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Monday, August 31, 2009

Miracle heater changes newspaper into huckster

huckster/n. 1. a mercenary person ready to make a profit out of anything. v. 1. tr. to promote or sell (an often questionable product) aggressively.

The newspaper and magazine hucksters are again promoting the purchase of the Amish mantle (sic), a very questionable product - a grossly overpriced, Chinese made, portable electric space heater, contained in a solid wood, and possibly partially particle board, ersatz fireplace, complete with artificial flames flickering from the glow of twin 40-watt light bulbs.

Maybe I should be surprised that newspapers are stooping to run ads like these, but I'm not. While I still worked at The London Free Press, the paper ran a double-truck version of the Amish miracle heater ad. The ad, clearly designed to resemble a news page, going so far as to credit the writer, is a disgrace, shaming the publications stooping to carrying it. The word advertisement at the top of the page is in almost the smallest, and in easily the lightest, font on the page.

Offended that this ad was running in The London Free Press, a paper at which I had worked for decades, I walked down to Paul Berton's office - Berton is the editor-in-chief of The London Free Press - I told him what a disgrace it was to be running this ad. Readers deserve better from their community paper. I told him that other papers had run stories in their news pages revealing the truth behind the false claims for the Heat Surge space heater. He listened politely to my rant and brushed me off. In the coming weeks we ran the ad a second time and we never, to the best of my knowledge, printed the truth about this rip-off.

I no longer work at the paper. I took a buyout in January. I no longer have to bite my tongue when it come to the Amish miracle heater. But why is it left to a blogger to tell Londoners the truth? Since I personally talked with Paul about this ad, he cannot claim that he didn't know the ad was highly questionable.

The local paper talks a good line about caring for the community but running an ad like this shows complete disregard for the community - for the readers of the paper and for the local advertisers who are truly the paper's financial backbone.

According to The London Free Press and other papers, I assume that many in the Sun Media chain carried the ad, readers who ordered their miracle heater and Amish mantel within the 48-hour deadline would get the imported hi-tech miracle heater for free. You only had to pay for the mantel, the shipping and handling and tax. Roughly $463 will get you the free heater. There may be importing fees, duty, still to be paid. If you want cherry wood (actually poplar with a cherry finish) plan on spending more than $500 to receive your free heater.
  • "Amish man's new miracle idea helps home heat bills hit rock bottom" read the original ad. Now, the ad says, "Amish mantle (sic) and miracle invention help home heat bills hit rock bottom."
The new ad credits an "engineering genius from the China coast" for the miracle heater. ". . . (a heater) is so advanced, you simply plug it into any standard outlet." I guess the Amish haven't heard that we plug all small, electric space heaters into the wall. Canadian Tire has one for $19.99 and it too is most likely from China.
  • "Fireless Flames" gives a peaceful flicker without flames, fumes, smells, ashes or mess.
I guess Fireless Flames is what the Amish call twin 40-watt light bulbs. Those Amish may not know a lot about electricity but they certainly are poetic.
  • ". . . slash your heating bills . . . "
First, turn down the thermostat. Now, roll your portable heater from room to room. You simply take the heat with you. But, be careful as rumour has it that the Roll-n-Glow has plastic wheels prone to break.
  • "It produces up to an amazing 5,119 BTU's on the high setting."
Yes, it pumps that much heat but it is not amazing. This is exactly the same amount of heat as the $19.99, 1500 watt, heater from Canadian Tire. This is the amount of heat all 1500 watt heaters produce.
  • ". . . fine real wood Amish made fireplace mantles (sic) . . . "
Reports say that some parts of the mantels are solid wood, like the tops, but other parts are wood veneer over particle board. Quality Amish staples are also used in the construction.

If you think you need a space heater, the cheapest ones have a bad reputation. The fans can be loud and the heaters may not have a thermostat to control the heat - oh, the Amish miracle heater does not have a thermostat. What does that tell you? And it has heater coil construction like the least expensive space heaters.

A New York Times article in January of 2009 reported, "Since 2007, the Better Business Bureau of Canton has received 237 complaints against Heat Surge, many of them related to misleading advertising and customer service issues; the company currently has an F rating from the bureau."

The Providence in Phoenix carried the ad but then in a subsequent story addressed the issue. The deck below the headline read, "In tough times, newspapers get ad money where they can."

According to the Providence:

"When an ad exec at the News & Observer in North Carolina defended an ad the paper published for the "Universal Health Card," calling it clear about "what it is and what it is not," the N&O's public editor disagreed.

"To me the ad looks misleading and, from my brief research, promises more than it delivers," the public editor wrote. "I'm concerned not only that it gives information to readers that is at best confusing, but also that it undermines the credibility of the newspaper. The ad caused me to wonder whether the well-publicized revenue declines in the newspaper business have caused the paper to accept advertising that might not appear in flusher times."

The Providence in Phoenix is part of a chain. The reporter, Ian Donnis, contacted Tim Schick, administrator of the Providence Newspaper Guild in Rhode Island. Schick said, "As long as [such advertising] is clearly marked as advertising, we do not have an issue . . ."

Schick added that there's always a risk "that these ads will lure vulnerable individuals, but this is nothing new in the industry. It has been going on for a long time." I cannot argue with Schick there. How long have newspapers been running the 0% car loan ads? I addressed that problem in my blog GM Slight of hand . . . 0% becomes 7.2%.

To the credit of the Heat Surge company their website is far more honest than their newspaper ads. Possibly they could still sell their units without the questionable claims.

David Baker, Heat Surge vice president, told The New York Times, "If someone would come to me and say, 'I need a heater and I want to spend as little as possible,' I would say go to a local big-box store and buy one for $29.99. Our heater represents a fireplace rather than just some space heater."

So take David Baker's advice, if all you want is a space heater save money and buy an excellent space heater right here in London. Support a local company and trusted local advertiser in The Free Press. You will save a pot full of money and be a much better community supporter than the local paper.

Unfortunately, many of the small, space heaters do not have wheels. Oh well, you can buy eight or more for the price of one Amish miracle heater - just don't turn a number of them on at the same time or the miracle will be paying your home hydro bill when it arrives.


Consumer Reports has released a video in which they give their take on the Amish Heater from Heat Surge of Canton, Ohio. It is a very balanced report. Watching it left me wondering why Heat Surge even bothers with the questionable sales gimmicks. It they put their money into upgrading their product, installing a heater equiped with a thermostat for instance, I bet they would sell lots of these Amish mantels.


The colour photo at the top of this post was found in the National Geographic. It seems just about everyone has carried the Heat Surge ad. This company is clearly selling product as they can afford to spend big bucks on advertising. In looking through the National Geographic I found another questionable ad and one that was completely out of place in a magazine dedicated to protecting the world's heritage. I'll talk about it in detail another day.


Sunday, August 30, 2009

I.F. Stone, bloggers and getting out the truth

I.F. Stone, Isidor Feinstein Stone, is one of my heroes. Quoting Wikipedia: "He is best remembered for his self-published newsletter, I. F. Stone's Weekly. At its peak in the 1960s, the Weekly had a circulation of about 70,000, yet it was regarded as very influential."

Stone died 21 years ago in Boston in 1989, yet his influence is still being felt — there is an official I.F. Stone website. This is surprising considering that I.F. Stone's Weekly was accorded the second highest rating of any sustained print journalism effort in the last century.

I'm not going to go into great detail about Izzy Stone, that was the name he went by for much of his public life, Wikipedia covers Izzy Stone quite nicely. What I would like to share with you is an answer that Izzy gave when asked how he scooped the major media outlets when it came to reporting on the war in Vietnam. It seems Izzy got it right; the mainstream media got it wrong.

How did he do it?

