Friday, May 13, 2016

The joy of pure speculation. Or maybe not.

A mental game played through a very frazzled end-of-semester consciousness and a few pints of IPA:

So we all generally know and accept that Apple is working on a (whole) car at this point. We can further guess that they're on the autonomy bandwagon because, well, that's that kind of thing right now, like it or not.

We also know with more certainty that Apple is sitting on an absolutely ridiculous pile of cash which it prefers to keep overseas because of US tax laws.

News item today: Apple and China's largest ride-sharing/car-hailing service, Didi Chuxing, have entered a billion-dollar partnership. (Lest you think that ride-hailing in China is some marginal entity, Didi Chuxung's customer base is about the same size as the population of the United States.)

Among the platitudes about learning more about the Chinese market and effective corporate goodwill, put the three pieces together:

How crazy is it to think that Apple could be planning to use its cash reserves to create a massive fleet of autonomous ride-sharing vehicles specifically to dominate the Chinese (and perhaps in time Indian, and so on) mobility market?

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Cyclonic patterns

Notes after a test ride of a Suzuki SV650 yesterday:
  • A 40° morning is not the preferred time to be on a motorcycle for the first time in about three years. (Doubly so since that time three years ago was on a Kawasaki Eliminator 125, a baby cruiser with about as much power as a Waring professional bar blender, peddling around a Queens parking lot for my MSF course.) It's not so much that I was cold - that was very manageable - but that my visor would fog up to a thorough and thoroughly unpleasant translucency in about ten seconds if I didn't keep it cracked open. Being on a fairly fast bike (more on that later) with limited visibility is not a good thing.
  • At least I remembered what I was doing. Didn't do anything stupid or painful, didn't drop, only missed one shift, made it around a good eight-mile loop without external drama.
  • Much love to K&H Motorsports in Homer for having a very reasonable test-ride policy and being all-around great guys.
  • This particular machine wore a K&N filter, a Dynojet carb kit, and a Yoshimura pipe. Don't know if that made the throttle as hypersensitive as it was, but something did. Even accounting for an uncalibrated (if very reserved) right hand, response was twitchy as hell and made shifting a bit of a herky-jerk kind of process. Definitely an adaptation situation, but not reassuring early on.
  • Going around corners from a start - think turning right at the stop sign - while being this out of practice felt like trying to go around a corner while jogging and carrying a bowling ball somewhere between my knees. Better to go way wide after making sure that nothing was coming for a mile or so than risk dropping, but still all kinds of awkward dealing with the balance. 
  • Once I got settled in this thing was weirdly comfortable.  After about five minutes we came to a very agreeable sense of positioning - feet on pegs, knees fitting in correctly, wind blast present but not troublesome.
  • Or else I was so busy with everything else that I didn't notice if anything was wrong there. I haven't faced this much sensory overload since at least the kart race. I can totally see how bad things happen sometime, especially for newbs like me: there is just SO MUCH going on all at once coming at you that it's hard to process correctly. Huge sense of motion and exposure, trying to manage a different set of controls, concerns about balance and positioning, watching out for the rest of the world, occasionally looking down to see how fast you're hurtling along some particular piece of road - it's just a lot.
  • Flip side of that is that my massive phobia about having to deal with some clueless Ashley checking text messages in her CR-V or some chemically-impaired redneck or even some otherwise normal dude in an averagemobile who just makes a mistake and is pulling out directly in front of me without seeing me has now been mitigated. It seems manageable. Sure, still a present risk for which one must constantly be watching, but now not as unsettling.
  • Dear God can this thing move. I would be very surprised if I cracked open more than quarter throttle at the absolute most simply to keep it from running away from me. A comfortably manageable 75 to 80 was no problem at all, and there was LOTS more to go. Even beyond the twitchy throttle this was way too much. Would it be better if I tried it again? Maybe, probably. Made me think of what someone once described as the three-session learning curve for club racers who got the chance to drive an old Can-Am car: the first session is all "Oh my GOD how does anyone manage these beasts? That is ridiculous! That is insane! I've never gone that fast!"; second session is more like "Wow, this is still a lot but I think I'm starting to catch up with it and it feels a bit better"; third session is, "okay, yeah...can we get more power somehow?"

