Showing posts sorted by relevance for query crawford. Sort by date Show all posts
Showing posts sorted by relevance for query crawford. Sort by date Show all posts

Sunday, 8 November 2020

Motorcycle Book Review: Why We Drive by Matt Crawford

I just started "Why We Drive" by Matthew Crawford.  I was in the middle of transitioning from being an English teacher to a technology teacher back in 2012 when my university prof suggested Shop Class as Soul Craft, Crawford's first book.  It gave me the philosophical grounding I needed to value my manual expertise and to fight the prevailing academic prejudices of the education system I work in.

A few years later I'd embraced my new role teaching technology and found myself constantly arguing for parity with academic programs like the English one I'd just left.  Crawford came out with his second book called "The World Beyond Your Head", which made a strong argument for human expertise in a world where blind allegiance to system think made management a fragile grasp at control for people who have no other skills of value.

I'm only through the opening chapters of "Why We Drive", but I'm enjoying the angle Crawford it taking in using driving (and riding, he doesn't distinguish) as a means of questioning the assumptions we're all increasingly living under.  In the opening chapters he suggests that operating a vehicle is one of the few domains left that demand human expertise as the rest of society falls into a WALL-E like world of of systemic technology driven infantilism.

From Uber's malicious dismantling of existing industries to suit the long term game of its investors to the NHTSA's outright misleading information on Tesla's Autopilot feature (they claimed that it radically reduced accidents when this was simply untrue), and the industry driven big government money drive to chase old cars off the street by misleading the public with even more false statistics, Crawford tears apart many of the assumptions around environmental NIMBYISM and the relentless capitalism that underlies it.

I've questioned the environmentalism of hybrid and electric cars before.  It's a classic case of NIMBYism where the wealthy hide their pollution further up the chain and then claim superiority over all the people who can't afford to give up a tail pipe.  One of the difficulties in being a teacher of technology is that I understand it, warts and all.  Our battery technology is still medieval in both construction and effectiveness.  They don't hold a lot of power and don't last very long, but any analysis of electric vehicle efficiency likes to sidestep that factNissan Leaf owners can't though.

Crawford also brings up the idea of recycling already manufactured vehicles rather than giving in to the relentless futurism of consumer society where owning anything old is paramount to a crime.  He compares a massive new SUV (all modern vehicles are massive compared to older ones as they get weighed down with safety-at-all-costs tech and grown to maximum size) to his old VW.  They get about the same mileage, but driving the Karmen Ghia is a very different experience to driving a modern safety tank.

I'm about half way through it but the hits keep on coming:

It's a challenging read, but also an opportunity to wake up from the progress pills everyone has been popping and understand that being human isn't about efficiency and management, it's about agency.

What happens when we engineer our own solutions using universal dimensions instead of a manufacturer's parts catalogue...

Sunday, 6 December 2020

Tech to Amplify Rather than Atrophy

I just finished Matt Crawford's latest book, Why We Drive.  This challenging read unpacks how we've backed ourselves into an intellectual dead end under tech driven surveillance capitalism.  Crawford comes at it from the big-tech push to colonize one of the last moments in our lives where human skill is tested and judged by reality rather than marketing expectations, vehicular operations.  Advertising companies like Google aren't trotting out self-driving cars for safety or efficiency (though that's the marketing), they're trotting them out so they can take all that consumer attention wasted on driving and advertise to it.  Even with this problematic impetus and misleadingly media spin self-driving vehicles are imminent and this leads Crawford to (quite rightly) question the intent of the companies pushing them.  The assumption that self-driving cars will somehow be  better for us is undressed in many ways in the book.

Seeing where Matt's head is at in 2020 encouraged me to reread his first book, the bestselling Shop Class as Soulcraft, which came out in 2009 in response to the market crash that everyone seems to have forgotten now as we're increasingly told we need austerity to pay back the predatory organizations who caused the debt in the first place. Running the economy is a good gig if you're one of the 'financial class' who maintain the fiction.  You can crash the market and make billions of people poorer and then profit from it indefinitely as you charge interest on the loans you handed out to 'solve' the crisis you caused.  It takes a special kind of stupid to buy into this.

Looking at Shop Class now years later it has historical context to it I didn't see in earlier readings where the response to the market collapse wasn't as obvious.  Back then it was just timely.  One of the themes that follows Matt's thinking through all three of his books is his dislike of automation.  In Shop Class he talks about situated knowledge and the importance of having an intimate relationship with reality.  Fundamentally, Crawford believes this vital to human beings fully developing their abilities.  When we're devalued by monied interests into simplistic consumers we are unable to fully develop our human potential.  Surveillance Capitalists intent on monetizing every moment of everyone's existence for their own financial advantage have coupled with safety and efficiency movements in government and society to create a brave new world of atrophied people.

