Thursday, February 2, 2017

DKW Motorcycles

It’s time to practice your German — auf Deutsch: Des Knaben Wunsch — "the boy's desire” — a two-stroke engine produced by the German manufacturer that became known as DKW. (You see where that name came from — right?)

The year was 1916 and Danish engineer Jørgen Skafte Rasmussen founded a factory in Zschopau, Saxony, Germany, to produce steam fittings. That year he attempted to produce a steam-driven car he called the DKW. That was followed in 1919 by his first two-stroke gas engine.

He put a slightly modified version of this engine into a motorcycle and called it Das Kleine Wunder — "the little marvel.” This was the beginning of the DKW brand: by the 1930s, DKW was the world's largest motorcycle manufacturer.

They made cars and motorcycles, and in 1932, DKW merged with the brands Audi, Horch, and Wanderer to form Auto Union. The four interlocking rings are not representative of the Olympics, but rather of the four manufacturers that merged. After World War II, Auto Union moved to West Germany. Auto Union came under Daimler-Benz ownership in 1957 and was purchased by the Volkswagen Group in 1964.

The Audi company name is based on the Latin translation of the surname of one founder, August Horch. "Horch," meaning "listen" in German, becomes "audi" in Latin. (That’s also where the english term “audio” comes from.)

Before all this happened, during the late 1920s and early 1930s, DKW was the world's largest motorcycle manufacturer. In 1931, Ing Zoller started building split-singles and this concept made DKW the dominant racing motorcycle in the Lightweight and Junior classes between the wars. This included off road events like the International Six Days Trial (ISDT) where the marque scored some considerable inter-war year successes alongside the Bavarian Motor Works (BMW). At the same time, the company also had some success with super-charged racing motorcycles which because of their light weight were particularly successful in the ISDT.

The split-single ("Doppelkolbenmotor" to its German and Austrian manufacturers), is a variant on the two-stroke engine with two cylinders sharing a single combustion chamber. The split-single system sends the intake fuel-air mixture up one bore to the combustion chamber, sweeping the exhaust gases down the other bore and out of the exposed exhaust port.

The rationale of the split-single two-stroke is that, compared to a standard two-stroke single, it can give better exhaust scavenging while minimizing the loss of unburnt fresh fuel/air charge through the exhaust port. As a consequence, a split-single engine can deliver better economy, and may run better at small throttle openings.

A disadvantage of the split-single or “Twingle” as it was called is that, for only a marginal improvement over a standard two-stroke single, the Twingle has a heavier and costlier engine. Since a manufacturer could produce a standard twin-cylinder two-stroke at an equivalent cost to a Twingle, it was perhaps inevitable that the latter should become extinct.

However, from the 20’s to the 70’s, DKW and the Austrian manufacturer, Puch, had many successes with Twingle engines. Sears marketed considerable numbers of the Puch SGS split-single fitted with both these innovations as the "Allstate 250" or "Twingle" in the US.

Meanwhile, The motorcycle branch of DKW produced famous models such as the RT 125 pre- and post-World War II, and after the war with production at the original factory in GDR becoming MZ it made 175, 250 and 350 models.

As war reparations, the design drawings of the RT125 were given to Harley-Davidson in the US and BSA in the UK. The Harley-Davidson version was known as the “Hummer,” while BSA used them for the “Bantam.” IFA and later MZ models continued in production by DKW until the 1990s, when economics and environmental regulations brought production of the two-stroke to an end.

Other manufacturers copied the DKW design, officially or otherwise. This can be seen in the similarity of many small two-stroke motorcycles from the 1950s, including from Yamaha, Voskhod, Maserati, and Polish WSK.

DKW was once the world’s largest motorcycle company, and a major building block of some of today’s most successful companies. The car branch, Audi, is one of the largest luxury companies in the world. August Horch and Jørgen Skafte Rasmussen and these other early pioneers may not be as famous as Henry Ford or the Dodge brothers, but they are integral to the origin of motor vehicles too. And now you know the rest of the story.

Another storied European Motorcycle brand is NSU. Once called "Neckarsulm Strickmaschinen Union," (Neckarsulm knitting machines … remember Suzuki started as a knitting machine company too!) the company eventually shortened its mouthful of a name to NSU and became one of Germany’s most famous marques along with BMW and DKW. Annual production grew to more than 350,000 units in 1955, making NSU one of the world’s largest manufacturers of two-wheeled vehicles at the time.

But by then, the company was already on its way to losing the distinction. Through the 1950s, NSU became increasingly preoccupied with developing the Wankel rotary engine as well as a line of automobiles. Motorcycle production ceased in 1963, and Volkswagen/Audi swallowed the company by the end of the decade. In 1969 Auto Union GmbH amalgamated with NSU Motorenwerke AG.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Read the Book

Read the book. Always good advice. Books are warm and involving and work in the theater of the mind. However, especially in the case of Science Fiction, I enjoy watching the movie too to find out what was in the mind of the creative folks in Hollywood.

This time of year I get several peeks at one of my favorite movies. That’s A Christmas Story. Ted Turner owns the rights to the film and so it is usually played back-to-back for 24 hours around Christmas on one of his networks. That’s OK. I like the story. I’m crazy about nostalgia, and it does bring back some memories of a time long ago and how magic Christmas can be for a young boy.

As most know, the movie is based on a book, In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash, written by Jean Shepherd. It isn’t the normal adaptation. Rather it takes parts from the book and even a little from Shepherd’s second book, Wanda Hickey's Night of Golden Memories (and Other Disasters, The Ferrari in the Bedroom, and A Fistful of Fig Newtons), the source of the "hillbilly" neighbor Bumpus and his hounds. Both of his books are made up of independent chapters or short stories, sometimes with an introduction involving some conversation in New York City or the imaginary town of Hohman.

