New Book



$21.95 hardcover · 224 pages
9978-1594037641-January 2015


The theme of The Great Divide is that the populations of the democratic world, from Boston to Berlin, Vancouver to Venice, are becoming increasingly divided from within, due to a growing ideological incompatibility between modern liberalism and conservatism. This is partly due to a complex mutation in the concept of liberal democracy itself, and the resulting divide is now so wide that those holding to either philosophy on a whole range of topics: on democracy, on reason, on abortion, on human nature, on homosexuality and gay marriage, on freedom, on the role of courts … and much more, can barely speak with each other without outrage (the favorite emotional response from all sides). Clearly, civil conversation at the surface has been failing -- and that could mean democracy is failing.

This book is an effort to deepen the conversation. It is written for the non-specialist, and aims to reveal the less obvious underlying ideological forces and misconceptions that cause the conflict and outrage at the surface -- not with any expectation the clash of values will evaporate, but rather that a deeper understanding will generate a more intelligent and civil conversation.

As an aid to understanding, the book contains a handful of Tables directly comparing modern liberal and conservative views across a range of fundamental moral and political “issues” so that curious readers can answer the book’s main question: “Where Do You Stand?” An interesting result in testing this exercise has been the number of people who find they “think” one way, but “live” another.    


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Cycling in France, The e-bike Revolution, and Paleolithic Cave-Art

My wife and I recently completed a two-week cycling trip in the Dordogne region of France. And what a good time we had. We both figured that for sight-seeing, a car is too fast, and walking too slow, but a cycling pace is just right. And the bonus of cycling is that you can go all sorts of places with a bicycle that you can't go with a car. Like ... down nifty little medieval side-streets, or up onto sidewalks, and, if you have touring tires, you can even go off-road on dirt pathways when you want to take a shortcut across a farmer's field to see how they make foie gras - which we did. Also, with a car, you often have to park a long way from the cathedral or castle or scenery you want to see. But with a bike, you can pedal right up to the spot. It feels very free.

I have been a reasonably strong cyclist all my adult life. But cycling trips, of which we have done a dozen together, were becoming a thing of the past because my wife, being more sensible than me, doesn't like grinding up long hills. We wanted to go to Dordogne to see the cave-art. But this region of France is mostly one long hill after the other, interspersed with lovely river valleys (and great downhills!).

This was a problem. So, to make the cycling-difference between us evaporate, I suggested we try using electric bicycles - e-bikes - for this trip.

It took a little attitude adjustment for this purist to accept the idea of using an e-bike. I thought it would be somehow like cheating, or that I wouldn't get a decent workout. But ... a vacation is not supposed to be a workout. So we planned a self-guided e-bike trip with a company called Discover France. And, with enthusiasm, I can report that from the moment we got on these bikes, there were just great big smiles. Wow. What fun! That is the bottom line of the e-bike revolution that is underway. They are just so much fun. And at the very first hill, my wife, who had broken into the biggest smile as she took off, with hair blowing in the wind and a lively hurrah! shouted: "You feel like the hand of God is pushing you up the hill!"

We are hooked on e-bike travel now, and can't wait to do another trip. We cycled for about 8 days, averaging about 35 miles (60km) per day, with total (cumulative) climbing per day of around 1,500 - 1,800 ft (500 - 600m or so). To a hard-riding cyclist that doesn't sound like a lot. But by the time you add in the stops for sightseeing, a meal, and yes, buying stuff that you end up taking back for the grandkids, you are spending about five hours a day on and off the bike. We had a Garmin gps system programmed for each day's route, so all we had to do was "follow the arrow." Okay, they made a few mistakes, but it was easy to get back on the arrow.

Most electric bikes use the Bosch battery system, and you have to pedal when you ride to activate the "assist". No coasting, except downhill. But when pedaling, you can use any of four "pedal assist" modes: - eco, tour, sport, or turbo. Well, this was fascinating for us. Using mostly eco and tour, you can pedal 100km if you want, and will get a decent assist. We used those levels on the flats and slight rises. On long hills at around 5-7% grade, we used "sport", and for very steep short hills, "turbo." Turbo indeed feels like God is pushing you up the hill. But ... the battery will not last long - maybe 25 miles if you stay in Turbo. At the end of each day, we unhooked the batteries from the bikes and took them inside our hotel room(s) to recharge them, which takes a few hours.

