True Detective’s Infamous S2

•5 September 2016 • Leave a Comment

Season 2 of True Detective just didn’t quite work. But it came very close in many ways and so I think it’s worth exploring why it missed the mark. The short answer is that it tried to do too much. It tried to leapfrog Season 1 both in form and in function – and the form part didn’t really work, either. And so it Icarus’d. And we were disappoint.

First, function:

Last year I wrote a short article about True Detective and why it worked. Basically I said that there are dark little corners of this country, where the local custom and culture has not yet been homogenized into the national norm, and in these places weird shit can go down. The exploration thereof is the basis of a lot of Twin Peaks and The X-Files and now True Detective. It defines a genre: New Weird America.

True Detective Season 2 took this to its next level. It showed that you can have this same kind of atavism, nasty and weird, right smack in the middle of the modern world. It hides in plain sight. It actually exists! It doesn’t reach up from the darkness to steal our children; it reaches down from above to manipulate our everyday lives. In this way, Season 2 was an advance upon Season 1. Season 1 was fantasy with elements of realism; Season 2 approached the level of journalism – The Wire moved from B-More to The OC.

Functionally, then, Season 2 was a level above Season 1. But they didn’t stop with function. They tried to do the same with form.

Season 1 was told in a fairly linear fashion. In the present day, two dudes are being interviewed. They talk about the past. Eventually their narrative catches up to the present. Then, they go forth and conquer.

It’s a great storytelling device. But if you took it away, the series would not suffer. This particularly because the two narrators are telling the same story. It’s one frame around one narrative. Classic storytelling – Citizen Kane with a cherry on top.

Season 2 was not simple or linear. There were four protagonists instead of two. They didn’t even meet until the end of the first episode. They didn’t really start working together until the end of the sixth episode – the point in the first season when the detectives resume their partnership. And they had a great deal of their own shit going on – some of which ended up affecting the other characters, but much of which did not.

There was a definite madness to this method. The other point of Season 2 was that, as Jordan says,”Everyone gets touched” – the consequences of little choices, the interconnectivity of things and lives and the world. Heady stuff. Hence the season’s near-constant motif of California highway interchanges – the huge land-spanning Gordian knots that the detectives realize they cannot cut, but must untangle, from the beginning.

So there was a point to this. But saying “I meant to do that” only gets you so far. Making your TV show really disjointed and complex in order to prove a point does not excuse you from having made your TV show really disjointed and complex. It’s just not good storytelling. Certainly not for an eight-episode season of TV. Do you know why House of Leaves should not serve as the basis for the next season of House of Cards? Yes! Yes you do! I don’t need to explain it to you! Don’t do it!

Your goal is to make a detective story, not stage a dramatic reading of your essay about detective stories. Homage? Sure. Take it to the next level? Absolutely! But the function of this season was supposed to be a near-journalistic investigation into the entrenched power structures of urban insularities. You can Tom Wolfe that shit and this season nearly did. Wrap it around a good detective story and you’re David Simon holding the Maltese Falcon. Wrap it around an essay deconstructing detective stories and you’re the reason why fanboys shouldn’t be given production budgets.

True Detective Season 2 had two functions. One was to show that the weird and evil of the bayou can be found just as easily in Bel-Air. Phenomenal stuff. This too would have been enough. The other was to show that The Detective Story needs improvement. This is a tough nut to crack even when your audience is not defined by having liked your first season – a classic detective story! It’s doubly tough when it means you have to make a story which is noticeably hard to follow… and also get them to follow it. (The Night Of barely pulled this off, barely). And it’s triply tough when you are trying to leapfrog your first season in both form and function simultaneously.

There is one final point I’d like to make, and that is tone. True Detective Season 2’s tone was off. Even if it had been nothing but another Season 1 it still would have had problems. Too many furrowed brows, too many intense internal monologues made agonizingly external. Too little wit and too many purposeless homages. The first season found drama in small things; the second took nothings and belabored them like pinatas. It felt like it set out to put “an epic spin on topics that don’t [usually] get the epic treatment” – which is what PT Anderson said about Magnolia, for chrissakes. Season Two set out in function to avoid the sins of the genre; in form, to critique them; in tone, to commit them, each and every one. The first is a triumph; the second, a failure; the third, Brumaire-like, a farce. The three together was season two of True Detective.

There was also that five-minute-long dream sequence where a Conway Twitty impersonator in a powderpuff-blue tuxedo sang background to a prophecy that turned out to be right with no explanation and for no reasonBut if I’d started with that, you wouldn’t have bothered with my analysis. And, uh, maybe there’s something to learn from that, too.

A Brief Descent Into Lenses

•6 June 2016 • Leave a Comment

About nine months ago I purchased a Nikon D810. It’s a phenomenal camera – far better than I deserve. So I’ve been working to try to deserve it – a life’s project.

But the D810 is just a camera body. It doesn’t come with a lens. You have to supply one. Otherwise you can’t take a single photograph.

And by “one,” I’ve learned, I mean “more than one.”

I’ve been shopping for lenses essentially since I bought the camera. Right now I have two. I need more – though I’m not entirely sure how many more. That’s what this post is to help me find.

So I’m going to work through the problem from the beginning, and see if I can come to some conclusions.

Camera lenses have two primary measures: focal length and speed. These are measured in “mm” and “f-stop” respectively.


This is how wide or narrow the image is, from ultrawide lenses that can take in a whole horizon, to telephoto lenses that can see a bird in flight a mile away. You want wide lenses for certain things, teles for other things, and “average” lenses for certain things. So the smaller the number of mm, the wider angle it is; the larger the number of mm, the narrower angle it is.

For example:  A “normal” focal length is usually had from a 35mm or 50mm lens – if the human eye were a camera lens, it would be around 43mm. Nikon’s widest lens is 14mm, while its narrowest is 800mm.


This is the maximum amount of light that can get into the lens. It’s kind of a misnomer: the more light can get in, the faster shutter speeds you can use – which means the easier it is to shoot moving things (and the easier it is to shoot from a camera held in unsteady human hands). So the smaller the f-stop, the faster the lens.

For example: The world’s fastest lens was f/0.7 – made by NASA and used by Stanley Kubrick. In terms of lenses for digital cameras, f/1.4 is considered extremely fast for a lens in the ‘normal’ range (24-85mm). Lenses get slower as they get wider (Nikon makes a 20mm f/1.8, and a 14mm f/2.8). Lenses also get slower as they get narrower (Nikon makes a 200mm f/2, a 400mm f/2.8, and its telescope-like 800mm is f/5.6).


All the lenses discussed above are PRIME LENSES. This means they have a fixed focal length; they can’t zoom in or out. ZOOM LENSES are lenses which have a range of focal lengths. You twist the lens and the focal length increases or decreases, zooming your field or vision in or out.

The benefit of this is you can own one lens instead of two (or ten), and also that you don’t have to physically swap lenses in order to zoom in or out. The downside is that zoom lenses are slower than prime lenses. Often much slower. And the wider their zoom range, the slower they get.

The biggest zoom range is on the Nikon 28-300 and 80-400, and the biggest tele range is the Tamron or Sigma 150-600.

The 28-300 is f/3.5 when shot at 28mm, and f/5.6 when shot at 300mm. The 80-400 is f/4.5-5.6. In comparison, Nikon makes a 28mm prime lens that stops up to f/1.4, and a 300mm prime lens that stops to f/2.8. The primes are a lot faster.

The Tamron 150-600 is f/5 at 150 – where Nikon makes a 135mm f/2 – and f/6.3 at 600 – where Nikon makes a 600mm f/5.6.

Lenses can be heavy. This doesn’t mean much when you’re shooting from a tripod, in your studio – but even then it can be a consideration. It means a lot when you’re walking around, or hiking, or biking. It means a heck of a lot when, like me, you’re a bike tourist. And when you’ve got more than one lens, the weight adds up fast.

But even then: some lenses are too heavy to hold in your hands. Some are too heavy to hold for very long. And some are heavy enough that it’s going to make your hands less stable – causing vibrations – ruining shots. So weight is always a consideration.

For me, a lens that weighs 1lb is deal. Under 2lb can be successfully handheld or taken on a hike or bike. Anything more than that is impractical.

Nikon’s lightest lens is an old 50mm that weighs 135g – under five ounces. The heaviest is the 800mm weighing 4590g – over ten damned pounds. The 28-300 weighs 800g – just under 2lbs. The 150-600 weighs 1900g – over 4lbs – which makes it impractical.


Lenses can be huge. Generally, a 50mm lens is the smallest. Wider lenses get wider, and telephoto lenses get longer (and also wider, but mostly longer). This is less of a consideration than weight, but still it has to be noted.

Nikon’s 50mm f/1.8G is 2.1″ long and 2.8″ wide. That’s about as small as a lens can get.

The 14mm is 3.5″ long and 3.5″ wide. It’s too big to pocket, but not too big to carry around on a wanderjahr.

