Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Two editorials, two views

The London Free Press and many other Sun Media/Quebecor Media papers carried this editorial by Ezra Levant on the Alberta tar sands: Putting a new face on the oilsands. The right say oilsands; The left say tar sands; Levant says ethical oil.

The New York Times carried this editorial today: Profits before environment. According to the American paper: Tar sands production creates three times as many greenhouse gases as does conventional oil.

The dispute over the soundness of the tar sands development has turned ugly. It wasn't a big turn. The tar sands are an environmental disaster like so many of the things that we do for energy to support our unsupportable-in-the-long-run way of life.

Levant calls his opponents anti-oilsands agitators spreading anti-oilsands lies and propaganda. The Free Press editorial writer claims: "The chief criticism of the oilsands is esthetic: Open-pit mines just don't look pretty." Now it appears to be Levant who is lying.

A little, very little, googling will quickly show opposition to the tar sands and to the new pipeline is because many Native Canadians see the tar sands development as causing "environmental devastation." This is not an esthetic problem.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Questionable information not questioned

Someday I will write about a psychic story on which I worked while at The London Free Press. It was a good story but all of it was bunkum. The paper ran the story because it was a fun, good read. Period. No one was concerned that it was totally false. (To many readers, stories like that one make the newspaper staff look like fools.)

Error filled stories weaken the brand. This is a fact. Studies have found that newspapers do a great disservice to themselves and to their industry when they run stuff clearly, and accurately, seen as erroneous by many.

Today, under the headline 'Weird' science, The Free Press promoted the return of William Shatner's Weird or What? on the History channel. (History channel? I don't think so. Often there is no history in the history that is presented here.)

Bill Harris asks in his Sun Media television column, quoting William Shatner, "What is a crystal skull doing buried in prehistoric times?" The answer to the question is: They are fakes. British Museum and Smithsonian skulls were conclusively determined to be fakes carved with relatively modern equipment.

When I think of the story on which I worked those many years ago, I hang my head in shame. Running stuff like that, printing bunkum as fact as Harris is doing this weekend, does nothing to further the reader's understanding of our world, of science.

If you are interested in knowing a little more about the myth of the crystal skulls, check out this article from Archaeology magazine. It carries more weight than the stuff being run by the History Channel and being reported by Sun Media.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Obama, Sarah Palin something in common

It's a fast moving political brush fire flaming across the American media landscape. President Obama's black, Darth Vader bus is Canadian made. A real shocker? I don't think so.

Was this a big scoop for the New York Post? Again, I don't think so. The Obama's bus is from Hemphill Brothers Coach of Tennessee. Using a bus from these good old Southern boys puts the president in the company of other political notables such as: George W. Bush, John McCain, Fred Thompson, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Rudy Guiliani, and my personal favourite user of Hemphill coaches — Sarah Palin.

An article two years ago in the Bastrop Daily Enterprise by Wes Helbling about Joey and Trent Hemphill, owner/founders of Hemphill Coach of Tennessee, reported:

Perhaps their most famous client to date has been former President George W. Bush. Trent said during the 2000 presidential primaries, a network was using their buses to interview candidates.

“The governor’s office called us, and we provided buses for him during the primaries,” said Trent. “We picked him up and took him to Austin on election night.”

The brothers were later invited to Bush’s first inauguration. The president called them again for buses during his 2004 re-election campaign. It was an unusual request, as presidents do not normally use private transportation services.

“The Secret Service armored all of the vehicles,” said Trent. “They were on the coaches 24 hours a day.”

As one might imagine, “There are a lot of logistics involved.”

Trent recalls getting a call on his cell phone from Air Force One. The reception was bad because Air Force One was flying over Iceland at the time.

The brothers were invited to a private Christmas party at the White House last December. During the final days of the Bush administration, the president sent them each a letter of thanks.

“No matter what your politics are, it was a real honor for the president to use our buses,” said Joey.

