Sep 1, 2014

#71 Low Cost Racing and other Oxymorons

All Rights Reserved © 2005 Thomas W. Day

I spent a few of the idle hours a while back reading a friend's book, Kent Larson's Motorcycle Track Day Handbook. It's a good book. You should check it out. It will give you something to think about while the bike is stuffed into the back of your garage through the winter.

However, Kent and his co-writers generated a few magnificent errors in their assumptions about racing. Being a pain-in-the-ass, I have to point out a couple of such mistakes. In the early pages Kent wrote "most likely you are already pretty certain you want to get to the racetrack or you wouldn't have picked up this book." Kent gave me my copy, so maybe he's right if he was talking to a book buyer. As a comp'd reader, I have absolutely no intention of getting myself to a racetrack. I have done that, suffered defeat and injury at a relatively late point in life (by motorcycle racer standards), and I can still easily identify the bones I fractured anytime the barometer moves. Thanks, but I just read motorcycle racing literature purely for entertainment, education, and a little harmless gonzo titillation.

The second (by my standards), questionable statement was located beneath a photo of a Honda XR650R that had been modified for racing, "supermotard has been making a comeback and can be a cheap and fun way to get into the racing scene." When you start with a $6,000+ motorcycle, trick it out with another several thousand dollars in suspension, tires, brake, and frame parts, and take it racing where all of that investment could vanish in a single low speed corner miscalculation, we're not talking about any kind of "cheap" with which I am familiar.

Racing isn't cheap, unless "cheap" means "less than millions" to you. Kent lives on the side of the economy that would describe me as "dirt poor" or something less complimentary. His bike trailer has more accommodations than my house. He appears to spend as much on motorcycles and accessories as I spend on my whole lifestyle. You could describe me as "jealous." You could describe me as "miserly." I describe myself as "practical." Few would describe me as "rich."

I carefully ration out my income and savings with the constant balance between necessity, fun, and work. Necessity takes care of itself. You gotta do what you gotta do. However, the "need" word only gets applied to things I need. Food, weatherproof shelter, second-hand clothes, basic transportation, and beer all fall into the "I need this" bracket. Fun gets balanced against the time required to support the fun. I prefer at least a 1:1 ROI (return on investment) "fun-to-work ratio." At the minimum, I want an hour's fun in exchange for no more than an hour's work required to pay for the fun. Anytime the ROI drops below 1:1, I begin to make excuses about why I can't be bothered to do that thing and I find another way to spend my time. When the ROI is 2:1 or better, it's usually a no-brainer and I go have fun. I'm easily entertained, though, and I can always find something fun to do that doesn't cost any money at all. Sleep, for example.

Racing motorcycles is one of those things that has a grossly negative ROI, usually about a 1:2,000 (fun to work) time allotment. The reason for that is that racing, in all forms, is expensive if you even want to pretend you are going to be competitive. With entry level motorcycle racing, Kent says "the travel, tires, and track fees could run you $500 per outing." That's assuming you are racing a used small bike (500-650cc) and not including the cost of buying the bike, crashing the bike, fixing the bike, upgrading the bike, or (especially) the expense you'll suffer hanging out with medical practitioners. Kent seems to like doctors to a degree that makes me uncomfortable. In fact, if he admitted "I cut down trees, I skip and jump, I love to press wild flowers,"

I wouldn't be a lot less comfortable. I wouldn't trust a doctor with your body. I don't want a medic looking at, rearranging, or cutting into my body parts, unless I'm making a special appearance on CSI Minneapolis.

About a decade ago, I discovered remote-control, off-road electric buggy racing. I thought, "how expensive could toy car racing be?" I found a good used car chassis with a collection of accessory parts for a hundred bucks, bought a mid-line radio control rig for two hundred dollars, duct-taped together a car body out of busted pieces I found in the track's dumpster, and went racing. Starting as a Novice, I raced for a couple of weeks until I was moved up to Intermediate. A month later, I was racing Expert and competing for prizes; mostly race car parts and tire sets. Being the son of an accounting teacher, I habitually keep track of my expenses. After my first race, I created an account for RC racing and started watching the nickels flow outward. I didn't bother with mileage to-and-from races or to practice, but I entered every nickel directly spent on racing for about six months. At the six month mark, I did a ROI analysis on my RC racing habit. At the time, I was earning about $28/hour droning away at a god-awful cube-job, so the fun-to-work/misery ROI analysis was perfectly straight-forward. Racing was the fun time, work was not. I had spent about $400 a month on the RC habit and raced (practice track time included) about ten hours a month. I'd set up a small practice track in my backyard, which probably lowered my property value by several thousand dollars, but we won't argue that point. Without including the unaccounted-for places where RC racing cut into my income, provided minor expenses, and took time from higher ROI activities, racing at this minimal level produced a fractional return on my investment. Worse, I got bored with the illusion; going fast without putting life and limb at risk.

For the last ten years, my race car has been relegated to toy status, something my grandson plays with it in the driveway on warm Sunday afternoons. He's burned all of my prize-money knobbies into slicks and ground the graphite chassis into a pile of busted bits held together by Gorilla Glue and duct tape. My over-priced high-capacity batteries have all turned to empty promises from exposure to cold winters in the garage, age, and irregular use.

The point is "racing" is not "cheap." In fact, any sentence using the words "racing" and "cheap" is an irrational statement unless there is a logical negation adjective or adverb coupling the two ("never" or "not", for example). Motorcycle racing, at the local club level, is cheaper than auto racing, but it's still expensive and really expensive once you throw in medical expenses. Racing toy cars is cheaper than racing motorcycles, but, if you purely count the time racing against the time and money spent getting ready to race, $400 for a dozen five-minute motos is pretty damn expensive.

May 2008

Aug 31, 2014

Spam Laugh

Google's Anti-Spam feature is brutal. If you have a blog and you are not using it, you should. I can't even remember how I managed to turn it on, but I do have to delete about 250 spam "comments" a month (all done with a two-click procedure in a couple of seconds). I suppose, however, that I'm cheating my actual readers out of opportunities to buy knock-off watches, jeans, and designer crap and you wouldn't believe how many spammers are peddling Russian wives, porn (not all Russian, but most of it seems to be), and stolen credit card info. Just let me know if you are desperate for this "information" and I'll forward it to you before I delete it, next time.

Aug 30, 2014

Tested to Death

IMG_6332Several years ago, Andy Goldfine asked me to “test drive” his brand new Aerostich Lane Share Tool. I put it on the V-Strom and drove the hell out of it.  In 2011, Minnesota Motorcycle Monthly published my review of the tool. I’m sad to say, it died today. One of my students asked “What’s that.” I attempted to demonstrate it and it made the trip down, but didn’t make it back up. The stepper motor stepped its last step. And so it now sits orphaned and lonely in the garage.

We had a good run. We “flipped off” many a car when I demonstrated my California traffic management skills after concerts, fairs and festivals, and pretty much anywhere I thought I could get away with splitting lanes on non-public roads across the country. I think it made a convert or two and I’m pretty sure the message got across to most folks.

Aug 28, 2014

A Fogged Mirror

An entertaining and recent L.A. Times article about motorcycling demographics, “California biker profile? Old, married, and moneyed,” does two things: 1) it accurately portrays who motorcyclists are, not just in California, but across the country and 2) it accidentally demonstrates how clueless the industry “experts” are about motorcyclists and the future of the vehicle they make their living selling.

Seven years ago, I was so convinced that the US economy was brain-dead and delusional that I gave up trying to find a way to short the whole country and yanked my money from stocks and mutual funds and dumped it all into a spread of CDs and a couple of Canadian stocks. I didn’t get rich, but I didn’t go broke either. I should have had more confidence in the traditional economic recovery that follows an economic crash and the election of a Democratic President, but I figured the country hadn’t crashed far enough and expected something like the mid-term election disaster and a quick return to Republican borrow-and-spend tactics. Still, a smarter guy would have bet on Ford, Microsoft, Medtronic, and a couple other real companies that tanked like the fake ones but rebounded fast and hard. That braindead and delusional attitude, sometimes called “optimistic,” is a constant in the motorcycle press and industry.

For example, “1.7 million Californians currently hold licenses to operate motorcycles. But there are only 847,937 motorycles [sic] currently registered in the state" encourages an industry goofball to say, “That's great! That means people want to ride, if we just make more motorcycles they want to own." The other possibility, and a more likely scenario, would be that half of the people still alive who have tried motorcycling found it to be too dangerous or impractical to continue. They knocked getting a license (maybe) and a bike (less likely) off of their bucket list and have moved on to their next Big Thing.

