Thursday, June 30, 2011

Things I learned this week

I learned that:
• A previously undiscovered tribe has been found in Brazil by satellite. The 200 tribe members will be protected from contact with outsiders.

• The Japanese have invented a gizmo that you can hug, and that hugs you back.

• Due to the economic recession, per capita net worth in the U.S. has declined to where it was in 1999, while in Canada it has bounced back up to pre-recession levels.

• The rotating head boring machine was used to construct the Channel Tunnel between England and France. This invention was first used in Canada to create the Humber River Sewer Tunnel in 1956.

• Major airlines are now using biofuels for regularly scheduled flights.

• This year we're going to experience four unusual dates: 1/1/11, 1/11/11, 11/1/11, 11/11/11 and that's not all. Now, tell me how this works --- take the last two digits of the year in which you were born, add the age you will be this year, and you will get --- Tah Dah --- 111!
How about that?

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Wake-up call #2: Water

Some say we are living in a golden age that precedes a dark age as the bills come due for the party we enjoyed in the second half of the 20th century.

In the first post of this series, I looked ahead to the end of the Oil Age and some probable consequences of that. Future posts will look at climate change, national indebtedness, and the growing gap between rich and poor.

But today I'm thinking about the growing shortage of fresh water.
Problem: Fresh water is essential to support life. The world is running out of it.

A United Nations study predicted that, if present trends continue, 1.8 billion people will be living with absolute water scarcity by 2025, and two thirds of the world population could be subject to water stress.

It is stored in ice sheets, ice caps, glaciers, bogs, ponds, lakes, rivers, streams, and underground aquifers. If more fresh water is consumed through human activities than is restored by nature, the quantity available is reduced, and the surrounding environment is damaged.

In the short run, fresh water supplies are under pressure from population growth and the accompanying increases in personal consumption, agriculture, and industrial activity. Destruction of rainforests is also having a significant impact. In the longer run, climate change may have devastating effects if glaciers are melted, as they store much of the world's fresh water. The resulting higher sea levels may also salinate freshwater sources in coastal areas.

Saltwater can be converted to fresh water, but large scale desalination using distillation consumes huge amounts of energy and uses expensive equipment. Newer processes, such as reverse osmosis, are more efficient, but are orders of magnitude more costly than natural sources.

Water quality is also a large part of the problem. Untreated sewage effluent and agricultural run-off carrying fertilizers can make water from lakes and rivers undrinkable, while promoting the growth of algae and plankton. Around the world, water is being polluted with bacteria, viruses, parasites, toxic chemicals, toxic metals, and radioactive elements.

Probable effects: Agriculture consumes the most fresh water of all human activities, and it is impossible without adequate water supplies. Food production may be substantially reduced, even in our most fertile growing areas.

For example, California's Central Valley, 500 miles long, has traditionally produced more than half the U.S. harvest of fruits and vegetables. Scientists warn that the aquifers that support it are being depleted, and the state's two biggest river basins have shrunk by more than 30 cubic kilometers since late 2003.

The Ogallala Aquifer, one of the world's largest, covers 450,000 km² and is located beneath South Dakota, Nebraska, Wyoming, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Texas. It provides about 30% of the ground water used for irrigation in the U.S. Its stored water, most of which dates back to the last Ice Age, has declined by 9%.

Even now, some countries are experiencing famine due to water shortage, and more will likely have this problem.

Another effect is disease. The UN says that a child dies every eight seconds from a waterborne disease --- 15 million children annually ---and that infectious waterborne diseases such as diarrhea, typhoid, and cholera cause 80 percent of illnesses and deaths in the developing world.

Canada can also expect increased pressure to accept large numbers of immigrants from parched countries that can not support their populations. That could get nasty if boatloads of people begin arriving on our shores, overwhelming our immigration system.

It doesn't take much imagination to see armed conflict between nations over water.

Exporting water will likely become a major industry in future. With 7% of the world’s renewable supply of freshwater, Canada's economy may benefit, but concerns are being expressed about negative effects such as increased pollution concentrations and harm to plant and animal communities.

Raise a glass to the future.

Next: The growing wealth gap.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Toilet-related injuries and deaths

Toilet Incidents

Monday, June 27, 2011

Revenge is sweet

Friday, June 24, 2011

Things I learned this week

I learned that:
• China has 11 cities with more than 6 million people. Europe has only one (London).

• China's economy has grown 1000% in the last 30 years, and is on track to be the world's largest in five years.

• Due to China's one-child policy, its population will decline by 400 million by the next generation.

• China borders on 14 countries and 4 seas.

• China's Tiananmen Square is the world's biggest public gathering place.

• The Chinese language has over 20,000 characters. The average Chinese person learns only about 5,000 of these in a lifetime.
How about that?

