Friday, September 30, 2011

The Moment that Made the Year for Me

Sitting on a plane has always felt like a homecoming for me. Having lived in a different state from my parents for 6 years means lots of plane trips home for Christmas and summer. Like Pavlov's dog, I had it stuck in my head that sitting on a plane meant going back to something familiar-something comfortable. 

I guess that's what made the plane ride such a surreal experience. It felt like the same old flight home, but I had to keep reminding myself, no Jon, you're not going home. You're going somewhere you've never been, all by yourself. It didn't feel real. I had a hard time comprehending what this flight really meant.

Over the previous 6 months I had been preparing to go on a bike tour from the Canadian border to the Mexican border along the Pacific coast. It started as a daydream and as the months passed, it came a lot closer to reality. I started buying gear and training. Slowly but surely I worked up to 40 mile rides and my pile of cycling and camping gear got bigger and bigger, not to mention the money in my bank account started depleting. 

My whole approach to preparing for the trip was non-committal. I started out buying gear that would be useful for me whether or not I actually went on the tour. I saw my training routine as something that would be good for me even if I decided not to leave on the trip. 

I had been telling myself this adventure story, but I couldn't decide if the story was fiction or non-fiction. But sooner or later I would be forced to decide.

Looking back at the experience, I'm reminded of Don Quixote. He lived a boring life as an old man with his niece taking care of him. He sat around the house reading chivalry books about knights and giants. He kept reading stories, but never had a story of his own. But his life changed when he really believed the stories were true. Even under the ridicule of his closest friends and family he chose to believe the story of chivalry and decided to live it himself. He got off his bed, constructed a suit of armor, and began his adventures as a knight. It was only at the point when he believed the story was true that he was changed as a person.

I finally got to the point where I acted like my adventure story was really real. There was still some doubt in my mind, but on May 23rd I packed my gear and got on the plane to Bellingham. I looked out the window and saw the Rockies pass by--a familiar sight that only made the flight feel like my homecoming flights to Alaska. After a few hours we landed in Seattle, the airport I almost always fly through on my way to Alaska. I spent the night sleeping on the Seattle airport floor and it passed by incredibly slowly. So this is what I'm getting myself into--sleeping on hard surfaces for 40 days straight. Great. 

In the morning I got on my connecting flight to Bellingham, which is a town very close to the Washington-Canada border. I had heard that one of the most beautiful parts of the Washington leg of my tour would be the view across Puget Sound at the evergreen covered islands jutting out of the water. As the sun was rising I could look out the window and see the breath-taking Puget Sound view. I wonder if I'll be riding across any of those islands. The flight was short-only about 30 minutes and as we were descending I looked out and saw the roads of northwest Bellingham. I had seen these roads before on Google Maps. I saw the interstate that I'd be riding under and then paralleling on my way to the border. And I saw the airport just to the west of the freeway in the same place that Google showed me. This was starting to feel real.

My knees started shaking and I was, all of a sudden, very nervous. Here we go. The plane landed, I got my gear off the baggage claim, and started assembling my bike. I spent an hour in the middle of the tiny airport putting the bike together and packing my gear. People stared at me, wondering what the heck I was doing. My whole body was shaking out of excitement and nervousness. I eventually changed into my cycling clothes and came out to my bike. It was ready to go. Tires inflated, handlebars attached, brakes engaged, bolts tightened, water bottles filled, and panniers closed. 

I walked out to the drive way and straddled my bike, taking a picture to prove that my odometer did, in fact, start at 0.0 miles. I looked around me with a huge smile on my face. I pushed forward, clipped into my pedals, and started pedaling. 

Finally, I knew this was real. I knew there was no turning back and I knew that this was going to be the greatest adventure I've ever done.

A Note from Jon: This was my submission to my friend Anthony's annual writing challenge. The assignment was to write about an hour or a day that really made the year for you. 

Monday, September 26, 2011

Why You Should Consider Commuting by Bike

There are a lot of good reasons to ride a bike. There are also a lot of good reasons to drive. But I think everybody already knows the good reasons for driving, so I'm going to give you lots of good reasons to start biking more.

Commuting by bike is a particularly good way to ride a bike more. You have to go to work everyday anyway, so riding a bike instead of driving a car isn't that ridiculous of an idea. It's still being productive, in that you're getting from one place to another. Work can also be the most stressful time of the day, so a nice bike ride home can be a great stress reliever. Commuting is also a convenient time because you can figure out one bike route that works for you and stick with it every time you ride. Finding bike routes can be difficult if you bike all around town. But if you're always going between two places, it's very manageable.

If you know me, then it's obvious that one of my top reasons for biking so much is that I don't have a car. However, if I had a car, I would still commute by bike regularly. The main reasons I'd keep it up are because it's good exercise, it's refreshing, and it's cheap. And yes I'm saving the environment in the same way that an ocean can be filled one drop at a time. Well la-dee-fricken-da!

