Insight

nick_thumb1It’s an odd sensation lying flat and very still underneath a sheet of thin white plastic. I have a  tube gently hissing beside me for company, which dispenses pure oxygen. Contact with the outside world is nominally via my right eye, which is exposed through the plastic.  Although I can’t see anything I can see the light source in the probe that is inserted into my eye and watch it moving around.

I can also hear every word of the not-so re-assuring dialogue between the two surgeons “much too close to the lens Ali!”, “No, no, no – now it’s haemorrhaging!” and so on.

I try to steer my thoughts to how fantastic modern laser technology is. I watch it spark as they eventually re-attach my retina and repair the tear. Bizarrely the laser talks in a female American accent – either that or I have finally lost my mind. It can’t be the sedative – they wouldn’t give me one. I’d have gone for anything – Phenobarbital, Diazepam, Cocaine, Rioja, Guinness – even Evo-Stik.

After an hour and forty minutes or so the experience is rounded off with a gas bubble being  injected into the eye and an orange band attached to my right wrist explaining that I might explode in numerous languages. I am discharged with supplies of various eye drops and the sage but unnecessary advice – “Don’t swim or play any contract sports”. So no Water Polo I guess.

The gas bubble is my little companion for the next few weeks as it bobs around and slowly dissipates. Three months later the vision has steadily improved, curvy lines have straightened and things have returned to a kind of blurred  normality.

The march of medical science has not though been matched by progress through the impenetrable bureaucracy of most countries ending in the word ‘Stan. A compromise plan has been found. We fly to Shanghai where we meet Yangtze Pete who has a supply of Chang Jiangs 750s in Tibet, close to the Dalai Lama’s winter palace in Lhasa. What better vehicle for a trek across the Himalayas to Kathmandu in Nepal? For those not familiar with motorcycle technology the question is ironic as well as rhetorical.

image

Stage 2 involves crating our own bikes and transporting them to Athens. After Nepal has been explored using the technology of yesteryear we will fly to Athens to collect them and then ride through Greece, across Turkey to Baku in Azerbaijan on the Caspian see, and then head steadily North-West into Georgia and back up through Europe.

As I write this blog flights have been booked, visa applications are being frantically researched and routes and transportation finalised.

Mercifully both retinas remain attached.

It would be great to conclude that loss of sight has provided new insight. But this would be  too corny and inaccurate to end a blog with. Or so you’d think.

But you’d be wrong Smile

Share

Nürnberg Trials – best to Czech

nick_thumb1Columbus famously mistook the West Indies for America.  Nürnberg (or Nurenberg) – home of Hitler’s pre-war rallies and post-war trials should similarly not be confused with Nürburg, home of the famous Nürburgring.

After arriving at Nürnberg on Friday we decided it might be nice to pop to Nürburgring on Saturday morning before heading off to Brno in the Czech Republic. A nice idea except it turned out it’s 193 miles back in the direction that we had come from. Columbus can be forgiven – he didn’t have a GPS.  We did. “Merner – gonna : Nürburgring – gonna”.

And so we abandoned the euro for the Czech Koruna and headed over the border. The Greek’s must be thinking “if only life were that simple”.

I have always admired the Czechs. They established their state  in 1989 with the velvet revolution, led by the poet Václav Havel, and seemingly managed this without killing anyone. All very civilised and dignified. The Czech Republic reputedly has the greatest per capita consumption of beer in the world. And they don’t drink any old rubbish – almost all Czech beer is good, and indeed cheap. It’s hard not to feel a warmth towards them.

Sunday was MotoGP race day. Hot and dry – the circuit, although only a few kilometres from Brno, is nestled in undulating and pretty countryside. We were stopped briefly by the police on the way in – checking for stolen bikes. Unable to produce a log book or passport they contented themselves with a licence plate check. Great to see the police actually trying to stop crime rather than nicking hapless motorists for travelling at 33 in a 30 limit. But I digress. That rant can wait for another day.

The Czech’s like their MotoGP, although a significant section of the crowd seemed to be German. A great battle in the 125cc and Moto2 races, but Dani Pedrosa’s early crash in the main race gave way to an exhibition of dominance from Stoner. A significant improvement by Ducati and signor Rossi gave hope for the future of the lad from Tavulia to has adoring fans – generally the entire crowd.