But there won't be a second or third session for me on this one, at least anytime soon. All of the above will lead to a very grateful but somewhat regretful phone call to K&H on Monday telling them that I'll pass on this one. $2200 is a ridiculously good price for an SV650, especially one with a bunch of mods I would have wanted to do anyway, but the bike itself is too much right now.

And all of the above also deeply recalibrates my take on motorcycles in general, and makes me wary of a lot of received wisdom - and perhaps illuminates a few things which were between the lines in many cases.

First and most significantly is this idea about starter bikes and outgrowing a bike and a lot of the machismo which goes with the whole scene, which says that starting on something small is only a step towards a Real Motorcycle of serious (if not always well-defined) power and capability. SV650s have always been seen as being right on that border between "starter" and "Real" and well within reason for a capable newb, a decent mid-displacement mid-power machine that is fairly easy to learn, something that (per the script) You Won't Outgrow In A Few Months.

Screw that. This thing, all innocuous and cuddly per most magazine reports, is a ferociously fast and focused piece of machinery that will do 0 to 60 in less than four seconds and run a quarter mile in the twelves. You outgrow an SV like you outgrow a 911 Carrera S - you don't.

Which makes me wonder about this whole "you'll get tired of it and move on" mentality. I'm not sure when motorcycling became infected with the idea that everything must be a stepping stone to something bigger and faster, or how that ties in with the absolute drought of sensible low- to mid-power bikes which are only now starting to be made available here.

And even then...the hipsterrific Ducati Scrambler makes about as much power as the SV, and everyone raves about how perfect that is as a first bike for undertrained fashion victims. Same with the somewhat heavier Triumph Bonneville. I can't speak to how touchy or edgy they are, and hopefully someone had the good sense to put in some heavier flywheels or something, but still - that's a lot of power and capability to be put into inexperienced hands.

The other side of the argument is the lack of street cred granted to smaller bikes: the Honda 300s and 500s, the Kawasaki Ninja 300, and the Yamaha R3 most prominently on the new market, but really anything with single front brake discs and fairly narrow tires and power outputs in the 30 to 40 bhp range. The Yamaha Seca II works here; so does the Honda CB-1, so do a fair number of '80s machines.

Any of these would have been a world better underneath me than the SV, and most of them are now very high on my seriously-consider list. (The Ninja 300 in particular is drawing an inordinate amount of affection from me right now, but wait to see how that focus shifts according to availability and budget and so on.)

Other stuff - bigger, faster, more aggressive - can wait, if it needs to be considered at all.

Seriously: why the inexorable push for everyone to progress towards unearthly degrees of power and speed? Why the constant prodding to get a Real Motorcycle, as if the others aren't real enough?

A lot of this goes back to well-worn arguments about usability and reality. How fast does anyone really go? How does track weaponry like an R1 or a completely over-the-top creation like a Hayabusa interface with a world of jealously-enforced speed limits and blind corners and iffy surfaces and so on?

And for God's sake, what is it in society that gives anyone the idea that a Superbike makes a reasonable first machine? How do you manage a GSX-R1000 coming off of a bicycle? What failure of self-preservation vs. ego allows people to put themselves into these situations?

I'm not arguing that hypermachines shouldn't exist in the first place. That's a completely different argument which I do no believe and which I will not make. Instead I wish the general population emphasis was much more on real-world usability - including a fair bit of speed, to be sure - and, especially, a gradual but decisive defusing of the It Must Be Big thing.

Which actually gets mentioned once in a while, if quietly and sometimes obliquely, by those who know.

Think about those small-displacement sportbikes. Read a few reviews - the one from last year works well - about the Ninja 300 and the R3 and the like. Given that the folks running the test have massive amounts of skill and experience and therefore would have every right and reason in the modern paradigm to look down with contempt on these tiddlers, what are they saying? Good Lord, they're fun. They're great in real life. They aren't going to gasp and fall over if you go up a hill. They're easy to manage, and in being so they're that much more enjoyable to both live with and throw around when the mood hits. And maybe they won't outdrag a GT-R, but they'll still get the jump on just about anything that's in the next lane at a stoplight and be more than fast enough to be a joy on a good road without being grating on a commute or a highway drone.

