Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Pandemic is Near, Or May Be Here

Doctors, scientists, and other experts on global health have been predicting a major pandemic for several years. We average about three pandemics every century – and most experts agree we are long overdue for the one knocking on our doorstep.

All pandemics – repeat ALL PANDEMICS – are deadly. That’s one of the qualifications to calling something a “pandemic.”

We’ve already seen numerous deaths from the Swine Flu spreading out from patient zero in Mexico, to just about every continent on the planet. Yesterday, Canadian and American health officials said the infection rates would get worse, and we’d most likely see people die in both countries.

And we have – today in Canada’s largest city, a 29-year-old woman died from the Swine Flu. Just this past Monday, an infant – a mere 23-months-old – died in Texas from Swine Flu. The infant was the first person to die outside of Mexico from this fast-spreading bug.

Along with Canada, the States and Mexico, six other countries have confirmed cases of Swine Flu. They are Austria, Israel, Germany, New Zealand, Spain and the United Kingdom.

Today, we all came a step closer to fearing death, as the World Health Organization (WHO) raised its pandemic alert status to five – that’s the second highest level, the next level is a full-fledged global health disaster known as a “pandemic.”

We haven’t been this close to a pandemic ever – not even when Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) spun around our globe. Over 30-countries were hit by SARS, killing almost a thousand people, creating panic and chaos in towns, villages and cities where people were infected, and sinking the economies of those towns, villages and cities into the depths of recession, as people stayed home, fearing they would be the next SARS victim.

That’s one of the not often talked about victims of a pandemic – the economy. We’ve been in an economic downturn worse than the Great Depression – so we must logically be in a depression, if not worse already – but things will quickly go from horribly bad to gut wrenching worse if Swine Flu is the pandemic we’ve been expecting this century.

The last real pandemic was the Asian Flu Pandemic from 1957-1958. About four million people around the world died from this flu, which begun as a disease in wild ducks in Southern China, before mutating into the bug which eventually could infect human beings.

SARS came out of China, when a man ate an infected cat. Here in North America, we’d never think about eating an animal which we often invite into our homes, as one of our closest family members.

Other major global diseases which have sliced through our world from Asia include Avian Flu, which came out of Hong Kong in 1997, killing 257 people and Hong Kong Influenza which claimed about a million lives from 1968 to 1969.

China is a pandemic breeding ground, according to some experts, because of the living conditions, culture, and large population squished into geographically small areas.

But other countries have had their good names tarnished by winning the infamous prize of starting a pandemic. The Spanish Flu Pandemic of 1918 killed an estimated 20 to 100 million people, mostly in Europe. Some academics claim it actually started in Tibet, but this hasn`t been proved yet.

Then there was the Russian Flu in 1889, with a million deaths, which started in China . . . hey . . . there`s that country again.

Even the pandemic of pandemics – the Bubonic Plague – began in Asia. This is currently the world`s worst medical disaster, where over 25 million people died. It is said that 50 percent of Europe`s population was wiped-out from this disease, which was spread by infected fleas in the 14th to 17th century.

Maybe instead of focusing on Afghanistan, Iraq or a couple handfuls of Middle Eastern countries, our world leaders should be looking at China, Mexico and other countries which may be the breeding grounds for the next great plague?

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Not Knowing When to Leave the Party

In Canada’s biggest city, thousands of Tamil protesters just don’t know when to go home – literally. They began blocking a major downtown Toronto intersection this past Sunday evening, and have been there straight through Monday, and part of Tuesday.

The protesters – wanting to remain until Wednesday – are holding their peaceful protests in front of the American Consulate, on Toronto’s University Avenue. They want Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and U.S. President Barack Obama to publicly condemn what they call the genocide of thousands of Tamils, in a long standing war back in their homeland, that has lasted over two-decades.

Toronto Police Services are watching the situation, but haven’t taken any actions until today, as the protesters remain peaceful – they are just blocking traffic.

This isn’t the first time Tamil protests have impacted traffic in Toronto – this is one of many demonstrations we’ve seen over the past few weeks. All the protests have been peaceful, just a pain for those trying to commute in and around the area.

Regardless of their reasons for protesting, by continuing this extended protests, they are doing more harm than good.

In Canada, we enjoy the freedom to gather in public places, yell, stomp and scream in groups about many things we just don’t agree with. Many countries around the world lack the basic freedom of public protest.

However, once you’ve made your point, move on, and get on with your life. There is more to life than standing in the street, jumping on your soap box.

The longer the Tamil protesters stay, the less of a message they make, at the cost of being a huge public nuisance.

Pedestrian and vehicle traffic is affected, and the occasional fight has broken out among those in the area. Though for the most part – we must emphasize – the demonstrators have been peaceful.

But when you become a problem for the rest of the world walking by, just trying to live their lives, you the messages you wanted to originally get across become blurred and vanish, as everyone focuses on the negative impact on the public, instead of what the protest is all about.

It’s like that story, of the party guest that just doesn’t know when to go home. Everyone at the party has long since gone, but that one person, despite the host’s not-so subtle hints, remains. Eventually, fed up and tired, the polite party host bursts out, asking the guest to go home.

I think it is time we ask the Tamil protesters to go home – just like the party guest in the tale above – they have overstayed their welcome.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Latest Economic Victim – Scruffy and Fluffy

Last week in Canada’s largest city, ten recently born kittens were found in a plastic grocery bag in an ally way. The abandoned newborns were only a few days old. Most still had their eyes closed, and some even still had their umbilical cords attached.

I’m more a dog lover than a cat lover, but any helpless animal left abandoned is sadistic, only someone truly evil would do such a thing.

The cute baby cats were taken in by the city’s Humane Society, and have fully recovered. They are even nursing from adoptive mother cats in the shelter.

This isn’t the first time something like this has happened. Last month, a dog was found in a dumpster in Toronto, wrapped in a plastic bag. The dog was treated by the local Humane Society, and recently was adopted by a caring family.

Uncaring people, or heartbroken ones, giving up someone they love?

The Detroit News recently reported an unprecedented number of abandoned cats and dogs, due directly to our global economic disaster. The American paper says these pets are being found in foreclosed homes, dumpsters and parking lots across the city. The paper also says more people are bringing their pets to shelters, because they’ve lost their jobs and just can’t afford them anymore, or because they’ve lost their house, and are moving to an apartment which doesn’t allow pets.

Regardless of the reasons people have for giving up a member of their family, anyone who simply leaves a pet behind, in a dumpster, or anywhere else it shouldn’t be left, is a horrible human being.

It can’t be easy to give up someone you love. I’ve had dogs before and I can honestly say I loved them. Granted, it isn’t the same kind of love you have for your significant other, but it is a strong bond, no weaker than any other feelings you’d have for an immediate family member.

Dogs, cats, rabbits, hamsters, even fish can and do grow on you. We bring in these cute creatures into our homes, feed them, play with them, and watch them grow – sounds a lot like raising a child doesn’t it?

Could you imagine the outcry if babies were suddenly left in dumpsters? Or what if children were being taken far away, and then abandoned?

The police would be called in right away, and there would be a search for the caregivers responsible for those children, so that criminal charges could be laid.

There are criminal charges which can be laid against people for abusing animals, and if those who left the baby kittens are ever found, they could face some stiff fines and jail time.

But the real problem here is the growing lack of concern for our loved ones – even if they walk on all fours, and occasionally cough up a fur ball or two.

Surely there must be a better way to resolve some of the pain of the global depression, other than abandoning a member of the family – especially these ones, as our pets just can’t fend for themselves.

No one wants to lose their home, but if you must go to an apartment, try to find one that allows pets. Actually, in most cities in Canada, it is illegal to be refused a rental apartment because of a domesticated pet. The only way a landlord can legally ask you to get rid of the pet, is if the animal is having a negative impact on others in the building, such as constantly barking at or biting others. Check with your local municipalities landlord tenant regulations to learn how you can respond to landlords that refuse to rent to you, because of your pet.

