Monday, November 24, 2008

Remarks on Chrome shoulder bags (and others)


Of late, these bags have been appearing on assorted hipster shoulders around SF. I got one free via work about a year ago. For a long time, it seemed like just another "fashion" messenger bag: sturdy, but otherwise unremarkable, and exuding a viscous aura of hipster poseurish asshattery (which, of course, did not stop me from using it, shameless asshat that I am).

However, about a week ago, I acquired a couple of folding bikes & started biking around the city, and I can now report that the Chrome bag is, in fact, better for cycling than most shoulder bags. For example, I have a Trager shoulder bag, which is by far the best laptop bag I've ever used for walking and travel; but it does not, even when cinched to maximum tightness, sit as securely on my shoulder and back while cycling as my Chrome bag.

I also spent about half an hour sorting through all the "messenger" bags at REI yesterday and did not find any that were better. So, color me surprised. Chrome bags are high-quality and uncommonly well-engineered for their ostensible function.

Note also that even the trademark Chrome seatbelt-style buckle, which at first looks like a silly and purely cosmetic affectation, is actually useful. When removing the bag while wearing a bike helmet, you need not wind the strap awkwardly over the bulk of your helmet; just grab the upper strap in one hand and click the buckle release with the other. (Given the preponderance of suicidally helmetless idiots in publicity photos on the manufacturer's website, it is not even clear to me that this is an intentional design feature rather than an accident; but either way, it's a success.)

For further corroboration, this review is absolutely accurate.


Incidentally, most "messenger" bags are, as far as I can tell, total bullshit, failing at least one of the following criteria:

  • It should not require two hands to tighten or loosen the strap.
  • It must be possible to tighten the strap sufficiently so that the bag does not slip longitudinally (along the axis of the strap).
  • The strap must generate enough friction not to slip either laterally or longitudinally. In practice, this means the strap must be sufficiently wide and grippy at weight-bearing points.
  • The juncture of the strap and the bag body must be shaped so that the bag does not flop away from the body. In practice, the only way I've seen this work is when there's a diagonal panel which moors the bag's entire edge to the strap, rather than just a single point.

Of course, I have no doubt that back in the day, when "bike messenger" was merely a profession and not a fashion idiom, Real Bike Couriers made do with what they could get, floppy shoulder bags with skinny nylon straps or whatever. But progress marches on, stuff gets better, and when I'm coasting down Nob Hill I am very happy to have a well-designed bag on my shoulder.


In case this consumer navel-gazing about some expensive glorified purses should seem trivial and/or out of character, Bruce Sterling's widely-linked Last Viridian Note contains some sage advice about material possessions, which I hereby deploy as ideological armor against your potential skepticism:

It's not bad to own fine things that you like. What you need are things that you GENUINELY like. Things that you cherish, that enhance your existence in the world. The rest is dross.

Do not "economize." Please. That is not the point. The economy is clearly insane. Even its champions are terrified by it now. It's melting the North Pole. So "economization" is not your friend. Cheapness can be value-less. Voluntary simplicity is, furthermore, boring. Less can become too much work.

The items that you use incessantly, the items you employ every day, the normal, boring goods that don't seem luxurious or romantic: these are the critical ones. They are truly central. The everyday object is the monarch of all objects. It's in your time most, it's in your space most. It is "where it is at," and it is "what is going on."

It takes a while to get this through your head, because it's the opposite of the legendry of shopping. However: the things that you use every day should be the best-designed things you can get. For instance, you cannot possibly spend too much money on a bed – (assuming you have a regular bed, which in point of fact I do not). You're spending a third of your lifetime in a bed. Your bed might be sagging, ugly, groaning and infested with dust mites, because you are used to that situation and cannot see it. That calamity might escape your conscious notice. See it. Replace it.

Sell – even give away – anything you never use. Fancy ball gowns, tuxedos, beautiful shoes wrapped in bubblepak that you never wear, useless Christmas gifts from well-meaning relatives, junk that you inherited. Sell that stuff. Take the money, get a real bed. Get radically improved everyday things.

The same goes for a working chair. Notice it. Take action. Bad chairs can seriously injure you from repetitive stresses. Get a decent ergonomic chair. Someone may accuse you of "indulging yourself" because you possess a chair that functions properly. This guy is a reactionary. He is useless to futurity. Listen carefully to whatever else he says, and do the opposite. You will benefit greatly.

As they say, Read The Whole Thing.

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