Tuesday, 31 July 2007

Smoke, Gardens and the Effect of Higher Prices

Smoke —written by Paul Auster, directed by Wayne Wang and starring Harvey Keitel—is a movie that leaves you musing. One of things that link the various stories told in the flick is the series of photos that the Keitel character, who runs a smoke shop, takes of his corner. I can’t even remember if we see any of the pictures, but we know they’re important because they trace the everyday events and changes that add up to life.

Gardening is life, too, and since I never remember from one year to the next what works and what doesn’t (not a very good life strategy, is it?) I’ve decided to take pictures of my garden at regular intervals. Not every day—that’s a bit much—but once a week. That way maybe I’ll remember next spring that the I need a red day lily for the right side of the back yard and a yellow lily for the left, and I’ll notice just what week has the best flowers, and what week has the least.

Maybe photography is an antidote to the impermanence of life, the opposite of smoke, which disappears whenever the air moves.

And as for smoking, well, I just remembeered that I’m coming up on the anniversary of the day I puffed my last Marlboro. Must have been the first of August when the price of cigarettes in California wentup from 25 cents to 27 cents because of a new tax. That was many, many years ago, but it is perhaps an example of how raising prices can encourage you to modify behavior. It helped me then, and studies show that percentage of the population who smoke falls when the price of cigarettes goes up.

The price of gasoline has gone up lately and there's some evidence that people are turning away from gas guzzlers and toward alternate forms of transportation. Maybe we should really hike the price at the pump to discourage gasoline use too. And then we can use the extra tax revenue to finance public transport.

Monday, 30 July 2007

An Election Where the Environment and Peace May Be the Winners?

By noon on Saturday--just minutes after the by election was called-- posters for Thomas Mulcair were up along several of the main streets in my part of Montreal. Mulcair is the former maverick provincial environment minister who broke with the current Quebec government over some serious environmental questions, among them selling off a huge chunk of the Mt. Orford provincial park. He's now running for the New Democratic Party in the election to be held September 17.

There are some who say he has a good chance of being the second NDP candidate to be elected in Quebec (the last was another maverick, automobile whistle-blower Phil Edmonston,) even though the riding of Outremont (which includes large parts of the less well-off Côte-des-neiges and Mile End neighorhoods) has always gone Liberal, with one exception.

That exception came in 1988 when the Liberal incumbent Lucie Pépin and the NDP candidate Louise O'Neill split the left and left-centre vote, and a Mulroney Conservative Jean-Pierre Hogue won. I was quite involved in that campaign, and the outcome made me take a long break from active politics.

The Liberals have a good candidate in journalist Jocelyn Coulon, while the Conservatives are running former diplomat Gilles Duguay and the Bloc Québécois, university professor Jean-Paul Gilson. Not a group of light-weights, it would seem.

This is going to be a campaign to watch, as both Afghanistan and the environment will be high on the list of the candidates talking points. Haven't decided yet , though, if I'm just going to watch this time...

Saturday, 28 July 2007

Saturday Photo: Dining al fresco?

It's time to enjoy the outdoors, and for many people that means meals outside. Galérie Articule takes this a step further this summer with an installation called "Live Dining" by artist Nicole Fournier. Good enough to eat? Well, not quite, but it's enough to make you plan a picnic.

Friday, 27 July 2007

Israeli Novel, The New Yorker's July 30 cover, and girls

The New Yorker cover this week shows three young women sitting on the subway, one in a burka, one in a nun’s habit and one—in the middle—in sunglasses and a bikini. “Girls Will Be Girls” is the title of the painting by Anita Kunz, and as I looked at it I kept thinking of the strange little novel I’d just finished, Persian Brides by the Israeli writer Dorit Rabinyan. (It’s translated from the Hebrew by Yael Lotan.)

The book takes place, apparently, in the early part of the 20th century in a small town in Iran. The main characters are women in a Jewish family, who spend a good deal of their time worrying about whom they will marry or where their husbands are. It’s only until the reader is well into the book that it becomes clear that these women are really just little girls who are being pushed into marriage and childbearing when they are barely pubescent.

