The Death of Precision

I'm back!

Jon Watson

Regular readers will recall that I took a little break from writing. I paused paying reader’s subscriptions to ensure I was being fair to everyone, and the break was a little longer than I intended. But now I’m back so let’s get right into it.

I’ve been on a short, but fairly complicated journey, to get my motorcycle license and buy my first new-to-me bike. The journey technically started a while ago when my partner, knowing I was hoping to get my bike license this year, bought me the licensing course and protective gear. I then had nothing to do but wait for the weather to get better so I could take the licensing course which starts running at the beginning of May. But then COVID-19 hit, and everything was shut down for an indeterminate amount of time, so I waited again.

Eventually, restrictions were lifted enough that the small outside courses could continue so I took my course a few weeks ago. Honestly, it was a lot more grueling than I expected. The safety course uses small, sub-250cc bikes for training. There are only 12 slots on the course in my area and there are a handful each of Honda dirt bikes, Kawasaki roadsters of some kind, and finally some Suzuki TU250s. The heaviest of them weighs about 150kg so the machines aren’t really all that intimidating. Except for one small classroom session, the course is done entirely on the bikes in a closed parking lot large enough for the instructors to set up several training scenarios at a time.

I completely underestimated how much work driving 60-80kms on a small bike in a parking lot in 16 hours would be. Unlike street or highway driving, the course is done completely at slow speed and you’re constantly clutching and breaking. When I completed the course, my hands were tired and would ache when I clenched them for days. And, because the bikes aren’t in great condition, some of them have issues. Mine, for example, was incredibly finicky to get into neutral so I gave up and spent most of the weekend just holding the clutch in while waiting for my turn to do something. My left forearm hurt for a few days because of that.

I ended up having to do the final test twice, over two weekends. The first time I was pretty happy with myself because I did not hit any pylons, or drop the bike, or go out of my lane, and I stopped with my front wheel in all the right places. But, I collected too many points for going too slow. I was surprised to find out you could lose that many points for going too slow. I thought that staying in your lane and maintaining control of the bike would be the more important stuff to focus on. But, in fact, going too slow attracts as many points as veering into someone else’s lane.

Being a data-driven computer guy, I thought a lot about how I can fix that for a second run. Each testing scenario is laid out with the same basic concept behind it. You start at a line, you have to navigate the course, encounter some kind of obstacle, and then stop your bike under control. The obstacles vary from emergency stops to swerves, to braking on a curve, and others. The trick is that at least part of every scenario has a section where you’re timed right before the obstacle which ensures you’re going fast enough to be properly tested as to how you handle the obstacle.

The speed instructions for the testing scenarios were to “be in second gear, mid-range” which is what I did. You’re told how many seconds, or fractions of a second, you are allowed during the timed phases, you’re not told the speed. I suspect that the reason for this is because the speedometers on these poor used and abused bikes are not reliable. Or, in the case of the dirt bike I was riding, have no speedometer at all.

Here’s where we see precision die. Eventually, I discovered that the speed timings correspond to around 20-25km/h but that is not helpful information when your bike has no speedometer. Motorcycle pundits will probably quickly recognize that a small cc dirtbike in mid-second gear is not going that fast. The instructors should tell the people on the dirt bikes that you’re going to need to hit 3rd gear or top out in 2nd to make the times, or…gasp…don’t use bikes without speedometers at all for the course. Once I figured this out, I went back for the test and selected a bike with a speedometer so I could get a feel for how fast I needed to go and I passed that time.

Because I work in the computer field, I try to be very precise in my communications. It’s a necessary skill. I work on a small team that maintains infrastructure globally. Everything we do is Level 11 complex and if you’re not using the right words to explain things, stuff tends to not work out.

I recall a situation a while ago where I could not make any sense of the “occupied ports” report from one of our data centers. My records showed 4 transit ports in that cabinet which should have occupied 4 ports in the patch panel. But, the occupied ports report showed 5 ports in use. I asked the data center to do a physical inspection of the patch panel in our cabinet and the technician reported back that there were indeed 5 ports in use.

That set me on a chase to find out what that extra port was. Is it dead fiber? Is it a campus connect from the data center? Is nefarious?

It turns out it was none of those things. It was just one transit port that used SC connectors (which take two patch panel ports). That gave me 3 transit ports using LC connectors which equates to 3 patch panel ports, and 1 transit ports using SC connectors which equates to 2 patch panel ports, for a total of 5 patch panel ports in use. The documentation I inherited from my predecessor did not note that one transit port used SC connectors. The data center technician that did the visual inspection also did not think to mention that two of the ports were SC connectors, and I was too new to know to ask that question at the time. And precision died a little more that day along with my productivity.

The final piece of the motorcycle saga is the process of actually buying a bike. Buying a car is pretty easy because everyone has a car. Everyone can drive a car, there’s tons of cars for sale withing 15km of almost anyone, and you don’t need to be especially familiar with a car you’ve never driven before to hop in it drive it away. None of this is true about motorcycles. Motorcycles are less popular so there are fewer to choose from so you generally have to travel farther to buy one. Then, you’re saddled with the issue of getting this bike home legally; a bike you’re unfamiliar with and going straight into traffic. The license and the insurance aren’t a problem, but getting registration in the age of COVID is problematic. I had to wait a week for a plate and didn’t relish the thought of leaving my new, just paid for, bike in some guy’s garage while I waited.

I talked to our motor vehicles department and they told me it was flat-out illegal to drive a bike without a plate. Which is true. But I figured the motor vehicles guy isn’t the one who’s going to pull me over, so my partner asked a cop friend. The cop said I “should” be OK as long as I have a license and insurance, and the signed bill of sale from the seller. Good enough for me, I rode the bike home. In the rain, but that’s a different story.

That “should” still bothers me because it’s imprecise. I can certainly see why the license - which shows you can operate the machine safely - is important. Likewise, the insurance - which shows if you mess up then you’re covered - is important. But registration is just an ownership record. Nobody is in danger of a vehicle or driver solely because the vehicle has the wrong owner listed in the database. So it makes sense it would be the least important piece of the puzzle. But still…”should”? That is the final nail precision’s coffin.

All this is behind me now. I have a Honda Shadow VT750 ACE in my driveway now and I am looking forward to this coming summer. I expect my writing frequency will dip a bit as I will probably choose to get more riding experience over getting more writing experience during the sunny days. But, this is Canada. The season will end soon enough and then I get to learn all the nuances of storing a bike over the winter indoors.