Tuesday, December 24, 2013

On Saying "Merry Christmas!"

I've come across a few recent bits of writing from people who think we should do away with "Merry Christmas."  Even though I'm an atheist, I love Christmas, and I really hope I don't offend people with the following because it is Christmas and all!

The rules around what's allowed during Christmas at my public school seem to change from year to year.  This year, there were carols and a tree without any debate, but some years we can only celebrate Christmas and put up a tree in the foyer if we have something there also commemorating Kwanzaa, Hanukkah, and Ramadan, the latter two not always falling at the same time as Christmas.  It's unfortunate a Festivus pole was never a requirement.  That none of these have anything to do with Christmas beyond a semblance of timing (some years closer than others) isn't necessarily a problem, except we typically don't celebrate anything else from any other culture at any other time.  It's a grab bag of festivities that we use to permit a Christian celebration in a pubic school.

But this is an argument that suggests either we celebrate everything or nothing demanding a show of equality through equal time given.  My counterargument is that this celebration is a part of the dominant culture and, more importantly, that it's a tradition worth fostering.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

On Driving Into a Wall

Have you seen Inside Job? It’s a great film about the ins and outs of the mortgage crisis all in layman’s terms so even I could get my head around it all. The interesting thing about it to me is the film footage and books and articles that show the number of people who predicted the collapse long before it happened juxtaposed with the main players looking baffled that it all went down as predicted. In the film, Christine Lagarde said it was like there was a tsunami coming and everyone was trying to decide which swim trunks to wear.

That’s what people do. We are either outrageously short-sighted or unwilling to face real problems head-on.  And it's a dangerous way to be.

What I wonder is, did those top guns know it was all going to fall apart and have - even just in a small place in the backs of their clever little heads - an exit strategy? Or did they completely repress the thought that it might all come to an end? How authentic was their surprise and dismay? Because they all seem to be doing okay right now. None of the mucky-mucks are in jail or tragically destitute. Curious.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

On John Stuart Mill, Free Speech, and Climate Change

I got caught up in a few arguments about climate change recently that just reinforced to me, that there’s still such a strong bashlash against the entire idea that we’re unlikely to move forward quickly enough to be effective.

Paper is trees!
My school board is fundraising for the Philippines, and I’m totally on board with it. But I commented publicly on the irony of sending each kid home with a piece of paper on the issue. That’s over 60,000 full pieces of paper or about 8 trees for something that will be crumpled at the bottom of a knapsack or tossed before it even makes it home.  We’re cutting down trees to make paper to ask people to help those affected by conditions exacerbated by the cutting down of trees. And there are other ways to get the word out like our websites and automatic phone callers. If we really want to use paper, the notices could at least be sent on half pages or on re-use-it paper (‘goos’ paper in some places).

Pretty straightforward and reasonable, right??

Not so fast. A colleague ridiculed me for quibbling about paper when people are struggling to cope with a “NATURAL” disaster. I responded with a quote from the IPCC linking extreme weather to climate change and a suggestion that we're negligent if we don't take responsibility for our small daily actions having an accumulative and disastrous effect elsewhere.  But I'm pretty sure it's all for nought.  Sigh.

But, as is often the case, a much more interesting conversation happened with my students.

Friday, November 29, 2013

On Celebrating History

I've got a funny story.

A while ago - like months - a colleague asked if I'd do some website or advertising work of some sort for a sesquicentennial event in 2017 crossing Canada and involving high-school history teachers.  I'd have to find a way to get high-schools everywhere involved.  I said, "Sure!"

Then yesterday, as I was drinking my morning tea and scanning facebook as I'm wont to do while I wake up, I heard about this innane project proposing to make sculptures of all 22 of the Prime Ministers of Canada and litter them about our park.  I jumped on it and said to my facebook peeps, "Harper's statue will be toppled too often to fix."

Lenin fell for different reasons.
I got five likes in no time.  In my tiny, tiny world, that's a big win.  Five!!

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

On Stoic Environmentalism

I'm doing the Stoic Week thing this week.  It's just a matter of contemplating specific quotations each day.  Even though I studied them years ago, and teach about them even, and maybe should have figured this all out long ago, I'm still stuck on the first reading.  I'm a slow thinker.

Here's the reading from yesterday - a little bit from the Encheiridion of Epictetus:
Some things are under our control, while others are not under our control. Under our control are conception [the way we define things], intention [the voluntary impulse to act], desire [to get something], aversion [the desire to avoid something], and, in a word, everything that is our own doing; not under our control are our body, our property, reputation, position [or office] in society, and, in a word, everything that is not our own doing.
First of all, how is desire under our control?  I wonder if desire is the best translation here because I can't control what I desire to have or avoid at all. I can only control whether or not I act on that desire.  And with a bit of practice, maybe I might be able to stop some of my desires, or desensitize myself from aversions.  But desire is pretty automatic; we desire or are repelled in an instant.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

A Little Hope is Effective...

A lot of hope is dangerous. - President Snow

This may be a little hokey, but I think Catching Fire is an important film to see right now.

And it's awesome!

I read the books ages ago, but even though I know how they each end, it didn't stop me from being on the edge of my seat.  And I was surprised by how inspirational I found the film to be.

Grist relates how the books chronicle what happens after climate change destroys the world and makes for scarce resources for the survivors to fight over.  We have a really interesting crisis to overcome for our time.  It's not us against the state - not just us against the state - but against our own conveniences.  Not enough of us have the foresight to vote out politicians who are supporting the pipelines.  That's one problem.  But a bigger one is that too many of us are sliding into complacency.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

On Alain de Botton on Art Galleries

de Botton
Alain de Botton wrote one of my favourite under-praised books, Status Anxiety.  I also quite like using his Consolations of Philosophy in my class as an additional resource because it simplifies and grounds some theories for the kids.  And I show his TEDTalk on atheism 2.0 every semester when I talk about secular rites in anthropology.

However, he also wrote several books I found difficult to finish - not because they're complex, but because they're unfocused and trite.  They just don't seem to say anything.  I'm a bit wary to write that right out loud because he flipped out after a bad book review, telling the reviewer, "I will hate you until the day I die."  Yikes!  I think I'm relatively safe under my cloak of obscurity though.

