Monthly Archives: March 2008

Mar 31

The Importance of Motoczysz: Why You and I Need These People to Succeed

By kevin | Rants and Raves

Michael Czysz is following his dream.

He’s building a transcendently cool motorcycle with the intention of competing and winning at the highest levels.

He’s not solving global warming.

He’s not curing cancer.

He is not bringing peace to the mid-east.

In the big calculus of life on this planet, what he’s doing matters not one jot.

But he’s still a hero.

For reasons most people can’t and won’t fathom, what he’s doing matters. Why? Because he’s following his dream. He’s taking the journey. He’s plumbing the depths. And when that happens, when a soul stirs, the universe responds.

Good Grief Man, It’s Just a Bike!

True. It’s just a bike. Even sillier, it’s a racing bike. It has no purpose other than to go round a circuit as fast as possible for less than an hour. Still, even if the whole notion of men and their toys baffles you, you have to admire the sheer grittiness of the entire enterprise.

The best part of the story is the guy leading the parade. I’ve yet to meet the man, but the book on Michael is that he was born in 1964 with motorcycles already in his blood. If you have a look at the Motoczysz web site, you’ll see what I mean. His dad, grandfather, and great grandfather were all smitten with bikes so it seems natural that Michael would be too. The part about taking on the industry giants seems less obvious at this point.

Michael studied at Parson’s in New York and Portland State, got married, and had two sons with seriously excellent names: Max and Enzo. The baton will pass.

In 1990 he started an architectural firm called Architropolis. That would make him, what, 26 at the time? The firm thrived and thrives and has done award-winning work for famous people and famous companies. It’s okay to feel jealous and the story is barely underway.

Note two things at this point:

  1. Most people would be thrilled to be doodling houses for the likes of Cindy Crawford and could easily be excused for settling in for a rewarding career with lots of time and money left over for mad hobbies and great vacations.
  2. There isn’t even a whiff of a credential at this point to suggest that starting a company to build a world-class racing motorcycle based on revolutionary new technology would be a good idea. Naysayers, and we’ll get to them in a minute, are still looking for that heavenly sign.

Apropos of point 2, “But that’s what happened.” A muse visited, strange notions about the proper way to configure an engine, gearbox, and suspension sprang forth, and the boy-architect genius decided that the logical next step was to not only tilt with giants, but do it on an impossibly compressed time frame, displaying levels of under-funded bravado that cause most people, including and especially captains of industry, to roll eyes. Those of us who have started businesses (and I’m one of those people) smile and applaud wildly, even if just to ourselves. Either you get it or your don’t.

It’s the hard that makes it great

There is a wonderful interchange between character’s played by Tom Hanks and Geena Davis in a movie called “League of Their Own.” The Davis character, Dottie Hinson, has decided to quit and go home with her newly returned and wounded war-hero husband. It goes like this . . .

Jimmy Dugan: Shit, Dottie, if you want to go back to Oregon and make a hundred babies, great, I’m in no position to tell anyone how to live. But sneaking out like this, quitting, you’ll regret it for the rest of your life. Baseball is what gets inside you. It’s what lights you up, you can’t deny that.

Dottie Hinson: It just got too hard.

Jimmy Dugan: It’s supposed to be hard! If it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it. The hard is what makes it great.

I can’t remember exactly when it is that I first heard about what Michael was up to, probably it was in a motorcycle magazine, but I do remember two things: 1) How cool it all sounded. How utterly, heroically, magically cool. 2) How pissed off I felt reading the nay saying from this expert and that poobah. I shouldn’t have been, but I was. Nay saying goes with the territory. It’s how you know you’re on to something big.

Just so I can get this out of the way, the naysayers were and are wrong. Not just about what Motoczysz is doing. About everything.

First and foremost, they’re wrong at a metaphysical level. The only people who say no to someone else at the beginning of a great journey are people who are too timid to leave on their own . . . people who have already said no once too often to their own journey, to their own dreams, and now they’re bent on passing their lack of courage to someone else.

“I was and am too frightened to leave the village, so you can’t possibly be justified in doing it either.”

And if that accusation by way of observation causes you to bridle, take your anger out on someone else. You either get it or you don’t.

Which brings me to the second fault with nay saying and naysayers. Let’s ignore the obvious, that every invention, every discovery, every great adventure has always been sent off and beset by the worries and nays of others. What’s less obvious is that the naysayers and doubters lack vision. They see what they see in a single slice of time. They miss the whole concept of the journey: That by virtue of setting out, you open yourself to both the likelihood of failure and the opportunity to learn from it and go beyond.

“It won’t work, so why do it?”

“Of course it won’t work, but something else will. That’s why.” Or in the words of Jimmy Dugan, “It’s the hard that makes it great.”

