Thank God We Evolved In Africa

Could you imagine what the world would be like if humanity, in all its diversity, originated and spread from some geographic location that now happens to be a place like France or Germany? Could you imagine the insufferable gloating of White Men on how all others are merely inferior copies of Pure humanity? No, the world is a better place, now, because we are descendants of Africans. Through the vagaries of geography, and a large dollop of luck, Europeans won the technology race and steamrolled over the globe, crushing most every other culture they happened upon, no more so than in Africa. In contemporary history, no other place has been more hard done by. Harvested for slaves, partitioned, colonised, and raped of resources, Africa has seen the worst that humanity had to offer over the last few centuries. How fortuitous that Science and Technology, so often wielded as weapons of suppression, have shown us that our origins are, in fact, right where people have been suppressed the most. Really, the place of origin has no special meaning in any scientific sense, at least not to its current inhabitants. Yet, an origin of most any other place would have been seized upon, with gloating and unearned pride, by its current inhabitants, be it Europe, China, Japan, or even First-Nations people in the Americas or Australia. Africa is just Africa; thank God it happened to be there.


Laser Printing On Wood

Labeling wood has traditionally involved burning or painting the surface; both require a certain amount of artistry and skill. However, there is a much easier way. Laser prints, from printers or photocopiers, have an interesting property: the pigment, or toner, will transfer to another surface under heat and pressure. Simply put, if you put a laser print face-down on a flat surface and iron it, the toner will melt off the paper and onto the surface. You will then have a mirror image of the print on the surface. It's a simple process and it works great on wood.

This simple technique allows anyone, regardless of ability, to imprint wood with any text or image. Imagine the possibilities: your signature, a valentine heart, instructions for use, flowers, signs, game boards... virtually any text or graphic you can find. All of them can be easily printed on wood.

There are two things to consider before you start: One, the material you are transferring the print to must tolerate more heat than the toner requires to melt, a cloths iron set on 'cotton' is about right. Two, the result is a mirror image of the print; if you are using text, the print will have to start out backwards.

There are really only two steps required:

1) Get a laser print. If you don't have access to a laser printer, start by printing with an ink-jet and then photocopy it. Remember to print a mirror image of what you want; some laser printers have a setting for this. If you start with an ink-jet printer, the mirror image setting is often called 'T-Shirt' mode. Many photocopiers also have a mirror setting. If none of the above options are available, you can always create your source image in a graphics program and mirror it there.

2) Set your cloths iron to cotton or wool and put the print face-down where you want the image to be. Let things get good and hot and then apply lots of pressure. The back of the paper should just start to turn brown from the heat. As you work the iron around the print, make sure the paper doesn't move or you will get a broken or blurred image.

Like most things in woodworking, it takes a little practice to get good results. So, print extra copies and then try them on scraps first. While you're at it, try out the finishing technique you plan on using to make sure it doesn't react with the transferred toner.

It works with color laser prints as well, though darker colors will show up better.

Tip: When checking to see if all areas of the image have transfered, firmly press the iron over one side of the print while you lift up the other side to check. Keep at it, pressing down firmly with the iron as you go. Once that side is complete, do the same for the other side.

Transfer printing opens up a whole new world of possibilities: gifts, signs, layouts, decorations, and signatures are easy to transfer onto wood. Anyone can do it; no artistic skills required, you don't even have to be particularly good at ironing.


Elevator up 30km to the Spaceport Hotel

update: There's a serious flaw in this idea that didn't occur to me when writing it...balloons lose their efficiency with altitude. So, yes, permanent platforms in the sky might me possible, and even useful (I like the idea of a floating yet anchored hotel), but they aren't going to be high enough to make space elevators any more practical. However, I'll leave the rest of this post as is.


For years, science fiction writers have been describing the concept of a space elevator. Rather than blasting off the face of the earth in a rocket, why not crawl up a cable all the way to space? It would certainly be much more efficient, though with somewhat less spectacular launches. The problem is, most experts say it will take a decade or more to build an actual space elevator.

Yes, it's a big problem to get a tether that stretches 100km into space, not the least of which is getting a material that can support it's own weight over that great a distance. Even then, the payloads are going to be small for quite some time. But, there just might be an easy short-term solution: balloons. Balloons can get 30km up fairly easily - and stay there for extended periods of time.

This might sound simplistic, but why don't we tie a whole bunch of high-altitude balloons onto a platform that is tethered to the ground? Why are we launching rockets from the ground when we could have a spaceport 30km up the gravity well? I'm not talking about launching a rocket after hoisting it up with a balloon. I'm talking about having a big platform, 30km up, regularly serviced by multiple elevators running up and down tethers. I'm talking about a high-altitude tourist hotel. If the proposed Aeroscraft will be capable of lifting 500 tons of material. What's to stop an absolutely massive structure supporting orders of magnitude more?

