Wednesday, 28 January 2009

Budget 2009: Squandered Opportunity


Well, it's not like I was expecting great things from the Harper government's return to work. I'm of the opinion that 'stimulus packages' aren't going to do much to improve the economy anyway, so it was out of curiosity, not hope, that I paid any attention to the budget presented by Finance Minister Flaherty yesterday.

But even my lowered expectations were too high, apparently. The budget is more of the same old same old, but with a huge deficit thrown in to the mix. The ceiling on some tax brackets have been changed, with the result that people (who still have jobs) will pay about $100 - $150 less tax per year. If the government thinks I'm going to go on a spending spree with that, they are quite out of touch. That money is going straight to debt repayment.

Oh, I'll get another tax break if I build a deck or maybe an addition to my house (Like the PM seems to be doing in this convenient photo-op - who thinks up these lame poses anyway?). That is, if I spend up to $1350 on renos, I can reduce my taxes by 15% of that, a whopping $202.50. Wow. I think I'll pass. I'm not spending $ 1350 to get $200 back - do the math! (NOTE - see my correction of these numbers below.)

And infrastructure spending - there's billions of dollars promised, but they all hinge on whether municipalities and provincial governments kick in equivalent amounts. What good is that? A lot of provinces and municipalities can't afford to pay for even part of these projects, so that money will just sit there and not 'stimulate' anything. And, projects that do get the funding are subject to fewer environmental impact assessments than previously - this is all done in the name of expediency, but really it just allows the government an excuse to cut back on already poor environmental regulation.

This could have been an opportunity for the government to be bold, seize the moment, and do things like provide grants to insulate houses, or target money to the auto industry to re-tool for things like buses, and light rail cars. Harper could have used some stimulus money to foster development of solar or wind power, but instead he pretends to be 'green' by supporting things like carbon capture and storage. (If we reduced our greenhouse gas emissions through alternative energies and conservation, we wouldn't need to 'capture' and 'store' them!) But Harper's not a 'seize-the-moment' kind of guy. He's a 'how-can-I-craft-this-to-serve-my-purposes' kind of guy.

The new leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, Michael Ignatieff, has already decided to ask for amendments to the budget rather than voting against it and toppling the government. I was all for a coalition government taking over before this whole prorogue debacle started, but now I don't even care. Partly because I'm trying not to get so caught up in such things anymore, but partly because if this is the kind of thing Harper is going to propose as a solution to Canada's economic problems, then he can darn well live with the consequences.

NOTE: According to the CBC this morning (January 29, 2008), individuals can claim up to $9000 in reno costs and then receive 15% of this back, or $1350. The numbers are different, but the rate of return is the same. Plus, I don't know too many people who have nine grand floating around to sink into renovations - not without going into more debt anyway.

Friday, 23 January 2009

Fear and Consumption :Updated with Letter to City Council

I have been wanting to write on this topic for a while now, but things haven't gelled in my head enough to do so. I've had a post on the back burner for almost a year that I rework now and then, but I'm never happy with. Today I'm going to write about the topic anyway, from scratch, because I heard something on the CBC's Edmonton AM this morning that really, really ticked me off.

The radio host was interviewing the owner of a company that proposes to put huge, double sided video screens on several major thoroughfares around Edmonton. These dozens of screens would post emergency information or other urgent information in the public interest, such as amber alerts (when a child may have been abducted), extreme weather warnings, etc. The idea is that putting this information out near the driving public would be the best way to get the information disseminated quickly. Apart from the fact that this info is already broadcast on radio and tv stations already, it sounds pretty good so far, right?

Well, when there isn't an emergent or urgent situation happening, the screens would be filled with commercial advertising. When the radio host asked the company owner what the expected proportion of advertising to emergency information was, the owner dodged the question, saying that the screens would be dedicated to emergency information only for up to 7 days when an emergency occurred. The host pressed for the information again, saying that surely the expected proportion would have to be known so the owner could guarantee advertisers a certain amount of 'screen time' for their money. This is where it gets good: the owner then said, with quite a lot of defensiveness in his voice, that surely 'saving the lives of one or two little girls' outweighs every other consideration and makes the proportion of advertising time irrelevant. The radio host then made the comment that he expected the owner would be making that point in particular when he goes to City Council to pitch his idea.

