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by Mary Soderstrom

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Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Another Reason to Be Bilingual: Provided You Use It, You Don't "Lose It" as Fast

It's official: being a bilingual who uses both his or her languages regularly means you're less likely "to lose it" mentally. Or rather, research by York University's Ellen Bialystok and colleagues shows that Alzeheimer's disease manifests itself far later in bilinguals than in monolinguals. What's more, being bilingual appears to give an advantage in multi-tasking. The team put bilinguals and monolinguals in a driving simulator and then gave them instructions through headphones. Everyone's driving deteriorated, but the bilinguals' much less than monolinguals'.

Dr. Bialystok explains that the brain has an executive control system, a sort of hardwired "general manager. Its job is to keep you focused on what is relevant, while ignoring distractions." In bilinguals it is more developed.

I've always thought that growing up bilingual was an advantage. I didn't, and I had to struggle to learn French as an adult. Lee and I were pleased when her parents decided to speak exclusively to our little Jeanne in French, and told us that we were to be the English connection. As early as six months, it was clear that she could tell the difference between the languages. She always took a moment to consider what I was saying before she reacted, and she didn't babble at me nearly as much as she did to her parents. Now she looks a little puzzled when I talk to Elin in English, as if she's trying to sort out the sounds systems.

Bilingual children frequently appear a little slower in language development. When Lukas was being followed up after having meningitis as a baby, we were told that tests standardized on monolingual children wouldn't be reliable in determining whether he was developing normally since he was picking up English and French simultaneously. (The disease left no problems, BTW, unless you consider getting a Ph.D in philosophy, as he is doing now, as a form of pathology.)

Lee and I acquired our second languages as adults, but we use both of them all the time. It's nice to think that all the effort might have the added benefit of keeping us sharp longer.

Photo: Jeanne, taken by a friend of the family a few weeks ago.

Monday, 30 May 2011

More Green House Gases: What Are We Going to Do about It?

Lots of stuff this morning about the increase in carbon emissions in the last year. The International Energy Agency has just reported that Energy-related carbon-dioxide (CO2) emissions in 2010 were the highest in history.

"After a dip in 2009 caused by the global financial crisis, emissions are estimated to have climbed to a record 30.6 Gigatonnes (Gt), a 5% jump from the previous record year in 2008, when levels reached 29.3 Gt, " the agency says in a press release announcing the publication of its report.

"In addition, the IEA has estimated that 80% of projected emissions from the power sector in 2020 are already locked in, as they will come from power plants that are currently in place or under construction today."

But how to reconcile our energy needs with the dangers of energy production is a huge question? Germany has just announced it will decommission its nuclear power plants by 2022, and rely on renewable sources of energy. Currently about a quarter of the country's power needs come from nuclear plants (which Forbes notes is about the same as in the US: in Canada the figure is about 19 per cent) and 17 pe cent comes from renewable sources. Fossil fuels will continue to used to produce power, but Chancellor Angela Merkel says that the new strategy will include "a new architecture," necessitating huge efforts in boosting renewable energies, efficiency gains and overhauling the electricity grid.

Can anything like this happen in North America? The economic factors are daunting, although The Globe and Mail has an interesting story in the business section today about Bullfrog Power . The company based in the Toronto region sells electricity to companies after buying it from projects that produce power from renewable resources.

But as I keep saying, we've also got to rethink how we live in cities if we really want to make a difference in our energy consumption.

Saturday, 28 May 2011

Saturday Photo: Laneway Is the Cat's Meow

We've been living on the Plateau now for six months, and I don't know how many times I've passed rue Demers. But it wasn't until a week ago that I really saw it.

At one point, someone built a series of small workers' cottages--from the city's evaluation role, it would seem about the turn of the 20th century. But the tiny houses have been lovingly renovated, and the center of the lane has been turned into a whimsical linear park, which would seem to be maintained by residents. That's the cat fountain in the upper photo and that's the cat, I presume, in the lower one.

