Nov 21, 2010

Fear Itself

I'm not a pet guy. My wife collects animals. I tolerate them. Sometimes, I enjoy them, but I wouldn't go out of my way to have a pet. Even a fish, except for catfish because I love catfish and black beans. So, we have a dog, a cat, and six or seven birds. It's a busy household.

Our cat, Spike, is a brave soul. He's mostly an inside cat, but he gets out in the yard to climb trees, catch and kill mice and voles, and pester the neighbor's cat. Spike is particularly unusual in that he likes to be wet. You can pet him when your hands are wet and he appreciates the attention. He likes to explore the bathtub after I take a shower. Sometimes he sticks his head into the curtains while I'm taking a shower. Since he was a kitten, he has jumped into the tub right after anyone has used it and he often rolls around getting himself wet. He knows how the shower works. He knows someone could turn it back on and he'd get soaked. He's pretty sure that won't happen. Spike is totally unafraid of things he believes are unlikely to happen. I like that quality, a lot.

Not that many people are capable of that. In fact, people are afraid of the damnedest things. When the Twin Towers were bombed, my neighbor's wife freaked out. She'd never traveled anywhere, never even went into downtown St. Paul, but she became convinced the world had changed and she was at risk. Since 2001, she rarely leaves her house for anything. An engineer friend is terrified of flying. Always has been. He's been traveling by commercial airline for almost 35 years, hundreds of trips without an incident. Every time he gets in a plane, it's white knuckle time. His paranoia would be more understandable if he wasn't a roller coaster fanatic. He's traveled all over the country to ride every whacked-out roller coaster he can find. He's especially fond of the wooden versions of the damn things. Once, when we were 35,000 feet over the Great Plains, I suggested that if the plane did go down it would be the coolest roller coaster ride he ever took. He almost squeezed the arm rests off of his seat and didn't let go until we were parked. Another friend is convinced that I ride my 250, instead of my 650 road bike, because I believe it's safer. He can't imagine that it is quicker or more fun. He is a motorcycle owner who puts about 250 miles/year on his bike and believes the "freeway is a deathtrap" for motorcycle commuters.

Neither of these people are anywhere near as likely to be harmed by terrorists or falling airplanes or cell phone-crazed commuters as my wife's cat is of getting soaked in the shower; especially if my grandson has anything to say about it. Those humans are freaked out and terrified while the cat is happy with his odds. One person's fear is incapacitating. The other has a significant portion of his life wreaked. The last owns a piece of garage candy he's afraid to play with. Fear  keeps us from enjoying our lives, from doing what we want to do, from living where we want to live, from being who we are. Roosevelt said "We have nothing to fear but fear itself."

True, but somehow not all that helpful. At least in my case, I need something a little more specific to work on, in regards to controlling fear. In every corner, there is at least one spot where rider control is on the edge. Even on a simple, in-town, residential-street turn there are opportunities for loss of control: sand or gravel at the worst possible place, crumbling asphalt that choses the moment you arrive to collapse, traffic, unpredictable pedestrians, falling space rubble, and other motorcyclists picking the wrong moment to demonstrate their "skills." Those butt-clenching moments are what keep you alert, or convince you that motorcycling is unnecessarily dangerous. What you do with fear determines who you are, who you can be, what you can do, and how long you are going to live.

Research into the human fear response has provided a little insight into how our over-sized, underused brains work. Many people with a low capacity for actual danger are horror movie fans, where you get "the gratification of real fear without any of the danger." People watch serial killer movies, listen to Glenn Beck, and ride roller coasters to get the psychological kick from artificially induced fear without any personal risk (except on the carnival roller coasters, which are installed and maintained by drugged-out grade-school dropouts). The spillover between the areas of your brain that interprets pleasure and fear is often significant. On the other hand, an under-developed or segmented amygdala or  nucleus accumbens could make you completely fearless even in situations where you are at extreme risk.

I suppose there is a reasonable balance between fear and fearlessness. At this point in my life, I could do with a little more immunity to fear. There are places I'd like to go that pose more risk than I'm comfortable taking. People go to those places, people live in those places, so my fear is not reasonably founded. I'm not afraid of dying, but I am damn nervous about getting hurt. If I could, I would have a good bit of that part of my brain trimmed away so I could get on with an adventure or two.

Nov 8, 2010

Listening and Living

In the 60’s and early 70’s, Harley and what was left of the British motorcycle industry sort made a stab at addressing the bottom-up-market attack from Japan. Harley branded Italian (Aermacchi) machines and provided minimal support. BSA gave us the infamous 441 Victim that may have sealed that company’s fate all on its own. Triumph and BMW fought back, slightly more effectively. In the end, HD devolved into a portion of a bowling ball company's holdings. BSA and Triumph vanished into bankruptcy. Triumph manged to struggle back, but mostly as a high-end make of rich kid toys. Never again have any of those companies made motorcycles for folks who don't have $15-20k to dump into a recreational vehicle.

Now Japan is on the short end of that same stick. Indian, Malaysian, Korean, Taiwanese, and Chinese motorcycle and scooter manufacturers are cranking up production and aiming product at the low end of the US and world markets; the entry level rider. If history was an indicator, you'd expect Japan to respond with bigger, more expensive, less efficient, less reliable vehicles as a response. That's what American and British manufacturers did. Maybe not so.

