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Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Some things last too long

"Valet" AutoStrop Safety Razor

One of my nephews, along with his wife and young daughter, stopped by for a visit recently. I'm posting this ad for the Valet AutoStrop safety razor for him. He'll be interested in this as he is very concerned with waste. I can understand his concern as I've been against waste all my life.

When I was in high school I used a Valet AutoStrop razor. I sharpened the blade on a strip of leather which had belonged to my dad. He had used it once to sharpen a straight razor; my mother used it to spank her son: me.

I still have the razor along with a box or two of blades. The blades are single sided with the name Valet completely punched out. The metal missing from the blade leaves letters which overlay raised bits of metal in the razor head itself. This interlocking system holds the blade firmly in place.

The company that made the Valet razor stopped producing the razors in the late '40s, I believe. But the blades were available in stores until the mid '60s. When I worked at a drugstore in the early '60s, I can recall selling the red packages of blades to diehard Valet AutoStrop users. They swore by these blades. Some claimed to get two months of shaves from one blade. It was important, though, to keep the blades sharp by correctly using the unique leather strop which by the '60s was no longer available. A box of five blades, which cost less than a dollar, would last the better part of a year, according to these users.

When Wilkinson-Sword came out with the stainless steel double-sided safety razor blade, the market for the Valet product began to dry up. The stainless steel blades seemed to last indefinitely compared to the common Gillette blue blades which were prone to rust between uses. Often, one got one shave, and one shave only, from these carbon steel blades. The rule for Gillette users was "If it's a new morning, it's a new blade."

Some men tried to prevent the rust by submerging used blue blades in a small glass filled with rubbing alcohol. It was a lot of trouble and there was the constant risk of the tumbler being knocked to the floor and broken. Squeezing more shaves out of Wilkinson blade was a little easier. Some users stropped the shiny blades by rubbing them back and forth on the inside of large glass.

The Wilkinson blades didn't last as long as the Valet blades but they gave a closer shave when new. Sales of the the old blades softened and the blades once famous for their longevity disappeared from stores.

But the longevity record does not go to the Valet blades with their AutoStrop technology. No, this award may go to the Personna 74 tungsten steel blade released in the early '70s. These blades lasted so long that there was no money to be made in making them. With a microscopic layer of titanium protecting the edge, Personna took the concept of reusable too far. The carbon steel blades simply lasted and lasted and lasted. The Personna 74 was removed from the market.

I understand that the razor industry is worth $30 billion worldwide. Whether it is an AutoStrop system or superior blade technology, lasting too long isn't the goal today of manufacturers: It's sales. The inventor of the Valet system would be appalled by today's disposable razors sold in huge packages containing a dozen or more big, plastic razors. What a waste!

Friday, January 23, 2015

Food for fun and entertainment

Thanks to a poor heart, a lot of travel is out of our reach. No insurance; No out-of-country travel allowed for me and my wife. It is just that simple.

One advantage to this is that one big retirement expense has dropped from our budget. We are flush with unspent cash that was once budgeted for travel: plane fares, hotel rooms, expensive restaurants. Well, restaurants are actually still in our budget. London, Ontario, has some nice places to drop a dime. We especially liked our recent visit to the Spring Restaurant in an old church on Springbank Drive.

Still, my heart doctors have me on a Mediterranean diet and a lot of restaurant meals do not answer my dietary needs. Dining at home is a fine alternative. It is fun. Challenging might be a better word when I am in the kitchen.

The other day I saw some dark green rice ramen in Winners. Ramen is that noodle stuff many of us ate when single and in a hurry. It came in a noodle-filled box with some flavorful powder. It was flavorful if you count lots of salt as flavor. Peel back the foil covering the bowl shaped container, pour in some boiling water and within minutes one had a meal. I haven't had ramen in years.

When I saw the dark green ramen, it brought back memories and thoughts of I-can-do-better. I bought the package. I boiled it and a little too long, I might add. Then set it aside.

I fried some chopped red and yellow sweet peppers in a little olive oil in a large wok. I added some green onions to the mix and when the onions started to show signs of cooking, I added some chopped broccoli, diced cashews to the mix and four ounces of chopped cooked chicken we had leftover from a previous meal. I had some Indian sauce in the fridge, so added that with a little finely chopped garlic. With all nicely mixed, I added the still warm ramen noodles.

