Thursday, December 29, 2011

Last of a dying breed?

In a comment to a recent post where I described an early experience with motorcycle repair, Gary France made the followng observation: “It makes you wonder where children today will get those same sorts of skills, but more and more they cannot even begin to repair things, so are faced with a life of throwing things away when broken.”
This got me thinking. For many years I did all the work on my own vehicles – engine rebuilds, transmission repairs, brakes, etc. I did it all, often with little more than a basic tool kit working in an apartment parking garage. (Some of the neighbours were less than impressed, but doing regular maintenance on the building superintendent’s car made that issue go away.) But now when I have a problem and look under the hood black boxof my 2011 vehicle I realise the best thing to do is take it to the dealer. With the reliability of modern engines and components, the most likely culprit is one of the dozens of ‘black boxes’ and there’s no way any backyard mechanic can afford the $100,000+ worth of specialised electronic gear to test, upload, and re-calibrate any of those computers. And if a firmware fix doesn’t solve the problem, into the scrap bin it goes, to be replaced with a brand new part sourced from China or Mexico.
This means the role of the mechanic is changing. The old style “fixer” is being replaced by the “diagnostician”, the stethoscope by the computer, and years of experience by a parts book and a telephone (or, more commonly, a direct computer link to the parts supplier).
That isn’t necessarily a bad thing as, thanks to the all the electronics, feedback loops, sensors, 100,000 mile spark plugs, and so on, today’s tune-up consists of little more an oil change. But it puts general repairs out of the question for the backyard mechanic and takes away the simple joy and sense of satisfaction one gets from maintaining one’s own vehicle.
Perhaps that’s another reason (as if I needed one) I so enjoy owning motorcycles. While it’s true that getting home with some cigarette package foil wrapped around a blown fuse (which I have done in the past – smoking could truly be considered a life saver in those days) is not an option with a modern bike, any decent wrencher with a good shop manual and a few special tools can still do most of their own work.
Photo0001 for webWhich may become a moot point as now we're hearing from Europe that the European Commission is considering anti-tampering laws that would prevent modifications to engines and exhaust systems (as a minimum) and in the extreme could prevent unlicensed mechanics (you and I) from working on their own motorcycles. Stupid politicians (Is that a redundancy?) aren’t restricted to Europe, so needless to say if the anti-motorcyclist faction over there is successful implementing these initiatives, US and Canadian lawmakers won’t be far behind.
As Dylan said, “The times they are a-changin’”. And not always for the better in my opinion. All I can say is that I'm thankful that I at least had the opportunity and skills to do those things because I expect I’m a member of a dying breed, possibly the last generation to be able to do so.
It’s sad really.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Merry Christmas!

To all my friends in the blogosphere, I wish you all a Very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. I hope you get to enjoy the holidays with friends and family, and Santa brings you everything on your list, perhaps even a bit more. And for those of you who get to ride at this time of the year I wish you … well, in  the spirit of the season I won’t go there.
Motorcycle Santa
Merry Christmas!

Friday, December 9, 2011

Have I got a deal for you

You just bought yourself that “must have” item on your wish list – a new, top-of-the-line digital camera. imageYour new Nikon D7000 has rating of 16.2 million pixels and embodies more features than you’ll ever to learn to use before it’s time to upgrade to the next new thing.
But the real reason you went with a bulky SLR rather than a pocket-sized snapshot camera is because of the lenses. Everyone knows that Nikon makes some of the best lenses out there, offering the best image quality possible. And you can spend yourself into the poorhouse buying lenses for every conceivable use from photographing the space station flying overhead to capturing the antics of ladybugs in heat.
Best of all, lugging all this gear around makes you look (and feel) like you know what you’re doing.
imageBut at heart you’re really a point-and-shoot kind of guy, so what’s the first accessory you buy? You buy a Dreamy Diana lens. That’s right, for $60 you can degrade the image quality of your photographs enough so that they will look like they were taken with a cheap plastic-lensed camera.
Does that sound like you? If so drop me a note and I’ll give you my address. You can send me all your bulky, too-good, equipment and, in return, I’ll ship you a dime-store camera that will take all the crappy photos you want. I’ll even pay the postage. Don’t think of it as giving away good stuff, think of it as freeing up your saddlebags for important stuff like beer, or cigars, or a fifth of J-D.
(On a related note, I am currently investigating ways in which snaps, pops, skips, and scratches can be inserted into the sound stream from your new MP3 player so it will seem like you’re still playing old 45’s from the bottom of your sock drawer. Stay tuned.)

