Sep 17, 2018

Killing Money

There is a little revenue to be made on a blog when readers click on an ad, but the last couple of times I observed my own blog I was harassed with political ads. So, no ads until after November. If you were forced to look at the product of the Koch brothers' money on my blog, I apologize.

Things I Wish I Knew

All Rights Reserved © 2011 Thomas W. Day

A few years ago, I had picked up my wife at the Halifax, Nova Scotia airport. As we headed off toward our four day home base, about 90 miles east along the coast, the sun went down. 10 miles later, the sky fell and we rode into a waterfall. I haven't experienced such darkness since I was a kid in rural western Kansas. Joseph Lucas and his heirs would have been proud to see such an illumination void. Every village we passed was pitch dark; no street lights or signs, no open businesses, no lights in homes, no sign that anyone still lived in those places. To make things worse, about fifty miles of the road had been recently resurfaced and there were no centerline or shoulder markings. It was barely possible to see the edge of the road with my V-Strom's excellent headlights. There was a festival in Halifax and the Eagles were playing a reunion concert that night (seriously), so turning back to find closer accommodations was pointless and we were committed to making it to our destination. This was a test ride of almost everything I know about motorcycling. 
When I first started riding street bikes, I thought I was a good rider. I'd raced, off-road, for almost 15 years. I even taught a regional motocross program for a year or two. In the spring of 1983, I loaded up my 1979 CX500 Honda for the move from Nebraska to California and I was convinced I knew everything I needed to know to make that ride safely. I was a clueless moron. 
Leaving Omaha in late March that spring, I encountered strong winds that tossed my heavily-loaded Honda about like a small sailboat in high seas. Most of that instability was due to my lack of knowledge of how motorcycle steering actually works. From years of riding small bikes off-road and from a lifetime of misunderstanding two-wheel bicycle physics, I was used to applying a lot of body English to my steering corrections. By the time I made it to my parents' home in western Kansas, I'd wrestled my bike for 300-some miles and stressed my upper back muscles so badly that they are still a source of occasional pain. Today, I know that applying counter-steering pressure on the handlebars will achieve what fought to accomplish with all that wasted effort. Today, high winds bother me less on a heavily loaded 250cc dirt bike than I suffered on a road bike in 1983.

Less than predictable paved road surfaces used to baffle me; which might seem weird since I came from a riding background of completely unpredictable road surfaces. However, since traction was always in short supply off-road, I had never given predictable traction much thought. Dirt from hard-packed to freshly plowed, gravel lubricating the surface of a packed clay track or knee-deep desert sand, wet and slippery clay or slushy muck that sucks rider and motorcycle into the earth's sticky maw, my solution was always "go like hell until you crash." My cornering style was pretty much "throw the bike into a slide, bounce off of a berm, and hammer the throttle out of the corner." That is a pretty violent tactic on pavement, so I used a wimpy variation of brake-and-pivot for more than ten years before slowly including some reliance on good traction in my cornering style. When I began my MSF coach career in 2002, I began to look more seriously at my outlook on traction and adopted a more optimistic tactic for turning on pavement. That has given me more control of how I use the space available on the road and allows me to adapt to the more consistent surface variations provided by regular highway maintenance. The first step to being smooth is in having a plan for entering and exiting each and every corner you approach. Counting on luck and youthful reactions is not a practical or reliable long-term strategy.

Even after having broken a few bones and ripping apart muscles and tendons that were designed to remain attached, it took me most of my life to realize I am mortal and a lousy patient. I do not tolerate extended pain well. Staying shiny side up has become a bigger deal to me in old age. I take longer to heal; physically and mentally. That knowledge inspires me to work on basic riding skills, wear the best protective gear I can afford, to avoid hazardous situations, and to limit my risk-taking tendencies. In other words, I slow down, as a riding tactic, at least as often as I pin the throttle. For twenty years, my solution to almost every emergency situation was "drop the hammer and get one or two wheels into the air." That's plan is not as universally useful as I once thought it was.

The more luck I have experienced, the less I trust my fortunes to remain constant. As I look back on the bad things that didn't happen to me, I realize how close to the margin I have been. I have avoided close encounters with deer and other varmints, cagers and truckers, falling rocks and collapsing highways, and disaster caused by my own inattention. I do not trust good fortune any more than I trust good intentions. That is a lesson it has taken a lifetime to appreciate.

I have been a fan of preventative maintenance for most of my life, but I'm even more precautious in my geezerhood. I walk around my motorcycle, looking for loose hardware and worn out bits, habitually. "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" is a saying that doesn't make a lick of sense to me. "If it ain't broke, it's about to be" seems to be a lot more realistic. I carry tools, spare parts, and double my fuel stop time with inspection habits. I have never liked surprises, even surprise birthday parties, and I like them even less the older I get. (Consider my opinion of cell phones for reference.) Maintenance prevents surprises.