Imagine, if you will, a very large circular structure, something like the donut space stations of science fiction, with a central launch platform for rockets or, eventually, a tether all the way into space. Around the outside are hotel rooms for tourists; above them, hundreds of large balloons. So many balloons that they can be individually replaced as needed without any significant effect. Below, multiple tethers to the earth with elevators running up and down them constantly.

It would be a structure low enough down such that high-strength tethers could be used; not flimsy ribbons of carbon nano-tubes that can barely hold their own weight. I'm talking thick, heavy cables that tons of material can be hoisted up and down. I'm talking lots of thick cables capable of holding the spaceport where it is, no matter what the wind brings. It would be a structure high enough that it would be practically useful; a rock-solid spaceport securely suspended above all the nasty thick atmosphere and weather. It would be a place where it's easy to launch small rockets into space, where a 70km long space-tether might just stand a chance of working.

Why does the space-elevator concept have to go from the ground up to space in one go? We could easily break off the lower 30km segment, where most of the problems with wind exist, just by floating a platform with balloons.


Anonymity is under attack

A long time ago, you were who you said you were. When societies formed, you were who the people that knew you said you were. Then, as commerce spread beyond the reach of person to person communication, you were your signature. Today you are all that plus your identification. ID, the stuff that links who you are to records in other peoples lists. Lists, databases, records, files, statements, the stuff of the information age. Today, you are what you’ve done; your credit history, your employment history, your tax records, your driving record, your criminal record, and other bits of information all tell the story of your life. No matter who you would like others to believe you are, the truth is out there. Being anonymous, hiding from this truth means not giving out your last name, not showing your ID.

New technology will put this anonymity under attack. Iris scanning, voice and face recognition software, and DNA testing, will inexorably link the person to the record. Some banks are already planning on using iris scans for access to bank machines; look at the camera and it will give you access to your money. So much for letting your deadbeat brother use your spare bank account. Voice printing can be used to link telephone calls; If you call a company for help twice, they will link the calls together. If you were rude the first time then you’ll probably wind up on hold for a very long time. Face recognition software is new and extremely powerful. We’re already used to security cameras; soon they will be able to link each face that walks by. Imagine this setup in a car dealership. You’ve decided what you want to buy but figure you’d get a better price if they didn’t know you were so keen. You drive to the dealership in the next town and walk in. Their computer system, being cross-linked to a nation wide database, recognizes who you are and alerts the salespeople to what you’re interested in, how much the last offer was, maybe even how much money you have and how old your current vehicle is. So much for pretending disinterest. DNA testing is in the news every week with stories about how it solved twenty year old crimes or about the controversies surrounding the ethics of sampling. The more successful civil libertarians are at preventing groups of people from being sampled, the more information the authorities will collect from each sample they can take. Remember that DNA is also used to resolve paternity suits and show inter-relatedness. There's a lot of information in a strand of hair. You may never have been sampled but your cousin might have; if you leave your DNA at the scene of a crime, they will know you’re related.

Like it or not, the people you deal with in your life will know who you are. They will know what you’ve done and they will treat you accordingly. This is the inevitable result of the information revolution and, like it or not, we're all going to live with the results. If we force government to not use this technology then we’ve just left the power to the corporations. If we pass laws to prevent corporate use then we leave the technology to the criminals. We could wear dark sunglasses, face masks, disguise our voice, and somehow mask our DNA to avoid recognition but we won’t. We’ll learn to live with the lose of anonymity like we adapted to ID cards. Perhaps, in the long run, it will be better. After all, what’s wrong with living with the consequences of your actions?

Easter Island - It's All How You Look At It

Easter Island is that little speck of land, out in the Pacific, with all those massive stone statues staring out over the water. For years, it was an enigma; who carved those statues, how, and why? When the white explorers got there, the inhabitants of the island didn't carve these statues, they couldn't. And, even if they could, they would have no way of moving the statues to the shore. There were no trees on the island, nothing to make rope with, just bushes and grassland. It was one of those things that just didn't make sense.

Well, some enterprising scientists have figured out the answer. They did some anthropological type excavations and, with counting pollen, bones, and whatnot, learned that Easter Island was not always as it is now. It used to be a tropical paradise, teeming with forests and a diversity of life. It also held human populations far larger than they are today; those people built ocean-going boats and fished far from shore, or so the bones say. Those people, with access to palm trees and the ropes made from them, were the ones that carved all the great statues around the island. The scientists went on to theorise, from other evidence one would presume, that great clans carved these statues as part of the warfare they waged against each other. Then, one day, for some reason none of us will ever really know, they cut down the last tree. The very, very, last tree on the island. After that, no more ropes, no more wood to make canoes...no more fish from the deep ocean. Well, after that, things didn't go very well for the inhabitants of Easter Island. As the clans fought over the dwindling resources available, things got very, very nasty. In the end, the population crashed and the few that remain still use colourful curses like "your mothers flesh is caught in my teeth."

