Wednesday, 14 March 2018

Losing weight didn't make me love my body

This post is a little bit different for me because I don't have the answers to this stuff yet — I'm sharing it as a work in progress, a snapshot of where my thoughts and feelings are right now.

I've already written about how I developed a sense of shame about my body and ended up hating my body. And specifically, what I felt ashamed of and what I hated was being fat. So, a little over three years ago now, I resolved to change that; and succeeded. I lost 63kg (139lb) and ended up with a body that sits neatly in the "normal" band on height-weight charts and fits into clothes sized "Small" or "Medium" in most labels. I got exactly what I set out for.

The outcome I wasn't prepared for is that... I still hate my body.

The conventional narrative told in thousands of before-and-after photos is that "I was fat and unhappy, now I'm thin and happy". That's how it's supposed to work, right? And it's unconsciously what I expected to happen.

But it turns out that body-hate, as a learned pattern, has a life of its own that's completely separate from reality. So when I removed the original focus of that hate, my mind just settled on new focuses.

This hate has some very real repercussions on my life, some obviously connected to body image, others not-so-obviously. Some are minor annoyances, some have bigger impacts.

Photos and mirrors
For example, I'm sometimes, unpredictably, upset by what I see of myself in photos or in a mirror. This issue is unsolved and still sometimes hits me when I least expect it. A glimpse of myself in the mirror at ballet a couple of months ago left me feeling down for days, even though I use these mirrors constantly in ballet and barre classes. But just this one time got me and I don't know why.

I'm also still not OK with baring my torso in public; so this means always wearing a rashie at the pool or beach. I've made very slight progress here: I actually went shirtless to an aqua-fitness event a few weeks ago because the environment felt safe and supportive enough.

Trying on clothes
A similar one that I've recently overcome is that for years, I would not change clothes or shower anywhere that didn't have floor-to-ceiling walls and doors, and a sturdy lock. Trying on clothes typically meant buying them, taking them home to try on, then bringing them back to the store if they weren't right. I'm OK with typical change rooms now, but it was a major inconvenience for a long time.

Medical exams
Some effects are more than mere annoyances, like avoiding any medical examination that requires removing clothing; although I did get as far as taking off my shirt in this context recently, so that's progress.

Air travel... what?
And some effects are much less obvious: one of the biggest is that it makes me incredibly anxious about air travel, to the point where I just don't do it. I haven't flown domestically for eight years now, and internationally for fourteen years. As a lover of history, art, language, culture, and technology, I'm painfully aware of how much of the world I have never seen for myself and remains inaccessible to me. Work-wise, I seem to avoid around one opportunity for overseas travel per year. And more recently, my family is going on holidays, having adventures, and building memories that I'm unable to share in. But how is air travel connected to body image?

When I tell people I don't travel by air, they assume that I'm frightened of flying; but the reality is, I'm frightened of airport security. I'm frightened of machines that can show people my body through my clothes (backscatter X-ray or millimetre-wave scanners), and of people who might feel my body through my clothes by patting it down. My greatest air-travel fear of all is that some over-zealous security agent might decide that I'm acting suspiciously (maybe because I'm so freaked out and scared) and exercise their right to strip-search me in some horrifying self-fulfilling prophecy. These fears are enough to keep me confined to south-east Queensland.

What has helped?

Not all of these affect me as much as they once did. The most fundamental piece of advice I can give anyone dealing with issues like this is to get help. I am being supported by a wonderful psychologist and I've also had some sessions with a life coach who has given me some valuable practical exercises and some "tough love".

Over the next few weeks, I want to write about the approaches and techniques that have helped so far:
  • Recognising distortions of perception: in myself and in others
  • Re-examining old data and challenging "hyper-stabilised beliefs"
  • Gratitude for my body and what it can do
  • Breaking it down: learning to like parts of my body

Wednesday, 7 March 2018

On the value of small kindnesses

Sunday 11 February should have finished well for me. That afternoon, I'd been to an awesome and fun fitness event; one full of movement that made my body feel good, and attended by an upbeat crowd of friendly, positive people. And even better, as it ended, the skies over Brisbane opened up with a summer thunderstorm, which always makes me feel invigorated and refreshed.

