On Competence

 Posted on October 06, 2009 in Uncategorized

As I've grown older and more insightful (and, Jen would say, crankier), I've realized that competence is very important to me, and incompetence annoys me.

General competence-being able to deal with whatever adventures life might hand you-is a certain virtue in my world. I had a next-door neighbor for the last few years, Jack, who had a high level of general competence. He was a former Marine EOD tech and a computer geek. We weathered a couple of hurricanes together, pooling our competences to get houses boarded up (when plywood was next-to-impossible to find) and electricity generated (when generators and gasoline were next-to-impossible to get). Jack also taught me to shoot a But now Jack and his wife are splitting-general competence is not necessarily global-and selling the house, so I hope to wind up with another neighbor who doesn't hop in the SUV and head for high ground whenever a little wind threatens.

Specific competence is important too. There are many things that I know how to do well. I may not be able to do all of them myself, but I know at least enough to recognize technical competence-or incompetence-when I see it.One of the things that I know how to do well is pick a jury. Another is ride a motorcycle.

If I see a motorcycle at a stoplight when the light turns green, I can tell definitively in seconds (even aside from attire) if the rider has a clue about what he's doing. It's all in the feet. The competent rider has his feet off the ground and on the footpegs as soon as the wheels are turning; the incompetent has a foot or feet sticking out like outriggers halfway across the intersection or farther.

Why do the outriggers signal incompetence? Because your feet are useless once the motorcycle is moving on its own. A moving motorcycle is not, absent extraordinary circumstances, going to fall over (motorcycles are designed to stay upright) and if it does start to fall over (say you hit a patch of ice or gravel), you can't stop it with your foot. Your foot is not going to have traction better than the motorcycle's, and if it does the motorcycle is going to proceed forward and leave your foot behind.

A 200-kilogram motorcycle with a 100-kilogram rider going only 5 kilometers per hour (walking speed) carries 579 joules of energy-about the same as a bullet leaving the muzzle of a.45. Double the speed (to a jogging pace) and quadruple the energy.

If the motorcycle does fall over, all of that energy has to be dissipated somewhere. As far as the energy is concerned, the bones of your foot, ankle, and lower leg are as good a place to dissipate as any. As far as you are concerned, though, it'll be much cheaper and less painful if your feet are where they're supposed to be-shielded by the bike's hardware-when the metal meets the road.

Anyway, keeping your feet off the pegs once the motorcycle is rolling is like waving an "incompetent motorcyclist" flag. (I'm sure that's a metaphor for something in criminal defense trial lawyering, but that's not what I'm going for here.) Cranky curmudgeon that I am, I will allow your incompetence on our shared road to annoy me; it's one of life's little pleasures.

So this morning I'm driving to the courthouse when I see a guy on a motorcycle at the traffic light nearest the police station. He's northbound, wearing a down vest and ski cap and dark sunglasses (high of 92ยบ today), on a generic Japanese sportbike. I'm westbound. My light turns red, and I stop at the light, with a front-row seat to the impending show.

I can tell that he's raring to turn right- He has a red light for the southbound traffic turning left. Sedan, sedan, sedan, pickup. He goes zooming into the turn, incompetent motorcyclist flags waving, between the second sedan and the pickup. There's no gap, but he makes one, turning right in front of the pickup into the left lane, forcing the pickup driver to hit the brakes and swerve into the right lane.

Did I mention that the first sedan was a patrol car? Well, I think our incompetent friend must have missed that fact (demonstrating general as well as specific incompetence). Lights come on, traffic stops, our friend has a discussion with the officer and pulls off into a side street with the police car behind him.

The one good thing I have to say about incompetence: it's very good for business.

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