Monthly Archives: July 2007

Laser Printers Bad for You?

In an article on the web, reprinted by   

Office workers may be breathing in dangerous dust emitted from laser printers, finds a disturbing new study from Australian researchers.   The researchers found that certain printers release tiny particles into the air that could pose "a significant health threat" when inhaled into their lungs.  Lidia Morawska, a professor in the School of Physical & Chemical Sciences at the Queensland University of Technology (and) colleagues looked at 62 brands of printers.  They classified 17 of them as "high particle emitters" because they released such elevated quantities of particles. 

Of course, this article has been picked up by all kinds of media outlets, like CNN and various news sources, usually under the sensationalist headline of "Killer Printers on the Job" or some other such foolishness. 

The issue is not that laser printers put microscopic particles in the air.  We know they do, some less than others.  The issue is what happens when we breathe them in?

If you’ve ever refilled a dry toner cartridge on a photocopier, or a laser printer, you know that the material is finer than baby powder, so finely ground that it almost seems like a liquid.  It clings to everything and spilling even the tiniest amount of toner, seems to spread it everywhere in seconds. 

Both devices work roughly the same, creating an image on a photosensitive drum that is positively charged, then dragging the negatively charged toner across the image drum and finally depositing the melted toner on the paper as a copy of the original.  There are variations of course, but those are the broad strokes of the technology.  To melt the toner, heat is used to set the pigment so it doesn’t smudge.  By happy coincidence, the image drum is hot enough to melt the toner.

Standing next to a photocopier or a laser printer while running a long job, you get that peculiar smell of hot electronics and ozone from the image drum fusing the toner on the paper.  Some kind of gas, odor or volatile vapor is being given off from the process.  What is it?  Nobody who knows will tell us. 

Very fine dust exists in nature.  Poke around a flower at pollen time.  Pollen feels like toner, in that pollen is amazingly fine particles of something not quite solid feeling.  Sand, obviously, feels like sand.  City dust on your windows feels finer than sand but not as fine as pollen.

Where our knowledge is lacking is what are the long term effects of exposure.  Lamp Black or Coal Dust were thought to be perfectly normal things, then the science caught up with them.  Black lung, silicosis or Miner’s Lung were the results.  Our forebears knew that the dust from filling a grain silo, or milling flour could burst into flames given the right concentrations and exposure to open flame, so they wore a kerchief around their nose and mouth to keep from breathing in the dust.

As a kid, the City of Ottawa used to use DDT fogging trucks to kill the mosquitoes in the late spring.  We’d follow along behind the fogger, driving our bicycles in and out of the DDT pretending we were airplanes hiding in clouds, then zooming out.

For those of us who are old enough to remember Roneo copies in school, we’d sniff the freshly Roneo’ed paper with that alcohol smell.  The really cool supply teachers would use two colored Roneo (or AB Dick) stencils, one with red for the headline and the purplish-blue for the body text.  We loved the permanent markers that were powered by ether.

In my high school, we had a huge asbestos fire curtain back of the proscenium that we had to test twice a year for the Fire Department.  The aircraft shop routinely used a fiberglass chopper gun to layup laminated parts, while we merrily rolled out the resin and hardener.  Getting high off the fumes was considered an excellent side benefit to aircraft shop while using dope on fabric wing structures. 

If we were welding or cutting we rarely used a hood, unless the shop teacher was around.  We did know enough not to look at the arc, most of the time.  In the paint shop we at least knew enough to wear coveralls.  Woodworking?  You’d come out covered in the finest dusts of walnut, pine, beech, basswood and mahogany with a fine glaze of shellac, urethane or French Polish depending on what you were doing.

Using a lead, tin and flux-coated soldering iron to hot-knife hashish was normal in Electronics class, especially when Mr. O’Brien was out of the room.  He told us he’d lost his sense of smell in an industrial accident years ago, so, we’d get messed up while working on our projects.

Eventually science and medicine caught up with our stupidity, ignorance or naivete, which is a good thing.  We trusted the manufacturers and our own common sense.  Both were found to be sorely lacking.

