around the world – part 18.5 (the horn and the transit van)

November 17 2006:

One of the remarkable things about life in Canada is the extent to which we allow our behaviour to be programmed. Concurrent with this phenomenon is an inability to recognize the controls even when they are obvious. Take for example, mass transit.

It is an incontrovertible act of faith that mass transit can only be delivered to Canadians via public corporations. This is so obvious a fact that the alternatives are not even considered for serious discussion – to do so would undermine a very successful programming of the Canadian public. Most Canadians, with very little exposure to any alternative, find it hard to conceive of such a beast as private for profit mass transit.

Stand on any metropolitan street corner in Canada and you will see three types of motorized transport (I will exclude light rail/subways from the discussion as this is about street traffic), privately owned automobiles of which there are arguably too many in most cities, privately owned taxis of which there are, depending on your requirements, too few. And finally there is the city operated bus.Buses are largely clean, mostly new and driven by well paid drivers financed by taxes and grants. Unfortunately while they may be efficient at moving the people fortunate enough to have a route near them, they are under used precisely because the follow fixed routes on fixed and inconvenient schedules.

Enter the fourth type of mass transit, the private bus. Oops, can’t have that, it might actually attract customers! It might even undermine one of the cornerstones of Canadian culture – the monopoly of mass transit by the public purse – despite its expense. Any civic politician who promises better mass transit is lying because the only way it can be accomplished is to remove privately operated vehicles from the roads (congestion taxes anyone?) and replace them with more expensive and inconvenient buses. Except….

There I was standing at the street corner in Yerevan and I noticed an unusual phenomenon. At regular intervals – say every 30 – 40 seconds a smallish van would pull up to the curb and disgorge passengers while others clambered in. Without exception the vans are Ford Transit vans (or their locally produced knockoffs), each outfitted with seats for about 15 passengers, (although many were loaded down with crouching room only). They arrive and depart along all roads with a regularity I know I will never witness in Canada. Each is numbered, fully licenced and a portion of their expense is clearly offset by the advertising covering every flat surface. In any line of traffic that I observed, these private buses nearly equalled the number of private cars, and certainly arrived more frequently than any city bus.

Do the math yourself – any 40ft city bus carries approximately 60-80 people once every 15 minutes at best. It follows a fixed route, stops several times and takes time to arrive at its destination. By contrast the private Van seats 15, picks up a delivers at fewer points, and is free to seek any route to get there – flowing with the fastest or least congested route. They depart every 5 minutes or so and cover much more territory. Don’t like the service – sign up with the competitor (horrors!).

Imagine you are in downtown Toronto or Montreal. You can pay an exorbitant fee to a taxi driver, assuming you can get one to pull over, and be deposited directly at your destination, or you can wait for the number 301 bus which groans along stopping every 20 feet to pickup more hapless commuters and which at best deposits you several blocks from your destination. or you could sign up with a private bus company and be picked up from your place of work and be deposited at home with few intervening stops – oh sorry, this is Canada – not allowed.

There are plenty of arguments trotted out by the regulators, drivers unions and taxi companies, but all of them boil down to job protection, high wages and status quo – sprinkled liberally with fear mongering (think of the safety of the children!) and yet none of their arguments addresses the issue of efficient mass transit. Quite frankly I am stumped as to why the environmentalist crowd hasn’t jumped all over this. It is far more efficient, it moves people faster, consumes less energy – all round beneficial – Except it’s private. Thus exposing the degree to which we have been thoroughly indoctrinated to view with suspicion any attempt by the private sector to deliver services in the untouchable realms of historic public endeavour.

And then there is the Horn. A very useful, and in my opinion an underrated feature of all vehicles. Its use is at best frowned upon by polite society in Canada, and all sorts of reactions occur when the dreaded horn is actually unleashed. From the tut-tut of the well healed, to the spontaneous ‘road rage’ so feared by the rest of us, the use of the horn has become a social faux pas both for what it may reveal about ourselves (who does he think he is? why in such a rush? and of course f**k off!) and the unreasonable fear of negative reactions inculcated by an irresponsible press.

The horn of course was meant to be used as a warning – it being much more efficient than the earliest warning systems required of the first motorcars – a man walking ahead displaying a flag. The horn is quite useful in alerting the daydreamer to the fact that you are about to back out of a parking spot (hence the Army’s use of the old ‘double tap’ prior to reversing). It is also quite useful to alert pedestrians that you are entering a crossing.

Around here the horn is used as a sort of extra gear – it both energises the lethargic in front of the horn blower and alerts those around you that you are about to overtake. At first I will admit I found the sheer quantity of horn blowing mildly annoying, then puzzling, and finally it faded as an irritant.

