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March 10, 2003


A treat this week - not one article, but three! Enjoy.


Applied Talent

I recently used one of my talents for a purpose I never could have ever imagined.

Back when I was but a lad of 5 years, my parents decided to enroll me in music lessons. I started with the Suzuki method, which essentially means you learn to play music by listening to it and playing back what you hear, not by reading sheet music. For many years I couldn't ready any sheet music, but I had memorized many pieces of music, and needed only to get started to play the entire piece. This had the effect that my parents wanted - it gave me a solid base of music with which I could do whatever I wanted later in life, should I choose to do so.

All those years of playing my instrument gave me what some may call "perfect pitch". I don't believe I have it, but something very close to it. Either way, I can usually tune my instrument without benefit of a tuning fork, and be quite close to the standard A 440 that musicians tune to. Handy? Apparently so.

My wife, daughter, and I were on a day trip recently with a friend and her young son. Both my daughter and our friend's son own a Tickle-Me-Elmo Surprise, the lovable (and/or annoying) little red monster from Sesame Street. This particular variety sings a special song when the "secret" button is pushed. The problem was, none of us could figure out whose Elmo was whose. They were both in good condition, had no distinguishing teeth marks or food stains, and of course neither of us had bothered to put even initials on our Elmo. It didn't really matter whose was whose, as they are functionally equivalent, but I really wanted to figure out which one belonged to my daughter.

For some reason, my wife decided to try to get both Elmos to sing their little song together. What we discovered is that although the Elmos started together, one was singing a bit faster at a higher pitch than the other. This may have been due to newer batteries, but in either case, it distinguished the two. From the driver's seat, my highly trained musical ear picked up on this difference right away. I asked my wife to play each Elmo individually, and recognized that one Elmo was slightly higher pitched than I'm used to hearing. I usually get to hear Elmo a few times a day, as my daughter likes to sing along with him, and I suppose I've become used to our Elmo and his specific pitch and tempo. Thereby, the Elmo with the higher pitch that was singing faster belonged to our friend's son, and the slower one was ours.

I'm sure my mother would be proud.


What Is Safety?

Many months back, I was pondering my favourite subject, the automobile. I have noticed via many sources that there is unprecedented effort put into making a vehicle safe. The list of safety items found in a typical family vehicle in 2002 is quite long; 3-point seatbelts, airbags in multiple locations, crumple zones, break-away engine mounts, collapsible steering columns, laminated safety glass, side-impact door beams, steel safety structure, et cetera. Sometimes the lengths automotive engineers go to in the name of safety is really quite impressive.

In one case, BMW engineers determined that one section of a vehicle's structure was too strong, and made it weaker so the vehicle would perform better in crashes. In another, Honda designed their flyweight all-aluminum electric hybrid Insight such that the spare tire is an active part of the safety structure when it comes to rear-end impacts. Honda also takes vehicle-pedestrian accidents into account when designing their vehicles. For instance, the hood of their Accord is mounted above the engine enough so that the hood can act as a cushion of sorts to the unlucky pedestrian that gets hit with an Accord. Wild, huh?

I then started pondering what would happen if there were no accidents, mistakes or mishaps on the roadways. How different would vehicles be if they had to make no concessions to safety? You won't roll over, you won't hydroplane into the ditch, you won't hit another car, you won't get sideswiped... nothing untoward will happen. Don't ask how, that's just how things would be. How would your sports car or grocery-getter be different? Admittedly, this is a rather far-out idea, and hardly practical. However, simply as a thought experiment, it proved intriguing.

As I normally do when I'm off and thinking along new and strange lines, I involve my long-time friend Arthur Bunney. I described what I was thinking about, and quite unexpectedly this started a huge debate about the nature of safety. Art introduced the notion that safety is an instinctual response inherent of all animals, based on the self-preservation drive. Animals won't put themselves into dangerous situations, so that's safety, right? Interesting viewpoint, I'll concede, but I disagree.

