Sunday, December 31, 2006

The Ride Program

Happy New Year!! It's a night when most of us might have a drink or so - but it's important to get home SAFE and sound. Whether that means taking transit, having a desginated driver, or waiting around for a cab - you gotta make sure your ride is taken care of.

One of Discovery's top 12 Biology stories of 2006 is about some wierd little worm that has evolved to have no mouth, no guts, and no excretory organs. Instead, it has a series of bacteria living beneath its skin which cooperate with each other and with the worm to somehow create energy for the worm and get rid of it's waste. What do the bacteria get out of the relationship?
Well, a place to hang out - and a free ride, obviously!

See y'all in 2007!

Friday, December 29, 2006

Full of beans

Soy-based substitutes aren't just for meat anymore. Forget pretend salami, veggie hotdogs, and tofurki...

(I don't mind tofu... but Tofurki?? It sounds so wierd. I may just have to try that one day. )

Now you can have soybeans in your home. Literally - a new soy-based adhesive may soon be replacing formaldehyde-based ones in engineered wood like plywood and particleboard.

Formaldehyde isn't nice - it's been associated with irritation of the eyes, skin, nose, throat, and lower airways. Oh yeah, and some studies suggest it might case cancer - like nasopharyngeal, nasal, prostate, lung, and pancreatic cancers as well as leukemia. Even though there's still a bit of uncertainty about those results, it just sounds all-round bad. And people who work in construction often have much higher exposures than you and I, who simply live in our homes and sit on our decks sipping Margaritas...

Anyhoo, the idea of soy protein adhesives has been around for a while - but they weren't durable enough until someone figured out they could crosslink the protein with some kind of resin to make the adhesive look more like what a mussel uses to stick itself to the bottom of a boat.

And those little bu**ers do not like to let go.

A bean, informed by a mollusk, might improve your bedroom floor. Wierd. But true.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Sheer Lunacy?

Is is possible to pander to materialists and simultaneously save the world?

Maybe - a company called Ecoist makes all its stuff - handbags, belts, placemats, and accessories - from recycled materials . If you buy a bag, they'll plant a tree. Not only is this a great idea, but the bags are actually pretty swish-looking.

If I wasn't still full from Christmas dinner my favorites would probably be the bags made from candy wrappers (I am an afficionado of treats of all kinds after all)... but I'm also partial to the ones made of Luna bar wrappers - since I associate those with hangin' out in the backcountry and plus their ingredients are 70% organic.

Too bad I rarely carry a hadbag (I'm more of a backpack girl, myself). Maybe I'll get me some placemats instead.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

You know you want one...

I just bought someone two chickens for Christmas. I was thinking about getting the goat - but I decided that it was probably more than I was willing to spend.

Quoi on earth is she talking about, you're asking yourself. Well, I went shopping at Oxfam Unwrapped... where the money I spend goes directly to fund projects in developing nations that involve the gifts I chose. So in Ethiopia, women are being trained in poultry production. It's part of a program that

"is aimed at increasing women’s economic wealth, their ownership and responsibility in managing household assets and their involvement in decision-making that affects their lives and their community"

Sounds good to me. Basically, the women who sign up get to start out with twelve chicks and enough grain to feed them for a year.

Apparently the local market for both chickens and eggs has improved over the past few years...

...although it's not clear which improved first.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Mon(k)ey Business

I was walking down Queen St. the other day when I was offered a free reusable shopping bag by a rep from Telus. I confess to taking it - and I also confess that it was mostly because he said there would be a chocolate bar inside.

Since then, I have seen people carrying these Telus bags all over the place. Are they just handing out zillions of the bags over the course of several days, or are people really going to use this feebie? If so, it's magnificent marketing on the part of Telus. As Pat put it: you wouldn't really want to carry around a bag with the Rogers Telecommunications logo... but that Telus monkey is pretty cute!

Inside my bag I found (yes, my chocolate bar - which by the way tasted a lot like wax), plus some lime green wrapping paper and little gift tags featuring the abovementioned cute monkeys. Telus colour scheme: yep, Telus logo: nowhere to be found.

My first thought: I could actually use this, which might assuage my guilt about accepting a bag of stuff I don't need that required energy to produce and will otherwise end up as landfill.

My second thought: Telus is infiltrating my Christmas and I will be facilitating subconscious advertising to anyone who sees a gift I wrapped in green or tagged with a monkey.

So now I'll face the conundrum: do I use my shopping bag and thereby save plastic bags but advertise for Telus? Do I use other reusable shopping bags and chuck this one, thereby refusing to advertise for Telus but contributing to Toronto's already ridiculous waste management problem?

Honestly - I could have avoided this with just a tiny bit of willpower... and as if I don't already have enough chocolate around at this time of year.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

World's Coolest Online Magazine

I've mentioned Inkycircus before - the bestest girl-nerd blog ever. I mean, where else will you find posts about people who acted out mitosis in a swimming people (and videotaped themselves!), or how insecticide might be the secret ingredient in Stradivarius violins. I mean, neato.

Well now there's a MAGAZINE!! Hurrah. It's called Inkling Magazine. Click on over, people, it's way cool.

And watch the upcoming articles carefully ;) You never know who might be contributing...

Thursday, December 14, 2006

I've got worms

I love Christmas carols and hymn - I really do. They remind me of how excited I used to feel around this time of year when I was a kid: just about bursting with anticipation. There's something really nice about just knowing all the words and being able to sing them with alomst anyone - a very "community" kind of experience.

But. For almost a week now I have had a fragment of some Christmas tune I don't really know stuck in my head:

..Willie, play your fife and drum, Robin [something, something hum a bit here];Tu-ra-lu-ra-lu, Pat-a-pat-a-pan...

And that's all I know. And it's not even a great song. Heck, it's not even a traditional carol. And it's driving me crazy!

This type of thing is called an earworm. It's a great name for a REALLY IRRITATING THING.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

A thing as lovely as a tree?

*sounds of Christmas carols playing softly in the background...*

Ahh, Christmastime. I'm thinking of smells of gingerbread and nutmeg, mulled wine, pine needles, and PVC fixed with lead.

*sounds of needle being scraped off record* ... What?!

Ah yes. I read an article today saying that most artificial Christmas trees are made of PVC - polyvinyl chloride, which is a known carcinogen at the very least. And lead, which is a developmental and reproductive health hazard, is apparently used to stabilize PVC compounds, so it might be in your fake tree as well.

So if you have an artificial tree, don't chew on it.

And real trees? Well, nice to think that they're out there sucking in some of that excess carbon dioxide while they're growing to be nice and perfectly conical for us - but sadly, they will just release it back into the atmosphere as they decay after you throw it out. Not only that, but depending on where you buy your tree, it might have been treated with insecticides or pesticides.

So if you have a real tree, don't chew on it.

And if you aren't Christian, thank goodness. You get out of all of this bringing-a-tree-inside stuff which is a really weird tradition when you really think about it.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Cereal Cars?

Got any flax in your car? How about soy? Sugar cane? Corn? Nope, I'm not asking if you've been to you nearest organic-foods store. Actually, some major vehicle manufacturers are substituting bio-based products like flax, abaca fibers, and soy-based foams to make the fabric and seat cushions in cars - reducing dependence on petroleum-based products and (hopefully) lowering the carbon emissions required to make the bits and pieces that go into your vehicle.

Toyota, Honda, and (I'm a little weirded out by this, but hey, willing to applaud) Ford are the leaders in making sustainable and healthy changes to some of their cars. In addition to adding stuff that sounds like it belongs in a health nut's cereal to their seat cushions, they are also trying to reduce the amount of plastic and PVC (polyvinyl chloride, a nasty chemical that's notoriously difficult to recycle) they use. This should also reduce the off-gassing of unhealthy chemicals into cars. Chemicals that trigger allergies or cause ong-term health effects. (Uh, yeah. So. That new-car smell? Not exactly good for you.)

