Saturday, October 30, 2010

Let go of the fear of flying

Start as you mean to continue. My mum used to say that.

My mum said a lot of things.

I’d ask mum how to spell a word.

“Look it up,” she’d say.

Yeah. But I don’t know how to spell it.

Tough beans.

Imagine standing there, wondering how to spell psychologist or elicit-illicit. Where do you start? Sometimes look-it-up doesn’t help.

This conundrum figured as among my biggest challenges as a writer. How does one get past (passed?) the nuances of the English language? It’s a language beguiling and beautiful. But it’s also a difficult, frequently contradictory language that, in all of its malleability, can be frustrating in its magical elusiveness.

How did I get around the puzzle of finding words when I didn’t know how they were spelled?

I didn’t.

I just exposed myself to them. I saw words in everything. There were words in the newspaper, the telephone book, that damn dictionary designed to tease me.

I said, ‘Okay, if I must, I will get this language thing; spelling be damned.’

Today — and every day, for that matter — I am a writer. I get paid to write.

I spell words in my head. I see words in my head. I see the words whole, as units, even complicated ones. I am sometimes baffled by my ability to use words so easily. It seems the mere ‘exposure to words’ created a neural network — an internal scaffolding in my brain — that became twinned with an unconscious imaging process.

While the spelling of words was my mother’s gift to me, the matter of their use was squarely in my father’s domain. My father’s genius was to puzzle me into something I’ll call proper use. It’s the way one marries words to construct things we call thoughts, ideas and so forth.

Dad was a stickler. By about seven years of age, I knew most of the basic elements of sentence construction. Not that I could readily identify subject-predicate, verb-adverb, noun-adjective. But dear old Dad did imbue me with an understanding that gave me the second key to the kingdom of writing.

Forty-five years later, I’m writing about writing — its foibles, its marvels.

I also have a passion for mathematics. It’s scarier than language, what with all its symbols and logical constructions. As with writing, the best way to wrestle the beast into submission is to expose oneself to it.

The squiggly symbols of the calculus are immediately frightening. ‘I’ll never understand that!’

It’s surprising, though, how quickly one becomes less fearful. After all, mathematics is very much about convention and agreement, much like language. In order to develop a mathematical theorem one must accept the conventions, many of which are arbitrary. (If you like, you can develop your own personal ‘conventions’, but then chances are no one will understand your stuff, either. The good thing is that all the bull work — the bull work of the bulwark — has already been done; it’s just a matter of accepting the conventions then getting on with it.

One of my favourite examples of the magic of mathematics centers on a German fellow by the name of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, co-discoverer with Isaac Newton of the infinitesimal calculus. (It should be noted, however, there is some debate as to which of the two should be given ‘priority’ in the discovery.)

As a lad, Leibniz was asked to answer what most would suggest is an impossible question. ‘What’s the sum of numbers between 1 and 100, including 1 and 100?’

You’ve got to be kidding me!

Leibniz answered immediately: ‘The answer is: 5,050.’

How did he pull that off?

Apparently, Leibniz ‘saw’ the numbers as arrayed along a line. He flipped the line in half so that 1 aligned with 100, 99 with 2, 98 with 3 and so forth. He immediately recognized in his mind’s eye that each of the 50 sums was 101. That is: 50 x 101= 5,050.

Using algebra one can then determine the sum of numbers from 1 to N by the same method. The formula becomes N/2 ‘times’ (N + 1).

Most people are probably numb by now, so deeply ingrained is our fear of numbers and their ‘manipulation’ in such areas as trigonometry, algebra and calculus.

My suggestion on the language and mathematics fronts remains, however. If we fearlessly go where we have not let ourselves travel before, merely by reading and parsing math texts, we can take down the beast of our trepidation.

Let’s boldly go where no one has gone before.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Lake Winnipeg in ecological crosshairs

NOVEMBER 2008 — Before early light, fishers amble down the dock at Gimli Harbour. They’ll be on Lake Winnipeg pulling nets as the sun breaks through an overcast of gossamer clouds outstretched on the eastern horizon.
The productivity of the lake seems to know no bound. But another boom may lead to a bust in the linear growth of the annual lake fish harvest.