The dinner was tasty and healthy. It had lots of vegetables and very little meat. I overcooked the noodles slightly but I'll know better next time. All in all, a very good dinner with interesting ingredients. It was fun to make and a pleasure to eat. It went very nicely with our the five ounces of red wine we have each evening at dinner.

And it was inexpensive. Our budget is still awash with cash.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Why Ontario greenhouse operations are expanding into Ohio.

This is the time to form partnerships with grocery stores, restaurants, and food service industries, in order to persuade key players to support American agriculture products. In our communities, we need to exercise the power of the dollar. Make a conscious decision to buy American grown products.”
-- Aaron Preston - Future Farmers of America
Saturday I read an article on the reason greenhouse operations in Essex County are leaving the Leamington/Kingsville/Lakeshore area. It is because of electricity problems; it costs too much and the grid is inadequate. The article laid the blame on the governing Ontario Liberals.

"No Juice For Veggies" the headline read in a big, bold font. "Power problems push growers elsewhere" the reader on the Web was told and the writer should know. He's from the Leamington area and has relatives working in the greenhouse industry. Yet, like so many other Free Press articles, I was left with more questions than answers.

Leaving Essex County for Ohio simply to reap the benefits of being on  the American electrical grid seems a reach. As the International Business Times reports: "The United States endures more blackouts than any other developed nation. . . . " The American grid suffers from an increasing number of blackouts because of an aging infrastructure, a lack of investment and no clear plans guiding modernization. The Ontario Liberals are not alone at mismanaging the power grid and, make no mistake, they have mismanaged the grid. There is no argument there.

It's true that the little Southern Ontario town of Leamington and the surrounding area has lost jobs to the United States. At a city Economic Development Committee meeting a year ago, Chair Louis Saad raised the issue of incentives to encourage businesses to remain in town. It seems a local business owner was considering moving his company south of the border to benefit from the lower cost of living, the more favourable tax rate and the generally less expensive business environment in the United States.

Chair Saad was told it was illegal for the Municipality to give incentives to businesses. This was not news to Saad. He has complained in the past that "(The U.S.) has a lot of tax incentives that aren’t legal in Ontario." Saad argued Southern Ontario communities must be able to offer incentives in order to attract the companies that otherwise would take the jobs to Michigan and Ohio.

Mark Balkwill, president of the Essex County Federation of Agriculture, agreed. Balkwill has been quoted as saying that a major player in the greenhouse industry was opening an operation in Ohio after the state offered to match dollar for dollar any investment in production facilities. In addition, the state promised no property taxes during the first five years of operation.

Balkwill may have been referring to Nature Fresh Farms which stated in a press release that their move into Ohio was "contingent upon acceptable levels of incentives from the State of Ohio and other government authorities as well as utility rates agreeable to Nature Fresh." The Leamington grower may have received the incentives as there are no signs that the expansion is not going through.

And there is one other reason Canadian greenhouse operations are expanding into the States: Money. The United States is where the money is. And it is not just Canadians looking to expand into the States. Greenhouse growers in the Netherlands are actively looking for opportunities in the States.

A report released by Dutch greenhouse sector points out: "It is remarkable that the total area of greenhouse production in the US only amounts to 9.100 hectares, while in the Netherlands greenhouse production takes place under 10.400 hectares, (even though) the US is 244 times larger than the Netherlands and has almost 20 times the number of consumers. . . . the US greenhouse sector has some room to grow."

Historically the U.S. has imported most of their greenhouse grown food but in the past few years the domestic production has increased significantly. Why? A small part of the reason is a growing trend to buy foods grown locally whenever possible. This puts foods from both Mexico and Canada at a disadvantage and even Florida and California when one is considering the Midwestern and Northeastern markets.

The Meijer grocery store chain likes to brag that it has purchased from local growers since opening some 80 years ago in Greenville, Michigan. Today the chain brags it sells Michigan-grown tomatoes and sweet peppers supplied by Mastronardi of Coldwater, Michigan. Mastronardi was originally a Canadian greenhouse operator.