Suffice it to say that he's hit and miss.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

On Designer Vaginas and Media Influence

Labiaplasty is on the rise.  Who knew?

There's an article in the Guardian in which Daisy Buchanan argues that we can't blame porn for this rush towards plastic surgery to pretty-up our lady bits because it's everywhere; in mainstream music videos we can see about as much as porn shows.

I'm not sure what bands Buchanan follows, but I haven't see much in the way of actual labias in my regular, mainstream video-watching, nor in any of the movies I watch - and I watch a lot of movies.  Even Miley Cyrus doesn't actually show her junk.  So, if men are complaining enough for women to save up cash and courage to go through with this, then clearly porn is to blame for this significant cultural shift.  But I do agree with Buchanan that we're seeing a whole lot more skin these days, and I wonder if labias are next.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Moving Beyond the Rational

Unlike everything else in the news, this isn't about Rob Ford.

I'm going to merge some Fraser Institute news with recent discussions in class, an old Munk Debate on religion, and some ideas from David Hume.   Here we go!

Kate McInturff writes at the CCPA that the Fraser Institute,
"would like to remove compassion from the policy debate about poverty in Canada....because....compassion is causing us to confuse those who have lower income with those who do not have enough income to sustain life."
The interesting bit to me is just these few words:  "compassion is causing us to confuse...."

Munk Debates: Are Men Obsolete?

While I was waiting for the newest Munk Debate to show up on the site, I watched an old one: an excellent debate between Tony Blair and Christopher Hitchens on, of course, religion.  There's little I enjoy more than watching really intelligent thinkers go at each other with carefully and thoughtfully chosen words.  The debate was run with opening statements, a series of 3-minute rebuttals, then closing statements.   They understood and followed the rules, and they remained focused on the topic without a single barb directly at anything said outside of that arena.

So it was interesting to watch four women on next.  Now, I don't know if it's because they're women, or because there were four instead of two of them, or because they're from very mixed backgrounds where on-your-feet oral debating isn't key to their livelihood like it might be, say, in parliament, for instance, but, for the most part, they didn't debate so much as they had a little conversation.  Most of what they said was previously scripted rather than a direct reaction to anything that was said in front of them.

It was still fun to watch.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

On Russell Brand's Politics

I want to look at a few things Russell Brand has to say - in print and on video (quotations below are from both).  As Elizabeth Renzetti said in yesterday's Globe & Mail, he's resonating with people.  But, as she also suggests, he's not going far enough clearly enough for others to follow.  It reminds me of the Canadian film The Trotsky in which a young rebel tries to encourage a student protest.  (*spoiler alert*)  In the end, they all decide that he hasn't really thought it through all the way, but who cares?  It's clear we so desperately need a revolution.  We might not know exactly how our world should look, but we know it's not like this.

We need guys like this.  
Renzetti refers to Brand's rant as a generational conflict, but she seems to forget that Brand is almost 40, and he's lived a long life.  Sure Paxman is older, but many people implicit in the system Brand condemns are not.  He's not a rebellious youth; Brand is practically middle aged!  And it's dangerous to frame the argument as about age because that alienates the older supporters and dismisses some important ideas as part and parcel of a childish naivete spewed by the adolescents of the day.

Brand's not a rebel without a cause.  He is saying something important, more than just a stance on voting, and people are starting to listen:

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

On Regulating Smoking for Youth

Letter to the Editor in the Record today.  It's hard for me to stick to 200 words!

Make it illegal for teenagers to smoke
RE: Ontario bans youth from tanning beds — Oct. 10

I was ecstatic to see that a bill banning youth from tanning beds passed unanimously in the Ontario legislature. Malignant melanoma causes more than 1,000 deaths per year in Canada.

But it's baffling that 20 times as many people die each year from lung cancer, and smoking is still a legal hobby for youth and children to pursue. It's illegal to give or sell a cigarette to anyone under 19, but they can smoke 'em if they got 'em. And, somehow, they always manage to get them.

Tanning beds can be habit-forming for some, but smoking is physically addictive. If tobacco producers can get them when they're young, they can own them for life. If we can pass legislation to prevent youth from starting until their brains are mature enough to make good decisions, then we can make a huge dent in the leading cause of preventable deaths.

We've tried stopping the flow through various regulations at stores, and it's proved minimally effective. If we really care about our youth, we will make it illegal for anyone under 19 to smoke. Teenagers smoking in public should be fined the way they would if they were caught drinking in public.

And then we'd really be saving their skins.

 Marie Snyder Waterloo

If you agree, take a minute to tell your MPP (Catherine Fife's link is here)!

ETA - My 17-year-old son took offence at the suggestion that teenagers have immature brains, but I'm using this study as my backing.  There it is.  

Monday, October 14, 2013

On Strong Women

the infamous album
I want to start with the admission that the first CD I ever got was Sinead O'Connor's I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got.  It's attached to some fond personal memories.  I was wakened in bed by my partner with the CD in hand as an "anytime present," then went downstairs to find an actual CD player all set up!  And I'm still overly fond of the album because of the association.

I loved that she was political yet beautiful, and that she used the SNL forum to make a political statement.  Her aim, well above the fluff of pop music, made her admirable.  I wished I had been brave enough to shave my head.


It Doesn't Matter

It doesn't matter why they're dressed as a tiger, have they got my leg?

About educational reform. This relates to the video above because we've spent years talking about why we need to make these changes, why these new ideas make up the best way ever (with truly weak evidence), and we're only just getting into the thicket now.  But there's more...

As we were sitting in our staff meeting on Friday, we watched a video about what kind of jobs will be available twenty years from now. Most top jobs today didn't exist twenty years ago, so we really have to prepare kids for jobs that....  That what?  That we don't know about??  That we can't even imagine?? The video focused on technology, and, I wonder if it's a wise assumption that the next twenty years will bring even more tech jobs to the fore. We might be in for a sharp corner ahead.

