Monday, 29 September 2014

Make Refuges, Not Refuse: The Fate of the Seas

A very upsetting story about oceanic pollution in The New York Times today, "Swimming through Garbage" by Lewis Pugh.  He spent a good part of his summer swimming in the seven seas, literally: the Mediterranean, Adriatic, Aegean, Black, Red, Arabian and North Seas. The longest swim was 37 miles and took him two days.

What Pugh saw was desolation almost every place but where an area had been made a designated refuge.

He writes: "I saw no sharks, no whales, no dolphins. I saw no fish longer than 11 inches. The larger ones had all been fished out.
When I swam in the Aegean, the sea floor was covered with litter; I saw tires and plastic bags, bottles, cans, shoes and clothing."

And: "In the Red Sea, I saw no coral and no fish. It looked like an underwater desert. But then, a little more than a mile later, I swam into a protected area, where fishing had been restricted. It was a sea as it was meant to be: rich and colorful and teeming with abundant life."

So there you go.  There's where it goes--all the garbage that's tossed into water courses and off the sides of boats, all that stuff we'd rather not think about but which we discard. We'd better think about what we're fishing too.   

Pugh addes:  "As I was about to jump into the Red Sea, I asked the boat’s skipper whether I should keep a lookout for sharks. He told me not to worry — they’re long gone. Well, that’s exactly what does worry me. An estimated 100 million sharks are fished out of the world’s oceans every year. That’s like removing the lions from the Serengeti. It wouldn’t be long before the gazelles, zebras and wildebeests had multiplied and eaten all the grass. And when the land was laid bare the grazers would starve."

Is anybody listening?

Sunday, 28 September 2014

Saturday Photo: Making Honey While the Sun Shines

This weekend has been an absolute gift.  After several days of cold, the temperature rose last week, and this weekend we had some of the nicest days of the summer, even though summer is officially over.

Friday evening Jeanne was over and she and Lee went to the neighborhood park after supper.  They stayed until dark--which was about 7 p.m.  Quite a change from mid summer when the evenings seemed to stretch out forever.  But there was a special charm to having sun-dress and sandal weather when the leaves have begun to turn colour.

The big hydrangeas have been blooming for several weeks, and the bees have been enjoying their nectar.  Despite the fact that our pears appear not to have been pollinated in May, there are many bees around, including several new hives hidden away in some abandoned spaces.  Nice to see the little creatures hard at work in such lovely weather.

First ERDC Claim Comes In!

It's always nice to see something take off, particularly when it's been forever since the preparations began. But on Friday morning the very first claim arrived in the ERDC's post box.  Marvelous!

Now freelance writers who wrote for The Gazette between 1985 and 2010 have until March 5, 2015 to follow the example.  For more info, click here.

Monday, 22 September 2014

Electronic Rights Defence Committee: Payout Starts

I consider this something  of a personal victoryAfter more than 17 years of work and worry, the Electronic Rights Defence Committee (ERDC) has received the green light from Quebec Superior Court to distribute the fruits of its class action against The Gazette  and the newspaper's various owners. 

Claim forms are now available at  Freelance writers who wrote for The Gazette between 1985 and 2010 should fill one out if they want to take part in the distribution.  Writers will receive shares of Postmedia A stock according to a point system that was approved at a special ERDC general meeting in 2012.  

Claimants will have until March 5, 2015 to file, listing all freelance stories they wrote for The Gazette during the period covered by the class action.  The on-line resource Canadian Newsstand (Proquest) may be helpful in doing this.  It is available through many libraries including the Bibliothèque et archives nationales du Québec.  To gain access to the collection by getting a free BAnQ card, consult

In various settlements, the  ERDC received 189,479 shares in PostMedia A stock and $83,210.27 in cash, all of which have been held in trust.  In accordance with the Quebec Superior Court decision of September 5, 2014, the cash plus the proceeds of the sale of about 20,000 shares will be used to reimburse the Fonds d'aide aux recours collectifs (the Quebec agency which provided $86,999.35 in seed money for the class action,) and the ERDC lawyers, who are entitled to receive 25 per cent of cash and stock, plus taxes, under their agreements with the ERDC.