Despite these moves, an Ecology Centre Report still only gives out a top grade of C+ (to Toyota). Clearly, there's lots more to be done.

Bring on the granola!

Friday, December 08, 2006

Fun with words, meet climate change

Yesterday I heard a radio announcer attribute a quote to "Don Quixoto". I'm not sure if it was him or my ears, since I'm pretty sure the dude in question is actually called Don Quixote. Whose "real name in the book" (if that makes sense) was Alonso Quixano. And really, the author is Cervantes. I mean, who do you actually cite when the words were spoken by a fictional character who adopts a new name?

Anyway, so I'm listening to the radio and thinking, ...huh? ... "Don Kyoto" ????

I'm thinking this might be a character who does not see wind power as the solution to our greenhouse gas emissions woes.

Or, a guy who thinks it's possible to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions but he doesn't really have the right tools for the job and most people think he's completely mad.

Either way, here in Canada, Don Kyoto is definitely a fictional character.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Know Your Audience

There was a time when I was doing a lot of procrastinating (I was supposed to be preparing for my comprehensive exams) that I got a little addicted to the Oprah Winfrey show.

I like that she takes up important "causes" - because millions of people listen to her and follow her and believe every word that comes out of her mouth. I couldn't stand the giveaway shows and the celebrity-who-is-shilling-his/her-latest-offering shows. In the end, I just got a bit tired of Oprah. Besides, I finally got back to work - so I haven't tuned in in ages.

But when I heard that Al Gore was going to be on Oprah yesterday to talk about his documentary An Inconvenient Truth, I had to turn on my TV.

Possibly Al Gore has never watched Oprah (gasp!) , but I'm not sure that he had a great read on his audience. Oprah's audiences relate best to the human condition: tragedy, heroes, struggles, victories.

And Al Gore was talking about infrared radiation. And going through his slides at warp speed.

When I turned it off they were starting to get into "how this affects YOU" a bit more, but overall I felt pretty disappointed. I think a major opportunity to communicate to the driving-everywhere, disposable-item-loving, well-meaning-but-oblivious crowd was missed.

Image from NASA via the National Space Science Data Centre.
(This site is not endorsed by NASA)

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Erm, if Big Tobacco could just butt out?!

AUGH! Those slimy Tobacco industry types have generated horrible, deceptive communications tactics that have inflitrated the consciousness of a bunch of other industries.

First, it was global warming. Now, Gooderich Corporation and other polluting companies in California have adopted those same approaches in an effort to avoid dealing with perchlorate in drinking water. They have even hired a public relations firm that was used by Philip Morris - to develop an anit-regulation campaign. And they're churning out stuff that looks like scientific evidence of the safety of California's drinking water supply - but is actually poorly constructed science intended to implant doubt in the public mind.

Apparently Gooderich, which had a factory in Rialto, about an hour ouside of LA, decided to dispose of tonnes of rocket fuel in the late 1950s and early 1960s. And so they put in in a giant, unlined pit behind the factory. Natch, the stuff seeped into the water supply. Which is a huge drag, considering how precious water is in California.

In Rialto, they figured out that the water was contaminated over ten years ago. And Gooderich is still tryng to weasel out of the cleanup.

The company may be rich, but "good" doesn't even come into it.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Texas toast?

Apparently Texas has plans to open 19 new coal-fired electrical facilities over the next few years.

Just learning that was enough to surprise me.

Ontario is at least trying to phase out coal. The government is having trouble staying on target with the timing they originally (and somewhat uninformedly, according to lots of air quality management people I've spoken to) promised - but they have at least recognized that the health impacts of the pollutants that spew out of the stacks are significant. One plant has been closed already (the Lakeview plant). Five to go.

So I couldn't quite believe that there are still jurisdictions in North America that want to build new coal-fired facilities. The most I can hope for out of this is that this means they're closing some older plants, since the new ones are likely required to meet higher emissions and technology standards than any existing ones.

It might not matter though. A report from last week says that the new plants could cause as many as 240 additional deaths each year and as many as 12,000 over the plants' expected 50-year lifespan.

C'mon Texas. Are you gonna take that?

Friday, November 24, 2006

Just give me a buzz...

I'm one of those annoying people who only has a cellphone. Annoying, because when you try to phone me, it's invariable off, or it's on and I can hear it ringing, but I can't find it.

So I miss a lot of calls. I figure that's OK - I don't want to use my cellphone too much. Aside from the crazy phone bills I get if I'm not careful, there's been some debate about whether having that thing so close to your head for so long could cause brain tumours.

Well, apparently, it's not only my brain I might have to worry about. Cellphone radiation has just been shown to cause major reproductive damage to female fruit flies. Some scientists in Greece exposed fruit flies to radiation from two common types of cellphones for six days ... and thereby induced death of all sorts of cells associated with developing eggs. They figure the radiation caused the DNA in the cells to fragment.

Well, I'm no fruit fly. Aside from assuming that the reproductive system of a fruit fly is probably not like that of a human, I'm guessing the flies reveived full-body exposure to the radiation. And that the radiation wasn't "downsized" to match the size of the bugs.

Overall I can't say that I'm convinced that this is what would happen to me ... even if I placed my cellphone over my ovaries instead of my ear. And plus I wouldn't be able to hear anything that way.

But it's still kind of creepy. Maybe I should get a land line someday...

Thursday, November 23, 2006

We'll be swimming in Estrogen

So hi, I'm back for the second day in a row; downright amazing when you consider my posting track record of late. Part of the reason I've been absent from sushinight (so sad) is that I've been busy teaching a course on the health effects of chemical exposures in the workplace. And some of the material was not, shall we say, intimately known to me before I lectured about it.

One of the main topics I've been talking about in class lately is how some chemicals can mimic the hormones in the human body. And the hormonal system is complicated, let me tell you (and not just during puberty, which we all know is a complicated time directly related to wierd things happening with hormones).

But I digress.

Pesticides are one of the biggest baddest classes of compounds when it comes to disrupting hormonal systems. Lots of them are capable of mimicing estrogen. Now, estrogen regulates all sorts of things but I would be most worried about its effect on the reproductive system. Like, say upsetting the female cycle... or affecting fetuses - causing perhaps feminization of baby boys, or weird reproductive deficits when those babies reach adulthood.

Of course, it's hard to say what the effect of very low-dose exposure to environmental contaminants is. But I was still surprised to hear that the EPA has decided to allow pesticide application over and near bodies of water. Apparently, as long as it's needed to control aquatic weeds, mosquitoes or other pests, it can be applied straight into the water or onto overhanging foliage.


Wednesday, November 22, 2006

In the bag

Plastic bags are the scourge of humanity. IMO, anyways. They last forever, they're cheap and globally available, and they are completely disposable. During my travels in developing countries, I see them piled in garbage dumps and and twisted around vegetation at the side of the road. They blow around the streets of even the most advanced cities in the world, and around even the prettiest countrysides. And man are they ugly.

But Ireland has sorted out a solution: they charge the equivalent of about 20-22 cents per plastic bag as a "bag tax". All fund raised go back to the Environment Ministry to be redistributed for funding environmental projects.

And voila! The government managed to cut plastic bag use by over 90% and raise 3.5 million Euros in the first five months. Shoppers use their own reusable bags, and less plastic, and fewer emissions enter the world.

Smart. Easy. Ireland's been doing it since 2002.

Soooooooo.... Apparently Canadians use 10-15 billion plastic bags per year.