Cycling isn't a particularly exhausting exercise, but it raises your heart rate and burns calories. How many calories? About 11.2 calories per minute according to If you weigh 170lbs and ride between 12 and 14mph, then your calorie graph would look like this:

So if the distance between your house and work was 6 miles, then you'd burn about 600 calories per day, assuming you rode down and back at 13mph the whole way. That's pretty good. If you're like me and have trouble scheduling time to work out, then riding a bike to work is a good way to force yourself to get some exercise into your day. And we all know what that get to eat more food!

Riding your bike to work can also save you some money. Fuel costs are much lower since you probably won't be burning gasoline while riding a bike. Your food costs might go up slightly, but not by much. If you get 27mpg and gas is $3.50/gallon, then your fuel cost looks like this:

So if you did a 12 mile commute 3 days a week, that would save you enough for an extra Chipotle burrito with guacamole and a drink every week! Just think about how much happier you would be if you could afford to add another burrito to your week. You would also save a bit on wear and tear, but I am way too lazy to figure that out for you.

I wouldn't be so bold as to say that bike commuting is bundles of fun, but it's definitely at least a handful of fun. It's a very refreshing way to start the day and a relaxing way to end the work day. You'll feel good after the ride and will have had some good time to just let your mind relax.

Commuting by bike is a great thing to do and I think you should consider trying it out. There are obvious limitations like 50 mile commutes and evening commitments that can make it difficult. But if your commute is short enough, you should consider riding a few times a week on your days where you have a some extra time.

Plus, I get really giddy when I see people riding bikes, so you'd at least put a smile on my face.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Why Walking South Would Feel Like Walking Downhill if the Earth was a Perfect Sphere

As Treebeard in Lord of the Rings says, "I always like going south; somehow, it feels like going downhill."

Well I decided to put this to test and actually figure out if walking south actually feels like going downhill and that it's not completely psychological. I'm going to solve this problem assuming the earth is a perfect sphere. This is not a true assumption, so make sure you read the Edit section at the bottom of this page.

If you're going to solve this problem, you should draw a picture. In physics, we like to draw free-body-diagrams that show all the forces acting on the thing that matters. In our case, the thing that matters is a man standing on the surface of the earth. Pointing outward from his body are two arrows that show the forces acting on him (at least the only ones I care about).

So gravity is pulling down on the man and I called it Fg. There's another arrow called Fc. This represents centrifugal force. Centrifugal force is only an apparent force. Believe it or not, your body doesn't want to spin around in circles all day, every day. It wants to keep moving in a straight line. But gravity is strong enough that it keeps you on the ground, moving in circles (much to your body's chagrin) for all eternity. So because the earth is spinning you experience an apparent centrifugal force, think Gravitron.

Well we just might be in luck, because look at the direction the centrifugal force is pulling. It's not pulling straight up or straight down. It's pulling you both upward and south, towards the equator!

So the feeling of walking downhill while you're walking south is not 100% psychological. It might be 99.999999% psychological, but by golly, it's not 100% (at least in 99.99999999% of the cases).

The next question to ask is, How strong is this "Downhill Force" at different latitudes? Is it stronger at the poles or at the equator or somewhere in between?

Well I did some calculations and drew this picture which shows the total force on someone at various latitudes in the northern hemisphere, taking into account both gravity and the centrifugal force.
It pretty much just looks like you'd be pulled towards the center of the earth at any latitude. But instead of looking at the total force, let's look at the tangential force. The tangential force is the force pushing you either north or south (not up or down). Here is a similar picture plotting only the tangential force and ignoring the vertical forces.

If you look closely, you'll see points at 0, 18, 36, 54, 72, and 90 degrees. But there are no arrows coming out of the points at 0 and 90 degrees and the forces in between are the strongest. This makes sense. If you're on the north pole, there is very little centrifugal force since you're close to the axis of rotation. If you're on the equator, you have the most centrifugal force, but unfortunately, it's all pointing straight up into the air, which doesn't help push you forward. In the next figure, I've plotted the tangential force as a function of latitude, including the southern hemisphere.

So the places with the most tangential force are at + and - 45 degrees latitude. And it turns out that if you're in the southern hemisphere, walking north feels like walking downhill. For reference points, I've plotted where New Orleans, Denver, Portland, and Anchorage lie. Lucky Portlanders get maximum downhill force. And my parents who recently moved from Anchorage area to New Orleans can happily say they at least didn't forfeit any downhill force by their recent move.

Although, probably the most important thing to look at on that graph is the vertical axis, which is measured in G's. So that means that even in Portland, OR, you only get a maximum downhill force of about 2/1000 of your body weight. Sad day.

Below, Wintergreen pointed out that the shape of the earth is not exactly spherical. The shape of the earth is determined both by gravity and by the centrifugal force. So that means that the earth is somewhat flattened. The equilibrium shape of the earth would be one where the surface is always perpendicular to the combined force of gravity and the centrifugal force. That means that if the earth has reached that equilibrium shape, then there is no "Downhill Force." The downhill force would only exist before the earth has reached that equilibrium shape.