But we’ll stay warm inside…


I’ve been mulling over a post like this for some time now, but with the purchase of a new (used) bike about a month ago, it got me thinking more seriously again about what sort of value I put on my transportation and what sort of costs are involved with each.

Since high school, I have owned only two automobiles. One was purchased for me by my parents at the start of my senior year (a used 1980 Volvo GLE), and the other is a co-owned car that I purchased with my wife (a used 2001 Honda Accord). With each of these vehicles there have been the associated costs of registration, insurance, taxes, maintenance/repairs, and fuel.

In that same amount of time, I’ve owned five bicycles, four of which are still in my possession. The price of these bikes has ranged from free (more on that in a little bit) to $670. With each, there have been associated maintenance/repair costs, some more than others.

In thinking about value that I place on my transportation, I inevitably arrived at the question of how much it was costing me per mile for each mode of transportation that I’ve had over the years.

Of course, there’s the sheer joy of driving on a nice day with the sunroof down or cruising along the bike path at a good clip with the wind at your back, but being a numbers person I’ve always wondered where the line crossed in my head when I felt that a purchase was truly worth its monetary investment.

In doing so, I’ve had to rely on my memory of numbers and distances and dollars in many cases, but due to many factors (one of which is somewhat obsessively keeping track of how many miles I’ve biked over the years) I feel that the estimates below are fairly correct. In all cases in which I couldn’t remember exactly, I’ve rounded down to the nearest close number. Of course, it’s impossible for me to remember how much I paid for gas with each car, so I’ve instead figured out how many miles were put on the car each year and then divided that by average miles per gallon and then totaled up how many gallons used at average cost at the pump that year.

First off, the automobiles…

1980 Volvo GLE – I’ve decided to exclude calculations on this car, mostly because my parents paid for it along with a couple of large repairs during the first few years of ownership.

2001 Honda Accord
Price paid: $12,000
Registration and taxes (for 4 years): $950
Insurance (for 4 years): $1,300
Maintenance costs, including oil changes (for 4 years): $3,000
Gas costs (approximately): $3,300
Total Costs: $20,550
Miles driven: 30,250
Dollars per mile: $0.68

Now, on to the bicycles…

1990 Trek 820 mountain bike
Price paid: $350
Maintenance costs, new tires/tubes/handgrips, cyclometer, tune-ups (for 6 years of ownership): $200
Total Costs: $550
Miles riden: 1,800
Dollars per mile: $0.305

1996 Specialized Rockhopper mountain bike
Price paid: $670
Maintenance costs, new tires/tubes/handgrips, bar-ends, tune-ups (for 13 years of ownership): $300
Total Costs: $970
Miles riden: 4,850
Dollars per mile: $0.20

1985 Fuji Espree road bike
Price paid: $5 (Thrift score! Thanks Tina!)
Maintenance costs, new tires/tubes/bell/seat (for 4 years of ownership): $75
Total Costs: $80
Miles riden: 1,070
Dollars per mile: $0.075

1982 Takara Deluxe 12 road bike
Price paid: Free! (Whee! Thanks Grauer!)
Rebuild costs, paint/chain/wheels/tires/tubes/grips/bell (for 8 months of ownership): $265
Total Costs: $265
Miles riden: 240
Dollars per mile: $1.105

1985 Trek 400 Series road bike
Price paid: $340
Maintenance costs, new tires/tubes/bottom bracket (for 3 weeks of ownership): $85
Total Costs: $425
Miles riden: 330
Dollars per mile: $1.29

In looking at the above numbers, I think we’ve already done pretty well in terms of our investment on the Accord. Over the years, I’ve found myself disliking the actual act of driving even more and more (mainly due to other drivers), but the convenience and speed of the car make it essential for both errands, commuting (sometimes), and longer trips. Unless it turns into a money pit of expenses (fingers crossed), I think that its cost per mile will just keep going down, and that’s a good thing.

As for my bikes, I feel like I’ve always managed to get my money’s worth. Both of the mountain bikes have long-since been retired, but both worked out for exercise and commuting during their times. I need to sell the Specialized, as I haven’t taken it out for years, and the Trek was sold many moons ago to another friend who rode it until the frame broke (so it had a good life).