It was widely reported that the war in Vietnam was being wound down. The U.S. government said it was so. But Izzy reported that the war was escalating, the U.S. involvement was being quietly ratcheted up, the number of troops stationed in Vietnam was growing not shrinking.

Izzy was asked how he knew. What were his secret sources? It was assumed he had moles buried deep within the government. Izzy smiled at the question. It seems some U.S. papers were using troop movement figures as filler, little snippets of information used to make columns fit the page.

So many troops shipped out today from San Diego, so many troops returned home today from Vietnam. Izzy simply kept track of the reported numbers. Soon, it became clear that more troops were being shipped out than were returning. The MSM was sitting on the story and didn't even know it.

If Izzy had had the Internet, I think Izzy would have been a blogger and he would have had a far greater following. His reach would have been exponentially larger. As it was, he was a giant.

Years ago I had the honour of chairing a photo seminar at which Edie Adams was the headline speaker. Adams, famous for his work in Vietnam, sat with us regaling us with stories from his many adventures. One thing Adams made very clear, early on New York news desks did not want negative stories on the war in Vietnam.

According to Adams, reports filed from the field to the Time magazine office stateside often told a sad tale of impending disaster. The stories were warnings that needed to reach the American people. Instead the negativity was edited out, General Westmoreland graced the cover and a positive spin was be put on the growing disaster in Southeast Asia.

I.F. Stone would have listened and he did. I.F. Stone was a journalist. Sadly, the same cannot be said for far too many folk working in the media.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Don't blame the 24-hour news cycle

On the weekend I read an opinion piece examining how the media reported the death of Edward (Ted) Kennedy — the writer claimed to be taking a view "through the lens of North American journalism." After working for almost four decades in the photojournalism business, some of that time with the author of the opinion piece, I can say that I don't know what lens Mr. Cornies is referring to.

The point of his column was that today nothing is out of bounds when it comes to reporting the news. Journalists are no longer discreet. Why? The author sees lots of reasons: "The relentless appetite of the 24-hour news cycle among information-hungry media outlets, the proliferation of social media, the rise of a more shrill and less genteel political discourse, and the rupturing of the once-impenetrable walls of media institutions . . ."

Maybe he's right, maybe not, but I'll tell you one thing: The writer, Larry Cornies, is still genteel. There will be no overt mud slinging from Mr. Cornies. He writes that Joseph Kennedy, the father of John, Robert, and Ted, was "a successful businessperson and ambassador who built a fortune by the age of 30 . . . "

He mentions that old Joe Kennedy "groomed his sons for political life" and that they were "made in their father's image." In the context of Larry's writing, it sounds very positive. Dad was a success and his boys were just like dad.

All may be true but the whole truth, the complete, unvarnished story, is very different. John Kennedy was a womanizer, Robert Kennedy has similar stories tarnishing his memory, and even Larry allows that Ted had the scandal of the Mary Jo Kopechne buried in a very shallow grave in his past. The Kennedy boys followed in their father Joe's footsteps — all were womanizers.

Joseph Kennedy was brazen in his escapades with other women. In 1928 he had an almost public affair with Hollywood's Gloria Swanson. Rose, Joe's wife, handled the humiliating situations by pretending they weren't happening or she blamed the press. In Rose's memoir, written by Robert Coughlin with her approval, she is quoted as saying that gossip and slander were "the price one pays for being in public life."

With no 24-hour news deadlines, no Internet, none of the stuff Larry Cornies lists, the press was apparently reporting Joseph Kennedy's indiscretions to the dismay of his long-suffering wife. Nothing genteel here.

Why did the media give his son, John, a free pass? Why did they refuse to report John Kennedy's wrong doings. I am sure Rose Kennedy would not argue as does Mr. Cornies that it was because of the ". . . self-imposed constraints that had shaped their earlier formality and deference." The look-the-other-way reporting on the JFK White House reveals an endemic media blight. Even the media label for the Kennedy's time in office, Camelot, is tainted by this blight.

After the war in Vietnam ended in defeat, it was not just American legislators whose lies were laid bare. It was also the American press. We now know the Gulf of Tonkin incident was a creation of the U.S. government to give it a reason to go to war. Why did we not know it then? It was because of the media blight was hiding the truth.

President Lyndon Johnson and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara claimed the air strikes against the North Vietnamese were “retaliation” for the “unequivocal,” “unprovoked” attack by North Vietnamese torpedo boats on U.S. destroyers “on routine patrol” in “international waters.” As the war in Viet Nam escalated more lies were told but the media remained on side.

How did all these lies escape detection? Time Magazine rewrote some of their correspondents' stories when the stories did not mesh with the government's version of events. Time deferred to the government Time and Time again — issue after issue.

At a newspaper seminar I met a famous-in-the-media journalist, a speaker at the seminar, who had reported from Saigon. He told me that he and others in the field groaned when they saw General Westmoreland gracing the cover of Time. They saw this not as news but as a PR coup for the military. The Saigon-based correspondents and the New York rewrite desk were detailing two different wars, he said.Today we know the reporters in the field had it right and much of what we read at the time had it so very, very wrong.

During that war, now decades past, Lieutenant Colonel John Paul Vann argued for greater care, greater discrimination in killing. He is quoted as saying to David Halberstam, Saigon correspondent for the New York Times, "The best weapon for killing is the knife . . . the next best is a rifle. The worst is an airplane, and after that the worst is artillery."

Vann went on to argue that pilots and artillery commanders needed easy targets, and small villages were easy targets. Unfortunately, the possibility of hitting a VC stronghold was much less than that of killing innocent peasants.

Fast forward to today, to Afghanistan, where U.S. planes, including a B-52 bomber and an AC-130 helicopter gunship, dropped seven 2,000 lb. bombs killing dozens of Afghan women and children and injuring scores more. Did the story receive strong play in the U.S. media today? Or were these deaths explained away with claims strikingly similar to those used decades ago during the war in Vietnam?

In the words of a colonel from the Viet Nam era, Colonel Daniel Boone Porter, we are still ". . . killing the people we are are here to help."

Curious to know what images from the war in Afghanistan were being withheld from the American people, and Canadian for that matter, I searched the Internet. I soon stopped. The images were heart breaking. I cannot describe the horror I found. War is hell and the images were worse than anything  had every imagined. I now have a small window was causes military people involved in the violence of war to suffer post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

If you want to know the identity of the Argentinian mistress — Maria Belen Chapur — of Governor Mark Sandford, CNN is ready to inform you and inform you again and again and yet again. The death of Michael Jackson is such big news that it pushes everything first to the back burner and then right off the stove. The relentless appetite of the 24-hour news cycle is satisfied with quantity and not quality.

It is not the last shards of constraint, self-censorship and inhibition that are gone, but what we are seeing is media  maturity under attack. I do so wish you had been right, Larry. (See Addendum at bottom of post.)

A few important additional comments. Larry Cornies was an editor with The London Free Press for years. He is a smart man and a gentleman. When it came time to publish this post I fell back on the expert assistance of an old friend and retired newspaper editor — a man very much like Larry Cornies. My friend caught a number of embarrassing mistakes in my spelling, my word usage, and my grammar. (And I, of course, corrected those and made more.)

It takes a lot of courage to put one's thoughts down on the printed page. You just know that someone, like me, will take a different tack.

The editorial ranks have been thinned at most newspapers. That's sad. Even editors can use an editor. A good editor might have warned Larry Cornies that his take on the history of the media was a view seen through rose coloured glasses.


Today, Monday, the Huffington Post carried a story saying, "Last week McChrystal (Gen. Stanley McChrystal, commander of U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan) said troops "must change the way that we think, act and operate" in newly released counterinsurgency guidance. McChrystal hopes to instill a new approach in troops to make the safety of villagers the top priority.