Deep breath. Ok.

How dare he. How dare that man play on fear to sell the idea of his advertising business!!! And how dare he mix fear and consumption in the first place!!! Can you imagine this: driving down the road and seeing, say, a tornado warning on the big screen, and then shortly afterward being shown an advertisement for emergency equipment? Or being shown that the road is slippery ahead and then being shown an advertisement for snow tires? Or how about being shown an amber alert, with the emotional sight of a missing child's face, and then after the amber alert is lifted, having the ads be heavily weighted for house and car security systems, or the government's latest pre-election "get tough on crime" spot?

Fear and advertising should never, NEVER, be mixed. They are mixed, all the time though. Maybe its not as blatant as these screens would have it mixed, but all the time we are bombarded with messages in the media that danger/discomfort/hardship exists everywhere and wouldn't this nice (insert your choice of consumer produce or service here) make everything better/nicer/easier for you. Don't worry your pretty little head about the tough stuff, just keep consuming yourself into a soporific state and we the multinational corporation/paternalistic government will take care of everything. Just get comfortably numb and let the 'invisible hand' of the market work its magic.

One of the worst parts of the whole radio interview was that the business owner seemed to think that there was no problem with this approach. And, the radio host's comments seemed to imply that the owner's argument could be expected to have good leverage with City Council. Nothing like 'business as usual,' eh?

You can bet that the owner of this business will be receiving a letter from me. I doubt it will have any effect, but I'm not afraid, and I'm certainly not comfortably numb.

(Repeated bailout schemes, varying terror alerts, new psychiatric 'disorders', 'catastrophic health emergency insurance,' they're all good for business aren't they? Has anyone else seen any blatant or subtle examples of the mixing of fear and the corporate push to consume?)

Image courtesy this website.

Update, January 26, 2009

The following is the letter I submitted via email to Edmonton City Council today. I received email confirmation that it has been distributed to the councilors for their review:
Hello Council Members:

A recent story on CBC Radio talked about a businessman who would be pitching his idea of having large video screen billboards on various high-traffic routes around the city. These would carry emergency information about 1% of the time and advertising the other 99%. I am writing to convey my dismay and disgust with such an idea.

First, such changeable advertisements would be extremely distracting to drivers, making city streets even more hazardous than they already are. Second, and this is where my disgust comes from, these screens would provide a venue for advertisers, and this businessman, to profit from fear. Imagine that an amber alert has just been lifted, and the screen goes back to advertising, say for home security systems, or self-defense classes, etc. The fact that an amber alert had just been in effect could well be used to scare or intimidate people into buying such products. This would be an insidious and sickening use of advertising.

I strongly urge city council to reject this businessman's proposal when he pitches it to you. Surely our city will not stand for such coercive and manipulative tactics.



Tuesday, 20 January 2009

What might Obama mean for Canadians?

President Obama's inauguration speech was on TV today while I was at work. Luckily for me, I happened to be out on the mental health housing unit at the jail where I work, and so I was able to catch the last half of the new President's speech on the inmates' small unit TV. About half of the inmates on the unit were watching too.

It was a neat moment, all of us from different walks of life watching this historic event. I got goosebumps from time to time; inmates clapped and cheered at certain rousing points of the speech. The inmates and I exchanged some smiles and comments during the speech, with one inmate saying at one point, "I wish I was an American." In reading some of the comments at the CBC website this evening, it seems quite a few Canadians are expressing the same kind of sentiment.

I wouldn't go quite that far myself. I've always been glad to be Canadian, and glad that there are some differences between our two countries. For instance, I'm happy we have Quebec in our country and I like that we have two official languages. I'm also glad that our country gained independence via negotiation, and I don't mind being characterized as being overly polite.