With those lessons and more behind me, after 40-some years of riding my brave and long-suffering wife and I slogged through those 90 dark miles of torrential rain without incident. Because the road and conditions were so severe, I was running totally on habits and experience, concentrating on the edges of the road for deer and anything that might require even more attention than I was already using staying on pavement. It wasn't a quick trip, but we made it to the resort wet, exhausted, and safe. The next four days were warm, sunny, and we had one of the best vacations in our 44 years together exploring the highlights surrounding our temporary home.

Looking back, I can think of a thousand things I wish I knew when I started motorcycling. Some of those lessons required a smidgen of common sense, so they would have been unavailable to me until I turned fifty. The stuff that I could have figured out with a less limited attention span and minimal ability to listen to advice, could have come faster and easier. The fact is, I really did love jumping on my bike and flinging it around a race track without the slightest clue how I could get better. Maybe it all worked out for the best, but there were some hard lessons that could have been less painful.

Sep 10, 2018

Merge It or Park It

All Rights Reserved © 2017 Thomas W. Day

MotorcycleMergeA big cruiser (a full bagger with a reasonably geared-up rider) and a semi loaded with turf approach a T-intersection from opposite directions. The cruiser is making an easy right into the T while the semi has a turn lane and will be crossing lanes after coming to a near stop. The cruiser should reach the turn at least one-hundred feet before the semi begins to make his turn. How do you think this plays out?

Other than me following the semi through the intersection, there is no other traffic in sight. The semi approaches the turn and comes to a complete stop. The cruiser slows to a walking pace before entering the exit lane and, eying the semi, comes to a complete stop at the end of his merge lane. If he got off his hippobike and walked into the road he'd have beaten the semi through the intersection. He waits for the semi driver to signal that it's safe for him to leave the merge lane. This, of course, forced the semi to come to a complete, totally unnecessary, stop partially sticking into the incoming lane while the cruiser doofus waddles away. What should have been a mindlessly simple traffic situation turned into something not only ridiculously complicated but was one more demonstration why Minnesota (and the rest of the country) needs tiered licensing and a dramatically more difficult motorcycle license test for any two-wheel vehicle over 50cc. The motorcyclist in this situation was obviously incapable of handling his oversized toy and should have been ticketed for blocking traffic. If there had been actual traffic in the scenario he would have constituted a road hazard.

From my backseat perspective, the whole incident reminded me of a constant irritant that I do not miss from years of commuting in the Cities. Minnesotans do not know how to merge. Personally, I think stopping in an intersection or, worse, on a freeway entrance/exit ramp should be grounds for loss of license. I wouldn't even object to the police firing a couple of rounds into the driver/rider's head to get their attention. As my father used to say, "There is obviously no vital organ located in that skull." The idea that drivers need to have the "zipper merge" explained to them in remedial terms amazes and depresses me. How is that not obvious?

It clearly isn't, though. There are a couple of exercises in the old, 2007 MSF program that require simple merging skills and about one out of one-hundred classes actually manage to get through these exercises without one or seven or eleven backed-up traffic jams caused by merge-inability. The so-called "seasoned rider" courses are no exception to that statistic. People who have called themselves "riders" for decades simply come to a dead stop when faced with 5mph oncoming traffic (even when that traffic is another motorcycle in a parking lot exercise) and the resulting confusion is comical in a parking lot and suicidal on public roads. As I have asked thousands of times, if you can't merge competently what makes you think you are capable of safely drafting/tailgating?

A few years ago, a rider and fellow MMSC/MSF coach remarked that he'd seen me "aggressively" getting into northbound downtown I35E traffic, as if merging at the end of the entrance lane at traffic speed was impolite. The implication was that I had somehow committed a faux pas in "jumping the line" of traffic some distance above his stuck-in-traffic position. Talk about Minnesota passive-aggressive. Guilty as charged. When I merge, I want to be moving at the prevailing speed and as near to the end of the merge lane as I can get. Commuting is not about standing in line politely waiting for some moron to hang up his damn cell phone. It's about getting to work or home as quickly as possible. If you can't figure that out, you have no hope of comprehending filtering and lane sharing. The day a semi beats me into a T-intersection from the cross-traffic side, even on my 250 dual purpose bike, will be the day I hang up my helmet and buy a convertible. If you are not going to use your motorcycle's superior acceleration, braking, and maneuverability in a simple merge, what would make you think you can use those qualities in an actual emergency? Trust me, you can't and you won't. I've seen that kind of incompetence demonstrated on a regular basis and it amazes me that anyone that impaired would want to risk their life and limbs on a motorcycle.

