Monday, November 30, 2009

Canada an international disgrace?

A while ago, I read a notion that our minds and our knowledge of world events are very much shaped by the media we are exposed to. I thought this sort of an absurd thing to point out in a day of overwhelming information everywhere you turn. I figured I must be receiving a balanced view of the world through the various channels I follow, be it blogs, Globe and Mail, Google News, etc. etc. Then I found the following articles at the major UK newspaper, the Guardian.

Scientists target Canada over climate change
Canada's image lies in tatters

I knew that Stephen Harper was toying with the notion of not attending the Copenhagen climate talks and that there was some bad blood about this in the international media, but nothing like the above. No calling Canada a "thuggish petro-state" or claiming that the biggest obstacle to a major agreement in Copenhagen is Canada. Any mention of all of this bad press in the Globe and Mail? No. National Post? No.

Not only am I disappointed in the national media I follow, but it just gives me more reason to despise the current group of politicians running this once highly respected nation.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Complete trash

On the tail of my wife's wonderfully concise posting on believing everything you read on the Internet, I've decided to do a nauseatingly verbose case study on the issue. This whole H1N1 paranoia has brought a slew of questions my way. You come to expect this as a pharmacist, and you even get used to dealing with absolutely absurd preconceptions, but nothing on the scale like we're dealing with now.

It didn't surprise me then when I started to receive unsolicited forwards in my e-mail inbox about first the dangers of H1N1 and later the dangers of the vaccine. (It is interesting how the paranoia started out so focused on the disease itself and then quickly morphed into maniacal fear of the vaccine that is the only real way we could fight the disease. How did we do this?)

Friends and family wanted me to evaluate the e-mails and tell me what I thought. Of course, I barely even wanted to give this crap the time of day, so all I said was, "Don't sweat it. It's all crap." But soon that wasn't enough for them. They wanted more. They wanted me to refute the facts (if you can call them that). So here goes. I will now systematically destroy two common e-mails circulating around the world.

1. Keeping cut onions around the house will fend off the flu has done a wonderful job of this one, so I will just point you there.

2. Dr. Russell Blaylock on Swine Flu

If you haven't seen this e-mail yet, I will post it below as I tear apart each point. However, let us first discuss the purported author. As my astute spouse pointed out, it's highly possible this physician never wrote this article. But reading up on him leads me to believe it is equally likely that he did. Among other things he purports that fluoride is the most dangerous substance known to man, aspartame also causes Gulf War Syndrome (more on that later), sucralose (Splenda) is toxic, and aluminum cookware and dental amalgam can kill you. Fantastic. It doesn't matter of course that none of these positions have any scientific support. Anyways, onto the e-mail.

"No one should take this vaccine-it is one of the most dangerous vaccines ever devised. No citation given. I find it ironic that someone who wants everyone to believe him at face value provides no scientific support to back up his arguments. Oh, maybe that's because no such thing exists. Another argument put forth by supporters of all this paranoia is that this vaccine hasn't been sufficiently tested to use on humans. If that's so, how can we legitimately claim it to be dangerous? It contains an immune adjuvant called squalene (MF-59) which has been shown to cause severe autoimmune disorders such as multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, and lupus. Again, no citation given. There is no medical evidence linking squalene to multiple sclerosis. Not a single citation in the whole universe of medical literature. What about RA? There are a couple of small rat studies show moderate increases in inflammatory mediators after injection with straight squalene (which does not happen with the vaccine; it's heavily diluted). Even then, the studies show that this increase in inflammation does not lead to arthritis. Plus, not a single human study has been done linking this adjuvant and this condition. I challenge anyone out there to find me proof for this claim. Oh, I almost forgot about lupus. 2 rat studies showed that injection with squalene caused development of lupus autoantibodies. Again, 2 problems here. First, only done on rats. No controlled human trials have linked these two things. Second, just because A increases B and B increases C does not mean A will increase C. The scientific literature is littered with such assumptions that later failed to come to fruition. Drug companies love this one. Because Drug A reduces blood pressure and reducing blood pressure reduces heart attacks, Drug A must reduce heart attacks. Then they do the study and find out that, lo and behold, Drug A, despite producing significant reductions in blood pressure, does NOT prevent heart attacks. Sometimes you even find out it INCREASES heart attacks. So you can't make this logical fallacy.

The newsletter for August covers this and it may not be out yet. I'm not sure what this means. This (squalene) is the vaccine adjuvant that is strongly linked to the Gulf War syndrome (1 study came out in 2000 suggesting a link between squalene and GWS. Since then, subsequent studies which were better designed, have not confirmed this finding and found that no such association exists. One study of Gulf War veterans found that even though "The etiology of Gulf War syndrome remains unknown, [it] should not include squalene antibody status." The previous studies used unsupported and untested assays to test for existence of antibodies against squalene. A 2006 study, using validated assays, found no rise in antisqualene antibodies after injection with squalene adjuvant.) which killed over 10 000 soldiers (Since the Gulf War ended, roughly 11 000 of the roughly 700 000 soldiers deployed have died. This does seem high. However, not all of these deaths have been linked to GWS. Furthermore, squalene has been thoroughly discredited from being linked to GWS. In fact, the original theory that the anthrax vaccine given to soldiers in the Gulf War caused GWS has been killed after it was revealed that the version of the vaccine given didn't even contain squalene. Wonderful. Doesn't it seem much more likely that exposure to sarin and other organophosphate nerve gases that are designed to debilitate enemies caused GWS?) and caused a 200% increase in the fatal disease ALS (Lou Gehreg disease). (This may actually be true. Studies done on Gulf War Veterans developing ALS show an excess incidence of up to 3x, which would correlate to a 200% increase. However, this has not been linked to squalene. Again, the old A=B=C fallacy. Two studies (here and here) have concluded that ALS was likely due to something veterans were exposed to in specific regions of deployment and only during a specific time period.)

This virus H1N1 kills by causing a "cytokine storm", which means that it causes the body's immune system to overreact and that is why it is killing young people and is a mild disease in the elderly. (The elderly have weakened immune systems.) Cytokine storms do exist. It's an overblown immune response to a new pathogenic invader. It was thought to be responsible for many of the deaths of otherwise healthy individuals exposed to the 1918 Spanish Flu and possibly even the 2003 SARS epidemic. However, analysis of reactions to this current strain of flu suggest it does not cause a cytokine storm and really just elicits a reaction similar to seasonal flu. Searches of the medical literature show that cytokine storms may occur in H5N1 influenza (avian flu) but not the current H1N1 strain. Oh, and how does his ridiculous reasoning describe the deaths of very young infants with immature immune systems? This vaccine is a very powerful immune stimulator and carries the real possibility of making the lethality of the virus much greater. First off, this virus isn't that lethal. Second, of course this vaccine is an immune stimulator. That's what it's designed to do. "We're going to inject you with this vaccine now, but it won't stimulate your immune system to do anything. So it's going to be a painful poke for nothing. Enjoy." Plus, this also presumes that this will be a bad thing because H1N1 invokes a cytokine storm, which we already discussed.

One's best protection is vitamin D3...One should take 5000 IU a day now and when the disease begins to spread increase the dose to 15 000 IU a day. Vitamin D may be involved in immune function. This is becoming more clear. However, telling otherwise healthy individuals to consume 5000-15000 IU of Vitamin D a day borders on ridiculous. Recommended daily intake is 1000IU with no more than 2000IU recommended unless an individual is deficient, has rickets or other diseases associated with vitamin D deficiency. He provides no data supporting these doses in boosting immunity. I could not find any. Vitamin D3 modulates the immune reaction, reducing the chance of an overreaction and stimulates the body to produce what are called antimicrobial peptides, which are powerful killers of viruses that does not involve immunity. Antimicrobial peptides do kill viruses. That is true. But the only evidence I could find linking Vitamin D and antimicrobial peptides showed that it might actually REDUCE the production of AMPs. A systematic review of all the information with regards to Vitamin D shows that there is very little support for most of its purported effects, except of course in preventing osteoporosis. This is dose related, which means the higher the dose of Vitamin D3 the better the protection. See above.

Fish oils (the best is Carlson's Norwegian lemon flavored fish oil) also reduce immune overreaction. Any bets on Blaylock owning part of that company? It is true that fish oils may moderate the immune system, but the clinical significance of this is debated. One teaspoon a day should be sufficient. For severe symptoms, one teaspoon twice a day. Where does he get these doses? No citations.

Is this post short? No. Should it be? No. When questions of health and wellness are involved, thorough research and consideration is required to make an informed decision. This does not involve forwarded e-mails, or google searches. It involves trusted sources of reliable scientific information like primary medical literature and trusted medical professionals with a reputation for credible advice and evidence-based practice. The above e-mail satisfies NONE of these criteria.

