10/25/13

How to Break Your Election Promises



Taxman: I was thinking of this Beatles’ song, recently, after council received the pre-budget report from the treasurer at last Monday’s council meeting. It’s dated, the song that is, but still eerily appropriate (I will have to learn to play it on my ukulele).

Last election, all of us who got elected ran on a platform of keeping costs and taxes low. Okay, that’s a fairly blithe promise; few candidates run on a platform of raising taxes and expenses, and fewer actually ever win a seat in any level of government.

It doesn’t matter if everyone knows taxes will go up after the election, or if there are seriously pressing needs to raise taxes. You don’t run on that platform.  Unless, of course, it’s to tax the rich – that seems a rather popular theme these days. Except, of course, among the rich. The 99% of us kind of like the idea… but I digress

This council has consistently attempted to cut costs, rein in spending and keep taxes low. That’s never easy, and often it’s very challenging, but we’ve managed to do so fairly well. In fact, the most recent auditor’s report (an independent audit) showed we have done it very well, in the past three budgets. The deputy mayor has cracked the whip and staff have pulled the oars. So far, the local ship of state has rowed in unison, avoiding the shoals of debt and taxation.

But it’s difficult to maintain a flat tax line. The world doesn’t work that way. Economies are always on the move.

Prices go up, costs go up, fee go up, old things need maintenance or replacement, new things need to be bought, collective agreements have built-in increases. Keeping a zero-percent increase is like the Red Queen’s race in Alice in Wonderland: you run as fast as you can just to stay in the same place:

Well, in our country,” said Alice, still panting a little, “you’d generally get to somewhere else — if you run very fast for a long time, as we’ve been doing.”
“A slow sort of country!” said the Queen. “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!”

We don’t have the money or the tax base to run twice as fast. But at some point, we have to have some increases if nothing more than to play catch-up with out expenses.

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10/24/13

Words, words, words


Elements of StyleWriting before the arrival of the internet*, Bob Blackburn commented on the nature of exchange on then-prevalent BBS (Bulletin Board Systems), words that could as easily be written today about the internet:

“…the BBS medium reveals not only a widespread inability to use English as a means of communication but also a widespread ignorance of that inability, and, in consequence, a lack of interest in doing anything about it.”

Words that were prescient. As if he could foresee Facebook. Blackburn also wrote that most people thought they spoke and wrote well…

“The majority of English-speaking people I’ve come across…think they already know it. After all, it’s their native tongue, and they’ve been to school.”

Which is, for most of us, a fallacy. Language, like any skill, needs training, practice, experience and reminders. Yes, we have an innate  sense of grammar from an early age, encoded in our genes, but it is rudimentary and needs refinement.

A new study from the University of Pennsylvania has shown that children as young as 2 understand basic grammar rules when they first learn to speak and are not simply imitating adults.

Like our muscles, our ability to speak and write develops with use. But it does not develop with haphazard, unfocused usage. Just visit some of the many sites that illustrate the grammatical nightmares found on social media sites like Facebook. While these are good for a chuckle, they reflect a greater problem with education and learning.

Anyone who attempts to correct the written wrongdoings online is labelled a “grammar Nazi” (or more often, a “grammer nazi”). As if writing poorly is some protected, constitutional right. The term has been adopted by some of the practitioners themselves. I sometimes count myself among their company, although I do not belong to any of their organizations.

Still, like Lynn Truss, I bridle at the egregious mistakes in grammar, punctuation and spelling I find online (not everyone likes her, by the way, but her book is great fun to read). And yes, sometimes I am prone to comment thereon. That may be an automatic response, according to a recent study:

Your brain often works on autopilot when it comes to grammar. That theory has been around for years, but University of Oregon neuroscientists have captured elusive hard evidence that people indeed detect and process grammatical errors with no awareness of doing so.

This week, I began again what used to be an annual activity for me – back when I was working in the media or in publishing – rereading the classic work, The Elements of Style. I felt my metaphorical red pencil was in need of a sharpening.

It’s a small book – the fourth edition is just over 100 pages, including the afterword, glossary, and index. At a chapter a day, it can be easily read in less than a week, even by people who don’t read quickly. It encapsulates a mere 22 basic rules of style. Rule 19, for example, states: “Omit needless words.” It follows with this:

Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all sentences short, or avoid all detail and treat subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.