The rain came on Monday, and with a vengeance.  We set off at daybreak – 10.30’ish local time but daybreak somewhere. By lunchtime we were tiptoeing around the slippery Prague cobbles, finding shelter in a ‘touristy’ cafe by the river which serves the dearest coffee in Prague – only the stupid can find it. On the way out of the city the real deluge started. We headed towards the German border – essentially riding upstream in a river that was formerly a motorway. After an hour or so it relented enabling us to blow dry by the time we reached Dresden.

Dresden though was worth it. It is both elegant and clean, with beautiful buildings and impressive architecture. If it was all truly flattened by bomber Harris et al in the war it can’t be original, but this doesn’t detract from its magnificence.

IMG_0153[1]

Tuesday morning and the GPS was set due West for Edersee.  I’ve finally  persuaded my GPS to avoid motorways – ‘shortest distance’ rather than the ‘shortest time’ setting seems to do the trick with Garmin. Plenty of twisty roads and beautiful, well kept villages en route.

There is also no shortage of bikers –the left hand (with the arm attached) dangled against the airflow is the passing acknowledgment as two bikes pass.   Teutonic and practical. The Italians and French generally go for the leg kicked in the air – combining flamboyance with nonchalance. It has to be said the Italians are better at it, quite capable of achieving this fully cranked over in a corner on a mountain road, with a precipice visible beneath the rider’s designer shades. The Welsh usually reserve the acknowledgement for when the vehicles are stationery – a brief nod and the words “all right butt” is the traditional salutation.

Our Europeans neighbours have a lot to learn.

Share

Amsterdam, Köln and Ken

nickRodenkirchen – Germany

Two signs that it’s a good time for a little jaunt abroad on the bike – the sun is shining and the country has taken up rioting. The bikes were duly packed with a few socks and under-pants, a security chain that could anchor the QE2 in a gale, and enough electrical gadgetry and technology to launch a manned mission to Mars. A simple plan – a boat from Harwich to the Hook of Holland, and then ride down through Germany to the Czech Republic. Watch the MotoGP race on Sunday and then find a good route back home.

First port of  call Amsterdam – literally a port, and no better place to relax,  find a coffee shop (which may not sell coffee), somewhere to lay your head or even put a weary finger in a dyke. Liberal, a little grubby but always fun and full of possibility.  Live in the Hague, work in Rotterdam and party in Amsterdam – sound advice from the Netherlanders – maybe you can have the best of all world’s. I guess our equivalent is live in Islington, work in the city and riot in Tottenham.

From tolerance and tackiness to Teutonic cleanliness and efficiency. A short ride to Koln to see a long-lost relative (Ken), some quality beer and (I am told) the world’s tallest (non steel) structure. My plan to shoot some video riding over the Merner damn has though sadly been scuppered. I had planned to dub the dam-busters theme onto the clip – all in the best possible taste. I looked where it was last night on the IPhone and we had already ridden past it –“Merner – gonna”, as they say.

First thing on the agenda for this morning was a short trip to plot 4, row AA, grave 2 where Ken Crew has been since October 1939. A war-graves cemetery to the south of the city, coincidentally only a few kilometres from the hotel we are staying at in Rodenkirchen. Quite an impressive place, with manicured lawns. If your last resting place is a war graves cemetery this one should be in the guidebooks. Although he died decades before I was born it provided an opportunity for poignant reflection on the futility of war, or a tacky photo opportunity with two crash helmets either side of the grave. As fate would dictate, the latter prevailed.

Kens Grave

With decorum satisfied a trip into Koln by train was in order driven by the irresistible lure of climbing five hundred and God knows how many steps to the top of the (allegedly) tallest non-steel structure aka Koln’s gothic cathedral. After overcoming the sweet smell of body odour, light  exhaustion and mild asphyxiation there is only one word to describe the vista that revealed itself at the summit – mediocre. Ken – you’re better off where you are mate, in the suburbs.

Tomorrow – Nuremburg. I can’t wait to see your ring – something you should never say in Amsterdam.