The Fuji is obviously a major anomaly that will be hard to match again in terms of efficiency because the costs involved with it are so minimal. It also has a rack on the back with an expandable trunk pack, so I’ve made many jaunts to area hardware and grocery stores to retrieve items when it seems like a waste to drive the car (for the record, I’ve fit a half gallon of soy milk, a package of carrots, 6 bananas, and a block of cheese in that pack with room to spare).

The Takara was a winter project of mine and easily the least practical of the bikes that I’ve owned due to it only having one gear. It’s a heck of a lot of fun to ride (and eventually I’ll put more miles on it), but it’s at the same time too nice (I put a lot of work into it) to lock up somewhere and not nice enough (the gear ratio isn’t exactly long-distance friendly) for big rides.

The new (used) Trek road bike was bought mainly for exercise, since I’ve had some aggravated hip pain that has held me out of playing tennis (but has felt pretty good with the low-impact of bicycling). As with any sport I try out, I tend to get pretty engrossed, and 330 miles in just over 3 weeks is hopefully just the opening chapter on what will be a solid performer for me. I’ll probably get another bike at some point down the road, but the vintage steel rides like a dream, so I might be hooked.

Having said all of the above, it also seems somewhat logical to separate the miles on either forms of transportation into leisure and utility. Although I have been known to take somewhat meaningless drives for convenience’s sake, I can’t recall a time where I simply got in the car and drove for no particular reason. However, a large part of the miles put on my bikes have been for no other reason than to simply ride and exercise. Of course, there’s obviously health values in bicycling, but largely the miles put on my bikes are much less utilitarian in nature than the miles put on the cars.

Ultimately, the goal would be to reduce the overall cost per mile of transportation. To that end, the easy solution is to bicycle more. Fortunately, I live in a locale where a commute to work is very easy, and there are stores of just about every kind located within five miles or less (yes, I have on occasion been “that guy” you see with a grocery bag slung over each handle of his bicycle). Of course, hauling a shovel or a flat of plants home becomes a bit more precarious on a bicycle, but there are many drives that I take now that I could easily turn into bicycle trips (including picking up takeout from nearby restaurants). It’s also been shown that the 5 and 10 minute trips are the ones that do the most long-term damage to cars (due to containment build-up in the oil, etc), so replacing some of those trips with a bike ride might also possibly mean lower maintenance costs (and therefore more miles per dollar) on our automobile.

Fortunately, I enjoy biking a lot more than I do driving, so hopefully I can turn these numbers over just a bit more in the future.

In addition to a bathroom remodel, one of my winter projects over the course of the past couple months was taking an old road bike and tearing it apart, then rebuilding it from the ground up. I’d waffled back and forth on what sort of project I should tackle, but eventually decided on putting together a single-speed commuter.

I started out with a bike that looked almost exactly like this (unfortunately I didn’t take any “before” pictures, but this is exactly the same bicycle, just a different color)…

The first task was taking everything apart for stripping the frame. This was relatively easy, and after cleaning all the grease and dirt off, I started scraping paint by hand. Because I started the project in the dead middle of winter, I mostly used small tools to clean the frame (small dental-type scrapers to get around the fine joints and a wire brush) and fine sandpaper. Once I had the majority of the paint gone, I waited until we had a decently warm day and set upon it all with some harsher chemicals outside on a piece of cardboard in the driveway. With some fine toothbrush cleaning and a bit of mineral spirits, I got it down to the bare steel frame and fork.

Because it was still winter, actually priming and painting the bike again became a waiting game for days over 50 degrees Fahrenheit. I would dutifully everything out when we’d get rays of sun, then bring it into the house and fine-sand between coats, finishing everything up with five layers of enamel clear coat.

Putting all the parts (and believe me, there were quite a few of them) back together was surprisingly easy given my lack of experience in bicycle rebuilding, and aligning the back cog with the crank fell right into place with a little bit of tweaking. The end result is something I’m pretty happy with, and it’s incredibly fun (and fast) to ride as well.

