Wednesday, November 28, 2007

You too can make a microloan with Kiva

A friend alerted me to an interesting website, which is a microfinancing/microplan operation designed to facilitate the bringing together of concerned citizens from the developed world and individual entrepreneurs in the developing world in need of funds for their small businesses.
It seemed like such a simple and worthy idea, I thought I would share it with the world (not that anyone actually reads this blog...)

A tour of the world we need

As an antidote to the depressing reading in the national newspapers where Our Glorious Leader can be seen flexing his muscles on the international scene refusing to take any action on climate change until India does (so nyah!), I have been reading Chris Turner’s “The Geography of Hope: A Tour of the World We Need”.
In his easy-going and refreshing style, Turner tries to focus on the positive (a focus in very short supply) by looking at renewable energy and sustainability projects around the world in an attempt to show that we have the technology to combat global warming right here and now, we just need the will, the vision and the leadership (also in very sort supply).
Among many other inspiring developments (and his trademark digressions into world economics, local politics and popular culture) he visits:
  • the Danish islands of Samsø and Aerø, where the local council and activists have developed an almost completely grid-free, sustainable energy regime based mainly on wind turbines;

  • forward-thinking public transit systems in Portland, Oregon and Copenhagen;

  • Rolf Disch’s remarkable Plusenergiehaus (which uses almost every energy-generating device known) and the surrounding solar powered district of Vauban in Freiberg, Germany (not a location normally associated with a surfeit of sunshine);

  • Dr. Soontorn’s net energy-generating Bio-Solar Home in Bangkok, Thailand;

  • Mike Reynolds’ hobbit-like but incredibly efficient and energy-saving Greater World Earthship Community in New Mexico;

  • Sohrabji Godrej’s LEED-certified Green Business Centre in Hyderabad, India;

  • John Bradford’s Interface Flooring Systems, a huge industrial carpet tile business which goes as close as is humanly possible to reusing and recycling everything without the usual degradation and “downcycling”;

  • the industrial city of Kalundborg in Denmark, which has linked together its massive coal-burning power plant, Denmark’s largest oil refinery, a giant pharmaceutical plant and a plasterboard factory in a very complex but very efficient network of symbiotic relationships, resulting in a much reduced carbon footstep and very little pollution of any kind;

  • Amory Lovins’ venerable Rocky Mountains Institute, after thirty years still at the cutting edge of sustainability;

  • a community-built sustainable energy project in the jungles of northern Vietnam.
He also has lots of interesting things to say about the legacy of Le Corbusier and the ubiquitous square-box, brutalist architecture he heralded; mixed use developments, New Urbanism and community-supported agriculture; the concept of natural capital, “Small is Beautiful” and “Small is Profitable”; the Lorax and the Once-ler and what we can learn from Dr. Seuss; green advertising; and much more.
It is a well-researched, thought-provoking and at times surprising read, and a highly recommended Christmas present.

Friday, November 23, 2007

To fluoridate or not to fluoridate

It seems like there's no such thing as a sacred cow these days.
Fluoridation of tap water has always been up there with vaccinations as one of health research's great success stories since the initial science was done way back in the 1940's.
Now, though, significant doubt is being placed on its efficacy and even on its safety.
It turns out that, while childhood cavities have been significantly reduced in countries using fluoridation, they have also been equally reduced in countries like the U.K. and most of Europe which don't fluoridate their water. This suggests that improved dental education and fluoridated toothpastes are likely more to thank, especially as the fluoride is directly applied to the teeth rather than the more hit-or-miss method of swallowing fluoridated water. Which sort of makes sense to me.
More worrying, but also more disputed, is new research which purports to show that our excessive fluoride intake may be linked to a bone disease called childhood oteosarcoma, reduced IQ levels and hypothyroidism.
Interestingly, Canada is almost evenly split between provinces like B.C. and Quebec which generally don't add fluoride to their tap water, and others like Ontario, Manitoba and Albert which fluoridates the vast majority of their water.
Even more interestingly, Toronto has recently (unbeknown to most people) halved the amount of fluoride is puts in the water, as has the province of Quebec.
Health Canada is, for now at least, sticking to its guns:
"The fluoridation of drinking water supplies is a well-accepted measure to
protect public health that is strongly supported by scientific evidence."
The Canadian Dental Association concurs.
Where does that leave me, the average Joe on the street? Do I have now have a choice between drinking water or brushing my teeth (but not both)?

