I Wish Was [sic] in Dixie

All right, kids. It’s time for a pop quiz. Don’t panic. It’s not about the title’s grammar.

This will simply be used as a diagnostic tool for the lesson to follow.




1. What is this?


Unless you’re a historian specializing in the Civil War or a park ranger at Fort Jackson, I bet you’re wrong.


You think you know, but you don’t. Almost everyone said, “the Confederate flag.” It isn’t.



is the national flag of the Confederate States of America. Does it look similar to anything you’ve seen before?


That’s not a coincidence. But we’ll return to these flags in a little while. First, I must digress into the reason I started thinking about all this.

I have a friend who teaches in a public high school, and if you ever wonder why there are serious problems in American education, just consider the story she told me about the start of this year. Teachers return to school before students in the fall for a series of informational and instructional meetings. One had to do with creating a classroom environment that does not make anyone feel uncomfortable. They told her that if one student wears a t-shirt or belt buckle displaying, among other examples, “the Confederate flag,”


[See? School officials don’t know any more than you do.]

and another student feels offended, the teacher is responsible for creating a hostile classroom environment by not requiring the flag bearer to remove the offending symbol.

Later, she went to a different meeting, this one about the right of students to “political speech.” They told her that if a student wears “the Confederate flag”


[They still don’t know.]

and she makes him remove it, she has violated the flag bearer’s first amendment rights that the Supreme Court affirmed in Tinker v. DesMoines.

So she is wrong, no matter what she does, and the students are the ones who referee the actions of the teacher. Judge the sanity of this for yourself. [Digression over.]

Most citizens of the South during the Civil War thought that they were the true descendants of the United States that the founding fathers created. From a perfectly logical point of view, this makes sense. In 1776, Adams, Jefferson, and Washington conducted a revolution against a distant powerful government in London that took away their money through taxes that the colonists did not have the vote to approve. In 1860, Davis, Chestnut, and Lee conducted a revolution against a powerful central government in Washington which they believed intended to take away their ability to make money by keeping slaves, by executive order of a president they had not voted to elect. If you think there is a great difference, remember how many founding fathers owned slaves. So it should come as no surprise that the Confederate flag resembled the American flag:

Flag_of_the_Confederate_States_of_America_(1861-1863).svg             US_flag_13_stars_–_Betsy_Ross.svg

At the beginning of the Civil War, Confederate troops flew the CSA national flag in battles such as First Manassas. Imagine being a young, ill-trained  soldier in the chaos and fury of combat for the first time, and the stress you would feel. It would be easy to confuse the American and Confederate flags and run toward the wrong lines or attack the wrong side. [To add to the confusion, both sides wore blue uniforms in the early stages of the war.] So the CSA looked for an alternate flag to rally their troops in battles. They adapted a Confederate naval jack:


which was less likely to cause confusion. So what everyone calls “the Confederate flag” does not, and never did, represent a nation or a founding philosophy. It stands for armed resistance to United States authority.

So why would people display this symbol today? They would claim they are yearning for a lost culture or way of life, but if they really knew their history, that would mean flying the CSA national flag. You and I both know that the use of the battle flag is an attempt to provoke a reaction in others, and to defy authority, while cowardly hiding behind Constitutional protections.

So the question really becomes, should the United States protect political speech that is made in ignorance? Is a person’s expression legitimate if he has no idea what he is really saying? The Supreme Court has also ruled that fighting words, ones likely to cause a violent reaction in someone else, are not protected.

I bet these folks would know the difference:

Finders Keepers?

Recently, my wife’s daughter and son-in-law asked her if she were listening to any good podcasts. [There’s another word I just don’t understand. It sounds like something out of science fiction. “They spread the virus to the unsuspecting planet via a podcast.” And isn’t that how the Droids We Were Looking For got off of the Imperial star cruiser?]




My wife replied that she was under the impression podcasts were so ten-years-ago. Did anybody listen to them anymore? They assured her that such broadcasts were, indeed, making a comeback among the technically-savvy, and they recommended some they thought she would like.

When we take road trips, we like to listen to audio books. It’s incredible how short Simon Vance’s reading of a James Bond novel can make a four-hour drive. I have an uncle who was infamous in the family for reading actual books when he drove long distances in the 1970s. I read whenever I get the chance, but I’m not willing to go that far. So the last time we traveled, my wife chose to play a recording of Neil MacGregor’s podcast A History of the World in 100 Objects. [I’m sad to admit that I have owned the book since its publication,

History of the World

but I have never gotten around to reading it. My wife was not surprised to learn that I was familiar with this work; we knew we were perfect for each other when we discovered, during the dating phase, that each of us owned the same edition of Discoveries and Opinions of Galileo.]

