Friday, July 31, 2009

Honest babe, they're my personal trainers

In memory of Lawrence L. Cook Jr., passed away five years ago tomorrow. Swim in peace.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Too busy with life to enjoy it?

Scenario: Joshua Bell, one of the world's top musicians, playing Bach, on a Stradivarius violin worth $3.5 million dollars, busking in a subway station, two days after he had sold out a Boston theater with $100 seat prices.

Would you have stopped? Tarried for a few minutes? Thrown a dollar in his violin case?

Few of the 1,000+ people who passed through the station, while Joshua played for 45 minutes, took much notice in this Washington Post experiment. A handful threw down a few coins. Hardly any actually stopped to listen.


What does this tell us? Are we conditioned to recognize art only in conventional packages and settings? Are we closed to the beauty that surrounds us? Do our iPods and cell phones isolate us from our environment? Or are we just in a hurry?

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Never mind

The perils of punditry are epitomized in a New York Times correction notice from July 16, 1969, the date of the Apollo 11 launch that put Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon. The notice retracts a 1920 editorial statement that, as a rocket can not function in a vacuum, space travel is impossible. Mathew Ingram thinks it may be the best correction ever.

Other past predictions from trusted sources, eventually proven grossly inaccurate, include:
"This 'telephone' has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication." Western Union internal memo, 1876.

"Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible." Lord Kelvin, president, Royal Society, 1895.

"Stocks have reached what looks like a permanently high plateau." Irving Fisher, Professor of Economics, Yale University, 1929.

"Computers in the future may weigh no more than 1.5 tons." Popular Mechanics, 1949

"I think there is a world market for maybe five computers." Thomas Watson, chairman of IBM, 1943.

"There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home." Ken Olson, president, chairman and founder of Digital Equipment Corp., 1977.
Lots more here.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Honey bee, please don't go

We're confronting the disappearance of much that we put on our tables. Unless we want our diet confined to corn, wheat, rice, pork and chicken, we'd better take care of the bees. Bees are the main pollinators of all fruits, nuts, vegetables, and the forage crops eaten by cattle, sheep and goats. 75% of plants depend upon pollination to propagate.

We've already stretched them pretty thin due to our emperor-class, 21st century menus. Now they are in trouble.

Bees are dying off at an unprecedented rate, everywhere around the world. In one area of China, they have already disappeared. Honey production is declining. Colonies are collapsing. Why?

Scientists are urgently investigating the growing epidemic. Is it a virus? Is it a fungus? Is it malnutrition? Is it a predator? Is it exposure to chemicals? Is it something in the bee's DNA?

An AIDS-like virus is a strong possibility. Pesticides sprayed on plants and ingested by the bees is another. A single-cell parasite is a suspect. Some think it's a "perfect storm" comprised of all these things.

Any or all may play a part, and perhaps have a compounding effect, as when pesticides reduce immunity to pathogens.

We've taken the bees for granted, and now we're belatedly waking up to the fact that their impending disappearance threatens our way of life.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Turn off, tune out, calm down

Want to decrease anxiety, have more time, and lose weight? Give up Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, videogames, television and movies.

These are just some of the benefits reported by students who met the challenge of Trinity Western University Associate Professor of Philosophy, Robert Doede. Grades also improve.

Each spring, Doede offers a 5% bonus credit to Philosophy 210 students who "abstain from all social and traditional media throughout the three month semester, and journal about their experiences." Usually about a dozen from a class of 35 will give it a try, with 4-6 succeeding.

The professor says, "“Students can’t wait to get out of class to update, find out if anyone commented on their page or sent them anything. Their spare time is being more and more devoted to keeping so-called friends apprised of their lives and satisfying their own voyeuristic interests in others’ lives."

"Our culture provides an over abundance of information access. We have so much we can’t linger on anything in particular or access anything for long because then we are losing out,” says Doede. "This creates a subtle anxiety from within us as we try to be as efficient and as rapid-fire as possible in as many domains of our life as possible.”

His media-abstinent students agree. 21-year-old, Hannah Jenkins wrote “I think Facebook and meaningless television (which is not all television) owe a huge percentage of their success to people being dissatisfied with their lives... we have invented ways to avoid our shortcomings instead of looking them in the eye and overcoming them. Screens...offer an escape from reality but for so many people they become the reality, and the inadequacies which they were trying to escape simply mount higher.”

