Archive for September 2017

When I first learned to drive, I learned on a car with a manual transmission. It never seemed especially difficult because that was what I got used to. In fact, the first time I had to drive an automatic, I remember being very confused. What was I supposed to do with my left foot? Do I not have to shift at all? And if it’s automatic, then what’s with all these different choices on the gearshift lever? I quickly got the idea, of course, but still preferred the increased control and responsiveness I got from making my own decisions about when to shift. It would therefore seem that I should have the same attitude about bicycles, which not only require manual shifting but typically have many more than four or five gears. But manual bicycle transmissions have always given me trouble, and I’ve frequently wished I could have the convenience of an automatic transmission on a multi-speed bike.

Yanking My Chain
For the record, I am not what you’d call an avid cyclist. I own a bike—actually a fairly nice one—that over the past few years I’ve ridden, on average, once or twice a year. Not that I feel I need to make excuses, but I live in a part of San Francisco that isn’t especially bike-friendly (on a hill, no less), and the vast majority of places I need to go are much easier to reach by train or by bus. Nevertheless, I can’t imagine not owning a bike, and I like the idea of bike ownership very much—good exercise, good for the environment, and so on. But even when my bike was my sole form of transportation a number of years ago, I never fully grasped the way bicycle gears worked. That is to say, I understood the mechanics, but actually using them was another story—the logic of how one must manipulate those levers to reach the desired balance between torque and speed always seemed a bit like a black art. It was not a simple linear progression of lower to higher as on a car, but a function of the ratio of the front gear size to the rear gear size, both of which are variable. My usual practice was just to fiddle with the controls until pedaling felt about right, then leave them where they were until I couldn’t stand it any longer.

Another problem with shifting gears on bicycles is that the derailleur—the mechanism that moves the chain between gears of different sizes—is by nature imprecise. Although some designs are better than others, over- or undershooting your desired gear is common, and if you’re pedaling too fast or under too heavy a load, the chain can easily slip off the gears entirely, requiring a greasy manual adjustment. Wouldn’t it be nice if bikes could figure out how to change their own gears as painlessly and accurately as cars with automatic transmissions?

Gearing Up for a Change
Sure enough, automatic bicycle transmissions have been in development for almost 30 years, though only recently have they become commercially available. Mechanically, the main thing needed for an automatic bike transmission is a motor or piston that moves the chain between gears in place of the standard lever-operated cable. This is a relatively straightforward engineering problem, but the difficult thing is working out how and when to tell the gears to shift. That computation currently requires the use of a tiny, battery-operated computer along with sensors that determine the current gear and the speeds at which wheels, pedals, and sprockets are moving. The computer constantly recalculates the optimal combination of front and rear gears to keep the rider at a consistent pedaling cadence, automatically signaling the gears to shift lower when going uphill or higher when going downhill. Using a controller on the handlebars, riders can, if they wish, adjust the gearing to provide a more intense workout or a gentler ride; they can also override the automatic shifting entirely and use it as a power-assisted manual transmission.

The first automatic bicycle transmission was designed by the Browning family, whose main claim to fame had been gun design. Now an independent company based near Seattle, Browning Components, Inc. focuses solely on bicycles and bike transmissions. Their most interesting innovation is a special gear with a hinged section (somewhat like a pizza slice) that swings in and out to guide the chain from one gear to the next. What’s great about the Browning mechanism is that the chain remains engaged in sprockets at all times, rather than simply dropping onto the next gear. This virtually eliminates the possibility of the chain slipping, and also makes it possible to shift smoothly and almost silently regardless of speed or load. Browning manufactures their own bikes (whose frames must be custom designed to accept the special transmission) and also supplies the transmission mechanism to other bike manufacturers.

Shifting More Than Gears
Shimano, the largest manufacturer of bicycle components such as brakes and shifters, has also begun selling automatic transmissions. One design uses a seven-speed, internally geared hub; another, which is not yet available in North America, uses a power-assisted derailleur system, but adds an automatic, powered suspension to adjust the comfort of the ride to fit current conditions. Bikes with the Shimano mechanism are significantly heavier and more expensive than their manual counterparts and are designed more for leisure riding than racing or mountain biking. The Browning mechanism, on the other hand, was first employed on bikes used for BMX racing, and adds somewhat less to the cost and weight of a bike.

