Musing: Truth and Motorcycles

I think Truth is a slippery concept. Here are three statements commonly held to be true with little debate:

  • 1 + 1 = 2.
  • The sky is blue.
  • What goes up must come down.

The first statement is true as long as there is agreement about the meaning of the symbols “1”, “+” and “2”, and you are talking about counting things. But, it isn’t true if you use it to predict what happens when you add two drops of water together: in that case you end up with only one drop of water.

The second statement is not always true, for example at night, on a cloudy day or if you are standing on the moon. The last statement is not true for the two Voyager space craft which will never return to earth.

These examples are my feeble attempt to show that “context” is very important when you are looking for the truth. Truthfulness exists within a context. You can fall into a “truth trap” if you blindly assume truth in one context is a universal truth for every context.

Since truth exists in a context, you have to look for and understand the context surrounding a statement about the truth and then evaluate if a different context is sufficiently the same before you can can conclude if the statement will be true in the new context. That’s not so easy. I think the ability to judge how similar two contexts are when looking for the truth is one hall mark of “critical thinking”.

Defining a context is not so easy. This is often due to unspoken, or unconscious, assumptions you have which do not apply in a different context. The three true statements I made above all had hidden assumptions about context which leads a casual reader to agree that they are true. It’s very hard to see your assumptions about common experience.

I point this out because when I work on motorcycles there are times when I can’t find the cause of a problem. Every test I try indicates nothing is wrong, but yet, the truth is, something is wrong.

I’ve learned that when I find myself in this situation, it’s time to write down all my assumptions. Often I have to do this more than once because the hard part about assumptions is you don’t recognize you have made them. Then I test every one of them. Every time I have used this meticulous listing of assumptions and testing, I’ve found one that isn’t a valid assumption in the context of the problem.

I hope this helps you solve problems that are too slippery to get a grip on.


Musing: The Luxury and The Misery of Time

Shortly after I started riding motorcycles, my bike became my only motorized transportation. Consequently, if I had to work on the bike, I had to finish the work or I got to walk. For awhile that work was done on the street by the curb in front of my apartment. It was never much fun, particularly when it was cold and windy.

Any work I did had to be completed “sooner rather than later”. If I hadn’t gotten all the parts I needed to do the work, because something unexpected was really the problem, or I broke something, I had to find a way to get to the dealer. More than once, I put the bike back together, rode to get the part I needed, then rode home, took it apart again and installed the part. The misery of time is nurtured by the need to “be done” and invigorated by having to work in the cold.

Another way to experience the misery of time is when the bike dies in the middle of nowhere. It was a cold Sunday morning on I-10 just past Wilcox, Arizona when the center cylinder of my Kawasaki S2 350 triple seized as I drafted beside a tractor trailer as I tried to get warm. The dead air cut the wind chill by 20 degrees so I could start to feel my fingers again.

A 1972 Kawasaki S2 350 Triple Just Like Mine

I avoided hitting the back of the trailer or going under it when the rear wheel locked up, so that was good. But as the truck receded into the distance, I was on the side of the road with no idea how I was going to get to work 200 miles away in Las Cruces, NM, by noon.

No cell phones in the 1970’s so I had no way to call the manager at Denny’s to alert him of my problem or to call anyone to come trailer the bike. Fortunately, after the engine cooled, the center piston ring broke free when I kick started the bike. I rode on the shoulder of I-10 for a never ending 200 miles to get home. All the while, I listened to every noise the engine made for signs of another impending seizure. This form of time misery is akin to slow, never ending Chinese water torture. Every second seems like a minute.

It took a week for the dealer to get the bike running again, so I walked the 1.5 miles to work and back. Being a starving student, I didn’t know if I could pay the bill, but I got lucky as it only cost $25.00 for a hone and new rings on the center cylinder.

Moving forward about 45 years, I’ve completed three airhead rebuilds so far. The first two took as long as they took with no pressing need to be done. I greatly enjoyed the experience and indulged my curiosity so I could learn what I didn’t know. I could take things apart and reassemble them a second time, if need be, in order to get it right.

I have a heated shop so cold and wind aren’t a factor. When I need parts, I can wait for them to arrive. And I don’t have to walk everywhere until the work is done 🙂  These rebuilds had the luxury of time so they were invigorating and joyful experiences.

