Friday, December 30, 2011

Could be the end of the world as we know it (or not)

I find it kind of sweet that people still get caught up in a good old-fashioned doomsday prophecy once in a while.
It’s difficult to be certain of anything in this world, so I don’t mean to poke fun at those who believe the apocalypse is coming in 2012. It could be.
But what’s charming is that the belief has gained so much traction that even the well-regarded Guardian newspaper in London, England felt the need to run a rather serious story this month featuring a German scholar disputing rumours that the end is nigh.
I like that.  We seem all sophisticated and rational as a society, but just below the surface is a wide-eyed kid who still believes in things that go bump in the night. Prepare for a good year on that front regardless of what’s up with the apocalypse, seeing as the ancient Mayans aren’t the only ones predicting intense times in 2012.
It seems perverse to wish for disaster. But working ourselves up about a possible apocalypse is obviously something humans enjoy every now and then, and we do it well. Who can forget Y2K?
The 2012 doomsday prophesy revolves around a stone tablet carved by an ancient Mayan civilization from the Tortuguero region of Mexico. The tablet marks 2012 as the end of a 5,125-year cycle of the Mayan long-count calendar.
Some have taken that as indication that the world will cease to exist as of Dec. 21, 2012. Of course, you have to put a lot of faith in ancient Mayans to believe that. But that’s the thing about faith - it doesn’t need to make sense.
At any rate, the scholar quoted in the Dec. 1 Guardian article disputed that interpretation of the tablet writings.
Sven Gronemeyer contends the tablet is too damaged to make out some of the words written on it. He says the legible part in fact says what lies ahead is a return of the mysterious Mayan god Bolon Yokte. His arrival is said to mark the end of 13 consecutive periods in the Mayan calendar that each lasted 400 years.
Oddly enough, my partner and I will have a front-row seat for whatever action awaits when the fateful day - Dec. 21, 2012 - rolls around. We will have been in Honduras for almost a year by that point, on a placement with Cuso International in the very town that Honduran President Porfirio Lobo has singled out for a tourism happening tied into the Mayan prediction.
We’ll be in Copan Ruinas, the site of major Mayan ruins. Government hopes visitors pour into the town for the “countdown to the end of time,” giving the flagging Honduras tourism economy a boost along the way. Whatever awaits - Bolon Yokte, the end of days, or more likely just some big, wild party - we’re going to be smack-dab in the middle of it. 
A B.C. soothsayer warns of other shakeups closer to home in 2012. Georgia Nicholls, the Vancouver astrologist who writes a newspaper horoscope column, says “fiery Mars” will preside over all signs for most of the year. This is apparently a very unusual development.
She advises us to prepare for much more cosmic energy bouncing around next year. That’s neither good nor bad on its own, adds Nicholls, but the challenge is in managing all that extra energy.
Nicholls cautioned Sagittarians like me to ease up in 2012 on their tendency to resist authority. I am taking that to heart. It’s a reminder that I will soon be working in an unfamiliar culture, political structure and language, and will need to be the nicest, most easy-going version of myself.
There does seem to be agreement among the ancient Mayans, the astrologists and the Chinese that 2012 is shaping up to be a corker.
According to Chinese astrology, the 12-month period starting Feb. 4 is the year of the black water dragon. That heralds a year of uncertainty and unexpected developments.
“You can have either bad luck or good luck in 2012, and will have a chance to turn it into better or worse luck,” noted one Chinese horoscope site. Gulp.
But if it’s really all over next December, luck is the least of our worries anyway. Have a world-shaking year, and maybe Bolon Yokte and I will see you in Copan Ruinas.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

It's all about the piles

I don't know what my new life will be like once we get to Honduras, but right now it seems to be about sorting. That and studying Spanish fill what I used to call "spare time" - the blocks of time in my life when I could do fun things like bird-watching or spend a leisurely couple of hours at the gym.
Now, there's only sorting and Spanish, although they have their own charms. Newly able to understand at least most of what I read in the Honduran on-line newspaper I've been checking out, I'm very happy to be finally making good on years of empty promises to myself that I would learn Spanish. But I've been hard at it for almost two months now and taking a two-hour private lesson every week as well, so no surprise that my birding time has suffered. So it goes.
The demands of sorting are multi-layered. First, you sort just to put like with like - tools over here, art materials over there, miscellaneous (and oh, there's so much miscellaneous) over by the wall.
Then you sort the newly sorted stuff into smaller piles: This one to store; this one to give away to family; this one for donation; this one to ditch. I'm an aggressive ditcher and my partner is right on the edge of being a hoarder, so you can imagine how pleasant that aspect of things has been.
The out-bound stuff then gets loaded into the back of my truck and off it goes to whatever the final destination, freeing up space in the basement for the next round of sorting. And on and on it goes. I feel the pressure of our Jan. 15 departure quite acutely at this point, but I've had to be careful not to be too efficient, or the next thing you know I've given away something we'll actually need between now and then.
The cabinet that housed our wine glasses and liquor went on its way today, up-Island to its new home in my son's house. The homeless liquor bottles are stacked on the floor in the dining room now, so much in our way that it's as if they're daring us to drink them up before we fly away. Well, if that's the way it has to be. 

Monday, December 26, 2011

It's Bad News Week

I'm reading Honduran newspapers on-line these days, trying to get a sense for the zeitgeist of the place before we land there Jan. 16. I must say, things feel a little gloomy based on the headlines. But I did a Google News search today to check in on what was going on in Canada, and the long list of bad-news stories reminded that gloom is just what media do all around the world.
Of the 16 "top stories" Google News had on offer at the time I searched, 14 were about bad things happening somewhere.
A guy dressed up as Santa kills a bunch of people. A Surrey man is shot dead on Christmas Day. Suspicious deaths, missing people, falling polls. Such catastrophic events just seem to be what we consider "news," although I often wonder what we're supposed to do with such news.
Do visitors interpret the nature of Canada based on what they see in our media, just as I'm trying to do with Honduras? If they do, we surely seem a much more dangerous country than we actually are. Maybe that's why those U.S. seniors tried to bust through the border at Aldergrove recently packing all those guns for surviving Canada's untamed wilderness and lawless culture.
For once, it pleases me to be reminded of the media's tendency to draw a country's sorrows into a tidy daily-news package, concentrating the feeling that everything is falling apart. Whether here or in Honduras, there's always more to the story. 

Friday, December 23, 2011

Times like this reveal what matters most

Merry Christmas, everyone! This is my antepenultimate column for the Times Colonist. I had to search that word out just to have something fancy to say about my third-to-last opinion piece. I've been writing a column for the paper since 1996, so these are momentous times...

