Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Dark Money: a review

Dark MoneyUnless you’ve been living under a rock these past few months you will be aware of a racist, misogynistic, underqualified boor aspiring to be the next president of the most powerful nation on the planet. While much of the world watches, aghast, as America in general and the GOP in particular tear themselves apart over a (bad) reality TV host turned unlikely politician, Donald Trump has one thing going for him – the fact that he is, as he reminds us regularly, beholding to no one; his campaign is supposedly completely self-funded. And this has the money people on the right baffled – if you can’t buy a politician, what good is he to you?

Which brings me to Dark Money by Jane Mayer.

The sub-title of Dark Money is “The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right” and the book describes how the moneyed elite in the US have used their vast wealth to advance their personal and corporate objectives through selective funding of universities, think tanks, and political action committees, much of it hidden from public view through the use of tax-exempt private foundations and trusts.

Chief among this group are Charles and David Koch who, by most accounts, are ruthless in their pursuit of an unfettered business environment free of such irritants as environmental rules, employee safety standards, securities regulations, and tax laws. But the book identifies a number of other wealthy families and individuals who have also used their money in questionable ways to influence everything from the courts to Congress, and ultimately the presidency.

As a political junkie I found this book to be a fascinating read as it offers up a perspective on the increasingly libertarian stances being taken by US state and federal governments. There are also some quite strong indicators that the long-rumored Koch’s reach into the conservative movement in Canada probably did (and may continue to) occur, centered around the oil business, the Alberta oil sands, and the (now) Conservative Party of Canada. It’s all very disturbing, to be honest.

So I give the book a qualified recommendation. If you are interested in politics and the state of our western democracies, it’s an eye-opener. On the other hand, if your entire interest in politics is to respond to the latest attack ad on election day and vote accordingly, your eyes will glaze over before you finish the introduction so you might as well give it a pass.

Additional note: The author, Jane Mayer, was interviewed on CBC about her book. That interview can be seen here.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Dwarf cars

We all (or at least most of us) have what you could call a hobby, whether it’s riding or wrenching, model trains, reading, sky diving, or what have you. Any activity that consumes our time and interest (and, usually, lots of money) qualifies. But precious few of us have taken their passions to the level of Ernie Adams.

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You can read much more on his web site, Dwarf Car Museum, but to summarize, Ernie (now in his 70’s, I believe) built his first dwarf car in 1965, a 5/8 scale model of a ‘28 Chevy two-door sedan, and the rest is, as they say, history.

From the web site: The first Dwarf Car came to life in 1965 as a 28 Chevy two-door sedan made out of nine old refrigerators. Ernie began gathering the materials for this little car in 1962. By 1965 he had enough materials and an 18 hp Wisconsin motor to begin construction. With a homemade hacksaw made from a chair frame, hammer and a chisel, Ernie began construction. He had no idea what this would be the beginning of. Because this is the first Dwarf Car ever built, it is known as “GRANDPA DWARF.” This first Dwarf Car is kept in running order and is still driven today.

Since then he has built a number of dwarf cars, all by hand, many of which reside today in his museum, located just outside Maricopa, Arizona.

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It’s now on my bucket list to visit the museum, and definitely worth a stop if you’re ever in that part of the country.

(There’s lots more on the web about Ernie and his dwarf cars, but one good site is The Internet Craftsmanship Museum that provides more background on Ernie and some of his creations.)

Thursday, March 24, 2016

What would you ride if you lived on an island?

Of course that question is a bit broad in that islands come in all shapes and sizes. England is an island with many, many miles of roads, as is New Zealand (actually 2 islands), but I’m talking about small islands, islands with land masses measured in the tens of square miles and not thousands.

A couple of weeks ago we were visiting one of our favourite Caribbean islands – Saint Martin/Sint Maarten. One of the leeward islands it’s pretty much hung out there in the Atlantic, but it has some of the most spectacular beaches we’ve found and fabulous restaurants in which to wind down after a hard day of sun, sand, and surf (and Heineken – available everywhere at $2 a pop).

CaptureIt’s the very definition of a small island, covering a total of 35 square miles with a permanent population of around 80,000 and probably near that number of tourists during the winter season. There is one main loop road that connects all the major centres and it’s about 28 miles long. The road is so narrow and generally busy that a round trip will take anywhere from an hour to two hours or more, with frequent stops for goats, chickens, buses, dogs, and conversations between friends held while the driver just stops in the road for a minute or two to catch up on the latest gossip, triggering a blaring of horns which, for the most part, go ignored.