Jean Shepherd was a disc jockey and humorist who performed on radio in the decades after World War II. Beginning in June 1964, he began adapting many of his radio stories for publication in Playboy magazine. He focused primarily on those stories which depicted his childhood in the fictional town of Hohman, Indiana (a stand-in for Shepherd's real home town of Hammond, Indiana).

Playboy regular, author Shel Silverstein, had long encouraged his friend Shepherd to write down his radio stories, but Shepherd was reluctant to do so because he was not a writer. Eventually, Silverstein recorded Shepherd's stories on tape, transcribed them, and then, together with Shepherd, edited and developed them. Fellow WOR AM radio personality Barry Farber said Shepherd came to enjoy writing, as it allowed him to develop themes, and Shepherd began to work on written stories by himself.

In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash was the first book Shepherd wrote, and contained his most popular radio stories taken from early segments that appeared in Playboy. Although they are often described as nostalgic or memoirs, Shepherd rejected these descriptions. He argued instead that they were fictional stories about childhood.

Whether the stories are truth or fiction is not entirely clear. Shepherd denied that he was merely remembering his childhood, and repeatedly asserted in interviews that his stories were entirely fictional. However, at least some elements of the stories draw on the real world. For example, the names of many of the characters in Shepherd's book can be found in his high school yearbook, "Hohman" is the name of a major street in Hammond, Shepherd's younger brother was named Randy, and Hammond has a Cleveland Street and a Warren G. Harding elementary school. Certainly much of the tale is drawn from his boyhood experiences.

Books made into movies often contain much more detail than what can be portrayed on the screen. In this case, I’ve found the answers to several questions, some of which I didn’t even realize needed asking, by comparing the book to the movie. Plus, I find the movie much better than the book and I’ll explain why.

Have you ever wondered why the “leg lamp” was the prize his “Old Man” won? There is an explanation in the book. Ralphie explains that his dad was a big contest player. That made it into the movie in the kitchen scene where he asks the name of the Lone Ranger's nephew's horse. In the book Ralph describes a certain contest sponsored by the Nehi company, purveyor of a particular orange soda drink. (In some of their advertisements they would show a pair of sexy legs. Not sure why. Maybe a play on the name, “knee-high.”)

Ralphie’s dad had entered the Nehi contest that had a sports theme. His dad was not only an expert on all kinds of sports, but he also had an extensive collection of sports books and almanacs. His dad did very well in the early stages of the contest and moved on to higher rounds. As the contest continued, the questions got tougher and tougher. As mentioned in the kitchen, the prize was $50,000, so the Old Man kept on. The final round was very tough with questions about esoteric sports such as water polo. So Ralph's dad finished the contest and sent in the final questions. It is assumed his dad didn’t win first prize, but got a consolation prize.

Most of that detail was skipped in the movie, but there are some clues. Remember when Ralph’s mom asked what it was when his dad read the telegram? He said maybe it’s a bowling alley. But they don’t deliver bowling alleys. It seems that the Old Man was a very good bowler. Recall that he got a bowling ball present for Christmas. If he’d won the $50,000, he would have bought a bowling alley. Instead he got the lamp.

But that didn’t matter to him. It was the greatest present ever: “A Major Award.” You all know the rest. And now you know the rest of the story.

And speaking of presents, in the book you learn that Ralph gave his dad the can of Simonize car polish. Seems his dad was an avid car polisher. The dirigible that his kid brother loved was also a present from Ralphie that he complained about wrapping. He bought his mom a fancy bottle of perfume for Christmas, but that present doesn’t appear in the movie.

In the book, Shepherd is very negative about his home in Northern Indiana. He talks about the steel mills and refineries and how the snow was always covered in dust and dirt from the Bessemer ovens. He goes on and on about how cold it was in the winter with the arctic wind blowing over Lake Michigan at gale force and you see some of that in the movie with the dressing for school. He describes the scarf wrapped around your head until only your eyes show.

In the book he also describes the Indiana summers as hot and humid in his chapters about the stinking mud lake where the old men fished and the bugs and beer. Of course, none of the summer parts are in the winter story. The main premise in the book is he has returned to Home (Hohman / Hammond) from his job in New York, and is at the bar owned by his childhood buddy, Flick. He doesn’t have much good to say about his old home town. But, then again, he doesn’t have much good to say about New York either in his introductions at the automat and coffee shops. In his discussions with Flick he would get into the details that make up the Christmas Story.

You do recognize some of his excellent lines in the movie, although there are subtle changes. For example, in the scene where his mom “accidentally” breaks the lamp while dusting, the dad comes storming out of the bathroom. In the movie he’s in the basement struggling with the furnace. The book does describe the dad as a “fearless furnace fighter” going after clinkers. I suspect the movie deemphasized the bathroom for the sake of the children. (And talk about special effects: check out that black smoke rolling out of the basement when the Old Man opens the door!)

One line I like describes “a blue cloud of obscenities still existing somewhere over Lake Michigan.” In the movie that’s how Ralphie characterizes his dad’s cussing, but in the book that line is from when Ralph fought the bully and swore a blue streak. In both cases, his mom doesn’t tell his dad, much to the relief of both siblings worried that "dad will kill Ralph." Besides, we know his dad "worked in obscenities like other artists worked in paint or clay."

All in all, the movie had a softer tone and represented a more pleasing view of childhood, while the book was very negative on the town and its meteorological and economic conditions. I think that’s why the movie is better. It has a caring, nostalgic tone that resonates better with viewers than the tough — “happy I’m outta there” vibe of the book. Still the book allows the author to more clearly present his views. But I’m glad the movie came out the way it did. Most our childhood memories have softened and even the tough times with your tongue stuck to the flagpole are now fond memories.

Two of my favorite scenes are at the very beginning where the narrator (grown up Ralph) first sees his old home on Cleveland Street. I know that feeling. Your boyhood home is a place of many fond memories. The second is the very ending where the boys are in bed with their favorite presents and mom and dad are together on the couch, arms around each other, watching the snow outside with only the lights of the Christmas tree to illuminate the scene. Now that I'm "mom and dad" I get that too.