Friday, 27 May 2011

An End of May Full of Good Things

Big times happening:

Yesterday Jeanne turned nine months.
Today Elin receives her doctorate in a ceremony at the Université de Montreeal
and
Tomorrow is Emmanuel's birthday.

Such fun! I'm taking the day off....

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Breathe in Today! Lilacs Are in Bloom

There are no apps for smells, I believe, but it would be nice to share with you just how lovely the air is here today. Even in this city-centre neighborhood--one of the most densely inhabited in Canada--there are lilacs in many courtyards and handkerchief-sized front yards.

This morning I woke up with a feeling of great well-being, whose origin I couldn't pin down at first. Then I realized that the scent of lilacs was blowing in the window. Not too strong--the flowers can be overpowering--but just enough to say that winter is over and we're in for some warm weather.

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Extra Billing for Eye Drops Banned in Quebec: A Victory in the Fight against Health System Erosion?

The Quebec government has just announced that it will pay for supplementary fees charged by private clinics for giving drops used to combat macular degeneration. The fees charged by Opthamologists working in private clinics have been as high as $250 a month, when the cost of the drug used itself is nearer $15.

It certainly is no coincidence that this comes the week after a group of patients filed to start a formal class action against doctors charging the fees. Eleven other instances of systematique extra-billing by Quebec doctors are currently under investigation to see if they violate the Quebec law governing health services. Under it, doctors are allowed to charge patients fees only for three things: drugs, bandages and anesthetics. Their fees are supposed to be paid directly by the Régie de l'assurance maladie du Québec, Quebec's health agency.

Is this a victory over extra-billing? Hard to tell. Certainly charging extra for services given in private clinics is a battle field, which is likely to become bloodier as the provinces and the federal government renegotiate funding arrangements between now and 2014.

Monday, 23 May 2011

La Journée des Patriotes: Even The Gazette Says It's a Good Thing to Celebrate

Today is a holiday: in Quebec since 2002 it's been called la Journée des Patriotes, in honour of the band of rebels who took on the British regime in 1837-38. In the rest of Canada it's Victoria Day, since originally it was the day that the 19th century monarch's birthday was celebrated.

I have always thought that the Quebec name was most appropriate, particularly since both English and French speaking Quebeckers of the time took part in the rebellion which had on its agenda nothing short that democratization and social progress that wasn't achieved for more than a hundred years. And this morning that eminently Anglo voice, The Gazette, agrees in an editoral, "A holiday that all Quebecers can celebrate."

More than 10 years ago I published an historical biography of one of the patriots, Robert Nelson, called The Words on the Wall: Robert Nelson and the Rebellion of 1837, which is still available at various used bookstores and libraries, but seems to have disappeared from regular sources. It was much more warmly received in its French translation, Robert Nelson : le médecin rebelle, so it's particularly nice to see that my message may be finally getting through.

The picture was taken last year in Outremont. The flag was the one adopted by the Patriots and subsequently used by in the great wave of Quebec nationalism in the last part of the 20th century. BTW, there's a certain irony in the fact that Victoria ascended the throne in 1837.

Saturday, 21 May 2011

Saturday Photo: Accidental Beauty of Dandelions and Green Snow












Earlier this week the crabapples and other fruit trees were in gorgeous bloom, and i went out yesterday afternoon to take some pictures. They were still mostly lovely--although many were beginning to fade to make way for lilacs--and I took a few shots.

But what really impressed me was the accidental beauty I saw. Particularly, the glorious yellow of dandelions against the intense green of grass, well-watered by days of rain. I know, I know, they're supposed to be weeds, and I pull them out of my little patch of grass in the backyard. If they cost $15 a five inch pot, we'd buy them by the carload and plant them out like we do scylla and snowdrops, hoping to get them to naturalize in the lawn. This particular splendor was gone within half an hour, because a gardener on a tractor-mower was hard at work nearby.