But that evening, some other pressures and tensions in my life came to a head, and left me feeling really low. For the purposes of this post, it really doesn't matter what they were; only that the effect was by the end of the night, I felt completely worthless. It had been many, many years since I'd experienced anything like this, certainly with this level of intensity. I wanted to withdraw from everyone around me because it seemed that their lives would be better without me in them.

The next day was my birthday, and I awoke feeling like that was nothing to celebrate; I wasn't even grateful to be alive that morning. My morning ballet class helped a bit. Even though I felt on the verge of tears throughout a lot of it (especially in the slow movements), the mental focus of dance demanded attention on something other than my feelings.

A few things really helped me over the next 24 hours; most particularly the love of my incredible wife and family.

But while that's an uncontroversial observation, the purpose of this post is to acknowledge the way that social media helped as well. It's fashionable with some commentators to take a really cynical view of this part of our modern lives. Facebook and Instagram and Twitter "likes" come cheap, we're told. What happens on social media isn't "real" they tell us.

Cynics be damned: that day, when I was feeling at my lowest ebb, the sixty-something people who left me a birthday message, even if it was often only three words, helped to turn things around for me with their small kindnesses:

And then came an Instagram post from a friend that spoke to me exactly what I needed to hear that morning:

The picture of a caterpillar dangling from a stem was captioned "Hang on" and continued:
"Sometimes it’s all we can do - and we need to know what a huge and brave thing it is. Just showing up in the most difficult of times allows our inward transformation to keep ripening. We can describe this ‘hanging on’ as ‘holding the tension’ without collapsing things into right or wrong, success or failure, black or white. The truth is that we have no idea who we are about to become because it’s beyond our mind’s capacity to understand something truly new. Indeed our minds would even rather decide that “all is lost” - because of the mind’s difficulty with uncertainty. If we can be kindly courageous with ourselves and allow the unknown, healing is always possible."

On a morning when I did indeed feel like "all is lost", these words gave me the courage to show up despite my hurt and shame and to receive love and healing. 

So, thank you Emma, for your wise post that morning. And to everyone who wished me happy birthday on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and elsewhere: it was a little gesture on your part, but you made a huge difference in my day, and I'm very lucky to have you in my life.

Emma's Instagram image and post reproduced with her kind permission. 

Wednesday, 4 October 2017

First thoughts on Star Trek: Discovery

Last time a Star Trek series
debuted, I could never have
imagined that I'd delay
watching the next one until I
got home from ballet class...

TL;DR version: There's this new Star Trek series that's just started on Netflix, called Star Trek: Discovery, and I like the first two episodes more than anything else that's been on TV for the last 23 years. 

I've been a huge Star Trek fan practically my whole life. Its original 1960s incarnation and The Next Generation from the 80s are my favourite TV shows by a long margin. I think this love comes from a unique combination of factors that resonate strongly with me:
  • wonder at the exploration of "strange, new worlds... new life and new civilizations"
  • the optimism of the future depicted; its vision that "the human adventure is just beginning" and that the best is yet to come for our species
  • it's a modern-day fable; that from the very outset, the show was intended to (and regularly did) explore social issues, and questions about the nature of being human

When I have failed to enjoy various incarnations of the show since The Next Generation ended in 1994, I think it's because they have failed to deliver on one or more of those fronts. Without them, all that was left was fairly standard action/adventure shows and movies set in space. And to me, it seems a shame to have lost something unique.

Such is my love of the show that even having been burned time and time again by new additions to the franchise, I was still very excited last week to see the debut its newest incarnation, Discovery.

But reviews aren't worth much without understanding what the reviewer values (and doesn't), so a little bit more about that first.

I don't care that the look of the show has changed.
What the future looked
like in 1964: "The Cage"
Discovery is set about ten years prior to the original 60s series that featured the adventures of Captain Kirk and Mr Spock. This places it roughly concurrent with the pilot episode of the original series, "The Cage", which was set under a former captain of the USS Enterprise, Christopher Pike. TV production values have come a long way in the 53 years since "The Cage" was filmed. I have no expectation that the sets, props, or costumes of the new show would align with that was presented way back then.

This also extends to what's bound to be the most contentious change in the show's visuals: the makeup design of the Klingons. This is the third major revision of "what Klingons look like" in the history of the show, and an article on the Ex Astris Scientia website ("The Evolution of Klingon Foreheads") descibes all the minor revisions in minute detail too. In short, there's been such little consistency over the last 50 years that I'm not about to get upset about another change now.