Just sayin'.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Canada Plays at Climate Change

You know, I really don't think that Canada will meet its Kyoto targets.

See, to meet its targets, Canada was supposed to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to 6% below what they were in 1990 by 2010. Too bad our emissions have gone up by 24% since we ratified the protocol.


Besides, the Conservatives keep on saying we won't. And since, uh, they're kind of in charge of deeloping environmental policy right now, that means there's a pretty good chance they're right.

Apparently though, we still haven't told the Kyoto people that we're not going to make it. Yvo de Boer, executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, says that Canada has not formally withdrawn from the protocol.

So maybe I'm being a pessimistic. Yeah that's it, the conservatives DO have a hidden agenda. Secretly they have this amazing plan that will signify dramatic alteration in political attitudes toward the environment and initiate a remarkable change in public behaviour...

Uh, or maybe we're just being kind of lame. I love how one of the quotes in this article is, "Canada has the tradition of being an international player," said Greenpeace Canada's Steven Guilbeault.

I'm thinking, yeah, ... player

Lest We Forget

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Civic Duty

Municipal elections are coming up on Monday and I haven't got a clue. The only thing I know about the candidates in my area is the names of three who have signs sprinkled around the neighborhood. I know nothing about their platforms, ideas, or plans.

So Helen Kennedy, Joseph Tuan, and Adam Vaughn: who are you?!

In a lot of ways it's my fault that I'm not engaged with what's going on here - I haven't picked up eye or NOW in ages, and I don't get the Toronto Star. Those are probably the only papers likely to profile my ward. The only thing I did read about my ward in the Globe was that it's "hotly contested".

Which makes it even wierder that nothing has come through the mail slot: no flyers. No notifications of candidate debates. Nada. Nobody has done anything to try and sway me.

Worse, I haven't got any infromation about where or when I'm supposed to vote, despite the fact that I'm living exactly where I did for the last elections. I'll be able to figure that one out, but what if I was new to the neighborhood? Or didn't get out much?

Geez, as if voter turnout isn't dismal enough.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Peanut allergies?

On the weekend, P and I were unpacking some wedding gifts that friends had very generously bought for us. I felt uneasy about the sheer amount of paper, cardboard, and styrofoam packing that seemed to be involved. I was beginning to feel that all the trees I planted with my years at Wilderness Reforestation could not account for the carbon that was associated with the life cycle of our wedding-gift-related packing materials.

Then Pat said, "these aren't so bad - they're biodegradable, see?!" - and stuck his tongue against one of the squishy white peanut-thingies. And it dissolved. Sort of.

I have to admit that I did a taste-test too. The taste is nothing to write home about. Actually, it's nothing at all. They do kind of 'melt'. I characterize the texture as vaguely distasteful. Especially after it's wet.

Well, then I was sort of wondering what I might have ingested.

Turns out I probably don't have to worry too much - these things are made mostly of starch. Yup, 95% cornstarch and 5% polyacrylonitrile, a synthetic polymer.

No news yet on the side effects of trace exposures to polyacrylonitrile.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Swirling vortex of marine hell

So apparently there's a swirling vortex threatening life as we know it. Marine life, that is.

The swirling mass of plastic toothbrushes, toys, condoms and God-known-what-else-and-just-maybe-I-don't want-to-think-about-it-too-much is located in the Pacific ocean, close to the Northwestern Haawaiian islands. Marine animals are getting tangled in it (not good for obvious reasons of being unable to complete basic physiological functions), eating it (not good since its nutritional value is exactly zero and it's often jammed with toxic chemicals), and riding it around the ocean currents (sounds like fun; however not good since this is how invasive species problems get started).

The swirling vortex is apparently rather dynamic but sometime it gets to be as big as Texas.

I've taken a bus across part of texas. It's a d**n big state.

And this plastic stuff - it should be classified as a state too. A environmental state of emergency.

garbage bag picture by material boy copied under the Share Alike lisence

Friday, November 03, 2006

Aw, Roomba!

I have a robot.

A friend gave us a Roomba for a wedding gift. It's this disc-shaped contraption that travels around your floors, sucking up dirt and cleaning them for you.

I set it going for the first time yesterday. And so, instead of spending my time pushing around a vacuum cleaner, I spent my time sitting in front of the computer... being distracted by Roomba.

It's neat. It seems like the pattern it follows is random, but it eventually covers the whole floor. It disappears under the couch and dresser, but eventually finds its way back out. It explores its way around corners. I think it's more sophisticated than it lets on.

It's like having a little critter around - doing jobs for you. I rescued it when it got caught on the carpet tassel, but it was otherwise totally capable without me. When it was done I looked after its care and grooming needs carefully. I felt sorry for it when I found hairs wound around its brushes (yuck).

I actually sort of ... feel kind of affectionate towards it.

I hope robots never come and take over the world. Apparently all they'll have to do to win me over is a bit of housekeeping.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Days of the dead

Tuesday was Hallowe'en - which was always my favorite holiday of the year.

Technically, Hallowe'en is based on pagan festivals celebrating the one time of the year that the spirits might be able to make contact with the physical the rest of us live in. I guess that's where the emphasis on ghosts, witches, and goblis comes from.

I didn't really get that as a kid - I wasn't scared; I just wanted to have the most original costume of anyone in my school. So, one year I was a toaster. Once I was a turtle. Another year I was a grandfather clock. Bar of Ivory soap. Cupboard.

The common element to my costumes was the cardboard box. Which was dumb, since climbing stairs to front doors around the neighborhood is almost impossible when your knees have a range of about 15 degrees from vertical.

I heard a reference to the "day of the dead" on the radio this morning: it's a very different perspective on the same idea.

Mexicans celebrate the day(s) of the dead between October 31- November 2 as a time to welcome dead relatives back into their homes and remember them.

I kind of like the visual of sitting in my living room with semitransparent versions of the people I miss, all of us drinking cups of tea...

So - while I've given up on wearing cardboard boxes, I guess I'm still not spooked out by this time of year.

Monday, October 30, 2006

The key to a good blizzard

I was in the grocery store last week, trundling my cart past the vast middle bit of the store containing inedibles. I can't understand how it's profitable for stores to be purveyors of everything from bean sprouts to deck chairs; to me it's analagous to that old saying "jack of all trades, master of none". How can they be any good at selling groceries when they're trying to sell all this other stuff as well?!

Anyay - I spotted a product that gave me the heebi-jeebies. Actually, a family of products. They were keychains, shaped like (i) a Dairy Queen ice cream cone (ii) a Dairy Queen ice cream sandwich, and (iii) some brand name mint-chocolate candy whose name presently escapes me. Probably because when I was a kid, I wasn't the focus of marketing efforts the way children are today. Each item had the appropriate logo prominently displayed.

I'm not a parent. But. I can't imagine buying my kid a toy with a food logo on it. To me, it's a gift that celebrates our unsustainable, consumerist lifestyle (useless plastic toy with no educational value, likely to be quickly discarded) and our unhealthy habits (message to child: candies and desserts are highly desirable). Not only that, but the product is straight up advertising - which I might alternately describe as cunning psychological manipulation.

Then again, lots of parents get their kids brand-name clothing. I suppose that's not so different.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006


Smoking rates have been going down across Canada for at least a couple of decades now. That's great news for Canadians - smoking is related to a whole host of horrible diseases including lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder, heart disease, and cancer of the mouth; ugh.

Teenaged girls are usually really prone to following trends, so here's hoping they'll pick up on this. Right now smoking rates among girls aged 15-17 are higher than among boys of the same age.

Apparently they think it will help them stay thin.