Trinity Western University is in Langley, B.C

Friday, July 24, 2009

A picture of despair

It all started when she went to the airport to catch a flight home. A Kenyan officer thought her lips didn't look exactly like those in her passport photo. They confiscated her papers, sent them to the Canadian consulate, and threw her in jail for eight days.

Suaad Hagi Mohamud, a Toronto woman and a Canadian citizen, has been stuck in Nairobi since May 17.

Canadian consular officials called her an "imposter," voided her passport, and sent it back to Kenyan authorities so they could prosecute her. Protesting her innocence, Suaad suggested fingerprinting to prove her identity. Not good enough, said the Canadians. She then suggested DNA testing. After much time-wasting deliberation, they agreed. Her son and husband, both in Toronto, will be tested and compared with her DNA sample, which will be sent to Canada. All this will be completed in two weeks.

It is unknown whether the Kenyans will postpone the court case until this is resolved.

Now bear in mind that more than a month has already passed. She was born in Somalia, not Kenya, and has no family or friends there. Put yourself in her shoes.

When an American gets into difficulty abroad, the U.S. seems ready to threaten a cruise missile strike to sort things out. Canadians in dire straits seem to be pretty much on their own, and apparently can even find their own consulate to be an adversary.

Those who have had nose jobs, facelifts or hair transplants beware.

Update: August 10, 2009 --- the DNA testing confirms that she is, indeed, Suaad Hagi Mohamud.

Update: August 15, 2009 --- Suaad arrives home in Toronto. Public Safety Minister Peter Van Loan finally surfaces to say, "From where we see it now it looks like it needs a bit of an explanation."

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Eau de troit

Perfume: Any smell that is used to drown a worse one.

Cadillac is bringing out a fragrance. No, not giving off a fragrance, as in that plastics/adhesives/sealants off-gassing that is so prized by new car owners.

This is a line of men's cosmetics that includes deodorant, after-shave, body wash, etc. offered in tribute to Caddy's 100th anniversary (close call, eh?). The scent is a mix of grapefruit, camomile, cinammon (sounds like breakfast so far), tarragon, sweet spice and incense.

So this is what they mean by "The New General Motors." Dude!

Can't wait for the GMC Pick-up truck fragrance --- a distinctive blend of wet dog, horse manure, heaping ashtray, and spilled Budweiser.

Or the Chrysler Minivan scent --- essence du hockey bag, lost sneaker, Happy Meal, and diaper pail, with just a hint of dead guppy.

Remember, we have to buy this stuff, or the terrorists win.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Doing time on planet earth

My mother lived to the age of 102. Apparently that will soon be no big deal.

Experts think there will be about 6 million centenarians around the world by 2050. In fact, their numbers are increasing at 20 times the growth rate of the general population, making them the fastest growing segment of the population. There are already documented cases of people living past the age of 120.

Some scientists think that human lives can be prolonged even further, and Aubrey de Grey, a Cambridge University researcher, thinks it will be possible to live to 1,000 or more. Whoa!

This raises a few questions:
• Will marketers still target most of their ad budgets to reach the 18-34 year old demographic, or will 400-500 be the new peak spending years?

• Will 900 be the new 800?

• Will furniture ads say, "Buy it today, and pay nothing for 150 years!"

• Will there be 2,000 new versions of the iPod during your lifetime?

• Will they need to grass over parking lots to make more golf courses?

• Will ear hair removal be the hot growth industry?

• Who can afford to retire for 935 years?

• If a 50th wedding anniversary is gold, what is a 500th wedding anniversary? Deodorant?

• Will there still be lifetime guarantees?

• Will you get a letter from the Prime Minister and the Queen on your millennium?

• Can you imagine the late fees on a library book that is 5 centuries overdue?

• Is Microsoft planning for this? Will there be a Y2K-type problem when you turn 1001?

• How big can a dust bunny get in 800 years?

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Get well wishes for the healthcare system

Sometimes we're our own worst enemies. We fall in love with an idea, and can't dump it when it stops working for us. As proof, many readers will click out after the next sentence...

Canada's totally tax-funded, universal, single tier, healthcare system is unsustainable and must be changed.

