Saturday, October 30, 2010

Power Steering: Technology Marches Forward

Having discovered that the newest Toyota Matrix has electric power steering, I decided to do some research into it.  Back in February, apparently some people were trying to sue Toyota for defective electric power steering units causing fatal accidents.

I am going to assume it was just another mass hysteria, (although based on a reasonable question) similar to the "Unintended acceleration", except that apparently "sudden unintended steering" never really caught on with the US media. The main difference is that there is a real mechanical connection between the steering wheel and the front wheels. There was no similar connection between the accelerator pedal and the fuel system. That, and a lack of heart wrenching but gripping stories to drive the general panic.

So now I am just going to make some remarks about "Power Steering" and technological refinements of cars.

My first car was a 1956 Chevy, and one of the many clues to its age is the big 18" diameter steering wheel. Modern cars all have 15" steering wheels. Since the change in size approximately follows the introduction of power steering, there may be some connection. Maybe the big wheel helped make the steering easier? I'm not sure, because there was already a gear reduction in the steering system.

Steering feel is very important to the driver of a car, and the car makers work hard making it feel "right". The steering wheel is supposed to provide feedback to the driver about what the wheels are doing, but it should not provide too much feedback. The steering wheel should give some resistance to being turned, but not too much. The steering wheel has to feel right making a U turn in a parking lot, and the same steering system must make you feel confident at 150 kph, whether in a straight line or in a curve.

All power steering systems are "power assist". It is not safe to eliminate the mechanical connection between the steering wheel and the front tires, in case of failure of the power system. The first power steering systems were assisted hydraulically. The latest systems are using electric motors to assist in turning the wheels.

There is only one time that I have felt the effect of a power steering system cut out. I was driving a 1966 Dodge Coronet around a traffic circle when the motor stalled, and the power steering went dead. It's amazing how fast a car can get away from you in a situation like that, as the steering effort goes from very easy to needing both hands and most of your strength. While this was happening, I think I figured out that the power steering had stopped, and what was most scary was gradually applying more and more force to the steering wheel with nothing happening. I'm sure it was no more than 2 seconds before I finally pushed hard enough to move the steering wheel, but it felt like a long time, and I was not sure that it ever was going to turn.

Now I have a 2005 Toyota Matrix with variable assist Power Steering, using the old fashioned power steering pump. My previous 1992 Honda Civic had no power steering, and it did not need any. When I first bought the Matrix, I didn't know about the variable assist power steering, and during my test drive, the steering felt normal. Power steering systems are quite unobtrusive, but they do change the "feel" of the steering system.

For the first 8 months that I owned the Matrix, I began to gradually notice something unusual about the steering feel. But because it was the first car I had with low profile tires, I did not know whether the strangeness was due to the tires or the car's steering setup. On the freeway, the car did not seem to track straight, it felt like it was darting from one side to the other, and it took quite a bit of force to get it back on centre. Of course, this feel was subtle, and you would only notice it with thousands of kilometers of driving. And I suppose, there was also the inevitable comparison to my departed Honda Civic's light, sports car-ish steering.

It was only when I installed higher profile and narrower snow tires on the Matrix that I noticed the steering feel improve dramatically. So I concluded that the weirdness was with the low profile tires. The original size was 205/55R16, and the winter tires were 195/65R15. So the winter tires were narrower and with a higher sidewall. When the original all season (summer) tires wore out, I considered replacing them with the same size as the winter tires, but I eventually went with the original size, to get the same speed and load rating. Not only that, but there were reports that the original Goodyear RSA tires were crap anyway, and a good tire would have better steering feel. So I bought a set of Michelin Primacy MXV4 tires, which actually felt even better than the winter tires. At this point I started to think the problem was the type of tire, rather than the profile and width. With a bit more investigation, it seems that the Goodyear RSA tires are "performance tires" meaning that they have stiff sidewalls, and make the car ride rough, and also tend to be a little bit unstable in a straight line. So actually, it was a combination of the variable assist steering "feel" and the high performance tires that came with the car. Apparently, the boost and feedback can be finely tuned on a new electric steering system. Some cars with EPS can change steering feel with the push of a button.

Maybe one day we will have power steering in motorcycles. Some snowmobiles are already there.

These days, new technologies sneak up on you. Back in the good old days, if a car maker introduced new technology, they would boast about it in full colour ads and it would be a feature that supposedly made all previous cars obsolete. Not any more. Many new car features either make the car safer or make them more reliable or cheaper to manufacture. And every time a new technology is put into production, some people will find a way to turn that into an accident where they can sue the car maker for millions of dollars. So the less we know about the technology, the better, as far as car makers are concerned.

This story of hidden technology reminds me of a GM car years ago that introduced a temperature gauge for radiator coolant. The needle of the gauge was proportional to temperature of the coolant, and provided some good feedback for the driver. It was a lot better feedback than the "idiot light" it replaced. (an idiot light comes on when the coolant is too hot, otherwise is off). Unfortunately, people can get obsessed with "too much information", and some drivers got worried sick about how slowly the needle rose to normal, (or how quickly), or exactly where the needle pointed at all times. Not only that, but they would compare their observations with owners of identical cars and note that their needle did not point to the exact same spot on the dial as the other car. Which to them was proof that their car needed a whole new engine. There was simply no reasoning with the obsessive owners. Finally the GM dealers got fed up and GM reverted to a gauge that was uncoupled from the coolant temperature. Unless the coolant boiled over, the new gauge was designed to rise from "cold" to "normal" in a uniform amount of time. Then it would remain pointing at Normal. If the coolant boiled over, it would point to "Hot". Pretty much an idiot light disguised as an instrument. The complaints stopped. Obviously, some car drivers could not handle the truth.

Sad to say, but advances in human intelligence have not been keeping pace with advances in technology.

Picture: '56 Chevy's 18" steering wheel. But did it actually help turn the wheels before power steering was common?

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Were Eight-Track Tapes a Joke?

I am pretty sure that some time in my past, I have come into contact with an actual 8-track stereo system from back in the sixties. But I can't remember it. No, my generation remembers the 8-track tape as a joke, as a metaphor for for all obsolete technology.

The competing system, that eventually won out over 8-track tapes, was the compact cassette format.  They lasted into the 1990's.

Now you may notice another theme here, as part of the 8-track saga. It is the American 8-Track vs. the European Compact Cassette technology. Often, we here in North America assume American stuff is better, more advanced than European stuff, but I am not convinced at all. In so many cases, Europeans have machines that are better. I'm sure somebody could explain why, but I have no idea. But I know for sure that the 8-Track tapes were so bad that I wonder how anyone would think they could push them on an unsuspecting American consumer. Those must have been the days when it was thought that marketing muscle was all you needed, and that the actual technology could be utter crap, people would still buy them. Those days are over (I think).

Anyway, I'm getting off "track". My generation thinks of the 8-track tape as the joke. But I'm not sure my kids get the joke, as they sometimes get mixed up: 8-track or cassette, which one is the joke again? Both are pretty much obsolete, so to the next generation, both are funny. The actual joke was that 8-Tracks did not really work from day one, and the entire concept seems ludicrous in hindsight, while the Cassettes were far more functional and reliable. (and smaller, another European thing!)