Who can argue with that? Ron Sudol, Professor of Rhetoric at Oakland University, comments on this:

Strunk’s attitude toward style is that English is more beautiful the more direct and spare it is. As White notes in the introduction, “for sheer pith I think it probably sets a record that is not likely to be broken.” The students at Cornell in 1919 were probably more wordy and pretentious than students today, whose writing is more often underdeveloped and oversimple. Nevertheless, the lessons — and that’s exactly the right word for the direct orders issued by Strunk and White — are eternally valuable to anyone who wants to take writing seriously. A participial phrase at the beginning of a sentence must refer to the grammatical subject. Put statements in positive form. Use the active voice. Omit needless words. Place the emphatic words of a sentence at the end.

TEOS sits, almost hidden, in a bookshelf packed with many books on grammar, style, writing, punctuation and communication. They range from the whimsical works of Richard Lederer to the dense, academic Chicago Manual of Style. Most of the rest I read sporadically and randomly. Some – like Safire and Lederer – I read more for entertainment and amusement. Others I read to keep my writing sharp, like the periodic honing of the knives in my kitchen drawers.

Strunk & White alone of all my style and grammar books I read cover to cover because, for me, it is the quintessential book, the source from which all the others derive. And its short little rules are like little jabs; pointed reminders to pay attention.

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10/23/13

Survival of the Fittest


Herbert SpencerCharles Darwin has long been associated with the phrase, “survival of the fittest.” For a century and a half people have used it to refer to their understanding of his explanation of how species evolved.

But it wasn’t his. And it has obscured the understanding of Darwin’s own theory.

It came from a contemporary, Herbert Spencer. Spencer was a contemporary of Darwin – an English polymath:  philosopher, biologist, anthropologist, sociologist, economist liberal political theorist, utilitarian – and, by some accounts, an early libertarian. His ideas came from people like Malthus and Adam Smith (read more about his philosophy here). Wikipedia tells us:

For many, the name of Herbert Spencer would be virtually synonymous with Social Darwinism, a social theory that applies the law of the survival of the fittest to society; humanitarian impulses had to be resisted as nothing should be allowed to interfere with nature’s laws, including the social struggle for existence. Spencer desired the elimination of the unfit through their failure to reproduce, rather than coercion or state intervention to initiate their physical annihilation.

He wrote his interpretation of Darwin’s ideas in an 1864 textbook of biology:

“This survival of the fittest, which I have here sought to express in mechanical terms, is that which Mr. Darwin has called ‘natural selection’, or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life.”

Spencer was really trying to apply Darwin’s ideas to his own ideas about economics, class struggle, competition and politics. He also believed in Lamarckism – the inheritance of attributes gained in one generation by the next – which has long since been discredited. But whether you agree with Spencer’s views, his reduction of Darwin’s theory to a convenient axiom did the theory an injustice.

In the public mind, Darwin’s ideas about natural selection were confusing and challenging. They became conflated with Spencer’s ideas and somehow the phrase stuck – the Victoria era equivalent of a bumper sticker phrase. It became wildly popular, and was soon applied to social and political phenomena, not simply biological.

It was so popular as a catch phrase that in the 1869  fifth edition of his book, On the Origin of Species, Darwin – unfortunately – added this line:

“But the expression often used by Mr. Herbert Spencer, of the Survival of the Fittest, is more accurate, and is sometimes equally convenient.”

The problem is really in how the word “fittest” is defined. Like its sister term, theory, it has both a common and a scientific meaning.*

Survival of the FittestFittest, in Darwin’s sense, doesn’t mean the biggest, best, toughest, strongest or even the most competitive. It’s not the macho concept of superiority. It isn’t about power, control or brute force.

It means the “best suited for the immediate environment.” It has also been described as a “property of the relationship between the organism and the environment.” That might be a different colour, smaller size, less active. Whatever offers the best opportunity to survive and breed. Having offspring is key.

It’s a far more subtle notion than commonly used. As Wikipedia says:

Modern evolutionary theory defines fitness not by how long an organism lives, but by how successful it is at reproducing. If an organism lives half as long as others of its species, but has twice as many offspring surviving to adulthood, its genes will become more common in the adult population of the next generation.

