Thursday, April 30, 2009

Reasonable Discussions need some Common Ground

I have often been struck by how difficult it can be to have reasonable discussions on the subjects of torture, rule of law, freedom of speech, hate literature, or pre-emptive war. A reasonable discussion is based on finding some common ground, as Obama has often said. But sometimes you are so far apart that you cannot find any common ground, and the discussion falters.

Now here is an example of a discussion that has good intentions on each side (already a rare occurrence), but absolutely no common ground. Say a modern day liberal were transported back to a time before the Magna Carta, to King Arthur's Camelot. Then let's suppose you have an interesting discussion with King Arthur about "Trial by Ordeal".

You could point out to the King that torturing people to confess was not a good method of separating the guilty from the innocent. He might politely ask you what alternative there might be. You could suggest the novel idea of collecting evidence, naming witnesses, appointing a jury, getting lawyers to argue the case, all run by a judge.

He would answer "Well, according to our laws, if we have two witnesses we can convict without the confession. But we can never find two witnesses, so we always torture the accused to see if they will confess. It's much easier."

You may argue back that in the case of torture, it only depended on the accused's resistance to pain, not on their guilt. "But," says King Arthur, "The innocent man's resolve under torture will be strengthened by their innocence, and the guilty will be weakened by their poor conscience. We have never wrongly punished a person who was tortured to obtain a confession."

"But" you answer, "You have no statistics to back up your assertion. How would you know if your punishment was right or wrong? By collecting evidence you can build a scientific case against the accused without a confession. For example, footprints, objects left behind, finding stolen items in the accused's house, establishing an alibi at the time of the crime."

"Well" says the King "I do not understand the science that you speak of. And following footprints and searching the accused's house might work for a simple theft, but our most common crime is the casting of spells and black magic. Casting of spells can only be proven by confession because spells are supernatural."

There is no common ground.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Who Owns Morality?

Here is a quote I found on a youtube comment fight about torture:

I am really heartened that liberals have suddenly found religion or at least morals. Though I don't think they understand why they have these morals. In fact, if they really think about it, they probably would be confused given their unnatural devotion to relativism and academic freedom and free thought etc.

(This quote is not from the guy in the picture! And I added the halo myself.)

I agree that most liberals do not really think excessively about morals. And I suppose it goes against the ideas of freedom of thought and tolerance. So let's think about it then, and here are the first two questions

- Do we even know what is right and wrong? If so, how did we decide what it is?

Knowledge of right and wrong does exist at all levels of our society. And these ideas are not dependent on religion, or law. We all know it is wrong to attack an innocent person who is doing nothing to threaten us. We all know it is wrong to torture people. We know it is right to be tolerant of other people. We all know slavery and racism is wrong. Not everyone will always do what is right, some people may even make excuses for what bad things they do. But the knowledge morality remains, because we, as a society do not glorify or worship bullies, sadists, or racists. And they know in their hearts that what they are doing is immoral and wrong. Well, most of them do anyway.

There may be some societies that do glorify hatred to minorities, and worship their all-conquering armies and slavery. Ancient Sparta comes to mind, I am sure there were others. But they have their own ideas of morality, and we have ours. So I conclude that we do know what is right and wrong.

The follow-up question is "How did we come to decide what is right and wrong?" Why did we decide that ignoring insults is morally superior to violence. Why did we decide it was wrong to discriminate against, and even massacre minorities? Because in some other societies, bullying may be taken as a virtue. It is not just a coincidence that the teachings of Jesus have been handed down for the last 2000 years, and still are a close match for what we consider to be right and wrong. You don't actually have to be a Catholic or a Christian to have those values, in fact there have been plenty of notable lapses in morality on the part of some religions. So it is hard to deny that morality in our society was inspired by the words of Jesus, and has remained in our collective conscience. You don't have to be a Christian and believe in God or heaven or hell or miracles or creation to have this moral compass. In fact believing in God and the supernatural is no guarantee that you are moral according to Jesus' words. Liberals who believe in science are just as likely to be moral as anyone else.

Finally, yes we do know the difference between right and wrong, and it seems to be something inspired by Jesus. Or at least it matches very closely to the teachings of Jesus. But our morality is not under the authority of any single religion or legal code, it exists in our collective conscience. And it is reflected in our laws and our behaviour to some extent, although imperfectly. No religion or propaganda will be able to easily change this no matter how much they tell us that Jesus really meant to say something different.

A post script here: The subject of Abortion is often used by organized religion against free thinkers. I'm not sure what Jesus said about abortion, I actually think he didn't say too much about it. But I know, actually, we all know, it is not right. The issue is not "is it right or wrong" the argument is "how severely and when do we punish for it?". I happen to be on the side that is reluctant to punish a young girl who has been raped and had an abortion. If you think punishing her is right, then let's debate it. But don't say I have no moral compass just because I think other issues are more important.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Motorcycles and Fuel Efficiency

The transition from riding horses to riding motorcycles has taken place in about two hundred years. But even before the development of the motorcycle, was the development of an engine that could generate power without a hamster wheel inside.

The first non-animal power engines were steam engines. The first practical steam engine, the Newcomen, invented in 1712, needed 30 pounds of coal per horsepower-hour. If my motorcycle was that inefficient, I would need 2000 lb of coal to get to my mother's house on the 401. The trip usually takes about an hour and a half. But wait a second! If my motorcycle is dragging along 2000 lb of fuel when I start out, I'm actually going to need a bigger engine, and bigger tires etc. Meaning that by the time I'm finished, I will need even more fuel. That's why Newcomen engines were used only at fixed locations - next to coal mines.

James Watt came up with an improvement in 1769 that would required only 500 lb of coal to make my motorcycle trip, a significant improvement, and you would think hey, that's good enough. Sadly no because I forgot to mention that the engine itself was also 2000 pounds. But at least the James Watt engine could be operated economically at fixed locations that were not actually coal mines.

Improvements in precision casting and machining, and more development of engine design got the number down to about 150 pounds of coal by 1850, which was good enough that trains and ships could use steam engines to transport other things than coal.

The internal combustion engine came along, reducing both the engine weight and the amount of fuel needed. Experiments with internal combustion date back to the seventeenth century, using gunpowder as an energy source to drive a pump. But in 1860 the Lenoir engine, looking similar to a steam engine except using expanding burning gas, was built. The 1800's had such a flurry of inventions that it is hard for me to follow any pattern. Eventually the four stroke gasoline engine emerged from a bunch of patents and cross pollination from various countries. And for the last 100 years we have had motorcycles in a more or less recognizeable form.

A number of simultaneous inventions had to take place. For example, the rubber pneumatic tire was invented, and it is so good that nothing comes close even today. We should be impressed at the brilliance, originality, and the boldness of the ideas put forward during the last 250 years at least. I am sure that today we are still working at improving things, but unfortunately we seem to be going the wrong way in improving efficiency, as though it didn't matter any more. Well, yes it still does matter. We need to stop discovering ways of wasting fuel, and concentrate on renewable energy sources. I'd like to see the ingenuity and progress again like we used to have.

Easy Rider is Forty

It's the fortieth anniversary of the movie "Easy Rider", which came out the same year I started motorcycling. I first saw the movie in 1970, and in that movie I saw an ugly side to America that I had not known about before. The movie is about two young men from California who make some money smuggling marijuana (or something). They are then able to forget about the humdrum of everyday life. They buy a couple of motorcycles and head off for New Orleans and Mardi Gras to have fun, meet chicks, and discover America.

Along the way they observe different attitudes people have - some Latino farm workers, a hippie commune, other regular people. But then as they enter the Old South they start to encounter increasingly hostile people, and their travels turn from being fun to being dangerous. On the off chance you might not have seen this movie, I will leave the rest for you to see for yourself.

Many southern conservatives hate this movie, and I don't mean just the average person who probably would hate all motorcycle movies. Even the southern bikers hate it. It is a "liberal" movie showing liberals as the good guys and southern whites as the bad guys. (Though not all)

When I first saw it I thought basically the bad guys were "a few bad apples", as I had quite a rosy view of America. I thought of America as a tolerant place with freedom and the pursuit of happiness. I also admired their abundant supply of high powered cars, motorcycles and smooth straight roads. And although I don't surf on water personally, I always imagined that people who do surf can't be all bad. Yes, there was the Vietnam war, but there was also rock and roll music and Hippies and Woodstock. The only Americans I had met at the time were in Africa with the Peace Corps - and one of them was from Atlanta. He argued that the south had progressed a lot, although there were a lot of people who were still prejudiced against the Southern USA. I was inclined to believe him.