McChrystal said the supply of fighters in the Afghan insurgency is "essentially endless." This is the reason violence continues to rise. He called on troops to think of how they would expect a foreign army to operate in their home country "among your families and your children, and act accordingly."

In the coming weeks and months I may take a look at some of the myths so prevalent in the media and the buzzwords that accompany these myths.


Exciting news! Tracy Kidder has a new book.

It's the weekend. Got stuff to do. But, if you've stopped by, I've got a link for you.

Strength in What Remains is the title of the new book from Tracy Kidder and The New York Times takes a look at the latest offering from the author who brought us Soul of a New Machine and House.

"That 63-year-old Tracy Kidder may have just written his finest work — indeed, one of the truly stunning books I’ve read this year — is proof that the secret to memorable nonfiction is so often the writer’s readiness to be ­surprised." The lead to the NYT's review. Check out the whole review and then grab a copy. I am certain it will be a fine read.


Thursday, August 27, 2009

Fizzies are back! ...uh, why?

When my wife and I tried living on a tight food budget some months ago, it brought back childhood memories of a weird product that seemed to be part Kool-aid, part Alka-seltzer and part soda pop; the product was Fizzies. Back in the '60s we were a financially challenged family (poor) and real soda pop was not to be found in our fridge, not in our budget. But, we did have Fizzies tablets on a kitchen shelf — a treat. Drop a tablet in a glass of ice water and you had instant pop, complete with bubbles.

Well, the other day I caught a program on television featuring Fizzies. They're back! But why? In truth, they were not that good. When cyclamates were banned, Fizzies disappeared along with the sweetener. I didn't think anyone missed them.

In the mid '90s they briefly reappeared, this time sweetened with Nutrasweet. They fizzled out again. Today, making a third trip to the plate, Fizzies are now sweetened with Sucralose and reportedly taste much better. Talk about damning with faint praise.

Yet, I confess, when I think of Fizzies I smile. My mother knew how to budget and in truth there was no money for Fizzies in her budget. She found the money, somehow, and I knew those foil wrapped tablets were valuable. It was a real treat to be given a Fizzie. Orange was my favourite but root beer was O.K.

When I think of Fizzies, I do not think of an off-sweet drink, cyclamates did not taste like sugar, but I think of love. That orange soda magically appearing where only a moment ago there had been a glass of water was a small miracle — the small miracle being that my mother could not afford it and yet there it was. :-)

They say Fizzies taste better today. The flavours are fruitier and the sweetener sweeter. They're now fortified with vitamin C and they are, of course, calorie free. And for me, they come complete with an all important ingredient — memories of my mother's love.

I confess. I ordered a package, a six-pack package. I have young nieces and nephews and I bet they'd be delighted with Fizzies. Give 'em a Fizzie and give 'em a memory. (Hey, go rent some Leave It To Beaver videos and make it a full-fledged '60s moment. Welcome to my world.)

And me? I'm going to drink a bubbling glass of orange Fizzie in memory of a grand and very wonderful lady, my late mother.

The right response to a head injury

When Natasha Richardson died from a head injury sustained in a minor skiing accident at Mount Tremblant in Quebec, many in the media immediately spent hours examining and, in many cases, attacking the Canadian health care system and the quality of the health care available in Quebec in particular.

The big story in the media seemed to be the lack of a helicopter to transport Richardson to a hospital in Montreal. "Helicopter transport is common practice in the United States," CNN bragged.

To promote a segment on Natasha Richardson's death on America's Newsroom, Fox News ran an on-screen grabber: "Did Canadian-Style Health Care Hasten Richardson's Death?"

Now, the Johns Hopkins Medical Letter, Health After 50, has waded into the issue with an adult view of the event. There is no mention of Canada in their take; not a one. Why? I imagine it is because the issue is - what is the right response to a blow on the head?

Many bloggers correctly pointed out that a number of deaths from the type of injury incurred by Richardson occur annually throughout the United States and not only as a result of a skiing accident. Health After 50 quotes Vani Rao, M.D., director of the Brain Injury Program at Johns Hopkins, "A person can trip over a carpet, end up with a minor bump, and not think anything of it." But, one may have unknowingly sustained a serious, life-threatening, brain injury.

Brain injury symptoms vary depending upon the seriousness and the type of damage. If you have had a traumatic brain injury (TBI) where the brain has smashed against the hard bone of the skull, incurring injury, you will most likely have immediate symptoms: confusion, dizziness, disorientation, or with more serious injury, headache, vomiting, seizures and even loss of consciousness.

A head blow can also result in subdural hematoma, bleeding in the layers of tissue surrounding the brain. If this bleeding continues, blood trapped between the skull and the brain will cause pressure to build, leading to possible brain damage and death.

If you strike your head and then suffer headaches, nausea, double vision, speech difficulties, confusion, memory loss, weakness or difficulty walking or with balance, get to the hospital. These symptoms may not appear for hours - be alert.

If there is a loss of consciousness, even momentarily, get hospital attention.

"Most head injuries are going to be mild to moderate," according to Dr. William Stiers with the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at Johns Hopkins. Because moderate to severe head injuries can have lasting effects, even causing death, do not be quick to refuse care.

Natasha Richardson's death made it clear to everyone how important it is to seek immediate treatment - with brain trauma minutes count.

And what is the best defense against brain injury? Obviously, wearing a well-fitted helmet when skiing helps. But, these injuries are not just encountered on the slopes. Remember the loose carpet example?

Health After 50 says avoiding a fall in the first place is the best response. Exercise often and regularly as this will improve your strength, reduce your risk of falling and improve your balance.

Have your vision checked regularly and fall-proof your home. Tape down that loose carpet. And limit your alcohol consumption. But then I didn't have to tell you not to drink until you are falling down drunk, did I?
Health After 50
12 issues $28 in U.S. or $36 + 7% GST in Canada (Can. funds)

This is not an ad. I am posting this because I like the health letter.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

London considers the Mosquito

In London, Ontario, the city's Environment and Transportation committee has asked for a report on the possible use of a high-pitched sound repellent aimed at the young. Used in Great Britain, British Columbia, and other places, it is claimed that the annoying ultrasonic squeal can only be heard by folk under 25. A walkway between Victoria Street and Leroy Avenue in east London has been suggested for the initial test.

The device in question is the Mosquito Teenage Deterrent and is made by Compound Security Systems Ltd. (CSS), Great Britain. They claim to have sold more than 6,000 Mosquito systems world-wide.

Today Kate Dubinski on her Thirty Below blog, hosted by The London Free Press, had an online discussion concerning the device. It was a good discussion and I decided to do a little googling. Lfpress.com senior online editor Dan Brown wrote, "I'm not sure I even buy this thing would work. A tone that only the young can hear? That sounds bogus to me." My wife and I wondered the same thing when we read the Jonathan Sher story in the paper.

Listen to this BBC sound clip and see what you think. I cannot hear the annoying squeal, I'm 62, but I understand that some people who are decades out of their teens still can hear it. Can you? If the BBC sound clip fails, try the Teenager Audio Test posted below.

Train Horns

Created by Train Horns

If you have listened to the teen-bothering hum and now would like to know how other folk have reacted, or didn't react, go to Polldaddy for the answer. I believe this poll was designed and set-up by The London Free Press. This is a fine example of the polling abilities offered by the Internet.

I was worried that the BBC sound file did not contain an annoying sound as I couldn't hear it. I was concerned that I was being pranked by the BBC. Well, not to worry as Kelly Pedro, a reporter at The London Free Press, can hear the sound and, yes, she was annoyed. Kate Dubinski even tested Pedro by playing the sound file near Pedro but without her knowledge; she still reacted. "Stop it! It sounds like it's in my ear!"

