Tag Archives: Motorcycling

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

Americana

So, recently I went riding around North Cascades. To the west of this wilderness is a set of towns hemming the US-Canada border. You can actually ride straight up to the boundary, and there were these twin roads separated by international lines. Speed limits posted in miles/hr on one side and km/hr on the other. But unlike the great wall of southern border, this was just more like a neighborhood fence. There were also strikingly similar ranches and farms on both the sides. But, of course, properties in the US had quite a few Trump/Biden signs. Thanks to the ongoing reality show.

Without being derisive we can all agree it’s sort of reality show right now. But this drama is not uniquely American, it’s quite common in all democracies. Electoral processes tend to exploit all our lower level instincts, and it’s only human to fall for it. Framers knew about this aspect to the masses, so they rightly engineered some institutional checks. In that sense, from cultural or Constitutional perspective, moving beyond baser instincts is something which makes Americans unique. That’s something which separates Americans, and in general the English tradition, from the rest.

So, minding your own business might be more American than political activism. Wearing no signs is probably more American than Black/Blue lives matter badge. Waving/burning flag probably makes you less of an American compared to not caring about the flag itself. Same is the case with worshiping political idols, celebrating defense, law enforcement etc. All these things are common across the world, nothing uniquely American about it. In short, American exceptionalism is about avoiding these very trappings. It’s about employing slightly higher levels of cognition, sensibility etc. It’s about focusing on underlying truth and not getting distracted by symbols or personalities. It’s about seeing subtle complexities, about realizing actions, even with good intentions, can have negative consequences. Eventually it’s a lot about being decent, responsible individuals. Seems like, being a real American is not that difficult, but that humility is still quite uncommon.

Hand Waving Rules

Quite like Jeep owners, motorcyclists also wave at each other. It’s one of those unenforced etiquettes of the road, creating and maintaining that sense of fellowship among riders. Such rules serve a purpose, so they also tend to have consequences, good and bad. For example, creating that sense of fellowship among motorcyclists leads to a relatively benign culture, consequence is on-road and off-road cooperation. This is quite the opposite of how motorcycle gangs operate. Actually you do not typically wave at these “outlaws”, because they have their own code and different purpose/consequences to them.

Like how merely waving at each other can create/reinforce a cooperative framework among unknown riders, other cultural norms/rules can also have its own consequences. Such norms and rules can also be more abstract and elementary. Sort of like building blocks of a social order. For example, preference for obedience over individual responsibility is such an abstract rule. This rule/norm will determine what is considered as just or acceptable within all formal and informal social spheres. It’s sort of like the underlying ethics of an order. Respect for seniority, class, gender etc over merit is another such rule; we can see that these rules do have consequences – in this case they tend to emphasize the collective over the individual. In short, these are the characteristics of static hierarchies. In that sense, they share traits with feudal or aristocratic organizations. The other end of the spectrum would be individual responsibility over obedience and emphasis of merit over everything else – these are the essential characteristics of dynamic hierarchies. So, seems like hierarchy itself is inevitable, only difference is the underlying rules.

Such norms/rules are also like the genetic code of a civilization, we sort of repeatedly apply them in different political, social and economic contexts to create higher level laws, Legislation, institutions etc. For example, paternalistic institutions will be perceived as just when obedience is considered as a higher virtue than responsibility. Reality is anyway more complex, because there are always conflicting norms and ethics. In short, no society is absolutely static or dynamic, it’s just a matter of degree.

I-Postcard

Over a decade ago I had shot this glistening sun bathed view of a Lighthouse. It sort of happened during one of those long motorcycle rides, and in an obscure part of the globe. Few years ago someone actually contacted me, and requested permission to create a post card from that exact photo. Of course, I obliged! Recently, just out of curiosity, I Googled for postcards based on that Lighthouse, and ran into this interesting WordPress link – Remembering Letters and Postcards. There are visible paper wrinkles and postal stamp watermarks on that photo, and also a copyright Mahesh printed at the bottom left corner!

Just another one of those motorcycle rides, and just another one of those photos. But it caught the attention of a Lighthouse Thematic Philatelist, and it turned into a postcard. Someone actually bought that postcard, and mailed it to a lady residing in a distant part of the world. Who then scanned and uploaded it to her website. And now I Googled to find my own photo! But, now my memories of clicking that photo are also perceived in a totally different context. Basically, that simple act now feels quite gilded and romantic. To quote a related earlier post – “with every single step we are progressively shaping our own trajectory, and at the same time influencing lives of others.” That mere instinctive act, of capturing a Lighthouse in its tropical sunset splendor, ended up traveling across the world!

The lady who got the postcard, or the person who sent it to her, will never know the backstory of that motorcyclist who captured it. They simply derived some value from the unknown motivations of a photographer. Just like how I derived value from the unknowns who engineered that Royal Enfield motorcycle and that Nokia camera. And also just like how I now derive value from the actions of these unknown actors sending postcards to each other. They all created an elaborate feedback loop to my rather innocuous photo. To generalize all this — our ability to derive and add value to the unknowns, significantly more than to the known, tends to create unique value chains. It’s probably the most romantic side to this Hayekian civilization.

I-Pencil

Beyond Creation

Stunning autumn hues aside, motorcycling in Pacific Northwest is a lot about winding roads. It’s about navigating those curves at an optimal trajectory and speed, creating those lively moments when your foot pegs brush the tarmac. It’s about discovering that thin line, the line which separates recklessness from precarious optimism, that optimism of everything beyond your control going right! Discovering that trajectory requires a clear view, and an understanding of the full turn ahead. That along with instincts and skills tends to shape the plan on how to approach the turn, how to maneuver, at what speed etc.

High level plan aside, how you actually cover every inch on this trajectory also matters, because this determines how you approach the remaining part of the curve. In fact, at every point on that curve, along with basic physics, our own limitations and constraints of our machines determine our immediate next steps. So you are essentially shaping the specifics of the path as you go along. This simple principle actually applies to even the most mundane activities in life.

To quote the above Canadian death metal band — “Every decision we take. Every step we make. Every word we use. And every rule we choose.” – In short, even in our everyday life, with every single step we are progressively shaping our own trajectory, and at the same time influencing lives of others. So, if you had a fortunate or an unfortunate accident, it might not be that immediately preceding step. It could be any action leading up to the accident, which actually set in motion that accident prone trajectory.

The actual question is what are those steps which maximized the probability of that incident. It could be that disturbing conversation you had with the neighbor or that reckless driver on the freeway, or both. It could also be that this accident was just inevitable. With exhaustive variables at each step, identifying and modelling that action or sequence of actions is non-trivial. It sort of requires omniscience and infinite computing power. But a functioning society requires individual to take responsibility, with the fair assumption that our free will defines the path. In short, we shape our good and bad “accidents”, by acting or not acting to compensate for external pressures.