Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Water on the Table

I saw this film yesterday with the filmmaker, Liz Marshall, there to talk afterwards. After seeing Sharkwater with Rob Stewart there, I learned never to miss a filmmaker talk about his/her film.   They always have a few good stories to add.  Plus, I think I fell in love with her a little bit.  Check out this protest letter she wrote, apparently not her first, when she was 8.

She followed around Maude Barlow for a year.  By sheer luck of the dice, it happened to be the very year that Barlow was the Advisor on Water to the UN.

The rich will drink; the poor will die.

Here's some random notes from the film and discussion.  The film was very heartfelt.  I lean towards just the facts.  See the film if you want to laugh and cry.  Read this for the bare bones of the message.

Water as a Commodity:  A History

Under the FTA (a precursor to NAFTA before Mexico was entrenched), water was included as a potential commodity for sale.  NAFTA added new dimensions to that, and a 40-year debate has ensued.  Under NAFTA, once one province decides to sell water, all of Canada has to sell it.  We need a treaty at the UN on water.  

Water is Canada's sacred cow and should benefit all of North America according to Bob Pastor who figured prominently in NAFTA's regulations.  I think he has a point - sort of, and a commenter afterwards brought this up again.   We need to share the water, but selling it puts the power in the hands of the corporations.  We need to be able to keep water where it needs to stay, as part of the ecosystem, and not drain it from environmentally sensitive areas.  We have to think about it as a very fragile resource, not a commodity.

The private sector can offer cash to invest in sewage systems and treatment plants, but when they get involved, because they're entirely profit motivated, either the rates go up or they cut corners on quality.

Canada only has 6% of the available drinking water in the world, not the abundance people think we have.  The Canadian government still opposes water as a basic right.  In July 2010, there was a motion made by Bolivia for a vote on water and sanitation.  The majority of the UN said yes, water is a right.  Nobody voted "no," but there were many countries who abstained from the vote including Canada, Australia, and the U.S.  We're still stuck in the market model approach to water.  Now, because of this vote, water as a right is a "soft law" - it's a commitment, but it's not legally binding.

The worldwide trend is towards privatization of water.  This is why it's so necessary to fight each action.

The Alberta Tar Sands

We've been extracting bitumen from Athabasca since 1967.  For every barrel of oil taken, 3-5 barrels of water are destroyed.  Right now, three million barrels of water are destroyed each day.  They clear-cut a forest the size of Greece to access the oil.  The water in the tailing ponds leeches north into the 1st Nation area of Fort Chipewyan, where cancer is rampant, likely from the toxic sludge.  If it flowed South into the city, people might do something about it.  As it is, the 1st Nations people used to be able to dip a cup into a lake to have a drink.  Now their water's all toxic.

Alberta will be out of water soon.   The tar sands will triple capacity by 2015.

The picture above is of Moldor, not Alberta, but that's how Barlow kept describing the landscape.

Site 41, Simcoe County

Apparently, Simcoe County, just northwest of Barrie, has the cleanest water in the world.  I didn't link that because, while there's plenty of sites that claim that to be fact, I can't find any with any kind of proof.  If you've got a good link, let me know.  Otherwise, it's right up there with Goderich being the pretty town in Canada.  It's more of a cultural belief than a fact.

Regardless, there was a proposed dump site for the area, an important piece of real estate for groundwater re-charging.  Tons of people protested and won.

Glacier Howser Water System

AXOR is an Independent Power Producer (IPP).  They move too fast to be easily stopped.  AXOR is controlled by Dupont.  It started asking for 20% of the water, but then shift to up to 90%.  Thousands of people protests, then the contract was cancelled.

Other Stuff

She also interview Jim Prentice, but his footage was unusable because he talked in circles no matter how many direct questions she asked.

It was in some way sponsored by Alternatives Journal.

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Sunday, November 28, 2010

Christmas Shopping Ideas

I like this post by fake plastic fish so much, I'm copying and pasting instead of just linking!  I've always loved Christmas, but I hate getting lots of presents that get shoved in the attic until they've made it through the waiting period finally to be trashed or recycled or given away.  FPF has some great ideas and thoughts about how to make gift-giving more environmental and less stressful too.  I'd add to wrap presents green-ly also - in newspaper or brown paper, or re-use boxes and bags.  As kids we saved wrapping paper for years.  At the very least, recycle the wrapping paper.  It's curious how many people I know shove all the wrappings into a big garbage bag when they'd never do that with newspapers.  

Her links didn't copy, so if you want to check out any of the sites she mentions, click the title.

Green Gifts Don't Have to Suck

1) Surprise is overrated. As a kid, I used to hunt for and secretly open all my presents before Christmas, careful to replace the tape and wrapping paper so as not to get caught. I wasn’t merely satisfying my curiosity, but I wanted to prepare my face ahead of time for that weird sweater from an aunt or pink gag wig from my dad....

Once I’d said my polite thank you on Christmas day, those things would be headed for the back of the closet and eventually the landfill. Nowadays, I’d stand in line to exchange or find a way to donate or regift an unwanted present. But how much happier could we make each other if instead of giving what we think the person should have, we make an effort to give what they really want? The greenest gift is one the recipient will appreciate and actually use.

2) Leave the preaching to the preachers. There’s no better way to turn someone off of the green movement than using your holiday gift to send a message about how you think they should live. In her post, 10 Green Gifts That Suck, Lisa from Condo Blues bemoans “green” gifts like compact fluoroscent light bulbs and rechargeable batteries (unless, of course, the recipient has asked for those things) that have more to do with sending a message than making someone happy. A stainless steel water bottle in the back of the cupboard is a waste of materials and energy and isn’t doing anyone any good.