To Journey is to Seek Your Own Soul

This is the part where those hoping to read about counter-rotating engines, interchangeable gearboxes, single-shock front suspensions, or any of the other 20+ patents Motoczysz has amassed may want to check out. It’s all shockingly cool. If the company never fields a competitive bike it has assured some kind of future for itself just on the strength of its inventions. But if you focus on the gear, and maybe for the second to last time I’ll go on record as saying it’s great gear, you’re missing the bigger picture. You’re missing the importance of what’s going on here.

Even given the little I’ve related about what Michael and team have been through, to go from table-napkin dream to a bike that is currently lapping at test tracks at a class-leading pace, you have to know that it’s been a tough road.

Besides the naysayers, there have been bad castings (both the people and the metal kind), flakey vendors, broken bits galore, blown engines, crashes, team members quitting, money problems . . . the list just goes on and on. Plenty of opportunities to give up. But the true believers have not. They are now officially beyond themselves. They are now Jason and the Argonauts. Without knowing it, Michael and crew are now following a script written in the very soul of mankind. It’s now no longer about a motorcycle. It’s about the “big why?”

What Michael and crew are onto now is nothing less than what Joseph Campbell describes as the “heroic journey.” Every culture down through history treasures at least one of these stories. Although there is a wonderful richness and variety to the various myths and legends, heroic tales all ultimately adhere to the designs of what Campbell calls the “monomyth.” Here it is in a sentence.

“A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”

[amtap book:isbn=0691017840]

Here’s the longer version.

The Call to Adventure: Every journey begins with a call. Often the person ignores or ducks the call, but eventually it can be disregarded no longer. At this point, there is no hero. That comes later. It’s just a somebody doing whatever it is they do one minute, and feeling like they really have to go do something else the next. It’s an architect waking up one day and saying to himself, “I have to build a motorcycle that will revolutionize everything. Oh, and I have no business doing it. Whatever.”

Supernatural Aid. In Campbell’s words: “For those who have not refused the call, the first encounter of the hero-journey is with a protective figure . . . who provides the adventurer with amulets against the dragon forces he is about to pass.”

Later, in retrospect, these sources of help and comfort are completely obvious. In the early going, you have no idea that the person you just met, or the thing you just found, or the whatever just happened is going to be so important later. Men are particularly bad at the act of noticing the little things. It’s so contrary to the energy required to drive a great enterprise forward. Great journeys require both.

Crossing the First Threshold. There will be challenges on this journey, and therefore there will be a first challenge. Many journeys founder at this point. But it is successfully meeting the first challenge and getting the first win that provides the propellant the journey needs. Again, at the time, it just hurts. It’s a bother. It’s an unwelcome intrusion on your carefully laid plans. If for some reason you don’t know this by now, dealing with and learning from adversity is the whole point of the journey.

The Road of Trials. The first trial is there to ready us for what follows. Says Campbell, “The hero is covertly aided by the advice, amulets, and secret agents of the supernatural helper whom he met before his entrance into this region. Or it may be that he here discovers for the first time that there is a benign power everywhere supporting him in his superhuman passage.”

Little by little the hero, and his crew if he has one, gather experience, strength and courage as they commit further and further to the final objective. They have no idea how they will slay the dragon or steal the fleece or field a competitive race bike. Who can even think about such a thing while the storm is raging, or a big rock is trying to crush us, or some #@*&^$@# vendor has just shipped a critical part that is complete crap?

The Ultimate Boon. Having reached the final destination, the hero faces his or her ultimate test. In some cases, the journey was the hard part and the boon or blessing is easily won. In other cases, the final challenge is a fierce one, calling on all the faith, cunning, courage, self-confidence, amulets, chants, potions, and the occasional trick that the hero has at his or her disposal. But to win the challenge is to win the boon—the blessing that the hero brings back to the benefit of the tribe.

Crossing the Return Threshold. Grabbing the fleece, killing the dragon, capturing the castle, or lapping the track at a record pace isn’t enough. You have to make this win, this boon, part of something bigger. You have to tell the stories and raise the bar on your collective expectations. You have to come back and integrate what you’ve learned into what you are. Traditional heroes often returned to pomp and glory. Some snuck home. Many must wrest their rightful home or throne from an interloping pretender. Sometimes coming back is harder than going out. But the story isn’t complete until the hero is back home.

In the case of Motoczysz, I have no idea what the boon will be. I haven’t a clue when the big battle will occur. Coming home means nothing at this point because they’re still going out. For all I know Michael has never heard about the Heroic Journey and could care less. Right now he’s got at least two companies to run, giants to slay, and bikes to build. But the story can’t and won’t end with a race bike in a paddock somewhere. There’s more here than that.

Again, It’s Just a Bike!

