Monday, May 31, 2010

There are Limits to Human Intelligence

"We have met the enemy and he is us" has got to be one of my favourite quotes of all time, by cartoonist Walt Kelly who drew the cartoon Pogo.

The meaning is that we are our own worst enemy, or that we do things that ultimately hurt ourselves. It's not like we set out to be our own worst enemy, we probably get there by degrees and through inattention or pure stupidity.

So here is an article "Human Failings Led to Oil Disaster" about how the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico was likely caused by human error. And not just one error, but a series of errors that could be referred to as systemic human failure.

In the article is an analysis of typical failures, and mention is made of other large scale human failings, the Financial Meltdown of 2008, and the Three Mile Island nuclear accident. It's interesting that while one individual human error is hard to predict, it seems like large scale systemic human failure might be quite predictable.
"This isn’t just about oil. It’s a challenge for people living in an imponderably complex technical society."

New York Times
We had our own massive failure in Ontario back in 1997. Actually, like all massive human failures it started before 1997, but the whistle was blown and the plug was pulled in August 1997. Ontario Hydro, after a run of embarrassing accidents, and finding drug paraphernalia in the control rooms of their nuclear reactors, had called for an independent assessment of the situation, and was persuaded to shut down most of the nuclear power system indefinitely. The verdict, reduced to it's simplest form, was that normal Canadians could not be expected to run something as complicated and dangerous as a nuclear generating system safely.

http://www.ccnr.org/nucaware_hydroletter.html

http://www.encyclopediecanadienne.ca/index.cfm?PgNm=TCE&Params=M1ARTM0011388

The shutdown was huge, and cost Ontario taxpayers billions of dollars, and was more or less the end of nuclear power in Canada.

The cartoon series called "The Simpson's" was based on and around the operation of a nuclear power plant. Homer, pictured above, is the main character, and one of the all time stupidest characters to ever lead a normal life in a cartoon, was the employee in charge of the nuclear reactor's control panel. And for all his stupidity, Homer's behaviour was not really outside the bounds of what you might expect to see in normal people you see in the street, not to mention neighbours, friends, even relatives.

I think there are many more examples of these large scale mental breakdowns, but how about this small one. Back in 1961, people drove around without seatbelts or airbags, drunk out of their minds, with the kids rolling around loose in the back of the car. Today, drivers are sober (more often than not), the babies are in their restraining harnesses, and cars are huge "safe" SUV's with air bags and anti-lock brakes. But now the drivers are reading the newspaper or text messaging at 100 km/hr. Although on a personal scale, it proves that the saying from Pogo "We have met the enemy and he is us." is still as true as ever. As we develop ever more complex systems, the most serious problem to face mankind is plain old lack of brainpower.

A Bike Puts a Smile On Your Face and Has Character

The most overabused phrases in motorcycle testing are "it puts a smile on your face" and "it has character". Not that I want to be a curmudgeon, but this is just another way of saying about a motorcycle "I did not pay for this bike" and "it breaks down a lot". The equivalent overused phrase in music is "It has a beat and you can dance to it."

Actually about the only time I really feel like smiling is when I see some crazy bike out there that seems to have a story that needs to be told, by an even crazier rider. (I mean crazy in a good way). Like yesterday. I was on the 13th annual Malt Run, a ride set up by a bunch of friends, and we were coming out of a restaurant at Teviotdale. The roads were full of motorcycles, with the nice weather we were having. Then a guy an an old Norton Commando painted flat black pulled in, parked next to our bikes, pulled off his helmet (also old style) and asked the way to Sauble Beach. Luckily some of our group carry old fashioned maps, instead of pre-programmed GPS routes, and so they could help him while I took the time to look over the bike. The stuff I notice most on old non-Japanese bikes is stuff that is not there. Like no puddle of oil under the bike. For some reason, this bike was oil tight, which seemed interesting. So I asked him if he had any reason to believe this bike could actually make it all the way to Sauble Beach. He replied that with all the money he had spent on oil seals and o-rings and top end rebuilding, it should be able to go all the way to the "F****** moon", and that he would not have any hesitation to drive it to Vancouver. (for those of you not from Canada, that is a long way when you are starting in Teviotdale.) Just then I realized that his licence plate was from Nova Scotia, although it looked so much like an older Ontario plate that I missed it at first glance. Actually I only noticed it when I was looking at the weird official stickers on the plate. I asked if he was from Nova Scotia, and he said sort of, but he and his wife were actually living in a motor home, so they kind of moved around and trailed the bikes behind them. I guess he was using Nova Scotia as a flag of convenience, and I also assume the tax rates and insurance rates are less there than other places like Ontario or Quebec.

When I was talking to this character, I was reminded of the Canadian movie last year featuring a Norton Commando travelling to Vancouver. It was called One Week. (I also did a review of the movie "Commando", but that one strangely didn't have a Norton Commando in it.)

Well that Norton Commando was a bike that both "had character" and "put a smile on my face", as the cliche goes. But I cannot think of any reason why I would want to buy a new bike "with character", or how it could possibly put a smile on my face when I have to actually pay for it.

In a couple of weeks, the Paris Vintage Motorcycle show will be on, and it is just chock full of bikes that have character. That's why I often go two days and pay twice, and feel lucky to be living in Kitchener, which is such a comparatively short ride away. http://www.cvmgparisrally.ca/

Picture: The Commando as new, sorry I didn't have my camera with me at the restaurant. But to imagine it today, simply add two really really beaten up natural leather saddlebags, a flat black paint job, a sex change operation for the girl and a black t-shirt and jeans, and an old helmet. And take away the platform shoes.

Friday, May 28, 2010

How to Stop an Oil Spill (Seriously)

As much as the oil spill bothers me, just for the environmental damage, something else is more annoying right now, and that is the conservatives asking Obama to save them from the big oil spill, and that the government, not BP should not be deciding how to cap the well.

Conservatives are now blaming Obama for not plugging the oil spill. In trying to make the blame stick, they certainly have one thing going for them. The spill is near New Orleans, and so the charge that this is Obama's Hurricane Katrina has some credibility, for people who don't realize that this is not hurricane related.

How soon we forget "Drill, Baby, Drill" which was the Republican mantra in the election campaign.

There is another conservative dogma, that big business can do everything better than the government. It is also forgotten, while they complain that the government should be in there telling the oil companies how to cap the well. I have never believed that private enterprise was always better than government, but even I would leave this one to the people who know how the oil rigs work, and they are the oil companies.

I think that neither the Democrats or Republicans would do a good job of plugging that well, and maybe the only solution is to let the oil companies try. I don't like the idea that the oil companies are failing, and have not tested some of these emergency methods, but there is nothing worse than somebody interfering in an emergency repair effort. Doesn't everybody know that already? Let me make it more clear. If your wife was undergoing life threatening surgery, would you run into the operating room to yell at the doctors and tell them what to do and how to do it? If you answered no, you are just like me. I would not go in there myself, and I also would not send the government in there to "help out".

Even though people are getting frantic, it is best to let the experts solve the problem. Do not panic and make things even worse.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Travelling to a Small Town in Ontario, Canada, in 1914

In the last year, Mary Ann and I have made efforts to discover our local area in day trips by car, motorcycle, walking or bicycling. Yesterday, we found one of those places that I would put near the top of the list. It's a place I pass by every time I go to Port Dover, or almost anywhere actually, called Doon Pioneer Village. I did visit the place about 30 years ago, and have not been back since then. In fact I used to enjoy visiting pioneer villages, and have seen several including Drummondville Quebec, Upper Canada Village, and Black Creek Pioneer Village in Ontario. 