3) Value experiences over stuff. I love good food. I’d much rather have my friends chip in and give me a gift certificate to Chez Panisse than individual tchotchkes for my home. And I know people who would enjoy a membership at their favorite museum, movie passes or tickets to a show. These kinds of gifts require no packaging or shipping and leave nothing behind except for happy memories. Just don’t be like Larry David on the show Curb Your Enthusiasm who begrudged his friends the restaurant gift certificate he’d given after learning they used it to take another couple out to dinner. A gift is a gift, after all.

4) Secondhand can be better than new. Secondhand gifts not only create less impact for the planet but can be even better than new stuff if chosen carefully. Consider the sweet little thrift shop dragonfly tea cup and saucer I found for a co-worker who collects any and all things dragonfly. I spotted it while out shopping in June and kept it for months until her birthday in December. The gift was perfect. And how about the beautiful vintage Kitchenaid mixer my friend Jen gave as a gift one year? She found it on eBay in perfect shape and felt good about giving an appliance that was actually made to last and that could be repaired rather than tossed after a year.

5) Give gifts made by hand — yours or someone else’s. Aside from a crazy knitting phase I went through a few years back, I’m not particularly crafty. But I love it if you are! From cookies to bath salts to handmade jewelry, making our own gifts or buying them from craft fairs or online sites like can be a great way to shift our spending away from mass-produced junk, as long as we don’t forget the first guideline on this list: choose gifts the recipient will appreciate. Giving handmade jewelry is no good for someone who never wears the stuff. Bath salts don’t work for someone who only takes showers. Cookies are not helpful to someone limiting their sugar intake.

6) Donate with care. Around this time of year, my email inbox is flooded with requests from nonprofits to give gift donations in my loved ones’ names. These kinds of gifts can be very thoughtful if handled in the right way. Give to an organization that both you and the recipient feel good about. Once again, refrain from using the holidays as a means to push your agenda. And really think through the appropriateness of your gift. A vegan, for example, might not appreciate a donation to Heifer International.

7.) Offer your skills. Gift certificates to help with cooking, childcare, bookkeeping, gardening, etc. can be great, as long as you actually have the skills to do the job and are willing to follow through on your promise. And make sure the recipient actually needs the help that you offer! Make an appointment so your giftee doesn’t feel awkward about calling to “cash in” on the gift or you don’t end up with a last minute request for babysitting that you hadn’t planned on.

8) Choose greener electronics. Living green doesn’t have to mean living in a cave. While sales of computers, mobile phones, electronic games, and other gadgets skyrocket during the holidays, there are ways to reduce our impact while still having some of the things that make our modern lives better. Check out the Center for Environmental Health’s (CEH) 2010 Holiday Shopping Guide for Finding Greener Electronics (PDF) as a place to start. Consider a refurbished computer instead of buying brand new. Microsoft provides a list of certified refurbishers. CEH recommends Redemtech, which is not only a Microsoft-certified refurbisher but is also an “e-Stewards recycler and a world leader in promoting sustainable computing strategies for businesses.”

9) Think about media types. Books, CDs, and DVDs are just some of the ways we consume information these days. Now, we can also choose e-Books, audiobooks, downloadable music, streaming videos, and probably other types of media I haven’t even heard of yet. Instead of buying a bunch of DVDs that will be watched once and stored on the shelf, why not give a membership to Netflix or other service that lets you stream videos directly to your TV set? A book is great, but not if the recipient never has time to pick it up and read it. Maybe your giftee would rather listen to an audio version downloaded from iTunes or read it on their iPad. Choose the medium that will give your recipient the most pleasure while creating the least environmental impact.

10) Bring Your Own Bag. Many of us are getting into the habit of bringing our own bags to the grocery store, but how many of us think about bringing our tote bags with us shopping for gifts and other stuff? And bags are just part of the holiday packaging problem. Wrapping paper, ribbons, Styrofoam peanuts, cardboard boxes, bubblewrap, clamshells that require special tools to cut into… the waste from holiday gift giving is staggering. Many of the gift ideas above involve little to no packaging waste. We can cut even more waste by requesting that online shippers (like sellers, for example) skip the plastic packaging or supporting programs like Amazon’s Frustration-Free Packaging, and wrapping gifts in reusable cloth gift bags.

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Saturday, November 27, 2010

We Day Waterloo

Free the Children is holding a "Me to We Day" in K-W! It's on Thursday, February 17, 2011, from 9-2 at the Kitchener Auditorium.  It says "We Day Waterloo," but it's really in Kitchener.  Whatever.  Maybe they just liked the alliteration.   I hate to spread rumours, but there's a possibility, I can't find proof on-line, but only a definite possibility that The Barenaked Ladies will be there along with maybe possibly Al Gore. 

Too cool.
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Monday, November 22, 2010

Inside Job

I saw this movie a week ago, then took students on Friday.  Here's my handout if anyone's interested in how the whole sub-prime mortgage crisis happened.  There's current news links at the very very bottom.

Inside Job (Dir: Charles Ferguson, 2010, 108 min.)

A film exposing the truth behind the economic crisis of 2008. In a nutshell, progressive deregulation of the financial sector since the 1980s gave rise to an increasingly criminal industry, whose “innovations” have produced a succession of financial crises. Each crisis is worse than the last, yet few people are being sent to prison despite fraud that caused trillions of dollars in losses.