I think that most models and celebrities that are role models for teenaged girls these days are at an unhealthy weight. We also know that childhood obesity is on the rise in Canada - partly because our kids aren't getting enough exercise - and partly because of bad food choices.

This is so twisted. I mean, exposing yourself to a well-known toxin - probably in an effort to attain an unhealthy weight, instead of getting regular exercise and eating right.

Not only that - apparently it doesn't work anyway.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Ode to my newspaper

O where hast thou gone, newspaper mine?

Normally I love snuggling down with my paper and a cup of coffee. I read it in a very specific order (back page of the front section, letters to the editor, editorials/commentary, health and science pages, news, entertainment. Unless it's the Saturday paper. I read that one in a whole different order.)

Lately I haven't had time to read the paper at all. And I'm feeling a bit lost without my daily dose of print media: I haven't even read all the commentary about Canada's proposed Clean Air Act yet!

It's not just that I might be turning myself into an uninformed bozo (hopefully not); I also miss the ritual.

And I seem to have replaced it with a singularly unclean activity as far as air goes: commuting.


Sunday, October 22, 2006

The Harper Index

Today I discovered Green Living Magazine's humour page.

They've created the "Harper Index", by assigning numbers to some of the more, uh, interesting environmental approaches the Conservatives are taking.

For example, Green Living counts 11 emissions-reduction programs that have been reclassified as "work completed". Apparently this basically means that their funding was taken away. Brilliant. They also note that neither the Canadian Foundation for Atmospheric Science nor the Canadian Climate Impacts and Adaptation Network has had their funding renewed.

They also note that the Tories cancelled the Energuide program, which they say cost -$100 per tonne of CO2 saved, and at the same time, brought on board the new transit-pass program, which apparently costs $2000 per tonne of CO2 saved.

According to the PM's website, one of the ways we're supposed to be getting out of this air pollution and greenhouse gas miasma is to "Harness new technologies".

So, wait. We stop funding research and innovation into these new technologies, and, what... wait until there's enough chemistry in the air that these solutions are going to coalesce, like magic, from the pollutants around us?

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Science Sentence Structure

Scientists have discovered a way to synthesize a bunch of new antibacterial agents by treating the compounds as if they were sentences and rearranging the components according to basic rules of grammar.

When researchers look at these kinds of molecules - which are basically strings of amino acids - they write them down on paper (or, OK, probably on a computer screen) using a letter to represent each individual amino acid.

When they started looking at compounds that were naturally antibacterial they realized that there were patterns in the order of the letters - just like there are with words and sentence structures in spoken or written language.

So THEN, they used a bunch of real grammar rules to reorder the letters - thereby designing new compounds, which they then synthesized in the lab. And they found that lots of those compounds had antibacterial activity too.

Oh, I think I've died and gone to heaven. The disciplines of Science and Language have merged.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Your dinner might be a terrorist target

According to a recent New York Times article, 80% of beef consumed in the US is slaughtered by four companies, 75% of the precut salads are processed by two companies, and 30% of the milk is processed by one company.

The article points out that because the food processing and livestock industries in America are so centralized, it would be super-easy to attack (and completely disrupt) the food distribution chain.

What would happen if it actually was targeted? Increased imports of chilean oranges and costa rican bananas does not sound as if it would fill the holes in the food chain or in our stomachs. Foreign fruit does not a sustainable food supply make.

Sadly, neither do locally produced foods - for the moment, anyway.

Imagine if we all suddenly had to live according to the rules of J.B. Mackinnon and Alisa Smith (they of the 100 mile diet that was so ably pointed out to me by both Jordan and Simone). This is the couple who decided to eat only foods from within 100 miles of their home in BC for a whole year. They discovered that they couldn't use sugar or most grains in their cooking. They also had trouble buying meat from locally-raised livestock, since the feed was usually brought in from miles away.

Now imagine that it's not our deliberate choice choice to do this kind of thing and we're all forced to try and figure it out all at once because we actually can't truck in most of the foods we usually do as the result of a massive disruption in the food supply chain.

We'd be completely screwed.

...add one more point to the "eating locally" scoreboard, if you please...

Thanks Simone, for the link!

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Bikes and buttons

This weekend I'm in Vancouver, learning all about the city thanks to friends of our who live here and have done a fabulous job of showing us the sights.

Yesterday we went biking around the city and I discovered that Vancouver has a simple solution to one of the simplest and most annoying problems that can face a cyclist. That is: when cycling along a minor road which intersects with a busy street and being faced with a red light that won't change on its own. Anyone who wants to cross the street needs to push a button to activate a light change. In Toronto, that button is invariably located on a pole on the inside of the sidewalk. Cyclists have to either work their bikes up over the curb to get to it or dismount the bike over to the button before returning to the road and reorienting the bike to the original direction of travel.

It' s a pain in the a@@.

Here, the pole with the button is on the outside of the sidewalk, easily accessible to both pedestrians and bicycles.

Such a simple solution.. and just one of ways that Vancouver makes cyclists feel welcome.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

The gloves are OFF!!

What you might think this post is about:

Yep, that's it, I've had it with the Harper government and their so-called environmental plan. We don't even really need to go into why intensity-based emissions standards don't really float my boat... seeing Harper fly across the country from Ottawa to Vancouver to announce that there will be a clean air announcement next week in Ottawa just proves to me that he's full of hot air (see my post of two days ago about airplanes and greenhouse gases...).

What it's actually about:

Oh, man, it snowed today in Toronto. And I was outside when it happened and my fingers were cold.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Manufactured Landscapes

I recently saw Manufactured Landscapes, a documentary that follows photographer Edward Burtynsky as he travels around China (and a little bit in Bangladesh), taking pictures of large-scale human-made landscapes like factories, quarries, the Three Gorges dam, and recycling yards.

The images are captivating - I was absolutely not expecting to be so drawn to images of workers, scrap plastic, mine tailings, and huge piles of coal.

One bit of footage showed a woman's hands assembling an electrical switch box. She manages to put in all sorts of bits of plastic and wire and slot or twist each one into place within seconds. There must have been at least ten different bits to put together but she says she can do four hundred units a day without overtime.

I could have watched that over and over; it was fascinating.

I feel quite odd about the pictures: I found the images disturbing because of what they imply to me about the massive impact that society has on the land and the global ecosystem - and yet... there were a bunch of pictures that I wouldn't mind having on my wall. Burtynsky is able to find amazing beauty where I would have found only destruction and despair.

apes he sees - he just takes fascinating pictures and makes everyone who sees them think.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

I'm wondering... David Suzuki feels about the zillions of hours he spends travelling around.

He's a passionate environmentalist, he hosts the Nature of Things, he was nominated as one of Canada's "Greatest Canadians", and he's published lots of great books about the environment, like the Sacred Balance. I've been lucky enough to hear him speak in person a couple of times. Each time I am struck by his passion, his conviction.. and a sense that he feels complete frustration with his audience. He just doesn't understand why the rest of the world doesn't see the problems we're creating for ourselves as a result of all our unsustainable activities.

He jets all over the place to try and get his message across... and air travel is apparently a big problem for greenhouse gas emissions. He is a great speaker, and an accessible speaker. Everyone who hears him understands what he's talking about - and feels motivated to do something. I think we need people like him to educate and motivate the rest of us.

But I still wonder... how does he feel every time he steps on a plane?

Plain English

I've been reading journal articles again. Still. Whatever. And sometimes, the language is so obscure. It's as if the authors think they'll look smarter by using long words and the most convoluted phrasing possible.

But: it seems that someone has heard my prayers to the Gods of Language: it's The Plain English Campaign !!