I’ve often been accused of making a lot of a little, and especially writing a lot where less would do. I offer no apologies now or in the future. A proper heroic tale can’t be told directly. You have to work up to it, particularly the BIG POINT. Well here it comes.

You can take my word for it or do your own research. But accept for now the assertion that every culture, eastern western, northern, southern, old and young, has and recounts heroic tales. So you have to ask yourself, why? Why do we have these myths and tales? Why do we tell the stories of Jonah, Parsifal, Beowulf, Don Quixote, Frodo Baggins, Luke Skywalker, and Rocky Balboa, just to sample a few? Given the sheer number of essentially identical stories stretching back thousands of years, there’s more than coincidence at work here.

Or, specific to the story at hand, why should we care if Michael and team sell a single bike or turn a single wheel in competition? Because in the end, the stories are about ourselves. The Motoczysz story can be your story too. Only the details are different.

At one level, these heroic tales are all stories about great deeds. And at that level, they are meant to pass along the glory and stories of the group as a whole. In telling these stories, we’re reminding ourselves of who we are and who we need to be.

At a second level, these heroic stories are meant to guide us on the journey from childhood to adulthood. They tell us what it means to be a man. Or what it means to be a woman. They remind us, sometimes for the first time, sometimes for the hundredth time, that there will be trials and tribulations. A life doesn’t pass by without some bumps and twists. It’s how we learn.

At a third and more profound level, the level at which the Motoczysz story carries it’s deepest weight, the stories are meant to inspire us to learn about who we really are and what we’re here to do. That’s why they’re important. That’s why it’s important that Michael followed his dream. That’s why it’s important that the naysayers spoke and he didn’t listen. That’s why it’s important that he and his team have persevered.

By taking up the call to do this thing, to build this dream, Michael has activated a force that runs deeper and more powerfully than mere passion or interest. He activates it for himself. He inspires people who feel it and pay attention to activate it in themselves. And maybe one of those people will go cure cancer. Or invent a better crochet hook. Or get on a bike and ride further than he or she has ever ridden before.

That’s why he’s a hero. That’s why what he’s doing is important. So that we can be reminded to go follow our dreams.

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Mar 31

Meet the most expensive sewage treatment plant in the history of the world: NIMBY

By kevin | Decision Making

I think the people of King County, that’s where Seattle is, have Boston envy. Boston has the Big Dig, the most expensive public works project since the great pyramids, and now we have Brightwater, the most expensive sewage treatment plant in the history of the world. Not that the two have anything to do with each other. I make the connection because Seattle also has an elevated arterial that some of the locals want to bury in a tunnel behind a sea wall right along the waterfront. Now you get it.

So, sewage treatment. Amateur comedians insert your favorite jokes here. I’m not up on all the issues involved, but I get the general idea and why it’s important: we generate the stuff regularly, some of us more regularly than others, and just pumping it out to sea no longer cuts it. The stuff needs to be processed to a standard that exceeds the quality of the ingredients that go into our toothpaste and heparin before the harmless leftovers are released to recycle themselves. The big deal is where to put the facilities. And that’s where the story gets muddy according to the Seattle Times.

The Brightwater treatment plant is now expected to cost $1.8 billion — roughly double what the Metropolitan King County Council was told when it first approved the project.

Officials don’t know of a plant this size anywhere that has cost so much.

In all, it will take 35 to 40 years of principal and interest payments to retire the $3 billion debt burden on Brightwater, scheduled to open in 2011 in Snohomish County north of Woodinville.

How did Brightwater get so pricey?

There are many reasons: engineering changes, technology that exceeds state and federal environmental requirements, and construction-industry inflation among them.

But above all was the simple truth that almost nobody wants a sewer plant near his home or business or beach.

That reality pushed the plant so far inland that a 13-mile, $735 million pipeline is being built to take treated waste to Puget Sound. It also meant installing the nation’s most advanced odor-control system and paying for parks and other goodies to win at least grudging acceptance from jurisdictions near the plant and pipeline.

A 43-acre habitat-restoration area overlooks the site, where massive concrete structures are rising from the hillside. Sewer bills will also pay $4 million for artwork and $8 million for an education center.

When it opens, the plant will serve 189,000 residents, 109,000 of them in Snohomish County, which for decades has sent some of its wastewater to King County.

These stories have a certain sameness to them. Decisions are all about trade-offs. People want to build bigger and bigger houses further and further out. They expect water when they get there. They also expect to be able to run their disposals and flush their toilets without having to keep an eye on a drain field (which is nothing but an on-site sewage treatment facility). But they also don’t want the ignominy of living near a pumping plant. Or a power plant. Or an airport. Or a major road. Or a factory. It’s called NIMBYism . . . not in my backyard.

So now the piper is presenting the big bill. No surprise here: Dealing with those kinds of large scale trade-offs is expensive, as the Taj Mahal price tag for Brightwater shows.