If you must give up your pet, try to find a loving and caring home for him or her. Try your family and friends, maybe someone you already know, and who knows your pet, would be more than willing to take your pet for you. This is good for the animal, as he or she probably already is familiar and used to this person. And, when you get back on your feet, you might be reunited with your long lost family member.

If you can’t find someone you know to take your pet, place an ad in the local paper, on the Internet, or even at the local community centre, school, or grocery store. Maybe there is someone in your community who always wanted a dog or a cat, but never got around to getting one?

As a last resort, take your pet to the local shelter for adoption. Shelters in Canada mimic the ones in the States, so they are bound to be getting full. The American Humane Association recently estimated that with 8,000 American houses going into foreclosure every day, between 15,000 and 26,000 pets are in danger of losing their homes daily.

But a shelter – as crowded as it may be – is still a far better solution than simply wrapping up your pet in a plastic bag, and leaving him or her for dead in some dumpster. And that essentially is what you are doing, if you just abandon your pet – leaving him or her for dead.

And no living thing should ever be treated so inhumanely.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Mexican SARS?

The Public Agency of Canada is investigating something mirroring the horrific SARS pandemic which criss-crossed the globe in 2003.

Healthy adults between the ages of 25 and 44 that travelled to Mexico, appear to be suffering from a severe respiratory illness upon their return to Canadian soil.

Medical experts in Mexico and here in Canada aren’t sure what it is, and they are advising the public not to worry, despite the similarities to the dreaded SARS outbreak.

Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) infected 8,096, killing 774 of those infected, in 37 countries around the world, in 2003, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

Just like SARS, where a handful of people died, prompting an investigation, 20 people have died in Mexico due to this respiratory illness. Also as with SARS, health care workers treating people with the new infection from Mexico have also become sick. Hundreds of Mexicans have been sent to hospital, some ending up on ventilators – sounds just like another SARS.

The symptoms start out like any flu, but rapidly deteriorate to sever breathing difficulties within five-days. The symptoms are:
  • Fever
  • Cough
  • Sore Throat
  • Muscle and Joint Pain
  • Shortness of Breath

Medical experts – the same ones telling us not to panic – say it could be a severe form of influenza (the flu), but they still don’t really know what it is, and are still testing it.

And that is the real concern – when SARS first hit Canada and much of the world, medical experts told us not to panic.

One really should never panic, but shouldn’t medical advisors be advising us more as to what to do to prevent the spread of the latest deadly infection, rather than emphasizing the “don’t panic” plan?

Granted, these experts may not know what to do. They are advising us to do what is just common sense – always wash our hands before touching our face, and especially when preparing food or eating.

But then again, that was the advice that came out early on in the SARS crisis, and as it turned out, all the hand washing in the world wouldn’t prevent it from spreading. SARS was spread in the air, so just breathing in the same air as someone infected could make you sick.

It is not known yet if this new infection out of Mexico is an airborne illness – if it is, we could be looking at another major outbreak.

According to the Public Health Agency of Canada, if you get sick when you’re out of the country, you are supposed to report it to the custom’s officer when you arrive, and see your doctor right away.

All doctors in Canada have been made aware of this new infection from Mexico, and are being kept in the loop on the latest treatments.

So far, the Canadian government has not issued any travel advisories for Mexico, but if I was going on vacation to some sunny hotspot, I’d probably avoid one where people are getting sick by some mystery ailment.

Friday, April 24, 2009

The It Can’t Happen to Me World of Big Business

Yesterday in Canada’s biggest city, retired autoworkers from Chrysler and General Motors gathered downtown, and sang and danced, hoping the government would listen to their pleas.

The former autoworkers protested in front of Queen’s Park in downtown Toronto, begging the provincial government to step in and fund their pensions, should either of their former employers go bankrupt.

You’d have to be buried under a really large rock to not know about the global economic crisis, but come on – not another government bailout request – please!

It is horrible when companies let people go and just as bad when companies go bust. However, it isn’t the role of government to consistently pick up the pieces when these things happen.

Governments can – and do – put programs in place to re-train and re-educate people displaced by layoffs. So those comfy middle-class blue collar workers that kept putting the same screw on the same bolt, on the same production line, for the same automaker for over 25-years and don’t know how to do anything anywhere else, they can learn to do something else, somewhere else.

Though one can also argue that those too lazy to learn, develop and grow on their own, to constantly improve themselves, their career and maybe their bank book, brought their own problems onto themselves.

Then again, when you work for a massively large corporation like General Motors, chances are the thought that one day your employer will go bust, leaving you naked in the wind, just doesn’t happen.

It is like working for IBM, Coke-a-Cola, Microsoft or any of a handful of mega-large businesses. Those who work for these companies develop a mindset commonly associated with teenagers. The mindset is: “it can’t happen to me.”

Teenagers are the ultimate risk takers. They are young, energetic, and so far removed from the painful realities of life, that they often think “it can’t happen to me.”

We warn teenagers about – say – the risks of drinking and driving. That it’s not only dangerous to get behind the wheel if you’ve had something to drink, but it’s just as dangerous to get into a vehicle with someone who’s had something to drink.

Still, every year, hundreds of teens across North America die from motor vehicle accidents where alcohol is found to be a contributing factor to the crash.

Most of us outgrow the “it can’t happen to me” mindset as we age. When we’re young and don’t know any better, it really isn’t a good excuse. But when you are an adult and should know better, the “it can’t happen to me” excuse is the weakest one possible.

We all live in the economy, and we all know about its ups and downs. These are not new things.

Our economy has been a cyclic one long before Marx and Engels wrote their manifesto on Communism over 162-years ago. Even if you’ve never read that manifesto – which explains the nature of markets, and supply and demand – just by being alive, you are involved in the market, and should know better than, “it can’t happen to me.”

So, those working for big corporations, despite the constant ups and downs in the global economy, get cozy. And despite seeing their colleagues, friends and maybe even their family suffer, they think: “it can’t happen to me.”

However, “it can’t happen to me” is not an excuse worthy of taxpayer bailouts.

“It can’t happen to me,” would never hold up in a legal court – and certainly not in the court of public opinion – for a drunk driver. So why should we accept it for current or past employees of big businesses that bomb?

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Earth Day from Space Teaches Us A Little Humility

Every April 22 newscasts show smiling politicians in designer blue jeans, work boots and work gloves, getting dirty picking up trash.

This has become an Earth Day ritual, as politicians show us just how environmentally-friendly they really are, as they spend the whole day doing photo ops for the press, picking up trash, sorting recyclables, planting trees, and many other “green” activities.

Granted, since the rise of the environmental movement from the fringes in the 1970’s to the mainstream in the 1980’s, politicians have debated and deployed policies which really are good for the environment. Just about every major city in North America has some sort of curb-side recycling program, and many even have curb-side composting programs – just to name a couple of the big “green” initiatives politicians have helped put in place.

Many companies have also jumped in on the environmental bandwagon, creating whole product lines dedicated to promoting the health of our environment. From “green” soaps that are phosphate-free, to recycled paper products for everything from writing on, to wiping your bum.

The whole environmental movement has come a long way since its initial beginnings in the protest movements of the late 1960’s. During the anti-war protests during the Vietnam War of the 1960’s, many took up the cause to protect our planet Earth. Environmental groups began to appear in the 1970’s. By the time of the 1980’s, acid rain, overfilling landfill sites, and droughts causing major famines in far-flung places like Ethiopia were regular events making headlines in the news.

The “me” generation of the 1980’s built momentum for the environmental movement – acid rain was damaging cars, overflowing garbage dumps meant new landfill sites had to be found – and that started the ultimate “me” generation anti-environmental movement known as NIMBY – Not In My Back Yard.

But you really can’t possibly understand the importance of Earth Day, unless you really appreciate how delicate our planet Earth really is – as much of what we have today is still based on NIMBY.

Often in this blog, I’ve referred to our home as “planet Earth,” with good reason. Aside from the obvious – that we live on a planet, named “Earth” – I do this to emphasize just how fragile our home is.

Astronauts are the lucky ones that get the whole “planet Earth” message best, because they see first-hand just how frail our home really is.

