Reinventing the Wheel

Well, I have built a new bicycle wheel. And hopefully it will be the wheel I never have to think about ever again.

I have a problem with rear wheels, I think I’ve written about that before. I ride my bike everywhere — work, church, around for fun, out for errands, long sight-seeing trips hither and yon. Hasn’t kept me from being a big, fat man (at least I’m a very fit one), and being a big, fat man, I break spokes on my rear wheel. A lot of spokes. More spokes than any happy bike rider ought to break. Most of the people I talked to about this problem said I needed more spokes. Last fall, I built a 36-spoke wheel, and that held as long as the weather was warm and my tire was new.

But when winter set in and it got cold — snap, snap, snap. I was sometimes replacing spokes every 15 miles. It was annoying. And aggravating.

So, I hunted down a tandem hub — a hub made for a “bicycle-built-for-two,” because I am the moral equivalent of two on a bicycle — got myself a decent rim, ordered some spokes, and set to it. The new wheel has 48 spokes, is built for disc brakes, and gleams like a big, bubbly toaster or an Air Force fighter jet from the 1950s. The hub, made by White Industries of Petaluma, California, was even machined and assembled in America, if you can believe that, though near as I could tell, a lot of high-end bicycle gear is.

There are people who weld frames, build gears and cogs and machine other parts. Manufacturing has not come to an end in this country. However, it has, for better or worse, become an artisan skill practiced by a few in small shops, rather than by many in large factories.

A bicycle wheel is like a spring. Properly tensioned, that flimsy assemblage of (mostly) steel and aluminum ought to be able to hold much more than you’d think it could. I’m always slightly shocked, and a little awed, that the bike I ride doesn’t simply crumple beneath me.

I cannot say building the wheel was easy, though it did not take much time to lace the spokes and then carefully tighten them down while making sure the rim was centered on the hub — about an afternoon. Nor can I say I am any good at it. This is, after all, only my third wheel, and it takes dozens of builds to be considered some kind of expert. My first wheel I built from spare parts, just to see how hard it would be. The second, well, that’s the wheel I just retired, which I will rebuild eventually.

So maybe this is a temporary triumph of hope against experience.

I did not have to build this wheel myself. There are any number of people I could have gone to — this guy, or this guy, or this guy — who would have gladly taken my money and built me an indestructible wheel I could probably cross continents with. (That is my eventual goal.) I reinvented the wheel, so to speak, for several reasons. First, because I’ve had this problem breaking spokes, I’ve had to learn to replace them and true the wheel, or spend $15 at the bike shop every time it needed to be fixed. Actually building a wheel, then, seemed like a logical and natural extension of the skills I was already acquiring.

Second, I have always liked working with my hands, and this turns out to be something I can actually do. I got to be a pretty fair shade-tree auto mechanic too some years ago. And the motivation was the same — necessity. My wife and I were so poor at the time that if I did not get that car running, and keep it running, it wasn’t going to run. I kind-of miss that 1967 Plymouth Valiant, it was an “interesting” car to drive and a fun car to fix.

And finally, if the peak oilers are right and the end of hydrocarbon civilization is a mere handful of years away, and we are ever reduced to hauling goods by schooner and ox cart, are all living in mud huts cooking over animal dung stoves, I will have a very, very useful, marketable skill!

I want to say the wheel works, and it goes round without wobbling or locking up and going “snap,” but I’ve only ridden about 50 miles on it. So far, it is true (that is, none of the spokes have come loose to change shape of the wheel) and I’ve not broken any spokes yet. We’ll see what happens at 150 miles. And 1,000. No matter how pretty this wheel is, how much it gleams in the sun, there is only one objective measure of success — does it hold up, does it stay round, or not?

I’ve found that business is like that too. Anyone who’s worked in Washington knows that August and December are pretty dead, what with all the legislators and “policy makers” on vacation, and as an agricultural policy and trade reporter a few years ago, there were long, slow days with no news at all. When I was alone in our USDA office, when there was no one to interview and no features to dig for, sometimes it was only me and the teevee to keep me company. That usually meant CNN, which I soon came to loathe, and CNBC, which isn’t much better but which I at least could tune out sometimes.