Share

Road Kill and Carnets

nickLlandegfedd

Perfect Preparation Prevents Piss Poor Performance was advice given to me by an ex-army squaddie, fond of beer as well as alliteration, and ever generous in dispensing his pearls of wisdom, especially when ‘over-refreshed’ on a winter’s evening.

There is indeed a lot to prepare for the China trip – a route plan, visas, letters of invitation, bike and travel insurance, bike shipping, a carnet (the “passport” for the bike) and shrink-fit camping equipment – tents and bedding that roll up the size of a thong. Then there’s the suitably kitted out touring steeds – a few years old, with authentic dents, dirt from exotic places and a lived-in battle-hardened look. The BMW R1150GS – the Teutonic tank – will be the unimaginative but essentially practical choice. Some modifications will be necessary – they are designed for the TMAs (Two Metres Arians), rather than SAWs (Short-Arsed Welshmen). There is apparently a conversion available from Touratech to lower the seat – an infinitely  better solution  for street-cred than stabilisers. You can even get a gel version to prevent the  dreaded SAW condition (Sore-Arsed Welshmen) developing.

Next come the essential man-gadgets – two-way communication for the helmets with blue tooth connection to IPhones, GPS, helmet-cams, camera, notebook, back-up devices, memory cards and all the spaghetti connectors, chargers and adapters to plug it all together. Some means of charging things from the motorbike seems like a good idea, or possibly take with us the generator left over from powering the Take That tour.

A bit of elementary research with the world-wide etch-o-sketch revealed www.horizonsunlimited.com – a group of like-minded, friendly and slightly unbalanced people. They had a big meeting in Ripley, Derbyshire for the weekend of 24th June 2011. We duly made the pilgrimage through the drizzle and rain on the bikes arriving on the Saturday. We wanted to get informed and, above all, inspired. It worked. We learnt some top tips on riding to the north pole (studs in the tyres), riding a bike through desserts (don’t), saw a demonstration of skinning a deer with a motorbike and sidecar (Indian headdress essential), how to obtain a carnet (give a shed-load of money to the RAC) and how to ship a motorbike back from Asia (give a shed-load of money to James Cargo).

Road kill (allegedly) – How to skin a deer with a motorbike and sidecar

IMG_0087This guy demonstrated cooking “roadkill” – gutting, skinning and cooking a variety God’s little creatures. Hapless pheasants, poor little bunnies – even Cray fish and trout – all allegedly killed by colliding with motorcycles. His skinning a deer technique was his party piece. Tie the poor little bugger to a tree and rope the hide to the motorbike and sidecar. Select first gear, wind on a few thousand revs, drop the clutch and Robert’s you father’s sibling (Bob’s your uncle). The hunter/gatherer gene remains as strong as ever in bikers. His kids are still in therapy.

Streuth Bruce – from Sydney to London on this!

IMG_0091I came across this ‘little beaut’– a postal delivery bike (about 150cc) from Sydney, Australia. The guy rode it to London. You gotta hand it to the Australian postal service for dedication. Sadly I missed his talk but he was pointed out to me. A youngish guy with a beard, who looked fairly normal. You never can tell.

We also came across an excellent charity Motorcycle Outreach  -www.motorcycleoutreach.org. They provide medical outreach services in Indonesia. This seems like a really great charity and as it’s in keeping with our motorbikes in Asia theme we have decided to raise money for them as part of the trip. My nephew, Ben Drewett, has already volunteered to do a sponsored skydive to get the ball-rolling. We will put together some more fund-raising activities in the autumn, probably themed around adventure-drinking in pubs. Who knows – with poor navigation and questionable riding techniques we may just need the services of the motorcycle outreach people Smile.

Share

The Zen Mid-Life Crisis

Featured

Tibet to Wales by Motorbike

A Badly Organised Odyssey

Ace Cafe

 

“Inspirational”

“Fearless”

“Courageous”

“Moving”

“Dedicated”

 

 

 

Just a few of the adjectives that have not been used to describe this trip.

 

“Half-arsed”

“Delusional”

“It’ll all end in tears”

“Silly Men”

 

These are a few of the expressions that have. Others were less encouraging.

Departing 21st April 2012

Raising money for Motorcycle Outreach:

www.motorcycleoutreach.org

Three brothers
Two
bikes
One
half-baked plan

To Leigh Delamere and beyond!!