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Mar 30

Beware backing into the future: Why “hanging on for the long run” isn’t really a strategy

By kevin | Decision Making

One of the bedrock truths of investing is that we should “take the long view”. I suppose that means many things, not the least of which might be . . .

  • Don’t try to time the markets
  • Don’t panic when things turn ugly
  • Buy and hold
  • Wait long enough and “the markets” and particularly the stock market will be good to you

All good advice, particularly if you’re an endowment fund that pays no taxes, has huge amounts of capital, and is built with “perpetuity” as a guiding principle. But what about you and me? As Peter Bernstein points out in a piece in the New York Times . . .

In the long run, we often hear, everything turns out well, so just hang in there. In the long run, the bumps will even out; main trends are identifiable; main trends dominate.

Yet, what use are these notes of hope when so many of us are struggling to survive in the short run? As John Maynard Keynes put it way back in 1923: “In the long run we are all dead. Economists set themselves too easy, too useless a task if, in tempestuous seasons, they can only tell us that when the storm is long past the ocean is flat again.”

Keynes touched on a profound truth that will always dilute easy reassurances about the long run. Since the beginning of time, human beings have had to make decisions whose outcomes are clouded by uncertainty. We never know what the future holds. It’s just that simple.

The problem with the long view forward begins with the long view backwards. Blur your vision and look back at the history of the US Stock market, and it looks pretty darned appealing. Lost in that blurred view are significant deviations from the mean. Look at global markets and you see even more. Meaning? If you don’t need your money, no worries. If you do, and you need it when the market is on the wrong side of the mean, and you’re not going to be happy.

Making matters worse, a significant piece of those historic returns has been fueled by handsome dividend rates. Don’t look now, but those days are largely gone, making the historic 7% total return even harder to come by without taking a whole lot of risk.

I’m no financial planner, but looking at this purely as a matter of good decision making, a couple of thoughts come to mind . . .

You should look at scenarios that consider both lower overall returns and you needing to sell assets during a declining market. Given the depressing regularity with which the big boys of global finance regularly crater the markets (every five years or so), that scenario seems more, not less likely.

There is a lot of friction in the financial system. Housing is one example. The relatively simple idea of taking out a loan to buy a house masks the fact that there are a host of seen and unseen players with their hands in your pocket from the time you sign the offer to the time you sell the house and retire the mortgage. They’re all getting paid. They all cost you money.

The same is true of nearly any other type of financial product you buy. Fees, like taxes, tend to eviscerate your total returns. It’s these kind of costs and drags that many people fail to consider when making a decision.

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Mar 29

Is CERN going to blow up the universe?

By kevin | Decision Making , Ethics

As if there isn’t enough to worry about, the New York Times reports that a couple of guys are bringing a law suit to stop CERN from lighting up their cool new toy, the Large Hadron Collider. Why? It might destroy the universe.

More fighting in Iraq. Somalia in chaos. People in this country can’t afford their mortgages and in some places now they can’t even afford rice.

None of this nor the rest of the grimness on the front page today will matter a bit, though, if two men pursuing a lawsuit in federal court in Hawaii turn out to be right. They think a giant particle accelerator that will begin smashing protons together outside Geneva this summer might produce a black hole or something else that will spell the end of the Earth — and maybe the universe.

Scientists say that is very unlikely — though they have done some checking just to make sure.

The world’s physicists have spent 14 years and $8 billion building the Large Hadron Collider, in which the colliding protons will recreate energies and conditions last seen a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang. Researchers will sift the debris from these primordial recreations for clues to the nature of mass and new forces and symmetries of nature.

In the world of decision making, we call that an "uncertainty." The way you explore it mathematically is by doing something called a sensitivity analysis. Basically you ask the smartest people you can find, what’s the outcome if you’re wrong on the bad side? What about on the good side? What’s your base expectation?

So if you were thinking about buying a vacation home, you might ask yourself what you think the value of the home might be in ten years time: low side, high side, base expectation. The idea is to be 90% confident that the answer is in that range. So you make the range big. Most people don’t make it big enough, but that’s another discussion.

In the case of the the super collider . . . we’ll I’m not even sure where to start. Apparently the "down side" is total obliteration of the earth, or maybe even the universe. Bummer. That sounds bad. The upside is that we may or may not get some cool new insights into the nature of matter. Hmmmm. Well I guess that sounds useful. The good news is that apparently, and I say that guardedly, the probability that CERN will destroy the universe is pretty small. Too, as my wife points out, if they do that, why do we care? It’s not like we’ll be around to see what it’s like.

I have no additional insights to offer to this debate. Doomsday predictions have a long and lustrous history of not working out, at least not yet. Of deeper interest is the ongoing debate, currently being engaged in by 17 people, as to how much big science is enough. Or, better stated, who gets to decide when chasing after something just because it appears scientifically possible is okay, and when is it not? Ever see Terminator?



