Thursday, March 10, 2011

One Man Caravan

by Robert Edison Fulton Jr.

One Man Caravan““Oh no,” I replied. “I’m going around the world on a motorcycle.””

At a dinner party in London, in 1932, Robert Edison Fulton Junior had just been asked when he was planning to sail back to America.

“Who was the more startled, the seven persons around me or myself, I really can’t say. I recall only that the moment I let that statement slip, I knew I’d done something inexplicably peculiar.”

Of course it might never have happened at all but for the fact that one of the other dinner guests was none other than Kenton Redgrave who had just purchased the Douglas Motor Works and offered Fulton a free motorcycle upon which to take the trip.

And thus began an eighteen-month round the world odyssey on a modified, 6 horsepower, Douglas twin, in 1932.

Fulton travelled through 22 countries, including some of the most inhospitable (then and now). He rode through Iraq (Irak, as it was spelled), Afghanistan, Waziristan, India, China, and many others. He crossed mountains, and deserts. He dealt with idiotic border regulations (and guards) and spent some time in jails. But throughout his trip he was, for the most part, able to connect with the local populace and surprisingly survived even the most potentially dangerous situations relatively unscathed. His descriptions of local customs and his attempts to communicate, usually with no common language, are often quite funny and insightful.

I really enjoyed this book, both for the experience of being able to vicariously share Fulton’s trip, but also because many of his observations of the tribal culture of much of the Middle East is no different today – some 80 years later.

So for anyone looking to add to their motorcycle travel library, this is one I would recommend.

Monday, February 7, 2011

BLACKWATER: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army

By: Jeremy Scahill


I used to think that the use of mercenaries, or guns for hire, was limited to the distant past and sub-Saharan Africa. I naively expected that western democracies would not hire people who are essentially thugs with guns to do their dirty work, except perhaps in the shadowy intelligence world of black ops.

For me that all changed with the killings of four American ‘contractors’ in Faluja in March 2004. The deaths would have gone relatively unnoticed but for the way in which these men’s bodies were subsequently mutilated and put on display for the world’s television cameras. Then people started asking just who these contractors were and what they were doing in Iraq in the first place. And slowly, bit by bit, the story of Blackwater (the company for which these four men worked) started to come out.

This book covers that occurrence in detail (including Blackwater’s subsequent politically-assisted efforts to silence the families of the men killed who were seeking answers and justice). It also recounts the Nisgour Square shootings in September 2007 where a small group of Blackwater mercenaries reportedly shot and killed16 Iraqi civilians, “without provocation” according to witnesses, and “with no enemy activity involved”  according to a US Army report.

This is all presented in the context of how George W. Bush’s war machine, fuelled as it was by sometimes equal portions of God, greed and gusto, lay down the welcome mat to Keith Prince’s private army and others.  Prince, the founder and CEO of Blackwater, comes from a deeply religious background which opened doors to the highest levels of power within the Bush administration. And once in, Blackwater continued to work those levers of power to operate in theater with impunity, subject to neither the Uniform Code of Military Conduct (UCMJ) or the laws of Iraq, all the while fostering closer and tighter relationships through lobbying and the hiring of ex-government officials from extremely senior and sensitive positions within the administration.

At their peak, private contractors (mercenaries) actually outnumbered US military personnel on the ground in Iraq.  But then, realizing the war (and its lucrative profit margins) wouldn’t go on forever, Blackwater and others set their sights on domestic markets, with Hurricane Katrina providing the impetus to deploy stateside: “[Blackwater] beat the federal government and most aid organizations to the scene as 150 heavily armed Blackwater troops dressed in full battle gear spread out into the chaos of New Orleans.” So now we have guns for hire patrolling a major US city, a law unto themselves, with no clear mandate or chain of command to a higher authority – the very definition of vigilantism.

The book is a real eye-opener, albeit a disturbing one. Recommended.

(Note to Canadian readers: Lest you think this is a US issue, news out of Ottawa today (Feb 7, 2011) claims that Canada has paid $41 million to security companies (i.e. mercenaries) in Afghanistan over the past 4 years.)

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Shop Class as Soulcraft

by Matthew B. Crawford.

Shop Class as SoulcraftAlthough most of my professional career was spent being what is euphemistically referred to as a “knowledge worker”, I have long held a great admiration for top-notch trades people, and have always had hands-on hobbies such as vehicle mechanics and cabinet making. And when I say top-notch I’m not talking about the robotic mechanic who simply replaces parts in accordance with the shop manual based on a wild-assed guess of what the problem might be or the readout from a $50,000 diagnostic instrument, but rather the “professional” tradesman who still has the ability to get the feel of a machine, understand what’s happening, and be able to affect repairs in the most timely, effective, and inexpensive manner. In other words, a thinker and problem solver.

