Saturday, 29 June 2013

Saturday Photo: Let's Hear It for Hostas

Maybe 15 years ago I bought three hosta plants for, if I remember correctly, $4 a piece.  I planted them in front, where I'd begun the slow process of eliminating the lawn. 

What a success!  They now line the walkway in front and the flower plot in back, fill in the space between the property line and the garage.  I've given many plants away as I thinned out mine, so at least a dozen neighbors also have a plethora of hostas.

These aren't the big specimen plants which you find in garden centres these days, but a rather modest striped leaf, blue flower variety.  But I think they're just about the greatest easy-care garden plant around.  And they're just starting to bloom this year.

Friday, 28 June 2013

Okay, There's Climate Change! What to Do About It?

Another wet, wet day here, while the center of the continent suffers from heat and they mop up in Alberta. Gene Kelly offers an alternative.

 A little silly, but lifts the spirits!

Thursday, 27 June 2013

The War of the Bees: Dead Ones in Oregon, Live Ones in Toronto

A flurry of bee stories: thousands of them drop dead in Oregon, while a big swarm attacks a construction site in Toronto.

What would Barbara Kingsolver, whose latest novel is about strange goings-on with  butterflies, say?


Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Deep Conspiracy: Naomi Wolf on That Snowden Guy

As I think I've said here before, why should anybody be surprised that various branches of US intelligence has been following us.  They've done it for a long time, as anybody who was/is active in politics knows.  That they get it wrong often, is also well known.

And now Naomi Wolf (not to be confused with Canadian Naomi Klein whose credentials as a shit-kicker are perhaps more impressive) has come out on Facebook with her doubts about Snowden.  She's been raked over the coals by some one the leflt, including in a Gawker piece that pokes fim at her.

Basically she says that Snowden, the NSA whistle-blower is too polished to be real. He doesn't have a lawyer at his side as nearly every authentic whistle blower does.  She adds:  "It is actually in the Police State’s interest to let everyone know that everything you write or say everywhere is being surveilled."

Interesting point of view.  That's why we have to keep saying what we think--which is not the same as just saying anything to fill the silence in our souls. 

Tuesday, 25 June 2013

Nothing (All That) New Under the Sun: Solar-Powered Shipi Visits North America

The New York Times has a fascinating video this morning about a solar-powered ship visiting New York.  The Turanor Planetsolar circumnavigated the globe last year, and is now following the sun in the Gulf Stream, studying pollution and ocean life.

The $17 million catamaran wasn't built for research but has been modified to gather samples and reading.  In the video, captain Gérard d’Aboville explains how in addition to wind and currents, he must plot the ship's course taking into account projected sunshine.  The ship's batteries when fully charged can power it for 72 hours, but better safe than sorry, he says, so sometimes he charts a detour to stay in the sun.

Of course, using energy from the sun is nothing new in navigation.  Sailing ships are dependent on the wind which is a product of differential heating and cooling of the earth's atmosphereby the sun.  But note, too, that the ship is flying the Swiss flag even though the land-locked nation has never been thought of as a martime power.  Don't underestimate what small nation can do, though. The other picture is a drawing of a Portuguese carvel from the 15th century when that small country on the edge of Europe set off to explore the world.  :

Monday, 24 June 2013

Happy Fête nationale from Someone Who Chose Quebec

Today is Quebec's big holiday.  Formerly named after French Canada's patron saint St. Jean, Jean the Baptist, it now is more inclusive.  Everyone is supposed to be welcome, although some Anglophones and others shy away from too much celebration, fearing its nationalist connotation.

Some time ago, however, I decided that I was going to take the Quebec powers-that-be at their word.  We arrived in our mid-20s without a clear idea of what we were getting into.  There have been certain ups and downs, but basically I'd rather live in Montreal than any other city I know. 

Hence the flag which we fly on June 24.  We belong here. So do our kids and our grandkids, and we aren't going to let anyone forget that we're part of this sometimes defensive but always interesting society.

Have a good  holiday, tout le monde.