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Mar 28

Book Review: Riding with Rilke by Ted Bishop

By kevin | Book Reviews

[amtap book:isbn=0393330745]

The excitement at setting out is what I’ve come to think of as the andiamo phenomena. Andiamo is Italian for “let’s go.” D. H. Lawrence calls it the most beautiful word in the Italian language. Certainly, the English “let’s go” feels flat-footed in comparison, pedestrian in the worst sense. The Italian is like a whip about to crack; the throb on the third syllable marks the wave pulses through the word. Both command and response, with a built-in exclamation mark, andiamo conveys the exotic, carries the excitement of taking off. It’s the word you breathe inside your helmet when you finally clear traffic and the road opens in front of you. It’s the feeling you get when you finally clear time and space and settle in with a new book. Heading into the silence, the platitude and possibility of silence.

What a delicious book. By all means read what I have to say about it, but also don’t be afraid to just run on down to the local book store, or click the link, and add a copy of Riding with Rilke by Ted Bishop to your reading list.

Let me caveat by saying I’m a fan of words. I like to read them. I like to use them. I like to write them. Love words I do. And Ted spills them across the page like so many truffles. Or if that imagery is too girly for you, reading Ted is like sitting at your favorite bar with a pint of their finest. You get the idea.

Ted’s an academic, something you’ll not be able to forgive him in this instance as threading the drama of chasing books, authors, libraries, and archives with riding a Ducati Monster—a bike no sane person would ride further than the next town—from somewhere hell and gone in Canada to deep in the heart of Texas is the whole point of the book. Me? He had me about three paragraphs in.

I found Riding with Rilke while poking around Amazon. Never one to do anything without at least three agendas in mind, I was: a) Looking for some good summer reading; b) Researching what I’ve come to think of as the “canon of road books” in preparation for perhaps taking a swing at making a contribution of my own; c) Looking for some grist for my blog. And yes, I read with a yellow marker and a pen. And I make notes. And it takes me forever. I can’t seem to just read.

Somewhere deep into Ted’s prose I started to get it. Reading is just like riding. You can rush and miss the texture and detail of it all. Or you can put down the pen, put down whatever it is you were thinking about, and just read . . . just ride.

I should say that this little revelation came as a bit of a shot. I am easily seduced by the idea that every human activity needs to have a purpose. And purposes need to be accomplished with dispatch. Doing something with purpose beats doing something “just because” by a mile. And getting it done faster is better than slower. No savoring the smells. No dallying about. No stopping just to take it all in.

Just typing this makes me sad. 51 years into the game and it finally occurs to me that there’s more to life than just getting stuff done. There’s more to reading a book than finishing it. There’s more to riding a bike than getting there. Actually, that thought occurred to me some years ago—a story for another time and place—but I’m often startled to meet it again and again like a lost dog that just won’t stop following me home.

So Riding with Rilke is not a book to be rushed. I came to respect the rhythm of the read out of respect for the man: Given a choice between flying and riding, Ted chose the road. Most of us who ride, heck all of us, would like to make that choice. And as we get later and later in life, we wonder why we don’t.

The highly condensed version of the book goes like this:

  1. Buy a Ducati.
  2. Take a sabbatical to go to Texas and dig around a really cool archive.
  3. Ride “blue highways” stopping often to observe, sample, and otherwise take it all in.
  4. Make a point of visiting places of bookish interest. As it turns out, even lovers of Virginia Wolf and D.H. Lawrence have spots to visit in the great American West. Go figure.
  5. Arrive in Austin Texas and have a swell time.
  6. Get involved with projects that further delay doing what you went there to do but also give you an opportunity to go to Europe, meet relatives of famous people, and present a paper in Rome on James Joyce. Cool.
  7. Come back and more or less repeat in reverse.
  8. Have a really bad crash in order to create a clever intro/outro bookend to the book.

Yeah, that about covers it. And if you stop there, you’re missing the whole point. It’s the words man! It’s how the nouns and verbs and all the connecty bits work together to tell what is otherwise a pretty simple story. Just like it’s the swoops and turns and stops and gos that bring you back again and again to a favorite road, where others only hear, “I rode to Bothell and back.” Oh.

Early on Ted plays with channeling his inner outlaw . . .

Still, you wouldn’t ride a bike if you didn’t want to cultivate a bit of an outlaw status. I was working on my Entrance, one of the most important aspects of being a biker. You come into town and cruised slowly down the main street — rump, rump, rump, cough – REVVvvv-rump rump (obviously a high powered machine, dangerous if not for your expert control) – and to the end of the street do a slow U-turn and come back to the café. You back the bike up against the curb, taking long enough that you know all eyes are upon you, take off your helmet, put your sunglasses back on, and walked toward the door. You use the capital Strut: shoulders back, head high, just a hint of pelvic thrust.