Adding an automatic transmission to a bicycle seems—in the abstract at least—like a wonderful step forward in user interface. It replaces something awkward with something invisible, which is the way good technology should be. Whether or not the reality lives up to the hype (or will in the future), I don’t know. And something tells me it ought to be possible to create a purely mechanical automatic bike transmission. I’m not sure what happens to an electronic one when the batteries inevitably die; presumably it just stays in whatever gear it was last set to.

At this point, automatic bike transmissions are not taken very seriously among cycling enthusiasts. Some are put off by the extra weight; some feel it’s not worth the money just to avoid having to move a lever; and some just think automatic transmissions are for wimps. Having never used one of these bikes myself, I can’t say whether the performance would be improved enough to make me want to ride my bike more often, but at least I would no longer view gear shifting as the annoyance I do now. —Joe Kissell

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More Information about Automatic Transmissions for Bicycles…

This article was featured in Carnival of Cars on Friday, July 7, 2006.

Here’s a sampling of articles written about automatic bike transmissions: Easy Rider by Kaspar Mossman in Scientific American (December, 2005); Bicycles with automatic gearshift are ready to roll from the Puget Sound Business Journal; Automatic for the Pedal from Wired News; and Let your bike do the shifting… from

For more information on the Browning mechanism, visit the Browning Components, Inc. Web site or read The Browning Automatic Bicycle Transmission from Cycling Science. Browning’s own limited edition “Browning 12” bike is the least expensive 12-speed automatic transmission model, at US$995. Other models are available from Grisley Bicycles.

Information on Shimano’s mechanisms can be found on their Web sites. This page describes the Nexus AUTO 3, their internally geared hub.

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NextBus prediction on a cell phone

One evening Morgen and I were at a dreams group meeting way across town. The most direct route home was by way of San Francisco’s MUNI light rail line, but as we approached our stop, we saw that we had just missed a train. Knowing how infrequently trains tend to run late at night, a friend who was waiting with us wondered out loud how long we might have to wait for the next one, and whether we should consider finding an alternate route. I pulled my cell phone out of my pocket, and after a few clicks on the keypad, I announced: “Looks like 11 minutes.” We decided to wait. Sure enough, exactly 11 minutes later, the train arrived. This little trick came courtesy of a high-tech service called NextBus.

Location, Location, Location
The idea behind NextBus is sophisticated yet elegant. Every vehicle on a transit line is equipped with a rooftop device that contains a Global Positioning System (GPS) receiver and a radio transmitter. The GPS receiver constantly tracks the vehicle’s exact location by satellite. This information is transmitted to a central computer, which calculates the amount of time it should take that vehicle to reach its next several stops, based on its current speed, typical travel time, and other variables. These predictions are continuously recalculated, so that even with delays, traffic, or detours, the estimates remain highly reliable. The information is available in real time via the Web and can be viewed using the built-in browsers on most cell phones and PDAs. In addition to time estimates for particular stops, you can even see a live map showing the locations of all the vehicles being tracked. Digital displays are also posted at some bus stops and shelters for added convenience.

Municipal governments and transit agencies subsidize the NextBus service—which is free to users—as a way to reduce frustration among riders. Knowing when the next bus is going to arrive can help you plan your schedule, avoid spending unnecessary time in the rain, and travel more efficiently. NextBus is also extremely useful for route planning. For example, there are usually several ways to get from place to place in San Francisco. If I know that a train won’t be coming for a while, I can opt for a subway or bus instead—perhaps more walking, but a shorter overall travel time.