I’m on the brink of big changes in my life. Just how much that’s rocking my world sunk in this week when I realized that for the first time ever, I wasn’t going to put up a Christmas tree.
My partner and I are moving to Honduras on Jan. 15 to do volunteer work with the Canadian non-profit Cuso International.
I’m so distracted by all the preparation for the move that the Christmas process has barely registered on me. Yet it’s also going to be one of my most meaningful Christmases, what with so many people to say goodbye to after 22 years here.
There’s nothing quite like change to shake up your life. The Honduras placement is for a year, possibly two - not very long in the grand scheme of things. But in fact it changes everything in practical terms, a revelation all on its own.
My ties to the Island are lifelong because I have so much family here. But we don’t own a home in Victoria. So this change basically comes down to my partner and I collapsing the stuff of our lives into 50 kilos of luggage between us and a small storage locker.
A person really has to get serious about what items constitute “home” at times like this. We could be on the move in exotic lands for several years with any luck. What’s precious enough to keep when you know you’ll either have to carry it with you or pay to store it for a very long time?
Not much, as it turns out.
Photos. Memorabilia from years past, like my journals or the sweet and funny notes my partner and I wrote to each other in the early years. Useless but sentimental keepsakes, like the tiny Day of the Dead diorama of Trotsky’s murder we picked up in Mexico City.
I’ve been pawning off pretty much everything else on anyone who expresses a speck of interest. Our children in particular have been under pressure to take things we don’t want but are resistant to giving up, like the painted bull’s skull we dragged back from Arizona or the comfy but otherwise worthless brown chair from Ikea.
The kids eventually drew the line, and I turned to advertising things for free in the on-line classifieds. It has been way more fun than I would have anticipated.
Sure, I could have held a garage sale and possibly sold the 1970s cabinet stereo and the outdated computer desk for a few bucks. But I can tell you there’s way more pleasure to be had from handing your stuff to happy strangers who show up at your door delighted to be getting what they want for free.
I like knowing that my stuff is going to a good home. There’s something magical about giving people you don’t even know the very thing they’re looking for.
The young guy who took the Nintendo 64 game was thrilled that it fell into his hands on the very day his old one had broken. The kid who stuffed the cabinet stereo into his Jeep said he’d wanted one for ages. The family who took the computer desk actually wrote us a thank-you note.
I took in a boxful of forgotten knick-knacks to the women at PEERS Victoria and they were all over them. My partner’s excess art supplies are going to artists from the mental-health community, who are grateful for the abundance.
As for having less stuff - well, that’s just plain freeing. It has required much sorting and more than a few squabbles, but we’ll be a lean, mean and mobile unit by the end of it.
Why are we doing this? Why not?
Our lives have brought us to a point where it’s possible. Our needs are met. We have skills that Cuso International can make use of in developing countries like Honduras. Our kids and grandkids are cheering us on. Life is short.
I’ve still got a couple TC columns left before I’m gone, but after that you’ll have to catch up with me on my blog or Facebook. We’re throwing a farewell and fundraiser on Jan. 11 with proceeds to PEERS and Cuso - come on by that evening if you can,  to the Garry Oak room at Fairfield Community Centre.
And if I can interest you in some mismatched dishware or an old love seat, let me know.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Busted in Orlando for feeding the homeless

This story out of Orlando could easily be a satire for The Onion - but no, it's real! I mean, you can't have people just going around feeding poor, hungry people whenever they want. 
I like the indignant response from the local police force about how the three people who got arrested had deliberately breached the ordinance. God spare us from the day when people refuse to breach petty ordinances and just leave their fellow citizens to go hungry.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Mounties got their man - and he's got their number

Well, here's confirmation of what many of us have already figured out: Something's really wrong with the RCMP.
The new "top cop," RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson, was in this morning's Globe promising to take extreme action to end the culture of bullying and history of botched investigations inside the RCMP.
What the heck happened to these guys, anyway? When I was a kid, being accepted into the RCMP was like a statement that you were smarter, more ethical, in better shape and certainly more dedicated than the average Canadian.
I don't know if that was a myth all along that has now been stripped away by one too many media stories about some drunk, violent, misogynist or otherwise disturbed RCMP officer doing something horrible. Or did something bad happen to what was once a noble profession in the intervening years?
At any rate, good luck to the changemakers. The concept of a national, well-trained and highly professional police force still appeals.
But trying to change culture is an extremely difficult undertaking that requires years of consistent, focused leadership that never wavers. Very few organizations have the long-term vision and stability to be able to pull it off.
You need compelling leadership to make it happen, but it's still bottom-up stuff. There's no way to force a change in culture from the top down. Just ask the Ministry of Children and Family Development about that.
My sympathies to the many good RCMP officers who have been tarred by a rogue culture and a few bad apples. But there's no question that something is deeply off-kilter inside the force.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

They say this is Christmas.....

I'm not a huge fan of the festive season at the best of times, what with the endless pressures to buy something for somebody. This year, it really just seems like an added complication to getting ready for our Honduras departure Jan. 15, as I run out to buy Gastrolyte or some other such specific medicinal product for our travels only to find myself at the far end of a long line of anxious holiday shoppers. (That said, I just had a very nice evening making shortbread and homemade Baileys with my youngest daughter Rachelle last night.)
My partner and I are going to Copan Ruinas, in the northeast of Honduras near the Guatemala border. We've never been there, but here's a Flickr stream from a kind stranger who heard about our travels and sent a few shots from her own travels. I've really appreciated getting a glimpse of where we're headed, and having some balance to what is mostly dire news coming out of the beleaguered country.
Here in Victoria, we are renters, so what this year (or two) in Honduras really means is folding up our lives. We looked around our house and realized that most of our furniture isn't worth keeping, so have farmed out some to our five kids, given some away to people who needed it, and become avid users of the "free"
 section on Craigslist to get rid of things like my parents' old cabinet stereo, a Nintendo 64, and a computer desk from another era.
It's interesting to see what things I value enough to keep. For the most part, it's photos and other memorabilia. Our remaining LPs, slimmed down from our last big move, have also made the cut, and will be stashed in what we hope will be a moderately sized storage locker that will await our eventual return.
I have many family ties to the Island, and know I'll be back this way often no matter what happens in the wake of this adventure. But what I hope is that we'll like this year or two so much that we'll keep doing this kind of work for a few years, in different countries.
The work with Cuso International is unpaid, but the organization aims to provide its volunteers with a "neutral" financial year - your housing costs covered, a small living allowance, a little money tucked into your account back home to ease your return. That model makes long-term volunteering much more possible.
And wouldn't that just be so cool - to be living in fascinating countries, sharing my skills with organizations that could really put them to use?

Friday, December 16, 2011

MacKay reveals massive disconnect from Canadians' reality

It's these kinds of stories that really make me think we're losing our way. When our own government reps don't get how completely offensive it is to Canadians enduring a recession to see their politicians spending like drunken sailors on luxury trips all over the world - well, what does that say?
At the very least, this latest spending revelation makes it clear that Peter MacKay has got to go. As the saying goes: Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. 

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

One month to departure - yikes!