I've come at this digital prejudice from an educational technology point of view on Dusty World, but it bears examining from a motorcycling perspective too.  Crawford is a physicist and mechanical and electrical technician, but he seems to have drawn a hard line between digital technology and everything else.  It's probably an age related thing.  Matt's about five years older than I am.  As I was getting into early home computers and figuring them out he was already through high school and working in his trade.  I ended up heading towards IT because when I was working as a millwright I was the only one willing to take computer controlled systems on in a department full of older people who couldn't be bothered.

The idea that digital technology is opaque and unknowable is a continual professional frustration for me as a computer technology teacher.  Other educators, students and parents all buy in to this opacity even while they embrace information and communication technology in more aspects of their lives.  I understand the reluctance to make ourselves literate in this emerging technology, but if we're all going to use it I'd suggest we're all responsible for having at least a basic understanding of how it works or else we're going to all end up illiterate in a digitally powered world.

A bunch of smooth talking sociopaths have taken over the face of digital technologies, but I can assure you that Google, Facebook and the rest are not the limit of what digital technology can do for us.  Thinking that is dangerously reductive.  There was a time when the internet was newly birthed from academia and the people on it were exploring a new frontier rather than leveraging it in an Orwellian attempt to monetize our attention.  I'm a digitally literate person and I have no love for them, but I get the sense that Matt truly despises computing to the point of lumping any digital tech in with the sociopaths.  It's a hard distinction to make, though John Naughton does a good job of coaxing it out of author Shoshan Zuboff:

"While it is impossible to imagine surveillance capitalism without the digital, it is easy to imagine the digital without surveillance capitalism. The point cannot be emphasised enough: surveillance capitalism is not technology. Digital technologies can take many forms and have many effects, depending upon the social and economic logics that bring them to life. Surveillance capitalism relies on algorithms and sensors, machine intelligence and platforms, but it is not the same as any of those."

Another motorcycling angle to come at this from might be Neil Spalding's MotoGP Technology. This technical manual charts the evolution of the top prototyping class of MotoGP motorcycle racing over the past twenty years. These have been years of digital integration and management in terms of rule making and deciding how much of an influence computer assistance will have in the sport. Unlike Formula One, which many have suggested has gone too far down the technology path, MotoGP has evolved to focus on enhancing rider abilities rather than replacing them. Spalding mentions the estimate that F1 is an 80% car engineering 20% driver skill equation, where as MotoGP is the opposite. Marc Marquez winning championships on the third best bike would certainly suggest the humans operating MotoGP bikes matter more than the tech, and yet these are digital machines.

There is a point in the book where Spalding has to re-orientate the reader on how electronics work in MotoGP. Unlike what a consumer is used to, racing electronics have nothing to do with safety.  Their only intent is more speed even if it means more effort and skill is expected from the rider.  While everyone watching a race has only ever experienced electronic interventions (anti-lock brakes, traction control etc) as a safety blanket thrown over their incompetence, a racer only experiences them through the lens of performance.  Electronic intervention on a race bike make it more extreme and harder to ride.  
That alone should make the true breadth of electronics and digital technology in riding a bit more clear.  They are only self-driving us because someone wants them to for their own reasons, not because the tech is inherently focused in that direction.

Crawford often speaks of the mechanical work he's doing on various machines, but mechanical work doesn't end where a computer is involved.  There are some parts of vehicular evolution where automation is a much needed advance.  Crawford does make a point of mentioning this, but grudgingly.  Reading Classic Bike Magazine a few weeks ago I came across a great article about Dr Desmo, Fabio Taglioni, the Ducati engineer who spent his career continually looking for advancements for the brand.  His quote about computer controlled fuel injection is much like a MotoGP team's fixation on performance rather than protecting a rider from their own incompetence and is yet another reminder that electronic and digital technology does not have to replace human agency but can in fact enhance it.

Sorting out the Triumph's fuel injection system
by finding a modified fuel map and installing
it on the bike's FI computer was one of this 
year's most satisfying repairs.
I like getting a bank of carbs sorted out as much as the next person, and sometimes I make a point of working on bikes without electronics to distance myself from what I do at work all week (mechanical repairs offer a more immediate kind of satisfaction), but I've also had great technical satisfaction from the hybrid mechanical and electronics repairs I've had to make on the Tiger.  I realize that electronics and computer based repairs are often out of the comfort zone of the home mechanic, but that's based on the kind of anti-digital prejudice Crawford carries through his philosophy.  If we could all get passed that prejudice perhaps we could reclaim the digital tools we've surrendered to the attention merchants.

It's critically important we don't romanticize old technology for the same reason we shouldn't romanticize previous time periods.  If you think the 1960s were some kind of magical time in human history odds are you're a heteronormative, neurotypical white male.  From the point of view of the vast majority of the people on the planet the nineteen sixties were fucked, and so was much of the technology we were using back then.  That time of excess and privilege has led us to the brink of disaster fifty years later.  Longing to go back to it or recreate it is a kind of insanity.

This is distinct from respecting culture and engineering from a certain time period when it showed us a better way forward.   I greatly enjoy working on older machines in order to keep that history alive, but if you're putting on rose coloured glasses that make you blind to the possibilities of today's technology then you're just as manipulative as the sociopaths who are destroying society for their own gain.

