Two conferences and a show

Windsor: Ontario Water Conference

I had the honour and the enjoyment of attending two municipal conferences last week. While no longer directly involved in politics, I am able to keep my finger in some of the political pies through my current work for an NGO. Plus, I like to remain informed and up-to-date about politics and governance, and am always looking for opportunities to increase my knowledge and understanding of pretty much any topic.

The first event was the Ontario Water Conference, in Windsor. While predominantly a technical and operations event for facility managers and operators, it also has a good political component where utility board members and politicians can learn about initiatives, developments and government updates.

I sat in on presentations over two days, learning about levels of service and risk models; improvement actions from frozen services; eco-fiscal challenges to building resilient communities; business case for a one-water approach; updates from the IESO, the MOE, MOECC, Drinking Water Advisory Council and Safe Drinking Water Branch of the MOECC. From climate change to electricity prices to algal blooms and utility board governance… I learned a lot.

The great majority of workshops were, however, technical, and well out of my depth of knowledge. It also has a large trade show where attendees can see the latest updates in water-related technologies and discuss their implementation with the vendors.

As the website tells it:

The Conference continues to be the premier drinking water event in Ontario, consistently attracting over 900 delegates from all areas of our industry: operators and owners, manufacturers and suppliers, consultants, academics and regulators. The Trade Show has more than 100 exhibitors representing the manufacturers and suppliers of products and services to the water industry. This is a great opportunity to network, and keep informed about technical, regulatory, and equipment development which affect the industry.

I would have assumed that any politician who sits on a water utility board or any public member of such board, who is dedicated to their role and cares about water would have at least made the effort to attend these sessions. After all, they are personally liable for the quality of our water and can be sued for not maintaining it.

I guess if you don’t read the Clean Water Act, this might not concern you. (Hint: it’s crucial reading for members of water utility boards like ours…)

However, there were not many politicians in sight, although I did encounter a few. While I recognized several water utility employees from Collingwood, none of its water utility board (which consists of five inexperienced, neophyte politicians) was present. You would think someone who knew nothing about the subject would be eager to learn about what they have the responsibility over, but perhaps I expect too much from them. Ignorance is bliss, they say.

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Banning Phosphorus

Algal bloom
In 2014, Toledo experienced a water crisis that caused the city to issue a “do not use” warning for more than 500,000 residents. They had to rely on bottled water; boiling wasn’t safe because it further released toxins into the water.

That crisis was caused by unsafe levels of the toxin Microcystin in the city’s treated water. The toxin came from the unprecedented algal bloom in Lake Erie; a huge swath of the west end of the lake blossomed with the algae.

The algae were growing rapidly because of the increasingly high nutrient load in lakes and streams. In particular: phosphorus. The bloom wasn’t as large as the 2011 giant that covered 5,000 sq. kilometers of the lake, but it was more deadly.

Not all algae  – or, more properly, cyanobacteria – produce toxins. Many are benign and all play important roles in the environment. But those produced can cause illness and even be fatal, at least to animals. There are some 50 types of Microcystin, of which Microcystin-LR is the most common. And most dangerous: it causes severe and sometimes fatal liver damage.

In the past few months, oceanic algal blooms known as red tides have killed tens of thousands of fish off the coasts of Florida, Chile, ChinaCambodia, and Vietnam. A 500-km bloom polluted one of Australia’s major rivers this spring.

Economies are suffering from algal blooms and their impact on fishing, tourism, shipping and recreation. In Chile alone, the devastation from algal blooms cost their salmon industry $800 million this year.

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Architeuthis dux redux

Imagine swimming beside a giant squid. That’s what happened recently to some Japanese divers, on Xmas eve, who happened to have the presence of mind to film this extraordinary event. The video, above, shows the animal in its glory. Stunningly beautiful.*

Giant squid are rarely seen, and generally inhabit much deeper waters than humans can reach. Having one close enough to touch is bother exhilarating and – I suspect – terrifying. They are, after all, large, efficient carnivores. This one, however, was a baby at 3.7m.

Surprisingly, the divers believed the animal was lost and gently pushed it in the direction of the deeper water. Frankly, given the Japanese predilection for slaughtering whales, I hadn’t expected this kind of humane behaviour towards another large sea dweller.

