Apr 17, 2017

#140 Change Is Gonna Come

caveman

 

All Rights Reserved © 2015 Thomas W. Day

My old MMM editor, Sev Pearman, sent a discussion group a link to an announcement from The Company about their prototype electric bike, Project Livewire. Expressing his Geezerly self better than me at my worst/best, Sev concluded, "I have zero interest in electric vehicles; pitiful range is but one of [my objections]."

My reply to that was, "The only thing that keeps me off of Zero's new bikes is the purchase price. Price per mile crushes internal combustion engines, but I don't have to worry about a motorcycle with a power train that could last 250000 miles. I won't live or ride that long. 150 miles is enough range for 90% of what I do and a 6 hour charge is fine. In a few years, capacitors should replace batteries, charge times will drop dramatically, weight and range will expand nearly exponentially for the size and weight, power and performance are already comparable to or superior to internal combustion, emissions will finally be as good as cars or better, and that fuckin' noise bullshit will be history. If you don't like maintenance, electric motors are the bomb. A bike you can tweek to your performance standards through a USB port is right on target with the current and last two generations of possible motorcyclists."

Sev's response was, "Blah blah blah No offense, Thomas, but this is the same 'in the very near future...' song that I have been hearing for 40 years. I distinctly remember reading this in both Popular Mechanics and Popular Science in the early 70's. Sorry, color me skeptical."

Obviously, I'm comfortable with skeptical. In fact, when it comes to the blathering of economists, southern politicians, the major media talking heads, and any so-called "authority figure," skeptical should be the default attitude. However, when scientists and engineers talk, I listen with a relatively open mind and some expectations. The fact is, no one writing for Popular Mechanics or Science was talking about semi-permeable molecular capacitors, lithium polymer batteries, lithium ion batteries, or even nickel-metal hydride batteries 40 years ago. Hell, sixty years ago Popular Mechanics and Science were babbling about flying cars and computers small enough to fit into a basketball gym and powerful enough to add really big numbers reasonably accurately. In 1989, some overly optimistic scientists claimed to have cracked the secret to cold fusion and the resulting inability of other researchers to replicate that experiment created enough psycho-babble from the media to convince the average schmoe that all science was fake and nuclear energy was at a dead end. Today, Westinghouse, GE, and a collection of foreign competitors are on the verge of making small liquid metal modular reactors available for applications from small electric engine power to portable electric generators and everything in-between. It could be a deal-breaker for the oil companies and revolutionary for electrical generation, but most people are fixated on Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and the false cold fusion story.

Stay tuned, electrical generation could be the new cheap energy. Ballard Power Systems, a Canadian fuel cell manufacturer, is contracted with Volkswagen's fuel cell development program and a couple of large bus manufacturers with working prototypes in service, not to mention providing the power for Toyota's corporate offices in Torrance, CA. All kinds of science fiction stuff is happening right now and almost none of it was predicted or promised 40 years ago. About the only prediction that has been reasonable useful from the last 50 years has been Moore's Law. ("The complexity for minimum component costs has increased at a rate of roughly a factor of two per year. . .") Gordon Moore's succinct technology estimate has been reasonably accurate for at least 30 years and there is every likelihood that it will be revised upward with new technology.

If the USA was driven more by technologies than by idle and incompetent corporate back-stabbers and lazy and corrupt old technology billionaires, we'd be enjoying a whole new world of high efficiency transportation and putting a serious dent in the atmosphere's carbon content. A real war on the world's terrorists, begun back in 2001, would have crushed the oil cabal, launched the US into the 21st century with a vengeance, and revitalized our technology industries like nothing since the 1960's space race. Instead, we choked, took the easy way out and invaded Iraq hoping for a quick fix with that country's "oceans of oil" and blew two decades on militaristic decadence. Catching up is much harder than staying ahead, in any kind of race. Technology and change don't depend on American exceptionalism and all of those technologies we ignored are going ahead without us. Just ask the remnants of the Ottoman Empire and the struggling descendants of the world's great powers of the past: Greece, Italy, Spain, Portugal, France, England, Russia, and, even, China (only now crawling out of the ruins of its 4,000 year old civilization).

technology-growthSemiconductor density is not the only technology experiencing exponential change. You know that bullshit small print thing stockbrokers hope you don't read regarding the odds that the stock they just conned you into buying will produce a profit (for you)?  "Past performance does not necessarily predict future results." Look at the chart on the right, that's what an exponential curve looks like as it approaches infinite change. Ray Kurzweil called this the "Law of Accelerating Returns." The steps in that chart are 50 year intervals and the X-axis is linear, but the Y-axis is more exponential than linear. The technology development required between the printing press and the telescope (a 200 year interval) was insignificant compared to going from what existed at the start of the space race to our world of cell phones, personal computers, and the Internet (20 years). The same comparison will be made between the last days of hydrocarbon-based energy and whatever comes next. The technological growth rate of the last decade will look absolutely stagnant compared to the next ten years.