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Wake-up call #1: Oil

Are we living in a golden age that precedes a dark age? Some think so.

Predicting the future is a risky undertaking, but it's hard to see how things will work out over the next 50 years and beyond without widespread upset and hardship, mostly caused by us.

Consider just some of the interconnected problems that will confront humanity during that period --- oil depletion, climate change, national indebtedness, the shortage of fresh water, the growing gap between rich and poor.

In this series, I'll take a look at each of these, starting with oil:
Oil has been the foundation for economic growth and an affluent, mobile lifestyle in developed countries like Canada.

Problem: We are outrunning our ability to produce it from conventional, inexpensive, sources. We must either reduce consumption or turn increasingly to higher cost sources like Canada's oil sands, which are also said to accelerate climate change.

Barring some dramatic, unforeseen, technological breakthroughs, it is extremely unlikely that renewable energy sources can replace oil, although they may extend its availability.

A large proportion of the products we use every day are made with plastic, derived from petroleum. Rubber, fertilizers, detergents, solvents, and adhesives are also derived from petroleum. Aircraft, trucks, and freight trains run on petroleum-based fuels.

Probable effects: Travel of all kinds will become much more expensive. Foreign travel will again become a privilege reserved for the wealthy, as it was prior to the jet age. Fruit and vegetables from California, Mexico and South America will disappear from shelves, or become expensive treats, as will meat and fish imported from distant locations.

People will face dilemmas. Urban housing prices will likely skyrocket as commuting costs rise, but food production is difficult on the 20th floor. Suburban lots can support a garden and a few chickens, but a lot of expensive catching up will be needed to provide most with useful public transit. Telecommuting will be an option for some, but unworkable for many. We will all be eating much more locally-grown produce, probably wishing that more of our agricultural land hadn't been developed for housing.

Some energy-intensive recreational activities (personal aircraft, powerboats, auto racing, RV's, extended road trips) will eventually become socially-repugnant.

Reduced exports, combined with increased costs for heating, cooling, and travel, and higher taxes to support everything from school heating to building transit systems to snowplowing, will shrink disposable income, thereby downsizing economies. That, in turn will increase unemployment and put pressure on wages and spending, resulting in even higher tax rates or lowered tax revenues (Read: massive cuts in government services).

Countries that rely upon imported petroleum will have huge problems, as oil exporting nations opt to retain production for their own use. This will likely cause extreme disruption to their economies and standards of living. In fact, international trade in most goods is likely to be severely curtailed.

These are but a few of the coming challenges as we move from the Oil Age to whatever comes next.

While some may look forward to returning to a simpler, quieter, more self-sufficient, existence, most are likely to have difficulty with realigning expectations and making the necessary lifestyle adjustments.

Next: Water

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Noodling about KD

Mac & Cheese
From Medical Insurance

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Intelligence/disease correlation

This chart from the Gates Foundation shows the correlation between IQ and disease.

So, are smart people healthier because they are smart, or are healthy people smarter because they are healthy?

Monday, June 20, 2011

Have a nice day

Friday, June 17, 2011

Things I learned this week

I learned that:
• Moscow city officials are mulling over the idea of installing public toilets that can withstand terrorist attacks.

• Russia's biggest retail bank, Sberbank, is testing out a new kind of ATM that has a built-in lie detector that uses voice-analysis software.

• With no NASA spacecraft available until at least 2016, American astronauts will have to hitch a ride on a Russian craft, or one of the unproven vehicles under development by the private sector.

• As recently as the late 19th century, inhabitants of Siberia and the Russian far east survived brutal winters by raiding caches of roots, bulbs, seeds, and nuts gathered by rodents.

• Since the fall of communism, religion has thrived with churches and monasteries springing up all over the country. There are four official religions --- Orthodox Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and Judaism.

• Smallpox, the most deadly infectious disease ever to affect humans, now exists only in highly secure U.S. and Russian laboratories. There is now concern about the possibility of a resurgence as bodies frozen in the Siberian tundra are exposed by global warming.
How about that?

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Men without chests

I was planning to write about the blurring of party distinctions in Canadian politics, and the current pandering to the electorate's self-interest, at the expense of long-held principles. Then I read Glen Pearson's eloquent blog post on the absence of principle and purpose in today's Canadian politics. I can not say it better.

We should be very concerned for our country.

The cultivation of facial hair

A Passion For Beards

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Too close for comfort

Do you ever wish that some charities you have supported in the past would just give you a breather?

They're a bit like that kid in school who wanted to be your best pal, when you already had a best pal. Every time you turned around, that kid was there again like lint on a blazer.

A recent article on the CharityVillage website helped clarify my thinking about this.

In the article, marketing expert John Suart pointed to a study of boomers who donated significant amounts online to charity. The study [PDF] identified three categories within this group.