I don't care about story arcs
Similarly, TV storytelling has changed substantially over the last few decades. Whereas series were once more like anthologies of short, stand-alone stories that rarely referred to anything that had gone before, now series are constructed more like novels. I'm happy with either, although I've been more frequently disappointed by attempts at long-form TV storytelling than I've been impressed by it.

I'm not here for the characters
When it comes to sci-fi and other speculative fiction genres, I'm watching for the setting and the ideas; if I wanted interesting, well-rounded characters, I'd be watching a European art film instead. I set the bar really low here: I just don't want to be actively annoyed by the characters.

So, all that said...

What I loved about Discovery (mild spoilers)

Ideas: clash of cultures
The first episode quickly establishes that this is an ideas show. The political tensions of the original show were driven by confrontation of space superpowers — Cold-War concerns. The tension in Discovery is driven by xenophobia and religious fundamentalism — twenty-first century concerns. There's a post-colonial narrative as well, provided by the Klingons' desire to "remain Klingon" in the face of what they see as the cultural imperialism of the Federation.

Ideas: nature vs nurture
The central character of Michael Burnham is a human who was raised by Vulcans and is portrayed as behaving more in line with her nurture than her human genetics. This is not a new theme to Star Trek, but in an era where "identity politics" are contested, is more relevant than ever.

Ideas: pre-emptive strike
The dramatic climax of the opening two-parter revolves around a question of whether it is acceptable to undertake a pre-emptive strike against a known belligerent who has not yet made a hostile move in this encounter. How far should the benefit of the doubt be extended? This story seems ripe for discussion and debate for a long time, just like other notable examples from Star Trek's past. My wife and I still debate 1968's "A Private Little War" every time we see it.

Respect for the past
I do like the small nods to what has gone before, in visuals, sound, and dialogue. For example:
  • the sidearms that the Starfleet officers carry are styled after the hand phasers of the original series, but feature muzzles/emitters that are clearly based on the earlier "hand lasers" in "The Cage"
  • the inclusion of a ship's dedication plaque next to the elevator ("turbolift") doors on the bridge of the USS Shenzhou, just like on the bridges of Federation starships all the way back to the original series (and, as an aside, naming a starship USS Shenzhou, after Communist China's first human spaceflight vehicle)
  • one of the sensor noises on the bridge, taken directly from the original 60s series
  • use of the bosun's whistle, again, a nautical "Hornblower in space" touch that goes all the way back to the original series
  • many aspects of Klingon ritual that draw on what was established during The Next Generation (death rites), but also in the novels and (pen-and-paper) role-playing games of the 1980s (the "Black Fleet") and perhaps even a nod to a single, throw-away line in one of the 80s Star Trek movies (a Klingon "mummification glyph")
  • This characterisation of Michael Burnham echoes that of Captain Pike's un-named first officer, "Number One" in "The Cage", also Vulcan-like in her demeanor 
  • an albino Klingon, as established in Deep Space Nine
  • "phase cannons" as starship armament, as established in Enterprise
  • and probably a lot of other things I missed on my first viewing!
In short, there are a lot of easter eggs here, while none of them seemed intrusive.

I'm really excited by what Discovery promises so far! I'm hoping it continues as a science-fictional fable for our age, inviting us to think about ethics and the human condition in a setting that is both new and also respectful of its past. That's a hard balance to strike, but the introductory two-parter has me feeling very optimistic.

Saturday, 24 June 2017

Why starving myself was a stupid idea

5-year-old me
I was obese by the time I was about 5 years old and stayed that way for the better part of 40 years. Eventually, I made huge lifestyle changes that transformed the way my body looks and works, a transformation that has lasted two years now. However, this certainly wasn't the first time I tried to become less fat.

Like many other people unhappy with their body size or shape, I experienced multiple attempts and failures over many years. In this post, I want to share what didn't work for me, because, in hindsight, it should have been obvious, and for whatever reason, it wasn't.

Twain never said this.
The memes are lying to you.
There's a famous quip routinely misattributed to Mark Twain that's usually rendered something like "It’s easy to quit smoking. I’ve done it a thousand times."1 Regardless of the source of the remark, it was similarly easy for me to lose body fat on the many occasions I set out to.