So will your laser printer kill you?  Quite probably.  We’ll find out in a few more months that exposure to photocopier and laser printer toner will cause tumors the size of turnips to break out on your lungs, while owning an inject printer means the tumors will only be the size of tangerines.

If we de-invented printers and photocopiers and went back to stone tablets and chisels, there will be a report somewhere that the Scribe who took down the Ten Commandments died from exposure to granite dust, not the Roman Centurions, as originally believed.  There will also be reports that scribes are being unnecessarily blinded by flying rock fragments and chisel chips.   

Look folks, everything, including time, will kill you eventually.  Nothing is 100% safe if humans are involved in it.



Helicopter Chase Crash

On Friday in Phoenix, two television station helicopters crashed into each other, then crashed to earth and burned.  The news copters were following an escaping bad guy, wanted by the police, doing the live eye in the sky thing that television stations love.

KTVK and KNXV both lost their pilots and their videographers in the crashes.  One of the reporters was covering the ground chase live to air when the collision happened.  This is tragic in a number of ways, not the least being for the various families of the dead. 

The part that I find more surprising is that it hasn’t happened sooner.  Major metro stations in the US know that live footage of police chases, fires, floods and so on are ratings grabbers of the first order.  Helicopters and small aircraft have been used as traffic report platforms for decades, then with the advent of microwave downlinks, as Live-Eye-In-The-Sky, bringing you pictures as they happen.

About a decade ago, as satellite links became affordable and stabilized camera mounts more common, the live-eye evolved further, using some very nifty technology to deliver dropout-free, gyro-stabilized, gen-locked pictures to the dazed eyes of viewers at home.  The more famous live-eye shots have been the OJ Simpson low-speed Bronco chase:  Riot coverage from LA.  The three days of coverage of Hurricane Katrina by pool reporters in New Orleans.  I’m leaving out the car chase action that happens daily in LA, as the news departments fight for ratings.

By definition, helicopters are 10,000 highly-stressed aluminum parts flying in close formation.  Helicopters do not naturally fly:  You use horsepower and rotors to force the thing to go in the air.  If you lose horsepower, you fall.  Technically, you can auto-rotate to a landing as long as you have some forward speed, a minimum of 300 feet of height and a lot of room to decide where you’re going to engage in a controlled crash.  Losing a main rotor, or a tail rotor means gravity and physics take over immediately and it will probably kill you.

Fixed wing airplanes naturally glide, as long as you have enough forward speed and some height, even a 767 will glide.  Just ask the passengers of G-GAUN (cn22520/47) the Air Canada Gimli Glider.  As long as most of the airframe is intact, fixed wing aircraft of almost any size will glide at least for a while.  Eventually, the same physics and gravity take over.  At the end of the day, helicopter or fixed-wing, as long as you walk away from the landing, it was a successful flight.

Where it goes wrong is the control room, or the news producer pushing for more, closer, better, more striking news footage:  The pressure on the pilots and the videographers to get right into it for better coverage. 

Three or four helicopters, fighting gravity, the machine, uplink connections, the sun, hydro wires, towers, building, updrafts, downdrafts, other copters’ rotor wash, other air traffic and still trying to follow a terrified felon being chased by the cops, (in a helicopter too), at low altitude and not much forward speed, means the odds are stacked up against each news copter.  Add one small mechanical failure, or even just a little mechanical bobble and it is all over.

The issue is really why do we feel it necessary to see, up close and personal from the live-eye in the sky, a car chase, or smoke billowing from a garbage fire?  We know the news stations will cover it, using all the resources they have at their command, including helicopters.  Each station fights to give the viewer the most impressive pictures of the action.  On more than a few occasions, the Michael Jackson motorcade to the police station comes to mind, the news copters seem to miss each other by mere feet.  I don’t care how skilled these pilots are, that’s pushing your luck to get the ‘story’, such as it was. 

The other side of the problem is the pilot in command.  The pilot is the person ultimately responsible for the safe operation of the aircraft.  With extraordinary pressures on him or her from the newsroom, they can sometime be persuaded into making decisions that they might not want to make. 