CSS states that the sound is not damaging, even with long term use. The sound is heard by dogs but they are not bothered. And the units are very robust, having a die-cast alloy and steel vandal-proof housing. Young children will not cry in pain from the units; it takes up to 10 minutes for the sound to become annoying and can often take another 10 minutes before teens move away. For more information check out the CSS FAQS or the BBC report.

If it were possible to protect walkways with these devices, they might be O.K., but only if the area was posted with "No loitering" signs. The high-pitched sound itself is not annoying, at least not in the short term, but the thinking behind the sound is more than annoying. It's digusting and more than a bit frightening. (This is a blanket assault on an entire segment of society in response to a problem caused by a few. If you cannot see this is wrong, we have more serious problems than loitering and grafitti.)

When used outside a store, the Mosquito does not discourage teens from entering, it just discourages them from loitering. Teens would still use the test site walkway, they just would not feel inclined to linger. (Teen vandals might find it possible to squeeze in a little time for tagging and other grafitti in the twenty minute grace period. Teen vandals are fast and efficient, if nothing else. Who knows, they might get a buzz from the Mosquito and feel inspired.)

But, and it is a big but, the units have a range of from 30 to 40 metres. Any home bordering the test site walkway would be within easy hearing distance of the annoying ultrasonic sound. Knowing this, this sound sounds like a problem.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Rockin' On: Photography

I am testing a new blog, Rockin' On: Photography. Check it out and let me know what you think.


Monday, August 24, 2009

Our heritage includes tomatoes.

One of the best things about London, Ontario, is how easy it is to leave it. Being centrally located in southwestern Ontario is a great location. A glance at the map and one immediately sees London is close to both Lake Erie and Lake Huron and that a visit to the the Stratford Festival requires but a very short drive.

What may not be so obvious is how close London is to both Toronto and points beyond. Even when traffic is hindered by construction, as it seems to be every summer, the 401 is one heck of a highway. One can go from London to Prince Edward County, a very special place, in less than four hours. My wife, Judy, and I did this just that this past weekend.

I was in blogger's heaven. Everywhere I looked there were pictures to be taken and ideas to confront or digest — and I really mean digest — like the heritage tomatoes we found at a roadside stand deep in the county. Some were a deep purple colour, others the expected red but streaked with orange bands and still others were neither red nor round; they were green and oblong, like a smooth cucumber.

We picked up a mixed bag of tomatoes and headed back to the cottage where we were staying. Our hosts were a couple of real food nuts — they appreciate the taste of food. Uh, maybe the food nuts are the rest of us, consuming foods, such as the modern tomato, grown more for shipping success than taste.

At dinner that night a platter was prepared presenting our prized finds. A sprinkling of freshly chopped basil and a sprinkling of balsamic vinegar adorned the sliced tomatoes. I thought a little ground sea salt would have been nice, too, adding those little, but intense, bursts of salt.

Home, it is time to do a little research discover a little of the background of these little reminders of our food past, of what has been forgotten and of what has been lost, and of what is being rediscovered.

The Covent Garden Market in London, Ontario, like many markets, carries heritage or heirloom tomatoes. But, what is really nice to find are the field grown beefsteak tomatoes — big, juicy, with a nice light acidic bite. These are not the usual, wimpy, rockhard, tasteless, shipping tomatoes out of Florida, California or Mexico.


Thursday, August 20, 2009

Newspapers must evolve

The post for today is a wee bit long. If it was a wine, I think it would be described as being a bit dull on the palette, but it develops nicely and has a good, clean finish. Enjoy.

I often think of newspapers as I knew them: the newspapers I grew up with, the newspaper from which I retired early after being given a buyout. I believe papers are on their last legs. They are tottering dinosaurs. Some say a changing environment doomed those prehistoric Goliaths. I think the environment is changing for newspapers, too.

Some argue dinosaurs are still with us. They say the descendants of the dinosaurs are today's birds. Maybe newspapers will do as well and take flight unburdened by huge printing presses, large fleets of trucks, tonnes of newsprint and tanker loads of ink.

Of course, in the end, birds are birds. It doesn't matter what came before. That was then and this is now. The Internet is not a newspaper. Period. Newspapers are the news gathering organizations of the past. The Internet is the new paradigm.

It's a new paradigm to some but in truth it has been a long time coming. You often read that the generation raised on the Internet is now coming of age. Young people are the savviest of the tech-savvy, we are told. How silly.

How old is Steve Jobs? Early-fifties, I believe. When it comes to being tech-savvy, old Steve is the king of savvy hill. If Steve sneezes, Apple stock tumbles. This is a company filled with imaginative, creative young people, but it is the aging boomer (oh how I hate that word) who drives the company. Many argue, he is the company.

There are many people who grew up with the Internet and many more who grew old with it. I'm 62 and when I was 39 I was a GEnie subscriber. Sitting at a 128K Mac I could talk with the world using a 300 baud modem and a dial-up connection. GEnie was, to be generous, a precursor of the Internet run by General Electric.

GE didn't grasp what they had. They structured GEnie to take advantage of the time available on their numerous GE Mark III time-sharing mainframes. To ensure that GEnie subscribers used the system during slow periods,the charge for going online with GEnie at night, the off-hours for those mainframes, was far cheaper than the comparable time during the day. GE treated their service as a mainframe load filler. Bad move. GE was handed the Internet ball early but dropped it, letting others pick it up and run away with the prize.

GEnie was a text-based service. This sounds terrible and it was but moving letters about is not CPU intensive, nor does it eat a lot of bandwidth. My typing at the time was slow and so my 300 baud modem could easily keep up with my hunt-and-peck style of typing.

I did research using GEnie and visited the GEnie forums, called RoundTables. There I chatted with people who shared my interests. I used to come to work and bend the ear of Sue Bradnam, now the chief photographer at the paper, and I would babble on about the coming computer driven wave of change. Sue can be very patient and very polite. She ignored me with great class and style but I am sure she thought, "Nut!" (Computers aside, she may have been right.)

Then the newspaper discovered computers and set up a graphics department in the former Alcovia. This was a small recessed area in the newsroom with windows facing York Street. The reporters working there named it Alcovia and hoisted the Alcovian flag over their oh-so-independent territory. When management displaced the Alcovians there was a small insurrection, quickly quelled.

The new graphics department used Fat Macs and dozens and dozens of Macintosh plastic-encased floppies. When they started talking about getting a hard drive I tried to convince them to look at an 80 MB La Cie. Management looked at me like I was crazy. I told them that that was what I had at home. Overkill, I was told. Way more storage space than you will ever need. They bought a 20 MB Apple external hard drive. It was soon replaced -- too small.

And that has been the story of newspapers and computers and the Internet. Always a step behind. To be fair, it is hard to fault them. Visionaries are rare and with a change as extreme as the computer invasion and the Internet, not seeing it coming can be forgiven.

I think a great symbol of the newspaper industry's approach to computer innovation can be seen in the Atex system used by newspapers around the world two, and even three, decades ago. Huge keyboards, thick and clunky. Not designed for typing but for style. The monitors were huge grey cubes mounted on tall, grey cylinders. Clearly the designers of the Atex system were influenced by Star Trek. Captain Kirk would have been very comfortable with the futuristic look of the Atex terminal.

But newsroom editors and reporters were not comfortable. Atex and its parent, Eastman Kodak Co., were dragged into court by claims that the clunky keyboards caused serious repetitive strain injuries to users. Roughly a dozen New York Times employees alone took Atex to court for the perceived ergonomic design flaws.

As Macs displaced the Atex terminals, itself a revolution of a sort, another revolution was taking place. The control of the newspaper industry was passing from the hands of families to big business. This had been a trend for years but it was now in the endgame. It was said newspapers were a licence to print money and big business wanted those presses.