But the Bush years brought the old southern character into the daylight once again, and it was not a pretty sight. During the Bush years, it was possible to see what America would be like with the old south in charge, and the liberals hiding under their rocks. Although I am referring mainly to Texas, Alabama, Oklahoma, Mississippi, Tennessee, North and South Carolina, and Virginia, the attitudes of these states have spread in varying amounts thoughout the USA, especially through certain mountain states as Montana, Wyoming, Alaska and Colorado.

So what were these stereotypes that people had regarding the South? Well, the Southerners were seen as religious extremists, bigoted against not only blacks and Indians, but also against anyone with long hair or an education. They were also violent and not well travelled. The term "redneck" was often used as a perjorative. They listened to hillbilly (another perjorative) music such as bluegrass and country. They watched NASCAR racing and went to segregated schools. And they had an accent different from the rest of the USA. For example, the word "hill" which would be one syllable in the rest of the US would be two in the south "Hee-yul". Or the single syllable word "war" would be "Woa - wuh". And I'm not finished with the stereotypes yet. The cops would be fat, heavily armed, and prone to giving tickets to drivers from the Northern USA and Canada (which they actually had no idea what or where it was, but it sure as Hey-yul wasn't a southern state.) OK I'm finished for now with the stereotypes.

In light of the stereotypes, the Bush years are, to me, more understandable. Policies such as torture, ignorance of science, pre-emptive war, hating the French and Canada, illegal phone tapping, Guantanamo Bay style rule of law, teaching Adam and Eve in schools as science, and trusting important decisions to revelations from God. All these things became more understandable, although it didn't make them right.

Yes, I was disillusioned by the Bush years, to see what became of the USA under southern conservative rule. Hopefully we are back to the America I liked as it was when Easy Rider first came out. But things are never the same as they were, I'm not going to rush out and get my passport just yet.

Monday, April 27, 2009

The Fall of the British Motorcycle

The entire British motorcycle industry collapsed between 1960 and 1980. It seemed as if they were incapable of coming up with new ideas and improving their motorcycles and manufacturing processes. While at the same time, Japanese motorcycles got better year by year until they totally dominated the business.

A key example would be the 1968 Honda 450, a two cylinder bike also known as the "Black Bomber". Although it was a bit smaller than the currently popular 650 two cylinder British bikes, it could hold its own in speed and power. And was arguably more reliable, more oil tight and generally better quality. It was also very large for a Japanese bike, and the largest motorcycle to come from Honda at that time. But it did not sell well, as it was not clearly superior to the currently popular British bikes. So a year later Honda came out with a four cylinder, 750 cc bike with a breakthrough in the development of a hydraulic front brake. Finally, this bike was sufficiently superior to crush any rivals. And what were the British manufacturers doing during this time? The same thing they did the year before. Honda and the other Japanese manufacturers did not stop there, and year after year got so much better that within 5-10 more years, almost nobody could muster enough enthusiasm to buy a British bike. So all the British manufacturers folded.

Yet if you were to look back at the beginning of the Industrial revolution, the British invented the steam engine, and year after year improved it. They also put out a veritable flood of other inventions, and became the most innovative country on the planet. What took them from inventiveness to lethargy in less than 100 years? It would be good to know for future technological countries.

Unfortunately if we look at the USA, and focus just on its motorcycle industry, we do see a bit of lethargy creeping in. Harley Davidson attempted to produce a superior motorcycle, the V-Rod back in 2001. It did not sell very well, not because it was a poor performer, but because it was "different". American customers rejected the water cooling system, preferring the inferior and obsolete air cooling of the older, less efficient engines.

Is the motorcycle industry representative of American inventiveness? Even outside of the motorcycling field, I see an unwillingness to look at new ideas - for example, GM crushing the electric cars in 1999. Then basically going bankrupt in 2009 (unless bailed out by the government, of course). I see a rejection of the scientific community as a bunch of "pinhead intellectuals" in the mainstream media. There are plenty of brilliant Americans out there, but they are called geeks and nerds, while the heroes are the football jocks and rock stars. When scientists warn of global warming they are refuted not by other scientists, but by politicians, CEO's, journalists, and religious leaders. The same happens on the subject of teaching evolution in school. And in developing renewable energy. And in medical research.

While America is making heroes out of singers and football players, and ignoring the geeks and the nerds, the rest of the world is moving on. A country suppresses science at its own peril.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Motorcycle Control: Counter Steering

The picture is from the movie "Yes Man", and they could have used some tips on controlling that scooter. So it brings up another lecture topic.

Countersteering was not well known in motorcycling circles until the late 70's. But the concept is easy to discover without any prior knowledge, and I'm sure many people knew about it before it had a name. I first discovered the concept after a brush with death on one of my first motorcycling trips. I was taking a sharp curve in the road a little too fast, and tried leaning over further in order to avoid drifting into the lane of an oncoming truck. But the further I leaned, the more the bike stood up. I don't know how I missed the truck finally, but the bike eventually leaned over enough to get back into my lane.

I didn't want this to happen again, and tried to find out why the bike didn't want to lean over. This was a very small bike, and I should have been able to easily overpower its tendency to remain upright. And most of the time it darted around in a very nimble way - but just when I got surprised by the corner and the truck, it suddenly stood up and refused to budge. Why?

After a couple of weeks, experimenting while driving, I discovered an interesting phenomenon. If I tried to steer into a corner with the handlebars, instead of leaning, the bike leaned the opposite way. Obviously, when I met that truck, my instinct must have been to steer out of its way, which had the effect of making me go straight into it. Finally I had the answer to my problem. The amount of turning the bars actually did was so small you could detect it as only as a slight pressure on the bars.

But soon I was thinking - if steering into a corner has the opposite effect, what if I deliberately steered away from the corner? It should theoretically make me lean into the corner even quicker. I tried it and found out that this worked quite well. Before I discovered countersteering, I was a bit slow leaning the bike into the corners - partly because the gyroscopic forces on the wheels build up a bit of stability. Counter steering allows the rider to lean the bike over very quickly without waiting for it to "fall" over to the right angle for the corner.

So the correct technique for cornering is to lean the bike to the appropriate angle by counter steering. Then once at the correct angle, maintain the curve by steering through the corner. Adjustments to avoid potholes can be done by pressing on the bars.

When Mary Ann learned to ride the scooter, I tried to explain counter steering without too much success. But one day I was riding on the back without much traffic around and I decided to see how much control she had so I leaned over to one side. It took her a bit of time to lean the opposite way to straighten up the bike - which means she was not aware of counter steering. If you use counter steering, you can compensate instantly for a passenger leaning off to either side unexpectedly. So on the way home I tried another experiment, I grabbed her elbow and pushed it which instantly sent the scooter off on a cockeyed angle. Then I straightened it up with a simple push on the other elbow. Although she was actually quite angry about me fooling around like that. When we stopped she said "You violated the most basic law of being a passenger." "What law is that?" "That you're not supposed to be doing the driving!"

But she did get the idea that pushing on the handlebar (countersteering) has more influence on the lean of the bike than body lean.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Driving in Quebec and Ontario

I learned to drive in Quebec, and at least when I learned to drive in 1963 there were many differences in attitude between Quebec and Ontario in driving. I noticed on moving to Ontario, that learning drivers are taught to drive as though there was a full cup of coffee sitting on the dashboard, trying to keep it from spilling. As I recall, lessons in Quebec would start with "Secure all objects in the passenger compartment so that they don't fly about and cause injury." By contrasting those two points of view, you can extrapolate much of the rest.

Respect for the centre line dashes, or double yellow lines: Once again, the difference is so stark as to be noticeable by someone within a few miles of crossing the border. In Ontario, drivers do not overtake on a double yellow line, no matter what. What happens if the passing move is not completed and the dashed line stops? The Ontario driver will pull back into the right lane immediately before the double yellow line begins, even though the car being passed is forced into the ditch. In Quebec, the dashed lines are a suggestion more than a rule, only really needed if passing in a thick fog where you can't really see the road, but you can make out the painted dashes. In daylight, the painted lines are considered superfluous.