Plus I like all the fuse blowing and crazy electrical wiring scenes. That’s just fun. “My Old Man could replace fuses quicker than a jackrabbit on a date.” Think about that line for a moment, and then realize that director Bob Clark’s filmography includes “Porky’s,” well known for sexual innuendo. The movie may have downplayed the adult content and bathroom scenes, but it is fun reading through the book and spotting famous lines from the movie; at least famous now that Christmas Story had entered the nation’s psyche through simple repetition.

Still, after all my study and reading, there are several points of confusion between the two. The book states numerous times that it is in the “middle of the depression,” which would have dated it in the mid 1930s. But the look of the movie is definitely 40s, based at least on the automobiles. Little Orphan Annie is no help since that radio show ran from 1931 to 1941, although that would preclude mid forties for the time frame.

Neither the book nor the movie make it clear what Ralph’s Old Man did for a living, although it did appear he had a job, which was fortunate during the depression. His care with money is demonstrated in the scene with the flat tire where a quick observer will note the spare is bald. Or, as Ralph said, "These were only tires in the academic sense. They were round and made of rubber." But then again he did get the big Christmas tree, although we never heard what it cost, and he got the rope thrown in free.

In any case, it has been useful for me to read the book. I did that after I first saw the movie on TV, and that’s still OK. There are many other movies that I’ve also read the book. 2001, a Space Odyssey is a favorite of mine. It was based on a short story by Arthur C. Clarke written in 1948 called The Sentinel, yet that was only about the monolith, not the voyage or HAL.

There is a book of the movie 2001. It was developed concurrently with Stanley Kubrick's film version and published after the release of the film. Clarke and Kubrick worked on the book together, but eventually only Clarke ended up as the official author. Of course, I’ve read that book too. Since it is based on the movie, there are few differences, but it does explain the final scene where the fetus is seen floating in space above the earth.

The book has an explanation for that final scene, but I’m not going to tell you. You’ll have to “Read the Book.”

Friday, December 30, 2016

BSA Rocket 3

The history of the British Motorcycle Industry is a long and storied tale. However, by the 60s, it had fallen on hard times. Multiple mergers and government involvement and support was basically unable to save it. Many famous brands went under and really only one survived. Triumph has had a good come back, but one of the 50s and 60s favorites, BSA, is gone forever.

The causes of the death of these great British brands including Norton, AJS, Vincent, and so many others are also numerous, but one main cause was an inability or lack of updating the designs and the factories that produced these legendary bikes.

There was a glimmer of hope near the end. The merged companies of Triumph and BSA actually beat the Japanese to the punch in producing what became known as super bikes. Before Honda released their game changing Honda CB750 four-cylinder, the British delivered on a new design moving beyond the twins. They were triples sharing much in common in their basic design, yet they were also different mostly due to the rivalry between the two famous British brands.

These were both 750cc Triples — three cylinders. They were good designs, although the styling could have been improved — that’s part of the following discussion. The BSA version borrowed from their famous brand name and was called the Rocket 3.

Starting in 1968 and introduced to the press and public in March of that year as the A75 Rocket 3, along with the similar Triumph T150 Trident. Both had a 740cc three-cylinder engine set across the frame and in unit construction with a four-speed gearbox. Although many of the internals were common, the design owed much to the Triumph Twins that preceded it. Yet the BSA design was distinguished from the Triumph by having its cylinders inclined forward and its timing cover shaped to blend to the gearbox. These relatively major design changes had delayed the project and may be one of the ultimate causes of failure of these brand new competitors from the British Isles.

The frames were also different, following the lines of the two firms’ respective twins, so that the BSA had an all-welded type with duplex downtubes. The forks and wheels were common and taken from the earlier twin designs, the front brake of the dual-leading-shoe type. A four-gallon tank was fitted with an oil cooler mounted beneath it at the front.

It was a most impressive motorcycle which reached its home market in 1969 and soon built up a fine reputation. Unfortunately, its production had been delayed, and late in 1968 the Honda CB750 burst upon the scene to steal much of the triple’s thunder. For all that, the British machines sold well and works racing versions had considerable success in 1970 and 1971, winning the Daytona 200, the Isle of Mann TT, the Bol d’Or, and the Truxton.

The overall design of the BSA triple was not met with much regard. The oddly shaped tank and other features were not well received. One interesting story was an attempt to improve the looks in the X-75 project.

The Triumph X-75 Hurricane was a 'factory special' motorcycle designed by fairing specialist Craig Vetter. The X-75 had swooping glassfibre bodywork, a three US-gallon petrol tank, lowered gearing, and a distinctive triple exhaust on the right-hand side. The motorcycle is credited with creating a new class of motorcycle, the cruiser.

The X-75 was ultimately released as a Triumph model in 1973, the BSA factory having closed its doors in late 1972. Vetter was commissioned by BSA's US distributor to customize the BSA Rocket 3 to appeal more to American tastes.

When, in 1968, the new BSA Rocket 3 / Triumph Trident triples were shown to the American BSA-Triumph management, they were underwhelmed. They knew Honda had an important bike (the CB750) coming along, and they felt the triple's price of $1800 was too high and that technical details (like vertically-split crankcases and pushrod OHV valve train) were far from "cutting edge".

However, they acknowledged that the bike was fast, and a sales team led by BSA Vice-President Don Brown decided to launch the bike by using a Rocket 3 to set some records at Daytona, records which were broken in 1971 by the Kawasaki Z1.

Brown felt that the BSA / Triumph triples needed a different look to succeed in the USA, and he engaged designer Craig Vetter to give the BSA A75 a customized face-lift, with a brief to make it "sleeker and more balanced.”

Vetter created the Triumph Hurricane in the summer of 1969, and in October 1969 he unveiled the prototype with "BSA" on the tank as the new Rocket Three.