New Prevost coaches are delivered to the Hemphill Tennessee conversions facility with nothing more than a plywood floor and a driver's seat, according to information posted on a company site. This agrees with what ABC News learned from Christine Garant of Prevost, "We just make the shell. We don't know anything about the end user." Prevost's Steve Zeigler agreed, telling ABC News, "We just build an empty shell of a bus, and then sell them to a converter for outfitting,"

American craftspeople in Tennessee custom-build every wall, cabinet and piece of furniture in a Hemphill coach. Adjacent to and upstairs from the main conversion shop, there is a complete woodfinishing and upholstery shop. Many of the parts that go into a Prevost coach come from the States. The Quebec builder brags that it uses Volvo engines. Volvo engines are made in Hagerstown, Maryland.

If you are wondering whether or not the White House could have been supplied with totally American made coaches, ABC News reports:

The only U.S.-headquartered coach manufacturer, Motor Coach Industries, based in Schamburg, Ill., also builds the country's only "buy American compliant" coach, the majority of whose parts are made here, an MCI spokeswoman said. Note the red flag words: "the majority of whose parts are made here." All parts are not made here.

ABC News fails to point out that MCI also produces buses in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada and has for decades. It's roots in Canada go back to the Dirty Thirties and 1933.

Prevost coach shells are made in Canada but are finished in plants across the United States. A great number of skilled Americans, from Florida to Oregon and points in between, are employed completing these vehicles before delivery to their American buyers.

This story may be the Jon Stewart moment of the day.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Federal Tories threaten legal action against Quebec widow

According to a story from Canadian Press:

"The federal Conservative party has sent a threatening email to the widow of an asbestos victim in the latest chapter of Canada's debate over the hazardous mineral."

Michaela Keyserlingk's husband, Robert, died in 2009 of mesothelioma — a rare form of cancer. How rare is it? Well, there are probably no more than 3000 cases diagnosed in the entire United States annually. But Robert Keyerlingk was not unlucky; Robert Keryserlingk was an asbestos worker.

Asbestos workers are at the highest risk for developing mesothelioma. According to the Mesothelioma Website: "One study of asbestos insulation workers reports a mesothelioma death rate up to 344 times higher than the general population."

Asbestos is no longer mined in the United States and it's use is banned in many developed countries, including New Zealand, Australia and all European Union countries. But Canada continues to support the controlled use of a mineral the World Health Organization has labelled a carcinogenic.

CBC reports:

"The Canadian government fought to keep asbestos off a U.N. - sponsored list of dangerous substances. If included on the list, called the Rotterdam Convention, any country looking to import asbestos would be informed of all the potential risks and would have to agree in advance to accept any shipments."

Why would Canada take such a position, you may well wonder. The answer appears to be quite simple: Quebec is the fourth largest producer of chrysotile asbestos in the world, earning the province over $100 million a year. It has also earned Quebec the unwanted distinction of having one of the highest rates of mesothelioma on earth.

With her husband dead, Michaela Keyserlingk launched a Website to warn other Canadians about the danger posed by asbestos and to publicize the hard-to-defend stance of government in Canada which continue to support the mining and exporting of a substance even the parliament buildings are having removed.

So why are the federal Tories threatening Keyserlingk with legal action? She used the party logo on her site. They want the logo removed. The feisty widow is refusing.

This started me wondering: How many other sites are posting the federal PC log. A quick Google search turned up the following links. And not all the links are positive, as it will quickly become clear. If the PCs want to threaten folk, drag 'em into court, maybe the PCs should enlarge their net. They might make quite a haul.

Bacon and Brains - "The Conservative Party currently hails out of the mythical land of Alberta, where their dark presence cast a long shadow across the whole of the Canadian prairies, some of BC, Ontario and Quebec City."
Canadian Immigration Newsletter - "Don't let policy changes catch you by surprise - stay current on the latest breaking news on Canadian Immigration!"
630 CHED - "A Liberal MP is alleging that `crass politics' have resulted in a Canadian Olympic retail logo that mirrors the federal Conservative party logo."
Voices-Voix Coalition - "As part of its platform for the 2006 federal election campaign, the Conservative Party of Canada promised greater transparency for Canadians in their access to information. Read about what the Conservatives promised Canadians."
Batshite - "The results of the Canadian federal election in May pleased some–seniors, for instance–but disappointed others–such as "modernists, women, young people, immigrants [and] people fond of evidence-based policy."

As you can see, there are oodles and oodles of sites posting the PC logo. I would add it to this blog but I don't need the possible hassle. But, my guess is that using the PC logo in an editorial context is quite legal. Check the next link to see my favourite use of the sacred symbol.