I was thinking about this last week when I took a ride in my son's 1990 Audi Quattro. This car has a definite eighties "vibe" to it. The one thing my son was worried about when buying that car was not the age, nor the mileage, but the obsolete stereo system, which he quickly replaced with a modern one so that he could stick his MP3 player in and get some music. The generation gap is large for me, because my current car, a 2005, does not have any of this modern techno-wizardry. I still have more vinyl albums than CD's, Although my turntable has been on the fritz for over five years. Oddly, my son has a functioning turntable and vinyl CD's at home, but he considers them not as a basic music source, but as an art form, or a historical collector's item. The generation gap is so bad, that I don't even understand how he uses the twin vinyl DJ turntables, let alone the MP3 player. Several years ago he gave me an MP3 player for Father's day, and I have to confess I never figured out how to use it for music, but was happily suprised when he informed me it would also work as an 8 gig memory stick.

Just getting back to the Audi, I want to remark on something about his purchase, which involved trading in a two passenger Smart car for a five seater Quattro. I have always thought of two-passenger cars as "sports" cars, and four or more passenger cars as being "regular" cars, regardless of its horsepower, no matter how good handling. But this Audi Quattro, I would say comes about as close as you can be to a sports car while having more than two seats, and the Smart Car is about as far from being a sports car you can get, while still being a 2 seater. Here is a discussion on Jalopnik, on the topic of the 4-seater sports car. (and American sports cars vs. European)

Picture: This is the picture I took of the 1990 Audi in front of our house

Wrong way on the On Ramp

Yesterday, while riding my motorcycle to Long Point, I witnessed the legendary "wrong way on the freeway ramp" scenario first hand.

The day started bright, dry and warm. It was already 11c by the time I started getting the bike out of the garage late in the morning. I was driving almost on autopilot to Paris, because I am so familiar with the route - maybe 20-30 times this year. In Paris I loaded up with a tank of gas, and soon was on Highway 24 crossing the 403, with a small car in front of me. Suddenly, and very unexpectedly the car slowed to almost a stop, and then tried to turn right, into the exit ramp coming off the 403. This was clearly marked with three "do not enter" traffic signs and an arrow one-way sign. Also, the wrong-way cars path was blocked by an SUV coming the other way on the ramp, at the stop sign. So the car hesitatingly nosed its way around the SUV, partly taking to the shoulder, while the lady SUV driver peered down, with a slightly amused look on her face. I did not think of honking my horn, which is pretty feeble anyway. The SUV driver apparently did not see anything horribly wrong with what was happening.

Seeing the car get on the wrong way ramp, then begin acceleration toward the freeway, I pulled over to the shoulder and wondered if I could do anything. For example, could I chase the car the wrong way down the ramp. Not legally, of course, but in reality, might it cause the car driver to speed up even more and possibly be the cause of a fatal accident? I just waited, and signalled my concern to the lady in the SUV, who was still sitting there. She gave me a smile in return, but I thought maybe she did not understand what was happening. Just then, I heard a long air horn blast from a truck that was near the car, but it was on the correct entrance ramp. The wrong way car then hesitated again and slowed, then stopped. A pickup driver, also on the correct ramp, stopped, jumped out and ran across the grass to talk to the puzzled wrong way driver. It looked like the situation was under control, so I resumed my ride to Long Point. (via Port Dover first).

Whenever I drive anywhere I automatically take an interest in other traffic situations. You might think of it as poking my nose in other people's business. But my interest in what other drivers are doing has saved me a few times over the years. When driving the car, I used to make comments on the other driver's mistakes, although I have cut down on this activity quite a bit, at Mary Ann's request. Mary Ann does not like it when I criticise other drivers aloud while we are in the car together. I suspect that might even be part of the reason she likes motorcycles. (We have no intercom system, nor does she want one.)

If I had been the SUV driver, I'm pretty sure I would have yelled, honked my horn, waved, or done something to get the attention of the wrong way driver. But being behind, I don't know how I could have got their attention without following and possibly trying to pass them.

It reminds me of a situation years ago, the only time I recall passing a car and flagging them down. I was on my motorcycle when I witnessed an accident take place. It was a getaway car being followed by an unmarked police car, which hit an oncoming pickup truck, and the lone police officer went over to pull the drug dealer out of the burning car and put the handcuffs on him. I decided to turn around and head home, as I had almost been hit during this incident, and I was a bit shaken up. Just then I saw a municipal police car with two officers in it, pull into the road in front of me, also heading away from the accident. I overtook them, waved them off the road, and told them there was an accident just down the street. I guess they didn't know because it was an RCMP officer and he probably didn't have a radio connection with the rest of the town police force. Anyway, I quickly decided that I needed to do something, and according to the police, pulling them over (even in a no-passing zone) was the right thing to do, as they immediately u-turned and sped off to the accident.

Picture: Apparently Nissan is trying to develop a wrong way warning Navigation system. I wonder if the wrong way driver I saw was blindly following a GPS navigation system? I don't have a GPS myself, but friends complain that there are glitches in them.

Now if we only had BMW's cruise control with "Stop 'n Go" feature, and their lane detection system, we can safely remove the requirement to have a driver's licence. I'm not sure what good it does anyway.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Dealing with Language Barriers

Language barriers are really not that bad when travelling. Maybe for me it is second nature, as I grew up with language barriers, and after that, I also spent three years in Africa. Many North Americans have almost no experience dealing with language barriers, as this part of the world has adopted unilingual English to a remarkable degree. But there are strategies to help get through language barriers, just as there are some approaches that seem to make things worse.

It is useful to be aware that some languages are relatively similar. Many Americans and English Canadians tend to lump all foreign languages together, as if it was just as difficult for us to understand French as Chinese. No, that is not true, and with experience, you would find that some languages are really different, others are closer to English and therefore easier to figure out. Also some places are more touristy, and therefore you will have less trouble with a foreign language. As my African high school students remarked to me, (who spoke about 4 languages minimum) they did not really consider French and English different enough to count as two languages. There were 14 native languages in Sierra Leone, a country the size of Southern Ontario, and most of them were not from the same linguistic origin.

I am not trying to suggest you need to be fluent in a language to travel. There are several tips and techniques that work very well, especially in relatively close languages, where tourism is normal.

At the very least, try to learn a few words. Language instructors may not like me letting you in on this secret, but "Hello", and "thank you" are the top two words to know. Probably followed by "Excuse me", "sorry" and "where is the bathroom". If I'm in a language course where I'm being taught "Bellboy, take my bags up to the room, and hurry" then I'm in the wrong course.

Think. All too often, people take their brain offline because they are not confident they will ever figure it out. Consider it like a game, a mystery, a puzzle to solve. Look at all the clues, pay attention to gestures, facial expressions, if possible try to recognize words. Even in Pashtun, I'll bet you hear the occasional English expression. In Timne, the local tribal language in Sierra Leone, one phrase that popped up often enough at school was "Waste time". Anyway, you do need to think more clearly then usual when you are faced with a language barrier.

Try to talk to the right people. With some experience, you will eventually know how to find people who can answer questions, and who it may be best to stay away from. I'm not sure I can help specifically, but I know choosing the right person can make or break the communications. Here is an example. An Internet Cafe in Baja, California. There is no @ sign on your keyboard, because it is a Spanish keyboard. You need help, who to ask, and what do you say? Well don't do what I did and go up to the guy at the front desk and say "Hoy!" thinking it means the same as "Hi!". Hoy actually means "Right now!". "Ola" is hello. A mental lapse on my part. But at least the guy at the desk is going to be a little more understanding than if you blurt this out to someone hard at work typing on another computer somewhere across the room.

Even with a skeleton vocabulary, try to be mindful of what you are saying. If you don't understand the language, it works better to say "Ola" rather than "Como esta", because although both are basically a greeting, "como esta?" is a question (How are you?) that kind of asks for a response, and since you may not be able to understand the response, why ask it in the first place. Of course in real life the interchange usually works itself out, as the other person can usually figure out that you are just a tourist, and you really don't want to know the details of his latest hernia operation. It also might be nice to know the ritual response to "Como esta", which (I think) "Muy bien", because sometimes people may greet you this way.

