Sunday, October 31, 2010

Edison Ahead of his Time

I'd put my money on the sun and solar energy. What a source of power!
I hope we don't have to wait until oil and coal run out before we tackle that.

Thomas Edison, 1931, shortly before his death, to Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Work Narration

I enjoy reading Flight Level 390, a blog by an airline pilot. It's not a topic I would have said I was interested in, but somehow he makes it interesting and funny, like the last post I read, Precision.

Part of it is that I enjoy people who are thoughtful about their work. Not just doing the job mindlessly. Not even doing the job thoughtfully. But thinking about the doing of the job. What it is you enjoy, what's important, what's not important, the big issues, and the small pleasures.

Jon Udell makes a good case for this, calling it "work narration" in one of his blog posts. It's part of the reason why I blog about my work on my Software Life blog.

Thursday, October 28, 2010


People support conservation, but few want to sacrifice anything for it. Certainly not our disposable consumer SUV gas guzzling commuting lifestyle.

Conservation International Blog: "But how can we protect biodiversity without sacrificing human interests?"

Win-win scenarios that don't require sacrifice are great when you can find them, and I'm all for looking for them.

But there are times when you just can't have your cake and eat it too.

Harrison Ford on Conservation

“I see opportunities to preserve the natural world slipping away, and I want to be involved in correcting the balance between the pressure of human population and the potential benefits to humanity of a healthy biodiversity. We are the problem; we are the solution,” he said. “Nature doesn’t need people; people need nature. So we’ve got to protect this most important resource. We’ve got to recognize our opportunity, we’ve got to recognize our responsibility and we have to take action now.”

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Less Stuff

Here are some thoughts on how to deal with one of the big problems with our culture - consuming too much. If you're not sure what I'm talking about, Annie Leonard does a great job of explaining the problem in The Story of Stuff. Consumption uses up non-renewable resources, fills our environment with waste (much of it toxic), and uses large amounts of energy in manufacture and shipping which in turn releases a lot of greenhouse gases.

Why do we consume so much? How did we end up characterizing ourselves as "consumers"?

If you watch TV, read newspapers or magazines, drive by billboards, or walk through a mall, you're getting inundated with marketing aimed at making you think that consuming is not only natural, but good and necessary. It's understandable that people selling stuff want you to buy more. But even our economists and governments tell us that consumption is what drives our economy and we don't dare slow down. What no one wants to think about is that if we don't slow down, if we all keep accelerating, then sooner or later we're going to crash.

Apart from the environmental issues, another reason to aim for less stuff is to be happier. Our culture tells us more stuff will make us happier. But study after study shows that's not true. Happiness has much more to do with what you do with your life, not what you have. There's a lot to be said for simplicity.

There's more to life than shopping. Shopping is not a hobby. It won't make you happy in the long run. Go for a walk. Go to the library. Go for coffee. Read a good book. Take up a real hobby. Spend time with friends or family.

When I get the urge to buy something, here are some things I ask myself:
  • Will it actually get used in the long run? Or will it just end up gathering dust, or worse, in the garbage.
  • Will it let me do things I couldn't do otherwise? (Preferably something enjoyable, useful, non-destructive.) 
  • Am I just keeping up with the Joneses or getting sucked in by advertising?
  • Is there an alternative? Can I get it from the library or digitally or online? Can I borrow or rent? I get all my music digitally rather than on physical cd's. I buy almost all my books digitally. (with the exception of books of photographs)
  • What future costs will it entail? For example, buying a car means big expenses for insurance, gas, and maintenance. Buying a pet means pet food, and vets, and responsibilities.
These questions apply just as much when you're buying gifts for other people as they do when you're buying for yourself. 