So do yourself a favor. Decide whichever way you like on whether or not to get the vaccine. But don't include such complete trash in your decision. It'll just make you regret it in the end.

PS-It is true that this vaccine contains trace residual amounts. You know what else has formaldehyde in it at detectable levels above what would be considered trace residual? Drinking water. Get over it. Other things the vaccine contains:

-thimerosal: a mercury derivative; LEGITIMATE scientific discourse has completely discredited any link between thimerosal and autism. As well, there is less mercury in a dose of the vaccine than in a tuna sandwich.
-sodium chloride: salt
-disodium hydrogen phosphate: used commonly in foods; probably a preservative
-potassium dihydrogen phosphate: food additive; preservative
-potassium chloride: common inorganic compound; preservative
-trace egg proteins: vaccines are sometimes produced in chick fibroblast cell cultures; potential for egg protein exposure and anaphylaxis
-trace deoxycholic acid: lipid emulsifier

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

You know I don't speak Spanish

Recent conversation with my three year old.

Sarah (mommy): Je t'aime, Sacha. Bonne nuit. (I love you, Sacha. Good night.)
Sacha: Daddy, "Je t'aime" and "Bonne nuit" is Fwench. Why you not know Fwench?
Me: Well, I just know a little bit.
S: Daddy, you know Spanish? What "Je t'aime" is in Spanish?
D: Te amo.
S: Yeah, tay awmo. Daddy, why you know Spanish?
D: Well, I took a Spanish course when I was in high school.
S: Oh. It was a course fo daddies?
D: No, I was a big kid at the time.
S: Oh. I like speak Spanish. It gweat. Someday, I be a daddy. And when I a daddy, you be a Gedo and mommy be a Memere. Yeah. Dat be cool.
D: Yeah, you're right. Hopefully you will be a daddy someday.
S: Daddy, when I a daddy, who my mommy be?
D: Mommy will be your mommy. Mommy will always be your mommy.
S: Oh. Okay.
This went on and on until I told him it was time to sleep and he said something he'll likely say many times in his life if he inherits my propensity for verbosity: "Daddy, dat too much talking?" "Yes buddy. Time for sleeping."

What a kid!

PS-Sarah had the astute observation that when Sacha asked me who his mommy would be when he is a daddy, he was likely trying to determine who his wife would be, not his mother. Right now I am a daddy and my "mommy" is Sarah, my wife. No wonder he sounded a bit bummed out when he found out his mother would be his wife!

Sunday, October 11, 2009

The way to do it

My parents came to Peace River to celebrate Thanksgiving with us. Mom made a very astute observation about the nature of the supper and how smart it was. I couldn't agree more!

You see, supper included roughly 25 people. Now, for many traditional Thanksgiving dinners, this would be an insurmountable task for any one individual to tackle. As such, we did it like an informal pot-luck. It was a traditional sit down meal but there were about as many chefs are there were dishes!

There are a few things that make this such a great idea. First off, no one person has to shoulder the burden of cooking the whole meal. The worst thing about that is that person usually ends up not enjoying themselves. The second great thing is that with cooking all that food one often ends up doing a lot of things well but no one thing spectacularly. Doing it pot-luck style you get each person bringing their signature dish that they can focus on so the quality of the food goes way up. Finally, because most of the dishes are prepared off site, you don't have to worry so much about timing and what dish is taking up space in the oven! I think it's the only way to go!

(Speaking of the only way to go, next time you have to make a turkey, check out Nigella Lawson's recipe for brining a feast turkey in her book, Feast. It is SO easy and you'll never taste a turkey so good. Oh, and it's almost impossible to dry out!)

Over the top

You've got to be kidding me. Some town in the US made Halloween illegal to protect the children? What a bunch of garbage.Link

Friday, October 9, 2009

Is Dawkins missing something?

On our wonderful kid-free weekend last week we did one of our favorite things from our university days: hung around Chapters and looked at numerous books and then didn't purchase a single one.

I came across a book by an author I revile, Richard Dawkins. His new book is entitled The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution. Anyone interested in the science and religion debate will recognize this name, also known as Darwin's Bulldog. If you are not familiar with his philosophy, he fervently supports evolution and vehemently rejects spirituality, particularly as it manifests in organized religion.

Now, when I say I revile Dawkins it is not due to his stance but his delivery. Just like Dawkins, I completely agree with evolution and accept that the evidence is too substantial to deny its sweeping effects in the natural world (as does the Roman Catholic Church, as written by Dawkins: "Hot on the heels of its magnanimous pardoning of Galileo, the Vatican has now moved with even more lightning speed to recognise the truth of Darwinism."). I also believe, like him, that Creationism, the literal interpretation of the Bible that purports that the Earth was created some 6000 years ago much as it is stated in Genesis, is intellectually inappropriate. But cannot someone both accept evolution as scientific fact AND believe in God? Why is this so wrong?

This is Dawkins' problem: his insistence that there is only one right answer. He believes that anyone who believes in God and/or is religious is either intellectually dishonest, willfully ignorant, brainwashed, or psychopathological. Isn't he then just as bad as all the fundamentalist Christians he lambastes for being close-minded to another world view?

Nothing in evolutionary science disproves the existence of a spiritual being, nor could anything ever do so. Nor should I care. A Dawkins quote I enjoy is "There may be fairies at the bottom of the garden. There is no evidence for it, but you can't prove that there aren't any, so shouldn't we be agnostic with respect to fairies?" This is a fallacy I see pop up in lots of these debates. When will atheists like Dawkins who insist that they are right realize that they take just as much of a leap of faith in accepting the absence of God as I do in accepting the presence of God? You cannot empirically prove the presence or absence of God. Why can't he just accept that and get on with his life instead of persisting in his crusade to rid the human race of religion?

But in thinking about this book and whether I would read it or not (he is a brilliant writer and the book would likely prove quite interesting but I fear he may digress into attacks on religion that will distract from the subject matter) I stumbled upon a disconnect in his approach.

Dawkins is a firm supporter of evolution. Because it is something that can be empirically proven and has successfully been so, as a scientist, he'd really have to be. This book of his is all about evolution and how incredible it is that complexity arose out of simplicity due to the random selection of advantageous mutations in genetic material. If religion, then, is such a disastrous, divisive force only followed by the mentally unstable, why then has the propensity to religious behavior persisted in our species?

I really don't know. But isn't that a flaw in his mindset? Has he grappled with that? I'm certain he has, I just couldn't find much on it except his statement that religious behavior has killed millions of individuals over the years and that it consumes incredible amounts of energy and time. So he seems to think it an evolutionary hiccup.

Other scientists have tackled this question. An excerpt from a book called The Story of God highlights, among other things, that religion may have provided an evolutionary advantage to our ancestors. The communal nature of it would have led to a more unified front against the many dangers inherent in our early environment and thus promoted survival of those who practiced it. But this could have been passed on in societal customs. However, twin studies done over the years do seem to suggest that there is at least a partial genetic component to religion so it seems the question will remain unanswered for now. Of course, religion is one of those aspects of human biology that is so complex the answer likely sounds like this: religion is impacted both by genetic makeup and life experiences.

What this research does do though is ask the question: if religion is so awful, so disordered, so pathological, why does it persist so widely? Sure, many diseases which are incredibly destructive persist in the genetic pool because they may at one time have served a purpose. They usually arise in a relatively small portion of the population though. But with 80% of the world population claiming religiosity, surely this is not the case with religion? Because if it exists en masse like this but is as destructive as Dawkins claims, why does it still exist at all? Why has it not become a vestigial organ of human life?

A broader view

I've always thought that since I get most of my news from the Globe and Mail and numerous blogs that I should be exposed to a fairly balanced news stream. It turns out I was wrong.

When I first heard that Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize, my initial reaction was "What? He hasn't even done anything yet." Sure, he'd talked a lot and made some important statements, but what had he actually done? And at first glance, it appeared my feelings were shared with other Globe and Mail readers and a small poll I did of family (very unscientific!).

After reading this article by Doug Saunders, the London correspondent for the Globe and Mail, I realized this reaction might be due to my relatively isolated location in North America. Clearly this award has been perceived quite differently outside of this continent. It only reinforces for me that the balance of power, both politically and philosophically, has shifted away from North America significantly. (If this conclusion seems absurd to you, check out the excellent book The European Dream by Jeremy Rifkin.)

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Stock picking

So it's been about 6 months since I embarked upon my first stock picking journey. Normally I just dabble in mutual funds for my RRSPs, now just consisting of index mutual funds that involve no active management, which have been consistently shown to outperform the alternative.

However, last year, after doing an insane amount of reading on personal finance and stocks I was just too interested about stocks to not dive in. But I didn't want to go crazy. So I just put up $500, an amount I could sleep at night after losing.

I ended up picking 6 companies, Google, Apple, Intuitive Surgical, Schlumberger, Research in Motion, and Home Capital Group.