At any rate, it is obviously not always possible to learn an entire language from scratch for a two-week vacation.

Now here in Canada, the main language "problem" is English and French. Neither the English nor the French see any compelling reason why they must learn the other language, unless they are forced to to get a job (like Prime Minister of the country). But because of our history, a large number of Canadians can speak or understand to some degree the other official language. And, typically, people who are not perfectly bilingual, can understand the other language much better than they speak it. I don't have a full physiological explanation of why this might be, but it is easy to temporarily lose your speaking ability within a year, while your comprehension will last dozens of years without practice.

Up to now I have been considering mainly someone who truly does not understand the language, like me and Spanish.
How are things different when you can understand, but are a bit shy or too tongue tied to speak the other language? Well obviously one problem might be that the other people may think you are just being rude by not speaking when you can obviously understand. I know for sure many English Canadians think this way about French Canadians. I'm sure it is also true in reverse. And in either case, it seems quite easy for, say a French person to be offended when and English person who understands French will not speak in French, and yet at the same time this same French person may have a perfectly good reason why he himself does not need to speak speak English, even though he may understand it pretty well. This double standard is exhibited frequently with both English and French speakers.

When you actually understand the other language, you really must make an extra effort to speak at least the basic words. Again, you don't have to be perfect, but use common sense at all times, pay attention, and keep thinking.

Try to be brief. Reduce what you are saying to what is needed, and no more. Don't bother to launch into an explanation of why you do not speak the language so well, or how slowly they must speak for you to understand them. It wastes time, it causes more misunderstandings. Just say what you need to say, in the other language if you can, if not switch to plain English. I assure you, they will figure out that you do not speak the language, and eventually they will also figure out how slowly they need to speak to you.

Communicate with the aid of hand gestures, or props. For example, buying a fuse for the motorcycle, take the burnt out fuse with you. If your gear shift lever is broken off, take the broken bit with you if at all possible. Pointing helps if you are asking or giving directions. Hand signs are pretty universal, for example, pretending to write on your palm is the international hand sign for "give me the check, please".

Be aware of what emotions are showing on your face. Smile. It works in all languages. Sometimes other facial expressions are called for. This may be important when you are unable to say things like "I am sorry that I'm dripping water all over your new hardwood floor". And even more important when you obviously understand the language, and yet for some reason cannot articulate the word "sorry".

Try to not harbour any negative stereotypes. For example, when a policeman in Mexico asks you how expensive your motorcycle was, don't immediately jump to the conclusion that he is fishing for a bribe. Maybe it is just a natural thing to be fascinated by expensive stuff that would cost them five years salary to buy.

Do not use shouting as a way to overcome a language barrier. And, of course no fist shaking or gun waving.

Do not bother to tell people that you are Canadian. It is irrelevant information, for one thing. I memorized the phrase "Soy Canadense" for when I went to Mexico, and used it on the first waitress I encountered at a restaurant. She gave me a blank stare, so I assumed she could not understand either Spanish or English. Actually, it turned out she understood both, but apparently didn't have a good response to this statement, although maybe she was thinking up some. And in another vein, do not say "Me Canadian, you ????" in a typical Tarzan and Jane movie dialogue.

Get your brain in gear, think of the context, predict what is going to happen. For example, you and two friends walk into a restaurant, a waitress meets you at the door, she probably will ask you "table for three?", it does not matter what the language is. Just nod and follow her to the table, or hold up three fingers. Much better than asking her if she speaks English, or asking her to get an English speaking person for you. Same thing at a military checkpoint. They usually ask the same question, "where are you coming from and where are you heading?" I give them the name of the place I stayed last night, and where I think I may stay tonight. I don't get into anything more complicated, I don't worry too much about exactly what they are saying. One time I got "going to" and "coming from" backwards, and the soldier at the gate looked puzzled and motioned to his commanding officer. He just called back "Inglese?" the soldier nodded, and the officer waved me on. Yes, they can figure stuff out pretty fast. Much much better (and less waiting) than asking people to either speak English or find someone else who can speak English.

Learn the road signs! In Mexico "Curva Peligroso" (hey I still remember that after four years!) means dangerous curve. So then logically, pretty much anything followed by peligroso means "stop text messaging right now!". While it would be helpful to really know what that other peligroso thing might be, don't be looking it up in the phrase book while driving. I might as well mention Vado Peligroso, because it officially means a "dip" in the road, but in Mexico it really means you are crossing a dry river bed. The first five times, you may not even know what the danger is supposed to be, but here are some you will eventually see: Donkey/Cow in the road, hidden in the dip. Road completely under water. Road recently under water, and masses of melon sized rocks are strewn right over the pavement.

And just as importantly, learn that there are no signs at all for some really horrendous stuff, such as half the road was washed way three days ago, or a truck is lying upside down across the entire road (that would probably be in the last five minutes, just judging from how fast the tires are still spinning.)

Sometimes a considerable language barrier exists even in English. Both these incidents happened at the same McDonald's breakfast stop during a motorcycle trip through rural Kentucky (i.e. off the interstate). I went to the counter to order the big breakfast. I really could not understand a word the girl at the cash register said. But she understood "big breakfast and coffee" just fine. When it came out she said "That'll be three thousand dollars". Those were the first words I actually understood! And they were not good. I must have gone blank. Then she laughed and said "I'm joking!" and told me the right price. Actually quite funny, if I had not just got off my motorcycle, and my brain had been given its first coffee yet. Then, sitting down to eat my breakfast a young man came over to my table and launched into a monologue, of which I did not understand one single word. He paused for a bit, while I looked at him. He said "You're not from around here are you?" Finally something I understood. I said "No." He went away, seemingly satisfied with the answer.

In the end, the thing I miss most when there is no language barrier is all the fun you can have when both speak the same language, like I can in Southern Ontario. My two favourites, one when a person is walking a dog, I ask "does your dog bite?" They say "No she's real friendly etc. etc." Then just as I reach down, I stop and say "Is this your dog?" Cracks me up every time. Next, when ordering a "foot long hot dog", (Canada has been a metric country since the early seventies), I ask "how big is is it?". The younger cashiers really struggle with that. I bet some of them don't even know how long a "foot" is, or that it used to be a unit of measure, and not something at the end of your leg

Picture: a military checkpoint. What can you figure out without knowing the words?

Is Fact Checking a Lost Art?

Fact checking may becoming another "lost" art. I find that many of my friends or relatives who send me stuff have no idea how to fact check, or have never heard of or wikipedia.

Back in the sixties, the media was biased, of course, but few people really needed to dabble in the art of fact checking. In those days, the vast majority of what you heard was at least factually true. And what was untrue was quite easy to pick out. But that has changed with the advent of the internet and Fox News.

Most people do not have the time to fact check. Especially hard working conservatives I guess, because in my opinion, most of the fact checking that needs to be done is on pro-conservative statements. For some reason, my liberal friends already know how to fact check. I guess that either (A) they have lots of time because they're on welfare (B) most of the lying is done by conservatives

Let's start with Snopes, an excellent website where thousands of circular emails and politically motivated statements are investigated. The most truly hard core conservatives call it a leftist website, and refuse to check it out (along with Wikipedia, and all of published peer reviewed science.) The moderate conservatives usually need me to inform them that it something like Snopes exists, and send them instructions on how to use it.

If all this crap was not repeated endlessly on TV and in the papers, I wouldn't have to be fact checking almost every single thing people tell me, and every email sent to me. And I wouldn't have to email my friends back to tell them how to fact check their emails in the future before they decide to forward them to me.