Just as the information revolution, powered by the Internet, was freeing news from its economic constraints, newspapers were evolving into dinosaurs. Papers were becoming big lumbering beasts.

One of my favourite stories, it may not be completely true, but no one in charge is going to fill in the blanks for me.

Quebecor and Sun Media had a bulletin board set-up to share pictures between their many papers. Staff at some papers knew about the bulletin board and posted to it regularly. If an important OHL game was held in London, it was posted to the bulletin board as soon as possible. The bulletin board system was a kludge, you could not see the images. An editor had to chose a photograph based on the name and often the name did not reveal much about the picture.

The London Free Press used a system for naming its pictures that made finding them easy, even when using a text-based system. All picture files originating in London started LDN and this was followed by the date. It was not hard to find the OHL pictures from London. In most cases we included the Knights' name in the photo caption.

Still the London paper would get calls from other Sun Media papers seeking hockey pictures, pictures posted hours earlier. The editors on the other end of the line were often desperate; they were facing deadline. No one had thought to tell these other papers about the bulletin board. Whenever I was on EPD, I would walk these callers through the system. They were always amazed that the bulletin board existed and that you didn't even need a code to access its pictures.

I thought this lack of an entry code could be a potential problem and raised the issue. I made some calls. Eventually, a code was put in place. Unfortunately, the code was not given out to all the papers. The London Free Press was missed. The Free Press could still file to the bulletin board but the paper could no longer access pictures from it. This went on for months and, to the best of my knowledge, was never fixed. In the end the bulletin board was simply replaced with a much better system and all became right with the world.

It is foolishness like this that threats newspapers and not the coming of the Internet. The best and the brightest at the newspapers will survive. It is just the giant newspaper companies, buying and merging and running up an ever growing debt with every takeover, that may disappear.

When the newspaper suffered a strike a few years back, it quickly became clear that it was the staff that was the true paper and not the building carrying the name. About five days after walking out the door, the staff of The London Free Press had an alternative paper on the street.

I know reporters at the paper who can write code. Joe Matyas has taken courses and puts together a web site for his church, complete with videos. I know a photographer, Morris Lamont, who puts out an Internet newsletter for his son's baseball team and it's a fine publication. Very professional

Talented reporters and photographers may not realize it but in the future they will not need the paper. Truth be told, it is the paper that needs them. Big business, big media, has been tossing their most valuable asset, their staff, out the door at a frightening pace.

The other day I saw the phrase "begs the question" rather than "raises the question" used in the news pages. Seeing that phrase in print brought to mind an editor who left the paper after one of the reoccurring rounds of layoffs. On his last day, walking toward the door, he stopped at my desk and handed me a sheet of paper. It was a list of his pet peeves as an editor. Near the top was the incorrect use of "begs the question." That editor, given a buy-out, was a lover of the English language. The newspaper misses him.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Factory farming, too often large dirty pig sties

The following post has been hit many times by folk from all around the world. Tonight, Oct. 13, 2009, I am adding a link to a story in the Huffington Post, "What Can Danish Hogs Teach Us About Antibiotics?" (Sunday, January 3, 2009, I'm adding another link: Where swine flu began by Thane Burnett of Sun Media.). And another link was added Mar. 8, 2010 from the New York Times: The Spread of Superbugs. And on Sept. 15, 2010, I added yet another NYT link: U.S. Meat Farmers Brace for Limits on Antibiotics.)

According to the Huffington Post article: "American agribusiness often has criticized Denmark's 1998 ban on antibiotics, calling it an outright failure. But compelling new research presented by a Danish scientist earlier this year showed the opposite, revealing that antibiotic use on industrial farms has dropped by half while productivity has increased by 47 percent since 1992."

Maybe their is hope for our pig farmers after all.

Pig farms — I hate to write about pig farms. I would bet that pig farms in Canada employ thousands and that hundreds, if not thousands, of Canadian families have their wealth completely tied up in the family business, a large pig farm operation. But the recent announcement of $75 million of Canadian taxpayer money for the pig industry plus $17 million to assist in the marketing of pork thrust pig farmers into my morning thoughts.

Why do I hate to write about them — because they are a disgrace. How pig farming got to its present state would be a whole, exceedingly long blog. Done properly, such a story would fill pages in a monthly magazine and would be a good, interesting read.

Yesterday The London Free Press reported that the pork industry was reeling from too many financial hits. One nasty hit was the labelling of H1N1 as "swine flu". The association of pig farming with a potential pandemic influenza virus has unfairly tarnished the industry, the producers complain.

This talk makes pig farms sound like the dirty, disease prone operations which they are. They just don't spread "swine flu," or do they?

I quote from the blog Beyond Factory Farming: "In order to prevent disease outbreaks caused by unsanitary, confined conditions, factory farms routinely use antibiotics as an ingredient in feed.

The systemic overuse of antibiotics in agriculture is encouraging the development of antibiotic resistant bacteria or “superbugs” such as Methicillin-Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus (MRSA) that threaten the efficacy of antibiotics used to treat humans.

The World Health Organization (WHO) calls for an end to the use of antibiotics in livestock that compromise human medical care. Nevertheless, the use of antibiotics in livestock production in Canada continues."

Before I left the paper, one of my last assignments was to get a picture at a local pig farm. It was a small, family operation under fierce financial pressures. This family farm had thousands of pigs — thousands!

When I got out of my car on arriving at the farm the pig farm smell was strong. One immediately knew why pig farms were not wanted as neighbours, even in the country. The farmer greeted me and took me into the nearest barn.

A wall, a solid wall, of stench hit me as we entered. I have lung problems, asthma, and immediately I began to struggle to breathe. The farmer led me down a long hallway which opened into a large room holding hundreds of pigs. A white, wooden, fencelike barrier prevented the pigs from entering the hall. I shot quickly and in moments I had my picture and we left.

When I got back to the paper, Mike Hensen, another staff photographer and who shared the alcove where we both downloaded our pictures, asked me to move. He could not take the smell and worse I was going to make him smell if I stayed. I stayed. He moved.

Soon I was getting complaints from all over the newsroom. File your pictures and go home, I was told. My clothing reeked, my camera gear reeked. Only moments exposed to the air in a pig barn had done this.

I went home, showered, threw my cloths immediately into the washing machine — including my photographer's vest. I even carefully washed my camera gear and wiped down the inside of my car. It was winter and it wasn't possible to do a first-rate job. My wife could smell the lingering odour in my car for months. We used her car whenever possible.

I'm not an expert and I don't profess to have all the answers but I do have some questions. If the air in a pig barn is that foul, that potent, how is it possible to raise healthy animals in that environment? Uh, would the answer be putting antibiotics in the feed?

O.K. Let's agree that it's unfair to associate "swine flu" with pigs just because the genetic make-up of the virus is of a type that normally affects pigs. Some say it started in pigs and then mutated, making the jump to people.

Some even say that the recent "swine flu" outbreak started in Mexico and that ground zero was Carroll Ranches, opened by Virginia-based Smithfield Foods in 1994. This pig farm, they say, was the cause of the epidemic. Maybe, just maybe, "swine flu" is a more information dense name for this type of influenza than H1N1. (I first heard this connection on the all news network CNN from the States.)

Allow me to quote from the Narco News Bulletin. (The whole report is actually worth a read. The story is shocking and nicely substantiated. The writer did his homework.)

"La Jornada columnist Julio Hernández López connects the corporate dots to explain how the Virginia-based Smithfield Foods came to Mexico: In 1985, Smithfield Foods received what was, at the time, the most expensive fine in history – $12.6 million – for violating the US Clean Water Act at its pig facilities near the Pagan River in Smithfield, Virginia, a tributary that flows into the Chesapeake Bay. The company, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) dumped hog waste into the river.