Because as I was sitting there, I was thinking, and I actually said so at my table, that it doesn't matter what kind of jobs they'll have in 20 years time because our future could very well hit a serious turn in about 30 years from now. I'm a riot at a party! But here we are, we're still stuck worrying about the nitty gritty of day-to-day life, while the entire system is collapsing around us.

About those 30 years: it's been reported in the Globe & Mail, and CBC, but you can read the whole study in the Journal of Nature (always go to the primary source, kids!), and what it actually says is,
Using 1860 to 2005 as the historical period, this index has a global mean of 2069 (±18 years s.d.) for near-surface air temperature under an emissions stabilization scenario and 2047 (±14 years s.d.) under a ‘business-as-usual’ scenario.
So if we ignore it all, business as usual, we have somewhere between 20 and 61 years before the climate will change permanently to the effect that the coldest year in 2047 will be warmer than the warmest years pre-2005. AND, they're talking global means, and I'll put my money on this part of the world to be one of the last to die off. That means, best case scenario, my youngest could make it to 70 without struggling. That's a relief.  Really. I'm not entirely sure it's a good thing to go last as a region, though. If and when things get too hot to for animal life to survive, it'll be up to us to make a whole lot of tough decisions and/or prevent mass invasions and genocides. Too bad for the tropics, eh? We mainly talk about people - like the world will be fine, it's just people that will die off - but that huge diversity of animal life will be gone too, and most of the plants.  And the ocean's already a mess. The report suggests coral reefs could be gone in 20 years.

When 9/11 happened, the entire day stopped at school, and everybody talked about the events and potential implications. I dropped my lessons for the afternoon, and we just talked.  It took over a few days, really. But when the papers and radio announced the IPCC findings, and some dudes extrapolated and distilled the concrete reality from that report, there's nary a mention in my building or neighbourhood.  It isn't in the curriculum objectives for my courses.

About to be brave in a flood.
It's too big to be real to us, but it has to be.  We have to be very very brave and face this reality, at least enough to get off our butts and raise some hell to ensure our livelihood scrapes by comfortably a few more decades at least!  If we stay in denial, we'll enjoy the next decade or so, but then it'll all be inevitable. If we can be realistic, and then break through the miasma of despair, we might actually be able to slow the process down. But to change things we'll have to give up flights, cars, eating meat, shopping, getting rich by exploiting resources, free markets, fossil fuels....  Lots of different bad things will happen, but they'll be less fatal if we can all work together.

If I were Minister of Ed, I'd make sure every student knows how to grow their own vegetables and how to preserve them: canning, pickling, making jams, horticulture, seed-collection and storage (Monsanto be damned!). Those are the important jobs of the future. We'd have kids looking at ways to make home-made water filters, and how to get water from other sources. And as for learning skills, responsibility and organization are great, but the key to the future?  Adaptability.  It's actually always been key, really. Yet it's not part of our learning skills chart anywhere.

How well can we change our lives to accommodate a dramatic change in our climate?  I'm all for being pro-active, but I can't grow vegetables. I'm hoping just to attach myself to someone with food skills!

And another learning skill we need to add to the list is unwavering compassion. Collaboration comes close, but it doesn't quite capture the flavour of what's needed.  This could all go very wrong.  We desperately need to keep our heads and help one another through it all.

And we need more theatre-of-the-absurd while we're at it. We need more weird-ass plays about our lives to remind us how mad it all really is.

Just a thought.

Piglet having fun without burning GHGs!
As for the jobs of the future, I'll put my money on philosophers. There will be scam artists galore and religious zealots -  they come out of the woodwork in times of trouble - but the real thinkers might be given a closer listen as we struggle with death. I mean, we all knew we were going to die anyway, but we often comfort ourselves with a leave behind - something that will outlast our corporal form - like a painting, or a book, or a bunch of blog posts, or some kids. That's because we've really just been pretending to be okay with death. Now we're facing a total obliteration of ourselves.  No more leave behinds to keep us going.  Even Picasso and Plato will be completely gone. Nothing.

So seize the day, my possums. Just please try doing it without using any fossil fuels.

And, wow, it's a gorgeous day out there! Enjoy! And Happy Thanksgiving!

Margaret Trudeau on Mental Health

There's a crack in everything.  That's how the light gets in.  - Leonard Cohen  

From CBC Books
I had the fortune of seeing Margaret Trudeau speak on mental health a few days ago.  She told her life story in exactly an hour with great intensity and humour.  She peppered her speech on mental illness with snippets of the stuff I remembered as a child - the hippie skirts then later dancing at Studio 54.  I'm of the age to have wanted to emulated her audacity.  She was the Prime Minister's wife, yet she didn't let that box her into being a stereotype - at all.

She wrote a book a couple years ago, Changing My Mind, which made her plight with mental illness public.  

She talked about the many things that might have triggered her bi-polar condition.  She always had a greater range of emotions, but it was kept in check by her mom who made her life regular: eating, sleeping, and playing all regularly.  But things happened to her that made things worse: a concussion as a child, no regularity at university, pot smoking, loneliness as the PM's wife, post-partum depression, and then profound grief when her son died.  She was "mad with grief."  

Saturday, October 12, 2013

If You Build It, They Will Come - Really!

Photo Cred: Harrogate Cycling Group
In today's Record, Jeff Outhit comes very close to suggesting that if we bike in K-W, we should expect to get hit by a car.  It's not safe out there:  "...riding a bicycle to work is dangerous and counter to common sense."

Counter to common sense.  Later on he uses the term, "unwise."

I'm with him sort of... K-W feels like it's not a cycling-friendly city.  But to suggest that people who cycle in the city lack common sense is to shame the cyclists and add to the prevailing sentiment that cyclists shouldn't be on the road where weary drivers are likely to smash into them and crush them all to bits.

But if we look at it another way - by the number of collisions involving cyclists and those just involving cars - cyclists in Waterloo Region make up only 1% of total collisions, and, in Canada, less than 1% of fatalities.  That number is on par with the number of cyclists commuting to work compared to vehicles, so really, statistically, it's no more dangerous to bike than to get behind the wheel.  It's actually most dangerous to be a passenger in a car (especially on Fridays between 4 and 5 pm).

