IMPORTANT If you're at Flashevap.com to read about portable vaporizers, the Viip portable vaporizer in particular, then go here.

NOTE, 9/10/13 Check out what Charles Babbage wrote about sound and how it endures in the world. I posted it on Flashevap.com when I reported on my Acoustic Observatory.






My Machines in '64

Me, 50 years ago this summer. Judging from the fallen leaves, this photo must have been taken in the Fall of 1964, after I got back to Bethesda, Maryland, from Mexico, on this Harley Sprint. But, I don't remember the rear tire ever having been inflated again after the rear spokes had pulled loose and the tire blew out in mid August, somewhere in west Alabama. The dark '56 Chevy behind me had a 327 ci engine I'd put in it.

Here's the story about how the piston of a 1951 BSA Gold Star disintegrated near Guadalajara, Mexico, 50 years ago this month, in 1964, and some of the heroic things my ol' buddy Ron did to get the damn thing back to the border under its own power, complete with the wrong piston, no oil pump, wooden ball-check valve, and more.

The Mexican town we were visiting was Chapala, on the north shore of Lake Chapala, about 40 km south of Guadalajara. That was fifty years ago. We were visiting my uncle Glen who had retired to Chapala around 1960.

The Gulf of Tonkin thing happened on August 2, 1964, while we were nearing the end of our stay in Chapala, both of us sick with dysentery. I figured I'd be drafted into the Vietnam bullshit right after I finished up 3 credits I needed to graduate college in February '65.

The visa we had in Mexico was for four weeks. It required that the two bikes we brought into Mexico we being my buddy Ron and me would have to to be taken back out of the Mexico. Ron was driving the 1951 BSA Gold Star 500 which I he bought for $50. I was on the Sprint, late '50s or early '60s.

We spent about 10 days at my uncle Glen's house in Chapala. The house had citrus trees and banana trees, a beautiful lawn, and, of course, servants who got paid about a nickle a day. Summer was the "rainy season," which meant that there was often thunder during daylight hours, even though the sky was usually sunny and bright, but sometimes, when riding on the local roads we'd run into fifty yards of downpour, then everything would be dry again. At night, every night, and all night, there would be lightning flashes about once every 0.9 second.

Several times while we were staying in Chapala, Ron and I, both of us on his bike, with the bigger engine, would ride up the hills, or mountains, north of the lake. We could hear the engine pinging, the Mexican gas in those days being cheap and low-octane, but we thought nothing of it.

After ten days or so, we headed out for home. Guadalajara was the first town we'd hit on our way north. Ron and I often drove out of sight of each other. On that day, I was several miles ahead, and after a while I slowed to see him come into view behind me, but he didn't. So I slowed more, then stopped and waited, then turned back to see what had happened.

Ron was sitting by the side of the road eating one of his sandwiches when I got to him.

Engine oil, he said, was not returning to his tank. I can't remember how he said he'd discovered that, though maybe the sump full of oil somehow gave an indication.

We 'limped' back to Chapala, with splash lubrication. We took the engine apart that day.

Here's the damage: One of the thrust faces of the piston had broken off, and small chunks of aluminum had jammed up the oil pump and caused the gear teeth of the pump's drive shaft to shear off. It seemed plausible the low-test gasoline had done a job on the engine.

To me, it seemed obvious we would abandon the BSA and somehow get out of the country on the Sprint. No, said Ron.

We'd have to get the parts sent to us. There were two telephones in Chapala. One belonged to some rich guy, the other was at the drug store on the main street of the town.

We called our girl friends in Bethesda, Maryland, saying we needed a 0.010" oversized piston (which was an unusual oversize), one oil pump and an oil pump drive shaft, and a set of 0.020" rings, of which we figured we could grind down the ends of make them fit. We said we'd settle for a standard piston, if a 10-over couldn't be found.

The parts arrived about five days later. We received one standard size piston, the 0.020-over rings, an oil pump, but no oil pump drive shaft. I said something like, "C'mon man, forget this. Let's get outta here." No, he said.

It was probably Ron who got the idea of using ball check valves in an improvised oil system, using the tire pump we had with us to alternately pressurize and evacuate the oil tank which meant Ron would have to be pumping oil with one hand when riding.

My uncle Glen had been my mentor in using tools and fixing machinery. He had been an aircraft mechanic, working on the Vickers Viscount with Rolls Royce engines. I inherited Glen's Whitworth tools when he had retired to Mexico. Whitworth came in handy on my old Triumphs, till the standards were changed sometime in the 1960s.

