Review: A month with MonkeyLectric LED Light System for Bikes

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In Flann O'Brien's surrealist masterpiece The Third Policeman, the anonymous one-legged protagonist (who is also dead, but don't worry too much about that) incites a riot in the Irish countryside amongst his fellow one-legged countrymen. The local constable, thinking quickly, puts the riot down the only way he knows how: he paints his bicycle an impossible color and rides it by the rampaging amputee horde. Consequently, they all go mad.

I've always wanted a bike like that. Perhaps not one that turns onlookers minds into a gelatin-like slurry, but a surrealist bicycle. Because, if you think about it, there is something inherently weird about the bicycle. With its chittering gears, bristling spokes and spinning chains, there is something insect-like about its workings... a mental connection evoked by its best synonym, velocipede... a synonym which seems to share both etymologic and entomologic phylum with the centipede.

I'm not the only one to be fascinated by the bike's innate oddity. Bicycles are often used in art as symbols of the inherently absurd: children's books are filled with magic or living bikes, and the penny-farthing is such a marvelously implausible method of transportation that it is constantly used as the butt of jokes in television shows. The penny-farthing was also the logo of Patrick McGoohan's hallucinatory sci-fi spy series, The Prisoner: the bike, by itself, was a symbol of the surrealness to come.

There are few pleasures in life purer than bicycling around on a bright, brisk day. This is because bikes are already just wonderfully odd inventions... making a bike even stranger is less an act of mechanical eccentricity than an attempt to pass the pleasure of riding one to the people you cycle past, emphasizing to them what they forgot: the bicycle's marvelous strangeness.

I wanted a bike like that. So I started looking for ways to transform my own bike into something weirder. But I have no real mechanical skills, nor could I really afford some custom bizarro mod. There's also the mundanely practical: in Berlin, a bike that you actually intend to ride must either be locked up every day or have its excellence camouflaged from nomadic bicycle thieves. Any bike that looks one of a kind will be stolen, repainted and sold at the Mauer Park flea market within moments.

Ultimately, then, I decided upon the MonkeyLectric m132s LED Light System as my paint coat of impossible color.

The MonkeyLectric is made and sold by known home-brew joygiver Dan Goldwater, the founder of Instructables. The website describes the device drily: "The MonkeyLectric m132s is a revolutionary bike light that keeps you visible - and in style. Its ruggedized design is perfect for daily commuters, urban cyclists, casual evening riders, BMX, festivals - anyone that wants to be visible after dark and not feel like a second class citizen." But the pictures and movies are what do the selling: bicycles with wheels like hallucinatory, out-of-control Ferris Wheels. An electric kool aid acid test contained within your bike's spokes.

I was sold. I got two, one for each wheel.

Turned off, the m132s is decidedly more subtle than the pictures on the MonkeyLectric site make it out to be. In fact, the MonkeyLectric is only a black, weatherproofed circuit board that the official instruction sheets commands you to tie to the inside of your spokes with plastic pulls. The battery case is exposed, and three AAs are actually velcroed in place to power it (a curious design decision, since the batteries are not weatherproof, and seem to easily short out in even a light misting). A straight line of LEDs aligns with a spoke; they can be triggered on-or-off by pushing a number of plastic buttons on the circuit board, each of which push the MonkeyLectric through a random oscillation of colorful blinkings and spun rainbow patterns.

One of the disappoints someone who purchases a MonkeyLectric will have to face is that one m132s is not enough to turn your wheel into a polychromatic spool of LED flame. At least two are needed per wheel to get anything close to the pictures on the website. After installing the MonkeyLectrics on both wheels, I wasn't happy with the results, and instead decided to shift both boards to the front wheel. The end product was exactly what I wanted: as I gave the wheel a test spin, I was confronted with a drum of psycho-photonic cotton candy that cast the courtyard in wonderfully weird, brightly colored gloamings.

It made me giddy. I remember thinking to myself that this was a real gadget. It didn't just temporarily fill a consumeristically produced void in my ego; it caused a genuine emotional reaction, like a pretty girl or a puppy, and that made my heart to quiver with fondness. I got all giggly. I wanted to share it with someone. So I ran upstairs, knocked on my neighbor's door, and asked him if he'd bring his three-year old son outside. I spun the wheel for him: he sighed, giggled, then started wildly laughing and jumping up and down. His pupils glowed like plasma globes. I knew exactly how he felt: I was sharing the MonkeyLectric with the peer of my own inner child.

But what happened next shook me. As I kept on spinning the wheel faster and faster, the kid extended one purply finger and tried to touch the light. He was hypnotized. I reacted quickly, stopping the wheel with my hand before the extended digit could be spit out in meat paste out the other side of the spoke.

Everything was fine. But I was startled. There seemed to be some lesson in this: people react unexpectedly to the unexpected.

The last month has underlined that lesson a dozen times. I'm always happiest with the MonkeyLectrics than when I decide around dusk to take my bike for a spin around the park, and see people stop and point and laugh as I cruise by them, laughing and asking "Wie geht es Ihnen?"

But it's only in these controlled environments of innocence where the MonkeyLectrics actually make me feel happy, make my bicycle seem more magical. Far more common is cycling past the KulturBrauerei as the disco gets out, only to have club-goers scream insults at me, or dangerously try to block me on the bike path, looking for a fight. Berlin drunks are a consistent problem: by being noticable, you make yourself a target, and I've had a couple of beer bottles hurled at me as I've ridden home from the pub, late at night. The police have stopped me, complaining that the MonkeyLectrics are flagrant violations of Germany's rigid bicycle laws. And while I initially shrugged it off, the cops were right: the MonkeyLectrics' visual noise has made me a more visible bicyclist at night, but contrary to the website's claim, it is actually to my peril. Motorists don't know what I am when they see me coming in their mirror. At night, you can't really see, so you drive primarily by identifying standardized patterns of light and extrapolating from them vehicles and obstacles. But when I use the MonkeyLectrics, motorists see the lights, but I don't look like a bicycle: their minds go to ambulances and police. They get spooked. They swerve. American bicyclists may be used to unpredictable drivers threatening life and limb, but Berliners are used to bicycles and are comfortable with accommodating them on the roads. That the MonkeyLectrics were actually causing motorists to drive more dangerously around me was undeniable.

The MonkeyLectrics are still on my bike, of course. I do love them. As trite as it may be to say, by making my bike more strange and special, they make me feel the same way. But ultimately, there's something to the Third Policeman comparison. The MonkeyLectrics do paint my bicycle an impossible color. And it does seem to drive some people quite mad.

MonkeyLectric [Official Site]

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