Some more suggestions:
  • Avoid ads. Get a DVR and skip the commercials. The less brainwashing you're exposed to, the easier it is to resist. I guess I should stop looking at Apple ads :-(
  • Take advantage of the natural inclination to procrastinate. Even if you decide you really do "need" something, wait till next week to get it. Maybe by then you'll change your mind.
  • Set yourself quotas - for example, one book per week, or don't replace your computer or camera more than once every two years.
  • Don't buy another if you've already got a shelf full you haven't used. In my case, don't buy more books when I've got a stack of them I haven't read yet.
  • Buy better quality items that will last longer instead of cheap disposable single-use junk.
  • Buy locally made items. Local means less shipping, often less packaging, and it supports small businesses instead of giant corporations.
  • Don't buy something because it's on sale. It doesn't matter how much money you're "saving" if you don't need the item in the first place. Of course, if you previously decided to buy something, and then you find it on sale, great.
  • Save up to buy something instead of buying it on credit. If nothing else, it avoids impulse buying.
  • Spend your money on more environmentally friendly things. Go out for a good meal. Go to a movie. Throw a party. Yes, these things have environmental costs too, but a lot less than loading up a shopping cart at Walmart.
  • When you are finished with something, avoid throwing it out or letting it sit on the shelf. Sell it or give it away. If nothing else, recycle it.
Beware of falling off the wagon. When you buy less stuff, you'll end up with more money. And in our culture, available money means only one thing - shopping! Instead, add it to your savings, or put it towards buying better quality items, or make some donations to good causes.

Note: I'm definitely not claiming to be the perfect non-consumer. I have a basement full of books. I have way too much climbing and outdoor gear. I have too many gadgets. I lust after new cameras and computers. All we can do is try!

Friday, October 22, 2010

Restoring the American Chestnut

I tend to focus on the negative, so here's a positive story for a change :-)

WorldChanging Canada: Restoring the American Chestnut: "Now that they’ve got trees with a shot at survival, volunteers have joined federal officials to begin reforestation. They’ve planted 20,000 to 25,000 chestnuts, and some of the most promising work is being done on land decimated by strip mining that must be restored under federal law."

Thursday, October 21, 2010


The U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) is meeting in Japan to develop a Strategic Plan.

The problem is, they've met before and developed almost identical strategic plans, and the results were failure (by their own assessment). Biological diversity continues to decline at increasing rates.

As Albert Einstein said, doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results is insanity.

But hey, all the big wigs get to have a big expensive conference and hob nob with each other. Not to mention release a bunch of greenhouse gases by flying a pile of people all over the globe. What more could you ask for?

see also: A Planet In Square Brackets

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Deliberately uninformed

Seth's Blog: Deliberately uninformed, relentlessly so [a rant]:
"Many people in the United States purchase one or fewer books every year.

Many of those people have seen every single episode of American Idol. There is clearly a correlation here.

Access to knowledge, for the first time in history, is largely unimpeded for the middle class. Without effort or expense, it's possible to become informed if you choose. For less than your cable TV bill, you can buy and read an important book every week.

Or you can watch TV."

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Lost and Found

A couple of weekends ago I decided to go for a trail run on the community pasture trails south of the Dundurn military area. I got to know this area quite well when I used it for one of the Prairie Pitch adventure races, but that was a few years ago.

Just after I started I ran into two cowboys on horses. They grilled me thoroughly on why I was there, what I was doing, had I talked to the pasture manager, etc. As far as I know I wasn't doing anything wrong being there, and they didn't say any different, but they sure seemed suspicious. I'm not sure what nefarious activity they imagined a guy in shorts and a t-shirt would be up to. Once they got over their suspicion they questioned me repeatedly as to whether I'd seen any of the cows they were trying to round up. (I hadn't.)

It was a beautiful fall day and I had a nice long slow run. I haven't been running very long distances lately so I broke it up with walking part of the time.

If I had stuck to the trails I probably would have been ok, but of course I had to go exploring cross country. I had only planned to go for an hour or two, but I hadn't worn a watch. I hadn't even brought any water, just my little camera and my Spot. Eventually I decided I'd better turn around and head back. I'd gone out generally west, and came back generally east. But I wasn't too sure how far north or south I'd come. I came to an area I thought I was to the north of where I'd parked, so I headed south.