I found the book deeply disturbing even though it seems to be intended to be part comedy, part fable. Flora or Nazie, the Persian brides in question, consider themselves old maids if they are not married at 12 or 14. They are being kept ignorant by their society, which is depicted as being clumsily backward and ridiculous. They—along with their Muslim neighbors—are victims although I have yet to read a review of the book in which anyone points this out.

Unfortunately there are many correspondances between these girls and the highly sexualized pre-teens you see today at the mall. Ask the Persian brides if they’d like a longer childhood, and they’d say no. So would the slight (or pudgy) mall rats in tank tops and short shorts, teetering on platform sandals and clutching cell phones. To be other than what they are would be boring, they can’t wait to grow up, they WON’T wait to grow up. It’s a dangerous situation, and one which the American Psychological Association has recently detailed in a report, calling for a number of measures to counter it,.

Yes, girls will be girls, but in the way that their society dictates. We should not be so culture-bound that we can’t see what is going on here or refuse to recognize its kinship to behavior elsewhere.

Thursday, 26 July 2007

Department of: I thought we'd solved at least part of this problem

Ask any gardener about fertilizer and you’ll hear that it’s necessary to keep a garden blooming and green. If you don’t enrich the soil, after a few years plants won’t thrive because essential nutrients will be used up. But what kind of fertilizer to use is a big question—chemical ones, or more natural soil additives like home-made compost and composted manure? I’ve used the latter kinds ever since I started gardening more or less seriously, with pretty good results.

But even organic, natural substances like manure can cause problems, particularly when they’re spread on fields in great quantities. The problem is compounded by other kinds of fertilizer used in intensive agriculture, and by people who pour on the Vigoro to keep the lawns at the cottage green The nutrients which make plants grow will also make blue green algae grow in lakes and rivers, and one species of the tiny organisms can produce toxins that can kill you

The first of the week, provincial officials announced that there are now 72 lakes and water courses in Quebec where blue green algae growth may cause health problems. Better controls on run-off from animal feed lots and from farm fertilizers are absolutely necessary, Greenpeace Quebec said on Tuesday. The provincial government should also ban dishwasher detergent containing phosphate, it added.

Actually I thought that phosphates were taken out of detergents more than 30 years ago: my first political action in Canada was a campaign by STOP, an anti-pollution group, which I had believed was successful. But it seems that in 1972 the regulations on the stuff you use in dishwashers were relaxed (although they seem to be still in effect for laundry detergent.) Good lord, you’ve got to pay attention all the time, don’t you?

In the absence of government action, Greenpeace suggests you buy dishwasher detergent without phosphate and call the stores where you trade to urge them to stop carrying offending soaps. Here is Greenpeace's list of acceptable dishwasher detergents:

Without phosphate
* BioVert Liquid (a Quebec brand)
* Bi-O-Kleen Powder
* Citrus Magic Gel
* Ecover
* Seventh Generation Powder
* Shaklee Basic-D Concentrate Powder
* Sun & Earth Tablette
* Trader Joe's Automatic Dishwashing Detergent

With phosphate, from the least bad to the worst
* Palmolive Gel 1.6%
* Electra-Sol Gel Gel 3.7%
* Wal-Mart Automatic Dishwashing Detergent Gel 4.0%
* Pure Power Gel Gel 4.0%
* Sunlight Gel Gel 4.3%
* Electra-Sol Powder Powder 4.5%
* Cascade Liquid Liquid 5.0%
* Sunlight Powder Powder 4.5%
* Cascade Complete Liquid 5.0%
* All Powder 5.1%
* Pure Power Powder Powdere 5.3%
* Hannaford Dishwasher Detergent Powdere 5.3%
* Shaws Automatic Poudre 6.0%
* Wal-Mart Automatic Dishwashing Detergent Powder Poudre 6.3%
* Cascade PureRinse Poudre 6.4%
* Cascade Action Pac 8.0%
* Electra-Sol Tablets 8.7%
* Sunlight Tabs 8.7%
* Electra-Sol GelPac 8.7%

Wednesday, 25 July 2007

Henry James, Émile Zola, innocence and memories

After spending a couple of weeks reading three novels by Émile Zola, and two volumes of memoirs by Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann as I research my next book, something went click in my head. Suddenly I remembered that I spent a good deal of time thinking about 19th century Paris eons ago. It was quite a different view of Paris from that which Zola and Haussmann have been showing me, however, since it was that of a famously innocent American, Henry James.

