Tag Archive for learning

The Amateur Mechanic

I find working on my motorcycle both satisfying and humbling.

Some of my friends, including those who also ride, are often surprised I do some of my own maintenance. It’s simple stuff, mostly, like changing the oil and filter, changing the brake fluid, or swapping the brake pads. This week I changed the battery, and I hope to put new spark plugs and cables on her soon.

My mechanic friends, on the other hand, stop just short of patting me on the head and saying, “That’s cute, kid.” I don’t have the tools or the right combination of skill and desire to get much fancier than that. I don’t need the front wheel falling off the fork at 60mph, or the whole thing going wobbly because I didn’t align the rear axle.

Also, I find it’s the little things that kick my ass. Consider this negative battery terminal:

Designed by Satan

The access hole to get to it is just a hair bigger than the terminal block itself, and the cable connection blocks the view of the nut. To make matters worse, the cables and the chassis make it impossible to go at the nut straight on with a screwdriver. What should take seconds becomes several clumsy minutes of cussing and dropped screws.

I also have a superpower: I can banish screws into the fifth dimension, never to be seen again. When I first removed the positive screw port, it tumbled into the chassis somewhere. I heard it *clink* against metal, but it never made it to the ground. I searched all around the gap it fell into, rocked the bike to shake it loose, all to no avail.

Knowing my luck, I worried it was sitting neatly in a gap in the drive chain, waiting to get pulled into the sprockets and tear them apart. This led to a new experiment: opening the sprocket guard to double check. No screw, just more lost time and an opportunity to remove some chain lube build-up.

Another screw disappeared from the battery cover some time ago (probably when I installed the battery minder cables). This one was 25mm (about 1″) long. You’d think it’d have been easy to find. Nope. Fifth dimension, man.

I’d also been searching for the radiator fill cap for some time. As in, since last season. Yes, you can laugh. The coolant reservoir is easy to spot. Even after consulting my trusty Haynes manual, I just could not find the damned fill cap. Someone even tried to tell me my bike doesn’t have coolant, just a radiator fan, because it’s “only” a 600.

I looked it up again this week while I had the manual in hand, noted again that it said “behind the passenger foot peg” and consulted the photos. No, still not making sense. But then I shifted perspective a little, saw a knob, leaned down farther. . .

“AHA!” So loud my daughter came outside wondering if I’d broken something, or if I’d tipped the bike over on my head. (She has such confidence in her dad.)

The cap was tiny, it was camouflaged, and it’s probably also a fifth-dimensional object only visible when the stars align in proper configuration.

Okay, maybe not. But the tube itself is no fatter than a #2 pencil, so it probably just didn’t register as a the reservoir fill in my mechanically-challenged brain.

(Side note: I felt a lot less stupid when purchasing the coolant today. I hit an auto parts store and told the clerk I just needed coolant for my motorcycle. He looked at me like I was speaking Greek, and no shit, I had to repeat it twice and say, “You know, the stuff that goes in a radiator?” before he pointed me to the right aisle.)

There’s a lot of satisfaction in saying, “I did this!” Even for simple tasks. It reminds me I’ve got a lot to learn, too. It’s kaizen: continual improvement. Just like my wife, Lenore’s pretty good at keeping me in my place.

Now on the Summer agenda is flushing the whole coolant system. This requires removing the gas tank, which the Haynes manual rates as two wrenches (of five) in difficulty. We’ll see.

Hard to believe I’ve had Lenore for eight years now. I’d like to upgrade before long, but in the meantime, she’s been a great practice bike. If I can keep her running, I should be able to do the same for the Harleys and Indians I’ve been eyeballing.

Right?

About Mike Oliveri

Mike Oliveri is a writer, martial artist, cigar aficionado, motorcyclist, and family man, but not necessarily in that order. He is currently hard at work on the werewolf noir series The Pack for Evileye Books.

Get Handsy

Our school is cutting back on traditional industrial arts programs and pushing more kids into heavier math and science courses, and it bums me out.

Not because math and science aren’t important, mind, but not every kid is looking to go on to college or to become an engineer. Even if that were the case, what good is an engineer who’s never put his hands on a wrench? Would you trust an architect who hasn’t at least framed up a shed?

Adults shouldn’t be afraid to get their hands dirty. There’s satisfaction to be had in a lot of this work, and in many cases it can save a few bucks.

The Workspace Tour

Yep, I built this. It’s not a work of art, but it works well and it’s the most comfortable desk I’ve used because it’s custom-made for my height.

“I’m not good with tools” shouldn’t be an excuse. If you grew up with cartoons, you have a pretty good idea how a hammer works. I’m not saying everyone should be able to turn a beautiful table leg on a lathe (I sure can’t), but hanging a shelf on a wall should be an easy job.

I’ve changed the brake pads on one car and on my motorcycle. I happened to have the tools for those jobs, and it wasn’t bad. All it took was a manual, a YouTube video, and the guts to tackle the job. Labor for things like that? Usually around $85.00/hour.