I’ve shot commercials and industrial films from several helicopters, small aircraft and even hot-air balloons.  Before unpacking cameras and gear, we would have a safety meeting, often at my insistence.  My rule was always the pilot decides and I said it out loud.  If they feel safe doing what I suggest, then we’ll do it, but they can call it off at any time for any reason.  I have survived one emergency auto-rotate landing in a Hughes 500.  I never want to do that again as it almost as bad as falling down a flight of stairs. 

The pilot, a year later, in the same aircraft, was killed in a shoot for a television station in Hull.  He nailed some hydro wires on a high speed pass over a lake.  The Transportation Safety Board brought the tape to where I worked, to find out what happened. 

You saw the copter doing a fast, low pass (called gettin’ the skids damp in the slang of the day) over a beautiful lake and heard a very distinct sound when the wires hit the engine nacelle and turned it all into a spray of aluminum parts. people and camera equipment.  There wasn’t enough time for the four occupants to say "Merde!" when the tape ended abruptly.

What happened in Phoenix is utterly predictable.  If the NTSB does some digging, they’ll probably find the control room, or the director was calling for some really close shots of the perp being chased.  They’ll probably find that three or four helicopters, at a low level, in hot conditions (not as much lift from the air) doing weird acrobatics to keep the camera on the subject, resulted in two of them coming together, showering parts, people and fuel over Steele Indian School Park in Phoenix.

Where we fail as a society, is letting television stations feed us this madness.  It isn’t news.  Mikey Jackson driving to court does not need five copters in the air, covering every mile.  Paris Hilton does not require air cover to get to prison.  Wildfires are smoke, smoke and more smoke with the occasional flame outbreak.  Heck, just replay the same footage from last season and we’ll never know the difference. 

The Media gives us what we want and if that’s live eye footage of the trivial, the unimportant and the merely titillating, then this will happen again.




Friday Inbox Special God Edition

There’s always something tasty in the Friday Inbox.  Today we hear from The Almighty.

From WOAI in San Antonio:  A 50-year-old pastor from a church here in San Antonio was killed Tuesday afternoon after he was hit by a bolt of lightning while hiking with his two teenage sons, authorities told News 4 WOAI.

The man and his two sons were hiking in the Lost Maples State Natural Area near Vanderpool close to 1:30 p.m. Tuesday. It started raining and the family went to seek cover under a cedar tree, Bandera County Sheriff Don Berger said. The father was then hit by lightning and died instantly, officials said.

God was heard to say "Shit, I missed!  I wanted to get that bear that was sneaking up behind them.  Sorry!"

From the Miami Herald:  A Broward prisoner on trial, accused of illegally masturbating in his jail cell, was found guilty of indecent exposure Tuesday.  Terry Lee Alexander, 20, had been fighting the charge, which had been brought by a female Broward Sheriff’s Deputy who saw him commit the sex act in his cell.

In reaching the guilty verdict, jurors found that an inmate’s jail cell is ”a limited public place” where exposing oneself is against the law.  The jury recommended that Alexander be sentenced to 60 days in jail, that on top of the 10-year sentence he is currently serving for armed robbery.

The case drew snickers in the courtroom Tuesday, especially during jury selection, when the jurors were quizzed about their masturbation habits.  The awkward questioning was posed by defense attorney Kathleen McHugh, who faced 17 prospective jurors and asked point-blank who among them had never masturbated.

No hands went up.

Then, she went one-by-one, asking each prospective juror if he or she had ever masturbated.  All nine men said yes, two of the 10 women said no.

God was heard to say "Bullshit!" while covering his mouth to cough and added "I know McHugh’s got a selection of power tools in her lingerie drawer that would make a sex store envious and Juror #2 can only get wet knuckles while watching The Shopping Channel.  You tell me, does the defendant polishing the handrail really deserve 60 days?" 

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) – Some call it the number of Satan, but the city’s taxi commission sees no reason to get rid of taxi medallion No. 666.  Cab driver Michael Byrne asked the agency to retire the number that was assigned to him last year, saying it has brought him nothing but bad luck.

Some other cabbies, however, brought a touch of levity to the debate Tuesday as they argued against retirement.  "How dare you take Lucifer’s number away?" said Thomas George-Williams, president of the cab drivers union, who was sporting red horns. "This is a serious issue."

The commission voted 5-1 Tuesday to keep No. 666 on the streets.