Crisis Timeline

PART I – How We Got Here

1930-1979 – Traditional Banking
– Bankers earned salaries in line with other professionals; tightly regulated financial sector. It’s illegal to speculate (make risky investments to make a higher return) with depositors’ savings. Traditionally partners in banks would put up their own money to make money.

1980s – The Reagan Era – laissez-faire and trickle-down economics
- deregulation; lax enforcement led to massive fraud in the savings and loan scandal
- Banks were allowed to go public meaning people not in the bank could hold shares (make money from the bank transactions). Bankers were allowed to make risky investments with depositors’ money.
- Savings and Loan Crisis – 1st major crisis - people lost their life savings from their bank’s bad investments.
- A few people were arrested.

1990s – Clinton era
- passed the Gramm-Leach Bliley Act (Citigroup Relief Act) making it legal for banks to merge despite potential losses to customers.
- a new law gives the Federal Reserve power to regulate the mortgage industry but Alan Greenspan refuses to enact any regulations on the grounds that it’s unnecessary.
- Clinton enacts the Commodity Futures Modernization Act which bans all regulation of financial derivatives and exempts them from anti-gambling laws
- 2000 – Dot-com bubble bursts – 2nd major crisis; players settled for cash and promised to change.
- 2002 – Eliot Spitzer sued 8 investment banks for conflict of interest and recommending dot-com stocks they thought were junk
- Players keep getting caught committing fraud, accounting scams, laundering money (for Iranian nukes, Pinochet, Mexican drugs, etc.), overstating their earnings, and evading taxes.
- Larry Summers wants regulation of derivatives to be made illegal.
2000s – Bush era – further deregulation and relaxed enforcement
- Securitization food chain changes – now people who make loans are no longer at risk if people fail to pay. Bankers used to be careful about who they loaned money to, to prevent losing money themselves. Now they don’t have to worry. They sell loans to investment banks who lump them altogether. If one fails, it’s negligible. But it meant bankers made much riskier loans. Thousands of subprime loans were combined into a group called CDOs. They knew it was dangerous to loan to people who can’t repay. But there were incentives based on the most profitable loans (which were the highest risk of non-repayment).
-The rating agencies are paid by the investment banks. They have no personal responsibility for their ratings. “Ratings are just opinions.”

Part II – The Bubble

- Bankers started borrowing money to buy loans for CDOs. The more they borrowed, the higher their leverage (% borrowed compared to % owned).
- Hank Paulson passed regulation allowing more leverage – so bankers could borrow more and own less.
- AIG started selling derivatives and credit default swaps – a system where many people could take out insurance against other people’s risky loans, and they’d all cash in if the loan failed.
- 2000-2007 – massive housing and mortgage credit bubble sweeps the U.S.
- 2005 – IMF chief economist warns of dangerous incentives and risks – Larry Summers calls him a Luddite;
- 2005-2008 – Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, Deutsche Bank and others use credit default swaps to bet against the same mortgage securities they are selling as safe based on questionable ratings.

Part III – The Crisis

- 2008 Great Recession as the bubble burst – Sub-prime Mortgage Crisis – 3rd major crisis
- People warned the public and the bankers: Rajan in 2005, Roubini in 2006, Sloan in 2007, Strauss-Kahn, Akman in 2007, Morris in 2008. Bankers were told over and over, but wouldn’t change anything.
- The market for CDOs collapsed. Lagarde told Paulson it was like he’s watching a tsunami, and he’s worried about what to wear.
- Federal takeover of Freddie Mac (Federal Home Loan and Mortgage Corporation – FHLMC) and Fannie Mae (Federal National Mortgage Association –FMNA)
- Companies had AAA ratings as they were going bankrupt.
- Bankruptcy happened worldwide.
- AIG given a bailout of $160 million provided AIG has no right to sue Goldman Sachs (Paulson – conflict of interest?)
- 6 million foreclosures in the U.S. – estimate another 9 million will lose homes in the next year.
- collapse of Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers,
- House prices drop by 32%; unemployment rises to 10% in one year;
- $700 billion emergency bailout for the financial industry from Bush

Part IV – Accountability

- Many people who destroyed their own companies got bonuses instead of being fired.
- Banks became bigger and more concentrated (JP Morgan and Bank of America)
- Bankers still fight any move to regulate.
- Financial services have too much influence over government lobbying cheques and political contributions.
- Look at corrupted study of economics at universities. (Nobody mentions Milton Friedman!)
Some economics profs are getting the bulk of their salaries from doing consulting work for governments or financial organizations. Is it a conflict of interest when they write papers on finance or teach classes when they’re paid to promote certain questionable (illegal) economic practices (similar to a doctor writing about a drug when he’s being paid by the drug company)? There’s no policy to disclose financial conflicts.

Part V – Where We Are Now

- 2010s – Obama Era – Business as usual? “It’s a Wall Street government.”
- Inequality of wealth is higher in the US than any other country.
- Timothy Geithner becomes Secretary of the Treasury
- Larry Summers becomes director of the National Economic Council (until Sept 2010)
- Ben Beranke re-appointed as Chairman of the Federal Reserve
- Obama resisted regulation even as other countries took action. Many governments asked the G20 to impose regulations. Done in Europe now. Nothing done in the U.S. It’s all still seen as a temporary blip.
- Nobody was arrested or prosecuted. They could be prosecuted if enough underlings came out to tell the truth. (Gnaizda)
- Spitzer was forced to resign for being a client with a high-profile prostitution ring.