I can thank my father for that. As a heavy equipment mechanic in a backwoods lumber operation in the 50s and 60s, he was one of the most creative mechanical problem solvers I have ever known. There was always a way, and given the scarcity and expense of parts and the frequent remoteness of the broken machine, that way more often than not would have made MacGyver proud. His was a hard act to follow, and I consider myself lucky to have picked up maybe as much as 50% of his skill in that arena. So nothing gets me more riled than a so-called mechanic who clearly doesn’t know if he’s been bored, punched, or countersunk. Or makes me happier than dealing with one who clearly knows what he’s about, what I’m about, and most importantly, what my particular piece of machinery is about.

Sadly, the former seem to be quickly outnumbering the latter as any young person today with a good head on his or her shoulders is automatically pushed into the academic stream so they too can become just one more knowledge worker occupying a cubicle somewhere for the next 40 years, contributing lots to the corporation’s bottom line, but precious little to society at large (and I know whereof I speak). Truth is, some of those very sharp minds would be happiest with greasy hands and black fingernails if we only gave them the opportunity and encouragement early enough to foster the joy of working with their hands. To do otherwise is just a waste.

And while I used the example of a mechanic, the same applies to any of the trades. I have an acquaintance who is an extremely accomplished cabinet maker who has given up on trying to grow his business because he can’t find young people who share his passion for creativity and hands-on work. Similarly our house builder was always struggling to find trades people who wanted to build the “best” house as opposed to “a” house. And the list can go on and on.

So all that was a very long, rambling preamble to this book I just picked up. What first caught my eye was the photo of a very cool vintage BMW on the front cover. Then the title, Shop Class as Soulcraft: An inquiry into the value of work, hooked me.

From the overleaf: “Based on his own experience as an electrician and mechanic, Crawford makes a case for the intrinsic satisfactions and cognitive challenges of manual work. The work of builders and mechanics is secure; it cannot be outsourced, and it cannot be made obsolete.”

The author is a motorcycle mechanic specialising in vintage bikes, but he didn’t start as that. He started with a PhD in political philosophy and a senior executive position with a Washington think tank. That lasted all of 5 months before he quit to open his bike shop.

It’s not an easy read (I blame his PhD for the fact the book has a fog index of approximately 14), but Crawford hits right at the core of something that is becoming a huge problem. I found myself repeatedly nodding in agreement or, to my wife’s chagrin, reading out chapter and verse accompanied by a “that’s what I’ve been saying all along” and getting the requisite “Yes dear” in response.

It’s not for everybody, but if you’ve ever considered the relative values of manual work versus brain work, Crawford very effectively challenges the conventional wisdom that working with one’s hands is somehow a lesser calling.

Highly recommended.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

13 Things That Don’t Make Sense

by Michael Brooks

13 thingsWriting about science for non-scientific readers poses its own particular challenges but for the most part Brooks has quite successfully met those challenges with his entertaining and very interesting exploration of 13 areas where science is still unable to come to an understanding of how, or why things work the way they do.

The subtitle, “The Most Baffling Scientific Mysteries of Our Time” may be overstating it a bit, but the 13 areas Brooks picked certainly cover a wide range of scientific exploration and theory ranging from the “missing” universe to a discussion on homeopathy. In between he discusses the challenges faced by scientists as they try to explain death, life, sex and a variety of other scientific conundrums.

On life, Brooks says that we are clearly “more than just a bag of chemicals”, but what is the “more”? No chemical in our bodies does not exist elsewhere in other living or non-living things. And even though we can assemble all the ingredients, we are unable to create, or even explain, life. We just don’t know the recipe.

Sexual reproduction is, according to Brooks, one of the least effective ways in which living things can reproduce. Asexual reproduction is more effective, efficient, and does a better job of sustaining the species that practice it. So why did we evolve the way we have and reproduce the way we do (aside from the obvious fun factor)?

One of the most interesting segments in my opinion was the discussion about free will. Free will is often seen as a cornerstone of our humanness, but some research has brought that whole concept into question. Normally we think, then act – I think I’ll move my hand, and then I execute the movement. Pretty straightforward, right? Except that it doesn’t seem to work that way. Subjects wired up to various brain scanners have shown that the brain is already starting the action needed to move the hand before the subject becomes consciously aware of his intent to move his hand. In other words, the brain activity is preceding the conscious thought process. So does conscious thought cause the brain to act? Or is it the other way around? Much to think about here for sure.

This is a book to be read slowly. The concepts, while expressed in layman’s terms, can still be quite complex, requiring a degree of attention and focus one can’t normally get reading in bed and falling asleep mid-page. But it is certainly worth the effort to read, and read again.


Note: You can also check it out at

Saturday, July 4, 2009

A Long Long Way

By Sebastian Barry.

Long long wayWillie Dunne is an 18-year-old Dubliner who joins up in 1914 and spends the next 4 years simply trying to survive the horrors and brutality of the Western Front.

Back home on leave Willie is confronted by the growing tensions and riots over Irish independence and the role his father, a Dublin policeman, has had to play to quell the riots. An injudicious remark drives a wedge into their relationship that preys on Willie’s mind when he’s back at the front.

And the young woman with whom Willie is deeply, madly in love seems either unable or unwilling to reciprocate in kind leaving Willie to question her commitment and their future together when the war is over.