Monday, November 19, 2007

"Under-the-Gardiner", Toronto's next tourist attraction

Finally, I read an article which comes close my own views on the fate of the Gardiner Expressway in downtown Toronto, a perennial source of argument and dissent, even if little ever comes of those arguments.
The conventional wisdom has, for years now, been that the Gardiner is an eyesore and an anachronism and that in some way it prevents access to our beautiful lakefront. Anyone who expresses sentiments to the contrary is frowned at and considered anti-progress, pro-car and, in some obscure way, undemocratic.
I have always felt that something more could be done to beautify the concrete jungle below the raised highway, or at least to make some practical use of it, rather than just saying "rip it down" which has always seemed a bit defeatist and negative to me.
Given that it carries 200,000 cars and trucks a day past and into downtown, dismantling the Gardiner would mean that 200,000 cars and trucks a day would have to be accommodated in central Toronto's already congested grid system, which at the very least would necessitate a significant widening of the Lakeshore Avenue alternative, which would in turn have much more impact on access to the lakeshore than the current status quo.
The argument about access to the lakeshore has always seemed spurious to me anyway. The huge Hong Kong-esque developments which have been allowed on the downtown lakeshore have done much more to block access and views to the lake than the Expressway ever did. No-one is suggesting (thankfully) that we move the railway lines which run parallel to the Gardiner, and which present just as much of a barrier.
And even if any intrepid tourists do venture down to the lake, there is so little to do and see there (and now, since the condo developments, so little space and opportunity to provide anything in the future) that many would probably wonder why they bothered anyway.
A grand opportunity has already been squandered. So why not make the best of a bad thing and create "Under-the-Gardiner", a funky little neighbourhood of cafes, small specialty stores and street art, with pedestrian walkways and parkland, to replace the wasteland of dust, exhaust fumes and beggars that tourists currently have to negotiate.
Just because San Francisco and Boston ripped down their elevated highways doesn't mean that we have to copy them exactly. We just need to think outside the box a little.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Unnecessary deaths and taser parties

In the wake of a recent surge in deaths by taser in Canada, and particularly after the case of a Polish visitor to Vancouver whose unnecessary death by taser, and the lead up to it, was all recorded on video, there has been a lot of belated discussion on just how safe and how advisable they are as a security tool.
Amnesty International has recently spoken out strongly against them in its review of 290 deaths from police use of tasers since 2001 (15 of which were in Canada), and the US Department of Justice is currently reviewing 100 such cases.
There are even reports of American women hosting taser parties, in the tradition of tupperware parties, but featuring hot pink tasers for the discerning American housewife.
My feeling is that their potential for abuse and (more likely) misuse is too great, and that their use should be curtailed. It is all too easy for a law enforcement officer to use a taser unnecessarily on the assumption that, even if not strictly necessary, no major harm will be done. This leads to a trigger-happy attitude and ultimately to mistakes and accidents.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Canadian, British and American Spelling

I have another of my little pet projects under my belt. My webpage on Canadian, British and American Spelling is now live.
I have tried to explain and produce a more or less definitive listing of differences in regional spellings, which is particularly a problem in Canada because, as in most things, Canada tends to lurch and wobble between the British and American camps. There are one or two resources on the web but I didn't find them very comprehensive or definitive, so I made my own.
In addition to a detailed, searchable word list, there are additonal pages on the general rules for regional differences, a page on the basic spelling rules for English with examples and exceptions and a page of commonly misspelled words.
Several hours of poring over dictionaries, grammars and style guides in the library, as well as some serious web-surfing, have paid off I think. Let 's just hope someone actually uses it now.

Pimping the real estate market

Even realtors were embarrassed at the shananigans outside One Bloor East this week.
Hired paupers (some paid up to $2,000, and so arguably ex-paupers) had been camped outside Toronto's next super-luxury downtown condo building for over a week to keep a place for the well-heeled real estate agents who wanted first crack at the apartments for their overseas clients, some of which will fly off the shelves at $8-million.
This was sleazy enough, especially as the line, predictably enough, deteriorated into a mini shanty town. But then the arguments started.
Some maintained they could hold their place in line by putting themselves on a paper list. Some were up in arms at this idiocy. Some just waltzed straight to the front of the line anyway. Tempers frayed.
A more unedifying spectacle you could not hope to witness.
But, as of yesterday, it was all over. The ex-paupers had their pay-offs. The realtors made their killings. Their shadowy foreign investors had their footholds in the Toronto real estate bubble.
Apparently, there are 13 or 14 more of these super-deluxe condo buildings under construction right now in downtown Toronto, so presumably we can expect more such exhibitions of captialism at its finest in the near future.
Still, it's good to know that at least someone somewhere has plenty of disposable income.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Sir John A. Who?