My first accident was at 14 years old, my father was teaching me to drive the car. He considered the learner's permit to be useless bureaucracy as long as he was in the car with me. We got pulled over for driving with no taillights at night (another useless bureaucratic fine point), and I got rattled and forgot to apply the brakes until we had rammed the cop. My father talked our way out of the ticket - mostly because the cop was happy to not have any damage to his car, and not having to report being involved in a accident. Our headlights and grill had impacted his bumper, due to our car being small, and the nose being down for braking. I might add, ramming a cop car without doing any damage to it is a great way to avoid getting a ticket, as the cop would rather forget about all the paperwork if he does not have to explain the damage to the police car. This may be true for Ontario also, but I have not tried it out yet.

In Ontario, you own the road on your side of the centre line. In Quebec, everyone seems to think that ownership of the road depends on who gets there first. Say, for example a big truck parked partly blocking your side of the road. If you are in Quebec, you simply try to get there before the oncoming driver. Since both parties know this, both speed up when the roadway narrows for any reason. In Ontario, the driver on the blocked side will usually wait.

One "rule" my father stressed while teaching me to drive was the rule I will call "Do not help the other driver who is passing you". Actually my father was watering down his made-up rule for me. When he drove, the rule was more like "Do not allow anyone to pass under any circumstances". I remember once he was driving along in a brown International Harvester Travelall, when some impudent driver in a Chevrolet decided to pass us. My father did not take kindly to this, and moved to block the Chevy driver, but was too late as the Chevrolet was almost past us. Almost but not quite, as the next thing I saw was the rear bumper of the Chevrolet bouncing down the road in front of us. It had gotten hooked by the front bumper of the Travelall. As I recall, the Chevy driver apologised for accidentally cutting us off. Too bad they don't sell those Travelalls any more, I think I would buy one just for the front bumper.

Friday, April 24, 2009

The Final Solution to the Torture Debate

On the subject of torture, the debate has two parts, "does it work?"" and "is it right?".

Many people think if torture is morally wrong, then it does not matter whether it works. But actually, it is important to find out once and for all if it works, because no matter what the law says, no matter whether is is immoral or not, if it works, some people will do it and try to cover it up. Actually, I guess torture will happen if some people believe it works. Therefore we need to decide if it works or not, and if it really does not work, get that information out to Fox News right away.

Second is the debate on whether it's morally acceptable or not. Well that debate would certainly be over in a hurry if everybody knew it didn't work. To me the only possible outcome of a moral debate would be to split people into two camps. That's why it would be better to come to some kind of provable scientific conclusion. A conclusion that would have some hope of winning over everybody. You can't do that with a morality debate.

There is one more thing to be debated: should the people who did the torturing be jailed? The problem with that is the democratic nature of America would be compromised. You cannot jail people for basically losing an election without destroying the most basic concept of democracy - the peaceful transition of power based on counting ballots. Justice and democracy are not the same thing and sometimes you need to make choices. Democratic elections are not a very good instrument of justice, unfortunately.

I actually think the evidence is pretty conclusive that torture does not work, and so I would support the idea that we focus on that aspect of the debate, although it does seem to be a vulgar way to settle the matter. I think some people would enjoy doing the debate on moral grounds because it makes them feel superior at the end, whether they win or lose. Debating on a practical level means you can't afford to lose, and even if you win, you feel kind of dirty because you took the low road. But on the other hand, you might make a factual, scientific case for humane treatment that everybody can agree to, and it could have more far reaching effects. Not only in America, but around the world.

Torture, of course will continue to be used where it obviously works, such as extracting false confessions in order to convict political opponents in countries without a true justice system. And to give sadistic people their jollies. Torturing for information may also be used in these same countries - since they're doing it anyway, might as well see if they can get some information out of the prisoners. They have all the equipment already paid for, and nobody will hate them any more for it, as they are probably fully hated already. Countries like that may be willing to take flawed information over no information. Usually they have no other way of gathering information, such as from friends or sympathisers.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Blog on War and Peace

War is not peace. Although some people believe that you can only achieve peace through war, the two concepts are fundamentally different. In this explanation, you will realize that I often refer to liberals as the peace side, and conservatives as the war side. You may be offended by this call, but bear with me, because I am not trying to slam one side or the other, which you will see by the end.

I start with the proposition that there are people who are warlike, and they are conservative, and the people who are liberals are pro-peace. First, a very important question. If there was a war between people who love war and people who love peace, who would win? It is summed up in the expression "Nice guys finish last."

But there have been occasions in the history of the world where those who loved war the most did not win. The Nazis, for example. So maybe we need to review, and see what each offers.

What are some other characteristics that go along with a pro-peace attitude? A willingness to consider everyone on earth your brother, not just those who look and speak like you and join your army. A willingness to share, a sympathy for other people. Tolerance, understanding. Voluntary restraint in using scarce resources. Democracy can flourish. And people feel sympathy back, and will help you when you are in trouble because you helped them when they needed it. A sense of humour. A sense of art and culture. Diplomacy, politeness.

What are some attitudes that go along with a pro-war attitude? A willingness to shoot first and ask questions later. A need to be armed at all times. A negative attitude towards those who have not done anything for you lately. A desire to crush any opponent you do not like. A sharp tongue to criticise and ridicule. A dictatorship works best in a warlike nation. There is a need to inflict pain, and the belief that torture will win cooperation. Intimidation, yelling and interrupting. Although super friendly with those considered "friends", very hateful to those considered enemies. And a greedy nature.

It's true, almost everyone can and will have a little of both in them. Sometimes you need to be warlike, sometimes you need to be for peace. But it is possible to be too warlike, and everybody will hate you. You may think "Who cares? I would rather be feared and obeyed than be liked and downtrodden." But if you are too warlike, a backlash will set in and bite you in the ass as soon as you turn your back, which one day you must do. If you are too peaceful, others may take advantage of you. I would say in general, that the warlike side always seems to have an initial advantage, but the side of peace can just as easily win in the long term, as more and more people come forward to help "the nice guys".

This is of course Jesus's message of peace. Turn the other cheek instead of "an eye for an eye" that soon turns into 2 eyes for an eye and worse.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Winning the Miss America Pageant for Dummies

First tip, is follow this blog. Almost every day I can come up with some good stuff for you to use on your interviews, like the Antichrist Spotters Guide.

It used to be that the beauty pageant contestants only needed to make statements like "I want world peace", and they could get by on the interview segment. But now the questioners are throwing curve balls like "Do you support gay marriage" which seems like a trap that you just can't win whether you answer yes or no. Here is my advice on that question. A few days ago, Miss California answered something like "In my country I support opposite marriage", which of course will make many people angry, especially the judges.

So even though Miss California had an obvious advantage in the physical attributes, she lost enough points in the mental part to take second place.

Miss California thought she lost because she was a devout Christian, and had to give the answer from the bible or she would not be showing her love for Jesus. But actually, there was another way to win.

Jesus was very skillful at answering tricky questions, and many of his famous answers such as the "Throw the first stone" are a response the the very same kind of trap that questioners were setting for the beauty pageant. And the answers are all right there in the Bible for you to study, if you want to know how to handle the curve ball questions.

My advice is to look up some of the stuff Jesus actually said in the bible, such as "Judge not lest ye be judged". Or if you were to get the even tougher question "Are you in favour of slaughtering unborn babies" try this answer "Let he who is without sin throw the first stone."

If you belong to the "wimp Jesus" branch, you're probably OK with this advice. But you may have a problem with it if you belong to the "Strong Jesus" branch of Christianity.

