Monday 30 December 2013

Mechanical Empathy & Human Expression

I've enjoyed machines since I was a child.  My father is a mechanic and engineer and his fearless approach to maintaining, repairing and operating machines amazed and intrigued me.  With that fascination I always found it easy to empathize with machines, not necessarily in the anthropomorphic give them a name and talk to them kind of way many people do, but to suggest a machine has personality expressed in how it operates isn't strange to me.

In the last post I talked about how a MotoGP rider was a much larger piece of the equation than a Formula 1 driver is.  That expression of skill through machinery is what interests me about motorsport, the high tech frills are just that, frills.  What I want to do this morning (it's 5am and the world is silent and dark, the people are all asleep and the mental static is at a minimum) is to unpack what machines are and why they are worthy of empathy.

Machines are our thoughts given substance.  When I get on the Ninja and go for a ride I'm experiencing a confluence of thinking, dozens of engineers and designers who pieced together a rolling sculpture that best expresses their ideas of efficiency, beauty and inter-connectivity.  You seldom get to experience the mind of another person is so intimate a way as you do when operating a machine that they have created.  It's little wonder that many engineers and designers feel that the mechanical devices they produce are like their children.

You can approach this from a couple of interesting reads.  Matt Crawford's Shop Class As Soulcraft focuses on the understanding you develop from laying hands on your machine yourself.  As a treatise on the value of hands-on mechanical experience and the development of that mechanical sympathy Guy Martin mentions above, it is priceless.

Melissa Holbrook-Pierson's The Man Who Would Stop At Nothing comes at it from the riding experience and how motorcycles in particular can reach into you and animate you in a way that many other machines cannot.
A deeply personal look
at how motorcycling
can emotionally
charge you

There is a virtue in motorcycles that is also why so many people don't partake of them.  They demand so many inputs from the rider that they make driving a car seem like running a washing machine; merely the operation of an appliance.  This is so endemic to driving a car that every opportunity to interact with the vehicle is being diminished, from manual transmissions to parking.  In a few years many will flock to self driven vehicles and become forever passengers.  The vast majority of people have little interest in how a machine works or how to express themselves through it - perhaps because they have nothing to express.

The Naked Bike, in all
its glory
That motorcycles are so demanding is a virtue from the point of view of a mechanical empath.  The more interaction you have with the machine, the more possible it is to inhabit it with human expression.  There is something pure in the mechanical simplicity of the motorcycle, it is bare, naked, not covered in sheet metal designed to conceal and contrive; its function is obvious.

That this naked machine demands so much from its rider creates a giddy kind of connection in those willing and able to make it.  This machine connects to your hands, feet and whole body.  It demands inputs from every one of your limbs as well as your entire mass.  Being naked on the road, the rider's mind isn't isolated from their activity and is as engaged as their physical body.  Inhabiting a machine this completely is an intoxifying experience.

The thrill of inhabiting a machine isn't limited to motorcycles, though they are one of the purest expressions I've found.  The satisfaction in fixing, maintaining or operating any machine well offers some degree of satisfaction.  In inhabiting the machine it empowers us, giving us abilities that would seem magical to non-technological people.  We can cover ground at great speed, communicate across the world with the push of a button, fly, even slip the surly bonds of Earth and touch the sky, but not if we don't inhabit the machines that enable us.  

When machines serve humans instead of enabling them
If we remove ourselves from this equation machines become limitations rather than a means of expression.  The thought of a human being interacting with a responsive, demanding and complex machine offers us a future that is bursting with opportunity for growth.  The alternative is stagnation and ignorance.  You can guess which approach appeals to a consumerist culture intent on selling to as many people as possible.

That a machine should place demands on us isn't a bad thing, especially if it leads to a nuanced awareness of our own limitations.  The machine that can overextend you, challenge you, stress you, is a machine that can teach you something.  We fool ourselves into stagnation when we design machines that do more and ask less from us.

When I see human expression through a machine, the machine becomes a magnifying glass for their achievement, how can that not deserve empathy?  The only time it wouldn't is when the human is a pointless addition to the equation. When this happens machines become oppressive rather than enabling forces in our lives.

Sunday 29 December 2013

80/20 split

2003: Faster, a good introduction
to MotoGP
Faster (2003)  is a fast paced documentary with fantastic inside access to MotoGP.  With long-form interviews with all the major names in the sport in the early 2000s, it offers you an accessible look at the sport.

I've been a Formula One fan since the early 1990s when I saw a rookie Michael Schumacher astonish in an inferior car.  His race in the rain in Spain with only one gear cemented me as a fan.  While I've always enjoyed the technology in F1 it's the driving that really gets my attention.  I'd much rather watch a Senna or a Villeneuve than a Prost or pretty much any of the modern crop of scientists at the wheel.  I long for rain in a race not for accidents, but to see who can actually drive.

Faster showed me a sport where the human being is still the main element in creating speed.  At one point one of the many interviewees said, "in MotoGP the rider is 80% of the equation and the bike is 20%, in Formula 1 it's the other way round."