My undergraduate degree is in English literature, for which we had to do a senior seminar which involved reading great quanities of one author's work and then talking and writing about it. My seminar was on Henry James, which didn’t please me since I really wanted to read Melville. But there were too many requests for that seminar, and I lost when the prof drew names from a hat.

So I read 10 or so books by James which are still in my bookcases. By the time I’d churned out four or five papers ("Revolution in the Princess Casamassima" is the only one I can remember) I hadn’t become a James fan, but I had begun to appreciate—as Flaubert so famously said—that anything looked at closely can become interesting. And now, as I’ve been reading about Paris, memories of that experience give me another perspective on two things: what Paris was like then, and how Americans have always considered themselves innocents. That second, mistaken idea about American character lives on, unfortunately, with disastrous results when it comes to foreign policy.

As for James’s portrait of Paris, its society and institutions, he paints a place which is recognizable from Zola’s accounts, but which is very different. In The American, for example-- one of James’s early novels which I’ve begun re-reading and which I notice cost me 75 cents-- his hero Christopher Newman visits the Louvre, as did Zola’s working class wedding party in L’Assommoir. Newman, the rich parvenu, feels compelled to buy a copy of a famous painting being done by a pretty young artist, but Zola’s people find the museum just a good place to kill some time on a happy day. Their best moment comes, actually, afterwards when they must take shelter from a shower under a bridge over the Seine. There an old maid in the party “sighed: if there were leaves, it would have reminded her, she thought, of a place on the Marne where she had gone sometime around 1817 with a young man whom she still cried over.”

Are memories more authentic than a copyist’s painting? Or are memories what you need to survive when you haven’t got anything else?

Tuesday, 24 July 2007

Books for Stephen Harper and "Support" for Culture

Yann Martel, the author of The Life of Pi, has just sent the eighth in his What is Stephen Harper Reading? series to Canada’s prime minister. This time it’s Short and Sweet: 101 very short poems, edited by Simon Armitage, published by Faber and Faber. It will be interesting to see if Martel gets a response--so far he has only received acknowledgement for his first "gift," The Death of Ivan Illych by Tolstoy.

Martel began his campaign to get Harper to read short but worthwhile books as a protest against the lack of support for cultural causes by Harper's government. When it came into power, it cut deeply into cultural budgets, and while it restored $20 million last year, and promised $30 million for 2007-2008, it has shown weak enthusiasm for the cultural industries. On Friday Bev Oda, the minister for Canadian Heritage, confirmed the next $30 million, and pledged $30 million more a year henceforward.

While thanking Oda for the infusion of cash, Susan Swan, chair of the Writers' Union of Canada, noted yesterday that Oda "has yet to make a peep about restoring the $11.8 million in cuts made by her government to funding for the promotion of Canadian artists and writers abroad," She added, "Liberal leader Stéphan Dion has already promised $22.8 million for the international promotion of Canadian arts and culture. We are asking the other Federal parties if they can do the same or better. So far Dion has demonstrated the most convincing support for the arts, perhaps because he comes from Quebec, a province that already understands that the arts are crucial to the expression of national identity."

It will be interesting to see if Harper responds to Martel's gift this time. Maybe he ought to include Oda in his gift list, just to make sure she's got some good reading too.

Monday, 23 July 2007

The Weather in Eden..and airconditioning

Sunday the temperature in Montreal was 25 Celsius or 77 Fahrenheit with 43 per cent relative humidity. Absolutely great weather! The sun shone all day long, but even working in full sunlight wasn’t uncomfortable. Sure, you might sweat at bit, but sweat did just what it is supposed to do—cool you off. Given the moderate humidity, it just evaporated.