Anything But Conservative - "Could the democracy that Canadians take for granted by at risk if the Harper Conservatives get a majority? . . . in a Harper democracy, students will be discouraged from voting – in fact, this government has Elections Canada so terrified that they are ordering returning officers to stop special ballots for students . . . "

So, now the PCs are threatening a widow. Nice.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Electronic darkroom helps Web images

Lot's of folk are posting image to the Web. The feeling is that they brighten their blog posts by breaking up the grey expanses of type. Hmmm. This one reason the editors with whom I once worked insisted on placing pictures on their pages.The more things change the more they stay the same.

Taken from the Web for illustration purposes:

Now, let's see what a few seconds of image enhancement does.

If this looks as good on your screen as it does on mine, I think you'll agree that a few seconds spent setting endpoints and tweaking contrast is time well spent.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Thinly staffed newsrooms fail to catch errors

Since I started blogging, I've had some disputes with reporters over their "facts". Unlike some in the past, which got downright nasty, the most recent dispute has remained civil but it follows the usual pattern.

All too often, newspapers use other newspapers for the source of their facts. This is not a good research method. It is important to go to the original source and even then one must stay vigilant for errors. This is where a good editor is important. Sadly, good editors are a dying breed at most newspapers.

Let's look at few of these media myths or "truthiness" facts as Stephen Colbert would say.

  • Cats are the only animals besides humans that can be born congenitally deaf. - wrong
  • The carp barrier in the canal near Chicago uses $20,000 worth of electricity per day. - nope
  • In hot weather, avoid caffeinated drinks as they make you more thirsty. - not true

The $20,000 per day cost for the carp barrier would have raised questions with any good editor. That's a whomping big chunk of electricity. Can that really be true? In today's newsroom, the figure just slips through the system — or lack of system — with no questions asked.

If you'd like to know the full story about the fish barrier claim, read on. If you are a journalism student, you might find it informative. If not, move on, there is nothing more to see here.

Last night I read "an electric fish barrier, built for $9 million at Chicago, consumes $20,000 worth of electricity every day." I've been following the story about the electrified barrier in the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal that was built to prevent Asian carp from reaching the Great Lakes, and I've come across this figure before. And it may be wrong.

I believe a good editor would have done some quick math and said, "Whoa!" The reporter would have been asked for the source of this figure. When I questioned the reporter, I got an e-mail telling me:

"The figures of $20,000 a day and $7.3 for electricity for the year came from a big spread in the Sunday Detroit Free Press of July 17."

Forgive the large, bold font but it is the one used by the reporter. Hmmm. Shouting? Maybe this has turned a wee bit nasty.

When I checked the Detroit Free Press, I discovered the paper had actually reported: "Below the water, an electrical field lurks, thrumming 24 hours a day at a daily cost of $20,000." I was surprised; This does not claim the charge for electricity is $20,000 a day.

I have written a number of online stories about the carp problem. It was easy to discover the following:  The Army Corps of Engineers requested $7.25 million for barrier operations in the President’s FY2011 Budget. (Let's see, $7.25 million divided by 365 is $19,863.)

It appears the Detroit paper was talking about the total cost of operating the electric fish barrier. I contacted the Army Corps of Engineers. Lynne Whelan LRC confirmed the oft quoted figure of $20,000 includes all costs associated with operating and maintaining the barrier system. It does not represent the cost of electricity alone.

Today, thanks to the immediate sharing of stories between newspapers in large chains, an error made in London, Ontario may appear in papers and media outlets right across the country. For instance, 24 Hours Vancouver carried the story.

How wild was the $20,000 per day claim? Well, in June of this year (2011) the cost of a kwh of electricity in the Chicago area cost about 15.3 cents. If you are wondering how much electricity a kwh represents, the average home in Ontario uses between 800 and 1000 kwh in total each month.

Remember: This is a barrier that does not kill the fish but simply repels them by making them feel uncomfortable when they attempt to swim through the electrified water. So, how much does it cost to make a fish feel uncomfortable. We still don't know, but it's not $20,000 a day.

The cost of electricity in the Chicago area charted for the past 5 years.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Scribbles: Motor babbling

I love abstract art done by children like my granddaughter.