“Our planet is our spaceship,” said Sandra Manus, a NASA astronaut who just came back to planet Earth after a four-and-a-half month stay aboard the International Space Station. “It looks very fragile from here, and it’s very easy to take it for granted when we’re living on it, when it seems so big and so massive. But it’s not, it’s very small and very fragile.”

Astronomers, scientists and every day home-based viewers with eyes to the sky constantly are amazed at just how big our galaxy is, and how many other galaxies there are in space – each with their own planetary systems, stars, asteroid belts, and other phenomenon found naturally in the depths of space.

But the real lesson in humility comes when you think, as many astronauts such as Manus have, that despite the vastness of space, planet Earth – our home – is the only object in space where we can live.

Until we develop technology to blast us to the outer reaches of our own galaxy, or have a way to colonize a planet, moon, or other celestial body in our own solar system, the only place human beings have to live is right here on planet Earth.

Earth from space appears as a giant blue-green ball, surrounded by the eerie glow of our atmosphere, in a dark forbidding ocean of black space. The first astronauts to see this were the Apollo 8 astronauts, snapping the now iconic image of the Earth rising over the moon, in 1968.

If only we had the technology to put everyone in space, even if it was just for the briefest of moments, so that we all had the opportunity to see our home, planet Earth. If this was possible, Earth Day wouldn’t be spent watching politicians doing their token “green” deed for the media. Instead, we’d all have a greater understanding of what Earth Day really is about, because we’d all know just how important our home, planet Earth is to our very survival.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation Needs Serious Overhaul

Across Canada, lotteries are run by provincial government ministries. In Ontario – the largest province in Canada – it is the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation – or OLG for short.

Yesterday, the OLG announced what has been all too common from the provincially-run crown corporation – a mistake affecting the outcome of their lotteries.

Your chances of winning the lottery are slim to none at best, but when the government owned and operated company continues to make major mistakes, you might as well give up completely.

The most recent gaffe? The OLG printed bogus tickets. During what the OLG claims as “routine computer maintenance” the computer printed the wrong date on 92 tickets. Though if the maintenance was routine, the question remains, how come these tickets got sent out and sold in the first place?

Though I suppose the OLG is learning from every mistake it makes. Last time this happened – yes it has happened before – it almost cost the OLG thousands.
Last January a steelworker took the OLG to court, saying he had a ticket from a Fruit Smash game which said he had won $135,000 – but the OLG claimed the ticket was one of their misprints. The steelworker received an undisclosed settlement for the error.

Problems at the OLG have gone on long enough to make the province’s whole lottery system questionable.

In December 2007, the OLG had to dish out over $1.4 million each to four people after a retailer allegedly claimed the jackpot himself three-years earlier.

A report in 2006 by the province’s ombudsman slammed the OLG for what the report called a high percentage of prizes being claimed by retailers selling the lottery tickets. This forced the OLG to change the rules to protect consumers, but the goofs from OLG just keep coming.

Last month, the OLG was in the hot seat – again – because they chose to give away 22 German-made Mercedes Benz cars as casino prizes. Not that there is anything wrong with German made cars, but as the domestic automobile sector continues to tank, you’d think governments would try to bolster their local economies, by purchasing domestic vehicles.

We all make mistakes – that is just part of being human. But when the mistakes are more common than anything else, it is time to clean house and start over.

Those within the OLG that have been continuously costing the provincial corporation its image – and tax payer dollars – by making these mistakes, should be let go and replaced with more responsible people. Leaving those in place who just aren’t cutting it is just irresponsible.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Canada’s Do Not Call List – A Work In Progress

When the Canadian government launched a Do Not Call List last September, the response from Canadians was so great, the website to sign up crashed.

Telemarketers – those pesky people that call you at home, just as you are about to bite into that delicious dinner, watch your favourite show on television, or simply crawl into bed for some much needed shut-eye – are not allowed to call you if you have listed your phone number on the Do Not Call List (DNC).

That is, so long as the telemarketers are calling from here in Canada. Although the telephone network is global, the Canadian Radio Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), the federal department which manages the DNC, can only extend its long arms of telecommunications law across Canada.

Thanks to call centres being outsourced by many large companies to third-world countries, telemarketers still may call you, even if you’ve registered your phone number on the DNC.

There are also provisions in the law, allowing companies which you have had any form of business relationship with for a year, to still try to sell you their products and services over the phone, even though you may be listed on the DNC.

And, in a classic gesture to keep the CRTC from biting the hand that feeds it, the DNC has a provision allowing politicians fundraising for their political parties to solicit funds from people, even those listed on the DNC.

Then the whole privacy issue comes up – just how well does the CRTC manage all the private personal information it collects to manage the DNC? There have been concerns raised over the use and disclosure of this information, as there have been recently with other provincial and federal government bodies.

So, almost a year since the DNC was introduced, and over 6.7 million registered telephone numbers later, how well has the DNC been working?

A survey released last month by the Marketing Research and Intelligence Association claims the DNC is about 80 percent effective in reducing unwanted sales calls.

Though some 13 percent said the number of unwanted telemarketers calling them had increased. Western parts of the country were hit harder, with one in four people surveyed saying they get more calls since registering on the DNC. That’s double what Ontario and Quebec residents surveyed said, about being registered on the DNC.

At the root of the problem is enforcement – the CRTC did a great job creating the backbone infrastructure to maintain and manage the DNC database. It is relatively painless and almost idiot-proof to register your phone number, by going to this website:

However, when it comes to following-up with companies that still try to pester people with their sales pitches, despite being listed on the DNC, the CRTC didn’t place enough people on the job. There have been complaints that it takes too long and involves too much effort for the often slap-on-the-wrist penalties for those companies breaking the law.

Still, some protection is always better than none – so it makes sense to register your number in the DNC registry.

And the CRTC is trying to make things better. Today, they extended the ban on calling registered numbers in the DNC from three to five-years. That means, if you register a phone number today, it remains active on the DNC for five-years.

Still, if the CRTC isn’t able to really enforce the DNC list, it doesn’t matter how long numbers remain active on the DNC. It is like posting speed limits on the highway, but not having any police patrolling that highway – people will speed, just as telemarketers will continue to call.

Maybe the next improvement the CRTC makes will not just improve the DNC, but Canada’s economy as well – by posting a job for enforcement officers for the DNC. Politicians are struggling to find ways to get people working during these sad economic times – looks like that would be a good place to start.

The poll was conducted by the Harris-Decima Group, in which 2,035 adults were contacted Jan. 29 to Feb. 15. The poll is considered accurate to within 2.2 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

Monday, April 20, 2009

The Greatest Living Mind Very Ill

Stephen Hawking – quite possibly the most notable scientist currently alive – was taken to Addenbrookes Hospital in Cambridge, MA, and is “very ill” according to colleagues.

A scientist, author and television personality the 67-year-old is one of the most famous intellectuals on the planet. Best known for his book “A Brief History of Time” which explores the origins of the universe in non-scientific-speak.

Best known as a physicist, he’s also very well respected as a cosmologist, astronomer and mathematician. One of his current pet projects involves the origins of the universe, and unravelling the mystery of dark matter. For years, scientists thought space was just that – big voids of nothingness, with planets, moons, stars, asteroids, and other celestial matter speckled throughout. Turns out, all those big voids of nothing may actually be something – dark matter. It is within this new discovery that the true origins of the universe may be revealed, telling us not only how life here on Earth began, but giving us insight into whether or not it is possible that there are other planets like ours, which may have beings very much like ourselves living there.

Recognized by millions around the world by his quick-wit and his computerized voice with an American accent, the wheelchair-bound Hawking has suffered from Lou Gehrig’s Disease (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis or ALS) since being diagnosed in his twenties. Although the disease is typically fatal after three-years, Hawking has led a remarkable life with the disease for over 40-years.

The disease has left him paralyzed, being able to only move a few fingers on one hand. He is completely dependent on technology or others for much of what most of us take for granted, including bathing, dressing, eating, and speaking.