But the occasion yesterday was much better than I remember, and possibly hard to match at any time. First of all, it was free for us yesterday. The new Waterloo Region museum will be opening soon on the site of the village, and this is actually quite a big museum, of the size you might normally only find in larger cities. So the museum held an open house for the Historical Society and their guests, and lo and behold it appears that Mary Ann got invited and that was extended to include me. Not only free admission, but free punch and snacks at the museum, and free access to the Pioneer Village.

At some point Mary Ann and her friend were talking shop, and I decided to go outside to check out the steam locomotive parked at the edge of the outdoor cafe patio. I am somewhat interested in trains, I guess part of my mechanical interest that also draws me to motorcycling. When I finished looking over the engine, I noticed a restored train station beside it. It looked like there was no one around, and the door to the main waiting room was unlocked so I decided to poke around. I went in and was looking at some of the posters on the wall when I was startled by a voice behind me asking "Would you like to purchase a ticket to somewhere?" I recovered enough to look around and found that there was actually a woman behind the ticket counter, dressed in an old fashioned costume. I said "Maybe, where does the train go?". Then she showed me a map of the Grand Trunk railway tracks in Canada in about 1914, and a similarly dated schedule of passenger services and fares. It seemed like I could probably get to Vancouver, British Columbia for about $5, which I had in my wallet, and this price was quite a bargain.

After we talked for a while about the history of the Grand Trunk railway, I made my way back to Mary Ann and told her the strange tale of this women trying to sell me a ticket on the train. According to Mary Ann it was nothing supernatural, it was merely one of the tour guides for the pioneer village. I said there is nobody in the village, I think it's closed today. So the three of us decided to go out and stroll about the village, and although we didn't see any other tourists, every building was fully staffed with costumed guides. All we needed to do was walk in to a building and talk to them. All three of us were interested in history so we had lots of questions. For example, I was asking about the unusual electric light bulbs in the general store. Apparently, they were supposed to look like they dated back to about 1914, which was about the time that this area first started getting electricity. I'm pretty sure they were not original pieces, as they were all working, and all turned on.

Another place we visited was "Peter McArthur House". He was apparently quite a famous writer for the Toronto Globe in 1914, and lived in this house near Appin, Ontario. The house was moved to Doon Pioneer Village some time ago. I never heard much of this Canadian writer, but I took a look at some of his work, and I like his style, which was a blend of Stephen Leacock-like humour and serious political commentary. He tried to promote farming as a way of life, and was an informal spokesman for the "back to the land" movement, at a time when farmers were heading for the cities in droves. Looking back from 2010, he was apparently not that successful in his quest to stem the tide.

I found a long article about him here.
http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_qa3683/is_200704/ai_n19432203/

It was like a trip back to 1914, the target date set by the pioneer village. I'm not sure how much I would like visiting the village again with bus loads of schoolchildren around, but it is a place we will go back to see again, especially if we have some out of town visitors staying with us. Or maybe even some in-town friends or relatives (like my grandchildren maybe, except they keep saying they have already seen everything I take them to - they have been on many class trips).

Picture: The Stanley Steamer club photo, when they visited Doon Pioneer village in 1999.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Science and the Art of Motorcycle Troubleshooting

To put it in scientific terms, I believe Mary Ann's Burgman 400 has been cursed by Satan. I have observed that in the rare situation when you really want to ride it, and none of our other modes of transportation will do, it won't go. Since we have a car and three other working motorcycles, plus bicycles, there are not many times when you really need the Burgman. But when Mary Ann has promised to give someone a scooter ride on a particularly nice day, the scooter has once failed to start, and once had a flat tire.

So last night we were about half way home from my mother's, the sun was setting, and suddenly Mary Ann pulled into a parking lot to ask me to check the headlights. Both low beams were dead, but the high beams were working. We decided to go the rest of the way on the high beams, and worry about the low beams tomorrow.

As we were riding along with the high beams alone, I was already starting to kick my mind into gear to fix the problem. Obviously, there was no way both low beams would burn out at exactly the same time, it had to be a short somewhere in the wiring harness. And since the Suzuki is covered with body panels, this was going to be a major job stripping the machine down to its frame and tracing the low beam wires from end to end to find the problem. I also considered trading the Burgman in on another scooter, and let somebody else pay for the repair.

The next morning, I was able to actually start the troubleshooting process, instead of imagining apocalyptic scenarios for the bike. Step one in the scientific process is now "Google". My first hit was the infamous "sticky starter button". Apparently, the starter button also contains a "headlight off" button, which when pressed will start the bike and turn off the headlights temporarily to save electricity for the starter. And this button sometimes sticks and the lights stay off. But because Mary Ann's high beams are working, that hypothesis is eliminated.

Second hypothesis: Burnt out fuse. The fuse is not hard to get to, although tools and one body panel are involved. I was surprised that the low beam fuse in the Burgman was 15A, while the spare fuse was 10A. They are supposed to be the other way round. Obviously a previous owner had tried pulling a little switcheroo on their own. Anyway, after testing with a multi-meter, and swapping fuses around, it was proven to not be the fuses either. Doomsday panic was fast setting in.

Third Hypothesis: Burned out headlight bulbs. This, of course, is impossible. How could both headlights burn out at the same time? After five years and 21,000 km, it seems like one in a million. Also, the bulbs are hard to get at. So I was contemplating dismantling the headlight dimmer switch next and looking for loose wires.

I found some instructions for changing headlight bulbs strictly by feel, as you cannot see what you are doing, but you can reach in. So I managed to get the bulb out and test it. It seemed to have no current flow on the low beam terminal. Because there are three wires, I had to find out by research that the black wire with the white stripe is ground, and the yellow is high beam, and the white is low beam. Also, I have a 12 volt electrical tester probe, and when I poked inside the socket, it lit up when I turned on the low beam. So apparently the one in a million chance actually happened. The headlights had burned out.

I went over to the Parts Source to see if I could find one of these unusual looking 35/35W HS1 bulbs, but they didn't have any. The parts guy was quite helpful, explaining how two low beams burn out at the same time. Apparently it happens a lot, not because they burn out together, but they burn out at nearly the same time (within a few months), and the owner does not notice the first one until both lights are gone and other drivers start flashing their lights at them.

Problem solved, so to summarize the scientific steps to solving the problem. By the way, these steps work for anything from the Suzuki Burgman
lights, to getting my mother's DVD player working.

1. Notice the problem
2. Get the bike home (In case of a TV it is likely already home)
3. Imagine all kinds of worst case scenarios, then forget them
4. Look up stuff on Google ("suzuki burgman" low beams burned out).
5. Start making observations, possibly write them down if you have a bad memory
6. Refrain from ripping out the guts of the bike if at all possible
7. Re-examine all your beginning assumptions about the problem.
8. Get the right tools (multimeter for testing electrical problems, axe for removing battery)
9. Consult the manual if you must
10. Talk to the person at the parts counter, you may get some ideas.

And when your part arrives, and you go to pick it up, please take the old one along, and compare the two of them before taking the new part home.

Speaking of parts, I telephoned two Suzuki dealers and got prices between $45 and $34 for the bulbs, but my local Suzuki dealer had a really excellent parts person who found me an aftermarket bulb for only $14, so I ordered two. When they arrive, we'll see if they work, of course.

Picture: A Suzuki Burgman 400 2005 headlight bulb (I think)

Sunday, May 23, 2010

May, Motorcycle Awareness Month

Apparently May is motorcycle awareness month, although it would be a mistake to think that motorists are more aware of motorcycles this month than other months.

Here is a quote I took from this accident report.
"The northbound motorcycle riders wore helmets, and the driver of the southbound semitrailer truck wore a seat belt, the patrol said. The crash remains under investigation."
There is so much you can figure out just from that very simple sentence. Of course, you can't tell all the grief and suffering that will result from this one moment in time, you can pretty well figure out that no matter what kind of helmets were mentioned, that the two on the motorcycle will be dead, and probably the truck driver would survive, with or without the seatbelt.

