Friday, 30 April 2010

Oil Slick-Oxygen Equation Far From Clear in Gulf of Mexico Eco Disaster

If ever there was an argument against reliance on petroleum as the fuel for our century, it is raging in the Gulf of Mexico. The huge oil spill that has followed an explosion of a drilling rig not only threatens the wild life of the Louisiana coast, it may well have great effects on the health of the ocean waters themselves.

Phytoplankton--tiny organisms that live everywhere in ocean waters--are responsible for creation and maintenance of half of the world's oxygen supply. The other half comes from plants on dry land, which, as we all know, have been taking a big hit.
A big oil slick is not only bad for the general health of ocean creatures, it will cut down the light reaching the organisms that photosynthesis oxygen. Result: who knows?

The message is clear: petroleum is dangerous in many ways, and we've got to figure out how to use considerably less of it.

Thursday, 29 April 2010

The Fight against Health Care User Fees: Bravo! for Quebec's Doctors

User fees are not what the doctors ordered, thank goodness. Yesterday a coalition of Quebec medical groups came out strongly against the idea of charging user fees for medical visits and treatments. They were responding to the Charest government's proposal included in last month's provincial budget to put a $25 charge on each treatment.

This is the "zombie" idea of Canadian health care. It keeps coming back, even though it is clear that it: 1) hurts those people least able to defend themselves, 2) makes health care more expensive because not only does it it require mechanism for processing the fees, it also dissuades people from getting timely medical treatment which avoids more expensive treatment down the line, and 3) is against the princples behind the mostly-terrific Canadian health system, and counter to the Canada Health Act.

Given the vigorous response from all quarters of Quebec society to the user fee proposal, it may be that Charest and company thought to use it to direct fire away from other ideas in the budget, including a once-a-year head tax ($25 this year, rising to $200 in two years) that the government seems determined to impose. Could be. Could be also that Charest and his friends are just out to lunch.

What is clear is that little help in this battle has come from the federal political parties, including the New Democratic Party, which aside from one question in the House of Commons about whether the Canada Health Act would be amended, has said nothing. And this from the party that inspired and fought for Medicare!

Health care is a provincial responsiblity, but federal money is involved, and any party which claims to espouse universally accessible health care should be front and center in defending the Canada Health Act.

Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Cooking When It's Cold and You Wish You Were Somewhere Else

More on the Portuguese-world: some food that I've been trying.

It's still cold today after our April snowstorm, so here are two recipes to warm the heart and the body. Both recipes are adapted from other sources:

A variation on pasteís de nata from Portugal.

1 cup milk
3 tablespoons cornstarch
1 cinnamon stick
2 peels from a lemon, about an inch long each
1 cup white sugar
1 tsp good quality vanilla extract
6 egg yolks
500 grams frozen puff pastry, thawed
1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees F (190 degrees C.) Lightly grease 12 muffin cups and line bottom and sides with puff pastry.
2. Combine milk, cornstarch, sugar, cinammon and lemon peel in a saucepan. Cook, stirring, until mixture thickens. Place egg yolks in a medium bowl. Slowly whisk 1/2 cup of hot milk mixture into egg yolks. Gradually add egg yolk mixture back to remaining milk mixture, whisking constantly. Add vanilla extract. Cook, stirring constantly, for 5 minutes, or until thickened. Cool, remove cinnamon and lemon pepel.
3. Fill pastry-lined muffin cups with mixture and bake in preheated oven for 20 minutes, or until crust is golden brown and filling is lightly browned on top

Wonderful tapioca from Brazil
I had this in São Paulo: it's great, even though my family doesn't like tapioca..

1 cup small, instant tapioca

1 cup water to soak the tapioca (if the box says to use water)

3 cups red grape juice OR

2 cups red wine mixed with 1 cup water (or enough to make the liquid required for the instant tapioca

About 1/2 cup sugar, or to taste

Soak tapioca for about 1/2 hour, if the box says to. Add grape juice to tapioca (or the wine mixed with water and sugar to taste). Bring to boil over low heat stirring constantly with a wooden spoon. Then let cook for about 1/2 hour (until tapioca is clear), stirring occasionally so it doesn't burn. Or follow direction on box. Refrigerate. To serve, spoon into a small bowl.

