Sunday, March 22, 2009


The Good Old Days In Space

It wasn't a moment I had anticipated, one that I planned for. I turned in my chair and there was this glorious fireball in the sky. And as I watched and people around me gasped, the fireball kept climbing and then there was this magnificent tail tracing white against the blue sky.
Another shuttle launch.
It's something we take for granted. We barely notice the delays because of weather, the safe returns.
We do notice the questions about cost and value. Except in the days of 50 billion dollar frauds, the cost of space are dwarfed.
Once upon a time, I would have plotted for days to see a shuttle launch in Florida. I would have consulted maps and newspapers and the Internet, maybe even phoned NASA.
It was part of my training as an assignment editor when before political conventions, Stanley Cups and Grey Cups, I plotted camera positions and reporter assignments and knew just about everything it was possible to know about an event the day before.
Like many other Canadians of a certain age, I cheered when our American cousins finally matched and then surpassed the Soviet Sputniks.
On a bedroom wall, ignored, is the large iconic photograph of the astronaut staring at the camera, the reflections in the mask showing his surroundings. The photograph was printed from the actual negative of the actual film that had been to the moon. NASA said the picture was only available to certain senior media executives. I was impressed but I don't think my sons were. They had already adjusted to a real man in the moon.
But years pass and we even get used to portraits shot on Mars.
So when two friends and I escaped from the noise of a St. Patrick's Day dinner in the clubhouse of the Boca Shores condo clubhouse at St. Pete's Beach and some people came out on the balcony behind us and started talking about the shuttle, I almost didn't turn around.
Then I heard the explosion of excitement, and there it was, climbing, climbing, climbing while all of Florida gazed into the sky and felt a little closer to the heavens.
It started to curve left, or so it seemed, and it traced sort of a flattened question mark. How symbolic I thought, since questions about the space program persist and it seems, if you leave national ego out of it, that robots can do the job of space exploration much easier than worrying about men in capsules.
The talk used to be about costs. Funny how trillion-dollar deficits and the tender treatment of even the fatcat crooks of Wall Street have made that almost irrelevant.
Since it has been revealed that the financial world has been criminally inept for years, and the financial media were toothless watchdogs, and the bureaucrats who were supposed to be watching were either sleeping or on the take, spending billions on shooting metal and humans into space seems a much better use of taxes than rewarding bankers for being stupid when they weren't being robbers.
Funny how a few seconds of gazing into the sky can remind us of younger days when space was still a Jules Verne science fiction tale and the idea of actually going outside the envelope of earth was still the impossible dream.
When the shuttle landed almost two weeks later, all of Florida, it seemed, was on high alert. There was a delay because of wind and clouds but the state was filled with people searching the skies. They must have known they wouldn't be seeing anything. And they didn't. But there was a big boom when the shuttle broke the sound barrier, and everyone asked that evening, even to strangers in the supermarket, did you hear that noise when the shuttle came back. And then they grinned, as if they had been at the controls.
In this days of broken everything, the shuttle is a victory rocket over a troubled sea. A reassuring sight. Just like the jetliner landing safely in the Hudson. At least we still get something right.