Here is another article about motorcycle awareness month.

In this article, there was a brief mention of the responsibility of the motorcycle to be visible to other motorists. Well, I do have my very bright fluorescent jacket. But as was mentioned in the article, cops wearing high visibility vests get killed by accident, and they have the lights on the car flashing that can be seen from four miles away.

There is a down side to my fluorescent jacket, it sometimes attracts too much attention. Once, I caused a commotion when I was mistaken for a traffic cop when I was trying to put money in a parking meter. Second, I am too scared to ride into Toronto during the upcoming G20 Summit for fear of being Molotov cocktailed by the protesters who might think I am the riot police.

To be visible, some other motorcyclists buy extra headlights, and ride with three headlights on all the time. But then if the glare from the two outboard extra headlights masks the flashing turn signals, is that any safer? Some bikers use "flamethrower" headlights that are so bright they turn night into day. But is it really such a good idea to blind oncoming drivers at night?

As I said in one of my earlier blogs. Or actually I guess it was Mr. Miyagi who said it, "Balance is everything". It also works when you are trying to be visible to others.

Picture: from this page on motorcycle lighting

A Biker's Guide to Grand Isle, Louisiana

I have to admit that we visited Grand Isle by car, not by motorcycle. But many of my trips, even by car, have a motorcycle-like itinerary. For example, I have driven "The Tail of the Dragon" by car as well as by bike. And as a motorcyclist I still have an eye for motorcycle friendly places, even when I'm in a car.

This trip was 2004, but the reason I'm writing about Grand Isle today is that I saw it on the news this morning, with oil coming up on the beaches. In the six years since we went there, we have seen Grand Isle in the news twice, once for the oil spill and once for Hurricane Katrina, which wiped out a lot of it. In fact I was surprised the Island still is there at all, for all the grief it's getting.

Our trip to Grand Isle in November 2004 was almost accidental, as I never heard of it before I arrived at the tourist welcome station where I55 enters Louisiana from Mississippi. We were looking at their map for a place to pitch our tent, when I saw way down at the bottom, about as far as you can go, Grand Isle state park with tent camping. The location on the map alone was appealing enough for both of us to decide immediately we would drive there and camp for a few nights.

The road to Grand Isle passes through Cajun country in the Mississippi delta, which interested me because of my own "Cajun" background. A lot of people don't know that the word Cajun is from "Acadian", and these French speaking people were deported from the Atlantic provinces in Canada by the British in the 1700's. My family apparently escaped the British when they came for them with a free one way ticket to Louisiana. Although the French language is gradually fading, there is still a lot of French spoken in this part of Louisiana, and when we stopped at a bank, the young woman who was our teller spoke English with a slight French accent. I asked her is she spoke French and she said no, she only ever spoke English, which I found kind of interesting, from a linguistic point of view.

Getting to the park, we had to drive right through the town of Grand Isle, and in the middle the speed limit was only 20 mph. Seeing a woman on a motorcycle pulled over by the cops made me extra cautious of my speed, which was a good thing as I found out later from some locals, the policeman was on a rampage, ticketing everyone who was even a few mph over the limit.

Arriving at the park gate, I was asked if I wanted to pitch my tent on the beach. Of course I did. Camping on the beach is a big favourite of mine, when it's allowed. At Grand Isle it was perfect because you could also drive your car onto the beach, many beaches have sand that is too soft for cars. As we were pitching our tent, a woman arrived alone on her motorcycle and put up a tent on the next site. Her motorcycle licence said Minnesota, and she was the same one who was being hassled by the fuzz as we came through the town. She had actually left her bike in the official parking lot because she was afraid to ride it on the sand. But later on I saw other motorcyclists driving on the sand, and it seemed to be quite easy except for a very short stretch where you first crossed onto the beach from the parking lot. There, the sand was loose and one guy almost lost it while he was gunning the engine to get up the hill.

When Mary Ann and I camp, it's very minimal, like motorcycle camping. We basically have a small tent and sleeping bags, and hardly any cooking stuff. So we drove into town to have our meals, or coffee or pick up a few groceries like cereal and milk. We found the Conoco station was the best place to go for hot coffee and a muffin. Like most of the new part of town, it is built on stilts, so that hurricanes and tsunamis won't wash it away. Only the actual gas pumps are on the ground.

It was pretty obvious that oil was the big industry around there. Although we could only see a few rigs in the water, there was the constant drone of supply helicopters overhead. And there was nearby Port Fourchon a busy port for oil supply boats. There, we drove down to the beach on a Saturday and saw lots of people driving their cars on to the beach and going for miles to find a fishing spot, so we did that too, just to see what was there.

One of our most memorable experiences was visiting a local tourist attraction, a butterfly house. The attendant asked us if we liked to go sailing, and we ended up going sailing with a couple of people from the local area. It was interesting to talk to them about the town and their state, and while we were sailing, dolphins followed the boat out of the marina. Mary Ann was trying to get a picture of the dolphins, but it was hopeless because our primitive digital camera had too much time delay to catch them before they went back under the surface. We have a newer camera now for that reason.

Picture: The gate to Grand Isle State Park with a pelican. I took it off the website in the same link as above , where you can find lots of other pictures.

Friday, May 21, 2010

You Can Learn About Motorcycling From Mr. Miyagi

On my website I have a statement "Everything I needed to know about life I learned from a Honda gas tank label". Of course, I was kidding.

But now I am going to make two more statements, and an explanation "Everything I needed to know about riding a motorcycle I learned from the movie Karate Kid IV aka The Next Karate Kid". And everything I needed to know about motorcycle maintenance I learned from the movie McGruber.

Let's start with Karate Kid IV. Riding a motorcycle, like karate, is dangerous especially when you take it to the streets. Threats are everywhere, and to stay safe you need a combination of technique and a sixth sense. Not to mention an ability to remain calm, and to respect the traffic around you, to stay focused, and to be always in control of the situation. Another similarity to the Karate Kid, is that you will generally have four or five opponents against one, and you are by far the smallest out there.

In Karate Kid IV, a small elderly Japanese guy named Mr. Miyagi takes it upon himself to train a girl named Julie in the ways of Karate. There is a lot of Zen involved, and enigmatic instructional techniques. You don't, for example, learn to kick a bag. You learn to "be the bag". Similarly, you cannot learn how to drive defensively, you must learn to "be the traffic". In the movie, this technique of learning and teaching works miraculously for anything, including bowling. A group Tibetan monks who have never bowled before (I assume from the context, but it was never explicitly stated) get in a bowling match for money and win the game easily because of their superior mind control of the ball. They can even get a gutter ball to score a strike.

Many lessons are accompanied by puzzling sayings such as "Ambition without knowledge is like a boat on dry land." That one almost makes sense. But the next one does not "Sun is warm, grass is green." Not at my house it isn't.