Saturday, 22 June 2013

Saturday Photo: Roses and Peonies

What good is rain for?  For making roses and peonies bloom. 

I've never had such lovely ones as this year, when the temperatures have been cool and the rain has been plentiful.

It's a pleasure to sit outside and smell the flowers.  Only problem is: there hasn't been much time to do that and not get wet in the last couple of weeks.

Friday, 21 June 2013

Last Day of School for Seven Weeks, Which Isn't Too Short at All...

This is the last day of school here: many kids have only a half day and walking around the neighborhood this morning, it was clear  that the young people are flying high.

In other places, the 180+ days that are standard for the school calendar fit into a shorter period.  Why I'm not sure.  No allowance for snow days?  Fewer teacher professional days? Shorter or fewer holidays? 

And given that kids go back to school here the last week in August, that makes the summer relatively short in a climate where the season is so brief. 

But there are a couple of advantages to the short summer vacation which I'm sure weren't on the table when the pattern was set a half century or more ago.    The first is the fact that so many families have two working parents: a shorter summer school vacation makes organizing the kids summer easier.  The norm seems to be summer day camp, often run by municipalities.  My kids loved them, particularly Lukas who still has as his best friends the guys he met at Outremont's Parc Soleil when he was just a tad.  They didn't go to the same school he went to for varioius reasons, but they found each other each summer and had a great time.

The other is that kids have less time to forget.  Teachers will tell you that the first days or weeks of school in the fall frequently must be devoted to reviewing what was supposed to be learned the year before. Where kids are stimulated during the summer, there may be less fall-off, research from Johns Hopkins suggests.  But for kids who are left to their own devices during the summer, the result may be critical for their success. 

Thursday, 20 June 2013

India and China: Two Giants with Different Records When It Comes to Inequality

China is doing better for its citizens than India mainly because it is providing more equal opportunity, according to Amartya Sen, Nobel Laureate for economics in The New York Times today.  His message should be heeded by leaders in other countries like the US and Canada which are becoming more unequal. 

He writes: " between India and China is in the provision of essential public services — a failing that depresses living standards and is a persistent drag on growth.

"Inequality is high in both countries, but China has done far more than India to raise life expectancy, expand general education and secure health care for its people. India has elite schools of varying degrees of excellence for the privileged, but among all Indians 7 or older, nearly one in every five males and one in every three females are illiterate. And most schools are of low quality; less than half the children can divide 20 by 5, even after four years of schooling.

"India may be the world’s largest producer of generic medicine, but its health care system is an unregulated mess. The poor have to rely on low-quality — and sometimes exploitative — private medical care, because there isn’t enough decent public care. While China devotes 2.7 percent of its gross domestic product to government spending on health care, India allots 1.2 percent.

"India’s underperformance can be traced to a failure to learn from the examples of so-called Asian economic development, in which rapid expansion of human capability is both a goal in itself and an integral element in achieving rapid growth. Japan pioneered that approach, starting after the Meiji Restoration in 1868, when it resolved to achieve a fully literate society within a few decades. As Kido Takayoshi, a leader of that reform, explained: “Our people are no different from the Americans or Europeans of today; it is all a matter of education or lack of education.” Through investments in education and health care, Japan simultaneously enhanced living standards and labor productivity — the government collaborating with the market."

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

The Red Haired Neanderthal

I'm currently messing around in our deep, deep past, trying to get a fix on the roads that humans have traveled for a new non-fiction book to be called Road through Time.

One of the delightful things is to discover that the red-haired genes I carry--once having redhair myself and having given birth to a red head--may come from Neanderthals.

Seems recent research into comparisons between European genomes and that of Neanderthals show that about 4 per cent of current European descendants have some of the cave men's genes.

That reminds me of what McGill archeologist Michael Bisson told me nearly 15 years ago when I did an article on evolution at the university for the alumni magazine.  He suggested then that they probably had lots of body hair and were fair-skinned, traits that would have been useful in Ice Age climates and where the days are short for a much of the year since fair skin allows easier Vitamin D production.

Lee laughed when I told him: needless to say he's not a red head. 