The smallest percentage were Relationship Seekers who wanted a strong personal connection to the charity and its work. Presumably, they would welcome lots of eMails and newsletters from the organization.

Next largest were called All Business. They just wanted to make their donation, get a tax receipt, and be left alone.

The largest group, Casual Connectors, were between the other two with regard to their desire for contact and information from the charity.

I have high regard for fundraisers. They have a tough, but necessary, job.

But, wouldn't it be great if charities asked you how close you want them to get? Would that be so hard to do with all of the online communications tools now available? I'd be happy to spend a bit of time filling out an online form, if that would shut down the needless flood of stuff that goes directly to the real or virtual trash.

It seems to me that charities could save some money and have healthier relationships by doing this. For example, if asked, I could tell them whether I want to receive their address labels, greeting cards, newsletters, gift bags, key chains, and so on. I could tell them whether I prefer monthly or annual giving. I could tell them whether I prefer to donate online or via the postal service. I could tell them whether I want to hear from them by telephone or eMail. I could tell them whatever they need to know in order to have a happy and productive relationship with me.

How about it, charities? Ask the questions.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

A golf lesson

A husband and wife are on the 9th green when suddenly she collapses with a heart attack.

"Help me dear," she groans to her husband.

The husband calls 911 on his cell phone, talks for a few minutes, picks up his putter and lines up his putt.

His wife raises her head off the green and stares at him. "I'm dying here and you're putting?"

"Don't worry dear," says the husband calmly, "they found a doctor on the second hole and he's coming to help you."

"Well, how long will it take for him to get here?" she asks feebly.

"No time at all," says her husband. "Everybody's already agreed to let him play through."

[Author unknown]

Monday, June 13, 2011


Friday, June 10, 2011

The Duke's day

Best wishes to Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, consort of the Queen of England, on the occasion of his 90th birthday.

Phil's offhand remarks often offend either protocol or common civility. Here are a few samples:
• China State Visit, 1986: "If you stay here much longer, you’ll all be slitty-eyed."

• To a blind women with a guide dog: “Do you know they have eating dogs for the anorexic now?”

• To an Aborigine in Australia: “Do you still throw spears at each other?”

• When asked if he would like to visit the Soviet Union: “The bastards murdered half my family.”

• To a driving instructor in Scotland: “How do you keep the natives off the booze long enough to get them through the test?”

• To a student who had been trekking in Papua New Guinea: “You managed not to get eaten, then?”

• To Elton John after hearing Elton had sold his Gold Aston Martin: “Oh, it’s you that owns that ghastly car – we often see it when driving to Windsor Castle.”

• On the London Traffic Debate: “The problem with London is the tourists. They cause the congestion. If we could just stop tourism, we could stop the congestion.”

• To the President of Nigeria, dressed in traditional robes: “You look like you’re ready for bed!”

• On key problems facing Brazil: “Brazilians live there.”

• To the matron of a hospital in the Caribbean: “You have mosquitoes. I have the press.”
Happy Birthday. Please don't go all PC on us.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

The cultivation of success

To burlap, or not to burlap. That is the question.

Many of my neighbours construct little burlap forts to shield their shrubs over the winter.

I don't. My theory is that shrubs need to develop their own defences against the snow and wind in order to have a long and healthy life. I don't want my shrubs to be wusses. The elimination of work and expense is a fringe benefit of this approach.

Very occasionally, I have a casualty, but most of the time my shrubs do very well, and this spring is no exception.

This is my philosophy about most things.

In one of my adventures, I was asked to assist with a government-funded "incubator" for entrepreneurs. The idea was to identify people who seemed to have worthwhile business concepts, and to improve their chances of great success by surrounding them with lots of services, handholding, office facilities, money, and so on.

I was sceptical, suspecting that this would probably produce a crop of hothouse violets that would wither and die when transplanted into the real world. Few things have the motivational effect of being unable to meet a payroll, or receiving a call from the bank's loans manager inquiring about a late payment.

As far as I know, the incubator produced little, if anything, of consequence. In fact, I consider it a great misfortune for anyone to fall into the clutches of this sort of thing.

In the real world, I have seen many people achieve success by scrambling, finding cheap solutions, working long hours for little pay, inventing better ways of doing things, making short term sacrifices in pursuit of the prize. People often point to these people when they are successful, and say that it came easy to them. Wrong.

Nothing worthwhile comes easy. The notion that students are helped by receiving undeserved passing grades renders them a great disservice. It teaches them that success is possible without work and competition, which it isn't.

Speaking of his 16 years in hockey's minor leagues, Don Cherry said, “It really toughens you. Nothing can hurt you after that.” That's it, isn't it. In any field of endeavour, when you've taken the hits and survived, you gain the confidence to go all the way.