Friday, March 13, 2009


Don't Leave Home Without A Map

You read it here first. Driving tests will soon have you demonstrating that you know how to use a GPS as well as park.
Countless people are wondering how they ever managed to drive to another city without help from the four satellites in the sky. How quickly they forget that learning period where they really wanted to throw the damn thing out the window when it chirped at you that it was recalculating the route because you were too stupid to follow the first directions.
It doesn't exactly say that, but the woman's voice can sound like a nagging wife.
I was given a Magellan Maestro 4210 by my oldest son, John Henry, a scarred veterans of the Downing fights in many of the countries of the world when I tried to drive and Mary tried to read a map.
I still think it wasn't an accident when in the south of France, in the middle of a debate about why she wasn't allowed to drive in Europe, she told me to take a right turn at the next intersection - right into the maw of a one-way street delivering five lanes of angry motorists right to my bumper.On another trip, we went around the Arc de Triomphe twice - in Friday evening rush hour traffic - with Mary announcing she couldn't see the street our hotel was on but she didn't really care because she was getting out. The fact she then wouldn't know where I was in Paris didn't concern her much.I have plenty of stories like that but I will refrain. After all, some female reporters once posted a petition on the bulletin board announcing that the Editor was a jerk because I had written too many columns, or so they felt, on Mary's problems reading maps.
So the GPS seemed like a God-send. Trouble is there was no book of instructions. So after I downloaded 60 pages of instructions from the Internet - actually my son Brett did that for me after I failed several times to make Acrobat do the proper somersaults and produce anything for me - and I then spent several nights trying to figure them out, I figured I was ready for just about anything.Now once upon a time I drove from Toronto to Fort Lauderdale without a map. Someone had left the bundle behind from the CAA. And once I drove from Zagreb to the north of Slovenia without a map and then went on to Budapest still without a map. In those days in Hungary, there were few service stations and no maps to be had at the few there were.
So I can manoeuvre without a map. And I thought with my new GPS I wouldn't need one. Turns out you do. I'm sure after a few expeditions, I will have mastered feeding info into the GPS, but right now I need a map just to make sure the GPS has me in the same state.
We were driving from Howey-in-the-Hills, which is a vacation hamlet northwest of Orlanda back to Tampa, when I discovered that there was no Florida map in the car and the GPS seemed to have me going southeast instead of southwest. So I watched the Toyota compass and kept driving west while ignoring the GPS chirping away telling me to make legal U-turns or recalculating the route at every intersection. I figured at worse I would end up in the Gulf, at best I would cross I-75 flowing south to Tampa. I hit the interstate before the Gulf and all was well.Later, looking at a map, I found I had driven about as far as you can go in Florida without hitting a major settlement. I was in a triangle between I-75 and Florida's Turnpike. Now I wouldn't have worried if I could have placed all these towns I was going through, like Linden and Mascotte, somewhere on some map. But we had left all ours back at the rental condo. After all, we thought smugly, we have GPS.
At one point we drifted through the Withlacoochee State Forest, which seemed like I had driven off the end of the world. If I had known that the forest was supposed to be in my vicinity, I would have relaxed and enjoyed the drive.I suspect I will become a big fan of my GPS, But right now, I drive along with a map at my side and the GPS chirping at me from the dashboard. And judging from the conversation around the pool, most of the vacationing Canadians seem to be having the same problem. It's not as simple as putting in your home address and driving for two days without a worry. My main problem is the screen is hard to read, except at night, because of glare.
I find my Magellan functions wonderfully 90% of the time, but it's the other 10% that worries me. We go from being told to keep left at the next confluence of roads to silence for half an hour or so. Now technocrats will say that my device will only work well if I know exactly how to use it. You know, garbage in, garbage out. But I'm still puzzling my way through the instructions. Maybe there's a course I can take, a new form of driver's ed.
On my trip home from Florida to Toronto, the GPS gave me heartburn twice and was wonderful the rest of the time. I decided to take a shortcut up 301 to the north-east instead of taking a longer route running through Gainesville. My GPS simply didn't understand and kept urging strange turns on me. Then while driving along the south shore of Lake Erie, expecting to cross at Fort Erie, the GPS gave us mysterious directions which finally had us crossing at Lewiston.
The reward was a shorter trip home, up I-95 through the more picturesque mountains, rather than the winter route south from Detroit on I-75. About 120 kms and a good hour shorter. And done with a lot less tension than the last time before the GPS.
Now I feel like tackling the roads again in the south of England. The last time, we almost divorced.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009