After watching the last couple of seasons of Formula 1 I'm tempted to agree.  Engineers practically drive the cars from the pits.  Given the top car any one of the drivers would win with it.  I'm no fan of Alonso, but he is a once in a generation talent, like Schumacher, or Senna, and he seldom lands anywhere on the grid except where his engineers place him.  I'd love to see F1 with no live telemetry or radio contact, no driver aids and more open engineering options, but it'll never happen.  The F1 circus is on its way to Nascar - just a staged media event.

That 80/20 split is of much more interest to me as someone interested in how human beings and machines can combine into something magical.  I really have no interest in seeing how quickly robots can travel around a track, it's the human expression through machinery that fascinates me.  It's as apparent in comparing MotoGP to F1 as it is in driving a car or riding a bike on the road.

Maybe that's the magic of this that I haven't been able to articulate: motorcycling is complicated, challenging and offers you, the operator, a much more expressive means of interacting with your machine.

High School Motorcycle Club

I'm thinking about starting a motorcycle club at the high school I work at.  This should be an interesting as it will highlight the general fear around motorbiking.  Our school runs downhill ski racing, mountain biking, rugby, and ice hockey teams, but I suspect that motorcycling may be an uphill struggle to establish as a club.

A number of our teachers and students ride.  We even have a student who is a competitive motorcross rider.  I bumped into a graduate last year when I was writing my motorcycling learner's test, she was taking the motorcycling technician course at Conestoga College in Guelph.  There is expertise, interest and activity around motorcycling in our school and our community, I only hope that the panicky liability-thinking that dictates a lot of decision making in schools calms down and takes a rational look at this.  Offering students access to the experience and opportunity a club provides would lead to a safer and more well rounded introduction to motorcycling.  From that point of view, every high school should have a club!

We could pull off field trips to motorcycle shows (along with the auto-tech department) and offer training opportunities both off road and on road.  We have several local motorcycle retailers nearby who we could work with doing seminars or information sessions on various bikes and gear.  The club would let the more experienced staff and students express their skill while offering the bike-curious a more thorough introduction to motorcycling.

I'm going to pitch this when I get back and see what the response is, I'm hoping reason trumps fear.

Friday 27 December 2013

The Wolverine & Corporate Product Placement

Filmed In Japan, Manufactured in Italy
I just saw The Wolverine and enjoyed it.  I lived in Japan for a couple of years and have a soft spot for it.  The idea of Logan in Japan was cool and I was looking forward to seeing what local vehicular colour they put into it (Japan does a lot of domestic one-offs that you don't see anywhere else).

Unfortunately I'd forgotten that Marvel is in bed with Volkswagen Group.  Imagine my disappointment when everyone in Japan is driving Audis or riding Ducatis (Ducati is owned by VW Group).  To top it off most of it was filmed in Australia and made to look like Japan.  If you're looking for a film that shows you Japan, this ain't it.

So while Logan and his sidekick are on Ducatis (in Japan, sort of), I wonder what the local manufacturers are thinking.  Since the whole advertising/placement thing is sorted out by lawyers, I imagine that Honda, Kawasaki, Suzuki and Yamaha had no say in it anyway.  Isn't it a shame that brilliant local engineering like that can be made to not exist in a film?  Can you imagine if they did a film in America and everyone was riding Ducatis with not a Harley in sight?  It would seem unrealistic.  If film makers are more interested in milking advertisers for product placement than they are in making a film seem properly placed, it bodes poorly for the future of film.

I'd read an online discussion about the best summer riding gear and someone suggested looking at what Boorman & McGregor wore on Long Way Down.  It was immediately suggested that this wasn't the best kit but merely the one that sponsored them.  Like Ducatis in Japan, media is more about advertising than fact.  With that in mind, can you trust anything you see on film about motorbikes or even the kit being used?

Ninjas! On motorbikes!
One scene that was motorbike crazy was Logan taking on a squad (clutch? herd?) of ninjas on motor-cross bikes.  I couldn't see what they were (it was dark, there were ninjas everywhere), but it made for some frantic fight scenes, especially when one of the ninjas did a stoppie and hit Logan in the face with the back wheel.

I enjoyed The Wolverine, it was a good action flick, but it would be nice if they made more of an effort to create a genuine vehicular experience in the film instead of chasing hidden advertising revenue.

Monday 23 December 2013

Ninja Photoshoots

What got me on the Ninja as a first bike was listening to the engine.  I was very rational about bike decisions prior to hearing that parallel twin purr.  That it looked the way it did didn't hurt either.  I keep finding myself looking for reasons to take photos of it...

Saturday 21 December 2013

Moments From My First Season On Two Wheels

From a new (to me) Ninja with 8100 miles  to 11,410 miles by the end of my first season, April to October, 3,310 miles, ... 5296kms.
2013: Out and about on 2 wheels!
The first time I looked at that map I wondered why I didn't go further afield, but I did make some longer sorties.  Next year I'll make a point of doing some overnight riding trips

Here are some moments from my first year in the saddle:

The first time I changed gears without consciously thinking about it was probably about a month into riding.  I then immediately became aware of the fact that I'd just changed gears without thinking it all through and had to focus on the road again before I rode off it.