So I evaluated where I stand today. Only 5 months after I bought the companies, I sold my first one because it had already launched over its initial valuation. I bought it at $100.46 and sold it at $223.11. That is a 122% increase over only 5 months. Sweet! And the greatest thing is that Intuitive Surgical, the company in question, was the laughing stock of so called "analysts" at the time I bought it. It was the lowest ranked of all 6! Ha. Analysts. Fools.

Anywho, overall, things are looking great! Over the last 6 months the 6 stocks I chose have risen 55.4%. I compared the increase over this time period in an equal-weighted portfolio consisting of only the TSX 60 (Canadian index) and the S&P 500 (American index). It was only 27.6%. So my stock picks have doubled up on the market! Not too shabby!

Hopefully they keep it up. I'll keep you posted on how the remaining stocks do, will explain my strategy for picking these stocks, and will share with you the updated valuations as the new annual statements come out. Of course, if you're not a finance nerd like me, you can always just delete the feed!

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Fear sells

I got an e-mail from my wife's aunt who wanted to know what I thought of a video she saw on YouTube. This is why I love her. At least she contacted me before buying into the whole thing. I will not do justice to the original video by sending you to it. It's seriously ridiculous. But basically, the gist of it is that a person posing as the former Chief Medical Officer of Finland claims that swine flu has been invented and released into the human population by the North American and Western elite to reduce the population of the world. The idea is that they release the swine flu, then they create mass fear, then they convince everyone to take the vaccine which they have previously poisoned and thus exterminate all the low life scums out there ruining our world. Aside from the base premise being completely ridiculous, this is how I responded to her question on my thoughts.

I did research the supposed "former chief medical officer of Finland". She was, in fact, only the provincial medical officer of Lapland, a province in Finland. Since retiring she has published such useful insights as "I've had my life saved three times by aliens", "schizophrenics are actually just vestiges of an earlier conspiracy to plant mind control microchips inside all the babies born in the mid-40s and the American Psychiatric Association publishes the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Psychiatric Disorders for the sole purpose of labelling these microchipped individuals as pathological so they can be sequestered from society and shunned so that if they ever do reveal they have a mindchip people will think they're crazy", and the only reason she didn't remember her first experience with a UFO until being hypnotized at a much later date was because the aliens had placed a mental block on her to prevent her from exposing their whereabouts. Other such doozies follow below:

She claims to have met three kinds of aliens:

  • One that is "three feet tall, has a huge head and big black eyes, but no nose or teeth"
  • A second that "is like the first but has a large nose"
  • A third that "is about 12 feet tall, with a very small head and large dark glassy eyes" and "wear lab coats, gloves and hoods over their heads".
According to her the Nazis visited the moon in the 1940s and the Americans have already been on Mars.

Now aside from the intellectually ridiculous conceptual base of the entire video, I do agree that there is something wrong with swine flu. The media has done a very good job of making it a lot scarier than science would warrant. But it's not a conspiracy. It's standard's all about money. Fear sells papers and boosts ratings. Not to mention sales of alcohol based hand sanitizer, N95 masks and latex gloves. A lot of the fear is the fault of the public though. They take the word of unreputable sources at face value instead of using their own insight and fact finding. The term "pandemic" is really what has set people off. But if you look at the definition of a pandemic it has ABSOLUTELY NOTHING to do with severity of infection. It is a term that defines the ease of spread of an infection. Pandemics are further categorized by their severity, from 1 (least severe) to 5 (most severe). There are 3 characteristics an infection must have to be considered a pandemic.

1. It must be new to the population it is infecting
2. It must infect humans and cause illness
3. It must spread easily and sustainably among humans

That's it. Nothing in there denotes severity of infection. In fact, the most severe infectious diseases are unlikely to ever become pandemics because they kill their vectors too quickly. Ebola virus is a good example of that. It has a mortality rate of 50-90% and can kill in as quickly as 2 days. Plus, very close contact needs to occur for transmission, unlike with influenza with requires only respiratory droplet transmission, the most potent form of transmission.

The problem is that all this fear might cause an unforeseen consequence of swine flu. A study recently published and widely spread by the media came to the conclusion that getting the seasonal influenza vaccine would increase your risk of contracting severe swine flu. The study has more or less now been discredited by the respected medical community but because of this, many people, especially the elderly, are not going to get the flu shot. But the kicker is that even though seasonal flu is a category 1 pandemic with a fatality rate of less than 0.1%, it kills 250-500 thousand people a year. There have not even been 500 thousand CASES of swine flu yet, but we consider THIS to be the bigger public health threat. Hmmm. And the other kick in the ass is that because everyone is shitting their pants about it, a bunch of yahoos went out and got an antiviral medication at the height of the paranoia just to take for shits and giggles. Lo and behold, we now have an antiviral resistant strain of H1N1 floating around. Fantastic. We've just successfully morphed a virus against which we had at least two lines of defence into one with one less line of defence. Now all we have is the vaccine if we actually think this is something we need to protect ourselves again. But because of UFO girl and Jenny McCarthy, who goes around telling everyone that vaccines cause autism, no one is going to want to get the damn thing so we'll just let it run roughshod over the population causing more damage than it would otherwise. Vaccines are one of the safest and most remarkable public health achievements of our time. Why they've engendered such visceral fear in the public is beyond me. Worldwide, vaccines currently prevent roughly 2.5 million deaths worldwide. However, just as many deaths from vaccine-preventable illness occur each year because the vaccine is either not accessible or not given. Significant health risks of vaccines have basically been completely disproven in respectable medical literature yet persist in the informal literary universe of Google. Consider the chart from the WHO below:

Risk from disease versus risk from vaccines

Measles MMR
Pneumonia: 1 in 20 Encephalitis or severe allergic reaction: 1 in 1 million
Encephalitis: 1 in 2 000
Death: 1 in 3 000 in industrialized countries. As much as 1 in 5 in outbreaks in developing countries
Encephalitis: 1 in 300
Congenital Rubella Syndrome: 1 in 4 (if woman becomes infected in early pregnancy)
Diphtheria DTP
Death: 1 in 20 Continuous crying, then full recovery: 1 in 100
Tetanus Convulsions or shock, then full recovery: 1 in 1 750
Death: 25-70 in 100 overall. 10-20 in 100 with good intensive care management Acute encephalopathy: 0-10.5 in 1 000 000
Pertussis Death: None proven
Pneumonia: 1 in 8
Encephalitis: 1 in 20
Death: 1 in 200

So please, please, before making health decisions based on what you see on the news or what you read on Google or what you watch on YouTube, do some research. If you're not sure whether you're researching respectable sources, talk to a healthcare professional or scientist you trust. Have them look into it. Your health is worth the time and effort.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

A future virologist?

My 3-year old, Sacha, setup his line of Mega Block trucks and asked that I read them the "poop book", otherwise known as an animated book of anatomy that he has an abnormal affinity for given that he is a young toddler.

The day before we had been looking at illustrated representations of various viruses like the cold virus and the human papilloma virus that causes warts. We had a short discussion about why HPV has spikes (I'm not so sure it does, but the drawing did!)

So while reading the "poop book" to his coterie of trucks we came across the article for warts, where the HPV picture was duplicated. He shouted out, "Hey, it's a viwus!" If that wasn't surprising enough, I thought I'd test him and asked him if he knew WHICH virus it was.

"Yeah, dat is da papiwoma viwus."

The kid never ceases to amaze me.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Our gardening project

If you haven't already seen it, I encourage you to check out the pictures of your new yard. We had a professional do it but because we didn't know what we wanted in the back yet in terms of plantings, and because we didn't have the budget for him to do anymore, we just left the back as soil. The last couple of weeks have seen us undertake our very ambitious gardening project, but I'm so excited about it I thought I'd share.

Most of the ideas I gained for this project came from a few books, listed below in order of importance.

Gaia's Garden by Toby Hemenway
Square Foot Gardening by Mel Bartholomew
Second Nature:A Gardener's Education by Michael Pollan
Edible Estates:The Attack on the Front Lawn by Fritz Haeg
Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan
How to Grow More Vegetables by John Jeavons
Organic Gardening For Dummies

There was also a lot of internet browsing and utilizing various resources I found throughout my searches. One particularly useful resource for any of you who live in Edmonton is Ron Berezan, owner and operator of the Urban Farmer, a landscaper and designer who focuses on edible plants. He is a wealth of information.

So after the extensive information gathering phase came the planning phase and finally the implementation phase, which started last weekend.

In our back yard, we have two levels now. The lower level, recessed below the level of the retaining wall now running diagonally through our backyard, is where we are planting the vegetable garden. The upper level is where a spot of grass will be planted and 2 large perennial/edible beds. The retaining wall holding up our neighbors uphill from us has a wonderful 40 foot long bed that is about 3-4 feet wide where we will plant perennials and edibles as well as a few annuals (not a huge fan of annuals; with a 90-100 growing season, it's just not worth the effort).