Uncle Glen had no power tools in Mexico. He had hand-powered wood-working tools, a little hand-crank drill and some shitty drill bits for wood, plus a couple of flat bastards for wood, some sand paper, a screwdriver or two, that sort of thing, and a little hand jigsaw. Maybe a hacksaw. He had no metal suitable to making ball check valves and seats. The ball check valves would have to be of wood. Ron persevered. I said it was bullshit. But Ron made a wooden check-valve system. Uncle Glen was amazed at the audacity and cleverness of the thing. (Glen had ridden Indians in the 1930s; he had stories about things like leather rod bearings.)

We ground down the piston rings somehow, probably scraping them on concrete. We put the piston on the rod, then slapped the cylinder in place. Ron was starting to put the head in place, and I suggested he crank the engine through once or twice to make sure everything went smooth. I recall him objecting to that for some reason but then he did it.

The piston came up to the top of the cylinder then it kept rising yet higher, by 3/8th of a inch!

"C'mon, man, forget this," I said. No, he said.

He scrounged up some eighth-inch Masonite, said he was going to make thick spacers to go between the cylinder and the block. I pointed out the pushrods would have to be lengthened, too. No sweat, Ron basically said. We had less than a week left to get 700 miles to the border and out of Mexico.

Ron found some small pieces of half-inch round steel rod, which we somehow cut to the right length and somehow drilled holes in to stabilize them on top of the tappets and under the pushrods. It worked.

We actually Ron, because he was the persevering force got the engine together, then started it up.

Flames shot out from between the cylinder and head, as had happened when we'd originally assembled the bike before our journey to Mexico, but that stopped after a minute or so of engine operation. The main interesting thing was all the banging noise of the undersize piston, but it seemed to hold up. And, of course, Ron had to pump the oil by sitting sideways and using his left arm to work the tire pump up and down. We rode a mile or so around the town that night, then began our trip home the next morning.

We'd decided to cut a 100 miles off our route north by using unpatrolled roads across central Mexico.

Things went mostly fine that first day out. Mostly. I still had bad enough dysentery that I had to stop every 20 miles or so to drain water out of my ass. That dysentery is pretty much why, I think, my guts have been fucked up ever since, 50 years now. That's the main reason I don't travel these days: chronic abdominal discomfort.

Still, despite the dysentery, the desert in the rainy season was unexpectedly beautiful; from high elevations of the road you could see the desert landscape, with mesas, all green.

Every 30 miles or so, we had to stop also so Ron could tighten up the nuts that held the cylinder to the block; otherwise you could see the cylinder rocking around on the block.

We got about 200 miles north, and Ron finally ran out of slack in the extended pushrods. We were in the true heart of nowhere.

We sat on an embankment with some sort of brush on the top. Across the road, the view opened out into a plane across which we could see ten miles or more. Previously, when we'd stopped by the side of a road, "Indian" kids, locals who lived in the open country, would show up out of nowhere. But not this time.

We ate the last of our sandwiches and were running out of water. Naturally I suggested we ditch the damn bike in the brush and forget it. Ron said no. So we sat, waiting maybe to flag down a truck to help us out. It was a nice road, newish, but no vehicles came along. Nothing, there was no traffic at all.

It was obvious we were going to have to push the bikes down the road. (We had no way to tow the one with the other, though probably we could've figured something out.)

The road was sweeping to the left where we had stopped. Then it swept to the right. Then, about half a kilometer down the road was a stop sign where the road ended and another ran east and west. A road sign said, Zacatecas, arrow pointing to the right, about half a kilometer away, though no town was visible. Zacatecas was over a rise and just out of view and down a hill. We coasted down the hill, and right at the bottom was the Zacatecas train station. Zacatecas is the capital of the state of Zacatecas.

I'll cut the rest of it short now. I was pretty sick, my asshole being sore from all the water flowing out of it, almost clean enough to drink. Still, I'm normally a fastidious person, even with clean water coming out of me, but I felt so lousy that when I ran out of paper to wipe with, I would just dump then pull my pants up and feel none the worse for it. It's amazing how fast you can adapt to things.

We had to spend the night in the tiny train station, which had at least a hundred-thousand flies on the ceiling and toilets that hadn't been flushed in half a century it looked like. There was an old Mexican farmer dozing on a bench, unperturbed by the flies walking all over his face. We met a girl named Hortensia ("Ortensia") with her mother, and they shared some watermelon with us. It was a long night.

The train was supposed to come at 6 a.m., but it arrived at 9 or so. We had first class tickets, which cost about 30 pesos, about $2.

The train averaged 15 mph and went about 150 miles west that day, to Torreon. I was very sick that night and pretty much passed out in a relatively nice hotel while Ron went to flirt with the girls at the local serenada, which is a thing where the girls walk one way around the town square and the boys the other, giving flowers to the girls they liked.

