Thursday, December 03, 2009

This must be a joke... please tell me this is a joke

Nature's laws of shopping: Men hunt, women gather
University of Michigan psychologist Daniel Kruger has found that how we shop has an awful lot to do with how we once found our food. Men hunt. Women gather. Conjugal chaos ensues.
As a scientist, he refused to do the sensible thing – shrug his shoulders. He wanted to know the reason. He combed over studies of aboriginal tribes and did a battery of tests on student volunteers. The results will be published in the upcoming issue of the Journal of Social, Evolutionary and Cultural Psychology.

Kruger found that our habits haven't changed. Our environment and our goals have.

In prehistory, women gathered or foraged for food. This kept them close to home, performing a daily, intensive and social activity. A good memory, a keen eye and a lot of patience when choosing help make a good gatherer.

Men hunted for meat. This was an intermittent, asocial activity that earned them prestige only through the biggest catches. Short bursts of energy were followed by long periods of sitting around waiting for women to bring in the harvest.

There are so many things wrong with this article, I don't even know where to begin.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Ending Africa's Hunger... by funding Monsanto?

More than a billion people eat fewer than 1,900 calories per day. The majority of them work in agriculture, about 60 percent are women or girls, and most are in rural Africa and Asia. Ending their hunger is one of the few unimpeachably noble tasks left to humanity, and we live in a rare time when there is the knowledge and political will to do so. The question is, how? Conventional wisdom suggests that if people are hungry, there must be a shortage of food, and all we need do is figure out how to grow more.
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, with an endowment of more than $30 billion, has embarked on a multibillion-dollar effort to transform African agriculture. It helped to set up the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) in 2006, and since then has spent $1.3 billion on agricultural development grants, largely in Africa. With such resources, solving African hunger could be Gates's greatest legacy.

But there's a problem: the conventional wisdom is wrong. Food output per person is as high as it has ever been, suggesting that hunger isn't a problem of production so much as one of distribution.

The Gates Foundation is focusing on technology, spending about a third of the $1.3 billion on promoting and developing seed biotechnologies, one of the largest recipients of which is everybody's favourite corporation, Monsanto.

However, all is not lost...

Despite institutional neglect, ecological farming systems have been sprouting up across the African continent for decades--systems based on farmers' knowledge, which not only raise yields but reduce costs, are diverse and use less water and fewer chemicals. Fifteen years ago, researchers and farmers in Kenya began developing a method for beating striga, a parasitic weed that causes significant crop loss for African farmers. The system they developed, the "push-pull system," also builds soil fertility, provides animal fodder and resists another major African pest, the stemborer. Under the system, predators are "pushed" away from corn because it is planted alongside insect-repellent crops, while they are "pulled" toward crops like Napier grass, which exudes a gum that traps and kills pests and is also an important fodder crop for livestock. Push-pull has spread to more than 10,000 households in East Africa by means of town meetings, national radio broadcasts and farmer field schools. It's a farming system that's much more robust, cheaper, less environmentally harmful, locally developed, locally owned and one among dozens of promising agroecological alternatives on the ground in Africa today.

Read the whole article from The Nation

Previously blogged about here

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Mass Murder of Women

Bob Herbert: Women at Risk
"I actually look good. I dress good, am clean-shaven, bathe, touch of cologne — yet 30 million women rejected me," wrote George Sodini in a blog that he kept while preparing for this week's shooting in a Pennsylvania gym in which he killed three women, wounded nine others and then killed himself.

We've seen this tragic ritual so often that it has the feel of a formula. A guy is filled with a seething rage toward women and has easy access to guns. The result: mass slaughter.

Back in the fall of 2006, a fiend invaded an Amish schoolhouse in rural Pennsylvania, separated the girls from the boys, and then shot 10 of the girls, killing five.

I wrote, at the time, that there would have been thunderous outrage if someone had separated potential victims by race or religion and then shot, say, only the blacks, or only the whites, or only the Jews. But if you shoot only the girls or only the women — not so much of an uproar.

Or, can you imagine if the gunman was Arab, Muslim or black. The news would be filled with analyses of black violence or Muslim misogyny or whatever. Just look at how some people try to make Mark Lepine into a secret Muslim, so that the violent impulses can be blamed on his Algerian-ness instead of his male-ness. Why is it when a white man commits a similar act, neither whiteness nor maleness are examined?

According to police accounts, Sodini walked into a dance-aerobics class of about 30 women who were being led by a pregnant instructor. He turned out the lights and opened fire. The instructor was among the wounded.

We have become so accustomed to living in a society saturated with misogyny that the barbaric treatment of women and girls has come to be more or less expected.

We profess to being shocked at one or another of these outlandish crimes, but the shock wears off quickly in an environment in which the rape, murder and humiliation of females is not only a staple of the news, but an important cornerstone of the nation’s entertainment.

The mainstream culture is filled with the most gruesome forms of misogyny, and pornography is now a multibillion-dollar industry — much of it controlled by mainstream U.S. corporations.

One of the striking things about mass killings in the U.S. is how consistently we find that the killers were riddled with shame and sexual humiliation, which they inevitably blamed on women and girls. The answer to their feelings of inadequacy was to get their hands on a gun (or guns) and begin blowing people away.

What was unusual about Sodini was how explicit he was in his blog about his personal shame and his hatred of women. “Why do this?” he asked. “To young girls? Just read below.” In his gruesome, monthslong rant, he managed to say, among other things: “It seems many teenage girls have sex frequently. One 16 year old does it usually three times a day with her boyfriend. So, err, after a month of that, this little [expletive] has had more sex than ME in my LIFE, and I am 48. One more reason.”