Thornton and the American officials were impressed, and Vetter's bike was then sent to the UK, but the bike arrived in England just as the BSA marque was about to end. At BSA-Triumph's design facility at Umberslade Hall, the design was seen as too "trendy" by chief designer Bert Hopwood; but after very positive public reaction to the design when it appeared on the front of US magazine Cycle World in September 1970, the UK managers changed their minds. They realized they had a large stock of obsolete BSA Rocket 3 parts that could now be turned into a premium-priced motorcycle.

Engineer Steve Mettam was given the job of supervising production for the 1972/3 season; and the Vetter BSA Rocket 3 became the Triumph X-75 Hurricane. 1,183 engines were put aside for X75 production. However, BSA was facing bankruptcy and the design went into a limited production run of 1200 as the Triumph X-75 Hurricane in 1972. Production stopped in 1973 after the X-75 was unable to meet new American noise standards.

An odd side note to this tale is that Vetter was not paid for his design work for several years. Brown revealed the Vetter project to Peter Thornton, President of BSA/Triumph North America, but as Brown's initiative had not been authorized by BSA, Vetter had problems being paid, waiting two years for his fee.

This was the last gasp by BSA. By 1972 BSA had quit production, although some Triumphs continued on. It was the end of a great and storied brand. BSA to be no more. There’s an X-75 for sale at the Mecum auction in Las Vegas at the end of this month. I don’t think I’ll be bidding on it, but I’m curious what it will sell for. BSA lives on in the hearts and minds of we enthusiasts.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Foundation

Those that read my blog know that science fiction was a key part of my childhood and continued interest. Further, SciFi was one of the factors that led me to a life and a career of science. I am still consumed by the fires of speculative fiction, and reading this genre is a major part of my leisure time activities.

Regular blog readers also know my three all-time favorite authors of this style of literature are Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clark, and Robert A. Heinlein. Isaac, the “good doctor,” is probably the greatest of the three in my estimation. He was a doctor. Ph.D. in biochemistry and a professor at Boston University. But his life was soon absorbed in writing, and he is one of the most successful American authors of all time, regardless of the genre. And not just in Science Fiction. Plenty of nonfiction too. His books have been published in 9 of the 10 major categories of the Dewey Decimal Classification.

I’ve read just about everything he ever wrote, both fiction and nonfiction, and that’s quite a boast since he authored over 500 books. He wrote so much that even the total number is in doubt and depends on how you count it. But no matter how you perform the math, that is a prodigious output and it wasn’t just SciFi, but books on science, physics, chemistry, astronomy, even the Bible and Shakespeare. The “good doctor” indeed!

I don’t know when I first read the Foundation Trilogy. Probably some time in the late fifties or early sixties, but conceivably I didn’t read the three until I was in the Navy in 67-73. I don’t remember exactly when. Like all of his work, I was very impressed by the story … the scope and expanse of a tale that included the entire galaxy (what we would call the Milky Way). He imagined mankind expanding and colonizing the entire galaxy. A civilization of millions of worlds and trillions of people. Although it isn’t clear, especially in the first three books, ultimately the series was expanded and we learn what we always suspected. All these people are descendants of the men and women of Earth.

Foundation was originally a series of eight short stories published in Astounding Magazine between May 1942 and January 1950. According to Asimov, the premise was based on ideas set forth in Edward Gibbon's History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, and was invented spontaneously on his way to meet with editor John W. Campbell, with whom he developed the concepts of the collapse of the Galactic Empire, the civilization-preserving Foundations, and psychohistory.

Psychohistory was a branch of science developed by Hari Seldon at a time when the Galactic Empire was in decline. (Compare this idea to the fall of the Roman Empire and the dark ages that followed its collapse.) Psychohistory combines history, sociology, and mathematical statistics to make general predictions about the future behavior of very large groups of people. Seldon, a mathematician, had developed the method. It could not predict the actions of an individual, but collectively and with statistical accuracy limits well known to those that follow election polls, it would describe the actions of nations, worlds, and the entire empire.

Seldon foresaw a complete collapse that would last for 30,000 years. Repeating the dark ages after the fall of the Holy Roman Empire. His plan was to establish two “foundations.” These core organizations would work, using psychohistory, to reduce the collapse to just 1,000 years and leave a reborn (and much improved and stable) galactic civilization.

The magazine short stories were collected, along with a new story taking place before the others, in a single volume published by Gnome Press in 1951 as Foundation. The remainder of the trilogy were published in pairs by Gnome as Foundation and Empire (1952) and Second Foundation (1953), resulting in the "Foundation Trilogy," as the series is still known.

Much later, in 1981, Asimov was persuaded by his publishers to write a fourth book, which became Foundation's Edge (1982). Four years later, Asimov followed up with yet another sequel, Foundation and Earth (1986), which was followed by the prequels Prelude to Foundation (1988) and Forward the Foundation (1993). During the two-year lapse between writing the sequels and prequels, Asimov had tied in his Foundation series with his various other series, creating a single unified universe.

The basic link is mentioned in Foundation's Edge: an obscure tradition about a first wave of space settlements with robots and then a second without. The idea is the one developed in Asimov’s Robots of Dawn, which, in addition to showing the way that the second wave of settlements were to be allowed, illustrates the benefits and shortcomings of the first wave of settlements and their so-called C/Fe culture. In this same book, the word psychohistory is used to describe the nascent idea of Seldon's work. Some of the drawbacks to this style of colonization, also called Spacer culture, are also exemplified by the events described in The Naked Sun.

This complete work of seven novels, some sequels to the original trilogy, and some prequels in a sense merged all of Asimov’s work. This included his robot stories with the three laws of robotics as well as the “Spacer” tales and even his interesting SciFi detective stories that starred the “stay at home” sleuth Elijah Bailey and his robot companion R. Daneel Olivaw. The early exploration of the galaxy covered in these books and tales of the Empire which predated the Galactic Federation are fit into the overall plot. Places such as the planet Solaria and mental telepathy are all combined with a search for mankind's original planet, now all but forgotten by the Galactic Civilization.

