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Tuesday, October 30, 2012

ReThink London: Reviving a downtown

Older, original downtowns throughout North America were attractive places. One reason was the unity of the architecture. All the structures dated from approximately the same era. Often the building material, the local brick or stone, was a uniting feature tying the entire streetscape together.

Today we have a plethora of theories on how to make failing downtowns successful again. Saving historic buildings, or at a minimum their facades, is often heralded as one answer. Sadly, many of the facades are gone, the architectural flow broken. But, there is an answer.

First, forget trying to bring back what was lost. If a beautiful, cut granite building facade was demolished, accept it. Such facades are often out of reach cost-wise today. But don't fill in the gaping break in the streetscape with an oh-so-out-of-place modern, glass structure. Reach back into the past, find a much cheaper alternative to the original structure, but an alternative with roots in the last century, and lay some brick.

Brick is not that expensive and brick can be laid in a multitude of patterns making a  new facade blend with older buildings. What goes behind the facade is another matter. With modern construction hidden behind the facade, the new building can be both beautiful and practical.

Even better, let the facade skin a structure only three or four stories high, don't make that structure too deep. Keep it shallow. With the feel of the street restored, build a much higher, multi-storied building behind and welcome increased office space and a growing number of residential units to the revitalized street.

How do we encourage such an approach? Think form-based code. I've written about this in the past, click this link, ReThink London suggestions, and go down to the sixth suggestion.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Margarine vs. Butter

I like margarine. The soft stuff in the plastic tubs. The ones made with a little olive oil are my favorites. Butter is for cooking; margarine is for the table. (My wife has gone on to prove that a good margarine can work very well for cooking, too.)

I have some friends who seem to believe margarine is made from petroleum products. I say seem because they are very bright and may be just making the claim to annoy me.

I've had robotic heart surgery. I had an ICD with a pacemaker inserted into my chest. I've spent a lot of time chatting with heart doctors. On one matter all agree: use soft, non-hydrogenated margarine, and use it in moderation. Go light with fat but don't fear fat.

And so I did some googling. I found the following — Myth busting: butter versus margarine.

  • Margarine is one molecule away from plastic: myth.
  • Margarine increases risk of heart disease: no. (Not if it's the non-hydrogenated kind.)
  • Margarine was originally made to fatten up turkeys but instead it killed them: wrong again.

No one, other than my friends, seems to have heard the myth that margarine is made from petroleum.

OMA recommends taxing junk food

Did you know a half litre of chocolate milk has 12 1/2 tsp. sugar?

Recently the Ontario Medical Association (OMA) held a press conference at which the province's doctors came out in favour of increasing taxes on junk food, while at the same time decreasing taxes on healthy alternatives. The OMA went so far as to suggest placing graphic warning labels on pop and other high calorie foods having little or no nutritional value.

The graphic images presented were pretty horrible. I am sure the OMA hoped to grab media attention by juxtaposing an image of an ulcerated foot with that of a juice box. If that was their intent, they were successful. (Read Ian Gillespie's opinion piece in The London Free Press.)

Taxing high calorie food is already being done in Denmark, Hungary and France. Peru, Ireland and the UK are considering such taxes. Maybe it is high time for Ontario to consider following suit. Research indicates the tax must be 20 percent or higher in order to cut consumption. The levy should be accompanied by subsidies on healthy foods. Research indicates those with low incomes benefit the most from these measures.

One juice box may contain 36 grams of sugar.
According to the OMA obesity in children is at epidemic levels. 26 percent of Canadian children between two and 17 years of age are considered overweight, 8 percent to the point of obesity. These numbers are almost double what they were a little more than three decades ago.

The trend is staggering. Statistics indicate 75% of obese children will become obese adults. We may be raising the first generation of children to not outlive their parents.

All this is very important to me; I have two lovely granddaughters. I look at the stuff that can sneak into their diets, stuff that wasn't around when I was a boy, and I worry. We are learning how to manufacture some pretty awful stuff and call it food. And reporters, like Luisa D'Amato of The Record, are quick to jump to the defence of this true junk food.

"A carton of grape juice is not the same as a carton of cigarettes. Not even close," she writes.

I think most of us would agree with her, and most of us might be wrong. Take Welch's Healthy Start Grape Juice. A 200 ml juice box contains more than 31 grams of sugar. Now you know why the OMA warns against excess consumption of grape juice, even 100 percent grape juice with no added sugar must be consumed in limited amounts.

And we aren't even looking at grape drinks (grape drink as opposed to grape juice). The added sugar can push grape drinks into the bad nutrition stratosphere.

D'Amato suggests we resist overeating despite the temptation posed by our cheap, abundant food. D'Amato misses the point. Way too much of our oh-so-abundant food is incredibly calorie rich and a lot of what is being offered our children is nutrient deficient junk food. With foods high in fats and sugars, we do not have to overeat to pack on the pounds, clog the arteries and overwhelm our bodies.