Now here's where all the great permaculture stuff comes in. In the vegetable garden, I noticed that the downspout was draining downhill immediately upon hitting the ground and not reaching the garden at all. So I built what is called a swale.

Basically, you start at the drainage spout of your downspout and start digging a trench about a foot deep and a spades-width wide. To mark out the course of the trench you use an A-frame to find how the land contours. You do not want the swale to run downhill or uphill, but be level. Once you've marked out the contour, you dig the trench the entire length of the contour, attempting to keep the bottom of the trench as level as possible. You then fill the trench, minus the top 2 inches, with straw. You then put the soil you dug out of the trench back on top of the straw. The excess soil should be piled up against the downhill side of the trench to form a berm. This downhill berm prevents heavy rains from overflowing out of the swale but also provides a planting space for some plants.

What this swale accomplishes is remarkable. Before, when a rain would come, all the water from 1/2 of my roof would drain into my neighbors yard using the shortest point of exit: downhill. By starting the swale at my downspout, all that rain enters the swale and travels along the whole 40 foot length of the trench until the swale is full, which would take quite a rain. So already you've diverted all that rainwater into your swale. But now, because the swale is located at the uppermost point of the garden, the rainwater will now leech into the soil surrounding the swale and make it's way downhill, evenly distributing all that wonderful water into the vegetable garden. Fantastic!

Mission #2 in the vegetable garden was to add organic matter to it. Sure the landscaper brought in lots of nice topsoil, but topsoil devoid of organic matter just isn't going to cut it. So I did a lot of research, mostly from the books above, and found out that the quickest way to add organic matter to a large area is to use what is called a green manure. Basically you sow a fast growing grass or legume that can live through the winter. Then in spring, before the plant sets seed, you till it into the soil. The nitrogen is released as it decomposes and...voila!!!! Organic matter!

I bought 500g of fall rye and 125g of crimson clover from West Coast Seeds in BC. It only cost me $20 and it arrived in 3 days. Sacha and I used our broadcast spreader to spread the seed on the recently tilled soil and then we raked over it lightly. Now we wait!

The upper level is where the real work is happening. First we had to plan what we want to plant. I found two great nurseries in Canada, Corn Hill Nursery, and Golden Bough Tree Farm, who grow mainly bare root trees and shrubs which they can then ship for dirt cheap to all corners of Canada. And in looking at their sights we discovered that fall is a great time to plant bare roots. So below is the list we are bringing in next week:

2 American plums, 1 in each corner of the backyard
2 Harbin pears; a huge pear tree; grows to 30 ft tall; one will go smack dab in the middle of the front yard and the other smack dab in the middle of the back
3 Highbush cranberries; not sure where they're going yet!
1 Black currant bush going in back corner under the plum tree
1 Red currant bush in the same spot
(we are buying 10 more currant bushes next year to plant as a living fence in the retaining wall bed between us and our neighbors)
2 elderberry bushes in same spot
1 Native river grape and 1 Valiant grape; will construct a trellis under our deck and run them up this
2 Arctic Kiwis; 1 male, 1 female

That is for now. Next year we are also going to buy some dwarf apple trees (probably Jaune Transparente and Norland), 3 cherry shrubs (U of Sask Romance Series), and a few Saskatoon bushes, as well as raspberries and strawberries.

Now for the real fun. How to add organic matter to individual flower beds? The book above, Gaia's Garden, mentioned a concept that intrigued me: a sheet mulch. It sounded like a lot of work but I thought I'd try it.

What we did first was outline the beds. Then we tilled them to loosen the cement soil that has come from a month of absolutely no rain and constant pounding feet of two busy little boys. We then hoed back about 2 inches of soil from the beds to replace later in the process.

As the bottom layer of the sheet mulch we spread a light layer of cow manure, composted over about 10 years in the farmyard of my father-in-laws brother. We loaded it all by shovel into a pickup truck and then unloaded it by shovel and wheelbarrow. No joke. But it is beautiful stuff! The layer of cow manure was no more than 1/2 inch thick.

Then I took a bunch of cardboard boxes from work, removed all the tape and broke them open so they were single layered. I laid them down all over the manure, overlapping to leave as few holes as possible.

On top of the cardboard I spread another half-inch of manure. That is where we stand right now.

This weekend we are getting a large round bale of old hay from my father-in-laws brother and 4 square bales of straw. Once we have that, we will spread roughly 6-8 inches of hay on top of the manure. On top of this will go the soil we had backhoed from the start. Finally, we spread about 2 inches of straw to make a nice looking mulch and retain moisture. At the construction of each layer you are supposed to do a thorough wetting.

Basically, what is supposed to happen is that over winter, the space under the cardboard composts well and brings in lots of earthworms which till it up nice and fluffy. The pile starts at about 12 inches but compresses down to about 6 inches. In the spring there should be rich healthy soil underneath the cardboard and the other layers give you a foundation to start planting. To plant you simply pull back the mulch layers, cut a space in the cardboard, and plant in the soil underneath. Plus, the cardboard in the other areas where there are no plantings minimizes weed growth.

After this is done we will be tilling the remaining soil and planting it under to grass. The kids need somewhere to run!

We can't wait for our trees and shrubs to arrive so we can plant them and see how they do. Now we're gonna be itchin' all winter for spring to arrive! We'll keep everyone informed of the progress of our adventures. Maybe I'll turn out to be a fool, but it sure was fun to try. And the total cost?

$20 for green manure seed
$0 for borrowed tiller, rake, and wheelbarrow from mother-in-law
$0 for borrowed truck, free manure, free straw and free hay from father-in-law and his brother
$20 for case of beer for aforementioned individuals
$200 for bare-root edibles, including shipping and taxes
$0 for free grass seed from aunt-in-law
$0 for free cardboard from waste source
$50 for precision drop spreader
$30 for soil testing kit to test soil before and after amendments being made
$0 to do soil composition test using Mason jars and water (Results: almost half silt, half sand; lots of clay lays beneath the topsoil to slow the drainage in our otherwise rapidly draining land)
$infinite in time spent on projects
-no price to be put on the exercise we got out of it or the things our kids have learned from helping us along the way!

Wish us luck!

Tuesday, August 18, 2009


After many years of trying, rugby has finally scored a spot in the Olympics! Anyone who knows me knows I am a huge rugby fan. For years I have been unable to understand why rugby was not an Olympic sport. Now the International Olympic Committee board has recommended rugby, as well as golf, for inclusion in the summer Olympics, starting with the 2016 summer games. Even though it is 7 years off, I couldn't be more excited. The rugby I watch is called rugby union and includes 15 players a side. The version approved for Olympics is a pared down version known as rugby 7s, meaning there are only 7 players a side. Although not as elegant, for a global audience that may not be familiar with the sport, 15 a side rugby can be a little confusing and sometimes slows down. 7s is relentless in its pace, involves a lot of fast running and hard hitting, and has shorter games. I'm just happy it's in.

And my bro will be tickled pink that golf is in too. Word has it Tiger is already chompin' at the bit.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Losing faith

I lost a little faith in human nature today. I'm in Edmonton attending a course and am staying at my grandma's condo downtown (thanks grandma!) with my wife and two boys. It's a good hike from Walmart South Common, where the course is, to grandma's condo, so I have ample opportunity to witness the egregious display of human stupidity that is rush hour in Edmonton.

I consider myself a safe and smart driver and my untarnished driving record speaks for it. I give most of the credit for this to my dad who I consider to be one of the safest and smartest drivers I know. His language is not always PG-rated, but he gets you there safely and, by using his brain, he always arrives in a timely manner, WITHOUT resorting to speeding I might add. Coupled with this and his insistence that you always think 5 steps ahead when driving and always plan your route MILES before you need to, I have picked up some of his great habits. It also helps that he has ingrained in me the assumption that every other driver on the road is a complete moron.

This may sound unfair, but it makes sense. It's called defensive driving. If you assume other people are world class drivers, you could assume that you could cross this driveway entry because that car bearing down on you would certainly be using his signal light if he intended to turn into the driveway. But if you assume he is a moron, you will wait until he has either turned into the driveway without signalling or has in fact passed right by it before you set foot in that crossing. It's just safe.

So it is that I set out on my journey home this evening. Assuming they are all morons. And there was ample evidence to prove my point. Donkey boy in his fancy truck swerving around the road because he was totally oblivious to those around him while he talked about the new sequined Italian shoes he bought at Gucci for $500 on his cellphone he bought to replace the one he bought last week. Or the genius who thinks that driving 20 km/h in a 50km/h zone is safer than driving the speed limit. Or Einstein who spends 20 blocks slowing down at each intersection to check the sign because he didn't plan his route before leaving home. Or Mr. Mensa who cuts abruptly into your lane because the guy in front of him is not driving 100 in a 50 zone and then so courteously flashes his right signal light once after he's already in front of you. Thanks for the heads up. But the prize today goes to a motorcyclist.

