Monday 29 December 2014

Escape from Camp 14

I’ll read anything that looks interesting. Thrillers. History. Politics. Science. Doesn’t matter. And so if there’s one thing that’s certain in life beyond death and taxes it’s that there will be a book – or, even better, several – under the Christmas tree each year.
Camp 14And one of those books this year was “Escape from Camp 14”. (There wasn’t a single mention of a motorcycle anywhere in the book but I thought it important enough to put this brief review online so that any of you that might be interested will pick it up and read it.)
If you’re not familiar with the book, the subtitle spells it out pretty clearly: “One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West”.
I’ve never really paid much attention to North Korea. Sure I’ll shake my head at yet another crazy pronouncement from Dear Leader, and worry for a few seconds every time he rattles his sabre at South Korea, Japan, or the US (“The Great Satan”). I am also minimally aware of the deprivations faced by the general population, the continued malnourishment of the citizenry, and the continuous brainwashing practiced by its leaders, but have no sense of how anything I can do would make the slightest bit of difference. I may actually watch “The Interview” some day just to see what all the fuss was about and to poke a symbolic stick in the eye of Kim Jong Un, but that’s about it.
But this book made me angry. Angry that such a depraved regime could still exist in the 21st century. Angry that people could be (legally) treated worse than animals by sadistic overseers (for example, one of the camp’s 10 rules was “Anyone who does not acknowledge his sins … will be shot immediately.”). Angry that China (no bastion of human rights itself, but a beacon of light compared to North Korea) would continue to prop up such a brutal regime. Angry that a man can reach adulthood knowing only fear and without any concept of love, sharing, or even closeness to another human being. And angry that there seems so little the West can do about it.
This is a small book – only 200 pages – and an easy read (“easy” in the sense that I finished it in a day; not the subject matter which is most decidedly NOT an easy read). The author takes the reader through the horrors of life (a misnomer if there ever was one) in Camp 14, Shin’s daring escape, his bewilderment at finding a world outside the fence he never knew existed, his psychological scars, and ultimately to his current situation where he continues to struggle with feelings, emotions, and his personal sense of guilt.
It’s a powerful book, and certainly worth a read. Highly recommended.

Friday 26 December 2014

Attention test

Spend a minute watching this auto commercial for the new SKODA Fabia; your time won’t be wasted.

Interesting, isn’t it? It may only be a commercial but it provides a perfect example of what we’re up against on the roads. If that driver coming up to the intersection is so focused on watching the light to make sure he gets through on the green, or is concentrating on whether she has room to turn in front of the truck that’s right behind you, you simply will not register on their conscience.

I’ve blogged about this before (here and here) but it’s a message that deserves repeating again, and again, and again.

Don’t misunderstand, I’m not excusing anyone’s inattentiveness and bad driving, but being forewarned is, as they say, forearmed. Knowing how we all ‘see’ the world around us under certain conditions might some day save your life.

Something to think about as we slowly emerge from our winter cocoons to start a new riding season.

Friday 19 December 2014

I’m conflicted

Short story:  Young woman stops her car in the passing lane of a major highway to help some ducks trying to cross the road. Motorcyclist crashes into the back of her car killing both the rider and passenger. Woman gets 90 days jail time and a 10 year driving ban. [Link]



That was certainly my first thought, that she got away with murder, and I think many motorcyclists would react the same way. But then I dug into it a bit more and found, as with most things, there was more to the story.

Longer story: Young woman stops her car in the passing lane of a major highway to help some ducks trying to cross the road. A camper trailer also in the passing lane swerves at the last minute to avoid the car. A motorcyclist following the camper trailer, driving (it is estimated) between 25 and 40 kilometres per hour over the posted speed limit of 90 kph, doesn’t react in time and crashes into the back of the car killing both the rider and passenger.

So is it still lethal injection time? Some will call me out for blaming the victim, but I can’t help but think about how this was such an avoidable accident.

First, there are many reasons a vehicle might be stopped in any lane of a highway – accident, breakdown, and, yes, stupidity. But the responsibility is with all drivers to be aware of that possibility and drive in such a manner that control can be maintained at all times, even when faced with the unexpected – especially when faced with the unexpected.