The "Buy America" movement touches the entire American market for consumer goods and is backed by politicians on both the right and left. In 2008, Barack Obama promised rural Ohio voters he would "enforce Buy American requirements to protect specialty crops." Fruits and vegetables are counted among specialty crops.

The Obama campaign literature claimed demand for locally grown foods was growing quickly. For this reason Obama supported the immediate implementation of the Country of Origin Labeling law. COOL would enable American consumers to distinguish imported foods from those grown within the States. Obama argued consumers "deserve the right to know where their food comes from."

EMD workers locked out without a hope of being called back.
When London, Ontario, lost Electro Motive Diesel a London Free Press columnist tweeted, "Electro- motive workers should give their assent to a team of shuttle diplomats."

Maybe, I thought, but I put far more faith in the words of John Hamilton, CEO of Electro-Motive Diesel. He told a House subcommittee: "In accordance with Buy American, we announced last week a search for a facility in which to perform final assembly."

To sell locomotives in the States, in any quantity, EMD was going to have to build those engines in the States. The closing of the London assembly plant should have come as a no surprise to anyone.

The other reasons given for closing the EMD plant were real but they were not the whole story. For instance, the problems with the electrical grid in Ontario are very real and electricity in the province is among the most expensive on the continent. But, when it comes to losing the expanding greenhouse industry to the States, our electrical problems are not the whole story. For instance, I've been told that the natural gas supply cannot be relied upon in the Leamington-Kingsville area of Essex County.

Some growers reportedly are installing biomass systems to work around the natural gas supply shortage problem. But this solution leads to other problems, such as what to supply the biomass system. One grower is looking at planting miscanthus, a fast growing exotic perennial grass species.

Reportedly, up to 25 percent of the power generating capacity in the state of Ohio is reaching the end of its lifespan. Replacing those power plants will be expensive and will take years. Cold weather pushes the present grid in Ohio to its limits.

When I did a search of electrical blackouts in Ohio, I discovered one outage about two and a half years ago left 450,000 folk across the state without power. A little more than two years ago 240,000 Cleveland residents lost power in a severe autumn storm. Some four years ago, 80,000 residents living near Lake Erie were without power because of an equipment failure caused by too many people overwhelming the grid by turning on their space heaters. Space heaters overtaxed the Ohio grid!

80,000 people left without power in Ohio by the use of too many space heaters
A similar search of Southwestern Ontario turned up one recent blackout affecting a mere 2,440 people. This is not to say The Free Press is wrong when it reports the Southern Ontario grid needs upgrading; It does. The power problems in Essex County have been big news this year. But if Canadian companies are moving to Ohio simply for the electricity, they may be making a mistake -- and they better think twice before turning on a space heater or anything else to heat a greenhouse.

Compared to Ohio, it appears Essex County offers far more reliable power.
Read story on greenhouse growing in Spain in EcoWatch.
Note the inclusion of Spain. Spain has an immense vegetable growing area under plastic, it is an entire peninsula converted to greenhouse status on the Mediterranean coast.

Already I have found sweet peppers for sale in London coming from Spain which were produced by an Essex County grower operating there.

Yes. A complex problem indeed.

After writing this I happened upon this information released by the USDA more than two years ago. "Imports from Canada's hothouse tomato industry peaked in 2005, but have weakened with rising competition from Mexico." I'm sure the rising price of electricity in Essex County played a role in this but it is clear that much more is going on here. It is interesting to note that some of the Mexican competition is from companies owned by Leamington growers. Today I went to the neighbourhood Metro grocery store and two long sides of an island in the produce department were lined with Mexican tomatoes carrying the names of Leamington/Kingsville based growers.

The USDA article goes on to report, "Mexico now accounts for 71 percent of the U.S. import market for greenhouse tomatoes, while Canada's share has been reduced by half to 27 percent." By half!

And here is the kicker, "Greenhouse tomatoes, in fact, have taken a greater share of the U.S. fresh-market tomato industry. About three-fourths of U.S. fresh tomato exports are shipped to Canada . . . (furthermore) . . . During the early 1990s, the United States became a net exporter of processed tomato products and has remained so."

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Is your child caring? Can you take credit?