I was reminded of the Virginia Tech gunman, Seung-Hui Cho, who killed 32 people in a rampage at the university in 2007. While Cho shot males as well as females, he was reported to have previously stalked female classmates and to have leaned under tables to take inappropriate photos of women. A former roommate said Cho once claimed to have seen “promiscuity” when he looked into the eyes of a woman on campus.

Soon after the Virginia Tech slayings, I interviewed Dr. James Gilligan, who spent many years studying violence as a prison psychiatrist in Massachusetts and as a professor at Harvard and N.Y.U. “What I’ve concluded from decades of working with murderers and rapists and every kind of violent criminal,” he said, “is that an underlying factor that is virtually always present to one degree or another is a feeling that one has to prove one’s manhood, and that the way to do that, to gain the respect that has been lost, is to commit a violent act.”

Life in the United States is mind-bogglingly violent. But we should take particular notice of the staggering amounts of violence brought down on the nation’s women and girls each and every day for no other reason than who they are. They are attacked because they are female.

A girl or woman somewhere in the U.S. is sexually assaulted every couple of minutes or so. The number of seriously battered wives and girlfriends is far beyond the ability of any agency to count.

There were so many sexual attacks against women in the armed forces that the Defense Department had to revise its entire approach to the problem.

We would become much more sane, much healthier, as a society if we could bring ourselves to acknowledge that misogyny is a serious and pervasive problem, and that the twisted way so many men feel about women, combined with the absurdly easy availability of guns, is a toxic mix of the most tragic proportions.

I don't for a minute believe that all men hate women or that all men are violent or whatever the right wing wants you to think feminists believe, but that there is an undercurrent in our culture which accepts too much violence in general and too much violence against women in particular.

We need to take a good honest look at our society and take responsibility for these sick people we raise. We need to promote healthier ways to deal with anger and other strong emotions. We desperately need a healthier masculinity. We also need to abandon our antisocial and ultra-competitive society that rewards domination.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Blame CUPE

Are you tired of blaming fate, the vagaries of nature, or God for your misfortunes? Try blaming CUPE. It's fun and easy.

Here's an example, provided by the Toronto Sun.

CUPE killed summer. That's right. Summer is dead, and CUPE perpetrated the murder.

Try it yourself. Car won't start? Blame CUPE. Weather too cold? Blame CUPE. Miss the bus? Stub your toe? Spill your coffee? You know who to blame.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Solidarity with City Workers

In my inbox today:

The members of CUPE 416 and 79 who work for the City of Toronto
are now on strike. The business media has begun its inevitable campaign of
misinformation to produce the greatest possible backlash against these
workers. We are encouraged to focus on uncollected garbage and suspended
services but not, of course, to give any regard to the rights of public
sector workers or to think as working people about what is at stake in
this strike.

OCAP, as a matter of basic principle, stands in solidarity with
workers' struggles. We don't hate or blame workers who have been able to
win a living wage or support calls for them to be driven into poverty.
Rather, we want to see the poor provided with wages and incomes that raise
them out of poverty.

This strike occurs in a context that makes it especially important
for all of us that it end in victory and that the concessionary demands of
the 'progressive' Miller Administration be defeated. The Mayor defended
his shameful efforts to gut the collective agreements of City workers by
pointing to rising welfare caseloads brought on by the economic downturn.
What a disgusting statement. To pit City workers against those who are
being forced to turn to the wretched sub poverty pittance that welfare
provides is an outrage. This comes from a man who boasts that there are
more cops on the streets under his regime than every before and who is
taking us towards an obscene billion dollar a year police budget, while he
has frittered away the welfare reserve fund
to a fraction of where it was when he took office.

The Mayor points to the state of the economy to justify his attack
on City workers. In doing this, he makes clear what side he is on when it
comes to who should pay for this economic crisis. As unemployment shoots
up, we face the situation with an empty shell of an unemployment insurance
system that shuts out most of the unemployed and with a post Mike Harris
welfare system that fails to provide the necessities of life. None of the
'solutions' to the crisis involve meeting the basic needs of the
unemployed and poor. For those who still have jobs and unions, the
bankrupt corporations they work for will be bailed out at vast public
expense while their rights as workers are destroyed and they are presented
with massive concessionary demands.

The process of attacking workers started in the auto industry and
other parts of the private sector. The drive for austerity is now
spreading, inevitably, to the public sector. Beginning with militant
fights by postal workers in the 1960s, public sector workers have spent
decades struggling for decent wages and conditions.

The present crisis of capitalism will mean an all out confrontation to
take back those gains. Moreover, an attack on the workers who deliver
public services can't be separated from the attack on the services
themselves and the rights of those who receive them. That is the context
of this strike and we in OCAP know what side we're on. We call for full
support for the City workers. Send messages of solidarity. Be there with
them on their picket lines. Stand with them in their fight because they
are fighting for all of us.

Finally, some common sense. I am shocked (although I guess I shouldn't be, after the reaction to the TTC strike - though even that wasn't nearly so bad) at the mean-spirited selfishness of local citizens.(Just read the comments on any news story about the strike). I can't believe how many people think that city workers shouldn't have x,y,z (benefits and perks, job security, decent wage, etc) because private sector employees don't have these things. It's like the child who breaks a toy someone else is playing with. If I can't have it, nobody can. Of course my metaphor breaks down because lots of the people complaining are not exactly in dire straights. We're talking lawyers and middle management here.

Not that the media is helping any. Zeroing in on the bankable sick days as if that is what this fight is really about. If you didn't live here, you'd think the streets were flowing with garbage.

Cognitive dissonance abounds. Garbage collectors shouldn't be given the same increases as police officers got because garbage collectors aren't as important. But me oh my, it's been TWO days without garbage collection and already they are screaming to have someone take away their refuse. Somehow forgotten is that fact that it is not just a garbage strike. Inside and outside workers include paramedics, parks and rec staff, workers at swimming pools and community centres, health inspectors, office workers, social workers, child care workers, and even the people who clean the nasty (and desperately important especially for the homeless) public washrooms. They supply incredibly important services.

