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!