I had read the trilogy years ago, and read Foundations Edge over thirty years ago. I recently purchased the entire 7 book combination for the Kindle and read it all over the last few months. The collection was ordered the original three novels, which I re-read to remember the details, and then the sequels. Finally, at the end of the collection, came the prequels. Some what of an odd ordering time-wise, but it made sense reading it that way. Besides, with a Kindle, rather than individual volumes, it works best to just follow along the intended order.

I won’t ruin any of the stories by repeating plots or climaxes, but I did finish the series just the other night and it was a pleasing capstone for this long time fan of Asimov. Now I really do think I’ve read everything he every wrote. I don’t know what will happen to my library after I’m no longer here to read and enjoy it. It isn’t fancy. Mostly just paperbacks. I hope that somewhere, an Asimov fan will get that collection whether from a second hand store that my heirs assign it to, or possibly he or she will find it in the dump. Words on paper. That’s all it is. (Sadly the Kindle works will probably just be deleted. A downside of electronic books. They don’t fit on the shelves.)

In any case, it doesn’t matter. It is how those books and those words molded and shaped my life and career that is important. I assume there will always be libraries full of Asimov’s words for future generations to explore. After all, the Galactic Library and the Encyclopedia Galactica from the series give away Asimov’s own view of literature. A little study will quickly show that I’m not the only one influenced by the series or other of Asimov’s writings. Many a famous scientist and economist will tell of the early influence of this wide open tale.

Sure there’s Star Trek and Star Wars … they’ve influenced a lot of people. But folks my age will probably tell you of their early influences that predated television and special effects movies. Reading is the theatre of the mind, and the effects and impact are only limited by the mind of the readers.

I’ve had many mentors in my life and times. Asimov, although I never met him, was one of the more important ones. Some of my first exposure to deeper concepts of physics and astronomy, plus chemistry and many other physical sciences, was in books written by the good doctor. Thank you Isaac. Live long and prosper. (He died in 1992 at 72 years of age. But he still lives on in the hearts and minds of his gentle readers, including yours truly.)

If you’ve never read the Foundation Trilogy or the expanded series, that’s still a great place to start. It isn’t hard to find lists of all the books that are now considered part of the expanded universe of Isaac Asimov. It won’t take that long for you to read them all. Oddly, very few movies have been made from his tales. I Robot was pretty good, but you really need to read the book(s)!

Perhaps the biggest problem when tackling Asimov's work is what order to read the books. The author himself suggested this series. So this is a solid recommendation. He wrote in the Author's Note of the Prelude to Foundation that he is providing a guide for those readers that might appreciate it since the books "were not written in the order in which (perhaps) they should be read." Therein, he offers the following chronological order:

  • The Complete Robot (1982) Collection of 31 Short Stories about robots.
  • The Caves of Steel (1954) His first Robot novel.
  • The Naked Sun (1957) The second Robot novel.
  • The Robots of Dawn (1983) The third Robot novel.
  • Robots and Empire (1985) The fourth (final) Robot novel.
  • The Currents of Space (1952) The first Empire novel.
  • The Stars, Like Dust— (1951) The second Empire novel.
  • Pebble in the Sky (1950) The third and final Empire novel.
  • Prelude to Foundation (1988) The first Foundation novel.
  • Forward the Foundation (1992) The second Foundation novel. (Not in Asimov's list as it had not been written yet.)
  • Foundation (1951) The third Foundation novel, comprised of 5 stories originally published between 1942-1949.
  • Foundation and Empire (1952) The fourth Foundation novel, comprised of 2 stories originally published in 1945.
  • Second Foundation (1953) The fifth Foundation novel, comprised of 2 stories originally published in 1948 and 1949.
  • Foundation's Edge (1982) The sixth Foundation novel.
  • Foundation and Earth (1983) The seventh Foundation novel.
  • Monday, December 19, 2016

    Hacking Elections

    We’ve heard it on the radio. We’ve seen it on the TV. We’ve read about it on social media. Election hacked … likely by Russia with direct involvement of Vladimir Putin. What do you think?

    What do I think?

    Well, I think hacking is a very serious threat to our way of life, our democracy, our economy, our government and corporate information, and the US as a whole.

    What are we to do?

    Speaking as a computer professional, I believe key risk issues for our modern, computer dependent society are issues relating to trustworthiness and must be evaluated based on the entire system, and must address the entire set of requirements (not just safety or security or reliability or resilience or robustness or whatever is critical to the particular system).

    The number of key systems that depend on security is steadily increasing. This is in part the result of the reality that the systems we have to build upon are simply not trustworthy enough. (I'm referring to operating systems, network software, and Internet as a whole, etc.) However, it also results from a commercial factor that not enough commitment is made by developers and corporate users to significantly improve the situation. It also results from the fact that some government agencies such as the FBI and law enforcement in general have serious difficulties in dealing with even the already broken systems.

    Thus the preponderance of security-related stories in the journals and the press. Things are NOT getting better. Contrary, they are getting worse. The so-called “Internet of Things” has even less security (and much less update capability) than the networks and computers we’ve all become so accustomed to now. We need better system engineering and a realistic goal of trustworthiness.

    Whether it is stories of self-driven cars crashing, trains jumping off their tracks, spills (yes computers can be involved in these spills), or aviation disasters traced back to computer and automation failures, not to mention the loss of operator skills as “ease of use” leads our pilots and operators to depend too much on the automation tools built in modern devices. Remember those tales of drivers believing their GPS resulting in driving into lakes and rivers.

    Some times it is as simple as the large expensive summer home in Aspin, Colorado that had all its pipes freeze when the batteries in the programmable thermostats died leaving the furnace off during a cold snap. Sometimes it is just one line of inerrant or obsolete code in a 100 million lines of programming. Sometimes it is failure to consider the odd corner case in testing and reviews, but then humans are fallible and computer software suffers from these human failures.