These squid have been seen by sailors for centuries. Marks have been found on sperm whales, as well as squid parts found in their stomachs. A few dead squid bodies have washed ashore, but seldom have we come close enough to one in the water to make a positive identification.

Then in 2006, a Japanese vessel videotaped a 3.5m female which had grabbed some bait and been hauled to the surface. That’s small for an animal that can reach 13m. The first time this elusive creature was caught live on camera in its natural, deep-water habitat, was in 2012.

Now we have this remarkable and clear video. It’s simply stunning footage.

~~~~~

* Architeuthis is, of course,  an invertebrate and moves through the water with great grace, as you can see by the video. They are quite different from the sessile invertebrates who write local blogs and newspaper columns, and lack any semblance of grace.

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Judas, a Biography

Judas kissLong before Darth Vader, long before Lord Voldemort, long before Stephen Harper, Judas Iscariot reigned as the supreme icon of evil in Western mythology. Judas betrayed God. How much worse can you get?*

For 2,000 years we’ve used the term Judas to refer to anyone who betrayed anything, any cause, any belief, any friendship. Yet, like all the icons of evil that came before, and who have followed, Judas holds a fascination for us that transcends his actions.

Dante consigns him to the ninth circle of hell, one of three traitors forever chewed in the mouths of the three-headed Satan. Yet Brutus, Cassius (the other two sinners in Dante’s story), Benedict Arnold, and Vidkun Quisling never achieved such attention or notoriety. They were all were members of their respective inner circles; all betrayed their friends,their beliefs and their leaders. But they are paltry shadows beside Judas.

Perhaps that’s in part because none of the others are religious symbols, and religion far too often brings out the extreme in people.

Susan Gubar’s 2009 book, Judas, a Biography, which I’ve been reading of late, is a fascinating look at the relationship the West has had with Judas these two millennia, and how he appears in art, music, literature, religion and popular culture. Judas has become a reflection of a lot about ourselves: our fears, our religion, our mythologies, our politics, our behaviour.

Many of us have had the deeply disturbing experience of betrayal in our own lives; someone trusted, a friend or lover, someone we cared deeply about who betrayed us. And when that betrayal is over something crass like money or political favour, it cuts us deeply. We never forget, never forgive our own personal Judas.**

But who was Judas that we still use his name for such acts?

The Gospels are spare in their actual history of Judas, even in his final acts. But a whole body of legend has grown up around the man, his family, his parents, his childhood and, of course, his afterlife. All of which, as Gubar points out, is merely imagined; unsubstantiated by any historical documentation, but become part of the mythology. All of it meant to polish his evil sheen, rather than redeem him.

What’s to redeem, you might ask? Well, nothing is ever as simple as it seems.

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The birth and death of privacy

Dilbert
I was in a local grocery store recently and it was my misfortune to enter, and walk most of the same aisles at the same time as a voluble woman shopper. She spent her entire time there on her cell phone. From before she entered, through the time she collected her groceries, went through the cash register, and exited, she did not once stop talking. Loudly.

And it was a very personal, intimate conversation, as I and those in her near vicinity heard. Not intimate as in sexual, but she talked about private and personal issues, about other people, her feelings, her job, and so on. Did I mention she was loud? Loud enough to hear her clearly at the far end of the aisle.

The whole store was her audience. I saw other shoppers looking at her, some staring angrily, but she was oblivious. And that made me wonder if we have, thanks to the swell of new technologies, entirely abandoned the notion of privacy that we have slowly crafted over the past three millennia.

No we haven’t, says Neil M. Richards, a professor of law at Washington University in St. Louis, In 2014, he published a paper on “Four Privacy Myths.” In it, he wrote:

…if we think about privacy as outdated or impossible, our digital revolution may have no rules at all, a result that will disempower all but the most powerful among us… we can no longer think about privacy as merely how much of our lives are completely secret, or about privacy as hiding bad truths from society. How we shape the technologies and data flows will have far-reaching effects for the social structures of the digital societies of the future.

It is possible, I suppose, that the woman on her phone was just an unusually rude and inconsiderate person. But I’ve seen too many similar incidents with other people to believe she is a rare example. It’s not just her lack of cell-phone manners: it was her attitude towards her personal information that caught my attention and made me research the intersection of privacy and technology.