What I think we should realize is just how many services we receive from the city and how invaluable they are. If we were to try to buy all these services, few could afford them. They make all of our lives better, and they happen so routinely we rarely even notice them. Using the recession as an excuse to claw back hard-won benefits from public-sector employees is just wrong. Pretty much the entire world (even the IMF) understands that a recession is the time to spend on public works, not cut them. And if you are cutting, why not start at the top (police chief? city manager?) and work your way down instead of starting at the bottom (non-unionized workers have already been screwed with wage freezes earlier this year)?

If this were France, we'd probably have a general strike just to support them. Everyone would take the day off work (parents wouldn't have to worry about child care at least) and we'd all sit in the streets drinking wine.

Perhaps we could also use this as an opportunity to meditate on the excess of waste we produce as a society. Two days without collection and all hell breaks loose? Honestly. What is wrong with us?

Sunday, June 21, 2009


Puzzle me this: Why is it that the same people who bitch about workers sense of entitlement (you know, workers wanting decent treatment and wages) themselves feel entitled to free plastic bags? (It's true)

I think its a marvelous success so far: Toronto's new 5 cent plastic bag law has reduced the use of plastic shopping bags by something like 75%.

Monday, May 11, 2009

It isn't surprising...

... that 'Status Indians' face threat of extinction, since the Indian Act was implemented specifically for the purpose of eradicating indigenous peoples and culture. Indian Status was designed to reduce the Indian population, a neat solution to the "Indian Problem".

Within a few generations, it was assumed, the Indian population would nearly disappear. This was ensured through the restrictive nature of Indian Status: an indigenous woman who married a white man lost her status, as did her children, plus if you were enfranchised to vote or got a university education you were no longer considered an Indian.

In the past 40 years there have been many changes to the Indian Act, some positive and some negative, but most aboriginals in Canada are unable to access the benefits of the Act, while dealing with many of the negative consequences of their heritage. Canadians often display an incredible degree of racism, particularly towards aboriginal individuals and groups. Don't believe me? Just read the comments on the Star article, if you can stomach it.

Personally, I can't imagine if the government was able to decide for me who I am (legally speaking). Imagine they all of a sudden decreed that only those with two Christian parents could be Christian, or that those women who vote were no longer legally women, or that men who go to university are no longer legally men, or if you have a slice of pizza you are now Italian.

Also see How the Indian Act made Indians act like Indian Act Indians

Saturday, May 09, 2009

ACTION ALERT: Keep Terminator Seed out of Canada

Member of Parliament Alex Atamanenko (NDP) has reintroduced his Private Members Bill (C-343) to ban the release, sale, importation and use of Terminator technology.

What is Terminator? Terminator Technology genetically engineers plants to produce sterile seeds at harvest. It was developed by the multinational seed/agrochemical industry and the US government to prevent farmers from re-planting harvested seed and force farmers to buy seed each season instead. Terminator seeds have not yet been field-tested or commercialized. In 2006, Monsanto bought the company (Delta & Pine Land) that owned Terminator. Terminator is sometimes called Genetic Use Restriction Technology (GURTs) - the broad term that refers to the use of an external chemical inducer to control the expression of a plant's genetic traits.

Member of Parliament Alex Atamanenko (NDP) has reintroduced his Private Members Bill (C-343) to ban the release, sale, importation and use of Terminator technology.

Actions you can take:
1. Send an instant email at
2. Organizations can endorse the call for a ban: go to
3. Write a personalized letter. Remember: postage is free to your elected officials! You can use your postal code to search for your MP at (Note: The New Democratic Party and the Bloc Québécois already support a Ban on Terminator in Canada.) For more information see
4. Distribute Ban Terminator postcards in your community! To order postcards email
5. Donate to support the campaign -- the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network implements the Canadian strategy of the International Ban Terminator Campaign
6. Sign up to Ban Terminator news

Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, K2P 0R5
Phone: 613 241 2267 ext.5,

Learn more about Terminator Technology here

Via Everdale

Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Power of Poetry

A while back, I posted a poem written by Drew Dillinger. It begins:
it's 3:23 in the morning
and I'm awake
because my great great grandchildren
won't let me sleep
my great great grandchildren
ask me in dreams
what did you do while the planet was plundered?
what did you do when the earth was unraveling?

Words have power. And these are powerful words.

I am not the only one who think so. Recently a congresswoman quoted the poem during Congressional hearings on climate change legislation.

DellingerPoem_Congress from drew dellinger on Vimeo.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The media have finally discovered homelessness. Not surprisingly, they get the story wrong

One of the fundamental human requirements is shelter. How do homeless people survive? Where do they sleep? On friends and family's couches and floors (if they are lucky), at shelters, in churches, in parks, on sidewalk grates, in abandoned buildings, in doorways, under bridges, in cars, or wherever else they can.

And of course, they sleep in tents. The burgeoning tent cities in the U.S. have finally made the national awareness. Interestingly, it seems as though the media is only interested in the newly homeless, those middle class folks who lost their homes because of the economic collapse. In other words, those who they believe are homeless because of circumstances, not because of some kind of individual moral failing. Unlike, you know, the other kind of poor.
Over the past few months, reporters from around the world have flocked to the now-famous tent city in Sacramento, Calif. When they find out that 55-year-old John Kraintz has been living in a tent for almost seven years, they turn around and walk away.

"They don't want to talk to me," he says. "They're searching for people who just lost their homes. It's kinda tough to lose a home when you've never owned one. Sorry, but most of the people here have been homeless for a long time."

Homelessness is seen as an anomaly, a sign of the economic crisis, not as a structural problem with capitalism. But there are homeless during the boom times, too, lots of them.

