and meanwhile am wrapping up some loose ends with on-going projects at SRI. That’s the story of my transition.

There will be lots more to write about, I’m sure, as the (academic) year progresses. I also want to use this interim time to reflect on other mid-life transitions; I feel like I’m in a very different place than when I wrote for NaBloPoMo last November. But that’s for future postings.

Here, have a cat.

Manele tracking the sun

Manele tracking the sun


I’ve started cleaning out the office space I’ve occupied for eleven years. I found boxes that haven’t been opened since moving in from my previous job – clearly they aren’t holding anything important. Old posters from conferences long past and forgotten. Printed user manuals from software seven versions out of date (and from an era before PDF manuals). I even found a binder of notes and assignments from an undergraduate course, circa 1985; that binder was older than many of my colleagues.

The metaphor of molting fits well – shedding parts of me that served me well at the time, but are no longer needed. At one point these binders, notes, and journal articles felt like off-line storage for my brain; I might not be actively thinking about their contents, but I’ve been maintaining an internal pointer to them, should I ever need to call them up again. Over time, though, I’ve either moved on from those issues, or am assured that the Internet knows all and that I could call up newer, fresher treatments of these issues as needed. It’s time to molt.

Going through my book shelves will be an interesting exercise. The planks are roughly six feet long. One entire shelf is devoted to philosophy, psychology, and education trade books. A second shelf holds statistical and psychometric texts. The third holds relics from years past – the Numerical Recipes reference, a calculus textbook, Sedgewick’s Algorithms… I’ll end up pruning books from each of them, taking what is most likely to be needed in the next stage of life and discarding the rest.

Can I know what will be important to retain? Generally I’d use the “if I haven’t looked at it in ten years, discard it” rule, but part of the reason I haven’t cracked some of these books is that my current work doesn’t demand it. I’m moving back into a position where the deeper questions – what is important to teach, how should we think about what it means to learn something – are going to be actively discussed. Maybe I’ll get to re-read Plato’s dialogs again. 🙂  Or rather, feel the urge to re-read Plato, to have an active question I’m pursuing in those pages. I’m looking forward to the metamorphosis.

Bin 1 of 2 (and counting) for recycling

Bin 1 of 2 (and counting) for recycling

Arts in the home… are sometimes messy

This evening I picked up my guitar to work my challenge piece for the year, La Catedral by Augustín Barrios.  I started on the third movement – the allegro – at about a half of normal tempo. It’s technically difficult to get the arpeggios even and not buzz strings as the left hand shifts position. It also just doesn’t sound that great slowed down. A bit frustrated, I back off and stated playing the second movement – the movement actually inspired by hearing Bach organ music from inside a cathedral – which has its own difficulties with phrasing and voicing. It was at that point that I noticed Julia closed the bedroom door between herself and me.

Most of the time Julia and the girls like having my music around the house, but I’m well aware that when I’m actually working on a piece, it can’t sound pleasant to have the same phrase repeated over and over, buzzing strings and all. That’s the difference between practicing and playing – I need to really work out some knots on this piece to make it playable. Unfortunately, this piece has a strongly melancholy feel to it – the first movement is played saudade, a Portuguese word for melancholy with that sense of yearning for lost love (the prelude was originally written in honor of Barrios’s late wife). Overall, a pretty depressing piece – it reminds me of a stormy evening, watching rain trickle down a window pane. Combine gut-wrenching melancholy with the awkwardness of repetitious practice… I can’t really blame her for closing the door.

But art makes a mess sometimes. On the one hand, the photo in my last blog entry shows a precious moment after a child’s inspired art project. It also shows that she left the table a mess the following morning, failing to clean up before leaving for school. If I’m practicing a piece that I have down reasonably well, it sounds musical. If I’m working through a difficult section… time to close the bedroom door. I still wouldn’t have it any other way; I’m grateful Julia and the girls overall enjoy my playing.

Here is what La Catedral should sound like. Someday…

Arts in the home

I grew up with an amateur artist in the home; my mom painted most of her adult life. Our home was filled her her work, with many of her earlier paintings hanging in the garage and basement as well. I just took for granted that people made their own art, because that’s how we rolled.

I was neither encouraged or discouraged to dabble in the arts. Well, maybe a bit discouraged, as I was one of those kids who didn’t have great fine motor control or patience for coloring within the lines. Art class in elementary school seemed to be 90% talent discovery (as opposed to cultivation), and it was pretty clear I was not one of the blessed talents. My mom was probably an entity theorist (to use Carol Dweck’s term) – she tacitly believed you either have talent or you don’t. I’m pretty sure that in her eyes I fell into the latter category.

In junior high I discovered photography. It had the right combination of artistry and geekiness (this was back in the days of darkrooms and chemical processing of film). One of my neighbors was a newspaper photographer, and took me under her wing as I learned how to use a “real” camera and set up my own darkroom. I continued to learn and enjoy photography throughout high school, until I became the photo editor of the yearbook in my senior year. I think I produced something like 400 prints in the course of a week, and so burned out on photography that I barely touched my camera through four years of college; I have very few pictures from those very formative years.