And I love this “analysis,” “Even without allowing for the fact that a lot of motorcyclists own more than one motorcycle, that means more than half the people licensed to ride motorcycles in California may not be riding at all.” First, most of us who own motorcycles own at least a couple of them. Second, 847,937 is easily half of 1.7 million and it would be reasonable to assume that way more than half of the registered motorcycles belong to people who have more than one bike. I would bet that most states would be similar in this regard. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that 250,000 riders own those 847k bikes (3.4 bikes/rider average). If that were true, about 14% of the licensed riders own motorcycles. It is absolutely true that well under that measly 250k are on the road out of 24M licensed California drivers (for an unlikely max of 1% of California’s contribution to traffic) are on the road on any given weekday.

An optimist would argue that this all gives motorcycling lots of room to “grow.” A realist might argue that motorcycles have been on the road longer than cars and the room for future expansion is slipping away fast. A pessimist would argue that US motorcycle demographics are aging about 2-3 years for every 5, the number of actual riders is vanishing and too many of those who do ride are accurately classified as either “hooligans” or “criminals.” I think there is a lot of work to be done if motorcycling is going to have a future in the US. So far, I don’t see the slightest indication that the motorcycle industry, in all of it’s parts, realizes there is a shit storm on the horizon and we’re going to be in the middle of it. From public relations to overrepresentation in injury and fatality statistics to a changing population, on-road motorcycling in the 1st world is at risk.

Aug 25, 2014

#70 Do You Feel Lucky, Punk?

All Rights Reserved © 2006 Thomas W. Day

A long while back, I wrote a rant titled "Rolling Morons" which attracted a fair amount of attention. Believe it or now, your opinions were spread equally between agreement and angry outrage. You defended the magically traffic-shielding powers of loud exhaust pipes and expressed concern that obnoxious motorcycles might spell the end of street legal motorcycling. Both arguments were, sometimes, well defended. A couple of writers really entertained me with their "logic." One reader wrote that "luck" has as much to do with safe riding as does skill, training, or any other rider/motorcycle characteristic. He argued that his loud pipes increase his chances of staying lucky.

I don't want to disrespect luck. It wouldn't be lucky. Anyone who survived the trip from sperm to egg to birth is pretty lucky. Escaping the hospital undamaged, surviving youth, and becoming an adult without loss of limb, STDs, or jail time is exponentially lucky. If you're really lucky, not only will you have that kind of luck on your shoulder, you're kids and grandkids will be equally lucky. Being born in a semi-democratic moderately-industrialized country, amid a world of unlucky folks who will never experience that luxury, is an incredible luck of the draw. Knock on wood, toss salt over your shoulder, burn a candle or a goat to the gods of your choice, or do anything else that you believe increases your odds of maintaining your lucky streak. I have no problem understanding doing whatever needs to be done to show gratitude for that kind of good fortune.

Some things are less likely to produce increased luck and luck has limitations. You have to buy a lottery ticket before you have much chance of winning the lottery. You have to be in the right place at the right time for opportunity to strike: destiny won't wait for you to pry yourself away from the remote control and up from the couch. Survival depends on planning, practicing good habits, and execution of those habits when it counts. Every successful parent knows that. Most long-term, high-mileage motorcyclists are more likely to tell stories of how he or she avoided a catastrophe with skill or highway paranoia than by mindless luck.

I hear about this luck thing all the time from my MSF Basic Riding and Experienced Rider students. Many of them have all sorts of bad luck stories to tell. It must be part of our "victim" culture. Fate conspires against us and we're thoughtlessly tossed into the fires of misfortune. These are the kinds of tales of unlucky woe I've heard/witnessed/experienced:

  • A little old lady drives her Buick into an intersection and a biker is unlucky enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
  • Showing off for his passenger girlfriend, a backwards-baseball-cap-boy overshoots a rural curve, swiping an oncoming bike, and suffering terrible injuries and a permanent lisp and disability. The passenger dies from her injuries before help arrives. A rider on a weekend cruise crests a hill to find a tractor towing a hay bailer taking up most of both lanes. The biker slams into the back of the bailer, barely having touched his brakes before inhaling his last breath.
  • A yuppie in a Beemer overtaxes his abilities sucking on Starbucks, babbling into a cell phone, and attempting to manage freeway traffic. He fails at the most important of his tasks and wanders into an adjacent lane, nearly side-swiping a biker. The "ride free" helmet-less, protective-gear-less motorcyclist is severely injured when he crashes in the median ditch during the attempt to avoid being hit by the Beemer bozo.
  • A new rider crashes in a curve when a brand new tire failed on her brand new bike. She slides, head-on, into oncoming traffic and is killed.
  • A rider slides to a barely-controlled stop when a front wheel bearing seizes, after recently performing a front-to-back bike inspection a couple of days earlier.
  • A rider is rear-ended by a following car when that cage-dwelling cell phone addict forgets her primary task in stop-and-go freeway traffic and starts a traffic chain-reaction. The biker is severely injured, being crushed between the cell-phoner and preceding vehicles.
  • A rider was squashed by a concrete bridge section that tipped off of a semi-trailer in heavy freeway traffic.

Some of you might describe all of these as bad luck events, right? Some of us would be skeptical. I think the events in the first four scenarios are no more than 10% bad luck and no less than 90% rider inattention and inability. A chunk of the second group, five through seven, are pretty close to pure bad luck but there are some aspects of those crashes the biker could have controlled or moderated. The eighth event is about as bad as luck gets.

I'm totally unconvinced that any passive good luck charm, like loud pipes, would have any effect on any of these scenarios or any other reasonable traffic situation. I am convinced, from personal experience and science, that those pipes could have the opposite, crash-inducing, effect. First, noise is fatiguing, it wears you down, it dilutes your attention, it even inhibits your ability to make decisions. Look it up, noise pollution has almost as many negative symptoms as air pollution. The only time I've ever had to take nap breaks on a long ride was when I brought my "new" SV home from Cleveland. As soon as I was able, I replaced the Two Brothers pipe with the stock unit and solved that problem. Of course, when your exhaust note is the only thing you can hear other hazards are obscured. I'm unconvinced that the minor attention you generate is worth the major inattention you create in yourself.

Noise is fatiguing. Noise irritates other road users and might make them tense, aggressive, or inattentive. Sudden noises can startle other drivers, causing them to participate in a panic reaction, which is always a bad thing. Unnecessary noise is, obviously, pointless urban and rural environmental pollution. Most of all, if loud pipes on a bike can be argued to make motorcyclists safer, what keeps small cage owners from using the same argument for their protection from larger vehicles? Following them will be SUVs and truckers wanting the same "protection?" Once you start that ball rolling, all you've done is make the highways a massive noise pollution source and a rational target for federal, state, and local regulation. Do you really want to be responsible for the kind of reaction that most likely will result in a lot of problems for all motorcyclists simply because you imagine that a loud exhaust makes you feel lucky?

April 2008

Aug 23, 2014

The RV Era Is Dead

2014-02-22 CoR (17) When we got back to Minnesota this spring, I put the RV up for sale on Craig’s List and dug into the business of getting our house ready to sell and eliminating three decades of accumulated stuff (or “shit” as George Carlin would describe it). The Craig’s List ad pulled in a few prospective buyers, but the asking price ($28,000) thinned the herd a lot. After getting our 2013 income taxes out of my hair, I went back through the Rialta and tweaked everything I could think of with the intention of hitting the road with the RV this winter. Electronics sorted out, new tires, fresh fluids all around, and a solid cleaning to get the New Mexico grit out of the vehicle, and we were fully vested in doing a similar trip this winter. I’d kept the “for sale” sign on the back window since January, sort of as a reminder and partially because a die-hard Rialta fan kept telling me “If you want to sell it, take it camping. Every campground I visit gets me a visit from someone who wants to buy my Rialta.” I wanted to test his theory with an actual attempt to sell our Rialta, but we didn’t attract a single buyer in 6,000 miles and a dozen different campgrounds. My wife, Elvy, on the other hand was convinced we needed a different kind of vehicle. “I want a truck,” has been her mantra for months. So, we kept the sign on the RV and renewed the Craig’s List ad every few weeks and kept on keeping on with our plans. Recently, those plans began to include the scary idea of buying a home in Red Wing before we unload our Little Canada mini-farm. That meant we needed to liquefy some cash.

IMG_4652 Three weeks ago, Elvy took a couple of calls on the ad and decided Craig’s List mostly attracts flakes. She called an old friend, Perry, who owns Roseville Auto Repair and asked him if we could park the RV in front of his shop for a few days. Perry thought it was a great idea and we moved the RV to the corner of Hamline and County Road B2, right across from the Roseville Library. Within a few days, the quality of our calls rapidly improved. Perry must have handed the keys to a couple dozen customers who wanted to inspect the RV. We got four solid interested buyers in the second week. Monday, we sold the RV. We didn’t get the whole asking price, but what we did get meant owning our Rialta for a year-plus cost me $1.69 per day or $0.08 per mile or a total of $763 counting all repairs (not including my labor), fuel costs, maintenance, and upgrades and improvements. Considering the dire straits we were in seven months ago, not bad. The Rialta rolled out of our driveway with all systems working, sparkling clean, and having averaged 17.16mpg for 9713 miles. Our best was 22.91mpg and the worst was 13.41 when we were exclusively driving between Elephant Butte and Truth or Consequences, a 5 mile one-way trip with lots of in-town driving.

