Friday, 31 January 2014

Getting Rid of Hydrocarbons: Good News from Denmark

Today's La Presse has an excellent and thought-provoking story about Denmark and its long term plans to quite using fossil fuels by 2050.  And this in a country which has profited recently from oil production!

In brief, here's what the Danes are doing:

In 2012, 95 per cent of the legislators from all parties voted to adopt policies which aim at having 100 per cent of all energy consumed  coming from renewal sources.  Currently 30 per cent of electricity comes from wind power, with a goal of 50 per cent by 2020.  And it would seem that they're well on the way: in December 2013 60 per cent came from wind power with some days where 100 cent was.

They're opting for green energy as an economic motor: the wind sector has already created 30,000 jobs.

Most conventional electrical plants now have been converted from oil to coal, which will be gradually changed to biogas. Heat from these plants heat houses, while cold water from the sea provides air conditioning.

The big challenge is transport, but the Danes plan on using taxes breaks to favour electric and bio-gaz vehicules.  The Metro in Copenhagen has been expanded, and 40 per cent of all travel to work and school is done by bike.

Food for thought, certainlly.

Wednesday, 29 January 2014

A Novel That Is As Counter-Cultural as Pete Seeger

Just this minute finished Michael Chabon's Telegraph Avenue--2:30 p.m., right in the middle of time I should be using for writing my own stuff, but I had to finish it.

This is probably the most engaging novel I've read in more than a year.  A multi-layered story, it has  a rather conventional plot:  couple of dreamers find their unsuccessful record store about to be overwhelmed by competition while their wives face problems, plying their trade as midwives.  Turns out one of the guys--the younger, African American one--has a 14 old son who shows up out of the blue.  The other--Jewish, with severe psychological problems--also has a son, who falls in love with other boy.  Along the way there are malpractice cases and "liberation" of a Zeppelin, as well as great riffs about music and life.

But it;s the journey that matters, and Chabon conveys us with splendor and  

It happens that I know a lot of the territory covered, and I remember another legendary record store on Telegraph Avenue, this one just across from the UC Berkeley campus.  That probably adds to the charm of the book for me, but I also was sometimes breathless at the images Chabon uses. One, both apt and hilarious,  chosen at random, about suburbs beyond the Oakland hill: " "Sprinklers chittered.  Titlesists traced white rainbows aginst the blue Contra Costa sky.  Along the forearms of hard-shopping women in tennis skirts, sunshine lit the bolden down." 

There are several loose ends, like the parrot named 58 who flies away after the death of his master.  The reason for the name is never given, although it seems that 58 sounds like "sure to prosper" in one dialect of Chinese.  On the other hand,  in Feng Shui numerology 58 means "no money." Does this mean hat the world is impossibly difficult to understand and basically contradictory?  Or are we just to take flight with the bird as it soars over 10 pages toward an improbable wild santuary?

Then there is the manner of a white guy assuming the voices of people of colour.  I haven't yet gone looking to see what kind of reviews the book received from those who might be upset by Chabon's appropriation of voice.   There are some, I imagine, who would be insulted by his audacity at trying to get inside the heads of his mixed-raee characters.  The voices sound good to me, just as good as his description of child birth.  The man is a good observer, for sure, and his soul is full empathy.

The photo, by the way, was taken almost 50 years ago during the Free Speech Movement: the crowd was marching off campus toward Telegraph Avenue.  Long time ago.

Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Pete Seeger: A Model for Us All (Turn,turn,turn)

Sometime when the Ingerman kids were young and the Soderstrom kids were only a hope, Doris and I took the gang down the Hudson to Albany (I think) to see Pete Seeger on The Clearwater, in the beginning of the campaign to clean up the Hudson.

Here's to him, all his good music and good causes. He leaves this world the better for his actions.