"The other day, I heard a German reporter ask if this is happening because of the recent economic collapse," says Kraintz. "This has been happening for 30 years, but the powers that be have been able to pretend it doesn't exist. Why aren't reporters asking about flat wages, jobs being shipped overseas and the lack of affordable housing?"

Burke agrees, saying one of the many issues ignored in most articles about tent city and homelessness is the fact that poor people cannot afford housing, especially in an expensive state like California.

"People who are poor end up homeless through no fault of their own, but because people higher up on the food chain have made affordable housing a very scarce commodity," she says. "If we had sound housing policies and programs that helped people when they have a run of bad luck, we would not have a tent city."

Kraintz says he knew the system would finally blow up. It was just a matter of time. The question, according to him, is this: Do the powers that be have the political will to create a fairer, more just economic system? <Alternet>

Photo Credit: A tent city in Fresno, from a 2004 article by Mike Rhodes on Indybay

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Early Farmers in the Americas - Farming because they wanted to, not because they had to

This is an interesting article, especially for me, with my interest in indigenous precolumbian agriculture in the Americas.
Three thousand eight hundred years ago, long before U.S. plains rippled with vast rows of corn, Native Americans planted farms with hardy "pioneer" crops, according to new evidence of the first farming in eastern North America.

Because the area appears to have been well stocked with wild food sources, the discovery may rewrite some beliefs about what led people to start farming on the continent, scientists say.

Rather than turning to farming as a matter of survival, the so-called Riverton people may have been exercising "free will" and engaging in a bit of gastronomic innovation, archaeologists say.

This does not surprise me in the least. We always assume 'prehistoric' peoples started farming because they had to, as a survival technique, but we don't ever stop to think that they might be just like us, inventing new things simply because they want to. Did we need the iPod or the car? Was our survival significantly enhanced because of either of them? We grow later to think we can't live without electricity, flush toilets, and the internet, because they make our lives easier or more enjoyable.
Around the world and throughout ancient history, people switched from mainly hunting and gathering to farming as a way to cope with environmental stresses, such as drought—or so the conventional wisdom says.

But the new research "really challenges the whole idea of humans domesticating plants and animals in response to an external stress [and] makes a strong case for almost the polar opposite," said lead study author Bruce Smith, curator of North American archaeology at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.

Before they began farming, the Riverton people lived among bountiful river valleys and lakes, apparently eating a healthy and diverse diet of nuts, white-tailed deer, fish, and shellfish, the study says.
But that doesn't mean farming didn't give the Riverton culture a practical advantage: In addition to their normal fare, the people may have relied on the crops as a stable source of food—insurance against shortages of wild food sources..

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Sometimes not knowing is better

At least when you're talking about these. I am convinced we are seeing end times when slapping peanut butter on bread is too much work for us.

And I thought Bagelfuls, precooked eggs and Lunchables were bad.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Impatient for Spring

March 2, 2009 - Impatient for spring and inspired by Mother Earth News, I planted three kinds of lettuce (obtained at Seedy Saturday). Green oak, red deer tongue, and mystery lettuce (from the seed exchange).

March 21, 2009 - Off to a respectable start:

The first to germinate was the mystery lettuce, followed by the oak leaf. Red deer tongue still hasn't germinated. Bad seeds? Wrong germination temperature? Once the first round germinated, I sprinkled more seeds randomly.


They are such beautiful babies!

p.s. Can you imagine only having spring once every 30 years?

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Canada's Banks: Accidentally not in Crisis Yet

From Rick Mercer

The National Post agrees:
Canadian banks – saved from stomping around as monoliths on a world stage backed by Canadian taxpayers -- are the least ugly in what can only be called a reverse beauty contest among banks.

You know how we used to laugh at the guy who keeps all his cash in a big old sock, or the woman who has all her savings under her mattress? Well, the risk-averse look pretty smart right about now. Phew! Thanks goodness the regulators saved the banks from themselves.

Friday, March 13, 2009


Post-Civ! A brief philosophical and political introduction to the concept of post-civilization is an interesting read.
Post-civilized thought is based on three simple premises:

1 – This civilization is, from its foundation, unsustainable. It probably cannot be salvaged, and, what’s more, it would be undesirable to do so.
2 – It is neither possible, nor desirable, to return to a pre-civilized state of being.
3 – It is therefore desirable to imagine and enact a post-civilized culture.

I certainly don't agree with the whole thing but I do like its spirit: "We are for an ecologically-focused green anarchism and we are for mutual aid, free association, and self-determination."

Download it here (small PDF file), or try Post-Civ!, a deeper exploration for more detail.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

'Tent cities' of homeless on the rise across the US

Homeless encampments dubbed "tent cities" are springing up across the US, partly in response to soaring numbers of home repossessions, the credit crunch and rising unemployment, according to a report.

Homelessness, car camps and tent cities are certainly not new, but they are growing rapidly.
In Reno, Nevada, the state with the nation's highest repossessions rate, a tent city recently sprung up on the city's outskirts and quickly filled up with about 150 people. Many, such as Sylvia Flynn, 51, who came from northern California, ended up homeless after losing their jobs and home.

Officials say they do not know how many homeless the city has. "But we do know that the soup kitchens are serving hundreds more meals a day and that we have more people who are homeless than we can remember," Jodi Royal-Goodwin, the city's redevelopment agency director, said.

In California, the upmarket city of Santa Barbara is housing homeless people who live in their cars in city car parks while Fresno, has several tent cities. Others have sprung up in Portland in Oregon, and Seattle, where homeless activists have set up mock tent cities at city hall to draw attention to the problem.