Barry seamlessly weaves the three storylines into a compelling narrative, a story of courage, duty, honour and love.  It is also brutally descriptive. Whether it’s the first gas attacks at St. Julian in 1915,  the blowing up of Messines Ridge in 1917, or the countless battles and encounters in between, Barry brings the horrors of the front to life so that the reader becomes not so much an observer as a participant, one of Willie Dunne’s mates in the trenches or out in no-mans land. And we share Willie’s confusion, anger, and frustration over his relationship with his father and with Gretta as he tries to understand what is going wrong while enduring yet another tour at the front, standing waist deep in bloody water or waiting for the shelling to stop before going over the top one more time.

Willie despairs of ever going home for good.

“The war would never be over. He had come out for poor Belgium and to protect his three sisters. The tally-sticks of death s would be cut from the saplings for ever more. The generals would count the dead men and mark their victories and defeats and send out more men, more men. For ever more.”

Nominated for the Man Booker Prize, this book is a must-read for anyone who enjoys the genre of Great War narratives. Highly recommended.

Sunday, April 12, 2009


By Andrew Nikiforuk.

Tar SandsIn Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent, Andrew Nikiforuk documents Canada’s and Alberta’s rapid and continuing descent into becoming just another failing petro-state. Clearly both levels of government would argue with the use of the term ‘descent’, but what else could you call it when the exploitation of the tar sands confers Canadian membership in a club that includes such bastions of democracy and human rights as Venezuela, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Angola, among others.

From Alberta’s absence of accountability and failure to implement a reasonable royalty regime (currently among the lowest in the world), to the environmental time bomb represented by the tailings ponds (presently covering 23 square miles at an average height of 270 feet above the forest floor), Nikiforuk shines a much needed light into many very dark corners.

In this well researched indictment, Nikiforuk also provides some sobering insights.

  • On the economics of carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) Nikiforuk quotes University of Manitoba professor and energy expert Vaclav Smil. “CCS, he argues, is part of the same thinking that gave us the energy spectacle of “a 50-kg female driving a 3,000-kg SUV in order to pick up a 1-kg carton of milk.””
  • On the tailing ponds he says, “Within a decade the ponds will cover an area of 85 square miles. Experts now say it might take a thousand years for the clay in the dirty water to settle out.”
  • On using natural gas to separate oil from bitumen he quotes one Albertan who recently observed: “Using natural gas to develop oil sands is like using caviar as a fertilizer to grow turnips.”
  • And On The First Law of Petropolitics he gives us this: “New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman unveiled the law in a 2006 issue of Foreign Policy Review, and it goes like this: the price of oil and the quality of freedom invariably travel in opposite  directions. As the price of crude oil climbs higher in an oil-dominated country, poor or rich, secular or Muslim, that country’s citizens will, over time, experience less free speech, declining freedom of the press, and a steady erosion of the rule of law.”

If you are concerned at all about Canadian politics, Alberta politics, or the environment, this book is a must-read.

Highly recommended.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Old Man on a Bike

By Simon Gandolfi.

Old Man On A BikeWhy would a reasonably sane man in his seventies ride the length of Hispanic America on a small motorcycle – a man who is overweight, suffered two minor heart attacks and has a bad back? Stupidity comes to mind…”.  Thus begins Old Man on a Bike, the story of Simon Gandolfi’s epic solo motorcycle trip from Mexico to the tip of South America. 

Gandolfi buys a small 125 cc Honda (a pizza delivery bike) in Veracruz Mexico, and sets out on his 6-month journey, crossing 13 countries and 22,000 kilometres. He has not ridden a motorcycle in a great many years. He is alone. He has a bad heart. But he has a goal – Ushuaia in Tierra del Fuego.

Old Man on a Bike is first and foremost a travelogue; the motorcycle simply a means of transportation, a source of periodic humour, and a cause of crises of varying degrees. Gandolfi covers the trip on a day-by-day basis, recounting his experiences as a series of vignettes as he discovers new towns and villages, meets new people of many cultures and stations in life (he speaks fluent Spanish which makes this easier than it would be otherwise), and deals with all the trials and tribulations of a long road trip – including breaking his false teeth on more than one occasion and running out of heart medication.

While the diary format is appropriate, I found Gandolfi’s writing style to be such that I got the sense I was experiencing the trip whilst looking through a soda straw – getting but a very narrow perspective frequently lacking in context. Nonetheless, his ability to engage with the local populace did provide some of the more interesting parts of the book as well as giving the reader a basic understanding of the people and the environments in which they live, and through which he travelled.

Gandolfi makes no secret of his politics or his views on current world events such as the Iraq war and at times it seemed Gandolfi was using the book as his personal soapbox. Whether one agrees with his views or not, I just found the injection of politics to be an unnecessary irritant that contributed nothing to the story of his travels. It is a minor flaw to be sure, but still it bothered me enough to warrant a comment in this review.

So bottom line? I would offer a qualified recommendation for this book. Is it a requisite item for inclusion in any motorcycling library? Not really. But as the story of one man’s voyage, it’s an interesting read and one can’t but admire Gandolfi’s courage for undertaking such a trip at his stage in life.