Tuesday, 27 April 2010

Reading from a Hot Climate for a Day That Should be Spring

A small victory: I just read a whole page of Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis's Dom Casmurro without having to look up one single word!

The short novel by the 19th century Brazilian writer is required reading for my Portuguese class which is drawing to a close. It had been assigned before the strike of lecturers at the Université de Montréal, but did I get started reading it then? No! So here I am, sitting at the kitchen table for hours with two dictionaries, struggling with what is really a very intersting story.

But more about that some other time. Must get back to work. At least there is little temptation to go outside, as it is snowing. Poor robins, poor bees, poor plants who thought spring had come!

Let's hope that there isn't much damage done.

Monday, 26 April 2010

Taliban, US Special Forces and Loud Music: The Noise Files 2

The story seems tailor-made for opponents to noise: The Telegraph earlier this month wrote that US forces are using extremely loud Heavy Metal-style music to chase away the Taliban in southern Afghanistan. An Agence France Presse writer Karim Talbi launched the story April 5, which has been picked up by several media, mainstream as well as fringe.

"The playlist has been hand-selected to annoy the Taliban, according to one US special forces officer," Talbi writes.

"Taliban hate that music," said the sergeant involved in covert psychological operations, or "psy ops", in the area in Helmand province.

"Some locals complain but it's a way to push them to choose. It's motivating Marines as well," he added after one deafening round of several hours including tracks from The Offspring, Metallica and Thin Lizzy."

Talbi continues: "Lieutenant Colonel Brian Christmas -- the commander of US Marines in northern Marjah -- said he was unaware of the musical psy ops.

"It's inappropriate," he told AFP, mindful that a major part of the counter-insurgency plan is focused on winning over Afghans from the insurgents."

The name of the colonel is enough to make anyone suspicious, but it seems he really exists: here's the link to a CBC news story filed by an embedded journalist that refers to him. Yet I've been unable to track down verification or denial of the Heavy Metal story, even though Talbi's reporting appears regularly in newspapers around the world.

If it's true, it's just more fuel in the fight against amplified music, it seems to me. If the US Special Forces think loudly amplified Heavy Metal enough to make the Taliban take flight, two things follow. One, that some sectors of the US military don't understand this "battling for hearts and minds" business, and two, that loud music is pretty awful for a lot of people, and even those who like it recognize that.

Saturday, 24 April 2010

Saturday Photo: "Salacious Flowers" in the Lane Awaiting Romance

Time for the birds, the bees, the insects and the wind. These catkins graced one of the trees (don't know the name: I'm not good on trees other than maples) in the lane this week. No insects seemed nearby, so I'm assuming that they will be fertilized by wind-blown pollen.

I'm reminded of the strategy that Linnaeus used when he did his landmark work on plant classification in the 17th century. He divided the classes of flowering plants into orders on the basis of their female organs, their stigmas and styles, describin each class in terms that some of his contemporaries called "salacious" and "loathsome harlotry". For example, the class Polyandria (from the Greek words meaning many "poly" and male "andros"), which includes the poppy and the linden tree, he described as "twenty males or more in the same bed with the female." (For more see the chapter on the Hortus Botanicus of the University of Leiden in my Recreating Eden: A Natural History of Botanical Gardens. And, yes, that's where the title of this blog comes from.)

This year could have meant a lot of lovelorn plants, I'm afraid, since many plants prepared themselves for blooming before pollinizing insects are out and about. The pear trees in back were just about to bloom two weeks ago during our Easter heat wave, but didn't, thank goodness. Had they, we would have no pears come August, I suspect, as the bees or whatever other insects pollinate them were still in hiding. The cooler weather has stalled the blossoming, however, and slowly the insects are appearing. Next week probably all will be well, and the trees can finally break out in bloom. A happy love story!