That being said, listening to Obama's speech today, it sure made me wish (again!) for some visionary leadership. I do think that Obama's presidency will have some positive effects on Canada, which is a fairly obvious statement to make I suppose. Some of the effects I hope to see 'rub off' on Canadian politics look something like this:
  • A move towards a more open and respectful political tone overall.
  • The re-valuing of meaningful discourse, rather than the same old 'one-up-manship.'
  • The re-valuing of science when making policy decisions rather than relying on the same old, tired ideological dogma.
  • A renewed focus on what we all have in common as Canadians rather than playing one region or party against the others.
  • Increased acceptance that the world has changed, and that it's time to pull together to work on the challenges that face the human race and the planet we all live on.
  • Honest appreciation for the day-to-day grind that ordinary people face just making ends meet.
  • Some better speech writing - c'mon people, surely there are some half decent Canadian speech writers out there who can help our politicians convey a sense of enthusiasm now and then!
Canadian parliament opens again next week, after a lengthy period of prorogue. I hope that Harper and Ignatieff took in Obama's speech today and decide to govern themselves accordingly. Yes they can!

Monday, 19 January 2009

A Tale of Five Seeds - The Beginning

So I have taken the plunge and joined the Seed and Plant Sanctuary for Canada. I've chosen my five seed types that I will plant and report back on, and confirmed all this with the organizer of the whole project. So here are 'the chosen five' along with a little blurb about why I chose it:

1) Echinacea: I've been wanting to grow this for a couple years now. I buy the echinacea pills all the time and do take them whenever I feel a sore throat or cold coming on, and while I have a cold. It does seem to help minimize the severity and the length of the colds I get, although the one I have now is a doozy and nothing seems to help. I have also thought that it would be a good thing to take as a tea regularly, and maybe something I could sell/trade if TEOTWAWKI circumstances arrive. Or even if they don't. Plus the flowers are pretty.

2) Chinese Rhubarb: I was planning on planting some kind of rhubarb this Spring because it is one of the first things that is harvestable in my cold climate, and I do love the tart taste of rhubarb made like applesauce. It freezes well, and its flavor reminds me of being a kid. And apparently the flavor of this variety is superior to most others. Then when I noticed that you can use the leaves as a bug repellent and the fibre for paper, I definitely wanted to try this variety out.

3) Golden Rocky Bean: I had great luck with my bush snap beans last year. I didn't measure the yield objectively, but I'm sure that the amount of food per square foot of beans planted was the most of anything I planted last year. So when I saw that this bean can be used as a fresh bean in summer and then dried to use as a black bean in winter, I just had to try it. I will still pickle some beans, because they were so delicious that way, but being able to dry the beans to use another way is very practical.

4) Burnet Saxifraga: Ever since hearing the Urban Gardener speak last Spring, I've been wanting to try growing some perennial salad greens. This one seems to fit the bill, and as a bonus our two guinea pigs are likely to enjoy these greens as well. I bought a few more potentially perennial green seeds as well, but this one sounded like the most cold hardy, and so the most likely to survive our cold winters.

5) Parsely Giante d'Italia: This is a cold hardy parsely, that apparently will seed itself quite easily. It is also a rare cultivar, so I thought I'd give something rare a try! And again, the guinea pigs eat parsely as a fairly regular treat, so I grow some kind of parsely every year. I've just never tried growing it from seed before, so this could be interesting!

I've cobbled together a spreadsheet with the categories I'm thinking of using for record-keeping purposes, but thanks to a comment from Apple Jack Creek I may switch over to a photo-based record system, which will probably convey a lot more information. Thanks for the suggestion AJC!