Crawford talks about technology that is locked and closed, like Mercedes without dipsticks to check your own oil, or electronics that are sealed to prevent 'tampering'.  Corporations are able to do this because people have been convinced that digital technologies are something they can't comprehend, but this is bullshit.  The companies offering to do everything for you aren't technology companies, they are advertising companies.  Ignore them and ignore authors who dismiss digital technology as inherently nannying.  Modern technology can just as easily be used to enhance human ability and force us to be smarter, stronger and faster as it can be used to make us stupid, docile and compliant.  The issue is the intent of the people peddling it, not the tech itself.

If I can't convince you maybe Kenneth Clark's angle in 1969's award winning documentary 'Civilisation' will highlight things:

Clark's concern is that automation plays to the hands of authoritarian regimes.  He couldn't see the emergence of multi-national corporations that we're now under the yoke of back in 1969, but he isn't wrong about automation playing to fascists.  Crawford shares the same concerns, and they're well founded, but one of the best ways to take back control for more people is to make them literate in the technology being used to enthrall them.

All that to say don't be afraid of the digital aspects of motorcycle maintenance.  This tech was made by people so you can figure it out, and in doing so you will also teach yourself to author the technology the attention tyrants are using to snow you under.  From that point of view of self sufficiency and understanding of technology Matt Crawford should be on board.

Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Motorcycle Media: a documentary to look forward to

I came across a description of The Greasy Hands Preachers in BIKE Magazine this month.  The two guys responsible for this upcoming documentary about motorcycle culture previously did a short film called Long Live The Kings:

LONG LIVE THE KINGS - Short film documentary - from SAGS on Vimeo.

It packs a surprising amount into a short film.  It's nicely shot and carefully crafted, though it does seem to fall into a genre trap that I saw pointed out the other week; the dreaded bullshit hipster bike video.  There is something genuine about Long Live The Kings that (I hope) excludes it from being a BS hipster bike video. 

Looking at BHBV's bingo card (left), they seem hit a lot of the hipster bullshit, yet I still want to believe that they are genuine.

With luck The Greasy Hands Preachers will offer some real insight into motorcycling.  I'm hoping against hope that they have interviewed Matt Crawford and are able to present a film that doesn't just paint motorbiking and working on your own machine crudely in a fad that will quickly look out of date.  

Long Live The Kings has moments of philosophical insight that might develop into a deeply reflective documentary in Greasy Hands Preachers.  Crawford's brilliant Shopclass as Soulcraft would be a perfect fit for that approach but I'm afraid the film is going to devolve into another 'ain't bikin fun?' video, this time with a veneer of hipster bullshit on top.

Sneak preview straight from the edit - The Greasy Hands Preachers from SAGS on Vimeo.

THE GREASY HANDS PREACHERS DOCUMENTARY Pre-trailer Kickstarter from SAGS on Vimeo.

Saturday, 29 August 2015

Shop Class as Soulcraft Deep Thoughts

I'm a big fan of Matt Crawford's fantastic book on the value of skilled labour, Shop Class as Soul Craft.  If you get a chance, it'll change your mind about the value of working with your hands.

I just finished his latest book, The World Beyond Your Head, where he makes a compelling argument for our's being a situated intelligence (we aren't brains in boxes) that is evident because of our manual connection to the world around us, not in spite of it.  It's a deep, rich read that does a lot of dismantle the idea of the empty expertise of the digital economy/liberal arts student.

I recently came across a video where Crawford is talking about the book, and other things.  This bit struck me as funny after my recent thoughts on biker culture:

"You might say the B.S. quotient it low... unless you're dealing with Harley owners.  Then it can actually be quite high."

You'd think most people would buy the dependable ones, right?
That idea of a B.S. quotient led me look up motorcycle reliability indices for the first time.  Consumer Reports gets into it by explaining how customer satisfaction is different from reliability.  You'd think the two things are closely linked, but they aren't so much.

"If you want to know how satisfied riders are with their motorcycle, ask them about comfort. We found that comfort ratings track most closely with overall satisfaction scores. "

You know those leather clad tough guys in their Motor Company regalia?  They like comfort the most.  Potato, potato, potato...

Friday, 29 March 2013


From August, 2012 courtesy of Dusty World:

I just finished reading Matthew Crawford's "Shop Class for Soulcraft", a philosophical look at the value of skilled, physical labour.  Having come from a mechanical background into an academic one, a philosopher-mechanic's critical examination of the 'creative economy' we're all dying to jump into was refreshing.
I've often missed the clarity and satisfaction I found in repairing machines, and now I have a philosophical explanation of that sense of loss. Crawford delineates meaningful work in terms of objective standards, a sense of community and individual agency.  He then goes on to disembowel the MBA speak found in the otherworldly knowledge economy that can only exist in an entirely abstract sense of work, one I fear that has been applied to the skilled trade of teaching courtesy of lawyers and politicians.