Scientists studying the lake have been telling us for some time that Lake Winnipeg is threatened. The principal threat, they say, is an excess of the nutrients nitrogen (N) and phosphorous (P). This nutrient over-loading has led to blooms of bluegreen algae that this year, as in past years over the last decade, covered much of the North Basin.

This year, a large bluegreen bloom took hold in the South Basin, near Victoria Beach and right up to the Narrows, where the two basins of the lake pinch off.

The bluegreen blooms are actually mats of a primitive bacteria known as cyanobacteria. Fishers glumly work through the thick mats of cyanobacteria, which cling to fishing nets and make their work more difficult. Rainbow smelt, a so-called introduced species, bob belly-up in the water, tainted blue and green by the bacteria.

There is no danger to the fish, which remain highly edible — among the favourites pickerel, sauger and whitefish. It’s the lake, a vast and complex aquatic ecosytstem, that’s in peril. Consequently, the fishery is in the biological snare, too. As goes the health of the lake, so the health of the $25-million fishery, an industry that employs about 1,000.

The cyanobacteria in Lake Winnipeg out-compete the plant algae we are all familiar with as the pond scum of our adventuresome youth. Cyanobacteria ‘out-compete’ because they can use nitrogen from the atmosphere. Plant algae can’t perform that feat, so they lose foothold in the competition for habitat.

The shift to cyanobacteria sets off a cascade of other consequences. When the increased biomass of bluegreens dies, it sinks to the bottom of the lake. The decomposition results in depletions in the oxygen column. This can affect other species.

The presence of dominant cyanobacteria species open new ecological niches for aquatic organisms that favour them in their diets.

In addition, some cyanobacteria release toxins that can be fatal to animals that ingest water containing them.

In all, the emergent prominence of cyanobacteria may be moving the lake to a precipice, — a threshold or tipping point — beyond which full recovery will be problematic.

Solutions exist to slow the process that has been advanced by nutrient over-loading. The obvious first solution is to reduce the over-loading at source. The problem is that there are millions of point sources across the one-million-square km Lake Winnipeg watershed. The watershed takes in a huge area, from the foothills of the Rockies in Alberta to Northwestern Ontario, dipping into four American states and covering most of Manitoba north to Hudson Bay.

Individual action and collective action can make a difference, as individuals and the cities and towns in the watershed consciously limit their use of compounds that contain phosphorous, such as automatic dishwashing detergent and lawn fertilizers. Leaking septic and holding tanks should be repaired to ensure they are not sending household waste into the surface and groundwater.

Municipalities can lead the way by removing phosphorous from their wastewater. Municipalities must also stop pumping effluent into waterways. Gimli, Lake Winnipeg’s largest population center, treats its sewage, then pumps the end product (effluent) into the lake. Its sewage treatment plant removes most of the phosphorous in raw sewage, but there is still a quantity of P that cannot be removed.

More, sewage treatment processes do not remove all parasites nor heavy metals or pharmaceuticals that wind up in household sewage. These are dumped into the lake.

A pair of surveys by the Canadian Geographical Survey in 1994 then again in 1996 linked the emergence of intensive farming in the early-1960s with an increase in P and N in Lake Winnipeg. The correlation was established after analyses of core samples during the two lake-wide surveys.

The surveys obtained samples from lake sediment. The deeper the core the further back in the life of the lake scientists could travel.

The surveys suggested that before fertizliers were used extensively, there was a lower concentration of the nutrients in the core samples.

Crops require P and N in concentrations that vary with the crop planted. In the ideal, fertilizer should be applied at the optimal agronomic rate — which is simply the concentration at which there is full utilization of the applied nutrients by the plants. When applied in excess of crop need, the unused nutrients can leave the land, enter local drainages, then Lake Winnipeg.

Farmers are not alone in the drama of over-fertilization.

Municipalities, cottagers and other jurisdictions also send nutrients and pollutants into the lake.

Lake Winnipeg’s watershed spans four provinces and four central states in the United States. From the foothills of the Rockies east to Lake of the Woods, the Lake Winnipeg watershed takes in a vast landscape. Whatever comes off that landscape eventually drains into the waters of Lake Winnipeg.