As for the green snow, I imagine it also disappeared shortly as someone swept up the tiny flowers from the maple trees. But for a few hours yesterday, this front yard was covered in a kind of precipitation that had little to do with specific storms, and much to do with the stately procession of the seasons.

Friday, 20 May 2011

Jane Jacobs' "Eyes on the Street": A Mount Royal Boulevard Example

The Plateau is one of the most densely populated areas in Canada, and Mount Royal Boulevard, just outside our windows, is a river of constant foot, bike, bus and car traffic. The noise from the bars at closing time can be pretty intense, but it's quite safe, as demonstrated in an incident this week.

Lee had gone out to mail some letters Wednesday morning, and was surprised to see a man running toward him on the sidewalk with another man shouting "Voleur, Stop thief" in hot pursuit. Without thinking he stepped aside, but the thief had to slow to avoid hitting him anyway. A few steps beyond, the man had to zag again because a woman on a bicycle was in his way. That slowed him enough for his pursuer to catch up.

By then, about 20 people had stopped on both sides of the street to see what was happening, and two other men joined the pursuer in grabbing the thief. Someone flagged down a passing police car--and others were on their cellphones calling the cops--which made a mid-block U turn worthy of Hollywood chase movie. Within a couple of minutes the cops had the thief and justice, presumably, was on its way to being done.

Jane Jacobs always insisted that foot traffic was essential for urban safety, as was housing that allowed people to see what was going on outside at street level. "Eyes on the street" was her tag phrase for the kind of informal vigilance that's possible in dense neighborhoods. Compare that to housing developments where nobody walks and nobody sees their neighbors or with high rises where the outside is an elevator ride away.

A Real Green House: Jack Layton and Olivia Chow in Toronto



Rick Mercer had lunch with Jack and Olivia back in 2010 in their retro-fitted mid-town Toronto home. It's a much better example than Drake's Landing of how to be green.

The big question now is: what's going to happen to Stornoway, the designated residence of the official opposition, now that Jack's its leader? Will they wrap a quilt around it too?

Thursday, 19 May 2011

Green and Healthy Living: The Suburban Illusion

The Globe and Mail has carried two interesting, conflicting stories the last few days. One is a long article in an insert, Backbone Magazine, about Drake's Landing, a "green" community outside Calgary. The other, " Unhealthy neighborhoods play big role in obestity, diabetes epidemic," details how it's healthier to live in the center of cities.

Drake's Landing is almost completely solar heated, despite the Alberta city's cold winters Solar panels on garages and other structures are connect to a central heating system, which runs to each of the 52 single family houses in the development. Individual houses also have solar units for hot water. "Today, that system delivers up to 80 per cent of the community’s heating requirements and removes five tonnes of greenhouse gases per home from the atmosphere every year," the story says.

Sounds laudable, doesn't it? Yet it's quite clear that the development--30 miles south of the city in Okotoks--is based on classic suburban plans where the automobile is the basic transportation. " There are even a few environmentally unfriendly monster trucks that can be seen prowling up and down the streets from time to time," the story quotes one resident.

On the other hand, the story about healthy city living notes: People who live in the "unwalkable fringes ...will live about 20 fewer years than those in downtown, vibrant neighbourhoods, according to a 2007 report by the City University of New York’s Campaign Against Diabetes and the Public Health Association of New York City." It's not clear if the study controlled for income variations--which can have enormous effects--but walking and taking public transit can make a great difference in fitness.

The story reports that 140 Toronto neighbourhoods examine the role of several factors over three years "including community design, population density, access to healthy and unhealthy food ...The researchers... concluded that walking and transit times to recreation facilities in the city’s outlying neighbourhoods were as long as 40 minutes and 20 minutes, respectively, each way. It takes only 30 minutes of walking or moderate exercise, combined with a healthy diet, to cut the risk of diabetes in half."

How many kids in Drake's Landing walk to school? How many of their parents drive everywhere? What will be the obesity and diabetes rates there in a few years? And most importantly what's the carbon/energy tradeoff in this community so dependent on the automobile? Don't know, but I'm sure that "purpose built" --the term used in the Backbone story to describe the subdivision--is not a green or healthy way to go.