Meanwhile, new encampments have appeared, or existing ones grown, in San Diego, Chattanooga in Tennessee, and Columbus, Ohio.<Story>

Some quick internet searching uncovered many others, in Dallas, Olympia, L.A., Athens, Georgia, Columbus. Others, like Tenessee and St. Petersburg have been shut down.

MSNBC has a photo essay on a large tent city in Sacramento, juxtaposing it with the Sacramento tent city of the Great Depression.

There are homes sitting empty, while people have no place to live. Excess supply coexisting with excess demand. The invisible hand has failed these people.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Great Depression Cooking with Clara

Celebrity cooking is HOT and, lately, so is the Great Depression.

93 year old Clara reminisces about the Depression while showcasing cheap, nourishing food. I love this online cooking show. Maybe it's because I'm a big fan of history, food, frugality, and stories.

Here she makes "Poorman's meal" which is potatoes with hotdogs (her grandkids love it, she says). Clara, peeling potatoes, explains she had to drop out of high school because she couldn't afford socks.

And here's episode 1 where she makes pasta with peas. Enjoy!

More episodes on the Youtube Channel

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Sharing Work and Food - Imagine That

Here's an article by Wayne Roberts of the Toronto Food Policy Council, quoted in full because I don't know how to link to it on Facebook.

BY Wayne Roberts

Unlike most people, Thomas Homer-Dixon doesn't think today's world economic crisis is very complicated. He thinks it's very complex, which makes for a world of difference in understanding which government anti-recession programs will fail (most of them) and deciding which ones can help.

Homer-Dixon, who chairs a centre for global systems analysis at the University of Waterloo, is one of the world’s leading thinkers in the field of “complexity theory,” and the author of several international bestsellers, including The Ingenuity Gap and The Upside of Down. He brings a missing dimension to thinking about remedies to the looming economic collapse that that’s so far been excluded from public and media debate. “If ever there was a case of experts not knowing what’s happening, it’s this economic crisis,” he says.

Hang in for the introductory lecture on Chaos Theory 101, and you’ll be able to follow and lead the economics debate in fresh ways.

Homer-Dixon is the first to admit he has no straight-ahead answers to a downturn that’s much more challenging that the Great Depression of the 1930s, to which it’s often unthinkingly compared. “We’ve never seen a collapse on this scale before in an environment of such enormous complexity and such a huge number of unk-unks,” he says, in a reference to the term used during his days working with Pentagon analysts who referred to unknown unknowns.

The way in which a relatively small proportion of mortgage defaults in one country during the fall of 2008 precipitated the collapse of a global economic house of cards expresses a telltale, if seemingly illogical, sign of complex systems in crisis – a very small cause leading to a very huge result, like the final grain of snow or shift of wind that produce a mountain avalanche.

But in Homer-Dixon’s view, that small cause, and even slightly bigger versions of that small cause – the breakdown of integrity in the global financial system, or the inequality that put home purchases beyond the reach of typical families, for example – is only a small part of an overall mix of “cascading failures.” His list of factors converging into a catastrophic perfect storm include intensified inequality, increased global warming, rising resource prices, and the “sheer productivity of capitalism – in many ways the deepest of all causes,” he says, since it produces chronic gluts in desperate search for markets. Together, they overloaded a rigid and “tightly coupled” global financial system that spread uncontrollable wildfires.
“Multiple stresses that reinforced each other” led to “a collapse of assets greater and faster” than anything witnessed during the simpler days of the Great Depression, he says. That’s why simplistic and one-dimensional rhetoric from politicians and pundits about fixing the problem, putting the pieces back together, and managing the crisis betrays a failure to understand what’s going down, he says. “Complex problems require complex solutions. It’s the law of requisite variety. We need a repertoire of responses as complex as the environment. “We must move from management to complex adaptation.”

Just as bodies under stress require core strength in the lower abdomen, economies and societies under shock require sources of core strength, what hip policy experts increasingly refer to as “robustness” and “resilience.” Government policy makers need to focus their view on the prize of supporting resilience in the population. Failure of governments to be on constant alert for the pitfalls of economic giantism or to be on guard for stresses in social resilience “is like not requiring cities to be earthquake-proof,” he says.

“Resilience means helping people to take care of themselves better in tough times,” rather than relying on specialization and expertise, he says, a guideline that puts a community’s ability to feed itself and care for each other at the top of his to-do list.

Here’s how I simplify Homer-Dixon’s analysis, in ways that he may or may not agree with.

When public money is used to keep enterprises afloat, the public has a right to demand that public benefits be spread among the general public. In my opinion, a longstanding (if best-kept secret) of Canadian employment insurance policy should be extended to all public enterprises and bailed-out private enterprises, including car companies and banks. Canada’s federal government allows workers at a company facing lay-offs to opt for everyone sharing the layoff by working a four day week, and everyone sharing the employment insurance by being covered on their one day a week of unemployment. This measure does not cost the employment insurance system a dime, since five people taking a payout for a day is the same as one person taking a payout for a week. It allows a workforce to stay intact for better times, maintains morale among workers and within a community, and protects younger workers with families, a group unlikely to enjoy high seniority.

This simple measure would abolish unemployment overnight, maintain purchasing power in the community, and buy people the time to become more resilient and self-reliant in their own lives, by gardening, cooking from scratch or insulating their walls, for example. It would even give people some time to sleep, the least acknowledged of the crucial determinants of health and well-being.

Only the epidemics of workaholism and every-man-for-himselfishism have kept this obvious low-pain remedy off the agenda for so long.

Having bolstered purchasing power in the community-at-large, the multiplier effect of that purchasing power needs to be captured for public benefit by requiring all government and publicly-bailed-out institutions to purchase local and local-sustainable food, recognizing that the food industry already produces almost as many jobs as the auto industry and can directly employ local people. Since one job for a local farmer commonly leads to five jobs producing farm inputs or off-farm processing, this doable measure is an employment bonanza that also yields major health and environmental benefits. This also fulfils Homer-Dixon’s call for self-reliant and unplugged systems that remove essentials of life from the vagaries of uncontrollable forces.