The nutrients P and N are linked directly to the nutrient overload, which is causing the over-fertilization known among scientists as cultural eutrophication. At some threshold, the lake will die unless resolute action is taken.

Coordinated action across the watershed is needed. There’s been the promise of just such an effort, but it has been woefully slow in materializing. The federal government pledged $18 million by November 2007. At this writing (November 2008) not a penny has been spent of that pledged money.

In addition to reducing our nutrient footprint in all waterways, we must conduct the research so vital to understanding how these bodies of water behave.

We’d better be quicker at the task, more directed at the helm.

It’s increasingly clear, for instance, that looming climate change (the loss of glaciers in the Rockies, for instance) will exacerbate current conditions.

Nutrient loading, then, is not the only problem. Climate change could result in dramatic changes. As well, the arrival of new species of fish and microorganisms will disrupt the aquatic balance.

There is a crippling inertia when it comes to Lake Winnipeg. It one of the world’s least studied lakes of its size — both in its own area (about 24,000 sq. km.) and the area of its watershed.

We may lick the nutrient over-loading problem, but there are other challenges on the horizon. Rainbow smelt, introduced from the Winnipeg River system in the early-1990s, is now plentiful. Just how it’s changing the lake is a matter of conjecture. So little is known about the condition of the lake pre-introduction, it becomes a conundrum as to what ‘changes’ may have occurred or may yet occur.

Add to that the fact that the Devils Lake outlet in North Dakota operated this summer and the likelihood of ‘new’, non-native species being introduced — and one realizes the extent of the challenge.

The nutrient problem may be the easiest one to tackle — because real action can make a difference over time. Dealing with invasive species once they’ve arrived will prove a much greater challenge. Anticipating the effects of climate change is also unresolved in detail, though water shortages (reduced lake inflows) appear a likely result.

What Lake Winnipeg needs is some TLC; some focussed attention.

The province’s Lake Winnipeg Action Plan must be revisited. It recommends reducing the concentration of N and P to pre-1970 levels. That’s not nearly ambitious enough.

A 1974 study commissioned by the province urged immediate attention to the N-P problem. Twenty-four years on we appear no farther ahead.


“A comprehensive study should be commenced as soon as possible to prevent further degradation of Lake Winnipeg and to determine possible methods of lake restoration.”

“The nutrients in the lake make the water particularly fertile and predisposed to algae bloom whenever the appropriate climatic conditions occur.”

“A comprehensive water quality study of Lake Winnipeg and of the contributing drainage is required. Since it appears the main concern in this lake is aquatic blooms, the study should be carried out with major emphasis on the identification of nutrient inputs and the effect of control measures.
“The study should be commenced as soon as possible to prevent further degradation of this important water resource and to determine possible methods of lake restoration.”

— SOURCE: “Water Quality Study: South Portion of Lake Winnipeg”, 1974. Department of Mines, Resources and Environmental Management, Environmental Management Division, Environmental Protection Branch.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Banking on 'nature'

Some of the best minds of our generation believe that we need to build a new economic model — one that incorporates the 'capital' of the natural world.

It's a terrestrial attempt to re-order our thinking both about nature and value.

Traditional economic models consider gross and quantifiable things such as money; it's the 'currency' of basic economics. But there's been a paradigm shift coming for years, as the big thinkers who think about these things try to incorporate 'instruments' that 'measure' the economic contribution of ecosystems.

The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) — a UN-backed report released in Japan Oct. 20 — argues that preserving the Earth's biodiversity has a value that should be weighed in engineering, business planning and the whole sweep of economic activity. (See The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity)

The web of life is inextricably intertwined. Bees, marshes, coral reefs, marine ecosystems all have real value, the report concludes. The valuations outlined in the report are staggering. And they are not entirely arbitrary, though there is — as one might expect in such a sea change in thinking — some statistical jiggery-pokery.

The value of the pollination performed by bees, for instance. In Switzerland, bee colonies ensured a yearly agricultural production worth about US $213 million by providing pollination, about five times value of the production of honey, the report states, citing statistical data from 2005.

