May 29, 2010

Funnier than Comedy

The boys, Trey and Matt, explain their rationale for "The F-Word." It's even funnier than the original show.

Those dudes are an inspiration. Years ago, I read a Guitar Player Magazine interview with Tom Petty. He was talking about "maintaining an edge" in a world where every comfort, every desire, every thing he might want was available because he was a rich, famous rock star. In that world, writing about things that matter to real people is damn close to impossible. Petty said all he had to do to find something to write about was to look out a window (plane, train, tour bus, hotel room, or whatever) and look at what's going on in the real world. He'd find something to be pissed off about and go at it.

Matt and Trey are the gods of finding shit to be pissed off about. Role models for any writer trying to say something worthwhile.

Loud Pipes Are Powerful Fun

All Rights Reserved © 2009 Thomas W. Day

People who worry about the future of motorcycling are particularly concerned that the statement being made by a blasting motorcycle exhaust is going to be the death of the industry and the activity on public roads. Proponents of this noise pollution like to claim that "loud pipes save lives," but the evidence for that claim is weak to non-existent. Obviously, if it's true for motorcycles it should be true for small cars, medium sized-cars, buses, and every other highway user and, if one motor vehicle gets to claim that "safe ground," everybody will want a piece of the action. The trend is going the other way. Most industrialized societies have had more than enough of noise pollution and the public is not going to take much more of it. Noisy motorcyclists may claim discrimination, but it's easy to argue that, outside of emergency vehicles, motorcycles are consistently the loudest vehicles on the highway and the least useful.

Anyone familiar with manufacturing and quality systems knows that you don't go after all of your problems at once. Even the federal government doesn't have unlimited resources. One tactic is to use the Pareto Effect, which states "80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes." When it comes to peak traffic noise, improperly and illegally muffled motorcycles top the 20% list. We can whine about being picked on, but logic would dictate we get hammered first. Since evidence points out the fallacy in the connection between loud pipes and safety, the only reason left for making that kind of noise is recreational.

If safety isn't a useful reason to be noisy, why are so many motorcyclists so damn loud? I think the most likely reason is, "Loud pipes are power." Jimmy Page once argued that electric guitar was the coolest musical instrument because "with a flick of a pick, you can drive 100,000 fans deaf." That's power. Similarly, with the twist of a wrist an untalented, uninteresting working class man or woman can nearly deafen everyone within a few dozen yards. At the least, you can irritate people for a mile in every direction of your exhaust. For people who are powerless in their everyday lives, this kind of clout isn't something to sneeze at.

Loud pipes are a statement of freedom. Again, flaunting the law, good manners, and the opinions of people who otherwise might be able to control your life, a noisy motorcycle is a way to "stick it to the man," even if "the man" is your neighbors, your community, and the rest of society. Loud pipes are a giant middle finger held high above the din of a boring life. It's hard to argue someone out of their "right" to make that kind of statement. Hard, but not impossible. When the statement is made so broadly, hitting the people you want to offend and everyone else, it's not hard to imagine a rapid succession of legal events that could shut down a lot more than just loud motorcycles.

A while back, a trio of Canadian goofballs were fined $16,000 for filming themselves shooting ducks from their car. The Canuck boneheads posted a video of themselves on YouTube "laughing and firing at least 42 rounds from a high-powered rifle into a large pond filled with ducks and grebes." One of the three compounded the stupidity by saying. "We thought we were just having fun — really immature, stupid fun, you know?"

Same story, different device. Blasting the highway with omnidirectional, illegal, unnecessary noise is "really immature, stupid fun." I know. Tolerance for immature, stupid fun is vanishing in our overcrowded world. When that noise produces absolutely no value for anyone, even the dumbest biker ought to know how this is going to work out. One of the goofy duck-blasting Canucks apologized by saying, "“We should have known better but we didn’t, and for that I am sorry.” All motorcyclists are going to be apologizing for the actions of a few who didn't know better and aren't bright enough to quit their destructive behavior. Like ignorance, stupidity is a poor legal defense.

May 18, 2010

Your Opinion, My Opinion

All Rights Reserved © 2009 Thomas W. Day

On a web mail list, I stumbled into a discussion about air filters and it quickly turned into a pissing match between a guy who hated everything about the brand of filter that I've used for almost 30 years and he was pretty unimpressed with all other filtration options. I was a little put off by the dude's venom, so I bailed out of the discussion and fired up my word-processing software to write this column.

