May 26, 2007
May 25, 2007
And sorry, they can't be too political (outside of the politicising of science, of course). And I just KNOW we're going to have a plethora of posts on the Gathering of Prehistoric Non-History that will be happening Monday, so if anyone knows someone who will be attending either the opening or the protest across the street, I'll be giving preference to those over other entries. I don't want this Circle to be about a single topic, no matter how tempting!
For an idea of what makes for a fitting topic, check out this basic guide, or a quick list here and here.
May 24, 2007
Good Enough or Good?
Then the Significant Other picked up an iPod. She loves it, providing her with hours of entertainment managing playlists, creating party soundtracks, playing musical games with herself (for instance, the current song must mention the title or theme of the next) etc. I used it on occasion, mostly at work with a set of external speakers, but otherwise it didn't mean much to me. We added that doohickey that lets it broadcast over your car speakers, and that was neat, but still, it wasn't a major revelation.
Eventually, by the way, this post will be about motorcycles.
I was listening to it today, carrying it around with me as I wandered from shop to shop, running errands. It was phenominally easy to use. The interface worked flawlessly, and with minimal instruction I could tell how to do what (and how loudly) inside a minute. I jumped from playlist to playlist; selected out individual artists; and moved about the catalogue with ease. The ear phones were comfortable.
It was delightful.
On the strength of this, as much as anything else, we are very likely to purchase a macintosh as our next computer when this old PC finally dies. The obvious work that went into the interface of the iPod and the attention that went into the design has convinced me that the change, which will no doubt take a little while to get used to, will be worth it.
Work in one branch of Apple has led us to another.
There are few companies in the world as famous as Harley-Davidson. I am willing to bet that every single person that just read that name has an idea of what a Harley is: not just that it's a motorcycle, but off all the things that surround it. Ever since Willie G. bought the brand name back from AMF, they've worked hard at maintaining the brand (as numerous copyright infringement lawsuits can attest) and improving the product, even if the result wasn't what H.D. traditionalists were dreaming of.
Eventually, they were told by marketing that a huge porportion of first-time Harley buyers were women, so they tageted their marketing appropriately. Women often buy cruisers as a first bike, as they are lower to the ground than most sport, naked, or dual-purpose bikes; they often start with metric (Japanese) cruisers because they are smaller than Harleys, and many of them eventually "graduate" to Harley-Davidsons, the bike they really wanted. Such is the strength of the brand name.
(Side note: women on bikes get approached because guys know what to talk to them about. Try it - you'll see.)
But the company did end up waiting until they were told that women were buying their bikes before marketing to them specifically. It was a plan that occured to them late, after being told by salesmen to dealers to marketers to head office, who then planned a marketing strategy targeting people who ride smaller cruisers in addition to current Harley riders. The folks who rode bigger cruisers (usually men) were older, and married, and wouldn't mind at all if their wives/girlfriends got bikes of their own (so long as they were smaller). And the people who rode smaller cruisers, well, they could often be "sold up" once they got some experience...
(For a company that totall cocks up this idea, see the National Hockey League, who tend to buy advertisements during their own games. Way to reach new markets, idiots! Rant over.)
Suzuki has taken that idea and increased it dramatically - they are advertising one of their cars as being "As exciting to drive as our bikes", using an attractive couple in mild competition with each other. It's a lie, of course, but it's also a brilliant piece of cross advertising. Everyone knows that bikes are exciting, even if they've never ridden before; and it's a nice reminder to couples who might not be able to buy a car outright, but want a second vehicle that hey! Here's something that's half the cost and a damn sight more fun... They are advertising two items in one commercial, and since buying a motorcycle is far more a visceral decision than a buying a car is, they only need to do the stat-speak on one of them. It's a fantastic move.
There is a coming crisis in motorcycling, and it's the usual reason: an aging populace. Cruisers have been doing well right now partially because of their more comfortable posture when compared to other bikes, and because Ye Olde Baby Boomers finally managed to drive their kids out of their homes and have a bit more money to spend on themselves. Mortgage is lower (or paid off), they've been working a good long while, and they always wanted to learn how to ride, so off they go.