One advantage Japan has over their stogy 1960's US and Euro competition is that they never gave up on the cheap, functional stuff. They just quit bringing it into to the US. Maybe that's changing. Honda is taking a chance on US riders with the 2011 CBR250R and CBR250X ABS. This is the kind of bike that Japan has left at home or Europe for the last 20+ years, assuming we are too fat, dumb, and rich to ride a motorcycle that has a functional purpose. As usual, Suzuki started the experiment with the TU250X, a fuel injected street bike with manners and abilities. Honda's entry is less practical, but it might be more fun. Yamaha and Kawasaki are sitting this one out, waiting to see if Suzuki and Honda have discovered something new about the American market. By the time they have their answer, they might starve their US dealers to death and miss the whole event.

 The competition doesn't have the dealership problem. Like the Japanese manufacturers in the 1960's, anyone who has a retail outlet appears to be capable of grabbing a Hero, Royal Enfield, Hyosung, Chang Jang, Kymco, SYM, Baja, PGO, or whoever-pops-up-next dealership. The Pep Boys have carried a few brands of Chinese-made motorcycles. So does a filling station a couple of miles from my home. A local hardware store hustles the Hyosung brand, servicing the bikes along side their lawnmowers and snowblowers.  When I was a kid, our local Suzuki dealer also sold Sony televisions, Bogen sound system equipment, and lawnmowers. Our Honda dealer was, primarily, a farm equipment dealer. Yamaha and Kawasaki were sold out of a handyman's Quonset shed along with his regular home repair services. Only BSA/Triumph and Harley Davidson had actual dealerships in town, both of which went out of business by 1968. So it was, so it is.

Will Japan hang on to this business? Your guess is as good as anyone's and probably better than mine.

Nov 7, 2010

Making A Miserable Experience Worse

All Rights Reserved © 2010 Thomas W. Day

I've lived in Minnesota for almost a dozen years. You'd think that would be long enough for me to remember some of the dumber things about buying a motorcycle here, but you'd be disappointed. In my defense, I don't buy a lot of motorcycles; three in a dozen years. Almost every time I venture, title in hand, to the local DMV I get reminded that Minnesota pretends to record and track engine numbers. I've lived in a collection of places--Kansas, Nebraska, Texas, California, Indiana, and Colorado--and Minnesota is the only place that has asked me for my engine number. Why do they care about the engine numbers?

Now, we all know that the state can't hang on to Social Security numbers and our local police couldn't find a stolen Boeing 747 if it were parked on 35W. What do you think the chances are that a bored DPS bureaucrat would notice a reported-stolen engine number, track it to the original owner (the rare owner who bothered to report that engine stolen), and hand that information over to the police? Even more unlikely, what are the chances that a cop would pause from his busy parking-ticket-writing day to chase down the engine-stealing thief and ensure that justice is done? Better than a million-to-one? Probably not. I'd put better odds on my being able to count the stars in the Colorado sky before that scenario would occur.

The first time I was asked for my engine number, I was told that this little song-and-dance was instigated by the Harley garage candy crowd, since their ride is stolen and parted out more than any other vehicle on earth. The engine ID line on a motorcycle title was added to the form sometime in the 1970s, when stolen Harleys were more common than purchased bikes. A lot has changed since then, but we're all still paying the bureaucratic price for all those stolen chopper parts.

My most recent bike purchase was a 2000 Kawasaki Super Sherpa KL250. It's sort of an enduro, very much a multi-purpose small motorcycle, and probably most often spotted strapped to the back of a big RV. Of course, I forgot to note the number on the title before I brought it to the DMV. The clerk noted the missing number and tossed my paperwork back at me, noting that "Everybody forgets to get the engine number. Come back to the front of the line when you get it." I trudge out to the parking lot and spend a half hour looking all over the motor for the number. No number. I give up, ride home, and dig out the owner's manual.

The chances that someone would steal this bike for parts are slim-to-stupid. It's not worth enough to bother stealing, unless the thief needs money to buy a pack of cigarettes but doesn't need the money quickly. The owner's manual indicates that the engine number is stamped on the starter housing, a part that might be replaced when the electric starter dies. However, it's not there: it's under the starter, requiring the removal of the starter to read the number. I was lucky. A previous owner wrote the number in the owner's manual, so, rather than starting an unnecessary engine overhaul, I copied the number from the manual on to the line on the title. If that manual ever gets lost, I pity the fool who buys this motorcycle from me. Of course, I have no idea if it's the right number, since I was unable to find it on my own.

With the microscopic possibility that the police might identify and chase down a stolen motorcycle engine based on the serial number, the minor economic impact that a lost rat bike would have on an individual, and the thousands of lost hours from "everyone" having to quadruple the time necessary to register a motorcycle title due to forgetting to get the engine number, I think this is a stupid, obsolete law that should be reconsidered. Maybe the law could be modified so that only grossly expensive garage candy owners are obligated to crawl under their vehicles looking for non-existent numbers. Those bikes probably have the engine number printed when it can be found, though. Good for them. I, on the other hand, buy rat bikes and am about as inconvenienced by the engine number egg hunt as I would be by having my bike stolen. Any trip to the DMV is a miserable experience. Compounding the humiliation of paying sales tax on a vehicle whose previous owners have probably paid that same tax multiple times with groveling around my own motorcycle looking for a hidden number just adds to the pointless misery.

Here's an idea. Instead of ganging up on our legislators to battle laws that only affect the few, how about we get really mad about something that affects us all? Let's ride in mass to the capitol building to protest multiple taxation on used vehicles, road use restrictions on fuel efficient vehicles (like small displacement motorcycles and scooters), and if the DMV wants my engine number let them find it. If I were any less convinced that the state government could find a stolen motorcycle based on this identification, I'd doubt that they even have a department that attempts to find stolen vehicles. They do have a department that does that, don't they? Yeah, right.