The drawing, BTW, is a recreation by National Geographic staff. 

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Lots of People Not Going to Work Means Easy Traffic?

Montreal is becoming famous for its terrible traffic, along with its terrible mayors.  But one of the things that is lost in shuffle this week, as Mayor Michael Applebaum was first arrested and then resigned  is a general strike in the construction industry.

For the first time in more than 25 years, nearly all construction projects have shut down.  The strike began on Monday and the effect was felt immediately--on traffic.  Not only are the big trucks delivering materials to the sites off the road, so are the workers.  Their absence points up the problems of urban sprawl and housing affordability, although so far no official appears to have noticed.

I was amazed that during the year we were in reconstruction/restoration of our house after a house fire almost all the workers lived off the island of Montreal.  They would be here by 7 a.m., but that meant leaving home an hour earlier.  Even though they usually returned  before the afternoon rush hour, the time they spent on the road had to be immense.  The reason they gave was that you could get a lot better housing for the money outside the city.  A detatched house with a garden is unthinkable on the island for any family without two good incomes, but might be possible off-island for any ordinary Joe and his stay-at-home or part-time-working wife.

As it turns out, one of the points of contention in the labour dispute is attribution of work.  Workers, so their spokespersons said on the radio, can be called at 3:30 a.m. to show up at 7 p.m. and be asked to work until 5 or 6 p.m., or even later.  Impossible, inhuman, making us the next thing to slaves, they said.

I don't doubt it.  But just working out better work schedules is only a small part of the answer.  We need 1) more affordable housing in closer in neighborhoods and 2) a major promotion campaign to sell people on the advantages of living there.

Monday, 17 June 2013

On a Day When Canada's Two Biggest Cities Appear to Have Crooks as Mayor...

A little ditty thata may make you smile: The You Can't Fight City Hall Blues

Sunday, 16 June 2013

Saturday Photo: Bridal Veil and Honeysuckle

Sounds a little raunchy, doesn't it?  But the combination of bridal veil and honeysuckle makes a gorgeous late spring display.

Friday, 14 June 2013

The Fruit of the US Supreme Court Decision Outlawing Anti-Miscegenation Laws: Pretty Cute!

The US Supreme Court struck down laws that forbade people of different races from marrying each other 50 years ago this month. EVen though the following commercial has had some nasty reactions, the fact that it was made shows that perhaps hearts have changed at least a bit.

Thursday, 13 June 2013

Why don't people learn to turn the sound down? Once again highly amplified music is making the news around here: a nearby elementary school got a fine for refusing to turn down the music while kids were supposedly doing exercises outside.

There's absolutely nothing wrong with kids making noise at noon and during recess.  But when the neighbors can't think because the music the kids are moving to is too loud, it's perfectly right to ask to turn it down.  And turning it down is only neighborly...

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

No Time to Go to the Country? Read Barney's Version Instead

Just because it's funny, and I'm looking for a way to avoid work.

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Why Americans Seem So Unconcerned about Megadata and Their Telephone and Email Records

The Pew Institute has just released a poll showing that a good majority of Americans don't have a problem with what the US government has been doing with the logs of their telephone calls and emails. 

This has prompted a flurry of comment here, some of it shocked.  How could they? Spying is spying.  Their privacy is being threatened.  And what kind of data is being collected about Canadians here and South of the Border?

The answer, I think, lies not only in a certain partisan bias--the Pew Poll shows that a lot more Democrats now think it's okay than did when the Republicans were in control.  But Americans, particularly those who have been vocal protesters, know that there's always been a lot of internal spying going on. While nobody got shipped to Made-in-the-USA Gulags during the Cold War, many were pulled over the coals in various witch hunts for Communists.