Here is an example I received last week. I got a seemingly apolitical circular email about the bedbug infestation. But in it was the offhanded comment about how all these bedbugs are coming in new clothing imported from China. At the top of the forwarded email was a comment from someone down the line about how they had "tried to use Snopes but the website wasn't working, but this information seems so common sense that I thought I'd pass it on anyway."

Well, true enough, most of this email was common sense. But in it there was a little dig at Chinese bedding and clothing manufacturers, which Snopes considered to be without real basis. Snopes also pointed out that not all bedbugs come from China, nor do most come in new clothing, which was not mentioned at all in the email. For example, it is easy to bring bedbugs home from trips abroad in or on your suitcase.

So how hard is it to check this email, or anything else, using Snopes? It's really so easy, I cannot figure out what the problem is. Go to Google and type in Snopes Bedbugs, (in this case) and you're at this page in a nanosecond. It even has the entire circular email including the reference to China embedded in the page. Sometimes I need to copy and paste some text from the email into Google first. This type of skill is becoming indispensable to teachers, for example, who need to Google almost every surprisingly good essay that is handed in, to see if it was copied wholesale off the internet.

Sometimes it works for me just to inform people of how to use Snopes. They sometimes just stop sending me stuff, either because everything they look up proves false, or because they take me off the email list for having the temerity to fact check the email they forwarded.

But the hoax emails keep coming and keep getting smarter. Recently I got another email, from a friend I had already instructed in fact-checking. He admitted he did not fact check it himself "because it says right there in the circular email that it was already fact checked by Snopes and its genuine!" Of course I fact checked it anyway, with Snopes, and found out that it was partly debunked in Snopes (and they also debunked the false statement that it was fact checked by Snopes.)

What can you do when the press is regularly spewing fact free propaganda? Do you fact check every word or do you break down and just accept it as being plausible? The purveyors of propaganda are always one step ahead of the average person. Am I some kind of *****n genius just because I seem to be the only one who would ever think to check Snopes anyway, even though email clearly states that it has already been checked by Snopes? Clearly, there is a reason that these Nigerian email scams work.

To see the original email, see Snopes "Big Virus Coming" email near the bottom of this page about postcard viruses.

Picture: The Chicago Tribune, owned by conservative Colonel Robert McCormick, published the wrong winner in the 1948 US presidential election. By coincidence, the same Colonel McCormick who is the founder of my home town of Baie Comeau. This misprint probably resulted in a lot of overtime at the local paper mill.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Ice Road Truckers TV Show Review

Here, finally may be a form of transportation where the drivers are more exposed to the weather and to accidents than motorcyclists are. I had a chance to watch one of these shows the other night at my mother's house (I don't get the History Channel, and I also don't get why this is on the History Channel). My first thought was that these were not actually "Ice Roads". In Canada, a paved or gravel road covered with ice is an "icy road". To be an ice road, there must be nothing but ice, with water underneath. But then I started thinking about the types of roads where we have a layer of gravel or pavement over permafrost, with a layer of ice over that. Kind of like an "Ice sandwich road". But none of this quibbling really matters. The real issue is the driving, and the fact that people understand that their lives depend on their ability and their attention to the job.

There are many good previews and short segments on Youtube, but also a few spoofs that should not be mistaken for the real show. In the episode I watched, the road was the Dalton Highway from Fairbanks to Prudhoe Bay. There is a similar road in Canada I always get confused with, called the Dempster Highway.

During the show, an oversized load was being transported accompanied by two "pusher" trucks. Going up the steep hills, the two pusher trucks get behind the load and with nothing more than bumper to bumper contact, help the big load up the hill, at what appears to be a fairly high speed. I would guess about 80 kph. Typically in steep mountain areas, without pushers, trucks may slow down to first gear to get up steep hills, and crawl up the hill at walking speed. It was not explained in this episode why the two pusher trucks were being used, as it looked like they were not carrying a payload, and trucking companies are not used to wasting money like that. There was one other use for the pusher trucks, and it was coming down the hills. One pusher truck would get in front of the load carrying truck, and help it slow down coming down the hill. I'm not even sure it's legal on most public roads. But it certainly makes for great entertainment, for anyone who has an interest in roads and driving.

[Update Oct 28, 2010: I was speaking to a truck driver on this subject and apparently the pushers are needed because even with chains, the wheels will lose traction when you gear down to climb the grade, with an oversized load like that.]

At a few times during the show, the producers inserted animated clips to illustrate the dangers of these operations. For example, how a truck may tip over if the load shifts or what could happen when the load falls off. The animations were fairly realistic, and each time my mother saw a truck go off the road or crash, she gasped. I had to tell her "It's just an animation". She would reply,"But I'm surprised nobody got killed anyway." ""Mom, an animation is a cartoon drawing like "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs", but this is just more realistic."

I kind of suspect the dangers are somewhat dramatised. Because if you wanted to, you could certainly make a TV show of a normal commuter's drive to work in Toronto, and make it seem like death is just around every corner. But it is a fact that there is a much higher death rate among these truckers than among normal commuters. Probably about the same as the rate for motorcycles. And it is good to see people at least paying attention to their driving instead of sending text messages.

One of the clips on Youtube is about a truck driver hitting a moose. Just to help keep you car drivers more alert, note that although the driver was not injured, the truck had to be towed away. Those moose can get big.

Apparently, the first season was actually done on ice roads. But the trucking companies were not very impressed with the overall attitude of the show, and made so many new safety rules that the producers moved the show somewhere else, and that's when they started getting away from the "Ice Roads", but still kept the same name as most people don't know the difference between northern mountain roads and ice roads. The next season they will be going to the Himalaya Passes, which could make the Dalton Highway look as safe as the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Doris Wiedemann and Sjaak Lucassen, have recently done the Dalton Highway in winter, on two wheel motorcycles. (I need to specify two wheels because sidecars and trikes might have made the trip much less intense). They were Germans, if that helps explain anything.

Picture: It's a picture I took myself, in February 2007 on the road to Labrador. It was an icy road, but not an "ice road"..

Friday, October 22, 2010

Thinking about "Idiots Abroad"

I found a series of videos on Youtube produced by comedian Ricky Gervais, where he sends his friend, and possible moron, Karl Pilkington around the world to see if travel really can broaden the mind. I find it a little bit funny, but I'm not sure why. Karl is not an idiot. He is actually way better than many travellers and tourists I have seen. He does make a few funny remarks on the strange things he sees. Ricky really puts Karl through the mill, experiencing all the "native" stuff like eating cockroaches, and getting massaged by flaming gloves. It only proves that all humans have their limits as to what they can tolerate. What is normal in one society can seem disgusting, gross, cruel, evil or whatever in another society. Once you learn that lesson, move on. It is not really necessary to make yourself sick eating scorpions just to get a laugh from your home TV audience.

Pt 1 of wall of china

Best bits Wall of China
Jordan: The Best Bits

Karl Pilkington's Seven Wonders Preview.wmv

Karl meets Jesus Christ in Jerusalem. Jesus rides a motorbike somewhat disguised as a donkey. I don't know why this was in "deleted scenes" except maybe pressure from religious extremists to keep it off the air.

Yes there is an expression "travel broadens the mind". But as far as I'm concerned, you do not broaden the mind by plunging yourself into a completely foreign culture. In many cases that would simply be too much, it messes your head up, as Karl rightly remarks. If there is something about a foreign culture that you find appealing, that's great. If you think it's sickening, or repulsive, well don't do it. You probably need to be raised from birth in a given society to appreciate many things.