But, the last build, a 1977 R100RS, had a deadline. I had no more than one year from the date I started until I had to be done so I could ride the bike to the 40th RS anniversary in Pennsylvania. When I found problems I hadn’t anticipated, which is par for the course, they added to the anxiety as several of them required outside services I didn’t control to do the work for me. Their schedule was not my schedule.

My Last Build, 1977 R100RS, on a Shake Down Ride to the Coffee Shop

A Shake Down Ride to the Coffee Shop on My Last Build, 1977 R100RS

I made the deadline, but in all honesty, for much of that build, the work was not very joyful. Many times that year, I had an old, uncomfortable feeling I couldn’t put my finger on. Then it dawned on me. I inadvertently invited the misery of time to come join me in the shop as soon as I set the deadline.

This is a good reminder to me to let the work proceed at it’s own pace and not worry about hitting a deadline. This is how you train time to become a joyful luxury instead of a misery.


Musing: The Joys of Being A Minimalist

A minimalist is someone who follows this creed,

“Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.”, A. Einstein.

It is a “scientific” creed similar to Occam’s razor summarized as, “The simplest explanation is usually correct.” These two guiding principles provide direction when you are looking for explanations and aren’t sure how to proceed. But, they also underpin a philosophy of design that creates unadorned, straightforward products that are a delight to experience.

My appreciation of BMW airhead motorcycles is a practical expression of Einstein’s prescription of what the result of science should look like. Airhead design is functional, not elaborate nor flamboyant. The styling relies on form following function for its appeal, not on plastic panels and extraneous amenities that distract from the direct understanding of how the machine works. Even when BMW introduced the first motorcycle with a manufacturer integrated full fairing in 1977, the R100RS, the shape of the fairing was defined by aerodynamic necessity and the requirement to protect the rider from adverse weather. I think the RS fairing is a design that solves several hard problems as simply as possible, but no simpler.

For BMW airheads, the art in the design lies in engineering control of material properties and precision machining during manufacture. For example, machined tapers with press fits are preferred to castle nuts with tab washers when connecting driven components on a turning shaft. Parts inventory is minimized and the assembly procedure is simple.

Another example is the tool kit that comes with the bike. With it, you can disassemble just about anything on the motorcycle. I’ve used the tool kit to remove the top end to replace rings and then reassemble it. I have removed the transmission, the drive shaft, the entire rear sub-frame and the rear wheel with it. Nothing else in my tool box was required. That lowly, hidden tool kit is an elegant expression of the minimalist mindset.

The joy of motorcycling comes from a direct, frictionless connection between mind and action, but that is deepened when the machine you are riding is an elegant execution of the minimalist creed espoused by Einstein.

I think that’s why I got so involved in airhead wrenching over the last decade.

Coffee with Craig

During the recent rebuild of “Grover”, my wife’s 1973 BMW R75/5, I wanted to restore the original Windjammer II fairing it came with. The Windjammer was designed and sold by Craig Vetter who has long been associated with motorcycles, fairings and fuel economy. So I was pleased to find he and his wife maintain a web site and store for his fairings with what I needed to repair it.

I had a question about what adhesive was used to attach the headlight bracket to the fairing and sent a note to Carol Vetter, his wife. In short order I was in an email exchange with Craig. I thought at the time how cool it is to be able to get information directly from the designer of the Windjammer 40 years later.

When I got done with the fairing repair and paint work, I send him a link to these write-ups.

Last week I got a note from Craig saying he would be coming through Colorado on his way back to his home in California and would I like to get some coffee.  And yesterday, I got coffee with Craig Vetter.

Chatting with Craig Over Coffee

Craig Vetter

What Craig Has Been Up To

Craig has documented the work he has been doing to build  “The Last Vetter Fairing” in his quest to boost fuel economy and mileage for motorcycles. He had been in the mid-west at a mileage competition, the 2014 Vetter Fuel Challenge at the AMA Vintage Days, but the weekend before we met, someone stole his trailer with the bike in Kankakee, Illinois. The good news is the bike was recovered but the bad news was the trailer is still missing and he was now returning much later than he had anticipated, but he was still willing to stop and chat with me.