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Men Behaving Badly: Conquerors of the World Who're Slaves to Libido?


The recent revelation that former California governor Arnold Schwarzanegger had a love child 10 years ago, coupled with the arrest of IMF head and French politician Dominique Strauss-Kahn on sexual assault charges in New York shine spotlights on a strange thing about humans. Sexual drive--completely necessary for reproduction--governs some of the people who would govern the rest of us.

As a 2007 article in Forbes.com noted: "You make partner. You get tenure. You conquer the known world. You achieve greatness in your lifetime. But in the great scheme of things, how much does any of that really matter? After you die, they come to empty your desk. They take down your plaques from the wall. The grand statues you had built for yourself crumble in the desert winds. One way to overcome your own mortality is to produce a dynasty."

The Mongol conquerer Genghis Khan may be the champion: "a thriving flock of descendants can sustain themselves, generation after generation, passing down your name ... or at least your DNA... An estimated 16 million men today, plus an uncounted number of women, are his direct descendants." The story goes on to discuss genetic sampling which shows the Great Khan's genes as far afield as Ireland and the Irish-descended around the world.

Now, it's highly unlikely that either Schwarzanegger or Strauss-Kahn had dynasties in mind when they were doing their dallying (and it must be noted that the latter should be considered innocent of the current charges until proved guilty, although he's been long known as a womanizer.) Both of them have legitimate offspring too. But it's clear that beneath the surface in a lot of men lurks a slave to libido who is ready to conquer nearly any women who happen to be around.

So much for civilization and the recognition of the rights of women.

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

The New Quebec Is Seen in the NDP Delegation to the House of Commmons

Just spent a day making a spread sheet of the new NDP caucus, with emphasis on the 58 (out of 75 possible) people elected from Quebec.

What an interesting bunch of people! In addition to the young people elected from Quebec--of which there's been a great deal of chat already--the number of recent arrivals in Canada is striking. Among them are the first person from the Dominican Republic, unionist José Mello-Nuñez--two young people of Vietnamese origin, and a half dozen new MPs of various ages from the Middle East will be sitting in Ottawa when Parliament reconvenes. All evidence that Quebec is far from a closed society...

Monday, 16 May 2011

St. Brendan's Day: Lessons in Mythmaking from the Mists of Time

Today, May 16, is the day when St. Brendan is supposed to have died in 578. He's the guy who is said to have set off from Ireland in a little boat and explored the wild seas of the Atlantic, perhaps getting as far as Canada.

Who knows? There are chronicles of his travels which go back a long way, but The Dictionary of Canadian Biography says that, while the Irish did establish a religious community in Iceland before 800 AD, there's nothing linking Brendan with the venture. He may have explored the North Atlantic, but there's no real evidence that he did anything more than become rallying point for bits of information gleaned by fishermen and Viking sailors. Yet his fame lives on.

Moral: Sometimes a good story does more than a passle of facts. Are there political lessons here? You better believe it.

Saturday, 14 May 2011

Saturday Photo: Last Year's Lilacs

This morning I'm going to go hack away at the neighbor's lilac bushes.

This is what they looked like last year--fragrant and really lovely. But after the fire, the workers doing demolition threw debris out the windows onto the bush and the fence which divides our properties.

The result: the fence is lying on its side, practically, and the lilacs are leaning way over into our yard, shading much of our garden. The branches don't look very healthy either--I wonder if they might have been damaged by the heat from the fire.

So I've somewhat reluctantly decided that surgery is necessary. Won't cut down all the branches, since the bush itself is on our neighbor's property. But I certainly intend to get rid of the ragtag stalks on our side that look like they'll never bloom again.

No Post on Friday: Was Blogger out Bagging Some Rays?

Couldn't post yesterday because gremlins got into Blogger. Things seem to be back to normal now, and it was such a lovely day here, I had the whimsical thought that perhaps spring had tempted the service to take a break.