Fiona loves colourful markers. Pencils are out.
Come September my granddaughter Fiona will be all of two. And Ga-ga, that's what she calls me, has had the pleasure of watching her develop. It's been wonderful.

Naturally, I think she's quite the talented little girl. But, thanks to the Internet, I know the truth — she's just a normal child developing on schedule.

Right on cue, at 18 months, the kid discovered pencils, pens and paper. (I am so thankful she discovered paper. Lots of kids don't. They discover walls.)

Fiona would sit on the floor, a pen gripped tightly in her fist and get great joy from swirling the pen over the paper. This is typical of many toddlers as they do not have good finger, hand and wrist control.

Now, the little tyke has moved past grey pencil lines and boring blue ink — she is now deep into colour. She loves her package of colourful felt-tipped pens. She sometimes makes a simple work with only one colour and a few, concise lines but it is far more common for her to attack the paper with every colourful pen-weapon at her disposal.

She chooses her colours carefully.
Toddlers learn to speak by first learning to babble. But there are more ways to babble than just verbally. There is also motor babbling that teaches children muscle control and enhances coordination.

Baby talk has meaning. Mothers understand their child's babbling. Scribbles also carry meaning. Children as young as 18 months have been known to use dots, for example, to represent falling rain. (We know this, I assume, because the message has been babbled to mom.)

I don't understand Fiona's verbal babblings but I do have a feel for her art, her motor babbling. I'm sure she is concerned with colour, line and placement. She loves to experiment with the process, mixing a variety of dots and bold dashes with sweeping, full-page ovals.

As she gains more control, she will gravitate toward more and more realism in her art. She may oscillate between realism and scribbling but the move is always towards the real.

By the time she is six years old outlines will be replacing single lines to depict legs and arms. Stick figures will be out.  It can take another two or three years before body proportions become important to a young artist like Fiona.

Then, if she is a real artist, maybe she will rediscover the abstract. Her aunt did.


It has been more than a year since I wrote the above piece on motor babbling. Fiona's love of art has remained strong. She loves to get out her paints, her brushes and create five or six works of art before moving on to another activity.

Done shortly before she turned three, Fiona titled this work "Rainbow."
Fiona, 3, finds inspiration in the world surrounding her: "Red Flower"

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Woonerf Court

Woonerf: It's the latest cool word in urban planning circles. North American suburbanites have been enjoying their own form of woonerfs for years: Courts, crescents, places and culs-de-sac.

This London cul-de-sac is a perfect living yard: Woonerf.
I first encountered the word woonerf in the Toronto Star more than a year ago. In my reading since then the word has cropped up now and again, most recently in an article by Kelly Pedro in The London Free Press.

According to the London paper, woonerf is Dutch for naked street. No, we are not talking nudism. A woonerf is a residential street stripped of the clear division between traffic and pedestrian rights of way.

Traffic and kids at play share this suburban court.
One idea being floated to improve the London downtown is to convert Dundas or another downtown street into a woonerf. Two little corrections should be made here: First, a woonerf is a residential animal. If you want to release a woonerf in a commercial area, you need a winkelerf. Second, a woonerf is more commonly translated as a living street and not a naked one.

The word may be Dutch but according to Colin Hand the concept originated in Britain with a British road engineer and architect, Colin Buchanan.

In this tale of how the woonerf came to be, a story also retold in the pages of Architecture Week, it was a Dutchman, Niek De Boer, who took the Englishman's idea and ran with it or should I say planned with it.

Woonerfs are streets designed, or redesigned, to force drivers to slow down as they shared the road space with cyclists, pedestrians and children. De Boer named these streets woonerfs, or living yards. His woonerfs were residential in character and the first one was built in the City of Delft in the '60s.

In Toronto, woonerfs (pedestrian oriented streets) are planned for the West Don Lands development.

If you search the web, you'll find examples of Dutch woonerfs with gardens and pedestrian seating nestled in among the shrubs and flowers. These remind me of  the court directly above mine and linked to my court by a well-used walkway.

When I first wrote this I was being a little facetious. Now, I'm not so sure. It's possible that some of the finest examples of woonerfs may be found in North American suburbs.

