Saturday, April 29, 2006

Automobile Politics

I believe the automobile is the worst thing that ever happened to the planet, and by extension, to the human race. Not just its disproportionate contribution to greenhouse gases, but its effect upon our culture and our attitudes.

Can anyone out there claim to have never regarded another motorist as an enemy? The timid driver holding a lengthening snake of the impatient behind them, or the transport truck driver careering along a winter road with his own fogbank of blinding snow in his wake? Even in the most insular of societies, a lengthy journey in public transport eventually leads one to recognize our common humanity, if only in a timid, grudging way. A lengthy journey by automobile leads one to detest other drivers.

The fragmentation of human society into suburbs, satellite towns, and acreages grew from our dependency on the automobile, and is the very antithesis of the meaning of the word civilization. Cities originally grew where people found the means to prosper in the common good. Today, half of our electorates decry the common good as the opposite of economic efficiency. What an illusion. The common good is the institution which provides the hospital you were born in, the school where you were educated, and the company where you earn your living. Don't be deceived by the lie that self made men are those who prosper by their own efforts – if there were no society bound together by the give and take of the common good – those individuals would be as impoverished as any other peasant under feudalism.

Corporate managers and their think-tank minions, who decry government for its waste and inefficiency – and claim it's holding them back – have gained more from the common good than you or I. They benefit more from good order, effective government, and the whole edifice of laws than you or I. Who is it has recourse to the courts most? Not those of us who cannot afford the lawyers' fees. The majority of society has always looked to a champion to protect their rights – an aristocratic patron, a king, a representative, or a president. Good government is the champion of the common people, not just the rich and powerful. If it's not serving you now it's because it has been subverted to other, insider interests. Business gets the tax breaks and the royalty holidays.

So how did I get here from decrying the automobile? No matter how much we may mistrust and oppose it, some kind of carbon tax may become inevitable. The automobile manufacturers and the oil companies vehemently oppose it – supported by all the little people who hang onto their coat-tails. The result will be that the eventual legislation will come in with the stamp of those antagonisms, and lose sophistication and clever policies for a sledge hammer of authority. And who will suffer most? The common people, of course.

You with a home in the suburbs or the country will inevitably bear a larger share of the burden than the apartment dweller in the city. You will be the one paying an outrageous price for gasoline while others take public transit. But it doesn't have to be that way. It would be fairer for the shift in taxation, and the subsidies our governments pay to vested interests, to start small and create the shifts in spending and investment patterns over the long, rather than the short term. Instead of the high cost of commuting become a burden upon your investment in country property in one fell swoop, it would unfold gradually; hopefully giving you and your heirs ample time to adjust their expectations and their savings accordingly.

That will only happen if we – the people who depend upon the common good – cease supporting the policies that benefit those other people. Let's shed a crocodile tear for the poor shareholders of Exxon and Shell, but don't be fool enough to vote their politicians into office where they can shift more burden onto you. We've been suckers long enough. Polish the damned things that you depend upon for travel and pay those dollars to keep them in safe order – but don't worship them. If you can find someone's deep frier that will keep you in bio-diesel, more power to you, but the best solution is likely the fuel cell. That technology improves almost daily. Don't let it be manipulated out of existence the way other examples of the common good have been. If its greatest advantage is in public transport, applaud it. Lobby to have public transit come your way, for your benefit as well. One day the fuel that powers society may be growing in the field beside you. It will smell like a new future.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Off Road Experience

Traveling off-road is a popular pastime, but what are the best techniques and tips?

With 46 years of off-road traveling, I can offer more insight than most. I started off-roading with a jeep-type machine in 1959 – courtesy of the Royal Artillery. I worked as a surveyor in the North African deserts for almost five years, and traveled on every kind of surface there from sand dunes to salt marshes. I surveyed in Canada for another 30+ years and conducted my work from tracked vehicles in the Arctic Islands; pickup trucks in the Northern forests, muskeg, mountains, and Prairies; ran ATVs both summer and winter; hitched rides both on and behind Cats; and when the going got really tough, hopped out of helicopters to walk and scramble to where I had to go.