The 70-200 f/2.8 is 3.5″ wide and over 8″ long. It is commonly referred to as “The Magic Drainpipe.”

The 800mm is 6.3″ wide (at the far end) and 18.2″ long. It is too big for use as anything but tripod decoration – or a very expensive shillelagh.


Bokeh is the quality of blurred backgrounds. If you focus on something close up, what’s behind it can get blurry. It’s a very cool look. It’s basically de rigeur for portraits.

The two things that effect bokeh are focal length and speed. The longer the focal length, the more bokeh; the faster the lens, the more bokeh. So a 50mm f/1.2 might do as well as an 85mm f/1.8, but not as well as a 200mm f/2. It’s a balancing act.

The fact that primes are faster, then, makes them much more useful for portrait photography.


Some lenses can focus on an object that’s a foot away. Some are a little more. As usual, the 800mm lens wins with a minimum focus distance of about 20 feet.


Basically, a lens needs this; I ain’t manual focusing on things. It’s hard enough when they’re stationary. When they’re moving, and quickly, you need computer assistance.

Some lenses have built-in autofocus motors. Nikon calls these AF-S or “silent wave motor” lenses. This is a very nice feature, but not a necessity.


Vibration reduction. This wraps the lens’ inside-bits in a series of gyros that stabilizes the lens, in effect freezing the image so you can photograph it. You depress the shutter trigger halfway, the gyros kick in, and the image freezes – photographing it becomes kind of an afterhought. This negates the little hand tremors that can make a photograph blurry – which is especially important in low light, when you are shooting with slower shutter speeds. The effect is to make a lens faster without reducing its f-stop. In a nutshell: VR turns you into a human tripod.


Older lenses will auto-focus unless you flip a switch on your camera, which is hard to do one-handed. Newer lenses will auto-focus and then stop the moment you touch the focus ring, allowing for you to perform quick corrections on the fly. I’m just starting to appreciate how incredibly useful this feature is.


Only available on two Nikon prime lenses from the early 90s. This is a micro-focus control that lets you give even more blur to the backgrounds in portraits. If Nikon ever releases these lenses with updated optics and components, they will be the emperors of portraiture – as it is, they’re still the Barons of Bokeh.


There is some other shit that can go on inside of a lens, but it’s even less important than the above. A lot of it falls under the category of sausage-making. Some of it falls under the category of marketing-related bullshit.


It is a great tenet of the photographer that sharpness has much more to do with one’s skill than one’s equipment. This is generally true.

Shooting with the right settings will let you take crisp shots in almost any condition. Or at least, it will let you know how many shots you will have to take to assure that one will be sharp.

The problem, here, is kind of with my camera. I shoot a 36-megapixel full-frame camera, which is kind of the equivalent of putting a dentist’s swing-arm magnifier in front of your bathroom mirror. Shoot my D810 right and you can see more of an eyelash than some old cell phone can see of a whole face.

But that’s only with a sharp lens. With a lens that isn’t so sharp, my camera will still take a great photo. But when you zoom it, it will look soft – even if shot perfectly.

As a result, if I want great photographs, I need great glass.

The good news is, there is a lot of great glass out there. The bad news is, a lot of it is expensive. Some of it is expensive af (and that doesn’t stand for ‘autofocus’).


Price is correlated to all of the variables above. Want a really wide or a really tele lens? More money. Want VR or AF-S? More money. (Capitalism: one man’s progress, another’s diminishing returns.)

This is great in theory, because I could pay for what I wanted and not pay for what I don’t. The problem is, a lot of the variables are correlated to each other. For example, a lens that’s very sharp is also likely to be very fast, whereas a less fast lens is also likely to be less sharp. The result is that, if you want a sharp lens, you also have to pay for a fast lens. And so, in conclusion, LENSES COST A LOT.


In the far distant future, when robots rule the galaxy and &c, the ideal lens will be a 14-1000mm f/1.0. It will fit in the palm of your hand and weigh a song – and cost less than one arm and one leg. Also, fourteen stops of VR.

Until then, what this all adds up to is: comparison shopping like it’s goin’ out of fashion.

Which is a wonderful segue into:


In short: I need a telephoto lens.

When I bought my camera, I wanted to do primarily landscape work (both urban and natural), with a minor in portrait photography. I bought myself a 20mm ultrawide and a 50mm ‘regular’. They’re both phenomenal lenses – sharp, fast, light and small. I thought they would be all I would need.

I was wrong!

As it turns out, ultrawides are often the precise wrong thing for landscape photography. Shoot the horizon with an ultrawide and the picture will be 5% horizon and 95% extraneous shit. You have to zoom (or crop) forever to see a detail. And then that detail is only a fraction of the detail it could be in, if instead of zooming in after you took the picture, you zoomed in before – with a telephoto lens.

By and large, what you actually want for landscape photography is an extremely narrow focal length, so that you can isolate single landscape elements.

Likewise for portraits, a 50mm lens is not generally what you want. Shooting from a reasonable distance (fifteen feet), a 50mm lens could fit an entire basketball team. A 135mm lens is more appropriate for 3/4-lenth portraits, and a 300mm is more appropriate for faces.

It’s also much easier to blur a background (bokeh) with a telephoto lens. This isolates a person from their backgrounds, which is almost always good portraiture practice. So in both landscapes and portraits, isolation is often the key to composition. And as telephoto lenses are the key to isolating elements… carry the one…


My primary goal is sharpness. Second is maximum focal length. Third is weight. Everything else is deep in the distance.

…except for PRICE. It’s a meta-consideration. It’s not that I’ll pay more for a sharper or lighter lens: it’s that if I can’t get such a lens for a reasonable price, I won’t get one at all.

It used to be that an ultratele – 300mm or more – weighed at least five pounds and cost at least five grand. That would be unattainable, and also, of limited utility. But things have changed. There are new options. Progress has been made.

But how much progress? In short: should I buy a new lens, or eBay up an old one?


It’s interesting to note that – basically – camera lenses got Perfectly Good in the 1970s. Everything we’ve seen since then has been:

a) reduction in weight or size of the lens

b) reduction in price of manufacture

c) bells and whistles

d) tiny incremental progress – AKA, diminishing returns

By and large, you never see (b). Because the camera companies are totally down with charging what people will pay. You see a shitton of (c) and (d) because the companies keep releasing ‘upgraded’ lenses in an attempt to keep their gougy-ass prices constant down through the years.

What you are starting to see, however, is (a).

It’s kind of like bicycles. In fact, it’s basically EXACTLY like bicycles and isn’t that convenient. N.B. there’s a very strong case to be made that bicycles peaked in the 1960s with good steel 10-speeds, and everything after that has been (a)(b)(c)or(d) – and not so much with the (b), neither.

The benefit of this to the cyclist is that you can push less bike around, letting you go faster. The comparable benefit to a photographer is to be able to haul more or better gear around, and shoot sharper images without having to do bicep curls in between.

I’m seeing this trend in a lot of products. In sleeping bags. In head phones. In laptops (absolutely). Planes and trains and automobiles. How do you improve a mature technology? Make it cheaper, or make it marginally better. How do you improve a truly mature technology? Make it do the same thing – but be lighter.


Comparison shopping.

Right now, as I say, I have a 20mm and a 50mm. What I’m missing, then, is the telephoto range. This starts north of 50mm – around 70 or 85 – and continues to oblivion.

This isn’t just a matter of comparing lenses one-to-one. It’s a matter of thinking about how I shoot, how I want to shoot, and what kind of lens kit I want to build for that purpose.

In a nutshell:

-I could get a 70-300 f/4.5-5.6 and be done with it.

-I could get the 70-200 f/4, with an option to add the 300 f/4 PF -OR- an ultratele zoom (the Nikon 200-500, or the Tamron 150-600).

-I could get the 300 f/4 PF, with an option to add the 70-200 f/4 -OR- stay prime with the 85mm f/1.8.

Let’s look at the lenses individually.

THE NIKON 70-300 f/4-5.6

The problem here, alas, is that this is not pro-grade glass. It’s just not. I’ve shot with it, and it’s just not sharp. In addition to being slow, and slow to focus, and inaccurate of focus… it’s just. plain. bad.

Which is what one expects from a $100 price tag. Alas alack.

THE NIKON 85mm f/1.8

Excellent lens. Commonly used for portraits. Very sharp. Very fast. Tiny. And pretty cheap!

But the difference between a 50mm and an 85mm just isn’t that large. With a real telephoto – certainly the 70-200, but possible even the 300 – I doubt I’d use it all that much. However, though that might be a strike against buying it, that’s not a strike against building a kit that incorporates it – that leaves a hole for it, I should say, which I might then fill or not as needs transpire.


THE NIKON 70-200 f/4

Excellent lens. Weighs 30 ounces, which is on the side of the angels (and not the side whereby a photography sessions requires that one carb up). Slower than the 70-200 f/2.8 “magic stovepipe,” but half the weight, half the price, and even a little bit sharper. Also, five repeat five goddam stops of VR.