The Players: People making millions by scamming other people (the top 1%)

David McCormick – formerly at the U.S. Department of Treasury; professor of Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon’s Heinz College – prefers no legal controls over banks
Scott Talbott – lobbyist for the Financial Services Roundtable – on behalf of 100 of the top banks including Citigroup, JP Morgan Chase, Wells Fargo, Bank of America; “Mistakes happen.”
Donald Regan – On Wall Street during Reaganomics.
Alan Greenspan – Private advisor. Former Chairman of the Federal Reserve since the savings and loan scandal. He assured the public there was no problem with the banks.
Larry Summers – President of Harvard. Governmental advisor. Told Brooksley Born to stop trying to regulate derivatives. (He also recently said women are underrepresented in science because of their different “aptitude at the high end”, and proposed dumping toxic waste in 3rd world countries.)
Henry (Hank) Paulson - CEO of Goldman Sachs, became Treasury Secretary in 2006; when he joined
Bush and sold his stock, he didn’t have to pay taxes on the income.
Richard Fuld – CEO of Lehman Brothers, and on the board at the Federal Reserve bank
John Paulson – Hedge Fund Manager, sold securities he bet against, knew they were junk even though they were rated AAA.
Timothy Geithner – President of the Federal Reserve, Treasury Secretary.
Ben Bernanke – Chairman of the Federal Reserve, “We never see house prices go down.” Didn’t admit to a problem until March 2009.
Frederic Mishkin – American economist and professor at Columbia Business School member of board at Federal Reserve to 2008; paid to write praising report on Iceland’s finances.; said “I don’t know the details… I can’t remember…” when questioned about the crisis.
Glenn Hubbard – Chief Economic Advisor under Bush, Dean of Columbia University Business School;

The Opposition – People trying to stop the scams.

Sigridur Benediktsdottir – Yale economics lecturer – Part of the special investigation commission analyzing causes of Iceland’s financial crisis. Blames the rating agencies.
Andri Magnason – Icelandic filmmaker; wrote Dreamland: A Self-Help Manual for a Frightened Nation produced “Dreamland,” a documentary about Iceland’s financial problems
Paul Volcker – American economist; Chairman of Federal Reserve under Carter and Reagan; currently Chairman of the Economic Recovery Advisory Board under Obama
George Soros – Currency speculator, philanthropist, political activist – used an oil-tanker analogy to explain how the market should work; the market is unstable and must be compartmentalized to prevent huge crises.
Nouriel Roubini – Professor of Economics at the Stern School of Business; wrote Crisis Economics
Robert Gnaizda – Former President of Greenlining Institute in Berkeley; advocates of social justice for over 40 years. Points out it was illegal for banks to merge at risk to depositors.
Williem Buiter – Citigroup economist, professor of European Political Economy; says banks did it because they knew they’d be bailed out.
Eliot Spitzer – lawyer, former Governor of NY, former Attorney who initiated major lawsuits against major U.S. investment banks alleging fraud. Banks don’t create anything, don’t have a product to sell, and shouldn’t be making fortunes just moving money around.
Andrew Sheng – Chief Advisor to the China Banking Regulatory Commission General – said they brains behind the cold war moved into finance and are making different weapons of mass destruction.
Andrew Lo – Harris & Harris Group professor of Finance at MIT – Points out that people didn’t take this seriously enough. Discussed the study with people getting money as a prize – like cocaine.
Brooksley Born – Chair of the Commodities Futures Trading Commission - tried to regulate derivatives; proposed regulation, but lost
Michael Greenberger – Professor of University of Maryland School of Law; technical advisor to the President of the UN General Assembly on Reforms of the IMF system; Director of Trading & Markets under Clinton
Satyajit Das – Former trader at CitiGroup and Merrill Lynch; Global authority on derivatives and risk management; author of Traders, Guns & Money
Barney Frank – Dem. Rep. for Massachusetts; Chairman of the House Financial Services Committee
Gillian Tett – journalist at the Financial Times; wrote Fools Gold – tracing the CDO market
Martin Wolf – Editor at the Financial Times
Jonathon Alpert – Psychotherapist and advice columnist for Wall Street executives
Joseph St. Denis – Resigned from AIG after trying to alert them to problems with the system.
Raghuram Rajan – professor at Booth School of Business, Chicago; former chief economist at IMF; criticized financial sector in Has Financial Development Made the World Riskier
Frank Parnoy – Professor of Law at the University of San Diego; former investment banker at Credit Suisse First Boston and Morgan Stanley; wrote The Match King: The Financial Genius Behind a Century of Wall Street Scandals
Harvey Miller – Bankruptcy lawyer
Allan Sloan – wrote for Fortune Magazine about the wrongdoing that led to the crisis
William Ackman – CEO of Pershing Square Capital Management; an activist investor who wrote Who Is Holding the Bag? – one of the first warnings about the impending crisis (2007); said the rating agencies gave high ratings because they were paid to by the investment banks.
Christine Lagarde – French Minister of Finance – “Holy cow.”
Simon Johnson – expert on financial crises; professor of Entrepreneurship at MIT; in 2008 he was Chief Economist at the IMF; co-wrote 13 Bankers: The Wall Street Takeover
Jerome Fons – Director of Credit Policy at Moody’s Investor Services; Consultant in credit risk
Dominique Strauss-Kahn – French economist, Director of the IMF. Said when people were afraid, they told him they need to be regulated. Once the solution was in sight, they changed their minds.