In my life, I have been rightly described as someone who is overly-dependent on personal experience and practical application. I'm all for science and theory, as long as it doesn't get between me and getting something done, but I'm not dependent on the advise of sanctioned experts or popular opinion. I've personally known quite a few of the folks the media uses for expert opinions and I'm not particularly impressed. They are all good men and women, but just like you and me they have opinions and their opinions are no more founded in fact than yours or mine. Sometimes, less so. In the end, if something I've been doing has worked for me, I'll keep doing it even when the experts claim it doesn't work. I'd rather spend my time fixing the things that are broke and the things that aren't will get my attention in my next life; the life where I will be born rich and with lots of idle time on my hands.

Sometimes, even well-intentioned scientifically conducted studies don't impress me. Of course, some scientific studies don't live up to the name, either. (I wasted a decade in medical device manufacturing and saw more of that kind of science than I want to think about.) Often, the constraints of a study limit the value of the study to rare conditions. For example, if a rat has a forced daily diet of one-fourth of his body weight in a given substance, he will get fat. Therefore, said given substance is fattening. Yeah, I'll keep that in mind the next time I sit down to a 50pound dinner.

In the case of the aforementioned air filter discussion, the one and only test I found on the subject assumed the user would improperly clean and prepare the filter and, therefore, the filter would be ineffective. On the other hand, I have subjected my bikes to above average dirt road and trail exposure and have seen no signs that my applications of this same filter are allowing above factory filter contamination into the engine. In fact, I have seen signs of contamination on the intakes of other bikes using stock or aftermarket paper filters that I never seen in my bikes. I was told that a poorly functioning filter won't necessarily leave signs on the intake manifold. 2-strokes, especially, tend to produce dust accumulation on the manifold, since the fuel-oil mixture provides a little glue for the contamination. Obviously, engine wear would increase with poor filtration, too. I see those signs of air filter failure on others' bikes when I maintain them, I don't see it on mine, for what it's worth.

I do not know what it's worth. I only know that I'm likely to change my behavior when I see evidence that what I'm doing doesn't work. The older I get, the less inclined I am to experiment with things that seem to work for me.

On the practical side, when I go on a long, backroads trip I don't worry about being able to find a clean filter after a couple thousand miles of dirt roads. All I need is a little soap, warm water, and a small can of filter oil. I don't need a Suzuki dealer, of which there seems to be a short supply in Canada or Alaska or North Dakota, for example.

In the mid-70s, when I first started using this brand of filter, a cross country race in western Nebraska provided a pretty severe test. About twenty miles into 120, the racers got hammered with a dust storm so thick that it was hard to see twenty feet ahead. In the dusty valleys, visibility dropped to less than ten feet. It was a Dust Bowl quality storm, a huge black cloud of sand and dirt that rose out of the southwest horizon and swept over the land like some kind of Hollywood supernatural evil. On top of the dust, the terrain was difficult and dry and the race would have been dusty, even without the storm. With the storm, bikes fell to the side of the road --sputtering and dying--like diseased animals in a plague. When I finished the first lap, I stopped to replace my choked up goggles and my wife and daughters got a kick out of my racoon-eye'd appearance. My mouth and nose were full of dirt, and I spit out the first half-gallon of water I tried to drink as it turned to mud in my mouth.

I took of for the second lap as the storm really turned ugly. About halfway through that lap, the event organizers threw in the red flag and called the event. Out of the original 50-or-so bikes, there were about a dozen of us still running. We cut across the course in a blizzard of dirt and fumbled out way back to our cars and trailers.

Some racers headed for Ogallala, where they planned to hide out in a bar or motel until the storm passed. I had to be back at work on Monday, so I pointed my car east and hit the freeway trying to out run the storm. A few miles later, my car's hydraulic clutch died. Both the master cylinder and the slave were seriously leaking fluid. Without a clutch and towing a trailer, getting back on the road was a hassle, but I had enough fuel to get home and planned to run every stop sign and light that didn't cooperate with my objective. Fifty miles later, my brakes became suspiciously soggy, but they still worked and I escaped the storm and made it home without any additional problems.