Fun. Joy. Bikers - and too many times the rest of us - get so caught up in the push for ever-faster and ever-more-serious and so on that the pure fun part is marginalized or treated as less relevant. Power has to go up to remain competitive, everything gets designed around managing massive power, the intensity gets cranked up to levels which can be wearying on a day-to-day basis.

And there's the too-rare alternative - call it the Miata mentality - the counterculture which cares less about winning a bench race and all the more about just going out and feeling that pure sense of movement and control and sensual stimulation and gratification in the midst of the everyday.

If you outgrow fun, you need to go back.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Justin Wilson, 1978-2015

Just back from two weeks in Germany and the Czech Republic - something on that soon - but tonight is obviously dominated by the very sad news from Pennsylvania.

Lots of thoughts, hard to organize or connect them right now, but all under one very dark sky.

Be at peace, sir.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Wishing well

Like just about everyone on the North American end of the scene, I've been watching with a kind of religious anticipation as Alfa Romeo stakes its measured return to our shores. Unlike a lot of others, at least openly, I've been doing so with a serious dose of apprehension and skepticism mixed in with the longing.

If any single name embodies what I believe about cars and what I've intermittently tried to express here at SoM, it's Alfa Romeo - at least as it's presented in the rose-tinted oral history passed along by the true believers. The Giuliettas and Giulias and GTVs and Spiders, we are led to believe, existed simply to make the bliss of driving - in its spirit and elegance and Enlightenment empowerment, its ability to be a full performance art and act of evolved vitality - exist in the modern world. They were never scorchingly fast or exceedingly well-built, but they made the task of proceeding down a road into something very special.

A quick look around the modern market shows that kind of vivacity to be in scarily short supply, and so the idea of Alfa Romeo - Alfa fottuto Romeo - coming back to reclaim its rightful place and save us from the automotive world's standing sense of dour competence is enough to spark the kind of heightened emotional excitement that's usually reserved for Star Wars films.

So what's been going on?

Alfa's North American effort has been handed to Reid Bigland, late of Ram trucks, whose sense of Alfa history seems little expanded from what's viewable on Wikipedia and whose pompous steakhead blustering is totally at odds with this most civilized of marques. The first tangible product of this latest cross-Atlantic offensive is the 4C, a profoundly unrefined carbon-chassis bullet which exists perhaps solely because FCA desperately needed a cultural touchstone beyond Dustin Hoffman and (apparently) racing gamers found the 33 Stradale somewhere and thought it is/was cool. It looks like a Lotus Elise with worrisome hormone issues and its dynamic profile has been subject to more dispute and conflicting opinion than the average political platform. We are all now loudly applauding the mere idea of the new Giulia, with a (promised) ridiculous amount of Ferrari-sourced power under the hood and a Maserati-derived chassis which is due to arrive sometime next year, probably, we hope. All of this does not give me confidence.

But let's go broader. Never mind that the Giulia really does look like an F30 3-Series with a nose and tail job (pause to reflect on the loss that was suffered with the collapse of Bertone and the diminishing of the other classic coachbuilding houses) and we have no clue how well anything will work with anything else. Quell the mixed emotions in the air about the 4C. And let's completely set aside the heresy of the CUV due to follow in short form according to their marketing plan, lucrative though that will probably be in its own likely dreary way.

Two things:

First, we won't know if the Giulia is a real Alfa, and therefore the real renaissance, until someone actually drives it and can honestly tell us all that the magic is there. The power output is great for advertising, but is secondary to the sense of the car as sensual entity and ennobling driving device. The Giuliettas and Giulias never had much gross oomph - Christ, they were little inline-fours - but they were pretty much the main reason the word brio exists in the American vernacular as it does. We have to see how this thing feels, how it is, instead of just being satiated by a bunch of projected numbers

Second, nobody wants to think that all this will be anything less than the Second Coming. Because that would be wrong.

Yes, I'm skeptical. But I really, really want to have those skepticisms be proven totally groundless.

We WANT this to be something brilliant and wonderful. We WANT this to succeed. We really desperately are praying that Marchionne's minions don't screw this up and hand us an overpowered lump of a car that ignores and defies what an Alfa is supposed to be.

