Feb 27, 2014

Feb 26, 2014

Universally Despised

2014-02-22 CoR (15)

We’ve spent the week in one of the most isolated official campsites ever, City of Rocks State Park in southern New Mexico. For five out of seven days, we’ve been dry camping (no power, water, or sewer) for a week and most days and nights it is as close to dead silent here as it gets. For a couple of the days we had an electric/water site and the folks across the road from us were a pair of retired Canadians (Ontario), also in a Rialta (a 2005HD). She is a retired teacher. He is a long-time motorcyclist. We had a thing or two in common and spent a lot of hours talking about bikes, riding, New Mexico, and being retired.

One evening, we were standing behind his RV yakking about motorcycles (while our wives hid from all aspects of our conversation as far from us as they could get). About dusk, a half-dozen of the usual suspects came crawling through the park on the usual pile-of-crap Harley refuse, dragging their feet for stability on the perfectly manicured gravel road, blubbering like an old-time tractor parade. As they passed, you could see the hostility aimed toward them from every campground they passed. You could hear their misfiring, minimally powered, noise makers the whole route around the several mile campground loop and for miles as they blubbered away from the park. Their little demonstration of social ineptness was received as well as it is everywhere; they were as despised as the most despicable criminals on earth. If lightening had struck the whole group, frying them into charred bandana refuse and smoking cheap leather, no one would have pissed on their remains to put out the flames unless it would have prevented a grass fire.

The interesting thing, to me, was that the guy I was talking to, the two ladies two campers away who had a pair of scooters on a trailer, the camp host who was a long-time dirt bike racer, and every other resident of the campground were as disgusted as me. I even heard someone shout “fags” as the bikers past the campground. Considering the deluded self-image pirates have of themselves, it’s pretty amazing how universally disliked they are. Nobody thinks they’re tough guys, except themselves. Nobody looks at them admiringly, except low brows who lost their Harley when the repo-man took it away in 2008. The blubbering butt pirates are about as lonely a group as society has ever produced. Without the martial arts skills, their resemblance to wandering, dispossessed soldiers after a coup or when democracy overtakes a previously-militarized country is depressing. The fact that the Angels were created by a pack of unemployable ex-WWII soldiers who missed the “companionship” of men and the edge created by violence and the anarchy of war.

After the noise was gone, the Canadian guy and I talked about the political consequences for motorcycling these characters create. Their scare tactics to fight helmet laws, noise restrictions, and other rational attempts to make motorcycling safe and more of a transportation issue than recreational wear away the general population’s patience for all motorcyclists; in the US and Canada. On an individual basis, when one or more pirate clowns gets passed on the highway their painful noise creates a hostile road environment for the rest of us; quiet or not. Pirate parades produce a “them vs. us” atmosphere in cities and rural towns that turn us all into “bikers,” even if we are politically and socially as far from that bunch as possible. The fact that the majority of cops seem to be oblivious to noise laws and motorcycle safety because they are part of the pirate crowd generates disrespect for the police, traffic laws, and motorcyclists. I didn’t bring any of this up in the conversation, either. The Canadian guy spilled all of this out as if he were reading my mind.

The former enduro racer/current camp host was even less optimistic, “Motorcycling has gone to hell in a handbasket. Even Goldwingers are stuck in the same bucket as the Hell’s Angels and in a lot of places drivers are out to kill us. I quit riding. It’s too dangerous.” Danger is a relative term, though. Early every day this seventy-five-year-old quy saddled up his mountain bike and climbed to the top of Table Top Mountain and back before breakfast and work. When he rolled back into the campsite he would have blown by any of the bikers who had cruised the park. He wasn’t afraid of two-wheeled speed or a lot of road hazards that clearly terrified the bikers who’d rattled the windows of the park’s campers. He was afraid of being identified as a “biker” by some pissed-off driver and being intentionally knocked down as a consequence.

Later that evening, a lone motorcycle, another Harley or something like one, blubbered through the park. As usual, it was the loudest noise we’d heard all day, including diesel pickups pulling fifty-foot campers. The rider was paddling along on the gravel road, unsure of his skills and his motorcycle’s capability, making noise to warn the world that he was coming and wouldn’t be able to maneuver his vehicle if it were necessary to do so. I just finished a college teaching career and in a dozen years and more than 4,000 students, no more than a half-dozen expressed any interest in motorcycles when I arrived at school wearing my riding gear. The average age of motorcyclists is climbing every year and dealerships are vanishing and consolidating at an alarming rate. Watching this guy wobble by reminded me that the future of motorcycling is far from clear. A few Toys for Tots parades aren’t going to fix an image that appears to be pretty awful world-wide.

Feb 24, 2014

#45 Want to Race?

http://www.amazon.com/Geezer-with-A-Grudge/dp/B007RPQJ24
All Rights Reserved © 2005 Thomas W. Day

In my 40 years of motorcycling, the title of this column reflects what is probably the most common reaction my motorcycles get from guys and, lately, girls in expensive “sport” cages. Corvettes, Porches, BMWs, TransAMs, and assorted wannabe sports-car-crap owners want to prove the financial and macho rational for their expensive vehicle by blowing off a motorcycle. Racing cars isn’t my idea of a fair fight, for a zillion reasons.

First, I don’t want to be in the lead on a public roadway because I don’t have what it takes to do a bumper-to-rear-tire competition with a hormone-crazed and untalented driver of a 4,000 pound lump of bad-handling iron. Getting passed by one of these idiots in moronic race-face-mode is scary enough. Re-passing them and counting on road and traffic conditions, skill, and light timing is an act of extreme faith/stupidity. I have absolutely no faith in any of the critical elements required to play this game. I may be dumb, but I’m not that dumb.