Ron Insana, CNBC’s eternal happy face, spent a lot of time interviewing very clever kids who were making their fortunes from inflated stock values but pretending that, because the business cycle had been repealed and the Internet meant "new" ways of making money, that they really were making something new. Despite Insana’s cheerleading, it was pretty easy to see what was going on — if no one could answer, in 25 words or less, how they were making money, then they weren’t.

(Not that Insana ever asked THAT question. It was still clear from the conversations that no one could answer it.)

By mid-2001, when I was listening to quarterly earnings conference calls by electricity and natural gas trading firms like Dynegy and Enron (conference calls I wasn’t allowed to ask any questions on, and instead had to listen to extremely insipid "great quarter, Biff!" comments from analysts), I came to the same conclusions: none of these companies could really explain how they were making money.

And they weren’t, either.

In the foolishness that is American finance capitalism, with its quarterly reports that pretend to be both transparency and accountability, you can lie to your shareholders for a while, make nifty power point presentations and lie to reporters, you can lie to the Street, and you can even continue to lie to your very own books too. That’ll boost confidence, share prices and even self-esteem. For a time.

But at some point you have to stop lying to the people you owe money to. That’s usually when whatever charade a company’s senior managers have been playing to buoy the stock price (or the company’s chances of going public or attracting more venture capital) comes to an end.

It doesn’t matter how good a company’s product is. Or how bad. Profitability is the only objective measure of success or failure. Not excellence. Not beauty. Not cleverness. Not number of customers served. Not unique hits to a web site. Those things may all help you become profitable. But they are no substitute. And you can make money without all of those things.

Profitability, and nothing else, is what counts.

This is why government has such a hard time figuring out how to define success. Without the bottom line that selling real products to real customers for real money provides, virtually every attempt to define “success” is going to be very, very subjective, or very, very meaningless, or both. Checks cut? Schools built? Bombs dropped? Enemy killed? Arrests made? Contracts signed? Decrees issued? Laws passed?

It’s one thing to have a subjective measure of success for a hobby, when the money and time expended is your own. It’s another thing entirely when that money and time are extracted at gunpoint from others and is almost always used in ways that injure life, liberty and property.

At first glance, this all seems so obvious no one should have to bring it up. “Profits! Duh!” But clearly it isn’t, not when so many people continually insist that there are other ways to measure success.

And because it is very human to become willfully self-deluded and enamored of one’s own cleverness, it is also necessary for people to rediscover the obvious, to “reinvent the wheel” on a regular basis.

For nearly three years I had the fortune of working as a reporter for BridgeNews, the financial news service of Bridge Information Systems. Most of the people I worked with and worked for were amazingly talented and very bright. It was a great place to be smart and self-directed, a fun company to work for, completely lacking the slave-galley ambiance that seemed to fill the Dow Jones offices in Jersey City the two times I interviewed there.

But for a number of reasons, Bridge could not make money. Our creditors began to get nervous, our venture capitalists pulled the plug and the company was sold off in bits and pieces. Now lesser firms that aren’t as “imaginative” or fun own the software, the databases and the networks, and hired many of Bridge’s former employees.

However, those companies are all, for the most part, profitable.

I do not know if I will ever master the art of building bicycle wheels. Mastery means different things, and I clearly have a long way to go by nearly everyone’s standards before I am anything more than an amateur fiddling with rims, hubs and spokes. How long does it take me to lace and properly tension a wheel? (It still takes me two or three tries before I lace the spokes properly.) How confident am I that I am building something that will last? (Right now, not very.) And would I be willing to let someone else ride around on a wheel I’d built? (Are you kidding?)

As long as I do this only for myself, then whatever “metric” I create for both success and mastery are up to me. So long as my wheels hold together and get me where I’m going, then that’s all that counts. For now.

Charles H. Featherstone [send him mail] is a Washington, D.C.-based journalist specializing in energy, the Middle East, and Islam. He lives with his wife Jennifer in Alexandria, Virginia.

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