Honduras capital Tegucigalpa, where we'll first land.
Just back from an intense five-day training course with Cuso International as we get ready for our departure for Honduras in a month.
I admit, I thought I was pretty culturally aware, but it turns out I still had a ton to learn. It's going to be quite a challenge to be working in a new culture, a different language, different issues, much warmer climate (OK, I'm really looking forward to that part), and in a society where I'm definitely going to have to curb my tendencies to just shoot my mouth off about this or that.
Fortunately, my not-yet-terrific Spanish language skills should help keep that in check, at least initially. And I'm viewing it as a learning opportunity to feel out communications in a country where speaking up about government, politics, etc has to be done much more cautiously.
Part of the Cuso training was a three-hour meeting with a "country resource person,"  which in our case was a young entrepreneur by the name of Ricardo Juarez, who moved to Canada from Honduras in September. I'll be ever grateful to him for the straight-up information he had for us on life in Honduras, which I now recognize will involve a lot more sightings of guns than I'm used to.
He also filled me in on "Honduran time," in which I will be expected to be punctual but everybody else will arrive maybe 30-45 minutes later than planned. Some of the more seasoned volunteers we met on training suggest I just carry a book everywhere to be able to read while I wait.
We're not down there on a holiday, but Ricardo did give us a great tip about an amazing place to visit during our travels, Cayos Cochinos. Such an opportunity to get to know a part of the world that I have yet to visit! I appreciate connecting with anyone who has travelled in Central America, particularly Honduras, so please send me a note at if you've got tips to share.
If you've ever wondered about folding up the tent and doing some long-term volunteering, I can tell you that our experience with Cuso International so far has been great.
But one point they emphasize regularly is the need to stay flexible and adaptable. So if you're one of those people who likes all the i's dotted and the t's crossed well in advance, you'll need to let that go. We found out at the training session that our visas likely won't be completed until a few days before we leave, and I've been cautioned repeatedly that my job description is likely to change - and possibly change again - once I'm in Honduras. We won't know where we'll be living until a week or two, possibly longer, after our arrival.
Hope you'll stay tuned for what promises to be an amazing adventure. Click on the link just above this post to get to our fundraising page. And I'll be setting up a Shutterfly Web site once we're there so I can share photos with you as well. 

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Too much power in PM's office

This Ottawa Citizen story on the Harper government's increasing control over the federal bureaucracy applies equally in B.C. Our ruling political parties don't even make a pretence at keeping the workings of government at arm's length anymore - it's all just one big spin machine as far as they're concerned.
It's a frightening development. The bureaucracy has traditionally kept a steady hand on the wheel of government while the various political parties went about their crazy antics. As pointed out by the author of this report criticizing the centralizing of power in the Prime Minister's Office, corruption is not just a risk but a proven result when political parties treat government like their private resource. 

Saturday, December 10, 2011

A painful, late truth for young Victoria woman

Are there some parents so awful that they deserve to never see their child again?
Probably. But we've got a process for that in Canada, and it doesn't include kidnapping your own child against court orders.
I have great sympathy for everyone connected to the saga of the 20-year-old Victoria woman who has just learned that much of what she thought to be true about her life was a lie.
She does not even have the name she thought she had; she hasn't heard her real name since she was taken from Toronto by her mother after a 1993 custody fight.
The courts will sort out the truth of this crime. There's little served by people like me speculating about the mother, Patricia O'Byrne, who has been accused of taking her little girl, or trying to second-guess an Ontario court decision from 18 years ago.
But whatever the details turn out to be, it must be said that a grave injustice has been done to this young woman. What must it feel like, to find out at 20 that the foundations of your life have been built on sand?
She is now learning she has a father. A brother. A whole other extended family in Ontario - one that has been looking all over the world for her for the better part of two decades.
She's got a name she didn't know about, and no doubt some pointed questions for friends and family in Victoria who presumably helped keep her mother's deep, dark secret.
She's got 18 years of catching up with another side of her family who she likely has no memory of, including a brother who is close to her age.
And how unfortunate that she has to experience all these mind-blowing revelations amid the glare of national media interest.
But her father, Joe Chisholm, is over the moon to have finally found his daughter, and the saga makes for one heck of a story.
What makes a parent kidnap their child? Mothers and fathers are equally likely to be the offending parent, says the support organization Victims of Violence.
Often it starts with anger over a court decision around custody. Sometimes it's about fear, or a concern that the child isn't getting good care when with the other parent. Fortunately, most of the 230 or so parental kidnappings in Canada every year are resolved within a week.
Not so in this case. The girl was taken from Toronto after an Ontario court awarded joint custody to O'Byrne and Chisholm in 1993.
Ontario RCMP have had an open file on the kidnapping ever since, but it took a tip to the Missing Children Society of Canada this summer to bring the investigation to Victoria.
Chisholm has maintained a poignant blog on MySpace. There are years of unread Christmas greetings and happy birthdays to his daughter on the site.
"Happy birthday," reads one from Sept. 20, when his daughter turned 20. "Wherever you are and whatever you are doing I am thinking about you and I wish you and your family well. I await the day that we can meet again. Love, Dad."
Chisholm has found his happy ending, it appears. O'Byrne has landed in a nightmare. Being charged with kidnapping might not even be the worst of it, considering how it must feel to be caught out on such a massive lie.
The case is a good reminder that whatever we think is "in place" in our systems to protect us from such crimes is a fiction in itself. The daughter, whose name is now covered by a publication ban, went to school under a false name and nobody noticed. Her mother worked for government for years under an alias, with no one the wiser.
Neither kept a low profile. The mother was an active member of the school community, and well thought of. Yet a desperate dad just four provinces away never caught a whisper of any of it. If it weren't for the tip to Missing Children, this crime might never have been solved.
Who called in that tip? I like to think it was someone who loved this young woman, and couldn't bear to deny her the truth of her life any longer. I'm sure it took a lot of courage to make that call.
"The truth is rarely pure and never simple," opined the playwright Oscar Wilde.
We can only hope it heals this shattered family.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

How come I don't know what a meme is?

Gee, I've always had a soft spot for Facebook as a way to connect, but now that I see the list of the top status updates in the past year, I'm not so sure if me and my kind are really much of a presence on the social-media site.
Happily, I'm not completely out as a Facebook trendsetter - I did have a status update involving the death of Amy Winehouse. Other than that, the top-10 list isn't really resonating with me.
As for the listing of the top 10 most-visited fictional character sites, I'm glad to see Bob Esponja made the grade. I might have even visited that site if I'd known it existed. I first saw the Sponge Bob cartoon many years ago while holidaying in Mexico, where he's known as Bob Esponja, and I've never been able to shake my habit of referring to him as Bob the Sponge. My grandkids mock me mercilessly for this. Maybe now they'll think I'm cutting-edge.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Cuso adventure in Honduras coming up

My partner and I are heading off to Honduras next month (you heard it here first!) to spend a year or possibly longer on a Cuso International volunteer placement.
It's all very exciting, but also a little terrifying what with the abundance of grim statistics and media headlines about Honduras, one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere. But I read this Huffington Post piece  this morning with gratitude and relief. It finally adds some humanity to the country and reminds me of the importance of not listening solely to the naysayers.
We leave for the Honduran capital, Tegucigalpa, in mid-January, and will make our way shortly after that to Copan Ruinas, a small northern town where I'll spend the next year doing communications work for a Honduran agency that partners with Cuso, the Comision de Accion Social Menonita.
I'll be posting regularly to my blog during our travels, and am really looking forward to this experience - not to mention solidifying my Spanish language skills. I can't wait to take everything I've learned through decades of communications work and put it to work helping great organizations like CASM and Cuso International.
Stay tuned for more details as the date of departure draws nearer, and if you find yourself in Victoria on the evening of Jan. 11, please plan to come to our goodbye party/fundraiser at the Fairfield Community Centre! We'll be raising money for my past and my future - PEERS Victoria and Cuso International. 