Monday, 27 January 2014

The Paranoia of the Plutocrats

The rich are different from you and me department:  as usual Krugman nails it in today's New York Times.  He comments about the out-of-the-ballpark criticism by the 1 per cent of attacks on what they have and receive:

"We are...talking about wheeler-dealers, men who push money around and get rich by skimming some off the top as it sloshes by. They may boast that they are job creators, the people who make the economy work, but are they really adding value? Many of us doubt it — and so, I suspect, do some of the wealthy themselves, a form of self-doubt that causes them to lash out even more furiously at their critics."

He adds: 

"Anyway, we’ve been here before. It’s impossible to read screeds like (these) without thinking of F.D.R.’s famous 1936 Madison Square Garden speech, in which he spoke of the hatred he faced from the forces of “organized money,” and declared, “I welcome their hatred.”

"President Obama has not, unfortunately, done nearly as much as F.D.R. to earn the hatred of the undeserving rich. But he has done more than many progressives give him credit for — and like F.D.R., both he and progressives in general should welcome that hatred, because it’s a sign that they’re doing something right."

Sunday, 26 January 2014

Saturday Photo: Skating Lessons

The picture isn't of Jeanne and me, but we had a similar and delightful session Saturday morning when she tried out skating for  the first time.

I'd come prepared with a Plan B in case she found the challenge of staying on her three-year-old feet just too much.  But she loved it, particularly when she got the hang of using one of those supports that you can push ahead of yourself.  We were out two hours that passed extremely quickly and she's ready to go try it again next weekend!

Now Grandma, who learned to skate after a fashion as an adult, will have to dig out her skates to keep up. (On the outdoor rink I thought it wiser to keep my boots on for stability's sake.)                                                                                          

Friday, 24 January 2014

Mac Turns 30, Our First Mac Is 29

In January 1985 we bought our first Mac, a 512.  With all accessories, including printer, it cost well over $4,000, which was a lot of money.

I've been thinking of that purchase today, which is touted as being Mac's 30th anniversary.  I hadn't realized just what early adopters were in this case.  But the time had come to get some kind of machine to do word processing and the Kaypro, which The Writers' Union of Canada was recommending for writers at the time, had one of those terrible yellow on green screens that I knew would give me migraines.

So, after much humming and hawing--and some arguing too about where we'd put it: Lee's office or mine--we went Macintosh.  The compromise location was our bedroom, where it stayed until we got our second Mac two years later and we could each have one in our individual space.

We've stayed Mac ever since, largely because of its ease of use.  We don't have any other Apple devices however--no iPhone or iPad, not even an iPod.  Don't have a cell phone at all in fact, which says something about my attitude toward technology.  If it can make your work simpler, go for it.  If not, why waste money?

Thursday, 23 January 2014

The Days Grow Longer and (Maybe) Warmer

As I write this at 4:30 p.m., the sun in now longer shining in the living room, but for the last several days, it has blazed away.

This is good winter weather in my book: it may be cold, but the sun is out and there is enough snow to make everything blaze with light. 

And light is continuing longer and longer. A month ago it would have been dark at this hour, but the sky is still light since the sun won't disappear below the horizon for another 15 minutes.

Gonna be cold again tonight (it's currently -18 C or 0' F) but who cares, really, when you've got good heating and the prospect of spring in not too many months!  We're lucky, I think....

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Something's Got to Give: Hydrocarbon Risks Abound, and Bixi on the Brink of Bankruptcy

If anybody thought there was a crisis underlying how we live now, the new these days should convince them.

In addition to increasing concern about the state of our highway infrastructure, pipelines and trains transporting petroleum products, the one truly innovative North American  response to problems of transportation in cities, Montreal's Bixi, is asked for protection from bankruptcy.

The problems are real and complicated, and partly due to the fact that the bicycle rental system was set up as a private, supposedly profit-making firm, when it should have been integrated in the public transportation system from the beginning.  And that is what should be done, a number of people are saying including Richard Bergeron, leader of the Projet Montreal opposition on Montreal's city council and François Cardinal, editorial writer for La Presse.