Ta daaaah! Based in the UK, they are at my rescue, with a mission to make sure that information is expressed is clearly as possible. They've helped all sorts of organizations, including UK government departments make sure that their public info can be understood by, uh, the public.

I think my favorite parts of the website are the gobbldygook generator, which lets you create "empty, meaningless phrases" with the click of a mouse, and the Golden Bull archive, which lists winners of an annual award presented for the worst examples of real gobbledygook.
An example to whet your appetite:

Central Manchester and Manchester Children’s University Hospitals NHS Trust for an Agenda for Change document

'Where the combined value of the above payments before actual assimilation remains greater than the combined value of the payments after assimilation, the former level of pay will be protected. These protection arrangements apply to the combined value of payments before and after assimilation, not to individual pay components, excepting the provision relating to retention of existing on-call arrangements.


Saturday, October 07, 2006

The wheels on the bus go round and round...

...and round, and round, and round...

Yesterday I decided to take the greyhound bus to Waterloo instead of the car. I thought it would be comfortable, stress-free for me, I might get a little work done, and it might assuage my guilt about all the driving I've been doing back and forth between Toronto and Waterloo. Maybe. A tiny bit.

The trip there was great. The bus left right on time and delivered me right to the door of my building on campus.

The ride home was ... on a school bus. Rumor had it that Greyhound ran out of normal busses. So they sent the school busses to the Waterloo crowd, no doubt figuring that the naive little students would be the least likely to complain.

And maybe they are. They all just seemed to get on without complaining. And then it was freezing on the bus so they all just put on their jackets. We all just sat there with our bags packed on the floor and in our lap and our knees digging into the seats in front of us. And nobody seemed too bothered when we got to Toronto and the bus driver started asking if anyone knew how to get to the bus station.

AND the bust trip took over three hours, although that seemed to be mostly a result of traffic; nothing that the driver or company could control.

Am I just getting old and cranky? I felt singularly unimpressed but couldn't decide whether I should just roll with it and assume that Greyhoud was doing the best they could given an unpredictable passenger load (they don't sell tickets for specific seats or even specific days; just specific journeys), or complain and try to get them to refund my ticket.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Protein Puzzle

I recently participated in conversation about vegetarianism that left me with the impression that a lot of non-vegetarians believe that those who choose not to eat meat do so out of a general love for animals and belief in their rights.

I'm not so sure... I once met a vegetarian who just really didn't like the texture of meat - but I think that many people avoid meat today because of the impact raising animals for consumption has on the planet. It turns out that this has a name (and its own Wikipedia page!) - it's called "Environmental Vegetarianism". It basically says that the amount of land that is deforested to grow food for cattle and allow them to graze, the type of agriculture used to grow their food, the amount of water that is used to raise one animal, and the amount of greenhouse gas emissions created by vehicles used to feed and transport food, animals, and meat are unacceptable.

Seems straightforward enough...

But what about this: many soy-based products (like tofu!) are grown using monoculture, are causing extensive deforestation in places like Brazil, are subsuming small farms and local, more productive types of agriculture, and that many soy operations in places like South America are run by foreigners. And: a 2003 publication says that it's our whole food system that's unsustainable - in Western societies, anyway. We depend too heavily on fossil fules to package our food and move everything around.

So basically, we're screwed no matter what we choose to eat.

So what's a girl got to do to reduce her guilt around here?

Well, let's be honest. I have never been a vegetarian - but it's pretty clear that vegetarians do have less of an impact on the planet than us meat-eaters. Peer-reviewed research suggests that meaty meals have 1.5-2 times the impact as veggie meals over the whole life cycles of their porduction and disposal, and a bunch of scientists in Sweden are pretty sure that pork meals have less of an impact than vegetarian meals. There's more evidence than that out there - and I'm a little concerned that the life-cycle assessments used to get it aren't taking into account the social impacts of mega-agriculture by foreign corporations in developing nations... but I suppose that 's not something that would be different by protein type anyways.

Next project: I wonder if my tofu package will tell me where they soy was grown and is there Canadian tofu?

Next project after that: get a real job so that I can afford to put my money where my blog is.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Ah, allow me!

hey, Jordan....! This is for you:

Since California is targeting GHG (greenhouse gas) emission, let's look at those! If you're curious about NOx, SOx, VOCs, or PM emissions, all of which are associated with mortality as well as cardiovascular and respiratory illness - you can find more pie charts here. This image is for Ontario, by the way; the divisions would be quite a bit different in other countries, especially developing nations.

The writing on this figure is very tiny, so let me enlighten us all. We have:

Total Industrial: 29%
Transportation: 27%
Residential and Agriculture: 13%
Power Generation: 11%
Agr0-ecosystems: 6%
Commercial/ Public Admin: 6%
Fossil Fuel Industries : 4%
Waste: 4%

The source for this by the way is 1999 data collected by Natural Resources Canada

I think that one of the reasons we focus on cars is that we as individuals can make an immediate decision to change the way we use them, whereas industrial and power generation emissions often seem a bit more distal. Also, because so many personal vehicles are big and shiny and use a lot of gas, cars are emblematic of our (and I mean mainly North Americans by "our", for the time being anyway) consumerist, materialist lifestyle. Cars are everywhere - so they are a very visible symbol of our societal willingness to place immediate convenience above the less obvious possibility of global warming.

It's also the easiest way of penetrating the community consiousness, I think. It's easier for people to associate emissions from the tailpipe - which they can feel, or see - with having an impact than it is for them to realize that running the air conditioner causes tons of emissions at some power generation facility several km away.

Even more distal: industrial emissions - which are a big source of GHG. Which products sitting on my desk are associated with emissions? Which industries do I benefit from on a regular basis? This takes some thought.

Friday, September 29, 2006

California and the Big Six

California's going to court. The state is sueing what it calls the "big six" automakers (GM, Ford, DaimlerChrysler, Nissan, Toyota, and Honda), and is seeking tens or hundreds of millions of dollars (the quote I found from the attorney general for the state wasn't too specific on exact amounts...) in damages.

These car manufacturers continue to churn out vehicles that emit CO2 - that so very famous greenhouse gas. In fact, the cars made by these companies emit 289 000 000 metric tonnes (or thereabouts) of the stuff into the American atmosphere every year. That really is a lot. And California is feeling the effects of global warming, it says: reduced snow pack (which will lead to water shortages in an area that is already home of some of the worst water supply problems on the continent), increased ozone pollution and concomitant health effects, beach erosion, wildlife impacts...

So California s trying to do something. They legislated tougher emissions from tailpipes - the strictest such regulations ever as part of their plan to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 25% (hurrah!!). And the car companies are holding them up by making legal claims that federal law overrules the new state law on tailpipe emissions (Boo).

And so California appears to be retaliating. And I have to say it's kind of fun, and I love that the whole thing has generated a ton of publicity.

The problem is: why doesn't the state sue the people who drive the cars? Or the municipalities for not providing alternate public transit alternatives?

Who, ultimately is responsible for these emissions? Is is the car companies, with their alluring and coersive advertising? They do prefer that we spend more dollars, which means buying bigger, less fuel-efficient cars, after all. Is it the governement, which often builds roads instead of funding transit? Perhaps it's the scientific community for failing to adequately convey conviction about whether global warming is happening at all - or the oil industry for injecting doubt into the debate.

Or... is it us, who appear to place convenience above the short and long-term health of our communities (and put pressure on our political leaders to build more roads)?

P.S. Thanks Simone for the tipoff!

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Fun with words VII

So according to some random website I came across today (OK, actually, it's a column from the Hindustan Times), there's a new "longest word in the English language". It's


It’s 45 letters long. It’s a lung disease caused by the inhalation of very fine silica dust, mostly found in volcanoes. I'm wondering if this is common among volcanologists - mostly because if it qualifies as an occupational disease then I might be able to included it in one of the lectures I have to give next week.

