All posts by Mahesh Sreekandath

Exploring dissonance and the outdoors.

Salmo Mt. Lookout

It was late September 2021 and I was driving around Salmo-Priest Wilderness, basic plan was to locate this remote lookout tower. It’s at an altitude of over 6000 Ft, and expected be right around the intersection of Washington, Idaho and Canadian wilderness. Path leading to the tower was rated white-knuckle grade by this book on Wild Roads, so obviously caught my curiosity. Lady GPS who usually guides me was a bit lost, so had to use a map and chase Forest Road markers to identify that last section of the climb.

Entrance to this last leg of the route was flanked by overgrown shrubs, even though less trodden the road itself looked real. But, few miles into it I encountered that familiar feel of vehicle slipping sideways. Road itself was quite weathered, otherwise a Wrangler with high clearance and 35” tires wouldn’t lose traction. But once 4WD was engaged it was smooth sailing. Reaching the top, the Jeep and I were greeted with some thrilling hail and snow. This was definitely among those exquisite PNW moments.

Often my approach is to try and explore relatively risky back roads on Jeep before attempting on a motorcycle. But on hindsight, even on a capable machine like Wrangler, this particular road felt a tad unsafe. In general even moderately rugged forest roads could be dicier than difficult 4×4 trails. Because when nature weathers the terrain, it does in unexpected ways, while dedicated 4×4 trails are maintained and hence predictable. But, this risky attempt also gifted a rather remarkable experience. Standing at high altitude with near freezing temperatures, and with both international and state boundaries on the horizon, it was silence and splendid views all around. Finally climbed back into the Jeep, only to hear the rumbling of the light hail landing on the windshield, with a backdrop of dusky autumn hues. Catching some Black Sabbath on the trusty satellite radio made all this even better.

Americana, the Reich and Motorcycle parts

Recently I had to replace motorcycle tire, it was simply well past its tread wear. These off road Duro tires are made in Taiwan, in fact they are commonly seen in that lesser known Russian Ural motorcycles. These tires are known to be puncture resistant, and more importantly they look pretty good on a Triumph. My side-mirrors are from CRG, handle bars from British Customs, and engine/crash guard from SW-MOTECH. This is not an advertisement, but just an illustration of my ability to make choices.

Making choices for customizing motorcycles is not so different from general life choices. We pick vendors, and parts which are most suitable to our purposes and palette. Just like how we pick our grocery stores, or movie place or restaurants or investment plans. We build life and systems around us based on our choices, those who make better choices build better systems. That freedom to make choices deserves a bit of an appreciation.

Last week I was watching this TV series called “The Man in the High Castle”. It details an alternate reality where Axis powers won the war. And the US is split in half between the Reich and Imperial Japan. The series also brings in the concept of multiverse, where there are parallel realities with different outcomes. In a certain universes Axis powers rule, in others it’s the Allied forces. So, in the story Nazis realized this and decided to build this machine to travel to alternate realities, obviously to conquer them! More than scary it sounded foolish.

Even if by some random stroke of luck Hitler wins the war, they can’t hold a candle to the Allied forces in the parallel universe. So, most likely outcome would be they lose their current reality to Americans from those alternate universes. Interestingly, even here successful outcome comes down to that simple ability to make productive choices.

German Reich is forced to make choices based on meaningless criteria, while Americans make choices to build efficient systems. While Reich has to pander, Americans make choices which can deliver results. Nazis artificially limit their resource pool, while Americans allow winners to emerge from anywhere. Americans simply produce exceptional results because of their ability to make rational choices while learning from their mistakes. Over a period of time it allows best of the ideas to emerge and artificial discriminatory practices to be discarded, this eventually benefits everyone. So, one criterion to measure a legislation would be its impact on broadening choices, seems like that’ll tell whether it’s taking us closer to the Reich or to Americana.

Defying Gravity

After couple of years of pandemic, 2022 was probably the year of transitioning back to normalcy. But, that brings its own changes, and I had to move back to California from PNW. We read a lot about California exodus, that people keep leaving the State, so it felt a bit like I was defying gravity. More than that, the sheer exercise of packing up everything and moving over a weekend was akin to defying the odds and gravity.

My possessions are minimal, and including the motorcycle everything fits well within half of a 15ft truck. But, no vendor except U-Haul would allow me to tow a 4DR lifted jeep using a 15ft truck. Looks like I might be in the minority, and there’s only a small market of 4DR Jeep owners with minimal material possessions to haul!

Even for someone in such a minority situation, market provided an option. Not because U-Haul is charitable to Jeep owners, but because they simply wanted to maximize utility of their equipment. They want to be inclusive because there is a market incentive; it’s like that same American institutional reconciling gene. Private firms also attempt to solve problems by reconciling diverse requirements, while also remaining sustainable.