All roads have an unmarked “third lane”, usually down the centre strip along which motorcycles, scooters, and even bicycles travel at speeds well above the main traffic flow. This is where loud pipes really do save lives as you will hear them coming 4 or 5 cars back before they speed past, often with front wheels in the air, threading the needle between you and the oncoming traffic, around corners and over hills. Even the scooters run with open exhausts. Surprisingly there seem to be few fatalities, a testament no doubt to the slower traffic speeds and local driver awareness.

I’m not sure I could survive for more than a few weeks at a time on such a small piece of real estate but I got to thinking that if I were magically transported here two wheels would be the preferred mode of travel. That triggered the question: What would I ride?

P1010661There are certainly plenty of options to choose from. All major brands of two-wheelers are represented on the island, including Harley-Davidson. I did see a couple of full dressers but why a touring bike? Where are you going to tour to when the most distant spot in your immediate universe is an hour away? But then I saw a few Hummers and high-end Range Rovers as well, so who knows? But muscling 900 pounds of iron around in those crowded towns and villages and on frequent gravel roads would be a no-go for me.

The main roads are twisty and hilly and would be great for a sports bike or cafe racer, but the constant heavy traffic would be an endless source of frustration. Lost tourists driving small SUVs gawking at the scenery and generally behaving as if they just got their license last week would make letting the ponies out near-suicide. Of course the same could be said, I suppose, for the couple of ‘Vettes I saw slowly crawling over the ubiquitous speed bumps.

A scooter might be a good choice. Probably the most popular form of two-wheeling, so lots of dealers and repair shops – none of which, it seems, sell mufflers. They’re convenient, maneuverable, inexpensive to operate (with gas at about $4 a gallon that’s a consideration), and very utilitarian, but lacking any fun factor. (Cue the outraged comments from scooterists.)

No, I think the best would be a mid-sized dual purpose bike. Plenty of power for the road, great traction on gravel and sand, and maneuverable in traffic. A dual purpose will take you anywhere you want to go and, when the traffic miraculously clears for a few minutes, do so with vigour. Definitely my choice.

Or I could just bolt a motor on a bicycle like this young lad.

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Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Nocturnal musings

I am not a nervous flier – years of business travel and countless hours spent in airplanes of all shapes and sizes have made me reasonably comfortable with the various bangs, clunks, and grinding noises associated with take off and landing as well as the roller coaster ride of inflight turbulence.

However the same does not apply to the night before a trip. I don’t know if it’s the anticipation or simply an unrealistic worry about missing the 0-dark-30 alarm to get to the airport 2 hours before a 6 am flight, but I spend as much time in semi-awake neverland as I do sleeping, constantly checking the time ‘just in case’ none of the several alarms go off or I don’t hear them.

And the more I try to settle my thoughts and retreat into some sort of a zen state to relax my mind wanders... and wanders. As an example, a couple of weeks ago we were due to fly out in the early AM to St. Martin for a short vacation and, true to form, my nighttime thoughts were not about sugarplums but instead bounced back and forth between a short vignette I’m working on (and may post some day if it’s good enough) and how one’s lungs actually work to capture oxygen from the air – more specifically do they work more like a 2-stroke, or a 4-stroke engine? (I know, but I make no apologies for what the mind considers important at 3 AM.)

My Grade 9 biology class obviously did not adequately prepare me for that semi-lucid contemplation, or perhaps I have just forgotten in the intervening decades, however I ultimately decided it was definitely a 2-stroke operation - gas in, exhaust out, in one complete cycle. Now you know.

The other subject that consumed what was left of my half-awake-half-asleep brain, my embryonic story, will not be so easy. I know (or at least I think I know) that I had at least a half dozen undoubtedly clever turns of phrase that would leave the reader with an exceptional understanding of the sense and image I wish to convey. I suppose I should have written them down but I didn’t and so - pffft - gone with the 5 AM alarm.

As Google has yet to offer a “what I was thinking” feature it’s now back to hard work to try and reimagine the ideas. Which is unfortunate  because I’m certain they were brilliant, even if they did not include any references to 2- or 4-stroke engines.