But I couldn't find the trail out to the highway. I could hear the traffic, but there was a thick area of trees blocking the way. I decided it couldn't be very far and I'd just bushwhack out to the road. After 10 minutes of thrashing around in stinging nettles in shorts I decided maybe that wasn't the best plan after all.

Eventually I found a trail that got me out to the highway. But I realized I had another problem. I didn't know whether the car was north or south of me. I couldn't see it in either direction. I guessed north and went about a kilometer down the road. No sign of the car. I went back a kilometer and then went about a kilometer south. No car, and the road looked unfamiliar. I decided it must be north, just farther. The car turned out to be about 4 km north of where I hit the highway. So I did an extra 8 km of jogging up and down the highway, on top of multiple hours of running off and on before then.

At least I had a half liter of water in the car to guzzle down - I was pretty thirsty by then. I figured I'd probably gone about 25 or 30 km. It was about 7 pm when I finally got home. Shelley was starting to wonder what the heck had happened to me since I'd left about 1 pm saying I was going for a run.

It was a good reminder that finding your way, especially across prairie with few landmarks, is not trivial, and shouldn't be taken for granted. A compass would have been handy. A watch would have helped to know when to turn around. I could have taken my GPS and gone straight back to the car, but I'm not sorry I didn't - it would have spoiled the adventure!

Friday, October 15, 2010

Dangers of rope worn carabiners

Interesting test of worn carabiners by Black Diamond via ACC NewsNet

Although nowhere near as bad as the ones shown here, I recently retired a number of old biners when I noticed they were showing distinct grooving (probably from top roping). I retired them out of general principle - I never even thought of the danger of sharp edges cutting the rope. 

I'm always distressed by how people continue to use ropes and harnesses and other gear long after it should have been retired. There are always excuses, but do you really want to take chances with something like that?

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Panasonic Lumix DMC-TS2

Before our last trip to Baja I gave Shelley a camera for her birthday.

It's been a while since she had her own camera. Recently she's been borrowing mine. But that can be inconvenient and it didn't let her keep one with her.

There are a zillion point and shoot cameras out there. To get around the  tyranny of choice, I narrowed it down to waterproof, shockproof ones. I looked at the reviews for the Olympus Stylus Tough, Canon PowerShot D10, Pentax Optio W90, and the Panasonic TS2.

The TS2 got some good reviews so that's the one I chose.

I've been quite impressed with it. We didn't actually use it underwater, but it's really nice for diving and kayaking to not have to worry about getting it wet. (Tip: get a flotation strap for it in case you drop it in the water, otherwise it'll sink!)

It shoots quite good video, but the default AVCHD mode is a pain to work with since most software doesn't handle it (yet).

Here are a few samples from it: (minor tweaks in Lightroom as usual)

If you're looking for a waterproof, shockproof camera, you might want to have a look at the TS2.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Who died and made us king of everything?

One of my pet peeves is the insistence on defending the environment in purely human terms. Save the rain forest because it might contain medicines for us. Save the ocean because it produces the air we breath. Save the bees because they pollinate our crops. Save the climate because it might be uncomfortable for us. Us, us, us, us.

Who died and made us king of everything?

I recently read Poseiden's Steed by Helen Scales, a fascinating book on seahorses, amazing creatures. But in the epilogue she says "Even if nature wouldn't pay much attention the day seahorses were no longer there, surely they do matter to us ... they matter because they inspire us to care about the natural world." (my emphasis)

She goes on to quote Sir David Attenborough (who I otherwise have great respect for) regarding protecting the planet's biodiversity "The overwhelming reason is man's imaginative health." (my emphasis)

We should save the planet for our "imaginative health"? That's the best we can come up with?

How arrogant is it for us to believe (or at least act as if) the earth was put here solely for our benefit. We're not the end point of evolution, we're an interesting experiment in the value of intelligence. And the jury is still out on the result of that experiment.

