Year of the Blockhead

We're dumbing down and it's the new media's fault

Local news "may not be as profitable as providing reruns of Ugly Betty over and over. But they're supposed to provide it in exchange for these public assets they use, which are the airwaves," Sandoval says. "If we let market forces be the only consideration within the media and communications industry, we're going to end up in a situation where TV has reached the last stage [in distancing itself] from what its pioneers envisioned in the 1930s, '40s and '50s. They thought it would be an educational tool that would inform the masses."

It's easy to forget that just a few years ago trainloads of smart money suffered under a similar conceit, and invested fortunes in the notion of a sophisticated, intellectually eager media consumer.

Now our media moguls' sensibilities seem to have turned 180 degrees. For my own sake, my New Year's wish for 2007 is that they're as misguided as they ever were.

Tom Ritchey is puttering in his Woodside garage, adding finishing touches to a 16-spoke Protocol Limited featherweight road-racing wheel he'll use on one of his newer inventions, a titanium and carbon fiber bicycle that comes apart for packing in a smallish suitcase.

Despite the project at hand, he's not much interested in talking about high-tech bike doodads on this morning the week before Christmas. He'd rather discuss primitive bike doodads.

"Every one of them is a handmade creation," Ritchey says, referring to 100 traditional African wooden push-bicycles he's having shipped this January from Rwanda to serve as coffee kiosk advertisements for beans grown by African peasant farmers. "They use wooden forks and braking systems. They're scooters, but there are some real thoughts in them. For the most part they're all wood, except for a chunk of steel they use as an axle, and a truck tire that they cut and nail onto the outside of the wooden wheel."

Ritchey is the legendary tinkerer who in the 1970s transformed the mountain bike from a clunky, heavy plaything shared among his eccentric Marin County pals into a lightweight engineering marvel that transformed the bicycle industry worldwide. Ritchey was the original brain behind the hundreds of thousands of sturdy, lightweight frames, handlebars, wheels, and other mountain-bike components that during the 1980s spawned a new American pastime.

He's grown that early invention into a San Carlos company, Ritchey Design Inc., that is a leading maker of top-end bike parts featured on the pro mountain-biking circuit and at the Tour de France.

From his Peninsula workshop Ritchey is again attempting to spawn a global technology revolution, this time in Africa. He'd like to help pay for it by selling peasant-grown Rwandan coffee, with the wooden bikes as a marketing tool.

The Flintstonelike hewn-beam African bikes are used in Rwanda to haul everything from pigs to wood to coffee bales. They will be redeployed as coffee-kiosk prop advertisements for Wooden Bike Coffee, a brand Ritchey created to help finance an ambitious nonprofit venture aimed at delivering Rwanda further from the devastation of the 1990s genocide. A shipping container will leave Rwanda Jan. 6 filled with the wood bikes and 30,000 pounds of Rwandan coffee, which is currently for sale on Ritchey's Rwanda-relief Web site.

Eventually, Ritchey hopes to use his own money and revenue from the coffee sales to help finance efforts to revolutionize rural African transport, foment tourism, and introduce bicycle racing to a nation still recovering from the 1990s genocide. He's also hooked up with a microcredit lender, and with bicycle and component manufacturers, in hopes of eventually providing Rwandan coffee farmers with Ritchey-designed coffee-transport bikes.

Despite the ingenuity apparent in the traditional Rwandan wooden bicycles, they lack the speed of a modern bike. During two trips to Rwanda during the past year, Ritchey learned that getting from one place to another faster than walking speed — which is about as fast as the wooden bikes will go when loaded with cargo — is that war-torn country's greatest unfilled need. Ritchey hopes to make it easier for Rwandan farmers to bring crops from field to store by adapting principles from the traditional wooden bikes using modern materials and design, then providing as many Rwandans as possible with a specially made modern bike.

Soon after he receives his shipment of coffee and wooden African scooters, Ritchey will ship another cargo container of bicycles, this one containing 1,000 versions of a more durable and efficient coffee-transport bicycle of his own design. The new machine resembles a long-wheelbase, ultradurable version of a single-speed mountain bike, with a coffee-bale-length cargo rack integrated into the frame.

Eventually he'd like to ship 100,000 of these new bikes to Africa, a project he believes will bring mobility to thousands of peasant farmers, and in turn help solve that country's problems of hunger, poverty, and disease.

"The issues of starvation are not what they appear to be. Rwanda, for example, grows two to three times the amount of food they can actually eat. The problem is, they can't transport it before it spoils," says Ritchey, who got back from a second trip to Rwanda in September. Currently one Rwandan in 40 has a bicycle, and many of those are the rough-hewn, relatively slow wooden scooters.

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