Which makes you wonder if this is not the weather to which we are perfectly adapted, the weather of the metaphoric Eden. Certainly the average temperatures in places like Nairobi in Kenya, Kampala in Uganda, and Mbeya in Tanzania--as close as I could find to figures for the East African savannah where we evolved--show average highs in the mid- to high 20s C or high 70s to low 80s F. Some humans migrated from there to places where it was useful to have lighter skin (the better to manufacture Vitamin D in places where the sun didn't shine as much,) but with the exception of a very few populations--the Inuit perhaps--we haven't changed our temperature requirements. In colder regions, we've created artificial climates through clothes and heating systems. Surely it's no coincidence that the "comfort zone" on furnace thermometers is right in that range.

But until the development of air conditioning we weren't able to do much about higher temperatures. Opening windows, sitting in the shade, having someone fan you--that was the extent of making heat more bearable. But all over the world, various air conditioning systems are becoming more common. What this means to the microclimates of our cities--most systems just pump the heat outside, after all--and to our energy consumption are questions that bear much reflection.

Reflection, reflection--that's hard to do when it's hot, though. The forecast is for hotter, more humid weather today, and by late afternoon I may, somewhat guiltily, turn on our air conditioning system...

Saturday, 21 July 2007

Saturday Photo: The Croissanterie

The best place in Montreal for croissants on a summer morning is just at the border of Outremont. This photo was taken at 7:30 a.m. at the beginning of a hot, sticky day--no time to stay inside.

To see more photos of greenery in Montreal, see my post on Urbanphoto.net

Friday, 20 July 2007

Bus tickets in Montreal, bus and subway cuts in Toronto

For each ticket you buy for the Rogers Cup tennis tournament in Montreal in August, you’ll get two bus-and-Metro tickets also. The plan was announced this week, in part because parking is very limited at the Uniprix Stadium in Parc Jarry, where the tournament is held. But also tournament organizers are trying to brand themselves green in other ways. They announced lots of recycling, use of paper made with post-consumer waste, and recuperation of tennis balls for distribution later to Montreal-area schools, too.

Building professional sports facilities in the center of cities is a risky business. Often they use space in already existing parks, as this tennis facility does, with the accompanying decrease in land available more informal--and cheaper--recreation and leisure. Where a facility is built from scratch, the parking lots deemed to be necessary can produce a cordon of waste land around a bulding that is used at most 50 or 60 times a year.

The up side with the Rogers Cup this year is that by encouraging tennis fans to use the bus and Metro some will be won over to public transit in the rest of their lives because they'll see what a breeze it can be to use it.

This only works, of course, when public transit is reliable and nearby, which is the case for Parc Jarry and--for the moment--the Montreal transit system. It won't work where transit doesn't work. One of the more discouraging bits of news on this front this summer comes out of Toronto where the Toronto Transit Commission will meet today to discuss cutting bus service and actually shutting down the Sheppard subway line, used by 40,000 people a day. Early in the week the Toronto city council turned down two new tax proposals and city treasury officials subsequently told the TTC to slash $30-million from its $1.1-billion budget this year, and $100-million from next year.

Thursday, 19 July 2007

Honeymoons, Whales and Liquid Natural Gas

Lukas and Sophie are back from their wedding trip to the Charlevoix, full of stories of great meals eaten, good wine drunk and many whales seen. They camped two nights at Baie Ste-Marguerite on the Saguenay Fjord, one of the great whale-watching places in the world. From their campground they could see more than a dozen whales, enjoying the bay, and when they climbed down to the beach, they were able to get great, close looks.

The whales of the St. Lawrence are a natural treasure but the latest reports say that the proposed liquid natural gas port at Gros Cacouna is going to menace the birthing grounds for belugas, a threatened species. The noise from construction—which would last about three years—would be particularly damaging, research biologist Véronik de la Chenelière, told Le Devoir this week.

Another reason to halt the race to build one or more LNG ports, as if protecting the St. Lawrence and the Saguenay wasn't enough.

Wednesday, 18 July 2007

Lessons that Walmart Could Learn from Zola

More Zola—can’t get enough of the man this summer as I try to get the feel of what 19th century Paris was like for my next book. I've just finished reading Au Bonheur des Dames (The Ladies’ Delight) which in outline sounds a lot like 1930s movie: Denise, a spunky girl from the country goes to work in big department store, catches the boss’s eye, refuses his advances, but ends up landing him anyway.