As usual, I had mixed feelings. We took a great trip to North Dakota in July and it would be hard to replicate that experience with any other kind of RV. We were in all kinds of camping situations, from parked on a country road to a full service state park or being in the middle of a Fourth of July party in Bismarck. The van ran perfectly, the new fat tires might have cost a few mpg, but we still got about 17mpg for the trip. Everything about that trip was exactly why we’d bought the Rialta in the first place. Spontaneous, economical, flexible, and incredibly comfortable.  What the hell are we selling it for?

IMG_6324[1]Yesterday, I rode the V-Strom to Red Wing to meet a contractor to get a bid on repairs for one of the houses we’re considering. On the way back, I spotted a “Rialta” next to a rural farm building. I turned back to get a better look. It wasn’t a Rialta, it was a previous version called the “LeSharo.” This was Winnebago’s first attempt at a small, efficient camper with a Fiat (I know) power plant. Mostly, the vehicle was pretty awful because of the usual Winnebago problems and the obvious “Where do you get a Fiat serviced?” problems. The answer is, you don’t. The owner of this vehicle had pretty much given up on his RV ever moving again. The only practical fix is expensive, a total driveline replacement with Chrysler and custom bits. Like many of the RVs we saw abandoned in Truth or Consequences, this LeSharo will slowly turn into a storage shed for crap until it’s full and the whole mess gets hauled away for scrap.

2014-01-22 TorC (6)Most of my mixed feelings went away then. Other than the North Dakota trip, our RV sat in the driveway unused for most of the spring and summer. Camper trailers are more suited to long periods of disuse. Vehicles need to be driven. You can jack a trailer off of the tires and just use it as an office or spare bedroom. A motorized RV isn’t anywhere near that flexible. If you’re gonna have one, you gotta use it. If you can afford to let a $20k-100k investment deteriorate into a rusting shack, you can afford plane tickets and motel rooms. No motel will ever get away with dropping a surprise $8,000 repair bill on you, unless you are Keith Moon (and you shouldn’t have been surprised then). I think we learned this winter that we’re not ready to use an RV enough to justify owning one. That’s a little disappointing, but the lesson could have been a lot harder learned.

Aug 22, 2014

The Hi-Viz Horn Test

All Rights Reserved © 2012 Thomas W. Day

Horn Tests 001[Sadly, I’m not enough of a code writer to pull off getting the audio samples to work on Google Blogger. It took me forever to get them to work on my old website. Maybe by the time this posts, I’ll have it figured out, but I’m not holding my breath and neither should you.]

A few years back, Pat Hahn took a little of the Minnesota DPS's money and he and I did some testing of sound and motorcycles and cages. The test subjects were: my Kawasaki KL250 with a small aftermarket car horn installed, Pat's Honda VFR with the stock horn, and my Suzuki V-Strom with a Stebel Nautilus Air Horn Kit.

Our first test was to calibrate my recording rig by activating each horn in my driveway and recording the various levels, referenced to the loudest of the three horns. The Stebel claims to produce "139dB of sound." That is a meaningless claim unless we know what the decibel reference is; usually acoustic output is measured as "Sound Pressure Level" (SPL) which is referenced to the threshold of human hearing (Horn Tests 0050dBSPL). I tried measuring the horn with my acoustic test equipment and found that the loudest output I could measure was a few inches from the horn, directly on axis with the horn's bell; 122dBSPL (unweighted). While the horn was connected to the bike's battery through a large relay, I considered the possibility that some voltage drop could be hindering the horn output. So, I directly connected it to a spare car batter; same measurements. I have no idea what calibration reference Stebel used. The Stebel horn has a dramatically more complicated (rich, more harmonics) signal than the other two traditional horns. That not only makes it appear to be louder, it creates a signal that can cut through more noise backgrounds than the other two samples.

Audio Samples of the Horn Tests

BD18249_This first sample is our "driveway calibration" test.  Our first test for the horn demonstration/evaluation was to calibrate my recording rig by activating each horn in my driveway and recording the various levels, referenced to the loudest of the three horns. The first (loudest) horn is the Stebel, the 2nd is the Kawasaki, and the last is the Honda:  (the audio sample will take you to an MP3 player page)

BD18249_[1]So far, so good. With our "calibration levels" set, I moved the audio gear inside my 1998 Ford Escort Station Wagon (positioned so the microphone was in precisely the same position as it was for the first measurement. When you hear this recording, most likely you won't hear the 2nd two horns unless you crank up your system volume. The Escort isn't known for its acoustic isolation, but it does a pretty good job of shutting out the motorcycle horns.

BD18249_[2]With the same calibration levels, I started the Escort's motor (no air conditioning, no radio) and Pat fired off the three horns one more time. The Escort does a fine job of preventing the driver from clearly hearing the two normal horns and the Stebel is barely audible. The recording replicates what I head in the car. Discouraging. We'd hoped for something more impressive from our "139dB" air horn. I began to wonder why I put so much effort into the Stebel's installation.

BD18249_[3]Horn Tests 015Our next planned test was to drive the car down a neighborhood frontage road and record Pat honking the horn about 25' behind the Escort while I recorded him. If you listen incredibly closely, you might barely hear the horn over the car's interior noise. You can see Pat's following distance in the picture at right. He was close enough to make me nervous as I drove the car and managed the recording equipment. I, honestly, did not know he was honking the horn until I edited the recordings later and found the Stebel buried in the car's noise.

After the more useful applications of a horn failed us, we decided to see if a motorcycle horn was of any use in the best of situations; when the bike was right next to the car. On a moderately busy suburban street, Pat rode right next to my passenger window and honked his horn(s).


Horn Tests 009This is the Honda (pictured) recording in the lane next to the Escort. The Escort's windows are shut, but there was no air conditioning/fan or radio to interfere with the horn's signal.


BD18249_[5]This is the Kawasaki KL250 recording in the lane next to the Escort. Again, the Escort's windows are shut, but there was no air conditioning/fan or radio to interfere with the horn's signal.


This is the V-Strom/Stebel recording in the lane next to the Escort. Again, the Escort's windows are shut, but there was no air conditioning/fan or radio to interfere with the horn's signal.

Everything about this test was disappointing. Not only did we conclude that horns are scarce protection in any kind of busy urban or highway situation, but this test made us particularly aware of how invisible we are, sonically.

The whole "loud pipes saves lives" silliness is particularly defeated if a mid-frequency signal, designed to be directional and audible above road and vehicle noise, is unnoticeable. Most exhaust noise is low frequency and omnidirectional, so it can not be easily localized under ideal conditions. As all car drivers know, motorcycle exhaust noise is a generally irritating signal with no particular directional information until the motorcycle is in front of the car where more of the mid-frequency content is directed at the vehicles behind the motorcycle.

It should be obvious to any car fan that my Escort station wagon is close to one of the least acoustically isolated vehicles on the highway. We picked it for that reason. The Escort is lightweight, flimsy, and as far from air-tight as a basket. If horns were going to penetrate any vehicle, it should work on the Escort. We began the test in my wife's 2000 Ford Taurus station wagon, but even the Stebel was all but nonexistent in the driveway through the Taurus' bodywork.

Equipment Used in the Horn Test

  • Acoustical Measurements (SPL and spectrum analysis) were made with a Terrasonde/Sencore SP495 SoundPro Analyzer with the Audio Consultant software package.
  • The measurement and recording microphone was a B&K 4004 modified for 48VDC phantom power use, suspended on a Rode blimp shockmount and windscreen and mounted on a short boom stick strapped to the car's rear seat back.
  • The recordings were all made with a Fostex FR-2 High Def Professional Recorder set to 48k/24 bit. The recordings were down-sampled to 320bps MP3's for the webpage.
  • The samples were edited (trimmed for size and content, only) in Pro Tools HD v7.4 and no enhancement, including normalizing or EQ, was done to the finished audio files. The 0dBFS reference was set by the first levels established when the horns were recorded in the driveway in free air.

Aug 21, 2014

When the Lucky Get Going

The original reason for this post was a Russian video that showed a moron biker swerving between lanes and slamming into the back of a car changing lanes. The idiot lucked out and landed on the roof of the car. Something/someone called ViralHog LLC claimed "ownership" of the video and it was pulled from YouTube. Of course, the real message is there is no shortage of idiot motorcyclists and luck appears to be the only entity that saves their sorry asses from total annihilation. Skill appears to be a vanishing quantity.