You step inside the door and, chin still high, moving only your head, survey the room (even if it only has four tables). Then you take off your dark glasses and hook them in the left breast pocket of your leather jacket the way fighter pilots do in the movies. Don’t look. This is crucial. If you have to fumble for the pocket, you’ve blown it and you might as well get back on the bike and leave.

Okay, by this point the men are cowed, the women trembling, and the girls behind the counter moaning softly. One flutters over with a menu and you look her in the eye and say, “Coffee. Black,” and then something insinuating like, “And give me a wedge of your… cherry pie.” (I hate black coffee, but whoever said, (Jed ! There is a stranger in town and he drinks his latte with a double shot !”?)

Anyway, I’m still working on it, and there are usually some creamers on the next table that you can snag on the way back from the washroom.

I so resemble those remarks, except that I only do the strut in my mind’s eye. Given my firm belief in ATGATT (all the gear, all the time), my actual strut looks more like the Michelin man’s evil brother. It’s more like a waddle.

And this . . .

Whether you’re writing a cruiser or a dirt bike or a big touring rig, in the eyes of the world you’re a bit of a hooligan or you wouldn’t be out there. We reject it, we deny it, we explain at length that there is a difference between a Rider and a Biker, but we secretly relish it. We like the idea that we’re mad, bad, and dangerous to know.

Anyone who has ducked into the last available hotel room in the last available hotel 40 miles after they should really have stopped will get this . . .

The room had more cigarette burns and TV channels. It was the sort of place where you walk to the shower naked in your motorcycle boots that because you’re kinky at because Who–Knows–What lurks in that inch–deep russet–orange acrylic shag. Stephen King must have a story somewhere about a malefic interstate shag carpet from hell that wraps its greasy tendrils around the toes of comely coeds and drags them screaming into its devouring embrace. I flossed forlornly and watched one of the religious channels, trying to tell myself that this was so bad it was great. The Quintessential Interstate Lodging Experience, I told myself. It didn’t work. I burped softly; the Denny’s fish and chips tasted just as bad the second time. I turned out the light, wondering why the knob felt both greasy and sticky. I decided not to pursue it.

More good words, these about that pesky notion of having purpose and resolve, qualities that occasionally come in handy hours, miles, and days into a big ride . . .

I learned long ago that the only way I could accomplish anything was to tell myself I could quit if I want to – that I could quit hiking and set up camp halfway up the pass; that I could quit high school and go work on a tramp steamer; that I could mow half the lawn and do the other half next week. In short, that I didn’t have to go the distance. All that inspirational stuff about focusing on your goal and never wavering from it just made me want to open a beer and apply for unemployment insurance. But once I’d decided I could quit, things didn’t seem so bad. And if anyone should say, “Wow, what you’re doing is difficult,” or even moderately interesting, I would square my shoulders and think, “Pff, a mere bagatelle.” It’s true I wasn’t certain what a bagatelle was (though I suspected there wasn’t an actual bag involved), but the books I was reading at the time always linked “mere” with “bagatelle” and it was always some beautiful object or difficult exploit but they sure are treated as if it were nothing.

Deep into the book, our hero writer-rider decides to spiff up his ride. Another inclination I respect and follow. My riding pal Ron stands firmly in the other camp, reveling in the grime and grunge that covers his bike or car or gear as noble talismans of a road well traveled or a journey well done. Only when there is no more adventuring to be had will he break out the soap and water. Me? I’m looking for a hand car wash in every town I sleep in, exceptions being made if it’s pissing rain.

I pulled into the bright twenty-four stall car wash and the friendly ex-Marine told me how to get my bike just right, using the final anti-streak spray. I was going to make some excuse for being there – the Monster was just dusty, not dirty – when two Corvettes pulled in that were cleaner than my car has ever been in its life. This was American auto culture, where having your ride clean, so clean, is more important than how it handles. That made sense out here, were the closest curve was in Albuquerque. But this wasn’t about logic, I realized as I bought a chamois and wiped the water droplets off my tank, the backs of my mirrors, the front forks and fender; it was about showing respect, about the ritual adoration of the machine. Saturday night was date night, Friday night was car night. As I pulled out from the clean well–lit bay into the dark street, I didn’t feel lonely anymore. The camaraderie of the car wash.

To the inevitable and tiresome question about danger . . .