Today, Easter Island is used as a parable for the earth as a whole. We too are consuming the resources of our island at an unsustainable rate. Some day, we too will, metaphorically, cut down the last tree. After that, things will get very nasty for all of humanity - or so the parable goes. However, as well as being a cautionary tale, Easter Island also offers a ray of hope. It all depends on how you look at it.

When you look at what the investigating scientists have deduced as activities undertaken by the earlier society, they discuss things like fishing porpoises far offshore. This must have been quite risky for the participating fishermen; a risk not shared by the current inhabitants. They mention how competing rival clans built, and moved, the great statues, a year’s work for twenty carvers and hundreds for moving. Labour not shared by the current inhabitants. They mention the hereditary chiefs, warriors, bureaucrats, and priests that provided a framework for the early society; all unnecessary on the island today. In their tale of environmental destruction and warnings for the future, they fail to mention one point: while the fall was, most likely, a particularly nasty time, the inhabitants today, as when the first Europeans arrived, live a fairly nice life.

Easter Island currently has a peaceful egalitarian society free from war and its attendant warriors, priests, and rock-carving megalomaniac leaders. It is balanced with what remains of its environment and can sustain itself indefinitely. From this lesson, it would seem that the people of earth have a bright future. After we too destroy or consume everything worth fighting over, we may yet attain the peaceful utopia that intellectuals have long sought.


Punk Rock, Science, and Zoot Suits

When I was fourteen my identity pretty much focused on my abilities as a dirt biker; music wasn't much of a factor in my life. My older brother, on the other hand, was a hard core punk rocker. I remember visiting him in the early days of the Vancouver punk rock scene. The parties were something else. Those punk rockers were a wild looking group of people, with spiked mohawks, chains, and lots of leather. The funny thing was, after I got to know them, I realised they were just regular people. They had the same concerns as anyone else, well, except for having to worry about their hair poking friends in the eye. The music did take a little getting used to. In time I realised the music was more than just a song, it was a statements of philosophy; it was the ideals of punk rock in musical form. These songs exemplified the ideas that you don’t have to follow the normal patterns and that you don't have to know what you're doing; just get out there and do it. By not learning, and even actively rejecting, the established norms, punk rockers experimented with musical forms. Most of what they came up with was junk; no one but a punk rocker would ever choose to listen to it. Some of the music, on the other hand, was good in a “mainstream” music kind of way. The current “alternative” music scene grew from punk rock roots.

Classical music, on the other hand, is completely different from punk rock; it is the study of form. Students start by learning the fundamentals of music, the scales, and slowly work their way up learning from the masters that came before them. Eventually, these students become masters and know everything there is to know about the special musical area they have followed a path to. Each new master then begins to experiment with variations, trying to expand the form beyond what the past masters had achieved. Thus classical music grows as each successive master adds a little something new; each extends the form a little bit farther.

Academic knowledge is much the same as classical music. Each scholar learns from the masters that came before and, after learning everything in a particular area of study, the scholar masters the field and then works to extend the knowledge. Students will specialise with each branch they take until they have mastered a very specific field of study. These new masters, having learned everything there is to know about the behaviour of neutrinos in high energy accelerators or the works of a particular eighteenth century British author, for example, will then begin research to expand the knowledge in that area. In this way, the body of knowledge in a particular area of study grows with each master.

Punk ideals can also work in the pursuit of knowledge. When academics only learn from the work of others, who came before them, then other possible paths may be hidden. By actively choosing to not learn, or even rejecting, what others have done and experimenting on their own, individuals may come up with knowledge that others have overlooked. Sure, most of what these individuals come up with will be junk, or will have been done before, but there is always the chance that they will come up with something new. When individuals reject established knowledge then they create a path for new or innovative thinking. Just like the “alternative” mainstream music scene, a few individuals, willing to explore ideas in an unconventional way, can open up a whole new area of knowledge.

There is room in this world for classical music and punk rock. There is room for stodgy academics to master obscure fields of study and room for flaky individuals to reject established knowledge in favour of their own experiments. All are valid pursuits; all benefit society. Each form suits particular individuals. Some people excel at learning from past masters; others must go their own way. To some, the study of music forms the foundation of their lives. To others, the pursuit of knowledge is central. To each their own and in their own time. People change too; the flaky experimenter may grow to follow more formal academic pursuits or the stodgy academic may come to reject established knowledge. Visiting my brother in Vancouver a while back, we went to another party. I recognised quite a few of the same people I knew from the punk rock parties of the past. Gone were the spiked mohawks, chains, and leather, in favour of zoot suits and wing-tip shoes. There were no electric guitars, synthesizers, or screaming amplifiers, just pianos, saxophones, and double-basses beating out the rhythms of swing-jazz. At first I was a little shocked and asked my brother about it. He laughed and said “After decades in the music scene they’ve become experienced professionals.” I had to agree as they were excellent musicians. I had a good time that night; they’re still a great bunch of people.