After repairing the clutch and brakes on the car and hauling a bucket of sand and dust out of the interior, I started getting the bike ready for the following Sunday. When I pulled the top off of the bike's filter box, I was amazed to see how much dust surrounded the filter. It was nearly buried. To keep from pouring crud into the cylinder, I pulled the whole air box off and dumped it out before removing the air cleaner for service. Still, not a speck of dust to be found in the intake manifold. I raced the bike for another year, sold it to a friend, and it lasted one more year off road before it died. The little Rickman ended up in the old motorcycles graveyard because the new owner tossed the air filter when it became so packed with river sand that the bike stalled. He almost made it back home before the motor seized. I don't know what that proves.

I've been using the same brand of air filters for exactly the opposite reason on my cars (older cars, anyway) and dirt bikes since the 1970s and I'm always amazed at how clean my intakes have been after some really nasty events and LD rides. Maybe it's the preparation and maintenance that bothers others? I put 380k miles on a 1973 Toyota HiLux pickup over 20 years and it was running strong when I sold it. Its whole life was spent with a the same filter. My CX500 gave me 130k miles with only a timing chain problem all with the same filter. All of my dirt bikes, from an OSSA Phantom to a Yamaha XT350 to my current 250 Super Sherpa breathe through that brand. So does my current bike, a Suzuki DL-650. I just have no motivation to change, so until some catastrophe inspires me to amend my opinion I'm sticking with what has worked for me.

I'm not trying to convince you to go with my brand. I'm not trying to convince you of anything except that the old adage "don't fix what ain't broke" isn't a bad way to go. It's not rocket science, but that's not all it's cut out to be either.

May 7, 2010

Getting Geezerly

All Rights Reserved © 2009 Thomas W. Day

I've noticed a change in my attitude since turning 60. I care less and less about the future of the things that won't affect me. This is fairly significant, since I am sort of notorious among my friends for living as much in the future as the present.

A fair number of my Geezer columns, beginning with the first one from 1999, are about how motorcyclists' anti-social behaviors are likely to affect motorcyclists' access to public roads and parts of cities. It's happened before and it's going to happen more. Even dumps like Daytona are reconsidering the effect motorcycle invasions have on their residents' already miserable quality of life. Lots of lesser "traditional" motorcycle destinations are opting out of the loud pipe, hooligan-behaving, tough-guy-dentist, vandals-took-the-handles secondary effects of going after the motorcycling dollar.

Fortunately for me, I don't go to any of those events or places. Even more fortunate, I live in an insanely conservative country where progress and innovation has been slowed to a crawl and change rarely comes in less than a generation. For example, we're going to be the last industrialized nation to ban lead from manufacturing processes. We are more concerned with the inconvenience manufacturers will experience if they stop pouring that metal into our drinking water than we about poisoning our children. If something that big doesn't get fixed instantly, how long will it take cities to rid themselves of pesky, but rare and insignificant and non-socially-redeeming, motorcyclists? Seriously, even though motorcycles are not in any way part of "smart highway" planning, how many decades will it be before this country moves to that kind of vehicle? In the Land of the Brave we're conservative (timid, afraid of the dark, terrified of change) and we won't do anything rash, innovative, or sensible in a hurry. The oceans may rise up and float our cities away and we'll still be debating who will pay for any technology change.

With that knowledge behind me, I have quit worrying about the future of motorcycling. Whatever happens, won't happen to me. At best, I have maybe 10 years, 15 tops, left to ride. More likely, I'll fall off of a cliff, contract some nasty cancer from my years of industrial chemical exposure, trip over my dog and fall down the stairs, or blow a gasket in any number of clogged vessels or organs. The future of motorcycling is not likely to change in my lifetime. None of my kids have chosen to be motorcyclists and I don't see that as something to worry about. My grandson might become interested, but he probably won't. I've lost the capacity to worry about generations beyond the ones I know personally.

That “freedom” has a cost, though. Recently, a younger, more politically involved friend asked my opinion of helmet laws. For the last 25 years I’ve had a split mind on this issue. On one hand, I’m a fan of Darwin’s selection of the fittest and am all for getting the stupid out of the gene pool. On the other, I’m worried that if too many of the unfit kill themselves on motorcycles their surviving relatives will rise up and campaign against the existence of “murdercycles” on public roads. As I explained that pair of concerns I realized I had passed the point of caring about the second hand. My explanation was blunt, honest, and very politically incorrect. It happened so quickly that it was out of my mouth before I realized what I was saying.