The "strong Jesus" branch of Christianity believes that Jesus made several unfortunate choices of words in the sermon on the mount. My suggestion in case you are a "Strong Jesus" Christian, is to begin your answer by explaining why Jesus didn't mean what he said in your own words. That will at least make you sound like you do read the Bible think about things, instead of just repeating the words of TV evangelists.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Bin Laden's Playbook

Good military strategists know that to defeat somebody you have to think like him. What is in Osama Bin Laden's mind? This is not my view, just what Bin Laden might believe. First, he was a Mujaheddin freedom fighter in Afghanistan against the Soviet Army. After a long struggle, the Russians gave up and pulled out. Bin Laden probably thinks the Soviet economy collapsed partly as a result of losing the war in Afghanistan. Then following the economic problems, the USSR broke up into separate states, and it ceased to be a world super power. Bin Laden thought he had figured out how he could beat a world power, and thought he could do the same to the USA. Next he decided to take on the USA, partly because they were the only superpower left, and partly because there were American bases on Holy Saudi land. His first problem was to get America to invade Afghanistan, then defeat the Americans, and next the US economy would crumble, and finally, the breakup of the union.

The attack on 9/11 was an attempt to get the USA to invade Afghanistan, which sort of worked, but sometimes not exactly as you expect. The USA has invaded Afghanistan, and has suffered a serious economic setback. The stage is set for Bin Laden's endgame, the breakup of the USA.

I have the impression now that a sizeable number of Bush supporters are suffering in this economic downturn, and are not happy with the presidency of Barack Obama either. Fox News announcer Glen Beck and the Governor of Texas were both calling for Texas to secede from the USA.

So far, this is all happening exactly according to Osama Bin Laden's playbook.

No-Frills Vehicles

I visited the Brantford motorcycle swap meet on Saturday. It's located at the military museum, which also houses a motorcycle museum. I saw this old army truck outside, and for some strange reason, I wanted to get a picture of my motorcycle next to it.

Ever since I owned my first motorcycle, a Honda CD175, I have been more interested in the no-frills vehicles than I am in show vehicles. There are several common approaches to owning a vehicle, one is the basic transportation, another is the status symbol or fashion statement, another is a performance vehicle (competition or stunting). I'm sure all have their place, but for me the best thing of all is to go somewhere. Maybe it's because I'm a nomad at heart. That's why I want a basic transportation motorcycle.

In some ways, motorcycles are like no-frill cars. No doors, not roof, no windows, only two wheels. No more than what you really need to go somewhere.

It's not only the type of vehicle, but even prefer no-frills roads. I don't like roads where the scenery is too spectacular. I find it distracting, and worse, it distracts other drivers who might run into me. Some scenery is OK, like mountains and ocean views, for example. But I like roads that actually go somewhere, long roads with one single destination and few branches, where you also find truck traffic and cheap food. Scenic parkway roads, such as the Blue Ridge Parkway in the Appalachian mountains, have too much police surveillance, low speed limits, and no services. And the parkway closes in winter - another sign of a "show" road that has no real use except to let people slowly parade up and down ooohing at the scenery.

I have always thought military vehicles were my kind of no-frills. They are usually as cheap as possible, stone simple, which also makes them less liable to break down. No burglar alarms, no remote keyless entry, no power windows or air conditioning. Just what you absolutely need to do the job, and maybe a shovel for the driver in case you get stuck. That brings up another point - the driver should be part of the solution, not part of the problem. If you have to design a vehicle around a coddled, unskilled, luxury seeking driver, you are going to get an all-frills vehicle.

When you see my motorcycle next to the army truck, you might think it looks like a fancy bike, but it's not, really. Parked beside other motorcycles, it attracts no attention except for the mud flaps bolted to floorboards with hardware store brackets, and the extra foam on the seat. I would never put 40 kg of chrome or extra lights on my bike to make it look better, I'm more likely to take things off to make it lighter, and I already have a box full of unnecessary parts in the basement, that were taken off my Vulcan.

It may sound like I'm judging other people's bikes, but I'm not. I'm a firm believer in "Judge not lest ye be judged", and I am not only tolerant of other types of bikes, I enjoy learning more about them. But I will confess that one of my favourite activities at a motorcycle show is to go around the show bikes with some friends, like we are judges, but make a lot of observations, that may or may not be amusing. All in fun, and of course I also enjoy talking to the owners.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Propaganda: Appeasement and Surrender

Given the number of references to WW2 by the Bush administration during the Iraq war, you would think they actually knew something about it. Instead all they knew was tired old propaganda. WW2 propaganda now passes for history, and apparently we "learn from history" in how to deal with the middle east. Some of the worst mistakes in the Iraq war can easily be traced back to a weak understanding of how WW2 really went. If we are ever going to learn from history, we need to learn from real history and not propaganda passed off as history. For example, if Paul Bremer had known a bit more about real WW2 history, instead of movies and mythology, he would not have fired the Iraqi army and all the Baath party functionaries.

The purpose of war propaganda is to stir up hate against the enemy, to make the enemy look cowardly and to make your own side look courageous in the face of overwhelming opposition. And in this case, some propaganda was also needed by the Allies to get more support. The best way to get more support is to get the enemy to overreact and do something that you can use in your propaganda to illustrate how evil they are. So in light of the goals, let's deconstruct some of the WW2 propaganda.

Two minor points to clear up. Neville Chamberlain (known today as the appeasement guy) was the Prime Minister of Britain who declared war on Germany, not Churchill. And Britain and France declared war on Germany, not the other way round. However Chamberlain resigned under intense criticism for having been duped by Hitler, and was replaced by a coalition government under Churchill without a general election.

Much of the British WW2 propaganda has been written up into history by now, which is one of the perks of winning a war. The British history books note that the French surrendered to the Germans, they also tell of the battle of Dunkirk, where the British forces retreated to the beaches, and through some miracle and a tremendous amount of courage, a fleet of small British pleasure craft sailed across the channel to pick up the last of the British forces and take them home.

Although the history books are faultless when it comes to historical facts, they still give false impressions of the conduct of the war. Reading more carefully, and really looking at the dates of the different events, can give you a different version. And you probably should do that after reading the account below, which I feel is closer to the truth.

This is a version without the pro-Churchill spin. It is a historical fact that the British started heading to Dunkirk before the French surrendered. The move was ordered by Churchill when he came to the conclusion that the French were heading for a military disaster. This was after careful consideration of the losses so far, the reserve strength of the French, and talking to the French Prime Minister, who personally thought the French were done (although not all the French felt that way, but lack of leadership is serious). Churchill made to decision to evacuate unilaterally. The actual evacuation by sea began the 26th of May. The departure of the British Expeditionary force was a factor in the French deciding to give up, not the other way round. Some British soldiers remained and there was another evacuation after Dunkirk.

On June 10th, 1940 Italy joined in against France. Mussolini only needed "a few thousand dead so that I can sit at the peace conference as a man who has fought." This lets you know what politicians think of dead soldiers: the more dead, the more credibility, and better propaganda. The French actually surrendered twelve days later on June 22.

Churchill's next aim was getting America into the war. Although Roosevelt and some other Democrats might have been willing, there was strong Republican opposition to the war. The Republicans saw the Communists under Stalin as the real threat, and hoped that Hitler would attack the Soviets first, if America stayed out of the war. This is what actually happened when America remained neutral even after the bombing of Britain.

Churchill had predicted all through the nineteen thirties that the Germans would bomb British cities in the next war, due to advances in aviation. After France surrendered, Churchill's best hope was that the Americans would join the British, if the Germans bombed British cities. But at first, the Germans were reluctant to bomb British cities and some (arguably) stray bombs landed on civilian targets. Churchill responded to the stray bombs by a deliberate bombing strike on German civilians, which resulted in Hitler going for an all out assault bombing London, and then other British cities. Although this overreaction gave Churchill the propaganda he wanted, America still did not join the war. The Germans then had a chance to turn their attention to Russia, and then Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, and you know the rest of the story. Or do you do?

Thursday, April 16, 2009

The Antrichrist Spotters Guide

I have seen a lot of debate recently on right wing religious websites about how to know the Antichrist when he appears, that is if he has not already appeared in the form of Obama.

It's not that complicated, people. Of course, we have to assume Jesus would vote Republican as all the "real" Christians already do, and that naturally he supports the war in Iraq and in Gaza, that he is OK with water boarding and the death penalty, and is against shelters for the homeless and against welfare for the poor.

The Antichrist would have to be the complete opposite of everything Jesus and the Republicans stand for, so would he would be all for turning the other cheek, not throwing the first stone, feeding and sheltering to poor, sharing the wealth, paying taxes to the government, and peace. Sounds like Obama to me.

