March 24, 2017
For years I have told anyone who would listen that the most hazardous driving conditions of the winter occur in April, when a quick fall of snow is saturated by rain at 32 degrees F. I even had a name for the phenomenon, April grease.
We drove into some on the way home from Merrickville today. I was mildly curious to see how Ruby would do on zero-traction slush, but primarily I was eager to get her home without damage.
The trip began bravely enough, with very little traffic on the back roads. The few winter- hardy drivers plowed along, their pickups in 4WD and loaded tanks of sap in the back.
As long as I was exactly in their wheel ruts, things were normal. But if the right wheels climbed a 1″ pile of slush, Ruby let me know with a stutter-step to the right, the same as any other car I’ve driven in this stuff.
On a side note: because of this slush I quit using a Volkswagen for winter commutes. A light FWD like our Jetta would lose control for as long as both front wheels were floating on slush — in passing situations, for example. I opted for a series of Volvo sedans, those of the skinny, tall Michelins. They were pretty good, though I managed the odd front-wheel skid with them, as well. When the new 4Runner came along I learned just to drive it in 4WD through thick and thin. It was very stable in the passing lane unless in 2WD, at which point it behaved like an annoyed pig on ice.
Back to Ruby and the unfamiliar April slush. As we passed Toledo things became greasier, though I noticed that most drivers were still holding a pace for dry pavement. Then one guy braked to turn. His SUV split-arsed a bit, but he recovered neatly and continued into a barn yard. Though well back, I tried my brakes on the tricky surface. To my surprise nothing happened for a bit. It wasn’t a skid — no machine gun rattle from various corners of the car — but rather it seemed that the brakes just weren’t working. Ice on the rotors, or all wheels with zero traction? Likely ice. I’ve noticed that before on Ruby. This never happens on a Lexus, but Toyota designers didn’t have to worry about brake cooling on a sedan designed for geezers. Cayennes occasionally find themselves on a track, so the rotors are built to run very cold. 32 degree F slush, a whirling, shiny object and you have a perfect chance for ice to form.
So part of the routine for driving Ruby in near-freezing conditions is frequent touches of the brakes to defrost them.
Once they were dry, I over-applied the brakes as a test. The usual muted machine-guns went off, and the car slowed quickly, dead-straight. A basic safety line established, I experimented with the Goodyear winter tires and the grease. Frankly, I wasn’t all that impressed. The wheels are simply too wide for the weight of the vehicle on grease. The coarse off-road treads of my pickup would grip the asphalt better, I think. I slowed down to just a bit over 80 km/hr.
Why the critical attitude when I certainly should have been driving more slowly in bad conditions? In my wife’s Lexus, a pretty good slush car with a relatively high weight-to-tire width, I know how quickly I’m driving without a look at the speedometer. In Ruby, I really don’t know without instruments. Speed creeps up if I don’t use cruise control. Stealth speed is not what a driver needs in April grease.
Will I leave Ruby at home next time in bad conditions? Naw. I’ll just set the cruise at 80 km and go for it. It’s still by far the best, safest car we’ve ever driven. I just need to adjust the control nut behind the wheel.
And now that I think of it, on one memorable 5 a.m. drive to the Ottawa Airport on April 7th, I refused to drive my Volvo an inch further because I couldn’t keep it on the road. We went in our friend’s Dodge Mini-Van with AWD. It drove like a motorized living room, but it didn’t slide around on grease.
I searched online today for any news article dated after January 30th about the accused shooter in the murder of six men and the injury of nine others, all of whom were praying at their Quebec City mosque on January 29, 2017.
It’s been less than two months, but the killer seems to have vanished from the public record. Only the BBC continues to cover the story.
Last August I posted a column on this blog suggesting that one way to discourage domestic terrorism would be to deny notoriety to the perpetrators. Reporters seem to have done that in spades in this case.
I can’t help but wonder, however, if the news vacuum might have more to do with the pur lain surname of the perpetrator and the non-French surnames of the victims, rather than my suggestion.
The media silence, broken only by an Angus Reid push-poll today against 103, the Anti-Islamophobia motion, suggests that Canadians just want to forget that this massacre ever happened. We’re good at that.
March 15, 2017
A Quora reader asked, so I answered:
As a determined planter of black walnut trees, over the last 13 years I’ve had quite an ambivalent relationship to squirrels on my property in Eastern Ontario. First I have to make a distinction between Grey squirrels and reds.