And why is this such a big thing for me?  Not that I ever wrote much for The Gazette.  Before the kids were born I wrote frequently for the Montreal Star, but when I started back in the freelance game it had folded.  So I did  a few things from The Gazette, and then the newspapers--along with many others--started its electronic rights grab.  Without permission and compensation, freelancers articles were made available on-line.  Eventually the Canadian Supreme Court (in a similar case brought by Heather Robertson against the Thomson chain) ruled that copyright belongs to writers, unless expressly conceded, whence comes the ERDC's settlement.

I was a bystander at the beginning of the case but for the last ten years or so, I've been closely involved.  Takes a lot of mulish determination to see something like this through, and I'm proud to have been part of this persistent, perservering effort.

Sunday, 21 September 2014

Saturday Photo; The Ducks on the Pond

For several years ducks have nested in parks around here, but this year I didn't see any early in the summer.  However, for the last week or so a little family has taken up residence for at least part of the day in Outremont's Parc Beaubien.

Nice to see them again.  It may be that the summertime activities in the park--there are a day camp, soccer games and playgrounds full of kids from mid-June to late August--kept these little quackers away.  But they seem to be making themselves right at home now.

Jeanne and Thomas paid them a visit, and were charmed. 

Friday, 19 September 2014

Want to Know Who Will Win? Ask a Bookie

This is the day when the world (or at least a part of it) is mulling over the 55.3 per cent rejection of Scottish independence on Thursday.  Lots of talk on Radio Can and the Francophone press about what it means for Quebec.  (In short, the conclusion not surprisingly is that it doesn't augur well.)  I imagine there's probably a similar amount of navel gazing in Spanish-language media about Catalonia.

What should really interest people who care about the democratic process is how the polls in Scotland initially grossly underestimated the force of the independence movement, and then dithered around giving quite different predictions this last week. 

Polling is hard, and it's getting harder as people stop answering or even having land lines. The alternative of electronic polling in a universe of respondpents who are carefully selected to reflect the general population is clearly imperfect.  Justin Wolfers in The New York Times today, however, suggests that the real problem lies in not asking the right questions. 

Bookies, he says, do and got this one much closer than the pollsters.

He notes that the betting markets in Britain in elsewhere early on suggested that the vote would be much closer than the pundits thought.  "Throughout most of the campaign, few gave the pro-independence supporters a chance. From the early surveys in 2012 and 2013, all the way through to those run as recently as June of this year, most polls registered support for the Yes campaign as running in the mid-to-low 30s. A few nudged above 40 percent, but far more registered support in the 20s. It’s no surprise, then, that the news media largely ignored the referendum, and that pundits basically wrote it off as a sideshow."

It wasn't until a poll last month showed a surge in "Yes" support that the guys in control woke up.  The lesson?"Instead of focusing on whom people say they plan to vote for, ask them instead to focus on who they think will win. Typically, asking people who they think will win yields better forecasts, possibly because it leads them to also reflect on the opinions of those around them, and perhaps also because it may yield more honest answers."

Are you listening, my political junkie friends?

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Eleven Years Later: Who's Remembering the Iraq Protests Today?

Tell me, everyone, where are the people in the streets protesting the Canadian government's slip into conflict in Iraq?  Remember the massive protests in 2003, including 200,000 in Montreal on a February day of -25 C. 

An "emergency debate" in the House of Commons just isn't the same.  Particularly when neither Stephen Harper nor Justin Trudeau were there.  For whatever his faults, Jean Chrétien was front and centre in 2003.

The Ottaw Citizen reports that opposition leader Thomas Mulcair was in the game, as was Liberal MP Marc Garneau:

“The government is not being transparent with Canadians,” said Mulcair. “This is a slippery slope.”