These are quotes from Mr. Miyagi again, about traffic conditions and other things, though the dialogue is actually from the first Karate Kid Movie and was not repeated in movie IV, so I put it here

Miyagi: Walk on road, hm? Walk left side, safe. Walk right side, safe. Walk middle, sooner or later
[makes squish gesture]
Miyagi: get squish just like grape. Here, karate, same thing. Either you karate do "yes" or karate do "no." You karate do "guess so,"
[makes squish gesture]
Miyagi: just like grape. Understand?
Daniel: Yeah, I understand.
Miyagi: Now, ready?
Daniel: Yeah, I'm ready.
------------------------
Daniel: Wouldn't a fly swatter be easier?
Miyagi: Man who catch fly with chopstick accomplish anything.
Daniel: Ever catch one?
Miyagi: Not yet.
------------------------------
Daniel: Hey, what kind of belt do you have?
Miyagi: Canvas. JC Penney, $3.98. You like?
Daniel: No, I meant...
Miyagi: In Okinawa, belt mean no need rope to hold up pants.
Miyagi: Daniel-san...
Miyagi: Karate here. [taps his head]
Miyagi: Karate here. [taps his heart]
Miyagi: Karate never here. Understand? [points to his belt]

(My interpretation, that motorcycle safety is not in a helmet or in a motorcycle, it is in your head and heart. Although of course, having a helmet is useful for holding your brains in.)
---------------------------------------------
Daniel: Where am I, this ring over here?
Miyagi: Hai. Number three.
Daniel: What's that guy kneeling like that for?
Miyagi: Don't know.
Daniel: Don't you know anything you can tell me?
Miyagi: Hai. No get hit.
(The parallels to motorcycling are pretty obvious here)
----------------------------------------
Miyagi: [Daniel has just gotten his driver's license and Miyagi has given him a car for his birthday] Just remember, license never replace eye, ear, and brain.
-------------------------------------------------
Miyagi: [repeated line to Daniel] Look eye!, always look eye!
-----------------------------------------------
And one more actually from Karate Kid IV (I guess all the best lines were used up in the first three movies)

Julie: Is there a trick to this--something I haven't figured out?
Miyagi: Pray.
Julie: Pray?
-------------------------------------------


Now for motorcycle maintenance, inspired by MacGruber, a film from the Saturday Night Live skit, based on a parody of a character from the TV series MacGyver. In the original series, MacGyver was always getting out of trouble by making complicated devices out of house hold materials. MacGruber made this funny (or funnier) by exaggerating it out of all proportion, and also having the device fail most of the time in a massive explosion. OK so this is the lesson I got from the movie. Making stuff out of crap is a lot cheaper than buying accessories at the motorcycle shop. Just make sure they don't fail on the road or it's going to be embarrassing.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

The Bikers' Guide to Hamilton, Ontario

Hamilton has long been overlooked as a tourist attraction in Ontario. It has about the same notoriety for Canadians as the state of New Jersey has for Americans. Hamilton is a steel mill town, big steel mills. The steel mills are not hidden from tourists, they are visible from just about anywhere you go in Hamilton. There is not a single beautiful vista where your senses are not assaulted by sheer steel mill. And if you go back more than twenty years, Hamilton harbour and its air were kind of polluted also. But today you don't have that feeling of gritty pollution everywhere, although you still see the steel mills. Today Hamilton is fun to visit. It is partly big city, partly funky urban landscape, partly lake Ontario beaches, partly mountain vistas. And still pretty much undiscovered and unspoiled by tourism.

I decided to do a one day tour starting from Kitchener, that would loop around Hamilton Harbour. Starting from the Townline Road exit in Cambridge, visiting the Lasalle Marina in Burlington, crossing the lift bridge under the Burlington Skyway that crosses the harbour opening, going into downtown Hamilton on James and King, then on to Dundas, before returning to Cambridge on Highway 8.

It's a kind of challenging route, mostly because of traffic. I did it starting at 11 AM on a Thursday, so maybe at rush hour it would be more difficult. I took my Vulcan 900 to deal with the faster sections of the road, and because of the comfort.

I didn't stop to visit one tourist attraction which was near enough to the route that I drove into the parking lot, it was the HMCS Haida. I also didn't stop at a cafe on James street, but I passed a lot of them, many with outdoor patios. Again, that's just me. When I was in Paris, I didn't go up the Eiffel Tower either. At least not the part where you pay.

You do see a lot of weird stuff in Hamilton. I was following a van with two huge garbage bags tied to the roof. When I speeded up to pass him before they came off in my face, another car with a mattress on the roof merged in front of me. Not just the mattress but the box spring as well.

I probably need to add more, because Mary Ann thinks this is too abrupt an ending, but basically if you want to, you can do the route yourself, I have a link to Google maps. And if you don't live close enough, try the street view feature.

Picture: I took it myself, a rarity for me. Cormorants in the trees, a bit of steel mill visible in the background if you squint hard enough, and behind that, you can also see another Hamilton feature, the beautiful escarpment.

Map of my route on Google

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Experiences Being a Passenger on a Motorcycle or Scooter

For many motorcyclists, being a passenger may be embarrassing, and even worse on a scooter than a motorcycle. Jim Carey tried it in the movie "Yes man" as shown in the picture. The title "Yes Man" refers to the plot of the movie where he was under some kind of spell where he had to say Yes to all kinds of terrible things, and of course being a passenger on a scooter driven by a girl was one of the worst. You can pretty much see the whole movie in 2 minutes here with the preview More of the scooter ride here

The dialogue
Driver (Zooey Deschanel): Am I going too fast for you?

Passenger (Jim Carey): No, go faster. That way when we crash I'll die. I don't want to be kept alive artificially

Driver (as she takes off at very high speed driving with one hand): Hold still, I'm taking a picture
So today Mary Ann wanted to drive her scooter down to my mother's and she wanted me to come as passenger. I said "Yes." and now I am going to tell what happened and to hopefully help others prepare for such events.

The first thing I decided to do was check her tire pressure. It's a 300 km round trip, and much of it will be on the freeway. So good thing I checked, because the back tire was low.

Next, something I did that was stupid. I wore just my jeans and did not put on my leather overalls. Starting out, it was 18c and sunny, so I thought it might be too warm. Mary Ann wore her leather pants, and as a rule it is best for a passenger to dress better than the driver. And at the end of the day, the temperature dropped to 13c, the sun was down, and I was getting cold. From experience I have found that often the driver is better protected from wind than the passenger, if there is some sort of windshield and fairing at the front.

Rounding our first traffic circle heading out of town, it seems Mary Ann has picked up the pace a few notches since the last time I rode with her. I began to notice her speed a month ago as I followed her around this particular traffic circle, loudly scraping the floorboards on my Kawasaki Vulcan. This time, with me as passenger, taking corner at an alarming speed, it was her centre stand dragging. We discussed this situation at the gas station next to the circle, as this had never happened to her before.

Let me make this observation to testosterone addled guys who ride their bikes faster trying to scare their female passengers. Don't do it. It is already scary enough on the back of a bike without you trying to make it more scary. It is far less scary to be the driver, so it's not like you are being brave or anything. Just try to remember, it is not as much fun being a passenger as it is being the driver.

If you, as a passenger, weigh near 200 lb., you are going to be affecting the performance of the bike, so pay attention. In a fast corner, you should lean to the inside. For example, in a left curve, look over the left shoulder of the driver. That way you help keep the bike more upright, and prevent stuff from dragging on the ground. Apparently this is counter intuitive to some people, who think leaning away from the curve will help by making the bike stand up straight. That's not how it works. Both the bike and the passengers must lean at a certain angle at a certain speed. The fact is, if the rider and passenger together lean more, the bike does not need to lean as much. It's simple physics, and that's how you minimize dragging stuff on the ground.

A passenger needs to have some means of communicating with the driver. Shouting alone only works in movies, as the bike is generally too noisy. You need to communicate important ideas such as wanting to stop or slow down. Most passengers intuitively grasp that hitting the driver will communicate this idea. But I also find that I need to communicate the idea that "you are too close to the centre line". Maybe a typical passenger would not have these needs, but as a long time motorcycle rider, I do. So I use a knee to to drop the hint to "move over". Why does she drive so close to the lane markers? I can only assume it is something taught in motorcycle school these days, (which is questionable) that you should never ever drive in the middle of your lane. Mary Ann has absorbed this idea and avoids the middle of the lane the way I try to avoid going off on the shoulder, or the way I try to avoid wandering under the wheels of a passing truck. The whole problem with motorcycle school is that of balance of emphasis. When explaining dangers to rookie riders, many instructors skim over dangers that are obvious to experienced riders, and dwell on unusual dangers that are not so obvious. Unfortunately, that leaves the rookie drivers with a kind of warped sense of which dangers are more important on the road. For example, on some busy freeways where it never rains, oil builds up in the centre of the lanes, and the lanes are very wide. Hence stay away from the centre. In other places, like the 401, the lanes can be quite narrow with a high percentage of truck traffic, and furthermore the centre of the lane is clean. So it is far more dangerous to be hugging the dotted line, especially with cross winds. And so I get scared sitting behind her as that dotted line flashes by under my left foot, but I can't explain all that except by a knee to the kidney.