If you’re interested, there are a few more photos in a Flickr photoset.

Just realizing things

Although basic hints of frustration showed over the course of the past few years, it was during the last six to nine months that I realized writing music reviews on my site had often become more of a chore than a joy. I started writing them on a whim in my first (very tiny) apartment many, many years ago, with no set time period for how long I would continue. Now a decade has passed along with several large life changes (almost all for the good, fortunately), and I feel like I’ve reached a good point to slow my output.

I didn’t come to this decision easily. I wrangled with it for a couple months, going back and forth between wondering how I would continue to discover music on the margins and even how my weekly schedule would change. Looking back, I can’t even really come up with some sort of way to quantify how much time I’ve spent doing music reviews, and if I could, it would probably just make me a bit depressed. In Malcom Gladwell’s new book Outliers, he makes the generalization that 10,000 hours spent practicing a skill will likely make someone a master at that skill. Over ten years, that averages out to only about 1000 hours a year (which I have easily reached if I include time spent listening critically to music), and I’m certainly no master, so perhaps that’s another sign it’s time to hang things up…

Because my brain is wired a certain way, it seems like I always go back to numbers, and in looking through the basic data on my review site, it makes me realize that I’ve been more than a little obsessive over the course of the past decade or so.

I dropped my first music review onto the internet back in late 1997, and since that time I’ve written over 2350 more. A couple years back, I started doing podcasts for my featured review each week, and have now done well over 200 of them. I’ve reviewed CDs by over 1535 different artists (not including various artist compilations) and very nearly 800 different record labels. The labels that I’ve written the most reviews for are Matador (68), Kranky (64), and Warp (60). The artist that I’ve reviewed the most is Squarepusher (9), with The Orb and Autechre coming in a close second (with 8 apiece).

Of course, this sheer quantity led to what I felt was a general degradation in the quality of my writing over the course of the past year or so, although some could certainly argue that it’s been lacking from the start. What I’ve come to realize is that it isn’t the simple act of writing reviews that has ground me down, it’s simply the quantity. I still love music and love writing about it, but to pour out 4-5, 500 word missives a week turns what originally seems like clever lines into cliches at a quick rate and unique adjectives into descriptors that wear out their potency from overuse. A thesaurus comes in handy for awhile, but at some point you feel like you’re saying the same thing over and over again about a CD that has some fine moments but doesn’t really move you as a whole. In fact, I think I’ve used that very line a couple times now. Sigh…

And that’s really where the burnout comes in. I still hear music on a fairly consistent basis that manages to really move me, and there’s no denying that (or even holding back my praise for it). At the same time, when a person listens to sometimes 10-20 different “new” releases a week, a fair majority of those are simply going to filter into a pile that’s either “good” or even worse. Heck, I’ve been in several bands now, and I’m completely used to being ignored. It’s good for your soul (or at least very humbling, or something) to find a CD you spent months (and in some cases, years) writing and recording selling for only a dollar online. As a writer, I don’t feel any particular joy in saying any of the aforementioned about someone’s hard work.

That latter sentence actually ties back into something that I’ve gotten a lot of good-natured (mostly, I think) ribbing about from friends. That is, of course, that my reviews tend to skew to the positive side of things. Going back to the numbers thing again, I even did up a little chart to show how the 2350 reviews on this site break down in terms of numerical rating…

Ratings Chart

Looking back at my output over the years, there are definitely releases that I would have to go back and change the rating based on not only changes in my music listening patterns, but also on how my level of critique has evolved. Essentially, I was even more of a softie when I started out, and that’s probably saying something considering I very, very rarely give anything under a 5 or so rating even nowadays. I think it’s safe to say that you can be even-handed and even somewhat nice in the review business, but the reviewers who get to be well-known are the ones who aren’t afraid to absolutely shred something.

Over the course of the years, I have done just that a couple times, but again it brings me no real joy, so there is that.