Picture courtesy New Botany

Friday, 16 January 2009

Seed and Plant Sanctuary for Canada

While putting in my seed order to Salt Spring Seeds a few weeks ago, I clicked on a link to the Seed and Plant Sanctuary of Canada. This seed sanctuary is run by the Salt Spring Seed folks, and as part of their mandate they have been enlisting the help of hundreds of plant-loving seedy-type people across Canada to expand the sanctuary. Canadians can sign up for active membership with the sanctuary for a small fee, and receive up to 5 types of seeds to grow in their area of the country. If you report back to the sanctuary folks about the results of the growing 'trial', you qualify for a different batch of 5 types of seeds the next year. And so on, and so on. In the words of Salt Spring Seeds' Dan Jason:

"Along with the many gardeners and farmers on Salt Spring Island who are growing out seeds for the Sanctuary, we also have several hundred Active Members across Canada. Their work is essential to see how varieties do in other parts of the country and through a lot of growing years. It is also crucial to have living gene banks elsewhere in case of crop failures, fires, floods or genetic contamination here on Salt Spring."

Growing and saving seeds in various parts of the country makes sense, so we don't put all our "seeds in one basket" so to speak. Dan speaks out strongly for the necessity of growing out the seeds and collecting new seed year after year, in various parts of the country, so that the plants continually adapt to changing circumstances as the climate itself changes.

In the documentary "Gardens of Destiny," Dan points out that saving seed in large 'doomsday' repositories for years - decades- on end, may be less of a food security measure than we'd hoped, since by the time the seeds are needed, climate and other environmental factors may have changed so much that the seeds just can't grow in those conditions anymore. Seeds lose some of their viability over time anyway, and if the seed starts off less potent and then has to contend with changes in humidity levels, a thinner ozone layer, earlier or later first/last frost dates, less or more rain or ground water, then it stands to reason that the odds of the seed actually producing a good yield would be much lower.

I'm in the process of applying to become an active member in Canada's seed sanctuary. It turns out many of the seeds I already ordered from Salt Spring Seeds are ones that they are encouraging people across Canada to grow and report back on. I'm just waiting to hear back from the SSS folks as to how to best document my 'trial' in the way that would be most useful for their database. I haven't anything other than blog sporadically about my garden outcomes over the past two years, and it's time I changed that. I'm going to need to get more organized and consistent about how I record how well things grow here, so I can maximize my chances of dependable yields. I want to grow things and track things with the idea that one day what I grow might be all (or almost all) we have to eat. Last year I still had somewhat of a 'hobby' mentality about the garden - it was just a neat thing to try. But this year it's time to step things up to the next level.

On that note, does anyone have any favorite ways of documenting your garden successes and/or failures? What sorts of information do you take note of? Planting and harvesting dates? Specific location the seed was planted? Estimated yields? Diseases or anomalies? I really don't know what type of information will be the most useful to record. I want to record this stuff on the computer but also keep paper copies in a binder or something. Any suggestions are much appreciated!