Car oil & filter changes are so cheap these days it’s worth it to go to a mechanic, especially when they top off fluids and perform other simple services and checks at the same time. However, I think it’s a job every car owner should be able to handle in a pinch. Tire rotations are too time consuming to do on my own (and most dealerships do it for free if you buy your tires there), but I’ve put on several spares. Nobody should have to wait for a tow truck for a flat tire.

Tinkering on the motorcycle is fun. Sometimes the narrow spaces in and around the frame and engine are frustrating, but I’ve swapped the battery, installed battery minder leads, changed the oil and filter, changed the brake fluid, and changed the brake pads, all because taking it to a motorcycle mechanic is inconvenient. Soon I’ll be handling the spark plugs and maybe the spark plug wires. The only thing I’ve paid for is tire swaps and a new chain and sprocket install. I just don’t have the proper tools or environment for those, and if I get them wrong, I could be in a world of hurt.

I first learned to get handsy with a water heater. It had a leaky overflow valve, and someone put a scare into me about possibly cross-threading the new valve and having to replace the whole thing, so I called a plumber. He was at the house for less than 15 minutes. The part? About twenty bucks. The total bill? $90.00.

Never again. When the bottom finally rusted out of that water heater, I purchased and installed the replacement myself. We had a misstep with the flux when we sweated the copper pipes, but one conversation with the owner of the hardware store put us in the right direction. Years later, thanks to that experience I was able to help a friend cut an old, broken water softener out of his water line and sweat new pipe in to close the loop.

In our new place, when the thermocouple quit on the water heater (which it did repeatedly until a recall had me replace the whole burner assembly), I replaced it myself. Not difficult at all. Another friend sweated turning the gas on and off when his thermocouple quit, so he paid a plumber. Once again, small job, big bill.

I’m not saying we should take money out of some working stiff’s pocket. We once had plumbers dig up and replace a sewer line to the tune of $4K because it was too big a job. But I’ve replaced toilets and kitchen & bathroom faucets without batting an eye. I’ve helped a friend install a countertop, and I’ve wrestled with a garbage disposal for an hour until I realized the gasket was upside down. These are sometimes annoying jobs, but they are not difficult or highly technical.

In fact, I think a great number of smaller mechanical, plumbing, and electrical jobs are done simply because the car/homeowner doesn’t want to deal with it. Meanwhile, we probably saved hundreds of dollars across all of those jobs, and the sweat equity and satisfaction made them worthwhile.

I paid out to have a furnace installed and several windows & a door replaced because they’re just too big a job. However, I’ll be tackling a laminate floor and building a soffit in the near future. First time for both, but the flooring just snaps together and I’ve helped with a small drywall job, so I have a pretty good idea what I’m in for. Wish me luck.

Now I include my oldest son in all of these jobs, and sometimes his younger brother, depending upon the job. Heck, the boys installed the last two brackets of my desk because I didn’t feel well. I want them to have the confidence to do some of this stuff on their own when they move out, whether or not they have the opportunity to take a shop class in high school.

And ladies, this applies to you, too. My wife may not have had the muscle to break the lug nuts loose on one of those tire swaps, but I’m sure she could have handled any of these other jobs with the same instructions I looked up.

We’re both looking forward to our daughter learning some of this stuff soon. If she ends up having to change a flat tire while out on a date someday, she’ll know she needs to dump his ass, won’t she?

Next time you have a small job around the house or on your vehicle, ask yourself, “Can I handle this myself?” Then dig in and get your hands dirty.

It’s worth it.

About Mike Oliveri

Mike Oliveri is a writer, martial artist, cigar aficionado, motorcyclist, and family man, but not necessarily in that order. He is currently hard at work on the werewolf noir series The Pack for Evileye Books.

The Psychology of Robotics (or Lack Thereof)

Robots can do some pretty cool stuff these days, but so far most of it is trivial in the grand scheme of things and I think we’re a lot farther off from true artificial intelligence than most people believe.

I read a Wired article about new robot hands, and it discussed the methods scientists are using to train the robots to perform a simple task. The first robot, Stair, is trained to learn from its mistakes, and as it tries to pick a glass from a dishwasher it keeps trying new methods until it picks up the glass. The second robot, UMan, is trained to analyze objects, figure out how it can interact with them, and store that knowledge for the future.

That’s impressive and all, but people learn both ways. There are those who want robots to be domestic servants and even domestic helpers, aiding the elderly with various tasks and dispensing their medication. A lofty goal, but would you want grandma’s robo-buddy to learn its lessons by injecting her with the wrong medications or turning her upside-down in the shower because she just happens to fit that way? Before you say that’s unfair, remember that robots will have to be at least as reliable and safe as trained human beings before robots can replace humans.