UN Mandated Peace Making - Canada in Afghanistan

Afghanistan is a place in constant turmoil that often breaks out into multi-polar civil war, often aided or even promoted by an invader. The current conflict in Afghanistan is a civil war that was provoked by invaders - our Allied forces. Before our side attacked, Afghanistan was, by its standards, stable. However, the Taliban, the ruling party, had a foreign policy that was not acceptable to Canadians, the UN General Assembly, or the Security Council. The world voted for a change - by force if necessary.

With this UN mandate, Americans, British, Canadian, Australian, and other special forces went to Afghanistan, deliberately upset the balance of power, and started a new civil war by backing Taliban opponents. The government quickly changed hands but the country is not stable. To achieve victory, we have to build up the capability of the side we support until they can maintain dominance over the Taliban and other elements. Others, notably the Russians, have tried this and failed. The Russians failed because America supported the opposing side to the point where the Russian-supported Afghan side could never achieve dominance without Russian troop support. Eventually, the Russians gave up and called their troops home. We have the same problem. Victory for our side in the current Afghan civil war, to the point where our troops can come home, is entirely dependent on how much outside support the other side is getting. Thus, victory in Afghanistan is entirely dependent on politics rather than military force. We will have to continue to support our side in Afghanistan more than the other side is being supported. For our support to reduce, our politicians must convince people to stop supporting the other side.

Meanwhile, our Canadian soldiers are experiencing limited combat in Afghanistan. This is a good thing, at least from a military perspective. This Afghan civil war is providing the perfect conditions for the Canadian forces revitalisation project. It provides controllable combat situations that are battle-hardening our soldiers, it is providing the impetus to streamline our military procurement processes, and it is encouraging some troops to retire while also encouraging others to enlist. This is exactly what the Canadian military needs at this point in history.

There is no doubt in military thinking about the benefits of limited combat in preparing soldiers. A soldier's combat effectiveness increases dramatically after a reasonable number of combat days. Green troops, without experience, either lack confidence or are too brash; there is no more sobering experience than being in combat. Soldiers quickly learn what they can do, what they should not do, and who they can trust. All of this makes them much better soldiers. A good general will always attempt to use green troops in situations that allow these soldiers to gain experience while not requiring too much of them and where they can be withdrawn to safety if necessary. Hillier is an excellent general; Afghanistan is the perfect place to season green troops. We have an all-volunteer army in Canada and our soldiers want to be in Afghanistan because there is opportunity for combat. It is what they train for, it will make them better soldiers, and it is good for their military career. Soldiers understand this.

Most Canadians agree that it is time to rebuild the Canadian Armed Forces. Imagine what would be happening now if we were not engaged in combat. Politicians would be thinking about military spending that would benefit their riding rather than protecting soldiers. The traditional Canadian "made in Quebec" pork-belly procurement system would rule the day and most of the billions being invested would be wasted, at least from a military perspective. Even for politicians, combat sharpens the senses and builds teamwork. No politicians would ever want to be in a situation where they, through political failure, were responsible for the death of combat soldiers. Just like soldiers in combat, during times of war politicians will, hopefully, put aside grievances and personal interested to support the effort.

Without the reasonable possibility of combat, people signing up as new recruits would be thinking about their education or careers rather than excitement and adventure. The latter make better combat soldiers. To be frank, many young people pursue risk. Their choice, then, is extreme sports, street racing, criminal activity, or combat. Combat is the ultimate risk and is very appealing to many people. At times of war, enlistment in combat positions goes up. America, for example, has no shortage of volunteers for combat infantry. What they are short of is truck drivers and other non-combat personnel. The situation is reversed during times of peace. Canada has, over the last four years, recruited around 20,000 personnel. However, their real numbers have only gone up by a few hundred. This is because many soldiers are retiring, some to avoid combat. The Canadian Armed Forces are transitioning from a relic of the Cold War to a modern combat force. Our participation in the UN mandated occupation of Afghanistan is helping immensely.

There is a lot of disagreement about what Canadian soldiers should be doing. Some say we should limit our role to UN mandated "blue beret" peacekeeping activities while others advocate for a more forceful role. With some understanding, this disagreement, for the most part, disappears.

The Canadian Armed Forces are not participating in Blue-Beret, Chapter-Six, UN sponsored peacekeeping activities because, for the most part, these activities have been spectacularly successful. The number of wars going on has reduced significantly over the years, in large part because of traditional peacekeeping. The peacekeeping role, first promoted by Canadians, works so well it has become rare for established states to be at war with each other. Further, there are many more nations willing to provide troops for these activities and, as such, there is much less demand for Canadian soldiers.