Picture of one happy Dan Jason courtesy Salt Spring Seeds

Monday, 12 January 2009

Old Cold, New Seeds

I am either fighting off the second round of my first cold (which started before Christmas!), or I'm the lucky recipient of a second cold. Either way, I've spent far too much time in the last few days coughing and/or blowing my nose. So, instead of a 'real' blog post, I will take the easy way out and post the list of the seeds I received from Salt Spring Seeds last week. Their website is a wealth of information on all of these plants and more. First the veggies, then the culinary and medicinal herbs:
  • Lettuce - a blend of 20 kinds
  • Bush Snap Bean - "Provider"
  • Bush Snap Bean - an unusual kind called "Tanya's pink pod."
  • Beans - "Golden Rocky" - golden when fresh, black bean when dried for winter use
  • Greens - 'Burnet Saxifraga' - a perennial green that attracts beneficial insects.
  • Greens - 'Bietina' - a rare type of Swiss chard that is cold hardy
  • Greens - Salad Burnet - another perennial salad green the leaves of which can also be dried for tea.
  • Peas - 'Cascadia'
  • Chinese Rhubarb - stems good raw or cooked, leaves are insect repellent and its fiber is good for home made paper.
  • Cucumbers - 'Senger Farm'
  • French Sorrell - another perennial salad green with a lemony flavor.
  • Plain Leaf Chervil - cold hardy
  • Parsley - 'giante d'Italia' - cold tolerant and can re-seed itself.
  • St. John's Wort - "antispasmodic, antidepressant, antiviral properties. Good bee and border plant."
  • Echinacea (the purple kind) - boosts immune system
  • Calamint - "aromatic tea herb...a cross between mint and marjoram"
  • Milk Thistle - beneficial for the liver
  • Evening Primrose - "Alleviates PMS. Roots can be eaten as a vegetable, shoots as a salad."
  • Wild Thyme - drought tolerant; I'm going to use this in the rock path leading to the garden.
  • Lemon Bergamot
  • Calendula Mix - used in skin lotions, petals are edible
  • Codonopsis - "Hardy, shade-loving vine. Roots have a similar effect to Ginseng."
  • Coltsfoot - "used for bronchitis, whooping cough, and asthma."
  • Chinese Motherwort - attracts bees, used to reduce high blood pressure.
  • Baikal Skullcap - "prized Chinese medicinal for fevers, colds, high blood pressure, headaches, hepatitis and shingles."
Getting the seeds in the mail was a high point in my week, and I've been dreaming of my herb garden ever since -- in between blowing my nose, that is! Maybe next year (or the year after) I'll have Echinacea tea of my own to drink so I can keep my colds down to one a year instead of two per month!

I just recently rounded out my vegetable seed supply with an order from Bowseed, after going through the seeds I already have to make sure I don't double up on things I don't need. I've been ordering in larger quantities as well, due to the potential seed shortages I've been hearing about. Plus, it is a lot less expensive to buy seed in larger packages. Here's what I ordered from Bowseed:

Beans - Tendergreen - (these are the ones that produced so well for me last year)
Carrots - Chantenay Red Core - (these have also worked well for me in my soil conditions.)
Endive - Green Curled Ruffec - (our guinea pigs love this stuff!)
Kale, Siberian - (also a favorite of the pigs, and of the people.)
Lettuce - Grand Rapids - (a leaf lettuce that is an early producer, according to the catalog)
Peas - Oregon Sugar - (a sweet and early pea with an edible pod)
Pumpkins - Small Sugar - (the kind you can use for pie)
Spinach - Hybrid #7 - (a hybrid that is apparently good for this area)
Squash - Table Queen or Acorn (I will be planting these only in moderation this year!)
Swiss Chard - Ruby Red - (beautiful and tasty!)

By the way, I have an extra copy of the 2009 Bowseed Catalogue if anyone would like it. Their seeds are field tested to be hardy to this area (Zone 2 - 3). Just leave me a message in the comments if you would like me to mail it to you.

I hope everyone is keeping well and warm this Winter, and staving off the worst of the cold/flu season.

Saturday, 10 January 2009

2009: International Year of Astronomy

Last night while checking out the weather forecast on the Weather Network, the announcer mentioned that this year was the International Year of Astronomy. The guest astronomer talked about what neat stuff that could be seen in the night sky in Winter in the northern hemisphere, and encouraged people to go outside and look up, in the spirit of the 400th anniversary of Galileo's use of the telescope.

Then this morning, while listening to the news, I heard about IYA2009 again, and this time the astronomer was encouraging to take a look at Jupiter, saying that Galileo was the first to discover it had moons, with nothing but a low powered telescope.

On the way home from grocery shopping this evening Gord and I saw what we thought must have been Jupiter in the southwest horizon. We talked about taking my telescope outside and checking it out. I have a neat telescope I bought with money I saved from my part time job in Grade 9 - it is a bulbous little thing but it gets the job done for the amateur astronomy I'm interested in. By the time we were ready to head outside Jupiter had sunk below the horizon, but even with my little birding binoculars I got to see the orangy tones of Betelgeuse and the bluish hue of Rigel in the constellation of Orion. And the moon is full as well - just gorgeous with the naked eye, and nicely detailed in the sights of my binoculars. I'll get the telescope up and ready a bit earlier tomorrow night, keeping my fingers crossed for clear skies, so I can catch Jupiter before it sets.