It's not all bad, being a passenger. It does give you a chance to look around more, and especially to find out what problems a passenger has to deal with for next you time have one while you are driving. When you are warm, and comfortable and not scared, it is more fun to be a passenger than to bungee jump off the Brooklyn Bridge.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

If Oil Spills Are Natural, What Else is Natural?

Just in case somebody starts reading this and starts thinking I am a BP shill, I am not. I do want to live in a clean, natural environment. But at the same time I want to know the truth about the oil industry's arguments to continue drilling in sensitive areas. And I use oil myself. It takes time to sort through the hype on both sides.

Fox News came out with a revelation that puts the BP oil spill in perspective. Oil spills are perfectly natural. There is actually more oil coming in to the oceans from natural seepage than from the BP spill.

I have a reference right here in case you need to look it up.

So Rush Limbaugh and Fox News do have a point, although you rarely hear the oil companies making this point publicly. The truth is that they spill less oil overall than all the natural seepage from oil reservoirs under the ocean world wide.

Does this automatically mean that we can forget about oil spills? Of course not, because local concentration is important, and damaging. The fact that oil has been seeping for hundreds of thousands of years means very little to the people of Louisiana who are trying to fight off a tide of oil that may come ashore any day now.

Nature is kind of harsh. Just because something is natural does not mean it is good. Just because it is natural does not mean we will not suffer horribly if we get a heavy dose of it.

Environmentalists often give the idea that nature is all good, that nothing bad can exist in nature. This is not true, and most environmentalists don't believe this childish idea themselves, but it takes time to explain the complexity of reality. Obviously diseases are natural. Mosquitoes and black flies are natural. Freezing cold is natural. Floods, tornadoes, lightning. Sometimes we forget that space and the moon and Mars are natural too, but nothing lives there. And more than anything else, we forget that mankind is natural. And mankind includes the Nazis, the Commies, illegal immigrants and Republicans. Even Rush Limbaugh is part of nature, although Fox News is not, being a technological/electronic artifact. Something else that is not natural, and never has been? Windmills of course.

A more accurate image of nature would be this. In the entire universe, there is a very small place where life can survive. It is called the surface of the earth (give or take a few miles up or down). On much of the surface there is an environment, an ecosystem, that is self sustaining and balanced. This is where all known life exists. A few seemingly unimportant changes to this ecosystem, could alter it to the point where it will longer sustain life.

Many environmentalists believe that human activity is creating an imbalance in nature, so large and so fast, that nature cannot respond. Our technology, together with our rapid, unchecked population growth are changing some of the characteristics of our environment that may lead to catastrophe, or maybe not.

Some people would like to slow down our technology and examine the issues scientifically, others want to keep going and assume the environment can handle it. In a logical society, probably both points of view would be considered, and the more cautious approach would likely be taken. But we do not live in a logical society, we live in a society driven by politics and money, and informed by propaganda and name-calling. The cautious approach, and planning for the future are often pushed into the background by greed, obstinacy, ignorance, and the ever present desire for more comfort and convenience.

So what does it matter what the truth is about oil spills? In the broad perspective, the Earth has absorbed bigger assaults, and in an even broader perspective, our society does not have an intelligent decision making process.

That is why in the end, I personally think less drilling, and also higher taxes on oil make sense. We need to tax oil in order to give alternate energy sources a chance to compete and develop. But obviously not everybody takes the same lesson that I do from the facts presented.

It would also be perfectly natural, in the strict sense of the word, for all life on Earth to be extinguished. And that is another perspective for you.

Picture: Artists' conception of New York after all humans are wiped out by something or other.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Travelling Abroad and Dealing With Theft

I feel a need to comment on this particular statement about Sierra Leone. I came across this comment on the internet by Joy M. Hathaway, from Airway Heights, WA.

She starts out by stating she was a Peace Corp volunteer in Magburaka, from 1985 to 1988, and makes a few general comments, but this is the one that got me thinking.
"One of the cultural practices is teaching the boys and girls how to steal. Looking from the outside in, Western cultures teach children it is wrong to steal."
I am actually quite shocked and horrified that anyone would make such a derogatory statement about any country in the world, and this is especially disappointing coming from a Peace Corps volunteer in the same town I was, although not at the same time.

Theft does take place in Sierra Leone. Theft is a bit different in a wealthy country, and a poor country. In a wealthy country like the USA, for example, you would not leave a laptop computer sitting unattended and unsecured on a desk in a classroom day after day, and expect it to be there two weeks later.

A poor country like Sierra Leone is no different to the USA, if you make an allowance for pricing. Let's assume a piece of chalk in Sierra Leone is as valuable as a laptop computer is in the USA. If people are willing to sit all day in the market in the hopes of selling an orange for one cent, (not a profit of one cent, a total price of one cent)  obviously, some may be tempted to casually steal an unattended piece of chalk, and see what they can get for it.

And for something more expensive, they may be willing to hatch a fairly elaborate scheme to steal it. The amount of planning to rob a Brinks truck in the USA may be used to plan the robbery of a mosquito tent or a blanket in Sierra Leone.

I don't know what negative experience gave her the idea that stealing was "being taught to boys and girls", but my own experience in Sierra Leone was that yes, I had some things stolen while I was there. And in Canada, I can recall once or twice having a bicycle stolen, and almost all our neighbours in Canada have had break-in robberies, but not us. (I know what you're thinking, but honestly, it was not me).  Also, there is some theft of office supplies, and hardware and building supplies in various trades. But in a country of vast excess wealth, this petty theft is not crippling to the economy.

I try to take appropriate measures to lock up things that I think may attract thieves. The poorer the country, the more things need to be locked up. In Sierra Leone, things were stolen that no Canadian thief would ever bother with. Just last night, for example, Mary Ann and I were walking through the mall and saw an entire box full of chocolate cookies abandoned on a bench. Because it was in Canada, nobody yet had bothered to pick it up. Not so if there are starving people all around, and I am not saying people in Sierra Leone are starving, but they are not as well fed as Americans.

At one party I attended in Sierra Leone, we were having chicken wings, and the cook, who was Sierra Leonian, asked if he could have all the leftover bones to take back to feed his family. We were probably going to throw them out. And if we had thrown them out, would Joy Hathaway call it "stealing" if somebody came along and took them without permission?

I am pretty sure that parents do not teach their children to steal in Sierra Leone, and people sometimes get beaten up pretty badly when they are caught stealing. That's because, in Sierra Leone, people watch out for thieves and catch them and punish them without bothering to dial 911 and wait for the cops. And they also don't take the attitude that "it's none of my business" if somebody is observed stealing from somebody else.

Let's contrast that attitude to a story that appeared on TV a few weeks ago, about somebody being mugged on the Toronto subway system, where none of the other passengers tried to stop the robbery. That type of thing would not happen in Sierra Leone, because it's a different culture. Not better, not worse, just different. When you travel to other places, you need to try to understand and respect the culture.

The first thing of mine that went missing when I started teaching in Magburaka was my new umbrella. I had left it in the staff room, and it was gone by the end of the day. A few days later I found out who the thief was. You guessed it, the thief was a Peace Corps Volunteer. Was there an explanation? Of course, and I would never use an incident like this to imply that all Americans teach their children to steal. Unless there was proof, such as a hidden video or maybe a collection of handouts and teaching materials to substantiate the claim.