Monday, December 05, 2011

Latest figures show income gap widening even more

I guess we're accepting that old saying about the rich getting richer as a fact of life, because they definitely are getting richer.
In Canada and around the world, the divide between those with money and those of lesser circumstance continues to grow - as this CBC story points out, the average income of the top 10 per cent of wealthy Canadians is now 10 times that of the bottom 10 per cent, up from 8:1 just a few years ago.
The trend is consistent throughout OECD countries - the gap is now 14:1 in the U.S. You need only go to a developing country to see where this trend leads: To dramatic increases in visible poverty; an even more fragile economy; higher costs for fewer public services; and a significant rise in security issues for the wealthy.
Even the rich lose out when the income gap gets too big, in other words. And yet we continue to bring in government policies (and governments) that worsen this trend, even while our morning newspapers bring us the news of all that is going wrong in countries being turned upside down by the revolts of angry have-nots.
I suspect we think such things can't happen in Canada. I fear we're wrong about that. 

Friday, December 02, 2011

If only science was a sure thing

Science is an uncertain science. That’s been brought home once more this past week with all the consternation over mammography.
“The Screening Mammography Program Saves Lives,” says the headline on the B.C. Cancer Agency’s on-line writeup about mammography, a type of x-ray of the breast that up until days ago was routinely promoted to Canadian women 40 and up as an annual must-have.
But the Canadian Task Force on Preventive Health Care has rocked the boat big-time with new recommendations that reduce the use of mammography. 
The task force has toned down Canada’s 10-year-old guidelines around when to get mammograms. The revised guidelines suggest routine mammograms only for women ages 50 to 74 and even then no more than once every two or three years.
No big deal in the grand scheme of things. One less medical appointment to schedule.
But it’s disturbing when something that has been sold to us as an absolutely essential health measure suddenly reveals a dark side. The about-face on mammograms serves as an excellent reminder that health care can hurt.
In the case of mammograms, the issue is “false positives.” Mammograms are prone to turning up slow-growing lumps in the breast that look like cancer but in fact do no harm over a lifetime.
That means you can end up having surgery, radiation and chemotherapy you didn’t need - treatments that can damage your health permanently and waste precious health-care dollars to boot. False positives have been a major issue in prostate-cancer screening for years now for those very reasons.
Mammograms provide “a real benefit,” said task force chair Dr. Marcello Tonelli in media reports this week on the revised guidelines. “But compared with the risk of false positives, it’s relatively small. If you look at the numbers, you are much more likely to have a false positive result than you are to have your life saved with screening.”
New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell saw this one coming years ago. He wrote a brilliant article back in 2004, “The Picture Problem,” that detailed the challenges that even the most expert radiologist faces when trying to decipher a mammogram image.
“Looking at a mammogram is conceptually different from looking at images elsewhere in the body,” Memorial Sloan-Ketterer Cancer Centre radiologist Dr. David Dershaw told Gladwell in that piece. “Everything else has anatomy—anatomy that essentially looks the same from one person to the next. But we don’t have that kind of standardized information on the breast.
“The most difficult decision I think anybody needs to make when we’re confronted with a patient is: Is this person normal? And we have to decide that without a pattern that is reasonably stable from individual to individual, and sometimes even without a pattern that is the same from the left side to the right.”
The point of the article was that humans place too much trust in pictures as revealing “truth.” The picture that emerges from a mammogram is particularly open to interpretation.
Gladwell highlighted eye-opening findings from the University of Washington Harborview Medical Centre as to what happened when 10 radiologists were asked to interpret the same 150 mammograms.
One caught 85 per cent of cancers in the images right away. Another caught 37 per cent. Some saw many things to worry about, others saw none. In one case, three radiologists deemed a lump visible in the image to be normal, two others saw it as abnormal but probably benign, four weren’t sure, and one was certain it was cancerous.
Mammography does save lives. But not many, as it turns out. If 1,000 women who are age 60 right now have an annual (and let’s presume correctly interpreted) mammogram every year for the next decade - 10,000 mammograms, with all the expense that entails - breast cancer deaths among the group could be expected to drop from nine to six.
Nobody can blame us for wanting a fail-safe test that catches cancer early. Alas, the science isn’t there yet, and at any rate something new will likely be killing us by that point. Such is the nature of the human condition.
Preventing breast cancer remains important, of course. But so much of prevention comes down to personal responsibility - for what you eat; how often you exercise; how much you weigh; your alcohol consumption.
The world will rejoice when they come up with a screening program that corrects for bad habits. Until then, take care.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Why does the belt only tighten at one end?

You know, it's really striking how often political parties that shape themselves as being about "small government" in fact spend their time in office growing the business out of all proportions.
Here's the latest news on that front involving the Tories. Keep in mind that all this growth happened at a time when Stephen Harper's government was slashing public services. That's the thing that grates the most - that even while we're losing long-standing public programs due to "belt-tightening," our governments are growing larger, taking ever-bigger salaries, and even paying out bonuses to the senior managers who are most effective at cutting our services.
In ancient times, they would have called this kind of governance a kleptocracy - "rule by thieves." Whatever you want to call it, it's crazy-making. But hey, we keep electing them.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Free parking at our hospitals

Now here's an idea whose time has come - free parking at hospitals. Maybe now that the Canadian Medical Association Journal is saying it, it will have an impact. How crazy is it to stress people out just that little bit more  when they're going through an illness or something worse than by charging them to park?
And once we're offering it free, how about offering more of it, too? Can't believe they built that new parkade  at Royal Jubilee hospital at a capacity that was well below what's actually needed.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Occupy movement down but not out