Back to electric motorcycles, the only thing that keeps me off of one is the cost. Certainly not the cost of operation, but the cost of ownership. At 66, I can't justify a $10,000 motorcycle of any sort. I don't expect to live long enough to consider that a rational expense, especially in Minnesota where half of the year is lost to rotating my battery tender from the V-Strom to the WR250X. $5,000 is a whole different game. Zero's 2015 battery pack is expected to live for 2,000 charge cycles (at least 200,000 miles) before it deteriorates to 80% of new capacity (probably the recommended replacement point) at 185 city miles or 94 highway miles per charge.  At the current 6-8 cents per kilowatt, Zero's 1.4kW charge requirement makes for pretty cost-effective transportation. You just have to have a 200,000 mile life expectancy to justify going electric. I do not. If you are a decade or three younger than me, you should start thinking about what your first electric motorcycle is going to be, because that's very likely going to be a big decision in every motorcyclist's life in less time than you expect.

Published in MMM #140 September 2015

POSTSCRIPT: I'm hiding in New Mexico from MN's 2017 and the Trump bullshit and hanging with a mechanic friend who has a huge collection of battery powered tools. If anything demonstrates the rapid evolution of batteries, it might be powered hand tools. He has a selection of batteries from the last 10 years of impact tools that range from old Makita's 14V, 10W nicads to the most recent 14V, 40W lithium-ion batteries. The weight and size change is mind-boggling. The whole tool weighs less than the old battery used to weigh, by a long shot. Even recent technology batteries seem primitive in comparison to the new stuff.

Apr 12, 2017

Joining the Crowd

For most of my “adult life” riding either a bicycle or a motorcycle to work the instant weather permits has been a staple of my activities. “Weather permits” has meant any temperature above freezing and road conditions not including ice or snow. I don’t care about gravel in the corners. I did care, a little, about salt still remaining on the roads, but that usually just meant I washed off the bike more often than usual in the spring. It was a point of honor for me to not be among the “motorcycles are toys” crowd.

Not any more, apparently.

So far this year, I have ridden my motorcycle to school (I go twice a week.) exactly zero times. On a 55oF spring Sunday, of which we’ve had several to this point, I’ve ridden either of my motorcycles exactly once. Today, the wife needs the truck for yard work, so she’s driving me to school and I’m taking the bus back home. It’s 35oF outside this morning. With my heated Aerostich gear, that’s more than warm enough to justify riding to school. But I’m not going to.

I’m not sure what’s changed. I can’t help but suspect that my general attitude is tied to my disinterest/lethargy. “The optimist proclaims that we live in the best of all possible worlds; and the pessimist fears this is true.” All of the smart people I know have been pretty much running on empty for the last six months. The energy has gone out of a lot of people who are usually pretty pumped up and sources of hope and good will for me. I, on the other hand, have done pretty well betting on what I used to think were worst case scenarios—professionally and financially—and assuming the worst has always been more fallback position. You don’t become a test engineer or a reliability assurance engineer and do well at it assuming every design was divinely inspired. You assume everything has fatal flaws and begin your day looking to find that flaw before the damn thing becomes a product and when it fails it’s your fault.

My usual distrust of my fellow American’s competence has fallen to an all time low. We are living in the early (and last) years of The Marching Morons society and it’s just going to get worse and maybe never better. When I’m in a 4,000 pound pickup, that translates into assuming no one is stopping for stop signs or lights, idiots will occasionally drift into my lane from any possible direction, every fuckin’ idiot is packing a weapon, and expecting a couple of key or coin scratches on my truck anytime I leave it in a public place. On a motorcycle that translates into full-time terror. A ride into the country is a fine riding exercise, a fair amount of fun, and the best way to explore my surroundings, but it’s not utilitarian. In fact, I am now a motorcycle-toy owner, since I’m not using my motorcycle for transportation.

Apr 10, 2017

#139 Two Approaches to Aging

caveman

Originally published in Minnesota Motorcycle Monthly #168 August 2015

All Rights Reserved © 2014 Thomas W. Day

Coincidentally, I had two very different conversations about motorcycling in the same week from over-60 riders who had pretty strong opinions about their motorcycle future. This may seem like a pretty pointless subject, especially if you are under 40, but motorcycle demographics are rapidly aging and our mode of transportation and recreation is coming to some sort of turning point in the United States and a few other first world nations. The average age of US motorcyclists is increasing by 2-4 years every 5 years (depending on who's statistics you believe). In the last 15 years, the number of over-50 riders has increased more than 250%. Unfortunately, that group of 60-and-older riders is 250% more likely to end up with serious injuries than their 20-to-30-year-old counterparts. "Middle-aged" riders don't fare much better. 40-60 year-old riders, were 200% more likely to suffer serious injuries than the younger group.