Other artistic avenues opened up to me in college, however. I began taking my music more seriously, studying classical guitar under a very good teacher, and even spending most of my senior year building a classical guitar in the college’s wood shop. Although I wouldn’t have much opportunity for fine woodworking in my 20’s and most of my 30’s, I would eventually resurrect that passion after purchasing a house with a two-car garage and setting up a shop. Since then I’ve constructed two beds, a dining set, coffee table, jewelry boxes, innumerable pens, and built the guitar that I currently play. I’ll buy Ikea furniture if I need a quick-and-dirty set of shelves or something utilitarian, but otherwise I’m going to make it myself.

So our house is filled with my art – we eat at the dining set and coffee table I built, sleep in a bed I co-designed with my partner Julia, while my guitar hangs on the wall above us. Moreover, one of Julia’s daughters has been playing flute throughout middle school, and fills our home with music on a daily basis, while the other daughter (who has always gravitated toward the graphical arts) has really clicked with her art teacher (who, by a stroke of good fortune, is also her science teacher) and is stretching herself to try new things and accept coaching.

As you probably know, the arts have been pushed out of the mainstream K-12 curriculum over the past few decades. I won’t go into the history of that movement right now (perhaps in a future blog), nor the arguments for bringing the arts back. I’m simply glad that the two young women who share our home have each discovered a muse, and we’re delighting in watching them learn and grow and express themselves creatively. Seeing family-made art on the walls and in the halls brings back a strong feeling of “home.”

Evidence of last night's creativity

Evidence of last night’s creativity

Where the U.S. lags in technology

I live in the heart of Silicon Valley. During my commute to work I routinely pass Google self-driving cars, mapping cars, and next-generation Segway-like personal transports. Hybrid-electric cars are as common as pure fossil-fuel guzzlers. There are bicycles on the roads, but not many.

My next job will result in a shorter commute, and is within striking distance of a comfortable bike ride. I rode a couple of possible commute routes last weekend, and they timed out at about 35 minutes; that’s probably not much longer than it would take by automobile, after factoring in stop-and-go traffic lights and the search for parking. Around the same time, my local bike shop advertised a new generation of electric-assist bicycles from Trek. Curious, I test rode a couple, and could see the potential for making a borderline commute relatively effortless.

I haven’t seen very many electric-assist bikes on the road, so I looked around for who else carried them. There is one shop in Santa Clara devoted exclusively to ebikes – ELV Motors. They have every style and price point under the sun, crammed into a tiny showroom. The proprietor was more than happy to let me test ride a half dozen different models, each with different approaches to electric assist and with varying degrees of build quality. This then led me to on-line discussion groups and a subpopulation of the do-it-yourself maker community.

I soon learned that the most popular motors and batteries are all made in China. Not, as I assumed, because that’s where practically everything technical is made due to cheaper labor. As it turns out, the Chinese market for ebikes is huge relative to the U.S., because China is a bike-commuting society. In the U.S. most adult cyclists ride for pleasure or health; in the rest of the world, bicycling is seen as a primary mode of transportation. With the exception of the ELV Motors shop, ebikes are a relative novelty around here, where only 2 or 3 bikes are available in shops carrying hundreds of pure pedal-powered models.

In fact, the Trek bikes I linked to above have been available in Europe for years – only this year did Trek decide to dip its toe in the U.S. market. This entire market and network of ebike builders exists largely outside of the U.S. – I can’t think of any other relatively modern technology where this is the case. The motor sizes are often spec’d to comply with European limits on ebike power (U.S. laws are a bit more patchwork, and fortunately allow larger motors before crossing the line to “motorcycle”).

I’ve been reading the reviews of the kit motors and batteries one can order to transform an ordinary Craigslist commuter bike into an eBike, and the tinkerer in me is intrigued. I’ll start by trying the commute under exclusively human power, but sometime this winter I may end up building more than guitars at the TechShop

Why NaBloPoMo is hard for me

I’m still a bit under the weather, and really don’t feel like writing in the first place. But the real impediment is feeling that at this particular moment I don’t have much to say.   That turns out to be a bit of a theme.

I enjoy writing, for the most part. It’s an art and a craft, and creating a well-written piece often sharpens my thinking on a particular topic. Even the editing process – the substation of simpler phrases for the unnecessarily complex – brings a small bit of pleasure as I buff out the rough spots in my prose.

But (of course there’s a “but”)… if I’m going to post something on a public forum and get my friends’ attention – if even for a second or two – I want to have something worth reading on the other side of the click. It doesn’t have to be deep or profound, but I want to feel that somebody reading my posting has gained something for that two minutes of their life irretrievably lost.

When I was first applying to graduate programs, I had mentioned in my application essay that I enjoyed writing for a purpose, not just to fill a quota of publications in the quest for tenure. A friend and then current graduate student urged me to strike that out of my essay – most of the faculty members where I’d be applying had completely bought into the quantity over quality of publications measure, in spite of claims to the contrary. One scholar I know talks in terms of LPU’s – “least publishable units” – the smallest degree of “findings” one can extract from a research study to justify a publication, so that a single study can spawn multiple, small and focused publications, rather than a single, large and coherent treatment of the research. The belief is that factoring a study into LPUs and publishing multiple small articles would result in higher “productivity scores” at tenure and promotion time. I hope he’s wrong.

So, in spite of my misgivings, maybe what I’ve written so far has been worth the minute or so you’ve spent reading. Academic friends – how does your department or instruction handle the quantity vs quality judgment for tenure and promotion?

Oh, here’s another photo of a cat.

Manele BayBay, our Hawaiian adoptee

Manele BayBay, our Hawaiian adoptee