Having to make way for Santa seems an ignominious end for the Occupy movement, but that’s how things tend to go in countries that aren’t yet angry enough to get genuinely uncivil.
Still, the public reaction to the Occupy protests over the last eight weeks has been surprisingly sympathetic. I take that as a hopeful sign that this movement will have legs.
People tolerated the protest camps for much longer than they usually do when tents appear in public spaces. I think a lot of them quietly related to the issues the movement has raised.
It’s pretty impressive that in just two short months, a mixed bag of disaffected citizens around the world took a small protest in New York City’s financial district and turned it into a global movement.
Whether it can last long enough to affect change, I guess we’ll see. But the Occupy protests got a lot more positive attention than most “occupations” get - an indicator that people have a certain sympathy for the cause.
The movement started with a single email that Canada’s Adbusters Foundation sent to people in July.
The foundation is known for publishing an ad-free magazine and holding strong opinions on corporate influence over democracy. But its suggestion of a peaceful occupation of Wall Street clearly struck a chord that resonated well beyond the magazine’s usual sphere of influence.
"The idea of Occupy Wall Street is to revive people's democracy," said Adbusters editor Micah White in an interview with the Huffington Post last month. "We are sick of the corporate political parties deciding the agenda of America."
That would have bordered on cuckoo talk a decade ago, when we were all so certain that our governments were leading us toward the light.
But we’ve learned some hard lessons since then. From the 2001 Enron scandal on through an outrageous series of global financial disasters and government ineptitude that severely shook public confidence, it has been a tough and discouraging 10 years.
Maybe the average people of the world were just ready for somebody to issue a call to action. At any rate, one group of sympathizers after another picked up Adbusters’ call for occupation and spread the word. A global movement was born virtually overnight, with Occupy protests eventually organized in more than 80 countries.
None of it will change the world, at least not yet. But let’s not discount the miracle of such a thing happening at all. Just the fact that a group of protesters kept their camp alive in Centennial Square for more than two months and city hall was still being nice about it is an astounding turn of events on its own.
The Occupy movement’s catchy slogan - “We are the 99 per cent” - is a reference to the growing income disparity in western countries, with wealth concentrating in the hands of the richest one per cent of the population.
In the last three decades, the top one per cent of income earners in the U.S. saw their incomes rise almost 300 per cent. That’s at least seven times more than any other income group saw in the same period.
Here in Canada - where the gap between rich and poor has been growing for the last 15 years - the richest 20 per cent now have nine times the income of the poorest 20 per cent. That’s the biggest gap we’ve seen since the 1970s.
Income disparity isn’t exactly a hot topic around the office water cooler. But even people who don’t often think about such things are by now well aware that crazy problems are manifesting out here in the world.
They didn’t all storm the streets with the Occupy forces. But they did make space in their communities for the protests to happen. It’s a bigger win than it might appear, and signals a real shift in the public mood.
Widespread tolerance for something as non-Canadian as public protest - in the Christmas season! Right in the heart of the downtown! - says a lot about how much the issues raised by the Occupy movement must be resonating. Protesters, you are not alone.
But Santa’s coming and it’s cold outside. Store owners near the protest camps are losing patience. Municipalities and their police departments are closing in.
It looks like the end. I suspect it’s just the beginning.


Thursday, November 24, 2011

Mammography controversy a reminder of screening risks

Canada's finest health writer, Andre Picard, weighs in with his usual information-laden, clear-eyed view on the fuss about mammographies.
Women are accustomed to cancer screening as a good thing from lifetimes of Pap smears. But as Picard and the larger scientific community points out, screening can have a serious downside when false positives - more common than you'd hope in both mammograms and PSA tests for prostate cancer - lead people to have serious medical procedures and treatments that they didn't need.
Cancer is such an emotionally loaded word. We all know someone who has had it and we're all terrified to get it ourselves, but the truth is that the science of cancer is still something of a mystery. You'd think that highly developed screening tools that can catch the earliest signs of cancer would be a good thing. But now we're learning that some cancers never really get past the starting gate in our bodies, and that there's such a thing as "bad" screening when you end up getting chemotherapy, radiation or surgery you didn't need.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Occupiers didn't have the numbers they needed

Good try by the Occupiers, but it looks like things are fizzling out across the country. It's cold, for one thing, but probably the bigger problem is that unless a protest gets bigger with each passing day, everybody forgets about it very quickly and just returns to their routines. Then all you've really got is a camp pretty much like any of the other camps of impoverished people we've had in Victoria.
I like the Occupy movement, but I don't know if enough people are feeling the pain yet to give the movement the critical mass it needs. Not in Canada, anyway. The States - well, that's another matter. I think they've got any number of angry-and devastated-citizen protests ahead of them as the country's problems deepen.

Friday, November 18, 2011

WTO police chief cautions against similar response to Occupiers

A good read from regret-filled former Seattle police chief Norm Stamper. He presided over the disastrous 1999 "Battle in Seattle," when an aggressive police response to World Trade Organization protesters turned the city into a tear gas-laden war zone for several days.
I was there, having been sent south by the Times Colonist on Day 2 of the clash to cover the story. There were 5,000 armed police and military personnel in the city by that point, and it was a terrifying, life-changing experience for me to realize that every citizen is in danger when there's that much police aggression and weaponry around.
Stamper has been talking about his mistakes for a number of years now, and I admire him immensely for it. Who better than those who have already learned the hard lessons to remind us not to repeat the missteps of history?

Red River recall highlights food safety measures

Aside from an unpleasant period of paranoia brought on by seeing the documentary Food Inc., I’ve never put much thought into food safety.
But when the food police come for my Red River cereal - well, that certainly gets my attention.
At first I thought there’d just been a run on Red River when I saw the empty shelf. But after several forays to different stores in an effort to find my breakfast of choice, I spotted the little recall notices.
It’s unsettling to learn that something you eat every day has been recalled. So I went looking for answers this week and discovered how little I knew about the whole complicated business of food safety in Canada, let alone the dense regulatory regime that aims to protect Canadians from harmful foods.
In the case of the Red River recall, it’s a labelling issue. Soy is in the cereal but isn’t declared on the label. Food allergies have become a major focus for the Canadian Food Inspection Agency after national labelling laws were tightened in February, and soy is apparently a big one.
Companies have until August 2012 to comply with the new labelling rules, which will require a nice, clear caution in plain English warning buyers if a product has soy, coconut or any other of the 14 known allergens CFIA watches out for.
Smucker Foods of Canada - which makes Red River - opted to recall the Canadian supply of the cereal early while the labelling issue gets sorted out. My loss, but probably a good thing for any Red River fans with soy allergies.
Allergens are a common reason for food recalls. We’ve had almost 600 recalls to date this year, and many involved various allergens that turn up in our packaged foods without our knowledge.
Immerse yourself in the very detailed CFIA Web site and you’ll soon see just how many other worrying things can affect our food and drink, from ground-glass fragments to botulism, salmonella and paralytic shellfish poisoning.
Fortunately, a third of this year’s recalls were rated Class 3, a relatively mild infraction that might just indicate a company hasn’t brought a certain practice up to code. (The Red River soy mixup is rated Class 1, because the potential for harm is significant for those with soy allergies.)
The even better news is that most food recalls in Canada are initiated by the companies that make the products. That’s a heartening indicator that they’re paying attention long before their products reach our tables. Most food recalls happen before anybody gets sick.
And that’s as it should be. We need to be able to trust that food manufacturers are doing their best not to harm us. No government body could ever stay on top of all the ingredients in all the food and drink we take in, and a complaints-based approach doesn’t work when a person could actually die in the process.
 But I’d guess that trying to prevent people from having allergic reactions to food products will turn out to be one of the industry’s more challenging problems, and not just because more people seem to be developing such allergies.
Take soy, for instance. People who are allergic to it presumably know to check the ingredients list on the side of a product before buying packaged or processed foods.
But soy goes by many names, and soy-based emulsifiers and thickeners go by even more. Knowing whether soy is in the chewing gum, the tuna or the bread crumbs you’re about to buy isn’t always as simple as reading the label.
The CFIA has a section on its site encouraging consumer responsibility around food safety, mostly urging us to report to the agency with concerns about food-related problems.
 But anyone worried about food allergies might also want to spend some time browsing the site just to get to know the many faces of their allergen when it comes to packaged foods. There’s a great recall search system that links you to all kinds of information - like the 13 Class 1 recalls that have been initiated in B.C. in the last month.
For all you Red River fans out there, I’d hoped to have word of a triumphant Canadian return (Note to cross-border shoppers: no recall in the U.S.) Alas, Smucker’s didn’t get back to me with that information, so we’re left to wonder.
In the meantime, visit and see what your food supply is up to.  

