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Wired Up

It looks so logical. And in theory, it is


Translating a motorcycle’s wiring harness to an illustration as logical as that of the Shanghai subway route map is an astounding accomplishment. But just as a subway map cannot possibly give a true sense of what it’s like to commute on Shanghai’s 588 kilometres of track, the elegance of the wiring harness illustration bestows unwarranted logic to the messy mass of tightly bound wires that snake up, over, and around your motorcycle’s frame.


Electricity baffles me. I’ve read up on it. I’ve had electrician friends explain it in exasperatingly—for both of us—simple terms. And yet I don’t grasp electricity in the visceral way I comprehend the consequences of taking a radiator cap off a hot engine in mid-summer heat. But my ignorance hasn’t stopped me from wiring lights and receptacles into houses and rewiring cars and motorcycles. How can I work with electricity while confessing ignorance to it? Eliminate electricity from electricity.  

Ducati diagram.jpeg

I’ve reimagined wiring as copper plumbing pipe and electricity as water. Water (electricity) surges through the pipe (wire) to be used by the bathtub (starter, heated grips, taillight) and then water excess to the task flows back to earth—and, since electricity, as a failsafe, also routes to ground, it proves my madness has a kernel of truth. But my theorem falls apart in the diagnosing of electrical problems.


Collapsing basement ceilings indict leaky main-floor toilets. Delaminating bathtub tiles are evidence water has breached grout. But electricity is different. Electricity is like my grandmother. If perturbed, she would sit, stoically, and avoid my mother’s gaze. Because my grandmother was deaf, the slamming of cooking utensils made no impact. Nor was the silent treatment effective—when you live in silence, you’re immune to language withheld.


Electrical problems keep their secrets. A dead ignition coil leaves no clue. Ditto for a fried stator or a fuse that looks fine but isn’t. Methodical troubleshooting of electrical components will, eventually, hopefully, lead to a diagnosis. But the most vexing problems come from wiring itself.


When my departed-and-unlamented Norton began to run lethargically, I worked my way through every component related to fuel and ignition. I swapped coils. I fitted a new battery. Every wiring connection was checked for integrity. To no avail. A 10-day trip to Maine was tarnished by having to fit a new pair of spark plugs twice daily due to persistent fouling.  


At home, in despair, I tore the Norton to bits. Aside from the pile of parts in the corner, all that remained was the bare frame and wiring harness. With a razor blade, I painstakingly trimmed the miles of plasticized tape from the harness. And there it was. A ground with strands of wire pulled apart. Like the touching-but-not-quite outstretched hands of God and Adam in Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel fresco. There was just enough wire contact to trick the multimeter but not enough to initiate a hot spark. That was it for the Norton and me. It was sold as a basket case, and, two decades later, remains one.


Experience could have made me bitter toward the misleading clarity of the wiring diagram, but accept it for what it is—a semi-useful, graphically pleasing, and entertaining part of the maintenance manual. Entertaining? If it covers the languages of the globe, yes. Did you know coil is bobina in Italian and zündspüle in German? Or that spark plug is candela and zünd kerze?


When my Ducati died at the side of the highway (at night, in the rain) I knew the melted fuse box was also called a sicherungsplatte, and wrapping my tongue around pronouncing that word was a useful distraction on the two-kilometre push to the exit ramp. Never underestimate the worth of a sense of humour salvaged. 

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