Commissioner Ton Oneto said the 666 medallion had been around for at least 30 years and San Francisco has somehow survived.

God was heard to say:  "Well, at least Satan is working again as there’s nothing worse than the Prince of Darkness taking a couple of years off to re-evaluate his career.  Good to have him back, but driving a cab?  Oy!"

No Diamonds Around Uranus

Irene Klotz, Discovery News  July 25, 2007 — Given enough carbon, pressure and time, diamonds can form — but apparently not everywhere, say researchers who developed new modeling methods to parry the notion that small diamonds could spontaneously form in the skies of giant gas planets like Uranus and Neptune.

The discovery three years ago of a white dwarf star with a solid diamond core bolstered theories that the carbon-containing atmospheres of the large outer planets were celestial diamond factories even closer to home.

"Our simulations indicate that it is extremely unlikely that diamonds could ever have nucleated from the carbon-rich middle layer of Uranus and Neptune," a team of Dutch physicists wrote in paper to be published in Physical Review Letters.

God was heard to say:  "Dave, I betcha a nickel you can’t transcribe that headline without biting the end off your tongue, Deal?"  Deal.

Framingham MA MetroWest Daily News SherbornA Sherborn teen was charged yesterday with having sex with sheep at a farm near his home, and police reports suggest the encounters may have gone on for nearly a year.

Roger Henderson II, 18, was arraigned yesterday in Natick District Court on charges of bestiality, cruelty to animals and breaking and entering in connection with an incident police say took place at Boggastow Farm on June 27.

According to a police report, the farm’s barn had been the target of at least a dozen break-ins between August 2006 and June 2007, prompting the property owner to install surveillance cameras.

Between 3 and 4 a.m. on June 27, according to police, the camera captured and filmed a person identified as Roger Henderson II. The man grabbed a sheep by its hind legs and dragged it to the corner of the stall, according to police. The man removed his clothes and appeared to have sexual relations with the sheep. After finishing, the man put his pants back on and left the barn with his shirt in his hand, according to the report.

Following his arraignment yesterday, Henderson was released to the custody of his parents, on the condition he stay at least 30 yards away from the farm, and animals in general. The teen also was ordered to "report immediately to Leonard Morse (Hospital) to continue current mental health treatment," according to court documents. A woman at Boggastow Farm yesterday shouted, "no comment" to reporters before later threatening to call police.

God was heard to say:  "I saw that.  Damn, but he picked an ugly one. When’s the surveillance video going on YouTube?"

Panel Finds Astronauts Flew While Intoxicated
Jul 26, 2007 By Frank Morring, Jr./Aviation Week & Space Technology

A panel reviewing astronaut health issues in the wake of the Lisa Nowak arrest has found that on at least two occasions astronauts were allowed to fly after flight surgeons and other astronauts warned they were so intoxicated that they posed a flight-safety risk.

The panel, also reported "heavy use of alcohol" by astronauts before launch, within the standard 12-hour "bottle to throttle" rule applied to NASA flight crew members.

A NASA spokesman declined comment on the findings, which were obtained by Aviation Week & Space Technology. At the direction of Administrator Michael Griffin, NASA Chief Medical Officer Dr. Richard S. Williams set up the panel to review astronaut medical and psychological screening after Nowak was arrested in Orlando, Fla., Feb. 5 on charges of attempted murder and attempted kidnapping for allegedly stalking and threatening a woman who was dating another astronaut. The attempted murder charge was subsequently dropped.

God was heard to say:  "I told them, no Two for One Shooters Night at the International Space Station.  And the nachos up there are just crap.  Stick with the draft beer, at least that’s cold." 

Thursday, July 26, 2007 By LESLIE BARBARO / HERALD NEWS

PATERSON — Someone stole 1,000 gallons of water from Daisy Valdivia’s backyard. And they didn’t spill a drop.

Valdivia woke Wednesday morning to find that her family’s inflatable pool, hip high and 10 feet in diameter and filled with water, was stolen from her backyard in the middle of the night. There is no evidence that the water was poured out, pumped out, evaporated or drunk.

"I’ve never heard of a pool being stolen, let alone one with water in it," Valdivia said.