Aug 20, 2014

A Tale of Degrading Service

The AAA Minnesota/Iowa branch has been a non-stop disappointment since we moved here from Colorado in 1996. By that time, I’d been a AAA member for almost 20 years and had pretty much assumed I’d hang on to that membership until I quit driving and riding a motorcycle. My experience with our local branch finally severed that relationship. When we were on the last leg of our trip home from New Mexico this March, our RV “zippered” a rear tire and left us stranded about two miles north of Downtown Des Moines. Calling the AAA Minnesota/Iowa “hot line” for roadside service has never been a pleasant experience, but the disorganization topped previous letdowns substantially that day. We sat on the shoulder of I35 in heavy traffic for two hours while AAA’s grossly misnamed “customer service” characters promised a rescue that, eventually, they decided wouldn’t be available for another two hours. Because our location was considerably less than safe, we were initially promised some priority and service in no less than 20 minutes. That would have turned into an undetermined and extended period if an Iowa Highway Patrolman hadn’t stopped, called a well-known local tire service, and provided us with visibility until the repair truck arrived.

All that was bad enough, but when I submitted a complaint and a membership resignation, the following email conversations cemented my impression of an organization gone useless:


ME: In November, I called New Mexico's AAA towing line to have my RV towed to an Albuquerque VW shop for repairs. I gave the dispatcher detailed information about our vehicle, including the model id, length, height, weight, and the fact that it needed to be carried not pulled in a flatbed truck and provided that person with an address and two return phone numbers. An hour later, a driver arrived with a tow truck and quickly realized that he would not be able to safely tow our vehicle. AAA had not given him any of the information I'd provided, except the RV model ID. He went back for the correct vehicle and I called AAA NM multiple times to verify that we'd still be getting delivery of the vehicle to Albuquerque in time for the VW shop to look at it and, possibly, make repairs.

After at least 5 calls, I got someone to stay on the line with me while they relayed all of the information to their dispatcher. About five minutes
later, I got a call from an irritated dispatcher telling me that they did not have a good phone number (!) for me and that the service truck was waiting outside and the RV was "locked." I ran around the house to find the driver in conversation with an other dispatcher who had just relayed our phone number to him. Finally, the vehicle arrived at the VW shop about 6 hours after my initial call and they were not able to fit it into the queue. That sequence of events cost me almost a week in obtaining competent service for the RV.

In late March, I called AAA for emergency roadside service when my RV blew a tire on I35 just north of Des Moines, IA. After being told, multiple times, service would arrive immediately (we were parked on the edge of the freeway near heavy traffic), I was eventually told service would not arrive in less than 2 1/2 hours. At that time, we had been waiting for service more nearly 2 hours. An Iowa highway patrolman stopped to help and called a service truck that showed up in 20 minutes, replaced the tire in 30 minutes, and got us on the road quickly and safely.

I'd like to express my disappointment with AAA and submit (attached) the $96 bill for that repair.

AAA: Thank you for your comments regarding your recent difficulty receiving roadside services.  AAA strives to provide the highest quality service and we regret when that goal is not achieved.

Briefly, AAA is a federation of independent club affiliates, each entity are held responsible for the provision of member service within its geographic region. I would like to discuss this matter further with you so I will be contact. My name is Kiesha and I'm a Product Specialist here in the Call Center.

ME: Seriously? That is your response? I was stranded in Albuquerque for two weeks because your service dumped me at a dealership too late for analysis after a 5 hour wait for service and another 5 hours on a busy freeway with a tire failure and all you have to say is "we're sorry?" For years, I've labored under the misunderstanding that we have some freedom to travel in our vehicles because we've been paying nearly $200/year for AAA travel insurance and now I discover when you screw up that insurance amounts to an apology. You have no idea how sorry I am at the moment.

AAA: I would like to discuss this matter further with you so I will be contact. My name is Kiesha and I'm a Product Specialist here in the Call Center. (The number she left for a call-back was only good for leaving messages that she never returned.)


Letter to:

Randy Williams - President
Customer Service
AAA Minnesota/Iowa
600 W. Travelers Trail
Burnsville, MN 55337-2518

This past winter, I had two critical occasions to use the AAA Roadside Emergency Service, once in New Mexico and once in Iowa. In both instances, the service failed to be useful. My wife and I have been members of AAA, non-stop, since 1983 and other than a brief period where I had a company car and business coverage for travel I have carried a AAA Plus RV membership since the early 1970s. Clearly, my patronage has been taken for granted and it’s time for me to look for other travel support options.

When I look at AAA’s salary distribution on, it’s pretty obvious why the customer service people I spoke with were uninterested in providing much help. Likewise, finding the name of our area “club’s” CEO is incredibly difficult. As anyone who has worked in a large organization knows, when the business leadership is functional and active they are easy to find. When management is overpaid and useless, or an obstruction, they hide behind a wall of anonymity. If I had learned that AAA’s customer service agents were paid $50,000 a year and they had provided such half-hearted service, I’d have been surprised and disappointed. At $9-12/hour, it’s a somewhat impressive that they bother to pick up the phone and it is completely understandable that they do as little as possible to earn that pittance.

From a customer standpoint, it doesn’t matter where the resources are wasted. The first service failure came when our RV broke down in New Mexico and it took a full six hours for AAA to deliver the right truck to haul our vehicle 30 miles into Albuquerque, costing us an entire lost weekend without our motor home and resulting in my having to travel by rental car to Albuquerque on Monday to re-organize our vehicle’s service. When I called and wrote to complain about the delay, the Minnesota/Iowa response was to blame the New Mexico AAA. I received a promise that someone from my club would look into the response, but nothing happened and even after a couple of inquiries on the AAA Minnesota/Iowa website, this failure was abandoned.

Months later, we had a tire blow-out on the north side of Des Moines on I35. We were able to get off of the freeway, but our vehicle was dangerously close to fast moving traffic. After promising an emergency response due to the precariousness of our location, the AAA Minnesota/Iowa customer service people failed to deliver a service truck. Two hours later, I was told a repair truck might show up in 1½ hours. Luckily, an Iowa Highway Patrol officer came to our rescue and found a service truck that responded in 20 minutes from when he called them.

After the New Mexico experience, I backed up our AAA membership with a Good Sam’s Club membership. It’s hard to imagine that Good Sam could do much worse than AAA, so I feel no need to continue my 20 year relationship with AAA.

AAA: Email from: Jason Ward

From: Ward, Jason []
Sent: Thursday, July 17, 2014 2:57 PM
To: ''
Subject: Thank you for reaching out to me


Thank you for you correspondence.  On behalf of AAA please accept my apology for the breakdown in service you have experienced.  I understand this was a tremendously frustrating experience for you and your family.   Joanne Rhiger our Director of MN/IA Roadside Assistance has researched the two incidents that you mentioned and what caused the failures.  For what it is worth, we are using these examples to strengthen our process and provide additional staff training.  Clearly that won’t change the experience you had and I am sorry for that.   Joanne has made a few attempts to reach out to you as well.

It won’t minimize what you have experienced but we will provide a complementary PLUS RV membership at your next renewal.  As a long tenured AAA member we appreciate your loyalty and hope to win back your trust.  Feel free to contact me if you ever have any other service issues.

Best regards,

Jason Ward
President AAA MN/IA

ME: Email to Jason Ward 7/17/2014:

Mr Ward,

Thanks for your response. I believe my membership expired in June. Someone called from AAA in late June, but didn't leave a valid phone number and I haven't heard from anyone from AAA since, either by phone or email.

AAA: Email from Jason Ward: 7/18/2014


Can you try to reach out to Mr. Day again and make sure you have his right contact information to get a hold of him?

Thank you

ME: Email to Jason Ward 8/1/2014:

Mr. Ward,

As of today, I have still not heard from anyone in your office or AAA Minnesota/Iowa. My membership has expired, which is obviously no inconvenience, and the general disconnect between your office and the rest of AAA Minnesota/Iowa appears to be as obvious as I suspected when I wrote my original letter.


All this silliness inspired me to check out a couple of alternatives to the overpriced “service” I’d been paying for from AAA, but not receiving. The Good Sam Roadside Assistance, for example, “Whether it's a car, motorcycle, RV or boat, Good Sam Roadside Assistance covers everything that moves you.” Their coverage extends to Mexico and Canada, too. I was in the process of my first call to Good Sam when the Iowa HP came to our rescue. Unlike the crabby AAA clerk, the Good Sam customer service tech really seemed anxious to help us and was disappointed when I told her we had it handled. GEICO’s Emergency Road Service is a cheap add-on to an auto policy ($21), but I have yet to try it out. I don’t think we are going to miss AAA.