It was a case in which US environmental law succeeded in forcing a polluter, Smithfield Foods, to construct a sewage treatment plant at that facility after decades of using the river as a mega-toilet. But “free trade” opened a path for Smithfield Foods to simply move its harmful practices next door into Mexico so that it could evade the tougher US regulators.

The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) came into effect on January 1, 1994. That very same year Smithfield Foods opened the “Carroll Ranches” in the Mexican state of Veracruz through a new subsidiary corporation, “Agroindustrias de México.”

Consider what happens when such forms of massive pork production move to unregulated territory where Mexican authorities allow wealthy interests to do business without adequate oversight, abusing workers and the environment both. And there it is: The violence wrought by NAFTA in clear and understandable human terms.

The so-called “swine flu” exploded because an environmental disaster simply moved (and with it, took jobs from US workers) to Mexico where environmental and worker safety laws, if they exist, are not enforced against powerful multinational corporations."

Now, the Canadian Ministry of Agriculture has announced that swine producers will be able to share in a $75 million money pot being made available to assist producers to get out of the business. MP Gary Schellenberger (Conservative: Perth-Wellington) is quoted in The London Free Press as saying, "What this will do is help people get out of the business if they can't prove their business can be viable."

Viable. The word worries me. Does this translate into bigger, more efficient factory farm operations. Does this mean more pigs in fewer pig barns and all demanding more antibiotics to maintain good health?

My father raised hogs when he had a farm eighty years ago in eastern Ontario. He told me that the stories about pigs were mostly myths. Pigs, he said, were clean if given a chance. Look to the pig farmer as the reason for the filth, not the pig. Hell, he said, pigs don't smell; they don't even sweat.


For another view, if you have the time, the CBC took a look at pig farming in Canada. It's long, but worth it.

Or for an MSM take read the article in the Toronto Star, Blame NAFTA for swine flu, expert say.

It is not just large pig farms that are causing problems. The New York Times has a continuing series Toxic Waters. Read how other massive farming operations are causing problems.

If you have read this far, you may be interested in a later post: What is in Canadian ground beef?

Monday, August 17, 2009

Hot enough to fry an egg . . .

Monday it was hot enough in London, Ontario, Canada, to fry an egg. I thought of using the hood of my car but, I didn't. I'm curious but not that curious. I used my wife's car.

I considered going to the wrecker's in order to find a flat, black painted car panel but it was too far to drive. I don't have that kind of spare change.

The phrase may be, "It's hot enough to fry an egg . . . " but truth is that it is the sun that does the work. Air temperature alone will not do it. Eggs need a temperature of 158 degrees Fahrenheit to cook.

When I was a boy we used to go swimming at Point Pelee and it was a long walk from the parking lot to the beach. The sand felt hot enough to cook an egg, it sure played havoc with our feet, but a egg would have been safe. I'm sure the sand didn't hit the magic 158 degree temperature.

Hot sidewalks won't do it either. Even if you could find a sidewalk that hit 158 degrees, the raw egg sitting on the concrete would quickly lower the sidewalk surface temperature. Sidewalks are out.

But cooking an egg on a clear-sky, hot summer day is possible. Check the picture. A fried egg. I accepted sunny side up. I wasn't going to push the moment. It was fried around 1 p.m. daylight saving time in London, Ontario, Canada, on August 17th, 2009, while some of my neighbours watched.

Frying an egg under the hot sun may be possible but there are some tricks involved. We are not talking cheating here but physics. If you are going to get this to work you need to think like a scientist and a magician. Consider why this is a still picture and not a YouTube video. A little banter while you cook will help folk from noticing the little things -- the very important things.

As further proof that cooking an egg is possible -- difficult but possible -- I submit this link to a site where a fellow examined the temperature of the hood of a black-painted car sitting in full summer sun. He got a reading of 160 degrees Fahrenheit.

Or check out this story from Las Vegas, Nevada. The reporter for the Review-Journal in the American desert city recorded a temperature of 190 degrees Fahrenheit on a black SUV driver's door and a couple of vehicles had dashboards hitting 179 degrees Fahrenheit when parked full in the sun.

This little bit of fun does have a serious side. Don't ever leave children or pets inside a parked car. Folks have have fried eggs inside cars. Don't fry your loved ones. This is not a joke. The Dallas Morning News took the temperature of a car, and not a black one, left in the mid-day sun with its windows rolled up. The air temperature inside that car hit almost 140 degrees Fahrenheit. We may live in Canada, not in Texas, but our summer sun must still be respected.

And if you like to sunbath think of my egg and then think of basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and melanoma. Sunny side up is fine for eggs but not so good for people. I know; I've had treatments for sun damaged skin.


Addendum: Just learned from my wife that the children at the summer camp where she works were kept inside today as there was a heat advisory in effect. Guess I picked a good day to write my first weather story. And it wasn't even a slow news day.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

More red is redder than less red...

Lamp: illusion

Some months ago, I wrote the post below the line. If you have read this post already, link over to this site — Mighty Optical Illusions. It is dedicated to illusions and is quite entertaining. Be warned: the lamp illusion is not for young kids.

When I was studying at Ryerson my art criticism professor liked to say, "More red is redder than less red." What he meant was that in any painting a very large area of red paint has a completely different appearance from the identical colour applied to only a small patch of canvas and surrounded by an other colour or colours. Even if the paint was applied sequentially and all paint from the same tube, the two different sized coloured patches would look different.

He said this rule held for modern works by artists such as Piet Mondrian as well as for paintings by old masters. At the time, we were studying the abstract expressionist art of Hans Hofmann, Mr. Push-Pull on the picture plane, and the author of "Search for the Real and Other Essays." I followed all the arguments but I wasn't always convinced. Today, I stumbled upon this, and now I'm convinced. My professor was right.

Optical Illusion: blue and green are same colour

O.K. That's all I can show you. I am not into stealing another person's blog. If your interest is peaked visit: Richard Wiseman blog.

p.s. I took the image into Photoshop and read the colours with the densitometer and they were identical. I then cropped a square of pure colour from each and placed the squares side by side and they matched.

If you have a comment, I'm all ears.


Addendum: someone sent me a comment with a link to the following optical illusion created by Professor Edward Adelson of M.I.T. Again, if you want to know more click the Optical Illusion link.

Optical Illusion: square A and square B are the same tint of grey

...and for today, "That's all folks!"


Spaceship Earth and Finite Resources

I read in the New York Times that the Ford Motor Company is using boron in the new Ford Fiesta, entering the North American market in 2010. Adding boron to steel makes it stronger so Ford will use boron strengthened steel extensively in their new model. One result will be greater protection for drivers and passengers in the event of a collision. Another result will be an increase in the use of boron.

Crediting Wikipedia, the NYT wrote that "...boron is relatively rare, representing only 0.001 percent of the Earth's crust. The worldwide deposits are estimated as 10 million tons... ." They continue, "Nearly all boron ore is extracted for refinement into boric acid for antiseptic, insecticide and flame retardant, or borax for detergents, cosmetics and enamel glazes...," with nearly three-quarters coming from Turkey.

Reading the above paragraph made me gasp. The worldwide deposits are only estimated to be 10 million tons? Can that be true? Boron, of Twenty Mule Team Borax fame, is found mostly in Turkey today and we have but 10 million tons of the stuff? True? Possibly.

Trying to write about his makes me aware of how little I understand terms such as: reserves, reserve base, depletion allowance. The bottom line seems to be that according to the United States government, "At current levels of consumption, world resources are adequate for the foreseeable future."