Talking with a few motorcycle instructors, they've seen a dramatic increase in older people (40+) coming in to take classes for either their first time or for refresher classes, having sold their old bikes "when the kids came along" or some similar story. It's been great, and the motorcycling companies have been booming because of it, but it's not going to last, and for a very obvious reason. Hint: it's the same reason why moped and scooter sales are up over the past few years.
The instruction classes mostly use old Honda CB125s, which are nice and mild bikes - very forgiving of overexcited throttle hands or the occasional missed gear. But little bikes sell for far less, and as the demographics were moving upwards in age and experience, production companies moved with them. There aren't many small bikes out there for new riders to buy, so the only option (many feel) is to get an older bike. As a first bike, that's not a bad option, but you do inherit someone else's problems when you buy used, and a faulty first bike can turn someone off riding forever. A customer forever lost.
Enter Honda, once again.
They have launched an agressive campaign, featuring women prominently, for their new 125cc CBRs. That looks a damn sight better, eh? The focus is on easy and fun: it's easy to ride, easy to reach the ground (776 mm seat height), easy to control (119 kilos dry weight) and easy to pay for (about $4250 brand new). They are knocking on instruction school doors, offering fleets at a discount, and even discounts on individual sales if the new rider has taken such a course. They offer package deals on full riding gear, too, from helmet to boots.
And as for fun? Well, it beats the hell out of riding the bus.
They push the economy of the bike, as well. The competition form high-powered scooters has actually become a challenge (step-through bikes are easier to get on and off), so they are sure to describe cost, quality of make, and fuel range.
Yeah, it has a tiny 10 litre fuel tank, but let me put it this way: when the S.O. and I went shopping for a new truck, the best fuel economy was in a 4 cylinder Toyota, which claimed 7.7 litres of gas used for every 100 km driven. The CBR125R? It claims 2.6 litres for the same distance - three times as efficient as the best small truck we could find.
Need that converted? Okay - how does 90 miles per gallon sound?
It's not bare-bones stuff, either: six-speed engine, electronic fuel injection, disc breaks, full fairing, and a four-instrument cluster just like on the big bikes.
Would I get one? Probably not: I ride a lot of highway miles, and little bikes can get blown around pretty easily. The right question is: would I recommend one to a new rider? I haven't been on it yet, but from what I've seen so far, its only competetion is Kawasaki's very impressive zzr250, a bike whose 38 horsepower could be quite a handful for a new rider, especially when compared to the Honda's 13 hp.
Bottom line is, every manufacturer is hoping that Honda's aggressive approach to drawing in new riders works, like Suzuki's pitch to returning riders. Because if not, some manufacturers riding the baby boom are going to go bust.
Edit: I stand corrected. Here's a Honda CBR125R for $3400, brand new. Four grand gets you it and the gear. Wow.
May 23, 2007
It's Round And Green...
It's the 61st edition of the Skeptics' Circle! Ably hosted by Rebecca over at Memoirs of a Skepchick, and featuring a scattered lot of definitions, leading to essays, leading to who knows what? Could be dangerous.
Come to think of it, you probably shouldn't go.
That whole "Free Thinking" stuff - who really needs it?
Speaking of which, the next edition of the Skeptics' Circle is mine again, so we'll see if I can better my last time out. This time, I'm going to leave more room!
In the mean time: go, read, laugh, enjoy.
May 21, 2007
The effect, I think, is going to be the same for anyone from here who has thought about what our country is, and why it is, for any amount of time at all. Immigrant or native-born, if you've had time to consider Canada, this book is well worth the hour or two it takes to read.