I've felt self-conscious and strongly negative about my body since I first started getting teased at school about its shape and size, somewhere between the ages of 6 and 8 years old. But it wasn't until I was a teenager that I felt motivated and empowered enough to do anything about that.

It seems to me that most people instinctively understand the two sides of the energy equation: that losing or gaining fat depends on the balance between energy consumed and energy spent. And consequently, most people who want to reduce their amount of body fat know that they can achieve this goal by reducing the amount and types of food they eat and/or increasing their level of physical activity.2 This principle is sometimes called "CICO", for "calories in versus calories out". While it's essentially true, stripping all the physical, psychological, and emotional elements of body recomposition down to this one simple, cold equation leads some people (like me) to a naïve, "brute force" approach.3

And so, when I was 17 years old, I started starving myself for the first time.

And I found out that I was good at it!

That is, I discovered that I could easily suppress and ignore hunger pains. I started by skipping meals. Then I sometimes skipped whole days. The furthest I went was when I was 25 years old and I went a whole week without eating anything at all.

Most times, I would also boost my output by going for long walks. I chose walking because it was the only form of physical activity I was familiar with that I didn't hate (How I learned to hate physical activity is a story in itself for another time). On some of these fat-loss attempts, I would make time for a two-hour walk each day, which I would do regardless of weather: hot or cold, rain or shine. The longest walk I did was one of around ten hours, coming home with my feet shredded and bleeding, all so I could be happier with my body.

Each time I embarked on a starvation diet, I would pursue it for a few weeks, lose something in the vicinity of 5-10kg (10-20lb) and then lose the willpower to refuse food any further, or have my attention diverted to other interests. When that happened, I would resume eating exactly as I did before, and resume the sedentary lifestyle that I had before.

Worse: while I was in my most severely restrictive phases, like the week in which I didn't eat at all, I would be pretty preoccupied with food, dreaming of all the things of which I was depriving myself. I would start to hoard food, buying the treats I wasn't allowing myself to eat and hiding them in my bedroom. At the time, I would feel good and powerful—that I had a big stash of all this junk food and my willpower was so strong that I could resist eating it. That is, until the willpower eventually collapsed, as it always did, and I would gorge myself on everything that I had been denying myself up to then.

And then, with my normal patterns of eating and inactivity re-established, I would soon regain the fat I had starved off, and the whole cycle would begin again. I would go many months, and sometimes even a year or two, without restricting, and I would always end up at a point heavier than I had the last time I restricted. Over the course of doing this for twenty-plus years, I gradually gained about 40kg (90lb).

In essence, severe restriction as a strategy for fat loss was really a strategy for fat gain.

Somewhere in the back of my mind, I always knew that starvation wasn't sustainable as a strategy, and that when I had lost all the fat I wanted to, I would have to come up with a plan to keep it off. But it never got that far, because my will to starve always failed long before I reached my goal.

What went wrong?

With the benefit of hindsight, here's my take on why restriction failed so badly for me time and time again:

1. Reliance on willpower and attentiveness

In my experience, willpower is a finite commodity: mine eventually runs out. Restriction and denial is a constant push uphill; and when the ability to keep pushing faded away, my life always resumed its original path.

The same goes for attentiveness: I can only concentrate on so many things at one time, have so many projects "on the go". So when other things in life crowded out the constant attentiveness needed to suppress the desire for food, restriction would fall by the wayside.

In 2005, I lost about 20kg.
I then gained over 30kg
during the next few years.
The same applied on the exercise side. Prior to the last two years, my most successful fat loss campaign was a little over ten years ago when I lost about 20kg (44lbs) through heavy restriction and daily (as in, seven-day-a-week) gym sessions.

But I didn't enjoy the gym. I forced myself to go. And then, when I had a break from it, I just never went back. I took time away from there to prepare for, and then to run in, the Bridge to Brisbane event that year. But when the run was over, I never returned to the gym. Or did any more running. The change was superficial and driven by willpower alone.

I even kept my Fitness First membership going for about a year because I always intended to force myself back; I just never did.

2. Expecting to be able to go back to the old way of eating and (in)activity

Einstein never said this.
The memes are lying
to you again!
Keeping with the misattribution theme from earlier, it's often erroneously claimed that Einstein said "Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results"4 Again, regardless of its origin, the observation holds true here. 

I always expected that after I had slimmed down to a size and shape I found acceptable, I would just go back to eating the food I enjoyed up to that time; maybe less of it, or eating it less frequently, but without any substantial changes to what I was eating.