Conserving forests rather than allowing their wholesale denudation is pegged as having a 'value' of US $3.7 trillion a year.

One can poke fun at the numbers. One can argue that the assumptions that gave rise to them are, in some cases, questionable. One can muse that, taken to extreme, we should also be talking about the value of the Milky Way Galaxy. (An interesting thought, philosophically, if outside of the sweep of the Earth-based model suggested in TEEB.)

Those waverings aside, there is a certain spirit in the intent of TEEB that amply warrants a closer look.

We take too many things for granted. We have accepted that the Earth's bounty is inexhaustible. Our rapacious appetites will always be quenched, we've assumed. But there are, we have come to understand, limits in what we can take without giving back.

Consider the case of Lake Winnipeg, the world's tenth largest freshwater lake by surface area. It's that big body of water smack in the middle of North America. It's become a nutrient-rich lake in a process known largely as cultural eutrophication — the three-dollar word for human-caused over-fertilization with the nutrients Nitrogen (N) and Phosphorous (P).

Core samples of the lake bottom indicate that this over-fertilization began to increase in the early-1960s, coinciding with the rise of agricultural application of fertilizers to promote crop growth and the expansion of cities in Lake Winnipeg's vast one-million-square-kilometre watershed.

By the early-70s another human-caused innovation appeared when the province's hydroelectric utility won a licence to regulate lake levels. That changed the natural pattern of outflows at the top end of the lake north into the Nelson River.

This change in the natural pattern also affected the marsh at the south end of the lake. Netley-Libau marsh has been literally losing ground ever since. A marsh that had once acted as a vigorous nutrient filter — removing N and P before they got into the lake — became hobbled as vegetation losses mounted.

Returning to the notion of natural capital. The marsh has both a natural value as a wetland but it also performs the salutary and valuable function of reducing nutrient loading. As well, the introduction of lake regulation has an effect on the natural rhythms of the lake. In the updated business modelling suggested in TEEB, that cost to the lake's 'natural capital' should have been calculated in a thorough cost-benefit analysis of the implications of lake regulation.

In another example we can consider the value farmers provide when they retain wetlands on their property. Past practice has been to drain the wetlands to put them into production. But the values that wetlands bring suggest a need to rethink that once-automatic business decision. Instead, in many cases, there is more value in keeping the on-farm wetlands intact. The other side of the coin is that farmers should be compensated for the value of the retained wetlands on their properties.

The TEEB model may appear complex, but it underscores the needed recognition that our traditional economics is anaemic and needs a fix.

The value of TEEB is that it serves as a recognition that our past way of doing things cannot continue. If we withdraw all our natural capital, we will have lost everything.

Google: Changes in the Emergent Plant
Community of Netley-Libau Marsh Between 1979 and 2001
If you cannot find the pdf contact me at I'd be happy to e-mail the 1.7 Mb report.

Monday, October 11, 2010

The mind freeze of immediacy

There’s nothing quite on a par with CNN’s constant barrage of breaking news.

Cable News Network was created by Ted Turner as a counterpoint and challenge to broadcast TV institutions like ABC and NBC. The upstart is now the goliath in global reportage.

While in hospitality in the fall of 2008, CNN proved itself to me, a newcomer to the bombardment offered relentlessly by CNN and its iconic anchors.

From obnoxiously pugnacious Lou Dodds to the avuncular Wolf Blitzer, CNN features a cast of thousands — dozens of anchors and hundreds of reporters on the ground the world over. 

More compelling, though, is the number of experts they bring to bear on even the most arcane element of a breaking story. These analysts — former Washington insiders, ex-advisors to presidents and principals in the latest story — offer added spice to the already rapid-fire news delivery inextricably associated with CNN.

The breaking story this day was the second presidential debate; this one held in Nashville, Tenn. Well it wasn’t so much ‘breaking’ as building.

I started watching CNN coverage at about noon Oct. 7, 2008. On the right-bottom of the screen there was a countdown clock, showing just under eight hours to the start of the televized debate.

CNN covered the lead-up with stories that constructed and deconstructed every element of what might happen, what needed to happen, what should happen during the debate between Democrat Barrack Obama and Republican stalwart John McCain.