China, Nepal, Greece, Turkey, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Ukraine, Moldova, Romania, Hungary, Austria, Czech Republic, Germany, Netherlands, England, Wales

Recent Blogs:

..…. a little philosophy …… very little wisdom ……
…… possibly a few too many nob gags ……

Share

2⁵ versus Phi

Llandegfedd

Douglas Adams’ supercomputer Deep Thought famously proclaimed “42” to be the ultimate answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything. Although a joke, and a good one at that, it may just be correct. Or at least, no worse than any other answer.

“1.61803398874989..” is another candidate – the Golden RatioPhi ( ). How many numbers have their own website[1] and a name, and a symbol? Ok, maybe Pi, I grant you, but not many others.

The golden ratio is simply a ratio of distances in simple geometric figures, but it appears everywhere – architecture, painting, music, design, cosmology and nature – to name but a few. It is as ubiquitous as David Beckham.  It’s in our bodies – the ratio of the forearm to hand is Phi; the ratio appears in our face, teeth and feet. I believe it’s even found in our DNA double helix.

Back in the 1800’s Adolf Zeising found the golden ratio in the arrangement of branches along the stems of plants, and of the veins in their leaves. Then he found it in the skeletons of animals, and in the branching of their veins and nerves.  He found it in the proportions of chemical compounds and the geometry of crystals. He saw Phi as a universal law. Leonardo da Vinci called it the divine proportion and he was a clever bugger. Not only a better painter than Rolf Harris – he also invented the helicopter centuries before the CAA would have ever granted it a permit to fly.

But I digress. If I had to pick a number as the ultimate meaning of everything I would go for something like “32”. This is 2⁵. Mankind has cleverly managed to reduce seemingly everything to a binary code, endless streams of 1s and 0s, a two state world of ‘on’ or ‘off’. The digital age is here – analogue is dead. From computers it has spread to digital TV, digital radio, MP3 players, our phones and our cameras. Film and videotape are dead. Records and cassettes are dead. Everything can be reduced to a simple two state code. This is both clever and, to me, a little surprising. Maybe it’s all simple after all.

We thus now measure in peculiar numbers that grow exponentially from the number 2. This is a topic to which I apparently refer a lot – I’ve been told that I talk a lot of number 2. One kilobyte (1k) is 1,024 bytes (2¹º), one megabyte 2²º bytes, a gigabyte 2³º bytes and a terabyte a whopping 2⁴º bytes.

And I used to think that a terabyte was something that happened when you sank your teeth into deep fried donkey’s dick.

These numbers are a bit big for the ultimate meaning of everything so I thought 32 seemed more manageable, and a better candidate than 422⁵ is also much neater than 2⁵˙³²³⁴ (approximately) – which doesn’t frankly sound like the ultimate answer to anything.

Digitisation too has revolutionised communications and shrunk our world, even if the universe remains a pretty big place. Whilst we truly do now live in the Information Age we are blessed with a brain to interpret all this information that has evolved in the Stone Age. Evolution seemingly has a sense of humour.

Most of us don’t really process numbers – we have a vague idea of magnitude but are a rarely driven by statistical probabilities. We fear terrorism more than being struck down by a car, or of getting type 2 diabetes. It is irrational in terms of the probability of what is likely to kill us. It reminds me of a George “Dubya” Bush joke. On hearing that two Brazilian soldiers have been killed in Iraq, he becomes ashen faced and oddly quiet, and then discretely turns to Dick Cheney and asks quietly “How many in a Brazilian?”

Worse still – we are deluded. We believe that we behave rationally. The constant chatter of the conscious mind is convinced it’s in charge, and drives almost everything we do. I have a good analogy – sadly not one of my own.

The conscious mind is like a man riding on an elephant. The elephant is generally co-operative and compliant and does as the man beckons. This further convinces the man that he is in total charge. And of course, it all works fine until the elephant wishes to do something different – for example, go stampeding through a forest or hump another elephant. Our poor hapless rider is helpless.

Unfortunately, the conscious mind is unable to recognise what has happened and comes up with a reason why he has instructed the elephant to run amok – “just giving her a surprise canter at full bore”, or something similar. There are good evolutionary reasons for our behaviour. Pondering the meaning of life when a mammoth was about to dine on you would be unlikely to get your gene pool passed on to the next generation.