Here's the most ridiculous expression of that belief: during that attempt where I lost the 20kg, as I reached each 5kg milestone, I would celebrate by choosing some incredibly calorie-rich junk food to indulge in. Yes, really: "I've just starved off another few kilos — I will therefore eat this whole box of donuts!"

If that's not crazy, I don't know what is.

Now, in the scheme of things, that one indulgence every few weeks was not, in itself, going to undo the effects of all the restriction and exercise. But, it does show that my efforts were doomed to eventual failure, because as long as I expected to and wanted to keep eating that way, that's what I would revert to as soon as willpower or attentiveness failed.

And, of course, that's exactly what happened. Every time.

This misalignment of desires and goals is what makes me so wary of the principle of "cheat days" that some people use during body recomposition. For me, needing to schedule a day to eat whatever I want would be a symptom and a warning bell that my lifestyle was pretty out-of-whack; that my values and my eating had become separated, just like eating the donuts to celebrate losing fat.

Again, the same principle applies on the energy output side of the equation: I never expected that the long walks or the daily gym sessions would be something I kept up after I reached my goal shape and size. And that, somehow, magically, the inactivity would not lead me straight back to the body shape I had been working to change.

3. Going it alone

Related to the expectation of going back to eating an old way, the fear of not being able to eat that way was one of the main reasons I was so determined to strive for my goal through starving myself instead of seeking professional help.

Specifically, I expected (without any evidence, of course) that a doctor or dietitian would condemn me to a plan of eating things I didn't like — things that were less appealing than not eating at all. So I deliberately avoided the very help and support that I know now would have made things easier, healthier, and a lot more likely to succeed. 

4. Separating the fat-loss stage from the maintenance stage

Two years ago, this strategy eventually did work for me, but only because I was lucky to be well-supported through the transition. I now think that this separation into an incredibly difficult and unlikely-to-succeed "phase 1" and a completely undefined and not-thought-out "phase 2" was a major reason why dozens of previous attempts over more than half my life had failed.

Spelled out that way, it's obvious what a stupid idea this was, and one eventual success, that relied on luck, after multiple failures doesn't make it a great strategy.

Put another way: if I had ever worked out what "phase 2" looked like, there would have been no need for a "phase 1" — I should just have started "phase 2" straight away.

But to be kind to myself, when I started the journey that eventually transformed me, I literally could not have imagined that I would be leading and loving the life that I have now. Indeed, if I could have seen this future, the me of two years ago would have not wanted it.


I now think I was completely wrong on each one of these counts. That:
  • Successful transformation comes from embracing things I love, not through denial and restriction; through letting a healthy lifestyle crowd out an unhealthy one.
  • Tastes and appetite, for food and for movement, are more malleable than I ever believed. 
  • A good nutrition professional will work with you to help you enjoy food. If they're not doing that, you need to change nutrition professionals. In Australia, look for someone registered as an APD (Accredited Practising Dietitian): they're the experts at this.
  • Diets with short-term goals will produce short-term results and are probably counterproductive in the long run. Transformational change comes from transforming a whole lifestyle.
In future posts, I want to expand on each of these ideas, and also to share in more detail what did eventually work for me.

1 There's no evidence for Twain ever saying this. The earliest variant of the gag that Quote Investigator has turned up is in the 1907 novel Duke of Devil-May-Care by Harris Dickson and refers to poker-playing, not smoking (see here for their detailed and well-sourced research).

2 Most people. I do occasionally hear people claiming that no matter how little they eat, they can't lose body fat. Or that restriction doesn't work for them because they have slow metabolisms. Or that restriction doesn't work at all because of the body's "starvation mode". My layperson's understanding of such claims is:
  • We're not plants and we can't photosynthesise; the body must be getting its energy from somewhere. If it's not from fat stores, it has to be coming from food and drink. 
  • It's undeniable that some people lose (and gain) body fat easier than others, but my understanding is that metabolisms that are so slow to make fat loss significantly harder (as in "not work"-level of harder) than for the general population are very rare. It's also easy and pretty cheap to get your metabolic rate (RMR) measured if you really think this is you. 
  • "Starvation mode" is definitely real and was investigated extensively by the US military in the wake of World War II. My understanding is that it doesn't have much of an effect until the body is down to its last few percent of body fat. Most people attempting to lose body fat are nowhere near that point.
  • The horrible truth of the effects of famine on humans and other animals. Enough said. 