Fake Democracies

I have lived for a time in Sierra Leone, and it was interesting to compare Sierra Leone's interpretation of Democracy to Canada's. Both came from a British parliamentary tradition, but Sierra Leone had only been independent for about 6 years when I went there. Let's be clear right away: Sierra Leone had a genuine democracy. It was just different enough from Canada's to make me realize how little I knew of democracy, and to begin to see what makes a democracy work.

We all know that it takes more than mere voting to make a liberal democracy. Even a dictatorship can vote, but can we really pick out what makes it a fake democracy? Some of the really easy clues: If there is only one party, or if the votes are 99.9% for one party, it's probably fake.

There are also problems of stuffing ballot boxes and miscounting results, everybody knows about those and are on the lookout for it. Another well know ploy is voter intimidation. But neither of these are an indication of a fake democracy, as long as people are aware of the glitches.

A potential weakness of a democracy is in handling tribal groups. Each tribe votes for their own candidate, but what made it work in Sierra Leone was that no one group had a majority over all the others combined, and as a result people often ended up having to choose between candidates that they had no connection to. And the government had to behave decently towards all the losers they had any hope of winning the next election. As some of my students in Sierra Leone pointed out when discussing politics, Canada also had tribal groups, which I had no response to.

A key indicator of democracy is the orderly transfer of power from one party to the other. In a liberal democracy, you do not cling to power saying you won after it's pretty clear you lost. Also, in a liberal democracy if a new government is elected, you do not put the ex-leaders on trial. Why? Because in that case the stakes are raised so high that elections stop being an activity with rules and begin to be a fight for survival. Twice in recent years, the Democratic party in the USA has taken the high road to preserve democracy - first when Al Gore conceded the election instead of carrying on the struggle. Second when Barack Obama refused to listen to complaints of left wingers who wanted George Bush and Cheney put on trial for War crimes. You do not hold an election to oust a criminal government. You have to overthrow it some other way.

While on the subject, anything that raises the stakes so high that neither side can concede, is going to weaken the democratic tradition. For example, if you call your opponent in an election "a foreign terrorist" or a "traitor" or call for his murder or execution, the stakes are now too high to back down honourably when the opponent wins. Some of this is unfortunately going on now with some of the more rabid right wing supporters in the USA. Right wing media (Fox News) are now sponsoring protests where conservatives will refuse to pay taxes to the new government, and right wing media are also recommending that their supporters buy guns to resist the government "when the time comes".

More important than we think, in a real democracy, is "Rule of Law" which means nobody is above the law. We cannot have rulers and politicians disobeying the law. But that must be resolved by the courts and judges, not by elections. It's part of what Americans call "checks and balances".

I recently came across a new potential form of "fake democracy". I won't mention the name of the country that made me think of it, as it is a serious accusation. Say the military wanted to run a country but for some reason needed to maintain the appearance of being a liberal democracy. The secret service can set up a system whereby any aspiring politician needs to take soft "bribe money" to get anywhere. The secret service of course keeps track of who is on the take and has all the evidence they need to convict any politician in the parliament. Then anytime a politician tries to make a move that is not favourable to the military, he/she can be removed from office on corruption charges, yet with all the outward appearance of a democratic system. The only outward clue is the amazing frequency with which leading politicians are ousted on "corruption" charges.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Propaganda: Double Standards

I discovered "double standards" when I was about 10 years old. I used to watch Hockey Night in Canada with my father, who was French Canadian and a devoted if not maniacal fan of the Montreal Canadiens. Since I was learning about the game, and my father was obviously upset about some of the penalties, we discussed what exactly had the ref missed, or what had he seen that had never actually happened? I tried to understand at first, but occasionally I would notice that a Montreal player had done exactly the same thing in my mind as previously done by a Detroit Red Wing player, but my father was not calling out a lynch mob. He would explain that it was not the same, but as the season wore on and I noticed an extreme statistical skewing to his observations on the ref's sanity, I was faced with only two explanations. Either the Montreal Canadiens were appointed by the creator to be the teachers of sportsmanship to the entire NHL, or my father had two sets of rules, one applying to the Canadien's, the other to apply to all others.

I did actually like and admire my father, although typical of teenagers, later on I did get somewhat embarrassed at my father's behaviour during hockey games. Recently, a high school friend (and quite sports fan himself) put it in perspective for me. He said "Your father was a great Canadiens' fan". I was surprised by his comment, as my mother never invited people over on hockey night for fear of their safety. But he reminded me that one day we were giving him a ride home from University, about a ten hour trip. It was during the Stanley Cup finals, Montreal was in it, and despite my father's attempts to break the land speed record we were still five hours from home when the game was about to begin. He pulled into a motel and got us a room with a TV for the night in time for the face off.

Back to the original point - lessons about double standards. Applying different rules to each side, without realizing it. Propaganda takes advantage of people's tendencies to accept double standards. It's very common for propagandists to advance ideas that would be untenable if people did not have the mental agility to maintain a double standard through thick and thin.

A seemingly simple test to see if you are applying a double standard to anything - and you probably do if you're normal - is the test called "Putting the shoe on the other foot". Then see how much rationalizing you need to do to uphold the same decision once the teams are switched.

This is really only for people who see themselves as attempting to be fair and even-handed. Not so much for people who are totally committed to one side against the other, like my Father was in hockey. I can respect people who try to even handed, or I can people who are one sided and know it, but I think if you try to have it both ways, it becomes a delusion.

Here is an example of the shoe on the other foot test. Some people call those who kill US troops in Iraq "terrorists". If Iraq had invaded the USA, and some Americans killed Iraqi troops, what would they be called? If you apply the same standard, obviously they would be called terrorists. If you don't apply the same standard, then what are your justifications for this attitude? Eventually the justifications, which are mostly attacks on the character and morality of Iraqis, reduce down to one argument - that Americans are the 'good guys' no matter what the situation. So I will accept that some people try to support their side, and some try to be even handed. But when people genuinely believe (not just posturing) that they are "fair and balanced" while maintaining a double standard, they are deluded.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Deconstructing Propaganda

When I was young I loved taking apart things to see how they work, and strangely, the better it worked, the more I was drawn to dismantle it. I was always amazed at how complicated things were and that they needed all these parts to work effectively. Later on I found out that the English language too can be taken apart. I have chosen two statements to deconstruct from the point of view that they both work very well as propaganda. Good propaganda is like an army tank, it has to have offensive punch and strong armour. Both statements are by Mark Steyn, because I admire his work from a technical point of view. Just because I am not swayed by it does not mean it isn't good propaganda.

"Yet the defining image of contemporary Canadian maleness is not M Lepine/Gharbi but the professors and the men in that classroom, who, ordered to leave by the lone gunman, meekly did so, and abandoned their female classmates to their fate—an act of abdication that would have been unthinkable in almost any other culture throughout human history."
Mark Steyn

"Unthinkable" is not an everyday word a clumsy propagandist would choose, such as if he had come out and clearly said "only in Canada would this cowardice happen". A clear statement would be easily disproved with examples such as the Titanic or the Sonderkommando. "Unthinkable" is a clever choice because it has two meanings. Meaning one is that "you would not think of it". The second meaning is "a horrifying act". A clever propagandist finds it easier to defend himself if his statements use unfamiliar words with multiple meanings. The meaning may be clear, but it can be denied later if necessary.

Saying "Unthinkable in almost any other culture" does not say it was thinkable in Canada. Although it is a conclusion that most people would make from the context. Still, Mark has the option to deny that he said Canadians would think of it. When writing propaganda, multiple escape paths are always good.

By saying "almost any other culture" you are planting the subconscious idea that it is normal in some cultures. But actually it is not, and Mark Steyn could not name those other cultures. This is unthinkable in all cultures, including Canada by the way. (depending on which meaning of unthinkable)

"The Serbs figured that out - as other Continentals will in the years ahead: if you can't outbreed the enemy, cull 'em."

Presenting two alternatives and making you choose is a classic logical trap used in much propaganda and other persuasive writing. To avoid this trap, you would need to insist there are many more alternatives.

