Aug 29, 2010

Following the Leader

"If all your friends jumped off a bridge then would you too?" I must have answered this question a million times when I was a kid, followed by asking my own kids the same question two decades later. In a recent column, Kevin Cameron despaired at ever again seeing new technology because all of the good ideas in motorcycle engineering have been polished and repeated on every brand of motorcycle and, now, every bike has every good idea incorporated in its design.

I just got home from a week trip to meet my new grandson. When I opened the kitchen door, I discovered a red, gory, bloody smear all over my kitchen floor.

As we were leaving the house, my wife or I did something in the refrigerator and when we closed the door the pressure cracked open the freezer door. During the week, everything in the freezer thawed and melted and distributed itself all over the kitchen. This is a fairly new refrigerator, purchased a couple of years ago by my wife with absolutely no input from me. She got a deal on it, but the several hundred dollars of food I tossed probably wiped out any savings she might have realized.

It's a Maytag and like all of the Maytag appliances we've ever owned, it is a piece of crap. My bet is, if the Maytag repairman really doesn't get much work, it's because his phone number is unlisted. All he'd need to do to get busy would be to do a Google search on the words "Maytag sucks" and 44,400 hits later he'd be occupied for several generations. The door gaskets on the refrigerator are magnetic and they are worthless; dissolving into cracked plastic junk in the first year. The temperature varies like a Minnesota spring. The shelves are fragile and expensive. After a year, the only real "feature" the refrigerator provided--quiet operation--vanished and the damn thing sounds like an electric Harley. The appliance claimed to be energy efficient, but I have found no evidence of that. Pissed off and ready to impulse buy, I went to the local appliance store looking for a real refrigerator with real door latches. There are none. Every idiot engineer on the planet has decided that those weak-assed magnetic gaskets serve as perfectly sufficient latches. I couldn't find a single refrigerator at any price that uses a mechanical latch. So, I'm stuck with my POS Maytag until I find an alternative.

This experience started me ques
tioning how well motorcycle and other engineered devices have sorted themselves out through the "never reinvent the wheel" philosophy of design. For example, in my other field of employment pro sound systems have all gone the way of small speaker, array systems with compact and high-power-absorbing sub-woofers and lots of electronics to compensate for the flawed theory behind arraying speakers for efficiency. Everyone in the industry makes these systems and they all sound like crap. If you have been to a large venue rock concert in the last decade, you have experienced the wonder of array speaker design. If my car system sounded as bad as the best of these aural disasters, I'd yank it out and sing to myself for entertainment. Rather than sound quality being the goal, sound companies lusted for light weight and small transportation requirements and the result is an industry that is driving its customers away in droves.

Engineers aren't all brilliant. I had that fact reinforced during my stint in medical devices. Some are barely capable of cutting and pasting someone else's design into their company's drafting format. Some can't rise to that low bar. Companies are even lazier. Instead of nurturing young engineers and developing a corporate culture of design and creativity, most engineering companies simply raid the engineering departments of their competitors for solutions. This results in an industry with carbon-copy products and "inventive" design departments that wrangle over color combinations and the cosmetics of bend angles rather than actual engineering issues. Many of these engineering departments are more like dress designers than product inventors.
"Alright, Mr. Wiseguy," said Douglas Adam's marketing girl when his character complained about how long it was taking to release the wheel for use, "if you're so clever, you tell us what colour it should be."

This isn't a problem I'm proposing to resolve. In fact, I'm heading toward retirement and entropy as fast as I can gather the momentum. However, it does make me suspect that a good deal of invention is left to be done. I don't think many large corporations are up to the task, but maybe a good old fashioned long-term depression will rectify that serious error in cultural design. In the meantime, I'm buying a pair of childproof latches to keep my crappy Maytag refrigerator's door shut.

Aug 7, 2010

Extravagant Methods and Extreme Results

According to the JR Central Japan Railway Company statistics, the high speed Tōkaidō Shinkansen holds the record as the world's most used high-speed rail line. The train averages 151 million passengers per year (March 2008) and since the inception of the rail line the Tōkaidō Shinkansen has carried over 6 billion passengers.

I thought about this fact as I rode across parts of the Rockies in July. In a discussion about alternative transportation systems, Kevin Cameron wrote, "The Japanese high-speed trains tear up their roadbeds so rapidly that track alignment machines have to make frequent passes. Such machines put down big hydraulic elephant feet, grip the rails, and then using vibration jerk them into better alignment. Those trains are more of a hood ornament than a practicality - like the Moscow subway."

As I rode down well-maintained highways in rural South Dakota, Wyoming, Colorado, and Utah and passed through hundreds of miles of "men at work" sign-dotted roads under repair, I wondered who's system is really a hood ornament? In the United States, we dive off of the deep end of rationality to protect individuality. We use massive taxpayer investment to protect the "rights" of the few individuals who can afford to live and work in places that have little-to-no socioeconomic justification. These highways require constant maintenance and every couple of years they are ripped up and rebuilt, mostly because the earth itself tears them up.

One Wyoming path we traveled constantly brought me back to the conversation with Kevin. It started with US18 at Redbird, turned into WY 270 toward Lance Creek, and ended back on US18 through Lost Springs and eventually reconnected us to I25 at McKinley. 91 miles of nothing: no population, no industry, no traffic, and damn little justification for a well-maintained road. On top of that economic insult, most of the 270 section had been gouged by someone dragging a piece of equipment down the middle of the west-side lane, cutting a 1-2" deep, 8" wide gash into the asphalt. This section, in fact, is where I began to suspect I had a suspension problem. Each time I crossed that gouge, the bike "skipped" its front tire across the damaged section and chattered for several feet until settling down.