Those of you who stuck around please read Tom Campbell's well-reasoned proposal for modifications that can improve the system, make it more sustainable, while maintaining its accessibility for those at all income levels, if we're prepared to open our minds to alternative approaches. Campbell is a former deputy minister of health, and deputy minister of treasury and economics for Ontario.

Unfortunately, this is viewed as the third rail of Canadian politics, but a truly open public discussion is long overdue.

Monday, July 20, 2009

A gentleman's game

Golf fans were transfixed over the weekend by the prospect that an almost-60-year-old, one year after hip replacement, might win "The Open Championship," perhaps golf's most-hallowed major tournament. The Royal and Ancient's throwdown dates back to 1860.

Recent winners of the British contest have been young guns like Tiger Woods and Padraig Harrington so, at 1000 to 1, the oddsmakers gave Tom Watson no real chance going in.

But by the end of day three, and now in the spotlight, he said, "The first day here, 'Yeah, let the old geezer have his day in the sun,' the second day you said, 'Well, that's OK.' And now today, you kind of perk up your ears and say, 'This old geezer might have a chance to win the tournament.'"

To put this in perspective, the previous oldest winner was Old Tom Morris in 1867 at the age of 46.

Watson did indeed start with a day in the sun, finishing day one just a stroke behind Spaniard Miguel Angel Jimenez. Others posted better scores on days two and three, but the "old geezer" held on to go into the final day as the man to beat.

Of course, he had been there before, winning the claret jug five times in the the 70's and 80's, but it had been 26 years since his last Open victory. Some of his competitors were then unborn.

Always a fan favourite, Watson is quiet, unassuming, modest, courteous, forthright, one of the last of a disappearing cohort of gentleman sportsmen in an era of high-decibel self-promotion and indulgent behaviour. No smashing of clubs into the turf after an errant shot, no scowling oaths uttered when a putt fails to drop, no dramatic pondering over lines and lies. Just a smile, and a complete focus on the task at hand.

The old Turnberry course had, at times, a starring role in the drama, handing early leader Ross Fisher a soul-destroying eight at the fifth hole and dashing the hopes of other hotshots. After much shuffling of names at the top of the leaderboard, the "old geezer" found himself in a playoff with 36-year-old Stewart Cink (seeking his first major victory).

In the end, it all slipped away from Watson in the playoff --- a drive into a nasty bunker, another into the heavy rough, bad bounces and missed putts, a bit of fatigue --- in the face of Cink's steady play. No fairytale ending after all, but a lesson in style and grace, and four days in the sun.

Friday, July 10, 2009

The spilled coffee effect

Some days, you start out with the best of intentions, and then things start to happen. Before you know it, it all just gets away on you, and you realize a whole day of your life just disappeared without a damn thing having been accomplished. Chaos theory in action, or is that inaction?

Thursday, July 9, 2009

And it keeps people away too

Before iPod, before Walkman, there was the Man-from-Mars Radio Hat, with "breakproofed tubes!" Proof that geekiness transcends all generations.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

I'm Canadian, and that's OK

"Ordinary Canadians." That's an expression often heard from the mouths of politicians, pollsters, and others. Hmmm, do you see yourself that way, or do you aspire to be different, distinctive, extraordinary, remarkable, special, even unique?

This was the theme of the Canada Day edition of CBC Radio's The Current, and many weighed in with their view of the reasons for our national acceptance, nay glorification, of ordinariness.

Co-host Chris Wodskou observed that "we revel in taking down people with high falutin' ambitions." The Canadian approval rating system runs from "not too good" to "not too bad."

Satirist Bruce McCall, who left Canada almost 40 years ago for the excited states, said, "I just found people were more complacent than I thought they should be, that they were satisfied with their lot, and it was 'not on' to stand out ... they avoid the extraordinary."

Columnist Roy MacGregor said, "We even had a Royal Commission to find out what ordinary Canadians want." Author and historian Margaret MacMillan recounted an anecdote about someone rushing into a party with the announcement that Lester Pearson had won the Nobel Peace Prize. This was greeted by a woman saying, "That Lester Pearson, who does he think he is?"

Large double doubles at Tim's are good enough for us. Real Canadians squirm when confronted by a menu that includes Vente Caffè Misto or a Gazebo Blend. The most popular beers, Molson's and Labatt's, are those with little character --- industrial beers for session drinkers, not the craft brewers' flavourful artisan brews that tease the palate.
Time magazine's annual list of the 100 most influential people in the world includes no Canadians.