Sunday, October 6, 2013

On Celebrating Talent

Convalescing from a wicked cold that's beating the crap out of me, I watched a trio of movies about amazing musicians: Joe Strummer, Ginger Baker, and Sixto Rodriguez.  In the films, other musical geniuses were highlighted along the way.  What a delight!  But as Ginger, Jack and Eric talked about people with the gift of perfect time, my first reflexive response was, "How many kids are told they can be a great musician if they just put their mind to it?".

In class this week, yet another student insisted that intelligence has minimal genetic basis compared to effort.  Anybody can do anything if they try hard enough.  I suggested there are people her age still struggling with the alphabet and lamented the ivory tower effect of streamed academic courses.  I don't think it was very convincing.  I'm battling a life-time of programming.  In high-school, I struggled with grade 13 physics.  Both my parents were math and physics profs at U of W, yet with their unwavering help, and the help of my teacher, I still couldn't get my head around that whole inclined plane issue.*  It's just not how my brain works.

And that's okay.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

On the On-Going, Never-Ending Regional Bike/Car Conflict

On Friday, I had a conversation in class about cyclists being hit so much in the region because of our culture around cycling here relative to other cities, and then I saw Luisa D'Amato's article in The Record suggesting cyclists should be licensed to be on the road.  This continues to be an issue in the region.  Seriously, I've been writing about it periodically for 25 years!

First, on the article, I don't have any problem with getting a license to ride my bicycle, but I do wonder how this can possibly be enforced.  And at what age do we enforce it?  Should 6-year-olds be licensed?  What if they can't read yet?  Should there be a graduated licensing scheme like there is for driving - maybe one at 6, then 12, then 18?

Actually, the average 6-year-old doesn't have to ride on the road, like big people do, because they typically have bike tires less than 20" in diameter (or 50 cm), which is the cut-off for sidewalk cycling - something that IS legal in Waterloo if the tires are that small.  (By-law 08-077, which also says it's illegal for anyone to use a skateboard on a sidewalk.  Who knew?)  So maybe once kids graduate to a 20" tire they should have to get a license to drive it legally.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Law-Abiding Politicians

"I think politicians are entitled to private lives," - John Baird

Yet another article in today's G&M - page 3 no less - about pot smoking politicians.  Recently Trudeau admitting to having a puff since becoming an MP.

I totally support legalization of marijuana, and I don't care if you were a junkie as a teenager, but I think all politicians should be law-abiding while in office, and, ideally, maybe even a few years prior.  Is that so much to ask?

I remember once, in my early 20s, sitting with friends when a joint was being passed around.  One friend got up and left because she was thinking about becoming a cop and didn't feel right being in the same room with people breaking the law.  She was just thinking about it.

That's the kind of politicians I want.  Once you start thinking about getting into politics, you've got to clean up your act.

Which is why I prefer to just blog about politics and write them letters!

Friday, August 23, 2013

On Canada: A Fair Country

I used to be so proud to be Canadian and that's wavered over this difficult period in our history.  I was searching for this book to loan out, and once found, I got totally engrossed in re-reading it.  It made me feel so much better.  It's an important book about who we really are:  A Fair Country: Telling Truths About Canada by John Ralston Saul (2009).  What a delight!

Like Hedges' Empire of Illusion, this book focuses on our cultural stories or myths.  How we understand ourselves affects how we live and act, our beliefs and allegiances.  And we Canadians have lost our way swimming through the miasma of American influence.  As a civics teacher, when I do a pre-test at the beginning of the year, a good half the grade ten class give American answers to questions about Canadian politics.  Once in a while, someone admits that they thought Obama was our president too.  And they're not far off.  We have a long journey ahead of us to correct this indoctrination.  We can't be true to ourselves if we don't know who we are.  

Here are my notes and thoughts along the way, but do read the book - I've just captured the ideas, but the stories are what make it. 

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Paternity Rights in Rape Cases

It's an interesting moral dilemma to have a judge decide a child has access to a father when the only contact the mother and father had was a sexual assault producing this child.  This isn't entirely the story here.  In this article, it could be a case of statutory rape.  It's possible there was a relationship for a while, that led to vocally consensual, yet not actually legal, sex.  It's not clear from the article if it was a guy jumping out of the bushes or a romantic tryst gone wrong or something in between.

The young mother, H.T."says she lived with her mother, who had to quit her job to care for the baby."

Well...the grandmother didn't have to quit her job to support the baby.  That was a choice she made - a difficult choice, but not the only possibility.  It makes me nuts when someone says they "had to" make some sacrifice for someone.  Apparently abortion wasn't on the table even though she was 14 when she gave birth, but that could have been an alternative to suffering caused by one fewer paycheque in the family.  It was her choice to leave her job.  But that's just a minor point.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

The Benevolent Dictator isn't a Fascist

In a post a while back I advocate the best of our worst options for saving our species:  a government that forces us be less wasteful.  It's an idea that James Lovelock proposed, and some called it fascist. But there's a world of difference between enforcing legislation that actually protects the citizens in the long term and a police state.

John Oliver did a series of clips about how Australia managed to change their laws to ban semi-automatic weapons and seriously restrict other guns.  The trilogy is well worth a watch at only 18 minutes in total.  But the part that interests me is the idea that politicians had to commit political suicide in order to pass the legislation through, AND they were willing to do this for the good of the country.  People protested the new restrictions and voted the politicians who supported it out of office.  But it had already passed.  This was in 1996, and since then, the citizens have gotten used to the restrictions on their freedom and appreciate that mass shootings have gone from almost one/year down to zero.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

On Hedges' Empire of Illusion

"People who shut their eyes to reality simply invite their own destruction, and anyone who insists on remaining in a state of innocence long after that innocence is dead turns himself into a monster."  - James Baldwin 

Thus begins Chris Hedges' Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle (2009), a collection of five independent parts that lead to the same place.  We're in denial - thick and deadly.  It's similar to Jane JacobsDark Age Ahead, but I can't, for the life of me, find my heavily annotated copy of the book.  So I'll skip the comparison except to say they both suggest we're in a similar cultural place that many empires were just before collapsing.  What Jared Diamond did with environmental degredation's effect on the fall of empires, Hedges does for cultural illusions.  The problem with this fall is that it will be global.  There will be no area of the world that can rise up afterwards.  There will be no area of the world.