According to Valdivia, the theft must have occurred between 1 a.m., the time her husband went to bed, and 5 a.m., the time she woke to put out the recycling.

"For them to do something that fast, that’s what amazes me," she said.

Valdivia, a lifelong city resident, moved into her home on McBride Avenue just five weeks ago. She and her husband purchased the bright blue pool for their three children less than a month ago. They never expected that it would be stolen in a neighborhood Valdivia described as "a nice, quiet area."

Although Valdivia said she is grateful nothing else was stolen, she was surprised that the thieves went through all that trouble for a pool. "We have two grills, chairs, umbrellas, they’re much easier to take," she said.

According to Lt. Anthony Traina of the Paterson Police Department, it’s clear that this was carefully planned. "Someone took a little time and effort thinking about this," he said. "This wasn’t just walking by and snatching a bike. That tells us something, too."

In light of the theft, Valdivia said she is considering putting up a fence, She also has questions for the thieves who stole her pool.

"I just want to know what the heck they did with the water," she said.

God was heard to say:  "They needed some good wine on the International Space Station and, well, you know, just up to my old tricks."

We give thanks to The Almighty for offering his comments on the news of the week.  This afternoon I’ll toss a nickel off my apartment balcony.  If He catches it, He can keep it.  I always pay my debts.


Tour de France II

There have been some more revelations from the Tour de France aside from the usual nonsense.  Alexandre Vinokourov, one of the premiere riders. tested positive for homologous blood doping and the team he rides for, has been invited to go away by the Tour de France organizers and to take Vinokourov with them.

Cycling at the professional level requires a level of physical fitness that you and I can only dream about.  The Human, being a reasonable efficient machine, on a bicycle, also a reasonably efficient machine, can perform remarkable things.  It is competition of the most elemental, aside from boxing, and that is the attraction of watching the Tour de France.  The riders are amazingly fit, fast and fluid, using every last erg of energy in their bodies to propel a bicycle up a hill, down a hill, or around city streets for hours at a time.

Previous winners, like Lance Armstrong, Greg Le Mond, Floyd Landis and the rest, have always been surrounded by unproven allegations of Better Cycling Through Chemistry.  It seems impossible for mere humans to survive the Tour de France without some kind of assistance.  Homologous blood doping, the charge against Vinokourov, is merely another method to jack up human performance.

Science and money, being what they are, make sure that the human machines are as effective as the science and the money can make them, within the rules.  Wednesday, rider Cristian Moreni and the entire Cofidis squad took to the international departures lounge at the nearest airport and pulled out too.  Moreni failed a doping test.

Then earlier today, the Maillot Jaune, the leader of the Tour de France, Michael Rasmussen got the gate from his team, Rabbobank.  Rasumssen was already in a mess with the Danish Cycling Federation as he wasn’t telling them where he was, every hour of every day, missing what are called out-of-competition tests.

Aside from the daily embarrassment of having to piss for the doctors and give them vial after vial of blood, the riders, depending on their status or standing, have to diary their location and ask for permission to go places.  The idea is to keep riders away from countries like Mexico, Panama, the Czech Republic or other countries where the controls on performance-enhancing chemistry are the punch line to a bad joke.

So far, with three riders and two teams out of the Tour, it is looking like the beauty of professional cycling has taken another half-dozen shots to the scrotum from a foot encased in a steel-toed boot.  Does this mean the Tour de France is now Officially a Crock of Manure? 

It is getting to the point where any competition is going to be considered bent if more than one person is entered.  Professional Wrestling is starting to look like the last bastion of ‘pure’ competition.  Pure, meaning Pure Theatre.  




High Finance Hallucinations

Wall Street, Bay Street, The Markets.  Do you feel that they exist on some other planet where normal rules of physics don’t always apply?  For the past couple of days I’ve been watching the markets, Canadian, US and the International Bourses to see where reality lives.

I’m not an investment dealer, counselor, or broker, so anything that I say is not intended to give you advice, guidance, or some kind of insight into "the markets", so govern yourself accordingly as I am an ass and might be talking out of my ass too.