The red squirrel provides no benefit to forests, and is as destructive to nut trees as a chipmunk. Both are larder hoarders: chipmunks bury nuts deep in the ground where they cannot germinate, and red squirrels are too stupid to remember where they have put nuts they have harvested, so they pile them in hollow trees or under fence rails where they can encounter them by accident each day.
Then there is the Grey squirrel. In my area most Greys have black fur due to a mutation in the gene pool. Rarer versions can be gray, blonde, or even white. But it’s not the fur that’s important; it’s the brain. The Grey has a formidable intellect.
Greys are scatter-hoarders, storing their food by burying nuts just below the surface and returning to collect them, as needed. Think of the spatial recall necessary to accomplish this when there’s a foot of snow on the ground. Researchers claim the Grey uses his sense of smell only in the last inch of two of the search. Of course about nine-tenths of the nuts thus stored are abandoned in a typical year. Forests and lawn plantings result.
So if you have a piece of property which you’d like populated with black walnut and oak, feed the squirrels. Gather a few bushels of black walnut seeds and create feeding stations on the property by placing burlap bags full of nuts in locations sheltered from the rain. There will be no need to open the bags, believe me.
The Greys will distribute the nuts over a wide area. On my property I have found black walnut seedlings growing a half-mile from the nearest tree. There was also this one kook who liked to jam walnuts into a fork in the branches of little trees. I have photographed these odd bits of art work all over the 114 acres of the farm. The little guys really get around.
Of course there is a downside to the presence of squirrels when one is attempting to establish a black walnut plantation by planting seeds on a 20′ grid: Greys have no respect whatever for rows. They’re also better at planting than I was in my early attempts. They’d dig up the nuts and, more often than not, plant them again six to ten feet from the original hill. Try mowing that. They’d also predate the outer rows of the field, popping out from fence rows for a shady snack, leaving the outer forty feet of the field virtually barren.
Attempts to discipline the squirrel population with my .22 rifle produced varying results. Red squirrels are too stupid to fear a gunshot, so while they’re hard to hit, they can be controlled pretty effectively by hunting. Greys adapt. A case in point: ten years ago a couple of grad students in biology discovered the woodlot and came frequently to help with sugar making and to hunt squirrels.
Clever fellows the biologists were, but individually they had little success against their agile prey, who would simply hide on the other side of the tree branches until their tormentor had given up. Then the guys started hunting in pairs, with an exponential improvement in success rate. The behaviour of the Greys mutated in a single generation: even ten years later, when a human enters this particular woodlot on foot, the Greys get out of the trees and run Hell-for-leather in a straight line across the ground until they are out of sight. A squirrel running through heavy cover is impossible to hit with a .22 shot.
Around our house one family of Greys has resisted all of my disciplinary efforts by living under a heavily vegetated fence line in a burrow which I have been unable to locate in many years of bemused observation. These guys seem to have learned that it’s o.k. to run across the utility cable from the tall cedar hedge to the edge of the roof to get to maple which leads to the walnut tree, but any further incursions onto the roof will result in death.
Yes, they learn rules. During a long renovation on our stone house I lived twenty miles away in town. The greys learned that as long as my truck sat outside the house, they had to stay out of sight. My mother lived on the site in another wing of the same house. She used to joke that as soon as my truck cleared the end of the driveway, the squirrels would be all over the lawn.
The most vulnerable time for squirrels is in late winter and early spring when they spend a considerable part of their days browsing elm buds. Once the leaves come out there are lots of bird’s nests to raid for eggs and chicks, but we don’t really know what they’re up to because they are hidden in the dense foliage until the young ones come out to explore their new worlds. Five or six adolescent Greys in a game of tag through a row of maple trees is quite a show.
But of course the question is, “What should you feed a squirrel?” Any bird feeder owner can answer that: sunflower seeds. If you want willing subjects for animal intelligence experiments, try keeping the Greys out of your feeder. You won’t succeed, but you’ll discover that the squirrels seem to enjoy a good battle of wits.
March 1, 2017
On March 25, 1969, Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau famously told the Washington D.C. Press Club:
Living next to you is in some ways like sleeping with an elephant. No matter how friendly and even-tempered is the beast, if I can call it that, one is affected by every twitch and grunt.