Driving down 104 Avenue during rush hour is at the best of times nerve wracking. But no matter how much you hate it, just stay in the lane you need to be in to arrive at your destination, because you can do all the lane changing you want, but you're not going anywhere any faster. Not according to Mr. Motorbike today. I saw him swerving in and out of traffic like a lonely bee in a field of newly bloomed clover. He figured if he just changed lanes fast enough and often enough he JUST might make it there 2 minutes earlier. A block or more before reaching the intersection of 104 Avenue and 105 Street, the walking signal started flashing and doing the countdown, warning oncoming drivers that the yellow light was about to turn. In this case, it makes it real simple for even the dimmest bulbs in the crowd and counts it down. 16, 15, 14,.... So any intelligent driver gauges his speed and how quickly he is bearing down on the intersection. If you know you will reach the intersection right when the light hits 1, you cover your brakes and prepare to stop at a yellow.

Not genius. He figures he can beat the system. In rush hour traffic. In a 50 zone. With 10 cars between him and the next intersection. So I'm in the right hand lane and the road widens to include a right turning lane. Again, demonstrating human stupidity and ignorance of traffic laws, TWO cars are in the left turning lane on 104 Ave eastbound. When the light turns yellow, my group, those of us heading west on 104 Ave, diligently stop to allow these individuals to turn left and clear the intersection. In case you were wondering, the moron here is the second driver because there should only be ONE car in the intersection at once to execute a left turn, despite the fact that most intersections in Edmonton will witness 3 or more clearing the intersection, some of which ENTER the intersection after the red light comes on, as though there is some magical grace period for left-turning drivers only.

So eastbound 1 and eastbound 2 start turning left. Well, Mr. Motorbike is not about to WAIT for the laggards in front of him to run the red, so he takes advantage of this newly found land on the right hand side of the road called a right TURNING lane and passes myself and the gentleman in front of me. And now what?

That's right. Broadside of a barn. Thankfully he didn't appear to be fatally wounded or I could not poke fun at his stupidity without feeling a little bit guilty. He smashed full speed into the passenger side of eastbound 1, a Nissan Pathfinder, and was then treated to a lesson in inertia and careened through the back passenger window. His bike lay in a crumpled heap on the road spewing oil everywhere. Eastbound 2, who should not have been involved in the accident had she been actually accessing the thought centres in her cerebrum, proceeded to rear end Eastbound 1 when he came to an abrupt stop after being T-boned by a human torpedo. As a bit of salt in the wound, her car proceeded to inflict further damage on Speed Racer's motorbike.

Thus ends loss in faith of human nature event #1.

I immediately put my car in park. Guy in front of me as well. At least 10 vehicles witnessed the accident. Total number of vehicles stopping to help and see if everything is okay=3. One gentleman got out, called 911 on his cellphone, and then promptly fled the scene as he likely had some very important meeting to attend at 5:00 on a Wednesday afternoon that excluded him from the commonsense necessity of providing a witness statement to the rapidly arriving police. Car #2 basically made sure no one was dead and then also proceeded to leave. Car #3, me, calmly pulled to the curb, parked my car, and stepped out. Fire and ambulance arrived almost immediately and ambulance took Speed Racer to hospital in a neck brace, what looked to me to only be precautionary.

I stuck around and filed a witness statement with the police. The police officer was very grateful because remarkably, at a VERY BUSY intersection at which NUMEROUS cars witnessed the accident, I was the ONLY driver who stopped to provide a witness statement.

Thus ends loss in faith of human nature event #2.

What has come of us? Our need to succeed and cram every possible last thing into our days, our disregard for others, the rarity of commonsense and our slavery to deadlines and timelines were all contributors to this accident.

The unfortunate thing about the word "accident" is that it implies a completely unavoidable event with no causality attributable to human behavior. Rarely are motor vehicle collisions (a much better word) accidents in the truest sense of the word. Most of the time, except when freak weather is involved, they involve some aspect of human behavior, be it stupidity, negligence, aggression, oblivion, ignorance, or intoxication. So please, for the sake of other drivers and pedestrians, passengers, and families of all the aforementioned, be the smartest driver on the road and assume the rest of us are all morons.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

The Grammar Nazi

I've known since day 1 that Sacha is smart as a whip. But he's demonstrated it more frequently since he started speaking. Now, it's official. You can't pass anything by this kid.

I noticed it first the other day when I was reading him his newest "favorite" story. It's about a St. Patrick's Day parade held by ants where they chase a green ant that is a leprechaun to hopefully snag some good luck. I was reading along and said, "'Green ant!' asked Grant." Sacha immediately interceded. "No, no. SAID. Not ASKED. SAID." Oh, yes, how silly of me. "Asked" is used in the next line. He's done this before where he knows a book so well that he'll correct you if you say it wrong. What came later though totally blew me away.

I was reading him a French book about a group of animals that each bring a different part to the party to help build a snowman. It became apparent to Sarah and me that whoever did the translation of this book into French didn't edit it very well because there are a few grammatical errors, one of which went unnoticed until our 3-year old grammar Nazi came along.

A little preamble is in order. In English, no matter whether you have one cat or numerous cats, you would still write "The cat places the carrot as the nose." OR "The cats place the carrot as the nose." The "place" changes to match the subject, but other than that, there is little change. In the case of French, the masculine definitive is "le" as in "the" but only when in reference to a masculine noun (English does not have this gender differentiation of nouns). If it is before a single subject like "chaton" (a single cat) it is "le chaton". If it is before a plural subject like "chatons" (two or more cats) it is "les chatons". You can see how the definitive changes its state to match the quantity of the subject.

So I had read the line "Les chatons place le carrotte pour le nez" numerous times without protests and without noticing anything. Then after correcting me on a few errors earlier on in the book (which I had made due to extreme fatigue) Sacha started to protest vehemently. Previously he had asked me to stop saying "chaton" because he preferred "chat" as he did not feel that this particular feline was worthy of being called a kitten (chaton). I thought that's what this particular protest was about so I said, "Oh, right "Les chats place le carrotte pour le nez"". "No, no, no, only one chat." Then I looked, and sure enough, there it was. The illustration only featured a single cat. Therefore, the phrase "les chats" is grammatically incorrect. And my 3-year old called me AND the editing staff of the book on it. Look out future teachers. You'd better be on your game!

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Seniors drug costs

In preparing for a presentation I'm doing at a local seniors home tomorrow, I had to research the upcoming changes to provincial drug coverage for seniors in Alberta. Basically, drug costs are rising, and the new changes will save THE GOVERNMENT $20-30 million per year, so you can imagine where the difference is going. Low income and mid-low-income seniors will benefit as the lowest income will pay nothing for prescriptions and the next step up will pay less. However, the mid-high income seniors will take on significantly more costs of drug therapy. At first, I thought this seemed rational, given that those more able to pay should bear more of the cost. But then I wondered whether this rule should apply to those who have served their country and communities for so long. Shouldn't WE be taking care of THEM and not vice versa by unloading our costs onto them? Then it got me thinking: which country has some of the highest health expenditures in the world? The United States. Who off loads most of their health spending onto citizens instead of covering it publicly? The United States.

I started to wonder whether we might be going about this the wrong way.

I dug up the comparative drug spending for all 20 OECD nations for the most recent years available, that being 2005. The United States has the highest per capita total expenditure on drugs of all 20 OECD nations. However, they have the second lowest % of that expenditure covered by public programs, second only to Mexico. The US only publicly funds 24% of all drug expenditures. The lowest developed Western nations in terms of total drug expenditure are Denmark, New Zealand, and Norway. Their public coverage of that cost ranges from 55.8-66.2%. Where is Canada? We have the second highest total expenditure and fourth LOWEST public expenditure. So much for universal healthcare.

Now, the thought entered my mind: is there any correlation between the following:

1. % of drug expenditures covered publicly and total drug expenditure
2. % of drug expenditures covered publicly and health system performance
3. % of total drug expenditures and health system performance

A presentation I came across concluded that public funding of healthcare does seem to improve health system performance but a good deal of this performance is tied to lifestyle choices and socioeconomic status as well. Furthermore, the WHO rankings of health care systems are contested by many respectable authorities, but they're all we've got for now. So let's test our theory.

1. The correlation is so close to 0, it might as well not exist. So based on the data I have, it looks like the amount of drugs that are covered publicly does not impact total drug spending. Thus, other factors must be at play like lack of price protection on marketed pharmaceuticals, lifestyle, etc. etc.

2. There seems to be a weak correlation that the less a country spends publicly on drugs, the more poorly their health system is ranked. But this certainly does not prove cause and effect and the relationship is weak.