Another friend, a non-helmet wearing friend, was part of the discussion and was obviously offended by my lack of concern for his offspring. That’s the other effect of aging on me; I’m less sensitive (and I was always insensitive) to who I offend. Honestly, I’m less afraid of the consequences. At work, this has resulted in a feeling that I’m “bulletproof” to the politics and backstabbing that goes on in an academic institution. The worst thing that can happen is that I will get fired. If I get fired, I’ll find some other way to occupy my time and pay my bills. I have a good gig, but there are other good gigs.

In personal relationships, I worry less about what will be thought about me and more about saying what I mean to say. Getting old sucks, creaks, hurts, aches, and provides occasional stabbing pain. However, it is sort of liberating. If "the worst" that can happen can only happen for a short duration, how bad can it be? It's not like I'm going to be disabled and suffer through the prime of my years. My prime passed about 30 years ago.

The older I get, the higher my tolerance for pain becomes. Getting out of bed is more painful than crashing a dirt bike was 35 years ago. Bending over, running, squatting, reaching over my head, twisting, and flexing any joint provides a constant reminder that my body is increasingly fragile and rapidly decaying. The choices are: 1) avoid pain by not doing anything or 2) get used to pain and keep doing stuff.

For a while, I'm going to chose to keep doing stuff. If the rest of you choose to screw up motorcycling, I'm not going to worry about it. You can't screw it up fast enough to mess up my time on the road.

May 1, 2010

Not Like Everybody

All Rights Reserved © 2008 Thomas W. Day

We motorcyclists are an odd group, even compared to other members of our odd species. We are so full of contradictions that it's hard to take seriously anything humans say or do. Motorcyclists are even less consistent than "normal" people.

For example, I've heard motorcyclists claim that our vehicle should be a protected species because by riding motorcycles we are saving fuel, creating less pollution, and creating less traffic congestion. Some of that seems legitimate, although there are some motorcycles that get pretty miserable mileage and many motorcycles barely do better than modern compact cars. However, we aren't anything special in the emissions realm. A 2008 L.A. Times article1 about motorcycles stated, "In California, such bikes make up 3.6% of registered vehicles and 1% of vehicle miles traveled, yet they account for 10% of passenger vehicles' smog-forming emissions in the state. In fact, the average motorbike is about 10 times more polluting per mile than a passenger car, light truck or SUV, according to a California Air Resources Board comparison of emissions-compliant vehicles."

Even that is misleading because motorcycles are "tested at lower speeds, which pollutes less" and a bike only has to maintain that level of emissions "for the first 18,600 miles of a bike's life, compared with 150,000 miles for cars." Those lax regulations only exist for bikes over 179cc. Smaller motorcycles and scooters can crank pollutants into the air without any regulation. The Times story concluded with "Motorcycles, even small ones, are more polluting than Hummers, but it's the best that can be done for now."

Leaving behind my paranoia of being a pin in a rolling bowling pins configuration, I went on a short group ride a year ago. I discovered what those critics say about motorcycle emissions is true. In the middle of a pack of mostly modern, mostly unmodified bikes, the smell of unburned gases was strong and, after a few miles, I bailed out of the crowd to clear my head and wait for my eyes to stop watering. My wife, who is sensitive to petroleum fumes, was close to nauseous before we left the pack. A bunch of motorcycles is as noxious as a convoy of military vehicles (another group of notorious EPA rule violators).

While individual motorcycles are definitely able to reduce traffic congestion, a parade of motorcycles quickly makes up for all the benefit individual riders can create. Some riders take a lot of pride in hauling out their garage jewelry once or twice a year for a "charity ride." It has always seemed to me that simply putting the gas and jewelry money used for these rides into the charity would do a lot more good, but maybe I'm missing the point. Those parades of slow-moving hippobikes jam up traffic for miles and raise the general ire toward motorcycling. They do, in fact, raise motorcycle awareness among the general public, but not in a good way.