* When you think you can create something out of nothing, it’s very difficult to resist. - Lee Hsien Loong (PM of Singapore)
* There’s no investigation so they don’t have to find the culprits. - Nouriel Roubini
* If you are told you can make more money by putting your company at risk and there’s not penalty, would you make that bet? - Frank Parnoy
* These are Type A personalities. – Jeffrey Lane
* This is all just a pissing contest. – Williem Buiter
* These are impulsive risk-takers. It’s just their personality. – Johnathon Alpert
* At the end of the day, the poorest, as always, pay the most. – Dominique Strauss-Kahn
* Why should a financial engineer be paid 100 times a real engineer? A real engineer builds bridges. A financial engineer builds dreams.  Also Spitzer commented on the fact that we can't compare electronic technology rise in millions and the bank's rise, because tech is actually creating something - the banks are just moving money around.
* By 1986 he was making trillions and he thought it was because he was smart. – William Ackman

Questions for Contemplation

1. What are your views about the role of government in the markets?

2. Why do banks traditionally require a down-payment on a home mortgage loan?

3. Why would a bank make a sub-prime loan if they think the loan will fail?

4. Whose fault is this? What should they have done differently?

5. Would you make that bet? Would you sacrifice millions of people’s savings for millions of dollars without risk of punishment?

6. How can the financial sector turn their backs on the very people they’re supposed to serve? How can that practice be maintained?

7. Eliot Spitzer was made to resign from politics because of his involvement with a prostitute. Many high-finance players are involved with prostitutes and invoice them as company expenses, yet they’re never charged. Why?

8. Should anyone go to jail for this? Explain.

9. Should there be a policy regarding conflicts of interest in education? If Sony Pictures paid me to show you this movie, should I have to tell you that?

10. What’s different about the crash of 1929 and the crisis of 2008?

11. To what extent was Greenspan right about the benefits of the free market (de-regulation)?

12. How can this situation be stopped when the most powerful people in the U.S. don’t want it stopped? What kind of fighting needs to happen to make a difference?

13. Obama said, “What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility – a recognition, on the part of every American…and those of us who manage the public’s dollars will be held to account.” And then he hired all the same players. What happened?


ABS – Asset Backed Security – a financial security backed by a loan; other than a mortgage; eg. Credit card debt, etc.

CDO - Collateralized Debt Obligation – a type of ABS whose value and payments are from a portfolio of fixed income underlying assets. They’re split into different risk classes. Each CDO is made up of hundreds of individual residential mortgages. CDOs that contain subprime mortgages are at the greatest risk of default and should have a really low rating.

CDS – Credit Default Swap – An insurance contract in which the buyer of the CDS makes payments to the protection seller in exchange for a payoff if a security goes into default. They can make money whenever a loan goes bad.

CRA – Credit Rating Agency – a company that assigns credit ratings of issuers of debt securities

Deregulation – the removal of government rules that constrain the operation of market forces. It began in the Reagan Administration and is also known as Reaganomics.

Derivatives – An agreement between two parties that is dependent on a future outcome – a financial contract with a value linked to the expected future price. Derivatives allow risk about the prices of the underlying asset to be transferred from one person to another. Types of derivative are options, futures, and swaps. They don’t have value of their own; their value is derived from another asset.

Go public - A corporation goes public when it issues shares of its stock in the open market for the first time, in what is known as an initial public offering (IPO). That means that at least some of the shares will be held by members of the public rather than exclusively by the investors who founded and funded the corporation initially or the current owners or management.
Hedge Fund- a portfolio of investments that uses strategies in domestic and international markets with the goal of getting high returns. They’re set up as private investment partnerships that typically require a very large minimum investment. They carry more risk than the overall market. They’re unregulated because they’re used by sophisticated investors who are thought to have more resources in making investment decisions.

Leverage – The use of borrowed money to increase the potential return on an investment. It’s the amount of debt used to finance a company’s assets. A company with more debt than equity is considered highly leveraged. It’s risky to use because if the investment fails, the loss is much greater than it would’ve been if the investment had not been leveraged.

Money-Market Funds – A mutual fund that invests in short term securities. It’s easily liquefied.

MBS – Mortgage Back Securities – Investors in a MBS are essentially lending money to a home buyer or business. It’s a way for a bank to lend mortgages to customers without having to worry about whether the customer has the assets to cover the loan.

Ponzi Scheme – An fraudulent operation that pays returns to separate investors from their own money, or money from other investors, rather than from any actual profit earned. It usually offers abnormally high short-term returns. It only works as long as there are new investors.

Predatory Lending – The practice of a lender deceptively convincing borrowers to agree to unfair and abusive loan terms, or systematically violating those terms in ways that make it difficult for the borrower to defend against.

Security – A negotiable instrument representing financial value.

SEC – U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission

Speculate – Make a higher than average risk in order to get a higher than average return

Subprime – Loans to borrowers with a tarnished or limited credit history. They carry more risk but also a higher interest rate.

Current Articles of Interest

Feds must dislose bank loans
Greenspan says gov should break up larger banks
Fuld to get $10 million from Lehman Brothers
Bernanke is impotent
QE2 update
Mishkin on credibility of the feds
Video of Mishkin wanting to stop potential audit of feds proposed by Ron Paul
Roger Ebert's review
New York Times review

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Sunday, November 21, 2010

Bill C-311 Defeated in the Senate

The following is largely from an e-mail I sent a friend who forwarded a message from the David Suzuki Foundation to write our MP about how the Senate has subverted democracy by voting against the House.

I'm wary of suggesting that having a Senate is "subverting democracy" - this is how we've agreed to run our democratic system. When the Senate goes against something that I don't like, I'm pretty happy to have them there. The House of Commons passed a bill to restrict abortion in Canada (only if a woman's life is threatened), and the Senate stopped that in its tracks. I was cheering for them then.

