Friday, 19 May 2017


Traveling America with William Least Heat-Moon

I like to poke around second-hand book stores hunting for bargains that might contain information I may have missed, when that information was new. Recently on the hunt, I discovered a 1983 edition of William Least Heat-Moon’s 1978 Blue Highways, paid the money and took it home to be added to my pile of books to read.

When Blue Highways found its way to the top of the pile, I was in for an entertaining and informative time. In the opening pages, I discovered that Heat-Moon’s name is not as peculiar as it sounds. He has a mixture of Irish, English and Midwest native blood. 
Author William Least Heat-Moon

Following family traditions, his father was Heat-Moon, his older brother was First Heat Moon and so he had to be Least Heat-Moon. It makes perfect sense, but they added a William too so he could be called Bill for short, which also makes perfect sense.

But this Bill is no ordinary Bill. He was born in Kansas City, Missouri, in 1939, and has a Ph.D. in English and a bachelor’s degree in photojournalism from the University of Missouri. To compliment his academic qualifications, he has an extraordinary sense of humor, a keen eye for detail and a love of traveling the back-blocks. Added together and you have a writer of exceptional talent.

When his marriage broke up and his Missouri teaching job disappeared, Heat-Moon took to the blue roads of America, living in a small truck and parking overnight where ever the road of the day found him.

The blue highways of 1978 are now the red highways in current editions of the Rand McNally Road Atlas, which means that the author traveled the secondary roads, avoiding the interstates and big cities, while searching out the obscure, fascinating, humorous and historic sites. During his travels, Heat-Moon rubbed shoulders with local bar patrons, café owners, residents, rebels and other real-life characters and comics. His portrayal of local accents and customs is epic.

From Missouri, Heat-Moon circled America by headed east to the Atlantic coast, to the Deep South, across the southern United States to the Pacific coast, retracing some of Lewis and Clark’s travels and returning to the Atlantic through the northern states before turning for home.

Blue Highways takes the reader to peculiar or unpronounceable places like Wequetequock, Connecticut; Bad Axe, Michigan; Lookingglass, Oregon; Hog Heaven, Idaho; Defeated, Tennessee; Woonasquatucket, Rhode Island; Left Hand, West Virginia; Burnt Store, Maryland; Dime Box, Texas; Our Town, Alabama; Simplicity, Virginia; Only, Tennessee; Kennebunkport, Maine; Scratch Ankle, Alabama; Boreing, Kentucky; Dull, Tennessee; Mud Lick, Kentucky; Whynot, Mississippi, and many more fascinating places.

Heat-Moon is much more than a traveler with a yearn for odd and unusual places. He interviews the local identities, describing them and their surrounding with his unique mastery of the English language and a wit unsurpassed.

On Page 398 I came upon this tidbit of history:

At the bottom of Morris Street, across from the Tred Avon ferry slip, sat the Robert Morris Inn, the 1710 portion of which, built by a shipwright, was once the home of Robert Morris – Senior and Junior – a family of fortune and misfortune. The father died when wadding from a cannon fired in his honor struck him in the arm. The son, one of the wealthiest men in eighteenth-century America and a financier of the Revolution, was sentenced to three years in a Philadelphia debtor’s prison after a spell of reverses, one of which was the failure of the new government to repay his loan to the Continental Army.

Finding my old copy of Blue Highways was indeed a literary bonanza and I recommend it anyone interested in American travel, humor and history. But please don’t ask to borrow my dog-eared copy. It’s mine forever.

Thursday, 6 April 2017


Australian tourist loses limbs after bite from White Tail spider

The horror story of a white tail spider victim was carried by many major news outlets. It was reported that the tourist in Australia had lost both legs and his arms may also have to be amputated to save his life. But most of the news reports have now been amended or withdrawn due to a lack of accuracy.
A typical white tail spider.
Its reputation is worse than
its bite.

White tail spiders have fearsome reputation in both Australia and New Zealand. Almost everyone knows of someone who has been bitten with horrendous consequences.

So, what is the truth about one of Australia’s most notorious spiders?

It is not hard to find white tail experts and victims in Australia, and New Zealand where they were first seen in 1886. Horror stories persist of gruesome injuries and flesh-eating venom that can lead to serious illness and even death, if not treated quickly. But scientists tell us that while the bite can be painful, the white tail (Lampona murina) bite rarely carries any lasting effects, and they only bite if handled or provoked. This can include bites from spiders trapped inside clothing and bed covers.

In 130 cases studied by G. Isbister and M. Gray from 1999-2002, where the insect was seen to bite and was captured, they found no evidence of necrotic ulcers or flesh-eating. None of the 130 cases required hospital admission. The findings of the study were later published in the Medical Journal of Australia.