The Dutch government set design standards and passed traffic laws regulating woonerfs in 1976. Some suburban courts come quite close to following many of the Dutch government guidelines:
  • Playing on the roadway is permitted
  • Pedestrians may use the full width of the roadway
  • Drivers must make allowance for the presence of pedestrians and children at play
  • Speed bumps may be encountered
  • The roadway may curve and shorten a driver's line of sight
  • The roadway may be narrower than that of other area roads
  • There may be flower filled islands and large pots
  • Seating areas may encroach into the area of the street once designated only for vehicular traffic.
If the design principals of a woonerf are applied to a commercial area, the area becomes a winkelerf, which is not covered by the woonerf regulations.

Some suburban courts, crescents, places and culs-de-sac answer many design guidelines for woonerfs. See the following pictures taken near my Byron, Ontario home.

Narrow roadway is not car friendly.
Short line of sight plus park, complete with benches, all act to calm traffic.
A walkway links culs-de-sac making the distance shorter to walk than drive.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Finding lost graves at 'Uncle Tom's' family cemetery

UWO grad students Flannery Surette and Jim Keron surveying Henson cemetery.
Contrary to popular mythology, Uncle Tom may have been a bold fighter for freedom. Josiah Henson, possibly the man behind the Uncle Tom character, was an escaped American slave who fled the United States with his wife and children to enjoy freedom in Upper Canada, the future province of Ontario.

Josiah Henson's last home still stands in Dresden, Ontario
Henson was a renowned abolitionist, preacher and "conductor" on the Underground Railroad.  He personally "conducted" more than 115 runaway slaves to freedom, according to Devon Robinson of the Uncle Tom’s Cabin Historic Site, In all, the secret network helped almost 30,000 make it safely to Canada.

Henson delivered on his promise: "I'll use my freedom well." His home in Dresden, Ontario, is now a historic site commemorating his work.

Today archaeologists from The University of Western Ontario are searching for unmarked graves hidden in the Henson Family Cemetery. A few years ago Henson's home was moved a few hundred metres (yards) to its present location beside the cemetery.

Archaeologists find lost graves with ground penetrating radar.
Originally, the search was to be completed before the 177th anniversary of Emancipation Day, which celebrates the abolition of slavery in the British colonies.

Unfortunately, rain prevented the UWO archaeologists from mapping the areas in question before the symbolic August 1st date. The team is using sophisticated Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) which beams radar waves into the ground. It cannot be used in the rain.

Hidden features and buried objects reflect the waves enabling archaeologists accurately to map anything they discover. This approach minimizes surface disturbance — very important when mapping an historic cemetery. GPR allows a thorough but respectful search by the archaeologists.

Dena Doroszenko, archaeologist for the Ontario Heritage Trust, which owns and operates the historic site, said, "This work will be extremely helpful. Because the Henson family cemetery is still in use today . . . "

A forgotten grave was unearthed at the Henson Family Cemetery during a burial —  an unnerving event. "We are trying to prevent this happening again," said Edward Eastaugh, a UWO archeology supervisor and leader of Western’s survey team.

It is possible some of the unmarked graves will later be identified with the help of family members who have a knowledge of Henson Family genealogy, Doroszenko said.

Josiah Henson shown with Harriet Beecher Stowe, top right.
Many have forgotten how influential the novel Uncle Tom's Cabin, written by Harriet Beecher Stowe, was at the time of its publication. It was the best-selling novel of the 19th century and the second best-selling book of that century, only bested by the Bible. It was a catalyst for positive, radical change when it came to society's rejection of slavery in the States and around the world.

Shortly after the release of her book, Stowe acknowledged that Josiah Henson's autobiography, published a few years earlier in 1849, had been an inspiration for her novel. Henson, himself, republished his work as The Memoirs of Uncle Tom.

Sadly, as The New York Times recently pointed out:

"Today, of course, the book has a decidedly different reputation, thanks to the popular image of its titular character, Uncle Tom — whose name has become a byword for a spineless sellout, a black man who betrays his race."

Clearly the original meaning of Uncle Tom has been lost or Henson would not have taken the name for the later release of his memoirs. The archaeologists from Western are finding long forgotten graves while showing great respect as they conduct their search.

Josiah Henson's grave is not forgotten. It is clearly marked. But the respect for "Uncle Tom" seems to have been lost. Finding the man behind the myth is easy, no GPR necessary, but finding Uncle Tom's noble character, now obscured by time, seems much harder.