Arnold Schwarzenegger said, “Strength does not come from winning. Your struggles develop your strengths. When you go through hardships and decide not to surrender, that is strength.”

This persistence in the face of adversity is at the heart of the concept of risk and reward, which underpins the capitalist system that built the society we all enjoy today. It's the reason great family enterprises are built by the first two generations, and often frittered away by the third.

Of course, this does not preclude reaching out to help those who need a hand up to get restarted when circumstances have defeated them. There is no shame in failing if you've fought the good fight. The shame is in failing to try.

No burlap, thank-you.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

OK, who'll shout out for capitalism?

Interestingly, people in China and Germany are more convinced of the merits of the free market than are Americans.

The French, not so much.

[Source: Real Clear World]

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Street smarts

A Ukrainian walked into a bank in Toronto and asked for the loans officer. He told the loans officer that he was going to Kiev on business for two weeks, needed to borrow $5,000 and that he was not a depositor at the bank.

The bank officer told him that the bank would need some form of security for the loan, so the Ukrainian handed over the keys to a new Ferrari. The car was parked on the street in front of the bank.

The Ukrainian produced the title for the car, and everything checked out. The loan officer agreed to hold the car as collateral for the loan and apologized for having to charge 12% interest.

An employee of the bank then drove the Ferrari into the bank's underground garage and parked it. Later, the bank manager and her employees all enjoyed a good laugh at the Ukrainian for using a $250,000 Ferrari as collateral for a $5,000 loan.

Two weeks later, the Ukrainian returned and repaid the $5,000 and interest of $23.07. The loan officer said, "Sir, we are very happy to have had your business, and this transaction has worked out very nicely, but we are a little puzzled. While you were away, we checked you out, and found that you are a multimillionaire. What puzzles us is: Why would you bother to borrow $5,000?"

The Ukrainian replied, "Where else in Toronto can I park my car for two weeks for only $23.07 and expect it to be there when I return?"

[Author unknown]

Monday, June 6, 2011

Generation Y

Friday, June 3, 2011

Things I learned this week

I learned that:
• The food company Kraft Canada is targeting South Asian Canadians with Indian recipes that use Kraft products like Jell-O, peanut butter, and Cool Whip.

Anderson Abbott, the first Canadian-born black doctor, was licensed in 1861.

• Canada is a more church-going nation than Britain, Germany, France or Sweden, but less so than Italy or the U.S.A.

• The number of Muslims in Canada is expected to nearly triple in the next 20 years, from about 940,000 in 2010 to nearly 2.7 million in 2030. By then, they are expected to make up 6.6% of Canada's total population.

• Cammy is Canada's newest monster, claimed to reside in B.C.'s Cameron Lake. It joins the more famous mystery serpentine sea monster Caddy, which makes its home in Cadboro Bay, at the southern tip of Vancouver Island.

• Bilingualism helps forestall the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease.
How about that?

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Lessons in stewardship

A cautionary tale of collective delusion reflects, in microcosm, the persistence of belief in the free ride.

We offer for your edification the case of 40 Panorama Court, a Toronto high-rise condominium that is in bad shape, in terms of both the physical building and the acrimonious relations between unit owners and their elected board of directors.

Said unit owners deluded themselves for decades that maintenance was an unnecessary extravagance, on the grounds that it costs money. Their elected leaders were pressured into going along with this strategy of false economy.

The place is now a wreck, the parking garage is crumbling, concrete is falling off balconies, units are unsaleable, the operating deficit is $670,000, and there is much whining and finger-pointing.

Greece is, writ large, 40 Panorama Court, its political leaders having allowed spending to outpace tax revenues for decades, while borrowing to cover the shortfalls. That free ride is now ending, as all such rides must, in a crashing economy, huge cutbacks, an austere future, and cap in hand begging for money from the International Monetary Fund to just keep the thing together.

The Greeks, who were happy to enjoy the largesse of previous governments, now demonstrate in the streets against the inevitable rollbacks, as the government scrambles to build a consensus for change.

It will take perhaps a generation for Greece to right itself. Young people, 35% of whom are currently unemployed, will suffer most of the pain.

We Canadians had a close encounter with this in the 1990's, although we did not peer into an abyss as deep as the one into which Greece is plunging. Fortunately, we found leaders who saved us from the worst, and held course in the face of strong resistance to measures that, in the end, brought us to firmer ground.

All three of these scenarios began with a failure of stewardship. Stewardship is the careful and responsible management of something entrusted to one's care, so that it may be passed to one's successors in good condition.

Stewardship is not easy. It is human nature to want others to think well of us. It is tempting to acquiesce to the desires of those who voted for us, whether for the condo board or to govern the nation, even when doing so runs counter to their best longer term interests.

In the short run, this brings popularity and electoral success, but it is the good steward who deserves the gratitude of future generations.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011