But the myth persists that the white tail is one of the deadliest spiders and that reports from scientists and authorities are a cover up. Typically, people will say, “That’s what they want you to believe.”

There is also a claim that the white tail spider is deadly because it eats Daddy Long Leg spiders which, it is claimed, are the world’s deadliest spiders, but their fangs are not strong enough to penetrate human skin. But this raises another question: How does anyone know that its venom is deadly if it has never penetrated anyone’s skin? The answer to the first question is simply that the daddy long legs is not venomous because it has no place in which to carry venom. And that rather makes a nonsense of the second question.

Like any bite or sting (cat, dog, bee, wasp, spider), not everyone reacts the same way to a spider bite. A few people have allergies that could lead to illness or death. Cats, dogs, bees, wasps and spiders don’t brush their teeth every day and that raises the possibility of infection. If you think you have been bitten by a spider, and you feel unwell, you should try to capture it for identification and take it with you when you seek medical help. But remember, if you didn’t see a spider, it probably wasn’t a spider. For immediate care, you should clean the bite with antiseptic or warm soapy water.  

For more information on spider bites see: Ministry of Health New Zealand


Saturday, 11 March 2017


Perhaps some dash camera drivers are mad and dangerous too

A new craze has hit almost every town in the world. Drivers are racing to their nearest electronics store to purchase a car digital video recorder, otherwise commonly known as a dash camera, and New Zealand is no exception.
Many dash cam buyers are professional drivers who see themselves as threatened by over zealous law enforcement officers, or by truck and bus-hating car drivers. But car drivers and cyclists are also joining the queues at Supercheap Auto shops to line up for their dash cam fixes. Most dash cam buyers, whether professional or amateur, want bad drivers exposed and punished for their bad driving. Fair enough. But how good, or bad, is their own driving?
The dash camera is a two-edged sword. It can certainly expose drivers who have erred, deliberately, accidentally or through a lack of understanding of road rules. But the dash cam can also expose and incriminate the dash cam’s own driver. Facebook has many groups dedicated to exposing bad driving, as they see bad driving, but many of the group members have something less than a good knowledge of traffic law and safe driving practices. Most, perhaps 90%, see themselves as above average drivers, but a basic knowledge of mathematics would tell us that that is a mathematical impossibility. In simple terms, many dash cam drivers are not as good as they think they are.
One such Facebook group is Road Madness NZ. The group has over a thousand members with posts and comments appearing frequently. But many of the posts are pin-pricking affairs that would not interest police. A few expose serious and dangerous breaches of the law, while other posts reveal wrongdoing only in the mind of the camera operating driver. All too often in the group, rank amateurs are putting themselves forward as experts. Not only that, but some are too quick to shout down, denigrate and abuse those who do have the knowledge and experience, instead of gracefully accepting soundly reasoned opinions.
Before going further, let me lay my own credentials on the line. My professional driving career started in 1961 when I worked as a loader driver for an aerial topdressing company. My car licence was issued in 1957, two years after qualifying for a private pilot licence in 1955. In the years following, I was employed to drive all classes of trucks, buses, taxis and shuttles, and passed the exams for a driving instructor. I have driven commercially in three countries and still drive from 10 to 45 hours a week, at two months short of age 80. I estimate that my total driving experience is close to 10 million kilometres. I still don’t know everything there is to know about good driving and I can still make mistakes and have made plenty over the years. Many times, a mistake on my part could have led to an accident, but others took appropriate action and saved my bacon. In spite of mistakes, I must be lucky. So far not a single person has been injured due to any avoidable mistake on my part.
But to return to Road Madness NZ, I joined the group a few weeks ago, because it appeared to be a place where road safety issues could be aired and debated, and I have long had an interest in road safety matters. I have also recently been involved in the formation of a road safety organisation where, when fully launched, will provide a forum for professional and amateur drivers to work together to make our roads safer. So, some Road Madness NZ members and others could potentially participate in the new organisation.
Unfortunately, that wasn’t to be. One post on Road Madness NZ caught my experience eye as a post where the driver captured in the video clearly made a bad mistake, but I could also see that the dash cam driver had made a bad mistake which contributed to an already dangerous situation. A truck had failed to give way and turned into the path of the dash cam vehicle. If that wasn’t bad enough, the dash cam driver, after some gasps of horror, continued into the path of the truck at much the same speed until almost on the truck’s tailgate. Professional drivers see this kind of behaviour frequently. It is a kind of amateur teaching the professional how to drive, and it is very dangerous.
I posted the following comment:
Remember the slogan DRIVE WITH CARE. OTHERS MAKE MISTAKES. The driver of the camera car seemed more intent on making alarming noises first and braking later. If the truck had stopped after pulling out, the camera car driver would have been in grave danger of colliding with the truck. 
The truck driver made a serious error of judgement, but there was no need for the car driver to contribute to the danger by failing to take timely evasive action.
People who have dash cameras to catch other drivers should make sure that their own driving is above question.
The driver in question denied all responsibility for avoiding a collision and his language in later comments became abusive and obscene. In response, my comments remained respectful and courteous, but insistent that the dash cam driver could have done better. A few drivers agreed with my stance, but most did not. A point of contention, and not understood by some, was the legal requirement for all drivers to take whatever action is necessary to avoid an accident, regardless of who may have initially been responsible. They were talking about ‘right of way’ instead of ‘give way,’ without realising that in traffic law there is no right of way ever.
To sum up the encounter with Road Madness NZ, after dozens of comments, many of them whacky and unintelligible, I was expelled from the group. In short, I had rocked their cosy, dreamy boat. Leaving the group may be a blessing. I can now pursue more productive pursuits.
Watch this space for a new dash cam group on Facebook, where the rules will require respectful language, fair treatment and a genuine interest in road safety, rather than a place to brag about how they caught a mug driver red-handed, even if they had to speed up to 120 kph to get the number plate. To some Road Madness NZ members, the law is what they make it on the day, and that is madness.