A long time ago I learned not to send messages of whatever sort that I wouldn't want to be intercepted.  Not that I've ever been anything other than a straight-arrow citizen, but my opinions haven't always followed the usual line.  Back when I was editor of the Daily Cal, the student newspaper at UC Berkeley, it was common knowledge that the FBI had files on student activists.  A few years later, a cousin of a cousin apparently had a problem getting a high level security clearance because of her tenuous connection to me even though I'd never met her. (She got it eventually, but it took a while.0

And then just a little while ago The New York Review of Books published a interesting review of Subversives: The FBI's War on Student Radicals, and Reagan's Rise to Power by Seth Rosenfeld.  In it Adam Hochschild notes that being a junior reporter covering student unrest at Berkeley  was "enough to gain a notation in my own FBI files, which I obtained under the Freedom of Information Act years ago, that 'acting as a representative of the press,' I had been in contact with the march organizers. Although I was a very small fish indeed, my FBI and CIA files from the 1960s run to more than one hundred pages."

Makes me wonder if I should do a little Freedom of Information search myself.  And if thata Act will be one of the next to fall.

Monday, 10 June 2013

The Incredible Human Journey, But Not in the US

Traveling rather far afield as I continue the ground work a new non-fiction book to be called Road through Time, I came upon this marvelous BBC series on human migration: The Incredible Human Journey.  It's not new--apparently it aired first in 2009 in the UK and the following year on CBC, but I had never heard of it.

So Sunday I spent five hours watching Alice Roberts, an attractive medical doctor and anthropologist, as she went around the world, following our ancestors on their treks out of Africa.  Lots of information I was only vaguely aware of, and while a little is out of date since the field is advancing so quickly (DNA evidence of Neandrothal breeding with modern humans has recently been announced, contrary to what the series says) it is defintely worth watching.

As I read the list of countries where the series has screened (the version I watched had Portuguese subtitles) the absence of the US was striking.  Could it be that the series' premises are too hot for a country where more than have the people don't believe in evolution?

Saturday, 8 June 2013

Saturday Photo: Japense Maples and Russian Olives

The air right now is heavy with the smell of Russian olives. 

Not olives, but certainly a native of the Russians steppes, these hardy trees are considered a nuisance in many places where they've been introduced.

But here, the winters are so severe that they don't run wild, and lend lovely dusty green folliage to the city scape all summer, and in the early summer, a heady, orange-like perfume.

Japanese maples are another exotic, but one much more picky about their surroundings.  I've tried to grow them but never had any luck. 

These two trees, though, share a tiny front yard on the Plateau.  Each time I pass I stop to admire the play of colour and form.  Whoever planted them had an eye for pleasing combinations as well as a green thumb to make them thrive.

Friday, 7 June 2013

Location, Location, Location: the Story Behind Montreal's Mega Hospitals and the Future of Mount Royal

An extremely important conference is being held today on the future of Mount Royal--but it may be too late.  In a couple of years, four health establishments on the flanks of the mountain will be vacated as they move to two super hospitals now under construction. 

Getting agreement on where to build them took a couple of decades, and the awarding of construction contracts is a saga in its self.  Collusion, cost over-runs and even criminal proceedings against one of the major administrators have come out in recent months too. (Dr. Arthur Porter, the Montreal Hospital Centre's former head, is now fighting extradition from Panama.)

But relatively little has been said about what will become of the property which is now used for health purposes. (The photo is of the Royal Victoria Hospital surrounded by the greenery of Mount Royal Park, to give some idea of what's at stake.)  Not only were no studies done at the beginning of the projects of their impact on the city's urban fabric, few have been the questions raised about who might profit from, say, transforming the old buildings with their spectacular views into condos.

Which brings us to the heart of the matter: it seems to me that one of the motors behind the super hospital push from the beginning was real estate speculation.  Who turned a blind eye to this possiblity?  Who's going to profit? 

Not those who love Mount Royal Park, I bet. 

Thursday, 6 June 2013

KFC Goes to Mongolia

I just read a really interesting travel book In Search of Genghis Khan by Tim Severin. In it, he recounts his attempt to ride with Mongolians from Ulaan Bataar west toward Europe, following the route that Genghis Khan took.

The time was 1990, the Soviet bloc was just opening up, and the best thing on the menuas they travelled was boiled mutton. How times have changed! Kentucky Fried Chicken just opened its first restaurant in Mongolia and here's a report: nobody mentions mutton.
(For more about the book check out my blog Not So Solitary a Pleasure: A Blog about Books.)