Even more cowardly, I don’t have the financial fortitude to get snagged at 100+ mph in a speed trap while fleeing a nutball cager. “Discretion is the better part of valor,” sayeth me and Falstaff. I am very discrete when it comes to attracting the attention of public serpents. If I could manage to pass through my whole life without ever, once, talking to an “officer of the law” about any aspect of my public life, I’d die a happy guy.

Finally, bikes racing cars is like inciting an intellectual debate with a Republicrat or getting into a gunfight with an unarmed man; and I mean a man without arms or weapons. Even in that rare situation where the car has some advantage, the biker is still having more fun. The best day spent in a cage is still a day in a cage. You just have to feel sorry for anyone so incompetent that he (or she) needs those two unnecessary wheels to stay upright. I suppose unicycle pilots feel this way about the unnecessary second wheel that bikers need for stability?

On a closed course, it might be fun to test the capabilities of these totally different vehicle designs. Paris-to-Dakar, Barstow-to-Vegas, and the Baja 500 make that comparison every year. When the bikes beat the cages, I think the world is spinning in the right direction. When they don’t, I figure the cagers cheated.

Not that I’m biased or anything. I just don’t like cars, even the astoundingly cool cars one of my old heroes, Parnelli Jones, used to build. Cars are like handicapped parking at racquetball courts, they just don't make a lot of sense as a transportation system. Buses are badly considered trains and cars are really poorly thought-out buses. Cars are public transportation for folks who don’t have the capacity to think ahead more than one business day. Cars need a massive corporate welfare system to support all the crap that goes with incompetent drivers, greedy politicians, redundant bureaucrats, pathetic vehicle manufacturers, and general physical sloth.

Motorcycles only need a little space between the fence lines. We don’t need the space plowed, paved, or partitioned. We don’t need no stinkin’ badges, handicapped parking spaces, double-yellow lines, highway medians, or traffic planners. Motorcycling is about the law of the fittest in action. Caging is about creating a planet packed with inept, timid, and helpless people who want to feel independent but need a lot of help to manage it. Those are exactly the people for whom mass transportation is designed. I say, “Bring on light rail and plow up the roads.”

Until the perfect world arrives at my doorstep my reply will continue to be, "No, I don’t want to race." I’m perfectly happy to let you run the radar gauntlet while I follow, comfortably, in the laser and RF wake of your macho-insecurity-craziness. I’m satisfied knowing that, without breaking a mechanical sweat, my $3,000 rat bike can keep up with your $40,000-$100,000 hunk of junk. I especially like creeping up on you, when you're really pushing your limits, just to let you know that you’re slowing me down. Then, I back off, to watch you wallow through curves, screaming tires and clinging to the steering wheel like it will be your last tactile sensation on earth. If cagers weren't entertaining, they wouldn't have any social value. Nope, I don’t feel the need to seriously compete in your race to the death. "I just like to watch."

Of course, I would never do such a terrible thing to my fellow imbecilic human. I just think it really loud. There are far too few dumb asses on earth for me to want to taunt one into any sort of suicidal activity. I obey all traffic laws to the absolute exclusion of common sense, a reasonable and safe speed, and my personal freedom.

May 2005

Feb 18, 2014

Not Going to be Here

2014-02-16 Silver City (11)We’re sort of wandering around New Mexico, checking out places, looking at real estate, imagining ourselves in these places, and pretending we might actually live somewhere winter barely touches. Today, we’re in Silver City, New Mexico. Silver City’s resume is impressive, “Silver City has numerous other accolades, including being ranked highly by the following publications and organizations: The 100 Best Small Towns in America, The 50 Healthiest Places to Live and Retire in the United States, The 50 Most Alive Places to Live, the National Trust for Historic Preservation's Dozen Distinctive Destinations, and Oprah Winfrey's list of top spots to live.” House prices are fairly reasonable. The city has a fairly active downtown with 30+ art galleries, restaurants, coffee shops, and general purpose shopping. The city is a short ride from some of the best mountain roads, campgrounds, and state and national parks in the US of A.

CouncilNoisePetition1213All that good news is pretty much neutralized by the city’s inability to make even the slightest effort to control noise pollution. It’s not like the city’s citizens are unaware of how irritating motorcycles are. As recent as December 2013, a group of 200 locals presented the douchebag City Council with a petition asking for some relief from  “loud vehicles, motorcycles, barking dogs, speeding vehicles, loud music, etc. and how the noise pollution affected their quality of life.” The local police chief whined that the city’s valley shape increased the irritation factor of motorcycle noise and, therefore, was too hard for local cops to regulate. If anything, that argument should be more than enough justification to crack down hard. No such effort is evident anywhere in town. No luck. The city is management-free and the cops are too busy stuffing their faces with donuts to do their jobs. Plus, they actually admit they don’t know how to use the decibel meters the city bought for them. What does it take to get a cop fired for incompetence?

I held out some hope that there might be some place in Silver City that would be tolerable. to search for that place, I got out before 7AM this Sunday morning to try to get into the hills and find some quiet after a night that was as noisy as any city I’ve ever experienced, including LA. By 7:30AM, the biker douches were roaring through town and as far away from the city hub as a mile and a mountain peak wasn’t far enough to avoid the noise. Silver City must be Apehanger Hell. I don’t think I’ve seen such a high percentage of unrideable two-wheeled garbage since the last time I drove past Sturgis after the Steamboat Springs Vintage Motorcycle Week ended; about the time the Sturgis Fag Parade started. (Yes, I have adopted South Park’s definition for the “F-Word.”) It’s obvious that these guys should learn how to ride so that they don’t need the “noise defense” to warn the rest of the world that an out-of-control biker is wobbling through the city.

biomass-noise-pollution-health-effects-posterThis is a quality-of-life issue and it is absolutely central to any relocation decision my wife and I would make. If the douchebags are this noise in February, they must be deafening in July when the fair-weather fags can go full pirate outfit. There are a lot of things to like about Silver City, but the noise is a deal-breaker. I live across a small lake from a I35E in Minnesota. Every house in Silver City is noisier than my current noise-polluted residence. There is no chance that I’ll subject myself to that crap twice. So, Silver City is off of the possible relocation options. By noon Sunday, we’d tossed the Real Estate brochures we’d collected and relegated Silver City to the “we might visit again, someday” category. Whoever put Silver City on the “The 50 Healthiest Places to Live and Retire in the United States” list clearly doesn’t know much about noise pollution.

