Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Give me the gears - manually!

Ever since learning to drive at age 16 I have always driven cars with manual transmissions. Getting an automatic was simply not on.

Learning to drive in Winnipeg (aka Winterpeg) where winters were brutal, I have never forgotten the many times my Morris Mini-Minor (looked just like this right down to the colour) or VW Beetle got stuck in snow drifts and I got out by gently rocking the car back and forth by repetitive shifts from first to reverse and back again. Automatic gears just cannot create the same rocking rhythm.

Travelling and renting cars in N.A. creates a bit of a problem as all the cars have automatic transmissions. I suppose there are sports cars with manual shifts but I have never paid the extra money to rent them.

Now it's dead simple to use automatic gears as all the work is done for you. But it's still awkward as I found out again last week while renting a car in my old home town of Winnipeg. First, backing out of the rental company stall was a bit nerve wracking. The Toyota Yaris had a transmission configuration that I had not seen before (more choices) and also had notches that the stick had to be maneuvered into, rather than simple choices all in a line. The automatic gear stick was in park, so I had to maneuver it to reverse and slowly back up, followed by the trial-and-error of discovering where first gear was. Finally I saw that it must be the slot labelled 1-3, at least I hoped so. The car lurched and jerked a bit before I got it right. On my first try what looked like the the notch belonging to gears 1-3 was not! Anyone watching would have thought I was learning to use a manual gear shift!

Once on the road, my left foot kept wanting to stomp on the non-existent clutch and my right hand desperately wanted to shift gears. A few times I grabbed the automatic gear shift and almost shifted before realizing it was a yikes-no! situation. Seems stupid, but this created just enough stress to make driving uncomfortable.

In the past I have encountered a few car salesmen who took great pains to let me know that the used car I was thinking of buying had a MANUAL shift. Left unspoken but implied were the words,
  • "Of course, being a woman, there is no way you would know how to shift gears manually."
The assumption always ticked me off and still does.

Now if you are like many people who do not know how to shift gears manually, see

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Thrilling events: Berlin - South Africa - Moscow

When Boris Yeltsin died April 23, 2007 his obituary on the BBC website began:

  • "Boris Yeltsin will be indelibly linked to the creation of democracy in Russia. By facing down the tanks outside the Russian Parliament, he showed that popular opinion could conquer authoritarianism."
The occasion of his death reminded me of a few truly wonderful moments associated with freedom and overcoming adversity. Here's three of my choices:

1989: Fall of the Berlin Wall
To many people, me included, the disintegration of the USSR and the fall of the Berlin Wall was something we did not think we would see in our lifetime. Watching the television coverage on Nov. 11-12, 1989 was truly thrilling.

1990: Nelson Mandela's release
Nelson Mandela's release from Victor-Verster Prison in South Africa after 27 years was something no one could have predicted a few years earlier. And no one could see him walk down that road without grinning from ear to ear and shedding a tear.

2003: McCartney Concert in Red Square
Another not-to-be-missed event was the 2003 Paul McCartney concert in Red Square, especially when he played "Back in the USSR". The look on the face of the Russians, many of whom were crying, was sheer joy. And it can be relived again and again if you get the Live in Red Square DVD.

If you have experienced similar emotional impacts with other world events, let me know by posting a comment.

Monday, April 23, 2007

And the most democratic country is...Sweden!

I have decided to get this blog going again after a bit of a hiatus. Part of the problem was wanting to write longer pieces with the result that writing often seemed like too much work so I never started.

No more. I'll try my hand at short snappers. Here's the first.

A high turnout was expected in the French presidential election on Sunday and voters did not disappoint. Turnout was almost 85%, the highest since 1958. Which got me thinking about voter turnout around the world.

The International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance has interesting statistics online.

In all elections 1945-1998 the IDEA has Canada in 63rd place with an average 68.4% turnout, whereas the USA is in 114th spot with an average 48.3% turnout. Much of Europe and Australia and new Zealand do much better, typically 80% and above.

So what makes a democracy? Writing about the world in 2007, according to The Economist Intelligence Unit's index of democracy, "There is no consensus on how to measure democracy, definitions of democracy are contested and there is an ongoing lively debate on the subject."

Using defined criteria (60 indicators grouped in five categories: electoral process and pluralism; civil liberties; the functioning of government; political participation; and political culture), the Economist has these counties in the top 10:

Rank--Country--Total score
1. Sweden 9.88
2. Iceland 9.71
3. Netherlands 9.66
4. Norway 9.55
5. Denmark 9.52
6. Finland 9.25
7. Luxembourg 9.10
8. Australia 9.09
9. Canada 9.07
10. Switzerland 9.02

The USA is in 17th place with a score of 8.22.

So why is it that almost daily on some U.S. television program an American politician or political pundit claims that the USA has the greatest democracy in the world? Because they are stuck on the historical role played by the States when they created their constitution and subsequent Bill of Rights? Because the Economist's research is wrong?

Or is it simply a case of Uncle Sam thinking that grandma's apple pie is the best in the whole world because it's the only one he's ever tasted? There's a lot of this going around in any inward-looking provincial