Bike overnight: East Bay to Black Mountain Backpack Camp

Executive Summary and Recommendations

This is a 24 hour overnight bike trip, starting and ending in East San Francisco Bay, to Black Mountain Backpack Camp on the peninsula.

I took Capital Corridor to Santa Clara on day one (San Jose Diridon would actually be better). There’s not that many trains, so check the schedule (carefully! unlike me) beforehand.

Day one was very unremarkable, through the South Bay suburbs and then up a big road climb to the campsite on Montebello Road. Don’t trust Google if it says you can go through Rancho San Antonio, since that includes three miles of pedestrian-only trails.

Day two was a return over the Dumbarton Bridge to Fremont BART. This was a much more fun day, with some very exciting mountain biking, long descent down Alpine Road, passing through Stanford University and through the wildlife preserves on either side of the Dumbarton Bridge. Fremont has done a very nice job signing the almost the entire way from the bottom of the Dumbarton Bridge to Fremont part.  

This is mostly a road trip, but day two has some moderately serious mountain biking. I did it on a touring bike with 35mm tires and moderate mountain biking skills. If you’re not prepared to go over trails that have some ruts roots and rocks on them, then you may want to find another way down it does not go on the Alpine trail.

Although I didn’t plan it this way, what I did – Amtrak->Montebello (uphill)->Black Mountain->Alpine (downhill)->Dumbarton/BART – probably makes the most sense rather than the reverse. More road uphill, more dirt downhill.

When you’re leaving the campsite, keep your warm clothes handy, because you will need them for the descent on Alpine Road.

The trip: day 1

This was a weekend when my wife, our two kids, and her parents went away for a few days. That gave me a break from family life, and an opportunity to be able to go bikepacking by myself. I live in Oakland, California, and had been to a lot of the best-known campgrounds near me on other bike overnights. A friend recently mentioned that the Black Mountain Backpack Camp in the mid-Peninsula regional open space was a very nice spot – it only had four campsites, with four campers per site, so it would never be particularly crowded. Like most camping sites in the Bay Area, it tends to book up; but I used the fact that I don’t work on Fridays to book a Friday night.

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The Rorty Reader

This is a review of The Rorty Reader.

I came across Rorty when I was doing research on the subject of human rights. After reading four other books on the subject (Nussbaum, Sunstein, Bietz, Morsink) I came across a reference to Rorty’s “Human Rights, Rationality, and Sentimentality” Amnesty Lecture and read it. Overall the experience was like playing four games of chess (other authors) and then being hit by a snowball in the face (Rorty).

One of my first reactions was “why was I not previously informed of this man’s existence?” Part of the reason is that I was a science major; but nevertheless it seems like I should at least have heard of him in passing and been vaguely familiar with his ideas. Another initial reaction was “how did this man end up this way?” Not as a value judgement, but just as matter of pure curiosity: he was both alien and made perfect sense at the same time.

Really my first recommendation, if you’re considering reading this book, is to go spend twenty minutes reading the Amnesty Lecture. It’s in this book, but it’s also easily available on the internet. My personal reaction was to check out this book from the library to get a more whole picture of who Rorty is and what his influences were. Voparil’s introduction is readable and helpful to put the works in succession and biographical sequence. Because there is so much to read in the world I partially read the first half of this book, but read more or less solidly through the last half, and ended up buying his book Achieving Our Country, which I hope to read soon.

From Anticlericalism and Atheism, as quoted in the introduction to the Reader.

In the end, for me, the primary interest in Rorty is the combination of his study of language as a tool, his skill as a writer, and his interest in making the world a less cruel place. For those reasons, I find his late writings more compelling, when he started to cut loose from purely academic-philosophical tasks in favor of those that are more generally humanistic and political. If you are not a professional philosopher, or at the very least were not a philosophy major or otherwise have not read a lot of Wittgenstein, Quine, et al, you may still find that you need to keep Wikipedia handy to fill in meaning into the various references he makes, even in the more “political” writings. Because Rorty is such a commanding, voice-filled writer (as compared to, say, Rawls, who writes with all the verve and style of board game rules), the overall effect is to pique interest in what the writers that Rorty refers to signify. Rorty’s name- dropping creates a desire to make that whole web of Rorty’s understanding your own, rather than to confuse or disorient. Rorty’s skill in writing and interest in storytelling should be a model for any person inclined towards making philosophy relevant outside of a siloed academic context.

Like most people apparently — or so says the introduction — I find that I don’t agree with everything Rorty writes. In particular, as a person who studied biology, and for whom the context of humans-as-animals helps in making sense of the world, I find Rorty’s desire to cut loose all human behavior from “natural” causes . . . well, disorienting, and seemingly wrong. (If Rorty weren’t gone I would have loved to read a review by him of, say, Sapolsky’s Behave). But then there is the other half of what he writes where I am learning something, a way of thinking, that is new and that I haven’t considered before. And for the half where I disagree, Rorty often has reasons, framings, not so much as to why a naturalistic way of thinking is wrong, but as to why it is not useful . . . and often I have to concede that is is at least partly right.