There is another expression "to see things through the eyes of another". You are not seeing things through the eyes of another just by doing the same things. While one person may see something appealing, you are seeing something horrifying.

Yes it may be broadminded to try some of the food, or accommodations. But more realistically, you should be able to at least talk to people from other cultures. Many of them speak your language even if you do not speak theirs. That is where I think travel is most likely to broaden the mind, not in doing things that make you throw up. That's just for the benefit of TV audiences, and I don't think it does anything to broaden their minds either.

At one point, Karl is watching a Chinese woman devouring several scorpions for a snack. She is eyeing the rest of her scorpions hungrily as she gobbles down the first. Karl is obviously disgusted, and would never be able to enjoy eating those scorpions. But it takes a lifetime of living in that environment to develop the love for eating scorpions, Karl obviously will never achieve that. He may eat one, but because of his culture, he will likely throw up. But is there anything we do that Chinese people may look at with equal disgust? What sickening stuff do we eat? I don't know. But I do know I have a 10 year old grandson who hates almost any food as if it was live scorpions. Over the years he has had virtual barfing fits over cherries, pizza, any kind of vegetable or fruit, bread crusts, and almost all meats. When I take him out for lunch he only wants caffeine and sugar, so Tim Hortons is obviously the place to go. Apparently those are the only things that are universally loved and need no cultural acclimatization.

I think no traveller is successful in broadening their mind until they begin to question all the chauvinist propaganda that they absorbed in a lifetime at home. Many American love watching "Fox News" and listening to Rush Limbaugh on the radio. I can do that too, but to me it is much like swallowing live cockroaches. I don't even know why I do it. Maybe it is broadening my mind, maybe it is making me more narrow minded in my disgust for right wing propaganda. I suppose I would have to have been raised in a right wing racist southern family to really love that stuff.

Many of my blogs deal with motorcycles, with travel or with breaking down prejudices. I think it is worth while to be able to travel by motorcycle, and not to think, act or talk like an idiot while doing it. How does a traveller go about not being an idiot? Well it starts with clearing your mind of a lot garbage. You should at least know that just because people speak a different language does not mean it is gibberish. Just because they worship a different God does not mean they are going to hell. Just because people are not rich does not mean they are lazy bums who need to get a job.

Picture: This is a book apparently:

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Driving Slow Needs a Different Skill Set

I was just reading a blog by "Miss Busa", by a lady who likes to ride fast. She previously owned a Suzuki Hayabusa, their fastest machine, and now rides a BMW S1000RR, which if I guess right is BMW's fastest bike. She also goes to a track for motorcycle drag races in her spare time. However, following her accident which wrecked the 'busa, and some safety discussions with her husband, who I guess is the guy she calls "Mr. Slow", she had a moment's hesitation while riding her new bike on the freeway. Her natural instinct would have been to nail the throttle and blast through any dodgy situation, instead she slowed down, and almost got trashed from behind by a fast moving SUV.

Long ago I came to the conclusion that driving slow needs a different skill set from driving fast. Either one can be dangerous. And just in case you think there is some "sweet spot" in the middle where you can safely drive while text messaging, no there is not. When you drive at an average speed, you are statistically less likely to have an accident, but you have to sometimes use the fast driving skills, and sometimes also use the slow driving skills, depending on the traffic around you.

What skills are needed for driving fast? Fast reaction times, good eyesight, ability to remain focused on the road both far ahead and closer to you, ability to anticipate situations ahead, good braking and steering skills, and always having a plan B in mind. That's some of them, I'm sure there's more. And you can overlay that with constantly checking for police cars and radar traps.

What skills would you need for driving slow? Fast reaction times, good eyesight, ability to look in front and in the rear view mirror as well, and always having a plan B in mind. Steering and braking skills are required, of course, but it's only at higher speeds that it pays to develop these skills more than what the average granny could muster. So far the skills look almost the same, but there is huge difference when it comes to anticipating traffic situations. When you drive fast, most of your worrisome situations come from slow moving vehicles: slow trucks, slow cars in the fast lane, stopped traffic, etc. But when you drive slow, most of your worrisome situations arise from vehicles coming at you from behind. And so all your traffic strategy is different. For example, you need to know what to do about tailgaters, and yes, it takes some experience to handle that right. You need to know how and when to help other people get by you. How to deal with road rage. You need to know how to use the brake lights to send important information, instead of riding the brake lightly with the brake light on most of the time. With a motorcycle, hand signals help too. You need to monitor not only the rear mirror a lot more, but also the two blind spots just to the side of the rear view mirror, and you need to know how big these blind spots are. You also need to be very aware when you go slower than your usual slowness. Much like a speeder has to be aware of the difference between 20 over the limit, and 60 over the limit. A slow driver has to be aware that going 10 under the limit is radically different from 60 under the limit.

The motivation for driving slow may be simply that the driver thinks it will be safe. Or there may be a problem with the vehicle. Recently there has been a very small but increasing number of people who are going slow (hypermiling) trying to save gas.

Unfortunately, a lot of slow drivers are not good drivers at any speed. But you could say the same for a lot of fast drivers too. Just going slow is not a magic bullet to make you a safe driver. Yes it's easier, but for people who normally drive too fast, they must be aware that different skills need to be developed for going slow. And it is a very good idea to practice them once in a while.

For your homework, I have a couple of links on the dangers of slow driving.

Picture: From ...Is that motorcycle going faster or slower than the traffic? With that road position, it's not likely to be the same speed.

Bikers Guide: Comparing Niagara Falls to the Grand Canyon

Does Niagara Falls Compare to the The Grand Canyon?

There are only two natural wonders I have ever seen that I would call "awe inspiring". First is the Grand Canyon. Not far behind is the "Maid of the Mist" boat tour at Niagara Falls. So if you didn't think much of the Grand Canyon, there's probably not much for you at Niagara Falls, although there is a gift shop, a casino, a Hard Rock Cafe, and a Tim Hortons.

Although there is no clear walking view from the US side, you can view the Falls on the Canadian side, if you just park nearby (If you want free parking you will have to look much further away.) and then cross the road to the sidewalk that follows the edge of the gorge. The sidewalk view is free, and very pretty too. As you look down, you should be able to see the various Maid of the Mist boats approaching the bottom of the waterfall, and admittedly they look kind of silly. I used to think "why are those tourists wasting their money when you can see the falls perfectly well from up here?". But the one time I actually took the boat tour, I finally understood why it is one of the most famous scenic wonder rides in the world. The experience of being surrounded by that massive roaring wall of water is totally unlike what you see standing at the top. If the spectacular view of the Grand canyon is from the top, then the spectacular view of the falls is surely looking up from the bottom. It may have something to do with fear I suppose. At the Grand Canyon, the instinctive fear of death is from the top. That can happen at the falls too, but you feel safe at the top, and besides, it's not a very big drop compared to the Grand Canyon. However, you have probably never seen or heard anything like it when you are at the bottom and all that water coming down at you on three sides.

I have only been on the Maid of the Mist once, so it's possible that there was just the right combination of sunlight, warmth, clear air, wind from the right direction etc etc. Also I have been to the Grand Canyon four times, and two times were awe inspiring, once was more scary than awe inspiring, and once it was a complete dud, where fog completely filled the canyon and you could not see anything. I guess with natural wonders you always take your chances. I was on the Maid of the Mist on a warm, sunny July day at about noon time, and there was no fog other than the usual mist coming off the falls. Also, I suppose for anyone who is afraid of boats and water, this might not be so pleasant, but then I'm afraid of heights, but I was still able to appreciate the Grand Canyon from the top view.