There were graphs, talking heads, clips from speeches on the stump by Obama and McCain — all interspersed with fervent commentary and rapid-fire, on-your-feet analysis. (Well, it was ‘on-your-feet’ because the members of the august ‘panel’ were standing up.)

Inevitably the hour arrived, when all the prognostications and sage advice gave way to the actual debate. Thank goodness. After the hour-and-a-half townhall between the two presidential hopefuls, there came an hour-and-a-half of post-debate analysis.

The overkill is hallmark for CNN. But, stripped of its talking heads, its compelling graphics and puerile enthusiasm, one is left with the debris or wreckage of this whirlwind of breathless reportage.

Much of the CNN coverage was repetitive — a rehash and remake of what had already been aired. Stuff gets repackaged as the day goes on, but the core is the same. There’s not a lot of meat on these bones.

CNN cut its teeth on the first Gulf War. Its reporters on the ground captured the blood and guts of the war. It reminded some viewers of the ground-breaking coverage of the Vietnam War decades before. But the CNN reporters were, most often, safely ensconced at ritzy hotels in Baghdad, reporting the bombings that lit up the night sky.

Occasionally, a reporter was embedded with the troops on the ground, but rarely at the frontline.

Nevertheless, CNN proved its formula of providing immediate global coverage. Immediacy is sine qua non; it is the Holy Grail of modern television coverage.

This immediacy and superficial coverage are critical in the CNN ethos. But the treacly, adolescent coverage is too much about image and repetition than about cutting-edge content.

In the end, CNN wants to be something it cannot be in its present form. It would have to embrace intellectual honesty and turf most of its cast. That’s unlikely.

CNN and its digital spawn, Fox News, bore into our minds 24/7. They carve content into morsels that are easily digested. It’s news by a thousand cuts.

In 2008 when I was forced to watch it while I lay in a hospital bed, CNN was all the things that modern journalism should not be. Two years later, it is the template others use to extract the intellectually lazy viewer to the blood, sweat and tears of local and global events. It’s an example of what I’ve called elsewhere the relentless pursuit of the obvious — which pretty much sums up the sad state of modern journalism. Investigation gives way to sound and photo bites.

We’re nipping at the heels of our common reality because CNN set the bar as low as it could possibly go. That was then. The bar has dropped below the surface.

Sad, really.

The answer my friend

The wasp hovers momentarily, then flits laterally, vertically — zipping to and fro, repeating cycles of its dance.

The humming bird, its wings beating so quickly it’s all a blur.

The hare stops to study its surroundings, its ears pricked to every breeze and nuance of sound, its nose puffing at the wind.

Living a rural life affords the simple pleasure of seeing wild creatures going about their business.

Most of the North American population is lost to this magic. We live in cities and towns, designed it seems to push away the natural in favour of gated communities, storm-water retention ponds, the ersatz lakes of the present moment.

A city presses around us, a vice that loosens rarely. It seems improbable that we should have chosen the city as the best means of living together. There must be other ways to live.
But the pastoral life we may once have cherished has given way to the crush of humanity we know as a city.

Sheer numbers force the creation of knots of humanity, linked by the commonalities of our culture, that group-think of the present moment. Cars, buses, taxis and bicycles compete along the cement corridors that physically link city dwellers to one another.

‘The street’ is where life happens; it’s our modern commons of curbed and moulded pathways. Off the well-beaten thoroughfares, we eke an existence on the sidestreets of modern life, cajoling some semblance of joy and balance in an improbable world — the comforting drone of the always-on television giving assurance that we are part of something greater, better.

Youngsters play hockey on these residential streets or play stick on retention ponds that contain the runoff from our streets of golden dreams. Backlanes are hidden, coming off secondary streets at right angles. Faded garages, chipped driveways and sullen people raking the fall detritus from their lawns ooze along these dismal paths, reserved otherwise for garbage cans and dumpsters, and marauding youth looking for Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg or whatever troupe of wild-eyed poets and gangsters may cross their path.