Can You Track Me Now?
Of course, NextBus is far from perfect. I’ve seen the system predict the arrivals of trains that never came, and I’ve also been told the next train was 45 minutes away only to have one roll up the next minute. One of the reasons for the inaccuracies is that transit systems sometimes switch trains between lines for one reason or another. If a train from line A happens to be on track B, the system doesn’t know what to do with it, because it can’t tell what route it’s ultimately going to take. The tracking devices are also subject to electronic failure, and can sometimes get out of sync when going through tunnels. Then there’s the fact that the computer needs a certain amount of history in order to perform a calculation. I live near the beginning of a certain transit line; the first stop is only three minutes away. So when I ask NextBus when the next train is coming, it often gives a wildly inaccurate prediction 20 minutes or so in the future, based on the average departure times of the trains. A few seconds later, though, the prediction may become “3 minutes.”

The NextBus service is currently deployed in dozens of different transit agencies across the United States and England, and is expanding into Canada. However, some agencies still have only limited coverage. In San Francisco, for example, where all the light rail trains have tracking devices, only a tiny percentage of the buses do—even though the service has been in place since 1999. And in some other cities, the service is still in a pilot or demonstration stage, awaiting approval or funding for a full roll-out.

Still, NextBus is a textbook example of technology as it should be—useful, accessible, and simple. Unlike regular trains, the buses and rail lines that use city streets have no hope of running on a strict and reliable schedule. Although NextBus won’t make them arrive sooner, it keeps riders happier while they wait. —Joe Kissell

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More Information about NextBus…

For more details, visit the NextBus Web site at In addition to learning about the technology behind the service, you can get real-time arrival estimates for public transit in numerous U.S. cities. The Nottingham NextBus site provides information for Route 11 in Nottingham, U.K.

NextBus uses patented technology to track buses. You can read about a lawsuit challenging patent infringement that was settled in early 2003.

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Fortune cookies

For reasons I am at a loss to explain, I never tasted Chinese food until I went to college. Around the middle of my freshman year, I decided to make myself a “to do” list of experiences I’d always wanted to have. One of those things was trying Chinese food. Not long afterward, my roommate decided to take my cultural enlightenment into his own hands. “We’re going to Chinatown for supper tonight,” he said. Not only would he not take no for an answer, he even told me it was going to be a double date and who I was to ask out. I dutifully phoned the woman in question and off we all went, driving about an hour from the campus into the heart of Manhattan. That evening I had my first egg roll, my first wonton soup, and my first lo mein; I even managed to get the hang of chopsticks pretty readily. And needless to say, the meal ended with the obligatory fortune cookies, another novelty I’d never seen before. I’ve been a fan of Chinese cooking (and fortune cookies) ever since.

My adopted hometown of San Francisco also has a large and vibrant Chinatown, and I was delighted to learn that fortune cookies were in fact invented here. When we got married, Morgen and I decided to have a San Francisco-themed wedding. In addition to the San Francisco-shaped wedding cake (really), we got a bunch of those cardboard Chinese take-out containers, filled them with treats, and distributed them to all of our guests. Among the goodies was a custom-made fortune cookie with a special message thanking guests for attending.

You Will Have a Satisfying Dessert
I have always liked the idea of fortune cookies. As confections go, a fortune cookie is about the lightest dessert I can imagine, which is usually just what I’d hope for after a Chinese meal. I can’t recall ever having a fortune from a cookie come true, but there have been fortunes that gave me food for thought (so to speak), and even a patently goofy saying seems like a delightfully quaint way to end dinner. But even though I knew fortune cookies were invented in California, it never really sank in until recently that this made them an American idea that probably would be (and indeed is) considered strange in China. It turns out that the story is even weirder than that—fortune cookies are not merely an American invention, they’re a Japanese invention that was adapted for Americans and then co-opted by Chinese restaurant owners. That the fortune cookie, given its mongrel roots, has become so iconic of Chinese restaurants in America is truly amazing.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. There are several competing histories of the fortune cookie, none of which is entirely verifiable from recorded history. Many accounts trace the cookies’ origin back to 13th- and 14th-century China, which was then occupied by the Mongols. According to legend, secret plans for an uprising were hidden in moon cakes that would ordinarily have contained lotus nut paste, which was unpalatable to the Mongols. The successful uprising, planned with the help of the hidden notes, led to the formation of the Ming Dynasty. This story may be true, but I have seen no evidence that it inspired the treats we know of today as fortune cookies. There can be no doubt that the modern fortune cookie design originated in California.