Feb 17, 2014

#44 Making Better Toys

http://www.amazon.com/Geezer-with-A-Grudge/dp/B007RPQJ24
All Rights Reserved © 2005 Thomas W. Day

I was trying to squeeze my bike, the SV, between the center post of my garage door and the back end of my wife’s Pathfinder. I had almost made it when the left rear turn signal touched the center post and shattered into a half-dozen pieces. It’s not as if I have never experienced the fragility of motorcycle plastic before. I have a long history of frustration with Japanese plastic, all the way back to my 1971 Kawasaki Big Horn. However, taken in context with my week’s experience with other sorts of toys I have lost patience.

My last bike was a 1992 Yamaha TDM. The TDM was the coolest bike I’d ever owned, with the exception of the crappiest plastic I’ve ever suffered. Great motor, perfect riding position, wonderful suspension, terrific handling, and plastic that had the durability of weathered corrugated cardboard. The fairing mounts were about as tough as a Texas politician. Even though their fasteners were all rubber mounted (a completely different engineering screw-up), the fairing mounts snapped off anytime the bike rolled over a speed bump. When and while the fairing mounts were littering the highway, the fairing and side panels were cracking into small shards of decomposing plastic. When I sold my TDM, I included a box of new and repaired plastic parts, including a complete fairing, two front fenders, and a side panel. If I had finished out the season, all of those parts would have been used up.

But this rant isn’t about the TDM’s crappy plastic or my Suzuki SV’s crappy plastic, it’s about what plastic can do when real engineers design it.

I have a couple of grandkids; a nine-year-old grandson and a one-year-old granddaughter. I hang with them anytime they will tolerate me. This last weekend, after dealing with the busted taillight lens and paying a small fortune for the replacement piece, I watched my granddaughter bash her toys against a tile floor until a chunk of the floor cracked. She has a little mace-shaped toy that makes a groaning noise when you whip it from side to side. It also has a whistle on one end and a bubble-blower on the other. The handle end is isolated from the mace end by a flexible mount, sort of like a modern motorcycle signal light. Unlike the modern signal light, this toy is practically indestructible. Kids and adults alike whip this thing from side to side, whacking it against furniture and floors, and it keeps making its groaning noise and blowing bubbles and whistling. This toy takes more abuse in an afternoon than motorcycle plastic receives in a year of road racing.

“Weather,” you might remind me. “What about weather? Motorcycle plastic has to withstand sun and rain and air pollution.” Ok, I can accept that the baby mace might be subjected to less environmental stress than my crappy tail light. I'm still unconvinced that toy manufacturers are expected to produce less durable products than motorcycle manufacturers.

When he was little, my grandson’s favorite toy was a small rocking horse that provided a set of wheels as a backup transportation system to crawling. He rode that little horse all over the house, up and down the driveway, and all over the yard. It lived outside all summer long and spent several winters in the garage, just like my motorcycle, until my granddaughter came along to torture test it all over again. I garage my bike and keep it covered anytime I’m not riding it. That little rocking horse has seen at least as much sunlight and suffered more weather changes than my bike and it hasn’t shown the slightest inclination to crack at any of the expected stress points. The wheels are almost transparent, they’re so worn out, and the rockers are open on the bottom from overuse, but the horse is still rolling and rocking. If you throw in the Hot Wheel trike that he put at least 40,000 miles on, we're talking completely different levels of durability and weather resistance.

When I listen to sport bikers talk about their vehicles, the one thing that comes up, consistently, is their frustration with fragile, expensive plastic. Drop the bike at 5mph and, poof, there goes $2,000 in plastic. Bump the taillights on the garage door and, snap, away flies $70.

What we need to do is to find a toy manufacturer and convince them to make toys for us. Mainly, plastic toys that resemble sport bike parts. Even after the National Safety Council has ensured that the parts are safe for little kids to play with, they’d still be a zillion times more durable than the crap we’re getting from the Japanese Big Four (or the Are-They-Still-In-Business? One in England or the Really Expensive German One or the Always-Going-Bankrupt Italian One). Most of our bikes are Pokeymon-colored, so they probably have the right colors in stock. Compared to toy molds, bike shapes are going to be too simple to occupy much of their designers’ time, so they can keep making kids’ toys and their skills won’t deteriorate. We wouldn’t want toys to become as fragile as motorcycles.

April 2005

Feb 16, 2014

So Far, So Far

Theoretically, I have gotten away with abandoning the WR. The expected “hard part” of this expedition was the trip to Gila Cliff Dwelling National Monument. We went, we saw, and we made it back with no harm, foul, or excitement. From 3,500’ to 10,000’ to 8,000’ and back to 5,000’ in a day. 40 miles in about 3 hours, one-way. The RV held up fine, although I wished I had a motorcycle about 10,000 times on the trip. What a great national park, what a wonderful road, and there are more free (semi-civilized) campsites along that route than you can visit in less than a couple of days.

Once again, we pretty much owned the place. There were no more than 3 other cars in the monument’s lot and we didn’t see more than a dozen cars on the highway the whole route.

We’re in Silver City today and, probably, tomorrow. Then, on to City of Rocks, Pancho Villa, and Rockhound state parks later next week. Southern New Mexico has been an incredible discovery for us. Somehow this cluster-f**k of a trip has turned out pretty well. I am missing the WR, but lugging that trailer up the mountains to Gila would have been too big of a gamble.