Second, it would appear from published reports that the rider was following the camper so closely that he had no, or limited, visibility of the road ahead. When the camper swerved suddenly to avoid the stopped vehicle (which could equally have been a large pothole or debris on the road) he was caught by surprise and had neither the time, nor possibly the training, to react appropriately.

Finally, I have seen no reports of how much other traffic there was on the highway at the time, but excessive speed, and travelling at a speed significantly higher than the traffic around you, always comes at a huge risk – a risk that rests solely with the driver.

Let there be no doubt this woman did something blazingly stupid and negligent. Two people are dead and lives will never be the same, including hers, and she needs to accept responsibility and be punished for that.

But I’m conflicted. I think some jail time is appropriate but, frankly, a long jail term as has been called for by some won’t fix stupid. However, a 10 year driving ban will at least keep her off the road, making it a wee bit safer for all of us no matter how many wheels we are on. So put away the syringe, I think the judge may have got this one right.

Thursday 11 December 2014

Mickey to the rescue

Back in June I acquired a new-to-me tractor. Since then it has done yeoman’s service in helping clear felled trees, repairing driveways, and generally moving heavy stuff about. But it hadn’t yet been put to its primary intended role which was for winter snow removal.

That changed last night when the first major storm of the year dumped upwards of 30 cm (12”) of the heavy white stuff, with lots of drifting, on our road and laneway. And I’m pleased to report that Mickey was well up to the task. In about 45 minutes I had cleared 1/2 kilometre of road plus both our and our neighbour’s driveways. And I had some fun doing it!

Snow blowing

Why Mickey? I’m not entirely sure why people name their vehicles but when they do there’s usually some connection to a person – alive or dead – who shares the name. I wasn’t going to call it anything until I saw this recent image of Mickey Rourke and it immediately reminded me of my tractor.

homeboy-splash    IMG_20141108_095303790_HDR

Now you have to admit there is an uncanny resemblance. So Mickey it is.

Sunday 7 December 2014

I’m still here – honest!

I just realised the entire month of November has come and gone without a single posting. While I may not be the most prolific of posters I do try and get something up here on a semi-regular basis. In fact, not since May 2008 have I missed posting for an entire month.

Writers blockSo what happened? Who knows? It’s easy enough to lay the responsibility for my lack of loquaciousness on the dreaded “writer’s block” but I'm not so sure that’s entirely fair. No, it just seems that I was incredibly busy last month and posting took a back seat to everything else that was going on – which, in hindsight, really wasn't very much at all. Sure, I went for a week’s golfing trip to Fort Lauderdale (hot and sunny – thank you!). And I was down with a cold for a few days. And… Okay, now I'm rationalizing. Suffice it to say dear readers (both of you) that I will endeavour to be more forthcoming with witty and brilliant content as 2014 drags inexorably to its eventual demise, to be replaced by a new year containing lots of good two-wheeled material.

In the meantime I will leave you with this, my contribution to Christmas decorations in the family abode.  It has blinking lights and plays a tinny Xmas song, but for totally unjustifiable reasons I wasn't allowed to put the batteries in. No wonder I'm having trouble trying to summon up the Christmas spirit; there’s a Grinch in the house.

Xmas Santa

Monday 20 October 2014

“I have too much money.”

That must have been the thought of the person (who shall remain anonymous) who just spent $1.35 MILLION to own this bike:


I know, I know, collectors will pay insane amounts for one-offs or vehicles with well documented histories, but this bike is different.

First of all it’s not the only copy floating around that purports to be THE bike that Fonda rode in Easy Rider. Rumours abound but apparently 2 were built for the movie. One was crashed at the end of the film and the other was stolen, along with both Dennis Hopper bikes – or so the story goes. This particular unit that was just sold is supposed to be the crashed bike, restored by Dan Haggerty of Grizzly Adams fame. But then so is a second bike, owned by Texan Gordon Granger and also authenticated by Haggerty. Clearly one is a replica, but which one?

Even Fonda doesn't know what’s going on, being quoted as saying "There's a big rat stinking someplace in this."

So, $1.35 million for a bike with dubious credentials. Good deal or insanity?

I know which term I’d use (even if I had a ridiculous amount of money to throw away on toys – sorry, investments).