People promoting peace, buoyed by this success, are now trying to promote peace in more demanding situations where the belligerents are not easy to identify. Rwanda, described by Romeo Dallaire as a "Chapter Six and a half," is a prime example. Rwanda also illustrates two other important points. First, there is a real difference between trained combat soldiers from nations like Canada and the soldiers provided by other nations such as Bangladesh. Bangladeshi soldiers are perfectly competent in Chapter-Six UN missions but are not trained or equipped to replace combat soldiers when things get rough. Had Canada deployed a full brigade of combat soldiers, Rwanda would have been a different story. Second, Rwanda is also a prime example of why nations with combat-effective soldiers, like Canada, are extremely reluctant to deploy them under UN supervision. Simply put, the UN organisation is too cumbersome to support combat. Had Canada deployed a brigade to Rwanda, there would probably not have been a genocide but there could have been many, many Canadian casualties. This is why most countries, Canada included, prefer to deploy soldiers under their own command if there is any real chance of combat. Thus, while there are now very few Canadian soldiers wearing blue berets on UN commanded missions, there are very many Canadian soldiers, under NATO command, supporting UN mandated missions.

The Canadian Armed Forces are still heavily supporting UN mandated peace initiatives. Only now, with the easy jobs going to less capable nations, the jobs being asked of Canada are getting tougher. As such, we are conducting them under NATO command rather than under the UN blue-beret system. This is because NATO practices combat where the UN does not; combat soldiers require effective leadership to survive. Just because there are less Canadian soldiers under UN command does not mean that Canadians are not doing their part. Canadian soldiers are being asked to do the hardest jobs and they are excelling at them. Canadian soldiers are not off warmongering or invading countries for our, or America's, private interests. We are operating under UN mandate. The UN Secretary General is not asking Canada to pull troops out of Afghanistan and send them to the Congo; he is asking for us to be in Afghanistan, engaged in combat, where we can do the most good for the world.

In the interest of world peace, the UN gave a mandate to end Taliban dominance of Afghanistan. Afghanistan is now an occupied country and must remain so until the Taliban cannot come back into power. However, while this occupation is expensive, it is also helping the Canadian military during an important transition and rebuilding project. Afghanistan is not a peaceful place and is unlikely to be so for generations to come, but the people currently in power need to remain so. The alternative is to return to a state that sponsors international terrorism. The UN is attempting to deal with these 21st century problems as best it can. It reserves the better combat-trained soldiers for the tougher peace-making missions while using less capable soldiers for the easier chapter-six tasks. Canada, as always, is doing more than its share.


Bush's Master Plan - or NOT

Okay, I give up; I just don't know anymore.

For the last five years or so, I've been thinking that this whole "Bush the idiot" routine has to be fake, there has to be some Master Plan. How could such an incredibly stupid person become the most powerful man on earth? I've tried to figure his plan out, even wrote in my blog about it HERE. Every time I think it makes sense, and I think I know what Bush is going to do, he just up and does some other idiotic thing.

Even people that believe Bush is right, on his word, have to be thinking by now that he's an idiot. Honestly, invading Iraq might have worked as advertised if everything was done right, instead of wrong. Bush could have pulled it off. Had his diplomatic efforts at the beginning not been such an atrocious failure, he might of actually had a coalition of the willing, rather than the grudging. Done effectively, he might even have had UN approval. The actual military invasion was spectacular; lightening fast and with comparatively few errors. You can't fault the military effort in Iraq. But, again, the post-invasion phase was a political catastrophe. Let's see, we want a stable and democratic Iraq, so let's fire all the soldiers and police and send them home where they will have guns but no source of income. After that, we'll hire new soldiers and police but we'll form units along sectarian lines. Then, we'll completely abandon security such that regional militias become popular means for protecting local neighbourhoods. Sure, that's really going to to build a stable country.

In reality, I can't help but think all the really stupid things the Bush administration has done in Iraq must have been deliberate. The choices sure seem like a deliberate attempt to incite civil war. Even the latest so-called surge seems more like an attempt to beat down the Shiite militias such that the Sunni insurgents will have a chance to hold their own. After all, if you want a civil war, each side has to at least have a fighting chance.

However, even when everything seems in place, and the optimal time to move on to the next phase is here, Bush just keeps on doing stupid things. I mean, if Bush wants to use all the military might he's assembled in the Gulf, he's going to have to start soon, like last week. Iran is going to need some serious bombardment to soften up its defences before any ground assault in the spring, the optimal time for such things. If he waits until the fall, the US military will have been sitting around, slowly loosing capability, for months. All those sailors and airmen, stationed far from home, will have been waiting around for nothing. The soldiers too will have spent way too many high-stress combat hours pointlessly wandering around Baghdad. Every deployment has its peak readiness, when units are deployed, finished their last minute training, and are chomping at the bit to fight. Over use them, over train them, or leave them waiting around too long, and they'll just want to go home.

Maybe this really is just like a nightmare. My mind is attempting to stitch a story around random events, trying to make some kind of sense out of a collection of unconnected and totally senseless points of data. Maybe Bush, and all of his advisers, and Blair, and all of his advisers, are just a bunch of idiots. Maybe they're actually trying to do what they say, and just doing a very lousy job of it. Maybe Bush really is just a pathetic Commander in Chief, sending the most powerful military force in the world, here and there, willy-nilly, with no real plan of action. Maybe he's just trying to look tough, maybe he likes seeing little American flags shuffle around on situation boards, or maybe he just doesn't care about his people in uniform. Could it be that he doesn't care about the people suffering extended tours of duty, the separated families, the increased attrition this will cause? Could it really be true that he's doing all this without any plan? Is he really that much of an idiot?