The basic problem is that we live too spread out and rely too much on cars to get around.  It's about time that we understood that, and did something about it.

The economic repercussions of rebulding our transportation system and getting our aging infrastructure up to date would be enormous, and much more healthy that putting public money into petroleum exploration and tar sands exploitation.


Monday, 20 January 2014

Cultural Misunderstanding: From "How are You?" to Body Language

What do you expect to hear when you say "How are you?" Most of the time in North Amreica's it's "Fine." But in Russia, apparently, what you'll get is a litany of what is wrong.  Alina Simone reports on this cultural clash:

"It feels as if I’ve spent half my life trying to smooth over the bafflement of my American friends and the hurt feelings of my Russian expat family as a result of this innocuous inquiry. “ ‘Fine’ makes Russians think that Americans have no soul,” I explained recently to an American-born friend. “That they just want to go home, eat a frozen dinner in front of the TV, and wait out the hours before going to work to make money again.”

He laughed, then quickly sobered. “You know, there’s something to that.” 

But there are other things that vary between cultures which can be either funny or disconcerting.  Here's a great montageof three HSBC commercials that outline some of them.  (This is not an endorsement of the bank, by the way, just in case your culture thinks that a mention is tantamount ot that.)


Sunday, 19 January 2014

Saturday Photo: Summer, Summer, Summertime....

Bridges are great symbols, connecting and separating, promising things to come, inviting daydreaming.  These two bridges are particularly interesting to me now because they are harbingers of our plans for the summer.

On top is the 25 de Abril bridge across the Tagus river at Lisbon.  It looks very much like the Golden Gate, which stirs up many pleasant associations in the first place.  But it also is a landmark of one of my favourite cities, which Lee and I will visit in July if all goes well.

The second photo was taken of a Sunday on the Seine during our last trip to Paris.  No vehicular traffic, just pedestrians and bicycles.  We'll be going there too, for two week before the Portuguese jaunt. 

Really looking forward to this summer.

Friday, 17 January 2014

The Failure of Centre-Left Politics in Europe: Krugman on the Scandal in France (Canadian Papers Please Copy)

Forget the dallying with dollies, Paul Kruman says that François Hollande's behavior is scandalous.  The French president has just announced increased austerity measures which have been discredited, and will make things worse. 

Where are the center-left voices criticizing this stupidity not only in France but also in other European countries Krugman asks.

" Given the hardship these policies have inflicted, you might have expected left-of-center politicians to argue strenuously for a change in course. Yet everywhere in Europe, the center-left has at best (for example, in Britain) offered weak, halfhearted criticism, and often simply cringed in submission.

"When Mr. Hollande became leader of the second-ranked euro economy, some of us hoped that he might take a stand. Instead, he fell into the usual cringe — a cringe that has now turned into intellectual collapse. And Europe’s second depression goes on and on."

And where, we should ask, is the vigorous criticism of Stephen Harper's economic policies from our own center-left politicians?  Lots about the Senate, a bit about the savaging of employment insurance changes, but very, very little talk about the need for an agressive, pro-employment economic policies from either Tom Mulcair or Justin Trudeau.

It's not too lalte guys.  "Jobs, jobs, jobs" and "it's the economy, stupid"  have won more than one election--and made the lot of us all better. 

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

No to Charging for Private Rooms at Montreal's Super Hospitals

Update:  Looks like this was beaten back, at least in part, by general outcry!  Sometimes making a fuss does get something done, and underscores the need for constant vigilance.

Original post:

The idea of superhospitals was ill-considered, in my opinion. Not enough thought was given to what closing down major medical establishments in the centre of the city would do to the city's fabric, nor to the repercussions of putting most of the high tech interventions in one place.

 What about the danger of cross-infections? a few people asked.  The response was: well, we'll have a lot of private rooms to cut down them.