We actually dislike leaders who lead too much. Pollster Peter
Donolo said, "We don't like Canadian politicians getting too uppity... The more powerful you are in Canada, the more modestly you should behave."

The same in business --- we liked Ken Thomson, Canada's richest man at his death, but a gentleman who lived a low-key, philanthropic life. We smirked at Conrad Black, and took secret satisfaction from seeing him get his comeuppance.

Musical phenom Paul Shaffer seems happy being Letterman's sidekick. Even our biggest sports stars --- Sidney Crosby, Mike Weir, Steve Nash, Larry Walker --- all adopt an aw shucks, regular guy demeanor.

So maybe there's something to it. Whatever. Have an average day.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Another opening, another show

Fran and Marlow Cowan, who have been married for more than 62 years, entertain patients and their families at nursing homes, retirement homes, and hospitals. While at the Mayo Clinic for a physical examination, they put on this impromptu concert for patients in the atrium. They've become a YouTube hit, despite the fact they don't own a computer, and had never heard of YouTube.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Healthcare system better brace for the boomers

If you're a hospital administrator, your life is about to get even more stressful.

Boomers have pretty much remained uninformed about the Canadian healthcare system.

Until now.

Most, being relatively healthy, haven't needed much in the way of healthcare, beyond an occasional visit to the family doctor or a walk-in clinic. Most collide with a hospital while accompanying their elderly parents, and it is almost always a big surprise.

We've been told all of our lives how lucky we are to live in Canada with its universal healthcare system, and that is true. We will never go bankrupt because we have a chronic condition or require expensive treatment. For that, I am grateful.

But how do people judge the quality of services delivered by this system? The old dictum about first impressions is relevant, and those impressions are created by emergency room wait times, and the time it takes to be treated or admitted.

In our local hospitals here in southern Ontario, emergency room wait times are ridiculously out of line with expectations. They range from an average 6.3 hours (Georgetown) to 24.4 hours (Trillium Health Centre), according to a recent Toronto Star article. Can you imagine waiting for an entire day to be treated? And that's an average, so it can take longer.

The Wait Time Alliance surveys such things. They found that, nationally, the average time from presenting oneself for treatment to being discharged, if admission to hospital is not required, is 8.9 hours. If admission is required, it will take an average 23.5 hours for you to find yourself in an in-patient bed.

They found that the median wait time for curative cancer care is 46 days. There's plenty more in their PDF report.

I'd bet that few who have not encountered this would guess that it would take anything like that long.

The number of those who have encountered it is growing rapidly, and boomers are not deferential like their parents. They are accustomed to getting what they want, when they want it, and view healthcare as a service they have paid for. You can bet that we are not far off the day when the biggest generation will be voting politicians out of office over this issue.

As for the argument over 2-tier healthcare, we already have it for anyone who can get to a U.S. hospital and pay the bill, and that is happening with greater frequency.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Pollution, personal size

You, yes you personally, are polluted with a toxic mix of harmful chemicals, right now as you sit there reading this.

"No," you say, "I'm careful about what I eat, I don't smoke, I get plenty of exercise."

Sorry, you are a walking pollution site, and it's not your fault. Well not really.

Toxic Nation is a project of Environmental Defence, a Canadian charity aimed at protecting the environment and human health. They tested 11 people from across the country for the presence of 88 chemicals in their blood and urine, and found 60 of these chemicals.

Of the 60 chemicals detected:
• 41 are suspected cancer-causing substances
• 53 are chemicals that can cause reproductive disorders and harm the development of children
• 27 are chemicals that can disrupt the hormone system
• 21 are chemicals associated with respiratory illnesses.
How do these chemicals get into your body? They are the result of everyday life in a world that has become a chemical soup.

For example, your new stain-repellent carpet is giving off perfluorooctane sulfonate, shown to cause cancer and disrupt hormones. The chemicals that make your pans non-stick are also suspected of causing cancer, disrupting hormones and harming reproduction and development.

DEET, contained in many insect sprays, is a suspected neurotoxin, reproductive toxin, and respiratory toxin.

Many non-organic fruits and vegetables are grown with organochlorine pesticides, which are highly toxic.