Galileo Book

Anyway, the book/podcast series starts off by examining the Mummy of Hornedjitef, from Egypt in the third century B.C. MacGregor, the director of the British Museum in London, asks an Egyptian writer what she thinks about the mummy’s location in England instead of Egypt. Her reply is so unexpected that it deserves quotation verbatim:

Ultimately, it’s probably no bad thing to have Egyptian obelisks and stones and statues sprinkled all over the world.  It reminds us of ages of colonialism, yes, but it also reminds the world of our common heritage.

As I did, you probably thought she would launch into a diatribe about the culturally-insensitive and blatantly-unfair pillaging of ancient art treasures by the western world. It seems to be a part of everyone’s talking points. In November of 2011, Smithsonian ran a cover story about the legal battle between the Italian government and the Getty Museum in California over possession of a statue of Aphrodite.

Smithsonian Statue

Italy’s argument hinged on the claim that looters had obtained and exported the statue illegally. Deeper down, of course, lives the idea that ancient art treasures belong with the culture that produced them. Who could take issue with that?

[You guessed this was coming, right?]

When I listened to Ahdaf Soueif’s words in A History of the World in 100 Objects, I suddenly realized that the cultures and governments of countries such as Egypt, Greece, and Italy have little or no relation to the cultures that produced the archaeological objects in question. The Egypt of the Pharaohs came under the control of the Greeks during the time Hornedjitef lived, then Roman, Byzantine, Persian, and Muslim/Ottoman rule in turn. Islamic law and culture dominate today, and these would view polytheistic ancient Egypt, with its highly-representational art, as heretical. The Egypt of romantic imagination did not beget modern Egyptian society.

Similar stories describe the post-classical histories of Greece and Italy. [Did you notice that the Italian government was fighting for the return of a statue made by Greeks during their colonization of the Italian peninsula? Is there no end to empire building?]  The artistic, cultural, and political traditions of the peoples who built the pyramids and mummified bodies, carved the Elgin Marbles and invented democracy, and built the Colosseum and made Christianity official, disappeared to history. Their accomplishments were not passed down to us in a direct line from the source. We only know of them today because of western archaeologists (who weren’t responsible for ending the cultures in question) and the looting of artifacts. As Soueif hinted, this may not be a bad thing.

Consider the following: a former United States president goes on safari to Africa in the early twentieth century. There, he shoots hundreds of animals of different species.


Unconscionable, right? Not so fast. His expedition brings back the taxidermied animals and populates the American Museum of Natural History with them. These displays educate and fascinate budding zoologists in a time before before easy travel and electronic communication, and inspire them to create the environmental conservation movements of today. In effect, a few individual animals gave their lives so their species might have the chance to survive.

Or this: colonizing Spanish introduce wine grapes to the American southwest and California in the sixteenth century. [Oh, the humanity.] There, the grape plants develop resistance to insects that cause a blight in France during the nineteenth century. Grafting these American plants with the European ones helps to save the French wine industry.


Sometimes removing a thing is the only way to preserve it. Recall what happened to the Egyptian antiquities which were displayed in Cairo during the most recent revolution. I’m not saying that civilized nations and people should go around the world randomly taking over countries and stealing objects. But the only real connection between modern Greeks and ancient Greeks is an accident of geography. They happen to be living in the same place.

Say you moved to the town of Princeton, New Jersey for a job, found a house you could afford, and bought it. While doing renovations, you discovered a box of old notebooks in the attic, and when you read through them you discovered they contained previously-unknown scribblings of Albert Einstein, who had been friends with an earlier owner of the house. Of course they would legally belong to you, and you could keep them, sell them to the highest bidder, use them to start your wood stove, or do anything else you wanted with them. If someone broke in and stole them, it would be theft. But, of course, the “right” thing to do might be to send them off to a museum, where they could be authenticated and studied for the increased knowledge they could give to all of humanity. Maybe the thief was an employee of the Institute for Advanced Studies, which desperately wanted Einstein’s notebooks where he had worked while in the U. S. But wait- didn’t Einstein do his best [read: “only Nobel-winning”] work in Switzerland? Doesn’t the Swiss government have some claim on the newly-discovered writings? No matter what, the court of public opinion finds you selfish if you keep the notebooks. What a mess.

In truth, everyone who has the chance to see a masterpiece in person, rather than in a book or on television, becomes better for it. No modern electronic replica can ever replace the experience of an up-close encounter with the real thing, any more than reading about an ancient idea called “democracy” could ever replace living in a free and representative society. Even better, the preservation of democracy in western countries can come full circle and inspire modern Greeks, living in the birthplace of the idea, to replace a monarchy with a republic, as they did in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

The statues, mummies, art, and ideas may not have left their places of origin willingly, but in a way, I’m glad they did. Think of them as ambassadors.

Sorry I’m Late; I Was Going Even More Retro

I did not post an essay this past Friday because a package arrived via the UPS guy.

New Wheels4

It was 25 inches square and three inches thick. Any guesses? Of course! The new rims to replace my worn-out MA 40.


They were beautiful.


(Many thanks to Ben’s Cycle for having these lying around.)