Now it seems that the two hospitals (one affliated with McGill, the other with the Université de Montréal) want to charge for these private rooms.  Currently, all hospitals here have a mix of private, semi-private and multiple patient rooms, and unless you request a private or semi-private room and agree to pay a premium you get whatever happens to be available.

But to ask everyone to pay for private rooms is a breach in the social contract that lies behind our health system.  The ministry spokespeople say there would be a sliding scale based on patient income, but that just underscores the two tier aspect of this new idea.  Besides, anyone who has ever looked at administrative costs knows that doing the paper work for sliding scales is going to eat up a lot of any "profit" that would be gained by charging the fees.

Tuesday, 14 January 2014

I Knew There Was a Reason Dept: Sleep Is the Cleaner

Give me a chance and I'll go to sleep.  There have been times in my life when I've slept badly--waking up at the time one of the kids should be home and waiting until I heard them come in--or fitfully--even earlier, when they were waking in the night for food or comfort.  But usually if I haven't drunk coffee or alcohol, I can sleep restfully any place.

And my memory is good.  That's not bragging, that's just a fact.  So I was extremely interested in reading a piece in the Sunday New York Times about sleep and the role it serves to maintain cerebral health by allowing the physical removal of the waste products of brain function.

Chronic insomnia or sleep deprivation appears to cause long term problems including frequently "the degeneration of key neurons involved in alertness and proper cortical function and a buildup of proteins associated with aging and neural degeneration," writes Maria Konnakova.

Neuroscientists are thinking about several ways to attack the problem, either by providing an alternative to sound sleep where the brain's natural cleansing system could be simulated or by removing the brain's waste by pharmaceutical means, she writes.

In the meantime, I'll try to catch the ZZZs when I can, even if it means falling asleep occasionally on the bus.

Monday, 13 January 2014

The Poor Are Always with Us: The Trap of Charity

The Pope has just named 18 new cardinals.  His choices supposedly show how he is refocussing the Roman Catholic Church's energies on its mission to help the poor.

Seeing as how that was Jesus was all about, the new guy's discourse and some of his actions do seem to be in tune with the best points of Christianity.  But whenever anyone starts talking about helping the poor, I get nervous.

To be sure that kind of concern is better than blaming the poor for their plight, the way a large portion of the Right Wing in North America likes to do.  Paul Krugman today once again points out how the Republicans may have begun to see that the blame game they've been playing is going to hurt them electorally.  "Republicans are in a deep sense enemies of America’s poor," he writes. "A party committed to small government and low taxes on the rich is, more or less necessarily, a party committed to hurting, not helping, the poor."

Here in Canada we have a government that gets tough with the unemployed while spending $2.5 million to advertise a "job" program that never existed.   That kind of thing is unexcusable, and another reason to get rid of the Conservatives as quickly as possible.

But on the other hand programs and policies that address poverty and inequity shouldn't be touted as a balm on the woes of the less fortunate, something that makes us shine in the eyes of the Lord.  They should be designed to support the dignity of their recipients, and be aimed at giving them their due as full members of our society.

Not charity, but justice, is what's needed. 

Saturday, 11 January 2014

Saturday Photo: Full Moon in July

This week there will be a full moon, but the weather forecast suggests that we won't be able to see it here.

So here's flashback to a summer full moon for those who miss both the light of the eyes of night and the mild weather that the shadowy trees attest to.

Friday, 10 January 2014

Reason 105 Not to Have Your Kids Young: You May Have More Time to Spend with THEIR Kids

As I went off to see an ailing Thomas and his family this morning, I began to see the wisdom in not having kids until your 30s.  We have much more time to enjoy and help out with our kids' kids (and they were a little late in producing too) than our friends who had their progeny earlier in life.  In other words, retired or semi-retired grandparents can be useful and have fun too.