Fame and Fortune Will Be Yours
However, there is quite a controversy over who actually invented them. David Jung, a Chinese immigrant living in Los Angeles who founded the Hong Kong Noodle Company, claims to have invented fortune cookies in 1918—though no one seems to know where the recipe or idea came from. The alternative and generally accepted story is that they were invented in San Francisco by a Japanese immigrant. Makoto Hagiwara was the landscape designer who created the Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park. According to Hagiwara, the fortune cookie was based on a Japanese treat called Tsujiura sembei. He sweetened the recipe to appeal to American tastes, enclosed thank-you notes in the cookies, and served them to his guests with tea. Depending on which account you read, Hagiwara began distributing the cookies in either 1907 or 1914, but in any case they clearly made their appearance well before the 1918 date claimed by Jung. Within a few years, however, Chinese restaurant owners in San Francisco had copied the recipe, replacing the thank-you notes with fortunes. The rest, as they say, is history.

Of course, over the past couple of decades, the fortunes that appear in fortune cookies have gotten sillier and more annoying. For one thing, they now almost always include “lucky numbers,” which mysteriously seem to match the pattern required for lottery entries. There’s also a trend toward smiley faces, which make me frown, and Chinese writing, which is just baffling considering the cookies’ origin. Even the fortunes themselves make less and less sense. Whatever happened to the simple “You will lead a long and prosperous life” or “Never eat fish on a Monday”? But when it comes to fortune cookies, I suppose an appeal to tradition is missing the point. —Joe Kissell

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More Information about Fortune Cookies…

There are a great many (often contradictory) histories of fortune cookies on the Web. See for example:

You can buy customized fortune cookies online from:

Looking for collections of (real or simulated) fortune cookies online? Try Bad Cookie or Weird Fortune Collectiion.

For more information on San Francisco’s Japanese Tea Garden, see

San Francisco’s Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory has been making fortune cookies since 1962. They are not the largest factory in the U.S., nor do they use a machine to fold the cookies, as most other factories do. They do, however, offer tours.

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Sometimes the ideas for interesting topics come to me in rather roundabout ways. For instance, I was trying to come up with just one more topic that could somehow be construed as involving things that are stuffed. As usual, I asked my wife, Morgen, if she had any ideas. She made a few suggestions, none of which really grabbed me. Finally she said she was stumped and apparently gave up. A few minutes later, however, she handed me a book by Patricia Volk titled Stuffed: Adventures of a Restaurant Family. That was, of course, a very promising sign. Then she pointed out that the author’s family had run a restaurant in New York called Morgen’s—spelled the same way as my wife’s name. A lovely coincidence. (Morgen, it turns out, is the maiden name of the author’s mother—and also the name of a beagle that Volk and her sister once owned.) Flipping a few pages ahead, my wife showed me a picture of the author’s great-grandfather, Sussman Volk, whose claim to fame had been that he “brought pastrami to the New World.” Now we were getting somewhere.

All right, I understand that pastrami is not ordinarily stuffed or used to stuff anything else, but that’s not the point. The point is that I had never spent so much as five seconds thinking about pastrami before, but now that I knew there was at least one interesting story about it, I suddenly began to realize there were other questions to ponder too. Such as: What is pastrami, anyway?

Meet the Meat
Let me be candid here. I could probably count on both hands the number of times I’ve eaten pastrami in my life. It’s not that I have anything against it, I just never really think about it. When I walk into a deli—which is not all that often—I habitually gravitate toward the turkey and the roast beef. For all the times I’ve seen the corned beef, pastrami, and other cured meats sitting there, it has simply never occurred to me to order any. Nor, until yesterday, had it ever occurred to me to wonder exactly what it was; I vaguely realized that it was some sort of beef product, and that was pretty much that. But once I did start wondering, I found the answer kind of surprising.