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Two B.C. sex-worker organizations shutting doors

Yesterday, the news was about PEERS Vancouver closing in the spring. Today, the other primary Vancouver organization supporting street-level sex workers has also announced it's done. PACE Vancouver will run out of money to pay its staff in just three weeks.
I'm doing some contract work with PEERS Victoria and can tell you that even though that organization is also going through difficult times, it has a more diverse funding base and is hanging in under a great new executive director, Marion Little. But it will still be facing one of the biggest funding challenges in its 16-year history in the spring, when the same revamped employment contract that is wiping out PEERS Vancouver comes into effect across B.C.
Finding money to help sex workers is an extremely difficult undertaking, as I learned the hard way during my three years leading PEERS Victoria. The reason these groups are struggling is because the citizenry simply doesn't care enough about what happens to the impoverished, marginalized women engaged in survival sex work, and our governments know it.
Please speak up - to your MLA, to the provincial and federal governments. Please make this a personal issue, too, and donate money, warm winter clothing, food for hot soups and stews (PEERS Victoria serves more than 300 "meals" from its outreach van every month to women working our local strolls). Put some time into learning  more about the issues so that this isolated, stigmatized population isn't left to suffer at the hands of our massive disinterest.  

Sunday, November 13, 2011

New resolve around better divorces, or just window-dressing?

I'm a bit puzzled by this story, on the province's big new initiative to reduce the court fights when people split up. A good idea to do that, of course, but isn't that the case already? Mediation has been the option of preference for divorcing couples for many years now, at least from the court system's point of view. The big sticking point is getting them to take that option.
As for the example of the Lee family and how we need to view violence against a spouse as threatening to a child - well, that's not a new thing either. In fact, for poor families caught up with the Children and Family Development Ministry, parents risk losing their kids into government care if there's any threat of spousal violence. So even when Dad's violent and Mom's not, she can lose her children just for not being able to figure out how to get away from Dad.
The problem in the Lee case is that the family was well-off. We all have a hard time believing that well-off families can be dysfunctional and dangerous. Different decisions get made - by the ministry, by police - when a family's got money. Tightening up the Family Relations Act isn't likely to change that.
But hey, I don't want to sound like Little Nancy Negative. It's just that this story line seems a bit like someone's trying to dress an old issue up in new clothes and sell it to us as change. 

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Death at the Occupy Vancouver protest

A timely open letter to the powers that be from a B.C. blogger and activist very worried about what's going to happen at  the Occupy protest in Vancouver in the wake of a death at the encampment this past week. He's been a participant up until now, but is urging people to wrap things up before more tragedy occurs. 

Saturday, November 05, 2011

Fired CLBC boss got $345,000 severance package

Say it ain't so! After all the heat and problems at CLBC, all the lost services to vulnerable people, we find out that fired (an important distinction - fired, not laid off or downsized or anything softer like that) CLBC chief Rick Mowles got a $345,000 severance package from the Crown corporation when he was axed last month. Yup, 18 months' severance after being on the job just six years.
Wow. Kudos to TC reporter Lindsay Kines for digging up this important story - he's been an ace on the CLBC issues since the start, and was the only reporter in B.C. even doing any meaningful writing about this stuff until things got so noisy that Global TV and now the Vancouver Sun finally took a look.

Friday, November 04, 2011

Fed changes start from frightening premise

It makes me nervous to read the news stories about plans the Canadian government has for reshaping the non-profit sector.
Sure, the sector needs some work. What sector doesn’t?
But it’s hardly the unaccountable, inefficient system that the federal government made it sound like this week in the media coverage about the new Canada Not-For-Profit Corporations Act.
“Right now, we ask [the non-profit sector] to take on these jobs,” federal Human Resources Minister Diane Finlay said while announcing new efforts to ensure more accountability from Canada’s 161,000 registered non-profits and charities.
“We give them money to do it. They receive the money whether they achieve their objectives or not. Now all we’re saying is all right, we still want you to do this, but you get more money if you actually achieve your objectives.”
Unless you’ve been involved with a non-profit having to jump through the many - and often meaningless - accountability requirements of federal funding, you might not appreciate how grating of a statement that is in a sector that works very hard for its money. How can we trust change pushed by a government that doesn’t have a clue?
Canada, Britain and the U.S. are all working very hard these days to extricate government from social responsibility. Their efforts tend to focus on initiatives that download the funding of community work to someone other than them.
 Socially invested municipalities and neighbourhoods, new charity hybrids capable of earning their own revenue, mysterious “investors” who are apparently waiting in the wings  to pony up for social causes as long as they can earn a return on investment - all are integral parts of the three countries’ plans for  non-profit reform.
And maybe such strategies will indeed turn out to be beneficial. But pardon me for noticing that underneath every proposed change is an expectation of offloading the cost of social care.
It’s very popular among the government set these days to talk about how charities and non-profits should run more like businesses.
For the most part, they already do. And that’s remarkable given the nutty processes, procedural hurdles and nonsensical funding cuts they deal with as a matter of course. If the goal is a healthy community sector capable of dealing with increasing social complexity, I’d suggest Ottawa start with some personal reflection on the many ways its own systems and policies devalue, complicate and compromise efficient community work.
The nature of non-profit work - running child-care centres, looking after old people, supporting challenged families, preventing environmental catastrophe, finding God, reconnecting lost souls - doesn’t lend  itself easily to standard measurement. In an era when “worth” has only one meaning to government, that’s a major disadvantage.
So much of non-profit work comes down to value-based goals like easing human suffering.  Building community. Saving the planet for future generations. Alas, governments like things that show a return on investment before the next election. 
Community work builds “infrastructure” as surely as construction companies build bridges and roads. So how come nobody has to build a bridge on year-to-year funding or uncertain contracts squeezed whenever the government feels like it? How come we don’t hear about road-builders getting stiffed as a matter of course on annual cost-of-living increases, as is the case for hundreds of social service agencies in B.C. doing the same work for a little less each year?
I do agree with government’s push for more tangible evidence of the benefits of community work. Improvements to the way outcomes are measured and reported would at least settle once and for all that the non-profit sector is doing essential, meaningful work. 
The sector could use a new name, too, because “non-profit” and “charitable” instantly bring to mind some pathetic soul who can’t figure out how to make money and so has to beg.
But what it doesn’t need is a government-led fix that even in its early days has revealed a biased and negative view of the non-profit sector.
Modern-day western governments are obsessed with the idea that charities and non-profits are inefficient users of tax dollars. They think the growing social divide in their countries are because non-profits and community members aren’t doing their job well enough, not because they’ve been hacking apart the social safety net for the better part of 20 years.
They’re wrong. And they won’t set things right with just more of the same.