This depression does not have to hurt. Get beyond the complications into the complexity, and discover what Homer-Dixon calls “the upside to down.”

(adapted from NOW Magazine, February 26-March 4, 2009. Wayne Roberts is the author of The No-Nonsense Guide to World Food.)

Friday, February 27, 2009

BBC's The Big Read top 100 books

A friend passed this on. She says the BBC believes the average person will only have read 6 books from this list. At least 6 of these I had to read for school. It is definitely a British list but there are several important books on it.

1 Pride and Prejudice - Jane Austen
2 The Lord of the Rings X
3 Jane Eyre - Charlotte Bronte
4 Harry Potter series
5 To Kill a Mockingbird – X
6 The Bible - X (though I may have skimmed the begats)
7 Wuthering Heights - Emily Bronte
8 Nineteen Eighty Four - George Orwell X+
9 His Dark Materials - Philip Pullman
10 Great Expectations - Charles Dickens
11 Little Women - Louisa M Alcott X
12 Tess of the D’Urbervilles - Thomas Hardy
13 Catch 22 - Joseph Heller (started but didn't finish)
14 Complete Works of Shakespeare - hahahaha! About 5 or 6 of them
15 Rebecca - Daphne Du Maurier X
16 The Hobbit - JRR Tolkien X+
17 Birdsong - Sebastian Faulks
18 Catcher in the Rye - JD Salinger - X
19 The Time Traveller’s Wife - Audrey Niffenegger
20 Middlemarch - George Eliot
21 Gone With The Wind - Margaret Mitchell
22 The Great Gatsby - F Scott Fitzgerald X
23 Bleak House - Charles Dickens
24 War and Peace - Leo Tolstoy
25 The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy - Douglas Adams - X+
26 Brideshead Revisited - Evelyn Waugh
27 Crime and Punishment - Fyodor Dostoyevsky
28 Grapes of Wrath - John Steinbeck X
29 Alice in Wonderland - Lewis Carroll – X+
30 The Wind in the Willows - Kenneth Grahame X
31 Anna Karenina - Leo Tolstoy -
32 David Copperfield - Charles Dickens
33 Chronicles of Narnia - CS Lewis X
34 Emma - Jane Austen
35 Persuasion - Jane Austen
36 The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe - CS Lewis – X+
37 The Kite Runner - Khaled Hosseini – X
38 Captain Corelli’s Mandolin - Louis De Bernieres
39 Memoirs of a Geisha - Arthur Golden
40 Winnie the Pooh - AA Milne – X+
41 Animal Farm - George Orwell X
42 The Da Vinci Code - Dan Brown -
43 One Hundred Years of Solitude - Gabriel Garcia Marquez
44 A Prayer for Owen Meaney - John Irving
45 The Woman in White - Wilkie Collins
46 Anne of Green Gables - LM Montgomery - X+
47 Far From The Madding Crowd - Thomas Hardy
48 The Handmaid’s Tale - Margaret Atwood -X
49 Lord of the Flies - William Golding X
50 Atonement - Ian McEwan X
51 Life of Pi - Yann Martel X+
52 Dune - Frank Herbert
53 Cold Comfort Farm - Stella Gibbons
54 Sense and Sensibility - Jane Austen
55 A Suitable Boy - Vikram Seth
56 The Shadow of the Wind - Carlos Ruiz Zafon
57 A Tale Of Two Cities - Charles Dickens
58 Brave New World - Aldous Huxley X
59 The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time - Mark Haddon
60 Love In The Time Of Cholera - Gabriel Garcia Marquez
61 Of Mice and Men - John Steinbeck - X
62 Lolita - Vladimir Nabokov
63 The Secret History - Donna Tartt
64 The Lovely Bones - Alice Sebold
65 Count of Monte Cristo - Alexandre Dumas
66 On The Road - Jack Kerouac -
67 Jude the Obscure - Thomas Hardy
68 Bridget Jones’s Diary - Helen Fielding -
69 Midnight’s Children - Salman Rushdie
70 Moby Dick - Herman Melville -
71 Oliver Twist - Charles Dickens -
72 Dracula - Bram Stoker
73 The Secret Garden - Frances Hodgson Burnett - X+
74 Notes From A Small Island - Bill Bryson
75 Ulysses - James Joyce - (I tried, oh how I tried!)
76 The Bell Jar - Sylvia Plath
77 Swallows and Amazons - Arthur Ransome
78 Germinal - Emile Zola - (I tried this one in French but didn't finish)
79 Vanity Fair - William Makepeace Thackeray
80 Possession - AS Byatt
81 A Christmas Carol - Charles Dickens
82 Cloud Atlas - David Mitchell
83 The Color Purple - Alice Walker
84 The Remains of the Day - Kazuo Ishiguro
85 Madame Bovary - Gustave Flaubert
86 A Fine Balance - Rohinton Mistry
87 Charlotte’s Web - EB White - X
88 The Five People You Meet In Heaven - Mitch Albom
89 Adventures of Sherlock Holmes - Sir Arthur Conan Doyle - X (I think so)
90 The Faraway Tree Collection - Enid Blyton
91 Heart of Darkness - Joseph Conrad
92 The Little Prince - Antoine De Saint-Exupery X
93 The Wasp Factory - Iain Banks
94 Watership Down - Richard Adams
95 A Confederacy of Dunces - John Kennedy Toole
96 A Town Like Alice - Nevil Shute
97 The Three Musketeers - Alexandre Dumas
98 Hamlet - William Shakespeare - X
99 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory - Roald Dahl - X
100 Les Miserables - Victor Hugo

Read - 31
Loved - 9

Recent reads that I really enjoyed:
Eva Hoffman - Lost in Translation
Heather O'Neill - Lullabies for Little Criminals
Milan Kundera - The Unbearable Lightness of Being
Sara Gruen - Water for Elephants

Currently reading (both nonfiction):
Tony Horwitz - Confederates in the Attic
Ronald Wright - Stolen Continents

On my reading shelf just waiting for me to get to them:
Isabel Allende - Eva Luna
Marie Phillips - Gods Behaving Badly
Dionne Brand - What we all Long For
Alexandra Fuller - Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie - Purple Hibiscus

Anyone else have any good reads to suggest?