It's been a few weeks now since I finished the book.  I'm finding that the lasting impression is one of embracing my smart hands again.  The idea that mind work is somehow superior to hand work is nonsense, though our school is streamed according to that logic (academic/applied, university/college).  The argument that we discover the truest aspect of human intelligence when we work our minds through our hands continues to ring true for me.

The other, unintentional side effect has been a re-awakening of my love of motorcycles.  I'd originally gone after one when I was 16, but my parents offered to up what I'd saved to get me into a car.  It's probably one of the reasons I'm here today, it was a smart move.  At 43 I'm not interested in wrapping myself around a pole.  Riding is a way to be alone with your thoughts, no obtrusive media, and the development of a constant awareness; you can't let your mind wander on a bike, they are ruthlessly observant of incompetence. Riding also offers an intimate familiarity with a machine in a very minimalist way that is appealing.

I come by my urges honestly.  Here is a picture of my Grand-dad Bill in the late nineteen forties... I need to get myself some white riding shoes!  I later learned from my Aunt that Bill was a stunt rider in the R.A.F. motorcycle tatoo (they would do gymnastics and stunts while doing drill on the motorbikes).  Wild!

I hope to be licensed and riding in the spring.

Saturday, 24 August 2019

Fear and Arrogance

The other day I did a ride that isn't typical of my time on two wheels - I aimed for the middle of a city, during rush hour.  The siren call for this insanity was strong.  The Toronto Motorcycle Film Festival was having a best-of showing at the beautifully restored Playhouse Theatre in Hamilton.

From TMD you'll know I'm a big fan of motorcycle media and the TMFF's push to encourage Canadian films is something I'd like to both support and participate in.  Riding down to Hamilton on a beautiful summer's day was the perfect entry point and has me thinking of ways to get to their main show in Toronto in early October.  I'm secretly hoping I can find a project that needs a drone pilot aerial camera operator and likes weird camera angles.

But first, the peril.  Driving in rush hour isn't like driving at other times.  The people doing it are miserable, embroiled in the last part of their forced servitude for the day, the part where they get to spend a sizable portion of their time and income in a vehicle that has become an expensive appliance whose only function is to move them to and from the job it demands.  The aimless frustration and misery oozes out of them at every turn, sometimes expressing itself in sudden bursts of anger and aggression before settling back into a miasmic death stare of indifference.

So that was making me anxious.  Looking at Google Maps red roads of the GTA at rush hour on a warm, sunny day wasn't thrilling either.  Sitting in traffic on a motorcycle in moribund no-filtering Ontario sucks.  It sucks on the fumes of the massive SUVs all around you, their contents breathing filtered, air conditioned air while you choke on their output.  Edging toward a green light inches at a time on hot tarmac surrounded by this excess and misery is about as much fun as a deep periodontal cleaning, without the benefits, and with the destruction of nature as the result of this pointlessness.

I haven't had much time on the bike this summer.  My wife's surprise cancer diagnosis and surgery has meant other priorities take hold.  Finally back from weeks in a car, I was facing my first long ride in over two months, and it wasn't for the ride, it was for the destination.  Alanna wanted to ride pillion down, though she's still recovering.  I was worried about her, feeling very over protective and also dealing with my son's anxiety in us going after being away at camp for the first time this summer (don't worry, we're coming back!).

That's a lot of emotional luggage to take on a ride.  Even leaving our subdivision I was second guessing traffic and riding awkwardly, and getting frustrated with myself for it.  I'm usually loose and light on the controls and not stuck in a conscious state while riding - which makes me smooth and fluid, even in traffic.  We worked our way down to the dreaded Hanlon bypass in Guelph (which isn't because it's covered in traffic lights)  and sat in row after row of the damned things every few hundred metres.  I was constantly placing us on the road where I could squirt out of the way of someone not paying attention.  We passed two collisions, rear enders caused by the epidemic around us.  Sitting up high on the bike has its disadvantages, like seeing down into the vehicles around us and watching over half of the drivers working their phones on their laps.  I guess that's the new normal in a 2019 commute.

Down by Stone Road the guy behind us wasn't going to stop in time (he had a nice iPhoneX on his lap), but I squirted out onto the shoulder instead of letting him end our ride and took the next exit where we worked down country side roads instead, but not before being choked to death by a diesel black smoke belching dump truck that jumped out right in front of us causing me to brake so hard we bumped into each other.  I finally got past him after riding in his bleching, black haze for several kilometres, but by this point I was fried, and we'd only ridden through Guelph, the small city before the big one.

I was going to pull off at the lovely old church in Kirkwall and have a stretch and get my head on straight, but the F150 dualie behind me was about six inches off my rear tire even though I was going over the limit and I was afraid to hit the brake, so pressed on.  He blew past us coming out of Kirkwall only to pull up behind the car 150 metres ahead of us and stay there until he eventually pulled off some time later.  You gotta make time on your commute I guess.