This quotation has stood until now as the preeminent metaphor to describe Canada’s attitude toward the United States. I’d suggest that Trudeau-the-elder’s quip has worn itself out.
With the surprise victory of Donald Trump in the recent presidential election, an Indian folk tale* of the boy on the runaway elephant might apply more readily to the situation. Seized by the hormone surge of the must season, the massive creature, driven by his instincts and appetites, careens down jungle roads with little awareness of his direction or his effect upon the villagers in his path.
Enter the handler’s son, a young man with some understanding of elephants from his father and a good deal of pluck. He seems to have dropped from an overhanging branch onto the runaway’s back, and now has the task of doing what he can to calm the valuable behemoth and as much as possible direct him away from the more obvious hazards as he plunges through the labyrinth of jungle roads until the panic abates and the elephant can return to his work of moving logs as the economic engine of the village.
Having dropped into this unexpected role, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has done rather well so far. His initial heroic impulse to leap astride the beast rather than confront him has received support from a team of wise and resourceful villagers who have run alongside and hung baskets of food and water bottles from branches in his path.
In President Donald Trump’s speech to the Joint Session of Congress yesterday he indicated at least an awareness of his youthful passenger, and generally accepts his presence.
Once the cartoonists draw it, it’s fact, so I eagerly await the first artist’s attempt at this meme. I’ve never liked the elephant-mouse bit.
* Dr. Robert Moore, a diplomat from Guyana, included this story in a lecture to the Lanark County Board of Education, sometime in the late 1980’s.
February 13, 2017
In Eastern Ontario turkey vultures arrived in 1969. We didn’t know what these strange birds were. Thinking it was a goose, my room-mate from Toronto shot one. That was my one up-close encounter with this spectacularly ugly bird. Its beak was strange. I could see through it: a big hole for nostrils with what must have been scenting equipment lying below the holes. But the consistency of the beak was even stranger. It reminded me a great deal of my thumb nail, flexible and not very thick.
A Canada Goose would be a more formidable predator than this critter.
While commuting to Smiths Falls for my first teaching job I began to pay attention to these ungainly birds after I noticed how a pair had figured out Hwy. 15 traffic. A tasty bit of carrion lay on the pavement near the centre line on an open section of road. These two evidently had decided that it wasn’t worth the effort to fly away from their feast every time a car came by. They simply stepped across the centre line to the other lane and waited for me to pass. That was pretty smart.
Turkey vultures always loved the buildings on the farm, especially the tall Victorian house jutting up from the side of the hill. I gradually realized that the expert sail planers were using the air currents for altitude. A couple of loops around the roof of the brick house on a hot day and the bird would be off on his afternoon glide. The lazy birds love to glide, and put considerable intelligence into perfecting their craft.
Many years later I was forced to abandon the barn on the property when the foundation collapsed but the timbers still held the thing in place a few feet downhill from its original position. It was too dangerous to enter. Expecting a quiet abode due to the diminished activity, a pair of ravens spent the late winter building a nest somewhere on the second floor, but then they abandoned it because I persisted in mowing the lawn around the barn. A family of vultures sat on the peak of the smooth metal roof of the barn and pondered these developments. Eventually they decided that my wife and I were harmless, though they made themselves scarce if strangers came around.
So for the last three years we’ve gotten to know a group of five turkey vultures. It’s clear their evolutionary advantage is their brain power. They recognize human faces. They observe. One of the summers I conducted trench warfare with the local raccoon population over a stand of sweet corn in my garden. After I had live-trapped and euthanized sixteen raccoons and had harvested a mere three dozen ears of corn, I gave up. By that time the vultures had learned that if I started my UTV and drove it down the hill to the garden, game was afoot. They’d be circling my carcass-dumping ground in a distant field by the time I got there.
Waking up in the morning is a chore for turkey vultures. The sun gradually thaws them out and they extend their wings a little bit and they seem to freeze there. Then the wings go out a little further to let the dew dry off. Much later, someone will try a tentative flap or two. Eventually one will catch a breeze and lift off the peak of the barn.
Then one morning I watched a sleepy vulture put a foot wrong and begin to slide down the long, smooth slope of the roof. He didn’t panic and flap, just controlled his slide, gained speed, and gently lifted off in a glide. From then on more and more of them tried this approach at the first hint of a breeze in the morning. They seemed to get a big kick out of their playground slide.