And thus we buy shares when the stock market is high (and shares are very expensive) and we sell them when it crashes (when they are very cheap). We buy earthquake insurance after we have experienced a big earthquake (and the probability of another is low after the aftershocks have subsided) but not when we have lived for 30 years in an area prone for earthquakes but didn’t actually experience one, when  the probability was increasing with each day that passed. Perhaps this is why Homer’s Doh! resonates with us all.

Where rational analysis takes us and where we want to go may not be the same place. We therefore compartmentalise our thinking into realms such as religion (or spirituality), science and philosophy simply because we cannot reconcile them. There is no one discipline “figuring stuff out”, which would make it all more coherent. These realms may not be entirely inconsistent – Fritjof Capra wrote the Tao of Physics – drawing comparisons between eastern mysticism and modern physics. Maybe these similarities are real and significant, or maybe both disciplines are simply equally impenetrable. Even so, it’s impossible to, say, reconcile Genesis with Darwin. Stuff like dinosaur fossils just get in the way.

So where does all this leave us?

Rational thought alone may not help us develop a complete theory of everything, or solve the DHL situation, or develop a new system of belief.  Maybe we should look east, think less and meditate more. I still draw the line at deep-fried donkey’s dick.

Secondly, and more importantly, we can now understand why Jon feels that the Chan Jiang 750 is better than the BMW R1200GS. His conscious brain has come up with explanations to justify this preposterous position; they are clearly all bollocks. He is astride the elephant as we speak; as she raises her trunk and trumpets her blind terror he bellows “don’t worry about the noise – it’s just the tappets!!! It’s a little known undocumented design feature of the Chang Jiang 750”.


[1] http://www.goldennumber.net/index.htm

Share

Yin and Yang

Llandegfedd

Leaving Kōans and the merits of a Chang Jiang 750 aside for a moment it is clear that East and West are different.

And it’s not just the relative appetite for deep-fried donkey’s dick. We could, I concede, conceivably eat that here provided it was naturally-reared, organic, lean and pan-fried and of course, endorsed by one of the myriad celebrity chefs. This phallus is pukka, drizzled with red wine jus and served with wilted greens.

It’s culture as well. They do things differently in the far east – and I don’t just mean Norwich.

Christianity is one of the newer kids on the block as religions or spiritual traditions go. Hinduism is the oldest recorded spiritual tradition – recorded in Sanskrit – the oldest written language; probably going back 50,000 years or so. Judaism is about 4,000 years old and Taoism is about 2,600 years old, founded by Lao-Tzu.

The spiritual Buddha, Siddharta Gautama, enlightened himself about 2,500 years ago in India, although he is not the first Buddha, but certainly the best known. Publicity comes easy when you’re a prince.  Confucianism came about around the same time in China. Christianity goes back 2,000 years and Islam dates back about 1,400 years. There are of course many other belief systems – from Shinto in Japan, Sikhism in Punjab to Stoicism in Greece.

It’s all very confusing to me as I am Welsh and a bit simple. If one of the myriad belief systems turns out to be correct the vast majority of the world’s population will have been backing the wrong horse. Atheism therefore, has its attractions, but it ignores the simple question “why?”.  To quote Pirsig “Why, for example, should a group of simple, stable compounds of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen struggle for billions of years to organize themselves into a professor of chemistry?”[1] Why indeed.

Taoism though stands out from the crowd for me in one key respect – it has the best icon. I have this symbol dangling around my neck, along with a motorbike exhaust canister[2], part of MotoGP’s merchandising. They look cool together, are aesthetically pleasing, and I believe have an inter-connected symbolism. They clearly look much better than a tattoo of an anchor. That is not symbolic, unless it’s rhyming slang.

The Taoism icon of course represents Yin and Yang – polar opposites or contrary forces that are interconnected and dependent upon one another. This shows the duality to the universe – male and female, night and day, cold and hot, black and white, Morecambe and Wise. This should not be confused with, say Cameron and Clegg – two identical parts (phallus) of different sizes – big Yin and smaller Yin.