Doubt isn't something that creeps into my riding, but it was starting to here.  The lack of control and extremely defensive mindset was exhausting me.  Alanna was suffering hot flashes on the back mainly due to Guelph's atrocious traffic and lights and was feeling wobbly, and I was starting to question everything I was doing.  We are coming home Max.  This isn't going to end badly!

We were both on the lookout for a place to stop when the Rockton Berry Farm appeared as if an oasis in the desert.  I pulled in and we dragged our sweaty, tense bodies off the Tiger.  Alanna went in and found some sustenance and I did some yoga.  After stretching and some Gatorade and trail mix I felt human again.  Talking to Alanna I mentioned how I was battling some demons on this ride and reminded myself that the best kind of rider is the Zen rider.  Matt Crawford describes motorcycling as a beautiful war, but this one was more like a pitched battle.  It's amazing what a stop can do for your mental state though.

After a fifteen minute break we saddled up again ready to face the horror of Hamilton's rush hour, but something had changed.  Instead of holding on too tight, I was letting go.  My riding was more fluid, we flowed with the chaos and when we got down to the mean streets of downtown Hamilton, they were a delight.  Unlike Guelph, who seem determined to stop you at every intersection, Hamilton actually times its lights so you can cut through the heart of the city with barely a stop.  Past the beautiful old houses and industrial buildings we flew, down to the up and coming area where that beautifully restored Playhouse Theatre sat.

As we pulled into the parking lot that was already filling with all manner of motorcycles, I thought over that ride down. I'd actually suggested that maybe we should take the car, but that would have sucked just as much and had no sense of adventure and accomplishment in it, though it would have been easier and safer - the motto of modern day life.

If you're in a situation where you're riding and finding it overwhelming, take a break and give yourself a chance to get your head back on straight. You'd be amazed what a ten minute stretch and reset can do for your mindset, and that mindset is your greatest tool when riding.  In spite of her cancer recovery, Alanna had pushed to ride because she wanted us to 'immerse ourselves in that biking culture' in going to this event.  Standing in the parking lot chatting with other riders, we were doing just that.

I'll cover the film night in another post, but the ride down was a reflective opportunity I couldn't pass up.  In Bull Durham, Crash Davis talks about how you go about the difficult job of being a professional athlete.  You've gotta have swagger, even when things are going against you, and that's equally true in motorbiking.  After this ride, I can see why many people who otherwise enjoyed it gave it up.  That fear, once it worms its way inside you, will talk you out of risk no matter what the reward.

Of course, the point isn't to not feel fear, but to feel it and work through it anyway.  That's bravery.  Not feeling fear at all is psychosis.  Baz Luhrman has a good take on this with his motto:  a life lived in fear is a life lived.  Letting fear dictate your life is no way to live.  We are already dead when we always play safe and stop taking risks.

What made it especially challenging this time was that I couldn't moderate many of those risks by riding away from the faceless hordes of commuters.  Spending a day with them in their pointless battle to destroy the planet was exhausting and terrifying, no wonder they box themselves up in the largest container they can afford, planet be damned.

The motorcycle films shown by the TMFF were great and completely new to me (and I'm a guy with Austin Vince's entire DVD collection - I know moto-films).  One of my favourite parts of this kind of documentary film making is showing what is possible, and I was briming over with it when we left.  I couldn't have been in a better mood to ride.

We exited into the dark for the long ride home.  It was cool and the streets were flowing and half empty as we worked our way back to the highway and shot up into the dark of the Niagara Escarpment.  Even the guy driving 10 under the limit who suddenly stood on the brakes for no reason (he had evidently received an exciting text message - he was two handing a response as we passed him on the inside lane of Highway 6) didn't phase me.  I was back on my game, staring into the dark out of my third eye.  When that eye gazes into the abyss, the abyss is the one that gets nervous.

Now I'm thinking about a third eye graphic for the helmet...
We got all the way up to Guelph, sane now that traffic had died down and all the sad people were in their row houses waiting for tomorrow to do it again.  If we're so smart, you'd have to think we could find a better way.

Shakespeare Arms by the university we met at over twenty years ago provided us with a late night dinner before we pressed on home, passing a skunk (the Canadian night is filled with them) galloping across the road into the graveyard ahead of us.  The last light (of course) caught us, then we were away into the night, the Milky Way glittering above us and the night smells all around.  We were home seemingly seconds later, our creaking, cold joints groaning as we finally seperated ourselves from our trusty Tiger.


We rode right into south central Hamilton at rush hour and out after 9pm, about 12 kilometres of dense, urban riding with more traffic lights than I could count, but we got stopped at three of them both coming and going.  I commented to Alanna about how Hamilton has its shit together in a way that Guelph seems oblivious to.

Passing back through Guelph past 10pm at night and covering about a kilometre less in a city with less than a quarter the population, we got stopped at nine traffic lights.  On our way south earlier in the day during rush hour, Guelph was a traffic light bonanza (even on the 'bypass') getting stopped at no less than six lights before we could escape the madness.  Guelph should rename itself the city of lights, just not in a Parisian sense.