"Cull" means 1. to choose or gather 2. to remove or kill (the inferior or surplus) animals from a herd . Cull a better propaganda word than kill" because it has multiple meanings, and any given meaning can be denied later. It's also a good choice because the Bible says "Thou shalt not Kill", but not "Thou shalt not cull"

Here is a draft someone else might come up with "Figure out for yourself which we need to do - outbreed them or cull them." Although you are not directly advocating slaughter, you have set up a sentence construction that leaves only one answer - you have to cull them, as you obviously are not going to outbreed 'em. This sentence is too weak defensively, and leaves the author vulnerable to a counterstrike.

By changing the wording to "if you can't outbreed the enemy, cull 'em" you are wording it like a folk saying, especially using the colloquial "'em" instead of formal "them". However it's still easy to prove that it is not a folk saying, so another layer of defense is still needed.

By qualifying the made-up proverb with "The Serbs figured out", you now have yourself totally covered - in that you just quoted this from Serb folk culture (again I doubt if it is a Serb saying, but it could be.) Although this statement is very strong defensively, it is weak on offense, by not really advocating killing Moslems, just saying the Serbs did it.

The final complete sentence has offensive punch but with good defense against a counter strike, by making it clear than this is a truth that does not apply only to Serbs. "as other Continentals will in years ahead"

Monday, April 13, 2009

Motorcyclists Think Outside the Box

I believe motorcyclists have certain characteristics that promote free speech, and critical thinking about propaganda. I'm not putting down anyone else, just that I have been amazed by some of the serious but friendly discussions I have been engaged in over the years by people I barely knew, whose politics or religion or race were different to mine. It made me think: is there something about motorcycling maybe that makes this more likely than usual to happen?

Motorcycling tend to attract a certain type of person and reinforce those characteristics. First almost a prerequisite, is that the person needs to be ready to risk life and limb on order to be free to do what they want. Then, while learning to ride other characteristics are reinforced and help keep you safe. First is a resistance to rage Second, not to ignore what's going on, and being alert at all times.

You could say also that after a while motorcyclists begin to think outside the box, they are literally sitting outside the box compared to the car drivers inside their supposedly safe conventional air bagged crash proof frame. Motorcyclists are forced to interact with the environment, even with other people while riding, and frequently have to change their route when the weather does not cooperate.

Motorcyclists tend to be aware of propaganda, every one of them has probably heard "you shouldn't be driving them dangerous things".

There really is something to this brotherhood feeling among motorcyclists, and it goes beyond the waving to each other on the road. I have found that speaking with other motorcyclists is a rare opportunity to be able to speak to people of all different beliefs and discuss things reasonably. I have gone to motorcycle rallies all over Canada and the USA, and have talked to motorcyclists that I meet on the road. Although we may be on opposite poles on many subjects from global warming to the qualities of George Bush, we can usually have a friendly discussion. The attitude seems to be this: "I don't agree with this person's views but since he rides a motorcycle, I will listen and see if I can understand his point without being an a**hole." By the way, the motorcycle rallies I am speaking of are not the beer-drinking breast-baring barroom brawling scenes that have been promoted in the media. I have spoken to motorcyclists who are University professors, UN diplomats, politicians, published authors, and just regular Joes like me.

Although motorcyclists are urged to ride "as though everybody out there is trying to kill you", we know it's not true, and that many times we can be saved from our own mistake by another careful alert driver. We know all drivers, whether they see us or not, do not intend to kill us. But we know that people sometimes don't see us because they only see what they are expecting to see.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Good Drivers are Safe Drivers

To be a good driver, first you should know what a good driver is. No, I'm not going to recite the Ontario Driver's handbook, although it's a good idea to at least know the rules of the road. But I have my own opinion of what makes a good driver.

First, I am not necessarily talking about me - I would like it if other people drove like this to make my drive safer too, while still allowing me to get somewhere.

1. A good driver is not talking on a cell phone, I know a lot of people will disagree, but three times I have almost been hit by a driver talking on a cell phone, twice while legally walking across an intersection. Sure the driver signalled "I'm sorry" to me but the thing is I would not enjoy being pinned under an SUV even for the few minutes it would take an ambulance to get there.

2. Sober, and not drowsy, and not fumbling around under the dash looking for a packet of CD's. I am thankful for mp3 players, I think, though I don't have one. I play CD's but I don't change them, consequently the same CD has been playing in my car since my trip to Mexico three years ago. Dido "Life for Rent", I know it by heart.

3. Leaving some space behind me, for some reason I really hate people who drive so close I can see the whites of their eyes. But I have only ever been rear ended once, and that was a really fluky situation where I was coming to a stop sign, and I could see clearly there was no oncoming traffic, so I prepared to make a turn without coming to a complete stop (I know that was bad) but when I got closer to the intersection, my view up the cross road became obscured by a line of tree trunks, so I decided to stop and got hit from behind. Just a tap, though, and we drove off without any incident. The driver behind me could see the cross road, but from my position I couldn't.

4. A good driver does not come to a stop in the middle of a lane on the 401 in order to prepare for a merge. It usually happens where one lane stops, and as soon as that happens drivers in the remaining moving lanes panic and think "I must be in the wrong lane, I must get into the stopped lane". So they come to a stop wait until a space opens up so they can move over. My strategy is to keep moving until I have a space to pull in, or until my lane actually ends. This is the correct way, according to the official Ontario Drivers Handbook.

5. I don't like drivers who are always trying to "teach other drivers a lesson", or road raging because somebody is going slow. I don't like to be held up either, but once in a while a driver is going to be in unfamiliar territory, is going to hesitate or go slow looking for a turnoff or whatever. Or it may just be my mother in front who is 84 and knows the Ontario Driver's Handbook better than you, and drives at the speed limit. Just chill, you don't need to be leaning on the horn and gesticulating. Learn to drive better and you will not be so frustrated.

6. (This may go with 5) Drivers who cannot figure out time. They leave themselves 10 minutes to get somewhere that is a 20 minute drive and get mad at people who are not going fast enough. For these people, teleportation cannot be invented soon enough.

7. A good driver is not showing off, sorry teenagers, this most frequently applies to you. But I have seen some "mature gentlemen" engaged in this activity, occasionally it is me.

8. A good driver may be going fast, but does not think that just because they are speeding, that other drivers way up ahead need to get out of the way. The faster you go, the more space you need up ahead, that's just plain physics. But people way up ahead are not that great at judging your speed, say while waiting to enter the roadway. And the further off you are, the harder it is to judge your speed. Consequently, speeders often find other people pulling out in front of them and they have to *USE THE BRAKES*. If this happens a lot, it may be idiots pulling out in front of you, or you may be going too fast.

Friday, April 10, 2009

If Jesus Returned

I got the idea for a Good Friday blog from Mark Steyn's review of the movie "The Passion of the Christ"

Mark made the sarcastic comment "if Jesus came back today he’d most likely be a gay Anglican bishop in a committed relationship driving around in an environmentally-friendly car with an “Arms Are For Hugging” sticker on the way to an interfaith dialogue with a Wiccan and a couple of Wahhabi imams. If that’s your boy, Mel Gibson’s movie is not for you."

All right now this brings up an interesting topic. Obviously even Mark does not think Jesus would come back like that. Why not? Because this version Jesus would be forgettable. I am going to go with the assumption if Jesus came back, whatever it is, it would not be forgettable.

The latest controversy is between wimp Jesus and strong Jesus. While there may be some disagreement among some people as to whether Jesus had the power to zap everybody with lightning, there is no argument about the fact that He didn't use it.

After two easy points now we come to the more controversial speculation. Would Jesus speak out about homes for the homeless and food for the hungry? Or would Jesus encourage them to get a job, and stress their personal responsibility. Would Jesus speak out against war, or would he agree that Iran be bombed before they develop their own atomic missiles?

What would Jesus say about the Israelis invading Gaza earlier this year. Would he say, "In Gaza, they don't vote for Hamas because they want access to university education." or would he say, "If someone sends 4000 rockets on your head, do not send 8000 rockets back, but let the Palestinians have a land of their own and peace will eventually return"

What would Jesus say about gun ownership. Would he carry a loaded gun because it's the best way to defend yourself? Or would he walk about unarmed?