To participate, say on Facebook, copy and paste into your own notes then delete my comments add your own and tag the friends you want to share this with.

1) Look at the list and put an 'x' after those you have read.
2) Add a '+' to the ones you LOVE.
3) Star '*' those you plan on reading.
4) Tally your total at the bottom.
5) Tag your friends including the person whose list you saw!

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Worst Headline Ever

If there were an annual worst headline award, The Sun would probably win pretty much every year. Today's paper screamed "'Enormous' fraud at City Hall"

It makes it sound as though the city council or mayor has been caught doing something corrupt or fraudulent. Reading the article, one finds out there were 9 civil servants (working in social services) who are accused of insurance scams with Manulife, the city's supplier of health insurance. They allegedly made fake claims. This is being investigated, has been turned over to the Toronto Police right now, and the city sent the accused employees home (with pay, which is necessary when a charge is unproven).

Rob Ford, (the only councillor interviewed in this article on the same topic, opined "I've always said corruption is rampant at City Hall," he said. "I believe this is the tip of the iceberg."

The city is scrutinized in ways the federal and provincial governments aren't. The city is more efficient than any other level of government - it has to be - and yet, it is constantly being accused of waste. Our city budget is well in line with other large North American cities, it supplies services many other cities don't have to (due to good old Mike Harris), and every penny is watched. If 9 low-level employees of a company which employed over 50,000 were to scam their health insurance, nobody would claim the company itself was corrupt.

City News coverage of the same story

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Call for Submissions to Briarpatch

I like this magazine and it seems they are looking for submissions for their upcoming edition "How I learned to stop destroying the planet and love the global recession"
What if the economic recession we're presently experiencing
is not just a regrettable temporary setback in the never-ending
march of growth-fuelled prosperity, but the beginning of a
painful but ecologically necessary process of scaling back
our footprint to a more sustainable level?

How would we manage the decline so as to ensure the burdens
are shared out equitably? How would we go about reorganizing
our society and economy around conservation and community
well-being rather than economic growth and short-term profit?

The revolution envisioned above would require a fundamental
transformation in every aspect of our lives -- our jobs, our
homes, our food system, our arts and entertainment, etc.
It's certainly beyond the scope of a single issue of Briarpatch
to describe, but in our July/August 2009 issue, we hope to
sketch out some of the broad contours and specific
opportunities so our readers can get to work on the rest.

What principles should guide our efforts to reorganize our
lives and communities on a human scale? What initiatives
already underway deserve to be profiled, celebrated, and
imitated? What can we learn from what other people are doing
in other parts of the world? What books and films shed light
on the key issues and should be reviewed? How can our
efforts to cope with the global recession pave the way to
a more stable and sustainable future?

If you've got something to contribute to this discussion,
then we want to hear from you. We are looking for articles,
essays, investigative reportage, news briefs, project profiles,
interviews with luminary thinkers, reviews, poetry, humour,
artwork & photography that explore how we can unplug
from the growth machine and cope with the global recession.

We seek to cast a broad net in our approach, profiling
initiatives in energy alternatives, housing and urban
planning, transportation, job (re)training, ecological
economics and much more -- this is not an exhaustive list!

Queries are due by March 23, 2009. If your query is
accepted, first drafts are due by May 1, 2009. Your query
should outline what ground your contribution will cover and
include an estimated word count and a short writing sample.

Please review our submission guidelines before submitting
your query. Send your queries to:
editor AT briarpatchmagazine DOT com.

We reserve the right to edit your work (with your active
involvement) and cannot guarantee publication. Briarpatch
pays $0.05/word.

Some of my blogging friends (and the non-bloggy ones too) have certainly been opining on exactly this topic - perhaps one of you wants to submit something. If I can get my act together, I just might as well.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Gender, Jobs, Recession... and bad math

Usually the Toronto Star has pretty decent writing, but this was one of the poorest pieces I've seen in a while. There are some good points made, but the headline ("In shrinking workforce, women may surpass men") is misleading, and the writing jumps around without leading to any reasonable conclusion.

Perhaps this is nitpicky, but there is some sloppy math here. The article claims "there's a possibility women will soon outnumber men in the job force." The numbers quoted in the same article don't really bear that out, unless you define "soon" as "probably never".
According to StatsCan, there were 7,295,900 men with full-time jobs in January 2005 and 6,297,400 women working full-time.

By January 2008, that number had dropped to 7,186,800 for men and to 5,339,200 for women. And as of last month, it fell further, to 7,095,000 full-time jobs for men and slightly for women, to 5,339,000 full-time positions.

So the trend shows in the longer term women losing significantly more full-time jobs than men (from 2005-2009, men lost 200,000 while women lost 958,400 jobs, or put another way men lost 2.7% of their full-time jobs while women lost 15.2%). From 2008-2009, men lost 91,800 jobs and women lost only 200. Now there are 1,756,000 more men than women employed full-time. If this trend were to continue, exactly as is, it would take over 19 years for the number of men and women employed full time to equalize. I don't know about you, but I don't consider 19 years as "soon". In addition, most stimulus money is targeted to male-dominated industries, so if the stimulus package has any effect, traditionally masculine industries will see a boost, slowing or reversing this trend.