There’s more to the story, of course, since this is Zola. The background is Paris which is being rebuilt under Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann—boulevards cut through slums, ostensibly to bring light and cleanliness to the masses and do away with congestion in the center of the City of Light. Of course, fortunes are being made too, as those who own property in the rights-of-way of the new, broad streets make substantial profits when their land is expropriated. At the same time the first big department stores are changing retail trade radically since they can undercut the prices of small stores by wringing better deals from suppliers.

This drastic change is tough on shop owners and small merchants like the umbrella maker who befriends the plucky heroine. But even though Denise sees her uncle's fabric store going under, she finds her sympathies lie with the big stores. Zola says that Denise “was secretly in favour of the big stores in her instinctive love of logic and life.”

“You probably are more competent than me,” she tells her uncle, “but I’ll say what I think. Prices, rather than being set like they were before by 50 businesses, are set today by four or five, and they’re lower, .. It's just much better for the public, that’s all.“

I had to reread that several times, because that’s exactly same argument you get when Walmarts come into a city: people will benefit because the prices are lower. Zola couldn’t be advocating that kind of cut-throat business, not when he was such a champion of human rights! It wasn’t until I got to the end of the book, that I understood. The profits from the great department store where Denise works go in part to the betterment of workers—nurseries for the children of the workers, good food in the canteen, health care, things that were considered few places in the 1880s when the book was published. Walmart’s bosses might do well to read Zola, in fact.

Tuesday, 17 July 2007

Leaves of Grass...and Daisies and Strawberries and...

It’s been cool and rainy for a couple of weeks, so the grass—which had turned brown in late June with the temperatures soared and only a few drops of rain fell—is back to being a lovely green. A feast for the eyes, really, and something that probably humans are hard wired to appreciate. Eons ago when our ancestors were evolving on the plains of East Africa short green grass meant water and grazing animals to be hunted, and those who sought out this landscape did better at being fruitful and multiplying than those who did not.

People all over the world try to recreate the look of the bountiful savannah. Much of the water piped hundreds of miles to Southern California and Arizona goes for grass, while in Singapore gardeners strive to carve green lawns out of jungle. In Montreal, grass turns that lovely colour naturally with the rains and mild weather of late May and early June, but often by mid-summer it’s brown unless you water it.

Or unless you plant something else. I’ve dug up most of my small yard and planted perennials to avoid the whole problem. But in Mount Royal Cemetery the lawns are full of plants other than grass—violets, wild strawberries, white and purple clover, tiny daisies. The most spectacular is something which looks like heather, a magenta sedge of some sort which covers several sunny slopes. Like the characters in Ian McEwan’s novel Atonement who don’t know who planted the thyme between the paving stones on their terrace but do love the smell which rises when they walk across it, we owe a debt of gratitude to whomever planted this absolutely beautiful plant.

(For more about grasses, see an article in The New Yorker by Wayne Graham.)

Monday, 16 July 2007

Clear Water, Quiet Summer Day, Serpents in Paradise?

Signs of the times: there’s a large, new poster at the entrance to the Centre touristique et éducatif des Laurentides north of Montreal: you can’t bring you own boat into Lac à la Truite any more. The lake is part of a nature centre with more than 36 kilometers of trails, camping, fishing and acres of wooded hills. Fear of contamination of the lake with invasive plants and animals is the major reason.

Already this summer several lakes and waterways around Quebec have also had blooms of blue-green algae which make the water toxic. Nutrient-rich run-off from farms and well-manicured country places are usually to blame, because they turn the water into a soup that the algae love. It is another example of how we can screw things up if we’re not careful when we try to get close to nature. At least one municipality is considering a by-law requiring property owners to replant a band of bushes and trees some 10 meters deep around water bodies in order to absorb the nutrients from the run-off.

Sunday, however, the water of Lac à la Truite was clear and beautiful, and it was a great pleasure to walk around it, discover a garter snake hiding in the undergrowth, watch a loon dive for fish, sit and listen to the lapping of the little waves.