Really the only thing that stands against it is the fact that it’s not that deep a tele. Would I rather be able to shoot at a range up to 200, or shoot at 50 (or 85) and 300 with nothing in between?


THE NIKON 200-500 f/5.6

Very sharp. Incredible range. A little slow. Huge – impractically so.

This is another consideration. The 300 is portable. The 200-500 is not – but its lack of portability allows two hundred millimeters more. Is the 300 then just a compromise – and is that a bad thing, or the best of all?


THE TAMRON 150-600 f/5-6.3

Even more range. Even slower. A little less sharp. Just as huge. But still, by all accounts, a very nice lens – and comparatively cheap – and SIX HUNDRED MILLIMETERS.

THE NIKON 300mm f/4 E PF VR.

If it wasn’t for this lens, very little of this conversation would be occurring. The question would be, Which do I get first – the 70-200, or one of the ultratele zooms? But I would know that, inevitably, I’d be getting them both. And that would be my lens kit.

Enter the 300.

A few months ago, Nikon released a new telephoto lens. It’s a 300mm, which Nikon has been making since 1971. It has some bells and whistles – AF, VR – but nothing that Nikon hasn’t had on its 300 since 1987. No, the biggest difference here is weight and size.

The older Nikon 300mm autofocus lenses weighed 47 and 51 ounces. This lens weighs 26. They were 9″. This is less than 6″. This lens has all dem bells and whistles, as is now to be expected. It is also preposterously sharp, almost perfectly so – as sharp as the “pro quality” 300mm f/2.8, which is 11″ long, weighs 52oz, and costs $5,500.

It accomplishes this, in part, by using a fresnel lens. Which I mention only because I’ve long had a peculiar interest (read that phrase lasciviously) for fresnel lenses. Also because – yes, I know – but there is something special about using a piece of Very New Technology. About using it in one’s own hands -hanging it around one’s neck.

This is a 300m ultratelephoto lens that can easily be handheld, for hours on end – and then bundled into the pannier and biked away.



Well, I’d have all of them.

But that isn’t entirely impractical. They do different things. I’d have the 200-500 (say) as basically a budget 500mm zoom. I would take it with me wherever a car could carry. I’d have the 300mm for carrying, hike or bike. And I’d have the 70-200 and/or the 85 depending on what I found I needed. Dratted that experience can only come after purchase!

The problem is that the 70-200 and the 200-500 together cost, via the good graces of eBay, over $2000. Add in the 300 and the 85, and we’re at $4,000. When my ideal expenditure on glass would be, of course, $0 – but I can hardly justify $1600, let alone the more.


I need to choose.

Among the ultrateles, which would I rather have: the range of the 200-500, or the portability of the 300?

And in general, which would I rather have now: the versatility of the 70-200, or the longer range of the ultratele?

Well, that is the question. There it is. And for the moment: “Let it suffice that the malady has been diagnosed—heaven alone knows how to cure it!”

A Guide to Carbon Touring

•9 April 2016 • Leave a Comment

My name’s David, I’m a cyclotourist and I tour carbon.

This little guide is for people who are interested in touring carbon. A little of it will be Why, but most of it will be How.

I’ll start with a quick FAQ, and then I’ll have an in-depth section on what kind of bike to choose for carbon touring.


  • Can you tour on a carbon bike?

Yes. YES. Yes you bloody well can.

  • My friend says you can’t tour carbon.

I’ve done about 2000k on tour (and at least as much just riding loaded). I’ve had a thousand things go wrong but not one has been because of my bike.

  • My friend says you shouldn’t tour carbon.

It’s a personal preference. Depends on you, and the bike, and the tour. I might not tour carbon through Siberia or the Sahara. But I might. 

  • Carbon bikes aren’t strong enough for touring.

I don’t know. Carbon’s pretty strong. They make diamonds out of it now.

  • Seriously.

I’m basically serious. Some people think of carbon as flimsy or delicate. IT’S NOT. I’ve put 10k on my carbon frame, under a lot of weight, on some awful fucking roads and offroad, and had a couple really gnarly crashes that have put me in the hospital. My carbon bike’s been fine, every time.

  • What do you mean by a carbon touring bike?

I mean, particularly, a bike with a carbon frame. Definitely a carbon fork. Probably also a carbon seatpost. Maybe carbon handlebars, or even components. Probably not carbon wheels, but it’s not out of the question.

My carbon touring bike is a 2011 Specialized CruX Expert. Frame, fork, and seatpost are carbon. The components that he came with (SRAM Apex) were all metal. The components he has now (Shimano Ultegra 6703) have some metal, some carbon. I tour on alloy wheels with steel spokes (Velocity Dyad 36ers, Shimano Deore XTR hubs and skewers). My rack is aluminum (Old Man Mountain Sherpa).

  • There are no carbon touring bikes.

There are no “touring bikes.” There are bikes that bike companies call “touring bikes.” But anything with two wheels can be used for bike touring – and is, somewhere, right now, by some crazy guy on a bike.

Most carbon frames are not designed to handle a bunch of pack weight. But neither are most steel frames – and they do fine. Don’t confuse purpose with ability. My bike was designed for cyclocross racing, but that doesn’t stop it from carrying my panniers over a mountain range.

…also, a few companies are now making “carbon adventure bikes.” With mount-points for racks and everything. So :P

  • Explain this to me using a metaphor!

Think of bikes like cars. Any car can go on a road trip. You might want a “touring car.” But you don’t need one. Any car that’s in good shape will get you around the world.

And, hey, how would you like to take a cross-country road trip in a sports car with the top down? That’s what I do when I tour carbon.

  • No way, I think steel is much better.

That is totally reasonable! Two tourers, three opinions :-)

There are a BUNCH of reasons someone might prefer steel, or any other bike material. My point here is that it’s a matter of personal preference. Nothing less – but nothing more.

  • What are the drawbacks of using carbon?

Really: not that many.

  • What are the benefits?

It’s really light. It’s really strong. It’s really comfortable. Heck, a lot of metal-frame bikes come with carbon forks because they absorb shock so well. It’s just more comfy!

Also a lot of carbon frames come with lifetime warranties. Those do not suck.

  • Aha! But what happens when your frame breaks in the middle of the Gobi?

The accidents that will wreck your carbon frame are the same accidents that will wreck your steel frame. Some accidents will total either type of bike. Some accidents will send either type of bike to the repair shop. But there’s a middle ground of accidents where a steel bike can be repaired, and a carbon bike cannot.

This is a very important consideration if you’re touring in a place where there are welders (or blacksmiths) but not bike shops or post offices. If this is the tour you’re doing, carbon might be a bad decision. Or it might be a risk worth taking. Or a risk that can be minimized, and hedged.

  • When is carbon right for touring?

For my money, carbon is right when:

  1. You want to go fast, or cover a lot of ground in a day.
  2. You want to be comfortable when you’re riding, and after.
  3. You want to be light when you’re going up a mountain.
  4. A carbon bike is what you have, and you don’t want to go buy another one.
  5. Your racing bike is carbon, and you just can’t freakin’ stand it to switch to steel.


This guide has a couple of uses. You can use it to pick out the right carbon bike to buy for touring. You can use it to evaluate a bike you’re buying for another purpose to see if it could one day be used for touring. You can use it to evaluate a bike you already have to see if it’ll rock your next tour. Three for three.

First off, every bike can be used for some tour. Just ask the people who tour on mountain bikes. Just ask the people who, every year, go Land’s End to John O’Groats on unicycles. The first guys to bike around the world went on 60-pound fixies with wooden rims. And none of the roads were paved.

Secondly – and this is important – there is no One True Touring Bike. There’s not even an ideal bike for a particular tour and rider. Maybe there’s always something a little bit better – but you quickly get to the point where the incremental improvements get very little indeed. At some point you have to get off your keister and start pedaling.

So you can ask “What’s the best carbon bike for touring?” But you might ask well ask “What’s the best bike for mountain biking?” or “What’s the best car for commuting?” It doesn’t mean much.

Instead, I’m going to tell you what questions to ask. Then I’m gonna lay out the possible answers to those questions, and from those answers, tell you what carbon bikes are appropriate – or when, in my opinion, you shouldn’t go carbon.

…or if you’re lazy get a cyclocross bike, throw on an OMM rack and a triple, and head for the feckin’ ‘ills.


  • How do you like to ride?

As with most things in touring, personal preference is key. If you like to tour sitting upright on a flat-barred commuter, they make those in carbon. If you like to tour, like me, pounding out a century a day – tour on something with drops, powerful gearing, and aggressive geometry. These are choices you have to make for any touring bike. Carbon does not change the calculus.

  • How good a rider are you?

I put this in here just because some people seem to think that you have to be good at biking to ride carbon (or to justify it). No. No and no and no and no. First no is because “good at biking” is meaningless – at best. Second no because a bike frame is not going to make it harder to pedal or harder to steer. Third no because a carbon frame, in my ‘umble opinion, is more comfortable than steel – making it a better choice for newbies and experienced alike. Fourth no because carbon is lighter than steel 100% of the time, making it a better choice for people who are touring on planets that have gravity.