There are a variety of suspected reasons for these dismal statistics, including deteriorating skills, vanishing physical capabilities, inexperience and overconfidence, and the fact that older riders too often pick motorcycles to enhance their fading self-image rather than for practical and realistic motivations. Regardless of "why," older motorcyclists are less safe for a variety of reasons than younger riders and there are a whole lot fewer young riders than in previous moments in motorcycling's history. That decision day is coming for us all and this past week made that uncomfortably clear to me.

First, one of my oldest friends called and started the conversation with, "Do you know anyone who wants to buy a Goldwing?" Thinking he was giving up on being a ship captain and had decided to return to a normal motorcycle, I made a joke about the question. His reply was, "No. I'm serious. I'm done." After more than 40 years on two wheels, he had made the decision to pack up his riding gear and move on to other pursuits. All of his reasons were sound: three years of shoulder surgeries had reduced his upper body strength and confidence below his comfort level, his wife no longer wanted to ride with him, he wasn't riding enough to maintain his skills, his local riding friends had all cashed in their Harley's for boats, planes, and RVs. Other than admitting that I would regret not having taken more advantage of our years of riding together, I had no valid counter-argument. I put feelers out for anyone who might be in the market for a well-maintained Goldwing and that is that.  

Another friend, who has been riding fewer years and tends to ride bikes that are more vintage than competent came by the house a few days later to show off his new, current-technology ride. On the way to my place, he'd had a couple of near-misses and was pretty agitated about the state of Minnesota driving skills. An ABATE member, he went on a rant about how right-of-way laws still needed to be more aggressive "to get the dumbasses off of the road." I expressed my dislike for the concept of prison sentences for unintentional acts, which suddenly put me with the enemies of motorcycling on the "other side." No problem, I have spent my whole life on the wrong side of every argument; depending on who I'm arguing with, I seem to be on every side of every argument humans have.  I am the most radical liberal-conservative-middle-of-the-road person most of my acquaintances know.

The rest of the conversation was one-sided. Lots of ranting about how "people need to pay attention to those 'Start Seeing Motorcycles'signs" and how loud pipes make up for driver distraction and incompetence. You might guess that I was pretty uninvolved in the whole "discussion" by that time and just wanted to get back to cleaning my garage and digging the New Mexico sand out of my WR's crevices and crannies.

The two schools of aging motorcycle thought appear to be "it's time to quit" and "the world needs to be a safer place for me." I totally sympathize with the first group and am amazed at the second. Oddly, the "safer for me" crowd often sees itself as being all-American, tough guy, independent individuals. They are brand-conscious, pirate-posing, anti-AGAT (or any real motorcycle gear), and group-riding characters whose self-image is practically the polar opposite of what the rest of the world sees when they lumber past, deafening anyone within a couple of miles of their parade. As best I can tell, their riding defense system consists of a whole lot of denial. Old people (me included) are famous for denial tactics, but reality has a nasty habit of putting a mirror to anything you try to ignore too long. Deteriorating riding skills, lost physical capability, and arrogance are a poor combination on the road.

I can feel that "No. I'm serious. I'm done" moment creeping up on me at accelerating speeds. I have been riding since the mid-1960s and I have nothing left to prove as a motorcyclist to myself or anyone else. I have no delusions about where my skills are going or where my physical capabilities have gone. I past the "it's all downhill from here" moment about twenty years ago, optimistically, or thirty-five years ago, practically. I can't remember when I last believed that I could "do anything I want to do." I'm pretty much at the point of being happy just to be able to do an occasional thing more-or-less the way I wanted to do it. Things like brushing my teeth or putting on laced boots or lowering myself into a chair without falling the last few inches are on that list. I do not have any delusions that my presence on the highway creates an obligation for the rest of the world. They aren't out to get me. They don't even acknowledge I exist. The weaker, fatter, slower, dumber, blinder, and shorter I get, the more clearly I can anticipate hanging up the helmet and going shopping for a Miata convertible. I hope to not repeat my father's model and stay on the road until someone has to take responsibility for me and forcibly revoke my driver's license. I hope I'm as smart as my friend and start purging the motorcycle collection and equipment before I wind up in a hospital bed. I'll keep you posted on how that all works out. 