Some things will surprise (vinegar cruets are rare to see elsewhere? Really?) and some things are shameful (the honesty of whites avoiding any intereaction with natives), and a few may downright embarass you (like Canadian history seeming to end in the 1970s). But one snippet struck me particularly, bringing a memory of hitch-hiking when I was far younger than I am now:
I got a ride from school to home with an accented fellow in his sixties, and he asked me what I thought about the latest bout of nationalism that was being promoted by the government, and for the most part, I didn't have any real opinion. He chuckled in what even then I considered a condecending manner, and said "Well, you have to remember that your country is very young. A baby. You have no history yet."
I was raised to be polite, so I didn't mention what I thought then: that Romania was old; that England was old; that Israel was ancient (we had just been covering European history). That all of them had fought bloody wars or had bloody wars fought through them, over religion, over land, over freedom, over nothing. We had none of that, and somehow we still existed. Why would that be something to be ashamed of?
Besides, we may not have had "history", but we have time. For almost all of the political entity of "Canada", there has been an awareness of the age of Earth. I defy anyone to consider the Canadian Shield, or our northern glaciers, or dinosaur bones being accidentally dug up on farms or found on river banks in Alberta even now and NOT consider ages well beyond mere "history".
Yet, every now and again, we do get a sudden bout of insecurity of how fragile we might be as a nation. We're past the triumphant age of creation, past our centennial, Hell, we're barely 140 years old. But, to quote (ie. steal) from Mr. Coupland's book:
"There's only so much national mythology that can be created in 135 years. Relax."
Speaking of which: Bob and Doug just had their two-four anniversary. If you're Canadian, you won't need a translation.
May 18, 2007
There May Be A Flaw In Your Reasoning
"Three shopping centers near major U.S. cities have been hit by suicide bombers. Hundreds are dead, thousands injured. A fourth attack has been averted when the attackers were captured off the Florida coast and taken to Guantanamo Bay, where they are being questioned. U.S. intelligence believes that another larger attack is planned and could come at any time.
First question to you, Senator McCain. How aggressively would you interrogate those being held at Guantanamo Bay for information about where the next attack might be?"
The response from Senator McCain was solid, and the rest were predicatable (Yes! Yes! Oh, God, YES!!!) and audience approved, but only one reply had the true spirit of the question in mind:
"I'm looking for Jack Bauer at that time, let me tell you." Thanks, Tom. He's looking for good reason, too: a fictional situation demands a solution from a fictional character.
There are other problems with this situation: what if, for instance, the captured terrorist is Mel Gibson? Man, you could torture him for days and not get a damned thing! Tell you what: let's just put 300 Spartans on every flight: that'll keep everyone safe!
In reality, the fantasy circumatance that Hume describes just doesn't happen. Ever. And all pretending it will happen does is provide another excuse for the fanatical fear junkies to hyperventilate themselves into an adrenal rush.
May 17, 2007
So I’m currently among the unemployed – apparently, offering a week of free labour to prospective employers doesn’t get the response you might think. This means I no longer spend the day with several attractive women, and instead serve time by fiddling about the house and yard; tapping keys on the ‘puter; and walking the dog.
With Spring here, yet. I must be mad for quitting now.
In any case, one pleasant side effect of walking along the river is – well, it’s its own reward, really; but otherwise it gives you a space to think, and to observe, and to simply wonder, if that’s you inclination. And what I was thinking of this time out was change.
Every time I go to the river, it’s different. If you’ve walked in woods, you know that the view walking in one direction tells you nothing about the other: it’s how people can end up lost for hours (or worse) crossing the same patch of land a dozen times and never recognizing it. When it’s Summer or Winter, and smack in the middle of them, then the changes are subtle. Trees grow very little when it’s hot and sunny, and not at all in the cold.
The times of great change are in the transformation to those points.