Feb 14, 2014

Book Review: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values

zencover1

by Robert Pirsig, 1974

All Rights Reserved © 2012 Thomas W. Day

In 2014, Zen (or ZAMM) will celebrate its 40th year in publication. It is one of the best read books in history. Google returns 2 million hits for a search on the book's title. There are dozens of guidebooks for readers: study guides for high school and college students, anniversary editions with introductions and explanations, primers for the less-than-literate, me-too copies, and lots of philosophical analysis. For a book so often despised by academics, ZAMM has inspired an incredible amount of examination and deconstruction.

I have owned a copy of this book since the first year it was published (1974). I have reviewed more than 100 books, several hundred music CDs, and written hundreds of thousands words since I first stumbled upon Zen and, before now, I have never found the confidence or arrogance to write about one of the books that shaped my life. Recently, I found a digital copy of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and was amazed to realize that a popular book published in my lifetime has gone into the public domain. I am probably on my 20th copy of the paperback version of this book, having loaned and lost each of the previous copies I've owned. At the minimum, I've read ZAMM twenty times. For almost forty years, every time I have backpacked into the wilderness or travelled by motorcycle for more than a couple days I have brought a copy of ZAMM for those quiet moments that are the reason I venture into unfamiliar and isolated places. Of the few good things I know, Robert Pirsig and Colin Fletcher (The Complete Walker and many other wonderful foot traveling stories) and John Muir (Keep Your Volkswagen Alive; A Manual of Step-By-Step Procedures for the Compleat Idiot) are responsible for at least 50% of my life's accumulated knowledge.

When someone I respect a lot told me he'd tried and failed to read ZAMM to the end, multiple times, I restarted the self-evaluation experience that always accompanies my exposure to Robert Pirsig's insights; just to see what might make this book difficult to read. When I discovered that all but one novel, Catch 22, from the collection one of the greatest authors of the 20th Century, Joseph Heller, had been purged from my local library system, I felt compelled to write about ZAMM to slow Pirsig's disappearance into the flotsam and jetsam of our trivialized and drug-and-attention-disordered Facebook and Twitter'd world.

When my father discovered my teenage interest in mechanical and electrical concepts, he told me, "Anything you can do for yourself, someone else can do better." When I was a young man, in his "Chautauqua" Pirsig told me, "A motorcycle functions entirely in accordance with the laws of reason, and a study of the art of motorcycle maintenance is really a miniature study of the art of rationality itself." Pirsig's description of the mechanics who botched his bike repair illustrated a world I wanted to avoid, "At 5 P.M. or whenever their eight hours were in, you knew they would cut it off and not have another thought about their work. They were already trying not to have any thoughts about their work on the job. . . They were involved in it (technology and their work) but not in such a way as to care." I knew that the only person who would care about the things I wanted fixed or built was me. Pirsig convinced me that I could learn to do the work.

I grew up in a very religious family and community where "rationality" was avoided whenever possible. I was the family black sheep, green monkey, or whatever label you use to identify and whack the prominent nail. I desperately sought rationality and ZAMM is packed with it from the first to the last page. The confluence of technology, logic, and reason, and the possibility of a career nestled between those concepts was revolutionary. It still is.

Surrounding the practical aspects of ZAMM, Pirsig pursues the concept of "quality." All of us are involved in this search, but many of us are distracted by the sparkly lights advertising uses to convince us that quality is something we can purchase. ZAMM flies against the whole "lifestyle" theory of product marketing. One reason the counter-culture so readily accepted ZAMM is that Pirsig validates the philosophy of questioning authority. From a traditionalist's perspective, Persig's dissection of romantic and rhetoric philosophies was a cold-blooded evaluation of the gaping holes in emotionalism and formal argument. More than a few academics, who live and thrive on emotionalism and rhetoric, fought back from the ramparts of their gloomy institutions while five million of us took refuge in the streets armed with a new way to look for Quality in our lives.

From a hopeful writer's perspective, ZAMM is inspirational. Rejected by a record 121 publishers and selling 5 million copies worldwide, ZAMM is a beacon of hope for authors of all stripes, even though few of us can hope to approach Pirsig's brilliant combination of formal and contemporary style and content. From a life-long student's perspective, Pirsig taught me that in a world full of irrational people, insane cultural garbage, and what seems like universal foolishness, there can be small outposts of rationality and calm. You just have to find them; or make them for yourself. Maybe this is just another version of Dylan Thomas' "Rage, rage against the dying of the light," but ZAMM makes the effort seems more like an attempt to build something than just a rant about death. Pirsig told me, "Trials never end, of course. Unhappiness and misfortune are bound to occur as long as people live, but there is a feeling now, that was not here before, and is not just on the surface of things, but penetrates all the way through: We’ve won it. It’s going to get better now. You can sort of tell these things." I needed to read the book through to that point, multiple times in my life. I did it again, this spring, and I believe it is going to get better now. As it always does.

Feb 13, 2014

Going Naked

I’ll bet that title scared the crap out of you, didn’t it? By “naked,” I don’t mean me or, even, Robbye. I mean we’re going to explore a bit of southern New Mexico without our safety blanket, the WR250X. If I hadn’t brought the WR, we would most likely have either abandoned our RV or been forced to spend a fortune on hopeless repair jobs in an attempt to escape New Mexico. The WR gave us the option of waiting out parts, searching for mechanical competence (which we found thanks to my ability to explore TorC and Elephant Butte until I stumbled on to Victor Cano-Linson AND BigVictorsAutomotive because of the WR’s competence as a street bike), and the freedom to remain tourists and explorers while our RV was not a reliable vehicle.

connector
The final page in the VW-water-soluble solution; the vanishing TCM terminals. If you look closely at this picture, you’ll notice that the first and last pins of the middle row are gone. They corroded completely away.
The VW seems to be mostly working, after cobbling together a TCM connector failure patch, that jumped the corroded terminals on the TCM straight to the wiring harness. If I ever find a replacement TCM, I’ll have to clip the jumpers, but I can do that after testing the replacement without harm or foul. So, we’re going to “test it.” We’ve dropped off the WR, bicycles, and trailer for a couple of weeks and we’re heading into the mountains on Wednesday. The chances are good to absolute that we’ll be without phone or WiFi service for several days. Fingers crossed, hopes held high, and off we go. For the first time in 3 months, I’m leaving the only reliable transportation we have behind and venturing out into the wilderness with nothing but Eurotrash for transportation. We’re gonna need all the luck we can buy for the next couple of weeks.

