Thursday, October 29, 2009

A Word On Bicycles And Radios

Think back to a great speech, an interesting musical composition or an experience of going through a historical event live and chances are, you probably heard a good portion of them on the radio.

Riding a bicycle and going places also instills deep memories. In developing nations, kids ride bikes to school. Men make money through bicycles. Entire families are seen transporting themselves from village to town and vice versa. For most of us, we remember routes and places better when we take a trip there by bike.

One could argue that both the radio and the bicycle completely changed human society, and the way we live today. They are metaphors for social progress. The bicycle has offered a cheap means of transport for millions of people across the world for over a century. It increased personal freedom, elevated personal health and has had pivotal roles to play in the emancipation of women.

And without the radio and closely related wireless technologies, perhaps the Allies wouldn't have even ended either of the World Wars. I mean, there's nothing more gripping and nervous than the threat of war, I'm sure we can all agree to that. So imagine conducting battles, moving tens of millions of people and resources across nations, directing complex artillery to places you cannot even see and making concerted decisions relevant to governance, information and security via horses, mail coaches and pigeons.

The radio has been a cheap information source. We don't have to know what's in it. There's a fantastic level of abstraction to this technology. The package is great! And through the ether or whatever that stuff is up there, it brings us music, tidings, propaganda and sports broadcasts. All we have to do is sit somewhere and turn the knob to the right places. Then shut up and listen. Its simple and beautiful.

The bicycle takes a day or two to learn. Okay, at most 10 days, maybe a fortnight. But the thrill of finally getting to ride one must far overwhelm the initial effort. Once on a bicycle, the rider is in tune to everything around them - the breeze to the face, the direction of the wind, the inclinations of pathways, the people and the surroundings, the quality of the air, the temperature gradients, the sounds on the bicycle. Its a self discovery. Its a discovery of the environment. Its a discovery of mechanisms and how they work.

Should bicycling be like using the radio? Yes, of course. It should be easy to use. So easy, a caveman could do it, that sort of thing. It should be like the radio as an instrument that helps tune personal development, giving the owner great education, memories and pleasure. Riding a bicycle should have an imaginative component, like listening to a radio. It should be a tool promoting shared experiences. Hundreds of people can listen to one great radio broadcast and enjoy it. Hundreds of bicyclists can ride the same beautiful countryside on the same bicycles and enjoy its lush offerings. Why, that concept has been enjoyed by many people for many years.

Should the bicycle be as complex as the radio? The radio is complex and its there for a reason. But the complexity is hidden through abstraction. All we see is the outer case and a couple of knobs. But if something goes wrong with it, we have to sit and RTFM - Read The Fine Manual. If its necessary, you must take it to a specialized individual to have it fixed.

Is it necessary to pollute the bicycle with unneeded complexity? I guess it depends how you think about that. Here's what I feel. Not considering bicycles used purely for specialized hobbies, the common bikes that people ride for transport and living must be kept simple to a large degree. Most normal people equate happiness with simplicity. It must feel great to have a tool that's easy to use and is easy to figure out what's wrong if something does go wrong. And how nice it would be to have one that you can use and carry around with you in many places, akin to the mobility offered by the simple radio.

Enjoy this video from Rwanda,. As we can see, there must be something deeply existential in fitting a radio to a bicycle. Can you relate to this special joy?

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