Perhaps the moral of this story is really just don't go anywhere near Guelph if you can help it.  It's time they started urban planning like the city they have quickly grown into.  It'd make the chaos that much less overwhelming (not to mention, ya know, stopping the iminent demise of the human race).  There's this thing called IoT and smart cities?  Guelph should look into it - I'd be happy to help.

Friday, 21 November 2014

Motorbike media bits and pieces...

I came across some motorcycle media recently that is a nice diversion if you're suffering from PMS. has a series of motorcycle short documentaries that will keep you rolling on two wheels, even if it's vicariously.

The Women's Motorcycle Exhibit video led me to the site;  much better than the floozy on a bike photography you usually see.  There is nothing sexier than a strong, capable woman riding a bike (as opposed to a skinny model draping herself on one).

The other shorts were all new to me except for Long Live The Kings, which has since spawned The Greasy Hands Preachers.  The reviews for that film have suggested that it's a shallow but pretty look at current motorbike customization trends.  I was hoping for something that plumbs the depths like Matt Crawford's Shopclass As Soulcraft (a must read),  but it evidently isn't that, though I'm still looking forward to seeing it.

I also found Brittown, a documentary about Meatball, a master mechanic and Triumph motorbike connoisseur out of California.  It's a genuine look at a genuine fellow.  You'd be hard pressed to find any hipster bullshit in this video.

I also completed the set.  Having already seen Faster and Fastest, I was finally able to see The Doctor, The Tornado and The Kentucky Kid, the middle Motogp video in the trilogy.  It's a close look at a single race at Leguna Seca.  The phoned in interviews are a bit low-rent, but the drama is as engaging as ever.  If you want to get into Motogp, these videos will give you the background you need to get right into next season.

In the meantime, the mighty Austin Vince put out Mini-Mondo, another motorbike short (poem!) that (hopefully) gets you out on two wheels and seeing what's around you:

We're buried in snow in mid-November and thoughts of riding are weeks behind me now, but at least the media I'm finding keeps the two wheel dreaming alive.

Friday, 10 April 2015

Greasy Hands Preachers

I got a copy of The Greasy Hands Preachers through Vimeo the other day.  I enjoyed Long Live The Kings, though the hipster meter got pegged a couple of times, TGHP was similar.

The Greasy Hands Preachers interviews builders in the current custom motorcycle scene under the pretext of emphasizing the value of skilled manual labour.  The movie is nicely shot (though sometimes gratuitously hand held and pull zoomed).  By using off-the-cuff interviews you get glimpses into the deeper motivations of these custom builders, most of whom have more in common with sculptures than mechanics.

I've spent most of my life in an orbit back to valuing my smart hands.  In my late teens I was apprenticing as a millwright and struggling with the idea that I was undervaluing my mind.  The thought of decades of repetitive, menial work drove me to eventually quit and go to university where I could finally prove to myself that I'm smarter than people told me I was.

But smart hands don't like inactivity.  The intimate act of dismantling, understanding and healing a machine stays with you, and your hands itch to make things work again.  Cars had devolved from a special interest to a utilitarian necessity for me.  Working on them was menial rather than scratching an infatuation.  It wasn't until I started riding a couple of years ago that I found a machine that fostered a sufficiently intimate relationship to warrant infatuation.  The ability to express my smart hands on a motorbike and heal the machine is half the thrill of riding.

The Greasy Hands Preachers are preaching to the converted with me.  The
arc from white to blue collar work experienced by several of the people in the film is one familiar to me.  But rather than pierce the veil and coherently express the underlying urges behind the resurging DIY ethos, GHP only hints at it.  I think this is a result of their unscripted interview approach.  Asking an artist to spontaneously and coherently express their process is unlikely to produce a clear view of what they do.  Expecting them to be able to do so while on camera isn't going to lead the viewer to a deep, nuanced understanding of how a mechanical artist values their hands.

Were it me, I would have started with the interviews and then had a scripted followup that clarified and deepened the narrative.  I can't help but think GHP is an opportunity lost.

If you want to look right into the heart of the DIY resurgence pick up Shopclass As Soulcraft and discover an intelligent explanation of the value of skilled labour.  I was hoping that Greasy Hands Preachers would approach Crawford's brilliant little book in terms of realizing the value of hands-on work, but instead it's a pretty, sometimes banal film that hints at deeper ideas.

Would I recommend The Greasy Hands Preachers?  Certainly.  It's a beautifully filmed opportunity to consider an important part of being human.  If you read Shopclass As Soulcraft first (as I'm guessing the makers of GHP didn't) you'd be ready to create your own meaning, which is probably better than being spoon fed anyway.