3 It's even the basis for a whole fat-loss regime I found very attractive at one point: The Hacker's Diet by John Walker, who co-wrote the famous computer drafting software, AutoCAD.

4 As with the purported Twain quote, there's no evidence for Einstein ever saying this. Quote Investigator has found an expression of the same concept in The Psychology of Personal Constructs, a 1955 psychology textbook, and a close match for the wording of this supposed quote in a 1981 Narcotics Anonymous pamphlet. Their research is here.

Thursday, 1 June 2017

Converting a freewheel to a freehub

I've written in another post about how much I love my Reid Vintage Ladies 7-Speed Classic bike. But that doesn't mean that I'm blind to its vices. In the time since I wrote that piece, another, more serious problem than the flimsy chainguard emerged: the flimsy and fragile wheels. Rear wheels only last me about 6 months or 2,000km (1,250 miles) This post is about how I fixed that problem.

If you just want the take-aways, skip down to the bottom.


My first problem with a Reid wheel occurred when the bike was about four months old. One moment, I was riding along just fine, and the next, the bike came to an abrupt, screeching halt. Dismounting, the cause was obvious: the back wheel was badly bent, preventing it from rotating. I've since learned that the colloquial description for this kind of wheel failure is a "taco", for obvious reasons!

The failure occurred while I was riding along a path shared by cyclists and pedestrians, and I had just maneuvered to avoid a group of people standing still and talking in the middle of it. I thought, at the time, the wheel failed because the spokes had clipped one of the many obstructions jutting into the path.1 In hindsight, I'm not so sure. Either way, the next day, I bought a new wheel from Reid (only available in a set of front and rear, back then, $40) and kept riding. Easy fix.

Reid's target market
for these bikes:
rider weighs less than 80kg.
Everything was fine again for several months, until one day while wheeling my bike to park it after dismounting, I noticed it wasn't rolling smoothly. Specifically, I felt a periodic resistance and heard a dragging noise coming from the rear wheel. Closer inspection showed that once every rotation, part of the wheel rim was dragging on one of the rear brake pads. I assumed that the wheel wasn't sitting square in its dropouts and tried correcting this. I improved the situation, but didn't completely fix it, and on even closer inspection, I discovered that the underlying cause was a broken spoke. At the time, I blamed myself. I was running Tannus solid tyres (more on them another time), and I knew that these handle shocks from the road quite differently from pneumatic tyres. I also suspected that at a bit over 80kg/176lbs, I'm heavier than the riders for whom these bikes are designed. So I forked over another $40 for another wheelset, and switched back to using pneumatic tyres.

So, when several months later, I experienced the same periodic dragging and saw another broken spoke, I was less inclined to blame myself. Rather than go through the waste and inconvenience of replacing wheels a couple of times a year, I was prepared to spend more to get a better-quality wheel. (I summarily dismissed learning to replace spokes as a process more fiddly than I was prepared to undertake, and my growing concerns about the quality of the wheel made me think I'd be doing this often).

As I searched for a compatible replacement, I learned about wheels, their sizes, and about the difference between freewheels (as fitted to this bike) and freehubs (fitted to most other bikes for the last few decades). Sheldon Brown's article "Freewheel or Cassette?" was a great summary for me.

My take-away from all this was that there was no simple, drop-in solution for my problem. That is, I couldn't find a decent-quality 700c-sized wheel designed for either a freewheel or for a 7-speed cassette. Road bike wheels were the right size but designed for 10- or 11-speed cassettes; and mountain bike wheels were different sizes and designed for 8- or 9-speed cassettes. And while I noted some decent-quality mountain bikes fitted with freewheels, the wheels didn't seem to be easily available separately.

Since I rely on my bike for daily transport, expediency prevailed, and I elected just to buy yet another set of wheels (which this time had nearly doubled in price to $70 per set!)

A few months later, a spoke failed again. And, co-incidentally, Reid had withdrawn its physical presence from my city (Brisbane) only a few days earlier, taking with them the expedient solution of just buying more wheels.

Clearly, it was time for a change, even if it proved difficult.