I don't know anymore. I thought Bush was playing a game, that he had a secret plan. But, as time ticks away, and opportunities slip by, I'm starting to lose faith. Am I an idiot for thinking Bush actually has a Master Plan? Is Bush really an idiot? Maybe the whole Master Plan thing is just wishful thinking on my part. Or, maybe it's that everyone in the world has to believe Bush really is an idiot before the Master Plan can work? I don't know. I really hope that Bush does have a secret Master Plan. Because, if he doesn't, we're screwed. Everyone.


Same-Sex Marriage and Equal Rights

It would seem self-evident that if it is legal for a white Christian man to marry a white Christian woman, with her consent, then, with her consent, it must follow that a black man can marry this woman, that a Muslim man can marry this woman, or that, with her consent, a woman can marry this woman. Anything less is an affront to individual freedom.

If one is to believe the media reports, it appears that a great many people do not seem to understand this simple logic. These people seem to feel that if the majority of people are opposed to something then it should be against the law. What these people fail to realise is that the essence of freedom is freedom from the tyranny of the majority. The rule of law protects us from this tyranny and is an essential part of democracy.

Wilderness Insurance

It is my opinion that the average North American has a warped sense of reality. Most seem to think that, even when bad things happen, everything will be okay. We have auto insurance, fire insurance, flood insurance, earthquake insurance, investment insurance, medical insurance, and the list goes on. If we find that, through some aspect of human error, we’re not insured for something that happens then we expect the powers that be to provide disaster relief; to save us from ourselves. If things go bad we expect the police, ambulance, fire, or rescue departments to save us. We’re protected – nothing will go wrong: Right? It’s not really true; people die all the time, but we hold on to the illusion. If we didn't then we’d be too afraid to leave our homes. We insure ourselves against fear.

But fear can be a good thing; it can protect us more than any insurance policy. In the wilderness, fear can be a friend. Fear of going thirsty makes me pack extra water. Fear of freezing makes me pack extra cloths. Fear of going beyond my capabilities keeps me alive.

The problem being discussed here is not about ignorant people getting into trouble and needing to be rescued. I’m sure everyone has done something stupid at one time or another. Maybe, like me, they got themselves out of it, or maybe they needed help. The problem is that the “everything will be fine” expectation is finding it’s way into the wilderness. There are people out there, a lot of people, that expect to be rescued – anywhere, anytime – if something goes wrong. And, they probably will. Search and Rescue is very good these days. Maybe too good; the fear is gone. It seems like every weekend some unfortunate soul is plucked from the wilderness. Why worry, if you make a mistake they’ll just come and get you. Search and Rescue is a victim of it’s own success.

If you tack on some kind of rescue insurance then it will just get worse. “Hey, that mountain climbing thing looks pretty neat. Let’s go.” “Hey, I paid my dues, my feet hurt – take me home!” Maybe this would work in National parks but in general I think it’s a bad idea. Fear is good. The wilderness is a big, bad place. If you slip and break your leg – you could die. The wilderness is where, every once in a while, the animals get to eat the people. This is a good thing – it makes you careful. It keeps you within your limits.

People go to the wilderness to get back to reality. The reality is – sometimes bad things happen. The more money you spend on Search and Rescue the more money will be needed. Maybe it’s time to set some limits on peoples expectations.


The Mistakes I've Made

Here's a list of things I've done wrong while getting started as an amateur machinist. If you're a professional, then enjoy the laugh. If you've already done these, then feel free to commiserate. If you've wound up at this page while doing research before starting, read carefully.

I bought myself a 3 in 1 combination machine: mill, drill, and lathe. It has some fairly impressive specs, the 16" swing being one of them. I figured "hey, with a swing like that, I might even be able to turn my own brake rotors." It didn't occur to me that the cutting speed near the outside of a 16" diameter disk would be scorching fast, even at the slowest speed I can turn the work. Another thing I learned is that having the cutter that far away from the lathe bed is a great way to introduce chatter. Chatter is the worst enemy of an amateur machinist using cheap Chinese tools.

So, lesson 1: read the specs carefully and understand what they mean. Bigger numbers are not necessarily better. I spend almost all of my lathe time an inch or so from the chuck. Sure, it's nice to have the capacity if I need it but most of the time it is a serious liability. A small machine with big specs equals flex. Flex equals chatter. Now, chatter is manageable so don't think my tools are useless; it's just that I didn't quite get what I was expecting.