Aug 19, 2014

No Motorcycle Content once in a while, I get an urge to revisit books and authors that I have loved for most of my life. This weekend was one of those times. Due to some karmac thing the universe does to me occasionally, a mail list I follow sent me a free link to for one of Pete Dexter's books, Paper Trails. Once again, I was sucked into Dexter's amazing worlds. The man writes with heart, head, courage, raw brutality, insight, and brilliance. Now, I'm digging back into my Pete Dexter collection and reading it all again, for I don't know which time. This will be, at least, my fifth time through Deadwood, one of the best western novels ever written.

Once I got on the Dexter kick, I found a terrific interview which listed a few of his author recommendations, "He likes Mike Connelly's stuff ('He knows what's he's doing'), and Scott Turow ('He always aims high. You can see him really trying'), and just about anything by Elmore Leonard.

"Among more traditional novelists, Dexter admires Padgett Powell, Thomas McGuane, Tom Wolfe, and Jim Harrison. But it is friend and author Richard Russo (Nobody's Fool, Mohawk, The Risk Pool, Straight Man, Empire Falls) who is Dexter's absolute favorite."

Now I have some new authors to chase down along with my old friends who I am re-reading. Like Mr. Dexter, I am a fan of "anything by Elmore Leonard," so we have, at least, that in common.

Aug 18, 2014

#69 Legislation vs. Freedom of Choice

All Rights Reserved © 2007 Thomas W. Day

The AMA (the motorcycle AMA, not the medical AMA) and ABATE have taken on an interesting job. They appear to be motorcycling's watchdogs, protecting the rest of us from helmet laws and insurance carrier oppression. I sympathize with their task, but sometimes I don't understand their logic. I think their legislative action goals are supposed to be directed toward building rider education systems that provide information from a variety of, ideally, unbiased sources. With rider's educated and riding safely, legislation (like helmet laws) isn't "necessary" to save us poor dumb motorcyclists from ourselves. At least, that's the direction their literature has led me to look for their activities.

Maybe it's just the irrational nature of politics, but sometimes I can't figure out what anyone is doing in the vicinity of our state or national capitols. For example, a few years ago Pat Hahn and the Minnesota DPS ran a mini-experimental test of voluntary helmet-use education; brilliantly code-named the "Helmet Challenge." With financial assistance from RiderWearhouse and the ever-benevolent Minnesota Motorcycle Monthly, Pat and friends recruited a small group of non-helmet-wearing rookie and experienced riders and provided them with a reasonably nice full-face helmet for a section of the 2004 riding season.

The stated purpose of this test was to "educate riders about the comfort of motorcycle helmets, and as a result, change riders’ attitudes and increase voluntary helmet use." The volunteers had to promise to ride with their borrowed helmets on their heads for 21 days in a row during the test. The riders received some professional assistance in fitting the helmets but told that their helmets would be donated to the rider training program after the test. So, they had no financial motivation to learn to love their borrowed helmet during the test period.

In the end, two riders said they changed their opinions about helmets and had decided that they'd ride protected all of the time. One rider said he'd wear his helmet "often." Two said they would only wear their helmet occasionally, when the weather was cold or wet or on long trips. It seemed to me that the goal of educating riders was met for this collection of five riders. All of the riders had their "attitudes changed" a little and some changed a lot.

Apparently, a few "rider rights" honchos hated this test and hated the results even more. Pat has taken a good bit of abuse from a few of the organization leaders and the general riding public hasn't heard much about the test because the DPS hasn't done anything with the test results. Herein lies my confusion. If rider education is the goal of the motorcycling groups, it seems to me that this test was a pretty decent beginning. However, the motorcycle group leaders appear to think that, when anyone learns to tolerate a helmet, all of us are heading down some weird "slippery slope" towards legislation. Logically, if we all wore helmets and other protective gear, there wouldn't be any reason for a helmet law. However, I'm not foolish enough to expect logical action from government or human beings. We've met that enemy and he is us. Motorcycle organizations want "education," but they want that education to be limited to areas that don't gore their sacred cows. As the United States discovered in the late 1950's, when you open the educational dam, the water flows everywhere. You can't limit exploration to tiny areas of human curiosity, no matter how conservative and powerful the powers that be may be. Developing a real education system requires research, experimentation, and painful testing of limits. Sometimes you don't get what you want, but you'll probably get what you need. Humans are famous in their dislike for being told what they need when it conflicts with something they want.

As I probably misunderstand the issue, the motorcyclist organizations are really big on "personal choice." I think they're arguing that a person's decision to exit from the gene pool or participate in a risky activity should be a personal choice. They are inconsistent in this argument. In 1886, one of the dumbest editions of the U.S. Supreme Court in a spectacular demonstration of incompetence and corruption allowed a court reporter to grant corporations 14th Amendment rights of "personhood" (with literally none of the personal responsibilities). Regardless of economics and politics, under current law, if you're arguing for individual rights you're also arguing for corporate rights. One of the rights a particular type of corporation wants is the right to allow or disallow individual insurance coverage based on individual risks. Outside of group medical insurance policies, insurance companies can do this in a many areas and are restricted from doing it in a very few. For some reason that is unclear to me, motorcyclists are one of the restricted areas. If a "person" is allowed to accept or avoid risk based on "personal choice," it seems to me that corporate "persons" should be allowed the same "personal choice" freedom in avoiding the risk of insuring risky behaviors. Currently, we (and all of the risky recreational activities) are getting a free lunch, but you know the rule about free lunches.

In 1998, the federal DOT polled the driving public in general and found overwhelming evidence that most cagers think we ought to be wearing helmets . . . by law. Maybe they're just pissed because they have to wear seatbelts or maybe (as other data from that poll found) they think accidents involving unprotected motorcyclists carry excessive and unnecessary costs. As a group, we're not fondly looked upon by a large percentage of the general public and it's not due to our "outlaw" self-image.

We're simply too damn expensive for the minimal benefits we provide to society. I think that's a fix-able problem, but we're going to have to get to fixing it before we run out of time and public patience. In my experience, "self-regulation" is a fantasy. I can't find any historic examples of organizations, industries, or segments of society that have successfully self-regulated. Eventually, humans and their organizations are forced to submit to legal limits of behavior from a larger, outside cultural power. I'm less worried about EPA regulation, helmet laws, and local noise ordinances than I am about motorcycles being banned from public roads. I think the folks in motorcycle rights organizations are too tightly focused on the ball when they ought to be worried about maintaining access to the ball field.

March 2008

Aug 14, 2014

When You Know the Bike Is Smarter than the Rider

WR BacklightOk, I know that Facebook isn’t where anyone would go to find signs of intelligent life on this planet. Still, I’d once hoped that the yamaha wr250x & wr250r group wouldn’t be non-stop stupid. I was wrong.  Overwhelmingly, the kiddies who populate this page are all about making their bike noisier, sticking silly “artwork” on top of previous owner’s silly artwork, and making cobbly “improvements” so guys like me will offer them about 1/3 of what the bike would have been worth if they hadn’t messed with it at all. Most of these kiddies will be back in mommy’s cage in a year, telling stories of their awful experiences on a motorcycle.

tires I am clearly incapable of comprehending members of the human race. If what you want to do is stick crap on a motorcycle, light it up with pointless LEDs dangling from random mounting points, and turn a perfectly serviceable machine into a loud moped, buy a Hardly. Don’t fuck up a real motorcycle when you could start with something that is already more art than vehicle.

Aug 13, 2014

Minnesota Vintage Bike Show

I took these pictures last month and they have been sitting on my tablet since. Sorry. This bike show was at the Minnesota State Fairgrounds and it’s always an interesting show. If you know me, my interest in this era of street bike is pretty slim. So, if I took pictures of a bike it was because I though it was pretty cool.

Aug 11, 2014

#68 One Bike Is Not Enough

All Rights Reserved © 2007 Thomas W. Day

One sad outcome of my first trip to Alaska was the discovery that my "Theory of the Universal Motorcycle" has fatal flaws. I'm not giving up hope, but hope has suffered an injury (and I suffered more than one). I have to admit that I haven't always been a One Bike Guy (OBG), but I have always wanted to be. When I raced dirt bikes, I rarely owned more than one bike for any longer than it took to sell the old bike (not counting my wife's motorcycle). I used the same motorcycle for motocross, cross country, observed trials, enduros, and rode it to work on the rare days that I didn't have to travel.

Needless to say, I didn't do all that well, competitively, on that one bike, but I had fun. For a bit, I owned a race bike and a trials bike. For some reason, I didn't do much with either for that brief period.

One of my goals in life is to never be one of those guys with a garage full of unridden motorcycles. In the same way I've avoided hoarding a useless pile of Star Bores dolls, baseball cards, or closets full of worthless obsolete computers, I don't want to go out of my way to mark my territory as "geek." Let's face it, Jay Leno and all those other rich boys with their monster garages full of machines are geeks. They are every bit as nerdy and laughable as mamma's boys who fill their bedrooms with dolls and space ships. Being rich doesn't make you immune from also being foolish, it just makes the joke more expensive.