Thursday, December 8, 2011

On Two Wheels in Spain

Just got back from a fairly long trip which included a few days in Barcelona, Spain. While 4 days isn’t enough time to get to “know” a city, my first impressions are that Barcelona could easily become one of my favourite places to visit. How can you not like a city that celebrates graffiti as being part of its art scene (and some of it is very good indeed), that brought the world Antoni Gaudi  and his magical Park Guell and piece de resistance, the Sagrada Familia, started in 1882 and expected to be completed in 2026 (although some claim 2050 is more likely), a city where ancient Roman walls blend seamlessly into modern shopping districts, and a city that has so totally embraced 2-wheeled travel?
DSC_7096 for web
While I didn’t have the opportunity to experience two-wheeled travel first-hand on this trip, it would be impossible not to remark on how the scooter is such a integral part of the culture. Whether it’s the young lady in a skirt and high heels commuting to work or the older fellow out doing some shopping in the market, the scooter is a major method of transportation for many city residents and the full-face helmet a popular fashion accessory.
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Lane splitting is common at traffic lights where car and bus drivers leave a little room up front for the scooters to move to the head of the line and be the first off the mark when the light changes. Parking appears to be wherever there is space, however riders are careful not to block the sidewalks but position their bikes in such a way that pedestrian traffic is unimpeded. Overall there appears to be a sense of accommodation that is sorely lacking here in North America. I guess it’s partly the car culture we have here and the sense of entitlement that seems to come with 4 wheels and a roof. It’s also likely related to the economics of owning and operating a car versus the cost of scootering. Or it could just be that drivers realise that it could very well be their own wife/son/daughter/neighbour on those two wheels in front of them. But whatever the reason it was very refreshing to see.
DSC_7102 for web

Monday, December 5, 2011

How and Why Did You Get Into Motorcycling?

Gary France (Flies in your Teeth) posed this question (although he referred to it as “motorbiking”) and so I thought I’d take a shot at answering.
It would have been about 1962 when Dad came home with an old and abused pedal-start motorbike, basically a bicycle with an engine attached. He gave it to us kids, along with access to his extensive toolbox (he was a mechanic by trade), and challenged us to get it running. I was the eldest, just barely into my teens, and with no manual, no parts, and no money (but lots of enthusiasm) all we managed to do that summer was to get it stripped down so that it became a pretty decent, but heavy, balloon-tired bicycle. But that experience lit two fires for me – one was a love of mechanics and all things mechanical; and the second was a desire to eventually get a motorbike that actually ran.
A couple of years later in my last years of high school the Japanese invasion was in full swing with people meeting the nicest people on Hondas all over North America. While our small town did have a couple of rough and ready types (or at least we thought so at the time) who rode Harleys or BSAs, getting a ride on one of them was out of the question. But then a couple of my school pals somehow managed to convince their parents to buy them new Hondas. One had a Dream 305 and the other a CB450 Black Bomber, and both carried spare helmets about 6 sizes too big for all the girls they were going to get. But the reality was it was their mates that got the free rides, including yours truly, as the girls didn’t want their bouffant hairdos crushed by a heavy and smelly old helmet. Besides, as I said, it was a small town and their moms and dads would find out in a heartbeat that they’d been seen on one of those “infernal death machines” and that would be that. I was working summers but there was no way I could afford a new bike, and the used market really hadn’t developed yet, so free rides whenever I could get them had to suffice for the next few years while I went away to University.
By 1970 I had graduated and was a shiny new Lieutenant in the RCAF. And I had an income! So one of the first things I did that summer was head down to the local Yamaha dealer and buy  my first bike, a Yamaha 200. I don’t recall the model designation, but I do recall that it was purple, and slow! I learned how to ride in the dealer’s parking lot, put on my $20, open face helmet (glitter blue), and weaved my way home. I was on that bike every chance I got and put about 500 miles a week on it just riding back and forth to the base and around town. But then one day, about two weeks into my ownership of the purple pride, I was nearly run off the road by a tailgater who didn’t appreciate me driving the speed limit (that’s as fast as it would go!), so it was time for a change. Honda had just released the 1971 CB350 with an advertised top speed of 102 MPH(!) and a list price of $999, so that very afternoon I was at the dealership placing my order and a couple of weeks after that I too was meeting “the nicest people”. I still consider that CB350 my first “real” bike. I kept it for about 3 years and put lots of miles on it, although it never, ever got close to doing 100 MPH, and believe me, I tried! (That milestone was finally achieved on  my first Norton.)
It’s now been 41 years since I bought that first bike and, except for a brief period in the early 2000’s, my garage has been home to quite a long procession of Hondas, Yamahas, Kawasakis, Nortons (lots of Nortons) and now a Harley. There have been cafe racers, trials bikes, off-road bikes, dual purpose machines and stock highway rides. Some years I’ve been able to rack up thousands of miles, and other years have been hard pressed to justify the insurance premiums, but it’s been a great ride and I wouldn’t change a thing.