This year it was clear that someone was nesting in the barn, rather than merely using it as a roost. That fact slipped my mind when I needed a trailer wheel from the abandoned barn, so I wiggled through a collapsing door, hopped four feet across a chasm onto the rickety second floor, and with some trepidation located the trailer wheel. I heard a scuffle behind me and turned around to see a large turkey vulture frantically trying to fly straight up and over a beam 14′ in the air, and then make her way across two other similar beams and down through the open door to the other bay of the barn.
Turkey vultures don’t look all that big when they’re 200′ in the air. Inside an empty hay mow, trying to escape, the same bird is huge.
After the insult to his mate, the largest of the birds circled me steadily whenever I was outside the house. Then I guess he forgave me.
A couple of months later the barn fell down. It was far from sudden. At first it sounded like a heavily-loaded farm wagon being towed down the paved hill road, over bumps, but with no wheels. This went on for about fifteen minutes, amid a great cloud of dust. It had been very dry. The lime mortar in one section of the wall must have failed and the wall fell apart.
The vultures were quite perturbed about this noisy re-location of their home, but they continued to perch on the collapsed roof for several days, then one by one they went away. Except for one. She maintained a vigil over her lost nest for two weeks to the day. Others came back to visit her, but I don’t think she left to feed or drink, though I wasn’t watching all of the time. And then she was gone.
I should mention in conclusion that I detest pigeons because of their filthy habits. Our turkey vultures were very tidy birds: there were no streaks on the steel of the barn roof, even after years of summer roosting. As neighbours they were polite and clean. While up close they were far from beautiful, when aloft they moved with grace and elegance.
Not bad neighbours at all.
January 31, 2017
The family pool vehicle is a 2008 Scion xB, purchased used from the Smiths Falls Honda dealership when we collectively decided that my mother’s beloved Honda CRV was too old for her to drive safely any more. Mom and I picked the car because it was the easiest thing on the lot to get into and exit because of its height-adjustable front seats. Very few cars for sale in North America have height-adjustable passenger seats.
The Florida-import posed a few difficulties for Mom in that the heater controls were counter-intuitive to an elderly person used to her Honda. Nonetheless, it was mechanically sound and she drove it until her eighty-eighth year.
Then the car became a pool vehicle, used primarily for ferrying Mom around, but also available when another family car was out of the country, broken down, or on loan to a friend. It had proven a favourite to leave in airport parking lots, for example.
Understandably, a machine this low on the depth chart would sit for considerable periods of time between uses. It’s always been pretty reliable. It needed ignition coils and plugs last year, but that’s been it.
But then it started to sputter when I was turning around after a visit to the Scott Island Ferry. Barely got home. Error codes blamed cylinder #3, then #2, Then 1, 2, 3 and 4, finally settling on 1 and 2. What the???
I went back to United Auto Parts in Smiths Falls where I had bought the coils and recounted my tale of woe to the guy in there who is both older and balder than me. I asked if there was some magic solution which would make the fuel injection system work, because I had no idea how to fix fuel injectors, and a new computer was too expensive.
“I use Sea Foam.” He walked over to a counter and handed me a can. “It’s very quick. Put it in and run the engine for ten minutes and see.”
I tried it and it worked. The Scion is restored to service again. I still don’t know what the problem was, but it was somewhere between fuel and injectors, and it’s better now. So I guess this is a testimonial to one of those products that line the shelves of parts stores which I have never noticed before.
January 25, 2017
Sean Spicer seems determined to protect Donald Trump from his own fabrications. This requires a level of intellectual dishonesty inconsistent with the correct use of English grammar. Look at the sentence below which I culled from today’s Toronto Star:
“He believes what he believes based on the information he was provided,” said Spicer, who provided no evidence to back up the president’s statements.
The use of the noun clause what he believes indicates a relatively sophisticated intelligence in that it indicates a willingness to deal with a known unknown.
But then comes the dreadful passive construction based on the information he was provided. Nobody believes the voice who utters a clunker like this. It’s a childish attempt to hide either the facts, or the lack of facts. It’s a passive “The front window was broken” when only the active “I broke the front window” will do.
So what’s wrong with Spicer? He uses the passive voice. The information he was provided will not do it. The White House Press Corps, the American People, and certainly we, Canadians, will have no use for him until he uses the active voice exclusively and he shows the source of every single bit of information which crosses his podium.
It’s all in the grammar.