It doesn’t matter how experienced you are at bicycling, or what physical shape you are in. Also… you’re going on tour. You’ll be experienced, and in great shape, by the end of it.

  • What kind of ‘road’ will you be riding on?

Basically the choice here is the same as for a steel bike. If you’re going to be touring on one type of terrain, you can get a bike that’s specifically designed for that type of terrain. Or you can ride any ol’ bike and chances are it’ll be pretty much the same. If you strap some stuff to the bike when you do it, the calculus is not likely to change.

I’ll go through each type of ‘road’ and analyze each.

1- PAVEMENT. Ideal for touring carbon. Go light. Go fast. Go far.

2- SHITTY PAVEMENT. I’ve ridden my fair share of this. I’d make sure your wheels are very tough – which generally means alloy – but it won’t matter to the frame. Except the carbon will absorb more shock. (Especially if it’s a Trek with an iso-speed decoupler or two, or a Pinarello K8-S with a seatstay suspension, or a Specialized – like mine – with Zertz inserts).

3- GRAVEL. All pro graveure racers ride carbon. Touring is no different. Widen your tires, since you’re under load. Then hammer away.

4- COBBLESTONES. There’s a reason the Roubaix is only raced by carbon bikes. See #2 and then buy some chamois creme.

5- DIRT. I’m talking dirt paths here – not stumpjumping. So long as you’ve got the tired for it, blaze that firetrail.

6- SAND. Wide, wide tires. Or call a taxi. I hate sand.

7- SNOW. Are you touring on a fatbike? Can I come?!?!

8- OFF-ROAD. Just be careful. A lot of cyclotourists seem to think that when you put panniers on a road bike it turns into a mountain bike. The opposite is true. If you’re touring carbon, be EXTRA CAREFUL about obstacles, including curbs, tree roots, boulders, and falls. Unless you’re touring on a carbon mountain bike frame. In which case, dude, strap your shit in and shred some a that fuckin’ gnar-gnar.

  • How heavy are you?

Generally speaking, carbon road bikes are designed to accommodate one Fleming, one bidon, and one jaunty little cycling cap. And that’s it.

Pretty much every bike comes with a stated Maximum Rider Weight. This is usually the least of the maximum weight given for the frame, for the wheels, and sometimes for the components (seatpost, handlebars, stem, crank, pedals).

This is true for metal bikes too. A lot of aluminum bikes have lower weight capacities than a lot of carbon bikes. Some steel bikes are no better. Some few carbon bikes are optimized for carrying a heavy rider. And some carbon bikes, like mine, are just built like Soviet tanks and so it isn’t a problem.

Hop on the scale. Then look up the tech specs for the bike in question. When in doubt, call the manufacturer. Or post on reddit, that usually works.

  • How heavy will your kit be?

Most carbon bikes aren’t intended for touring. So they don’t have a published maximum loadout weight. You have to estimate.

To be conservative, I would recommend this: take your bodyweight. Then add the weight of all the stuff you’re going to bring (your “load” or your “kit”). Then add the weight of however many bottles of water you’re planning on bringing, and the same for food. Then add ten percent. If all of this is less than the LOWEST maximum weight on ANY PART OF YOUR BIKE… you’re good to proceed to step two.

Step two is just for your kit weight. Figure out what your kit will weigh, then see how it fares on this scale here:

1- THE ULTRALIGHT. An ultralight kit weighs less than a top-of-the-line new racing bike. Call it the new Emonda – 5kg soaking wet. Even a Shiv can handle 5kg, on a rack or a triangle bag or a radonneur bar. If this is your whole kit, fuck it, tour on a Bolide. See you over the horizon.

2 – THE LIGHT. A light kit weighs less than your (carbon) bike. My CruX weighs about 16 pounds or so. My touring kit is just about here. If your kit weighs less than your bike, you’re golden on anything but the most aero TT bikes. On any road bike that is at least Tour minimum (6.8kg) – tour, and tour hard.

3- THE MEDIUM. A medium kit is one that is up to twice the weight of the bike. Some 15-pound racing bikes will not like 29 pounds of gear in one place. So there’s two things you can do here. One, you can get a heavier-duty carbon frame – for cyclocross, say – that might weigh as much as a whole pound more than a racing frame (!!!). I’ve strapped a fucking 105-pound anvil to my rack to wheel it across campus and my frame didn’t bat an eye. Or two, you can distribute your weight better – no more than the weight of your full bike at any one point. This can be accomplished by mixing a rear rack, a front rack, a triangle bag, a handlebar bag, a saddlebag, a seatpost bar and trunk bag, or even a backpack… or a trailer.

4- THE HEAVY. This is a kit that is more than twice the weight of your carbon frame. We’re talking 40 pounds of gear. That’s a lot of stress to put on a carbon frame. My advice here is to get a really heavy duty frame – a cyclocross frame that the manufacturer approves of for mounting a rack, or an MTB frame. Just get a trailer. Or two. Or consider buying a motorcycle. Or consider packing less!

  • How far will you be from Civilization?

What this question is meant to figure out is, how hard will it be for you to fix your bike if it breaks?

We’re not talking about a bent spoke or a gapped chain. I’m talking about a break in your bicycle frame. A snapped fork or a shredded downtube. Basically we’re asking, “what happens if I get run over by a Mack truck?”

I’m going to propose the following hierarchy. Once you’ve planned out your tour a bit, look at this and give it a score.

BELGIUM (1): There’s going to be a town every few kilometers. Each town has a full-service bike shop that stocks carbon bikes and knows how to fix them. Near the bike shop is a pub that serves amazing beer. If something happens to your bike you can drag it into the bike shop, have a Belgian Gatorade or two, then come out to find either a fixed bike or a warranty-covered replacement. Quick as can be.

CIVILIZATION (2): You’ll never be more than a quick hitch or a few hours’ walk from a bike shop. The shop might not do a lot with carbon but they know how to wrench. Worst case scenario, you cool your heels for a few days while waiting for a replacement frame to come in. Then the LBS swaps your components over, and you’re on your way.

THE COUNTRY (3): You’ll never be more than a day’s long walk from a town with a post office. Might even have a store – a big-box store, even a toy store – that has some kind of bike section or another. If your frame breaks you can either buy some crappy aluminum thing to tide you over, or you can hang out for a few days and wait for Amazon Prime to ship you a new and mighty steed.

THE BACKCOUNTRY (4): If your bike breaks you’re in for a tough time. You might have to sit in some little village for a week waiting for a lift to the next village. Or you might have to find some local expat or jefe through whom you can order a FedEx delivery where “overnight” means “three weeks if you pray”. Or you might have to ditch your frame and walk two days carrying all your stuff, and wheels and maybe components too. Basically what I’m saying is, you’re not in Belgium anymore.

WILDERNESS (5): If your bike breaks, you’re fucked. RIP.

Now if you’re in a #1 situation, there’s really no reason not to tour carbon. None in the world. A broken carbon bike is not going to be any different for you than a broken steel bike (might even be easier, because of warranties). A catastrophic accident turns into a pit stop. So if you’re touring in Western Europe, or Scandinavia, or Japan, or either coast of the United States…  basically, tour carbon and tour hard.

If you’re in a #2 you’re not really any worse off. Maybe, before you go on tour, write down the telephone number for the company that made your frame, and the size of the frame, and its make and model. Maybe price out a cheap replacement in case of dire emergencies – maybe DEFINITELY make sure you have insurance that will reimburse you if you need to cover with a new frame. Also, hell, if your carbon frame gets wrecked, feel free to replace it with a $50 steel frame from ebay (or bought locally through CraigsList). Send your poor broken carbon frame back home, and deal with it when you’re finished touring.

If you’re in a #3 situation you’re not much worse off either. You might have to hitchhike to the next town, and stay in that town a few days waiting for new parts to arrive. This might cost you money in housing. And it might tax your knowledge of the local language. And it might require you to swap components onto the new frame, requiring a knowledge of How Bikes Work (at least enough to follow the instructions from YouTube videos). The best thing you can do is travel with a few emergency dollars (or the local equivalent) in your pocket, and a few important phrases memorized (I recommend “Is there a bike shop?” “Is there a hostel?” “Is there a post office?” and above all “Can I have a lift?”)

A #4 is where things get interesting. This is when you’re sightseeing in Lesotho, or in a desert in western China, or mountain-hopping in the Andes, or biking for Nunavut or Uluru. This is when you’re in a place which has no regular traffic (on its dirt roads), no cell phone reception, and not so much as a homestead for fifty miles in any direction. Let me just say that there aren’t that many places in the Lower 48, or in Europe, that fit this description. But if you’re in one of these places, and IF you’re in that rare situation where an accident is such that it would leave a carbon bike irreparable but a steel bike fixable, having a steel bike means that a village blacksmith, or the welder at the nearby army outpost, can save your bacon. So if you’re planning for this kind of adventure touring – yeah, consider touring steel instead.