Actually, most of our modern, Western notions of privacy are quite new, many culturally instilled only in the last 150 years. Personal privacy, as we now consider it, was not the norm before the 19th century.  (Aside from sexual privacy, which historically was preserved, but is being eroded by the vast tsunami of online pornography, including celebrity sex tapes and images…). The camera, in the late 19th century, was really the spark that lit the conversation about privacy.

Greg Ferenstein has put together a fascinating history of privacy in 46 images that shows how we developed our idea of having a private space over the ages. It’s quite enlightening.

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Why Do We Make Music?

MusicMusick has Charms to sooth a savage Breast,
To soften Rocks, or bend a knotted Oak.
I’ve read, that things inanimate have mov’d,
And, as with living Souls, have been inform’d,
By Magick Numbers and persuasive Sound.
What then am I? Am I more senseless grown
Than Trees, or Flint? O force of constant Woe!
‘Tis not in Harmony to calm my Griefs.
Anselmo sleeps, and is at Peace; last Night
The silent Tomb receiv’d the good Old King;
He and his Sorrows now are safely lodg’d
Within its cold, but hospitable Bosom.
Why am not I at Peace?

William Congreve (1670 – 1729) in his play, The Mourning Bride (1697).

Why have humans made music from the earliest times of our species? The oldest known bone flute is more than 40,000 years old. But a Neanderthal hyoid bone shows humans could speak 20 millennia before then, and that means they could probably sing, too. Steven Mithen hypothesized just that in his 2004 book, The Singing Neanderthals: The Origins of Music, Language, Mind and Body.

Mithen opens his book with the words, “The propensity to make music is the most mysterious, wonderful, and neglected feature of humankind…” Liisa Ukkola, researcher at the University of Helsinki and Sibelius Academy, said of a recent study on the genetic basis of musical aptitude,

Music is social communication between individuals… music perception and creativity in music are linked to the same phenotypic spectrum of human cognitive social skills, like human bonding and altruism… We have shown for the first time in the molecular level that music perception has an attachment creating impact.

Clearly the urge to make music has been with humans since the beginning. Why, is, of course, open to debate. Wikipedia notes:

Some suggest that the origin of music likely stems from naturally occurring sounds and rhythms. Human music may echo these phenomena using patterns, repetition and tonality. Even today, some cultures have certain instances of their music intending to imitate natural sounds. In some instances, this feature is related to shamanistic beliefs or practice.It may also serve entertainment (game) or practical (luring animals in hunt) functions.

Then it adds, almost as an afterthought:

Music evokes strong emotions and changed states of awareness.

Congreve said it best: Music has charms to sooth a savage breast/To soften rocks, or bend a knotted oak. But emotions are, despite all the study done on them, notoriously difficult to categorize in a way everyone agrees on. Much like music.

I often ponder why music matters, why I feel compelled at times to play, to create, to sing, to listen. Why one song moves me to tears, another to joy, another to dance and yet another to sing along. And why does some music leave me cold and unmoved?

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The Mouse on Mars

No, that’s not the title of a 1960s’ sitcom or a 1950s’ movie. It’s what some conspiracy theorist thinks he found in a NASA photograph taken by the Curiosity Rover on Mars, in late 2014. The story was posted on the IFL Science website this week.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: “Why pay these poor, deluded wingnuts any attention when it’s such an obvious case of pareidolia?”

The answer is because they must be mocked in order to keep their silly gullibility from spreading to the scientifically-challenged. Not everyone who reads their content has your keen, critical eye, your cool common-sense approach, or your rigid scientific background (be it only from high school). Some folks out there beg to be deluded.

Some folks already believe in UFOs, ghosts, witches, homeopathic “remedies,” magic crystals, the NRA, and other codswallop. They are thus easily misled to believe in other nonsense.

You cannot argue with the conspiracists scientifically because that just drives them deeper into their holes where they retrench. Satire and ridicule, however, often prove more effective in keeping other gullible fools from joining them. Besides, you have to admit it’s hard not to laugh. A mouse on Mars? Chortle…