Wednesday 15 October 2014


To anyone familiar with the Second World War the name Dresden conjures up images of the almost total destruction of the medieval city. On February 13 and 14, 1945 a massive Allied firebombing attack reduced the city centre to ruins and killed tens of thousands of civilians. 70 years later, the justification for that raid remains hotly debated.
One of the casualties of that attack was the Frauenkirche, a beautiful Baroque church built in the early 1700s. After the war the church remained little more than a pile of rubble until the fall of the GDR and the reunification of Germany in 1990. Then reconstruction efforts took off and the church was rebuilt with money raised internationally, including major contributions from those same Allied countries that caused its initial destruction. All told the reconstruction efforts cost €180 million (about $270 million) and took 12 years, completed in 2005.
I had read about the firebombing of Dresden and the reconstruction of the city and the church. It’s an amazing story of death, destruction, reconstruction, and rebirth, so when the opportunity presented itself on this trip I just had to see for myself.
I was not disappointed. The day we spent in Dresden was one of the highlights of the trip.
But first, to set the scene, this is what central Dresden looked like 70 years ago.
GERMANY-HISTORY-WWII-BRITAIN-DRESDEN-FRAUENKIRCHETwo towers to the left are all that remained standing of the Frauenkirche.
(Photos from the Internet)
Today Dresden is a modern, dynamic city and a cultural and educational center. It is still undergoing a lot of reconstruction as much was left undone under Communist rule, but the downtown area especially is beautifully restored.

The Zwinger dates back to the early 1700’s when it was built as a palace. Totally destroyed, it was reconstructed under the Soviet military administration after the war.

Inner courtyard of the Zwinger. It’s a huge space.

Hard to see but that’s a lipstick kiss on the Cherub’s butt.

Large public square in the center of town with lots of cafes and eateries lining the square and adjoining side streets. Martin Luther holds a place of honour.

Taking afternoon tea in one of the cafes.

We were going to eat here but €15 for a hamburger was a bit pricey. Still, it was packed!

Just out taking some air. Saw several groups in period costumes. Not sure why.

The rebuilt Opera House. Unfortunately it was closed to the public as were many of the old buildings.

Saving the best for last – the rebuilt Frauenkirche. Dark stones are stones they were able to recover from the ruins and reuse back in their original locations. Note the two dark towers; these were the two towers left mostly standing.

Inside was simply beautiful.

Art work on the inner dome.

View from the Frauenkirche dome looking along the Elbe.
I would have liked to spend more than a day there but our schedule was such that wasn’t possible. But I am certainly happy that we included Dresden in our itinerary.
(If you’re interested in knowing more the book Dresden by Frederick Taylor gives a largely unbiased history of Dresden and the events leading up to and during the bombing in February 1945. Also, Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five is partially based on his experience as a POW in Dresden during the firebomb attack.)

Sunday 12 October 2014

It’s a Small World … in Hamburg

Anyone who has ever been to any of the Disney properties has, no doubt, the ‘It’s a Small World’ theme song forever embedded in their brain. (And I’ll apologize right now for invoking an earworm that will take you days to remove.)
From Paris we drove to Hannover, Germany and spent some time with distant relatives there. But I couldn’t wait to get to Hamburg to cross off another bucket list item.
I had first heard of Miniature Wonderland (or Miniatur Wunderland in local speak) several years ago through one of those gotta-check-this-out email blasts. It seemed these 2 guys had built a model railroad layout that was so big it occupied the better part of an old warehouse in Hamburg. Model railroading is not a hobby that I ever pursued other than having a childhood train on an oval track (Who didn’t back then?), but it was always lurking just below the surface. So right then and there I decided I wanted to see it some day, and this was the day.
With no address other than Hamburg, a Mapquest search provided all the info I needed to drive there from Luneburg, where we were staying. Except it turned out that “there” was a shopping center, miles kilometers from the correct location. Fortunately it contained a travel office with a very helpful agent who directed us to the right U-Bahn (subway line) to get there, advising that would be easier than trying to drive. A few stops later we arrived, this time at the right spot, on the harbour front, beside the Hamburg Dungeon (which we did not visit).
Started in 2000 the Miniatur Wunderland layout now occupies 13,000 square metres (140,000 square feet) of space over 3 floors. There are 8 themed worlds, 930 trains running, 1270 signals, 215,000 figures, 330,000 lights. You get the idea – it’s big and elaborate and very popular.
The whole thing is run by 46 computers out of a control centre that looks like a space launch is underway. An estimate of the construction time to date is 580,000 hours and they are not finished. Plans are in place to almost double the floor space with 4 new themed worlds being added in the next couple of years.
One of the most recent additions was the model airport. Knuffingen Airport took 6 years and about $5 million to build. It has to be seen in action, so here’s a short video.
The entire display goes through a night-day-night cycle every hour or so, so some of the photos are ‘night-time’ shots and others are taken during the ‘day’. The level of detail is unbelievable and there are little gems here and there that the very observant viewer might find, but that most people would miss. I only found two of probably dozens in the various tableaus.
So here, to whet your appetite, are some Miniatur Wunderland scenes.