Now let's look at this statement. If "Western cultures teach children it is wrong to steal", does that mean the USA is going to be giving back the land to the Indians? Or that back wages are going to be paid to the slaves? 




Picture: A village in Sierra Leone.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

The Debate on Health Care for Palestinians

Today I came across a news article in the Jerusalem Post about a conference in England about health care for Palestinians under occupation of Israel. It was titled "Oxford U. blames Israel for poor Palestinian healthcare". In this article, several issues came up, that may not have been well known before, and perhaps merit some attention.

First, a little background. Since 1967, Israel has occupied the Palestinian territories. The living conditions of Palestinians have been a concern to many people around the world. Even those who are not Palestinian themselves have this feeling, fuelled by news reports from some sources. Is there any truth these allegations that Palestinians receive poor health care? This article in the Jerusalem Post could shed some light on the matter.

Just to clarify one point, and this comment was also made on this website, it was not actually Oxford University that hosted the conference, it was the "Society for Medicine".

So on with the facts. The conference, "Healthcare Under Siege", described itself this way
“In this conference, the speakers will draw on their personal experiences in the occupied Palestinian territories to expose the devastating effect of crippling economic blockades and military attacks on civilian health and access to medical care in Gaza,”
You can already tell there is going to be Israeli-bashing in this conference, from the words "devastating effect" "crippling blockades" "military attacks on civilian". And the Jerusalem Post also points out that George Galloway will be attending, a British politician who is famous for bringing relief supplies to Palestinians, and is very outspoken in his criticism of Israel and the USA.

But because the article is actually in a Jewish newspaper, naturally there are also some nice things to be said about the medical care Palestinians receive from Israel. Although I do not think these statements were made at this conference. I will try to summarize them here anyway.

Lord Leslie Turnberg, former president of the Royal College of Physicians, and has visited two hospitals in Israel, made these comments for the Jerusalem Post

  • “At Safra Children’s Hospital [Tel Hashomer] at any one time, there are 30-40 children from Gaza with their families receiving specialist care such as cardiac surgery or bone marrow transplantation"
  • "More than half of [Safra Children's Hospital] cardiac surgery patients are from Gaza."
  • "At the Schneider Children’s Hospital [in Petah Tikva] we saw many Palestinian children being cared for"
  • "A pediatrician from Gaza spent 18 months training in pediatric oncology" [At Schneider]
  • "There are many such interactions, but they remain largely unpublished, in part at least because of the fear of Hamas,”


Also quoted in this article, is David Katz, professor of Immunology at University College London, speaking about the "Health Care Under Siege" conference. Although he was not quoted about the actual health care of Palestinians, he was quoted about the credibility of the panel.

“Unfortunately, this panel does not inspire confidence and suggests a propaganda publicity stunt. Surely an eminent epidemiologist like Sir Iain should be circumspect about associating with George Galloway, or indeed with Dr. Horton, whose poor track record of judgment on the MMR [Measles, mumps and rubella] vaccine saga speaks for itself.”

Finally, Stuart Stanton, professor emeritus at St George’s Hospital Medical School, London, and chairman of Hadassah UK (Hadassah I think is an Israeli hospital.) Was quoted as saying

  • "Israeli hospitals don’t discriminate."
  • Hadassah, and other hospitals in Israel, brings first-class medical attention to the Palestinian population,”
  • Hadassah in Jerusalem saved the lives of Palestinian suicide bombers injured while killing hundreds of Israelis." (I paraphrased this a bit, just left out a little bit of rhetoric, that's all. You can check the original article if you don't believe me.)
  • "we save lives of Palestinian babies with severe heart defects."
  • "we conduct dozens of collaborative research and clinical projects with Palestinian physicians in a variety of medical and health areas.”

How can we interpret these pro-Israeli comments? Well for one thing, we seem to be missing all the anti Israeli facts, if there were any presented at this conference. Such as what is the relative survival rate for infants, and all the other yardsticks by which we usually measure health care. Not being there myself, I cannot even know if these Palestinians in Israeli hospitals were getting their health care for free or if they were paying for it. I know that in Canada, we make Americans pay.

It may be true that Israeli Hospitals don't discriminate, but it is also true that Palestinians get discriminated against at checkpoints on the way to the hospitals. I would like to know if an Israeli checkpoint would ever let a Palestinian ambulance through in an emergency.

Hadassah hospital is supposed to have saved the life of a suicide bomber who killed hundreds of Israelis.  Obviously, if a suicide bomber is still alive, the Israelis are going to try to save his life for security reasons, so that they can interrogate him, and get valuable information to prevent it from happening again.  This is not really a humanitarian issue, and says nothing about the general health care of Palestinians.  It's more of a reminder that any Palestinian may also be a suicide bomber.

I would have to say, that in the balance I found this article quite unconvincing in presenting a case for Palestinians getting "first class medical attention", although I can well imagine that if a Palestinian could get into a Jewish hospital, they would be taken care of as human beings, and not made to suffer. Just like me in an American hospital.

Picture: Palestinian Ambulance being checked out by Israeli soldiers. Problem? There may be a bomb on board, which sadly is a possibility with all Palestinian ambulances. One of the many actual problems of health care for Palestinians.

The Quiet Car

This is another entry that could fit into my series of fairy tales that start "Once upon I time, when I was young, cars/motorcycles were....."

Today one of the most common complaints with new cars is noise. I take that as a sign that car makers have really got their act together, because the most common complaint when I was young was cars falling apart. You would buy a brand new car, drive it off the Dealer's lot, then notice a long oil slick in the middle of the road right behind your brand new car. Then you would look ahead and see dry road. Then you would check the rear view mirror again, but it had fallen off. So you would do a U-turn, hopefully before the steering wheel came disconnected, and return to the dealer. His response would be a variation of "What did you expect? No car is perfect."

The one thing the dealer got right was "No car is perfect." No matter how good cars become, there will always be complaints, because people are basically idiots. (readers of this blog excepted). "My Hyundai Pony is not as smooth and powerful as my neighbour's Mercedes Benz, how come????". Which, translated into English, means "Chicks don't dig me because I drive a this piece of crap car, what are you going to do about it?"

I was doing a bit of research on the Internet about quiet cars, and found that about half the computer users who are interested in quiet, spelled it "quite". And that could have been even higher if I had actually Googled "quite cars".

There is a good reason to think that cars are actually getting noisier. I often walk beside busy roads, and one thing I notice about the noise levels is that it is not usually caused by engine exhaust noise, it is mostly tire noise. I remember once an almost completely silent car passed me, and I was surprised to find that it was a model T Ford. Those cars had extremely large diameter tires, that were also very narrow, almost like a motorcycle tire. Speaking of which, I never hear much noise from motorcycle tires either as they pass by me on the street. The tires are either very quiet, or the exhaust is just masking the noise.

If you are inside the car, you will hear something different to pedestrians. You will hear more wind noise, and the noise effects will all be amplified because you are basically inside a huge drum that is being pounded quite hard (notice not "quiet hard").

These days car tires are getting lower and wider, which means that noise is basically going to be increasing, unless the tire makers can find ways to stop it. That is very difficult, because customers are also demanding tread patterns that are dramatic, to enhance the performance image of their cars. So now you have diagonal slashes in the tread patterns, or you have big tread blocks for off-road traction. While the quietest design is actually the old fashioned circumferential grooves.

The tread design itself is not the only problem, as the road surface causes at least half the noise. The tire noise is generated by the tire coming into contact with the road at the leading edge of the contact patch. This is happening at very high speed, and the faster the tires spin, and the smaller the diameter, the harder the two surfaces come together. Any irregularities in the surfaces will generate noise or vibration. Actually, noise is just vibration transmitted through air, it's basically the same thing. Some road surfaces are especially noisy, usually the rougher surfaces. Some road surfaces are supposed to create noise inside the car, for example rumble strips. Take a look at the grooves on those rumble strips, and you will get an idea why no car tread has grooves running across the tire. By the way, rumble strips are barely audible if you are riding a motorcycle.