When I first took up street riding, I also owned a dual purpose bike. After a few years, I realized that I could do anything on the DP bike that I did on the street bike, so I sold the street bike and commuted Southern California on a 1986 Yamaha XT350 for four years and 40,000 miles. When I graduated college (after 25 years of night school), I bought myself a street bike (a 1983 Yamaha XTZ550) for a graduation present. But I mostly kept riding the XT350 for another year, until I moved to Colorado and found myself doing a lot more long weekend trips into the mountains. My solution, in 1993, was to buy a universal motorcycle; the Yamaha 850 TDM, a motorcycle that was as comfortable on dirt roads as it was on the pavement. That's not to say it was perfect for either application, but it was really good on the street and reasonably good on dirt roads. Being a 500 pound 850, it wasn't a nimble off-road adventure bike but with work, I could wrestle it to go where I wanted to go. If you consider that my first official dirt bike was a 1971 350cc Kawasaki Bighorn, which was almost as heavy as the TDM, with way less suspension and a totally nutty motor, the TDM seems like a pretty serviceable dirt bike.

With that history behind me, I convinced myself that the TDM was my Universal Motorcycle. The theory held up pretty well in practice for almost seven years. From that, I moved to the SV650, a much lighter, less suspended, easier to maintain street bike that I proceeded to tweak toward dual purpose use. When Suzuki introduced the V-Strom 650 in 2004, I thought I'd found my dream bike. It has been, mostly, the perfect by for a OBG. It's a terrific touring bike; stable, comfortable, efficient (usually about 50mpg), reliable, and reasonably well suspended. It's a pretty good adventure touring bike, if still having the TDM's weight drawback and limited suspension. It is an excellent commuting bike; nimble, comfortable (again), able to pack luggage and equipment, and quick (reasonable acceleration and great brakes).

The V-Strom is a big bike, though. The weight, width, and height combine to make a bike that's not much fun on deep sand or gravel. The V-Strom has a much wider profile than the TDM and that creates a really big-butted vehicle when you add luggage. The V-Strom is complicated, with fuel injection, water-cooling, and electronic everything else, so field repairs are doubtful. From my low-cost ("cheap":) perspective, the V-Strom is expensive. Crashing the V-Strom on a remote backroad will result in at least $400-500 in plastic damage, alone. Backroading the V-Strom cost me lots of expensive driveline parts--chains & sprockets--and wore out other expensive bits at an accelerated rate.

As a tune-up for the 2,500 miles of dirt roads that I'd be enjoying on my way to and from Alaska, I put in some time riding my V-Strom with the local Dual Purpose guys. The V-Strom did ok, but it was always more work than fun to get the bike through the tougher sections. I just avoided the really tough sections, because I knew I didn't have the strength or skill to maneuver the big bike through deep sand or mud. I suspected that would be a problem in Alaska and it turned out to be.

Then, there is the challenge factor. Before I left for Alaska, I heard a lot of silly stuff from folks who claimed that 650cc wasn't enough motor for a serious tour. When I was a kid, a 650 was a huge motor and I'm still unsure that I have a need for 120mph in any practical application. I heard the same silly crap about my XT350 in California and that bike was more than enough for the San Diego Freeway's average 5mph rush hour speeds and it kept up just fine on those rare moments when the freeway was actually "free."

What back in my younger days, I used to put in a 150-200 mile day on a ISDT Rickman 125, on really rugged terrain, in remote parts of the Nebraska sand hills. Now, I'm thinking that a really long tour on a 250cc bike would be an even better adventure than what I had on a "little" 650. Like governments and businesses, I believe smaller is better.

I've missed my XT350 since the day I sold it and have been looking for a replacement for the past few years; a cheap replacement. I stumbled on a 2000 Kawasaki KL250 Super Sherpa through the Dual Purpose group and bought it in July. It has been my main bike ever since. I can keep up with freeway traffic on the 250, but it's a lot more fun to ride though neighborhoods and in the country. It gets double the V-Strom's mileage, just short of 100mpg, and has a 170-200 mile range (about 50 short of the V-Strom's maximum range). The KL250 starts easily, with a little choke (even on hot days), and is not much more hassle to extract from the garage than a bicycle. For any trip that doesn't require major luggage capacity, choosing which bike to ride has become a no-brainer; it's always the 250.

The more I ride it, the more I think about riding it some distance. Before the season is over, I am thinking about taking the 250 to the Apostle Islands. Maybe next year, I'll ride the little Sherpa to Kansas or Alaska or somewhere totally new to me. Victor rode a 250 scooter on the Minnesota 1000 and he's a slightly larger load than me. I'd have to fix the seat, before long distances would be practical; Japan is still unable to figure out seat foam. Tires are another problem; the bike came with knobbies, which are worthless for road work. Once the seat and tires are sorted out, the rest of the bike would be comfortable enough for at least 250-300 mile days.

I, on the other hand, would need to lose some weight, get stronger, and work on my mechanical skills to be able to take a little bike into the wilderness. I can't think of anything bad about meeting any of those goals. Back in the 1970's, an Australian rode a Hodaka 100cc 2-stroke around that continent, more than 10,000 miles. He carried a spare motor on his back, if I remember that story. I'm going to start watching eBay for a spare motor right now.

If I end up doing all my riding on the 250, why do I need the V-Strom?

One 300 mile ride to Duluth and back reminded me of how much fun the V-Strom is to put into motion. It's a completely different riding experience than the KL250 and fun in a completely different way. In August, I added a scooter to the garage stable. It's my wife's bike, but I (of course) have to ride it to make sure it's safe, right? The scooter is practical, easy to ride, a lot of fun, and insanely easy to work on. Nope, my One Bike Theory is blown.

Winter 2007-08

Aug 4, 2014

Just a Motorcycle Club

How delusional do you have to be to keep insisting that packs of gangbangers on choppers are "a motorcycle club? They aren't fooling the FBI or state law enforcement. Are they fooling you?

Ex Minnesota Hells Angels leader a marked man after tell-all book

#67 What To Do with Feedback

All Rights Reserved © 2006 Thomas W. Day

Many years ago (1974) a really good dirt biker and equally creative writer named Carl Shipman wrote a book called The Boonie Book: How to ride the dirt, take care of your bike, and yourself. I found this book not long after "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" entered my "best book" collection. For a few years, Shipman's little book, and a few of his dirt bike products, were a regular part of my life. I used the heck out of The Boonie Book in developing my own riding style back in those days and I still think of some of the Shipman concepts when I'm teaching new riders. I try to remember those lessons at the beginning of a new riding season, every year. I probably loaned the book to someone, otherwise I'd still be reading it occasionally in those dark, depressing, motorcycle-less Minnesota winter months.

One of the many concepts that Shipman eloquently discussed in his book was that of using the design and operation of electro-mechanical servomechanisms in his description of how a motorcyclist "holds a line" through difficult terrain. I really wish I had a copy of the book, today, so I could accurately quote Shipman, but it's about as easy to find this book as it is to locate a coherent political conservative. I've had it on my watch list for more than three years (The Boonie Book, not the conservative.). The gist, however, is that when trying to stay a course, we don't attempt to "hold a line." Instead we correct our steering, often, so that we pass through the line on either side as accurately and frequently as necessary to stay on course without tightening up and freaking out when we get a bit off of the ideal path.  Today, for the zillionth time, I heard a politician, executive, media pundit, or some other ignorant bonehead misuse the "feedback" concept and it tripped a trigger in what's left of my memory circuits. The words "positive" and "negative" when related to feedback are grossly misunderstood everywhere but in control circuit design applications. When you are designing a system to perform a task as accurately and with as much quality as possible, what that system's control circuitry desperately needs to stay on course and in control is "negative feedback." If you are swinging wildly from one end of a system's steering limit to the other, you are probably suffering from "positive feedback." Positive feedback adds lots of bad data to the input of your already misdirected steering system. Negative feedback sends a bunch of that same over-amplified error back to the input, resulting in lowered gain, less distortion, less error, and more accurate steering.

In the "happy talk" world of modern politics and business, "positive feedback" (the output of "yes men" and political pundits) produces even more wrong-headed decisions from leaders in business and government.  Impossible to imagine, but they are capable of being even more wrong than their natural inclinations. What these people desperately need is criticism, doubtful analysis, restraint, and careful measurement of performance vs. philosophy. Without negative feedback, our charismatic but non-scientific leaders pick up a stupid idea and run with it like scared rabbits until they smash into the wall of reality. Then, like the ENRON morons, Lay and Schilling, they whine "nobody told me it was a stupid idea!" As if they'd have listened if someone did try to provide them with useful (negative) "feedback."

