Apr 14, 2014

#51 Motorcycle Incompatibility

All Rights Reserved © 2005 Thomas W. Day

In my forty-something years of motorcycling, I’ve tried to combine just about everything with motorcycles. Some things work and more things don’t.

For instance, computers and motorcycles are mediocre traveling companions. Since 1988 or so, I’ve tried about two dozen combinations. Everything from “luggable” CRT based hardware to sub-notebooks have graced my backpacks, courier bags, and saddlebags. With one very limited exception, a very underpowered NEC MobilePro, every experiment has ended in destruction and disappointment. A few hundred hours rattling around on my bike and another hardware investment is down the tubes. The MobilePro has hung together for nearly nine years, to the point that the keyboard labeling has worn off. The little guy only provides 16 megabyte of RAM and no other storage capabilities. That was a minor limitation for my writing projects and scheduling requirements, but I’m doing a large number of PowerPoint presentations at work and I need serious storage capacity for those jobs.

The one thing I have not tried is a “ruggedized” laptop, one of those things that is supposed to withstand a direct atomic weapon hit. The reason for that is that I don’t have the carrying capacity for one of those underpowered, trailing-edge-technology behemoths. Or the budget. By the time a manufacturer gets through the standard military testing song and dance, technology has moved so far ahead that the machine is practically obsolete.

[Winter 2011 Follow-up: I have now tried two of Toshiba's Toughbooks and found them to be overweight, fragile, slow battery-hogs that are perfectly useless on a motorcycle trip. The "waterproof keyboards" are not only not water resistant but they are prone to jam up in a dusty environment. The hardware is pretty lame, in general. Both of my units sprung their screen hinge spring, allowing the screen to flop flat against the work surface. I have nothing positive to say about mil-spec computers, except that their resale is exceptionally and unrealistically good. I pretty much got my money back, even with all of the faults in the units.

On the other hand, I bought a pair of Dell Latitude D410 laptops that appear to be almost unbreakable. My writing machine (the one I'm working on right now) has more than 40,000 motorcycle miles and isn't any worse for the wear. I use the other one for work (teaching technology college classes) and it might have seen even more abuse. They are now six years old and Win7 incompatible, but I don't expect to care about that for a few more years.]

Apparently, I’m not the only one who thinks computers and motorcycles are incompatible. I recently pitched an article idea to a couple of motorcycle magazines that involved a few months of normal riding and writing and a couple of non-military-ruggedized computers. The magazines bought into the idea pretty quickly, but the computer companies balked. It’s one thing to have a PC magazine editor push your computer from a table on to a pile of feather pillows, it’s another to give a PC to a whacko who thinks Minnesota riding season extends to December and restarts in March. Maybe they went to my website and took a critical look at my bike, deciding that someone who washes a motorcycle that infrequently might be a poor hardware risk. Whatever, I have a customer for the article, but no suppliers. So, having to spend my own money, I bought a compromise computer (titanium case, shock-mounted drive and LCD, and water-resistant keyboard) and fully expected it to turn to dust in a year or so. It pretty much has. I still resort to the old MobilePro when I care about the text I’m writing and I’m going to be spending serious time on the motorcycle.

Music is an uneasy motorcycling companion. I rarely ride without a song in my head, but I’m unconvinced that carrying actual music on a motorcycle makes sense. I’ve tried phones on my helmet and while I could sort of hear the music, the wind noise wiped out any subtlety. I recently took a ride on a Goldwing with a serious sound system. Sound quality-wise, I’d rate the experience about equal to being in a small car with the windows down. A troubling aspect of trying to listen to music, communications, or anything else on a motorcycle is hearing damage. As a nation, we’re going deaf faster than we ride.

I usually ride with earplugs and any music accompanying the ride was in my head when I got on the bike or was inspired by being on the bike. I’ve ridden thousands of miles with Edgar Winter’s “Frankenstein” setting the pace. I’m not fast, but I’m frantic. Communication systems fall into the same category for the same reasons, plus a couple more, as music. To communicate, you have to hear and to hear you have to suffer excessive hearing damage on a bike. On top of that, you have the added advantage of having your concentration disrupted by needless conversation. How can you pass all that up?

For my money, passengers (and, possibly, marriage) are incompatible with motorcycling. For every great sex and drugs and spontaneous sexual combustion story I’ve heard there are ten “my wife made me sell the bike” stories. Unless the passenger is a motorcyclist, passengers are usually a handicap in every way you can consider. Even when the passenger is a biker, only a couple of disadvantages are semi-neutralized. You still have to wrestle with increased weight and lowered performance. Even on a hippo-bike with a gigantic platform for a guest butt, the reduced comfort level rarely (for me) recommends a passenger. I always suspect the competence of passengers, too. If you can ride, why would you want to be on the “bitch pad?” If you can’t, what criteria do you use for determining who is safe to ride with?

About once every five years, my wife and I take a bike trip. She (an ex-dirt biker) gets bored quickly. I get uncomfortable after a few hundred miles. We both become short-tempered and neither of us can remember why we thought this would be a good idea after so many experiences that established otherwise. In our memories, the trips are all good experiences, though. We usually have fun, see things we wouldn’t see in a cage, go places we wouldn’t go on four wheels, and eat less than we do on car trips.

So, five years from now, we’ll do it again.

MMM March 2006


  1. Having also tried the "ruggedized computers" and the netbooks I now recommend trying to get away with a tablet plus a bluetooth keyboard. That's what I used on my last month long trip and had no problems. They even do a decent job with presentation software though nowhere near as flexible as a regular laptop running either Windows or OS X. But while on a long trip, completely adequate. Not really waterproof but it was easy enough to store it in a waterproof bag. And the 91% size keyboard was adequate.

  2. I ride with the Sena Smh10-R.. I ride with the foam industrial ear plugs in and turn the headphone volume way up and can hear it just fine.. no wind noise. It also will allow for intercom traffic, GPS Navigation, and Cell Phone calls.. Absolutely love being able to listen to music without being tethered to a set of earbuds..


  3. There are a fair number of states that will ticket you for listening to music while driving/riding. I'm sort of with them on this, for a whole different reason. Sometime in the near future an article I wrote on hearing damage and motorcycling will come up on this site. The math is pretty straight-forward. Aggressive foam ear plugs provide about 25-30dB of attenuation, narrow-band. At low frequencies, they are pretty worthless. So, if the typical helmet noise is 95-110dBA (which is also fairly optimistic) and you receive a 30dB attenuation from the ear plugs (less for in-ear phones) and you are getting your sound system above the noise level by at least 30dB for a decent signal-to-noise listening ratio, you are damaging your hearing aggressively by listening to music while you ride. Just because you don't notice the noise does not mean it's not there.

    I just bought a Samsung tablet and I'm seriously considering taking it along on my next adventure instead of a notebook computer. The keyboard thing is a good idea: cheap, disposable, reasonably tough and small.


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