Saturday, 14 July 2007

Saturday Photo: Various Ways to Be Green

La rue Rivard runs through the Plateau Mont-Royal district of Montreal, where people go out of their way to make their tiny front yards green. In these recently-constructed triplexes--featuring signature circular outside staircases--a combination of flamboyant exotic plants and hardy perennials add much green to the streetscape. But the people on this street also recycle! At 8:12 a.m. Wednesday when this picture was taken the recycling truck had already passed, so another touch of green was the empty bins.

Friday, 13 July 2007

Eco-friendly Canadians? Well, sort of...

The news has been full of how kind of, sort of eco-friendly Canadians are.

Statistics Canada reported Wednesday that the 2006 Households and Environment Survey showed that nearly 60 per cent of Canadian households have some compact fluorescent light bulbs, up considerably in recent years.. More people composted, too, and more had “water-saving shower heads and toilets,” Statscan said in a press release.

That’s nice.

But the survey also found that more than half of Canadians commuted to work alone in a private car or truck. That is definitely not good, and if people think they’re being ecological just because they’ve got a few of those funny light bulbs, they’re deluding themselves. The Canadian transportation sector accounts for at least 50 per cent of energy related greenhouse gas emissions. If we want to make changes that matter, transportation is the sector on which we should concentrate, through more fuel-efficient vehicles, better public transportation, and higher urban densities.

Photo: Two signs of hope for green cities: buses and the persistance of growing things.

Thursday, 12 July 2007

Opposition Grows to Gros Cacouna and Rabaska LNG Projects

Opposition is mounting to the proposals for liquid national gas ports and processing plants in Quebec. (See blog posted last week.) Several environmental groups are calling for reconsideration, while one activist published an open letter to Al Gore in Le Devoir, asking him to come to Quebec to lead the fight.

As Le Devoir journalist Louis-Gilles Francoeur wrote on Saturday, it’s not clear who would benefit from either one of the plants. The one at Gros Cacouna on the lower St. Lawrence would supposedly serve the New England market, while Rabaska would serve Quebec and Ontario. Natural gas burns cleaner than other sorts of fossil fuels, but it is far from being completely clean, and its processing would actually increase the green house gas emissions in Quebec.

Just as importantly, would there be enough demand for the natural gas processed by two plants? Or would the two plants turn out to be double white elephants underwritten by Quebec and Canadian taxpayers through interest-free loans or other subsidies? Government has a huge role to play in creating a better world, and it should not waste its resources on questionable projects like these.

Wednesday, 11 July 2007

Zola and Ian McEwan: The Devil Is in the Details

In Saturday, Ian McEwan has his hero Henry Perowne muse on something his daughter tells him: that her favourite novelist said that you can make anything interesting by looking at it closely enough. Henry is scornful of this, thinking that to be that kind of writer, all you have to do is be observant and take good notes. There’s a wink to the reader here, of course, because McEwan definitely believes that careful observation is a key to fiction.

This week I discovered that the quote is from Flaubert: Pour qu'une chose soit intéressante, il suffit de la regarder longtemps. I went looking for it after I’d begun reading Émile Zola’s novels, doing research for my next book. Zola’s books take place in mid-19th century Paris which will be my book’s starting point: its working title is Haussmann’s Boulevards to Jane Jacobs’ Streets: A Non-pedestrian Look at Walking in the City. The enormous changes that Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann was bringing about in Paris are the background to L’Assommoir (The Drinking Den) La Curée (The Kill), and Au Bonheur des dames (The Ladies’ Delight.)

The books are stuffed with details: what people wore, what they ate, how they set their tables, whether they walked or rode in carriages. Sometimes—no, often—Zola, like McEwan gives more than you might care to know. But it is true that looking carefully renders the most ordinary things noteworthy. What matters is the choice of detail. For example, there are three dinner parties described in L’Assommoir. Like the fish soup that Henry cooks in Saturday, each of these meals tells volumes about the characters--and their destiny.

Great summer reading: heartily recommended.

Tuesday, 10 July 2007

Big New Park for Montreal, or Real Estate Dream?

After a week of heat, we’ve had more than a week of cool weather, with good rain the last couple of days. The garden has taken off, quite literally. The grape vine—a volunteer from the compost heap—is now climbing into the pear trees and approaching the neighbors’ porch. I must get out the long pruning knife and cut things back.