Feb 10, 2014

#43 What I'd Really Like to Buy

http://www.amazon.com/Geezer-with-A-Grudge/dp/B007RPQJ24
All Rights Reserved © 2005 Thomas W. Day

A few columns back our editor, my boss, tried to convince us that we should be happy the various manufacturers have "given" us the great bikes we have today. I'm probably being arrogant, but I have to think that some part of that came from a “discussion” Victor and I had about how disappointed I am with the current state of motorcycle magazine reviews. Of course, I was bitching and he was reasoning, our usual state of "discussion," but I still think I made a valid point.

Somewhere. About something.  Sometime. Probably.

I think Victor's angle was that we should be, in some what, thankful that the folks who make motorcycles have provided us with the great bikes that we can select from today. But I'd have to disagree, if that's the argument. If the manufacturers took a few years off and sat on their engineering laurels a little too long, privateers would roast them on the track. Motorcycles have improved because and in spite of the folks who are currently manufacturing them. Some of the coolest bikes, and I mean that from a form-following-function-perspective, are built by individuals who got tired of waiting for Japan, Italy, England or the US manufacturers to get the job done. Predecessors of the V-Strom and much better dual-purpose and adventure touring motorcycles, in fact, have been built from SV frames and motors by a number of individuals before Suzuki figured it out.

I think it's obvious that some really cool bikes will come from the V-Strom foundation. Victor's right, of course. Some aspects of motorcycle engineering are truly amazing, especially when you consider the state of the art from 30-40 years back. From that viewpoint, we have nothing to complain about and everything for which to be thankful. That rationale applies to computers, too. And I'd like to take this moment to thank Microsquash for the wonderful, if slightly buggy and extremely virus-prone, operating system and word processor that spawns this article. (Or my Mac laptops and towers that are issued with godawful user-hostile virus' with the benign name, "OS X."

That acknowledgement out of the way, I'd like to remind the powers that be that the reason they make reasonably decent products is that, if they didn't, we would make them for ourselves. In fact, many of the coolest, best-designed bikes in the world are still made by clever, creative, inventive motorcycle fanatics. On the occasion that the Big-Four-plus-HD don't pick up on the really hip designs, someone else will: Ducati, KTM, Triumph, or someone we don't even know about yet. The hip state that motorcycle technology enjoys is as much because of privateers and the new guys on the block as it is because of the major manufacturers.

In defense of my own position, I’d to mention that, not too long ago, one Chief Editor of a major glossy magazine had the gall to say that he might be tempted to "buy" a particular motorcycle, if he didn't have so many to choose from and to ride for free. Now, why would I care about the opinion of someone who doesn't even own a bike? If the guy isn't even interested enough in motorcycles to own one or two, what makes him expert enough to recommend what I should be buying? That link between motorcycle magazines and their reviewers, and the companies they pretend to be reviewing, is a little too cozy for my taste. You might even suggest the relationship is downright inbred.

Which finally brings us to the bike that is closest to what I want to own, the Suzuki V-Strom 650. I have an SV650 and the longer I own it, the more it looks like a dirt bike with alloy wheels, but it's never going to be the bike I want unless I really get serious about modifying it. When I first read about the V-Strom, I thought it might save me a lot of work. So I kept reading. Of course, all of the test riders loved the bike.

I'd quote them, but I'd have to identify the magazines and writers, because you couldn't tell one quote from the other without that added information. For that matter, you can't tell the "reviews" from Suzuki's marketing drivel, either. I wouldn't be surprised if the reviewers cut and pasted text from Suzuki's website into their articles. Efficiency, it's a beautiful thing.

But that's not really my point in writing today. I'm looking for an excuse to whine about not having the motivation to part with some of my not-particularly-hard-earned-cash on a new motorcycle. There are lots of things to like about the DL-650, but damn little information to make me trip past the "I want it" to the "I need it" stage. I've read a pile of reviews, but don't know anything useful about the bike after all that reading. A few reviews were barely disguised trip reports, often bragging about going places I'll never have the spare time or discretionary cash to consider. Those folks really yank my chain. But nobody bothered to provide useful details about life with this motorcycle.

Yeah, they rode it and had fun. Big deal. I've ridden old BSAs and older BMWs and had fun. I've ridden the 1963 Harley 250 Sprint and had fun. I even raced the thing and thought I was going pretty fast. I rode Honda 305s, Suzuki 185 twins, and a Honda step-thru 90 and enjoyed myself. I put 120,000 miles on a Honda CX500 and, mostly, enjoyed the ride. I put 100,000 miles on a pair of Yamaha XZ550 Visions and enjoyed every mile. Except for the crappy serviceability of the bodyparts, I loved every minute and mile of my Yamaha TDMs. That's not useful information, though. I mean, does anybody care that Cycle World or Sportbike's kids had fun riding a bike they didn't have to pay to play with? Good, that's settled.

What I want to know is if the bike is at all competent for the advertised purpose and, if it isn't, what would it take to fix it? If fact, I want to know what it would take to fix it, period? That's the kind of review that has vanished from Planet Earth.