Ruining The Open Road

As Mary and I contemplated our annual trip to the Florida sun, leaving behind the crap, and I'm not just talking about the slush on Toronto streets and at City Hall, we groaned as the Canadian dollar sank but cheered as the price of oil fell even more.
Surely that would ease the price of gasoline which becomes quite important when you've travelled 5,000 km by the time you return.
In Ontario, the price was still above 80 cents a litre, even though the price of a barrel of oil had collapsed below $35 a barrel from its high near $150. And I told Mary about how the giant oil companies had complained to the Sun whenever I wrote an editorial complaining that the price of gas seldom sank when the price of crude oil went down. There were always these explanations about how they had actually bought the oil months ago when the price was high and we would have to wait until cheaper product got into the distribution network.
Except those bountiful days never really came. And then there was the notorious gouging at the start of long weekends about which even the oil bureaucracies seemed embarrassed.
Even though the CAA gives you a special map, and I have a Magellan GPS, we took the wrong turn in Detroit just a few seconds after we left the Ambassador bridge. It's always an ordeal finding the big Interstate south, and construction there this year doesn't help.
Of course the signage has always stunk. I remember the year we ended up in the wasteland of downtown Detroit.
Then there was the time the bridge authorities told some pre-cleared truckers that they could use the car-only lane, but there was no indication to motorists of that, meaning I wasn't expecting an 18-wheeler to compete with me and finally come over and crush my fender. Since we were between Canada and the United States, no police force wanted to show up for a minor accident, meaning the trucker escaped punishment for his dumb and dangerous driving.
Oh yes, bridge officials told me there was an accident once a week at that spot of the bridge, but no improvements have been made there for three years. And the confusing labrythn on the American side, and the rickety toll booths, make for a seedy entrance to a country which keeps boasting that it's the best in the world.
Despite its shoddy entrance at Detroit.Of course, two years ago, coming back from Florida and crossing at Buffalo, I found the construction maze and signage so bad there that I kept ranting at the Canadian customs official that it was all so Mickey Mouse that he kept apologizing and sent me on my way after forgetting to ask questions.
My trip south this year did feature, as hoped for, lower gas prices, with me paying from $1.75 to $1.93 for a gallon. Then it jumped higher. Translating this into a comparison with Canadian prices involves so much math, it's not worth the effort. Comparing the Canadian cost per litre with what the Americans are paying for their gallon is a little like comparing sour apples and kumquats since the exchange rate is involved too. But there's no disputing the obvious conclusion: Canadians pay a lot more - and that is far too much - for their gas, and the provincial and federal governments aren't going to do a damn thing about it because they benefit. The higher the price the oil companies charge, the higher the tax revenue that the governments get.
So it's a case not of authorities watching out for their citizens but of robbers watching thieves.
There is a new frustrating wrinkle for Canadians driving down the I-95 "Main Street" to Florida. And I'm not just talking about the endless miles of construction.
Stick your Visa card into the American gas pumps and you find they just won't work. Oh they may appear to work, but then they ask for a Zip Code for verification and then the pump freezes. Or the pump just blinks at you and says "see attendant inside." It got so complicated at a couple of stations that I just left.
So I turned to what was a reliable fall back, the little black cylinder that Esso uses for its Speedpass system. It was rejected. Phoned Esso/Exxon and they said my Visa card had been changed without me notifying them. So they would correct that. Tried to use the black thingamajig several days later, and it was rejected again. The attendant accepted my cash with the comment that he always uses cash because everything else had become so dang complicated.
Which is what I've been doing for weeks. With any luck, my Canadian cash will soon be worth a lot more, because surely the American dollar doesn't deserve to be that much higher than the beaver buck. And if that luck holds, the cost of gasoline will fall to a price that truly reflects the low cost of oil.
But I'm not holding my breath, not with oil companies showing that they're still the robber barons that the world thought they were a century ago, not with governments showing that they're as incompetent as banks when it comes to business.
All I can do is sit on the sand and drink. At least it's not snow.