"He also touched on the absence of Trudeau and Harper. “They should have been here and they should have been speaking,” he said.

"Earlier in the day, in Question Period, Mulcair said Harper is breaking a pledge to allow MPs to vote on military deployments.

“This is the same person who, in 2003, wanted Canada to be involved in Iraq,” said Mulcair in that earlier exchange. “He is finally getting his wish.”

Monday, 15 September 2014

Saturday Photo: Not Much of This Left...

Actually this photo was taken some time ago, but I couldn't resist since it was so cold this weekend. 

Risk  of frost in the suburbs they say, definitely a time for getting out the fall clothes.  But today at least it's sunny.

Friday, 12 September 2014

Financing Schools: Cut Private School Grants More

 Like the song says, "The rich get rich and the poor get children."

Le Devoir has a story this morning about how the current austerity wave is requiring that Quebec school boards cut even more from their budgets this academic year.  The Commission scolaire de Montréal, the province's largest school board, has been asked to cut another $9.1 million even though the school year has already started. Previously school commissions had to cut their budgets by 10 per cent.

The new cuts can't be made without seriously affecting the quality of education, says the commission's president, Catherine Harel-Bourdon.  The only places to trim, since contracts have already been signed with personnel, is in services like homework aid and health.  This will  have terrible effects on the most most vulnerable schools and students.  So the commission just won't make them.

In contrast, Quebec has not made the same kind of cuts in the funds it allocates to private schools.  In June finance minister Carlos Leitão took $14.1 million from the $480 million it gives to support approved private schools.  That's 3 per cent of their budgets, not 10 per cent.

The association of private schools protested, of course, claiming that they actually save the province money: public schools receive an average of about $11,000 in public funds, while private schools in 2011-2012 received $4,320, according to figures the assciation bandied about last spring.  What is not mentioned is that private schools can and do refuse any kid with problems.  The public system, in contrast, must provide special support for thousands which means considerably more expense.

A study released at the beginning of the summer (and which flew below the radar of many including myself) estimated that the province could save between $65 million and $186 million by reducing support to private schools.  Public schools spend 21.5 percent more on teaching per student than do private schools ($7,157 compared to  $5,888 ) and 147 per cent less than private schools for administrative services ($515  compared to $1,273.)

Partisans of private school always argue that each child that switches from their system to the public one will cost the public more money.  True, but I expect that if more of the childen of the chattering classes and the society's decideurs  went to public schools, we'd see a whole lot more pressure to increase, not cut, the resources of public schools.  And investment in a system that educates all children well is money very well spent. 

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

The Wisdom of Plants? Caffeine's Advantages and Disadvantages

Had your caffeine fix yet this morning?  I look forward to my cup of coffee after breakfast mightily.  The taste is not that great (as I tell my grandkids who want to try it) although the smell is divine, as is the little energy hit it gives me. 

Which, it turns out, is exactly what coffee trees evolved to provide.

The New York Times Science section today has a fascinating, if a little technical, story about the way caffeine offers advantages to coffee trees.  To make a long story short, in large doses, as when the trees' leaves fall to the ground and degrade, the chemical hinders germination of other plants that might compete with coffee. Small amounts in nectar from the trees' flowers, however, give bees and pollinating insects a little buzz of energy that encourages them to come back.  

Apparently coffee trees are not alone in this. The ability to make caffeine is not exclusive to them: among others, tea, yerba mate, and cacao plants also produce it, although in different ways.  This "convergent evolution" suggests just how useful caffeine is the plant world, the story quotes scientists involved in a study just published in the journal Science.

"Every second, people around the world drink more than 26,000 cups of coffee. And while some of them may care only about the taste, most use it as a way to deliver caffeine into their bloodstream. Caffeine is the most widely consumed psychoactive substance in the world," the story says. 

Okay, my coffee's finished.  Time to get to work before the buzz wears off...