Isla likes to share. It seems a natural way of approaching the world for my little granddaughter. I've never thought of taking any credit for her generous nature. But research done recently at Stanford University in the States, argues caregivers can take a few bows.

The most recent study conflicts with an earlier one done in 2006. At that time, a study found 18-month-old toddlers were willing to provide a helping hand without being prompted. Today researchers are no longer so certain altruistic behaviour is innate.

Now, Stanford psychologists believe altruistic behavior may be governed more by relationships than instincts. According to R.C. Barragan, a psychology graduate student at Stanford, "Kids are always on the lookout for social cues."

I am always amazed at what results from a dozen and a half years of education or more. Play with a child and they will be more likely to pick up an item that you dropped than if you made them play on their own while you ignored them while playing nearby.

I'm not at all surprised that if you play a simple game of catch with a child that kid will warm up to you. If you keep to yourself, mess about nearby on your own, don't be surprised when the kid acts distant. It think it should come as no surprise and you can thank your standoffish attitude for the coldness.

I feel uncomfortable taking too much credit for my granddaughter's sweet, oh-so-pleasant disposition. Maybe we, her parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, have not so much inspired her as given her opportunity. As Barragan also pointed out, "If children trust the people in their world, they may have an easier time learning the culture of that world – effectively making it easier for them to achieve new levels of personal and interpersonal success."

Or, play ball with me and I'll share my grilled cheese with you.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

The London Free Press: Vous n'ĂȘtes pas Charlie.

The local paper, The London Free Press, ran an article today with details surrounding the first issue of the French weekly Charlie Hebdo after the slaughter of many of the paper's senior editorial staff. The Free Press headline read: "Tearful Mohmamed on cover." The art accompanying the story showed the memorial to the victims which is growing larger by the day on the street near the magazine offices. The Free Press did not print a photo of the actual cover of the magazine. A description was all the paper dared print.

According to the paper, the weekly publication features "the most anticipated magazine cover in the world." As many as 3 million copies of Charlie Hebdo could be distributed with demand soaring. The usual print run is only 60,000. This week global sales alone could surpass 300,000, dwarfing the usual international sales number of about 4,000 copies.

But the most anticipated magazine cover or not, The Free Press is not providing its readers with a look at the controversial cover. The local paper is not alone. Canadian media in general, at least the dominant media in English-speaking Canada, have decided not to republish any of the satirical cartoons which made worldwide news after many of those connected to the publications were gunned down in their Paris office.

The Globe and Mail defended their decision not to publish the Charlie Hebdo cartoons. David Walmsley, The Globe and Mail’s editor-in-chief, explained: "One doesn’t need to show a cartoon to show the story. The story is the killings, not any cartoon."

The story is not the cartoons? What balderdash. Those cartoons are at the core of story. No cartoons; no slaughter; no story. To read the full explanation, click the following link. If you do, please also take a moment to read some of the comments of Globe readers.:

The journalist at Charlie Hebdo were killed because of the cartoons they published. To say that these cartoons are not an important part of this story is ridiculous. Without them there is no specific context for the crime. Walmsley's explanation is pure rationalization.
The journalist at Charlie Hebdo were killed because of the cartoons they published. To say that these cartoons are not an important part of this story is ridiculous. Without them there is no specific context for the crime. Walmsley's explanation is pure rationalization.
The journalist at Charlie Hebdo were killed because of the cartoons they published. To say that these cartoons are not an important part of this story is ridiculous. Without them there is no specific context for the crime. Walmsley's explanation is pure rationalization.
The journalist at Charlie Hebdo were killed because of the cartoons they published. To say that these cartoons are not an important part of this story is ridiculous. Without them there is no specific context for the crime. Walmsley's explanation is pure rationalization.
The journalist at Charlie Hebdo were killed because of the cartoons they published. To say that these cartoons are not an important part of this story is ridiculous. Without them there is no specific context for the crime. Walmsley's explanation is pure rationalization.
The journalist at Charlie Hebdo were killed because of the cartoons they published. To say that these cartoons are not an important part of this story is ridiculous. Without them there is no specific context for the crime. Walmsley's explanation is pure rationalization.
The journalist at Charlie Hebdo were killed because of the cartoons they published. To say that these cartoons are not an important part of this story is ridiculous. Without them there is no specific context for the crime. Walmsley's explanation is pure rationalization.
The journalist at Charlie Hebdo were killed because of the cartoons they published. To say that these cartoons are not an important part of this story is ridiculous. Without them there is no specific context for the crime. Walmsley's explanation is pure rationalization.
The journalist at Charlie Hebdo were killed because of the cartoons they published. To say that these cartoons are not an important part of this story is ridiculous. Without them there is no specific context for the crime. Walmsley's explanation is pure rationalization.
From my quick reading of the comments, it seems most readers of The Globe were not swayed. And so a few days later, The Globe ran another piece addressing its decision not to publish any of the cartoons. This article carried the headline We honour Charlie Hebdo, but we don’t want to be it. This attempt at placating readers angered by the decision also failed. Find the comments here: Comments.