The dictionary informs me that pastrami is a “highly seasoned cut of smoked beef.” However, there are lots of cuts of beef, and surely not every one of them that’s highly seasoned and smoked is pastrami. Or is it?

What Are You Smoking?
One way to make pastrami is to smoke corned beef. This, of course, brings up the question of what corned beef is in the first place. Curiously, corn has nothing to do with it. Perhaps a clearer term would have been “salt-cured brisket.” Brisket is the term for beef that comes from the lower chest of a cow, just behind the front legs. To make corned beef, this meat is cured—typically by soaking it in a seasoned brine for a few weeks. The grains of salt traditionally used to make the brine were about the same size as a grain of wheat (or “corn” in British English)—hence “corned” beef. When corned beef is smoked (to add flavor), seasoned with more spices—and, in most cases, steamed—it is then known as pastrami.

However, there’s more than one way to make pastrami. It need not start with corned beef—or indeed even with brisket. Pastrami can be made from other cuts of beef—such as the plate, which is located just behind the brisket. And rather than soaking it in brine, it can be dry-cured in a salt paste. Pastrami is often, though not always, covered with spices such as cracked pepper and coriander seeds before being smoked. In fact, there are so many different ways of making pastrami that the only thing you can really say for certain is that it’s a “highly seasoned cut of cured smoked beef.” So the dictionary was pretty close after all. However, similar methods are employed to make so-called “turkey pastrami,” “tuna pastrami,” and other beefless products.

Coming to America
But back to Sussman Volk…he had immigrated to New York from Lithuania in 1887 and set up a butcher shop. A friend asked Volk to store a suitcase in his basement while he traveled home to Romania for a few years. In exchange for the storage space, the Romanian friend gave Volk his pastrami recipe, and Volk began selling it at his butcher shop. It became such a hit that customers asking for pastrami sandwiches (on rye bread, of course) soon crowded the small shop. He moved a couple of doors down the street to a larger location with a few tables, and thus created New York’s first delicatessen.

The term delicatessen, by the way, is German in origin and originally meant “edible delicacies.” It later came to mean the shops where ready-to-eat meats and other foods were sold. Meanwhile, the word pastrami comes via Yiddish from the Romanian word pastramă, a term apparently borrowed from Turkish and meaning “cured meat”; it may also be related to the Romanian verb a păstra (“to preserve”).

So thank you, Morgen, for telling me about Patricia; thank you, Patricia, for telling me about Sussman (and another Morgen); thank you, Sussman, for delicatessens; and thank you, anonymous Romanian friend, for the pastrami recipe. —Joe Kissell

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More Information about Pastrami…

cover art

Stuffed: Adventures of a Restaurant Family by Patricia Volk is a wonderful book. The pastrami story is just one of many amazing tales; members of the author’s family were responsible for all kinds of noteworthy achievements.

Learn more about pastrami by reading What exactly is pastrami? at or How are corned beef and pastrami made? at the Food Network.

Want to make your own pastrami? Read detailed instructions at RandyQ’s Barbecue Ramblings,, or Dan Gill’s Home Page.

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I can’t remember when I first learned of the existence of piñatas, but it must have been at a very early age. Perhaps a kindergarten teacher was demonstrating papier-mâché and told us that people sometimes use it to make colorful candy jars that you can break open with a stick at a birthday party. There’s nothing about this concept that any kid wouldn’t appreciate. Candy: good. Party games: good. Wanton destruction of decorative objects with full parental consent: good. All in all, a great concept, and I always wondered why I didn’t get to have one at my birthday parties.

Then one day, I went to a friend’s birthday party and had my first and only hands-on experience with a piñata. In fact, “hands-on” is an exaggeration. Like each of the other children, I was blindfolded, spun around, and allowed three swings with a long stick in what I could only guess was the right direction. I didn’t break the piñata; I don’t think I even hit it—the adult who was tugging at the rope from which the piñata was suspended to “make the game more challenging” saw to that. Then it was the next kid’s turn, and he had essentially the same experience. Finally, the birthday boy had his turn, and in what can only be described as an incredible coincidence, he managed to beat the stuffing out of the thing. Did I then at least get my fair share of the spoils? I did not. Being the deferential type, I did not push and shove to gather up the candy, and by the time I got to it, all the good stuff was gone. By the end of the party I had completely revised my opinion of piñatas as being a really bad idea.