Apr 3, 2017

# 138: Tires Make the Man

caveman

All Rights Reserved © 2013 Thomas W. Day

I am officially retired as of this summer. "No more pencils, no more books, no more rules, no more teacher's dirty looks." Ok, the dirty looks came from me, but I'm done with that too. The next time I hear some kid complaining about how hard school is, I'm just going to laugh at the pampered little cell-phone addict. I, officially, do not have to care any longer. One of the best things about being retired is giving up on all pretense of concern for dress codes. "What are you going to do, fire me?" The people who mismanage America's businesses solidly buy into the old adage that "clothes make the man." Since the only skills required for modern American managers are dressing themselves and pulling credit towards themselves while shuffling blame off on their underlings, that's understandable. It's hard to see the pulling and shuffling stuff, but even a CEO can identify a nice suit. I have spent most of my career ignoring dress codes or pushing their boundaries closer to my own comfort zone. Starting this summer, my comfort zone will creep closer to full nudity. Avert your eyes or don't sneak into my backyard uninvited.

street-motorcycle-tiresIn the motorcycle world, our suits are on the wheels. Your tires say a lot about what there is to know about you as a rider. Your bike could be a cluster-fuck of vintage bits cobbled together with gaff tape and pipe clamps, but if your tires are good you're officially well dressed. On the other (and more typical) hand, your bike may be a shining example of everything Cruiser Magazine says is "all the rage" (clearly a gay biker magazine) or a plastic-fantastic full-race liter bike that Cycle World calls "all pimped out," but if your tires are bald you are undressed. If a motorcyclist looks at your tires and mutters "chicken strips," you've been outed as a poser and a the kind of rider who crawls through corners and blasts down the block as if he were being chased by Barney Fife (look him up, youngsters). On the other hand, some tires say nothing but good things about your sterling character.

Sportbikers have a tendency to be proud of balled up bits of rubber clinging to the outer edges of their tires. If you are a racer, that's just expected. You can't successfully race anything on two wheels without pushing the boundaries of traction at all possible angles. If you are a street biker, you are a goofball who likes to push traction to the limits' edge and are probably about as fun to ride with as a wasp trapped in the helmet. There aren't a lot of places on the street where leaning a bike over far enough to touch a knee to the ground can be called anything but "reckless." The sad fact is that almost every sportbike sold is over designed for any practical street application and that probably explains why so many of those motorcycles fall into the "less than 1,500 miles per year" category. Off of the race track, they are just rich kid toys with no more practical use than a plastic Star Wars laser sword. The tires tell that story repeatedly. 

Cruiser owners generally have more concern with the polish of their white sidewalls than traction or lean angle. In fact, cruiser lean angle is about topped out where the sidestand puts the bike when it's parked in front of the usual bar. You can't blame these guys for chicken strips, since straight-up is about the only way to ride a cruiser. However, a lack of concern when the tire wears down the inevitable center says a lot about the owner of an already-disabled vehicle. Motorcycles with marginal suspension, cumbersome maneuverability, and as much mass as a Prius can't afford an on-the-road tire failure. When you've given away every advantage a motorcycle has in the road warrior battles, you can't blow off swapping out that bald rear tire because it's a hassle. Tires are the only real clothing a cruiser has.

At the other end of the style spectrum, dual purpose riders sometimes make a big deal out of their off-road worthiness. Seeing a KLR parked in front of a coffee shop shod in full non-DOT knobbies with narry a scuff on the side knob sprue nubs and the soft middle of the tire worn down to a bump is always good for a laugh. You might as well paint "dirt" onto the bike as imagine that other motorcyclists are going to be impressed with your tales of off-roading. Any trials rider knows that a pretty mild tire pattern can carry the average motorcycle through some seriously rugged stuff. Pretty much anything will haul a Lampkin straight up a wall. You don't need knobbies for the occasional dirt road. But you'd know that if you ever rode that thing away from pavement.

The guys who almost never pose as anything but themselves are real touring riders. With 100,000 miles on the odometer, they know the only thing they can't scrimp on is their tires. A Goldwing will putter along with watered-down Canadian gas with an occasional ping or two, but a flat tire in Butt Fuck, Wyoming is downright life-threatening. These guys will tape a $1-store cupholder to their handlebars, but the only money they save on tires comes when they install the skins themselves. There is nothing funny about getting stuck in Whitehorse with a wreaked tire. You won't make it back out of town for less than $600 and you might spend twice that again on a motel bill while you wait for the shop to get around to installing your tire. Don't even think about asking the Honda dealer if you can just buy the tire and install it yourself. Being "well dressed" on a 10,000 mile tour means having brand new tires on the bike and a second set wrapped and ready to drop-ship in the garage; postage pre-paid so your wife or best friend can just fill out the shipping label and drop the tires off with UPS.

I might be naked in the backyard, but my bike is always well dressed and there are two complete sets of replacements in the back of the garage waiting for the next big motoring social event. You never know when you might be invited to go somewhere and do something cool. Wouldn't want to violate the only dress code I've ever honored.