We get this sometimes in the motorcycle safety classes, too. Instructors walk a hard line between providing encouragement (positive feedback) and actual information (negative feedback) to produce a little control input to student's natural tendencies. Those natural tendencies include panic reactions, looking at the ground a few inches beyond their front tire (or staring at the speedometer), correcting the motorcycle's path of travel with ineffective body English or incorrect steering moves, and whacking away at the shift lever like they were stomping a snake with their left boot. Too much negative feedback and the new rider is discouraged, resentful, and seizes up and stops trying to learn. Too much positive feedback and the rider gets arrogant about doing things "my way" and regressively continues doing the wrong things until blood is lost and skin is sacrificed to the Gods of Roadrash. You can't top a crash for excessive negative feedback. Typically, the result of too much negative feedback is an overwhelming resistance to movement of any kind; "You can't go wrong if you don't go anywhere."

Shipman's theory of steering is really useful here. Basically, and poorly, restated, Shipman said you pick a line, steer over it (missing to the right, correcting to the left, missing it again, and returning to the right, and so on), attempting to stay as close to the line as possible, while keeping your steering input as flexible and relaxed as possible. Eventually, if you practice enough, you'll appear to be holding the line perfectly to an observer, while, in reality, your steering input will be just as precise and relaxed as required to stay in the immediate vicinity of where you want to be.

That's precision negative feedback.

Positive feedback causes more of the same (usually wrong) action to occur. You want to turn left, you point the front wheel left, the bike leans right and turns right. You want to turn left, but positive feedback tells you to provide more of the same wrong input (point the front wheel left), the bike leans harder to the right. Now, the bike is dragging parts and going the wrong way. More positive feedback, you hang your body to the left, but point the wheel further left. Your direction of travel doesn't change, more metal bits grind away, the bike is heading solidly right and you're still wondering why when you come to some kind of stop (hopefully, painlessly). That's uncontrolled positive feedback.

Criticism is like that, too. Mostly, motorcyclists pretend that they have changed their image from the bad old days of biker gangs and Marlon Brando. Get out more. You are taking in too much positive feedback and over-steering yourself into oblivion. You need to meet some ordinary, non-biking people. Motorcyclists have a lot of images, but more of them are bad than good. We're noisy, we clog up highways with our parades, we scare the crap out of people wheeling through heavy traffic, and our bikes can spew 50 times the pollution as a modern car. Yet, we hang out together, pat ourselves on the back, and pretend that everyone loves the sound of our straight pipes, is entertained by our freeway "antics," and thinks we're brave and adventurous individuals. Some people do, most people don't. Ignoring the majority opinion won't make it go away. Changing directions quickly, accurately, and as a reaction to a well-thought out path of travel is a requirement for any moving vehicle that intends to remain in control. Pushing the bar in the wrong direction because of inbred, uninformed positive feedback will just make us go the wrong way faster.

Negative feedback, opposing opinion, dissent, is a good thing. It's good for me. (I get it in your letters and pay attention, even when I disagree.) It's good for you. It's good for the country. It's good for motorcycling. You can't turn the right direction without it.

October/November 2007

Aug 1, 2014

More of the Usual


Coming back from Chanhassen Wednesday night, I ended up beside a unicyclist (not the guy in the picture, but a guy like him) apparently commuting home from work. I don’t think I’ve ever seen these things outside of circus acts and closed course demonstrations. Since we were traveling on a busy neighborhood street, I sort of looked forward to seeing him stop and start the thing. So, I plugged along at the speed of the general traffic and waited to see how he would handle a stop light. I should have known. He ran the first two he came to, weaving through cross traffic, getting honked at, and expecting drivers to compensate for his crippled vehicle and marginal skills. The third light was a much busier intersection and he made a hard right on to the sidewalk, forcing a couple of pedestrians to dive out of the way to keep from being run over. As I entered the intersection, I saw him dive across the street, reverse directions on to the opposite side sidewalk, and wobble his way back toward the street we’d been traveling.

So, like lots of motorcyclists, this guy couldn’t stop in any sort of emergency situation. He would probably tell you, “I’m fine as long as I’m moving,” but he’d be lying. He’s not fine, he’s an out-of-control unicyclist waiting for a crash. I fail to see the attraction to disabled vehicles. A decent bicycle is all sorts of capable in a variety of traffic situations. A standard or sport or dual purpose motorcycle can go most places safely and competently. A unicycle is a clown’s prop. Something trendy Minneapolis uptowners will play with for a few days or weeks until they end up smashing into a moving vehicle or pedestrian and we’ll hear the whine, “They jumped out in front of me.” Cruisers are slightly modified wheelchairs with less-than-competent handling, non-existent suspensions, pitiful ground clearance, and more mass than John Candy and his stunt-double combined.

I don’t get it.

Jul 30, 2014


"But now consider the fact that no matter how hard you try to hang on to it, this stuckness is bound to disappear. Your mind will naturally and freely move toward a solution. Unless you are a real master at staying stuck you can't prevent this. The fear of stuckness is needless because the longer you stay stuck the more you see the Quality-reality that gets you unstuck every time. What's really been getting you stuck is the running from the stuckness through the cars of your train of knowledge looking for a solution that is out in front of the train.”

"Stuckness shouldn't be avoided. It's the psychic predecessor of all real understanding. An egoless acceptance of stuckness is a key to an understanding of all Quality, in mechanical work as in other endeavors." " Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

When I was hung up in Albuquerque, flailing around looking for someone who knew something about repairing a semi-modern Volkswagen, I needed to remember this Pirsig thing about getting “stuck.” If you just wallow in being stuck, you almost always find a way out of the predicament. If you don’t, you probably haven’t embraced being stuck long enough.

In retrospect, I didn’t get stuck in New Mexico until we’d escaped Albuquerque and meandered down to Elephant Butte. We were truly stuck in Elephant Butte. As in being on my own to solve the problem in a place that was comfortable enough to admit to being stuck, with the resources to get unstuck in at least a half-dozen different ways of varying quality. Once I had a couple of less-than-ideal options sorted out, going after getting the vehicle back on the road was less intimidating. Worst case, we sell the RV for a big loss, rent a car, and drive back home after enjoying a winter away from winter. Don’t get me wrong, that was a painful way out of being stuck, but it was a workable tactic that we’d accepted as a possibility.

Once the nuclear option was laid out, the other options were explored. Honestly, if I could have dumped the RV in New Mexico, found a decent 4L pickup with a manual transmission, I’d have taken a pretty big hit to the billfold willingly. Didn’t happen. No serious offers on the RV, other than the guy in Oklahoma who had $10k ready to go. No manual transmission pickups in any sort of shape. So, I kept messing with the RV bits until Victor (Big Victor’s Automotive) and I found the TCM’s hiding place, discovered the drenched connector with the damaged terminals, and started looking at the options for fixing that. It took a long time to find a workaround that . . . worked. Once the problem was exposed, solutions became more acceptable, less impossible/more acceptable and the hard part of stuckness drifted into memory.

20140722_003417_resized 20140722_072021_resized A few weeks ago, I had the bright idea of tearing out a really ugly ceiling light in my porch. We’d been living with the damn thing for 18 years, but I’d never been able to figure out what do do in the hole that would be left when the old light was removed. Pulling the old light was the first step in getting unstuck. Once it was out and in the trash, I lived with the hole for a week before I came up with a design for the “fixture.” It took a while to convince myself I had a solution, a day or so sorting out the inner framework for the light. Once I had the frame, the cosmetic work went easily.

It’s worth mentioning that I suck at this kind of work. Visualiization is not one of my talents. Finish carpentry isn’t either. Usually, I need a picture to work from, but no such illustration was available in this project. Wallowing in stuckness is what got me this practical and decent looking light design.

I hope I can remember that the next time I am in a similar situation. Life is full of moments where the choice is stuckness or panic. Panic is a useless reaction. Panic is what leads an elk to lie down and suffer being eaten instead of attempting to kick his way out of death. It is a choice, panic or stuckness, Be clear about that. Panic is the useless, prey response and stuckness is a human, decision-making, problem-solving moment of zen. It can be a long, painful, frustrating “moment,” but as long as you are walking around the problem ticking through solutions you are still in the game. Maybe the real reason I bring a copy of Zen and the Art with me on most trips is to be reminded of how to appreciate stuckness.

Jul 29, 2014

Strange Experiences on the Training Range

What would make someone who considers himself to be an “experienced rider” to take a Basic Rider Course; the beginning MSF class? If you can think of a good reason, can you explain why this same rider would be a total hooligan weenie throughout the course, to the point of receiving three warnings on the first day about his poor riding skills and general hazard to the other students? [That’s one more than I usually allow. I think I’m about too old for this shit.]