I recently put a new set of tires on my car that seemed to me to be very quiet. The were Michelin Primacy MXV4's. But a few days ago, when we were out for a ride in the car, I asked Mary Ann if she could hear a difference, all she said was "What???" So maybe it's all in my imagination.

Picture 1926 Ford Model T. Quietest car I ever heard, from the outside anyway. Look at the tires. And no, I was not born when that car was made.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Who is to Blame for the Oil Spill?

Deepwater Horizon was a "dynamically positioned" oil platform, which is actually a floating platform controlled by computers and positioned by propellers to maintain a steady position. This is what caught fire on April 20, 2010, and sank two days later, and resulted in the oil spill currently messing up the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Louisiana.

The Deepwater Horizon drilled the deepest well ever last year, at about 10 kilometers. I'm not sure if this spilling well is the same one, because the Deepwater Horizon sank in water only 1 mile deep. At any rate, I did not even know that there was a competition going on for the deepest well ever. Now we find out.

So much for facts. Now let's get on with the mud slinging. In the absence of any conclusive evidence, many people are wondering who is to blame. Here are some of the players/suspects.

1. BP (British Petroleum) An oil company that thankfully is not Exxon or American, to take the blame.

2. Hyundai. The Korean company that made the oil rig in 2001, and also makes the Accent, a car which sells for $10,000.

3. Barack Obama, as Anti-Christ-in-Chief he must share some blame, especially after making plans to increase offshore drilling, and making statements about how safe the technology now is. Also, this is now being touted as "Obama's Katrina" by many conservatives, and also by Greenpeace.

4. Sarah Palin, was the inspiration for motto of "Drill, baby, drill" (although she was thinking of the Arctic near Alaska, but the principle is the same.)

5. Halliburton. Was doing the drilling, ex-company of Dick Cheney.

6. Environmentalists. Rush Limbaugh came up with the idea that maybe environmentalists sabotaged the rig. It was spread to Fox News by Dana Perino (Former Bush administration Press Secretary). The idea being, that since the Deepwater Horizon caught fire near to Earth Day, that the timing indicates it may be a plot by wacko environmentalists, with the goal of creating a such a disaster as to put an end to offshore drilling for all time. Although oil platform experts doubt that even Greenpeace, with their vaunted scaling capabilities would be capable of getting on to an oil rig unnoticed. But who knows? Some people think environmentalists are wackos. Some people (yes, including me) think Rush Limbaugh and his followers are wackos.

In the end, this may be a big enough disaster to do for offshore drilling what "Three Mile Island" did for nuclear reactors in the USA. At the very least it may persuade people that offshore wind turbines are not as ugly or as dangerous as they have been made out to be.

Picture: Deepwater Horizon on fire from Wikipedia

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Zen and the Art of Traffic Gridlock

Most people think they know what gridlock is, but I want to go over it again because it happens to highlight one of the most important principles in civilization, and if we could solve gridlock, we could solve any human problem.

Lets start with the basics. In a crowded city, such as New York which happens to be laid out in a grid, traffic will occasionally come to a complete halt in a feedback chain reaction. Imagine a city block which has an intersection at each corner, when traffic is very heavy. Now imagine what happens at one of those intersections when the light turns red, but some cars are stuck in the intersection and cannot move forward or back. Now the cars with a green light cannot move either, because of the cars in the middle of the intersection blocking their progress. Immediately, more cars become blocked behind them, and if the line stretches back to their previous intersection, then that one also becomes blocked the same way, and the chain reaction will now occur in all four corners of the block. And with one city block completely stuck, neighbouring blocks will also get stuck the same way. That is what we call gridlock.

In principal, gridlock can happen in places other than a grid, I have seen pictures of gridlock even in a traffic roundabout, where a line of buses in the circle may block and exit to the roundabout, when they get stopped by slow traffic, and the feedback loop quickly travels back around the entire roundabout to lock it down solidly. These traffic jams are apparently very hard to break up.

The root cause of gridlock comes down to human nature. Each independent driver is trying to get through the traffic as quickly as possible. So they may make a decision which superficially may help them get a head a little further. But their decision blocks another driver, and the feedback from that eventually blocks the entire traffic flow for the whole city. The psychology of this is very interesting, because even if you explain to each driver how to act in order to ensure the free movement of traffic, they will continue to behave in such a way as to move themselves ahead of the rest, which gridlocks the traffic, where they themselves will be stuck for hours.

So if I may define the gridlock mentality as one where a person will make some small action to serve themselves. seemingly at the expense of only a few others, but the the effect on the others multiplies around in such a way that it brings down the whole system, including the original perpetrator.

The solution for gridlock is for drivers to not move ahead if doing so will block the cross flow of traffic. After all, the cross flow is not really competing with you. Those divers are not trying to get ahead of you, they are just going their own way, but need to cross your path to get there. You must not enter an intersection even on a green light, if there is no place for you on the other side. But it is hard to get everyone to understand this is the problem. In other words, moving ahead is not always wise if you want to keep moving ahead.

Politics, economics, and war also suffer from gridlock mentality. This is the kind of "self interest" that gives a temporary advantage to one person while starting the chain reaction that brings down the whole system for everyone. Think of the big banks, that get spooked by bad economic news, and withdraw their loans to protect their own interests, which shuts down those borrowers' businesses, which in turn lay off employees, who in turn withdraw their money from the banks, thus driving the banks out of business anyway. The circular chain reaction always comes back to the starting and then spreads further.

This gridlock mentality applies to a military occupation, where soldiers are torturing and killing innocent civilians to get information, the negative effect of which multiplies to more civilians turning against the occupiers until they finally have to give up. A small advantage one minute, torturing and killing happily to "stay safe". But the advantage in temporary security turns millions of people against the occupiers, and the war is lost. Terrorists are always trying to find ways to enhance the "gridlock" effect against the occupying forces.

The temptation to gridlock mentality is the fatal flaw of pure free market capitalism, just as lack of incentive is the fatal flaw of communism.

Two thousand years ago, a man appeared on Earth with the solution to gridlock. "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you". "love your neighbour and your enemy" and "let he who is without sin cast the first stone." Instead of listening to him, he was crucified by the very people who two thousand years later would invent gridlock and laissez faire capitalism.

One day, maybe all people will understand how their own innocent (but self serving) actions sometimes start a chain reaction that comes back to bite them in the rear end.

Pictures: A diagram of gridlock from Wikipedia, and a gridlocked traffic circle.

The Canadian Accent, eh? Made SImple

Let me just start by correcting one misconception. A Canadian would not say "The Canadian accent, eh?". The proper construction of that sentence would be "The Canadian accent is simple, eh?". (you make a definite statement, but turn it into a question with the "eh?".)

Moving on to my next point, which is a disclaimer. I acknowledge the existence of at least 4 Canadian accents, including French, and I have spent a lot of time listening to them. But I don't speak any of them naturally. I was born and grew up in a Canadian town that did not exist before 1937, and has no regional accent of its own. My father was French Canadian and my mother is an immigrant from England. Most people in town spoke French, so my English accent comes partly from my mother, partly from my Father, and neither one spoke with an English Canadian accent. In the early years, TV was mostly in French or American. And as the English speaking population of our town grew during my teenage years, at least half my friends had Scottish or English accents. The influx of immigrants happened when British Aluminium opened a plant in our town, and relocated a lot of their workers from Scotland.

So about the Canadian accent, let's start with the most frequently used word in Canada, "sorry". It rhymes with Lorry not sari. It also does not rhyme with story. If you can get that one word right, you could move about freely in Canada without anyone noticing you were not Canadian.