Here are some of the main points in brief.  It's a quick read though, so go buy it!

On Raising the Minimum Wage

So, the argument goes something like this:  If you raise minimum wage, corporations will pay for that cost by raising prices, thereby increasing inflation, and we'll all be poorer for it as everything gets more expensive.  The problem isn't wages, but inflation. Therefore, we should not increase minimum wage.

It follows, that it's necessary that some people work full time yet live well below the poverty line because otherwise, if we raise their wages, they'll end up even poorer because everything will costs so much more - right?  So, we're actually helping people by maintaining a lower wage for them and letting them choose between heat or food.  We're awesome! 

I don't buy it.

Friday, August 16, 2013

On Solar Panels

By request - how well does using solar panels work?

Well, it's hard to say.

I covered my roof with panels under the Ontario MicroFIT (Feed-in Tariff) program that ends next year.  So far I think it's only in Ontario, but some other provinces are thinking about it.  The power I generate from the panels goes directly back to the grid, and I'm paid about 55 cents a kWh and will continue to be for the duration of my 20 year contract.  So far this summer, even with all the rain, it translates to about $300-400/month.  So the cost of the panels is paid for in about 6-8 years.  After that, the money I make in the following 12 years is mine to keep!

Monday, August 12, 2013

Just Legalize it Already

I spent a lovely extended weekend in Awenda and fell in love with Penetanguishene through a scenic bike ride.  The sun filtered through the trees on either side of the road, with the blue, blue lake peeking through - gorgeous!  But it was marred by my chosen beach read:  Chris Hedges' grim Empire of Illusion, which actually gave me nightmares - featuring Hugh Laurie for some reason.  Spooky, me possums!  I'll get to the book another day, but for now, let's focus on the distraction du jour:  marijuana legalization.  That's much easier to think about.  Tra-la-la.

Medicinal ganja is already legal, and new regulations are apparently streamlining the process to access it, but that's a boring issue anyway, so we'll move on.  The meaty question is: Should another mind-altering substance be legally available to the healthy masses?

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

On Categorization of Behaviours and Abilities

People are always looking for the single magic bullet that will change everything.  There is no single magic bullet.  - Temple Grandin

Some people are quite upset about the recent change to the DSM that removes Aspergers as a separate category from Autism. Now kids formally diagnosed as having Aspergers are on the Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) instead. The WHO advocates using the ICD anyway - where Aspergers is still a separate category; the DSM is more American than universal.  Whatever. I’m more bothered by how the DSM and ICD are set up to begin with.

Why do we want to label things so clearly and with finality – particularly conditions that are largely subjectively determined? There’s something nice about knowing. There’s a relief that you’ve finally figured it out and can move on. But that feeling is illusory and temporary. And I’m not convinced it helps us in the long run to have so many kids labeled with something as if they’re static beings that were completely figured out by a professional figure-outerer. As if that’s possible.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

On a Four-Hour Workday

Stephen Elliott-Buckley echoes Bertrand Russell's idea of the 4-hour workday.  Russell in brief:
Above all, there will be happiness and joy of life, instead of frayed nerves, weariness, and dyspepsia. The work exacted will be enough to make leisure delightful, but not enough to produce exhaustion. Since men [and women] will not be tired in their spare time, they will not demand only such amusements as are passive and vapid.
And many of us - maybe half - could do it easily but for our unbridled desire for more stuff.  It's an easy fix for many problems if those who need less money simply worked fewer hours and freed up a job for someone else who needs it to survive.  If all the teachers who are living comfortably worked part-time, we'd be able to hire a bunch of new recruits and get some fresh ideas in the system.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Sammy Yatim: When is a Cop Justified in Using Fatal Force?

There's a "justification" piece in the National Post on behalf of the cop who shot Sammy Yatim.  It doesn't offer much to go on beyond that we shouldn't trust a brief video to tell the whole story.  But I asked a cop what he thought of the situation, and he gave me some astute points for consideration (liberally paraphrased from memory):

But it was just a little knife!

Stabbings kill far more than shootings.  One good jab with a 3" blade can do fatal damage.  Using pepper spray or a taser isn't going to cut it if someone's coming at you with a knife.  You have to stop them for sure.  Immediately.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Raising Gable Ends Alone

It's more physically demanding than raising kids alone, yet no less fraught with peril.

I'm just documenting my morning of partial success on my studio construction.  I was ecstatic to figure out all the angles for the gable end.  And it all fit perfectly - more or less.  But then how to get it up there on my own?  What if it falls on my head?  It's not that heavy, but it's awkward.  I took pictures to document it in case I died in the process!

Monday, July 29, 2013

On Liberty and Death

Does it have to be both?

One of the reasons I advocate for restrictions on personal freedom as a means to save our species from extinction is that I need my own behaviours to be externally regulated!  Intellectually, I can assess what I need from what I want - I think better than most even.  I'm usually at the tail-end of buying anything new - like a computer, which I got after many years of teaching and typing assignments on a typewriter.  I finally succumbed to the pressure to get a cellphone just three months ago.  The final blow was realizing that monthly costs for a cellphone are cheaper than for a landline.  Similarly with my car-avoidance - they're such a money-pit!  It's quite possible I'm more financially motivated than environmentally.   Even my solar panels are making me money.

And then there's this:

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Too Stupid to Live - Literally

Mound of Sound has a post at Disaffected Lib about the likelihood of doubling GHG by 2100.  If we don't do something very quickly and very intentionally, then, based on temperature projections from the 1970s on, we won't be able to live in this part of the world sixty years from now.  Most of Canada and the U.S. will be basically uninhabitable - not to mention most of the world.