Horn blowing flies in the face of social control. It is a very personal expression, it says I am an individual and I am going about my business, and I am being aware enough of you to let you know that I am here (so please don’t change lanes into me). In fact horn blowing is complimentary with a general disregard of traffic lanes and signal lights. (Shivers of repressed desire coursing through the veins of Canadians!) Thus the horn becomes the last line of defence for both driver and pedestrian – each accommodates his movements to the other, pedestrians thread their way through moving traffic, horns are deployed to alert and avoid impending collisions and strangely enough I have yet to see either a traffic accident or a dented car or ambulance carting off bodies.

Contrast that with the vehicular carnage which occurs daily in our supposedly efficient and programmed society and you might begin to wonder if accidents and irresponsible driving behaviour on our streets and highways aren’t just natural and negative response to the fact that our behaviour is programmed and many of us resent it. Only last week a woman who is dear to me was hit through no fault of her own while driving our car by another driver who changed lanes into her. Imagine if our society allowed the use of horns without social opprobrium – would this accident have happened at all?

Oops, not allowed to think that way – back in your box junior…

around the wold – part 18.3 (the SUV and the water bottle)

November 16 2006:

In my admittedly limited travels in the former soviet bloc, I have observed a couple of cultural trends which seem to have replicated themselves throughout. The first is the proliferation of SUVs and the second is the near ubiquitous sight of water bottles discarded everywhere. In Canada, the SUV has infiltrated society successfully enough that they are very rarely remarked on (other than in the context of their environmental unfriendliness), every street in every suburb is thoroughly populated with them. While there may still be status attached to certain SUVs, the manufacturers have produced, and the marketers sold, such a wide variety of them that mere ownership no longer confers special status. The same can not be said in eastern Europe.

There is a hierarchy of automobiles in Armenia (and Romania for that matter) with the SUV gaining top honours and the Lada relegated to ‘drive it because you have nothing else’. The SUV culture is fairly easy to distinguish as it has two salient features – type and proximity to the best parking spots. Rare types automatically confer top status, and that with that status comes access to the prime parking spots in town. Walk out of the hotel, or to the nearest restaurants or shops and you observe parked directly in front of the main entrance the gleaming behemoths. Gleaming, of course because when your ego is tied directly to your ride you certainly don’t allow it to carry around a layer of dust.

Within the SUV culture one can observe more subtle gradations. Top dog is the HUMMER, preferably black with tinted windows – recalling gangsta culture of the late 1990s in the US.
On the same tier but driven by a deferment class of locals are the Mercedes Gelandwagon or Range Rovers – also black, but adorned with special add-ons such as crash bars, snorkel exhausts and auxiliary lamps. One gets the impression that these are favoured by those fearing an ambush – call it the ride of the slightly paranoid oligarch. The former ride, the HUMMER, is piloted by the owner – an ostentatious display of his wealth and power, the latter are chauffeured around by driver/bodyguards.

The second tier is dominated almost completely by the Toyota Landcruiser. Also black, also fully appointed with leather and sometimes accessories with a goon-driver. These hold their own next to the top dogs – parked or double parked in front of the best restaurants and shops in town. I wonder if the Hollywood gangster movie culture which glorified the SUV driving gangster didn’t artificially create the demand and the subsequent aping of that same culture.

Finally at the bottom of the SUV culture (but above all other motorized transport) are the slightly smaller Nissans, Lexus, Audi’s etc. This does beg a question though – in a city without a Lexus dealership, just how did these vehicles come to wash up in Yerevan? How many vehicles disappear off the streets of Western Europe and North America and wind up in this part of the world?

While Canada frets about climate change and reducing our greenhouse gas emission’s, large parts of the world seem to have simply not gotten the (navel gazing – self critical ) message. I suspect that whether we ever virtuously manage to reduce our own levels of pollution, it will not matter one bit. Everywhere east of Western Europe (including the Middle East, Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe), thousands of people are acquiring vehicles at an insane pace. And while they drive they are tossing plastic water bottles out the windows with wild abandon. You cannot appreciate the sheer levels of material pollution in Eastern Europe until you see it.

Canadians can work themselves into spasms earth awareness once a year as they spread out through their communities to clean up the junk accumulated alongside roads. (Although I suspect that a great deal of it is actually material which folks quite nicely placed in blue boxes but which subsequently bounced or blew out of the collecting trucks as they headed towards the central depot – but I digress) The reason we pry ourselves from in front of our TVS only once a year is that by and large there isn’t that much material pollution to clean up – in fact only a day’s worth of effort. (Shocked gasps of horror from the priests of environmental absolutism)

Think about it -if we succeed generally in cleaning up our neighborhoods once a year there simply isn’t that much to clean up. For more than half my life we have been indoctrinated to eliminate our littering habits, culminating in our being programmed to offer once a week a blue box full of plastic to the magic curb gods. Does this mean there aren’t thoughtless Canadians discarding plastic bottles out the window as they blast along the 401 – of course not. But I defy anyone to identify any stretch of any highway in Canada and compare the amount of trash collected to that which I have observed clogging the landscapes here.