Have I seen any of the cartoons? Yes. I subscribe to a daily feed from the Harvard Gazette. Following a links, I viewed a smattering of the cartoons. And I read articles defending Charlie Hebdo. Ayaan Hirsi Ali,  a Fellow with The Future of Diplomacy Project at the Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Center, wrote:

We do need to wake up to the fact that there is a movement — a very lethal movement, very cruel — that has a political vision about how the world should be organized and how society should live. And in order for them to realize their vision, they are willing to use any means. They are willing to use violence. They are willing to use terror.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali continued, saying:

The ball is now in the court of the media. If the press responds to this by not reprinting the cartoons, by not defending the principle that Charlie Hebdo was defending, then we have given in. Then they have won [this round].

I added this round. Why? Because if you think that this dispute is just about cartoons, you are mistaken. The cartoons are simply one round in a far larger fight. The cartoons are the focus this time. But, take away the cartoons and you still have a fight on your hands. Terrorist murderers do not disappear because a cartoon is not published. They simply turn their attention elsewhere.

This cartoon by Cabu depicts and quotes the racist demagogue
politician Jean-Marie Le Pen of the Front National party (with
the eye patch). The caption reads: "We want to be able to go
out in the evening without being afraid." The armed thugs in the
background are racist skinheads and their ilk. The cartoon
leaves little doubt as to who is afraid.

I heard a self-described left-of-centre NDP supporter expressing his anger at the publication of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons. He had strong opinions on this matter even though, I don't believe, he had actually seen any of them. And no wonder. His sources for news are not publishing any of the Jean Cabut cartoons. I believe that's really too bad.

Althought the man compared the Cabu cartoons to the Nazi propaganda released during the Hitler era, don't make the mistake of thinking that he was a supporter of religion. He wasn't. He made it very clear that he despised religion. All religion. He saw religion at the root of much that is wrong with the world.

When I read the supportive phrase, "Je suis Charlie", I think of another meaning. Charlie Hebdo stirs up angry, murderous emotions in certain extreme, and I believe misguided, Muslims. But it is not just Charlie Hebdo stirring this emotional pot. I believe the oh-so-acceptable secular approach to religious faith, an approach that treats faith as foolishness, as something to be mocked and ridiculed, is also fueling the terrorist fires now burning in the West.

Those who openly distrust of religion, are intolerant of religious thought, and who might be characterized by believers as haters of religion, these people are also part of the problem. I've seen it claimed that this background noise in our secular world, this background noise that mocks religious belief is one of the  forces driving some Muslims into the marginalized camp. Maybe these people, full of distrust for all religion, can also lay claim to the phrase "Je suis Charlie." Although, used here it has another meaning: "If Charlie was wrong, if Charlie stirred up anger, then to the extent that I also have stirred up anger means that to that extent I am also Charlie."

To understand my point, read The New York Times piece, From Teenage Angst to Jihad, The Anger of Europe’s Young Marginalized Muslims.

Author Abdelkader Benali tells readers of The Times that at 13 years old he was a healthy, young Dutch boy with a Moroccan background until something happened that made him realize he was different from his non-Muslim classmates. Benali writes:

One day in history class, the fatwa against Salman Rushdie became the subject. Our teacher talked about freedom of expression; I talked about insulting the Prophet.