Here's the way I view it, after much consideration. Self-preservation is the drive that all animals have that generally preclude them from putting themselves in a situation where they could get killed. Raccoons still cross the road in front of cars, but they don't really know that crossing a busy street is dangerous. They do know that they aren't mountain goats, and don't hop rock-to-rock down mountains. Self-preservation.

Safety is something I believe that only humans are capable of implementing. Consider something simple, like a seat belt. I think that safety is something humans employ to mitigate the inherent danger in an activity. Whether you agree that driving is dangerous or not, you have to concede that accidents happen, and being unbuckled in a crashing automobile is not a very good place to be.

What humans have decided to do is instead of avoiding inherently dangerous activities, as our self-preservation instinct would have us do, we're going to mitigate the danger inherent to said activities, thereby making them safe. Would you climb up a cliff without a harness and a safety line? I wouldn't. So instead of avoiding the activity (cliff climbing) that has inherent danger (falling off to your death) we've mitigated the danger (secure your body with a safety line and harness) so that the activity becomes "safe".

Another interesting point to this is that humans may be the only animals that have actively detuned themselves from their self-preservation instinct. Why are extreme sports so addictive? Likely, it's the adrenaline rush, coming from our bodies knowing that what we're doing is really, really, dangerous. Instead of listening to our animal brains that scream, "Don't bike down that snowy mountain!" we do the exact opposite, and are rewarded with a "rush".

I still haven't decided what my no-concessions-to-safety vehicle would look like, or how it would perform. Sadly, I'll probably never find out. Even if I ignore my self-preservation instinct, I still have a wife and a mother - two much more powerful forces.


Kyoto Made Easy

I'm absolutely brilliant. Brilliant, or at least mildly amusing and thought provoking. I'll have to assume the former after my recent epiphany in regards to Canada's commitment to meeting the Kyoto Accord greenhouse gas reduction targets. I was idly thinking about all the various sources of greenhouse gases and pollution, when I hit upon one that is literally under our collective noses. No, I'm not proposing we stop breathing, but that would be an acceptable idea for certain politicians. What I'm talking about, however, is tobacco. Cigarettes specifically, but pipes, cigars, and those nasty Colts are all candidates for this proposal.

Simply put, Canada could reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by eliminating tobacco products entirely. Every day you would have millions of people no longer puffing out carbon dioxide (as well as many other nasty emissions). As an added bonus, Canadians would become healthier for it, providing a savings to our health care system. It's a rather radical idea, but if Prohibition could be enacted in the United States, I'm sure Canada could manage something comparable with tobacco. Canada could use some of the federal money allocated to meeting our Kyoto targets towards stop smoking programs (including full subsidies for medication) to ensure Canada doesn't suddenly start buying gum and celery in bulk.

Of course, the question begs whether this will actually help us meet Kyoto or not. Let's assume each cigarette weighs 25 grams, and that 5% of its weight becomes airborne when smoked. That means each times someone finishes one off, 1.25g of greenhouse gases and other pollutants have just been emitted. With 30 million people in Canada, I'm going to randomly guess that about a quarter - say 7 million - smoke regularly. If we assume an average of 20 cigarettes a day for each smoker (one small pack) we come to a figure of roughly 51 billion cigarettes smoked each year in Canada. With each one emitting 1.25g of greenhouse gases, that's an annual total of 6.4 million tonnes of greenhouse gases.

Well, it's a bit short. According to one figure I've seen, Canada needs to cut 55 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions to meet Kyoto, and eliminating cigarettes will account for not quite 12% of that goal. It's a start, right? Plus, previous smokers will have more money to spend on other things, further benefiting our economy. Tobacco farmers could be subsidized until they can switch over to hemp farming, which could be even more profitable - and a whole lot more morally sensible - than tobacco.

Of course, it's hard to say this would be worth putting up with 7 million irritable Canadians over the period of a couple years. Tough choice.


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