Back in the 1970's, I visited Chicago from my home in Omaha, for a trade show. My business partner and I were driving a rented panel van, loaded with audio equipment, and we were both small town guys blown away with the Big City. At the first stop light we encountered in the city, when the light changed I was pleasantly surprised to see all of the vehicles started moving together. A couple of lights later, a distracted driver didn't hit the gas when the light changed and the vehicle behind him simply pushed the semi-conscious vehicle into the intersection until the driver assumed marginal control and caught up with traffic. Like most of the US, Chicago is dumbed-down and distracted, today. Vehicles leave intersections connected by invisible 100' ropes, as one of my readers described driver awareness, in every city I've visited. Autonomous vehicles are going to solve this problem for cagers, but motorcyclists are forever going to be on their own. It is hard to imagine how this is going to play out in some way that provides public road access for motorcycles. At least until we are forced into recreational vehicle status, we ought to be merging competently. If nothing else, out of wanting to exit the scene gracefully.

Sep 1, 2018

Drinking the MSF Kool-Aid

Every two years, the Minnesota MSF program requires instructors to attend a “Professional Development Workshop.” Yes, it is as painful as it sounds. Like a lot of the corporate educational fools in the US, the MSF is a big proponent of “scientific teaching” and that is demonstrated sadly and badly in their instructor “training.” So, in August of 2013, I slogged my way through another of these silly exercises in turning energy into random motion. Every time I go through this experience, I think “Maybe I’m too old for this shit.”

After a momentary period of educational creativity in the early BRC years, the MSF has settled back into its over-bearing, drill sergeant tactics. Instead of talking to students like an instructor, the MSF now tells us just to read the corporate material to our “students”: I suppose that is because we’re too dumb to be teachers and the students are too illiterate to read this crap by themselves? The justification for the “read the cards” harping pretends that the MSF has “scientifically audience tested” the pigeon English in their illiterate 1970’s-era technical writing and that those poorly-written phrases magically turn rookies into Valentino Rossi just by their pure scientific magical-ness. “Keep knees against tank,” “keep feet on ground, not on footrests,” and “at double cones, downshift to 2nd gear, easing out clutch while in straight path” are examples of that genius literature. If I could manage a half-decent Pakistani taxi driver accent, I could deliver their script more authentically. The best I can do is a lousy 1950’s-era Charlie Chan hack-job and that is more offensive than funny. Reading this drivel with a straight face is just embarrassing, so I’m working on the taxi driver bit. So far, I’m more inclined toward the “You talkin’ to me?” sort of taxi driver, though. Reading the cards, without editing on the fly, is awkward and embarrassing. Once you’re involved in trying to fill in the missing pronouns and articles, you might as well paraphrase the whole performance.

Even though we often have a dozen riders with a dozen different skills, temperaments, listening abilities, and mental impairments, the MSF pretends that it’s possible to keep all riders in sight at all times while providing individual instruction to anyone who needs it. “”Never have running motorcycles behind you,” is one of the MSF mantras spoken by those who have never taught a class, paid a lick of attention to struggling students, and possesses an infinite supply of energy. A collection of insane and useless coaching positions are pitched to us as having magical powers in that regard. The fact that most of us see with the eyes in front of our heads rather than our backs appears to be new information to the academic geeks who run the MSF. It is possible that those pencil necks can’t swivel far enough to increase their visual horizon more than a couple of degrees, but most of us can cover a lot of ground from one location just by turning our heads and staying mobile. Go figure.

The chief instructor/trainer-trainer’s catch-all rebuttal is “It’s safer.” Like the conservative’s “think of the children” chickenshit come-back, this is a tough-to-beat argument in a typical classroom situation. It’s not like you can effectively argue against safety. However, like several other sorts of irrational debate tactics, no evidence of that safety improvement is offered or proven. In fact, claiming a tactic is safer without proving that point with statistics is just noise intended to stop discussion. The safety of an instructor’s style, range position, and technique is directly related to how that instructor conducts the class. A “universally perfect position” is an impossibility imagined by someone trying to create a defensible position liability-wise.