A lot of this is because of how legitimately special the idea of a new true Alfa is to us. Past the lingering bitter aftertaste of the Milano and the 164 and the last asthmatic plastic-clad Spiders, if even then, most of us have never been able to know the truth of the name from the showroom floor. We'll take the unresolved 4C as it is because we're so desperate for a return, but the new Gulia is the real case.

A lot of it is because we, as enthusiasts, just don't like to see anything fail. Seriously.

This wish goes beyond Alfa, useful though it is as a focal point. This becomes something more encompassing and uplifting, if too often unrequited and tragic.

Being a gearhead is a constant exercise in hope and anticipation. Every new-model mention brings the promise of something better and more exciting. Reality hasn't been entirely kind to these ideals lately, but the constant flow of chatter and rumor serves to keep a sort of spirit alive. We want something good, we want something new, we want something that makes this emotional investment and devotion worthwhile.

Maybe we are at our core a hopeful and optimistic folk. Maybe we've weathered enough induced silliness and deferred gratification that we'll project our wishes and expectations on any available screen. Maybe we just like to be titillated by something new and interesting.

Take something far away from an established identity like Alfa's. Take Elio.

Yes, that ridiculous little three-wheeler econocommuter tooling up for production in the old GM truck fatory in Louisiana, with its pie-in-the-sky promises of simplicity and efficiency and extreme low price and so on.

I'd love to see Elio become a sustaining success. I want them to come out and do well, almost just as a rebuke to the dreariness of the lower end of the market. I want them to be a lovably eccentric presence on the road. (Will I want to own one? We'll see.)

Hell, take Tesla and all they've done. How can you resist the story of a slightly unhinged dot-com billionaire who stumbles through an unlikely and occasionally troubled start with a Lotus-based electric (two concepts that do not share space comfortably) roadster and then drops arguably the best car in the world on us? Yes, so they're behind on their ambitions for battery swapping and a few other things. The car is still amazing and the whole story should have us applauding every time one drives by.

Enthusiasm isn't - shouldn't be - a zero-sum game. We want everything to be great, and we want everything on the horizon to fulfill some unspeakable life-fulfilling mandate. We want Camaros and Mustangs to both be terrific. We want BMW to rediscover its Wagnerian soul and Honda to relocate its Zen-speedster center. We continually hope that Jaguar somehow defies both its shoddy rep and underappreciated current product line and gets its act together.

And we really, desperately, achingly want Alfa to be Alfa again.

Because we don't want the world to fail us - again - when it can be so good.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

A room of one's own

It's raining again. Raining like it has for days, raining and cool after the coldest winter this place has known. The dismal heaviness of the skies is only occasionally punctured by overheated blasts of nuclear light and suffocating humidity.

So I'm mostly inside or on my way to another inside, playing the wage slave, keeping a few different jobs stapled together in hopes of covering all the bills and so on. That's not really the inadequacy, although the situation has been and will likely continue to be marked by a certain meager sufficiency at best for the time being.

Actually, that contributes to the inadequacy, because it makes it that much harder to get what I really want.

No, more than want. What's the space between want and need? What's something that's more - much more - than just a casual desire, but maybe not an official existential necessity? How do we describe something whose absence is not necessarily a threat to continuing existence, but whose presence and availability would be such a profound contribution to emotional - psychic - well-being?

It's not about having a specific vehicle right now, some sort of tangible assembly of preferences and wishes. Those exist, but that's not the point. And the Passat is a perfectly acceptable machine in the absence of something more sublime, although I am constantly reminded of its position firmly within the paradigm of the modern car as comfort and convenience device that insulates and protects more than engages. But that's secondary, because this consideration is beyond that concern.

It's about having available space, a designated volume within which I can plan and act and consider, a construct that defines the ability to perform tasks as it protects the results of those tasks.

I want a garage.

That's the longing right now. That's the want. More than anything that would immediately go into it, I want a workspace and storage space.

Not having one in Astoria was understandable, part of the urban bargain at that point. They existed but were unreasonable on several fronts, and I took that as part of how it was. Here? Not so much. Or else something has been driving the longing for a project past previous rationalizations.

The project - a project, some kind of project - is the underlying primal concern. I need something specific to do, some sort of mechanical puzzle to ponder and solve, some manifestation of individual beliefs and conclusions rendered in steel and wiring and rubber to build. And I need a place to do it.