    Yahoo just announced the largest hack yet and the loss of customer data — including poorly encrypted password files. And what about users that use passwords such as “password” or “S3CR3T.” (That’s secret with a numerical substitution.)

    It is important to remember that no evidence has been reported that the recent presidential election was hacked. By that I mean some entity modifying voting machines to change the outcome. The current news is really about the emails and other information stolen from the Democratic National Committee and candidate’s staff emails accessed, stolen, and then published in WikiLeaks and elsewhere.

    Very embarrassing for certain and, combined with the Hillary private server issues, created a drum beat against her candidacy. Further, it isn’t just these private communications being released, but the echo effect and constant drumming on social media combined with fake news and highly partisan news sites. Throw in the conspiracy theorists who are mostly certain the earth is flat and all those NASA pictures are fake and the moon landing was all Hollywood special effects. You certainly can “fool some of the people all of the time.”

    More subtle were results from search engine algorithm manipulation effect. The commercial advertisers know how to raise the level of a post on Google or Bing, and the political campaign staffs are well aware of these Madison Avenue tricks.

    Further, the proprietary software used by these commercial entities are protected by law and court rulings. We (and that may include the FBI and other responsible agencies) don’t even know what’s inside those black boxes.

    Do I think the election machines were hacked? Well, honestly, no. There doesn’t seem to be any evidence of that occurring this time. But then would there be evidence? In 2016 about 80 percent of the U.S. electorate voted using outdated electronic voting machines that rely on proprietary software from private corporations. Some of these corporations are led by highly partisan entrepreneurs from George Soros on the left to the Koch brothers on the right.

    A recent study by the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law identified “increased failures and crashes, which can lead to long lines and lost votes” as the biggest risk of using these out of date systems, but it is important from a security perspective to realize that old software is riskier because new methods of attack are constantly being developed and older software is likely to be vulnerable.

    Some of these systems provide almost zero auditing trail and paper documentation, so it begs the question if we would even know if the actual vote was hacked. In this modern, automated world of high cost of human labor, even the paper ballets are usually not counted by a human, but rather by a machine. At least in the case of paper ballets (such as those used in Colorado), there is a paper trail to study and evaluate error rates and possible malfeasance and hacking.

    (In my opinion, this kind of auditing and recounting capability MUST be DEMANDED in all our voting machines.)

    There’s plenty of room for human error when you try to count the hundreds of millions of voters in a national election, and there certainly are some elements seeking to defraud the election through multiple votes, denying certain groups from voting, and other shenanigans. But as any office worker knows, humans are error prone, but to really screw up takes a computer!

    Will the next hack cause our entire electric grid to fail? Will the Russians or the Chinese steal the plans to our most advanced weapons? (Already happened.) And worst of all, even if we realize it happened, will we know for sure who did it?

    My advice, improve the trustworthiness of all our automated systems. It won’t be cheap. But it might be the best money we ever spent. Do I think it will happen? No, I don’t think it will. We are going to keep on keeping on our current path toward Computer Armageddon. Forget about Skynet. A.I. isn’t the threat. It’s the old fashioned human intelligence … or the lack thereof.

    Saturday, November 26, 2016

    Kawasaki

    It seems strange that, with all the motorcycles I’ve owned in the last fifty plus years, I never owned a Kawasaki. Those big K bikes from the sixties and the seventies had engineering to equal the best of Honda and the other Japanese competitors, with sales that put it firmly in the big four Japanese companies.

    It started when Kawasaki Heavy Industries as it is now known was Kawasaki Aircraft. They initially manufactured motorcycles under the Meguro name, having bought an ailing motorcycle manufacturer, Meguro Manufacturing, with whom they had been in partnership. It was later renamed when they formed Kawasaki Motor Sales. Some early motorcycles display an emblem with "Kawasaki Aircraft" on the fuel tank.

    During 1962, Kawasaki engineers were developing a four-stroke engine for small cars which ended when some of the engineers transferred to the Meguro factory to work on the Meguro K1 and the SG, a single cylinder 250 cc OHV. In 1963, Kawasaki and Meguro merged to form Kawasaki Motorcycle Co.,Ltd. Kawasaki motorcycles from 1962 through 1967 used an emblem which can be described as a flag within a wing.

    Work continued on the Meguro K1, a copy of the BSA A7 500 cc vertical twin, and on the Kawasaki W1. The K2 was exported to the U.S. for a test in response to the expanding American market for four-stroke motorcycles. Unfortunately, it was rejected for a lack of power. But by the mid-1960s, Kawasaki was finally exporting a moderate number of motorcycles. The Kawasaki H1 (Mach III) in 1968, along with several enduro-styled motorcycles to compete with Yamaha, Suzuki and Honda, increased sales of Kawasaki units.

    Besides the “evil” triples, the Mach III and Mach IV, Kawasaki was developing a 750cc, four cylinder, four stroke bike in a late sixties project called hopefully "NY Steak," but they were surprised by the 1969 release of the Honda Four of equal displacement. So, they went back to their drawing boards eventually producing the Z1 in 1972, a 900cc, dual overhead cam competitor that pretty much beat the CB750 in all departments. Honda’s answers later in the decade were the Gold Wing and the CBX six. But this story isn’t about Honda.

    As I said, I’ve never owned a Kawasaki … at least up until now. I am now the proud owner of two of the finest Kawasaki bikes ever made (in my not so humble opinion). I have a ’74 Z1, fully reconditioned that looks like it just came from the showroom floor all NOS parts and shiny new paint and chrome. I also have an H1, the infamous Mach III two stroke triple. This one is original and out of a museum. So it looks spanking fresh too.

    When I told my good biking buddy, David “Woody” Woodman, about the H1, he brought up the name of Yvon Duhamel, perhaps the only rider who ever mastered the ill handling monster Mach IV, although judging by the number of crashes he survived, maybe master isn’t quite the correct term. More like “came to grips.”

    A little history of Team Green and the Famous Flying Frog — Yvon Duhamel:

    The Kawasaki name has, over the decades, been inextricably linked to a handful of riders. Dave Simmonds, who brought the marque its first world championship title in 1969 on a Kawasaki 125, and its first race win in the 500cc class at Jarama two years later, Mick Grant who brought Kawasaki their only 500cc win at the Isle of Man Senior TT in 1975, the last year it counted as a world championship round, and Kork Ballington, who won both the 250 and 350cc titles on the company’s tandem twins for two consecutive years in ’78 and ’79 are all staunch Kawasaki men.

    Across the Atlantic in the USA a diminutive little French-Canadian, Yvon Duhamel, known affectionately as the “Flying Frog,” brought the Kawasaki name firmly into the limelight in the market where it counted most. Through his sheer talent — and the number of crashes he survived on the evil-handling 750cc two-stroke triple, the Kawasaki H2R, he became forever linked with the big K.

    Duhamel — father of the more recent top-level AMA superbike racer Miguel — was an extraordinarily talented fellow. He won the Canadian dirt track championship in 1963, ’65, ’66, ’67, and ’68. He scooped various motocross championships, was a successful ice racer, winning three Canadian championships, and finished second in the ’68 Canadian trials championship.

    He also had a talent for making money from all of his activities. in 1975 Duhamel, who earned a record $90,000 a year from Kawasaki to race their unruly triples in the USA, told an interviewer that he earned another $90,000 from product endorsements. “But I never count. Because I make money from snowmobiles too. I was making almost $100,000 with snowmobiles…”

    Snowmobiles? Yep. Duhamel raced the things in the winters in Canada, won the world 1970 World Championship as well as the grueling 800km cross-country Winnipeg to St Paul race, and the following year set a World Snowmobile Speed Record of 127 mph. Then again, maybe all that record breaking money was in Canadian dollars. You have to do the conversion.

    Despite all these accomplishments, Duhamel was most famous in the USA for his brave rides on the ill-handling 750cc Kawasaki two-strokes. As Kawasaki’s top rider in the early to mid-1970s he won half a dozen national championship races on the two-strokes, breaking down or crashing out of the rest. Note that he pretty much either won or crashed!

    Then, in late 1972, Kawasaki launched their 903cc four-cylinder Z1 four-stroke, and in March 1973 set out to smash a couple of dozen world records for various distances and times up to 24 hours. Off to Daytona International Speedway they went with a pair of showroom standard 903cc Z1s, and one mildly modified version with a fairing. Yvon Duhamel was to ride that machine around the famous track to establish a new world single-lap speed record, as well as 10 km and 100 km records. On the first of the three days he did so with ease, lapping for the single lap at an average of 160 mph, or just over 257 km/h — a new world record for any motorcycle. He also achieved his goals over the 10km and 100 km distances.

    Over the next two days and night the eight riders involved set another 49 records, including the 24 hour record at a 109 mph average for over 2600 miles, including stops for rider changes, fuel, and tires. Take that Honda!

    Whatever that little Daytona exercise cost Kawasaki, it was worth it. Motorcyclists around the world were in awe of the mighty Z1, and sales rocketed. The King had arrived, and Yvon Duhamel became even more famous worldwide — along with what Kawasaki claimed was the world’s first Superbike!

    Now let’s argue that last point. What about the Vincent? What about the original Honda CB750 … or the British Triples from BSA and Triumph that beat the Honda four to the market? Or maybe the Suzuki “Water Buffalo” (or “Kettle” as the tea drinking Brits called it), or Kawasaki’s very own H1 and H2 models? I’ll leave that argument alone and just go outside and ride one. They’re all pretty super to me, and I never thought I’d own one until the collector bug bit me. Now I want to own (and RIDE) them all.

    I don’t really care which was the first super bike. I just want to ride them. The previous paragraph is a pretty good shopping list for what I'm looking for. Got the two big Kawasaki's now, so I'm after bigger game. (Try to imagine bigger game than the Z1 … pretty scary … eh what?)

    Since no one is offering me a ride on their classic, vintage bikes, I have to buy my own. Ride 'em, don't hide 'em, that's my motto. That’s why I want to collect all of them. (Except the Vincent. I’m rich … but I ain’t THAT rich!)

    Monday, November 21, 2016

    Trailer for Sale or Rent

    Trailer for sale or rent
    Rooms to let, fifty cents.
    No phone, no pool, no pets
    I ain't got no cigarettes

    Ah, but, two hours of pushin' broom
    Buys an eight by twelve four-bit room
    I'm a man of means by no means
    King of the road.

    This old song by Roger Miller was popular when I first started college at the Montana School of Mines. The lyrics tell of the day-to-day life of a vagabond hobo who, despite being poor (a "man of means by no means"), revels in his freedom, describing himself humorously as the "king of the road.” It was Miller's fifth single for Smash Records.

    According to a ’69 interview in Pop Chronicles, Miller said that the song was inspired when he was driving and saw a sign on the side of a barn that read, "Trailers for sale or rent.”

    As many of my readers know, I’m a avid motorcycle collector. I like those vintage bikes from the ‘60s and ‘70s, and I’ve traveled far and wide to pick up my purchases. I used to rent a U-Haul van to make these journeys. But after four trips in those expensive vehicles, including one clear to Philadelphia when I crammed two motorcycles into the back, I decided there was a better … and cheaper way.

    Not only did the daily rent charge for these week long trips add up quickly, but the loading into the van was very difficult. For the first trip I got a large wooden pallet that I added a wheel chock and several tie down rings. I’d load that pallet into the back of the U-Haul. I had a long 6” x 12” ramp that I’d push the bike up.

    Because the ramp was so narrow, you had to push the bike up manually. You couldn’t run the engine because the throttle and clutch would get over your head while loading and the ramp was so narrow. I was always glad to get plenty of help from the person I bought the bike from, since it was a real task to get it up and into the van and then over the edge of the pallet. I usually had to remove the mirrors prior to loading to get all to fit.