This bill calls for a cut to greenhouse gases to 25% below 1990 levels by 2020 and 80% below 1990 levels by 2050 (which would be 120 ppm) - which just isn't going to happen. It's necessary, but not bloody likely. Our emissions keep rising every year! (Canadian emission levels rose from 592 in 1990 to 734 in 2008 - a 24% increase - so, to comply with the bill, we'd have to reduce emissions by almost half in the next ten years.)  If it's not do-able, the Senate won't support it. I can't convince people to share garbage sites on our environmentally-conscious street to decrease the number of times the truck has to stop and decrease the amount of gas used - a very easy thing to do - I don't think we'll convince people everywhere to restrict their consumption of fossil fuels that dramatically - although electricity prices rising by 46% will certainly help!

Think of what really has to happen for this kind of reduction - I think either we all band together for the world - unlikely - or the government has to start some kind of a totalitarian regime with laws regulating when you drive, where and with whom, how often you're allowed to use electricity in your home, how often factories are allowed to run, how many lights are on, etc. Maybe they can start by putting insulated doors on the freezer section of the grocery store; I hate having to wear a coat in summer to buy groceries!  In George Monbiot's book Heat, he suggests the only way to make this kind of decrease is to ration energy - so if you use more than your allotted share before the end of the month, you just don't get any more power. I think he's right.  Are we ready for that?

There are some parts of the bill I like, but I think a bill like this will always fail if it has targets set into it - especially scary ones, and especially when unemployment is nearing 10%. I wish they'd stop insisting on making specific Canadian targets part of the bill instead of making specific targets for different industries and areas, and instead of primarily focusing on what needs to happen to curb GHG emissions: monitor levels publicly (section 10), punish industry with huge fines if they pollute (section 12), and, what's not in the bill, stop subsidizing nuclear and fossil fuels (like the tar sands) completely, and start subsidizing renewable energy - like they already sort of are with solar.

Now's the time to get solar because they'll guarantee a high rate of return on extra energy produced for the next 20 years, which will pay off the initial investment. After that, the government just benefits from people taking care of their own energy needs - it's the same reason they support RESPs.

A big part of the problem is how tight government and industry is - they don't want to piss off the corporations that are funding their campaigns. Lobby groups are too strong for us. THAT is what's subverting democracy. But I believe it's not the only reason, or the primary reason even, that the bill didn't pass.

On the brighter side - sort of, the amount of garbage made and the amount of cigarette butts at KCI has decreased dramatically since last year. One theory for this - teenagers don't have as much money to buy packaged junk food or smokes. If the economy gets worse, people will necessarily use fewer resources. For every factory that closes, that's a lot of emissions that are no longer pumped into the air. Yesterday's Globe & Mail has a great piece about the prospects of ensuring every Canadian has $20,000 a year minimum.  Maybe not such a bad idea.

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Friday, October 8, 2010

It Gets Better Redux

People are using our butt buckets, and they're all still in good condition.  And we've got green bins happening, and that's going well.  Our food drive went really well this week, and next year we'll be challenging another school to try to beat us!

But there's always more work to do in this world.

There's been a rash of homophobic bullying that provoked a few teen suicides.  Of all demographics, gay teens are the most likely to kill themselves.  There's a great initiative afoot started by Dan Savage called "It Gets Better" in which many GLBT adults film themselves discussing how difficult their lives were in high school, and how much better it all is now.

 There are some really powerful films in the bunch.  But that message doesn't sit well with me entirely.

Of course high school can be difficult - even for the most mainstream popular kid, high school can be a trying time.  But the idea that, for GLBT teens, it's something to endure until you can escape is a pretty daunting idea to a grade 9 kid looking at the beginning of a long four or five years.  And it doesn't have to be that way.

We want to make our own video with a slightly different message.  KCI's not perfect, and there's still some homophobic language in the hallways, a glare here and there, and some less subtle markers of prejudice.  But it's still a pretty safe place to be.  There are jerks, but there's also a GSA club, and an awful lot of very supportive people totally accepting of whatever lifestyle people live.  And I think we're in the majority here.

We're going to film students and staff who volunteer to tell us what's been hard, what's been working here, where and how they're able to find supports, and general stories for better or worse.  We won't have anyone identify their sexuality, because that's beside the point.  Anyone's experiences with homophobia and supports can be included in the film.

I challenge other schools to do the same!

Our message in part will be that high school can be a very difficult time, but also that it can be better right here and now, and if you keep looking, hopefully you can find a few supportive people.  And, if you don't stick around, you won't be there to ad your voice to this very important cause.  

Here's Neil Patrick Harris and Ellen.

As Ellen says: "We can't let intolerance and ignorance take another kid's life." Here, here.
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Monday, September 27, 2010

Our Extinction Explored in S.A.

I was pondering why kids need to be connecting to their phones and facebook and MSN constantly.  And further, why is anyone willing to have their lives spread open for public viewing on reality TV shows.  It seems antithetical to the privacy we all crave.

But maybe that's the problem.  For many centuries in the urban west people have lived publicly.  They had tiny places to live, often many slept in one room, but the marketplace was the place to be.  People had all the dirt on one-another first hand.  Maybe our drive to expose ourselves on-line or on TV is our technologically-enhanced way of joining the marketplace.  Perhaps we're forcing ourselves to live privately, decently, when it's actually against our true nature...