Anyway, go read the Amnesty Lecture already if you haven’t. Then go read some book — this one or another — by Rorty. He should be more widely read.

Human Rights Reading: Nussbaum, Sunstein, Morsink, Beitz

A couple of experiences related to human rights recently got me thinking about what the basis is for their existence, and how to think about them as individuals, as political constructs, and his philosophical constructs. I hope to put together an essay that actually makes sense on that topic, but in the meantime here’s my thoughts on four of the books I’ve read as background reading.

Martha Nussbaum: Creating Capabilities (2011)

Of the four books listed here, I think this is the most useful for me personally. Two key concepts I got from this book are:

(1) They can be both a political construct and a philosophical construct.

(2) As a political construct, human rights can be an “overlapping consensus”, as a conclusion that can be arrived at from different philosophical constructs: as an Aristotelian observing humans as animals, a Mill-style utilitarian, from various religious traditions, as a Marxist, et cetera.

Ironically, these are not the two concepts of the book is really about. They’re just two concepts that Nussbaum goes over as she is making her way to her primary thesis, which is to describe her “species” of human rights, which is the Capabilities Approach. The capabilities approach I think is a helpful incremental addition to human rights theory, in that it adapts it slightly to make it more inclusive, especially in dealing with people with disabilities and nonhuman animals.

Nussbaum also gives excellent ripostes to arguments that human rights are a sort of cultural imperialism, partly from the way the Universal declaration as drafted, but also that the overlapping consensus extends to other cultures whose values mirror many of those are found in human rights. More importantly, she points out to the reality that the international adoption of human rights instruments is been stronger and a lot of non-Western countries than it has in Western countries (especially the United States as to social economic rights), with India and South Africa as the two most notable examples, using human rights in part as anticolonial political constructs.

Richard Rorty’s Human Rights, Rationality and Sentimentality (pdf) is also very much worth reading. I don’t really agree with his lack of grounding of human rights in some empirical reality – I think human rights does line up with actual common human needs in most cases – but he makes excellent points about how the purpose of human rights should be more pragmatic and about changing the world, rather than about establishing a perfectly coherent account. In this way I find he lines up a little bit with Martha Nussbaum, in that he prioritizes the political use of human rights over philosophical construction. For another way of saying it would be, that neither one of them is particularly bothered that they can’t give a unified logical explanation for why human rights are what they are, because they actually make people’s lives better. I do think, however, that Nussbaum gives the more coherent account with the use of “overlapping consensus” because for different people there are very real groundings in human rights that cause them to be persuaded that they are worthwhile. Continue reading Human Rights Reading: Nussbaum, Sunstein, Morsink, Beitz

Smoke Days

At first it was the smell of burning leaves, a very nostalgic smell for me,  evocative of Indiana in October, back when I was a kid and you could still burn leaf piles. I had never experienced that smell in California before, in eighteen years of living here.  I chalked it up to the weirdness of city living: with so many people, who knows what odd things someone might be doing somewhere.

Half an hour later, the sounds of helicopters made it clear that it wasn’t a renegade neighbor burning a backyard leaf pile. A text from my wife around the same time filled in the remaining details: there was a grass fire about a mile from our house, next to a highway. She seen it while driving to an exercise class and called it in. Soon I was watching online video with the local news channel: ten fire vehicles lined up along the side of the road next to a charred football-field sized patch. The 1991 Oakland fire was a smallish grass fire that was put out and then sprang back to life, a fact that is now deeply ingrained into fire management here. Oakland fire personnel were walking through the surrounding area with hoses, saturating it. Most likely some of them would be there for hours, watching vigilantly for any rekindling.

As the day progressed, the fall-in-Indiana smell turned into a New-Delhi-smog smell. That smell evokes fond memories of India; but also memories of upper respiratory infections on two separate occasions when I passed through Delhi. That acrid smoke was from strong winds had started not just that little Oakland fire, but from the now-infamous Camp Fire. A huge smoke plumes trails off of it, like a long gray scarf of doom blowing across the state and out into the ocean.

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Forest, Beach, and River: A Solo Bike Tour of Normandy

[Note:  this is a long (but entertaining) story. If you’re just here for the pictures, here’s the gallery , or scroll to the bottom]

Preface: April 2017. This trip happened in July and August of 2017, but its story began in April. My wife and I had a one-year old, and had recently decided to have a second child. I could foresee the fun of being a family of four, but I was definitely not looking forward to the first year of having two very young children: lots of diapers to change, and not a lot of leaving the house for adventures.

Around that time Suzanne and I were sitting in our living room after our daughter had gone to bed, each doing our own thing. I was reading something about cycling, and I said aloud “I miss bike touring.”