Despite his dependencies, he’s made amazing strides in the scientific community, with his brilliant theories, which have ignited discussion and debate about the meaning of life. His writings have brought these complex mathematical and scientific theories to everyone, as he has often written in layman’s terms, so that anyone can reflect and wonder where we came from, and why we are here.

His appearances on television include a guest spot on “Star Trek: The Next Generation” where he wins a poker game, playing against Sir Isaac Newton and the show’s android character Lt. Cmdr. Data. He’s also been on other science fiction shows, including the BBC’s “Red Dwarf,” and FOX’s “Futurama,” and has had several cameo roles on other popular shows, including “The Simpson’s,” “Late Night with Conan O’Brien,” and “Alien Planet.”

Hawking’s comfort with the media and ease of converting complex theories into easy-to-understand language are perhaps his greatest gifts to us all – as he’s opened up the origins of where we came from and why we are here, to everyday people like you and me.

Hawking has been married and divorced twice, has three children and one grandchild.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Go Out and Get a Little Fresh Air

Today was an incredibly beautifully awesome spring – almost summer-like day. The sun was shining brightly across a brilliant light blue sky, dotted with the occasional speck of cloud. On warm, sunny days like today – it is 18C as I write this – many have often wished they could work outside.

It’s too nice to be stuck in a stuffy office, where the windows don’t even open, many have thought – possibly even you. I know I have – I’ve even on occasion thought about tossing a chair through those hermetically sealed windows, but I haven’t.

Enough thinking, and time for doing – today I took my laptop outside and began my daily work routine truly mobile. I had access to the network and the Internet thanks to the wireless high-speed network.

I wanted to do some real work, completely wirelessly – for years we’ve had the technology, but can it be done.

Is it possible to do office work, sans office?

Truthfully, for the first 20 or 30-minutes, I probably didn’t get a whole lot done. I was too excited, too enthralled, too mesmerized by the fresh air, the sunshine, and all the natural distractions around me. I could hear traffic from the street below, the birds from way high up, and wait . . . what’s that smell? Fresh air! There’s something we sadly miss in our hyperbolic ultra-enclosed cubicle worlds.

Eventually, as the wonder wore off, I began working. It wasn’t all that hard at first, checking and responding to emails, re-tooling an image in PhotoShop, and hammering out this blog in Word.

But then came the sun. In all it’s brilliance and warmth, the sun came a beaming down upon me and my laptop. It was nice to be immersed in the warmth of nature’s most powerful light source, but my laptop’s LCD screen almost vanished.

I tilted the screen way forward, but then it was too dark. After tilting it way back, and playing with the brightness and contrast levels, I was able to see the screen again. But they weren’t representing the true colors of the world, as I had to really lower those levels to make the screen visible in the bright sunlight.

As the direction of the sun changed throughout the afternoon, I had to constantly change the angle and levels of my LCD screen. These changes were more of a nuisance than anything else, and probably had to be changed every 45-minutes or thereabouts.

The further back I had to tilt the LCD screen, the less comfortable I was reading off the thing. And finding my mouse cursor at times was like finding Waldo – you know he’s there somewhere, but where?

After four-hours, I was unable to change the levels or the angle of the LCD screen enough to compensate for the brilliant sunlight. No matter which way I moved the screen, or adjusted the levels, the sun still shone too brightly for me to see it. I tried changing my sitting position, moving my seat to a completely different spot. But this just complicated matters and made it even harder make out what was on the screen.

So, I powered down the laptop, packed it up and came back inside.

It was nice getting some much needed fresh air, and working in a different environment from the typical one. And, I even managed to avoid the usual distractions you typically get from colleagues stopping by.

Ironically, one of the very reasons I went outside was the cause of my early return – the sun. As brilliant a light it is, and as pleasant it is to bask in its warmth, the sun was just too bright for my LCD to handle.

Yes, it is possible to work outside in our wireless world, but only for a limited time, or in shaded spot, away from the sun’s rays. It demands a bit more focused attention to get things done at first, but that may not be always the case, after you get used to working in the great outdoors.

And depending on your laptop and the applications you are running, you may have less time outside than you need. The more processor-heavy applications will use greater computing power, and in turn drain your laptop’s battery faster.

Working outside to check and respond to emails, type documents in Word, or even create presentations in PowerPoint are all fine. But once you start to edit photos in PhotoShop, develop web pages in Dreamweaver, or even attempt to edit a video in Premier, you’ll be using so many processor-heavy applications, you will seriously limit the time you can spend outside. That and of course the brightness of the sun and it’s affect on your ability to see the screen.

Overall, I found this to be a great experience, and I look forward to taking the occasional timeout from working indoors, to enjoy working outdoors.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Presidential Bobble Head Released Too Soon

American politics is often more colourful than our Canadian-home grown variety. Just compare our Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, to American President Barak Obama, and you’ll see quite a contrast in character, and popularity.

They even have action figures and bobble heads of the recently sworn-in American leader. While doing some window shopping the other day, I happened to see a sight which I’m still not sure how to react too.

I saw the President Barak Obama bobble head. It is a dignified – or at least as dignified as you can get in a bobble head – miniature of the man, in a sleek and stylish tux, with his face forming the trademark over-sized head.

The back of the box for this toy tells the story of how President Obama grew up, to become the first black president of the United States. Very patriotic, and if it wasn’t for the silliness of the whole thing, emphasized by the constant swaying of the giant head, I’d be impressed.

I can imagine kids waking up for Christmas, ripping open their presents, and jumping for joy at their own President Obama bobble head. Now they can all pretend to be the 44th president of the United States of America.

Today, action figures were released of President Obama, and his wife, the first-lady Michelle Obama. They even have a special effect built-in, you can pump up their muscles, by pressing a button which fills them with air.

Maybe I don’t venture into toy stores enough these days, but I don’t remember ever seeing Canadian prime minister bobble heads, or action figures.

I guess Prime Minister Brian Mulroney – despite doing an Irish jig with then U.S. President Ronald Regan in the 1980’s – just wasn’t bobble head material? And maybe Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau just was too direct for a kid’s toy, he did tell reporters to go f**** themselves on more than several occasions.

Though I don’t know why our current prime minister isn’t an action figure, he’s already managed to lead by misleading his way through not one, but two prematurely called federal elections with exactly the same results. Surely that calls for some sort of toy in his image? If not a bobble head, or action figure, maybe a Pez dispenser – though with all the dirty words flung around Parliament Hill these days, it probably wouldn’t be Pez which came out.

The real irony in seeing all these cool toys come out based on the American president is that although President Obama promises many wonderful things to come, he’s still too new in his job to have delivered on any of those promises.

Yes, he’s passed his economic recovery plan, begun the long and painful process of closing Guantanamo Bay, and has pledged to help various industries and sectors – most famously the auto industry – with government seed money to make it through the economic depression.

However, all of these – and many more of his programs – are still in the infancy of just getting started. We won’t know the results, good or bad, for some time.
Should we really be making President Obama into an action figure, before we even know if he’s one of the good guys – like G.I. Joe, or one of the bad guys – like the evil Scorpio?

President Obama’s leadership is historical, in the sense that he’s the first non-white leader of the States. This shows a much needed progression away from racism, bigotry and other forms of prejudice in that country.

But the real measure of any great leader isn’t by his or her victory at achieving the leader’s role, it is measured in the end, by what he or she did while running the show.

I think I’ll hold off getting my President Obama bobble head doll until I know a little more about how good, or bad, his leadership was for the States, for Canada, and for the world overall.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

iPhone Isn’t the Smartest Phone

I remember when Steve Jobs did one of his famous rants about how the iPhone would revolutionize the mobile lifestyle we enjoy today. Dressed in his trademark black, on a stage in front of technological savvy Apple worshipers, he went on about how his soon-to-be released iPhone would be the must have gadget, because it could do so much more than any other phone.

Jobs was right, and Apple’s iPhone still is one of the coolest little gizmos I’ve seen, not just because of the technology it comes with, but because it opened up a whole new niche market where companies could create applications for use on this tiny metallic box.