And #5 is when you’re doing something really awesome and/or really dumb, like fatbiking to the North Pole, you cockwit. Is that case, a crack in your frame might as well be a crack in your skull. The question is, then, if by traveling with steel you’re going to be any better off. Unless you’re planning on touring with a mini acetylene torch, or a hammer and a pair of bellows, then you’re just as screwed with carbon as you are with steel.

  • What about racks?

Most carbon bikes don’t have eyelets for mounting racks. So you have three choices.

One, get an OMM rack that mounts to your brakes and skewers. I did this. OMM racks also happen to be the best in the world. So that makes things easier.

Two, get a rack that clamps to the frame or seatpost. There are some clamps that are designed specifically to clamp to carbon. Either buy a rack with such a clamp, or buy a rack and an after-market carbon clamp.

Three, use something other than a rack – triangle bag, front pack, saddle bag, radonneur bar and trunk bag, trailer, even a backpack.

(Aside: now that we’re 3D-printing our frames, how hard would it be to add in an integrated rack? How cool would that be?!?!)

  • How about components?

Same analysis as for a steel frame. But I’ll gloss it anyway, because it’s so relevant to touring in general.

Most tourists recommend touring-specific or MTB components. They are hard as nails, which is a big plus. They also tend to be geared very low, which most people want for a tour.

But I think a lot of tourists think that racing components are fragile. They are not. And the better the components – IE the lighter they are – the stronger they are. Why? Same as with frames – because they’re made out of carbon. The middle groupsets (Apex, 105s, Athena) are made out of aluminum. The highest-end groupsets (Reds, DA, most Campy) are made out of carbon. As a result, the better the components, the more durable they will be.


The second is gearing. The more spread you have, the better. The highest highs, the lowest lows. A double’s great but a triple’s even better. I have the 10-speed Ultegra triple (52-39-30) and it’s absolutely lovely. And the new 11-speed Campy Athena triple (or the FSA Goss) make me think the road triple isn’t going anywhere.


I tour carbon. Maybe you should too.

If you’ve got a carbon bike, consider taking it on tour. Definitely consider that before you go out and n+1 on an LHT.

If you don’t have a touring bike, consider getting a carbon bike. They’re light, fast, comfortable, strong, dependable, and really fuckin’ comfy.

The most important thing you can do before touring is know what kind of tour you’re going on. The second most important thing is to know how you ride. The third most important thing is to like your bike. The fourth is to saddle up and pedal away.


•11 March 2016 • Leave a Comment

There were five of us. We were young and right and beautiful – the kind of beauty that comes from being young and right.

There was Armand, from Marseilles, who always had this old Leica around his neck. It belonged to his great-grandfather. His great-grandfather who fought in the Spanish Civil War. He’d tell you the story if you asked or if he caught you looking or if he didn’t. He was the seaman. He sailed the ship.

There was Aadarsh, from Patan, who in two months I never saw wear a shirt. He spent all his free time lifting weights until his muscles glowed. He’d swing around the ship, rolling and diving on the deck like a little wave, until everyone on board wanted to kill him. He was ex-navy. He was our crew.

There was Katja, from Rovaniemi, who wore bracelets made of gunmetal. She worked for a nonprofit that bought medicine and food and traded it to villagers for their guns. She was trained in scientific research but she wanted to do some good in this world. So she was a secretary. She was our engineer.

And there was Rachel, who I knew from school. She was a journalism major. She was beautiful. We met at a lecture by the outgoing Fed chair. She went to wave a protest sign and make sure she got arrested. So she could say she’d been arrested. I bailed her out. We finished the semester and then signed up for a summer of activism and class struggle. Or as I liked to think of it, “three months of getting laid at sea.”

We each had to pass a test in seamanship. All those summercamp days in a Laser paid off. I didn’t mention where I’d learned to sail lest they declare me too bougie to hang. None of them volunteered where they’d learned to sail either. But we tied the knots, passed the tests, made our paltry donation to the Cause, signed the waivers, picked up our lifejackets, and headed for the horizon.

On the third night, Rachel left me for some combination of Aardarsh and Armand. Her look dared me to object, and treat her like a possession, and show myself a little kid. I shrugged it off. Some things are not as important as the Cause. Also I spent that night in Katja’s bunk and never really left. Which drove Rachel crazy. Which she took out on her new boyfriends. It was going to be a great summer.

We first sailed across the Atlantic. The French had finally sold their aircraft carrier, taking a high bid from Vietnam. The Chinese were furious. The Americans were happy. The Europeans kept pointing out that the French aircraft carrier was tiny, antiquated, and due to its reactor design had this funny little habit of glowing in the dark. The Vietnamese were buying a death trap. The Americans were ecstatic. The Cause was anti-nuclear and so we had to stop it.

We sailed across the sea to block it leaving port. We might starve, we might be shot to death. We’d delay it as long as we could. By the time we were halfway there it had set sail. We thought about blocking the Straits of Gibraltar but the measurements weren’t in our favor. Then we thought we’d shadow it, keep a live update online for our fellow-travelers to follow along at home. Try to raise awareness. Try to raise some money. But she steamed at 27 knots, while in a good wind we sailed at 7. With careful timing we managed to take a few photos as she sailed by.

We sailed then to South Africa to protest against a proposal to legalize whaling. We had to stop it. It was voted down before we got to Benin. That’s when we got orders to sail back across the Atlantic to the Gulf. Deepwater drilling was recommencing. We had to stop it. We would try.

We crossed into the Caribbean with the tradewinds at our backs. We spent a night in Philipsburg drinking genever and sucking on the ice. Katja was dark and small and her eyes were bright as sea-stars. She got nervous when people weren’t being nice to other people. Such was not allowed on Sint Maarten.

We sailed and sailed until we saw the derrick. I didn’t realize how big it would be. We sailed towards it for hours, watching it come closer. It towered above us. Then we saw the smoke.

It was pouring black smoke. As we watched the black cloud of it reached across the ocean. So it couldn’t have been burning very long. I went downstairs to find a camera that wasn’t a Leica. Came back on deck, snapped a few pictures, and then said the smartest thing I’ve ever said in my life:

“Let’s get the fuck out of here.”

Everything we did on the boat we did with consensus. This was the fastest consensus we ever reached. We jibed and made for the nearest non-American port, which was Havana. If only because we all hated America, and/or couldn’t afforupplies in USD.

We made not that far before a Coast Guard cutter came up right next to us, nearly capsized us with its wake, and Metatronned at us to heave to and be boarded.

They searched the ship with flashlights and dogs. No worries there. We’d smoked all our grass in the first five days. Then we realized they must have thought we’d blown up the oil derrick. Which scared us a little but mostly was just funny.

They gave us each our own interrogation rooms. I could guess what each person would do. Aadarsh would pretend not to speak English. Armand would demand a lawyer. Rachel would answer each question with a diatribe against the structural injustices in the legal system. Katja would, taking deep breaths, recite our entire itinerary from port to present. Eventually they’d realise we were kids and let us go.

Wasn’t quite sure how I was going to handle it. I guess they sensed this, since they came at me straight and hard.

An officer came into my little room. Moving fast, talking fast, looking angry and likely to be angrier if slowed down. Asked a bunch of leading questions. Trying to trip me up. I let him.

“So you were sailing to block a nuclear carrier from leaving port.”


“A military ship.”


“You were going to interfere with a military ship.”


“Do you realize that was an act of war?”

“Oh, come on.”

“Who are you working for?”

“It’s a 501c3 in Brooklyn, the school career office sent around-”

“You just admitted to perpetrating an act of war against the naval vessel of-”

“Yeah, that’s definitely what I admitted.”

“And then you sailed straight to the Gulf to sabotage the oil derrick? Do you understand how that sounds?”

“Do you?”

We went at this for a while. He was trying to get me riled up. I surprised myself by not riling. I think it might have helped that I wasn’t guilty. I tried to remember exactly how I felt then, so if I ever got jammed up for real I could pretend.

I let him take me round the maypole a few times. Then I got bored and I told him so. He was clear that I had no choice but to answer his questions. I disagreed.

He gave me three types of runaround about the dangers and the stupidities and the dastardly implications of failing to cooperate. I gave him the raspberry. Then I stared at the wall.

He left me alone. Not for long enough. Came back in smiling. Holding my cell phone.

“We’ve got you,” he said.

I just looked at him.

He looked happier than a live man standing over one he’d killed. He looked like the kind of man who’d be happy with that.

“From your cell phone,” he said, “from the middle of the ocean, you placed a short-sell order.”

“I sure did.”

“For the company who owned the derrick.”


“And the company who built it.”

“All I had time to Google.”

“A 24-hour short.”


“You knew the stock was going to go down.”

“Ah huh.”