Here’s Economics 101:  You sell services, time or things for more than it costs you to make or do them.  The money left over is called profit.  Businesses need profits.  Even non-profit businesses have to pay for the electricity, insurance, photocopy paper, pencils and office chairs.  Those are called costs. 

When you subtract the costs from the amount of money you’ve billed, that’s profit.  You sell 40 (or more) hours of your work to someone and in exchange for that, they give you money.  At the end of the month, when you’ve paid for your own personal expenses, that’s your profit.  Ta Da!  Simple isn’t it?

Except when it comes to The Market.  Let us take a simple example.  Roulette, the gambling game.  You bet that the little white ball will land on a certain number when the croupier spins the wheel one way and shoots the little white ball the other way.  Eventually the little white ball slows down and falls into a hole on the roulette wheel. 

How do you determine which slot the little white ball will call home?  You guess, as roulette is a fairly randomized game of chance, as long as there are no magnets under the roulette wheel, the ball is evenly weighted and so on.  Much like flipping a coin and betting heads or tails, you know you’re going to be right, at least some of the time. 

Now, if someone comes up to you and says "The game is rigged and five times out of ten the little ball will land on Black 22, because they’ve got a magnet under Black 22 and there’s a little iron pellet in the white ball"  That is a crooked game and only those who know the game is fixed, can profit from it.

Which brings us to The Market.  Insider trading is illegal, much like fixing a roulette wheel, or stacking a deck of cards in Blackjack.  Knowing that the company is going to tank, or has a recall of 9 million cans of tainted product coming tomorrow, or thousands of other things, is knowledge that is not commonly available to the average investor.  This means that the entire Market is built on fiddling the rules.  Stocks surge and plummet based on "the whispered street number" or "analyst’s reactions to a conference call" or "primary market determinants".

Since brokers take a piece of the action, if you buy or sell, the broker is incentived to make you buy or sell, as much as possible.  Since the brokerage makes a percentage on every order, they too are incentived to make you sell or buy as much as possible.  The companies do this by giving you all kinds of information, usually by subscription, based on how much you sell or buy.  Call it Quick Quotes, or whatever name you want, it is information, opinion and a big dose of innuendo.  The innuendo can only be divined by the broker, who whispers in your ear.

Now, to put it in a Casino setting:  The Casino takes a rake, a percentage of all winnings.  That’s their fee for running the game and giving you the impression that you can beat the house and win a pile of money.  There is also a number of fees involved, if you do actually win.  A cash-out fee is common, for the conversion of chips to money. 

The Casino posts the rules, and the biggest rule is "If we don’t want to play with you, we can kick you out." and "We can review every big winner and hold their winnings."  Meaning, if you find a way, or are just plain lucky, we’ll find a way to screw you, as the First Rule of the Casino is The House Always Wins.  The Second Rule of the Casino?  See Rule Number One.

Outside the Casino, there are tip sheets for sports gambling, systems for beating all the games of "chance" and of course, insiders who know the ‘fix’ is in, or who have a ‘hot streak’ picking winners and for money, you can tap into their specific knowledge.

Today, despite strong retail sales, reasonable borrowing costs, fine employment numbers and a good economy running nicely, the Toronto Stock Exchange tanked 400 points.  The last time the TSE took that deep a dump, was in 1987.  The reason, at least according to those who read the runes, is that analysts were disappointed with the results of two major transportation companies, Canadian National and Canadian Pacific. 

The performance of CN and CP wasn’t "up to analysts’ expectations", so these invisible analysts decided to whisper to everyone they know "Sell".  Of course, these analysts work for brokerages, who have brokers paid on commission, who make a piece of every transaction.  Which is not a lot different from someone whispering in your ear that there’s a magnet under Black 22 and an iron pellet in the little white ball, so bet Black 22.

Now, what to do about it?  Financial services are the lifeblood of our economy, but the game is rigged for a few, rather than you and I.  Banks don’t want you to park your personal profit (savings) in an account for any length of time, so they don’t pay much more than an honorarium as interest.  The banks also make damn sure that any transaction you make, like taking money out of your account, will make the bank money on the fees for the convenience and pleasure of the bank not paying you interest.