Lesson 2 is about carbide. When I first started, I thought, "all those cutting angles are just confusing; I'll buy carbide cutters and be done with it." You guessed it, that was another mistake. First, carbide may be really hard but that makes it brittle. If you make a mistake, say by turning the work backwards by hand while the cutter is rubbing against it, or feeding the cutter into the work the wrong way, you will chip or flake the carbide. This ruins the cutting edge. Most times, this ruins the whole cutter. Carbide cutters are unforgiving; this is not a good thing for beginners. The second thing I learned about carbide is that while it holds an edge better than HHS, it isn't as sharp. Also, many carbide cutters are designed with negative rakes. These two things are a real problem with light machines where you need to worry a lot about chatter. It takes a powerful and rigid machine to exploit the benefits of carbide; even a poorly ground and sharpened HSS cutter works much better on my machine. Better yet, when I screw up, I don't waste the cutter; worst case, I have to resharpen. I still do that a lot.

Lesson 3 is that while my machine can hold 1/2" cutters, this does not mean I should buy 1/2" HSS blanks. This is another capacity verses common sense thing that I seemed to have missed when I started out. First, with my machine the flex of the actual cutter is insignificant; I don't have the power or rigidity. Properly supported, a 1/4" or 3/8" cutter is just fine. Please realise this is not about cost; the cost of a larger cutter is only marginally higher than the smaller ones. If you want to know why smaller is better, go try to grind the relief angles into 1/2" of HSS. Remember, don't grind too fast or it will overheat and loose it's HSS properties. Grind, grind, grind, grind... HSS is HARD... grind, grind, grind, grind. Now, repeat for the different shape cutters you will need. Grinding various shapes into smaller cutters is much easier, and they work just as well.

Lesson 4 is about milling - and specs. My machine is "capable" of cutting with a 3/4" endmill, or so the documentation says. So, being the kind of guy that I am, I went out and bought 3/4" endmills. You guessed it, chatter was a significant problem and I couldn't find any speed/feed combination that would settle it down. One day, I had to mill a 1/2" slot. With the 1/2" endmill in place, my little machine cut like a dream. What little chatter there was cleared right up by increasing the feed rate. I can cut a given amount of material much faster with a 1/2" endmill than I can with a 3/4" one. Bigger is not always better, at least on a small machine.

Lesson 5 is that "amateur" means "not making money." In the world of professional machining, time is money. The best machinist is the one that spends the least amount of time removing the most amount of metal, while leaving precisely the right amount behind with the right finish. Because of this, all the speed and feed charts are maximum safe starting speeds, which professionals then exceed to whatever their particular task will bear. For us hobby people, there really isn't that kind of rush so it's okay to go slower. With some materials, cutting faster will give a better finish but most times going faster just leads to more mistakes. Over the last while, I've tended to slow down the speeds as this gives me more control over the feed rates. After all, it's the machining that I enjoy more than the final product. People ask my what I make with all my tools, I tell them: swarf.

Lesson 6 is about reading. All the tools in the world will not make your metal into the right shape. You have to know how to hold it down, how to make the cut, and how to put it all together. Machining is partly about the tools, but being a machinist, amateur or otherwise, is a learned skill. But, you're here reading this so you probably already know that.

Lesson 7 is about precision. Cabinet makers and house framers both make things out of wood but they work to different levels of precision. Working with metal is like that too. Most of the stuff you read on metalworking will be from people telling you how to do things right: precisely and correctly. However, if you're making a cart axle and just want to turn down a steel rod so the wheels you have will fit over, then if you can safely get the pointy end of a cutter near the spinning rod, it will probably be good enough. Sometimes, I like to put a lot of effort into making a part more precisely than is actually necessary. I know it's a waste of time but I'm using a non-critical part as a learning exercise. If I'm off, it's no big deal as the part will still work. I'm doing it as a learning exercise because I enjoy it; I'm still not very good at it, but I enjoy it. However, when you're making something to a rough fit, you don't have to worry about it unless you want to.

Lesson 8: The more power tools I have, the more I appreciate a good hacksaw and file. It amazes me how much I can get done with basic hand tools; it also amazes me how long it takes to get a machine set up to make even a simple cut. I've learned, over the years, that if I need to get something done, and there's not too much metal to remove, it is often faster to hack it to shape and then file it smooth. I mean, I like my power tools but there are times when getting the work held down properly for a cut, at the correct angle and in the correct place, takes way longer than clamping the thing in a vice and having at it. The more you use a hacksaw or file, the better you will get at it, and the faster you will be able to shape metal. Sometimes, the simple things are the right tools for the job.

So, if you are looking to get into amateur machining, here are my recommendations:
  • Get the right machine for what you will spend the most time doing.
  • Remember that bigger specs on smaller machines means, in all likelihood, more chatter.
  • Start with HSS cutters; try carbide after you know what you're doing.
  • Avoid running your machines at maximum capacity. Their "maximum" is probably a sales pitch.
  • You don't need to run at the maximum speed and feed.
  • Learn as much as you can about techniques.
  • Be as precise as you want to be and not necessarily as precise as you've read about.
  • Don't get belligerent about using a machine when hand tools can do a better job.

Oh, and one more thing: don't forget to have fun!