The author listed a bunch of really long words - some that don't really count as words in the English language because they aren't really used, like


(representing the thunderclap when Adam and Eve were thrown out off Eden. Honestly now. Who could ever be tenacious enough to figure out how to say that without looking at it?)

Then we have:

Hippopotomonstrosesquipedaliophobia (fear of long words... Ihehe)

floccinaucinihilipilification (the art of estimating something to be worthless)

Oh, and antidisestablishmentarianism - the long word we usually think of first? Apparently, since the church was not disestablished (i.e, the disestablishmentarians weren't too fond of the church of England in the mid-1800s.. but clearly, the church is still, uh established), the word is no longer in use.

Stress offers relief! I've been working away at this darn degree for, oh, we won't go into details about how many years, now. I've had on-and-off other things to do, like do a bit of consulting, marking papers at the university, writing my own for submission - and of course all my fun extra-curriculars.

But nothing that needs to be done NOW. For most of the stuff I've been working on, there's been lots of time or a flexible deadline. And so I've achieved a high level of skill at procrastination. Oh yes, I have my favorite webistes, and I'm a regular contributor to a couple of discussion boards. For the nonprofit I volunteer with, I take on those weekday chores that regular folks (the ones who have jobs) can't do... I do feel minor guilt at making cookies midday, but nothing that warm, gooey chocolate chips can't cure. Oh, and I have a blog...

I was starting to get worried that I no longer actually had the skill to focus on a task for longer than five seconds at a time. I was thinking that this could be a disadvantage should I ever actually enter the workforce.

[sending prayers to the thesis Gods]Please!![\sending prayers]

Lately though, I've had a lot to do. I've actually been feeling a bit ... gasp! stressed. And I've found myself sitting at the computer actually focussed on "work-related stuff" for several hours at a time. Without checking a single message board.

Thank God. I still know how to concentrate.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Philip Morris, Climate Change Skeptic

I think I have been aware for a while that Big Tobacco has some sneaky ways of influencing public opinion and injecting questionable evidence about cigarettes and smoking into the marketplace. One of the ways they do this is by using "front groups" that appear to represent restaurateurs and bar owners to oppose smoking bylaws, for example.

But who knew that Philip Morris would end up financing communication of biased climate change skepticism? An recently published excerpt from a new book explains how this ended up happening: back in the day (OK, about 15 years ago) a public relations company told PM that they needed to create the impression that a grassroots movement had formed out of the blue to fight "overregulation", and that it should protray the dangers of tobacco smoke as just one "unfounded fear" among many. The others could be things like concerns about pesticides and cellphones - and climate change.

The public relations company founded a coalition - and got paid lost of cashola by PM - to do this. So basically, Big Tobacco got involved in providing biased information about all sorts of issues to the public. The whole point was to select out the research (however minimal it might be compared to the entire body of scientific literature) that could create doubt in the public mind about all of these issues, and undermine the credibility of government research in general.

That's just lovely.

Thanks Caroline, for the link!

Thursday, September 21, 2006


No, I'm not talking about the declining/recovering/maybe recovering/maybe not cod stocks on the Grand Banks off Newfoundland. I'm talking about picking up something at the post office that is designated as "C.O.D.", or "cash on delivery".

Silly Moi, I have never picked up a COD package before and I assumed that in this modern day and age, that "cash" really meant "cash or debit or credit card" at the very minimum.

Imagine to my surprise as I picked up an item that I needed to pay almost $500 for (wedding photos have arrived!) that I actually needed CASH.

I gather from Canada Post's website that debit and credit card "may be used (where available)". I am so surprised that this does not include "everywhere".

I tried to figure out what proportion of Canada Post outlets have this capability (not mine, obviously, which meant that I had to trot off to the bank and wait in another lineup and actually speak to a teller - unusual in this day and age but I wanted more money than the ATM was willing to give me... I felt like I was doing everything the "old-fashioned way" today), but I couldn't find any stats during my rather limited search of their website.

Ah, searching the web. So much for my "old-fashioned" day!

Wednesday, September 20, 2006



...did anyone else hear the translation of Chavez' speech to the UN today where he called George Bush the devil?

Funny. And the audience could be heard chucking in the background, much to my surprise. Maybe the UN delegates are a bit less straight-laced and politically correct than I would have suspected.

Of course, (IMO) Bush isn't actually quite as smart as the devil, nor does he have much control over what happens in the U.S. (Or Iraq, which may become his own personal hell eventually, but that's another post altogether). Still, his (non-existant?) environmental strategy may result in some parts of his country becoming significantly warmer over the long-term. And having most of Manhattan underwater (which is a projected to happen under some climate change scenarios) would certainly be hellish for anyone who currently has an address there.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

The Dutch get tired of windmills

The traditional Ducth landscape: flat, green, a dike in the background, and a windmill gently turning in the foreground. Ah, how pastoral.

Well, not so much these days. The Dutch are starting to get sick of all the power-generating windmills that are in their picturesque landscape, so they are deciding to move some of their windfarms offshore where they can't be seen.

In all truth, these wind turbines seem barely related to the windmills of the past: their arms reach as high as a football field is long - and the first offshore wind farm is going have 36 of them, all side-by-side. The Dutch government - which aims to get 9 % of its energy from renewable sources by 2010 (which is only four years away, folks..!!), has mapped out plans for a total of 65 offshore wind farms in the next ten yous. Somehow they have managed to do this without obstructing shipping lanes or anyone's view (except perhaps on extremely clear days - and methinks those are pretty rare in Holland).

The Netherlands seems to be working really hard to make renewables "work". I wish we were as committed to finding alternatives that work in Canada.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Why did the chicken cross the road?

Hehe, Wikipedia has a whole page dedicated to this question. And it's called "chicken.on-wiki" which somehow strikes me as being quite hilarious.

The page is filled with "answers" from famous (mostly historical) personalities.

I.e., Erwin Schrödinger's answer: Chicken? Chicken!? Where's my cat?


Actually (and somewhat to my disappointment I must say), after a quick "google" I discovered that there are tons similar of why did the chicken cross the road websites, like this one:

Colonel Sanders' answer: I missed one?

and this one:

Bill Gates' answer: I have just released the new Chicken Office 2000, which will not only cross roads, but will lay eggs, file your important documents, and balance your checkbook...

The fact that there are so many websites makesthe whole thing seem much less novel - and therefore way less funny. Still, Schroedinger's "answer" to the riddle will probably keep me giggling at random points throughout the day.

Friday, September 15, 2006

I can't answer that

It's the beginning of September - ah, a time for renewal, for starting new things, for re-committing to old projects. Even my horoscope said yesterday that it was a good time to get focussed and that I will be productive.

One of my new projects is that I'm teaching this term. Yup - I'm actually in charge of making sure some young minds absorb some specific information. And I get to lecture to them three times a week (poor things). This was a very exciting chance for me to try out this whole teaching gig - after all, if I decide I want to be an academic (the jury's still out on that - although less because of the teaching and more because of some the department politics I've observed even as a lowly graduate student) I will probably end up doing a lot of instructing.

Anyway - week one of lectures is now complete. And people who know me keep saying, "so how is it going?"

The funny thing is... it's really hard to tell. I find it a bit stressful coming up with the right number of slides three times a week - although once I've got that together the talking part's not so bad. What I wonder is: how the students percieve the class. It's not as if they come up afterwards and say, "hey, by the way, you did a great job of explaining that concept today", or "you know, I find you kind of boring". They just gather up their stuff and head on their merry way... that's what I'll do too, unless I hear any complaints, I guess!