Wednesday, 5 June 2013

Warning: Polls May Be Hazardous to Your Health

Pollsters have been insisting that even though fewer people can be reached by telephone today, polling still is a valid way of predicting electoral outcomes.

They've turned to elelctronic polling and elaborate models that are supposed to message data so that the population reached by polling reflects the electorate as a whole.

But recently there have been some thundering examples.  The first was the way that Romney forces underestimated Obama strength in the 20012 US Presidential elction. On Tuesday Gallup officials said  they had analyzed their performance and come up with four factors that led to the skewing of their prediction toward the Republicans.

The New York Times reported that "Gallup’s model for identifying those most likely to vote — a series of seven questions — seemed to have failed in 2012, and the organization is re-evaluating its formula for ranking voters who will turn out.

"Just as technology has changed the way campaigns work, it has altered the way survey researchers gather data. A change in the way that Gallup called respondents on land lines may have been a contributing factor that led to its sample to be older and more Republican. Half of their respondents, however, were reached on cellphones — a proportion that is at or above industry standards.

"In addition, there were too many respondents from certain time zones. In the South and the Midwest, there were more respondents from the Central Time Zone, which tends to be more Republican, than the Eastern Time Zone, which skews Democratic.

"Finally, the way Gallup asked callers about their race overrepresented some groups."

Corrcting these problems should not be insurmountable obstacles, but nevertheless it would be wise for Canadian pollsters and political top dogs to consider what Gallup found.  Both BC and Alberta have had recent elections full of suprises, too. 

Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Plant a Tree for $25 Until June 15

Trees are great.  Not only do they provide a feast for the eye and shade for the body, they absorb carbon dioxide.  You might say they are nature's CO2 sequestering program.

But saying that isn't enough.  We've got to plant and nurture more trees everywhere.  The Rassemblement de Eco-quartiers, an umbrella organization of citizen-based ecology groups in Montreal, are making it easy to do just that.

Until June 15, Montrealers can buy a 1.5 to 2 meter tree for $25, which will be delivered to them over the  June 15-16 weekend.  The trees are of six sorts, all native to this region.  (That's a red maple, one of the most emblematic of all Canadian trees.)  For details, check out the Eco-quartier website.

The goal this year is 1,000 trees planted, but the ecology groups have a bigger, long term one: to increase the urban forest canopy coverage in the city from 20  to 25 per cent.  A laudable endeavor.  Just the thought of it makes feel cool. 

Monday, 3 June 2013

Sounds of Summer: Crickets and Night Hawks

While walking in Mount Royal Cemetery on Saturday I was surprised and delighted to here a cricket.  Usually they come later in the season, but perhaps the very warm weather had spurred this one along.

Over the weekend, I heard nighthawks too.  They usually arrive a week or so earlier, and I'd begun to wonder if they were running into the same sort of problems a number of birds seem to.  Pierre Gingras, who keeps track of birds and flowers on Radio Canada, lamented in early May that he hadn't seen any swallows, even though he keeps a variety of swallow hotels on his property.

After I heard that I keep listening for the chitter of  swallows, and was saddened not to hear any for some time.  But then a week ago the morning silence was broken by the sounds of several swallows chittering as they breakfasted.  Maybe there was something different this year with the timing of insect hatches that delayed the two species.

Early crickets?  Late midges and June flies?  Is anybody keeping track?

Saturday, 1 June 2013

Saturday Photo: June Flowers are Here!

I'm not a systematic gardener, I don't keep notes about what blooms when or even a list of what I need to get for next year. But I do know roughly what order things bloom in.

The snow drops start, of course, and then come the other bulb plants.  Now is the time for columbine and forget-me-nots, which make a lovely combination. The photos don't show them growing together, because I don't often get them that way.  But ever since we were in Giverny--Monet's garden-- in spring a few years ago and visited the near by American Museum of Art, during a spectacular display I've been trying to combine them.  This year they're not cooperating, but I love them anyway.