3. Here a weak correlation would suggest a relationship between increased drug spending and increased health system performance. Again, no causation proved, but food for thought.

Taking all these together, it seems we may be headed in the wrong direction. It seems clear that there is no relationship between offloading drug costs to individuals and the eventual total drug costs of a society. And regardless of whether the government pays for them, those costs will be borne by someone. If it is individuals, they will then have less disposable income, meaning less money to "stimulate" the economy.

Maybe we have to rethink our whole approach to controlling costs. Also in the process of researching this presentation, I came across a study that showed that if used properly, pharmacists could save the Canadian healthcare system $103 million a year. That's just one member in the healthcare team. Think of what we could accomplish if we restructured our system to fully utilize the skills of each of our allied health professionals, with the patient in the centre of the team? Think what we could accomplish if instead of only pushing pharmacotherapy we also focussed on healthy living and preventative medicine? Think what we could accomplish if instead of always thinking about dollars and cents, the government put some consideration into the greater factors at play in rising drug costs? Think what we could accomplish if for a moment our legislators and administrators would do just that....think.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Stark contrast

I drive through a beautiful part of the Peace River valley every morning on my way to work. It is a little flood plain set against the hills of the valley in which lies a farmers field, lush forest, abundant wildlife, and a small residential development that, although within city limits, looks akin to country living. In the fall and winter the field is crawling with deer and the occasional moose. In the spring, it is a collection of roadside creeks channeling the spring runoff into the mighty Peace. And when summer comes, it really pops. There is a plethora of wild roses growing along the road that just recently bloomed. The boreal forest abutting the fields is lush with greenery. So it was with some confusion that I read the articles in the Globe and Mail about the catastrophic drought affecting most of Alberta right now, including the Peace River region. If all I had to rely on was my visual input during the day, I wouldn't believe it. But I talk to my parents, still devoted, hard-working farmers, and I read the data. Large swaths of Alberta have received less than 40% of average precipitation in the last 60 days. Peace River has received only 40-60% of average precipitation.

But why do my eyes deceive me? As I drive through this valley every day, all I can see is the lush green forest. However, I noticed something today. Although the farmer's field of canola looks healthy at first glance, a closer look reveals that the stems are sparsely placed and that the vibrant yellow flower of the canola plant is already in bloom. The end of June? That's not right. How could it be in bloom? The drought. And many fields up here look like this. So it got me to wandering about the abundant greenery adjacent to the field. It was a stark contrast. Amidst this environmental devastation that ranks this June as the driest on Canadian records, this forest thrives. How is this possible?

I don't know enough about industrial agriculture to claim that it is a failure as a Western experiment. But the whole contrast got me wondering. Numerous seedlings germinated in this forest during this horrible drought. The canopy is full of leaves and the wild roses are chalk full of beautiful pink flowers blooming right when they're supposed to. All this with no synthetic fertilizers, herbicides, or pesticides. So is industrial agriculture inefficient? Does it make the very products it grows and sells susceptible to destruction?

What I have found doesn't look good. Consider a forest: it is a self-sustaining ecosystem. If done right, agriculture should at least be sustainable, if not self-sustainable. However, studies have shown over the last many years that the energy efficiency of our food system has drastically declined. The energy output-energy input ratio has gone from around 100 in pre-industrial societies (that is we get 100 calories of food energy out for every 1 calorie of energy put in) to less than 1 in today's agricultural system. And that doesn't even include the transportation of our food which brings this ratio much lower. For example, iceberg lettuce was included in one detailed study that showed we need to put 127 calories IN to produce and ship to source 1 calorie of iceberg lettuce to the consumer. Johns Hopkins University estimates that the average input for 1 calorie of North American food is 3 calories.

How about the farms and crops themselves? A study done in 1989 by the National Research Council concluded that "Well-managed alternative farming systems nearly always use less synthetic chemical pesticides, fertilizers, and antibiotics per unit of production than conventional farms. Reduced use of these inputs lowers production costs and lessens agriculture’s potential for adverse environmental and health effects without decreasing and in some cases increasing per acre crop yields and the productivity of livestock management systems.” The article goes on to state that various studies and agricultural experts have concluded that "small farms almost always produce far more agricultural output per unit area than larger farms...[that] smaller farm sizes are 2 to 10 times more productive per unit acre than larger ones...[that] the smallest farms surveyed in the study, those of 27 acres or less, are more than ten times as productive (in dollar output per acre) than large farms (6,000 acres or more), and extremely small farms (4 acres or less) can be over a hundred times as productive."

Finally, the practice of monoculture, row-on-row planting increases the susceptibility of the crop to environmental calamities like drought and, what farmers are now expecting is the next kick coming to Alberta, grasshoppers. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, the Southern Corn Leaf Blight in 1970 destroyed 60% of the US corn crop. That was almost 40 years ago now, and already it demonstrates the dangers of monoculture farming.

Is it time for us to reconsider our modern agricultural system? I don't know, but it's certainly got me thinking. Any thoughts?

No surprises here

After watching my own waistline balloon ever since meeting my wife, I was completely unsurprised when I read this study. Apparently, "living with a romantic partner for 1 year or more increased the likelihood of incident obesity by up to 3-fold compared to single/dating individuals. This risk became even stronger for couples who lived together more than 2 years." News flash!

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

What do ants have to do with it?

I just finished reading Gaia's Garden, a great book by Toby Hemenway on home-scale permaculture that I've discussed before. Along with Omnivore's Dilemma, In Defense of Food, and Fast Food Nation, it has changed the way I view the world, and more specifically, North American gardening and agricultural practices.

As such, I've been more attuned to the plants around me lately and the interactions of each organism with those around it. When Sarah was playing with the boys the other day, she drew Sacha's attention to the army of ants covering Memere's peonies. Sacha of course asked why. Sarah told Sacha and his friend Jacob that the ants help the peonies bloom, so him and his buddy proceeded to try and pick up ants and place them on the peony to help it. When Sarah told me this story, I was caught completely unaware. I was not aware of this interaction.

So I Googled it and what did I find: myriad requests from individuals who wanted to find out the best way to kill the ants on their peonies. Of course. If they're all over the peonies everywhere you go, they must be pests, right? No, they're not.

Ants and peonies share a beneficial relationship. Ants are uniquely attracted to the peony nectar in the unbloomed buds. By going for the nectar and removing it, the ants help the peony buds to open and bloom fully. As well, by taking over the plant, they protect it from other insects that might otherwise harm it. Once the peony is fully bloomed and the nectar is gone, the ants part.

Why would you want to kill them? They actually make the plant more beautiful. How can we think we can intervene in something that's developed over millions of years of evolution? If we were to think intelligently about it, instead of trying to kill them, we'd do what we could to encourage this interaction and let it be. Nature will be nature, and by trying to intervene too often, we're just fighting a losing battle. Why not learn from it and utilize its patterns and interactions to our benefit?

Take a simple example like the Three Sisters Triad of corn, squash, and beans. From Gaia's Garden comes the following explanation: "The cornstalks form a trellis for the bean vines to climb. The beans, in turn, draw nitrogen from the air, and via symbiotic bacteria convert the nitrogen to plant-available form. These nitrogen-fixing bacteria...are fed by special sugars that ooze from the corn roots. The rambling squash...forms a living parasol that densely covers the ground, inhibiting weeds and keeping the soil moist...[Y]ields of this [grouping], measured in calories, are about 20 percent higher than corn grown alone in an equal-sized plot."

What are the consequences of the antithesis to this approach in modern agriculture? Fifty years ago, loss of crops to insects and disease was around 7%. At the time of writing of Gaia's Garden (2000), that figure stood at 14%. If we've become so much more productive in our agricultural pursuits, how could this have happened? To finalize my discussion of natural interactions I will summarize the authors discuss of the causes of this drastic increase.

First off, soil fertility has declined as we use synthetic fertilizers now and have almost completely eliminated crop rotation, a practice that significantly boosts soil health. The other two reasons are much more fascinating though.

1. Clean Cultivation
As mentioned in the book, hedgerows and natural vegetation along backs of fields were common up until very recently. These oases of nature harbored numerous insects and birds that stood in waiting for any pest silly enough to invade the adjoining field. When they did, the insects and birds had lunch. Along came modern agriculture and the desire to make fields as large as possible and remove any possible source of weed seed. Goodbye natural control.