Monday, 15 February 2016

The Machine As Narrative

Eighteen months ago I found a 1994 Kawasaki ZG1000 sitting in a field.  It was in pretty rough shape, unused with grass growing up through it.  I was immediately drawn to it, though I was worried about transitioning from my relatively modern, fuel injected, first bike (an '07 Ninja) to this twenty year old, carbureted machine that clearly needed TLC to be roadworthy.  

One of the reasons I got into motorcycling was to re-spark my dormant love of mechanics, which had been prompted by Matt Crawford's brilliant little book, Shopclass As Soulcraft.  I briefly battled with worries about my abilities and working on motorcycles (of which I had no previous experience).  When you get a car repair wrong you tend to roll to a stop surrounded by a big cage.  If you get a bike part wrong it can throw you down the road.  I'd been away from mechanics so long that I was afraid I'd lost the touch.

Once I got my hands moving again they quickly remembered what they once knew.  My ability to repair machines hadn't been unused, it had simply been focused elsewhere, on IT.  Those years of rebuilding cars and working in the industry quickly came back to me.

The Concours was stripped down, old gauges were fixed, oil lines repaired and it sailed through safety.  The old dog immediately rewarded me with a ride up to Blue Mountain though a snow storm, and a ride around Georgian Bay.  The only mechanical failure as the bike began to rack up miles was Canadian Tire's fault.

By the end of the summer the old Kawasaki had ridden down the back straight of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and clocked up over thirty thousand miles on the odometer.

This winter I've been deeper into the bike than ever before.  Besides maintenance items like spark plugs, I also had a close look at the tires, and elected to retire the mis-matched, old tires.  With the tires off and the wheels naked, I looked into industrial coating options.  Fireball Performance Coatings is only about half an hour away in Erin.  After meeting with the owner Mark, I went with a candy coated gold that'll gel nicely with the red/gold trim look the bike is developing.  The rims are done and are currently at Two Wheel Motorsport getting Michelined up.  Future bike projects are definitely going to make use of Fireball's coatings.

This week things start to go back together in a big way.  With the tires and rims back I'll be popping in the new bearings, putting the balancing beads in (first time trying them), and installing the wheels back on the bike.  With the wheels (and disk brake rotors) back on I'll be able to finally finish the rear brake lines and reinstall the rebuilt calipers.  It's a lot of bits and pieces that need to come back together, fortunately I've been taking photos as I go (a good way to keep track of what goes where).  Between that and the Clymer shop manual, everything should come back together nicely.

A big part of taking things apart is cleaning them up, even if parts don't get replaced.  I've been into many dark places that haven't seen anyone since 1994.

The clean and shiny drive disk in the rear hub - it's what the shaft drive feeds into.

A cleaned up shaft drive housing on the back of the bike.
The rear suspension is cleaned up, but it needs a good greasing.
Owning an older motorcycle can be frustrating, but it's also very rewarding.  The operation of the machine is only one part of your relationship with it.  By laying hands on the mechanicals you become familiar with your motorbike in a new way.  That mechanical relationship integrates with the riding relationship, creating something richer.

It might be nice to have a newer machine that always works, but even if I could afford that, I don't know that I'd sell off the Concours.  It's nice to have a machine I'm this intimate with.

As I finished writing this Triumph emailed me with a link to the new Street Twin configurator.  That'd be a lovely machine to start another story with...

Sunday, 20 March 2022

Motorcycle Book Review: The Rudge Book Of The Road

I was reading Classic Bike Magazine last month and one of the auctioneers in the back of the mag suggested getting my hands on a copy of The Rudge Book Of The Road if you are looking for an historical read that'll get you through a long winter and prime you for the coming springtime.

I had a look around and finally found a 1926 version of the book on Amazon for about thirty five bucks.

If you have a thing for art deco drawings, the Rudge Book of the Road will scratch that itch!

My copy was once owned by.. a W. Chapman?
Reading a book that's almost 100 years old gives you a perspective on motorcycling that you might not have considered before.  At one point the author talks about how much Rudge has learned from building motor-bikes over the past 17 years.  I found myself becoming conscious decades of development that since went into my current 1971 Triumph Bonneville project and then continued on for decades more as found in my modern Triumph Tiger and Kawasaki Concours.  A bit of historical perspective is a powerful thing when you're hands on with the engineering found in modern motorbikes.  With nearly a century of continuous development, reading about motorcycling from the dawn of the sport is good mental exercise.

The Rudge Book of the Road takes me back to a time when my grandparents were children and, as a modern reader, I'm left struggling to find a frame of reference in our overcrowded and mechanized world.  There were a quarter as many people on the planet when this book was written and internal combustion engines were in an early phase of rapid development as they revolutionized and democratized travel for more than just the wealthy.  This book makes a point of recognizing this exciting period in history:

Traffic jams and the expectation that everyone be commuting in motor vehicles in an increasingly crowded and polluted world makes this perspective feel particularly alien in 2022.  Can you imagine thinking about motorbike travel like this?  If anyone could do it, it's motorcyclists - we may be one of the last vehicular subcultures that clings this kind of romance, even as the vast majority drive their appliances without a second thought for how they work or experiencing any inherent joy in the activity.