I commented there:
We're no longer at a point where we need contests or incentives to get people to recycle more. We need concrete restrictions - corporate and individual. I'm all for personal freedom, but not if it's costing us our lives. For instance, we could save millions of trees from being cut down each year if we just made disposable cups illegal, forcing people to remember their travel mug or go home un-caffinated. Fuck roll-up-the-rim! And that doesn't have to be a slippery slope to totalitarianism, like I'm sure some will suggest. It'll be a difficult road for politicians to face, but it'll be far worse for us all if they wimp out.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

On Chomsky

I think everyone should read Chomsky. He’s brilliant, yet far less dense and inaccessible as some people think. He’s a different person than you or me – well, than me for sure. He has a wealth of knowledge and an astute analysis of events pretty much from the beginning of time to now all in his head and instantaneously available to him. I have to look up the word “hegemony” every time someone uses it. But he’s also very down to earth, which makes him all the easier to follow. Most importantly, he gives us a framework of the world necessary to understand in order to help us fight the good fight.

He’s written many books, and many others were compiled from his speeches. Below are ten common threads in his work taken from Understanding Power: The Indispensable Chomsky. (Page numbers are from the 2002 paperback edition.) The ideas here are abridged without all the evidence – you have to read the full 400-paged book for that and/or the footnotes.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

On Smoking and the Illusion of Concern

I took the kids to the beach on Sunday, and there's new signage everywhere about the problems with using the sand as an ashtray.  In hopes for a "butt-free beach," they included information on wildlife concerns, toxins, costs to taxpayers, and the level of pollution:  cigarette butts are the most common type of litter found on beaches.  But the signs didn't seem to affect anybody's behaviour because they didn't come with people actually patrolling the beach to offer friendly reminders much less tickets or anything more punitive.  Nor did they offer other options - like empty cups from the garbage half-full of sand for people use as ashtrays, then throw back in the garbage.  Nothing.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Can Animals Provoke Action?

Whenever I talk about atrocities around the world in class - slavery, oil spills, and the like, and I get the class to talk about what bothers them most or what most influences them to change, or get them to do a project on it, a good 70% of the class will focus on animals.  That could be in part to distance themselves from the effect all this has on people, but I think it's more likely that it because we actually care more about animals than people.   Animals are innocent, and people often suck.

via Forbes
In one class I showed real film footage of a 12-year-old girl being saved from almost being manipulated into prostitution slavery in the Ivory Coast, and footage of young girls working 16-hour days in factories in China.  How do we help kids like this?  Do boycotts work?  Does letter-writing work?  And the student response in that particular class was, more or less, "It's their own fault for being taken in by scams.  We shouldn't do anything to help them."  The class wasn't malicious, just so immersed in information about scams they can't imagine otherwise, and they're self-protecting by victim blaming.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Faith that the End is Near

In today's G&M, Jared Bland writes from a perspective I've been taking lately as well.
"Despite seeming reasonable in other areas of my life, I believe that we are quite likely living in or near the fabled end times....[I]t's becoming easier and easier to feel that the shadow hanging over us isn't just another massive rain cloud.  That it's something bigger, something worse.  And that it's moving in awfully quickly.....I'm convinced that things would be a lot better, were we to start to expect the end.  We fear it, we suspect it, but we need to embrace it....What if, instead of responding to disaster with kindness and support, we were just kind and supportive?   What if this were how we lived?.... [Living as if the end is nigh] allows us to think and feel and act in ways we otherwise might deny ourselves.  It encourages us to be more direct, more honest, more loving.  It says, in fact, that we must."

On Worry

There were many terrible things in my life and most of them never happened.” ―  Montaigne

At first I was worried about normal things.  Plane crashes.  Theft.   Okay, maybe kidnapping and prostitution rings entered my mind a little, but I get carried away sometimes.  It’s not that I don’t trust the people of Thailand and Cambodia.  I don’t trust anyone around a young woman in an unfamiliar country.  And I never trust airplanes. 

I dropped her at the airport in the wee hours, and we cried a bit.  That was unexpected.  Neither one of us is the emotional type.  But we were both tired and run-down from the prep work of travel.  It was enough to break our resolve.          

“You can have a few drinks on the plane now!”
“Nope.  Drinking age is 21 in the states and 20 in Thailand.”
“Well, have a quick one before you leave Canada then.”
“Before breakfast?”

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Educating the Differently-Abled

“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid." - widely attributed to  Albert Einstein but likely in error

I love writing essays.  Sometimes organizing my thoughts on paper is the only way I can actually figure out what I really think.  I've had many jobs in my life, but, unfortunately, none that required writing.  There are some jobs that necessitate advanced writing skills but precious few.  So I'm wondering why our education system is still so heavily geared towards essay-writing.  We use it as a marker of academic excellence, but perhaps that needs to change.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Blogger Rights and Responsibilities

I think of myself as a C-list blogger.  Sometimes I wander into B-list territory, but I'm largely unseen by the masses.  If I make it into the double digits on a post, it's pretty exciting.  I have two posts that made it into triple digits here - largely, I think, because they've caused disagreement and outrage.  One's about why I'm not fond of Eckhart Tolle - some commenters insist I'm just jealous of his success.   And the other is on why I don't like Regulation 274 and the way it was just added to the Education Act without discussion.  There, commenters are on both sides which makes for a better dialogue.  The rest of my posts have a limited audience.  

So I was floored when a company called to ask me to take down a blog post that's critical of them because it's adversely affecting their business.  I took it down and won't name them here just so they stop calling me to complain about my complaining!