A car-bicycle accident.

Las Vegas by day.

Las Vegas by night.

One of many cityscapes. This is a detailed copy of an area of Hamburg.

Scuba diving cows. One of the little hidden jokes.

Winter mining in Scandinavia.

At the beach.

Parking lot at the airport.

Approaching the airport at night.

Vehicle tunnel.

New layout under construction.
Finally, the control centre from where everything is run.

Wednesday 8 October 2014

Ah Paris, je t’aime.

Never having been to Paris before I wasn’t too sure what to expect but I was looking forward to the experience.
Our visit got off to a rocky start when our accommodations were changed at the last minute and we arrived at Charles de Gaulle Airport without a place to stay. But we got that sorted out (more or less – it’s a long, long story that is continuing) in a couple of hours and then we had a place to drop our bags so we could start to explore.
And explore we did.
When we travel we like to walk the cities we visit, and Paris is a great walking city. Over the next 6 days we left a lot of shoe rubber on the cobblestones as we toured all the traditional venues like the Eiffel Tower, Montmartre, Champs-Elysees, Left Bank, Right Bank, Versailles, the Louvre – it’s a long, long list. We also visited some not so common places like the Catacombs where the bones of millions of Parisians are stacked like so much cordwood.
But the best entertainment, by far, was to simply sit in a sidewalk cafe at an intersection and watch the traffic flow. At every stop light motorcycles, scooters and bicycles would all work their way to the front of the line. As the light was about to change there would be a great revving of engines. Then a green light would trigger a Formula 1 type start with trucks, buses, cars, motorcycles, scooters, bicycles, and the odd pedestrian caught off the sidewalk in the mix. Pure madness but fascinating to watch. And most amazingly, in the entire week we never saw an accident.
So what do I think of Paris having been there? Fantastic! I loved it and would happily return if the opportunity presents itself.
Here are but a few of the pictures from Paris, some of which you may not see in the tourist brochures.

Waiting for the flag to drop.

For my Vespa riding friends.

In front of one of many scooter dealerships.

New glass floor in the Eiffel Tower. For scale, those are people in the upper right corner.

Looking up the Seine. Love locks on the Pont des Arts in front of the Louvre.

Just plain ugly.

Kind of seedy actually. Didn’t bother with a show.

Rear side of Notre Dame. Beautiful.

Fashionable footwear for bicycling. Pretty common.

One of the gardens at Versailles.

l’Arc de Triomphe from la Defense

Aw, can we cuddle?

Probably a good story behind this.

Scooters, scooters everywhere.

A nice looking street of apartments.

Obviously accidents DO happen.
Jim Morrison’s grave in Paris’ largest graveyard.

Excluding the Catacombs, of course.

Some of the bone stackers got quite creative.

The Louvre courtyard. Only part of 1 wing showing; it’s HUGE.
Finally got to see the Mona Lisa, along with all her groupies.

Why it’s not a good idea just to lock the front wheel.

Futuristic vehicle in the Toyota showroom on Champs-Elysees. You have never seen car dealerships like these!

Trying on the Renault Twizy, a 2-seater electric car, for size. A bit tight.

The Eiffel Tower really dominates the skyline.

Why you shouldn’t park your delivery van on the street overnight.