Third-party applications allow people to check their Facebook from their iPhone, locate the nearest Italian restaurant, even make the occasional phone call – imagine, a phone that lets you still make a call!

Joking aside, smart phones have come a long way, thanks to the iPhone. Prior to the iPhone, you had to rely on the usually cheesy applications with limited use provided by either the phone’s manufacturer or your mobile carrier.

Despite all the iPhone’s smarts, the designers gave it a dumb design – especially if you live in cold and wet climates.

There have been numerous complaints about the inability to operate the iPhone while wearing gloves – the phone just doesn’t want to respond to big bulky fingers I suppose.

That’s more of a nuisance than anything else, just take off your gloves and there ya go – problem solved.

However, a more costly problem arises with the iPhone and moisture. Common sense tells us that most mobile electronic devices and water don’t mix. Just ask anyone who has accidentally left their cell phone in their pants pocket, and then washed those pants.

To protect our mobile phones, most have a moisture sensor in them, which will activate and disable key components upon reaching a critical level of moisture. For most mobile phones, these moisture sensors are located in a compartment buried beneath the battery. This makes sense, as the last thing your mobile phone can tolerate, is a wet connection between it and its power cell. Also, the battery itself offers some primitive protection, sort of like a thick umbrella of sorts.

Not so with the iPhone – it’s moisture sensor is located just inside the headphone/earphone port. Although I’m sure that’s a bad spot for water to enter as well, it’s so readily accessible that even the smallest molecule of moisture will activate the sensor, and shut off key features.

These key features include the ability to use the speaker, even the ability to turn on or off the phone, though some have resolved this by severely shaking it.

Once the moisture sensor goes off, the only way to really fix it is to send it off to Apple to be repaired. Apple will repair it; they value your business and want you to enjoy the benefits of their iPhone. But that repair will cost you – under the terms of it, and most mobile phone manufacturers, water damage isn’t covered by your warranty.

This isn’t a problem for most mobile users, because in order to set off the moisture sensor, you really have to have dropped your phone in water – like a sink, a toilet, or even a puddle from a rainstorm.

But because of the poor design of Apple’s iPhone, the sensor will go off simply from a bead of sweat from your hands – this actually happened when a person plugged in an earphone, while at the gym.

This is ironic and sad, because the whole point of our mobile society is to have the freedom to use these electronic gadgets in our daily lives. Yes, if you accidentally drop the thing in the toilet, it’s your own fault for using it there – I hate it when people talk on their phones while in the bathroom.

But sweat is a part of life, you don’t even have to be at the gym to work up a sweat. It could have just been a hot summer’s day, and you wanted to make a call. And when you can’t make a call on a hot summer’s day – away from the pool and other bodies of water – just how smart is this “smart” phone?

Monday, April 13, 2009

GM’s EV1 Could Have Saved It From Today’s Money Woes

Most North American automakers are hyping their hybrids these days. As the global depression continues to worsen – statistics show we lost over 61,000 jobs last month here in Canada – everyone is looking at cheaper ways to live.

That and the high price of gas, mean instead of selling the sex appeal of a shiny red sports car, the raw power of a 4X4, or the amount of leg room in a mini-van, car companies are selling economical realities – mainly fuel efficiency.

You can see how very deep we`ve fallen into this global depression. Towards the end of last year – some five-months ago – these very same car companies were selling safety. They knew we were in an economic crunch, so sex appeal, speed and size weren’t the focus of their ads.

Now that they really are desperate for your business, they are going right for your bank book – claiming you`ll save money by driving a hybrid.

Hybrid vehicles use a combination of gas and electronic engines to drive them. While motoring along at low speeds in big city traffic (usually under 40KM/Hour) the electric engine silently powers the vehicle. Anything faster and you’re still using the standard gasoline-based engine. The electronic component is powered by a series of batteries, which are charged while driving the vehicle at higher speeds – when the vehicle is using the gas engine.

Hybrids do save money, because they save fuel costs. You won’t spend as much money at the gas pump driving a hybrid as you would if you were driving a non-hybrid, regular vehicle.

However, you’d save even more money on fuel if you didn’t have to pay for it at all.


Back in the 1990’s General Motors test-launched their first fully electric car in Southern California. The General Motors EV1 was the world’s first completely rechargeable electric vehicle. These cars were small, and sleek, and could simply be plugged into an electrical outlet to be charged.

When GM first test-launched the EV1 in 1996, it was an instant hit. Thousands of people signed up for a chance to test drive the world’s cleanest and most efficient vehicle, built by one of the largest companies in the world. Only a handful was given the opportunity, and all those who had them gave them very positive reviews.

GM allowed those in the test group to lease the vehicles for a maximum of two-years. At the end of the lease, GM collected the car – unlike most leases where you have the option of buying out the remaining value of the car, or even re-leasing it, GM took the car back. Most of those in the test group didn’t want to lose their cool electronic car, begging GM to reconsider. But in the end, all but a couple EV1s were destroyed. Those that were left have been altered so that they no longer function, but can be displayed in museums.

Originally, they had a limited range of 96 to 112KM (60 to 70 miles) on a single charge, but they were improved and eventually could travel 177KM to 257KM (110 to 160 miles) on a single charge. One of the engineers that created the original battery went on record to say that they could even go up to 482KM (300 miles) on a single charge, if they incorporated some of the technology from lithium ion batteries. Lithium ion batteries aren’t uncommon, they are the same type powering the laptop this blog is being written on today.

Clearly, the distance one could travel in the GM EV1 weren’t an issue – even the initial low range of 96KM (60 miles) per charge is below the average most Canadian’s travel in a typical day between home and work and back home.

Remember, this was back in the 1990’s, during the George W. Bush reign in the White House, and long before our current economic woes.

President George W. Bush – a former oil tycoon – and his administration was said to have placed a lot of pressure on GM to kill the EV1 project. Bush had the might not just of the American government behind him, but also the rest of the oil and gas industry, which would lose millions if people stopped buying their products.

Time shift to present day, and GM just announced the layoffs of over 50 engineers at their Oshawa, Ontario plant – they have already laid off thousands of employees worldwide. The company’s shares dropped so much today, that the constant talk of bankruptcy is looking to be more than just talk – General Motors, the largest automaker in the world may actually go bankrupt.

Yet GM, along with Chrysler and Ford, are hoping their hybrid vehicles will save them in this brutal economy.

Had GM not scrapped the EV1, they’d be in a far better position than they are today, because they could offer their customers real economic savings and something the oil and gas executives don’t want you to have – choice. We’re forced to rely solely on the oil and gas industry to power our travel. You can’t choose to buy an electric – or any other alternative fuel-powered vehicle – anywhere. Everything on the road is powered by some form of petroleum.

But instead of being on the leading edge of technology, catering to the real needs of their customers for fuel efficiency, they dropped the ball and are begging governments around the world for loans to stay in business.

Yes, the big scary American government and oil and gas tycoons had a part to play in this story. But it was GM’s product, GM’s research and GM’s innovation which made the first fully electronic car possible. So, in the end, the blame falls squarely on GM, for failing to take advantage of that product, research and innovation.

Had GM continued the EV1 project in the 1990’s, it probably wouldn’t be on the brink of bankruptcy today. Like the invention of the mini-van by Chrysler in the 1980’s which saved the company from going out of business, the EV1 could have kept GM afloat, in today’s troubled economic waters.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

The Real Horizon – Where Earth and Space Meet

Sunsets are amazing things. Beautiful, brilliant streaks of light dividing the sky from the depths of space. But where does the sky end and space begin?

According to the Canadian Space Agency and researchers from the University of Calgary, that would be 118KM above the Earth – that’s about 73 miles straight up.

To give you a – pardon the pun – bird’s eye view of just how high that is, your average commercial airliner cruises at about 7.3KM above the Earth – that’s about 4.5 miles, or in pilot lingo 24,000 feet.