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10/20/13

Infestations, Microbes & Parasites


Micrococcus (Actinobacteria)Staphylococci, Corynebacteria, Actinobacteria, Clostridiales, and Bacilli. They’re the most common, but they’re not the only ones. Bacteria. Microbes. Yes, even parasites.  Living in your belly button. And on your skin. Your hair. But the belly button flora and fauna fascinate me the most.*

We’ve known ever since the microscope was invented that we had a population of hitchhikers living on our skin, scalp – and even inside us. The great Antony van Leeuwenhoek is known as the “father of microbiology” for his explorations through his fledgling, primitive microscope in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. But we are still learning about the biodiversity we all have.**

There was a recent story in the Atlantic that researchers had found, of 2,368 species of bacteria living in our navels recorded so far, 1,458 new species.

New as in previously unknown until some scientist stuck a Q-tip into his or her belly button and examined the results. Which is what they are still doing, exploring this brave new frontier in microbiology. It must have been one of those eureka moments.

Gawd, dontcha love science? To bold go where no Q-tip has gone before…

The Atlantic story opens:

Instead of taking your fingerprint, maybe police should swab our belly buttons with Q-tips. No, that’s ridiculous, actually. But the idea illustrates a point made by a group of North Carolina-based researchers in their new Belly Button Biodiversity (BBB) project. Last month, the group published results of their first of many experiments, in which they swabbed 60 belly buttons and identified a total of 2,368 species of bacteria. People’s individual profiles were snowflake-ily, bacterially unique.

Most of the microbes that live on our skin are harmless, and many are actually beneficial: they protect us from more virulent invaders. What’s remarkable is the sheer number and variety of them.***

The scientists at Your Wildlife wrote that among all those species, there are some common forms found in most navels:

Turns out, belly buttons are a jungle of microbial biodiversity: we detected over 2300 species! And get this, only eight of those 2300 species– we call them oligarchs – were quite frequent and abundant, present in more than 70% of the individuals we sampled.

Oligarchs. Make me think of the Politburo. Or Putin’s new Russian clique. What role do these bacterial oligarchs play in their micro-environment?

We’re an entire ecosystem, Scientific American tells us:

Over the past 10 years or so, however, researchers have demonstrated that the human body is not such a neatly self-sufficient island after all. It is more like a complex ecosystem—a social network—containing trillions of bacteria and other microorganisms that inhabit our skin, genital areas, mouth and especially intestines. In fact, most of the cells in the human body are not human at all. Bacterial cells in the human body outnumber human cells 10 to one. Moreover, this mixed community of microbial cells and the genes they contain, collectively known as the microbiome, does not threaten us but offers vital help with basic physiological processes—from digestion to growth to self-defense.

By the way, you can contribute to this ongoing research; check the notes at yourwildlife.org about how to help. The belly button experiment is over, as researchers assess their samples, but they are moving on to armpits, a whole new territory.

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10/16/13

From 7 to 29. Should I be worried? Or just keep monitoring?


Peaksaver PlusSeven cents per hour. That’s what the energy monitor was showing me a moment before I plugged in the kettle. Then it jumped to 29 cents. Wow! And this is mid-peak time, too, my new energy monitor warns. Should I be worried?

Better cut back on the tea if I want to conserve energy.

It did the same last night when we turned on the microwave at dinner time, but that was off-peak. Still, that’s pretty high, compared to seven cents. Those two devices seem to be the biggest energy hogs we have.

I need to do some calculating, however, to figure out real costs. What does five minutes’ worth of microwave heating translate to in terms of KWH used, and costs? I need a new app…

Energy monitorI’m reading the real-time display on my new energy monitoring toy tool and it’s telling me a lot about how I use electricity. It gives me that geeky satisfaction of watching data flow, just having it in front of me.

I got it when I signed up for the Peaksaver Plus program through Collus/Powerstream. Collingwood residents would have received a notice about the program in their last utility bill. If not, you can read about it here.*

The program (for homes with central air only, it seems), offers a free digital, touch-screen thermostat (Peaksaver Plus) and the wireless In-Home Energy Display. Free. For both. As in no charge, no additional billing, no hidden costs.

The stick behind this magnanimous carrot is simple: to reduce energy usage. The thermostat is connected wirelessly to the utility’s computers. If the power demand on the grid looks like it’s going to exceed capacity and cause a brownout, the utility can raise the temperature of your air conditioning by two degrees for 15 minutes to lighten the load. Does it all by itself.