Saturday, 6 September 2014

Saturday Photo: When the Uncovered Past Does Not Linger

As I've mentioned here before, one of the summer's highlights was our trip to the Roman town of Coninbriga, not far from Coimbra in Portugal.  The site was a going concern for more than 300 years, until Visigoths moved in on the Roman outpost in the 4th century BCE.

Afterwards the location on a well-watered plateau was farmed, while the old town faded from collective memory.  Some of the ruins were pillaged for building materials after Napoleon's forces razed a nearby town, but it wasn't until the 1930s when the possibility of rediscovering a gem from Roman times spurred excavation.

Now about 10 per cent of the former town has been excavated, with astounding results. Among the finds are mosaics as fresh as the day they were finished from the floors of houses which must have been home to the wealthier residents.  Several thermes, or Roman bathhouses have been found as well large houses with elegant interior patios and a large, pillar-lined public space, the Forum. 

But time marches on.  Dirt is blown by wind, grass seeds sprout, weeds grow up.  Unless maintenance is constant, the forces of the earth conspire to hide the ruins once again, as attests the photo of the partially uncovered wall which  now has several decades of weeds growing on it.

Nothing is permanent, in other words...

Friday, 5 September 2014

The Real Intergenerational Inequity Is Not Public Debt But Lack of Public Support

Are the guys in power in Canada and the US listening to voice of economic reason? The answer is "No!" of course. 

As Paul Krugman charges again today, austerity measures and fear of inflation have led Europe into economic times worse than the 1930s.  He says it is in the "grip of a deflationary vortex." He adds that finally, thankfully, the European Central Bank has finally realized that, and  just announced measures to boost Europe's economy.

What he doesn't say is what is perfectly clear to anyone who has looked at the toll bad times and budget cuts takes from the next generation.  Around here, much is being said about saddling our children and grandchildren with debt: intergenerational equity has become a catch phrase.  But the real problem will come when children don't have the schools, health care, libraries, social services and healthy towns and cities they require to grow up educted and strong.

Significantly, this week The Washington  Post has a telling story about the Baltimore Beginning School study. In a report called The Long Shadow, researchers recount what they found following a randomly chosen group of kids who entered first grade in 1982.  They were followed for 25 years with results that reinforce doubts about how egalitarian American society is, and just how much poverty influences what happens to kids.

The Post say : "Some of them — children largely from the middle-class and blue-collar white families still in Baltimore’s public school system in 1982 — grew up to managerial jobs and marriages and their own stable homes. But where success occurred, it was often passed down, through family resources or networks simply out of reach of most of the disadvantaged."

It goes on:  "We like to think that education is an equalizer — that through it, children may receive the tools to become entrepreneurs when their parents were unemployed, lawyers when their single moms had 10th-grade educations. But (researchers) Alexander and Entwisle kept coming back to one data point: the 4 percent of disadvantaged children who earned college degrees by age 28.

"“We hold that out to them as what they should work toward,” Alexander says. Yet in their data, education did not appear to provide a dependable path to stable jobs and good incomes for the worst off.

"The story is different for children from upper-income families, who supplement classroom learning with homework help, museum trips and college expectations. Alexander and Entwisle found one exception: Low-income white boys attained some of the lowest levels of education. But they earned the highest incomes among the urban disadvantaged.

"They were able, Alexander and Entwisle realized, to tap into what remains of the good blue-collar jobs in Baltimore. These are the skilled crafts, the union gigs, jobs in trades traditionally passed from one generation to the next and historically withheld from blacks. These children did not inherit college expectations. But they inherited job networks. And these are the two paths to success in the Beginning School Study."

Take home lesson?  That schools need formidable resources to counter the effects of families' economic difficulties, which are becoming much more acute in these bad times when government budgets are cut in the name of "short term pain for long term gain."

And that the slogan "Solidarity Forever" with all that implies for unions and collective action has made an enormous difference in the lives of ordinary North Americans.