Suzanne and I had gone on a bike touring honeymoon five years earlier, and we had plans to go touring with our children. A newborn, however, is not amenable to that, since most medical advice is to wait until one year old before subjecting a child to the bumps and vibrations of cycling. So when I said “I miss bike touring” it was with a degree of wistfulness, knowing that would probably be a few more years before I could do so again.

Continue reading Forest, Beach, and River: A Solo Bike Tour of Normandy

How To Find Campsites While Bike Touring In Europe

I have gone on three bike tours in Europe, mostly in France, but also in Germany, Italy, Ireland, and Switzerland. I just wanted to give a quick rundown of the ways that I have been able to find campsites, and also hopefully attract other people to this page you can tell me what to do for other countries.

Wherever You Are: Try OsmAnd.

I have only done this within France, but there’s no reason that it wouldn’t work in other countries except that the data coverage might not be as good. OsmAnd is an Android and iOS application that shows OpenStreetMap data, which is sort of like the Wikipedia of cartography. It also has the best filter to show a particular feature type — like campsites — even better than the online OpenStreetMap.

Last summer I spent two weeks biking a loop in Normandy, and used this method almost every night in order to find a campsite. The main advantage of OsmAnd is that it has a lot of information, so it has both municipal and commercial campsites. The downside is that the data is not necessarily verified. One time I showed up at a campsite, and it used to be a campsite, but had become more like a trailer park. The people living there were friendly so I stayed there anyway. And the other ten times I used it I found a for-reals campsite. The idea is: there’s probably going to be a campsite where they are indicated, but is not guaranteed. Usually I did a quick Google search of the campsite name and town to verify that the campsite would actually be there.

The user interface of OsmAnd is decent but complex and it took me a few tries to figure out how to display campsites on the map. Here’s a video of me showing how to find the campsites using OsmAnd:

I’d be interested in hearing from anyone else who has used this method in other countries, and how accurate the campsite data is.

Country-by-Country Maps.

In Germany, another good way to find campsites are ADFC biking maps. The ADFC is the national biking organization for Germany, and their maps show bike routes, bike shops, restaurants, and… campgrounds. They also exist as digital downloads, which requires some navigation of their only-in-German website.

In France, Camping Qualite is a kind of campsite industry association that has its own map. They are usually going to be more full-featured and expensive campsites (so like twenty euros a night, with a pool and a playground).

In Switzerland, the website Schweitzmobil has a configurable map that will show the Swiss national and regional bike routes, and various categories of accommodations. Probably the most useful configuration for readers of this post is showing national bike routes, camping, and farm accommodations.

What others sources for finding campsites for bike touring are there?

Options Beyond #DeleteFacebook : GDPR and Diaspora

I want to point to two things that exist already, and only need more adoption, that seem like the right direction after Cambridge Analytica and Facebook’s phone-scraping practices. One is legal (the GDPR), and the other is technological (Diaspora).

Neither of them seems likely to become part of modern American life overnight, but I think it is important to continually be trying to imagine the world as you wish it were.

1. America Needs Something Like the EU’s General Data Privacy Regulation. 

For the last year and a half, every company in Silicon Valley has already been scrambling to increase their ability to give users more choice, control, and specific rights regarding how their data is used. Unfortunately, the protections are only for users in the EU. That is because the EU passed a extraterritorial (meaning applies to anyone in the world) privacy law, the General Data Protection Regulation, that applies to anyone processing personal data, but that seems extra-targeted toward social networks.

It is a rather large piece of legislation, and would be more than what I intend to tackle in a short blog post to say that the United States needs to copy it verbatim. However: it is already been operationalized; everyone in the industry is familiar with it; it’s better than what we have now. So it would be a good starting point for anyone looking for what strong privacy protections the United States might look like.

One of its particular clauses that I think would have prevented some of the damage from the Cambridge Analytica situation is that users have to give “specific consent” for each use of their data. That means that for each particular use that a company wants to apply user data to, they have to get a specific checkbox or other indication that the user agrees to it; you cannot bury it all in the privacy policy or terms of service. That might be more difficult to pass in the United States where the lobbying power of Facebook and Google would likely be turned against it, because it affects their profitability. After all, who is going to specifically consent to have targeted ads? (Maybe they could pay users a piece of the approximately $80 per U.S. user per year that Facebook gets, mostly from advertising revenue.)  On the other hand, if Facebook was thinking very long-term and wants to regain users’ trust, perhaps it would not be so opposed after all. If you want to read more about this this post on PageFair gives some additional information on how GDPR is likely to affect Facebook.

2. The World Needs A Decentralized Social Media Platform (Like Diaspora, Perhaps)

The operational model of email is a good example of network decentralization, which creates a market that buffers against the sort of monopolization that Facebook has. Right now there’s a lot of people who are angry at Facebook, but they find they are tied to it because there is nowhere to go; it is the primary data source for all of the social connections in our world.

Continue reading Options Beyond #DeleteFacebook : GDPR and Diaspora