In the USGS report we learn the reserve base for boron is 410,000 (something) while the world's production of boron was an average 4465 (something). Does this mean the world's reserve base will be exhausted in less than 92 years?

No, it doesn't. There will be lots more boron discovered in the intervening years. But, we may discover more uses for boron, like in hardening steel. It is proving to be a remarkably handy mineral. It is used in fiberglass production, the manufacture of soaps and detergents, agriculture, steel making and numerous other applications and products. More uses would throw the current levels of consumption figures into the dumpster.

My point? Boron appears to be in somewhat limited supply. The supply rooms of Spaceship Earth are not brimming with the stuff. Whether it will last another century, or another three centuries, I am sure there are those who can see a future without easily attainable boron. The strip mines will be closed.

At this time, the recycling of boron is insignificant. We mine it, we use it, we deplete it.

Addendum: I was chatting with someone who wanted to argue about my concerns. The experts say our boron will last centuries, relax, I was told. Ah yes, when I was a boy fish, like cod, were a renewable resource and would never run out. We had an infinite supply. In the future the oceans of the world would feed the world. Today the list of threatened, or essentially eliminated global fish stocks, grows longer by the year. The infinite supply of cod is gone, and it took just decades. They just don't make infinite supplies like they once did. ;-)


Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Aviator Sunglasses Do Not Have to be Expensive

Roots: Distortion Free

The sun is not just hard on our skin, it's also tough on our eyes. For this reason, the glasses we wear should protect us from UVA, which penetrates the skin more deeply than UVB and thus may contribute more to the development of skin cancers, and from UVB, the radiation that causes sunburns.

Most people protect their eyes with sunglasses. Personally, I don't like them. I like my colours bright, clean and untinted. For that reason, I made sure my bifocals block both types of UV radiation. It is not the tint that provides the protection but the UVA and UVB filtering properties of the lenses.

Because sunglasses provide important protection for our eyes, it's important to get the word out. Despite what Anita Sharma of Sun Media says, better quality sunglasses will not "have you reaching deeper into your pocket."

Foster Grant:
Total UV Protection
  • Sunglasses don't have to be expensive. I found Foster Grant glasses, left, with 100% protection from UVA and UVB, $12.97.
  • I found Roots distortion free, 100% UV protection, sunglasses at $30.
  • I found fashionable, full-protection Aviator sunglasses from Alfred Sung for $24.95
  • Dockers Aviator sunglasses, available at the Bay in Canada, are priced at $28.
  • I saw Foster Grant Baby sunglasses with full UV protection and a wraparound design providing additional protection at only $5.97. I bought them. I have a grandchild on the way.

David Yurman: Aviators

For highend, very expensive and great fashion, go with the $910 David Yurman cable arm Aviator sunglasses worn by Kate Moss or buy the $525 Robert Marc Aviators noticed on Nicole Kidman. But believe me, you don't have to spend more than $100 for good fitting, protective sunglasses, despite what Sun Media says.

And now a little about Aviator glasses. I started wearing Bausch & Lomb Ray-Ban Aviator glasses back in high school in the '60s. At that time the frames were gold filled rather than gold plated. The difference? Gold filling resulted in a thicker layer of gold than gold plating. It made for more durable frames. I never did wear them out.

In 1937, some seven decades ago, when Bausch & Lomb brought out the metal framed, large lensed style, eye protection was, even then, a main goal. The glasses soon gained a following among pilots in the United States Airforce, but when General Douglas MacArthur was photographed wearing them, they gained important recognition.

But it was Hollywood that made Aviators cool. Think Men in Black, Blues Brothers or Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Who can forget Tom Cruise in Top Gun wearing his Ray-Ban's? The late Michael Jackson wore them.

And, so did I, for forty years. One thing I learned in that time was that Aviators are not "always sexy, smart, in style" — well, maybe they were but I sure wasn't. Don't be too quick to part with $650 for David Yurman Phantom Aviator glasses, not unless you're Tom Cruise, then go for it. On you, Tom, all will be cool.

Addendum: from Best Health Magazine, Summer 2009, and featured by Sympatico

How good are most sunglasses?

The good news: Most sunglasses do provide enough UV protection, says Stephen Dain, director of the optics and radiometry laboratory at Australia’s University of New South Wales. “We test about 2,000 pairs a year, and failure to meet standards is less than one percent.”

Ralph Chou, an associate professor in the school of optometry at the University of Waterloo points out that all too often, "...sunglasses have been marketed as fashion items rather than eye protection.”

What you get for the price

So does price matter? Sunglasses with hefty price tags aren’t necessarily better than the $20 variety. “UV protection costs only pennies so you can get it at any price,” says Chou.

I checked The Dollar Store and sure enough I found sunglasses offering full protection for a buck. (I've read lab tests of these of cheap glasses and the lab results confirm that the cheap sunglasses can offer full UV protection.)

Are there any problems with the cheapies? According to Chou, “...inexpensive lenses may have marginal optical quality. This won’t do any damage, but the distortion can cause headaches or dizziness that can leave you feeling miserable.”

A Note to Sun Media and Quebecor

Hire some editors to go over copy looking for errors. You can't run good quality and bad quality in the same paper and not understand that you are sowing distrust of all you publish when you so willing publish so much chainwide shallow, error prone, filler.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Made in India Pickles - a growing presence

The following is an old post. It has been updated but it is still old. A new post on this topic can be found here -- Pickles: Not made in Ontario. In early 2016, I got a call from a budding journalist about this seven-year-old post. In preparing to chat with this young student, I did some more digging. The passing of time has shown the problem is not as simple as India-can-make-it-for-less. This is a bigger story, a better story, and I will have to put together another post to update this. I tried to update the old post but I think it best to leave it as it is. Let's leave a clear "paper" trail.

Let's be clear, this is not a blanket rant against international trade. But, there are products — like pickles — being imported in quantity into Ontario, where the importing seems at the very least unnecessary and at the very worst damaging to Ontario's farm economy.

Pickles are not expensive. How much is saved by buying pickles offshore and in turn closing local processing plants which support local growers and employ Ontario workers?

Over the weekend (written spring 2009) my wife bought a jar of President's Choice pickles from Canada's family-owned grocery store chain: Loblaws. Turning over the jar I was surprised to see that Galen Weston's company had outsourced his store brand of Zesty Garlic pickles to India.

A quick check of the Web revealed that outsourcing pickle production to India is not restricted to Loblaw's house brands. I found a number of examples of pickles from India being marketed in North America. For instance, Steinfeld's Kosher pickles, the label claims 'Quality Since 1922', were being made in India in 2009. (Since writing this piece, this post has been hit by folk all over the world. This is not something that just concerns North Americans.)

I learned from the web that in the American northwest an Oregon pickle processing plant closed, throwing 88 people out of work and hurting the local growers who were suppliers to the plant. The Nalley pickles shamelessly continued to brag they were the "Great Taste of the Northwest" despite having moved production to India.

Update: This weekend, early August 2009, I picked up a jar of Strub's. It was a new kind of Strub's for me, one that I had never encountered before. Intrigued, I picked up the large bottle and turned it in my hand: Made in India.

The outsourcing of our North American pickle production can be traced to the advantages of scale; the Indian plants are huge. Plus, the Indian plants pay only about $80 a ton for their cukes, while in North America Strub's reportedly must pay about $900 for Ontario-grown baby dill-sized pickles. For this reason not even Strub's can resist the pull of outsourcing, although their core product line is still being produced in Brantford, Ontario. [Since writing this, this has changed.]

When I left home decades ago, one of the first products to go into my fridge after beer was a jar of Strub's pickles. Even today when I make a hamburger, it's two strips of thin-sliced Strub's that I lay across the grilled paddy.