If you believe your religion tells you that it's ok to trash the planet, I think you're misinterpreting your religion, but I'm not going to get in a fight about it. I will ask, "Do you crap in your living room?" Well, wake up people, the earth is our living room, and we're crapping in it.

If any other species' population exploded the way ours has, or did as much damage as ours has, we'd regard them as a horrific pest and we'd put vast energy into stopping them. But if it's man, then somehow it's ok.

Politician love to justify themselves by saying "if I have to choose between people and the environment, I'm going to choose people". And everyone nods. Wait a minute, what makes people more important? We just assume they are, but why? The biosphere will do fine without people, people won't do fine without the biosphere.

We have to not trash the planet, not for our benefit, but because it's simply wrong to do so. We are not alone here. All of life deserves a slice of the pie, not just some greedy destructive naked apes with swollen heads who breed like rabbits.

End of rant :-)

Tuesday, October 12, 2010


Another good weather forecast led Shelley and I to a trip to Grasslands National Park on the long weekend.

Grasslands is split into two parts, the West Block which is more developed and has an "eco tour" road through it, and the East Block which is mostly undeveloped. Of course, I prefer the East Block :-)

If you look on Google maps you'll see the park as two solid blocks. But in reality the "park" is as much a vision as a reality. Much of the park is "projected" i.e. the land is not part of the park yet. I hope it gets completed, but you wonder whether that will happen in this age of shrinking budgets.

We left Sat. morning after the Farmers Market, stopping for lunch at Coffee Encounters in Moose Jaw. We arrived at the McGowan's entrance to the East Block around 4pm and hiked for about 2.5 hours (10 km) to a campsite I'd found on a previous trip. You could camp pretty much anywhere, but this spot has a commanding view and a rock outcropping for interest. The weather was warm and calm, hardly a breath of wind - unusual for the prairies!

The next day (Sun.) we packed up camp and hiked a big loop to the north and west. We saw deer, coyote, rabbit, owl, hawk. It was another beautiful day, a bit of a breeze, but that was actually pleasant since it got quite warm. We explored an old abandoned farm house and yard. Hard to imagine how isolated it would have been to live here before telephones (let alone internet).

One of our challenges for the day was to find drinking water. There are various creeks but most of them are intermittent muddy pools - not too appetizing. We ended up getting water from Wetherall Creek which was at least running steadily. The water was reasonably clear and tasteless, despite the cattle all around sharing the water and trampling the muddy banks. (Don't worry, we treated the water with Aquatabs)

We camped Sun. night at the foot of Red Butte. The weather Mon. morning was cloudy and cool with a sprinkle of rain. We hiked back to the car and headed home. In all we hiked about 45 km. It was nice to feel pleasantly tired albeit a little foot-sore.

I was disappointed to find so many cattle inside the park areas. We didn't see any in the area immediately around the entrance, but everywhere else they seemed common.There is a school of thought that says the prairies evolved along with buffalo, and to maintain their natural state they need to be grazed. But cattle are not buffalo. And with climate change we're never going to maintain the original prairie. One of the problems with cattle (as we found) is that they trash water courses, trampling them into muddy messes and destroying plants growing around them. Even if the cattle are at a low density overall, they tend to congregate, especially around water, where they also do the most damage. We've got plenty of cattle infested pasture land, I'd rather see the national park take a different path. I don't go to Grasslands National Park to wander through the cattle and cow pies. In the West Block they have reintroduced bison, which is great. If that's not feasible in the East Block for some reason, why not let the grasslands find their own new equilibrium? Change will happen regardless.

According to Environmental Assessment of the Grasslands Grazing Experiment in Grasslands National Park of Canada originally cattle were excluded here as in other national parks. But it was felt that the ecosystem was suffering from the lack of grazing. Maybe there's some truth to that. But look at what the experimental reintroduction of grazing involved - fences, corrals, dredging, pumping systems, generators, pipelines, and increased vehicle traffic. I'm sure that's all going to help the ecosystem.  And from what we saw, it doesn't seem like a controlled experiment. Fences are down in places and cattle are wandering in and out of the park areas.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Paddling the Bagwa Loop

I decided to take advantage of the good weather and head up to Prince Albert National Park to kayak the Bagwa Loop. It didn't take long to throw the gear together.