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

On Monbiot's Manifesto

A just world is one in which the labour forces of all nations recognize that they can no longer evade their own problems by demanding the exploitation of other people.  (Manifesto, p. 245)

To be truly free...we must be prepared to contemplate revolution.  (Manifesto, p. 253)

Via The Guardian
It's been interesting to see the path Monbiot's taken to offer grand solutions to the problem of climate change - well, the problems inherent to human nature, really.  He offers a means to overthrow the current world-wide governmental system, then a means for an overseeing organization to dramatically reduce GHG production, then he goes off to the woods to explore the other side of the story.  I'm invigorated by his passion, but I'm dubious that any of it can possibly come to pass.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

An Unprecedented Emergency

The Guardian has an excerpt of Stephen Emmott's new book, Ten Billion, about the effects of overpopulation on the environment.  The situation is dire.  I haven't read the book, but in the excerpt he delineates that we're definitely in a state of unprecedented emergency.  Unfortunately he fails to offer any significantly radical ideas to follow that could actually happen to save us all.  Here's what Emmott says,
The only solution left to us is to change our behaviour, radically and globally, on every level. In short, we urgently need to consume less. A lot less. Radically less. And we need to conserve more. A lot more. To accomplish such a radical change in behaviour would also need radical government action. But as far as this kind of change is concerned, politicians are currently part of the problem, not part of the solution, because the decisions that need to be taken to implement significant behaviour change inevitably make politicians very unpopular – as they are all too aware....We urgently need to do – and I mean actually do – something radical to avert a global catastrophe. But I don't think we will. I think we're fucked.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

A Work-Out Rant

As soon as I was in my mid-30s, women everywhere started randomly looking me up and down and warning me that as soon as I hit 40, I'd have a much harder time with my weight.  It didn't happen at 40, but now, at 48, I see what they mean.  In part.

My body's shifted.  I weigh about the same, but it's all in different places.  My butt's flatter, my hips wider, and my belly rounder.  I've become much more square-shaped.  It's a big biological call-out to the world that I'm no longer baby-making material.  Thank god!  The biggest problem is that my jeans don't fit anymore.  I went up two sizes in a year.

But the part I don't get, is some people's insistence (men and women's) that this is a huge, foreboding problem.  I jumped on my bike, head down to the local Talize, and bought some bigger clothes.

Problem solved.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Animal Testing: What's wrong with education this time?

Okay it's really about our kids.  But this post was inspired, in part, by this cartoon gaining swift popularity:

There's a burgeoning rebellion against the way we teach.  I'm all for rebellion, but we have to figure out if we really want to overhaul the entire system or just tweak it a bit.  Too many people are ready to throw the baby out with the bathwater.  And not enough want to look beyond schools to other factors that might affect achievement.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Humans: Too Invasive or Too Compassionate to Survive

In my last post, and elsewhere over the years, I went all Agent Smith and suggested that humans are a virus that can't be contained. All other animals work within their environment to regulate their population.  As long as people don't mess things up by moving animals around (like bringing rabbits to Australia where they have no predators), animal populations decrease when food is scarce so their populations never reach overwhelming numbers.  Nature is amazing and everything can work so well if we let it.  But when human numbers rise, we just keep invading other places until we use up all the resources everywhere.  We're going to Mars now, for crying out loud!  It's just a matter of time before we kill off our host and die out ourselves.

But recent conversations in my class have me thinking of things from a different angle.

Maybe the problem isn't our invasiveness, but that we are too compassionate to allow people to just die the way those other, more callous animals do.  Because we have such big brains, and because we have mirror neurons that cause us to feel pain when we watch others suffer, we have found ways to help millions of people survive during famines.  And we can help sickly infants survive that wouldn't have stood a chance 20 years ago.  And we can keep elderly people going for a few more decades.  It's awesome!  Except now we're at seven billion people which might be too much for the earth to sustain.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Enviro-Optimists vs Doom-Mongers: Another Wentian False Dichotomy

Margaret Wente, in her latest discourse, thinks the reason the environment's being ignored is because of all the pessimists making us too depressed about it all.  She splits all environmentalists into two camps:
"But the biggest divide is really between the purists and the pragmatists, the pessimists and the optimists - between the McKibbernists, who believe we're on the brink of global catastrophe, and those who think human beings are more resourceful and the Earth is more resilient than the doom-mongers say they are."
And I ask:  Can't it be both??

Because it is.  Every environmentalist I know wavers between the two fronts or else the pessimists would just kill themselves or stay drunk all the time, and the optimists would stop fighting to be heard - AND, if optimists really believe it'll all come out in the wash, they wouldn't worry about how to frame their arguments to avoid shutting people off by being too depressing.  Follow?

This is all a lead-in to the new Rob Stewart film:  Revolution.  He walks that line all the way.  He clearly believes we're on the brink of catastrophe, but also that human beings are resourceful - that we will actually get our shit together in this generation.

Silence During Tragedy

I went to a history conference, and one of the PhDs at the front was talking about the common occurrence of silence during tragedy.  And, while those around me discussed WWII, and the Iran-Iraq war, and internment of the Japanese in Canada, I started thinking more about how uncomfortable people are talking about rape.

It all fit together for me largely because of a woman I once met, a friend's mom, who had lived in a concentration camp in Poland.  She had nine kids, and two were born there, while she was separated from her husband.  The guards routinely took women into their cabins.  But, she said, the difference between that time and place and now, is that when a woman came out of those cabins, the rest of the women were ready for her, with open arms and warm blankets and a soothing touch.  According to this smiling woman with only one good leg and numbers on her arm, rape couldn't be hidden there, so it was much, much easier to recover from.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

On Our Rape Culture: Rehtaeh Parsons' Unfortunate Legacy

And another one gone - a victim of assault and revenge porn enacted and filmed by a bunch of teenaged boys who had more power than they might have ever imagined:  they could kill from a distance.  As Elizabeth Renzetti says of these double-barrel assaults, they are, "not just an act of violence but a spectator sport."  And here we thought we had come so far from the bloodlust days of the Colosseum.

The act isn't dissimilar from torturing an animal and showing pictures to people.  It's a behaviour that is absolutely depraved.  Who looks at those types of visuals without looking differently at the goon who took them?  Unfortunately, they have enough of an audience that we need to be afraid.  For some people, their body responds to the visuals even if their brain might hope it didn't.  So clips are saved and circulated endlessly.

Circulating the film is also a mean of re-shaming the act.  After years of the rally cry, "Rape is a crime, not a shame!" some perpetrators are working hard to make people ashamed to be raped for obvious reason:  if they're embarrassed by it, they won't tell.  But Rehtaeh did tell.

