I passed a big rabble of bikers on my way to downtown Seattle yesterday evening. Several complimented my bike as I passed. There were a couple of talls in the mix. I assumed it was another Critical Mass ride, but maybe not. Sure looked like fun. I need to participate in one of those someday.

I periodically attend a monthly gathering of Seattle atheists. There are always new faces, and they pick a different restaurant every month for variety’s sake. We chatted about things like global warming, the recent shootings in Virginia, diesel verses hybrid cars and, of course, the American propensity for religiosity.

I overheard a diesel enthusiast proclaiming that “Pious” drivers were full of themselves, and that they couldn’t even afford their $30,000 dollar cars — which, by the way, only get 34 MPG — without their tax credits. Not to mention they are ugly, they kill blind pedestrians who can’t hear them coming (I’m assuming she meant the cars, not the drivers), a diesel engine will run forever, blah, blah, blah.

Little did she know that a Prius snob was sitting right across the table. I suggested that this competition for status between the diesel and hybrid factions was a perfect example of human nature being channeled in an environmentally benign direction and that we need to see a lot more of it.

Oh, I also mentioned that my wife recently nailed 60 MPG on a tank of gas, that a Prius costs a whole lot less than $30,000, some Prius cab drivers in Canada are hitting the quarter million mile mark on original equipment, and diesel cars are so loud a deaf person can hear one coming, assuming they don’t smell it first.

This prompted another guy to ask if a Prius gets better mileage in the city. So I explained that Prius drivers (in Seattle at least) get better mileage on the highway. This raised some eyebrows because everyone was under the impression that a Prius got better mileage in the city. I tried to explain that the main reason a 2006 Prius gets good highway mileage is that it has a tiny, fuel-efficient engine and one of the lowest drag coefficients on the road. It does not have to lug a big engine around just so it can get up hills and onto highways now and then. The battery and electric motor are used for that. The city mileage is the result of the tiny engine, regenerative braking, and the fact that the battery allows the motor to turn off when the car is stopped. Apparently, a small engine and clean aerodynamics on the highway trumps regenerative braking and electric power in the city.

A discussion on the Virginia killings led to one on gun control. Luckily, there were no gun enthusiasts in the crowd arguing that if everyone in America carried a gun, things like this would never happen. This gave me a chance to tell about a close call I once had here in Seattle. Several years ago I was playing basketball on an outdoor court a few blocks from my house when some guy none of us had ever seen before walked onto the court, pulled out a hand gun and put it against another guy’s head. The only person who didn’t head for the hills was a guy from Denmark who just happened to be playing on this court for the first time. He walked up behind the assailant and grabbed the gun, which didn’t go off only because the hammer caught the webbing between his thumb and index finger. The bad guy bailed, leaving the dude from Denmark holding the gun and dripping blood all over the court. The police showed up shortly thereafter. Oddly enough, we never saw the guy from Denmark again — talk about bad first impressions.

I met a guy from Romania and a young genetics researcher from Australia who had recently accepted a position at the University of Washington. The Australian couldn’t believe how much it rains in Seattle, and both were incredulous that there is an unwritten requirement that every American politician must profess allegiance to the dominant religion. This brought up the subject of Australia’s Prime Minister, John Howard, who someone pointed out also happens to wear his religion on his sleeve. This in turn led to a discussion on global warming and Australia’s rejection of Kyoto. Coincidentally, when I got home I found the Prime Minister on BBC news calling for severe water rationing in the face of Australia’s worst drought on record. And finally, today I found the him being quoted in the Seattle Times:

If it doesn’t rain in sufficient volume over the next six to eight weeks, there will be no water allocations for irrigation purposes in the basin until May 2008 … there would be water only for critical urban supplies plus farmers’ domestic use and watering stock … thousands of farmers could lose their citrus, almond and olives trees if they cannot be watered this year.

I also talked for a half-hour or so to an older guy at the end of the table who wore a wrist brace and rag-tag clothes. He didn’t order anything to eat or drink and had learned of the meeting on the internet because he has access for an hour a day at the public library.

He was Japanese American and told me about his childhood in the internment camp with his parents, who were Buddhist. He joined the Navy during the Korean war and was first trained as an airplane mechanic and then as a photographer. After the war he landed a job at Boeing as a riveter’s assistant (the guy on the other side of the structure who holds the bucking bar all day). After Boeing fired him, he survived doing menial labor jobs, which explained his wrist brace. His name was Mas and he was homeless. The thought that I should have bought him dinner didn’t cross my mind until it was too late. Maybe I’ll see him at the next meeting.