At the same time, Le Devoir has a story about a plan for a huge park where an freeway interchange is now. The highway structure must come down over the next 10 years anyway, we’re told: elevated roads don’t weather well here, probably due ot the amount of salt used t keep them snow- and ice-free in the winter. In its place a consortium which includes interests close to the current Conservative Federal government would like to put up a complex including a lake, wooded areas, much open space…and luxury housing.

That figures. Real estate promoters have frequently been behind the development of parks. As I recount in the Chicago chapter of my book Green City: People, Nature and Urban Places, one of the first public parks there was fully developed by an entrereneur Samuel H. Kerfoot (p. 84) specifically to make the houses he was building around it more attractive to buyers.

In this case, the idea might have some merit, but we should be careful to make sure this trial balloon has more than hot air in it.

Monday, 9 July 2007

Good News at Last from the New York Times

Yesterday the New York Times called for the immediate withdrawal of American troops from Iraq, and the bodies of six Canadian soldiers killed in Afghanistan arrived back in this country. A year ago, the bloody month-long battle between Israel and Lebanon began.

I was born in war time, and my earliest memories are of the uncertainty surrounding what was going to happen next. We were far from the direct path of the war—my father never even made it overseas—but the fear and the worry from that time have marked my life. That it has taken this long for the most influential newspaper in the United States to come out against the stupidity of the American adventure in Iraq, that the current Canadian government seems prepared to let Canadians die in ill-conceived operations in one country where armed intervention might have made a difference, and that tensions in Israel and Lebanon still fester—all this is enough to make one weep in anger.

That would be an inappropriate response, though. Just as the only shelter during the Cold War was peace, so the only way to resolve these conflicts is to let our leaders know what we think. Write, e-mail, call, fax: let them know that things are getting worse, not better. We need another approach, one which will encourage dialogue and development, not destruction.

Saturday, 7 July 2007

Saturday photo: Three centuries in Old Montreal

This picture was taken from the garden of the Château de Ramezay, built in the 18th century and home to an impressive parade of figures since. It even was the seat of the American occupation in the 1700s during the 13 colonies' fight for independence from Britain.

The domed building in the background is the old Palais de Justice, built in the 19th century. Behind it can be seen the new Palais, which was opened in 1971. A number of historical buildings were torn down in its construction, but on the other side parts of the wall which surrounded the city at its beginnings can be seen. In the past it's been a case of "you win some, you lose some." Maybe the balance is shifiting toward winning more...

Photo by Kris Down

Friday, 6 July 2007

Natural Gas versus Green Houses: Size Appears to Matter

Quebec and the St. Lawrence river could end up having two ports with big natural gas processing plants in the near future. On Thursday an environmental report released by a joint provincial-federal commission approved the complex for Levis, just down river from Quebec City and across from the lovely, bucolic Ile d’Orléans. Shortly before a similar commission gave the green light to a project on the Lower St. Lawrence at Gros Cacouna. In both cases, the need for natural gas as a clean energy source was cited, as were the supposedly environmentally-sensitive development plans.

The question arises, of course: what about energy conservation? We are going to be dependent on carbon-based fuels for a long while, but more effort must go into using those fuels more efficiently and taking steps to cut down on demand for them. Insulating individual houses, for example, isn’t as flashy as building big plants, but the benefits can be enormous. As we all know, however, size matters, in government projects at least.

Fireweed grows abundantly along the edge of the St. Lawrence where big developments are scheduled.

Thursday, 5 July 2007

Electricity Russling and stories of urbain transit

The last week we've been driving around a lot, showing Montreal and its surroundings to friends from out of town. One of the most interesting things we saw is the increased number of motorized wheelchairs which seem to speed people with handicaps around with great ease. A pleasure to see, and perhaps a protent of real electric cars in the future.

But we also saw a case of electricity russling--two men with electric-assisted bicycles who had found electrical outlets on the wall of a Super C store where apparently no one minds if they charge up their batteries. Another thing to look out in the future?

(To find out what else I've been doing, click here.)