Monday, April 8, 2013

When Men are Raped

A man was sexually assaulted by four women in Toronto, and the story is make the facebook rounds.  I hate to say "of course," but of course people think it's hilarious.  Here are some choice comments directly copied and pasted without names - but these were all written by men (or, I suppose, people posing as men):

"Lucky basturd!"
"Get any phone numbers?"
"Dayum...And I try to look suspicious to female security at an Airport just so I can get frisked."
"where is this club ? whats the cover charge ? will the women hurt you if you cant get it up?"
"lets give him a luckiest boy in the world medal"
"wierd stuff because most men would not complain unless they tried to cut it off or something"
"Jesus they were about 14 stone each .. fuck me poor guy like getting attacked by hippos , sure he would not of complained if they were of the smaller sized females either way hope they could of raped em I don't know what did they do put there finger up his ass so his cock went hard? Haaa"
"Is he bragging or Complaining?"
"Why do things like this never happen to me???????" 
My comment, in the middle of the fray and largely ignored:  "Wow. Rape is rape no matter the gender. If a guy isn't into it, then it's rape, and it's not fun or cool, and he's not lucky. It's an assault that can cause lasting emotional trauma - even for men."

Monday, April 1, 2013

On Boredom

 I'm not talking about the "nausea of ennui" discussed from Seneca ("many who judge life to be not bitter, but superfluous") to Sartre, that total lack of interest in anything that makes it difficult for some to get out of bed in the morning, but of that feeling that overcomes us when we are required to do something painfully tedious.

We often elevate simple boredom to the lofty realms of melancholia or depression, as if it's worthy of great sympathy and profound relief efforts, when a mere change of scenery (or attitude) can save the day. But often it's the word we use when we have unrewarding work to do.  It's a trapped feeling that we escape with any little thing we can - cat videos or video games - anything to avoid beginning.  And that's easily solved if we can just get on with it.  And sometimes the task is so repetitive, it takes all we have to get to the end of it - like marking 60 almost identical essays or tests.  We muscle through it to the end, sometimes rewarding ourselves with treats after every five papers to keep us alert and focused.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Undergrads: Underloved or Just Under Grads

An article in the G&M today expresses concerns with the "hookup culture" of university students.   There's a big fear that casual sex will create "a drastic divide between physical intimacy and emotional intimacy," and that people will see human bodies as disposable and "become incapable of creating 'valuable and real connections'."  The author goes on to quote researchers who have concerns about the quality of the sex as well.

I think there's a bigger problem that they've missed:  the connection between physical intimacy and emotional intimacy to begin with.  That fact that we see love primarily as a romantic connection between lovers, keeps intimacy from being part of less intense and exclusive relationships - even hookups.  We've created a false dichotomy between true love and nothing at all to the extent that some people, so concerned to clarify their lack of romantic intention, end up acting like jerks to partners in a  temporary encounter.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Seniority Does Not Always Equal Merit

The title is from a line in an essay published in Friday's Globe and Mail:  "I'm a First-Year Teacher Who Will Automatically be Fired at the End of the School Year."  The author of this unwieldly title laments the reality that, as a new teacher, s/he'll be first out the door over teachers who have been there longer, yet are clearly far less brilliant.  In the comments, people have been led to trash unions.  I don't think that's the real issue.

There are several problem with the author's arguments.  For instance, s/he claims that current teachers generally have only a B.A. whereas new teachers need two degrees.  With the exception of tech teachers, I think s/he must be thinking of a very long time ago - and most of that lot have long retired.  I've been teaching 22 years, and I had to have 5 years  of education with two degrees, and since starting, added several additional qualifications and a Masters.

Monday, March 11, 2013

On Teacher Accountability

One criticism that Cooper and friends say is part of the problem with education is a lack of teacher accountability.  I actually agree with this one.  But how do we assess teacher ability?  And, maybe a bigger problem, what do we do if we find some teachers below par?  This post was inspired by a twitter conversation with some fellow teachers  (Corbett, Dan, Scott, and Marcus), and I went all out to figure out what it would look like.  My goal over this break is to clean my house top to bottom and fix a ton of little things around this place, so I'm getting a lot of random writing done!

Thursday, March 7, 2013

On Hate Crimes and Sexual Orientation

I was reviewing for a test on theories of discrimination and hate crimes in Canada with grade 12 students, and one review question was, "When was sexual orientation added to the list of identifiable groups in the hate propaganda legislation in Canada?"

And the answers I got started in the 60s - 1968, 1969...  Then another bunch tried the 1980s and early 90s.  One group guessed 2005, and they were off by one.  Being victimized due to sexual orientation has only been seen as a hate crime since April 29, 2004.  Almost 9 years ago.

My first reaction was that it's... sweet? innocent?... somehow endearing that they believe we've been on this for decades - for them to believe that the justice system cared about this section of the population for that long.  They just haven't lived long enough to remember how bad it really was.  And it's a good thing that question wasn't on the test!

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Following Your Dreams or Living an Illusion?

Ken Robinson, Sir, you are killing me!  I know you probably didn't mean for people to interpret your words in a warped way.  Nobody does.  But that's what happens when you use several rare examples as if they are the norm and send people off to change the world.

Some of my students watched his TEDTalk - the most watched TEDTalk in all the land - and, likely because of it, came away with a firm position that if they're doing poorly, it's entirely because their teacher (me) isn't inspiring enough.  A good teacher with good curriculum - not at all like we have in the schools now - will be able to get absolutely anybody to achieve absolutely anything.

So it goes.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Regulation 274, Education Act of Ontario

I was just about to start a petition at Change.org about this, but, thanks to Angie Potts, there's one already there.  After, I'm guessing, about 5 day, it's got 415 signatures.  Please take two seconds to click on the link and sign it.

I wrote a letter to Liz Sandals, Minister of Education, and Kathleen Wynne, Premier, and Catherine Fife, my MPP.  But if walking to the mailbox is a chore on this beautiful Sunday afternoon, send a quick e-mail - the contacts are at the links.  You can copy and paste what I wrote if you're not up to creating today: