Through the landmark book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig introduced generations of engineers to formal metaphysics. This engaging story chronicles the journey of a man and his teenage son on a single motorcycle through America. Through their encounters with challenges of all sorts, the man explores and wrestles with the notion of “quality”, in both the mechanical sense – the quality of his machine, and the human sense – the quality of a person or a relationship. I’m a big fan of interdisciplinary education and I was always thrilled to find out that this book is actually mandatory reading at many engineering universities. Today, I think I have a much better sense of where this thrill comes from.

About three weeks ago a long time friend of mine and I set out on motorcycles to one of the more scenic and culturally significant places in Canada – the Eastern provinces of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island – the Maritimes. These relatively small (population and land mass) provinces are considered the “cradle” of Canada and even had strong cultural influences into America. Today, this region is a spectacular blend of natural beauty and small cities and towns that retain their rich heritage. I’ve visited the area many times in the past but this really was the first time that I believe I experienced the true essence of the Maritimes and in some sense, the true essence of travel.

A recent Harley Davidson ad claimed that motorcycles are responsible for bankrupting countless psychiatrists. Now I see why. When you are on a proper motorcycle tour spanning several days or weeks, and thousands of kilometers you very quickly develop a keen sense of EVERYTHING around you and you quickly reconcile your own existence with your environment, which happens to be passing at 120 Km/h. “How is the road quality?” “Why is that car so close to me?” “What is that strange noise from the motor?” “I wonder where the next gas station is.” And mixed with these concerns are experiences that are nothing short of joyful. “What an incredible view!” “This is a really quaint little village!”  “The smell of the sea here is amazing!” “I’ll bet this is the first Italian bike that has ever been on this road!” More so than any other form of transportation, motorcycles let you cover huge distances, as with cars, yet get you intimately connected to your surroundings, as with hiking.

For most of the days of the year, I, like everyone else, deal with the day to day demands of business. But, for two weeks, I was completely removed from the safety net of my office and placed on an exposed motorized vehicle, trying to cover 500 KM per day in horrible weather. We hit the jackpot and enjoyed 12 consecutive days of rain and some of the coldest July temperatures on record for the area (12 Celsius during the day) :-(  

Aside from the challenges of nature, there were, of course, the challenges of the machine -- broken speedometers, shredded inner tubes, bad sparkplugs, etc., etc., etc. I also have a clearer idea about the nature of engineering materials -- the behavior of certain metals, plastics, fabrics, and lubricants in severe conditions … and wondered why I thought my university courses in materials were so boring … this is fascinating stuff.

Ironically, this journey that was temporarily removing me from work, placed some important work issues in clear focus. Plant model development for embedded control systems has been, of course, a major dimension in the Maplesoft business for the last few years but it has always been a fairly sanitized experience. We deal with model equations, with physics, and simulations. The equations are inherently abstract and the output is a bunch of numbers. I rode a 2007 Moto Guzzi Griso with computerized fuel delivery (i.e. an embedded control system). My friend rode a 2003 Triumph Bonneville with traditional carburetion. So we had a controlled experiment between a high tech digital approach and a good old fashioned grease-driven analog system and I got a very intimate introduction to the respective benefits of the two different approaches to engineering.

Who won? Haven’t decided yet. The Guzzi  fuel system delivered precisely controlled power to the wheels that made passing and the curved coastal roads a joy. But somewhere on the foggy island of Cape Breton it developed an annoying vibration and harshness at certain RPMs. Unfortunately with modern digital bikes, unless you have a fully computerized garage, the chance of fully rectifying such an annoyance is pretty much nil. The Triumph engine on the other hand, took much longer to warm up on a cold damp morning but was flawless for the duration of the trip. And I knew even if we had problems, the next village would have some eccentric middle aged guy with a tattoo and a lifetime of well used tools who could take a carburetor apart and rebuild it in an hour. The good news in either case is that my job is safe. We need electronic systems because the benefits that we get when they work properly are substantial. However, it was clear that there was still a lot more innovative engineering left to do to ensure the reliability.

This, of course, is a perfect lead-in to Maplesoft modeling software. But, I’m choosing to switch back to the human dimension to conclude. I’ve always believed that there is a fundamental difference between vacation and travel. Vacations are about relaxation and fancy drinks. Real travel is hard work but the rewards of true travel are well worth the investment in money and time.  This is the essential joy of a bike tour. Your days are pretty demanding on your body. And bikes still are not reliable enough that you can forget about the machine and simply enjoy the ride. You have to mentally and proactively engage with the technology.  But in the evening you find yourself in some strange, out-of-the-way village, enjoying stories and  a few drinks, and perhaps a few songs, with a local family who are genuinely interested in where you come from and where you are going. In the morning, you stuff your sore muscles back into your leathers and your sore head back into your helmet and repeat. Hard work indeed.

Good reads

Full text of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Rober Pirsig

Jupiter's Travels by Ted Simon. The original motorcycle touring book.



Bikes resting comfortably on the spectacular Cabot Trail in Nova Scotia.

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