“You KNEW, before it HAPPENED, that the OIL DERRICK was going to-”

He shouted for a while. At me. In my face. Pounded on the table. I let him blow. When he saw he wasn’t getting to me he blew harder. His arguments washed over each other and his words watched over me. Finally I opened my mouth and he shut up mid-word. Stared at me. Waiting. That was worth it all.

“I knew the stock was going to crash when I saw the oil derrick was on fire.”

“You knew because you-”

“And not before,” I said. “Which you can confirm from the timing of the order, right?”

“You were posing as a member of this organization,” he said. “I bet your friends thought you were one of them. You joined up to encourage them to commit an act of terrorism for your personal profit.” He spit the words. “Or you did it yourself. And they didn’t even know. Which was it? Huh? WHICH WAS IT?”

I smiled. “Wish I had.”

That was a mistake. “You wish you had engaged in an act of violent terrorism that claimed the lives of-”

But not a big one. “Oh, shut up.”

“Those are your words. Those are your words that you said to me, right now, right-”

“Yeah,” I said, “we sailed up to the oil derrick and saw it was on fire. So I called my broker. That’s all.”

We went back and forth. He kept being stupid. I kept fighting not to get mad at him. So instead of fighting him I fought myself.

He jumped the tracks. “That’s insider trading.”

“Uh. No. It’s not.”

“You traded on privileged information.”

“Not unless someone forgot to tell me I work for an oil company.”

“You took advantage of knowing something before anyone else and using it to your own personal profit.”

“Yeah, mmhmm.”

“You took advantage of misery and destruction to line your own fucking pockets-“

“Yes. YES, I- Look. If you looked out the window and saw a Fiat catch fire and said, hmm, maybe Fiats suck, maybe they really suck, maybe now’s a good time to sell-”


“I – you know what, fuck you. Leave me the fuck alone.”

“You don’t seem to understand your situation.”

“You don’t seem to understand anything.”

So he played the dripping skeptic.

“You didn’t have any plan,” he said


“Didn’t cause this.”


“Didn’t know it was going to happen.”


“A smart fellow like you – a stock trader, a capitalist – spent the summer on board a hippie eco-boat.”


“For no reason.”

“There are girls on the boat.”

“You spent a whole fucking summer just sailing around and then you happen to make eighty grand in an afternoon.”

“Pretty sweet, huh.”

He slams both hands down on the table. I don’t think it’s an interrogation tactic; I think he’s just mad.

“There is no judge and jury in the country who would believe this co-inci-dental piece-of-shit story coming out of your mouth.”

Suddenly the tension goes out of me.

I lean forward. “Yeah, but, you see, that’s why I went sailing. I wanted to stumble onto random shit and then make money off of it. Because you can make fucking money off of anything. But I wasn’t going to see anything if I sat on my ass at home, now was I?”

He searches around for words and doesn’t find them.

He tells my friends. Of course. Tries to create an air of suspicion. Tries to get them pissed at me for trading stocks. That one works. Doesn’t accomplish anything but I don’t think that was the point. They stay away from me. I go to Katja’s bed and she just lies there, doesn’t talk about it, doesn’t speak. Won’t confront the issue. Won’t confront anything. We lie there and I don’t know about her but the rocking of the boat sends me to sleep.

But by then the summer’s almost over. We sail back home and pass the helm to the next crop of kids. Show them where everything’s stored, tell them what works and what doesn’t. Pretend like we’re experts. Then we hit the shore.

I watch as they raise sail and put to sea.


•1 January 2016 • Leave a Comment

Henry Turenne and his skyscraper. Henry Turenne and his fourth quarter.

The skyscraper has a square footprint. Ninety feet wide, ninety feet deep. Ninety feet of Malcolm X Boulevard. Ninety feet of Central Park.

First floor, shops and a doorman. Second floor, precious little cafe. Third floor, gym, residents only. Residents on floors 4 through 121.

Two apartments per floor. Modern and spacious and each with a view of the Park. Only the penthouse has a floor to itself. Eight thousand square feet, all for Henry Turenne.

I go into the lobby. Check in with a receptionist who’s wearing a suit but not a tie. It’s one thing to have a casual dress code, another thing to have a casual uniform. I feel special for having noticed. Henry Turenne is the man who makes you feel special.

She waves me through. Pass the lift bank, get in a private elevator. Two buttons inside, 1 and 121.

A ding and the door opens. A short flight of stairs in front of me. I take them up and I’m in the penthouse. Nothing between me and a man who built a skyscraper.

I’m here to look at the nothing.

It’s one big room. No dividers, no furniture. No paintings on the walls. The walls are glass, floor to ceiling, end to end. Four little columns, one in each corner, framing the most expensive view in the world.

It’s like living in a fucking airplane hangar.

I’m afraid if I go up to the view it will ruin my life.

I walk over to Henry. He warmly shakes my hand. He’s wearing a cream-colored suit that makes him look like the pretender to a European noble house, fresh from Saint Barts. I’m wearing a two-piece off the rack, because why even bother.

“Cup of tea?” he asks.


“Domina,” he says to the empty room, “tea.”

“Yes, Henry,” says a pleasant female voice from everywhere.

About twenty feet away – nowhere in particular – a bit of floor rises up. Comes to chest height. Beneath it is a set of shelves. Chatsubo, teapots, little cups. A copper pipe with a spout.

Henry Turenne makes me a pot of tea.

“Four minutes to steep,” he says. “Sit by the window?”

I take a breath. “Not yet.”

“Domina,” he says, grabbing the teapot and cups, “clear, then chess table.”

“Yes, Henry.”

The tea table lowers down into the floor and then it is the floor. Across the room, nowhere in particular, a table rises. Top flips to reveal a chess table. Two little stools rise to either side.

We walk over. My footsteps echo. His don’t. So I bend over and untie my shoes. Step out of them. Then, fuck it, I just leave them there.

Henry smiles at me.

He puts down the teapot. We each take a seat. I look at him and then look across the apartment. The stairs where I entered have disappeared. Nothing between one wall and the other. Nothing to get between Henry Turenne and his view.

There are dozens of things that can come up from that floor. A wine-rack and glasses, a bookcase or two, clothesracks and closet-things, a bathroom and shower and screens to surround them when there’s company. Some say it’s the future of interior design. Some say it’s the future of living-space. Henry says it’s the future of closets. I say it’s about time that the dumb-waiter got a little smarter.

I see the three quarters.

I don’t want to look at them either.

“Her voice sounds so real,” I say.

“It is,” he says. “It’s just a recording. She only says a dozen things, so I had her voice actress record each thing a few dozen times. Subtle variation. Makes it seem more lifelike. Isn’t that right, Domina?”

“Yes, Henry.”

Some magicians would hide their tricks. Some would boast of them. Some would nerd out at whoever was nearest. Henry Turenne is just talking. He’s charming. He finds his life charming. Nothing’s more charming than that.

“You’re trying not to look out the window,” he says.


“Some people do that to show off. You’re not doing that.”

Four guys go to the top of a hill to see God. First three guys go blind or die, things like that. Fourth guy’s the only one to survive – because when he gets to the top, he lowers his eyes, and looketh not.

“I’m not here for the view.”

“You kind of are,” he says.

“I’m not sure I am.”

He looks across the room.

“You know the other three?”

“Of course.” Statue, sword, and shrub.

“Want to see them up close?”

“Not really.”

He smiles. “Then what are you up here for?”

“To appreciate the space.”

He sips his tea.

“Any ideas?” he asks.

“Not a fucking one.”

He laughs. “Good. Good! Have some fun with it. It’s a hard thing, I’m a hard customer. And I’m just having fun. So I have to hope that you’ll have some too.”

“I always try to.”

“Good.” He sips his tea. “You have the list? Of things that have been tried.”

“I do.”

“And please remember that there is still a budget. I am not as rich as I pretend to be.”

“I understand.”

He looks curious. “What did you come up here for?”

“Not to look at the space?”

“Barnaby Tobin spent an hour just wandering the floor. Huriko stared at the sunset until her contacts melted.Townshend – the younger one – said he recreated the space in a warehouse in Ozone Park. Spent three nights there in a tent. God, I hope he was lying.”

“And you?” he asks.

I stand up. “Think I got what I need. Thanks for your time.”

He shrugs, stands up. Opens a side panel on the table and puts the tea-pot and cups inside. Soon as I leave he’ll disappear them downwards, where a human servant will scrub them and put them back in their place.

“Best of luck,” he says. “I’m curious to see what you find.”

“So am I.” And Domina peels back the floor, and I go down the stairs, and down to the elevator, and down to the city.

*** *** ***

I know his story. Helps when New York Magazine did a 23-page spread.

Born Henry Turenne to a pair of schoolteachers. Raised in a pretty little shithole in northern New Hampshire. Skipped a grade, played lacrosse, took three tries to get his driver’s license. Local Boy Makes Millionaire. No wonder the magazines ate it up.