If they had included part-time work as well, maybe the conclusion would be justified (women's part-time job participation is about three times that of men). Here's the most recent Statcan numbers.

If it were true that women were surpassing men in the full-time paid workforce, why is this a problem? Aren't we supposed to be living in the land of equality?

One reason this is indeed a problem is that women still make less money than men, partly because pink-collar jobs typically offer lower pay and fewer benefits. Women-headed households are on average much poorer, even when there are two parents.
Economists also point out that men have lost high-paying jobs with health care and pensions but women are supporting families with jobs that are not necessarily as good.

The article also points out:
This trend can also mean a shift in family dynamics. "If more men find themselves home, that has important implications for the way families operate," said Julie McCarthy, assistant professor at Rotman School of Management. "It's not a bad thing – most men are amazing parents but traditionally, it's not their primary role. Perhaps this trend will facilitate that."

Why shouldn't men stay home and watch the kids half the time? Many men I know would love to have more time with their kids. And most kids would love to have their fathers around more.

Wouldn't it be nice if mommy's salary was enough to support the family while daddy took care of the cooking, cleaning and kids. Or perhaps, his EI benefits could help the family pay the bills (except that like Diane Finley said, "We do not want to make it lucrative for them to stay home and get paid for it, not when we have significant skills shortages in many parts of the country." This government wanted to make it easier for women to stay at home, but I guess the same doesn't apply to men.) Or perhaps a decent subsidized daycare system could help out when both mommy and daddy need their crappy minimum wage jobs, or when mommy is single.

Then I don't think we would worry so much about equal job participation rate among men and women.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

The Art of Don Simon

Don Simon, The Herd 2
This is from a series called Unnaturalism, which he describes:
Throughout history, particularly since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, mankind has been less than kind to our cohabitants on the planet. We build, produce, and consume with little or no regard to the impact it has on the environment. It is the nature of nature to adapt and evolve in order to survive, and we are forcing other species to deal with compromised, damaged, or destroyed ecosystems.

This series of triptychs depicts scenes resulting from our tragic indifference. They are rendered in a beautiful and natural way, highlighting the idea that we find this acceptable. We are numb to the damage -- and so, the unnatural becomes natural to us. This may be the saddest commentary of all.

Strangely beautiful and peaceful. View more of his art or watch a video

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Controversial Bestseller Shakes the Foundation of the Israeli State

This interesting article reviews some of the main points in When and How Was the Jewish People Invented?, a book by Tel Aviv University scholar Shlomo Zand (or Sand)
What if the Palestinian Arabs who have lived for decades under the heel of the modern Israeli state are in fact descended from the very same "children of Israel" described in the Old Testament?

And what if most modern Israelis aren't descended from the ancient Israelites at all, but are actually a mix of Europeans, North Africans and others who didn't "return" to the scrap of land we now call Israel and establish a new state following the attempt to exterminate them during World War II, but came in and forcefully displaced people whose ancestors had lived there for millennia?

What if the entire tale of the Jewish Diaspora -- the story recounted at Passover tables by Jews around the world every year detailing the ancient Jews' exile from Judea, the years spent wandering through the desert, their escape from the Pharaoh's clutches -- is all wrong?

As I am not a Middle East specialist, I can't comment on the veracity of the book, but as a historian I can say that tradition is "invented" and rarely true. History is never proven. History is a type of story, and even if we knew all the facts (which we never do), there are countless different ways to tell the story, and there are varying meanings to attach to said facts. How we see our past is always coloured by the present.

In the end, we can't base a present day land claim on an unproven (and unprovable) story from the far distant past. People can never be restored to their "rightful" home (when the displacement was thousands of years ago), because people are always involved in voluntary and involuntary migrations. Once people have made a new home and have borne children there, you can't kick them out. This goes for both Palestinians and Israelis. Like it or not, this area has to become a home for both groups in one way or another. I prefer a one-state secular democracy, but recognize the challenges of this solution. We have yet to get over this "clash of civilizations" myth.

Interestingly, there are people arguing in the comments about genetic similarity/difference of Jewish people (for instance, that Jews are all surprisingly alike, or they are more similar to non-Jewish Arabs or non-Jewish Europeans or non-Jewish Ethiopians or whatever). While an interesting intellectual exercise (it can be helpful for tracing migration patterns in the distant past), this seems to me not only silly but potentially dangerous to use in determining current political and territorial rights. I'm pretty sure we no longer believe in reserving specific pieces of land for those with particular genetic sequences.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

WW2 Cooking Lessons

Via Treehugger:
Invisible cricket balls, thrifty grandmothers, and unbelievably spoiled and lazy young boys – there’s nothing like a bit of 1940s nostalgia to get you in the sustainability mood. “Two Cooks and a Cabbage” is a war time public information film from the UK’s Ministry of Food, and it's just one of the lessons we can learn from our grandparents.

Lessons learned: Shred the cabbage, add just a little water, cover it with a lid, and save the water for gravy. Or, just get yourself a young girl to cook it for you. Preferably Sally.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Back from Blogging Hiatus...

I know it has been a long time since I last blogged.... In that time, apparently the world didn't pause itself to wait for me.

In Canada the word "prorogue" suddenly entered everyone's vocabumalary. Obama is in the White House, a historic and relatively positive development (since even if his politics are pretty centrist, he looks damn progressive next to the Bush & Co). The oscillating denial and alarmism about the impending recession has settled into a degree of acceptance.

As for me, I finished my MA, took a trip to Havana and am now back and working on setting up a new organic farm. Maybe I'll start a PhD in September (if they'll have me).

If I have any readers left, I hope you'll come on by from time to time for some chitchat, discussion and political wrangling