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Ridiculous Revenge

So the sad story of labour day weekend was that Steve Irwin, aka the "Crocodile Hunter" was killed while he was filming a documentary. A stingray got him right in the heart. Apparently it's quite ucommon for a stingray to actually be fatal, and Steve Irwin's death is only the third recorded stingray fatality in Australia.


And now people are out, taking revenge - on other stingrays. Yep, at least ten have been found dead since Steve Irwin died - most often with their tails cut right off. Oh, so that makes a lot of sense. In order to express anger about the death of someone admired for their ability to bring excitment and information about animals and conservation to the public, it make sooo much sense to go and kill some wildlife. The same wildlife that Irwin was no doubt attempting to highlight in his documentary in order to educate people about how cool it is.

The Crocodile Hunter must just be rolling over in his grave.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Frivolous Festival, or..?

So the big event in Toronto these days is TIFF, or the Toronto film festival. It's an event that reminds my why the flim industry always seems (to me) like one big paradox:

Many of the movies screened at the festival will be described as "exploring human nature" "pushing boundaries", or "examining the self/the world/our relationships". Basically, a lot of these films are creative attempts to help us - and the people who made them - better understand ourselves and our surroundings. They are trying to penetrate our (collective public) brains, make us think about new things, and understand ourselves and our world better. Although not all films screened at the festival are trying to be profound - some are just fun flicks, this is definitely a palpable side of TIFF.

But then... the festival's alter ego seems to be pure superficiality. Most obviously is the crazy celebrity culture: social columnists trying to figure out who will come to TO and who will be a "no-show", people staking out spots outside Roy Thompson Hall and the Sutton Hotel just to get a glimpse of someone famous, and the sudden displacement of world news by movie stars in National newspapers (I'm thinking here of Saturday's Globe and Mail, which had Penelope Cruz on the front cover). For people involved in the film industry, it seems worse: they have to get into the right parties, appear in the right magazines and papers, and wear the right clothing for each event.

So is it really about stimulating thought and discussion - or is it actually just about looks and fame?

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Faith Parade?

Today whilst wandering the streets of Toronto, we came upon a whole bunch of different "events": taste of Toronto, (where I had some very mediocre curry), a protest against corruption in Taiwan, and a bunch of women who were apparently celebrating "Tai Chi Day" by wearing bright orange T-shirts.

And then there was all this religious-y stuff. I'm not sure why, and some quick Googling was not enlightening. We saw music and evangelism and quite a crowd behind Queen's park this afternoon - and earlier, a parade that completely clogged Yonge and College. It included several different flatbeds full of people, each producing some variety of Christian music. All were producing said music loud enough for it to be distorted and pretty unmusical. At the end of the parade was a flatbed with several people depicting the crucifixion (including someone who was on the cross). That was the bit that made me realize that the whole show made me feel a bit uncomfortable.

I'm not sure why: I have no issue with Christianity or of being proud of your faith... and surely it can't be the "show-off" tendencies of the parade - since I thoroughly enjoy the pride parade.
Maybe it's just that get the feeling that everyone in the parade thinks that everyone else would be so much better off if they'd join in. It's probably something that I project onto the event rather than something real. Wonder what that says about me. Religion is such a wierd thing.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Break the Addiction

... our addiction to dirty energy, that is.

Students at a bunch of schools in the States have managed to introduce fees of about $30 per student to pay for clean energy for their schools. The money is used by the colleges to buy electricity from sources such as wind power or solar power.

That would be cool all on its own, but I've now read that MTV and an NGO called the Energy Action Coalition are launching a competition to encourage more schools in the U.S. to get on the green bandwagon. The contest is being called "Break the Addiction" (geddit?)

Way cool. The winning students will get prizes like a green renovations for their student lounges.

This is the latest in a slew of media attention that's been devoted to energy efficiency this summer. For example, TV ads in Ontario promoted power-saving strategies this year - the first time I've ever seen an ad like that and all part of a pretty impressive (I think) education and incentive program started by the provincial government this year.

Are we finally going to get people to pay attention to the implications of our energy use, I wonder?

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

I Hate My Fridge

My fridge sucks. It sucks energy, and it sucks the life out of my veggies.

It's a clunker - think "beer fridge in my pal's basement" and you're probably thinking of the right kind of refrigerator. I don't know what vintage it actually is, except OLD. The darn thing doesn't seem to keep anything fresh - if I buy anything that comes in bunches, like spinach or lettuce, I'm almost guaranteed to be throwing some of it out. I hate that - it makes me feel guilty. And irritated that I've wasted perfectly good spinach that I paid for.

On the other hand, shopping for fruit and veg every single day is a bit tiresome. In the last few years, it's been fairly easy because of my flexible graduate-student schedule. Lately though, I've been busier and the time it takes to maintain a stash of fresh produce is getting to be a bit of a bore.

But, wait! It's not all about MOI. Did you know that refrigerators use the most energy out of any household appliance? According to the David Suzuki Foundation, A 2002 Energy Star refrigerator uses less than half the electricity of a standard 10-year-old model. Geez, we're letting Nanticoke pump all that air pollution into our city air for this?

So, my fridge contributes to poor air quality, food waste, and my own personal frustration. Sadly, I live in a rental unit and don't have a whole lot of control over the appliances in it... I have a feeling that as long as it seems to be colder inside than out, nobody will be replacing it anytime soon.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Yesterday's Post

Labour day weekend is over. Actually it was sort of over last night, which is why this should have been yesterday's post. I heard on the news yesterday that there was a parade in downtown Toronto celebrating workers and reminding Canadians that there are labour issues that still need sorting out.

I was surprised to realize that I'd never actually heard of a Canadian labour day parade before... and apparently there's at least one other parade held every year (in Ottawa). I'm not sure if this speaks more to my ignorance of labour issues or to bad timing tied to a lack of publicity for the events.

Or this: labour day has never had anything to do with unions or worker rights for me - it's always been a potent symbol of the end of summer. It's all about going back to school or work and taking on a new, more motivated attitude towards work - or life in general.

I like having this division between summer and fall.... but somehow I want the day off to be all about vacations and laziness and rumpled clothing and flipflops. Not about work. I wonder if many Canadians feel the same way - could this be why the meaning of "labour day" is lost on so many of us?

Friday, September 01, 2006

O Canada, native home of asbestos


O Canada, I'm not too impressed. I've been reading up on asbestos lately and while I knew that we were one of the countries that still mined asbestos, I didn't quite realize that Canada is the second-largest producer of asbestos in the world (behind Russia). Also that we export 95% of it.

That's nice of us: we don't want to get asbestosis or mesothelioma or various cancers - all of which are horrible diseases that can be caused by exposure to asbestos - but we're willing to let people in some poor third-world nation take the risk. Because that's where most of it goes: 60 countries, including Britain, France, Australia and the European Union (i.e., all the rich ones) have banned its use in whole or in part. So we're offering places like India the chance to have a preventable health disaster.

Because it is preventable: the link between exposure and disease is pretty clear. In fact, there has been tonnes of litigious activity in the developed countries, and rightly so in many cases. After all, the first cases were won in 1929 - but we've sure had lots of people working, unprotected, with asbestos since then. There's the Holmes foundry, in Sarnia, where levels of airborne asbestos thousands of times the current allowed level were measured before the place shut down. Now there's a cluster of asbestos-related diseases there.

Now that I've made my bias clear, I should briefly present to you the industry argument: the form of asbestos mined here is called chrysotile, and is thought to be less dangerous than some of the other forms. It is much harder and less dusty and likely to break into potentially dangerous fibres than the older forms (called crocidolite and amosite). Apparently, " representatives of the world's major chrysotile exporting mines signed an agreement whereby they committed to supply chrysotile fibre only to those companies that demonstrate compliance with national health and safety regulations. "

Well... whatever.