Forget the "the motor's a brick that will run forever" crap. I know it's going to break and I want to know what it will take to fix it when it does. I mean parts cost, labor cost (if I can't do the work myself), downtime, and all of the associated bad news. How hard is it to replace or clean the air filter, service the injection system, get to and adjust the valves, or replace a tire? I don't even want to hear their opinions of the bike until they've put at least 20,000 miles on the thing and had to fix at least one major problem. Of course, some of these "wonderful new bikes" can't even survive a weekend without major repairs and we're still told the bike is the best thing since cheese food. While we’re at it, I want to know how likely it is that the manufacturer will be providing parts and service ten and twenty years from now, based on their support of stuff that is that old today. Even today’s cheap bikes cost as much as a small town house, so I want to know what is going to happen to my investment in “house years.”

Why don't we read that sort of review on a regular basis? First, the bike manufacturers would rather we didn't.

So I don't feel particularly inspired to sing the praises of Suzuki or any other bike manufacturer. They have their own marketing departments, they don't need my help. They've wrapped most of the motorcycle publishing industry into their marketing departments, too. It's hard to find any part of the business that is more sophisticated than a parrot.

The bike rags said the SV's motor would "run forever," but it turns out that defective cam tensioners put an early stop to that. Now, they want to tell us the DL's motor will be just as bulletproof. They said we didn't need no stinkin' reserve petcock because the electronic idiot light would give us plenty of warning before empty. I'd like to put a rope around the throats that babbled that idiocy. For the second time in a couple of months, my SV has sputtered to a stop about 25 miles short of the usual 150 mile-to-reserve normal it has given me for the last 25,000 miles and I had to push the damn thing about a half mile beside rush hour traffic. If Suzuki was too cheap to put a petcock on the DL, I'm probably more likely to buy an old Honda Transalp than a new V-Strom. If you're going to change a good thing, you better make sure you make it better, more reliable, more useful or I'm not likely to be fooled twice. For now, I'm stuck filling up my SV every 50 miles until I figure out what part of the fuel idiot light circuit died. Or I find a petcock to retrofit to my bike.

The "intended purpose" part of my argument seemed to rankle Victor a little, too. Suzuki is billing the V-Strom for "Adventure Touring." GS BMWs are adventure touring bikes. The KLR650 is even more adventurous. The old Honda Transalp was dangerously adventurous. The Yamaha TDM was way underrated and pretty damn adventurous. The DL650, with probably-fragile cast wheels, a foolishly low-slung and unprotected oil filter and cooler, a manifold that dangles, unprotected, under the engine, explosively delicate sportbike body plastic, and 450+ pounds of earth-bound-mass probably won't be particularly adventurous. But I want to know about all that stuff. I want someone to ride it hard, drop it on a dirt road, and tell me what broke and what it cost to fix. I don't care if they had fun riding around a paved test track, being spoon fed by Suzuki's marketing department, and riding home first class on the Concord.

Unless a Concord full of oxymoronic motor-journalists were hijacked to Mozambique and put to work removing landmines, I couldn’t care less about motor-journalists’ opinions.

Actually, that would be a pretty interesting story. 

The last near-contender for my "last bike" was the Yamaha 850 TDM, which I loved but which didn't love me. The TDM was so close to perfect that I wore out two of them before I gave up on the ideal that that bike didn't quite represent. I've only done that once before, with the Yamaha XZ550 Vision. Of course, damn few of you liked either of those bikes, so they were only imported into the US for two years before Yamaha decided to quit trying to "educate" US riders on bikes with actual functions and went back to the high tech and high dollar crotch rockets and low tech, high dollar cruisers that imagination-limited Americans (except for Canadians) love so much.

March 2005

Feb 9, 2014

Delusional Self-Image

I’ve always believed that not knowing who you are is a terrible and sad personal defect. In fact, I suspect that a self-aware psychopath is probably happier than an deluded “normal” person. That said, it’s not that easy to “know thy self.” With a media stuffed full of lifestyle crap and misinformation on practically every subject, it can easily take a whole lifetime to begin to come to some reasonable conclusions about our inner workings. The more complicated the person, the more complicated that task becomes.

The same applies to organizations and businesses; and corporations usually fall at the lowest spectrum of self-awareness. It’s not even a little uncommon for organizations to completely lose sight of their customers, purpose/mission, and competition. Marketing departments most often bust their little humps to create internal and external confusion, spinning pretty much every critical issue into chaos. The old manufacturing rule was, “if you can’t see it you can’t fix it.” These days when so few businesses actually make anything, that kind of self-realization is as rare as a motorcyclist on a Texas highway: one in twenty-thousand on a good day.

Due to constant exposure and disappointment with the two halves of the vehicle we’re living in this winter--Volkswagen and Winnebago--I’m thinking about the self-delusion those two corporations suffer a lot in the massive amount of spare time I have these days. After watching the most recent Super Bowl self-delusion from VW (the “we’re all angels” bullshit), I have to suspect we are witnessing the end of a once-substantial corporation. That is particularly meaningful for the Ducati glitter-ati, now that VW owns that fragile boutique brand.

Regarding the other half of our rarely-rolling home, in the various campgrounds we’ve stayed, I’ve been surprised at how few Winnebagos I see on the road. That company has been around for a lot of years and is pretty much the Kleenex of motorhomes as far as the general public is concerned. Among people who travel a lot and live in these things, Winnebago has a sorry reputation for everything from product quality to customer service. The brand must be doing well somewhere, but not in the west.