It’s baffling. At least, it baffled me. If I thought I could ride well enough to be a constant pain in a class, I’d skip “go” and go straight to the DMV and take the state’s test without messing around in a course for $150. Seriously, if I had to I’d take the state’s test three times before I’d cough up money I didn’t think I needed to spend. On the other hand, if I thought I couldn’t pass Minnesota’s wimpy, super-easy test on my own, I’d be pretty damn humble in a motorcycle class.

Testosterone is a weird drug. It makes guys act like morons while convincing them they are being cool. I think heroin is probably less vicious a drug, especially when it comes to looking stupid and being clueless. Hell, the two heroin addicts I’ve known actually were pretty cool, outside of being well on their way to a premature death and being homeless and living under a bridge in the process. A pretty good clue to whether you are looking cool or not would be, “Are you worried that other people might not think you are cool?” If the answer is “yes,” you are a dork and won’t be allowed to park on the same block as actual cool people.

No, in Minnesota you don’t “need” to take the MSF BRC for anything, including getting to play with Polaris two-wheeled toys if you are a Polaris employee/intern. If you can pass the state’s DMV test you have passed “Go,” spent your $200, and are as legal as someone who took the MSF course and passed. You do need to take the Confident Rider Course (was ERC, Experienced Rider Course, then the BRC II, then . . . ) to get to play with the Polaris toys and, if you haven’t taken a motorcycle safety course, the BRC II will qualify you for insurance discounts and other minor perks.

All that said, I have often recommended the BRC to people who were once motorcyclists and haven’t ridden for a while, but still have a valid motorcycle license. My argument is, “You might learn some new skills. You might lose some old bad habits. You get to play with one of the state’s motorcycles for 10 hours and, if you crash it and bust it up, I give you another one. Try getting anything any where near that deal at the State Fair for $160.” However, if you plan to come into one of these courses with the attitude that “I don’t wanna be here and I am gonna make it as miserable as possible for everyone involved,” you might find yourself out $160 and booted from the class. That’s just stupid. If you are going to sign up for any sort of educational experience, be a student. Pretend you aren’t an expert, which shouldn’t be too hard, and try to open yourself up to learning something new. Otherwise, you are wasting everyone’s time.

The older I get, the more I value the few opportunities I have to be a student. It's not like I know everything, but it is like I just don't have the opportunity to be in a situation where I'm primarily there to be a learner. In the last ten years, I can think of about a dozen situations where I was in the student seat and I treasured those opportunities because they were so rare. It makes sense that a kid would be less appreciative, because kids are "stuck" in classrooms and in beginner situations all the time. Once again, youth is wasted on the young.

The second day of the weekend's BRC, our problem child slightly modified his behavior. He didn't cut back on his wennie-ness, but he pretended to take advice; occasionally. Even more rarely, he actually tried to follow some of our advice. I had to warn him, once, about doing wheelies on his DR200 and, once, about blowing into merging traffic without looking or a lick of control. After reminding him that two warnings were all he would get, he settled down. Nobody got killed, everybody passed, I went home with a splitting headache and an aching back. The usual.

Jul 28, 2014

#66 What Do You Do?

All Rights Reserved © 2005 Thomas W. Day

I'm sitting in a line of vehicles waiting to turn left into a university parking lot. It's a beautiful day. The sun is shining. I can almost see a blue-ish tint from the sky leaking through the smog. The temperature is, as always, perfect for motorcycling or any other warm weather outdoor activity. But I'm solidly on edge. I'm in southern California and I've been tense for the last two years.

The two cars in front of me have turned tension into action. The lead driver made the radical decision to stop on yellow, almost a driving felony in southern California. The driver in the following four-by-four practically stood his pickup on its bumper to avoid rear-ending the lead car. Before the pickup tires stopped squealing, the driver was pounding on his horn. The driver in the front car offered a one-finger salute in response. In true California tradition, the action turned serious faster than you can sing "We gotta get outta this place."

The guy in the pickup jumped out, reached behind his seat, pulled out a shiny blue aluminum baseball bat, and started stomping toward the car at the head of the queue. The other driver calmly reached under his seat, took out his pistol, and got out of his car to face the guy with the bat. I'm sitting on my bike, third in the line, solidly in the line of fire, with a great view of the action, looking for a way to get back into the flow of traffic and away from the war zone. Traffic is flowing without the tiniest space between vehicles and I'm stuck. The car behind me has left about six inches of clearance between his bumper and my rear wheel and I have about four feet to work with in making myself scarce before the shooting starts. From behind me, several cars back, a cop fires off his siren. The two whack-jobs dive for their vehicles and, when the light changes, the lead car jumps into the right lane and drives away from the scene while the second car makes a u-turn and bolts in the opposite direction. I turn into the parking lot, find a space, turn off the bike, put away my gear, and begin another crappy day in Paradise.

We've survived another year with the occasional case of mad-dog-driving-an-SUV marring an otherwise mild and beautiful Minnesota summer. Rightfully, we get pretty upset about Minnesota Nice turning into Minnesota Madness. It's not that bad here . . . yet.

To put this in perspective, the scene I just described occurred in 1985 in Costa Mesa, California. Just a few years later, Steve Martin tossed a "Thursdays are for handguns on the freeway" scene in LA Story and everybody, except southern Californians, thought it was pretty funny. To those of us who lived in SoCal, most of LA Story was a romantic documentary and only funny in the way that scary stuff you have in common with thirty million other crazy folks can be funny.

I tend to think of road madness as just another symptom of overpopulation. You pack living things too close together, they get crazy. Rats do it, hogs do it, coyotes do it, and people are somewhere down the evolutionary tree from those animals, so it shouldn't be a surprise that we do it. We haven't even begun to go mad in the Cities, but we're working on it. Adding freeway lanes won't slow down our two-wheel drift into lunacy. More lanes will just compound the feeling that there are too many people in too small a container and folks will just get more and more violent as they thrash around trying to make elbow room for themselves. And more people will fill the available space. It's human nature, especially American human nature. In Bowling for Columbine, Michael Moore tried to figure out why we're specially inclined toward violent behaviors and he only managed to piss off Charlton Heston in the search for an answer. I don't have any better answers than Heston gave Moore, but I've witnessed, first hand, the experience of North American population pressure and it's not pretty.

When I first moved to California, from Nebraska, I was amazed that almost everyone I knew kept a loaded gun in their glovebox or under the seat or stuffed into their belt anytime they were on the road. I mean everyone, as in ordinary people from from every walk of life. The owner of the company that employed me―an upper crust, extremely wealthy, Volvo-driving, Sierra-clubbing Yuppie―had a 9mm automatic under his seat. The scrawny, long-haired, guitar-playing, mild-mannered tech who wrote the code for our automatic test equipment had a silenced .22 automatic under his vintage Austin Healy's seat and a .45 caliber revolver in an under-dashboard mounted holster. The over-weight, middle-aged woman who ran our manufacturing floor carried a stubby .32 in her purse. Our CFO had a short-barreled 20-gauge shotgun stuffed under his BMW's seat. And the list goes on until I felt like I was living in a freaky SiFi western populated with Japanese and European cars instead of horses and wagons. I grew up in Dodge City, Kansas, so I know a little about living in a cowboy town, but southern California was way more hostile and far better armed than Dodge ever was. With our shiny new "conceal and carry" law, we're heading for California attitudes.

While I lived in Orange County, I watched the night dirt track races, most summer Friday evenings. One evening, one racer took a particularly vicious fall and was seriously injured. His mother wrapped him up and stuffed him in her van and took off for the nearest hospital. Apparently, she cut off a guy on a freeway exit on the way to the hospital and he took exception to that mortal insult to his family pride. He pumped a clip load into her van, leaving her and the injured rider to die. The rider survived the incident, but his mother didn't. The driver/gunner was a middle-aged guy on his way home from work who just couldn't let a freeway insult pass without voicing his opinion . . . with a pistol he always carried in his glovebox.

Keeping our tendency toward vicious reprisals in mind, I try to remind myself of a quote from the MSF's Basic Rider video, whenever I start to get worked up over someone else's driving; "a motorcycle will never win in a battle with a car." No matter what silly crap you've seen in the last 50 years of Hell's Angels movies, a car beats a motorcycle (or motorcycles) like rocks break scissors. Four wheels and several tons of mass will shove two wheels and 500-1000 pounds of bike and rider pretty much anywhere the four wheels wants to take the two wheels. If you include the weapons storage capabilities (and likelhood) of SUVs and other large vehicles that often contain specially irritated and irritating cagers, you don't have a chance in a one-on-one confrontation.

I'd recommend that you choke down your rage, think about something pleasant (while keeping your mind on the road and traffic), and keep that fickle finger on the handlebars. It might be therapeutic to vent on the highway, but, if you're not careful, you could be in need of several months of physical therapy after everyone is finished venting. That's assuming that you live through the confrontation. Ride fast, ride safe, ride often, and control your emotions.

September 2007