Friday, 23 April 2010

Big Books and Big Issues: How to Put Them Together without Writing about the Holocaust

I'm glad to see that someone as plugged into the media and literary world as is Russell Smith finds publishing weird. In yesterday's Globe and Mail he wondered about what "big book" is. Certainly it has nothing to do with size or heft or thickness, he says. And probably it has little to do with daily life and personal stories. More likely it's about "big issues."

Smith writes: "What counts as a big issue, I am guessing, is a trendy one, an issue of the moment. A black man who wants to become president, sex abuse in the Vatican, environmental disaster, Internet life. Or some kind of unlikely combination: black president and vampires; environment and Vatican; Facebook and global killer disease. Those would be big. (Black pope would be brilliant. You can’t have that one; it’s mine.)

"And, of course, it goes without saying, the Holocaust is still and always big – indeed, recently writers can be forgiven for wondering if there is any point to writing about anything else. (You can imagine the clever inventions going around our bars about how brilliant it would be to do some kind of “green” Holocaust novel.)"

Actually, a black Pope maybe not that far in the future, given the way that the Roman Catholic Church is having trouble recruiting Europeans for the priesthood and its strength in Africa. But I think I'd go one further with the Holocaust business: let's declare a moratorium on Holocaust novels, unless you happen to have been personally touched by it.

There are plenty of moral questions which need addressing, plenty of stories to tell. Plenty of Big Stories to tell which may or may not appeal to publishers looking for a Big Best Seller. The trick is to tell the stories in a way that publishers will want to print...and that people want to read, not just now but in the future.

You might be interested in learning that Smith has a new novel out. Called Girl Crazy, it sounds like it's hot: don't know about the bigness though....

Thursday, 22 April 2010

MBA: Skies the Limit, Says McGill, But It Looks Like It Cares Little about Other Kinds of Education

McGill will persist in charging $30,000 for its new executive MBA program, it seems, despite the fact that the Quebec government is threatening to penalize it $28,000 for each person in the program. That means, in effect, that the school would receive less, net, what it would for the current program. Nevertheless, McGill administration says this is the start of a "new and exciting era." Principal Heather Munro-Blum even suggested to Le Devoir that if the classy new program is penalized, the difference would be taken out of other programs, adding to "the burden" on students in other programs.

This is just another example of how universities have bought into the corporate model. The Université de Montréal, despite the fact that about half the undergraduate courses are taught by lecturers, fought tooth and class recently to put a cap on lecturers' wages which are considerably less than those of full time professors. Research chairs in certain fields, high profile business programs, and some graduate programs are what the universities want us to see, and from which they think they can make some money.

But where are the students in this? Left far behind, I fear.

Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Rushing the Season: Bixis are Back, But the Leaves Aren't Yet

The Bixis are out--Montreal's bike rental system started functioning this week, and yesteday I saw at least 20 Bixists whooshing around. The bikes haven't been delivered to all the stations, but in this neighborhood at least some are in place.

It was not all that warm this morning--about 8 C or in the low 50s F--but the letter carrier in the picture obviously is expecting warmer temperatures byy the end of the day. The leaves aren't on the trees yet either, but that isn't going to stop people, it seems.

The up side of climate change?

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

What Comes After Winter? Green!

And the green grass grew all around, all around....

With the rain and nice weather, the grass is turning a lovely green.

Worth waiting for.....

Monday, 19 April 2010

Eye Exams Etc.

Eye exam this morning. Can't see a thing. Good news though: incipient cataracts can wait 10 years. More tomorrow.

Saturday, 17 April 2010

Saturday Photo: Yellow Tulips, Or Sunshine on a Rainy Day

No, they're not from our yard: the tulips are just beginning to bloom. Lee bought them as a present for me--a sort of late Valentine's Day gift as he was down with a cold in mid-February.

Tulips show up in strange places. Nancy Marelli, co-publisher of Véhicule Press, planted many in their small front yard last fall, but very few have come up. Their neighbor, however, was raving about the miracle that has occured chez eux: small thicket of tulip leaves pushing their way toward the sunshine even though they had planted none.