In that first month I kept pushing further away from home.  The first time I went on our local (rural) highway I had a lot on my mind.  I found a left hand turn and got myself into the turning lane.  In a gap in traffic I began to make the turn and gave it (way) too much throttle, my first wheelie while turning left on my first ride on a highway!  I leaned into the bike and got the front wheel down in time to make the corner.  The kid in the Cavalier waiting to pull on to the highway got all excited by my wheelie and did a huge burnout onto the highway.  I had to laugh, I'd scared the shit out of myself and he thought I was showing off.

First time I was on a major (ie: limited access) highway, I'm riding up toward Waterloo through Kitchener and the new slab of tarmac I'm on begins to taper out.  It's the kind of thing you wouldn't think twice about in a car, but I couldn't cut across this.  The new pavement began to peter out and I ended up slipping three inches down onto the old pavement, sideways, doing about 90km/hr.  The clench factor was high, it felt like the bike just fell out from under me.  That was the first time I really realized how little is around me on a bike, and the first time I had trouble understanding what it was doing under me.

The lightning is to remind 348
drivers that it's fast... for a car
Early on I was out on local back roads getting used to the Ninja.  I pulled up to a light and a red Ferrari 348 pulled up next to me with a very smug looking boomer at the wheel.  He started blipping the throttle.  I'd never really even gone into the top half of the rev range on the Ninja, I only knew what it might be capable of from stories online.  The light changed and I twisted the throttle harder than I ever had before (which probably meant about 75% rather than 50%).  I didn't know where the Ferrari was but it wasn't next to me.  The Ninja is quick in the lower part of its rev range, more than able to stay ahead of the traffic around it.  In the upper half of its rev range something entirely different happens... it lunges.  I made a clean shift into second even while registering astonishment at what my little 649cc parallel twin could do when that second cam came on.  Second gear lasted for about a second before I had to do it again for third.  I eased off and sat up to look over my shoulder, the Ferrari was many car lengths back.  My little thirty five hundred dollar mid-sized Ninja could eat Ferraris for breakfast.  I've owned some fast cars in my time, this thing was something else entirely.

On the long ride back from Bobcaygeon I was within half an hour of home when I was trundling along behind a greige (grey/beige - featureless and soulless) mini-van at 75km/hr.  By this point I'm getting comfortable on the bike and have a sense of how it can pass and brake (astonishingly well!).  In my helmet I suddenly ask myself, "why are you following this clown?  If you had bought a Lamborghini would you be driving along in the row behind this P.O.S.?"  I passed the mini-van on the next broken line (easily) and, in that moment, adjusted my riding style to suit the vehicle I'm on.  Everything is still by the book (indicators, shoulder checks, passing on broken lines), but I don't wait for BDCs to begin paying attention to what they are doing, I just put them behind me.

Speaking of which, I'm riding in Guelph in the summer on the Hanlon highway and the old guy in a Toyota appliance (it was even the same colour as a fridge) pulls right into where I was, no indicator, no shoulder check... at least he wasn't on a phone.  I had the radar on and could see what he was going to do before he did it.  Being on a bike I was able to brake and swing over onto the curb in order to avoid getting mashed; my first experience of being invisible on a bike.  I had to look down to find the horn, I'd never used it before.  He studiously ignored me.  What is it about people in cars not feeling responsible for what they are doing?

The commute to Milton and back was a big part of my first season.  It began after I got back from my longest trip to Bobcaygeon over the Canada Day weekend.  I quickly had to get rain gear sorted out after deciding to take the bike every day rain or shine.  In those three weeks I rode 400 series highways, big city streets and miles of country road.  Temperatures ranged from 8 degree fog to 36 degree sun beating down.

One morning I left torrential rain and rode the whole way through fog, rain and spray.  Another day coming home the sky in front of me turned green and purple, real end of the world stuff.  I stopped and got the rain gear on and rode into what felt like a solid curtain of water only thirty seconds later.  As the wind came up and the rain went sideways I remember thinking, "OK, if you see a funnel cloud just hang on to the bike, you're heavier with it than without."  The bike's narrow tires cut down to the pavement even as the wind was trying to send me into the trees.  I eventually rode out of that darkness and decided that if a bike can track through that it can handle any rain.  The commute also contained the first time I didn't think twice about riding through a busy city.  Riding day in and day out on the bike gets you comfortable with it quickly.

My first tentative steps onto the 401 (staying in the inside lane for the whole 13kms) quickly turned into opening up the bike and syncing with traffic in the left hand lane.  I think a lot of that had to do with coming to trust what the bike can do, and what it can do is quite astonishing.

River Road out of Horning's Mills
My last big fall ride before the end of the season had me doing one of my biggest rides down some of the best roads within a hundred kilometres of where I live.  The bike was humming, it was cold until the sun came out, then it was perfect.  A last perfect ride before the snow fell.

It was a great first season, and I got some miles in and really enjoyed the bike.  I'm now torn whether to get rid of it an get something else, or stick with it for another season.  Either way, first time we see the sun and some clear pavement again I'll be out.

My Ninja and I in the fall on the Forks of the Credit