It got me thinking that maybe the scientists are approaching robotic programming the wrong way. A robot’s world is literally black and white: everything is binary. That world gets even smaller when we realize that a robot is further limited to its programming. Stair can pick up a glass, but what happens when you put a bowl in front of it? Time for more programming. It’s not a great leap beyond the robots assembling cars, which have one task they do repeatedly. As the article mentions, you move a part six inches to the right and that car-assembling robot is lost. The new robot may be able to find the part, but move it to a new point on the assembly line with a new job and it has to be reprogrammed.

“But wait, Mike,” you might be saying. “UMan might be able to find the part and figure out what to do with it.”

Not necessarily. It may figure out the parts and the tools, but will it be able to assemble a car? Even if it does (which I acknowledge would be impressive), it needs to know what a car is. It needs to be programmed with the blueprints and guides, and it needs to do it in the proper order. Now let’s say it just built a Ford Focus. Take UMan and put it on the Ford Taurus line. Whoops, time to start from scratch again.

Better than the robot arm? Certainly. Ready to take humans out of the equation? Not by a long shot.

Which leads me to the first thing humans have that robots don’t: imagination. Whatever its origin — evolutionary or divine, natural or supernatural — imagination is what sets us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom. Where animals adapt to their environment, we adapt our environment to us. We have the abstract thinking to apply objects to different tasks. Robots test medicine for us by putting different compounds in petri dishes with different cells and cultures in them, but they’d never come up with that idea on their own. UMan may figure out how to work a can opener, but I doubt it would ever think to open a package with the can opener.

Even the world’s smartest monkeys are light years ahead of robots because monkeys have a capacity to learn. We can teach a gorilla like Koko sign language because it not only learns the gestures but can learn to apply them. Teaching a robot sign language doesn’t mean it will pass the Turing Test (and even if it did, it would be because a human programmed it with specific responses based on human psychology, not because the robot figured out how to communicate on its own).

Take UMan to the next stage of its learning evolution, and it still won’t compete. When you teach a child what a dog is, she understands different breeds of dogs are still dogs, even if she doesn’t understand what a breed is. If you show UMan a Chihuahua and tell it “this is a dog,” what will its reaction be when you introduce it to a Great Dane? Or an Old English Sheepdog?

The brilliant reCAPTCHA project is a perfect example of this. A human being can recognize different fonts and still recognize the letter Z if part of it were smudged. Optical character recognition software, despite years of development, cannot. As a result, researchers are now using human brainpower to help the computers decode obfuscated text in scanned classical texts.

Robots also lack judgment. Take Aiko, for example. Her creator gropes her breast and she gets angry. (We’ll put aside for now the fact that only a human would think of molesting a robot.) Pretty cool at first, but she’s only reacting that way because he programmed her to. She wouldn’t be any more offended than a slab of iron if she didn’t have the programming. The guys behind Real Doll would probably pay him a fortune to program her to purr with pleasure instead, but that wouldn’t be any more authentic a reaction.

Robots lack instinct. If a toddler trips and falls, he pulls back his head and throws out his hands. A robot, on the other hand, would fall flat on its face unless it were specifically programmed to catch itself. We swing pads at students in karate class, and even if they don’t automatically raise their hands to block, they shrink away or turn their heads. If we were a real threat, they’d run away. Attack a robot with a hammer and you can beat on it all day if it weren’t programmed with specific fight-or-flight responses.

There may be a way to cheat some of this. A robot’s capacity for learning is limited only by its storage capacity. Filled up a hard drive teaching it sign language? No problem. Install a second drive and teach it Japanese. Moore’s Law says robots will be able to process this data faster and faster, so that shouldn’t be a problem, either. Especially as mechanical (or chemical?) articulation improves and rivals human physical capabilities. The robotic evolutionary leap comes into play when they can start communicating with one another.

I’m not talking about Ethernet, here. I’m talking communication of ideas, of concepts. If Stair could teach UMan all it has learned, and they in turn teach their successors all they have learned, and so on, it only takes a few generations before you can build a sizeable catalog of robotic intuition. A future robot could conceivably come online knowing everything every robot before it has ever learned. Throw a solid grasp of learning by imitation into the mix, and its not long before you get a reasonable facsimile.

It’s still far from human in ultimate potential, but now we’re talking enough to at least consider putting them into more complex roles than assembling cars and pouring test tubes. I wouldn’t want one taking care of grandma, or in fact doing much of anything with human lives at stake. Make one a traffic cop and it will probably do fine while human drivers cooperated. What happens when someone ignores it, or attacks another driver in a fit of road rage? I’d rather see ¨berbots sent to Mars to collect samples and explore crevices than placed in an old folks home.

In short, I think we’re far better off concentrating our efforts on supplementing — perhaps even augmenting — humans rather than replacing them, because that’s never going to happen.

One final thought: there are many people who think Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics make robots safe to put in positions of responsibility over humans. They seem to forget that Asimov spent a good portion of his career figuring out how those same Three Laws are flawed.

About Mike Oliveri

Mike Oliveri is a writer, martial artist, cigar aficionado, motorcyclist, and family man, but not necessarily in that order. He is currently hard at work on the werewolf noir series The Pack for Evileye Books.