It seems that squirrels--those rascally beasts--had dug up most of Nancy's tulip bulbs and moved them three meters away to plant them there.

A note about the cool weather: this is the third year when we've had short spell of warm weather followed by some cool. This means that the spring flowers have begun to bloom early, and then have had a chance to strut their stuff before it gets hot. Most years in the past, the period of bloom has been short as we jumped from winter to summer in a week. I prefer it this way.

Friday, 16 April 2010

Jack Finally Says Something about the Canada Health Act: Is There Going to Be Any More NDP Action to Defend Health Care

The Quebec government's plan to charge user fees as a well as a head tax for health care is clearly contrary to the guarantees of universally accessible health care found in the Canada Healh Act. There have been a flurry of op-ed pages in Quebec in protest as well as some rather sizeable marches, even though the idea was floated only two weeks ago.

But the supposedly-left of center federal opposition parties have been curiously silent on the subject. The concern, I'm told, is that nobody wants to seem to come out criticizing the Quebec government because health is a provincial responsiblity, and to make too much noise might rile up Quebec voters. But the Canada Health Act is the one tool that the federal government has (it can withhold cost-sharing payments if there are violations.) Those who care about health care ought to be in there fighting on every level of government.

Even Michael Ignatieff seems to have come to that conclusion, although at first he said he didn't think Quebec's plans were such a bad thing. He's changed his tune, which is good for him. And finally Jack Layton asked a question on the topic in the House of Commons on Wednesday.

The mystery is why Layton waited so long to say something. This is an issue that the NDP should own. Universally accessible health care was invented by Tommy Douglas and his friends, and if the NDP has a soul, it should be front and center in defending the Canada Health Act.

Come on Jack and Tom and you others: forge an alliance with all those people in Quebec who hate what the Charest Liberals are proposing. Maybe it's not too late to show a little of what made the NDP worthwhile.

Thursday, 15 April 2010

Glad I'm Not Flying Today, Or Gaia Strikes Back

There are times when it seems that the earth has had enough of us. First the earthquakes in Haiti, Chile, Baja California and China.

Now it's the turn of the volcanos: there has been seismic activity in Iceland for some weeks, but now it's really serious, it seems. None of these events is unheard of, and everyone knows that the forces inside the earth are impersonal and eternal. Yet, it's tempting to anthropomorphize, and suggest that maybe our faults are being criticized...

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

Noise Limits in the City: No, I (and Others) Say, to Amplified Music

The issue of noise is the elephant in the room when it comes to urban living. People talking next door, in the street, on their balconies is not a real problem, but amplified sound is. Lately in Montreal, there have been several voices raised (to use an appropriate metaphor) against high levels of amplified music. Last summer it was residents of the South Shore who complained about rock shows in a park in the middle of the St. Lawrence. More recently it has been residents of the newly-gentrified area in the center of Montreal.

The latest incident comes from complaints related to musical events over the last couple of weeks. A limit of 100 decibels has been enforced, it seems, to the displeasure of some musicians, but not all.

Now, that level of sound does serious damage to hearing: there is no reason why that should be allowed in any other than very special circumstances. In residential areas, I'd say the level should be even lower.

This is a topic to follow. Let us hope that the controversy doesn't fall on deaf ears.

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

Port-Au-Prince to Be Rebuilt, in Part, Elsewhere, Or the Dangers of From-Scratch Urban Planning

They've begun cleaning out the camps in Port au Prince, partly to remove people from areas prone to flooding, and partly as a greater plan to change the urban-rural balance in Haiti. On the weekend, Le Devoir reports, 7,300 people camping in the stadium were relocated, and more will follow.

The idea is to rebuild schools and other infrastructure away from the capital city, with the aim of providing reasons for people to leave the devastated metropolis.

“You need to restore a balance,” said Leslie Voltaire, an urban planner and a special envoy to the United Nations, told The New York Times last month. “If we don’t do anything, Port-au-Prince is expected to grow to 6,000,000 in the next 15 years. It will become an incubator for further crime and violence. Our economic advantage is in agriculture and tourism, and these are by nature decentralized.”