As Italian as Pasta
By the time I visited Venice a few years ago, I had completely suppressed this unhappy memory. I saw the house reputed to have been Marco Polo’s, and thought that was pretty cool. I never guessed that this legendary explorer may have been to blame for yet another of my childhood traumas. In North America, most people think of the piñata as a Mexican phenomenon (albeit one that has become ubiquitous among other cultures as well). And so it is, but it took a rather circuitous path to get there—from, of all places, China. Probably.

While researching the origin of the piñata, I found a number of conflicting claims. Although pretty much everyone agreed that the piñata was brought to Mexico by the Spanish, some sources traced its ancestry from Spain back to Italy. Others said piñatas came from Italy, yes, but not originally—that Marco Polo discovered them in China and brought them to Italy on one of his excursions. Still others claimed that the piñata can be traced to rituals performed in parts of Africa well before it appeared in China.

As near as I can determine—and bear in mind, I’ve performed just a few hours of fairly casual research on the subject—the history of the piñata as we know it today did indeed begin in China (at least as far back as the 12th century). A figure in the shape of an animal such as an ox or buffalo was filled with seeds and broken to celebrate the coming of spring. During the Renaissance, a variation on this custom appeared in Italy—though whether Marco Polo was truly responsible for its importation is a matter of some dispute. One way or another, the Italian pignatta came to be a clay pot—often in the shape of a pineapple, not an animal—filled with trinkets rather than seeds. It was ceremonially broken on the first Sunday of Lent, so rather than having a merely seasonal symbolism it came to have religious significance as well.

From Italy the pignatta spread to Spain, where it took on a more ordinary shape, and apparently underwent a linguistic change as well. The term piñata came to be used not for the pot itself (called la olla), but for the game or ritual of breaking it. And the contents tended to be sweets, though the Spanish retained the pignatta’s association with Lent. Eventually, the clay pots started to be covered with colored paper and other decorations, approximating their modern appearance.

Jars of Clay
Spanish missionaries brought the piñata to Mexico as, of all things, an evangelistic tool. Apparently a similar ritual had evolved independently among both the Maya and the Aztecs. In the native Mexican tradition, a clay pot filled with trinkets was set on a high pole and broken in mid-December as part of a ritual honoring the birthday of Huitzilopochtli, the Aztec god of war. The Spanish co-opted this concept as part of their Christmas celebration, assigning Christian meanings to the ritual. The pot came to represent the devil, and striking it was symbolic of overcoming evil. At some point, the standard Mexican piñata design came to be a sphere with seven conical points—a shape that, depending on who you ask, was meant to represent the Star of Bethlehem (as appropriate to the Christmas story) or the seven deadly sins (as appropriate to the defeat of evil).

The tradition of designing piñatas to look like cartoon characters and other distinctly nonreligious forms is a relatively recent occurrence, dating back only to the early 20th century as far as I can tell. The switch from paper-covered clay pots to papier-mâché is even more recent, and may have occurred to satisfy the growing demands of American tourists wanting cheap souvenirs from Mexico. Meanwhile, the religious significance has all but disappeared, and though the piñata is still frequently associated with Christmas in Mexico, it’s equally common at birthday parties and other celebrations throughout the year.

Of course, you’ll never see a piñata at my parties, because after much soul-searching, I’ve decided I’m opposed to violence against hollow paper containers. But more importantly, think of all that innocent candy inside. The risk of collateral damage is just too great. —Joe Kissell

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More Information about Piñatas…

These articles discuss the history of the piñata, assuming a Chinese origin:

Other sources, which trace the piñata to an Italian origin, include:

And according to Pinata and the Sala Ceremony by Latranei Gaibole, the ancestor of the piñata actually appeared first in Africa—though exactly where in Africa or when is unclear.

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