In my favorite season, Autumn, the vegetation around you shake off their excesses, plant their seeds, and settles in, trusting that life will awaken them later. It’s a calm, confident season, where the plants hand their bounty to the animals in the continuous exchange, the barter of the ecosystem. But in Spring you can feel life surge out of the ground itself; see the dramatic extent of competition in the plants; study the near infinite ways each has grown to take advantage of the slightest hope of light or nutrients. Slashes of dogwood blossoms sneak out from behind cedars; twists of arbutus swirl through firs or grab a tenacious hold at the edge of rock falls; ageless ferns slowly uncurl, patient for what little light they need to slip past big leaf maples when a gust of breeze allows it.
It is awesome.
But it comes at a cost. The cost is, to put it bluntly, that all life will end. Everything there, everything alive, was grown from the bodies of those before them. The salmon spawn is a wonderful sight, but I don’t walk the dog anywhere near the river for at least a month after it happens! And without the nutrients that those corpses provide, the plants along the river would have a far more difficult time of it. And everything else as well, of course: bears, crawfish, seagulls… It’s the exchange that is made for the only immortality that anything can have.
And so we come to religion.
There are few faiths out there that do not have some form of paradise: Jews don’t have an afterlife, for instance; nor do Buddhists. But for those who do, there is a standard feature that each paradise comes with that has always struck me as a terrible cop-out: immortality. Everything just so, forever and ever, Amen.
And you know? I just can’t buy it.
There is no such thing as infinity, other than as a concept. Numbers, for instance, could be considered infinite (I can’t wait until they find the final numeral of pi), but numbers themselves are created logical structures, and have no inherent reality outside what we supply them with. Grains of sand on a beach could perhaps be considered infinite, except that if this were the case the beach would have no end, and it clearly does. The atoms in the sky are limited, or else there wouldn’t be any room for space. Even space is limited in its scope, falling to our imagination and our math.
I’m remembering Doctor Feynman’s wonderful conversation starter with children: “Do you know there’s twice as many numbers as numbers?” For any number the child gave, he’d simply double it. But that’s the only image of the infinite we can manage. An eternal paradise? And what would sustain it?
I’ve heard of one version saying that there shall be no more predators, and that all animals will live on plants. Never minding the radical physiological changes mosquitoes and cats and shrews and birds (unless you don’t think bugs count as animals) would have to endure: what then, do the plants live on? Plants don’t grow when there are no nutrients in the soil to provide them, and one of the greatest risks of monocultures (growing a single food item) is that eventually the nutrients that those plants need to grow has been used, and then the plant fails. Crop rotation has been around almost as long as societies have been to combat just that, but crop rotation doesn’t happen in nature. Instead, the varieties of life are mixed together, each plant and animal finding and exploiting a niche available to it. If there is nothing replacing those nutrients, no fish coming up river to spawn and die, then the drain eventually strangles the life from the plants.
What animals supply is mobility.
Animals take a variety of food from a far greater range than the plant could ever reach. That is returned to the soil as excrement, minus what we take to keep ourselves alive and growing. Those, we return to the soil when we die. Exactly the same way a fallen tree slowly decomposes and becomes a “mother tree”, with various plants and animals feeding off the nutrients released from the decaying tree. If everything was immortal, all that we’ve used to keep ourselves going, everything that was needed for a tree to live 200 years, everything that is every animal, would be removed from the ecosystem.
There is no food chain, and no pyramid, either. The reality is that life, the life around us now, feeds off death and cannot do otherwise. It’s a far more complicated and amazing thing than most people realize. For instance, without earthworms, we die.
There are times to suspect simplicity, and recognize when Occam’s Razor is being weilded by an idiot. Someone telling you: “Worship this, because you’ll live forever” is one of them.
May 15, 2007
School took a lot more of my time and energy that I thought. The elderly don't do well with that whole "night course" thing, apparently.
Clearly, Im not the sort to try multi-tasking.
But the course is done, and now I'm off to the whole "actual employment" aspect of electricity. Offering people a week's free work isn't as popular as I might have thought...
That being said by way of excuse, I find myself hideously late in posting a link to the most recent edition of the Skeptics' Circle, found today at Infophilia. It's not only a fine name, but a fine presentation as well.