U-Hauling 1000 miles while towing the Jeep was uneventful. But Northern California provided a rather chilling welcome, and please note this was mid-April weather! But, thankfully that was the last of the snow I saw for rest of the year. Summer and early fall was about motorcycling the Sierras, a totally different experience relative to Pacific Northwest! Colors and the layering of those expansive vistas were just different. Can bring tears into even the most hardened eyes.

Most of the decisions we take in life are based on instinct, we might rationalize them, but life is too complex for purely data driven choices. For example — even though there were other reasons it was pure instinct which eventually prompted me to move back to the Golden State. In general its instinct which motivates us to explore, that exploration could be in the sphere of ideas or back-country landscapes or anything else we might wish. Its instinct which made me study Friedrich von Hayek and his friends, or made me explore heavy metal.

It’s also instinct which made me ride up this narrow single lane, and cliff adjacent winding path going up High Sierra Mountains. But that pure instinct gifted me the experience of motorcycling at 9000 ft. Similarly, studying the works of Prof. Hayek gifted me an understanding of the world. We can apply this instinctive mode to a lot of critical decisions we make in our life. So, even though we have become more civilized, in a way we are still a lot like our cavemen ancestors, because it’s still our visceral choices which rule our life trajectories.

Nameless riders and Supreme Court Justice

Few months ago I went riding to Eastern Washington, then just hopped over to Idaho and Montana for a full day exploration. Did this loop via Hwy2 – Troy – Bull Lake and finally back to Washington via HWY200/2. Needless to say, Montana is gorgeous! Had stopped more than a few times for breathtaking views and also for fuel. Basically exquisite views to fuel the weary senses and Chevron to fuel the motorcycle. Like a lot of other journeys, this also involved riding through stretches of rustic towns. Even though the area was novel to me, for the curious onlookers at the gas stations I was just another motorcyclist! Just another nameless rider, even though looking jaded from journey, exhibiting frequent unexplained bursts of enthusiasm to navigate those winding roads, often at uncomfortable speeds!

Might sound romantic, but unlike traveling in a car or truck, there is a degree of anonymity to motorcycling. Doesn’t matter where you live or what you do, during those long journeys your identity turns into that of a rider! It’s sort of like the famous veil of ignorance, the unique life circumstances of a motorcyclist hidden beneath all that protective gear! There is also a degree of comfort in that anonymity. It’s like you’re admired or derided or just ignored purely for your riding, not for other incoherent factors. There is a justice in that objective evaluation.

As usual, to paraphrase Prof. Hayek, man sort of became civilized when we invented such an unbiased evaluation based on rule of law, instead of rule of status — like class, occupation, ethnicity, race, tribe etc. But, our primitive instincts constantly surface in most ironic ways. More recently, in spite of my best efforts to avoid news, I couldn’t escape the recent Supreme Court justice appointment. As usual, even with of all her individual accomplishments, headlines were constantly celebrating Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson’s characteristic which is an accident of birth!

Reconciling Gene

If it isn’t already quite evident, most of my contributions on this website have been eulogies, attempted hymns of motorcycling and all the things uniquely American. My dad and great grandfather also used to motorcycle, so for that obsession I’d conveniently blame the inherited genes. But curiosity about Americana and in general Western civilization is probably acquired. Would like to believe for the most part these ideas were shaped by an honest sense of inquiry, sort of an amateur study into the causes of relative peace and prosperity.

If it isn’t already obvious, most parts of the world are in a constant state of strife or state of tension. It varies in terms of degree, but people are in general deadlocked in some form of bickering, often these inter-group squabbles are over disputes hundreds of years old, and probably even inflicted by unknown individuals. Generations continually born into this baggage and their minds shaped by these artifacts of the past. Without reconciling these disputes there is no peace or path to prosperity. Even if someone manages a truce, it is often fleeting, the mischief inevitably reemerges.

Thanks to some fortunate accidents of history, somehow the reconciling cultural strand of Englishmen survived, and often thrived. From common law jurisprudence and related institutions, to its more evolved form of American Federalism, for hundreds of years there is a constant recurring theme of attempting to reconcile divergent views. This framework itself is designed to resolve disputes without taking sides or enforcing collective goals. An unconditional 1st Amendment is a perfect illustration of this tendency. Even when most countries emulated Constitutionalism and all the surrounding institutions, they adopted a caricatured variant devoid of that impartial reconciling strand.

Not just in dispute resolution, peace through reconciliation is evident in all the functioning layers of the political system. Whether it’s reconciling majority views with minority or legislature with judiciary or democracy with rule of law or states rights with Federal — seems like English tradition constantly steered towards that simple goal of peaceful coexistence. But that mere goal of peaceful coexistence has lead to lofty outcomes of stability and prosperity, because that peace also allowed channeling individual energies to higher goals. In short, while simple goals lead to elevated outcomes, numerous political systems striving for explicitly high ideals consistently fell off the cliff. Well, yet another Thanksgiving, and felt like we have a lot to be thankful for, including that rarely acknowledged reconciling institutional gene.

