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.