I spent yesterday afternoon getting my bike ready for my first major touring of the year, Club Splendor’s Izu Yamabiko-so touring, and I found my thoughts drifting toward the similarities between being a biker and being a linux and open source software user. (Geek alert! Bear with me here.)

For the past few weeks, I’ve been running ubuntu linux on my box (Feisty 7.04 beta, baby!—bikers live on the edge), and I can’t imagine going back to Windows any more than I can imagine going back to using a four-wheeled cage as my main vehicle. Of course, the parallels here aren’t perfect, as there’s a big difference between being out on the road in the wind and the sun versus sitting in front of an LCD, growing paler by the minute, but I think there’s something to be said for the biker=hacker idea.

I was over at the Stinger’s new place, using the bike jack my family bought them as a housewarming gift (knowing, of course, that I would be using it a lot) to change my oil, and it struck me again how Harleys are built under the assumption that riders will be doing their own maintenance and doing some of their own repairs, and designed so it’s easy to do so. Modern cars, and most modern bikes, are designed with the attitude that such things should be left to the pros, so even basic things like oil tanks are often in hard-to-reach places, or only accessible with special tools. The Harley engine design says, “we understand that bikes sometimes break down, so we’ll make them easy to fix if that happens.” More modern engine designs say, “Don’t worry your pretty little head, this won’t break down…um, and if it does, qualified mechanics are standing by.” Bikers prefer not to be condescended to, and like to do things for themselves.

Open source is similar. People selling commercial software pretend that bugs don’t exist, the way car manufacturers pretend mechanical problems are rare, freak occurrences. If one of those supposedly rare breakdowns happens on the road, you’re screwed, and when something breaks in Windows, all you can do is restart and hope for the best. Open source, on the other hand, recognizes that all software has bugs, so they let you see the source code and give you command line access to fix it. A wrench and a shop manual come included in the OS, as it were, and there are plenty of old grizzled bikers hanging around to give you wrenching advice when you need it.

I checked my sparkplugs to make sure that the fuel mixture settings on my carb were right for the season and that everything was running smoothly, and the plugs are right where you want them and easily accessible. On a whim, decided to switch the stock plugs to some SE split-V plugs, and again, it stuck me: Harleys are built to be tweaked and customized by the rider. Every rider is different, and the designers recognized that and built the bike in a way that allows each rider the freedom to make it just what the rider wants. The corporate masters at Microsoft decide the best way to use their software, but linux is made to be customized and tweaked and optimized to get it to match the needs and wants of each user. The code is there for you to fiddle with. Hack it, chop it, bolt on aftermarket parts, customize it as you like, until you get the ride you were looking for. My bike fits my body, my riding style, and my aesthetic sense perfectly, and now, finally, so does my OS. Of course, I’ll probably never stop tweaking either of them.

Ubuntu linux is a great ride even if you don’t care to learn about the inner workings, just as riding a Harley can be great even if you’ve never touched a wrench in your life. But if you want to go deeper, get your hands greasy, and get a fuller connection to your machine, that choice is there for the taking. It’s all about freedom, baby!

4 thoughts on “Biker=Hacker?”

  1. Hahahahaha!!!! I’m very proud of you. Years ago you would’ve “Trusted the bike to the pros”. I think fucking with your own bike is a big part of being a ”

    Biker “. And thank god for them “Bikers” who do things like…repair our punctured tires when in the boonies. And thank god for cereal boxes that make great gaskets!!!

  2. Interesting parallels, but all of the modern sportbikes i’ve owned (only 4, EX250, ZX-6E, SV650, CBR929) have all had just about everything in as accesable a location as you can given the design of an inline 4. There’s no easy way to make spark plugs accessable when you’ve got a design like that…the SV was quite easy to get to though. The drainplugs are in the same place (roughly) on all of the bikes, and i’d imagine they’re in the same place as they are on your Harley.

    Furthermore, when i’m not tuning, i can’t remember the last time i had to pull plugs. I change them out of habit when the bike is opened up, but I’m pretty sure my CBR has been running the same plugs for the last 20k miles (I just bought it). The learning curve may be slightly more intense on a newer bike, as a result of it using newer technology, but it’s really no more complicated than any other engine. (For reference, though, 3 of my bikes have been carb’d and the CBR is FI. With that said, with the right tuning software, fuel injection kicks the crap out of tuning a set of carbs).

  3. Conan, I overstretched a bit it service of my main point, but I think \”as accessible as possible\” is still admitting that they\’re less accessible. And of course I\’m generalizing from the bikes I\’ve worked on, so it may not apply to all modern bikes, but the sparkplugs on my Vulcan were under the tank strut and required a specialized tool to get out, you had to remove the side panel, which wasn\’t easy, to add oil, and a Honda Steed I worked on we had to remove the fuel tank just to adjust the carb. Changing the oil on my Harley requires one normal screwdriver, period, and you can change the plugs with a monkey wrench. And I\’m certainly not arguing that the Harley design is superior. But this is kind of tangential to my main point. Harleys, in my experience, are easier and more fun to work on, and I don\’t think it can be denied that they are more easily customizable. This makes their appeal, to me, similar to the appeal of linux and open source.

    I can see how this might have looked like another \”Harleys rule, Jap bikes suck\” rant, but that wasn\\\’t my intention. I\’m not criticizing anyone else\’s choice of ride. Like I said, it\’s about freedom.

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