Would he answer people with insults, name calling, or a hellfire missile, or would he try to reason with people? On abortion, would he say to let the mothers decide for themselves, or would he say punish those who kill unborn babies?

Would he drive (A) Hummer (B) Toyota Prius (C) Harley Davidson Fat Boy (D) Honda Moped (E) Bicycle (F) Public transportation. (G) Walk.

Would he say (A) "Obama is the Anti-Christ" (B) "give Obama a chance" (C) "I don't get involved in US politics".

About creation, would Jesus say "Teach both biblical creation and evolution and let the children decide for themselves" or would he say "Let the scientists teach about science. You do not need to teach about Adam and Eve, but make sure you teach children to read, and let them have a bible."

About global warming would Jesus say (A) "It is a hoax, go on using just as much oil as you like, the American way of life is your God given right." or (B) "There is only so much oil below the surface, share some with future generations".

Would Jesus come back and spread his message (A) Walking the streets with a placard around his neck saying "Repent Sinners" (B) A paid writer for a well known publication (C) A commentator on Fox News or Comedy Channel (D) An obscure blogger.

About Muslims (A) The Serbs figured that out—as other Continentals will in the years ahead: if you can’t out breed the enemy, cull ’em. (B) An attack on any ethnic group is an attack on me.

And of course what would Jesus do about Christian Ministers on TV selling miracles at $50 a pop to little old ladies? I know we all agreed earlier, no use of lightning, but still a tough call.

Sorry I don't have the answers at the back of the book, it's all pure speculation. Thanks for taking the time to read this, and leave comments below if you like, maybe you can add some other good questions.

Picture: The Last Supper, with a fast food menu board up in the background.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Language Problems

The fact that language problems can cause wars, is very hard to explain to people who speak only one language. So for another public service announcement, in the interest of world peace, I am going to give it my best shot.

When I was younger, growing up in Quebec, there was an almost constant state of negotiation going on between the province of Quebec and the federal government in Ottawa. Quebec had seemingly endless "demands", and English Canadians were always wondering "What does Quebec want?". A little known fact is that in French, the word "ask" translates to the French word "demand". Which unfortunately also happens to be an English word but with a slightly different meaning.

Ask (English word) means: To request; to seek to obtain by words; to petition; to solicit. Also may mean to ask more forcefully, depending on context.

Ask (French word): does not exist

Demand (English word) means: request urgently and forcefully; "The victim's family is demanding compensation"; "The boss demanded that he be fired immediately"; "She demanded to see the manager"

Demand (French word) means in English: To request; to seek to obtain by words; to petition; to solicit. Also may mean to ask more forcefully, depending on context.

The history of "ask" and "demand" go back to England in the time after the Battle of Hastings, when the French were the nobility in England, and the Anglo-Saxons were serfs and vassals. The French word was "demand", the Anglo-Saxon word was "ask", and since the French were the upper class, the word "demand" naturally assumed a more forceful tone meaning when it was absorbed into the combined language that English is today. And even today "demand" has a tone of upper class abruptness, rudeness, insistence to it, while "Ask" has a tone of subservience and meekness suitable to a serf.

You may wonder why that subtle difference didn't get translated correctly. In other words if the French say they "demand something" it should be translated as "ask something". Yes, it should, but even in English to English conversations, words get somehow changed, altered taken out of context and otherwise massacred. A different language adds layers of go-betweens to that plus the complication of same word but different meaning.

The next examples are more up to date, but they are from Persian, a language I do not understand, so bear with me.

The famous phrases "death to America" and "wipe Israel off the map" are often repeated in the American media. I would assume the odds are quite good that there is something lost in translation. For example, if you were a driver in rush hour in Tehran and a taxi cut you off, you would normally yell in Persian "Death to all taxi drivers!". You are not pleased, but you do not mean you will not rest until all taxi drivers are dead.

Next phrase that is possibly going to trigger a thermonuclear war is "Wipe Israel off the map." The literal meaning of the phrase in English: to use some means to get the Israel off a map, whether that be a dry eraser, some white-out, or a Mapquest delete function. For some inexplicable reason (to me anyway) the phrase "wipe x country off the map" has a figurative meaning in English, which is to kill everyone and reducing the entire country to rubble. I wonder if that doesn't tell you a lot more about the English speaking world than it does about the Iranians.

If you would like to look into this further go here.

Could Nazi propaganda work in Canada?

I have a feeling it could work just about anywhere, but there are factors that can hinder Nazi style propaganda. First, is a healthy economic system where people are mostly employed and are more concerned about enjoying life than they are about blaming people for screwing it up. Second is peace, it's been a long time since we were invaded, and we have not been involved in many wars since Korea in the 50's. I also think that any country with a substantial minority population and a tradition of democracy and toleration would resist Nazi propaganda better then a more authoritarian country with a dominant ethnic group.

But we should not be patting ourselves on the back yet. The closest thing I think we have in Canada to Nazi propaganda is the writing of Mark Steyn, a regular in MacLeans magazine (which I have pictured here with it's deceptive title). I'm not saying that Mark is advocating gassing 6 million Jews. But Mark Steyn has written about "culling" the Moslems in his book "America Alone: The end of the world as we know it". Then he uses MacLean's to back up his idea with plenty of examples showing why the Moslems are a real threat. Apparently he has published over 20 articles about it in MacLean's, and I'm going to admit right now: I don't read them unless I need some specific context for a quote. But I have read through a few of his articles on other subjects that I know something about, such as French Canadians. And I know he likes to make up stereotypes and push emotional buttons for fear, hatred, and shame. I can't remember reading any other style from Mark.

Why is Mark Steyn's work like Nazi propaganda? Well, I will admit he is not picking on the Jews, but stirring up fear and hate against any ethnic group is a characteristic he shares with the Nazis.

So far I think that Mark's inflammatory writings have had very little effect in Canada. Many decent good hearted people have even defended his right to free speech, although I personally would like to see him replaced at MacLean's. I am convinced there are a lot of Canadians out there who can write better, who have a social conscience, and are more entertaining than Mark. Me, for example. But I'm not holding out much hope, because I think Mark was hired exactly for that purpose by the boss at MacLean's. So actually it is Ken Whyte who should be fired, but who is going to do that? Maybe people should stop buying MacLean's, and see how long it takes for their financial backers to run out of money.

Mark has moved out of Canada and lives in the USA. I think I know what it was about Canada that repelled him, and it makes me proud to call myself a Canadian.

For a summary of Nazi propaganda against the Jews, check out this website. Although the site contains hate propaganda it is not itself a propaganda site. Proving once again that context is important. They do ask that I give credit as follows

"Courtesy of the Holocaust Education & Archive Research Team "

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

The Chevrolet Segwayrado

Now that GM has taken over Segway, a whole new line of top selling vehicles are possible. I just did a quick photoshop of the next model they need, the cross over Segway/Silverado to be known as the Segwayrado. Lots of room for the ten gallon hat inside, and a load of illegal workers in the back. But can turn on a dime like a Segway and is more fuel efficient due to reduced tire rolling resistance.

The Rough Road Less Travelled

I am going to leave Mark Steyn alone for now and do a motorcycling blog. Anyhow, Mark is busy giving Rush Limbaugh a much needed break from spewing bile on radio.

Before I get back to great motorcycling roads, I want to explain that there are some negative aspects of great roads, such as rough pavement and absence of passing opportunities. Great roads are often somewhat forgotten by other drivers, road crews, and radar patrols. I have already done a blog partially covering how to overtake. Now I'm going to do a blog about rough roads, and with that covered I should be able to get back to blogging about some of the best roads you can go motorcycling on. In my picture I am actually illustrating a "washed out" road, not a rough road. I am going to assume there are no techniques for dealing with a washout except to stay out of it.

But there are things you can do on a rough road. Motorcycles are more uncomfortable than cars on rough roads due to several factors in their design. For one thing, the motorcycle has a more pronounced pitching motion than a car. A pitching motion can be called "bucking" or kicking felt mainly in the seat. The pitching is faster and more pronounced than a car because the motorcycle does not have a big moment of inertia. Because it is lighter than a car, but also because the mass is centralized, the bike pitches more violently.