I've handled glare ice, sea ice, muskeg, sand dunes, desert and mountain trails, clearcuts. waterlogged fields at breakup, and forded rivers. If you want to know the best method of travel for a particular purpose, or need some tips on the best way to employ any particular mode – ask me first. It's all free – I have an ulterior motive in running this blog. I want to drive traffic to my novel writing website. I'll post a note when it's up.

In addition, I have used many kinds of navigational methods, from map and sun compass to GPS, so can answer questions about those. For example, would it be useful for you to know a quick method to use the sun as a compass? I traveled miles in the Arctic with only that to go by. GPS? I started using GPS to pinpoint locations in the Northern bush in 1991.

What about the exotic machines? Why are the big-wheeled and extremely raised trucks useless in the real world? What's the safest method to take a Cat dozer across a quaking tamarack muskeg? What's the most important tip to remember when utilizing a helicopter? I'll give you that answer to be going on with. "Don't piss-off the pilot". Your safety and your activity depends upon the person at the controls – as someone who has broken off willow branches under a running machine so it can be shut down, been instrumental in sending a cabin door into the rotor blades, and climbed out of a hovering machine onto a rock at the edge of a 2000ft precipice, I can attest that the nearest I ever came to an accident was when I took a relief pilot for granted.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Why all the Accidents?

Browsing through military related blogs and hearing the Canadian news about our troops in Afghanistan, I can't help by being struck by the number of vehicle accident casualties.

Having once driven an APC during my time in the army, I well know what poor vision the driver has. Not like a driver sitting up high in a Kenworth or Mack. That must contribute to a lot of the trouble.

Even so, I also remember that while stationed with the British Army in Germany and sharing a military hospital with the Canadian Forces, who were just down the road from us at Werl and Soest, that their accident cases formed a disproportionally large part of the patient load. Since coming to live in Canada, I can see one reason for their accident rate was lack of driving skills for difficult roads. Except in the winter,Canadian roads are too easy. That in itself means the Canadian drivers didn't have the same driving experience as the Europeans who learned on reverse camber curves, cobblestones, and the like.

This is compounded by the lower basic skills factor today – say a lower median driver ability. The corporate push to profits over the years has induced all manufacturers to make handling their vehicles easier. Automatic transmissions, cruise control, ABS brakes, and more. One might suppose this is a fine idea, but it means the general level of driver skills is lower because more marginally competent drivers are on the road. Sure those drivers are fine for most driving tasks, but when things go wrong they don't have the skills, or the feel for automobile handling, to get themeslves out of trouble. Younger U.S. and Canadian drivers don't have a high level of skill unless they have handled difficult vehicles and/or difficult roads.

In the military flying business, it used to be a given that the training aircraft presented a challenge to the trainee pilots. The idea was to weed out the less skilled at an early stage of the expensive training. I'm sure if we tried to lower our national accident rates by weeding out the incompetent drivers, there'd be a hell of an outcry, but that is the only way to reduce the carnage.

Easier roads and easier vehicles make for less competent drivers.

It's not likely that the rules will be changed to make all learners pass their driving test in a vehicle with a standard transmission, but you can advance your own skill level by mastering one. Try something like the old 1931 MG that was my first vehicle – it had what we called a ‘crash box' – a non-synchronised transmission. The army had a 1 ton truck with a similar transmission and when I had one on charge I learned to drive it without using the clutch at all – all my shifts had to be spot-on. The old autos had no automatic devices, but you're not likely to get near one today. English motorcycles of the 60s had no automatic spark or choke controls – riders had to learn to adjust these with levers on the handlebars. Perhaps some purists still sell them that way.

What I'm suggesting is not that I think all you young drivers are hopeless, but that you recognise the difference between the easy driving behind an automatic on a four-lane freeway and handling some beast of a machine on a mountain track in Afghanistan or Kosovo. When you get you first license, look on it as your basic training and find some advanced training to supplement it with. Some hog of a stick-shift 4x4 on a back country trail might do as a start. The experience could save your life one day.