Non-riders would always ask me, “don’t you think motorcycling’s dangerous?” in the tone of a foregone conclusion. It could be, I agree, but I was a conservative rider. Besides, I said, motorcycling is only one of a million ways you can go. You can just as easily go in your La-A-Boy recliner. In the spring, or when I haven’t been writing in a long time, I have a moment of fear thinking about what I’m going to do, but as soon as I’m up and riding, I’m fine. I would give the answer my father gave when people asked him, “Isn’t mountain climbing dangerous?” “Sure,” he said, “but at least you go doing something you like.” Then in The Stone Diaries I read about a Canadian journalist named Pinky Fulham who was crushed to death when a soft-drink vending machine fell on him. He had been rocking it back and forth, trying to dislodge a stuck quarter. Apparently eleven North Americans per year are killed by overturned vending machines. The next time I approached a vending machine I did so warily. And the next time someone asked me about bikes being dangerous, I told them about the Pinky.

We’re almost there. Being a book by a writer about reading and riding, it’s only appropriate to wonder at why some books want to be read by you, and some don’t. At least not right now. I’ve got books like that. Presently Robert Pirsig’s icon, Zen and the Art . . . falls into that grouping. Has for years now. I’ve also been down roads like that, roads that just don’t want to be ridden, at least by me on that day. Word to the wise. Respect the book that won’t have you. Put it away. Respect the road in the same way.

[amtap book:isbn=0060589469]

I believe a book knows when you are ready for it. If you are not, you might as well forget about it. You can buy it, sit down with it, try to read it. If the book doesn’t think you’re ready it resists. It’s as if you’re trying to pry it open, to heave open a spring-loaded door, but it snaps shut the moment you slacken your effort even slightly. Sweaty, exhausted, your hair plastered to your forehead, you stagger away.

And then, when you’ve forgotten about it, when you didn’t even know you needed it, you glance up from your writing, not looking, just raising your eyes as if you’re looking for a phrase, and there it is. Right there. Within reaching distance. It may even have edged out to the edge of the shelf. It’s a bit scary.

Looking back over the book, and this despite my sternest efforts, I find many more passages than these marked and noted . . . including an especially wild flight of fancy about woman and motorcycles. Decadently sexist and sexy. It’s on page 233 if you care to go looking.

For me, I’m not sure if the book did more to inspire me to read, write, or ride. But I do know that I felt inspired . . . that tugging feeling that makes you want to put down whatever it is you’re doing and andiamo! Yeah, it’s that kind of book.

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Mar 28

Interview with Comptroller David Walker on Why and How Health Care will Bankrupt the Country. Not kind of. But really.

By kevin | Decision Making

This video should be required viewing by every tax paying American. It’s also massively depressing. I’m tempted to not summarize what it says becuase then you might not look at it. But here goes anyway . . . The video features David Walker . . .

David M. Walker became the seventh Comptroller General of the United States and began his 15-year term when he took his oath of office on November 9, 1998. As Comptroller General, Mr. Walker is the nation’s chief accountability officer and head of the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO)

So Mr. Walker took office before the current administration rode into town. He’s got what I think anyone would agree are "impeccable credentials." And nobody who counts disagrees with him. In other words, what he has to say isn’t the equivalent of global warming. It’s probably worse, except without the "controversy." The problem in a nutshell comes down to these three dynamics . . .

Dynamic 1: Entitlements. At least since the 1960s, our elected officials have had periodic spasms that have resulted in further expansion of various "entitlement programs". Medicare is an example. While both sides of the aisle have contributed mightily to the larding on of promises and costs, the party of fiscal prudence has been especially imprudent. Exhibit A is the new Medicare Drug benefit that managed a rare trifecta of: Promising to bankrupt the federal government, while guaranteeing massive profits to drug companies already operating under the monopolistic protection of our patent laws, while thoroughly confusing the populace.

Dynamic 2: Boomers. This is nobody’s fault, but there are a whole lot of us heading towards retirement and beyond. This has two serious implications. The first is that our health care costs will go up and up as we get older. That’s just what happens. The second is that traditional sources of funding for those costs, companies and insurance companies, don’t want the costs. That means we’re collectively dumping ourselves onto each other. And there are fewer wage earners to pay for the mess.

Dynamic 3: Spending. Reckless spending. Baffling to "fiscal conservatives," their party of choice has presided over the biggest increase in every category of federal spending in modern history. It’s not just entitlements. It’s not just defense. It’s everything. Again, both parties play a role in this, but the blame sits squarely with the GOP. Add it all up, and the loan we’ve taken out for our kids and grandchildren to pay is stunningly large. And this is important: we can’t grow our way out of the problem.

Embedded Video

So, what do we do? If you’re young, a couple of choices come to mind.

  1. Think about emigrating. Leave the problem to someone else to clean up.
  2. Do everything you can to stay healthy.
  3. Have a really serious talk with your parents about "advanced directives."
  4. Don’t plan on having any disposable income when mom and dad get old. Your fellow former tax payers will be needing it all.

If those seem like grim choices, can someone please offer me some others? At a governmental level, the choices are actually quite clear. It’s just that none of them will be taken any time soon.