Our trip must have essence – I concede my younger sibling is correct, at least in this respect. I have therefore put forward some suggestions of objectives for the trip that most certainly have this in spades:-

  • Put together our own unified theory of everything – reconciling the small stuff of quantum physics (atomic and sub-atomic particles and waves – duality, or what) with big stuff like Einstein’s general theory of relativity (e-mc², generally). Various string theories have already tried to do this, leading to M-theory which unified all the sub-strings theories into one. This suggests that strings are really 1-dimensional slices of a 2-dimensional membrane vibrating in 11-dimensional space. Whilst this sounds plausible enough (and may I say blindingly obvious) I suspect we could come up with something much better during the many hours on the road. How hard can it be?
  • Figure out a way to get DHL to deliver parcels on time and to the correct address. Probably impossible. Sisyphus – the guy who spent eternity repeatedly pushing a huge boulder uphill only to watch it roll back down, would have surely have given up in frustration had this been his punishment instead. Maybe simply to get them to deliver a parcel to my house at all would be more realistic but still very challenging.
  • Invent a new belief system en route, this creating our own essence. We may or may not pick up millions of followers along the way – time may press a little, even when the journey is its own destination.

Chang Jiang 750 or not, our journey will have essence.


[1] Lila – sequel to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

[2] Not a real one

Share

The Sound of One Hand Clapping

 

Zen masters often use kōans to help their students think differently, unbounded by rational analysis. A kōan is a statement or question that cannot be solved by rational thought. Zen practitioners often concentrate on kōans during meditation. They seek to gain insight, to see the world differently. The kōan is not meant to be a riddle or a puzzle, nor is it meant to be meaningless. Yet there is no correct answer or solution.

When a monk asked Dongshan Shouchu, a Chinese Zen teacher, “What is Buddha?” he replied, “Three pounds of flax.” This is a kōan.

Perhaps the most famous kōan, and certainly my favourite, is:-

What is the sound of one hand clapping?

There is of course no correct answer – the solution, like the goal of enlightenment, must come from within. You must experience the answer.

However, whilst there is no correct solution, there are some bloody good model answers:-

The sound of one hand clapping is silence. The silence refers to the essence of being which is nothingness”.

Not bad at all – our old friend essence again. Another cracking answer is:-

“Who are you when your thinking is silenced?”

Always answer a question with an even better question.

You are also free to have no answer at all – “there is no noise, there is no single hand clapping, there is no single hand, there is no single person there to clap one hand; there is no separation, we are all one and together”.

Clever.

* * * * * * * * * * *

As sure as God made little fishes” is an expression that our mother used to use quite a lot. It certainly wasn’t a kōan, nor was it meant to convey a belief in creationism over the theory of evolution. It meant simply that there was significant inevitability as to the outcome of certain events.

The Chang Jiang 750 is a very unusual piece of kit. Very different. Very retro. It may have looked in place in the 1940’s but it is certainly unusual today. I have ridden in the sidecar of one through the streets of Shanghai at night. It really was a splendid experience.  Heads turn. People stare at you with mouths open and point.

Jon’s claim that riding a Chang Jiang 750 in China would inevitably result in strangers proffering virginal daughters for marriage and all the deep-fried donkey’s dicks a man can eat is though, at best, untested.

This is not the inevitability to which I refer. The Chang Jiang 750 would surely break down – repeatedly. It has no electronic ignition. It has no fuel injection. It would over-heat. It would miss-fire. It has only 32 horse-power, and these are small Chinese horses, not great lumbering Shires. It does not have sufficient power to pull the skin off a rice pudding at sea level. At altitude it would cough and splutter. It would die. It has no electric start. I would die trying to restart it.

* * * * * * * * * * *

Sometimes we are indebted to someone and are unaware of it. It is only later that we realise what we have gained from that individual. This often applies to parents and children. Sometimes also to siblings.

Zen Buddhism teaches that insight and enlightenment comes only from within. I can see in my mind’s eye a Zen master standing before me now. The air is still. My expression is serene. He asks me quietly:-

And what is the sound of one hand clapping?

I reply slowly, after a few moments silent contemplation:-

It is the sound of a motorcycle on a great mountain. It is neither at the zenith nor the nadir of this great mountain, but betwixt these points. There is great stillness.

It is a Chang Jiang 750. It has broken down

Share