Wednesday, 1 February 2017


Trump adviser is founder and CEO of outlaw taxi company Uber

Born in 1976, Travis Kalanick has an estimated net wealth of US$6 billion, but many people question how Kalanick, now an adviser to President Trump, acquired his wealth.

At the age of 22, Kalanick dropped out of UCLA to start his first business, Scour Inc, with a partner. It was an internet file sharing company. Scour was later sued for copyright infringement by three associations representing motion pictures, the recording industry and music publishers.

Trump adviser Travis Kalanick
Kalanick’s response was to bankrupt Scour and re-start the business as Red Swoosh using the same key team members. Within seven years (2007), Kalanick could sell the business for $18.7 million. In 2009, with Garrett Camp, he co-founded Uber in San Francisco and became the chairman and CEO of the outlaw taxi company and ride sharing organization.

Uber is now a worldwide operator in more than 500 cities, but its success is based on unlawfully invading the territory of legitimately licenced operators which, just like Scour and Swoosh, were based on imitating legitimate businesses. Kalanick is an expert at creating imaginary legal loopholes where no loopholes exist. He claims that he is only bringing driver and passenger together, but in effect he passes the buck to the driver, and, in monetary terms, often too few bucks as many former Uber drivers will testify.

In most countries, taxi drivers must be licenced and regulated for the benefit and protection of the travelling public. Typically, a taxi operator must hold a licence to operate a taxi business, and a licence to drive a taxi. Both operator and driver must undergo police character vetting and the driver must display an official photo ID card and hold a current medical certificate. The taxi operator must belong to an approved taxi organization and be bound by their rules and complaints and disciplinary procedures. The vehicle must meet Certificate of Fitness standards every six months, rather than the lower standard Warrant of Fitness at 12 monthly intervals. Getting into a legitimate taxi operation can take a considerable investment of capital, time and training.

Legitimate operators will always feel cheated by operators like Uber who tell their clients and drivers that they just need a presentable car to earn a fortune when the fact is that even legitimate drivers struggle to make a reasonable income. But Kalanick, now a member President Trump’s Strategy and Policy Forum, doesn’t worry about minor details.

Kalanick’s company tells drivers they don’t need to have an operator licence, a taxi driver licence, a Certificate of Fitness, a medical examination, police check or a driver logbook. They do tell them that they will need comprehensive car insurance, but that will be void if they have an accident while operating outside transport law. All over the world governments and cities are cracking down on illegal Uber drivers and putting them off the road, but Uber itself keeps on operating via the internet without being accountable and without paying local taxes. It’s a double rort. Meanwhile, Uber drivers could best utilize their time by looking for real employment.

But Kalanick’s great scheme, like most questionable operations, has a profound weakness. Uber has left itself open to be cloned by other dubious start-up operators, and that is happening at what must be an alarming rate for Kalanick. Already, he has been forced to cut his budget hire rates even further in a desperate attempt to boost revenue, and that is eating into the earnings of his drivers who were already grossly underpaid. Copying Uber is so widespread that the practice now has its own terminology – Uberization.

Even more alarming than Uber, and its ride-sharing off-shoot, is the Urberization (or Kalanickery) of the American Government with President Trump and Travis Kalanick sharing the same air.