For the rest of the tour, the Niagara Parkway is a very nice road to ride on a motorcycle, following the Niagara River on the Canadian side, from Lake Erie, past the falls to Lake Ontario. Also, a short side trip up Clifton Hill will give you a good view of enough tackiness to rival Las Vegas.

Note: You may want to put away your expensive camera when the boat comes near to the falls, it will not really capture the feeling, and it will get soaked.

Picture: The Maid of the Mist heading for the falls, taken from the Canadian side.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Motorcycles Need to Watch Their Weight

I have never dropped my Kawasaki Vulcan 900 yet, but a month ago I came very close. It was Murphy's Law. I offered to give one of Mary Ann's friends a ride, and she stood at the curb fully dressed ready to go while I drove the motorcycle out of her driveway and on to the street to let her climb on. She is not an experienced rider, and I didn't want to scare her by dropping the bike right in front of her. As I stopped in front of her, I just barely prevented it from falling over. Amazing, because there was nothing unusual that I was doing. But if that bike had weighed any more than its 650 pounds, it might have gone down, or I may have wrenched my back out. But because the Vulcan was a "medium weight" or as some may say a "Diminutive bike", I saved it and I'm sure to her it just looked like a normal stop.

I have a personal limit for the weight of my motorcycles, it's around 700 pounds. There are several bikes out there that I will avoid because they are too heavy for me, the Gold Wing and a few of the other heavy duty touring bikes. I consider all those bikes to be nothing more than the first two thirds of a tricycle conversion.

I have often heard it said that "the weight just disappears when you get moving". Well, I don't worry about dropping a bike once it gets moving (barring a skid or collision of course). But I have never found the weight to be a benefit on the road. For example, it does not make the bike any steadier in a cross wind for me. That may be because of how I drive. There is also no noticeable down side to weight in normal cornering, because countersteering can force any size bike to lean. But I suspect a lighter motorcycle may have an advantage in sudden swerving maneuvers, and of course in acceleration.

The weight is a problem for me when the bike is standing still, or almost stopped. Also getting it in or out of the garage, or a parking spot, or putting it on or off a stand. All of these tasks are more difficult the heavier the bike is.

A manufacturer can lower the CG (centre of gravity), to make the bike less likely to fall over. They do that by moving heavy things lower, such as the battery, or the engine, or the gas tank. Another thing that can be done with the gas tank is to try and stop gas from sloshing back and forth, because gasoline typically runs to the low side which is the side you are about to fall over on. But there are limitations to how much stuff you can put at the very lowest part of the bike. You also have to allow for leaning in a curve, which means that you are more limited in width the lower you go on the bike.

All this lowering of the CG doesn't help if you are pushing a bike up a hill, because all the weight has to go up the hill whether it is located high or low on the bike. And it does not help with acceleration either. And when it comes to acceleration, there is some type of weight that is even worse, that is rotating weight like tires. Not only do you have to move the tire forward down the road, but you also need to use power to make it spin faster and faster. The heavier tires slow you down in both ways. And of course, everybody wants the heaviest tire possible because big tires are fashionable now, even though they cost you in performance.

There is one promising place that the manufacturers can save weight. That is by making stuff of plastic if possible, instead of steel. One big weight saver is plastic fenders. Plastic fenders also never rust, they keep the mud off you just as well as steel fenders, and they look the same as steel when painted. What's not to like? I don't get it when people go around tapping on fenders to see if they are steel or plastic. (No, actually I do that myself, but it's not because I hate plastic, I just am interested sometimes in the difference.) On my old BMW, they also made the entire rear luggage rack and even the saddlebag hinges out of plastic. OK, the hinges broke once, but the rack never did. So maybe they know how to make really good plastic these days. Now on my Kawasaki Vulcan, the chrome looking engine side covers and cylinder head covers are also plastic. I never saw anything like this plastic before, the plastic's shiny finish does not wear off, the plastic does not melt when the engine gets hot. But I'm still pretty sure it's plastic.

So if the bike can get it's weight down below 700 pounds, I'll consider it. The new BMW K1600GT is just on the borderline. For a bike like that, I may make an exception, or maybe I could start hitting the gym. ("Hitting the gym" means doing some exercises that give you more muscles and less fat, which is another way to minimise the weight of the bike.)

Picture: This is the BMW rider "Skert" who I have seen at a BMW rally teaching people how to pick up a dropped bike. I have never been lucky enough to drop my bike right where somebody thoughtfully left a few towels, so unlike Skert, my bike usually gets scratched up if I drop it.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Belt Drive Betty Visits Quebec

I have just read a blog entry from Belt Dive Betty, where she writes about getting a rude reception upon entering Quebec. Hopefully, Betty is exaggerating a bit, but I can imagine how it could happen.

I live in Ontario, a mostly English speaking province. But I grew up in Quebec, where the language is mostly French. I am aware that there is a certain tension caused by the language differences, and in the past I have tried to explain that traveling in Quebec is not all that bad, for English speaking people.

To give an idea of some of the prejudices I sometimes see, here is a blog entry by a Canadian explaining his feelings, called "French are Classified world's rudest tourists", and of course drawing a conclusion that the French in Quebec or France are all alike.

I feel that I have to give two explanations before returning to Betty's problem. French Canadians are included as Canadians for purposes of this survey, where Canadian tourists rank third. That means an average of English Canadians and French Canadians, so you decide who is pulling up the average. Also, one of the key categories in the "rudeness" poll was generous tipping. In France, unlike most Western countries, tips are included in the bill. So there may be a reason that French people are called bad tippers. Maybe it's not as much rudeness as it is a cultural difference. The French (in France, not Quebec, there's actually a big difference in tipping) expect the waitresses to be paid a decent wage, not to have to depend on tips for her living.

Now back to Betty's encounter. While I am sorry that this happened, the reason why tourism is dropping off in Quebec, is not because of widespread rudeness, it is actually because of the increasing value of the Canadian dollar compared to the US. Not to say everything has always been nice. But in my experience, travelling in Quebec is far more friendly now than it used to be 40 years ago, and most people I have spoken to agree.

I see Betty's situation as a "worst case scenario". Betty was looking for the tourist information office, where she could have expected a better reception, but accidentally barged into the local office of the "Bloc Quebecois", which is a political party that wants to separate Quebec from the rest of Canada, and set up a French-only independent country. But I don't think this was the main issue that may have led to rudeness. The fact is that lately, separatist feelings have cooled quite bit, so in spite of the original mission of this political party, not all the supporters are actively in the separatist movement. However, just a week ago on a TV discussion (The Michael Coren Show), I heard calls for all Bloc Quebecois members to be hanged for treason, so rudeness goes both ways. Hopefully, nobody got as rude as Michael Coren in the Bloc office, though.

(Read an article "Traitors in our Midst" by Michael Coren to get an idea of what he thinks of Bloc Quebecois)

If Betty had gone into the Tourist Information place first, none of my comments below would matter. The Quebec Tourist Info people speak English, and are friendly and used to dealing with tourists, even dripping wet bikers. I have never deliberately tested the staff to see their breaking point, and I'm sure it is quite high. But even in the "Bloc Quebecois" office, the encounter could have gone much better.

Betty understood French, but I am not sure she tried speaking it. Sometimes French people get annoyed when an English speaking person who happens to understand French, will not speak French. English people feel the same. I have often said that an attempt to speak a language goes a long way. Learning how to say "hello", "thank you" in any language is a good start. But for people who actually understand the local language, refusal to speak the language is actually kind of insulting. I will give an innocent example. I understand French, and can speak it to some extent. When we were in a restaurant in a non-touristy area of Quebec, I let Mary Ann do the ordering even though she struggles in French. She just wanted to practice her French on the waitress, who did not understand English much. But when there were complications, and the waitress was not able to communicate, Mary Ann asked me for help, proudly announcing to the waitress that I knew French all along. Mary Ann did not get it that this was not the most diplomatic thing to do.