I rode Grover over to a Starbucks near the intersection of I-76 and I-70 where Craig would be arriving so he wouldn’t have to detour far from his route.

We talked about his goal for energy efficiency, a long time passion, and his efforts to “learn what I don’t know” to design and make available a motorcycle fairing that can double fuel efficiency. So, does anyone really care enough about conserving fuel on a motorcycle to want a fairing that doubles the mileage?  He admitted it has been a struggle, but he believes the need for energy efficient gasoline powered bikes is inevitable as the cost of oil exploration continues to rise with the corresponding hike in gasoline prices at the pump. The near term opportunity lies in the emergence of electric powered motorcycles since they need more range between recharges and that matches up with a well designed, cost effective, slippery fairing that cuts drag enough to double the range of any electric powered bike.

As you might expect from a man who built a successful company, sold it and then continued to work on projects to extend the limits of what is possible for motorcycle fuel efficiency, our conversation was fast, wide ranging and equal parts observation, questions and guesses about what the future could be.  It was the best hour of coffee drinking I’ve spent in some time.

We took some pictures of the old (Grover with a Windjammer II, circa 1974) and the future (The Last Vetter Fairing) that span 40 years of Craig’s thinking, learning, testing and trying in the parking lot at Starbucks.

40+ Years of Vetter Technology

Craig Vetter Surrounded by 40 Years of His Innovation

Criag and his "Last Fairing"

Only 16 HP, 70 MPH, and Over 100 MPG

Me Holding Grover's Hand

Me Holding Grover’s Hand

One of the stories Craig told me is whenever he rides the bike or trailers it, it’s almost always a women who will stop to ask him what it is, but not men. We both think men are reluctant to ask because they are uncomfortable admitting they don’t know what it is (sort of a corollary to the “men don’t ask for directions” syndrome), but women are genuinely curious and are not so encumbered. He jokes with me that if the women is older he will tell her “It’s really a chick magnet” which always gets a chuckle before he tells her the rest of the story and why it matters.

And then as he is about to leave, a lady drives by the two of us and leans toward the passenger window of her car and asks, “What is that?”

A Curious Bystander

“What is That” From a Women Passing By

Craig looks at me and just smiles. He tells her what it is and before you know it she is out of her car and the two of them are talking about fuel economy, how to get 100 MPG on a motorcycle and why he believes this matters.

Then, after saying good bye to her, he tows The Last Vetter Fairing out of the parking lot and heads west on I-70 toward home. As I fire up Grover, I realize rebuilding this old bike opened a door for me to get a cup of coffee with one of the icons of motorcyling. The old airhead engine runs that much smoother as I head back to work.

Mars Curiosity, The Art in Engineering

I listened to and watched the Mars Science Lab mission land the Curiosity rover last Sunday night. It was a mix of high drama with advanced technology.  Below is one of the first pictures returned after the landing showing a fish eye view of a the rover wheel, and at the upper right corner, the edge of the Gale crater.

Did you ever wonder what it takes to get that image to Earth?

What is it like to design software that can capture that image and runs on a space craft on another planet where there is no “help desk”? How do you design the code to process it with a 20 MHz CPU (that’s right, 1,000 times slower than what’s in your iPhone or laptop), very limited memory of a bit less than 10 MB (an iPhone 4s can have 64 GB or about 6,400 times more memory), then send it anywhere from 36,000,000 up to 250,000,000 miles (+/-) to earth using a 10 watt transmitter (one fluorescent tube in the light above you is 32 watts)?

Here is an interesting description of what it takes to design that software based on an earlier Mars mission, the Phoenix mission, that was sent to the Martian north pole to look for frozen water.

You can read about the tradeoffs that were made to meet the design goals.  Sometimes we forget that products and technologies have limitations, and the act of engineering includes figuring out how to accomplish the goal but not exceed the technology limitations.  That’s the art in engineering.

The Phoenix mission did find water, and that discovery helped drive the design of the current Mars Science Lab mission with the Curiosity rover to search for biological precursors of life on Mars.

BTW, my name is on the Phoenix lander, along with many others, inscribed on a silica mini-DVD with a collection of literature written about Mars provided by The Planetary Society.

I wonder who might find and decode the contents of that digital DVD time capsule one day?