Listen, and then Ride

Pictures often bring back memories, same applies to music, or for that matter any comparable visual/audio/sensory inputs. So, spend enough years listening to heavy metal, and overlap those very same years with motorcycle rides, odds of them converging increases. Basically certain riffs are now for time travel, to some motorcycling experience! Listening to opening riffs of Bleak rewinds time back to that 2:00 AM lonely highway ride, actually journeying to this small college town for seeing Opeth live. Jazz-fusion like bass lines in Surface’s Echoes brings back late autumn rides, and glimpses of peninsula sunsets. Honeycomb is a lot about early summers, exploring forts around Port Townsend. Frankly, it’s not an exhaustive list; somehow these experiences got overlaid in memory. One begets the other. But, this is not intentional and they don’t happen all the time.

Often such recurring patterns motivate study of the underlying cause. Seems like modern scientific mentality was to discover these underlying causes, theorize and apply them in multiple diverse contexts. For instance, inferring Pythagoras theorem from a triangle of particular dimension is a simple such example. To paraphrase Louis Rougier, it’s a mentality to move from specific to the abstract. This idea seems relevant in every sphere.

For instance, moving from specific rules to abstract rule of law is an illustration of same concept. Instead of directing everyone to specific duties, we enabled a framework to exercise free will. Instead of celebrating good rulers, we started seeking good laws. Movement from Magna Carta to American federalism is sort of that steady evolution from specific to the abstract. In fact, seems like Federalism adds one more layer to that dispersed rule-of-law framework within multiple states, sort of higher level instrument to institutionalize development of good laws even across the states. In that spirit, if we see legislation with specific directives assigning us tasks, it’s safe to say they are primitive artifacts in an otherwise sophisticated system.

Motorcycling at 105° F and space race

Been almost a month since it rained, so Pacific Northwest is going through a serious drought! Quite sure the true blue natives are reminded of that horrific 2017 summer, when the region had to endure two whole months without rain. To make matters worse, last month we had a heat wave weekend. I know exactly where I was when Seattle broke temperature records – on a motorcycle, right outside the city, on the scorching I5 tarmac! Can confirm it takes at least two days to recover from moderate levels of dehydration.

Less rain also translates to more riding on the weekends. It’s sort of comforting to know we have that choice to work, make a living, and dedicate our spare time doing whatever we wish, even if it’s something absurd like motorcycling at 105° F. I can also confirm that this choice to work and earn a living, at the standards we see in the Western world is a luxury, and quite unprecedented in human history! Even now in most parts of the world, an individual does not have that choice. Right now material poverty is not the natural state; it’s just the consequence of not having that choice. Almost everywhere that individual is constrained by external factors related to social or government norms.

It’s also absolutely common for the collective to discourage an enterprising individual. Our tribal instinct simply seeks to ostracize non-conforming minds. We existed that way for centuries. Seems like the American experiment is about correcting that very instinct. It’s about protecting us from our own primitive ways. Through political mechanisms, it attempts to inhibit those collective forces. In that sense, it’s not surprising that couple of billionaires decided to launch themselves into space from the US soil.

As always, entrepreneurs in space has enraged the tribes, common push backs include – Why go to space when we don’t have universal healthcare, or we still have hunger, or when there isn’t world peace yet.  Quite sure the tribes must have wailed when Nikola Tesla invented AC, or when Benz invented automobiles, or when someone did something worthwhile. Please note, when an individual breaks new frontier, eventually the collective gets to follow. It might take some time, but it’s a constant recurring theme in entrepreneurship.

Pure Americana

Recently I was on another ferry ride to San Juan Islands, that last frontier before Alaska, in fact at various points on those islands we can gaze at the Canadian shores across the water. Most of my previous rides were during colder months of autumn and spring, so almost always I was the lone motorcyclist on the ferry. This time it was a summer group ride and also there were several other unknown motorcyclists waiting at the terminal for the ferry back to Anacortes.

Among those unknown riders was this older gentleman riding a 500cc Royal Enfield. The signature classic look and that inimitable thump, even though muffled by the newer pipes, were instantly discernible. I walked over to him and mentioned how much I have enjoyed touring on these motorcycles, but of course it was over a decade ago and it was also the older 350cc variant. Interestingly he knew exactly what I was talking about. Even though a Westerner, evidently he has been living in Nepal for a while, and has done extensive touring of Indian subcontinent. More I conversed with him, more I realized how well aware he was about the machine’s quirks, subcontinent geography, and the motorcycle culture there.