And I did notice that the first time Betty mentioned using her "broken French", the exchange went much better.

Adding to the impatience at the Bloc Quebecois office, it was raining outside, and she and her husband were dripping water all over the floor while the conversation took place. I am always kind of aware, when I am dripping wet in motorcycle gear, that I may not be greeted joyously everywhere I go. Especially if I am not a paying customer, or in a normal tourist hangout.

I wish I had the exact dialogue to comment on, but even without it, I can say that this type of thing can be avoided with a little care.

Picture: I grabbed a random picture off the internet of a Quebec Tourist Information place.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Limitations of Motorcycle Magazine Road Tests

When I decide to buy a bike, I like to know what the magazine testers have to say about it. In fact I like reading motorcycle magazines even when I am not about to buy a bike. But it is important to put motorcycle magazine road tests and opinions in perspective.

The good thing about magazine testers is that they are usually objective. Their objectivity, together with their unique opportunity to ride a wide variety of motorcycles, does make their opinions valuable to any prospective customer. They are also usually pretty good riders, and can better test the limits of braking, cornering, and acceleration than most amateurs. They also have a lot of knowledge about motorcycles and good observational skills.

But I don't completely trust magazine road tests for my decisions, and I would like to just give a few reasons why. Most obviously, magazines are subsidized by advertising, and much of the advertising is provided by the motorcycle manufacturers. And that's not all. The manufacturers also provide free test bikes, and trips to press launches. So the magazine is going to be very careful about writing anything blatantly negative. Sometimes you have to read between the lines to find the hidden caveats about a certain bike.

In a road test from the August '75 issue of Cycle, called "Eight for the Open Road", there is some Harley bashing going on the likes of which we have not seen in the motorcycle press for decades. Quote: "It could also be argued that the FLH [Harley-Davidson] on the basis of function is less than a motorcycle. We so argue." And they accordingly ranked it last in the test. You will not find that kind of black and white reporting today in any magazine still carrying advertising.
[Just by way of explanation, Harley Davidsons were not good bikes in 1975, and Harley Davidson got things turned around only when they copied (or invented for themselves) modern motorcycle manufacturing techniques that the Japanese makers were already using at that time]
Here is a comment from Cycle Canada, August 1999. This is about as strong a negative statement you are going to find, and I think Cycle Canada is one of the more hard line motorcycle publications. It refers to the Kawasaki Drifter 1500, a skirt-fendered Indian motorcycle lookalike.

"the quality of detailing and finish lags well behind the more conventionally appealing Yamaha Road Star....that makes for devastating competition for the drifter." and "...for the dedicated skirt chaser... the stiffest competition for the 1500 Drifter is the 800 Drifter, which we would prefer regardless of price."

Those are some harsh words, still not as harsh as the Cycle testers back in 1975. And yes, the Drifter 1500 has a full page ad in the same magazine that I got the quotes from.

My priorities are different from magazine testers. It is different when you own a bike, compared to test riding a bike. Magazine testers often complain about unusual controls, like the old BMW turnsignal buttons. An owner will get used to them quickly, because they usually ride only one, or at least a limited number, of bikes. An owner will be able to customize the motorcycle to their own comfort much more than a short term magazine tester. Even when the magazine has a bike for a year-long test, no one gets to modify the bike to their liking because it must change hands often. Magazines test new bikes, and rarely worry about or write about about the maintenance procedures. Sometimes the regular maintenance of a certain bike can be needlessly difficult compared to other bikes. Maintenance procedures usually remain a mystery until the bike has already been purchased for some time.

Finally, no magazine can fairly or accurately predict the reliability of a given bike. Sure they can tell you if their test bike blew up on the 401, but that rarely happens. Yet reliability is one of the qualities nearest to my heart. It is also the one you can predict the least.

Picture: A magazine from July 1970, the cover says "The time will come when only the medium weight bike makes sense. Enough, after all, is enough." Though the words are still true today, it is now apparent that motorcyclists are not all about making sense.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Countersteering: Why Doesn't it Work at Low Speed?

Countersteering is often oversimplified into the expression "Push right to go right, push left to go left". The reason this expression is taught, is to help riders remember which way to push. Actually, countersteering also works by pulling the handlebar, and if you pull the handlebar, it would be "Pull left to go right, pull right to go left." My own feeling is that memorizing phrases like this is actually pretty useless. For one thing, your brain is too slow to steer and balance the bike if it has to process catch phrases, and for another, this is an oversimplification that ultimately prevents understanding of what you are doing.

Once you are told what countersteering is, it is your job to make it a subconscious reflex. Not to be constantly repeating phrases to yourself as you go around curves. I have been countersteering for forty years, and I never think about it any more unless I am doing something unusual. For example, let's say I am holding the right handgrip with my left hand. If and when I do that, I find out that my hand is unconsciously doing the WRONG thing to balance the motorcycle. By the way, this crossing your hands trick is a dangerous practice that I do not recommend trying. There is another time when my unconscious countersteering is bad, and that is when I am in deep gravel. In deep gravel, the front wheel should not be steered too forcefully, you have to be very gentle and balance the bike with your body more than you would on pavement.

Countersteering, once it becomes unconscious, is at work all the time, not just in curves or high speed. It works in a straight line, or in fighting a side wind. It works at low speeds and high speeds.

Next we come to this so-called exception to countersteering that you often hear about. It is said "countersteering does not work under 10 kph." I am suspicious whenever I hear of a law of science that has exceptions. Usually it means the law has not been properly formulated in the first place, and that it needs a rethink.

The fact is that countersteering is not simply a matter of "push right to go right." More correctly, it would be this: A motorcycle (or any two wheeled vehicle) actually must steer to the right to go to the right. But it is only in very sharp corners that you would actually turn the handlebars enough to see them turning. In a high speed gradual curve, you turn the handlebars so little it is almost invisible. But when turning around in your driveway, you need pretty much full steering lock to make the corner. So sharp corners (usually taken at low speed by the way!) need a visible amount of steering to get around. Gradual corners (a 100 kph onramp) only need an almost invisible amount of steering with the handlebars.

OK so now the actual steering is taken care of, let's deal with leaning. Remember at high speeds, the amount you turn the bars is almost invisible, but you need to lean a lot for the centrifugal force. In case you don't know what centrifugal force is, let's just say it's the reason you need to lean the bike over at high speeds, but hardly at all at low speeds (like a U turn in your driveway).

We cannot just steer a two wheeled vehicle around a corner, because we first of all have to make sure it leans into the turn. If we try to steer it WITHOUT leaning it, we will fall down to the OUTSIDE of the curve, due to centrifugal force. So how do we lean it into the curve? There are a couple of ways, one is to lean you body into the curve. This is fine at very low speeds, on lightweight machines (bicycles), but at high speeds, and sharp corners, on a heavy machine, you need help. That help comes from countersteering. With countersteering you can lean the bike over to any angle you wish, almost as fast as you can blink. Of course, the bike must be moving (the faster the better for countersteering), and you must be aware of the phenomenon, and secondly you must train the muscles of your wrist to do it without the aid of mnemonics like "push right to go right"

A motorcyclist is both steering and countersteering all the time. So imagine that the countersteering is overlayed on top of steering. Further, imagine you are in a high speed ring, circling to the right at 100 kph, leaned over at about 30 degrees to combat the centrifugal force, and everything is in perfect balance. But if you accidentally steer to the right more than necessary to get around the ring, the bike will stop leaning over. That is very bad, because now you are not balanced, and if you do not make it lean over again quickly at 30 degrees, it will continue to "fall" to the left. What can you do to bring the forces back into balance? One, you could reduce your speed, because you don't have to lean as much if you are going slower. Two, you could force the bike to lean to the right more by easing off your steering to the right. In other words, undo the mistake you just did when you accidentally steered too much to the right. As you steer less to the right, the bike will gradually lean more to the right, until it is in balance again, and you can resume the normal steering angle.