  1. Get rid of the Medicare drug benefit
  2. Get serious about a radical federalization of healthcare ala the UK, Sweden, Canada etc.
  3. Impose other radical changes that will force, or perhaps enable, true entrepreneurial behavior not just at the fringes of medicine, like plastic surgery or laser eye surgery, but at the center of the plate where all the costs are.
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Mar 27

Mid-Llife Rider Joins the Ranks of Motorcycle Bloggers International

By kevin | Rants and Raves

I’m delighted to report that this little corner of cyberspace has been accepted into the ranks of Motorcycle Bloggers International.

Motorcycle Bloggers International is an association of riders who write motorcycle blogs. Our members reside in many countries and live in different cultures but they have at least one thing in common—a passion for riding and writing about riding.

Click on the link to go read more about my fellow rider-ranters. I am also pulling feeds from a number of them on the page called “blogfeeds.”

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Mar 27

Pfffffffft. The Home Equity Bubble Is Getting Ready to Burst.

By kevin | Decision Making

For years, all the hand wringing about the poor rate at which America saves–a statistic that struggles under the weight of the federal deficit thumb on the scale–has been offset by high rates of home ownership and home equity. Here’s the dirty little secret.

For the past couple of decades Americans have used their homes as ATM machines and banks have used home equity loans as one of their primary engines of financial growth. Worse, the mighty US economy has been buoyed along all these years on a wave of consumer spending that has as its source, not rising wages, but rising use of credit to buy all those marvels of the consumer age.  That hissing sound you hear is the next bubble getting ready to go flat.

Little by little, millions of Americans surrendered equity in their homes in recent years. Lulled by good times, they borrowed — sometimes heavily — against the roofs over their heads.

Now the bill is coming due. As the housing market spirals downward, home equity loans, which turn home sweet home into cash sweet cash, are becoming the next flash point in the mortgage crisis.

Americans owe a staggering $1.1 trillion on home equity loans — and banks are increasingly worried they may not get some of that money back.

To get it, many lenders are taking the extraordinary step of preventing some people from selling their homes or refinancing their mortgages unless they pay off all or part of their home equity loans first. In the past, when home prices were not falling, lenders did not resort to these measures.

Such tactics are impeding efforts by policy makers to help struggling homeowners get easier terms on their mortgages and stem the rising tide of foreclosures. But at a time when each day seems to bring more bad news for the financial industry, lenders defend the hard-nosed maneuvers as a way to keep their own losses from deepening.

Like all the other macro chickens coming home to roost, there really isn’t anyone to blame. It wasn’t a plot. The pickle is the result of millions of people making decisions to advance their self interest as they understood it at the time. But a couple of factors did contribute . . .

The hard-scrabble debt-aversion so characteristic of the children of the depression didn’t get passed down to their children

The vast and superbly effective media-fed consumer engine got going after the last great war and has never stopped. Almost none of us are immune to the siren call of the latest new, new thing.

The ongoing tug of war between regulation and “free markets” has never been truly two-sided. Little by little the regulatory fences put in place as a result of the big D have been cast aside, making it easier and easier for regular folks to paddle in the same pool with financial sharks.

As an individual, the choices aren’t that tough to figure out. Spend less than you make. Save more. Don’t take on a lot of debt. Stuff your grand parents said. As a society, there’s more pain ahead.

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Mar 27

Decision Quality approach to buying a motorcycle helmet

By kevin | Decision Making

There is a long piece at on buying a motorcycle helmet. Tucked in there is a bit about using a standard decision quality tool called a decision table to help you sort out your choices.

How to decide for yourself

Before we go any further, and by all means skip ahead if you want, a word or three about making YOUR OWN decision about what helmet to buy.

There isn’t a right answer. There is a right answer for you. You can make your decision any way you want. You can throw darts, pull names from a can, buy what your buddy uses, or let a sales person tell you what to buy. Up to you.

There is a way to make this decision in a high-quality way, even if you know nothing about helmets. To do that, make a grid. On one axis, put your values. On the other your choices.

Values are what you want. Make a list of no more than five. Consider these: Quality, price, fit, noise/quiet, weight, graphics. That’s six. Think about throwing one overboard or making a bigger table. Or try: shock, fit, noise, weight, and fogging.

Choices are what you can choose. In this case, that’s the actual helmets. Again, no more than five.

What you’re going to do is use a scale to grade each choice by each value. The scale can be A, B, C, D, or 1—10, or anything that pleases you. Head to the internet and do some research. Talk to people. Read some reviews. Then grade each helmet by each criteria. Do the math and pick the helmet that’s best for you.

Helmet Decision Table

There are lots of subtleties and wrinkles to this. For example, you can weight different values as more or less important. Do that if you need to, but for now, just make the grid. It will help a lot. 

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