I don't feel so sanguine about Hotmail, howevever. Somebody hacked into my account, sent a lot of spam, and now the account is blocked. They say to enter a cellphone number and they will give you a code to access it again. But what if you haven't got a cellphone? I've tried all the things suggested so far, and none works. Aaargh! Technology!

Thursday, 12 May 2011

A Film Made the Day that Jeanne Was Born!


St. Henri, the 26th of August is a film made by 17 film makers for the National Film Board of Canada. It was featured last week at the 2011 Hot Docs festival in Toronto, and has quite a nice bit of buzz.

As it happens our Jeanne was born that morning in another part of Montreal. What a day! What an amazing thing to have this sort of record of what it was like that day.

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

May: The Change is Magic

Within a couple of days of warm weather, leaves burst out on the trees here, changing the whole world for the better.

Since this photo was taken, the canopy has become more green, and there are places where you can actually sit in the shade. What an amazing climate!

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Making Religion Green: Quebec Catholic Churches to Use Local Wine for Mass

Don't know whether it's due to climate change or to astute winegrape growing, but vinyards in Quebec have begun producing some not-too-terrible wines. The latest recognition of this comes from the Roman Catholic church which has just announced it will begin to encourage the use of locally grown wines for Mass, replacing a wine from California vinyards.

The sweet wine with an acohol content of 16.5 per cent is currently available from the vinyard, Domaine des Côtes d'Ardoise, in Quebec's Eastern Townships. According to a story in The Gazette: Canon law requires that , communion wine must be made of grapes - not strawberries, pears or other fruits - and cannot be fortified with additional alcohol or sugar.


The idea, according to Church spokesmen, is to encourage green initatives by favouring locally grown products. Talks are also underway to have Communion wafers made from Quebec-grown wheat and baked by a religous order in a rural area.

Will God know the difference? Who knows, but maybe Gaia will.

Monday, 9 May 2011

Two Great Walks in the Bairro Português in Honor of Jane Jacobs!

The two Jane's Walks that I led on the weekend in Montreal's Portuguese neighborhood were grand successes.

About 12 people had signed up for each, but by the time we started out there were 35 to 45 each time. The weather cooperated and I think people enjoyed the ambience and the information. The videoclip below is of the song that signaled the start of the grand, successful, peaceful revolution that the Portuguese undertook 37 years ago, April 25, 1974, The ending has been a happy one in the main, and an example for other countries trying to rid themselves of dictatorships, it seems to me. I even tried to sing it at one point, and nobody laughed!

Saturday, 7 May 2011

Saturday Photo: Pear Blossoms--Indoors

After two weeks inside, the pear branches that I cut from our trees have burst into lovely bloom. Outside the trees are far from that point, but the forsythia is blooming, and some other fruit trees (don't know which kind, probably apples) have blossoms.

The force that through the green fuse drives the flower, indeed, to quote Dylan Thomas.

Friday, 6 May 2011

Why Use Wallpaper? Because the Plaster underneath is Rotten



He makes it look so easy!

We did a test to see if we could put wallpaper on top of the existing paper in the two bedrooms which weren't damaged by smoke. I'm happy to report that after a week the paper is still up, but it's quite clear my technique leaves something to be desired. There are many little pleats: obviously changingthe wallpaper on your screen saver is a lot easier. That's why I'm off this morning to talk to two paper hangers who are coming by to see if what we're proposing is at all feasable.

Update: the bad news is that the two guys we consulted say that the results of papering over the paper that is there would not be satisfactory. The good news is that we're probably going to put thin gypsum board over the existing walls and paint--and I've always liked paint better than wall paper anyway

Thursday, 5 May 2011

Why Is a Seal in Manhattan Like a Hundred Plus NDP Members of Parliament?

This gray seal decided to go sunbathing on an Upper Manhattan beach yesterday, causing quite a stir in New York. It apparently had braved the waters of the Hudson, looking for a good place to hang out.