Making the switch

To keep the same size wheel, I figured I'd need to make the switch to a freehub and cassette. After a bit of research, I knew that I would need:
  • a new wheel (duh)
  • a cassette that would work with the shifter and derailleur on the bike, since I didn't want to replace them as well. To be safe, I would aim for as close a match to the freewheel as possible
  • a quick-release skewer to mount the wheel to the frame
  • tools: the tool for tightening and loosening the lock ring on the cassette, and a chain whip in case I needed to get the cassette back off again (which I assumed I would, given my lack of experience and the experimental nature of what I was doing.) I bought Park Tools' FR-5G for the lock ring and their SR-11 chain whip. 
The significant unknown was exactly what would be required to make the cassette work with a hub that was probably designed for one of a different size. I gathered that a spacer would be needed, but I wasn't sure of what size, or whether there was anything else needed too.
I also didn't want to spend too much on the wheel, because I have a grand vision (outlined here) of someday building my "dream" commuting bike around one of the Reid frames I have, so this wheel would be an interim solution only. The cheapest new roadbike wheels sell for nearly as much as the entire bike cost me! A second-hand roadbike wheel on Gumtree seemed to fit the bill: the Shimano WH-R550 had garnered enough favourable reviews in its day (introduced in 2004) and was a reasonably  good-quality wheel from a respected manufacturer. Adjusting for inflation, a set of these when new sold for over $300, so $20 for a second-hand example looked like a good deal.

Shimano still produces 7-speed cassettes, and one of them in the HG200 series has the same range of cogs (14–28) as the Shimano MF-TZ21 freewheel supplied by Reid. This made me confident that the existing derailleur would work. I was less confident about the shifter, because although I could find specs (again, on Sheldon Brown's site) for the cog thickness and spacing of the HG200 cassette, I couldn't find the equivalent numbers for the MF-TZ21 freewheel. I decided to just hope for the best and went ahead and ordered one.

Note the 0.5-mm gap between
the top spacer and lockring
Bringing the wheel and cassette together showed me the missing piece of the equation. With the lockring and smallest cog in place, there was a lot of play for the cassette to slide up and down the hub splines, so the hub had indeed been designed for a cassette wider than mine. Research turned up conflicting information about what cassettes could be used with the WH-R550 wheel, and I also wondered whether there had been different variants of this wheel produced over its lifetime. In the end, I decided to just measure the gap. Lacking a Vernier caliper or any other precision measuring tool, I did the best I could with a ruler and determined that I'd need a 3mm spacer. A quick search of eBay immediately confirmed that such items exist, and I ordered one. On arrival, I found it to be pretty close, but not quite wide enough. Googling to see if anyone made a 3.5mm spacer, I discovered Problem Solvers  — a bike parts company specialising in producing all kinds of adapters so that you can (as they put it) "transform your bike for purposes never conceived by the manufacturer". This is very much My Kind Of Thing. And yes, they make a 3.5mm cassette spacer!2

I ordered one, but in the meantime, figured that the 0.5-mm difference was going to be within the tolerances of the drivetrain components anyway and proceeded to mount the wheel on the bike. A test-ride established that the shifting was terrible — so terrible that I ended up having to extract the chain from where it had wedged between the largest cog and the wheel spokes. Twice.

And that's when I learned about adjusting the rear derailleur, using the excellent video and step-by-step written instructions from Art's Cyclery: "How to Adjust Shimano Rear Derailleurs". With this help, a complete novice like me not only corrected the chain-eating problem described above, but had this bike shifting smoother and quieter than I remember it ever shifting in its life. And all in under 10 minutes!

And that's all there is to it! I'm still waiting on that 3.5-mm cassette spacer to arrive, but in the meantime, the bike is perfectly rideable. In fact, it's much faster and easier to ride, if a little bumpier, than ever before. I'm hoping not to replace this wheel again on this bike, but I'm very grateful for what I've learned along the way.

Project cost

Wheel: $20
Cassette: $23
Skewer: $20
Spacers: $25 ($18 for the right one, including international postage, plus $7 for the almost-right one)
Tools:  $65 ($27 for the lock-ring tool, plus $38 for the chain whip)

Total: $153


If I could distill the lessons and give them to my past self, they would be:
  • You're swapping contemporary components with similar characteristics from the same manufacturer. Don't overly stress about compatibility with the derailleur and shifter. Assume they're going to work until they don't.
  • Fitting a 7-speed cassette onto a hub designed for a larger cassette just requires a spacer. Put the parts together and then measure for the spacer you'll need rather than trying to figure it out from published specs. 
  • Don't be afraid of adjusting the rear derailleur. No matter how complex the mechanism appears, there's a logical sequence to adjusting it, and it's easy to do. 
In short: solve one problem at a time, and approach the project as experimental and requiring some trial-and-error.