Seems like a pretty good idea to me. After all, we don’t use the A/C a lot, and even when we do, the effect is a small change for a short time.

It won’t affect the winter heat (which is gas), so why not? Everyone has to do their part for our environment.

We’ve been using programmable digital thermostats for a couple of decades now. They really make a difference to your gas bill. Not least of all because, since it’s programmed, you never forget to turn the thermostat down when you leave the house. Or when you go to bed at night. Plus they are more accurate than the old manual, analog system. You get 68 degrees when you ask for it, not 70 or 72.Besides, the digital thermosat is cool, very programmable, and touch-screen. Not quite an iPad, but nonetheless, it’s pretty neat. And it runs off power from the furnace – not on batteries like the previous one (which always seemed to go dead on the coldest nights of the year…).

Our gas bill dropped significantly when we installed one.

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10/15/13

We are Stardust… and Viral Genes


SupernovaIn her classic song, Woodstock, Joni Mitchell ended with the chorus:

We are stardust
Billion-year-old carbon
We are golden
Caught in the devil’s bargain
And we’ve got to get ourselves
Back to the garden

Which most people assume is merely poetic licence. Well, Joni wasn’t wrong: we – and every living thing on our planet – are made of stardust. As we learn at Physics Central:

If we know how many hydrogen atoms are in our body, then we can say that the rest is stardust. Our body is composed of roughly 7×1027 atoms. That is a lot of atoms! Try writing that number out on a piece of paper: 7 with 27 zeros behind it. We say roughly because if you pluck a hair or pick your nose there might be slightly less. Now it turns out that of those billion billion billion atoms, 4.2×1027 of them are hydrogen. Remember that hydrogen is bigbang dust and not stardust. This leaves 2.8×1027 atoms of stardust. Thus the amount of stardust atoms in our body is 40%.

Since stardust atoms are the heavier elements, the percentage of star mass in our body is much more impressive. Most of the hydrogen in our body floats around in the form of water. The human body is about 60% water and hydrogen only accounts for 11% of that water mass. Even though water consists of two hydrogen atoms for every oxygen, hydrogen has much less mass. We can conclude that 93% of the mass in our body is stardust. Just think, long ago someone may have wished upon a star that you are made of.

Mitchell’s theme was picked up by the late cosmologist, Carl Sagan, in his hit TV show, Cosmos. Live Science tells us:

In the early 1980s, astronomer Carl Sagan hosted and narrated a 13-part television series called “Cosmos” that aired on PBS. On the show, Sagan thoroughly explained many science-related topics, including Earth’s history, evolution, the origin of life and the solar system.

Since stardust atoms are the heavier elements, the percentage of star mass in our body is much more impressive. Most of the hydrogen in our body floats around in the form of water. The human body is about 60% water and hydrogen only accounts for 11% of that water mass. Even though water consists of two hydrogen atoms for every oxygen, hydrogen has much less mass. We can conclude that 93% of the mass in our body is stardust. Just think, long ago someone may have wished upon a star that you are made of.

“We are a way for the universe to know itself. Some part of our being knows this is where we came from. We long to return. And we can, because the cosmos is also within us. We’re made of star stuff,” Sagan famously stated in one episode.

His statement sums up the fact that the carbon, nitrogen and oxygen atoms in our bodies, as well as atoms of all other heavy elements, were created in previous generations of stars over 4.5 billion years ago. Because humans and every other animal as well as most of the matter on Earth contain these elements, we are literally made of star stuff, said Chris Impey, professor of astronomy at the University of Arizona.

“All organic matter containing carbon was produced originally in stars,” Impey told Life’s Little Mysteries. “The universe was originally hydrogen and helium, the carbon was made subsequently, over billions of years.”

So how did all this stardust get into out bodies? Supernovae, spewing heavy material into the vastness of space, scattering atoms and molecules at near lightspeed. Our “Garden of Eden” was the nuclear furnace of an exploding star.

We are made of the material created 13-plus billion years ago, We are, as Mitchell sang, stardust. Recycled and reused, but the stuff of the cosmos nonetheless. *

And we’re also built of viral genes, a product of the evolution of life, of the co-evolution of life and that strange creature, the virus. Viruses have helped shape us, and our adaptations to the environment. That’s the premise of Frank Ryan’s latest book, Virolution.**

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