When he was a teenager he saved up and bought an acre of the middle of the woods. Acre of trees, didn’t cost him much. Took a year after college to cut some of the trees, and strip them, and plane them, and build a house. People in town let him use their tools, thought it was great. Thought it was crazy but they were glad at least one kid with a brain was staying in town instead of moving straight to Somerville, never to return.

Camped out in a tent until he’d built enough to live in it. Took him fourteen months. Worked all through the winter. It’s a beautiful house. He made it with absolute love. Hardwood floors, hardwood everything, shelves and counters and benches. Wood shutters over the windows because he couldn’t afford glass.

“Worst part,” he said, later, “was the trees. Eighty, ninety-foot maples. Towered above you, and above anything you built. I remember it was a hell of a thing to cut down one of those trees and then live inside its lumber. But I remember thinking what it would be like to look out from above it. To look out your bedroom window over the tops of the trees like the blades of grass in a field, rolling out in front of you.”

When he finished the house he surprised his parents (and forever pissed off his town) by saying he didn’t want to live in it. Asked his parents for two grand as a loan. He bought a bicycle and some gear and rode across the country. Slept under the stars. Got to San Francisco and sold the bike and proceeded to talk his way into Stanford. Had no choice – he’d run out of money.

Made it a year before he dropped out to join some silly startup. Two years later and it’s on its third round of funding and half the founders have left. The other half have no illusions but that they work for Henry Turenne.

Five years later and Henry’s worth five million dollars. A year later and he’s worth a hundred. It’s all paper money, stock in the company he runs; if he sold one percent of his holdings the market would freak and the other ninetynine percent would be worthless. So Henry didn’t sell it. He leveraged it to hell and built a skyscraper. The tallest in Manhattan. The tallest in the hemisphere. Eighty percent under agreement at completion. He made his money back, even turned a little profit. And he kept the penthouse.

He still works twelve hours a day. Does it because he likes it. Same reason he wasn’t content to live in his house in the woods. The rest of the time he spends doing what anyone in his position would do: he eats at the right restaurants, he goes to the opera and the ballet, and he fucks his way across the cream of society on the strength of the line, “Want to see my view?”

*** *** ***

When he moved into his penthouse he was happy for all of five minutes. “That’s who I am,” said Henry Turenne. “There was a book I read at Stanford that said that – in coding projects – you should strive to achieve a simultaneity of minimalism and maximalism. I had done that. But sometimes a slight complexity is necessary to bring simplicity into focus.”

Four walls. Four views. Four foci. The four quarters.

Henry started looking at auction catalogs. Took the better part of two years before he found a single thing that really spoke to him. A Capitoline Aphrodite, probably from the reign of Claudius, white marble, missing arms and legs. Her face is still beautiful after two thousand years of wear and weather and changing notions of beauty. She looks with curiosity at where her arms should be.

Cost him almost two hundred grand. He was shocked. Thought it would be more. She rode up with him in the elevator. He put her in the middle of his north-facing wall. Mounted her on a single tube of carbon-fiber. It spins around so that, on a clear day, she too can see Greenwich. And Henry Turenne had his first quarter.

But that’s when Henry’s interest ran out. So he did what any rich man would do and passed along the problem. And he did what any modern millionaire would do: he crowdsourced it.

He made it a challenge, for antiquarians and auctioneers, for artists and interior designers, for bright-eyed dreamers and inspired nerds. Henry Turenne would find the best of the best and invite them up to his penthouse. Let them enjoy his view. Let them take a swing at making him happy. They’d bring him a thing to grace his mighty walls. If he shook his head they’d be sent packing. If he wanted to buy he’d pay the item’s fair market, and a million dollar finder’s fee on top of it.

A million dollars. Enough to be a Big Prize, not so much as to gross out the Folks Following Along At Home. But for the dealers and designers it wasn’t about the money. The exposure was worth a pile of gold – if their quarter got picked.

Someone new tries almost every day. Some new face coming out of the elevator, some new pitch, some new quarter. He keeps a film crew on standby for every try. Antiques fucking Roadshow in a castle in the clouds. People love it. Henry loves it. That make people love it more.

A few months into the contest and he bought the swords. Ken van Orman brought them up in a crate, crowbarred it open and Henry Turenne was a boy with a toy. A daishō, three Samurai swords mounted one on top of the other. Katana, wakizashi, tanto. Very traditional. But they aren’t old. They were made that year by a blacksmith and his apprentice, working out of an old auto body shop in Rausu. They made their own steel, worked it and folded it, and hardened it in a slight variation of the soshu kitae. The blades look like running water under moonlight. Henry put them at his south-facing wall, right in the middle of his Parkside view. Ken van Orman cashed his check for a million. And became a household name – in the kind of households that have millions to spare.

Then a year of head-shakes, a year of “Domina, the elevator,” and learned articles were written about the fussiest man in the world. Then a professor at Tisch named Mary Irakoze talked her way into a roll of the dice. She asked her students to think of ideas. She pitched the one she liked best. Henry loved it.

They planted a ten-foot rock maple right in the floor, right in front of the west-facing wall. The space beneath is a hydroponic setup to keep the tree in water and nutrients. The floor comes right to the edge of the trunk, hermetic. Trim the top of the tree to keep its height constant. The tree of the future. A bonsai in the clouds. In October the leaves turn red and fall, just like the trees on the ground below. Henry Turenne admits that he spends a lot of time sitting underneath that tree.

Mary Irakoze split the money with the student, a third-year pre-med who needed some easy credits in the art department. He smiled for a hundred cameras and then went straight back to the library. The University was an inch from suing them both for its share, then did the math on a international PR nightmare. Professor Irakoze is looking forward to a positive report from the tenure review board. Not a bad way to stand out from the other six thousand applications.

Statue, swords, and shrub. They’re the only things in the apartment that don’t disappear. The only things in his world that are worthy of permanence. The only things that improve a view, even by obstructing it. Three quarters full. Just one more to go.

*** *** ***

I’m in a hotel in East Harlem. I cover up the windows with a bedsheet. I sit on the floor with a laptop and do my homework.

I have a list of everything that’s been tried. Found it on a fan site. Most auction-houses don’t have websites this good. There have been over eight hundred tries. Each one logged and categorized. Each one filmed in HD.

Some good attempts. Some very interesting. Some boring, some bullshit. Some that make my eyes roll. But I’m not the customer. Henry Turenne is. The man in the highest castle. The man who just made me a cup of tea.

There are plenty of interviews with the people who’ve tried. And scholarly monographs. And disappointed tweets. People who tried to fill the space. People who tried to tempt the man. People who tried to complement the view. People who just showed up with a shiny thing and prayed.

I looked at the failures, the successes, the everything. I jotted down every thought I had. Woke up the next day and did it again. Made myself a rubric, of all the things the fourth quarter must be.

The quarter must be beautiful. The swords are a frozen waterfall, the finest example of an ancient form of art. The sculpture is the culmination of the classical tradition. They both are. The tree is the natural world in microcosm.

The quarter must be a microcosm. The whole world is spread out before him, the things in his living-space need to bring the world to him. The swords are the martial traditions of the world, the history of technology as it was held in the human hand. The sculpture is the history of art. The forests is the tree.

The quarter must be simple. Simple of countenance, simple of line. The swords in their sheathes are three lines like brush-strokes. That ancient sculpture is just a human form. The tree is a tree like the forest he grew up in. Nothing so simple as a face and some lines and a tree.

The quarter must be revolutionary. Nothing less for the man who built the home of the future. He has an indoor tree, the microcosm of an indoor forest. Sure, his swords and his sculpture are throwbacks to ancient forms. But he has two of of those. The tree is living, the tree is-


I’ve been locked in a room for three days. I’m burnt the hell out. I go outside to find it’s the middle of a day. I’ve been living on granola and espresso, I go to a Hungarian place and eat bogrács and have a beer. I go back to the hotel and look at my conclusions and laugh. It’s all bullshit.

They must be beautiful? There’s a broken sculpture, a tree, some lengths of sharpened steel almost unadorned. They must be simple? A Roman bust is simple? The 23 parts of a Japanese sword, simple? And none of the things are revolutionary. Or if they are it’s because they’re in that apartment, up against that view. I am imposing false dichotomies. I am making shit up. I am not going to win this. I pull back, have another beer, and another espresso from the machine in the lobby.

This isn’t a problem to be solved. There are no absolutes here, no rules to find. This is a customer looking for a buy. A hell of a customer. But nothing more.

What’s the rule of selling to a customer? Take away every reason he has to say no.

What does he like? Simplicity. Elegance. Nothing too big. Nothing that can’t fit in his elevator. Something he can be proud to own. Nothing that he has already. That’s the big thing. Something new.

But not so new – aha! – that it’s very different from the other three. Can’t have three Zen-ass trinkets and then throw in a big neon Eat At Joe’s. The four quarters have to be in harmony with each other and with the space and the views and their owner. But they have to be in harmony with each other. Four quarters, making one whole.

So what do we have, really?