1 A staircase! The City Reach Boardwalk is a truly, truly stupid and dangerous design, and I can only assume that whoever thought it was suitable as a shared path to accommodate bicycles (and to use it to link other significant, high-traffic shared paths) was not deeply familiar with the concept of "bicycle". There should be a website for "world's stupidest bicycle infrastructure" and this should get a look-in.

2 Note that they describe their 4.5-mm spacer as "for 7-speed cassettes on 8/9-speed freehub bodies", and there's no way the gap I need to fill is 1.5mm, although the Shimano spec sheet for the WH-R550 (or, at least, one variant of it) specifically states it is for use with a 8/9-speed cassette.

Saturday, 20 May 2017

7 Days of Soul: Love on You

Day 7 of Alexi Panos' “7 Days of Soul” challenge was to do a guided meditation to reconnect us with an innocent, childhood version of ourselves, and then to write a letter from our higher self to that vulnerable earlier stage. I’d recently done an exercise similar to this meditation and found it incredibly powerful.

As a child, I had an incredibly loving and supportive home life; so encountering mean and cruel children at school (and adults who failed to protect me from them) was a shock from which I think I’ve never really recovered. If I could reconnect with that child, I would want to pass on the message that it’s all OK and that none of the cruelty of the schoolyard matters and that meanness essentially comes from how people see themselves, not how they see you. I’m happy to share the full version; here’s what I wrote:

Dear Rüdiger -- we lost touch somewhere along the way, didn’t we? I saw the walls go up -- the defences you put in place to protect that huge heart and big feelings. I’m not blaming you or judging you -- I know your fears and why it seemed necessary.

But it’s OK -- it’s safe now. Those people are long gone and -- I’m sorry to say -- you’ve been maintaining those battlements for nothing. More than that -- I’ve learned that people’s cruelty comes from how they see themselves -- it’s not nothing to do with you at all. You are not defective, or lesser, or worthless, or unlovable just because somebody believed those things about themselves and then tricked you into believing those things were about you instead.

If you trust me enough to lower those defences, I can help you see that too.

Your heart is big and you have so much love to put into the world. It’s so big that it sometimes blinds or overwhelms people! That’s a rare gift and you diminish the world by hiding it behind walls and barriers.

Fear is all the separates us -- it is all that stands between you and your best destiny. It makes your world smaller and darker and colder and leads you to seek and accept less for yourself, and also shuts down a source of light and life for those around you.

Peek out through the cracks. Where are the people who projected their own unhappiness and inadequacy onto you? Nowhere to be found. What’s more -- even hampered by the all the heavy armour that you still carry with you, you have climbed above all of them. What more you could you achieve, what more could you give, if you gave up the things that are now just holding you down?

The siege is over, and you not only held out, but you prospered. Now, please, step out with me into the light, and let your own light shine. It’s OK -- I promise you it’s OK out here. You are safe. You are loved. You are accepted. You are more than enough. The world needs to feel your love. Please trust me. Please become me.



Friday, 19 May 2017

7 Days of Soul: Secret Service Agent

Day 6 of Alexi Panos' “7 Days of Soul” challenge was to do something kind for someone in secret. Most of the suggestions involved leaving a note or gift for a stranger somewhere. I went with one of the suggestions to leave a positive note on someone’s car.

And… to be honest… this choice was not a great fit for me. Although my intention was to brighten someone’s day, I couldn’t stop thinking about how it might backfire. Might it seem creepy to the anonymous recipient? Might they be someone who has dealt with or is dealing with a stalking situation and so this is even traumatising? The best I could do was to console myself with this was “probably fine” and that if the recipient didn’t like it, the worst *likely* outcome would be thinking “OK, that’s weird” and binning the note.

The only thing that helped a little was someone else’s “7 Days of Soul” post. They said they had faced similar doubts but chose to stop “focusing on what other people might think of me and focused on my intention to offer love and value into the world.”

So, my intention was good and kind, and I just have to hope and trust that I did more help than harm in the world.