And this isn’t the only nutty thing this particular wingnut said he has “found” on Mars by looking at NASA’s images. Included in the list are a “chimp skull”, ziggurat, huge pyramid, buildings and building complexes, statue head, a Sphinx statue, a marina with shipwrecks, a blade in a jawbone, a rib bone, a femur, a saucer, a “gun camera”…

But wait, it gets better. He’s also “discovered” buildings and proof of alien life on the moon, Ceres, Comet 67P, Pluto – pretty much everywhere offworld we’ve sent vehicles, no matter how arid, inhospitable or simply daft it is (alien buildings on a comet? sheesh…).

YouTube is littered with videos purporting to be all sorts of alien structures on planets, asteroids and comets that some government agency is trying to conceal from you. And then there are the thousands of true believer websites that cater to the wingnuts (often in ways to retrieve money from their gullibility).

And just when you thought a mouse was the height of silliness, someone claims to have found a monkey on Mars. So that’s what happened to Justin Beiber’s pet….oh, well, it’s in The Express, and that paper has less credibility than a local blogger….

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Climate Change and Collingwood

Climate changeClimate change is arguably the single most pressing, most important, most challenging issue to affect governments at this time. Our world is suffering and weather is getting extreme in many parts. It’s affecting crops, wildlife, safety, water… everything.

But what are Canadian municipalities doing to combat it, to reign in their use of fossil fuels, reduce their carbon footprint, reduce emissions, pollution, and embrace alternate energy systems?

Not much, according to a study done by the Ontario Coalition for Sustainable Infrastructure. OCSI’s 2014 report, “When the Bough Breaks” has some discouraging statistics. According to their survey, only 38% of Ontario municipalities are “incorporating climate change into their asset management planning.” Climate change was a priority in only 13% of municipalities.

Scarier is that, when given a list of relevant activities to choose from, 22% of respondents admitted their municipality was doing nothing to address climate change impacts. Nothing. A fifth of our municipalities aren’t even preparing themselves for catastrophic or severe weather.

In 2008, Collingwood’s now-forgotten Sustainable Community Plan report had this to say:

Over the next forty years, the Town of Collingwood is expected to experience local forces of change such as unprecedented population growth and changing demographic and global forces of change such as rising commodity prices and climate change… Over the next 40 years, climate change may impact the topography, water supply, water levels and climate in Collingwood, and around the world.

The plan went on to address ways Collingwood might act to create a more sustainable, environmentally-friendly community that helped reduce the human impact on climate change. Some, but far from all, of these ideas were incorporated in later town initiatives.

Since then, there have been many initiatives to deal with climate effects implemented by municipalities worldwide (especially to mitigate the threat to municipal infrastructure), and there are whole new trends in areas like stormwater management that have developed and are being shared.

But what has Collingwood done since that report? Not much, if anything.

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What KIC 8462852 Says About Us

Dyson sphereKIC 8462852. Hardly a household name. But it may be, one day soon, or at least when it garners a more prosaic name. It’s a star and it sits rather forlornly in space in the rightmost edge of the constellation Cygnus, almost 1,500 light years away. And although it’s too dim to be seen by the naked eye, it has caught the attention of astronomers and conspiracy theorists alike, worldwide.

KIC 8462852 is a mature F3-class sun, more massive than the Sun and both brighter, hotter. It’s the kind of sun we usually search for habitable planets around, at least within the range of potential candidates. But it’s been watched for the past six years with growing fascination and wonder. As Science Alert tells us:

It was first discovered by NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope in 2009, and scientists have been tracking the light it emits ever since, along with the light of another 150,000 or so newly discovered stars. They do this because it’s the best way to locate distant planets – slight, periodic dips in a star’s brightness signal the fact that it might have one or more large objects orbiting it in a regular fashion.
These brightness dips are usually very slight, with the stars dimming by less than 1 percent every few days, weeks, or months, depending on the size of the planet’s orbit.

That dimming is usually regular and explicable, and small. Not so with KIC 8462852. Its brightness has dipped inexplicably in large amounts with unnerving regularity, every 750 days, reaching levels of 15% and even 22% reduction of light for between five and 80 days.