Soon after leaving Saskatoon I passed a swirling mass of Snow Geese in the air and on the ground. Signs of autumn.

I decided to go counter-clockwise and do the long leg on Kingsmere lake while the weather was calm. It's a fair size lake and if it's windy the waves can get big. Not on Sunday though. The lake was pale green clear glass, like an antique bottle. A lot of the lake is shallow and the bottom was perfectly clear. No tropical fish here, though. But the sun was warm. What a beautiful fall day.

I set up camp and watched the sun slowly go down, taking plenty of photographs.

It started raining in the middle of the night soft but steady. It was still pattering on the tent fly when I woke up. I briefly considered sleeping in to see if it would stop, but my bladder disagreed. And it could just as easily get worse as better. By the time I finished breakfast it had stopped, thankfully. It's always a hassle packing up in the rain.

Although the rain had stopped, I put the spray skirt on the kayak. It makes it a little more awkward getting in and out, but it definitely keeps you warmer and drier.

Shortly after heading out it started to rain again. I stopped to dig out my rain hat and neoprene gloves. When I glanced up there was a moose in the reeds only about 30 feet away staring intently at me. I knew I'd never get my camera from behind the seat and out of the dry bag without spooking it so I just watched. I didn't move as I drifted slowing closer. When I got about 20 feet away it snorted, bellowed and turned away, plowing through the water and reeds. Behind it was a young one. It peered at me a bit longer and then turned and followed Mom. (The photos are of another pair I saw the first day.)

Although I'd camped about half-way around the loop, I'd left the two portages for the second day. The portages themselves weren't too bad, but getting in and out of the water was pretty mucky!

Back out on Kingsmere Lake, the wind was picking up and whitecaps were starting to appear. With the wind against me and the rough water it was definitely harder work than yesterday. But as I got closer to the end of the lake it was more sheltered and the water flatter, and the sun even came out.

We're lucky to have the boreal forest and lakes so close to us. It's beautiful country.

2010-10 Bagwa Paddle

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Sustainable Gourmet

Last night Shelley and I went to the Saskatchewan Environmental Society's Sustainable Gourmet dinner fund raiser. It sounded good, and it's a worthwhile cause.

We really enjoyed it. The food was great and and lots was vegetarian. They even let the vegetarians go up to the buffet first!

We enjoyed the conversation with the other people at our table. And there were no long speeches! Only a short entertaining one about the history of the SES since it's their 40th anniversary.

This was their fifth year, although it was the first year for us. We'll definitely consider going next year.

Saturday, October 02, 2010

Lost Mountain

"a searing indictment of how a country's energy lust is ravaging the hills and hollows of Appalachia" - Publishers Weekly

Sometimes I wish we'd just run out of oil and get it over with. Not that I look forward to the upheaval, but at least I wouldn't have to get pissed off at people driving gas guzzling vehicles.

The problem is, we have plenty of coal left. It'll last many years after the oil runs out. And coal is ugly. Burning coal for energy is dirty and puts a lot of carbon into the atmosphere.

But Lost Mountain by Erik Reece is about another ugly side to coal - how we mine it. Specifically, the strip mining in the eastern United States, where they chew off mountains to get at the coal underneath, and dump the leftovers into the valleys. The mining companies are supposed to do "restoration" but the results are a pale ghost of the original forested mountains. These forests have some of the highest biodiversity in North America. Or should I say "had".

The mining destroys the forest and poisons the watersheds. And to add insult to injury the locals profit very little from it. A few mining companies make money but the locals stay some of the poorest in the USA.

But we all want electricity, and unfortunately, coal is one of the main ways we generate it.