Look at the financial results of just about any major bank.  Profits are through the roof and for this we get?  Um.  Nothing.  We don’t even get the personal satisfaction of knowing that some of our money is going to microloans to small businesses, or green energy developers, or even to nice people who want to buy a house in your neighborhood.

Can we tell banks to pound sand in their collective orifices?  Not really, as they are the casino owners.  Can we tell the stock market to do something unsanitary and anatomically impossible?  No, they own the dice, the cards, the roulette wheel and the little white ball.  Can we leave the casino altogether?  Only if you’re independently wealthy and have no debt whatsoever,or are willing to live in a yurt, off the grid, off the pipeline and off this planet.



Bicycles are not the Tour de France

I’ve spent a few enjoyable hours watching the Tour de France on the magical picture box.  The Tour de France, for those who don’t know it, consists of a couple of hundred maniacally fit young men riding bicycles around France.  Not just Paris, or Lyon, but on roads to little villages like St-Michel-de Maurienne, or Tignes.  You’ve never heard of those little places and neither have I. 

Often enough the roads are in the French Alps and go straight up the side of a 6,000 foot high mountain, then plummet down the other side at a 50 degree angle.  There are crashes, pedals entangled in spokes, riders flying off over the guardrails and multi-cycle pileups that seem to go on for hours, in a tumbling collection of arms, elbows, legs, knees, heads, spokes and wheels.  You can’t quite hear it, but you know there is extensive swearing, in several languages, going on as well. 

Not that I’m watching for the crashes, as I have fallen off my share of bicycles and still have some little pebbles of gravel that come to the surface of my skin from time to time.  What I am watching is not the cyclists or the race. 

There are two fascinating sidebars to the Tour de France.  The first is the cameraperson who is standing on the back seat of a motorcycle, trolling along beside the cyclists, taking closeups of the sweat pouring off the riders as their leg tendons and muscles bulge like a collection of snakes in spandex and sponsor logos.

The second sidebar are the fans.  Apparently people take their vacations to drive for a day and half to camp at the side of an obscure road, near an unremarkable village, to watch two hundred sweaty men cycle by them once.  Some fans have their favourite team or rider and insist on painting the entire bodies and camper trailers in the colours of Rabobank or Discovery Channel, as a tribute to their heroes. 

The cameraperson, I am certain, is insane.  If you would like to simulate what he or she is doing, find a big, hard ball, like a softball.  Put the ball on a kitchen chair.  Place a short wood board across the ball.  Put a fourteen pound weight on your right shoulder and close your left eye.   Climb up on the chair, balance on the board on the ball and try to aim the weight on your shoulder at one corner of the TV and leave it there. 

Just to add to the fun, be on your cellphone at the same time, talking to someone who has consumed too much coffee and is chain-smoking Gitanes in a control room in Paris.  Now, make the kitchen chair go 45 kilometers an hour, mere inches from a group of cyclists while going down an 8% grade.  Oh, there will be helicopters flying just a few meters away to deafen you.  You have to trust the motorcycle driver is not drunk, depressed, high or getting over a particularly nasty love affair gone bad, with the unprotected, thousand-foot alpine drops looking so appealing.

Now add five dozen tiny European cars, with seventy-five bicycles lashed to each of their roofs, dodging in an out of the two hundred cyclists, honking their horns, screaming in a dozen languages and passing lunch to the riders, who glibly throw their empty water bottles at the heads of the spectators.  Meanwhile your brokenhearted motorcycle driver is sobbing at the sorrow of losing his love Pauline to a macon from Vierville who quotes Sartre and makes passionate love to her on the dining room table Sunday mornings after a meaningful repas of bread, cheese and eggs lightly fried in olive oil.

Then there are the spectators who ebb and flow off the side of the road, trying to touch the riders, flying their flags and colours, proffering water, while waving, screaming and taking pictures with their cellphones.  Your motorcycle driver, Jean-Etienne, must weave between them, while you perch in the air pointing a camera at the riders.

Then you are on the downhill descent, watching the speeds climb to 70 or 80 kilometers an hour, feeling the wind from the speed and the nearby helicopters pushing you left, right, back and forward, as the heavy, overbalanced motorcycle must squirt around a 180 degree bend on a road that is half-gravel, half pavement, coated with paper cups and water bottles, at 60 kilometers an hour, while dodging cyclists, spectators and signage.