2. Widespread, ill-timed pesticide use
Insects that munch on plants, like aphids, reproduce rapidly. Their predators, ladybugs, being higher up the food chain, reproduce more slowly. Think of a mouse versus a hawk. So let's say you have an aphid infestation in your field. Now that the hedgerow is gone, you already have a decimated ladybug population. But they kick into gear nonetheless and start reproducing as fast as possible. While mommy and daddy munch on aphids, the little ladybug larvae develop. Just about the time when junior is joining the army, Mr. Farmer comes along and torches the field with pesticide, pushing the ladybugs and the aphids to near extinction. The aphids bounce back quickly as their food source remains plentiful, but the ladybugs need time as they need the aphid population to rebound before they can even think about breeding again. Finally, when the aphid population has reached critical mass and the ladies are ready to start growing another army, Mr. Farmer sees the aphids again and thinks, "Damn, my first bout of spray didn't do the job." Kablamo! He drops another spray bomb. After a few repeats of this vicious cycle all the ladybugs are gone and the farmer is in a perpetual battle with aphids.

All I'm saying, in my typical roundabout way, is that after reading this book, I can't look at a typical North American yard without shaking my head. I plan on designing mine based on permaculture principles over the next few years and hope to document the progress. In the meantime, for the sake of nature, if the ants aren't in your house, just leave them be. Maybe you could plant a few peonies to keep them outside?

Sunday, June 28, 2009

The miracle of compound interest

In reading my monthly MoneySense magazine I relearned the genius of compound interest. It is used as a way to encourage people to save because growth on money compounds, with most of the growth occurring in the latest stage, ie. the time closest to retirement. The concept is so powerful that when asked what the most powerful force in the universe is, Albert Einstein replied "compound interest". So I thought I'd revisit this concept for readers.

In his great book, RRSPs, Preet Banerjee extols the virtues of compound interest by giving a scenario in which you are offered a large lump sum of money for a month's work, or the chance to be paid $0.01 one day, but your pay will double every day for a month. Of course, at the end of the month, the guy who took the lump sum looks like a sucker because the doubler made WAY more money! But I thought to myself, whose money ever doubles in a savings regimen? 5 or 10% seems much more realistic.

I'm going to give you 2 scenarios. In both, assume that you'd had enough money saved up prior to starting this job to hold the whole year through so pay frequency does not come into the equation as a confounding factor.

1. For 1 year of work, 365 days solid with no breaks, I will pay you $5 000 000.

2. For 1 year of work, 365 days solid with no breaks, I will pay you $0.01 on the first day. Every day after that I will increase your wage by 5%.

What do you choose?

If you choose scenario 1, you will make roughly $416 667 a month, or $2.5 million after 6 months.

If you choose scenario 2, after 1 month, you will have made a whopping $0.66. Month 2? $3.54
Month 6? $1303.28

Starting to look like scenario 2 man is a big donkey.

Month 8? $25565.11
Month 10? $454 799.03

Only 2 months to go, and he's nowhere near the $5 million mark. What a moron.

Month 11? $1 965 615.85

At the end of the year, scenario 2's total earnings are...........$10 842 368.12

The key here is that most of the growth did not occur until very late in the year. In fact, at what point did scenario 2 surpass scenario 1? Day 350!!!! There are only 15 days left in the year, but in those 15 days alone, the money grows by another $5 million.

Even if says the attribution of the aforementioned quote to Albert Einstein is likely a modern creation, whoever wrote it or said it is on to something.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Eat like the Greeks!

Being a massive nerd with myriad interests does have its benefits sometimes. For example, I subscribe to a weekly news alert called Physicians FirstWatch. It provides a quick summary of newsworthy medical studies published over the last week and a link to the original article if possible. I came across a great one today that I'm surprised hasn't splashed all over the news given our society's obsession with diet and health.

The study, published in the British Medical Journal, analyzed the diets of almost 25 000 Mediterranean residents over the course of almost 9 years. What the study was looking for was all-cause mortality, that is, death from any cause. It then tried to weed out any potential confounding factors to see how diet contributed to risk of death. The diets were scored on a scale from 0-10 with regards to how closely the diet followed that of the ideal Mediterranean diet. What did they find?

For every 2-unit increase in diet score there was a mortality ratio of 0.864, with the true value of this finding falling somewhere between 0.802 and 0.932 with 95% confidence. This means that those who followed the Mediterranean diet 2 points higher than those who didn't had a 7-20% lower risk of death. The most interesting facet of the study was the determination of which components of the Mediterranean diet contributed most to this reduction in mortality. I'm surprised the health media hasn't taken this and ran with it as the healthy living rule book or something of that sort!

(In order of descending importance)
1. Moderate alcohol consumption (versus no or excessive consumption)
2. Low consumption of meat and meat products
3. High vegetable consumption
4. High fruit and nut consumption
5. High consumption of monounsaturated fats in relation to consumption of saturated fats
-monounsaturated fats are basically healthy plant oils like olive oil, canola oil, nuts, avocados
-saturated fats include dairy fats (cheese, milk) and animal fats
6. High legume consumption (for those of you not currently enjoying the bounty of legumes nature has to offer, these include peas, beans, and lentils)

As Michael Pollan says in his book, In Defense of Food, there's a lot that can be learned from diets based on centuries of tradition. It's too bad it took a highly complex, and likely expensive, scientific study to tell us such a simple fact. If we'd just get back to our roots and start eating FOOD again instead of processed garbage, this would be common sense for most people. Hopefully it doesn't come as a shock to you!

Sunday, June 21, 2009

The brilliant ramblings of a 3-year old

Sacha's not quite 3, but will be in 2 months and for all intents and purposes acts like a 3 year old already. Since he talks almost incessantly now, I thought I'd share with you some of the doozies he served up this weekend.

1. We were in Grande Prairie this weekend taking my car in to get fixed. While waiting for Sarah to come pick us up from the hair salon we walked over to Wholesale Sports, an outdoor enthusiasts dream. Although I am not an outdoor enthusiast, I do enjoy looking at fishing lures the size of my father. And of course, Sacha thought it was great, what with all the animal heads on the wall. Then he saw something he didn't quite understand: a bearskin rug.

Sacha: "What dat ting? What dat bear?" Daddy: "That's a bearskin rug." S: "A tapis? (French for rug) D: "Yes, a tapis." S: "Why it a bear?"

And so ensued a long drawn out conversation about the concept of hunting, why people hunt, and why people turn bears into rugs. I wasn't sure the whole discussion really sunk in, but then nothing really escapes this kid. So today we were playing and he brought out his little gun that whirs and shoots little foam discs out of it. He walks up to me with a devilish little look on his face, points the gun at me and says, "Hee hee, me turn you into tapis!" and then shoots me. Brilliant.

2. After finishing at his Memere's house where we had Father's Day supper, Sacha went to say goodbye to her, gave her a big hug and said, "Tank you fow fadder's day, memere".

3. When we got home I asked Sacha to tell his mommy what he told Memere when he said goodbye. His response? "I tell memere, tank you fow fadder's day, cause i powite." Classic.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Back to nature

This post will officially install me as an uber-nerd in any minds that may consider me somewhat conventional still, although I doubt there are many left out there. But I've been reading this book lately, and like any good book I get into, it has really changed the way I look at things. It's called "Gaia's Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture" and is written in flowing prose by Toby Hemenway.

Permaculture is a way of 'designing human settlements and perennial agricultural systems that mimic the relationships found in the natural ecologies' It has made me look at gardening and landscaping in a totally different way. (In case you're wondering, we are about to begin a full scale landscaping of our yard done by a professional landscaper so I've been brainstorming ideas). I'll leave you to discover the rest of what this phenomenal book has to offer but I will leave you with three things to entice you. First, the cover photo shows a lush green garden full of color and beautifully designed. The garden is situated in the middle of desert in New Mexico. The real kicker? Due to the use of permaculture principles, the owner hardly ever waters save for a few trips with a watering can to isolated spots that need a little love. Unreal.

Second, when talking about harvesting and storing rainwater, the author puts forth the following calculation:
"The average 2,000-square-foot, two-story house (which would be like a 1000 square foot house in Canada, with a basement, as most American homes do not have basements) has over 1,000 square feet of roof....If that house is in a region receiving 40 inches of rain a year...the roof will collect 25,000 gallons of water each year. That's enough to keep a 1,000-square-foot garden water for 250 days of drought." Where do we send that water now? Onto our yards where it runs off or onto our driveways and sidewalks where it ends up in the storm drain system.

Finally, in one chapter on the multiple uses and synergistic connections formed between plants in a properly designed garden (read: pretty much the exact opposite of most North American gardens) there is a particularly beautiful passage on the myriad functions a single oak tree plays in the forest ecosystem. The full description is 3 pages long but I will quote just a few paragraphs to point you toward some of the principles developed in this book:

"Soon the sun warms the humid, night-chilled air within the tree. The entrapped air dries, its moisture escaping to the sky to help form clouds. This lost moisture is quickly replaced by the transpiring leaves, which pump water up from roots and exhale it through puffy-lipped pores in the leaves called stomata. Groundwater, whether polluted or clean, is filtered by the tree and exits the leaves as pure water. So tress are excellent water purifiers, and active ones. A full-grown tree can transpire 2,000 gallons of water on a hot, dry day. But this moisture doesn't just go away--it soon returns as rain: up to half of the rainfall over forested land comes from the trees themselves (the rest arrives as evaporation from bodies of water). Cut the trees, and the rain disappears.