Scientists at the University of Calgary placed their Supra-Thermal Ion Imager on NASA’s JOULE-II rocket, which was then launched from Alaska on January 19, 2007. The Supra-Thermal Ion Imager is a new invention from the scientists, which measures the flow of charged ion particles.

By measuring the movement of these ions in the atmosphere, the scientists were able to determine the border between our relatively calm winds, and the raw violence of space.

See, despite all the wild weather we get here on planet Earth, our atmosphere actually protects us from the dangers of open space. Where the average winds range from none to 50KM/hour here on Earth, due to gravitational forces in space, objects can reach speeds well over 1,000KM/hour.

Down here on Earth, storms with winds over 100KM/hour are classed as F1 tornadoes – the most powerful of which are F5, with wind speeds over 400KM/hour.

Ion particles were used to measure the distance between the Earth’s atmosphere and the icy depths of space due to the lack of wind in space. Scientists knew there is movement of objects in space, caused by the gravitational rotation of stars, planets, even asteroids and other large rocks can generate their own gravitational pull.

Using this information, the scientists were able to calculate the speed of the particles, and concluded that our sky ends at 118KM above sea level, and that’s where space begins.

Understanding where our atmosphere ends and space begins will help scientists studying our climate, global warming, and space travel. It gives scientists a “big picture” of how energy and matter change and react when they cross that boundary – be it solar energy from the sun beaming down on Earth, or the Space Shuttle rocketing through that boundary from the Earth to the International Space Station.

Knowing how energy and matter pass through the atmospheric boundary – called the ionosphere – may even help meteorologists make more accurate weather predictions. We know that the tides here on Earth are directly linked to the different phases of the moon, because the distance between the moon and the Earth changes the relative gravity between the two, which impacts tidal formations.

So next time you’re watching the sun go down over the horizon, you’ll know just how high up that horizon really is – 118KM!

Friday, April 10, 2009

The Last Dragon Has Died

One of the imaginative inventors of the world famous “Dungeons & Dragons” game died today. David Lance Arneson, lost his battle against cancer, he was 61.

Back in 1974, Arneson and his friend Gary Gygax created the now internationally famous role playing game. The game enjoyed a cult-like following, as players became characters in an interwoven imaginative world, where they could be fighters or wizards, elves or dwarfs. These characters are all on a quest, for the hidden treasures, which are skilfully guarded by evil monsters.

These games were so intense, they could take days, weeks, even months to complete, depending on the skill, interest and time of the players.

I remember the phenomenon back in the early 1980’s when “D&D” clubs, user groups, and parties became all the rage. There was even a “D&D” support group, for people who felt that the game had taken over their lives, and they needed help and support to wean off of its magnetic draw.

But there was more to the game than personality, strength and intelligence points earned through the game. The “Dungeon & Dragons” game spurned on other role playing games, opening up a whole new world of game play.

Instead of having to choose between the common shoot ‘em up type of game, a sports game, or some silly cartoonish game based on a hit popular television series, role playing games gave people a chance to immerse themselves in the realm of fantasy, and use their imaginations.

These days, it isn’t uncommon to find role playing games – also called RPG – everywhere. From dating simulators, where you play a dateless wimp and have to bulk up at the gym in order to win over the beautiful blonde babe, to games where you are the mayor of a town, and have to run the whole city.

Sadly, the two co-creators battled each other outside the “D&D” world. After 1982, sales of the game topped $20 million, but Arneson didn’t think he was being credited enough for his part of the invention, so he filed a series of lawsuits against his co-creator, Gygax. Eventually, the law suits were settled, but the damage had been done, creating a rift between the two, which is ironic as their game gave millions of people a reason to spend time friends and family.

Gygax died last year, and with Arneson’s death today, none of the founding fathers of the “Dungeons & Dragons” world remains. But what they leave behind is far more than the original game, the video games, novels, cartoon and movie which were developed directly out of their creation. The fathers of “D&D” have left behind a whole concept in gaming, one where imagination and intuition are just as important an element of winning, as strength and weaponry.

Many criticized the original “D&D” game as being overly violent, some even blamed it on problems in their own families.

However, the “D&D” games were more than just your common shoot ‘em up game. They empowered players to be creative in solving problems, to think their way out of challenges, and that having a winning personality can win the game.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Local Politicos Poke Fun at Residents Expense

Municipal politicians in Canada’s largest city may have inadvertently lowered some resident’s property values, because of their own poor taste.

Toronto’s city council recently changed the name of a local street from “Connfield Lane” to “OMB Folly” after the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) approved development of the land, despite the city’s opposition. The OMB is a provincial government body, which regulates many municipal functions across the province of Ontario, and can overrule local city councils.

New homes on the now named “OMB Folly” range from $690,000 to $920,000 – that is unless the name of the street starts deterring people from living there. Many residents are furious – and rightly so – because of this inside joke, at their expense.

Although Toronto’s council will be voting on reversing this name change later this month, this lack of sound judgement raises the question, what were local councillors thinking?

With the depression currently sweeping across the globe, increases in property taxes, and a municipal election in 2010, isn’t there enough on Toronto city council’s plate, without having to resort to childish name games?

That’s in a sense, what this really is – a childish game. Toronto city council didn’t like being overruled by the province, so they publicly decided to ridicule the provincial body that did so, by calling it a name. Unfortunately for those who live on the affected street, that negative name became their home address.

What’s next – will Toronto city council throw spit balls at anyone who dares to challenge them? Maybe they will have a pen fight with their counterparts at the provincial level? How far will Toronto city council go before it is too far?

Though some may say Toronto city council already has gone too far, because their childish stunt affected more than just their relationship with a provincial government body, it actually affected people who had little to do with this battle – those who have homes on the affected street.

I always thought you had to be a fully functioning adult to run a big city, but after this whole affair, I’m thinking a 10-year-old child would have made a more adult choice.

Speaking of choices – where was the mayor of Canada’s largest city when this happened? Although he isn’t responsible for the individual actions of his councillors, he is ultimately responsible for the outcome of their combined efforts. When his council voted to change the name of this street to something less than kind, shouldn’t he have stepped in and put an end to it before it actually happened?

Was Toronto’s mayor playing hooky, or just out to lunch?

Chances are all but the handful of Toronto’s residents who live on the affect street will forget this embarrassing incident by the time the city holds its municipal elections for mayor and councillors in 2010.

But then, we shouldn’t have to babysit our leaders – at any level. Running a town, a city, a province or a whole country is not child’s play.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Harnessing the Power of Green Pills

Recently in Canada’s largest city, green pills started popping up on doorsteps, advising them to take them to avoid nuclear radiation. The pills were distributed within a 30-km radius of a nuclear power plant, near Toronto.

Urban-intelligent residents didn’t take the pills, but instead called the cops. Police then issued a public warning about these mysterious green pills.

Turns out, the green pills were nothing but sea salt tablets, from the internationally renowned environmental action group Greenpeace, which incidentally got its start here in Canada.

Greenpeace says it spread the green pills throughout the communities near the Pickering Nuclear Facility in an attempt to alert local residents about the dangers of nuclear power, and their campaign to shut it down.

This isn’t the first time the environmental group has used scare tactics to get its message across. They have used other such tactics, including protests where participants chant highly disturbing chants, while carrying just as disturbing signs and posters. They have chained themselves to trees to prevent clear cutting of forests, crashed boats into whaling ships to prevent the slaughter of whales, and who can forget the images of baby seals, bloody from the seal hunt?

I’m a proud environmentalist – while in university I minored in environmental studies – and whenever I can, I always promote the health and well being of our home, planet Earth.

However the use of scare tactics by groups like Greenpeace sends the wrong message.

Oh, there was a time, a long time ago, when scare tactics worked. Back in the 1960s during the peace movement – which eventually spurned on the environmental movement – scare tactics worked. Think about it, the peace movement was against the war in Vietnam, the development of atomic weapons, the American draft – all of these things are very violent in nature because they are connected to war. Images of war can be very frightening, from bloody battered corpses lying on the ground, to the big tornado-like dome of smoke left after an atomic bomb blast.