In the faraway land of a city’s downtown core, the grease that’s poured on the street is dark and sublimely nihilistic. The ethos is getting high, getting laid, getting drunk, getting of the madding train to ruin but always paying the conductor his due.

Urban planners and activists strive to colour over the pain. There’s an urgency to deny the darkness; it cannot penetrate the city’s soul, though it’s this malaise that says more of a city than all the positive spins of politicians who envision, always, a brighter future.

The tribes that roamed North America in search of food 10,000 years ago saw the changes in the days and seasons. The aurora borealis was more than a talking point in a high school astronomy class; it shimmered evanescent in the northern sky, speaking to the soul.

The orange glow near city overpasses rubs out the night sky, shaking off the once-luminescent Milky Way. The piercing lights of our consumptive city life are seen from the moon as patches of exploding electromagnetic activity, as if they meant something, a sort of message to the great beyond.

Here in my rural hometown, one can see the stars. There’s not a traffic light in town, and street lights are few and far between.

Walking the dog for its diurnal constitutional, the night sky dances overhead on a cloudless evening.

Should we return to the city and its cornucopia of ‘opportunity’, its promise of savings accounts to the good financial manager, its vibrant arts and culture scene?

Or should we wander timelessly through these fields of stream in the hinterlands?

The answer, my friends ....

Sunday, October 10, 2010

When we're down and troubled

Life can be tedious, but it can also be joyful.

I am usually upbeat, though lately things are going to hell in a wicker fruit basket with cheerful designs on it.

I quit my job then days later my meagre paycheque was garnisheed to pay a debt that's been nagging at me since my ex left more than two years ago.

On the quit my job front, I was left with no choice. My employer had been piling on more and more work without providing any resources to get all the new jobs done. Well, I was the 'resource' but there's a limit to what one person can do after having already put in a full week writing, editing and publishing a weekly newspaper.

In effect, my employer, at his whim, changed my job. I was hired nine years ago to put out the best newspaper in the province. I think our numerous writing awards each of those years proved we were doing just that. However — as we were told — that's not quite good enough. There is, after all, this wonderful abstraction called convergence. (A word almost as misused as synergy — another word for nothing.)

Convergence in the publishing industry is all about producing both a print product and a digital product. The only problem in the case of Sun Media, my illustrious employer, is that they think I can converge at a moment's notice. And that I'll do all the heavy convergence lifting for my newspaper. In all, Sun Media, knowing full well that some people are not slaves to some flawed corporate ideology, showed me the door. I had no choice.

On the garnishee business, I wrote to my creditor and made an offer that I could live with — they could not. I acknowledged my debt, though some of it was racked up during my years with my ex. We had structured our lives (home, car, spending) on a double income. When she left (and I'm not suggesting she didn't have good reason), I was left to cover a mortgage built for two, outstanding debts we'd both accumulated and so forth.

I'm not faulting the credit card company for trying to recover its money. The card was in my name; I am the only person responsible in the eyes of the law.

So there you are. It's been a bit of a trying week.

The upside is that I can always shovel snow, paint, write and do all manner of physical labour.

I'll need all of that because there's every chance the folks at Employment Insurance will not look favorably on my decision to leave my employ. I would argue — though I hope I don't have to because it will take aeons to pursue — that what happened to me, as happens to many people everyday, amounts to constructive dismissal. The Supreme Court of Canada has weighed in on this.

The essence of the 1997 decision of Canada's highest court is that an employer cannot unilaterally (even if not acting in bad faith) change a person's employment contract.

My argument could hinge on whether I actually had a contract of employment. However that would be splitting legal hairs in my opinion. In any event, it's a battle I'd sooner not have to wage.

Such are the challenges we face in these 'modern' times. It seems our employers have us over the proverbial barrel. It's ever been thus, one supposes.

Of course, I needn't have left my job. I could have continued to suffer the ignominy, the arrogant expectations of my employer. (It's small consolation but I'm not the first to leave Mother Corp; nor will I be the last.)

There is a limit to what each of us can abide. I'm probably more accommodating than most. Things just got out of hand.

Tough beans for me, I guess.

Not to worry. There's always an upside. Look for the joy; be prepared for it.

It's only a dream away.