Thursday, November 03, 2011

Corporate double-speak can't hide Hydro's problems

You catching all this fast talking coming out of BC Hydro? Takes me back to my old corporate days, with all those interesting interpretations the Big Guys had in order to create the impression of a good bottom line even when there wasn't one. Times Colonist editorial staff did a good analysis of the situation today - it's hard to imagine that any person taking a common-sense look at this thing wouldn't see that we're really just pushing today's problems onto tomorrow's Hydro users.
Also loved the opening to today's TC story on the same issue.  BC Hydro can't lose money because the government expects a stable profit for its budget each year, said Hydro's chief financial officer, Charles Reid. Oh, if only that was the way life worked. 

Friday, October 28, 2011

History of sorrows and stumbles for CLBC

All the problems and drama at Community Living B.C. these days got me digging through the story archives this week to try to see when it was that things started going wrong for the Crown corporation.
I was prepared to be outraged. But really, I just felt sad.
I’ve often made mention here of a 1978 book I was introduced to a few years ago, Poor People’s Movements: Why They Succeed, How They Fail. I’ve seen so many real-life examples of the cautionary tales laid out in that fascinating book through my work helping people with few resources push change.
The heartbreaking story of CLBC just might be the clearest example yet.
Poor People’s Movements documents the histories of four protest movements involving lower-class groups in the U.S. I’d read it in hopes of learning strategies for shaking things up around homelessness and sex-work issues, but happily discovered the book was even more valuable for understanding why good intentions so often go awry in the drive for change.
In B.C.’s community-living movement, the families and advocates of people with developmental disabilities have always been the ones driving change. If it weren’t for them, we’d still be back in the day of giant, impersonal institutions for anyone with a mental handicap, because that’s certainly the easiest model from a government perspective.
CLBC was to be the movement’s greatest triumph. For the first time, people whose lives had been touched by developmental disability were going to be the ones guiding services. Families, advocates and those with disabilities would no longer be just another category of “stakeholder,” but would actually be making the decisions.
So how sad is it to see where things have ended up a mere six years later?
The situation in B.C. feels more challenging than ever for people with developmental disabilities. It’s harder to find services, harder to hold onto them, and the certainty of being housed is no longer a given.
 During a recent visit to a local shelter, I was stunned to see how many people with visible developmental disabilities were there for services - the leading edge of a new problem that will grow much worse in coming years now that we’re giving up designated housing for this population.
People are being pushed out of their group homes and programs even while CLBC senior managers take $14,000 bonuses as thanks from government for getting that done.
Such revelations from other parts of government generally bring to mind some opportunistic, cosseted civil servant with no idea of what it feels like to be in need.
But in the case of CLBC, a number of the senior managers are the same family members and advocates who led the movement for years - people who know exactly how it feels. How did it come to this? 
If only they’d read the book. It turns out there’s a deadly phase for grassroots movements, and it comes dressed up like success.  It’s the point where the government or authority they’ve been railing at suddenly puts a friendly arm across their shoulders and invites them closer to work out a “solution.” Talk turns to joint committees and partnerships.
Movements must approach such invitations with great care, warns the book. Stepping inside the circle may look like a win, but it’s more likely to be a takeover. The goals of the movement are soon crushed beneath the weight and wishes of the new “partner,” and soon everybody’s too co-opted to complain.
CLBC was also created in total chaos. I’m a big believer in organizational culture as a determinant of how things will turn out, and by that measure CLBC never stood a chance.
Firings, investigations, disgraced ministers, delays, painful media stories about funds unaccounted for and sweet-deal contracts - it was a messy, protracted birth. Add in the constant reorgs that have swept through CLBC since its inception, and I doubt the Crown corporation has known many normal days.
And that’s not even taking into account the politics. Cutting social services has always been a top priority of the B.C. Liberals, and community living has been in their sites for 10 years now. The cost of housing people has been a particular irritant, which is why CLBC execs were up until recently being rewarded for moving people out of their group homes.
Families and advocates for this issue know how to fight, and it’s good to see them out there again. They won’t trust as easily next time, but what a discouraging truth that is. 

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Household income flat-lined for young families

The people at the Human Early Learning Partnership do good work, like tracking the (rising) vulnerability rate in B.C. Here's a new report from HELP that's full of facts and figures that are good to have around - informative in the moment, but very useful for comparing stats down the line as things undoubtedly worsen for younger generations of Canadians. Who would have thought that the idealistic baby-boomer generation would be the one that would leave behind a world in worse shape than when we arrived? Here's a fact sheet with more info and some proposed solutions from the University of B.C.-based HELP.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Important information or just more nameless dread?

This is the kind of story that makes me crazy. 
I mean, if high levels of BPA really do cause problems in-utero for girl babies, hey, let's ditch the stuff. I'm perfectly happy with my metal water bottle. But stories that just float a little information out there are decidedly unhelpful on issues like this, and mostly just add to all the nameless dread that builds up in us from a steady diet of vague stories like this one.
 What exactly ARE "higher levels" of BPA, and why did these women have more in their system than others? In fact, how much BPA is OK to have in your system, and what's a typical amount you'd see in an average person? What are the lessons to be learned for future mothers-to-be so they can avoid hyperactive baby girls - or shall they just add BPA to the long list of possibly bad things to worry about when pregnant?
And note that you'd have to search for the actual study if you wanted to see exactly how many more toddlers got hyperactive due to higher levels of BPA in their moms, or even for a clear definition of the behaviours that researchers saw more of.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Pine beetles a lesson in messing with nature