As for "the workout"? Most e-bikes (we had Scott bikes) weigh around 55 pounds. When you add the battery, your day-baggage, like binoculars, water bottle, rain clothing, some food, and so on, you end up pushing about 65 pounds. So without turning the power on, and even with very forgiving gearing, it is very tough to push this much weight up a steep hill. I turned off the assist once and tried it, and the bike quickly came to a grinding halt then would have gone backwards if I hadn't braked! So, being a stronger cyclist than my wife, I easily got my workout just by using a lower assist level than the one she used, some of the time. So keeners beware - you can exhaust yourself easily on an e-bike if that's what you want. A case in point: we met an American couple on the road who had decided he would ride his regular road bike, and she would ride an e-bike. Frankly, he looked exhausted, and I said, "I bet she has to wait for you at the top of every hill! She smiled, and he groaned.

I now agree with a friend who said the e-bike is "a disruptive technology." No doubt about it. I predict that over the next few decades, our cities are going to change radically to facilitate electric cycling. So my last word on this aspect of our trip is: try an electric bike as soon as you can, and you will be hooked for sure.

As for France? What can I say? This was our third cycling trip there. We did the Loire and Normandy regions once. Did Provence another time, and now, Dordogne. France is a beautiful country almost everywhere you go. We were delighted by the scenery, the quiet medieval villages, with their simple homes of blond stone and red-tiled roofs, and above all ... the absence of advertising! Where else do you go in the world where there is so little advertising pollution?

As for French food today? The cheeses were to die for, the wines were occasionally quite good (though I generally prefer northern California reds), and the meats always had good sauces. But ... it was hard to find tender lamb or beef (and I think that is why the French invented great sauces!). One man's opinion ... I think it is harder today than it used to be to find good food in France. Places like New York, Toronto, San Francisco, Vancouver, Montreal, and so on, have more than caught up in the culinary arts. We had our very best meal in a little open-air restaurant overlooking the quaint village of Belvès. It was a nondescript bistro that happened to be owned by a passionate foodie.

Finally, I really recommend doing this trip to see the cave art. The most famous cave of all is Lascaux. It was discovered in the 1940s by three teen-aged boys. Well, actually, it was discovered by their dog, who started sniffing and scratching at a hole in the ground, and then ... fell down the hole!

He didn't come back up when they called, so the boys went home for shovels and flashlights, and then came back, and within moments had opened up a large crawl-space. So they went down. It led to a huge series of caves, and when they shone their lights upward, they were simply stunned into silence. There, unseen for 20,000 years or so, were some 600 large and very colourful cave-drawings of bison, mammoths, wolves, bear, deer, and more. Some drawings even had hand-prints on the wall beside them, like an artist's signature.

Lascaux is virtually chock-a-block with incredible cave-drawings, but is now closed to the public because the CO2 and moisture from human breathing was starting to erode the drawings. So the French government has created a complete reproduction called LascauxII, which is true to the original by the millimetre, and so is very much worth seeing. Stunning, actually. It faithfully represents what those boys saw, and these reproductions were created with the same dyes and minerals as the Paleolithic artists used. We then cycled to a few more caves that had original cave-art. One of them has a touching drawing of a female deer licking the face of her young fawn. You can feel the moment the artist felt, so long ago.

Then we visited two geological cave-sites (there are many in the region) that are quite astonishing, and still under exploration, some of them extending for miles underground, and cavernous - like, almost 300 feet from bottom to top. Jaw-dropping sights, really.

We ended our trip with a transition day in London England, and what a city that is. After some time at the National Gallery, and the Portrait Gallery, we had an hour or two - not enough - to visit the Churchill War Museum - which was unexpectedly both astonishing and rewarding - before heading to the airport for our flight home.

Reader Comments (1)

Great post Bill! Was with you in spirit. As you know I’ve lived in the Hautes Pyrenees region of France for over fifteen years. The last two years I have been working in Australia and home only sporadically. It would be great if you consider coming to my French farmhouse, maybe using it as a base for one of your cycling adventures.

While the Pyrenees (right out the door) are rather more daunting than the gentle rolling Dordogne you describe in this post, there are a multitude of routes one can take.

It was great to get an insight into e-bikes. They sound like the way of the future for sure.

All the best, your envious friend,

Iain Benson (Prof).
October 12, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterIain Benson

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