If you have a garage, you have space for things and processes. You have a place defined by activities and creations that can't really be done or kept in other places.

And this is not happening in the current situation, with an apartment two floors up from ground level and parking in the open-air building lot at $50 per month per space. Yes, I've heard about how someone rebuilt their Suzuki dirt bike or BMC A-Series motor in their kitchen blah blah not happening here. (Besides, I do like to cook and that requires space as well, and at least in this respect the current situation is a vast improvement over the small-craft galley I had back in Astoria.)

I've considered - am still considering - renting a space at some local self-storage lot, although anything large enough to hold even a motorcycle will run well over a hundred a month and require a dedicated drive out and back. Kills off the ability to do quick little things on impulse.

Even so, it's tempting. A project bike would be a great start: find a ratty CB360 or SR500 or something, strip it down, clean and tune and idealize and personalize until it's happy running around the hills and looks good enough to pitch to Bike EXIF.

Also, motorcycle ownership in general around here is largely predicated on the availability of storage during snow season, so there's that.

After that delusions of moderate grandeur set in, largely involving frames made of mild steel tubing and various components from terminal rust victims or local parts yards. All in good fun, all devoted to a deeply sort of soul-satisfying venture, all ambitions which are at least somewhat mindful of my limited circumstances which is part of the point of the whole homebuilt thing anyway.

And all of which needs space.

This is not about insisting on some idealized environment, some deluxe man-cave Garage Mahal. Actually, the less full of odious excess this whole concept is the better. This is simply about having a place to work, a place where I can tune and disassemble and paint and polish and fit and drain and replace and improve, a place where I can understand how to adjust a Weber carburetor and learn to use my grandfather's oxyacetylene welding torch.

That's the real desire. I desperately want to work on something, buy it cheap and make it better and live well, acquire and practice skills and understandings, and I need a garage for that to happen.

Emphasis on the acquisition of skills and understandings. As much as this is primarily about having something and doing something, this is also about perpetuating something.

I like being able to work on things, to know how they function and how to fix them when something goes wrong. That's a large part of why I've always been more attracted to machinery, in its clear and logical (if often complex) relationship of forces, than something as intangible as, say, computer programming.

Part of being able to restore or build something is to act counter to a number of cultural currents, from unthinking acquisition to willful ignorance of underlying processes to disposability. Part of it is the pure gratification of being able to solve problems and create something tangible and reasonably permanent. Part of it's a movement against the increasing obliqueness and unknowability of modern machines, especially vehicles. It quietly bothers me that I can't check the transmission fluid in the Passat. When a valve in the turbocharger intake system conked out - or its demise was finally registered by the on-board computer, on comes the CEL - it was frustrating to think that I really could not have done anything about it myself, the way that I was able to replace a relay in my old Audi or add fluid to the clutch hydraulics on the 240D.

There's something valuable and meaningful about being able to work with one's hands, especially in a mechanical context. It's a signifier of evolution. And I fear it's being marginalized, or even lost.

I recently picked up a copy of Matthew Crawford's Shop Class As Soulcraft, It's not perfect; he's trying to do entirely too much in about two hundred and fifty pages, and much of what he says could (and should) be explored in two or three separate books. But it is a wonderful dissertation on the significance of spinning wrenches and working in a garage and manual labor in general, and how it isn't accorded the respect it deserves in a society too enamored of money managers.

A serious argument can be made (and probably already has been made more than once) that the ability of Americans to work with and on machinery was a major reason behind our successes in the two World Wars. All those kids off the farms and from greasy machine shops were able to keep airplanes running and fix troubled tanks and all the rest. Today? It's broken, toss it and get a new one. Doesn't help that everyday build quality has tangibly dropped in many cases while complexity has increased exponentially.

So there's a practice that has to be maintained here, like speaking a foreign language or playing a musical instrument. And certain devices lend themselves to this practice much more than others. And that all has to be done sometime, somewhere, somehow.

And so somewhere, somehow, there's a damp patch of concrete flooring and a roof to keep out the rain waiting for me to set down my toolbox and size up some neglected masterpiece-to-be that's just rolled off a truck.