Fear counters fear – which is ironic because the peace movement was anything but peaceful, with some violent protests of its own. As more people realized peace was the answer, eventually world leaders caught on too. The war in Vietnam ended, as did the draft in the States, but atomic weapons became nuclear, and so began the Cold War.

The dangers of atomic – now nuclear – weapons led some in the peace movement to look into what happens to our planet. And the birth of the environmental movement came to be, sometime in the late 1960’s or even early 1970’s.
Naturally, those in the peace movement familiar with scare tactics would continue to use them – they had some success with this method of protest. As more academics, scientists, and others able to actually test and verify much of the theory grew, so too did the environmental movement.

Now, the environmental movement had hard core facts about what really was going on with our global home. But many still disagreed, claiming these facts weren’t justified, and were just another scare tactic.

As landfill sites started to over flow in many major city centres in the 1980’s, acid rain’s damage to statues, cars, and more importantly bridges crossed by thousands of people by foot and by car, we started to realize the ugly truth which the environmental movement had been fighting to prove. When the massive oil tanker, Exxon’s Valdese, crashed into rocks off of the Alaskan coast, images of oil-soaked birds, turtles, whales, fish and other wild life were beamed across the globe.

These images, along with many environmental concerns occurring in our own cities, woke us up to the need to be environmentally aware.

Big business even started getting in on the action, creating products which were sold as being “green” or “environmentally-friendly.”

Greenpeace, and other environmental groups became household names, often being sought out by the media as authorities on many environmental issues. Governments became more environmentally aware, creating recycling programs to reduce waste through the use of this new fangled thing called “the blue box.” The need for scare tactics was no more – we’re with you, we understand, we want to protect our environment.

So, why do environmental action groups like Greenpeace still resort to scare tactics, like the one they recently deployed in Toronto, with those green pills?

With social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter, the way to get your messages out these days isn’t by fear, but by creating an open sense of community. Even U.S. President Barak Obama uses a Blackberry, and it wouldn’t surprise me if he had some highly guarded personal space on Facebook.

But perhaps the leaders of Greenpeace are so focused on the outside environment, they know little about the one inside? And that is a shame, because the way towards change is to know how to get your messages out – and these days, it’s all about technology, text messaging, blogs, webspheres – but not fear.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Has Technology Created a Society without Faces?

I get a lot of emails – many of us do. Email is such an efficient yet invisible form of communications. There are so many forums on the Internet where we can communicate with complete strangers, never having seen their faces.

It used to be only on online chat forums that this completely faceless form of communications ruled.

But now I’m finding more and more people are willing to actually do business without ever actually meeting the person or persons they are to be working with.

I know the days are long since gone where you’d conclude a deal with just a handshake. But at the very least, that handshake gave you the opportunity to look your business associate in the eyes.

By not seeing the people we are conducting business with, we’re creating a very different society than what we have been used too.

Email lacks the character in a person’s voice. There’s no body language to see if everyone really is on the same page. And there’s no small talk.

That’s the real loss. For years cultural anthropologists have told us we are social animals. We thrive in communities driven by many social interactions -- surrounded by small talk.

Small talk, water cooler chatter, even a simple smile and a warm “good morning” are all disappearing thanks to the faceless office of today.

It’s so easy to send off a quick email to a colleague, asking about the wife, their kids or them – but do you really expect them to give you a detailed answer? If they do, do you respond with heartfelt sympathy or concern?

Usually not – email isn’t the forum for doing such things. If you were really concerned, you’d call and ask – but as our society becomes more digital and less personal, that phone is getting all the heavier to lift.

And that’s really very sad, tragic even, because it is the social interaction in life which makes life worthy of living.

Sure, we have those funky characters called emoticons which are used to represent our feelings, but these can’t really replace the real thing. And, to muddy the waters further, most professional consultants advise the higher up on the corporate ladder you are, the less you use emoticons.

It may be cute if the receptionist sends out an email announcing the company picnic with emoticons scattered throughout. But when the president sends out an email full of winks, smiles, and maybe even the occasional rolling-on-the-floor-laughing, you start to question the minds of those in charge. You may even start looking for another job, fearing the worst.

I know the economy is global now – so it may not always be possible to simply walk over to the next cubicle to say "hi," or stop over at a colleague’s office for a quick coffee. Many companies have offices spanning several time zones, so that coffee break for one person may actually be in the middle of the night.

But it’s still sad to see the end of real interactions with real people – as technology makes it all the easier to hide behind our computers.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Not Another Cold War?

Over the weekend, North Korea’s government took a lot of heat over their test launch of a rocket. They claim it was going to put a satellite in space, other countries on the other hand see it as a potential threat. The rocket actually crashed in the ocean over part of Japan.

There is good reason to worry about North Korea – for several years they have been working on developing their own nuclear technologies. They’ve always insisted it was for the greater good – to create nuclear power, and for use in nuclear medicine.

Many other countries see it as a real threat to global security and safety, as the North Korean government is anything but a friend to the democratic western world. North Korea’s government has had a long and bitter battle with many other world leaders, and there is a lot of fear about the use of rockets to launch nuclear war heads.

The real cause for alarm is the potential of another Cold War. When the United States and Russia were locked in the midst of the Cold War, people really were scared that one side or the other – or worst case scenario both – would destroy our home, planet Earth, by simply pressing “the button.”

I grew up during the Cold War, and I remember the fear. And it was a fear that spread right through to those very people who ultimately decided the fate of the world.

I remember hearing several stories back then, about just how close we were to global annihilation. One commonly known story I remember very clearly. NORAD’s radar screens went ballistic with what appeared to be a Soviet nuclear attack against North America. NORAD quickly scrambled its fighter jets to investigate, but because of the wicked weather conditions at the time, the fighters weren’t able to take a direct route. Apparently, there was a lot of heavy storm activity in the area.

NORAD was placed on its highest alert, commonly known as DEFCOM (military speak for defence readiness condition), the president of the United States was notified, as were military leaders in both the Canadian and American governments.

Everyone was anxiously awaiting word from the fighter jet squadron. Those who have access to launch the nuclear missiles were literally waiting with their fingers reader to fire – all while the blips on NORAD’s radar screen drew closer and closer.

Just as these flashing streaks of light were about to enter North American air space, finally the lead fighter pilot radioed in.

Turns out, a flock of Canadian geese had almost started a nuclear war – we could have faced global destruction over a handful of birds.

Their lies the real dangers of the controversial test launch of North Korea’s rocket this weekend – fear.

Yes, if North Korea does develop nuclear weapons that would be a very bad thing. But a far greater threat is the fear caused by such a development.

Imagine if nuclear weapons were fired off back during the Cold War, because of those geese. The “Ruskies” would have a legitimate reason for firing back, destroying much of North America – just as our missiles would destroy much of the Russian and European continents.

The truth about nuclear war is obvious – no one wins. The Cold War was all about fear, and a lot of talk. Both sides alluded to the possibility of using their “nukes” against the other, but both sides equally knew the real outcomes should they actually carry out that threat. But back during the Cold War, neither side knew this, that’s where the fear factor really came in.

Here in North America, we were led to believe that the Soviet “empire” was ruthless, and would stop at nothing to continue the spread of Communism, even if it meant destroying part of the world. Meanwhile the Russians were taught much the same thing about the American’s.

It was this constant fear on both sides which really could cause an inadvertent nuclear holocaust – with both sides so caught up in the propaganda, all it took was a flock of geese, a volcanic eruption, even weather balloons all were said to have put NORAD on edge, and ready to fire.

The Cold War thankfully ended years ago, but we could be starting all over again – thanks to North Korea, and that “f” word – fear.

Saturday, April 04, 2009

No More Sticky Floors

One of my biggest gripes when I go to the movies these days is lack of imagination. It seems all the great ideas that ever were to be created have been, because we are stuck with much the same story and plot lines.

But one thing you may not have to complain about in the future is that sticky movie theatre floor. A Mexican company has imaginatively created the world’s first biodegradable chewing gum.