Judging from what I have observed in both Romania, Armenia and Czech Republic, the entire populations of those countries could knock off work for six months to devote themselves to cleaning their cities and countryside of discarded plastic and still would hardly make a dent in the sheer volume of trash. Some may counter by throwing up the volume and variety of disposable items we consume to condemn us as Philistine plunderers. Yes we do consume quite a bit by any standard, BUT, we manage its consequences much better than most other societies. While we have successfully programmed consumers to dispose of trash in accordance with prescribed rules, what of those regions where not only is the existing trash not even disposed of, but as their overall wealth increases, demand for more disposable items increases with little structural or cultural processes in place to manage the garbage?

Why so much trash? My personal opinion is that it can be summed up with two general concepts – rule of law and property rights. We have grown so accustomed to the smooth functioning of these concepts that we have the luxury of ignoring their importance in the smooth running of our societies. The dirty little secret which most collectivist socialists in the west refuse to admit is that by and large when people own their own property and when contracts (including that between taxpayer and government service provider to enforce / coerce individuals into adhering to, for example, bylaws) are enforced by a fair application of the rule of law, when left to their own devices people tend to look after their own property with a complimentary effect of having a lesser impact on the ‘common’ property. In the absence of those two concepts, people seem to have no interest in the welfare of ‘common’ and socialized property and are suspicious of the ability of courts to protect them from uneven and petty application of laws.

Thus it is not uncommon to see in the former eastern bloc, newly privatized residences walled and gated off from their neighbors with the streetsides strewn with garbage and discarded trash. This is a visible manifestation of the fact that while they may own their own property for now, the residents are unconsciously expressing a fear that this is only a temporary condition (70 years of socialist paradise preceded by a neo feudal history will do that to you), coupled with the fact that enforcement of contracts as part of a civil society is uneven and rife with corruption.

Clearly this does not comprise a comprehensive theory as to why there is so much garbage, obviously there are other powerful cultural forces at work but the next time I hear sanctimonious ‘earth firsters’ and climate change shuck and jive artists at work I might advise that they save their breath on lecturing Canadians and concentrate their efforts instead on exhorting and educating other parts of the world which could really use a good cleaning up.

around the world – part 18.1 (here there be dragons)

Nov 15 2006:

If someone had told me back when I was a callow youth, that I would wind up in a job which has allowed me to travel extensively I would probably laughed it off as hardly likely – regardless of how much the idea appealed to me then.  If they had then said, ‘and by the way you’ll wind up in Armenia’, I would have suspected them of illegal substance abuse.  The fact that I am writing this, and you are reading it will probably dawn on you that indeed I have landed in Armenia – former Soviet Socialist Republic and now the very model of survival in the 21st century.

Armenia is situated solidly in the Caucasus mountainous region – to find it, spin your globe so that you can see both the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea directly in front of you.  Zero in on the area directly to the east of Turkey, North of Iran and you will find running in succession from the north west to the south east, the countries of Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan.  Armenia is arid, yet possessed of grasslands stretching between mountain ridges. I have yet to see a tree over 20 feet tall.

Armenia has had a very lengthy history and an especially rough recent past. In the space of a little more than a (admittedly) lengthy lifetime, Armenia gained Independence from the Ottoman Empire then suffered the most severe repression from Turkey.  Historians disagree whether the Armenians suffered a ‘genocide’, but the point is actually moot – approximately 600 000 to a million Armenians were killed between 1915 and 1916 with many more becoming refugees and settling in the West.  Almost immediately after, Lenin set about recovering those bits of Czarist Russia which had the temerity to seek Independence in the turmoil following the Communist Revolution. By 1921 Armenia was firmly in the hands of Soviet Russia and by the 1930s and 1940s it was in the grip of the despot and darling of western leftists, Stalin.

Stalin being of Georgian descent fully appreciated the depth of belonging Armenians and other Caucasian peoples had and set about destroying it.  He simultaneously deported (internally exiled) about half of the populations of Georgia, Armenia, Chechnya and other southern (and equally unreliable) peoples to Siberia and beyond. In place he imported ethnic Russians – the ultimate goal being to eliminate anti soviet nationalism – it didn’t quite work out however, because 38 years after his death as the Soviet Union disintegrated, the newly independent regions adopted fairly virulent anti – Russian tendencies. To this day conflict simmers in Georgia, Chechnya, directed primarily against Russia while within other former Soviet Republics anti Russian sympathies lie very close to the surface of their societies.