In the end, I just feel like I need a bit of a small change. I’m still going to continue to write, but now the focus will be only on things that I really enjoy. That may mean that I write one thing a week, and it may mean that I still write more, but instead of having to write about things that I don’t feel excited about, I’m just going to pour out the words over things that really do it for me. In addition to writing about music, I’ll write about books (occasionally) and other stuff if it strikes my fancy. I’ll also have commenting open and the reviews themselves will tend to be a bit more on the personal (and in-depth) side.

I’m also excited that I’ll finally have a little more time to start going back through my collection and re-listen to a lot of things that I haven’t heard in awhile, since I’ve been known to fret about that sort of thing.

If you’ve been a reader of my site, I thank you a ton for your patronage. Remember to swing by the new site, I think it will be fun.

Sometimes, all a little dog wants to do is run through the sprinkler when it’s hot outside. Can you blame them?

Elsa and the sprinkler

It’s been awhile since I posted a picture of the dogs. They are awesome as usual.

Elsa and Zoey listen up

Thunderstruck by Erik Larson
I’d read Erik Larson’s Devil In The White City a couple years ago and found it to be one of those light little books that went down quickly, so when I ran across Thunderstruck at a thrift store one day, I decided to pick it up. Written in a similar style (nonfiction pulled from historical records and then flourished with a touch of imagination), it’s another breezy sort of read that again follows a man trying to achieve a scientific breakthrough (in this case Guglielmo Marconi) and another who was a murderer (Hawley Harvey Crippen).

That description might not sound breezy, and although the book is definitely a quick read, perhaps that’s not quite the right description of the book. “Pulpy” is probably more apt, as it moves with a sort of brisk thriller feel that you could easily imagine being made into a movie (think something along the lines of The Illusionist). At any rate, Larson once again pulls intertwines the two stories in a way that at first doesn’t really make a whole lot of sense, but finally reveals the connection later on. The bulk of the book is alternately spent describing triumphs, setbacks, murder, marital breakdowns, a getaway, breakthroughs, capture (for Crippen), and ultimately a brief bit of success (for Marconi).

It’s one of those nonfiction titles that reads like a work of fiction, largely for the sometimes-flowery language that Larson uses. Definitely different than most recent nonfiction titles that I’ve read lately (in that it felt a lot more like entertainment than anything of real learning value), it was nonetheless a fun, quick read that I’d recommend to those looking for a good little potboiler (with a few nice historical references thrown in).

Economic Naturalist by Robert H. Frank
I stumbled across mentions of this book many moons ago after reading Freakonomics, but had it land in my lap as yet another Christmas present retrieved from my wishlist. In truth, it’s a little bit different that the aforementioned book, but somewhat similar in style. It’s certainly not a straightforward textbook, but instead Frank uses everyday examples of questions (most of which came from his students) to teach different concepts of economics.

Basically, it’s an excuse to learn a lot of random trivia while at the same time learning about how that applies to different economics principles. For example, in the supply and demand section of the book, a question is:

Why do new cars costing $20,000 rent for $40 a day, while tuxedos costing only $500 rent for about $90?

It’s all pretty basic stuff, and while some of the information in the book is certainly more enlightening than the aforementioned quote and answer, a lot of the knowledge in the book is sort of common-sense type of information paired with basic economic theory. At just over 200 pages, it’s a quick read, though, and if you liked Freakonomics, this might be worth a couple hours of your time.

World War Z by Max BrooksIt had been almost two years since I’d read a work of fiction, so at the beginning of the year I figured I’d break that drought as soon as I could. People who know me probably realize (and sometimes wonder why) I have a rather odd obsession with zombies, and I figured that a fine way to get back into fiction was through a book about the undead. As luck would have it, I’d received Max Brooks’ World War Z off my wishlist as a Christmas gift (which made for some funny looks), so it made the decision easy.

In short, this was the perfect first book for me to read this year. A quick read, it’s broken into short interview passages (almost identical to the style of Studs Terkel) with survivors of a massive global zombie outbreak that was somehow quelled. It hops all around the world, from a doctor who encountered “patient zero” to soldiers who fought in various battles to civilians that did their best to survive it all.