    I considered buying my own van. I found some nice ones with high ceilings and I could have purchased a good ramp for the back. But even a used van of the type I needed ran over $20,000, and I just could not justify that expense. Trailers seemed a much more cost effective and reasonable choice.

    So I decided to buy a trailer for the next trip. The trailer cost about $3,000. Since I had already spent over $5,000 on U-Haul rentals, it seemed like a sound business decision. It had a high ceiling plus the back door would drop down for loading making a simpler and easier ramp that one could actually ride the bike up into the trailer. The height would clear mirrors, rider, and even windshields if that was ever necessary. Since I was able to install the wheel chock and tie downs in the floor of the trailer, it was a straight, flat shot onto the wheel chock. I added a side door for quick load inspection and access. The trailer had a V-nose and it is long enough for the biggest bike made.

    The Ford Flex has a factory hitch receiver capable of 4700 pound towing weight and is fully equipped with lighting connections and electric brake attachment. However I only needed a single axle, 3,000 pound GVW trailer, so I expected the Flex would have no problem towing such a trailer. Single axle trailers don’t require electric brakes and are simpler and cheaper, yet could easily handle a motorcycle or two loaded.

    I purchased a Haulmark Passport trailer from a dealer in Denver and left it with them to have the tie-downs installed. While that was being done, I headed for Seattle to visit my brother. He’s a motorcycle enthusiast also and has a trailer he uses to move his large road bike to distant destinations. He’d towed everything from a hitch to a fifth wheel trailer, and had plenty of trailer experience. He told me I wasn’t going to like the trailer. He said they are noisy, awkward, and really mess with your gas mileage.

    I had little experience with trailers prior to this purchase. It turns out my brother was spot on. Upon returning to Colorado, I picked up the trailer. It was very noisy as it snapped back and forward over bumps and joints in the street and navigating railroad tracks and dips in the road. The trailer would bounce on the hitch and up and down and clattered and clanked behind the Flex. I assumed that once loaded it wouldn’t be as noisy, and that turned out to be somewhat true.

    It pulled very well and I had pretty good visibility around the trailer, but I was surprised once I headed for Dallas. Prior to this purchase I had very limited experience with trailers. When I got out of the Navy, I lived with my parents in Spokane, WA for a few months and we would take Dad’s boat over to Idaho for water skiing and camping. I usually drove his large pickup with the boat in tow. I don’t really recall much about towing that trailer since it was so long ago.

    On occasion I’ve towed a trailer with my pickup and the Flex. I brought a motorcycle home from Oregon with a small U-Haul trailer and I’d driven a large Penski rental truck to Idaho with a car on a trailer in tow. Neither of those experiences prepared me for my trip to Dallas. The open motorcycle trailer from U-Haul added little wind resistance and the big Penski diesel truck was not affected much by adding the trailer in back.

    As I headed south and east on US 287 with my new trailer in tow and into a stiff 50 mph headwind, the first thing I noticed was the Flex didn’t shift into it’s highest gear. Running at 65 mph the tach showed I was in a much lower gear than usual. The wind resistance added by the stiff headwind made it hard for the Flex to keep up with the speed limit.

    The Ford Flex has a relatively small six cylinder engine. That usually gave me excellent gas mileage. It could get up to 25 mpg if I kept the speeds at 60 or under. On the 80 mph speed limit roads, it dropped to 20. I had reset the instruments in the Flex to get a current gas mileage reading. Even though I was only going 65 into the wind the mileage dropped down to about 11 mpg. I soon learned to slow down more to let the Flex shift into a more comfortable gear and pretty much took it easy on the whole two day drive.

    When I previously had filled the tank, the instruments would report a range of over 400 miles with a full tank. Now it was more like 250 miles and I’d stop very often to top off the fuel.

    Things were a little better on the trip home. As expected, with the bike adding weight to the trailer and on the hitch, it was quieter and didn’t jump up and down so much. Also, without the strong headwind (although it never became a tail wind, mostly blowing at right angles to my direction of travel) gas mileage improved a bit. I got as good as 13+ in the mpg department measured both by my instruments and the frequent visits to gas stations. But I still kept 5 or 10 under the posted speed limit to keep the RPMs down.

    The good news is that the bike loaded as smooth as butter. We actually rode it into the trailer and locked it onto the wheel chock under power. Had to duck my head a bit inside, but it rode right up the ramp and into the trailer. Tie-downs worked well and the bike made it home with no incidents or accidents.

    Now I need a place to store the trailer. With a U-Haul I just took it back to the store. Still I think the little 5’ x 8’ enclosed trailer is going to be an asset to MC Squared. I’m already shopping for more bikes and planning to attach my little trailer to the Flex and head East or West or South as the case may be. I do think a new pickup with a big V-8 or even a Diesel might be a good solution for going the speed limit on the super slab, although I’m told by more experienced friends that trailers suck down the gas mileage no matter how big or small the engine is.

    The problem is quite simple: wind resistance. The Flex already suffered from that physical fact due to the height that the roomy vehicle posses. Add that high trailer to the back end and, even though it has a V-nose, it takes considerable energy to pull it through the air. That issue is aggravated by higher speeds and head winds. Plus it can’t be doing the Flex good to be running all day in those higher speed gears. She’s an old lady now with over 160,000 miles. She has been very trouble free so far in her travels, but the trailer is putting stresses on her parts and adding a hitch in her get along.

    Turns out my brother was correct. “Bro knows trailers!” The trailer is noisy. It was also a task to back that baby up the long driveway to the garage where my new motorcycle was waiting for me. (I’m getting better at backing a trailer with practice.) And Lord have mercy, that trailer robbed a ton of gas mileage and top speed from my Blue Bus. He was right on all counts. Yet it was a cheaper trip than driving a rented van.

    So what is to become of my little trailer? Will I have to buy a more suitable towing vehicle, or will the Flex be just fine as long as I keep the speed down? I’m currently pondering the answer to those questions. Meanwhile, no matter what decision I make, I’m “King of the Road.”