Having lived with rough 'colonials' for most of my life, some of the language in this very British book made me smile.  It was written for Rudge Whitworth as a sales tool but it leans toward the romance of riding as a theme throughout.  Rudge themselves lasted until 1946 before they stopped production, so you're reading a book by a company that hasn't existed in over seventy years, which further makes reading this feel like an echo from a distant and unknown past:

The state of the art in terms of motorcycle engineering was making major steps in the 1920s.  Earlier bikes had you oiling the motor as you rode it.  Too much and it would clog the spark plugs and leave you on the side of the road having to clean your plugs, a job most modern vehicle operators would have no idea how to do.  Too little oil and the engine would seize, possibly tossing you down the road.  This degree of involvement in motor vehicle operation was being phased out in the mid-nineteen-twenties bringing more people into the moto-fold.

The idea of sitting down with your new machine and understanding what it needs and how it works is a foreign one in 2022, but Rudge makes this process seem almost meditative.  The idea of lighting your pipe and comprehending your new machine in your shed still appeals to a few of us.  Perhaps this is another of those colonial distinctions.  I have no trouble finding programs on industrial history and engineering when I watch British television, but Canadians seem more focused on resource extraction and office work than they are with understanding how things work and then manufacturing them.  This sort of mechanical sympathy will sound particularly foreign to Canadian ears:

Sit on a can of gasoline and light your pipe!  Those were the days...

This old book doesn't limit itself to motorcycling mechanics.  If you've never camped before they offer advice for those new to sleeping on the ground.  Rudge made sidecar outfits and even a trailer/caravan for people interested in taking everything with them.

When your trusty leather bound Rudge Book of the Road isn't teaching you how to moto-camp, it's explaining how the roads you're riding on might be built on top of old Roman roads or how to identify the architecture of the historical buildings you're touring past.  This makes me wonder whether Rudge's target audience was perhaps a bit more educated than your typical rider, but it also makes me wonder if maybe people were just a bit smarter back then without a phone to immerse them in social media in all the time.

The book doesn't stop at camping or architecture and goes on to teach you how to forecast the weather, tell direction and even tells you where the biggest hills on the island are so you know what gear to tackle them with.  It then provides charts on when the sun rises and sets so you know when to turn on your new-fangled electrical light.  Rudges were one of the first to go electric.  A few years earlier you were lighting a gas powered lamp on your motor-bike before proceeding into the dusk on mostly unfinished roads (while remembering to give the top and some oil).  There are (many?) riders now who have never turned a wrench or put a wheel off pavement.

You'll learn more from doing things than you will from "all the books or professors in the world".  Something we've forgotten in our screen-fueled information revolution?

There is another chapter written by F.A. Longman, Rudge's rider in the 1927 Isle of Man TT road race.  He writes with a racer's urgency and puts you in the rider's seat as he talks you around the T.T. mountain course while it was still young and relatively new.  It's amazing how little has changed in the racer's mindset even while they're using machines that have only just recently become mechanically self contained.  They were seeing huge leaps in speed as technology improved and riders came to terms with what this new technology was capable of.

After teasing you with the Isle of Man TT, the RBotR then gives you some 1920s style advice on how to get ready to compete in trials and perhaps even go road racing with your motorbike:

Civilisation continues to makes fools of us all in 2022...

Give up the cigarettes and alcohol entirely, but do keep the pipe smoking!  Can you imagine modern, liability-driven manufacturers encouraging riders to do this sort of thing on their new motorbike?  It's difficult not to get swept up in the enthusiasm and possibility of riding at a time when it was still new to so many people, including the people who built the things!  The lack of caution is exhilarating.

The book ends with a complete set of colour maps of the United Kingdom, but not before it talks you through buying your Rudge (this is a marketing piece, remember?).  Your fifty pounds (about $1350CAD in today's dollars) gets you the base model of the Rudge Four - for ten pounds more you can get the sport model.  New bikes were much more accessible back in the day! 

The final gift this old book gives you is a list of future readings if you're interested in motorcycles and travelling on them:

Unknown Norfolk is on my shortlist.  I wonder how many places I'll recognize from growing up there fifty years later.

The Rudge Book of the Road was such an interesting read that I'm going to keep digging for some of these other historical moto-reading options.  The RbotR suggests slipping one of these in your (tweed?) jacket pocket to read when you get to your destination and finally put your feet up - with your pipe, of course - after another exhilarating day of riding in the dawn of motorcycling.

A more modern motorcyclist philosopher, Matt Crawford, described riding as "a beautiful war", the Rudge Book of the Road shows that it has always been thus.  If you ride, you'll find this a familiar and enjoyable refrain.

No rear suspension other than springs on the seat and a tank that hangs under the frame: state of the art motorcycle engineering in 1927 seems archaic but these machines were a huge step forward in dependability and hint at the evolution motorcycles would take.
Art deco inside cover wallpaper!

Riding in the dawn of motorcycling...