As with any zombie tale, one obviously has to overlook the scientific leaps of faith, but once you do World War Z actually reveals itself to be a well-researched book that touches on political, social, and environment concerns that have their own parallels with real-life situations (which is really the measure of any great zombie-story). Having recently read several books on different epidemics, the whole spread-of-infection angle seemed fairly plausible, and the book is not only funny at times, but downright creepy in places as well. Supposedly, the book is already being made into a film, and I honestly have to say I’m pretty stoked about that.

There are some things in my life that I’m oddly obsessive about, and one of them is writing down every book that I read; including the author, title, and number of pages. I keep a completely outdated list hidden away online, but also write things down in a little book that’s also caught scribbles, random thoughts, and other ephemera for some time now.

While writing down information for the most recent book I finished, I noticed that I’ve been keeping this data on books that I’ve read for ten years now, and so the small part of my brain that thinks it’s fun to write down these things also thought it would be a good idea to do a little retrospective to try and parse some of the data within.

In looking at the list, there were trends that seemed obvious at first, but upon further examination revealed themselves to be not quite so. When I first started the list, I was fresh out of college and barely knew anyone in the city that I was living in, and I spent a lot of time by myself with my head buried in a book. In the time since then, I met my future wife, joined a band, got a house, got married, gained a couple pets, and changed jobs. Like I said above, though, the data doesn’t completely add up all the time.

Without further ado, here are the first couple charts…

Chart 1: Books read per year

Books read in the past decade
Chart 2: Pages read per year

Pages read in the past 10 years

These first two charts are fairly uneventful, and largely represent the same sorts of trends (duh).

First off, it’s interesting to note that the very first year I started keeping track is also the largest number. As I mentioned above, 1998 was the first full year that I was out of college and on my own. Although I had a very small group of friends, I didn’t have a lot of people that I spent huge amounts of time with. During this year, I also had surgery, and I specifically remember reading not only one, but sometimes two and three books during a single day when I was in recovery.

From there, the trends largely stay fairly similar, although the years 2000 and 2003 show significant dips. The former was the year that I met my future wife, but it doesn’t explain the dip in reading, as I didn’t meet her until later in the year. The lack of reading in that year was probably more explained by finally having a larger group of friends in the town where I was living, as well as more of my time being spent working on photography (I had an independent show that year and often shot 3 rolls of film a week or more). The dip in 2003 is more obvious, as that was the year that we both bought a house and got our first dog (Zoey!).

I have a hard time explaining the spike in reading for 2005, other than knowing that Marianas dissolved in the first half of that year. Most likely, I spent more time reading on many nights rather than practicing music.

Because of my current infatuation with non-fiction titles, I also decided to go back and chart every title that I’ve read over the past 10 years and see how my tastes have evolved in that time as well. In some ways, this information is also the most interesting.

Chart 3: Fiction / Non-fiction titles in the past 10 years

Fiction and Non-fiction in the past decade

The complete disparity in fiction vs non-fiction in 1998 is easy to explain, as I not only tried to read a good portion of the fiction titles that I’d never been assigned in school (but felt were somewhat essential), but I also got stuck on certain authors (like Ray Bradbury, Harlan Ellison, and Kurt Vonnegut) and then plowed through a good batch of their books in a row.

A trend that holds true with this chart is that in the years where I read a lot more books were also the years that I read a bit more fiction. I’ll be the first to admit that I can read fiction titles a great deal faster than non-fiction, and it makes perfect sense that I’ve slowed down on number of titles the past couple of years (when I haven’t included a single fiction book).

I will also admit that I simply haven’t been as interested in fiction titles the past couple years, mainly because I feel like I gain a bit more from reading non-fiction titles in terms of knowledge. That said, my creative instincts may have suffered a smidgen by cutting out fiction work, and I plan to at least incorporate a couple fiction titles each year from here out.

If I dig a little deeper, I’m sure that there’s some more interesting stuff I can find here, but for now I will simply end with the aggregate numbers.

Books read 1998-2007: 175 (fiction: 80 / non-fiction: 95)

Pages read 1998-2007: 51490

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