It took Benali years to work through the moral dilemma in which he found himself that day. And he found it is much harder to find a satisfactory answer while living in a secular society that had stopped struggling with big religious questions.

Benali tells readers, "In the end, I didn’t find the answers in holy texts. I found them in literature." He found his answer in Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis, in Albert Camus' The Plague and in the book that originally triggered his emotional turmoil, Salmon Rushdie's The Satanic Verses: a book about "a young man struggling with his faith in a faithless world."

Maybe, just maybe, the cartoons published by Charlie Hebdo will do for others what The Satanic Verses did for Benali. Check out this link to the latest Charlie Hebdo cover showing the Prophet Muhammad holding a "Je Suis Charlie" sign with the caption, "All is forgiven."

There are a lot of criticisms that can be aimed at the French weekly, insensitive comes readily to mind, but spreading hatred of Muslims is not among them.

Huffington Post: I Am Charlie.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Kids are simply natives; drop the modifier "digital"

There are those who claim children today are "digital natives." I'm not one of them.

Isla can make the dog in her book tilt its head. She simply pulls the large tab with the blue pointer. The tab is connected to a hinged head. But Isla can't change the image on the back of my camera. She insists on pushing the image off the screen as if my camera were an iPhone. It isn't. Isla is frustrated.

Isla is bright and someday she will work a computer much as I "work" a car. But just as I am not a mechanic, despite being raised with automobiles, Isla may never be a digital native despite being raised with computers.

When Isla's older sister, Fiona, brushed her hand casually over the keyboard of my laptop, the wireless Internet stopped working. The so-called digital natives in my world couldn't get my portable back online. I'm closing in on 70 but I found the answer. The antenna icon, looks a bit like the letter A with energy radiating from the tip, controls the wireless connection. Touch the icon and it turns off, touch it again and it turns on. It is a toggle that lights when in the on position and goes dark when the in the off position. Fiona toggled it off.

Every time I read in the paper how young people are so comfortable with computers while seniors are inept, I want to scream. I've been playing with computers for some three decades. I'm not a whiz but I am not frightened by computers either. When I had a sailboat in the '80s, I wrote a program to assist in charting my boat's position on the lake. I had a little, portable Radio Shack computer that performed the task very admirably.

If you, too, believe the computer skills of the young are highly overrated, please read: Kids can't use computers... and this is why it should worry you.

This is not to belittle children in anyway. Little kids are amazing. At about 14 months Isla could remove a screw top from a bottle. According to her other grandfather, today Isla can remove the childproof lids from his medicine bottles. She is definitely bottle-top native. With computers, which are bit more complex, she doesn't show anywhere near the aptitude.

Monday, January 5, 2015

A colourful twist on an old recipe

Cauliflower soup with carrot added for colour.
 Awhile ago I did a post on a homemade cauliflower soup. Here's the link:  Homemade soup easy to make and nutritious. With a bought-on-sale cauliflower growing old in the fridge, my wife encouraged me to make my cauliflower soup. My wife even went so far as to chop the cauliflower into small pieces.

So, today I knocked off a big pot of a very elegant soup which in a fine restaurant would be an oh-so-suitable first course. Because all the cauliflower had to be used, I used all 22 ounces. For colour, I added one large chopped carrot. For flavour, I tossed in two celery stocks and three small onions, both diced.

After stir frying the vegetables in a little olive oil for about ten minutes, I added a 900ml box of vegetable broth, twelve ounces of 1% milk, a couple of bay leaves and a sprig of thyme. I simmered this for about twenty minutes until the cauliflower was done.

Before pouring the soup into a food processor, I removed the bay leaves and thyme sprig and added a couple of ounces of potato flakes as a thickener. After blending the chunky mixture to a smooth, thick consistency, I returned the soup to the cook pot and reheated it until it reached serving temperature.

Unlike the original soup, this one has a light orange colour and a hint of sweetness, all thanks to the addition of a carrot.

There is no reason for people to eat poorly. A large bowl of this filling and very healthy soup was about 60-cents. Both the head of cauliflower and the box of vegetable broth were under a dollar. Both were picked up on sale. If one works one's diet around ingredients that are available on sale, one can keep the price of meals surprisingly low.