Next word is "about", as in "I am about to be sorry". Many Americans mistakenly think we say "aboot", (ending with a very long ooooot") which is simply untrue, there is not even one regional accent in Canada that uses this pronunciation. We shorten the sound, because we don't like wasting time when we are freezing our asses off outside in the winter. Actually, what we say is closer to "abaoot", except we say the "aoot" so fast you can hardly hear it at the end.

The third most used word in Canada, after sorry and about, is pissed. Pissed has a whole bunch of meanings in Canada. "pissed off" means you are feeling anger. "pissed up" means you are drunk. "pissed sideways" is probably just pissing in a horizontal direction. It is pronounced "pissed", sorry I can't help you if you still can't figure it out.

A shibboleth is a word that you can't pronounce if you belong to a particular ethnic group. Canadians can't pronounce "Maryland", a state in the USA. We get real close, but an American can always tell we are Canadian because we are unable to say Maryland without the "y", whereas they can. So Maryland is a shibboleth. Toronto is a word Americans can't pronounce, because they cannot say it without ending in with "toe". There is no toe at the end of Toronto, the last T and the O are both silent, and are replaced by "na". Canada is another word that is hard to pronounce, even for Canadians. The accent is on the first syllable. While most people get that the first syllable is accented, they just don't accent it enough. The CAN is really stressed, followed by a just barely audible "uh, duh". In Canadian English, anyway.

For bonus marks, if you have followed this so far, to help clarify the difference in accent between French from France and from Quebec, here is the explanation in Japanese.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qaJNDFi8AAE&feature=related

Picture: Sorry, I don't know what it's all about. I just took it off the Internet.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Canada and Australia, a Comparison

Here is a comment left for me from David, about the same age as me, from Australia.

"Canada is a place I would love to travel to (maybe one day before its too late) and you certainly make it sound very appealing........ David"

Whether David meant what he said about me making Canada sound appealing, or whether he was just being polite makes no difference. It got me thinking about my attitudes towards my own country, Canada and his country Australia.

Ever since I finished school, Australia has been for me the most ideal place on Earth, the place I wanted to emigrate to. But I have never gone there even on vacation. Meanwhile Canada has always been, in my mind anyway, the least inhabitable country on Earth. With the possible exception of Antarctica, but that's not a country is it? When we are not freezing our asses off, we are being eaten alive by insects. Although to be fair, there are a few corners of our country right next to the American border, where we can sometimes bask in the warm American air that drifts over to us. Unfortunately, we all get quite crowded in as we push closer and closer to the border, seeking warmth.

What might I have said to make Canada sound appealing? Surely not my "Bikers' Guide to Dutton Ontario", where I lauded it as the location of greatest biker slaughter in Ontario history. Or my various sarcastic references to Alberta as the most conservative province of Canada, and the province most likely to take Ann Coulter's advice to separate from Canada and join the USA. Nor would my comments on Toronto being the road rage capital of Canada. Or my many blogs on the joys of travelling the 401.

Sometimes people really like to visit places that are just different from their own homes. Once, while motorcycle camping in Saskatchewan, I was speaking to a person from Arizona, where I guess they don't see a lot of rain or cold. As we were talking, a black cloud came up and started pissing on us. For me, this was an annoyance. To him it was a joyous occasion. I didn't understand at first. Maybe he thought this was not water coming down on us, but beer? No, he simply never saw rain at home and loved every minute of standing in the cold getting wet. At that moment I made up my mind, that one day I would visit this place called Arizona.

When I think of Australia, I think of hot summers and warm winters. Koala bears hanging in the trees, Nicole Kidman and kangaroos jumping about. Wrestling crocodiles for fun. Surfing among the great white sharks near the barrier reef. Is it possible that this is just a fantasy, and that if I really lived there I would find out that Australia is more or less like Canada but with a funny accent?

Mary Ann went for a two month visit to Australia when she was young. Even my mother went there about 20 years ago at age 65. While she was on an outback excursion near Alice Springs, she was setting up her tent one night and accidentally drove her tent peg through an underground water pipe and created a nice little lake right where Australia needed it most.

Well anyway, if anyone wants to come and see Canada, they are certainly welcome. And I don't mean just me, I mean almost all Canadians share my bewilderment as to why anyone would want to come here, and we admire the courage of people who do.

Pictures: I am just going to let you guess which is Canada, and which is Australia. Shouldn't be too hard. Notice, I did leave out the pic of the bandit's car, which was having just as much trouble as the police car.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Comparison: Kymco 150 vs. Honda 175

Yesterday, I rode the Honda CD175. And for the first time I was riding with someone on a smaller bike, a Kymco "Bet and Win 150". It was also good opportunity for a comparative road test.

The Bet and Win is almost new, no more than a couple of years old with less than 1000 km on it. It's a single cylinder four-stroke engine with 12.2 horsepower, liquid cooled. It runs on 12 inch wheels, and has a CVT (continuously variable transmission).

The Honda is forty years old technology, nobody will ever know how many miles on it, because so many parts have changed (including the odometer that records mileage). A twin cylinder four stroke engine with 15 horsepower, air cooled. It runs on 17 inch wheels, and has a four speed gearbox.

Both bikes have kick starters. But because the Kymco has a good 12 volt battery, it's kick starter is only for emergencies. The Honda, with a 6 volt system, only uses its electric start for emergencies. Even though the Honda had been sitting for several weeks, it fired on the second kick, a pleasant surprise.

The Kymco is technically a Chinese bike, but it is not really part of the current flood of new inexpensive scooters and motorcycles coming from China, as Kymco is based in Taiwan. They started as a company manufacturing Honda parts, and in 1970 built their first complete scooter. That was the year when my CD175 was new.

Our ride starts with the first comparison between the two bikes, the luggage space. I remove my baseball cap to put on my helmet, and there is no place on the CD175 for a baseball cap. The Kymco has a rear trunk, as well as underseat storage, so we both throw our hats in the Kymco's rather large trunk.

I drive without my headlight because the Honda was manufactured in 1969, and Ontario considers that the last year motorcycles are allowed to turn off their headlights for driving. The Kymco is designed to run with lights on all the time. So it's a bit safer, not to mention having two hydraulic disk brakes compared to my pathetic drum brakes with single leading shoe (both front and rear). You may well ask, what is a single leading shoe? Most people don't care how drum brakes work any more. If something has a drum brake today, it's mostly for show and to cover off legal requirements. So getting back to the leading shoe, it does not mean I have to drag my feet on the ground, although it might help. It just means that the brakes are harder to apply than a double leading shoe, as if I needed any more problems.

Our route to Paris follows a lot of back roads, as neither one of us wants to tangle with the freeway (yet). As we ride along it occurs to me that what we are doing is called "impromptu street racing" in the provincial police rule book. That is, two motor vehicles, travelling together, both going as fast as they can.

At some point we stop to discuss whether either one of our motorbikes are likely to blow up with this kind of abuse, and decide the bikes can handle it. So we take off once more to see which is faster on an uphill run into the wind. In spite of the slightly lower horsepower of the Kymco, it wins the bet, and reaches the top of the long uphill first. That could be partly because of the liquid cooling, but more likely because of the CVT, which always has the engine right spinning in the power band. On my bike, there is a significant gap between fourth and third gear, where I am producing less than 11 horsepower.

So now we have technically violated the law, but not broken the speed limit. Racing is actually a very natural activity, that continues regardless of police enforcement all over the world. The real problem is in giving young people with no experience, a vehicle capable of 300 kilometers per hour. The entire danger of street racing would be nullified if kids (and some irresponsible adults)were allowed to drive only 50 cc mopeds or scooters. That's how they do it in some countries.

Pictures: I forgot to bring my camera, so that is not my friend on the Kymco Bet and Win 150, although I probably would not object to losing that race. Also, not me on the CD175. Both bikes, by the way, are capable of carrying a passenger.