How can the rider tell when everything is in balance? I think that is almost unconscious also. It is actually just as hard to explain when you are driving in a straight line. How can you tell when the motorcycle is balanced in a straight line? Because it is not falling down. Same thing in a curve, except that you are leaning at 30 degrees to the horizon. But it still feels like you are not falling. I'm not sure I can explain that any better.

Here is my previous blog on countersteering.

Here are a couple of videos, some of the ideas expressed are slightly different to mine, but the laws of physics would be the same.

Picture: That is a Kenworth. Not Peterbilt, not Western Star, not Freightliner. I know that because countersteering is now unconscious, so my conscious brain has time to deal with more important things.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Fox News North Backs Down, is Canada Safe from Brainwashing?

Apparently, after quite a battle, the Fox News North application was withdrawn.

But are we safe from the brainwashing? Not really, as they plan to launch anyway, just without the benefit of being forced on to the Canadian public. They will lose money for the short term (and hopefully the long term). And they will not even be available on TVs where the subscriber has not specifically paid for them. Which means they will not be able to work their brainwashing magic on Canadians who only see a black screen, and hear nothing on their channel.

But propaganda still has a lot of power in it, so I would not really breathe a sigh of relief. The only real defence against propaganda is a well informed public, who is also media literate. And that is becoming a real worry, even in Canada.

On the other hand, as the right wing coalition of pro-war Christians and free-market big business gains strength in the USA, they will likely win converts in Canada. And they have a lot of money to spend in spreading their message.

Here is an extreme right wing commenter on this web site, with the statement that all Canadian media is left wing and we need a chance to hear the "balanced" Fox News point of view.

"Ron comments October 06, 2010:
In Canada one is only permitted to hear the left wing, politically correct version of world events. They have rewritten history textbooks to reflect that view, they have Commissions that hold kangaroo courts where there is no protection of rights or even adherence to rules of evidence. The Sun TV station threatens that control. They fear that people may actually hear news that does not fit the narrow-minded, hateful world view of the left. Free speech is dead in Canada - the Sun may get its TV station but the left will use their courts and Human Rights Commissions to curtail their broadcasts - We have one voice in Canada - the CBC/Liberal owned voice and anyone who dares to challenge it will be attacked and destroyed. The left hates the U.S. because they refuse to worship at the alter of the left --- many Canadians are quite willing to behave and bow down to that religion - The Sun must not be permitted to provide another view - there is no other view but that of the left! They must not be allowed to broadcast."

Well, in Canada we have "The National Post" and MacLean's magazine. Both are right wing extremist. Then we have on TV the CTV and the CBC and Global, and all present right wing points of view. In Ontario we have TVO which has a nightly news show "The Agenda" with Steve Paikin, who I consider to be right wing. Also nightly on my TV anyway, is the "Michael Coren" show which is about as extreme right as I would ever want to see. It certainly gets me just as steamed as Fox News does.

So I do not agree that we are restricted to leftist points of view in Canada. In fact this allegation is so ridiculous I might even consider it to be a deliberate lie in order to promote a certain right wing point of view. Could we call that comment itself "propaganda?".

The problem with the extreme right wing message, in my opinion, is that it is strongly tied to fundamentalist "Christianity", including the denial of the theory of evolution. Secondly that it is racist. Third it is pro-war, that meaning the desire that the USA should eventually conquer every country on Earth using any means possible, and then convert those countries to fundamental Christianity. And let's not forget that it is also anti-environmental, trying to brainwash people into believing that it is necessary for big corporations to destroy the environment to give us jobs, and it is not just for their short term profit.

This "Narrow minded, hateful, left wing" view that Canadians have been brainwashed into is:
  • Equal access to education and health care for all
  • World peace with the UN as a body to discuss issues
  • World court to try war criminals
  • Protection of the environment for future generations
  • Freedom of religion
  • Protection of democracy
  • Freedom of speech (exception: hate speech).
  • No racism and NO master race

Amazingly enough Fox News North really could cure us of this left wing brainwashing, if we let it. Here is a clip of the original Fox News at work doing what they do best, which is flushing out racists. Turns out it is themselves.

Picture: From a blog by Montreal Simon

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Canada's Position in the United Nations

Canada, for the first time, lost a bid for a temporary seat on the U.N. Security Council. In my mind, the reason is pretty obvious. We have a pro-war, anti-environmental government that has lost international good will by being more pro-Israeli than the U.S.A., and has no more respect for the UN than the Bush regime.

But I was surprised to find out that our Prime Minister, Harper, was blaming the Liberal opposition leader Michael Ignatieff for the embarrassment. Where can I get an explanation of the view from the right wing conservatives? I decided the "National Post" would be good. Here is the first one I found.

"Matt Gurney: Canadian Arab Federation casts its vote against Canada"

Right in the title, it's the Canadian Arabs to blame. Apparently they cast their vote against us. I wonder how that's possible, as they don't even have official recognition as a country. I understand that this is just "exaggeration" on the part of some opinionated columnist. But not everybody understands, like me, that this is impossible. It's typical for The National Post to put misleading headlines, spreading conservative ideas among people who do not read the whole article to make up their own minds.

The first thing I read in the column is that there was no actual vote, Canada actually withdrew from the final ballot. I guess the conservatives didn't want to be embarrassed, and figured they were going to lose anyway.

Even this writer admitted that Ignatieff's statements did not lose us the seat:
"..the UN may be hopeless, but it doesn’t take its cue from the Liberal Party of Canada"
Notice the statement "the UN may be hopeless" in the quote, almost like this opinion about the UN does not need to be debated. Conservatives apparently think it is now an established scientific fact that the UN is hopeless.

Hopeless means 1. having or offering no hope 2. impossible to analyse or solve 3. unable to learn, function, etc. 4. Informal without skill or ability

When you say "the UN may be hopeless, but..", you are not open to a rebuttal (Reminder, the Queen of England last summer visited the UN and said it was an institution of hope). If this person had said "I believe that the UN is without hope." it would at least imply a willingness to recognize that this is a personal opinion.

With this kind of attitude and these speech patterns, which I believe are representative of the conservative mindset, would you not expect Canada's conservative government to bow out before the final ballot?

Here is what this conservative commentator thinks lost us the seat:
"...not signing away our economy to appease the greenies cannot be tolerated. How dare we be so right-wing and, like, totally American. Ugh. How can the UN even look at us? Please, guys, don’t vote for us. Pro-Israel, pro-free-trade Westerners have no place in the United Nations until they grovel and apologize for every sin, real or imagined, ever committed by a white guy anywhere."
So apparently it's also the greenies and the anti-white guys who share some of the blame. That's what I thought too, but worded differently.

The real problem is that Canada deserves a seat on the UNSC, but not until we get a government that represents the Canadian people. Today, Canada has an extreme right wing, pro-war, pro-Republican, anti environmental, and religious fundamentalist governing party that has grabbed on and held power through our flawed electoral system, and our equally flawed checks and balances (one word "prorogation"). And until we get our government back, we should not be taking up space on the UN Security Council. Let Portugal have the seat. They represent Canadian opinion as well as the Conservative Party of Canada does.