A motorcycle is so light that merely adding a passenger can sometimes more than double the weight on the back springs. Those springs need to be strong enough to support a medium weight passenger, which makes them far too stiff for a single rider. And those mickey-mouse preload adjusters don't do anything to increase or decrease spring stiffness, all motorcycling mythology to the contrary.

So if you ride over a rough road alone on a motorcycle you may not enjoy the ride very much, unless you know how to deal with it.

If you have a rigid tail chopper, or even a bike with a rear suspension but lowered as far as possible to make you look cool, you should take the smooth road. A motorcycle designed for rough roads will be fairly tall with suspension travel of over four inches. Preferably 6 inches. Motocross bikes have even more than that, but let's not get ridiculous, you still need to reach the ground with your toes, and if you are flying 30 feet in the air on a public road, you are going too fast.

If you have a backrest, you may want to fold it out of the way, as the pitching motion of the bike will be hammering your kidneys with it.

The best type of footpegs are directly below your seat, because combined with high handlebars it is quite easy to stand up over the bumps. This is the ideal way to absorb the big ones, but make sure you do not have a huge load trapped to a junky luggage rack sticking out over the back of the bike. The rack may break and next time you look back there, it's gone. And you may never find it again.

Even if you have floorboards stuck way out in front, it is still possible to lift your ass off the seat a little. If your handlebars are high enough, a pull on the bars while simultaneously pushing with your feet may do it just enough to keep you comfortable. It's even easier to lift up if you add some foam on top of the seat (strapped on of course).

One more trick is to move your rear end forward on the seat. Surprisingly, there is actually less pitching at the front of the seat than the rear. I'm sure I could prove this in a diagram or something, but it's just so easy to do that you might as well experiment for yourself and see. Even two inches forward can make a difference.

Of course I should not have to explain weaving around the potholes and washouts, but there's not much you can do about frost heaves which tend to be the full width of the road. In a car you can concentrate on the road way up ahead, but on a motorcycle you should always pay partial attention to the surface of the road 10 meters in front.

Why I Blog about Propaganda and Motorcycles

I already did a blog about why ride a motorcycle. Now a blog about why I write a blog.

Let's go back to Robert Pirsig, with "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance". I love how in that book he wrote about motorcycling and quality. Not even at the same time, he could write purely about motorcycling, then jump to a completely different topic whose theme was philosophy, religion, or anything connected to quality, or more generally "values". When I started this blog, I noticed that the format of a blog was similar to the format of Pirsig's book. So I thought I would do some stuff about motorcycling, mixed with some stuff about propaganda.

I see propaganda today being a much bigger problem than quality was then. Maybe back in the seventies, quality was an issue, as the Japanese were just starting to show us what piles of junk our old motorcycles and cars were. But now all that's settled, even Harley Davidson and Triumph use the Japanese manufacturing process, and make reliable machines. But although we have beaten the quality control issues, propaganda today has made us almost incapable of running either a democracy or running a sustainable economic system.

Before we lose both our freedom and our economic system, we need to stamp out the most ignorant forms of propaganda. Those forms that incite hatred and fear, the propaganda that allows the "best and the brightest" to rig our financial systems to benefit only themselves, and be able to run it for a decade or so before its' total collapse. All without us having the slightest idea what was going on.

When I see some of the garbage (another word for propaganda) being written today, I am shocked. I know I could write better, funnier stuff that is actually true. For example, the utter crap being written by Pat Robertson about Jesus. I am not even a devout believer and I know way more than Pat Robertson does about Jesus. So why then does he make millions of dollars on Christian TV bilking little old ladies out of their life savings, and getting his idiotic message out to millions of people, while I don't make a dime writing a blog on the Internet. Actually it kind of makes sense. He owns the TV network, but I can write the truth because I don't need the lies to steal money from grannies.

Here is another example of garbage, since I was reading MacLean's at the dentist's office yesterday. Mark Steyn writes a column for MacLean's magazine which is pure junk. What does he know about Canadian history or about French Canadians? Born in Toronto, educated in England, living in New Hampshire (well at least you can see Quebec from New Hampshire.) But then he writes articles ridiculing French Canadians, and makes money doing it, while millions of English speaking Canadians love how funny and clever he is, and assume he knows what he's writing about. I can write funnier stuff than Mark Steyn, (actually this is already funnier) and at the same time I know a lot more about almost any subject you could name except maybe war which Mark and I both know nothing about. Granted, Mark is limited by his target audience at the Rush Limbaugh show to produce only crap, but still, why does he get paid to influence people while I get nothing? This has to change.

So instead of getting mad or writing a letter to MacLean's so they can delete it, I'm writing my own blog. One day my blog may knock MacLeans magazine out of circulation. There is a chance that my blog goes viral, at least as good a chance as winning a Toyota Venza by rolling up the rim on a Tim Horton's cup, which Mark Steyn wouldn't even know about since he lives in the USA. And I'll bet I can write a blog entry and post it on the Internet faster than Mark can roll up one rim at Tim Horton's.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Overtaking on Scenic Roads

On any decent road I have ever been on, I need to overtake vehicles in dicey situations. The reason I need to overtake is because I do get bored going slow, and sometimes even slower on each curve and uphill stretch. My favourite roads tend to be long and winding, like the song, and without a lot of intersections or driveways. The hope of a car turning off is slim. Eventually, a driver who is marginally slower than me will in turn get stuck behind an even slower car, leaving me with a double overtaking situation when it happens. It is always more difficult to overtake two cars, because you never know when the following car will pull out to pass.

So I have adopted a system of driving on these two-lane mountain roads that works pretty well for me. First I drive at a constant speed as much as possible. I could go faster on the straight stretches, but I don't because there are speed limits and that's where they seem to be most enforced. Also, it lowers my average speed so I don't come up behind slow moving cars and trucks as often.

Then when I come up behind a slower vehicle, I usually pass at the first opportunity. Although it is important to not inadvertently pass a vehicle that is actually travelling at a faster average speed than me. This sometimes happens when I come up behind a car that has just pulled out onto the road, or I may come up behind a bus going uphill or a car going slower than me in a town, but speeds up a lot when leaving town. So sometimes I pace them for a while before confirming that they are slower. I have been caught a few times passing an old granny in a battered pickup truck, who then ends up right on my tail trying to pass me, sometimes the locals know the road better than me and so can drive faster. Once I was travelling in North Carolina near Deal's Gap, and I was behind three teenage girls talking to each other in a pickup truck. In spite of the fact that I was driving a low and wide Honda Civic, they gradually pulled ahead, while continuing to chatter to each other as they screeched around the curves, and finally disappeared out of sight. There was just no way I could keep up, I assume they lived in the area and had driven that road hundreds of times.

The actual technique of passing is similar in all cars and motorcycles. It's better to gear down once, maybe twice for more power (or torque if you're measuring at the back wheel). It helps to be close behind on a mountain road where you can't see the passing zones far ahead. And it really helps to have a 100 horsepower motorcycle that can accelerate as fast as a Ferrari. In fact once you get used to the power of said motorcycle it's actually a bit dangerous to try passing with a regular car, because it throws off your distance calculation by so much.

Of course, the usual warnings apply. I don't try passing in a fog, rain, night, on ice etc. etc. Although I do make some exceptions I usually wish I hadn't later. I don't usually signal the driver in front with flashers or with a horn, as I find it almost never has made any difference unless it was to maybe to piss them off.

The last thing, which is quite confusing if you have never experienced it is the trucks flashing their left blinker. Only on mountain roads with rare passing opportunities does this unofficial signal become understood. Except for Baie Comeau the only other place I have seen it used consistently was on the Baja peninsula in Mexico. In these cases, the left flasher does not mean "I'm going to make a left", as usually there is no left turn possible. Instead it means "I can see there is a clear passing zone coming up where I think you can make it." It's a bit of a confusing signal because the last thing you want is for this truck to pull a left turn in front of you. Only trucks use this signal, never cars, and only if they think this is where you should be passing them. It often gives you enough warning that you can take advantage of very short passing zones. Not only does the truck driver know where the best passing places are, but with the high cab far ahead of you, they can see over the crest of hills, while your view is blocked by the truck. And they are basically promising to keep over on their side of the road and stay out of your way.