I must admit I'm a little skeptical about this. If the new urban magnets require daily travel by means other than foot, this is going to be just another disaster. When Lisbon was flattened in 1755 by a major earthquake, serious thought was given to moving its center to what was then the country. The Marquês de Pombal, however, decided that rejigging the center was the better plan, and generations have profited ever since.

The danger is that you can't just decree that an outlying town will become important. With few exceptions, that just doesn't work and the people who are supposed to live there suffer. Careful, please. The Haitian people have gone through a lot and what they don't need is from-scratch urbanism. To be continued...

Monday, 12 April 2010

Université de Montréal Lecturers Accept Final "Final" Offer and 30,000 Students Go Back to School.

Gotta rush: it's time to pull out my Portuguese verb conjugations and get back to work. The lecturers at the Université de Montréal have been on strike for six weeks so we've had no classes. But after much negotiation and one sounding rejection of a supposedly final offer three weeks ago, the two sides pounded out an agreement when the Minister of Education put the screws on. So our term will be saved, and I've got to try to remember what I'd learned.

Supposedly 30,000 students were affected by the labour conflict, which says a lot about how the UdM relies on lecturers to teach many, many undergraduate classes. They get paid a whole lot less than full time faculty, of course. Sounds to me that the UdM, like a lot of other institutions of higher education, are riding on their research and not on how they teach. We complained about that when I was an undergraduate decades ago, but it's much worse now.

However, you'll excuse me... e Até logo.

Saturday, 10 April 2010

Saturday Photo: Hydrangeas, But Not Like Those on São Miguel

As I recover from the last push to finish the manuscript of Making Waves, I have begun to think about plants and spring more. Last weekend it was summer-like, literally, although the temperature dropped last week and it rained.

All to the good actually, as it is always nice to have a few days when the spring flowers can show off before the heat destroys them. There are two daffodils in bloom in front, up the street the forsythia is almost out, and the grass is greening up.

But this week's picture is of a potted plant than one of our neighbor's gave us: a rose hydrangea that makes a lovely splash of colour inside. It didn't come with a species name, so I'm not sure if it will grow outside, but I'll try. The ones on São Miguel which are grown as hedges to mark the edge of fields are blue, but even more spectacular.

Friday, 9 April 2010

Electronic Polling Is the Future, Jean-Marc Leger Says: More Evidence of the Wired World

Very interesting article in Le Devoir this morning by Jean-Marc Leger, the guru of polling in Quebec. It's worth trotting out your high school French if you're not bilingual to read what he says about the reliability of internet polling.

Among other things, he says that the rates of response are much higher on internet polls, that a public that telephone surveys are not reaching (the growing percentage who don't have landlines) can be polled, the rate of undecideds is much lower because people can answer when they want and are the respondants are paid, not the pollsters.

This last is particularly important: Leger Marketing has 315,000 on its "panel" of people who have agreed to answer their polls. Not everyone is polled all the time, but because the people on the larger panel have provided certain demographic data, groups can be pulled from it to be questioned on different subjects. And the respondants answer because they get something out of it, not because they've been bugged to respond to a telephone call.

Leger ends his piece by saying that comparisons of results obtained by electronic polling has proved more accurate than telephone polling when it comes predicting election results.

Don't know quite what this means for the democratic process. Certainly there will be fewer telephone solicitor jobs available in the future. Can one volunteer for these polls, I wonder. A file to be watched as we move deeper into the cyber age.

Thursday, 8 April 2010

No Time to Stop Marching Toward Complete Elimination of Nuclear Weapons: Get Rid of Them

Further to yesterday's posts about over-armored warriors: the news this morning is full of Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signing a nuclear non-proliferation pact which forsees a graduated reduction in the amount of nuclear weapons in the world over the next couple of decades.