Just to put all this in perspective – my conversation is with an American several generations older to me, riding a motorcycle originally invented in Britain, but now Indian engineered and exported to the US. While I am on a British designed Triumph, and most likely manufactured in Thailand. We are having this impromptu talk on a ferry terminal, in a corner of the world so distant from the Great Britain, Thailand or India. Even in our near past, possibility of this happening would be remote. But not anymore, seems like both humans and the products we engineer travel the world.

Even though the conversation itself wasn’t about the US, this situation might just be another silent illustration of American exceptionalism. Might sound like a leap, but we are in a more cohesive, connected world because of early American Federalists. That causal chain from the formation of an experimental republic, to current world is definitely long, tortuous, and involves several complex factors. But, beneath all the layers, that mechanism underlying globalization — which is essentially a contractual union of countries retaining their political identity but coexisting without cultural and economic barriers — sounds like pure Alexander Hamilton – James Madison – Americana!

A motorcyclist

Have known Ashutosh for 15 years, we actually worked together in three different companies in late 2000s. Around the same time we also picked up this habit of long distance motorcycle rides. Circa 2009 we did this two week ride from Bangalore to Cochin and back. This was roughly around the time we were let go from Freescale, so there was a lot of time to spare.

First day was mostly through rural inter-state highways until we reached Munnar. After a day of dreary sun, the sight of hills and green valleys were extraordinary. Spent few days exploring those winding roads flanked by tea estates, and dining at local tea shops. Sometimes even going off road, those less travelled routes, at one point we rode over this precarious wooden bridge, with 50 pounds of luggage strapped to the motorcycle. Road-side cardamom tea and snacks were the staple diet for few days.   

At Cochin we stayed at my family home. More tea, but this time some of my relatives and childhood friends were there too. Eventually rode back up north through Alleppey coast and backwaters. En route we discovered this rustic farmhouse for that well deserved sleep, silence and pristine water — a rare experience for urban dwellers riding motorcycles.   

My friends are few, but Ashutosh was one of them. We lost touch over the past few years, definitely wasn’t intentional. Life tends to get in the way. But, whether it’s in depth technical discussions at work, weekend movies, or long distance motorcycling, I remember him as civil and intelligent. A rare balanced individual who always did the right thing. We need more of his caliber, men and women who are aware, rational and wired with a sense of direct fairness.

(Adapted from the memorial shared with his surviving family)

Movement is Life

Year of social distancing! But a lot of that was on a motorcycle, we all try to make the best out of the situation! There is this 50 mile stretch west of Olympic forest which always eluded me, but managed to explore that this year. In that process also experienced a sunset at Ruby beach, one of those moments forever engraved in mind. Stayed at this rather rustic lodge after a six hour ride through the peninsula, well-furnished but no wifi and erratic cell coverage. Realized some cheap wine, decent fish n chips, and some silence makes for a great evening.

There is definitely something inexplicable about riding, there are actual full length documentaries/books detailing explanations, but most of it seems dreamed up romanticism. Reasons have to be simpler, because it’s just one of those visceral impulses, just like a lot of other recreational activities. More than the sights, with a motorcycle we essentially get to absorb the journey, and not just the final destination.  And yes, that journey often includes cold bursts of shower, gravel and dirt, unstable truck drivers, snapchating drivers and anything else nature might decide to fling. But, it’s again that simple visceral impulse, to experience the delights and also the travails of a journey. It’s something our ancestors endured every day before the comforts of modern civilization, now we get a glimpse of that from riding a well-engineered machine. In general, there must be something innate prompting us to journey, may be exploration must have aided in our survival within an ancient primitive environment.

Brad Pitt states in that apocalyptic movie – “People who moved survived… Movement is Life”. Needless to say, we cannot take it literally. But, in general movement can aid in adaptation. Whether it’s moving for work, or learning a new skill, or reading a new theory to solve that problem. All qualifies as movement, because they help us adapt in a changing world. Such an adaptation requires some planning, and that planning mandates at least some stable factors. What differentiates modern civilization from the primitive past is simply the existence of some stable social factors in an otherwise unstable system.

Simple example would be contractual agreements. If you order grocery, there is a near 100% probability that it will be delivered. On top of such simple and stable factors we construct complex plans, something which enables adaptation to unexpected events. Essentially that grocery might help us study for a test, run a marathon, or become a chef. In other words, law provides that stability in an unpredictable world. We actually don’t know whether we will pass the test, or win the marathon, or become a super chef. But law anyway provides us tools to pursue elaborate goals constructed on simple reliable norms. When applied equally to all, it enables the best of the plans, best of the minds, and in that process most complex of civilizations to emerge.

 “Of all multi-purpose instruments it is probably the one after language which assists the greatest variety of human purposes. It certainly has not been made for any one known purpose but rather has developed because it made people who operated under it more effective in the pursuit of their purposes” — Friedrich Hayek