Thursday, August 31, 2006

Irony in the Headlines

Today's prize for environmental irony in a headline goes to....

Drought to Shut Down Canadian Rain Forest Resort

Honestly. Rain forest. Drought. Well, it turns out that it's not just one business being shut down, but a whole slew of them. The city council in Tofino has ordered all commercial businesses in Tofino to shut down and stop using municipal water supplies by this Friday.

Which the resorts are loving, of course, since this is happening just as the last long weekend of the summer (presumably a great time to rake in a little resort-town cash) arrives. NOT! Some of them have arranged to truck in tanker-loads of water. Others have closed - and considering the fabuloso weekend I just had, my heart goes out to this couple in particular.

Anyway, what's happened is that the reservoir is at an all-time low and there just hasn't been much rain. In this rainforest area. Oh yeah, and Tofino, which apparently has about 1700 permanent residents, swells to about 22000 people in the summer. I guess that would put a little pressure on the local water supply. Also - it's probably going to be one of the driest Augusts ever in the region.

So, shall we get back to the climate change argument? Or to the topic of the massive ecological footprint the average North American has? Alternately, we could discuss human attitudes and perceptions towards nature and try to understand why acceptance of our right to dominate and control seems so pervasive. So hard to choose.

A picture of Tofino (it really is beautiful) that I took from this website

Wednesday, August 30, 2006


And one other thing before I dive into post-holiday work mode. I've been meaning to do this for ages: let me introduce you to the best photoblog around: photosensitive.

The photos are taken by Jordan (noted sushinight commentator!) I hope he doesn't mind that I'm showcasing him here a bit ...


Well, it's been a while since I posted here, but I do have a good excuse, honest. And besides, I probably saw my most loyal readers in person this weekend anyway.

SO, a big shout-out: to all you readers but especially to Caroline, Jordan, Simone, and Heather, who routinely comment on my blog - thank you my dears - and who, this weekend, were all at the best darn party I've ever thrown.

Yup, I got married - and it was SO fantastic. Everything went right, and it was really really FUN.


...we can get back to the environment and all that other stuff tomorrow.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Social Acceptability and Air Quality

I was at a friend's for dinner last night and we got into a huge debate about what it's going to take to get people to cut their energy use sufficiently to improve air quality and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

I'm in Newfoundland right now and talking about air quality here is way different than in Ontario: there isn't really a problem with air quality here. The population is much smaller and less dense than in southern Ontario, and any emissions are blown away by the consistent high winds here in any case.

I was arguing that social pressure might be a useful tool for getting people to change their behaviour: if your neighbors think less of you for driving to the corner store rather than walking, would you be less likely to take the car? Or leave your lights on when you're not in the room? Would store owners persist in blasting the air conditioning while having their front door open onto the street if people associated that action with waste and their childrens' poor health?

After all, it seems to have worked for the anti- tobacco lobby: fifteen years ago, most smokers would have felt comfortable lighting up almost anywhere. Now, the smokers I know light up only in private, mainly because they are made to feel like pariahs if they do it in public.

Still, this approach might only work in a region like southwestern Ontario: where the threat of a blackout or similar energy crisis seems real, the air pollution hanging above the cities is visible, and people who have respiratory disease like asthma feel the impact of air pollution on their health. I think that it would be very tricky to make the connection between airborne pollutant emissions and poor health for the public here.

And the concept of an energy crisis..? In Newfoundland, the crisis is still that the province gave up so much hydroelectric power for practically nothing... there is no sense here that energy conservation is something that would benefit the community.

Friday, August 18, 2006


Today I stumbled upon a cool blog called Greenthinkers. It's "an informal forum for thoughts and ideas on how to live a more green life".

And they have loads of fun, useful, and curious information on there:

Fun: the Toronto company called chopper couture that makes rock 'n roll T-shirts out of bamboo fibers.

Useful: telling us about "Recycling for Charities", which lets you get rid of of your old digital equipment and support charities at the same time. Sounds like win-win to me.

Curious? Find out what the heck "organic leather" could possibly mean!

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Equal opportunity for brown spots and wierd shapes

A few days ago I was on a bit of a rant about how I would like to buy more organic produce but have trouble getting past its high pricetag.

This essay from the New York Times is a moving portrayal of why organic farming is so costly - personally and financially. It's a shame that with all the hard work that goes into organic produce, the fruits and veggies themselves still end up being infested a lot of the time (see Jordan's comment on my previous post).

I guess they often don't look as pleasing either: brown spots and odd shapes are more common in organic produce - this shouldn't bother us but we have been well-trained to select the healthiest-looking food for ourselves: in a very modern way this would be designed to get value for money and in a very ancient was this would have been a survival technique.

Too bad that the healthiest-looking fruit these days often tastes a bit like cardboard. A stanford prof explains that tomatos are usually picked before they're ripe (so that they aren't soft and squishable as they travel across the continent) and then made to look red and ripe (sadly without the usual sugar infusion you get with natural ripening) using ethylene. Yum, ethylene-tomatoes. I wonder if exposure to ethylene would prevent a tomato from being classified as being organic?

The same prof explains that some companies are trying to get around this problem by modifying the tomatoes' genes to alter the ripening process. I wonder what the per tomato cost will be to make them look good and travel well compared to the per tomato cost to farm tomatoes organically and locally?

...adjusted to reflect the relative nutritional value and environmental imact of creating each tomato of course. Which would be an complex thing to figure out.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Pigeons pack phones for pollution

A group in San Jose California is combining art and science by releasing a bunch of urban homing pigeons into the neighborhood equipped with cellphones and air quality sensors. The pigeons, their paths and the measured pollution levels were mapped in real time and sent to a blog. The project only looked at carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxides - but these should be reasonable markers for urban pollution levels.

Some people have expressed concerns that wearing the "backpacks" might be stressful to the pigeons and also that the project is redundant because the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) is already measuring pollution levels in the area. The group claims that the apparatus doesn't bother the pigeons (and most of the flights were a couple of hours at most in any case). In contrast to the EPA monitors, which are stationary, these birds were moving around while they collected data. From the maps on the site, it looks as if most of the birds staye fairly close to where they were released - so the results would be most useful for looking at spatial difference in pollution at a neighborhood level.

It all sounds kind of cool to me. I wonder if they looked at the pollution levels with respect to distance above the ground as well at latitude/longitude (the typical way to map dispersed pollutants) - I didn't see this on the site and don't know if it would yield interesting results or not.


P.S. Kensington

Yesterday was one of Kensington Market's Pedestrian Sundays - which basically means that they shut the area off to motorized traffic and have a big community party. There are seven of them scheduled between May and October and each has a theme. Most of them are on the last Sunday of the month but this one was a special P.S. Kensington celebrating the anniversary of the big blackout.

There was so much energy in the market - huge games of chess and scrabble laid out on the pavement, at least three different percussion bands that I saw marching around and playing, a juggler, a demonstration of something that resembled a cross between a martial art and a dance, and a chance to pin up a statement saying where you were when the lights went out. Add to that tons of people, food stalls and vendors in the streets - it was a great, diverse, celebratory community atmosphere.

I also loved that the intent was to encourage people to celebrate without electricity to remind ourselves about the blackout and the costs of our energy use. Radios, for example, were strongly discouraged. They weren't necessary anyway - there was tons of live music and sound all around.

If you're in Toronto, check out the next P.S. Kensington days: on the last Sunday in August, September, and October, there will be celebrations of air, earth, and Hallowe'en, respectively.

See you there..?!