We are 20 years after the end of the Cold War and it's taken this long to start eliminating nuclear arms. During that brief period when it appeared the world might actually have a little peace, I had hoped that we'd be rid of the threat of nuclear war by now. But we haven't, we've had two major wars, and a whole lot of little conflicts. Some of the players in the Realpolitik are not part of the treaty: for example, Israel isn't although The Jerusalem Post says it is thought to have about 200 nuclear warheads.

We haven't had a nuclear war, or even a nuclear skirmish, which is all to the good. But rather than rest on the laurels of this new step, the world should push on toward complete elimination of nuclear weapons.

Heaven knows we've proved over and over again that we're quite good at killing each other with much lower tech stuff, from machetes to "smart" bombs.

Wednesday, 7 April 2010

Heavy Weapons Aren't the Way to Go: Agincourt, Aljubarrato and Obama

While I put the finishing touches on Making Waves, I was struck by the similarity between the decisive battle of Aljubarrato (1385), in which the Spanish and the French were decisively beaten by the Portuguese supported by English archers, and that famous battle at Agincourt 30 years later. Here's the trailer from a Portuguese movie about the former, plus Kenneth Branagh giving a hair-raising reading of the St. Crispin's Day speech from Henry V.

In both cases, the heavily armored mounted knights had their horses shot from underneath them and were slaughtered by troops on foot. There is a message here, particularly coming right after Obama begins to back away from the nuclear deterrent. The only shelter is peace, maybe?

Tuesday, 6 April 2010

Woman Who's Been Typing for Decades Laughs at Woman Who Returns to Work after 40 Years

It's the home stretch on Making Waves, so here's a quick laugh. Now back to work

Monday, 5 April 2010

"Faces of America:" More Reasons Why the Idea of "Any Known Blood" Is Ridiculous

As I begin the wrap up on the manuscript of Making Waves: The Portuguese Adventure, I've delved back again into the complicated vision of race. One of the things that is most striking is the difference between the attutide toward racial mixing in Brazil and in North America, particularly in the United States. While discrimination on colour lines exists in Brazil, what doesn't exist is the idea that "any known blood" makes someone Black, or a person of colour or Afro-whatever.

Nowhere does that show up more strikingly than in a comparison of Elizabeth Alexander, the distinguished African-American scholar who was invited to read a poem at Barak Obama's inaugaration, and former Brazilian president Fernando Henrique Cardoso.

There is no doubt that Alexander would be considered an African-American, even though it turns out that she has more white ancestors than black and that's she's a descendant of King John of England (1167 – 1216) who sealed the Magna Charta. Cardoso, on the other hand, was considered by 70 per cent of Brazilians to be white even though he called himself a "mulatino" with "one foot in the kitchen."

It would help a lot if we recognized that we are mixtures, that there is no such thing as "racial purity," and that skin colour is merely an adaptation that has developed in many forms in many places with little relation to any other trait.

Saturday, 3 April 2010

Saturday Photo: Daffodils for a Spring Day

Update on Sunday, April 4: There is one daffodil in bloom, in fact. Beautiful weather, scarily so.

Original post: No, they're not in bloom here yet, but with temperatures in the mid-twenties (high 70s F) this weekend the spring flowers are bound to leap ahead of themselves.

Here's William Wordsworth's poem too, I'll think of it and the flowers next week when it's supposed to rain.


I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o'er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze. Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

The waves beside them danced; but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
A poet could not but be gay,
In such a jocund company:
I gazed - and gazed - but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:

For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.

Friday, 2 April 2010

The Lighter Side of Economics, Because We Need Some after the Quebec Budget This Week

Yoram Baumman, everybody's favorite stand-up economist, is taking to the road this spring. Check this out to see if he'll be near you.

If not try this:

Thursday, 1 April 2010

April Fool, Poisson d'avril: Once upon a Time the Cod Were Plentiful

In French today is the day you try to pin a cut out fish on someone's back, as an April Fool's joke. What follows is far from a joke, but an eloquent tribute to the Portuguese men who fished for cod from small boats by hand.

The quality of the YouTube video isn't good, but the film is easily available for purchase from the NFB.