While Volkswagen/Audi/Porsche claims to the be third largest automotive producer in the world, slide-12-638that company is a vanishing quantity in the US. Since we are still the largest market in the world, it’s a bit hard to understand how VW can be so strong in the world and so weak here. A friend (Thanks Brett.) sent me a link to a Porsche internal self-promotion; Porsche Strategic Internal Marketing Analysis. As demonstrated by their semi-crazed explanation for shriveling and lower-profit markets, VW/Porsche marketing dweebs seem to be disconnected from reality. For example, between 2002 and 2010 VW consistently scored in the bottom 10 and, mostly, in the bottom 5 of perceived consumer (owner) quality. In 2013, VW somehow managed to struggle up to 26th place, after being, once again, in the bottom 4 (above MINI, Fiat, and smart) in 2012. In 2013, Porsche was at the top of the rating pile. but earlier in this decade the company’s consumer perception swung from the bottom of the barrel to the top with no seeming connection to reality or product quality.

slide-8-638But you can see from this Porsche-generated “positioning” chart, the company seems to have no grip on reality. Since Honda, for example, consistently lies in the top-10 of everyone’s quality ratings, this self-serving chart appears to be either delusional or simply total bullshit. Ford has a consistency rating above Porsche’s; rarely falling out of the top 10 and never ending up near the bottom 5. Somehow, the Porsche marketing morons have convinced themselves that one or two years at the top overwhelms one or two years at the bottom and, therefore, position themselves at the very pinnacle of their “High Price/Quality” quadrant. Even when their limited and targeted “research” finds that the traditional Porsche market (old, insecure, rich, white people) feel that BMW, Lexus, and Mercedes are all better products, the Porsche marketeers arrogantly blow off actual data because it doesn’t fit their internal delusions.

JDPower2012Part of the VW self-realization problem comes from the gutless inflated-grade scale they’ve presented to themselves; with several manufacturers positioned on the “Low Price” quadrants, but nobody stuffed to the far end of the “Low Quality” quad. If everyone is average or above average, it’s a lot easier to imagine yourself to be way above average. This is one result of academic grade inflation drizzling down into business. Obviously, the concept that everyone is above average is “statistically impossible,” to quote Aussy comedian Jim Jefferies. The truth is, there are some really bad car companies and VW is one of them. An honest company would look at the Power chart (at left), use that black “Industry Average” line as the middle point, and shove everything below that line to the left of the Quality center-line with the bottom five producers pushed hard against the “Low Quality” quadrant. The best VW has done in the last two decades has been to wander into the lower middle of that group that falls solidly below the “Industry Average.”

TargetMarketPorsche admits that their current “target market” prefers Mercedes, BMW, or Lexus (studiously ignoring Honda) over Porsche’s current offerings. The company’s solution is to “target marketing toward younger consumers.” In other words, Porsche is going after a generation that, mostly, could give a flying damn about cars in general; mostly in hopes that this same market will be too dumb to know how mediocre Porsche really is.

JDPower2013-1The presentation follows this pronouncement with pictures of a bunch of X&Y-Gen stereotypes, including brainless pop stars and obsolete references that most likely make no sense to their “target market, like Steve McQueen (What?) Quality, however, is a considerably less complicated target than the German dweebs believe. There are several ways to evaluate quality and one of the best is the “Problems per 100 Vehicles” measure. You’ll notice that neither Porsche or Volkswagen are anywhere near that impressive group of producers. In fact, of the VW-group only Audi scores a place on this chart with a fairly lame 23 problems per 100 units, considerably worse than the best-in-all-classes Toyota Camry 14/100. I have heard so few happy long-term-ownership stories about Audi ownership that I’d have to discount even this mediocre score.

havinfunnow 115Like VW’s apparently American cousin, Harley Davidson, VW/Porsche makes several sad arguments and irrational statements. My least favorite is “High price = High quality.” The old “you get what you pay for” bullshit. Anyone who has ever paid too much for anything knows this is a fool’s argument. The only truth in this statement is that if you pay for a cow, you should expect to get something that resembles a cow. Paying a lot for a cow does not mean you’ve bought an animal that will either taste good, produce buckets of milk, or live long enough to justify the expense. It just means you paid a lot for a cow.

The other HD silliness is epitomized in the positioned for “elite status” wet dream. Obviously, people do cling to the desperate belief that owning expensive crap will make them cool. There are so few examples of cool people who believe this shit that it’s difficult to understand why it continues to draw in new suckers. It does and they are constantly disappointed. The second biggest joke in Porsche’s “new” marketing tactics is “embrace North American values and expectations.” Apparently, American car values are pretty shallow, because the Porsche marketing morons summed those values us as “Bluetooth, navigation systems, cup holders, creature comforts.” Apparently, we do not expect reliability, performance, or even value from our transportation investments. Good luck with that girls, since a big part of the reason your products aren’t selling is because we don’t believe they will get across the street dependably. 

JDPower2013When everything else fails, marketing idiots always go for total bullshit and the chant “engineered for magic, everyday” is as total and bullshit-filled as product claims get. If Porsche succeeds with this plan, my estimation of human intelligence will fall to an all-time low; and it’s pretty damn low right now. But it won’t. Cars are transportation, first, and undependable, unrepairable transportation is an un-sellable concept. I think the Porsche marketing department, and the VW corporation as a whole, are in for an unpleasant surprise. If moving from the bottom 3 to the lower middle is enough to make VW feel good about itself, I can’t help but suspect the fat lady has sung for this German marque.

Feb 7, 2014

Book Review: Bodies in Motion

bodies_in-motion

by Steven L. Thompson, 2008

All Rights Reserved © 2011 Thomas W. Day

This academic look at motorcycles and motorcycling might be the first and only publication issued by Aero Design and Manufacturing (aka Aerostich). Andy Goldfine wrote the forward and it is clear that this piece of research is near and dear to his heart and his company's mission which he described as "motorcycling is a social good--an activity that benefits everyone, not just the rider . . . because even the most mundane riding experience changes the rider in psycho-biological ways which ultimately are beneficial to everyone." Andy and Thompson clearly believe this is true and Bodies in Motion attempts to prove that argument and explain why it's true.

Using sociology, psychology, human and technological history, accelerometers, data collection, statistics, and personal experience, Thompson attempts to document and explain every aspect of why we ride motorcycles and why we ride the specific motorcycles that we chose as individuals. With chapter titles like "Speed in the Genes," "Go Fast, Look good, Feel Great," and "Different Strokes for Different Folks," Thompson dives into our personalities and the "personalities" of our motorcycles. While Bodies is an academic creation, Thompson is not an academic motorcycle voyeur. He has raced motorcycles since the 1960's and has been a competitor at the Isle of Man TT and was a veteran road racer with some success under his belt, a Formula 5000 driver, a former editor of Car and Driver and Cycle World, a pilot, and a PhD candidate. Thompson is also a successful writer who has published several books of fiction and he can generate page-turning text.