The technology required to build and maintain a road in this abandoned place is unjustifiable. If a system that has transported 6 billion people is a "
hood ornament," what is an investment in rural highways that probably wouldn't serve 6 billion people in 6 million years? At best, this area might deserve a gravel road maintained by the taxpayers of the county and state. It might be inconvenient for the local farmer(s?) to have to drive something less manicured than a personal interstate highway, but since it wouldn't matter at all to the rest of the country if this inconvenience turned into a disaster I have no interest in that justification.

Roads like this are nothing more than the result of pork-barrel politics and they exist all over the country. As a taxpayer, I resent them. As a motorcyclist, I really resent them.

The only traffic I saw in nearly 100 miles of this route were three motorcyclists; one traditional Harley couple and a pair of adventure touring BMWs. We passed the first Beemer about 10 miles into US18 and the second in the middle of 270. I was southbound, the BMWs were northbound, so I didn't have much opportunity to watch their interaction with the road. The Harley couple were, like us, heading toward Colorado. Wolf took some pictures of them, while they were in front of us, but they turned out poorly so they've hit the digital trashcan. Honestly, they seemed to be struggling with the wind and the occasional corner, but that's probably just my biased view. They were, however, traveling about 15mph below the speed limit, so we didn't spend a lot of time behind them.

I can't speak for the Harley pair, but I suspect the BMW riders were like me; picking an out-of-the-way route hoping for a little challenge. Instead, what we got was a manicured (if recently damaged) two-lane personal freeway that was hardly challenging and rarely interesting. Wolf and I had a few disappointments like that on our trip. Several of my favorites, including Pike's Peak, that used to be interesting, challenging gravel or dirt roads are turning into expensive, well-maintained, paved highways. If there is any road that rivals the Tōkaidō Shinkansen as an overpriced hood ornament, it has to be the highway to the top of Pike's Peak (or Mt. Evans, which has been paved to the top for decades). The girlymen of the world are ruining all the good rides and I am sick of it. It's time to put a little cost-justification into highway construction (Republicans would call that "rationing") and ask a few reasonable questions before setting the asphalt fascists loose on every backroad in the country.

Aug 3, 2010

All the News that Didn't Fit

BMW appears to be infatuated with the company's concept bike, the K 1600 GT and the K 1600 GTL. The 160 bhp compact in-line six-cylinder engine, features ride-by-wire fuel-injection and traction control, Duolever and Paralever suspension with Electronic Suspension Adjustment, a TFT displayed control console feature GPS, an audio system, Bluetooth, and an iPod interface, and lots of customization options. So far, the model is still in the concept stage, but BMW is committed to producing this luxury motorcycle in the very near future.

Cruising for Ducati
Tom Cruise prominently rode a Ducati Hypermotard in his most recent movie, "Knight and Day." However, when he demonstrated his motorcycle abilities for publicity photos he chose to pose on a lighter Aprilia SXV. I wonder how Ducati felt about Cruise shilling for a competitor's product after they spent so much money product-placing their brand in Cruise's movie? Maybe they are happy it was a box office bust.

Looking Under Motorcyclist's Skirt
Motorcyclist Magazine's readers got an interesting look at the inner workings of a major motorcycle magazine this month. As a result of Dexter Ford's reporting of motorcycle helmet testing standards in a New York Times article, he was fired as a staff writer for Motorcyclist Magazine. After editor Brian Catterson commented on the reasons for Ford's termination, Ford apparently fired back by releasing the text of email conversations between himself and Catterson:

Many readers were upset to learn that equipment manufacturers were able to wield so much editorial clout in a major magazine. That portion of the story revolved around helmet manufacturers, Arai and Shoei, pulling advertising because of the criticism Ford made of Snell standards. If an major magazine is afraid to criticize flawed safety standards, why should readers trust their product reviews?

The World Considers Motorcycling's Future
This year's EuroScience Open Forum (ESOF) discussion featured a discussion titled "MYMOSA: The pros and cons of motorcycles." MYMOSA stands for "MotorcYcle and MOtorcyclist SAfety," a European Union research project that evaluated motorcycle efficiency, environmental concerns, and safety compared to other vehicles. MYMOSA was relatively motorcycle friendly, but the discussion was often not so sociable.

"I actually wonder why you are saying that the motorcycle industry is going to help with sustainability," said Christian Siegmund, an engineer and panel participant. "Those companies have shown no motivation to reduce emissions or noise... And the way they market them encourages people to drive in a way that is not at all fuel efficient. . .

"I came to this session because I'm a motorcycle enthusiast. But the motorcycle is not the answer for sustainability. They are dangerous and inconvenient to use on a daily basis. They should be talking about improving public transportation if sustainability is the goal."

Industry representatives appeared to be unprepared to respond to comments like this.

Why Did the Bear Cross the Road?
To meet motorcyclists, why else? A bear crossing a New Jersy highway met a motorcyclist, up close. The motorcyclist was treated for minor injuries and the bear returned to the woods to convalesce.

Kitty Lube
For $33/liter, you can lube your car with Agip Hello Kitty SAE 5W-30 synthetic. Why just for cars, motorcycle are cuter than cars?

Motorcycles and Bicycles Mix Catastrophically
Lance Armstrong and dozens of Tour de France competitors crashed after an earlier motorcycle crash had left oil on the road, which mixed with water creating a disaster for the bicyclists. Armstrong finished the race with a road-rashed thigh and an elbow injury. France's Sylvain Chavanel was one of the few riders to escape the mass spill and, although he began the stage in 87th place, took top place in the 125-mile stage and reorganized the positions of the race's leaders as a result. Two Americans and a New Zealander were briefly hospitalized for injuries.