Scientists scratch their head and wonder what could be large enough to diminish the light from a bright star by that amount. No planet could ever be that big. And it would have to be an enormous cloud of space junk – an improbable amount in a very tight formation – to do it.

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Books versus E-readers

Books vs ereaderBack in February, Naomi Baron wrote a piece calledReading on-screen versus on paper,” in which she compared the two reading experiences: printed books and e-readers in five areas:

  • Cost
  • Container vs content
  • Environmental impact
  • Quality of screens
  • Concentration

Baron actually looks at these as true-or-false questions, not really comparisons. She doesn’t address issues like aesthetics, tactile sense or emotional response, or the relative value of hypertext to content, nor does she tread into the science and ergonomics of reading. For that, you have to look elsewhere. Which, of course, I did.

First let me state that it is not really an us-vs-them situation: e-readers vs printed books. Both technologies co-exist quite comfortably and each has its own merits. Neither will displace the other, and our civilization cannot survive with only digital content.*

Several Pew Research studies have shown that the number of Americans owning e-readers is still modest (24 percent by the end of 2013 but 32 percent by Jan. 2014; compared with tablet ownership which was at 42 percent by 2014) and the number of adults who had read an e-book within the previous year was a mere 28 percent with only 4 percent reading e-books exclusively (up to 5 percent by 2014). That, however, is a slowly growing figure.**

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Fishy Thoughts

Nat PostCanadians, the headline reads, now have shorter attention span than goldfish thanks to portable devices. The story in today’s National Post underscores a growing problem that is fuelled by technology: our dwindling attention spans.

The Microsoft study of 2,000 Canadians found our collective attention span has dwindled to a mere eight seconds, down from an already embarrassing 12 seconds a similar study found back in the year 2000.

Goldfish have an average nine second attention span.

Eight seconds! How can you read a newspaper article, let alone a novel, with such a short attention span? How can you write or create anything of consequence with your mind flitting about like that?

The Ottawa Citizen quoted from the report:

“Canadians with more digital lifestyles (those who consume more media, are multi-screeners, social media enthusiasts, or earlier adopters of technology) struggle to focus in environments where prolonged attention is needed.”

Which explains why distracted driving – drivers on cell phones or texting at the wheel – is fast growing to be the number one cause of accidents and fatalities. Yet every day I walk my dogs or when we walk downtown, I see someone talking on the cell phone or texting while driving. Every day.

It also explains why many people fall for conspiracy theories, religious cults, advertising scams or the diaphanous piffle of local bloggers: they don’t have the attention span required to do the critical analysis of what is presented. They’re thinking less because they’re too easily distracted by the …. oooh! shiny!

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The Worm Turns

EarthwormThis morning when I was doing my regular news search online, I came across two stories that stopped me cold: we’re being invaded. By worms.

Yep. Worms. Not the slimy invertebrates who write scurrilous, defamatory self-aggrandizing blogs and whine about free speech when they are taken to court over their lies, but actual earthworms. Nightcrawlers.

The little invertebrates we have in our gardens and at the end of fishhooks. They’re invading Canada. And they’re doing it rather quickly. For worms, that is. They’re actually being aided and abetted by us. Humans are the reason they’re here, and the main reason they are spreading at something slower than even a snail’s languid pace:

D. octaedra populations currently expand about 16 meters (around 52 feet) per year. At that rate, a single worm and its descendants—they reproduce asexually, so one worm reproduces on its own—could expand to cover the length of an American football field in six to seven years.

They spread thanks to hitching rides with humans, on cars, tires, shoes – and of course in fishing tackle boxes. Worm eggs and cocoons also travel as hitchhikers. Anglers who release their unused earthworms after a day’s fishing have helped the spread even more, so much so that PR campaigns are in full swing to stop anglers releasing them in the woods.

Non-native earthworms have been identified as a major threat to our forests:

…the impact of earthworms on forest vegetation was listed in 2011 as one of the top 15 emerging global conservation issues by the scholarly journal Trends in Ecology and Evolution.

The common everyday garden earthworm isn’t a native to North America. It’s a European invader, brought by settlers. Asian species have also been brought ashore more recently, and may even be destructive in your garden.

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