Bodies in Motion is not, largely, recreational reading, though. I made it halfway through the book three times before forging to the end. The book was originally proposed as "a social history of motorcycling" for the University of California Press in 1997. By 2001, Thompson's book had turned into something else and he commissioned a bit of Stanford's engineering department to make measurements of "nine iconic motorcycles" in the hopes of explaining why those bikes have been attractive to so many motorcyclists. The end result was a book that the University of California Press turned down and Andy Goldfine picked up. Bodies in Motion is, as Thompson describes the book, something "midway between being a scholarly study and a popular moto-book."

Thompson does  a nice job of blending the academic with the moto-book, though. His analysis of  "high-sensation seekers" vs. the rest of the herd (in the chapter titled "Fast Is Never Fast Enough") was an entertaining chapter. He even comes up with a justification for street racing that didn't piss me off. I'm not convinced that the skill required for street racing is even in the territory of the standard set by real racers, but I can buy the Darwinian argument for racing when an organized track isn't available. His discussion of the motorcycle as "Performance Art" only sort of made sense to me because I am not particularly entertained by shiny motorcycles or the light they reflect.

Thompson has a habit of flipping from an academic viewpoint to the personal and, sometimes, that works well. Sometimes it is irritating or distracting. Aggressive editing to make the writing style more consistent would have improved Bodies considerably. Still, there are lots of interesting ideas and insights into motorcycling, motorcyclists, psychology, biology, and how all of those things come together in the motorcycling experience.

Feb 5, 2014

Painfully Familiar

Cycle World published an on-line piece of brilliance from Kevin Cameron (the single most powerful reason to read every Cycle World, at least a little); “OTTO CILINDRI: MOTO GUZZI V8 GRAND PRIX RACERFast, fragile, flawed and fantastic, the Moto Guzzi V8 of the 1950s should have ruled Grand Prix racing. But it didn’t…

There are phrases in this article that reminded me of my cleverly conceived, pitifully executed Winnebago Rialta and several other products I’ve owned in my over-extended life and, unfortunately, a couple of products that I’ve been associated with creating:

  • . . . [it] was a classic case of an ambitious program whose development needs exceeded the resources of its creators . . .
  • Don’t think of Guzzi as a quaint little European manufacturer quietly crafting oddities in a backwater. At the time, Guzzi had 800 machine tools on its production floor and was a major transportation producer. On staff were craftsmen in every specialty. The company had produced aircraft parts in the war and understood how to quickly push projects from paper to metal.
  • The V8’s “shakedown year” was planned as 1956, but the shaking never stopped. The tally was . . .
  • How did an old company, vastly experienced and successful in racing, come to this?

Too many marginal products (and the companies that produced them) have suffered a sad, slow, painful death, after draining their owners’ resources and patience from exactly the above list of engineering and corporate characteristics. In the case of the Guzzi, it was clearly a story about a company at the end of its brief period of innovation and racing competitiveness. In the case of Porsche and Volkswagen’s embarrassing experiments in complex gas and diesel engines and automatic transmissions, third world manufacturing facilities, and those sad “genuine people personality” electronic fuel and transmission control systems, we have a story of a company whose arrogance exceeded it’s competence by generations. American computer and software companies like Lotus, Borland, Osborne, Kaypro, Xerox, DEC, Digital, IBM, and Compaq all discovered a short path from fortune, industry leadership, and customer loyalty to footnotes in business history books by the same kind of incompetent “leadership.” In our two-wheeled world, we can look back at Montesa, Ossa, Bultaco, BSA, Norton, Triumph, Indian, a collection of European manufacturers, and a few US companies as one-time power players who are now just pieces of history you can occasionally laugh at when they are displayed in vintage bike shows (for more money than a bike dealership cost when those companies were viable). If it hadn’t been for the 2008 federal bailouts, Chrysler and GM would have become historical footnotes like American Motors, Packard, DeLorean, and a host of failed automotive builders. The American and world banking system has had generations of boom and bust cycles and there is no sign that any of those intuitions have learned anything for the experiences. At least, they haven’t learned anything that would make their businesses more stable or valuable to society.

It’s hard to kill an industry leader, but the one skill the people who rise to the top of corporate ladders have consistently demonstrated is an ability to dissipate success and excise competence. I’m unclear on why that is a talent that is worth the millions these characters are paid (there is, apparently, no consideration of return on investment in executive compensation). For us consumers, that corporate tendency to self-destruct makes the purchasing decision much more complicated.

All of this certainly explains the rush to planned-obsolescence products understandable, but it does not explain the associated high prices for these products. If, for example, you know that Apple intends its overpriced iPad/iPhone products to become obsolete or inoperable in one or two years, why would you pay a premium price for those products? If a motorcycle manufacturer has the habit of eliminating repair parts from service inventory a few years after that model’s production is discontinued, it would seem that company’s new model offerings would be generally lower priced than a company that consistently provides repair parts far beyond the end of production.

However, while products and manufacturers are becoming more complicated to research and information regarding serviceability, reliability, and cost-effectiveness is scarcer, consumers are getting dumber and less-discriminating. From a manufacturer’s standpoint, that might seem like a good thing, but I believe it will have a strongly negative impact on companies that either deliver premium products and/or those who pretend to be premium suppliers. If we’re going to be throwing away our stuff every one or two years, the winners in that game will the suppliers who are the cheapest. At the moment, that appears to be pretty much any product coming from China and that ought scare the shit out of the rest of the industrialized world. It’s possible that aiming for the lowest common denominator might be a poor business decision.