Unlike traditional bubble gum which is made from rubber compounds, the Chicza Mayan Rainforest Chewing Gum is made from the sap of the chicizapote tree. These trees grow in the Mexican rainforest, hence the name of the gum.

Because of the natural ingredients in this product, compared with the artificial petroleum-based products found in most chewing gums, this new gum breaks down over time. It loses its stickiness when dry and – according to the company that makes it – will turn to dust within six-weeks.

Environmentalists are happy with this new rainforest product – apparently used gum accounts for over 60 percent of the crap stuck to our public sidewalks, roads and other outdoor spaces.

This got me looking down, while I was out and about the other day. Sure enough, if you look down you will see used gum littering the sidewalks. Though I suppose I’ve never really noticed before – if I constantly stared at my shoes while walking, I’d probably walk into a pole, a person, or a big wad of used chewing gum.

Biodegradable gum is a sound solution to part of our disposable society. If it really does as the company says, eventually, our outdoor public spaces could be gum-free, meaning no more sticking to that movie theatre floor.

However, as with most things in life, the problem isn’t going to go away just because of one cool invention. The real cause of the problem lies with you and me.

Although you probably cart your blue box of recyclables to the curb or local recycler as a good environmentally conscious citizen, my scanning of our sidewalks found traces of more than just gum-waste.

Cigarette butts probably outnumbered the gum, and then there were all the used coffee cups, fast food containers, even a shoe – who the hell leaves one shoe?!??!

Obviously our society still tosses things to the curb, without really thinking about the consequences.

Cigarette butts are full of residual chemicals that are very harmful to all living beings, and most of the stuff found in those tiny bits of paper don’t break down naturally in our environment. Meaning smokers aren’t just polluting their lungs when they smoke, their polluting the environment too.

Smoking is an increasingly harder thing to do in our civilized world, thanks to the knowledge we’ve learned from science over the years. When cigarettes first came out, even some doctors were said to have prescribed them for medicinal purposes.

We now know that wasn’t the case, but we still have issues with their remnants. Just as a very creative company came up with a solution for chewing gum, maybe one day someone will resolve this problem for those who need a smoke.

But then, it really shouldn’t be necessary in the first place – we all should be aware of our role in the greater global environment, and just not toss away anything – even something seemingly as small and harmless as a chewed stick of gum, or a cigarette butt.

Friday, April 03, 2009

Bending the Rules for the Rich and Famous

Musical diva Madonna’s application to adopt a child from a third-world country failed today. She previously adopted from Malawi before – and one would have thought she would have no problems again.

Under Malawi laws, in order to adopt a child, the adopter must have resided in the country for a whole year. This law was overlooked on Madonna’s first adoption, because of her celebrity. But not this time – this time the judge cited her lack of residence in the country as reason for denial of the three-year-old girl she’s gone all gaga over.

No one is saying Madonna is an unfit parent, but the law is the law and that is that. Or is it?

Should the laws be flexible for the rich and famous?

Celebrity status does put an enormous amount of pressure upon a person – with screaming fans stalking your every move, going to the corner store for a jug of milk is almost impossible. And then there are those who get so involved in their characters, that they have trouble separating reality from the roles they portray. Then there’s all the money, what to do with all that money . . .

Okay, so being a celebrity isn’t all that bad. But because these people are constantly under the public’s microscope, should we cut them a break when we can – so long as it doesn’t harm anyone else?

But then, who are we to determine what does and doesn’t harm someone else?

If Madonna were to be granted her adoption, despite the laws, what about all us normal, non-celeb-types that still have to abide by the laws? If I wanted to adopt a child in Malawi, and knew the law said I had to reside there for a year, I’d be fuming – while swatting flies and mosquitoes – living there to follow the rules of the game.

And in a sense, that is what the law is – a game rule. These rules are there to protect us, and in the case of child adoption, to protect the child.

There is nothing wrong with Madonna’s motives; she’s trying to build a family, while saving a child from poverty. And Madonna has donated money to Malawi for those she can’t adopt, as well as already adopting a child from the region – so her heart is in the right place.

But a good heart, a thick bank book, and lots of paparazzi following your every move are not valid reasons to change the rules of the game for just one person. The good of the many, must be considered over the good of the few.

Because if we change the rules even just once for one person, then pretty soon we’ll be expected to change the rules for others. And that may have a negative impact on the many.

Case in point, when Canadian actor famed for movies and his lead role on the FOX hit 24, Keifer Sutherland was busted for drunk driving this past summer – he went to jail. This wasn’t his first offence, and he didn’t kill or injure anyone, so it was a short time, in a minimal correctional facility.

Could you imagine the public outcry had he been given a slap on the wrist, fined a small fortune, and asked for his autograph?

Just because someone is rich and famous doesn’t put that person above the law – so the rules of the game should apply to them just as they apply to you and me.

That way, no one passes “GO” unfairly.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Images More Than Just a Photo Op – It Could Cost Us Valuable Land

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper – for those who were out of the room when the item came up on the news – was apparently in the bathroom when 20 of the most influential world leaders got together for a group photo.

The photo, part of the pomp and circumstance of the G-20 Summit being held this year in the United Kingdom, was a photo beamed around the world. Prime Minister Harper appeared, for a re-take of the photo, but by then a handful of leaders had already left the room – presumably to discuss really big and important worldly things.

We can laugh at our leader, as I’m sure most others around the globe did when they heard this on their local newscasts. It really isn’t that big a deal, I mean, it’s just a photo shoot – right?


Being present and accounted for is more than simply showing up – it’s about being aware, informed and interested about what is going on, so that you can make a worthwhile contribution.

We all have to go to the bathroom – that’s just a basic biological bodily function. However, unless you have an illness which makes you “go” more often than others, chances are you can, and have, held it in so that you don’t miss important things.

Maybe Prime Minister Harper doesn’t like having his photo taken? Who knows – who cares? But what his absence said was that his presence – and in turn Canada’s as a whole -- really isn’t all that important.

Essentially, by not – ahem – holding it in until a better time to go to the bathroom, Prime Minister Harper said to the world Canada doesn’t matter.

We’ve got a long tradition of compliancy when it comes to global issues. During the often heated softwood lumber disputes with the United States, we lost much ground in the negotiations, not because we were going up against Big Brother USA, but because our reputation preceded us as peaceful and non-confrontational.

When American battleships and subs conducted Arctic manoeuvres without first seeking Canada’s permission to do so back in the late 1980’s, America’s initial response was one of compliancy. They didn’t need to ask permission to run about and shoot missiles in our country – because they didn’t think we’d mind. Just ask the surprised locals who thought we were under attack if we minded. Eventually, the American government apologized, and does get consent before coming up here – but it took a lot of politicking before we got that apology.

We Canadians have a sad reputation as the ones to always concedes to whoever challenge us. This is because our leaders lack substance, and don’t take issues on the world stage seriously.

We’re currently being bullied by Russia for control over the Arctic – and despite Canada’s claim on this continental shelf since we officially became a country, the Russians may actually win this fight, because of our wimpy leaders, not being present on the world stage.

I can’t believe the United Nations is even considering the debate about the Arctic being part of Canada. Since the earliest days of the Hudson Bay Company, when fur traders hunted up in the north, establishing trading posts. These trading posts eventually became communities, which today are cities and towns. These cities and towns were born from the great Canadian fur trade and later the gold rush which followed.

But our Canadian politicians are too wimpy to defend our land – Prime Minister Harper’s government is participating in the contest for control over the Arctic. This contest – more like a bid where both Canada and Russia put forth proof as to who can best manage its resources and the UN will decide the victor – began because of claims that there is over 25% of the world’s untapped oil reserve deep in the Arctic Ocean.

By not being present among the world’s most powerful leaders, our prime minister has once again told the world that Canada’s opinions, ideas, thoughts and concerns don’t matter – we’ll just go along with what everyone else wants.

It may have just been a missed group photo, but if Canada loses control over a land mass which we’ve managed, defended, and called part of our home and native land since day one, then we’ve lost more than just a portrait to hang on the wall. We’ll have lost a bit of our heritage, our history, and most of all, a part of our home.