Sun striking the leaves ignites the engines of photosynthesis, and from these green factories, oxygen streams into the air. But more benefits exist. To build sugars and the other carbon-based molecules that provide fuel and structure for the tree, the leaves remove carbon dioxide from the air. This is how trees help reduce the level of greenhouse gases.

As the leaves absorb sunlight and warm the air within the tree, this hot, moist air rises and mixes with the drier, cool air above. Convection currents begin to churn, and morning breezes begin. So trees help create cooling winds."

I strongly encourage anyone interested in gardening or landscaping to check out this book. It is fantastic.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Selling point

My father-in-law, bless his soul, is looking into buying a new car. I'm not sure whether my mother-in-law is on board, but I was interested to hear about the thought process nonetheless. I love my father-in-law. He's a phenomenal human being. But we differ somewhat in our views of what is desirable in an automobile. I desire fuel economy and quality and will only buy foreign. He wants showy, fast, powerful, affordable, and domestic. So it was that he found himself at the local GM dealership pricing out the newest cars. Since it sounds like he took the salesman's bait hook, line, and sinker, let me deal with a few of the doozies the salesman served up for him.

1. You'd better decide whether or not to buy this car soon, because there's a good chance that to avoid going bankrupt, GM might no longer make the Pontiac line next year.

Not sure about you, but if someone told me I should buy something because the company that makes it sucks so badly at running themselves and there cars are of such inferior quality that they may have to stop making them for fear of closing shop, the last conclusion I'd come to is "Where do I sign?"

2. You don't want a small car, because when it comes to safety, basic physics wins every time. Bigger vehicles will always be safer.

This is the selling point that pisses me off the most and in my mind has contributed to a good deal of carbon dioxide emissions over the past 25 years. Sow the seeds of fear in your customer so they buy the bigger car with higher margins. Why else are there so many gas guzzling SUVs on the road? So I did some research. What exactly determines automobile safety? I came across an enlightening study that can be found here. You can read the methods and analysis yourself. I'll summarize the key points that refute this dishonest sales tactic.

1. Of all vehicle types, pickup trucks had the highest combined risk (to driver and to other drivers). Compacts and subcompacts as a whole had the highest risk to the driver, but one of the lowest risks to other drivers. Their combined risk was comparable to that of SUVs. However, if you broke the data down into the specific models, it was found that only certain subcompact and compact cars contributed to the risk. The risk to the driver in Dodge, Chevy, and Ford (sub)compacts was 2-3 times that of Volkswagen and Honda (sub)compacts. In fact, the safest (sub)compacts had a lower risk to drivers than the average SUV. Is something else in play here?

2. Does weight really determine risk? First off, if you compare fatality rates in all cars by weight, you find that there is a fairly healthy inverse relationship between risk and weight. That is, as the weight of the automobile rises, the risk to the driver falls. However, of interest, for cars of equal weight, foreign cars had on average almost 40 fewer deaths per million cars than domestic cars. So weight again is obviously not everything.

3. If you take the cars and put them in groups stratified by resale value and then compare the relationship between weight and risk in those group, the relationship disappears. That is, in cars of similar resale value, as the weight goes up, the risk to the driver stays the same. So, this has accounted for a potential confounding factor in the weight:risk equation. Maybe heavier cars aren't safer. Maybe better built cars are safer.

4. If you now take these two factors, weight and resale value and look at how strongly they correlate to risk, resale value actually has a stronger correlation to risk than does weight. So is it weight, or quality that makes a car safer?

So, next time you go to buy a big Hummer because you feel you'll be invincible in it, think again. The biggest contributor to motor vehicle fatalities is driver behavior, namely speed and alcohol use. If you drive safely, no matter what car you're in, you're protected. However, if you're unlucky enough to be hit by a speeding drunk, it doesn't matter much what kind of car you're in. But in the case that you're not unlucky, at least you'll save some money and help the planet at the same time by buying a more economical, fuel efficient vehicle. Don't let salesmen sell you fear. Buy some commonsense instead.

I need not worry

At some point in Sacha's early years, I had a slight concern about his development. I wasn't concerned about his intelligence per se but when we got back his first speech pathology assessment I must say I had some of those anxious concerns all parents have. But Sacha has had three conversations with me of late that have allayed any residual concerns.

1. I have an illustrated anatomical dictionary. One day Sacha and I started flipping through it and he asked all manner of questions about every picture. He learned about "where poop comes from" and other fancy things. It is now known as the "poop book". So he may have developed a slightly more keen knowledge of anatomy than most his age, but I didn't realize how keen.

I was at my yearly physical and to give Sarah a break I brought Sacha along with me. During the "coughing" part, Sacha says to me, "Daddy, what the docker feewin yo tessicles for?" Dr. Unger, trying not to cry from laughter says, "I'm just feeling for lumps and bumps." Sacha: "Why dere be wumps and bumps in dere?" Me: "Well, sometimes men get sick in their testicles and the doctor just needs to check to make sure daddy's aren't getting sick." Sacha: "Oh, okay. Dat good." Dr. Unger whispers to me later, "How on earth does he know what they're called?"

2. The anatomy book strikes again. One morning Sacha asks me where pee pee comes from. I told him, in my typical no holds barred, give him the whole truth fashion, "Well, when you drink juice or water, it goes in your stomach. Then it gets absorbed into your blood where's it's filtered into your kidneys. From their it goes into your bladder and when your bladder gets full it says 'Hey, Sacha, it's time to go pee pee' and then it comes out of your penis." Sacha: "Kidneys? What dey?" Me:"Oh, kidneys, they're something in your body that helps you make pee pee." A few minutes later we're sitting on the couch and Sacha says, "You got daddy knees" and then starts laughing. I said, "What, daddy knees?" Sacha says, "Yeah, daddy knees, not kid-neys." I laughed for so long I barely recovered. When I did I told my son he's a genius.

3. There is a small roadside attraction about 5 minutes away from our house that is the historic site of Mackenzie Cairn, across which lies Fort Fork, one of Alexander Mackenzie's stops on his journeys. There is a nice little path that meanders down to the Peace River where Sacha and I go once in awhile to kill time and throw some rocks into the river. Just a couple of days ago we went and had some fun. Then tonight we were going on our biweekly trip to Weight Watchers, followed by Dairy Queen. As we went to turn left out of Shaftesbury Estates to take the back road to Weight Watchers, Sacha got upset, because usually we turn right. He said, "No, not dat way. Dat way to Makenny caywin. We not go to makenny caywin. We go Weight Watchers." I said, "What? Where does this way take us?" Sacha: "To Makenny caywin where go down by wiver." I responded, totally incredulous, "This road takes us to Mackenzie Cairn?" Sacha: "Yeah, yeah, yeah, we not go dere. We go Weight Watchers den Daiwee Queen." After assuring him that this road also led to Weight Watchers, I thought about how amazing it is that my son, who is turning 3 in August, not only knows directions to local landmarks when exiting the Estates from a different exit than usual, or at all for that matter, but that he knows the word Cairn. It's the best part about having kids. They never cease to amaze.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The potato battle

In Weight Watchers last week, we had a very detailed discussion about the difference, nutritional and otherwise, between sweet potatoes, yams, and potatoes. There seemed to be a lot of misinformation floating around the room, so I thought I'd figure it out.

There is a lot more you can find on Wikipedia, but suffice it to say, the yummy, sweet, orange vegetable you know as a sweet potato in Canada is in fact a sweet potato. However, if you are American (which I am certain you are not because like 9 people read my blog and most of you live within 500 km of me) then what you know as yams are actually sweet potatoes. For some reason, sweet potatoes were given the name yams over the years. The actual yam is barely distantly related to the sweet potato, has a different taste and look, and is native to Africa, whereas the sweet potato is native to South America. But apparently, sweet potatoes are often even labeled as yams in many North American supermarkets.

How do these two vegetables compare on the nutrition front? Well, compared to all other vegetables actually, the sweet potato basically kicks total ass. According to Wikipedia, in 1992 "Center for Science in the Public Interest compared the nutritional value of sweet potatoes to other vegetables. Considering fiber content, complex carbohydrates, protein, vitamins A and C, iron, and calcium, the sweet potato ranked highest in nutritional value. According to these criteria, sweet potatoes earned 184 points, 100 points over the next on the list, the common potato."

There. Argument settled. If we spend 3/4 of the next Weight Watchers meeting arguing about this, I'm just going to have to pull this info out. Will it point me out in the crowd as an uber-nerd? Yes. Do I care? Very little.