Drug Philosophy

Ask drunk or stoned people if they’re having a good time and they’ll probably answer “yes,” but are they? Being high, maybe their judgement is impaired, maybe they’re not actually having a good time, maybe they just think they are. Looking at them, being all smiles and laughs, they seem to be having a good time, but they’re not actually doing anything interesting. Does being high make boring activities fun and interesting or does it impair people’s judgement such that they think boring activities are fun? Does the drug impair judgement or stimulate the brain’s pleasure centre? But then, perhaps stimulating the pleasure centre is impairing judgement. After all, there’s nothing going on that someone could judge as pleasurable, other than taking the drug. Does taking a drug to falsely stimulate the brain’s pleasure centre constitute, in itself, a good time: is that enough? Well, that depends on what a good time actually is.

Why do humans have good times? Why do we feel pleasure or pain, good or bad? Ultimately, a biologist would say we have these experiences because they guide us to behave in ways that will increase the likelihood our genes will make it into succeeding generations. In other words, we enjoy sex because that’s how we make the next generation. Along the same lines, we feel bad when we hurt someone because if our society fails, odds are the babies we made won’t be able to grow to have their own babies. It’s a pretty simplified way of looking at it but the general idea is that good or bad times provide us with guides to living productively, to prosper in our society, genetically speaking.

Given that good times are natural rewards for making good decision, what then of taking drugs? Well, how would taking drugs help people make better decisions? Obviously, the answer is that it doesn’t; drugs impair the ability to make good decisions, they don’t help. Drugs bypass a natural system of guidance; they only reward people for taking drugs, nothing more, nothing useful. They make taking drugs good and not taking drugs bad. It even alters the natural balance of feeling and swamps out any real feel-good rewards, and this further degrades the natural system which then leaves people without useful tools for managing their lives. Being high is not feeling good, it’s not the same as having a good time, it’s just being high. Drunk or stoned people aren’t having a good time; they may think they are, but they’re wrong, their impaired brains are deceiving them. Small wonder heavy drug users have such messed up lives.

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Arcade Philosophy:

Philosophy can be grossly divided into two different camps: the mechanistic belief that reality is as observed and the belief that something more exists. The observable reality system requires no explanation but does leave people devoid of purpose. Is there nothing more to life than propagating genes and, possibly, the pursuit of happiness? Throughout the ages, people have created a multitude of systems that create purpose by adding unobservable elements to reality: Gods, destiny and providence, divine justice, the list goes on. This paper offers yet another enhanced-reality concept. While somewhat humorous, it does a better job of explaining the human predicament than most other enhanced-reality theories.

If the world is not as we can observe it, and something more - supernatural - exists, then we might as well go all the way and state that we exist in a virtual reality environment where everything is an illusion. Nothing we observe really exists. Our world, the universe, and our very existence is a creation - a secondary false-reality created for a purpose. Of course, this merely shifts the original question one reality up - what purpose does the creating reality have? However, the answer to that cannot be observed from this false reality. Thus, we can leave that question to our creators. The question we can pursue is: why did they create us?

To understand the motives of these creators, we can project our own lives into the future, millions or perhaps even billions of years. With sufficient time to evolve, it is clear that death will become optional and eternal life the norm. Technology would offer no limitations that we can imagine. With, what would seem to us, near unlimited power and immortality, what would there be to do? In such a situation, how would we entertain ourselves? Well, we would probably play games and watch entertaining things.

What games would bored and nearly-omnipotent beings partake in? Perhaps they would be drawn to the carnival, the thrills of wild rides that offer fear without true risk. What would an immortal being be afraid of the most? Death, of course. The fear of death - the one constant feature of our reality. From a very young age, we learn that we are going to die, the people we love are going to die, that everyone is going to die. We fear disease, famine, war, accident, and violence. Yes, there are places on this planet that offer relative safety compared to other more dangerous areas. Carnivals also have a kiddie section with easy not-too-scary rides. Our reality also offers a choice between the relaxed and intense, between the tilt-a-whirl and the roller coaster. Every ride, easy or wild, offers the same fear of death. The only real change is in immediacy.

What entertainment would such beings enjoy? Reality shows perhaps? Maybe they would enjoy watching ignorant characters attempt to discover their place in this virtual reality: to invent gods or attempt to build rational explanations. This would be great fun, learning the latest antics, theories, or worship. It would be especially fun to inject odd events that the inhabitants would have to build explanations for. Perhaps a messiah, or an odd physics result. The bizarre world of quantum mechanics could easily be explained as just a joke on our poor physicists, religion as just a joke on all of us.

If you suppose that the reality we exist in is not as it seems, and that something supernatural need exist, then a casual observation of this reality leads to one truly obvious conclusion. We exist in a virtual reality game - World of Earth - where each of us is a character. We have souls, those eternal beings that guide our characters through this environment. We eventual die, as is our destiny, and our souls get to experience a thrilling fear of death, without any real risk. It is a popular game, at six billion characters and counting, and it must also be very entertaining to watch from the outside. I wonder what kind of ratings we're getting?