Just a thought.  In other news, Scientific American has a meaty issue out right now.   A list of 10 human creations the world would be better off without includes teflon, landfills, bunker fuel, and bisphenol A.

Another article chronicles the limits to specific resources.  Oils peaking, so it'll still be around for years, but harder and harder to access.  In 2025, they're predicting we'll be fighting over water.  We're losing our fish to poor management.  And our species extinction rate in the last hundred years is similar to that of the Permian-Triassic Extinction or great death of many moons ago.  That one was caused, some think, by excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere causing hypercapnia.  And 30% of amphibians - an indicator species of the health of an eco-system - are endangered right now.

Finally, they lay odds on how we'll all die off.  It's a cheery magazine!  Runaway global warming and a killer pandemic are the top two possibilities  A solar superstorm and a nuclear war are next up.  Asteroids hitting the earth?  That's a long shot.  I would have expected mass starvation and dehydration to be on the list, but it wasn't even mentioned.
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Sunday, September 26, 2010

Again with the Wireless Worry

Yesterday's Globe & Mail had an article with excerpts from the book Disconnect by Devra Davis, an epidemiologist.  It's not really that big a deal to stop carrying your phone in your pocket, or text instead of holding it to your head, is it?

Here's some bits that continue to worry me despite the science that suggests it really can't hurt us...

"...people who have used cellphones for half an hour a day for more than a decade have about twice the risk of glioma, a rare kind of brain tumour, on the side of the head where they hold the phone."

"...microwaves, known as non-ionizing radiation, were long thought to be benign because they weren't strong enough to bump electrons from atoms....[but] rats exposed to just two hours of microwave radiation had broken strands of DNA, the damage known to occur in cancer.  The rats also had brain-cell alterations, memory lapses and fluids leaking from their brains into their blood..."

"According to the fine print of the safety and product information brochure accompanying every cellphone, pressing the phone to your ear is a no-no..."  Blackberry specifies that people should "keep the BlackBerry device at least 0.98 in. (25 mm) from your body (including the abdomen of pregnant women and the lower abdomen of teenagers) when the BlackBerry device is turned on and connected to the wireless network."

"The fact that ready money has been there to support those who cast doubt on the dangers of radio-frequency radiation certainly plays some role in the perpetuation of their views, as it did with tobacco, asbestos, benzene, and hormone-replacement therapy."

"The need for research should not be allowed to become an excuse to carry on as though everything is fine, until we have incontrovertible proof that it is not."
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Saturday, September 25, 2010

Facebook in the Schools

We have facebook access in our school now.  I've not been writing as much about what our school is doing because I'm putting much of it on our facebook page instead.  I'll still post what we're doing here and there for anyone else to use in their schools.

After I made the page for our club, I realized I should have done it under a new, non-personal facebook moniker.  So I made a teacher facebook page for myself and made my new, teacherly facebook page the admin.  Unfortunately, it wouldn't accept Ms. as a first name (nor Ms), so I have two Marie Snyder pages, using two different e-mails, to keep straight.  

But the point is, we now have facebook in the schools, but we haven't been told much about how we should be using it - the legalities of interfacing with students on-line.  There will be an assembly coming up, but not soon enough.  I'm taking a chance doing this, but it's just such a convenient way to stay in touch  and provide information with students.  I went on facebook in the first place because the first Earthfest was being organized, and students were doing tons of talking and organizing outside of club meetings on a facebook page.  I joined just to keep track of what was going on - make sure things were getting done, and help sort out any problems if needed.

At our last meeting, it was really handy to use a computer with a projector, open the facebook page, and type the minutes while kids shared ideas.  Then everyone could see what was going on, and people coming in late could immediately see what they missed.  Anyone who missed the meeting, can get all the info from home.  It's clearly a useful tool for extracurricular events.  I could also see it possibly being used for notes in class, except then why would anyone come to class if they could get all the notes on-line?

Using a computer lab with accessible facebook is a different story.  They don't much try playing games anymore, but they're all on their facebook page as they work - fipping back and forth.  One student just the other day complained, people keep messaging me, so I have to respond or they'll get mad at me.  I explained, just click it off and they'll think you're just not getting their message yet.  Don't let them know you're on a computer, so you can get all your work done during class time.  The people messaging her were all in different labs throughout the school, so it's clearly not an isolated problem.

Phones allowed in classes?  Please let's not go there.
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Tuesday, September 21, 2010


Today our club met for the first time, and there was a plethora of ideas from people old and new:

A KCI movie night - or Waterloo Region student movie night?? - at one of these movies:  Force of Nature:  The David Suzuki Movie (playing October 15-21 at the original Princess Cinema), or Waterlife (playing October 21st at the Princess Twin).  I'm leaning towards the former since some classes will be going to the latter, maybe Friday the 15th at 9:00??

We also brainstormed ideas for raising money.  We could have teachers compete with students or against one another to do Sudokus on projectors (facing away from each other).  People could put money in a bucket next to the competitor they're hoping will win.  We can't bet proper (i.e. distribute winnings), but they might enjoy knowing they bet on a winner.  The competitor who wins gets to choose the charity.

We could have a sing-off.  Students could sing on the steps to the aud at lunch, and students vote for the best one by putting money in their bucket.  Again, the winner can choose the charity it all goes to.

I suggested a Scrabble competition between students and English teachers.  Students could pay a quarter for every word they make - and take turns (tap in/out) battling a teacher.  Nobody jumped on that one.

To promote the Free Store, we'll advertise the clothes as "vintage" or "retro" instead of "used."  And we'll have a Clean Out Your Closet Day - maybe over Thanksgiving weekend.