The next day we went about 200 miles to the north and mostly east, to Saltillo, or Monterry, I can't remember. The next day we got to Piedras Negras, across the border from Eagle Pass, TX. We had to bribe the train people to give us our bikes that night.

We sent Ron's bike home by Railway Express, from Eagle Pass. Then we both rode on my little bike which got across Texas, Louisiana (where the steering damper broke), and Mississippi, and a few miles into Alabama before the rear tire blew at about 60 mph. Spokes had pulled loose from the load on the wheel, and the inner tube got punctured. It was amazing how I handled the bike pure luck, I think as its rear end fishtailed back and forth so fast I was sure Ron had fallen off.

We found an old black farmer who gave us his used and straightened nails so we could make a crate for the Sprint and ship it home. We tried to hitchhike in the rain. Got picked up by a drunk who was steering with his elbows and he drank and rolled cigarettes. Then we took a bus home.

There were more details, but I'll spare you.

Oh, one more thing: We decided to never take a trip like that again. But the following summer, we'd forgot the horror or I'd forgot it, the Mexican trip seeming in retrospect so glamorous we decided to try for Alaska, me on a Triumph 500, Ron on a 650. It rained all the way to Ontario, so we took in the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto, then headed back home.

And one other thing: To avoid being drafted into a shit-hole war in Asia (this was before I got a job teaching math and physics, which gave me a draft deferment) I tried to get into the Air Force as a pilot. But the AF could see my heart wasn't in it, so they said I was color-blind (which I'm not) and rejected me. Around the beginning of 1965, Ron, who had also just got out of college, told me he hadn't applied for any jobs, what should he do. I suggested the Air Force, which he joined. He became an F-4 pilot, did two "tours" of Vietnam, became a Top Gun pilot, called himself a steely-eyed killer, said bombing, stafing, and napalming were the neatest thing in the world. He retired as a colonel. Steely-eyed asshole is how I came to think of him, though I have to grant Ron his perseverance and sheer doggedness in what seemed to me a technically hopeless situation. I haven't seen him in more than 40 years. But I'm still good friends with his younger and more liberal-minded brother George who, with his wife Anne, lived without electricity for 18 years in the woods of northern Pennsylvania where they raised a family.





Captain Picard


This image of Captain Picard (from Star Trek TNG) mounting a holodeck horse is used in my essay "Photons and Electrons," where I argue that consciousness might come about as a light-invoked property of matter, instead of as an arrangement of matter is the sense that a Chevrolet is an arrangement of matter or that, in the common view, consciousness somehow derives from an arrangement of matter (i.e., neurons) in the brain.

In "Photons and Electrons," I suggest that such a thing as the Star Trek holodeck, which at first encounter seems to be a hopelessly fantastic idea, actually exists in nature, and that each conscious creature has a holodeck (located presumably in the brain), and that all, and everything, that each of us is conscious of in this world is displayed on that holodeck. For instance, when you dream at night, the dream presumably happens somewhere in your brain i.e., somewhere within the confines of your skull is experienced as seeming real, in the same way that things are displayed on the holodeck of Star Trek. You can fly at high speed across the sky, ride a horse over a far horizon, or do anything, and feel like it's real, though it is happening entirely inside your skull, in your personal holodeck.

It is on, or in, your personal holodeck that is displayed everything that you are conscious of, your fantasies, memories, and your personal model of the outside "real" world.

Now comes this clever fellow Michael Stevens, a.k.a. Vsauce, whose video essay, "Is Anything Real?", introduces a term "phaneron," which was coined by the American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce to stand for that set of all things that each person is conscious of. We are not conscious of the world directly, but rather only of the brain's internal "model" of the outside world that model being displayed as the phaneron on one's mental holodeck.

"The phaneron, as I now call it, the sum total all of the contents of human consciousness, which I believe is about what you (borrowing the term of Avenarius) call pure experience, - but I do not admit the point of view of Avenarius to be correct or to be consonant to any pragmatism, nor to yours, in particular, and therefore I do not like that phrase. For me experience is what life has forced upon us, - a vague idea no doubt. But my phaneron is not limited to what is forced upon us; it also embraces all that we most capriciously conjure up, not objects only but all modes of contents of cognitional consciousness." (A Letter to William James, NEM 3:834, 1905)

Peirce's "phaneron," can, I think, be thought of as a name for the "show" that takes place on one's personal holodeck.

I first heard of Charles Sanders Peirce (pronounced like 'purse,' rhymes with 'nurse') in Louis Menand's book, The Metaphysical Club. Neat book.

So that's what I'm thinking about these days: trying to explain to myself how the holodeck might work as a metaphorical stage on which the phaneron is played or displayed.



Contact me, Bob, if you have a comment.