Scented soaps, shampoos, etc. usually contain phthalates, and personal care products may also contain sodium lauryl sulphate (SLS), cocamide DEA (diethanolamine), formaldehyde, benzyl violet, nonyphenols, parabens, EDTA, polyethylene glycol, triclosan, and synthetic dyes and fragrances. You will not find these listed on the label, but they are there, and they can cause hormone disruption, cancer, and damage to reproduction and development.

Bisphenol A, linked to breast and prostate cancer, is found in hard, clear plastic bottles, including baby bottles and sippy cups, and the lining of some food cans. It can leach into food and beverages.

Common cleaning products contain a long list
of chemicals ---- benzene, toluene, ethylebenzene, xylene, methanol, bleach/sodium hypochlorite, fragrances, formaldehyde, naphthalene, phosphoric acid --- associated with cancer, hormone disruption and immune and organ damage.

The list goes on. You can check it for yourself, as well as suggested alternatives.

Better living through chemistry, but an earlier death.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

1837 and all that

You'll all remember it, of course? The rebellion of 1837. No?

Well, as you recover from being in your cups on Canada Day, hearken back to those events a mere 172 years ago. Many of our forefathers in Ontario were miffed as the British colonial government took care of its own, allocating land to wealthy supporters of newly crowned Queen Victoria and to the Anglican Church, generally deemed at the time to be one and the same.

The French were, as usual, causing problems, so Lieutenant-Governor Sir Francis Bond Head, sent his single British battalion to Montreal to settle things down.

While the cat's away, the mice will play, and hothead reformer and journalist William Lyon Mackenzie saw his chance. He, and a large group of disaffected associates, liberated weapons from the Toronto armory, then repaired to Montgomery's Tavern at Yonge and Eglinton, where merriment and self-congratulation doubtless ensued.

Suitably refreshed, Mackenzie's men headed back down Yonge Street to meet the foe and, sad to say, were sent scurrying into disarray by 27 determined loyalists. Rebel desertions were rife. 1500 loyalists came up from Hamilton (even then Hogtown's bête noire). These included future Prime Minister of Canada and Father of Confederation Sir John A. Macdonald (Well, you don't get to be a "Sir" by siding with the rebels). And that, as they say, was that.

Hardly the American Revolution, but an interesting speedbump on the road to Confederation 30 years later.

Note to revolution planners: Arrange to have the cocktails after the victory.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Bye bye to Bucky?

It's time for a new national symbol. Despite his historic role in the fur-trade that kick-started Canada, the national rodent is lugging too much baggage into the 21st century.

A disliked, unwelcome, guest everywhere he goes, he is far from a noble beast. Even on the nickel, he crouches low, hoping not to be noticed. He is thoroughly out of sync with the trend to urbanization, thoughtlessly building his dams in locations that greatly inconvenience the higher orders.

All in all, an anachronism that fails to symbolize the hopes and dreams of Canada in the digital age, and a PR nightmare.

So, what might be a more suitable replacement?

The Canada Goose has an even worse public image, being essentially a flying cow that brings down airliners, while fouling beaches, parks, golf courses and other public spaces.

The Polar Bear is magnificent, even regal, and very photogenic, but is largely seen now as a candidate for extinction, a victim of climate change. For the long haul, a poor choice.

The Wolf is a strong candidate. Living in a pack, he symbolizes the Canadian belief in community and the primacy of the collective. Unfortunately, Goldilocks put paid to his chances for fame and fortune.

Others --- Prairie Dogs, Groundhogs, Porcupines, Raccoons and the like --- all have deficiencies that make them unsuitable for national symbolhood.

The Lemming initially looked promising. Resourceful, cute, likes winter, completely vegetarian. But it turned out to be lunch for just about everything that flies or walks.

At the end of the day, I think I'd pick the Moose. Like many things in Canada, he looks like he was designed by a committee. All the parts do work together, and he can move fast when necessary, but it all seems a bit ungainly. Looking like that, you know he must have a great sense of humour, and would be unlikely to take himself too seriously. Those are definitely Canuck traits. He's a big guy, up to 10 feet long and 1600 pounds, and he needs a bit of space.

He won't go looking for a fight, but is a tough critter when provoked. A charging moose is something to be reckoned with, and in a highway collision, he can take out a Hummer.

The moose. It just feels right. Happy Canada Day.