Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Fuel for thought

In a survey released today by the Canadian American Business Council in Washington (www.canambusco.org), a surprisingly few percentage of American voters polled understood the importance of Canada to their energy needs.

How few?

Four percent.

That is, only 4% of the respondents were able to correctly identify Canada as the largest foreign supplier of crude oil to the United States. Neither Saudi Arabia nor Iraq provides as much oil and natural gas as our nation does; according to U.S. government figures (rpc.senate.gov/_files/May2306OilDependencePG.pdf), Canada supplies 10.5% of America’s oil, versus 7.4% from Saudi Arabia.

Now the CABC survey also showed that 88% of respondents held a “favourable impression” of Canada and that 41% “expressed support for replacing oil from unstable regions with oil from Canada, even if doing so resulted in higher prices for U.S. consumers”.

Canadians like these sort of polls, because they give us a chance to say we’re not appreciated on the one hand, while being liked on the other. But smugness aside, the relationships between our two countries are the envy of much of the world.

Is Canada subservient to the United States? On many things – absolutely. Being next door to anyone ten times the size in terms of economics and population can only create a sense of caution on our part. It often seems like we’re the younger brother in a small family, the quiet, dutiful one who puts up with the largesse of the eldest, outgoing sibling. But we actually like our brother, and worry about him a lot. Because we’re family and have far more in common than is recognized.

I will warn our American cousins of one thing, though: Everyone south of the border is going to be paying more for fuel soon, whether you like it or not. Not because of any greedy Canadian policies but because of the value of the American dollar. The decision by the current administration in Washington to let the greenback slide in value on the international markets – in the hope that it would spur American exports – was misguided and harmful. Instead it means that our oil will cost more to buy. But maybe that’ll help increase energy conservation.

In the meantime, as we go into the first holiday of the summer – with Canada Day on Saturday and Independence Day on Tuesday – let’s not forget the ties that bind.

Monday, June 26, 2006

The keepers of the nether regions

In the chain of command of maritime order, the role of the captain has always been more or less paramount. A captain has the undeniably final word on all matters aboard a vessel, the ultimate responsibility for the safety and wellbeing of the ship, its cargo and those individuals sailing with her. But just slightly below the captain one finds the chief engineer, the master of the mechanical bestiary that propels a vessel through the seas.

Known universally as “The Chief”, the head engineer and the captain are technically equivalent in the hierarchy of a vessel, though there is a benign rivalry between the Old Man (as captains are known) and the Chief as to who is really more important for the operation of a ship at sea. A hundred years ago, the role of the engineer was just emerging as mechanical power came to supplant wind power. Lost in the dark bowels of a ship, the engineer lived a world apart from the traditions of the sea, more concerned with fuel intake and engine output than the ability to use a sextant. The captain was the eyes and ears and the brains; the engineer the brawn. This has changed as automation has increased aboard vessels and the day when the two roles are combined into one may not be far off.

Seafaring remains very much a man’s world; the overwhelming majority of mariners remain guys, though women are slowly making inroads into the profession. (This is not a criticism of how things should be, merely an observation of how things are. There are more women serving in Western militaries today than in the merchant marine.) At any rate, engineers often seem like “guy’s guys”, more comfortable with their machinery than with anything else.

Motorman checking auxiliary engines, MV Emerald Star

On the various vessels I’ve had the opportunity to sail aboard, the engineers could always be relied upon for a healthy dose of testosterone. More than one deckhand or deck officer warned me about engineers and their penchant for discussing anything mechanical. As one officer told me with amusement, “Don’t ask them about automobiles.” (Many of the engineers I’ve met can reel off endless statistics about torque, engine performance and the fuel capacity of various cars without the aid of any manuals. They seem to have this data seared into their brains.)

But it must be said that engineers inhabit an odd world, one without windows, horizon lines or even a sense of direction. Within the confines of the engine room, they monitor caged beasts that are the embodiment of power, energy and the means to propel a vessel through the sea, man-made maelstroms tamed within steel prisons. Where a ship is going, what the present course setting is and who else is in the waters nearby are meaningless to engineers. They’re only concern is caring for their industrial charges.

Surprisingly, I’ve always found engineers the most accessible mariners I’ve met – so long as you take an interest in their machinery. They are the guardians of pistons, fuel injectors, propeller shafts, desalinators, generators, bunker fuel, and so much more, and they take their jobs very seriously.

In many respects, engineers know a ship better than most others, save the senior officers. They inhabit the heart of the beast, a place filled with heat, noise and a just bit of chaos. More than just mechanics, they perform a type of doctoring that comes from being attuned to the equipment, understanding nuances of technical performance that most of the rest of us will never comprehend.

So the next time you happen upon an engineer in a bar, ask him – or her – about the merits of a Sulzer or a B&W engine and watch the glow on their face as they reply. Everyone has a story to tell, you just need to find an entrée.

Control room, MV Emerald Star

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

The Hermit Kingdom's search for hard currency

Here's one that slipped under the radar screens of the media...

In March of this year, the U.S. Congressional Research Service prepared a background paper (see www.fas.org/sgp/crs/row/RL33324.pdf) detailing American claims that North Korea is involved in a major counterfeiting operation.

Essentially, they believe that Kim Jong Il's government is printing bogus US$100 bills, which the North Koreans can then launder in foreign nations. It's a brilliantly simple scheme for a country that needs to raise something like a billion dollars a year to fund its trade deficit while facing a near global pariah status.

According to the researchers, at least $45 million in fake American banknotes have been detected so far and the belief is that Pyongyang earns somewhere between 15 and 25 million dollars a year through their counterfeiting operations. The DPRK (Democratic People's Republic of Korea) denies the allegations.

For anyone who travels extensively - such as mariners - there are only two currencies worth carrying: the U.S. dollar and the Euro. And as hated America may be in some parts of the globe, their money remains revered, far more than the European version. In the remotest parts of Vietnam, Russia or Cuba, a U.S. C-note goes a long way for a lost soul. But if this situation continues, it could change the relative worth of the Franklin banknote worldwide.

The U.S. Treasury plans to revamp the hundred dollar bill next year, to make it more difficult to counterfeit. In the meantime, check your greenbacks, especially if in Asia.