It’s 2001 all over again in forestry news these days now that those nasty little mountain pine beetles have worked their way into Alberta.
The story in the Edmonton Journal this week about the beetle infestation could have been lifted from any B.C. newspaper a decade ago, when the insidious insects first began upping their game in our own lodgepole-pine forests.
More than 17 million hectares of B.C. pine forest have been affected since then. The province has spent more than $750 million so far trying to mitigate the damage.
Here in the land of Douglas fir and cedar, the pine beetle invasion tends to feel like old news. But forestry-dependent communities elsewhere in B.C. are all too aware of the ongoing impact the ravenous bug is having.
The province gave another $9 million this past spring to the three community coalitions set up to identify and fund mitigation strategies in the hardest-hit areas: Cariboo-Chilcotin; Omineca; and Southern Interior.
The beetle explosion created a boom in B.C. forestry for a few years, when the government cleared the way for more intensive logging to make use of all the dying pine trees.
Government didn’t have much choice about that, as beetle-killed trees would have rotted on the ground if they hadn’t been harvested. Might as well make some money and create some jobs from all that lost forest.
But the short-term bump in harvesting has left a long-term problem: Much smaller - even non-existent - harvests for many years to come in forestry-dependent communities. They’re left waiting for a new generation of pine forest to grow large enough to log, which will take 40 years or more.
 “Stakes in beetle invasion are enormous,” said this week’s Journal headline. Indeed. Having recently travelled through the beautiful pine forests of the Rockies, I can’t imagine the landscape without them.
Then again, I drove the Princeton highway this summer and noticed that the devastation of a few years ago is barely visible through the new growth.
That’s a marked change over the way things looked in a previous road trip, when red, dead pine trees were all you could see. The heartening thing about nature is how forgiving it can be of our transgressions.
And the invasion is definitely about our transgressions. Pine beetles have been infesting pine trees for centuries, but climate change and past forestry practices created ideal conditions for the bugs.
We planted monocultures - great swaths of nothing but pine, which is not how Nature would have it. We fought forest fires with vigour to protect forestry revenues, only to discover that by suppressing fires we had weakened forest health and created dense stands that made it easy for pine beetles to migrate from tree to tree.
Warmer winters have contributed to the problem. A good, long cold snap is the only real defence against the beetles. But we haven’t seen too many of those in recent years.
The beetles kill a tree by burrowing into its soft tissue and cutting off the water supply to its upper branches. The bugs also spread a blue fungus (remember “denim pine,” a branding exercise aimed at putting a positive spin on the faded-blue colour of beetle-killed wood?) that also speeds the tree’s death.
You’d think in this age of a chemical for everything, there would be a remedy for death by beetle.
But aside from the removal of infected trees and some hasty thinning, nobody has come up with a real solution. In the U.S., the pine beetle has already destroyed 16 million hectares of forest in Idaho national parks. The forest service is busy in Montana parks right now thinning stands in hopes of staving off more devastation.
The lesson learned from all this? Mother Nature knows best. There’s a reason for bio-diversity, and for leaving forest fires to burn. Woe to any culture that tries to trump nature.
Oops. I confused my watts in a column last week on China’s Three Gorges dam. As an astute reader pointed out, it would take five million projects the size of Three Gorges to generate the 100 billion megawatts of hydro power I said the dam was capable of.
Make that 100 billion kilowatt hours. Still a heck of a lot, but nowhere near the staggering amount I erroneously suggested. When the project’s 32 turbines are all up and running (29 are currently in operation), they will in fact generate about 22,400 megawatts.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Bed bugs an expensive house guest for BC Housing

Here's a story to get you itching: A Sun piece on the $720,000 that BC Housing spent in a year fighting bed bugs in the buildings it owns.
The story makes the point that having a bed bug infestation isn't a sign of poverty or poor housekeeping. The little critters are just everywhere now, and extremely hard to get rid of.
My daughter came home covered with bed-bug bites after a stay in a three-star San Francisco hotel. I got bitten down the backs of my legs after sitting in a Mexican cab in shorts; the bugs had set up shop in a rip in the seat fabric.
What's with the seeming epidemic of bed bugs? Turns out we'd all but eradicated the bug by the 1940s, but they came back with a vengeance in the mid-1990s and for all kinds of reasons have now become part of the hotel/housing landscape. Check out the Wikipedia entry on bed bugs for more info, although I'm already scratching just from having to write this.

Friday, October 14, 2011

China's enormous environmental experiment

One of the many "instant" cities that have sprung up since China flooded out communities for the Three Gorges Dam project. This is Feng Du, now located across the river from the original city. 
For better or worse, I’m an experiential learner. I try to stay on top of the current events of the world, but it’s getting up close and personal with the issues of distant lands that really works for me.
So it was that I could have a headful of knowledge about China’s massive Three Gorges dam project from years of hearing about it, yet still find myself gaping at the altered landscape along the Yangtze River from a cruise-ship window last week in the realization that I didn’t actually know a damn thing.
I’d read the articles, of course. I’d seen the documentaries. Long before our family trip to China, I got that the Three Gorges project was a mighty big deal.
At stake: The promise of 100 billion kilowatt hours of “clean” hydro power for a country still burning coal. The relocation of 1.3 million people flooded out by a dammed river.  An end to the huge seasonal floods that have claimed hundreds of thousands of lives. A potential environmental disaster.
But what it would feel like to sail on a river that had been so dramatically changed, in a country full of people whose lives were turned completely upside down by the project - well, it just hadn’t hit me before. We spent three days travelling the Yangtze as part of our tour, and I can’t stop thinking about it.
The cruise departed at Chongqing, a city that has swelled to a staggering 32 million in recent years. It’s a knockout, as were all of the big cities we visited in our two-week holiday.
Sure, you peer through a haze of air pollution to see any of them. But underneath the “fog” (as our guides liked to call it), China’s cities are feasts of clever, unique architecture; great food; interesting people; and a neon nightscape that’s to die for if you’re a night-light aficionado like me.
 A two-week trip is hardly enough time to understand a place, or explore why Communist countries are invariably hotbeds of capitalism at the level of the people. But an extended stay isn’t required just to notice the impact that economic progress is having on China, in ways both good and bad.
We toured a few Chongqing hot spots on the day we arrived, including an odd little exhibit in a city park featuring a detailed, winding mural of the Three Gorges region painted along a concrete passageway.
The artist had depicted the towns that lined the river’s edge before the dam, and then sketched in the new water line in red. It was remarkably effective at bringing the issues home.
Our young guide walked us along the painting, her tone of voice studiously neutral as she talked about the massive human impact.  When we gasped at the sheer number of people uprooted, the cities and heritage sites washed away, she observed sagely that “the coin flips both ways.”
She’s right. For China to be an economic leader - for its citizens to have the same standard of living we enjoy in North America - it needs the hydro power, the flood control and the huge transportation savings that the Three Gorges project created.
But what a price its people paid.
They didn’t just lose their riverside homes, they lost centuries-old towns and traditions. Many were relocated to unfamiliar regions and assigned to unfamiliar jobs. The government built them new housing - generally more upscale than they’d previously lived in - but at a cost of flooding their farm land and family histories under more than 150 metres of river water.
Seen from the cruise boat, the new shoreline looks unnatural, especially in the spots where abandoned farmland now runs straight into the water. Above the new water line, “instant” skyscraper cities and massive, dazzling bridges have sprung up to accommodate the displaced - they, too, look out of place.
Like so much of what we saw in China, the altered landscape is beautiful in its own way. You can’t help but feel the energy and growth in China, the sense of possibility.
But it’s hard to imagine any government getting away with such a bold manipulation of nature. Reports of environmental degradation since the dam was built bear that out.
As for the toll on the million-plus “emigrants,” China isn’t a country that talks about such things. I can only hope that in the end, the coin flipped the right way for them.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Paying bonuses to have our services cut

Back from my travels in China (wow, what a place!), struggling with the muzzy-headed feeling of jet lag. If anyone knows of a cure for jet lag, please send it along. I try this, I try that, but no matter what I still come home to several days of cloudy thinking and weird sleeping habits.
Must admit, I've enjoyed having a break from the news these past two weeks. I woke up to this morning's headlines in the Globe and remembered why I needed the break - so much of the news makes my blood boil, and who needs that first thing in the morning when they can't think straight to begin with?
Here's the one that got me going, detailing the bonuses federal civil servants stand to get if they can cut public services sufficiently. How crazy is it for us to be paying our taxes to government so that they can give themselves handsome bonuses for cutting our services? We can presume this is some strategy taken from the books of the big corporations, but it makes no sense when you're talking about a taxpayer-funded structure.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Travelling through Thanksgiving

I'm off to China this morning for a family trip with my mother, her sister and six of us cousins. I don't think I can be counted on to keep my blog up-to-date while away, so please check back for more regular postings starting Oct. 10.