He has two handmade things. One’s old. One’s new but in an old style. No, the sculpture’s not old; it’s timeless. No; they both are.

He has one thing that’s alive and two inert.

He has two things that just sit there, and one thing that’s designed to be picked up in the hand.

He has two things that are pure, one all wood, one all stone. And he has one thing that’s composite, laquer and ray-skin and folded tamahagane steel.

By this logic his last thing would be alive, or at least not-intert. It would be natural, not handmade. It would be movable, perhaps have moving parts. It would be composite.

There’s one thing that’s alive and two that aren’t. But another alive-thing just seems redundant. What’s he going to have, a bear in a cage? Besides, the tree is across from the sculpture. The sculpture may be crafted but it shows the human form, a natural thing, same as the tree. The fourth quarter will be across from the swords. Thing that are entirely geometric, but which are made to fit the human form.

The wood reminds me of his childhood. Of his first accomplishment. It’s potential. This is a guy who used to cut down trees, every day he must look at that tree and think, Do I make something from it? Do I make another thing? Am I done?

Something that makes him think of where he came from, and also where he’s going. Something living, or at least moving. Something simple, functional, nothing extraneous, nothing but what it is. Something composite, crafted from different materials. Something of the human form, or else-

I spend an hour laughing, rolling around my hotel room.

I have it.

Oh, God, I have it.

*** *** ***

I just have to get it.

I’m in the redwoods. Playing private eye. Tracking old mortgage records. Then, prison records. Then I’m up in Ashland. Slipping fifties to a farm supply salesman. Then I’m in the Goodwill. Then I’m nowhere.

I try the police station. Nothing. Of course. Try nearby cities. Come up aces in Portland. A registration. Then a police report, stolen goods. Turned up a year later. Couldn’t locate the owner. Not worth selling, I guess. Donated to charity. A nonprofit out in Astoria Bay. Five hundred to the nonprofit and they grudgingly check their records. They’re pretty sure it went to a small town in Guatemala. And I’m on a plane.

Down to Guatemala. In Sipacate on the Pacific coast, white sands and brown grass and ocean melted under a hot silver sun. All deliveries made to the church for distribution. They don’t really keep records. Don’t need to. I give the priest five hundred dollars and he kisses me on each cheek. Tells me it’s with a man named Salou. Works at a surfboard-shop. Rides it to work every day.

I go to the shop. He’s waxing a longboard, an Argentine with dreadlocks looks on and they shoot the shit. I introduce myself and say there was a mix-up. Offer him two hundred and a replacement. Five hundred would have been too much. Would have made him suspicious. Can’t have that.

He nods. Baffled. Leaves the board and the Argentine and brings it out front. It’s all scuffed up and fucked up. But the chain’s fresh and oiled, he’s done his best. I give him a new one, with wide knobby tires and a suspension saddle. Much better for local roads than the road bike on which Henry Turenne road across the country.

*** *** ***

I sit in my hotel-room and watch the video.

The elevator opens. Minji Pang comes out, dressed to the nines, wheeling the bicycle. Henry just looks at her, cocks his head a bit. She says what I told her but she says it better than I ever could.

“A bicycle?” he asks.

“No,” she says. “Your bicycle.”

She walks him through it in just a few words. You build a house with your bare hands, but did you live there? No. You were ready for your next adventure. You always would be. So you borrowed some money from your parents and bought a bicycle. This bicycle- but by then Henry’s already crying.

You rode this bicycle across the country. From Maine to Marin, from sea to shining sea. It was a good bicycle. It still is. Lugged titanium, touring wheelset, brifters and calipers, full Dura-Ace.

But it’s more than that. It’s every bike. It’s a triumph of design, the bicycle. There’s nothing there but what needs to be. It’s simplicity. It’s elegance. It’s as perfect a technology as the samurai sword. It speaks as much of the human body as a marble sculpture. It’s not alive like the tree is – but if you were to get up into the saddle, it would be.

It’s as good a bike now as it was when you were young. You could get on it today and leave here and never look back. But you won’t. Because you’ve built this. Because you’ve finally gotten where you want to be.

She pushes it towards him. He breathes once, twice. He goes towards her. Right past the bike. Grabs her and hugs her. Then takes the bike to the wall and leans it against the glass.

You know – doesn’t look half bad.

*** *** ***

Minji Pang owns a gallery in TriBeCa. She’d been doing quite well for herself. But nothing like this. She found the fourth quarter. Tens of millions saw the video of her making Henry Turenne so happy that he cried. She went the extra mile for her client. Now every sappy billionaire in the world would be coming to her shop. Before she had a gallery. Now she has a name.

I gave her the bicycle. The bicycle gave her the name. Henry Turenne gave her a million dollars. That’s only a fraction of what she would give me.

A few weeks later Henry throws a party. For the three who succeeded, and for all of those who failed. Not all of them, some were crackpots, some just didn’t make the cut. But a few hundred people, going up that elevator ten at a time.

I got an invitation. I couldn’t turn it down. I went out and bought an even duller suit. I needn’t have bothered. Minji is the hero of the hour. Ken van Orman and Mary Irakoze raise their glasses to her, shake her hand. Henry Turenne walks around his room, talking to everyone, smiling at everyone, shaking hand after hand. He’s done with them. He’ll never buy a damn thing ever again. But he likes them. He appreciates them, he really does. Nobody appreciates someone like Henry Turenne.

I find my way to the maple-tree. Looks like it’s doing well. Better than most trees in New York City. An inspired choice. You can’t fault Henry’s taste. Statue, sword, shrub, and cycle. Four quarters. All complete.

“Sorry you lost your chance,” he says. I turn around and there’s Henry, holding a flute of champagne. I wonder how many servants are in the maintenance corridors below the floor, scurrying about, sending bubbly up to the guests above.

“It’s alright,” I say.

“A few others in your shoes.”

“Bet they feel like shit too.”

He laughs. “I really am sorry.”

“Don’t worry about it.”

“But there will be other opportunities, I’m sure. I’m not the only rich fuck with a man-cave. Plenty of work for everyone. Now that I’ve got my-”

“Are you done?” I ask. “Are you finally satisfied?”

“Satisfied? No. I mean, I am, personally. Hell, I was satisfied with the house I built of wood. Could have been very happy there. That’s not what I’m about. I’m – I’m an asshole, I know – but I’m trying to set an example. Reach for the stars and all that.”

“You think-” I start, then stop.

He finishes my sentence: “Yes, I do think this is an attainable example. There’s a lot of cloud in this world. Plenty of room to build castles for one and all. I would like to see towers like a curtain-wall. Their tops in the heavens. One after the other. So that everyone has a view of the world. So what, I’m obsessed with a view. Because everyone deserves space and light and something to look at and it’s the best thing there is. Best thing in the world. And if you ran that wall of buildings along Long Island then everyone in this city could wake up to the sunrise and fall asleep in the sky. And we could plow the fucking suburbs right into the soil. Not only would everyone have a view, they would have a view of-”


He smiles sheepishly. “Or mountains, or meadows. Or whatever their world is like. Deserts, I don’t care. But such has my life been that, yes, I believe everyone deserves a forest. And a road across the country. And a bedroom in the sky.”

He pats me on the back. “You should look out the window,” he says. “It’s a hell of a view.”

He leaves so I can make up my own mind.

I turn around. Put my hand on the tree and look. The tree faces east now, I notice. So the bicycle can be to the west. Facing cross country. The route that Henry took, and will not take again.

I look out the window. Across the river. Across Long Island. Up the coast of the Sound. It’s nothing but glow in the night. A meadow of lights, like the amplified heavens. All the twinkling lights of mankind.

Henry’s right. It’s a hell of view. But I couldn’t do the work I do from up above. Some of us do not reach for the sky. We run in the shadows, because they let us run. So long as there are skyscrapers there will be shadows too. So long as there are men like Henry Turenne, there will be men like me.

But I do have to say – it’s a hell of a view.

I walk to the elevator, and am on my way.

The Civil Forfeiture of Cryptocurrencies

•18 December 2015 • 1 Comment

The Civil Forfeiture of Cryptocurrencies

by David Axel Kurtz
JD Candidate
University of Maine School of Law

ABSTRACT: Digital currencies, such as Bitcoin, are often used to facilitate illegal transactions. Assets which are presumed to have been used for criminal purposes are subject to civil forfeiture. Does this mean that Bitcoins are forfeitable per se?

…this is Part 2 of our continuing series, David Writes Legal Treatises About Stuff From Cryptonomicon

Submarine Cables and Casus Belli

•18 December 2015 • Leave a Comment

Submarine Cables and Casus Belli

by David Axel Kurtz
JD Candidate
University of Maine School of Law

ABSTRACT: Submarine communications cables lie across the sea-bed, where no country has jurisdiction. Can an attack against a submarine cable be considered an attack against one or more nations, thus to allow for the legal waging of war in response?

…another legal treatise inspired by Cryptonomicon.

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