Back in the spring, I bragged how Strub Brothers was one of the few companies in Canada still making traditional, barrel-fermented kosher pickles. Their pickled banana peppers were special, relying on hot banana pepper varieties for their heat rather than the simple addition of capsicum to sweet banana pepper varieties.

The southern Ontario producer still had a great product line going back eight decades. Their Full Sour Kosher Dills were first made by Sophie Strub in 1929. These were the pickles you would have found in my fridge back in the '70s. I imagine Sophie Strub would be surprised to see the family name on pickles made in India. On the other hand, I'm sure Sophie understood business and would grasp the pressures bringing Indian pickles to the North America market.

We have lost so many of the canning and processing plants for Ontario-grown fruits and vegetables that it is more than sad; it is frightening. Those plants were once so common throughout southern Ontario. We've lost plants, lost employment, lost farms, lost farmland.

When I first wrote this post, Strubs still supported about 30 Ontario cucumber growers using hundreds of field workers to handpick the cucumbers — Ontario was one of the last handpicked growing regions left in North America. The grading station, located south of Tillsonburg was a source of local employment and the Strub's processing plant in Brantford employed another 120 local workers during peak season.

Yesterday I picked up some Strub's pickles in a local store, they were produced by Whyte Pickles in Quebec. (Someone commented that Quebec is still part of Canada. I agree. My point, poorly made, is that Whyte Pickles have stepped in and kept the Strub's brand in Canada and from the picture I ran it is clear the the Whyte Knight didn't show up a moment too soon.)

It is too late for an Ontario peach war (my last can of peaches came from South Africa) or an apple battle (would you believe China) and now the battle for the Ontario pickle seems to have been lost.


A comment drew my attention to the closure of all Bick's production in Canada. Bick's was started in Ontario in the middle of the Second World War. Today, it is owned by the American food giant J. W. Smucker and all production has been moved to the States. I blogged on this loss. See the link.

And today, June 2012, I've learned that Strubs pickles are not made by the Strub clan and haven't been for a few years. The present owners of the Strub brand may be forced to halt production. If the Strub name survives it may end up as part of a Quebec pickle business. Read more here: Pickles not made in Canada.

Clearly, the battle is being lost. Canada is losing jobs everywhere. The folk in Ontario can't even make a pickle. The work is shifting to Quebec or Ohio or even India. Very sad and very frightening.


Sunday, August 9, 2009

You Say Tomato, I Say Disaster in the NYT

This summer has been a disaster for tomato growers in the American northeast. Tomato blight has slashed production, wiping out entire fields. NYT Op-Ed contributor Dan Barber takes an excellent, in-depth look at the problem and what it says about modern agricultural methods.


Friday, August 7, 2009

They killed the Saturn experience.

I drove a Ford Mustang for years, not one Mustang but a string of them. I had a minor battle to buy my first, a navy blue Mustang II. My wife and I had seen a full page ad for Mustang IIs starting at $3799 if you ordered your car direct from the factory. (I may be off slightly on the price. Hey, it was more than three decades ago.) Also, they would give you a minimum of $100 for your trade-in, just drive it onto their lot.

My wife and I went immediately to the Ford dealer. We wanted a dark blue Mustang with camel interior and the folding back seat option. That's it, or so we thought. The salesperson thought differently.

He insisted on going over every option. And we insisted on saying no to every option. Until we came to, or should I say didn't come to, the optional folding rear seat. We insisted we wanted it and the salesperson insisted there was no such option. We couldn't have it — not in a coupe. We had to move up to a hatchback in order to get the folding seat but this sent the price soaring.

I pulled out a Ford Mustang II brochure clearly showing a coupe with an optional folding rear seat. Together we tore into the dealer's Mustang II binder. I found the folding seat; it was optional and available for less than $300. We had our car, an economical little four banger brought in on budget.

It was a good little car, much better than the VW beetle we trade-in. The VW was not seven-years-old but was dying fast. The floor had rusted through in a number of places. We had to move the battery because of a hole in the floor and we were using jumper cables to connect it to the car. We were happy to get a hundred dollars on the trade and we even got our jumper cables back.

We bought our next Mustang from an out-of-town dealer famous for a no-haggle approach. I had gone to a dealer in the city and asked how much they would like for a car on display. A million dollars, the salesperson replied. I started for the door. The salesperson blocked my way. We talked briefly. He made it clear that they didn't give out prices as you would just go to another dealer and compare prices. I left.

I drove my bought-out-of-town Mustang until the clutch failed. I was on my way home and the clutch packed it in right in front of a Ford dealer. The staff came out and pushed the car into a service bay, I walked into the dealer showroom and drove out with a new car.

I would have kept buying Fords except all the dealers wanted to haggle far too much. Even the out-of-town dealer changed his policy. No dealer was willing to offer a firm price without a meeting with the sales manager, take it or leave it. I left it.

I saw a Pontiac Grand AM with a fair price scrawled in white paint across its windshield. I called the dealer and chatted with a salesman who was quite happy to sell me the car for the advertised price. I bought the car over the phone.

I didn't own a string of Pontiacs. GM knew how to turn away a customer like me. I don't haggle. Tell me the price and if it's fair you may have a sale. GM had begun an ad campaign for their latest gimmick — 0% financing.

They ran full page ads proclaiming 0% interest, zero, nothing, nada, zilch and at the bottom of the page GM asked, “Is that clear?” Well, no.

Look at the ad on the right. You pay either 0% interest for five years or you can receive up to $4000 in rebates, but not both. The fine print in most 0% ads, and it is fine — I needed a magnifying glass to read it — states that by selecting 0% financing you are foregoing discounts and incentives “which will result in higher effective interest rates.”

I tried to buy a Pontiac with true 0% financing. No deal. This was not something on which the salesperson, or even the manager, was allowed to haggle. When I told him that I thought the almost hidden fine print was possibly illegal, he replied there was no fine print in their ads and no effectively higher interest rate. I pointed to an ad pinned to the wall and told him to read the fine print himself. He refused. Later the manager also told me that I was wrong and he too refused to waste his time, his way of putting it, by reading the fine print at the bottom of the displayed GM ad.

The fine print:
I left. I went to Saturn.

I have owned two Saturns. The last one, a four-door Ion, cost only $247 per month. Saturn offered 0% financing and calculated the payment by taking the price of the car on the floor, plus freight, dealer prep and taxes, and simply dividing the price by the months in the loan. There was no effectively higher interest rate. Pay cash and the price of the car was the same.

Recently GM has announced it is cutting Saturn loose. The GM that rises from the ashes of bankruptcy will not include the Saturn, Hummer, Pontiac and Saab brands. GM is now busy dumping those marques. Last week, I got a letter from GM telling me that I could get a jump on the close-out deals as I was a longtime Saturn customer. I could get a great price and 0% financing.

I went to the dealer and I almost bought a Saturn Astra. It's a nice car — essentially, a re-branded Opel. When it came to the price I learned there were two. Once price for those taking the zero percent financing option and another for those opting for bank financing. I was assured that the monthly payments would be about the same no matter which route I took. I took neither. The Saturn salesperson was apologetic. This was not the Saturn sales experience for which the little car that couldn't was famous. This was the failed GM experience.

I may be wrong but it seems to me that the new GM may be a lot like the old GM and may be already working its diminished butt off on the road to fail again.

I may wait a year for a Ford Fiesta or maybe a Toyota Prius or Honda hybrid but I doubt that I will be buying another GM. I'm angry with them. They killed the Saturn experience.


I googled "0% scam" and found "The Zero-Percent Financing Scam" by Joseph Ganem. He has a calculator that compares the claimed 0% rate with the rate offered by banks for car purchases. I checked it out and it appears to work. Take a look and have fun. It is an eye-opener.