Just in case you're wondering, there's a whole group of anthopologists and ethnographers who argue that grandparents (and grandmothers have been studied the most) have a positive effect on the survival of their grandchildren.  This  is called the grandmother effec, but I'd call it the grandparent effect, because Grandpas are great to have around too.

Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Something More to Worry about: A Big Solar Flare

So the cold is supposedly going to moderate in North America over the next few days, but The Washington Post reports that there's a big storm on the sun.  A good-sized solar flare has erupted which means incrased soalr radiation arriving in the neighborhood of the earth. Not good wether for a space walk, it seems.  And sometimes solar flare can cause manetic storms that interfere with power grids.

In 1989 such a flare caused a massive power outage in Quebec.  The  surge from the flare "created electrical currents in the ground beneath much of North America. Just after 2:44 a.m. on March 13, the currents found a weakness in the electrical power grid of Quebec," NASA says on its web site. "In less than 2 minutes, the entire Quebec power grid lost power. During the 12-hour blackout that followed, millions of people suddenly found themselves in dark office buildings and underground pedestrian tunnels, and in stalled elevators. Most people woke up to cold homes for breakfast. The blackout also closed schools and businesses, kept the Montreal Metro shut during the morning rush hour, and closed Dorval Airport."

I've tried to trackdown something I heard about how the Hydro Quebec grid is now protected against such surges, but I can't find it.  The only consolation, if this storm causes power problems, is that all that solar energy can produce amazing Northern Lights. 

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

And in Fact, Climate Change Maybe behind the Cold Weather

The Scientific American goes further and says that the "Polar Vortex" incursion is usually associated with warmer temperatures in the Arctic during the summer and less ice in the ice cap.. 

 "Although the extent of summer sea ice in the Arctic varies year to year, overall it has been disappearing to a notable degree since 2007 and it is forecast to continue to vanish even further. That could mean more trouble for the polar vortex, and more frigid outbreaks—a seeming contradiction to “global warming,” perhaps, but not for “global weirding,” also known as climate change."

Baby It's Cold Outside, and Might Be Even Worse without Climate Change

A fascinating analysis from the Washington Post about the current cold wave across North America.  Isn't the first time, and won't be the last time, but it has nothing to do with climate change. 

Jason Samenow writes: "Were  it not for the build-up of manmade greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, I’d posit the extreme cold events we witness now would be even colder. In other words, take these same cold air outbreaks and project them on the climate of the 1800s, and they’d be more severe. We’d need a model to test that, but it’s an educated guess.)

The truth is that increasing greenhouse gases act to warm the globe and, on average over time, should take an edge off the cold.  But the planet is a really big, complicated place and the weather changes fast and randomly.  Conversely, the climate changes very gradually. Taking all of this together, cold shouldn’t come as a shock, nor should it have anyone second-guessing the reality of climate warming."

Monday, 6 January 2014

The Gospel of Malcom: Sowing Seeds of Change without Seeming to

It took me a while to figure out where Malcolm Gladwell's new book David and Goliath  fits into the brilliant populizer's world view.  The book documents through the stories of several interesting people just how advantages are not necessarily what we think they are.

It has its roots in an article that Galdwell wrote for The New Yorker four years ago about a geeky Silicon Valley dad who coached his daughter's basketball team to victory by insisting on a full-court press every time.  By playing in-your-face ball, the "little blonde girls" overcame teams who were more talented but who didn't keep up the pressure.  Davids, Gladwell shows, beats Goliaths nearly three-quarters of the time if he plays the unexpected, and plays it hard. 

This uplifting message sounds like vintage Gladwell, but the book also deals with such questions as (according to the bumph on Gladwell's webpage) "When is a traumatic childhood a good thing? When does a disability leave someone better off? Do you really want your child to go to the best school he or she can get into? Why are the childhoods of people at the top of one profession after another marked by deprivation and struggle?"

 The question these questions prompt is: has Gladwell written a self-help book, a companion to the many volumes about the good habits of the rich and successful? 