Likewise, motorcyclists try to link the noise of our vehicle to other similarly irritating noise producers. It's true that there are all kinds of irrationally noisy vehicles on the road and it's also true that the police do a lousy job of enforcing noise standards. However, if you would spend a couple hours along a major road with an SPL (Sound Pressure Level) meter, you would find that motorcycles are consistently the loudest non-emergency vehicle noise maker on the street and in most neighborhoods. It's fun to argue that if motorcycles have to be noise limited, every other noise source should be equally restricted, but the logical way to reduce any kind of unwanted activity is to go after the worst offenders first and work your way down the ladder to the least offensive offender. Motorcycles are at the top of the worst noise offenders.

Motorcyclists go ballistic on any attempt to resist attempts to legislate safety into motorcycling. Cagers, of course, wonder why they have to wear seatbelts and buy cars with airbags and safety cages when motorcyclists don't even have to wear clothing, let alone helmets. Bikers rant that if they have to wear helmets, everybody else should, too. The fact is, once again, we're the least safe on the street. Even bicyclists have fewer deaths-per-mile than motorcyclists. In most statistical measures, we're more unsafe than pedestrians. Again, it's reasonable to fix the worst things first. We're high on the list of worst things; less than 1% of highway traffic and approximately 12% (nationally and internationally) of fatalities.

Motorcyclists see themselves differently than what the social mirror reflects. A writer for Motorcyclist Magazine in an article aptly titled "The Great Pretender," imagined, "Everyone--at every stoplight, at every rest area and every gas stop--will want to talk about your [Harley] and participate in, however vicariously, the collective Harley-Davidson fantasy." I'm probably a little sensitive to words like "everyone," "everybody," "no one," and other all-inclusive terms that abuse reality. It's possible that many downtown Milwaukee residents are continually impressed with every Harley rider they see, but I doubt that every one of them feels that passionately about an object that is no more remarkable than a Big Mac. A few years back, I went on a ride with a friend who owned a vintage Harley something-or-other. It was heavily customized, well-polished, and sparkled like something mostly covered in chrome should. We rode from the Cities to Duluth and back via Minnesota and Wisconsin two-lanes and country roads. Every time we stopped (fairly often occurrences because the Harley beat up my friend's back pretty badly), a few people wanted to ask about my Suzuki SV and a few people talked up the Harley. He was a little miffed at the people who were disinterested in his badass ride. He probably knew that he wouldn't be able to tell our friends that "everyone" wanted to wanted to talk about his Harley.

Some motorcyclists like to think that the public service they perform by being the most obnoxious vehicle the on the road should be rewarded with legislative protection. The fantastic fetish with special "failure to yield" protection seems to be a contradiction to the "I have a right to take risks" anti-helmet attitude. It seems to me that someone who is disinterested in wearing minimal protective gear ought to at least be able to face the fact that when bad things happen, they're going to be a lot worse if you add the risk of being naked to the elements and asphalt.

According to these characters, you can't improve motorcycle safety by protecting the organ that is most often damaged in a crash, but you can legislate better driver awareness by making a "failure to yield" violation a felony. You have to wonder if these folks have made investments in privately owned prisons.

Another example of the same logic comes in the battle to protect risky activities from added insurance costs. Some states have representatives whose claim to fame is creating bills to prevent insurance companies from "discriminating" against consumers who engage in risky activities. If the public is supposed to be subsidizing our risky habits, what value do we provide for them? A recent unsigned letter-writer punctuated his rant with "Cagers need to TOLERATE us, not the other way around." [His capitalization] Obviously, this is a modern definition of "need" The fact is, highway traffic in the US has no need of motorcycles at all. We contribute an insignificant portion of commuter traffic; especially in places like Minnesota. If motorcycles were banned from public highways it wouldn't inconvenience the public at all. In fact, if you take into account the noise, public menace, and congestion that "group rides" create, most of the public would be glad to see motorcycles vanish from public roads.

Motorcyclists do epitomize the American individual-over-society attitude. The idea that "my rights are more important than the needs and best interests of the overall society" is well demonstrated in American history. When times get tough, that attitude gets more careful scrutiny than during ordinary conditions. Change happens and, when it does, the unnecessary and detrimental activities of the privileged few often get swept into history. We should be careful to not be so useless that we end up as a historical footnote.