When I was a boy I ate Kellogg's Krumbles for breakfast as kids had done since 1912. Krumbles were a  toasted whole wheat cereal lacking the sugar coating de rigeur today. Krumbles disappeared from store shelves decades ago. Some of today's cereals, like Kellogg's Honey Smacks and Post Golden Crisp, are more than 50 percent sugar (by weight) according to an article that Consumer Reports ran in 2008.

The same CR article states that such sugary cereals are heavily marketed to children, to the tune of about $229 million advertising dollars per year. With that kind of money driving sales, maybe the doctors are onto something when they suggest using the tax code to apply the brakes to sales.

Many of our processed foods add solid fats along with added sugar. Together, solid fats and added sugar are known as SoFAS.

To cut back on SoFAS the Mayo Clinic advises limiting table sugar, desserts, pizza, sausage and similar fatty meats, sweetened beverages, stick margarine and butter, and candy.

A tax applied in a reasonable manner would not price food out of reach of the poor but encourage companies to beat the tax by offering nutritionally rich food products at prices reflecting the tax-free status. My wife's homemade pizza goes heavy on the artichokes, tomato slices, broccoli and colourful sweet peppers and it is light on bacon, sausage and cheese. No warning is needed on my wife's Mediterranean diet pizza - a pizza inspired by our visit to southern France and Italy.

There is no hotdog stuffed crust to be found sullying real Italian, oh-so-healthy, pizza.

Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease affects up to 25% of folk living in the States.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Art: A child could do it

I'm always partial to works by Fiona, my three-year-old granddaughter.
Friday my wife was given a piece of art. It was a blank sheet of white paper with four little, green lines drawn in the middle of each of the sheet's four sides. My wife thought it was rather "cute."

Think of Nothing To Be Afraid Of V 22.8.69
I didn't know what to think. Heck, when I was in art school back in the '60s, this would have been a brilliant piece of minimalist art. Think of Nothing To Be Afraid Of V 22.8.69 by British artist Bob Law.

Law, who died aged 70 in 2004, was one of the founding fathers of British minimalist painting. When he died he left his 9ft by 7ft “painting” (white apart from the date and a black border drawn with a marker pen).

So, who was the creative artist that gave my wife the gift? It was a little girl not quite five at the school where my wife works.

I told my wife that if that piece had been eight feet by ten feet and not eight inches by ten inches, it would have been a totally different art piece. Size matters in art. She wasn't buying it.

This wasn't art that a child could do, this was a child's art.

If I can find the piece, I'll iron it (my wife let it get wrinkled) and I'll post the work of the little genius. I wonder if the kid needs an agent.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Newspapers shape our view of the world

When I worked in the media there were things that one simply did not do. If you did, you risked a reprimand or worse.

I can recall being assigned to illustrate a story on prostitution and the desk actually arranged a meeting with a real streetwalker. I met the lady on Dundas Street at Rectory at dusk and shot pictures of her from some distance using a long lens.

The resulting pictures showed the silhouette of a heavy lady in too short a skirt standing alone on a dark street waving to passing vehicles. We didn't want to make her identity too clear. She wasn't concerned. Her friends and family knew she earned her money hooking, still using some discretion seemed wise.

I never liked faking pictures. Fake a shot and you simply reinforce the standard, hackneyed take on a story. For a case in point, look at these two screen grabs. Today The London Free Press may illustrate a news story using a royalty free stock image. This one is from Fotolia.

I understand Fotolia is a fine company and a good source of stock images. Yet, are images like this one what should be illustrating our newspapers and shaping our view of the world?

Friday, October 19, 2012

London: a fine, friendly city_ and not in the least bit dull

The other night I attended a ReThink London event held in the Wolf Auditorium at the Central Library in London, Ontario.

Leaving the event I bumped into an old acquaintance, a woman I've known and admired for years, a woman I met through my former job at the local paper. We chatted briefly, bringing each other up to speed on the changes in our lives since we last bumped into each other. (We do bump now and then as we seem to have interests that intersect now and then.)

I told her about my two granddaughters and how Fiona, the oldest, is now more than three. The woman's eyes lit up, sparkling more than usual. I've got just the thing for a little girl; I've got a great little book. "Have you ever heard of 'A House Is a House for Me'?"

It seems this woman had three copies for some reason and had recently given one away. She said she'd love to send Fiona here last spare copy. She took my address and a few days later the book arrived.

I have a plastic turtle that I was given when I was about Fiona's age. It, too, was a gift from a stranger. I still have that turtle and it still makes me smile. It represents the friendliness of strangers. The world is not a cold place and this truth is embodied in my turtle.

Now, Fiona has a gift that carries the same message. Nice.

London, like most cities, is not cold. London is a friendly town. Just ask Fiona.

Fiona liked this art we made together so much that she took a picture.