The book also contains a fair amount of Biblical quotations, and at first I was inclined to think the answer to the queston was "Yes."  But neither this book nor many of his lectures are addressed at people like me.  As with his other books, he has  markets other than that of leftish intellectuals.

His first book The Tipping Point started out as “The Cool Hunt,” a New Yorker  piece examining how trends start, how styles race through society like epidemics. “A must read for any marketing professional,” according to its lead review on, the book can be read as a guide to getting people to buy or to act: small groups work best, pick plugged-in spokesmen, work to make your message “sticky.”

His second book, Blink, considers how we’re hard-wired to react instantaneously, which was great for our ancestors back on the savannah when a lion might suddenly roar nearby. In our fast-paced life today that’s not so good: culturally-engrained prejudices can trump reasoned evaluations in tight situations. Social contexts should be changed so we’re not forced to rely on first impressions, he writes. That’s good for creativity—and also social justice.

In  Outliers  he argues that success itself is based on a mixture of chance and hard work. Change the rules to make the playing field more level — don’t throw all the kids born in a calendar year together when they start a sport, for example, because that gives the ones born in January a big leg up over those born in December. Then tweak the cultural context to value hard work, and you increase the chance of success exponentially. The result will be more “outliers,” people whose accomplishment is extraordinarily high.

Here he has take-home messages for rich folk who worry about their kids--too much money can be as bad as too  little--as well as those who want to punish  crime. agressively.  Forgiveness is more effective than vindictiveness, he says: after a certain point being tougher makes things worth.And maybe--this point just floats there without being hammered home--some people make just too damn much money and we'd all be better off in a more egalitarian economic system.

None of that is news to me, but it may be for some of the people who pick up the book because they want the real story behind David and Goliath or advice on how to pick a university for your kid (the top school is not always the best one.) If so Gladwell will have succeeded again sowing the seeds for social change without seeming to try to do so.

Sunday, 5 January 2014

Saturday Photo: Magnificent Resistance

Grass growing in paving at the Oscar Neimeyer Museum in Curitiba, with display of jacaranda petals.

Let 2014 be a year in which our resistance to what's wrong be just as strong.

Friday, 3 January 2014

Cold and Heat: Burning Hydrocarbons

It's cold all over the country right now, weather that usually comes in February here, but which has been with us for more or less two weeks.  I'm not one to complain too much--a sunny, icy day after a snow fall is quite beautiful--but as the furnace slurps up oil in the basement, I can't help thinking of what that means in the larger picture.

The air is cleaner now in winter than it was when we came to Montreal.  At the time there still were coal furnaces, fewer restrictions on burning (our first apartment had a trash shoot that went to the basement where the super regularly burned our garbage), oil refineries off-gassing in the middle of the night, and no anti-pollution measures for cars.

But there are more cars, more people, and probably more furnaces than then.  Small particulate matter from fireplaces and wood stoves has become a problem, and measures are afoot to replace existing ones while you can't put one in new construction.

And on days like today, we want our oil or our natural gas, or our electricity to keep up warm.

Where that energy is coming from is a big question.  From the Bakken fields in North Dakota where oil from schist is full of inflammable contaminants (see the explosions in Lac Mégantic and Casselton, ND) in some cases.  In all cases, the methods of extraction and transport are far from cost-less. 

Okay.  So what do we do?  Building more densely is certainly part of the answer since not only do dense neighborhoods cut down on  transportation cost for people, they also mean more heat conservation because attached or semi-detached buildings have fewer surfaces through which to lose heat. 

There's more to say, but right now I think I'll warm up my hands on the radiator.

NB:  the photo is of the ice on a double window.  Baby, it's cold outside.

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

The Sun in 2014!

The sun is shining on the snow on this New Year's morning 2014.

Best wishes to you all.

If you missed this, here's the blog with our holiday news.