Do you notice something odd about these rims and/or look at the listing? That’s right; I went with tubulars for training.

For those of you who don’t know, tubular tires contain the casing, tread, and inner tube sewn up in a single flexible unit. Off the bike, they look like this:


and when you’re out riding you carry the whole thing folded up:


Or if you’re in a time warp back to the early twentieth century, you wear them in some sort of strange fashion statement:


Tubulars stay in place by a combination of air pressure, when inflated, and a special glue applied to the rims. They have a reputation amongst cyclists these days for being tricky to mount, because of the glue, dangerous, if not glued properly, delicate, because the casing is not as tough and rigid as that on most clincher tires, and expensive, because you cannot simply change inner tubes after getting a flat.

(The tires themselves had arrived the day before from Yellow Jersey in Wisconsin. If you take a look at his site, he has a great deal to say about this type of tire.)

So, why did I choose to build this kind of wheel, if there seem to be so many disadvantages? First, it’s traditional. A vintage bicycle deserves to have the type of components for which it was designed, whenever this is possible.

Second, I think they are easier and quicker to change if you get a flat. Instead of levering the tire off of its mounting bead, removing the damaged inner tube, checking the casing of the tire for the debris that caused the flat (I sliced my finger open quite badly doing this during a ride once), inserting a new inner tube, and coaxing the tire back onto the rim, you simply peel off the old tire and stretch the new one on in its place. Riding the brakes lightly for a few minutes re-melts and activates the dried glue, and you’re off.

Third, tubulars feel good in a way that I cannot quantify. Riding on clinchers feels as though the bicycle will do as much as the effort you put into it, nothing more, nothing less. If the road is rough, you notice the friction. It’s pretty much a zero-sum-game. But when you have tubulars on the bike, there is a sense of riding on a coiled spring. It feels as though there is potential energy stored in the bike/wheel system, and the slightest touch on the pedals unleashes what the bike wants to do: take off. I know that the people who measure these things will say that, “These is no evidence that tubular tires have a lower rolling resistance than high-quality clinchers, blah, blah, blah.” All right, maybe not. But I’m telling you they just feel different. And better different, not just different.

Fourth, and probably best of all, other cyclists have priceless reactions when I mention wanting to ride on tubulars. Before I found the rims on ebay, I was poking around in a shop that specializes in restoring vintage bicycles. When I mentioned that I was looking for tubular rims, he looked at me with incredulity, and just said, “Clinchers!” When I talked to the owner of my local bike shop about my project, he asked if I knew what I was doing, and he did not mean building the wheel to be round, straight, and properly-tensioned. He meant using tubulars. People just cannot get their heads around the idea. Look at this discussion, where an amateur in the United States criticizes European professional cyclists for using tubulars in the twenty-first century. Similar incredulity exists because professionals still use rim brakes and not disk brakes on their road bikes. These guys are the best in the world at what they do, and they make a living by riding bikes. But clearly they are mistaken in their choice of equipment. (Really?) I guess I just cannot understand why anybody gets so worked up about the equipment that someone else uses. If you want to use clinchers, carbon wheels, aerodynamic handlebars, and disk brakes, go ahead. It does not affect me in the slightest. But why do people feel the need to tell me I’m wrong for using what I want to use?

I’m beginning to think that nobody today can think for himself. People look to others to justify their own choices. (Why do people in Massachusetts need to say they want their coffee “regular,” when they mean with cream and sugar? Because that’s the normal, correct way to take it, of course. So cream-only would be “irregular?”) If the social media say that everyone rides a certain kind of tire, then it must be true. There cannot be any deviation. This would make a cyclist unsure as to whether his purchasing decisions were correct. I think that, deep down, there is a fear in anyone who constantly follows trends and upgrades that he might have been duped.

What if a guy on a steel bike rides faster than I do on my carbon fiber bike? What if a guy with rim brakes can stop as well as I can with my disk brakes? What if a guy with a wooden tennis racquet can beat me and my hyper-carbon-oversized-widebody racquet? What if a guy with a telescope made of plumbing parts can find deep-sky objects and see them as well as I can with my GPS-enabled, computerized scope? So many people now equate performance with the purchase of new and “better” equipment that they seem unable to understand the two things are not the same. I cherish upsetting people’s worldview when I show up with my retro anything!

Back to my story. Being the World’s Cheapest Human Being, I switched over the spokes and hubs from my old wheels (don’t worry; my local mechanic assured me they were safe), and carefully and slowly, over the course of last Friday, built my new tubular wheels.

New Wheels3

Did I mention that I am the World’s Cheapest Human Being? I went on to make my own tire savers to flick glass, stones, and thorns out of the tire treads before they cause punctures:

New Wheels1

New Wheels2

Over the weekend, I went for a shakedown ride and made some truing adjustments, and the wheels feel great!

I look forward to upsetting cyclists everywhere when they see me using them.