Looking up at the stars always makes me feel connected with the bigness of the universe, just like paying attention to my breathing can give me a feeling of connectedness with the smallness of the molecules I breathe in and out. I like that.

Have you looked up, way up, lately?

Picture of Orion courtesy NASA.

Sunday, 4 January 2009

Breakfast lessons

Yesterday Gord requested that we have a 'nice breakfast' today, Sunday morning. This request is short form for a breakfast consisting of eggs, toast, hashbrowns, and maybe some fake bacon, or possibly Dutch pancakes or French toast. We have an excess of eggs at the moment, as well as some fake bacon to use up, so I opted for the first choice. I'm not a terrific cook by any means, but I can whip up a pretty good breakfast.

The breakfast itself turned out well: my homemade hashbrown patties were nice and crisp, I managed to make Gord's eggs over medium like he likes them, and my egg soft basted the way I like it, all at the same time as having the toast ready. And the fake bacon is always just bacon-y enough to satisfy one of my few cravings for meaty flavor.

I sat down with my breakfast, along with my tea and orange juice and dug in. My thought process went something like this:

"Gotta eat my egg while it's hot. Wait, gotta taste that hashbrown patty first to see if it's crisp this time. Oo...I need a swig of tea while it's hot too. My toast is getting cold, ack! My bacon is cold already, dang! Hurry hurry, dunk toast in egg yolk! No time for orange juice, gotta have hot toast!"

About 30 seconds into this, I realized that maybe a breakfast consisting of six items, including two beverages, is too much to appreciate properly. I was just gobbling it all up. Maybe it would be better to just have egg and toast OR hasbrowns and bacon, so I can enjoy everything while it's hot and not have to rush or gobble. This seems obvious, but until I actually paid attention to my thoughts, I didn't even realize I was rushing and gobbling.

Funny how this is a lesson that keeps popping up for me - probably because I haven't actually learned it yet. It strikes me that this is a lesson that our society hasn't learned yet either. We're still rushing and gobbling at the world's un-refillable buffet table, leaving little for those who are further back in line. Another lesson for me personally is that of humility: I continue to make the mistake of mindless consumption at my literal breakfast table and need to remain compassionate towards those doing the same at the metaphorical world buffet table.

Further, I need to continue to work on becoming mindful of these things beforehand, rather than just catching myself in hindsight. Doing so, and changing my habits accordingly, could serve as an example that sets off a chain of insight in someone else, and so on. Not that what I do is particularly exemplary, just that seeing someone do something differently tends to have more of an impact that just talking about it. Which brings me back to my 'resolution' for 2009, which is, in a nutshell, more action and less talk.

Picture of veggie bacon courtesy this blog.

Thursday, 1 January 2009

New Year's Ambiguity

Well, here we are in 2009 already. I don't feel particularly hopeful or excited, but mostly just strange and ambiguous about what the year will bring.

Over the past nine days I've been out of town, visiting with family and friends on Vancouver Island. In speaking with people there, there seems to be little in the way of concern for how things might go in the future. I heard people talk about the economy rebounding later this year or early in 2010, and how they look forward to things getting back to "normal." Things are being spruced up for the 2010 Vancouver winter Olympics, so there are building projects here and there, with large industrial cranes dotting the skyline even in Victoria. Making mention of the possibility that things may not 'normalize' so quickly, if ever, is glossed over. I don't press the point much, since I'm a guest in people's homes and it seems guests shouldn't be unpleasant or difficult, especially over the holidays. And, I confess, it is easy to revert into that mindset, to think that things will continue to be as they have always been: easy, convenient, pleasant and benign. But yet I can't escape the knowledge that all things change; nothing is permanent.

So, I'll get back to doing the stuff that makes sense no matter what the future holds: paying off debt, storing some food, learning some new and practical skills, getting better at gardening, trying to make do with less, and continuing to work on becoming a more compassionate person.

Maybe that's my long way of saying that I'm resolving to make 2009 a year of more walk and less talk.