We Canadians regularly used to sneer at reports of Americans' lack of historical and geographical knowledge, but it turns out that we are not much better ourselves.
A Dominion Institute report suggest that less than half of our 18-to-24 year olds know who Canada's first Prime Minister was (even with multiple choice options) and only one in four know the year of Confederation (that one really surprised me).
Even more worrying, the results have worsened considerably over the last ten years.
Try the quiz yourself. As someone who has studied for the Canadian citizenship test (even if not that recently), I didn't find it that hard, although I will admit to getting a couple wrong.
I think this has much more to say about the general standard of education in Canada than about our patriotism.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Foreign Phrases Commonly Used in English

I'm continuing, in my spare hours, to get around to little projects I have wanted to tick off my list for some time.
Hot on the heels of Utopian Literature comes Foreign Phrases Commonly Used in English, a database of, well, foreign phrases commonly used in English.
Motivated by my increasingly common reaction of "I think I know what that means, but actually I'm not 100% sure, and I'm even less sure of the the more subtle sense it carries", I realized that there isn't a really good, comprehensive and easy-to-use resource on the web for answering that kind of a question.
So, now there is.
Currently there are 314 phrases in 14 different languages in the database, searchable alphabetically by first letter, or by language, or by foreign or English keywords. I have tried to give some indication of the specific sense some phrases can carry, and I have made up example sentences which are designed to further explain the meanings.
I even explain how to type those funny foreign accents...

Friday, November 02, 2007

Black Pride = White Guilt

Intrigued by an article in the paper, I recently read “White Guilt” by Shelby Steele, a respected black American intellectual and outspoken speaker on race relations. Its long and in-your-face sub-title is “How blacks and whites together destroyed the promise of the civil rights era”.
It certainly made for some interesting reading for a while, although his writing style is quite dense and self-consciously erudite. After a while, though, I realized that he was making his two or three points over and over again in (slightly) different words. And, from what he writes, he has obviously been plugging variations on those same points for thirty or forty years now.
Still, for what it is worth - and, don’t get me wrong, it IS worth hearing his unusual perspective - his argument proceeds as follows (apologies to Mr. Steele for any misinterpretations I make in this summary, but I think this is the gist of it):
Ever since the mid-sixties, with the de facto passing away of the white supremacist/segregation era of American society, black America has lost its way. Instead of building on what was then something much closer to a level playing field and asserting a black identity through hard work and fair competition, America’s blacks became bogged down in decades of radicalism, black nationalism and in-fighting.
This misguided effort and simmering rage has been predicated on something he calls “white guilt” - the idea that, in the aftermath of the civil rights struggle, white America has been so intent on proving to themselves and to the world that they are no longer racist that they would do anything, and agree to anything, so long as it showed them in a good light as regards race relations.
According to Mr. Steel, millions of dollars in aid and hours of public speaking have been wasted over the years in pursuance of this goal, and in salving the collective white conscience of centuries of slavery and discrimination.
Throughout it all, whites have completely missed the point that any help offered should be to individuals and to humans, and not to a race or an invisible representative of a race. Knee-jerk accommodations of black demands (in preference to being labelled racist) and affirmative action programs have actually hurt blacks in the long run, and made them lazy and over-reliant on that self-same white guilt.
Steele argues that a lot of pointless black anger and rage has been fuelled by white guilt over the years, as has a feeling of black inferiority (after all, he argues, why would affirmative action policies be needed if blacks were not in fact inferior?)
He even goes so far as to argue that this “vacuum of moral authority” (which is white guilt and the “dissociation” of liberals) has also led to a dilution of many of the good things about America as a whole, and that in some ways America as a nation was better in the days of segregation than since. Strong stuff indeed!
Furthermore, he suggests that the decline of America’s public education system from one of the world’s best to one of its worst (both debatable propositions at best, I would have thought) is all at the door of ... you guessed it, white guilt.
The book ends with a strong avowal of pride in his new-found black conservatism, and a blanket priase for President Bush’s policy on race (and on everything else for that matter). And by the time I got there, I wasn’t too surprised.