Upon Independence from the USSR in 1991, Armenia quickly found itself engulfed in a nasty regional conflict with Azerbaijan – a neighboring newly independent former soviet republic. This conflict arose primarily because Stalin had cleverly divided ethnically contiguous areas in the region to ensure that each contained a minority of the other – Azerbaijan contained an area largely comprised of ethnic Armenians who had historically suffered and not surprisingly almost immediately declared their intention to secede from Azerbaijan to join with Armenia. Much fighting including aerial bombardments and conventional ground warfare resulted in Ngorno Karabach gaining a measure of self rule from Azerbaijan but prevented by treaty from joining Armenia. In one of those curious twists of realpolitik, the Islamic Republic of Iran secretly supported Christian Armenia in its war with Azerbaijan despite the latters’ adherence to Islam.
This is because Azeri’s are largely Turkic and Armenians are not. I n the narrow view of self interest that informs struggle in this part of the world, Turkey sided with Azerbaijan (their ethnic cousins), so Iran sided with Armenia – simply to counter Turkey and its expanding influence to the east.

By 2006, Yerevan, the Capital of Armenia is a study in contrasts.  Unlike Bucharest which was pretty uniformly drab and run down, Yerevan seems to contain two extremes. The downtown area is quite pretty, clean and functional.  New capital pouring into Armenia is most visibly expressed by the sheer number of new buildings going up complimented by a nearly equal number of renovations. The centre is well policed – thus an absence of beggars and petty street thieves (Bucharest take note).  Leave the downtown however, and one quickly leaves behind the clean core and arrives in a Mid-eastern city. Dusty roads, few and broken sidewalks, abandoned construction projects thousands of Lada’s and countless able bodied men standing around in the absence of employment. Armenia is simultaneously the recipient of the largest amount of foreign development loans per-capita and possessed of up to 40% unemployment. It is as if the country having emerged destitute from the Soviet Experience and warfare, suddenly won the lottery and went on a mad spending spree without thought to the longer term plan.

Survival, then 21st century style.  Globalisation means that extremes of wealth are visible alongside poverty – but, and this is important, don’t confuse the poverty as being a result of recent economic globalisation (I don’t think too many Armenians would have very much time for Naomi Klein and her ‘no logo‘ crowd). The destitution on display in Armenia is a direct result of the economic and social wreckage perpetrated by the criminal soviet system in Armenia. That kind of devastation is the product of 70 years of stupid, brutal, collectivist thought. It is likely that the sudden removal of that system has disadvantaged some of the already poor, but clearly many more are making a go of it – something that could NOT have been said during the heyday of soviet socialism.

On Wednesday afternoon we departed on the cultural tour to Khor Virap, a monastery located south west of Yerevan and within sight of Mt Ararat. Khor Virap was the site where in the 4th century, the King of Armenia had Saint Gregory the Illuminator imprisoned in a pit for 13 years. This because Gregory would not recant his Christian faith, nor give up attempts to convert the King.

I can attest to the fact that if I had been thrown into this pit, I likely wouldn’t have lasted 13 years on principles.  A chapel was built in the 7th century over the site of the pit and the tourist (me) is able to climb down. To access the pit you step down into a small well just to the right of the chapel altar, and then climb straight down on a steel ladder for about 45 feet in pitch dark into the chamber. The chamber is circular, about 20 ft diameter with a domed ceiling and decorated with icons, grottos and other religious artefacts. Quite an experience.

Mt Ararat, for those of you thinking you may have heard of it before, is reputed to have been the location where Noah’s arc made landfall after the great flood. Armenians claim a particularly sentimental attachment to the mountain – “Mt Ararat IS Armenia” etc, despite the fact that is actually over the border in Turkey. Mt Ararat factors quite largely in Armenian myth and popular culture – everywhere there are hotels, businesses, rental agencies, city districts etc all bearing the Ararat name – the feature itself is visible from Yerevan, and I would guess from a large part of Armenia. The fact that the mountain is tantalisingly close yet unreachable doesn’t deter Armenians who claim with some justification that the eastern bit of Turkey is in fact Armenian territory – any bets as to whether the border is open or closed between these two? If you guessed closed, you would be right. In fact, the border to the east (Azerbijan) is also closed, leaving Armenians at the mercy of Georgia to import nearly everything requiring overland transport. The current unrest in Georgia (unrelated to Armenian relations) can’t be helping to ease fears of potential shortages.

I would love to be able to spend more than a week here. I doubt I will ever have the opportunity to return – this letter and the pictures I took will have to satisfy my desire.