At the end of a stage, the cyclists look like spent tissues, crumpled and wet.  The cameraperson, I suspect is taken to a padded room and allowed a forty-five minute soundless howl of soul-scarifying terror that makes Munch’s The Scream, look like a child’s birthday card, complete with cartoon puppy.  After he or she stops twitching, they are injected with something to calm them for a week or two. 

Jean-Etienne, the camera motorcycle driver, disappears to a shadowy corner of the media pen with a bottle, his memories of the vivacious Pauline and sad Johnny Halliday songs on his iPod.

The spectators?  They pack up their tents, lawn chairs and caravans and fight the endless kilometers of traffic away from the Tour de France.  Each driver hunched over his or her cellphone reviewing the blurry, poorly framed snaps of George Hincapie or Michel Rasmussen in the maillot jaune.  You can just see the shoulder of the leader, behind fourteen other riders, dressed in all the colours of the rainbow, including a fine mist of refined, high-performance athlete sweat.

And you think NASCAR is madness?  Bill France and stock car boys have nothing on these folks who cover, participate and spectate in, on and around the Tour de France.



Canadians in Afghanistan

For those of you south of the border, this might come as news.  Canada has had troops fighting in Afghanistan since April 2002.  Remember Afghanistan?  The first blow the US struck after 9-11?  (Oh yeah, Afghanistan.  The Taliban, and the guy with the furry peaked hat and beard, um, Karzoo?  Right?)

When the US opened up the Shock and Awe taps in Iraq, most of the US forces went south to the Big Show, leaving NATO troops, including Canada, to pick up the slack.  Since then, it hasn’t gone particularly well for our side.  Despite best efforts, we’ve managed to get a lot of our folks killed in the same kind of grinding insurgent fight going on in Iraq.

There are some differences, in that Canada tends to win the hearts and minds by actually doing things for the locals and keeping the peace so the locals can get on with life.  However, when various insurgent groups decided to fight, our folks know how to put rounds on target too.  Just as true, our people bleed and die.  Sixty-seven of them so far.

I was in the convenience store in the apartment building last week when I noticed a person standing next to me.  He had a high and tight haircut, a deep tan and was wearing a blue sweatshirt listing the ops of the Princess Patricia Canadian Light Infantry in Afghanistan.  The jump pants and the heavy boots suggested some military service, but the giveaways were the huge shoulders, massive arms and very calm demeanor.

Every fighting soldier I’ve ever met exudes an aura of personal responsibility, confidence and honour in a perfect sphere that extends about three meters around the person. 

I have a history of working with the military.  2 Circus, 8CH, 2 Commando, PPCLI and the Sherbrookes.  There was even a few days spent in the company of the Watch and the Vandoos, as well as 427 Sqn.  To a person, all good people.  But then there is this war thing.  I don’t care for the reasons Canada is in Afghanistan.  Our commitment was a simple "Kiss Dubya’s Ass" decision and was made in an afternoon of deep, intellectual, moral and political consideration:  "You comin?  Sure, whatever. Can we hitch a lift?"

That doesn’t mean I don’t support our fighting folks.  I have the utmost respect for them doing a difficult job, far away, without a lot of logistical, or physical support from home.  There are very few jobs that start the description with "You can be killed in the normal performance of your daily duties."

Here’s the conundrum:  I support our troops: All The Way.  I don’t support the War.

So, I asked the large shouldered gentleman what I should do?  His response was perfect.  "You don’t have to support the war to support the troops.  We’re fighting so you can have the luxury of a different opinion over here."

For that, I shook his hand, said thank you and asked him to pass on my thanks to the rest of his unit.  He said that he would and knowing the kind of person who was shaking my hand, I’m fairly certain he will. 

I can live with the conundrum now.  We shouldn’t be in Afghanistan, but if we are there, then the soldiers on the ground need us to say thank you once in a while.  They deserve to hear from us, who have the luxury of not agreeing with the war, at least recognizing the soldiers’ contribution.

To that, I can, wholeheartedly, unequivocally, without reservation, say Thank You.

If you want to say Thank You too, this link: will show you how.