Actually seals often do things like that: I remember seeing West Coast seals bagging some rays on piers off downtown San Diego, as well as in San Francisco and Seattle.

There's a political lesson in this, perhaps. When something unusual happens--like a major electoral change--it often isn't completely unknown. It just indicates that something is happening. In the case of the seal, it might be a harbinger of good news, reflecting much cleaner waters in the Hudson River. In the case of the surprise NDP showing sweeping to victory many young people and a record number of women, it could mean that the political scene is opening up.

At latest report, the seal was still there, looking healthy, BTW

Photo: The New York Times.

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Getting Youth Involved in Politics Can Have Effects for a Long Time: The Cases of Charest and Liu


One of the fun things about this election was sitting in a poll with a candidate, who thought she didn't have a chance, and then being there when she learned she'd won.

On Monday I polled watched for the NDP and Laurin Liu, a bright, 20 year old McGill student, was the party point person, the one responsible for collecting reports and making sure all went well. We chatted a bit, and I was impressed by her concentration and evident concern about politics. Then, after we'd watched the count in our respective polls and were waiting for the official vote papers (we use paper ballots for federal elections in Canada, there's only one item on the ballot and the count usually takes less than an hour) someone brought out an IPad and we started getting the first results.

Laurin calmly watched, and then her face turned a lovely shade of pink as she realized that the Orange Wave had carried her to election.

Yesterday she met the press with the other new NPD members of Parliament and quite a bit has made of her youth. But, as Chantale Hébert pointed out on Radio Can this morning, there have been other very young people elected to the House of Commons. Take for example another 20 year old elected on another ground swell of political change in 1984: Jean Charest. Hébert says in the official caucus picture for that session of Parliament he shows up with long and curly hair, looking quite hippy. I haven't been able to find the photo, but here's what the current Liberal premier of Quebec looked like in 1997: much younger for sure.

Don't know if Laurin will go on to such a long political career, but, rest assured, she's a young woman to watch.

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Be Careful What You Wish for, Or the Day after a Great Victory and a Great Defeat, c'est selon

Last night at the amazing NDP victory party at the Rialto Halls in Thomas Mulcair's Outremont riding, I ran into two people who worked long and hard when the NDP was in the wilderness in Quebec. Mariette Penner, the widow of John Penner, and Jean-Paul Harney, former NDP Quebec leader from the 1980s, were as flabbergasted as everyone else, and Mariette Penner said she wished that John were there to see all his hard work come to fruition.

Of course, the victory is extremely bittersweet--a Conservative majority! I didn't expect it, and I had to leave the party after a few minutes because I couldn't keep up the semblance of good spirits, particularly when so many young people were absolutely delirious with joy: I certainly didn't want to rain on their parade.

But now there's a great deal of work to be done, just to make a strong delegation from the crew that got elected from Quebec. Unlike the Mulroney Conservatives in 1984, I'm sure we don't have any small time crooks, just a lot of eager people although many of them young and inexperienced. It will be a job to transform that energy and intellligence into something positive.

Anyway, it's been quite a ride..and just the start of another era of trying to keep up the progressive side in Canada.

Monday, 2 May 2011

Election Day: Headed for the Orange Planet?

No, it isn't a picture taken of some heavenly body by telescope, but the colour seems quite right for today. The New Democratic Party, which I have championed since we came to Canada, seems poised to make a smashing breakthrough all across the country.

The polls suggest that Stephen Harper's Conservatives will not get their majority, and there's a good chance that the NDP will form the official opposition. How amazing that would be! Of course, the hard part would only begin then, and I'm sure there would be many fights to keep the party on the right (that is, left) track. But, as the young man said when he called to tell me where to report this afternoon for election work, "it's going to be historic!"

When you're sitting in a poll as a candidate's representative you're not supposed to where the party's colours. But nobody can stop you from bringing a couple of clementines, I think, which is what this picture is of.