Likewise, the argument “If the chief instructor does/says it, it must be right” is about as worthless. The basis for “selecting” chief instructors has turned into accepting anyone who is silly enough to pay to haul his ass to one of the MSF’s training locations and obtain that certification. With that as a basis for selection, it’s a credential no more credible than an inheritance. At one time, our chief instructor was one of the best riders and instructors in our system. Now, the three chief instructors are just three guys who paid more money than the rest of us to do this thing. This is just one more example of failing leadership in all things American. Contrary to popular belief, there is some value in having excellence at the top of an organization

Pulling back from the early days of allowing instructors to find their own style and methods is a mistake, but it’s a popular mistake in the US. Everything known about teachers and teaching has found that instructor autonomy is crucial. All positive education outcomes are derived from creative, inspired, empowered instructors who give a shit about their students. The “read the cards” mantra is a No Child’s Behind Left Untouched holdover that came from the Reagan years’ public education sabotage and it drives good instructors from the system while reinforcing mediocrity. If the reason for recitation instead of teaching is because the MSF is requiring conformity, I’d say that would be a powerful reason for abandoning the MSF program for a state-managed system like Oregon’s. If the reason is liability, I’d say the state needs better lawyers. Reading the cards is something the best instructors do when they are being monitored by our “newspeak chief instructors,” but hardly anyone who knows what they are doing has that habit in an actual course. The upside is that reading the damn things is easy enough to do when we’re pretending to believe in the MSF magic. The downside is that doing that reminds us that we’re supposed to be marionettes, not instructors.

The predictable end result of the MSF’s style of instruction was summed up by this report from someone who took the ERC on a military base, “I also passed the ERC this summer.  The card was good for an insurance discount, and some of the slow speed instruction was valuable.  Other than that, the way this course was taught by the instructors I had was very thin...they did what was in the MSF Rider Card booklets, and that's it.  Mediocre instructors teaching minimal curriculum.  Most of the attendees at my course were military active duty, military retirees, or contractors on military bases all needing the card for two-wheel base access.  It is too bad the military is drinking the MSF Kool-Aid.

All of this is just another example of the same mismanagement that has driven real work underground in the US. The only talent American management has consistently shown is an ability to make any kind of work as miserable as possible. The average teaching career in the US is eleven years, but even more important is the 25% of beginning teachers who leave the field after four years and the 50% of urban teachers who abandon their careers after five years. The kids aren’t the problem. Management is. About ten years ago (2003), Pat Hahn produced a list of Minnesota MSF instructors with their “length of service” information. I did some Excel sorting on that data and found that the average (mean) instructor career was about three years. There were some significant outliers (15-24 years) in the group, but the overwhelming majority were short-timers. I know more than a few ex-Minnesota MSF instructors and none of them regret quitting. At the time, I wondered how it was possible to make riding the state’s motorcycles for money unpleasant. Now I know.

I know in a couple of ways. For a dozen years, I taught recording engineering and applied acoustics at a private music college. For about eight years, that job was so much fun I would have done it for free. (In fact, I did do a lot of work for nothing other than the pleasure of working with the kids and the school’s great musicians and instructors.) Eventually, the school was overrun by academics and “professional school administrators” and the fun, creativity, and energy was thoroughly sucked from the program. At one time, I thought I would teach at that school until they tossed me out or I died. Now, I’d rather take a bullet than teach another semester. Flipping that kind of commitment takes talent and the one thing American mismanagement has is an incredible ability to make any job as miserable as possible.

I’m writing this in early August 2013 under the assumption that by the time it hits the blog, I’ll either be dead or long out of motorcycle safety training. If not, I’m sure the MSF and the MMSC will make sure that decision is made for me once they read this criticism. It’s hard to imagine that being a big loss. The real problem in motorcycle “safety training” and licensing is that it isn’t serious enough. It’s one thing that 25% of motorcycle fatalities were unlicensed, it’s another that licensing is so easy that people with no ability can fumble through it fairly easily. A real approach to reducing the completely-out-of-line motorcycle fatality and injury numbers would require much tougher motorcycle licensing and a hard-assed approach to unlicensed motorcyclists (confiscate the motorcycle and put the asshole on foot where he/she was stopped along with a big fine). Until that happens, all of this “safety training” malarkey is just part of the sales pitch that is the real MSF objective (after all, the MSF is owned by the Motorcycle Industry Council, a “national trade association representing manufacturers and distributors of motorcycles, scooters, motorcycle/ATV parts and accessories and members of allied trades.” When was the last time you remember a trade organization being restrained in its desire to sell stuff over the safety of its customers? Yeah, that’s what I thought. If it were up to the MIC, motorcycle fatalities would be 90% of total traffic deaths and they’d just suppress the news so that a whole new batch of victims/customers would dive into traffic unaware of the hazards. The MSF is just an attempt to pretend to civic-mindedness while cranking out as many licensed customers as possible. The fact that this organization has forced the states to accept its monopoly on motorcycle safety training is all the evidence anyone should need to know this is a fact.