To get more people to compost, we'll roll the buckets through the hallways en masse with bells and whistle and pom-poms during a lunch this week to raise awareness of the new green bins* and what goes in them.  We're going to check if we can get lids for the garbage cans.  One problem with the green bins is that they have a lid, and kids might not want to have to open it with one hand if their hands are full of stuff - so they'll just dump everything into an open garbage can.  Also there's only three bins in the school and tons of garbage cans, so it's still a lot easier to toss stuff than recycle or compost.

For our food drive, we'll get students from each grade to make a sculpture of the cans collected in the front hall to compete for the best grade can design.

I'm hoping to send some students to the AIDS Awareness Conference on the morning of October 27th.

Any other ideas??


* I'm still not sold on the green bin idea - we're losing our compost for our gardens - but it would be too much to ask, I think, for students to separate garbage further into compost, green bin, recycling, and waste.  Not yet, anyway.
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Monday, September 20, 2010

Upcoming Events

There are a few things coming up you might be interested in...

Bill 28 has been introduced to enable Ontario police to fine people who drop cigarette butts - the number one litter item.  Maximum fines proposed?  $3,000!  It could be over a year before anything happens with it, but this is the window for people to get involved and tell their local MPP what they think.  We're getting some great butt bins at school to be prepared for the potential law (and to keep the butt litter down in general).  I tried to google "butt buckets" at school, but it kept blocking me, apparently from seeing porn sites.  

Dare to Remember - Stephen Lewis's group is challenging people to raise money for AIDS by daring one another to do things... like marathon juggling, or a Scrabble tournament, or on-going musicians playing in tandem. There are lots of ideas on the website. The challenge due date is December 1st, International AIDS Awareness DAy.

Earth Day Canada has a contest out now for the best bit of environmental activism. Send in entries by November 15th.

World Wildlife Fund has some grant money available for student projects. Apply by October 7th.

Safe Drinking Water Foundation has free educational materials anyone can use. They'll give you the tools to monitor your schools water footprint.

The IPCC wants help to plant one million trees in 2010.  You can help.
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Sunday, September 19, 2010

Another Look at LRT

I'm still surprised by how many people I know who want light-rail transit in the city.  I'm not yet convinced.  And after talking to Jan d'Ailly on my front porch yesterday, I'm all the more solidly opposed.  He told me that the LRT will actually be slower, from end to end, than the iExpress bus by 2 minutes.  So, it's expensive, it'll make a mess, it still won't connect to anyone who lives or works far from the core, and it's slower.

Many people I know who love the idea seem to follow this line by John Shortreed who suggests, "LRT in the last 20 years has become a fashion statement."  They think most people don't flock to buses because of a stigma, because they're yucky.  But they will suddenly ditch their cars for shiny new LRT.  I'm not convinced this attitude represents the majority of Waterloo Region citizens.  Well, mainly because I take the bus from time to time, and that attitude sort of implies that it's kind of a loser thing to do to sink so low as to take a bus.  Funny, I don't feel like a loser taking the bus.  And other people on the bus don't seem so bad either.  And that's a pretty costly trend we're jumping on.  

Shortreed's concern with LRT is that there's just not enough downtown employment to justify the LRT.  That's been my point all along.  Who's going to drive from Beechwood to the LRT station, take the transit to the other end (North-South only) of town, then need a cab or bus to get to work from the station there.  People in this city don't primarily live and work in the core, and there isn't room at the core to re-build enough to entirely change that fact.  Some people are concerned that this city will be huge soon, and how will we move all those people.  But most of those people will still be too far from the core to make LRT their primary transportation.  It's a wide city that needs an interconnected series of buses that all run smoothly together.  We need to raise the status of buses, make them work better, not write them off.

Environmentally, old is almost always better than new.  Sticking with an old gas lawnmower with many years of life in it uses fewer resources in the grand scheme of things than landfilling it for a new electric one.  You could, however, sell it to someone in need in favour of a push mower.  That would be even better.   The LRT demands huge resources to build, that I don't expect will be offset by the tiny bit saved every year by a more efficient engine.   

If the goal is to get rid of cars, then we have to make the city less car-friendy.   It costs nothing to make a dedicated lane on the outside lanes of King Street so only buses and bikes can drive there.  It will make driving down King Street a pain, but that's the whole idea.  The iExpress will be even faster, and biking will be safer.  And if we really want to act like a big city, we need to ditch the free parking mentality of our region.  Everyone expects to park for free on the streets and in the malls.  We don't want to hurt the small businesses near the core, however, so we have to make sure the parking costs are the same or more at the big malls.  If it cost me $10 to park at Conestoga Mall, then taking my kids on the bus or on bikes suddenly looks like a much better idea.

Unfortunately, I don't think decreasing car use is the actual goal however.  There was an article in yesterday's Record that suggests the whole point of the LRT has little to do with moving people; it's all about attracting more people, to "build an urban form."  We all want growth, right?  But we can't keep growing linearly in a finite system with limits to our resources - no matter how many jobs will be created, it's not a system that can keep working.  We need to give up the growth model we've all been enamoured with for the past few centuries and develop a usable sustainable model that keeps population stable instead of ever-increasing, and allows for good living conditions for all instead of always hoping for new and better stuff.

End of rant.  

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Grade School Free Store Idea

We're getting our free store up and running, and, at the same time I just cleaned out my 6-year-old's closets to send to Goodwill. Last Wednesday was meet the teacher night.  Imagine if there was a room at the school where parents could drop off old clothes and root through for new-to-me clothes. It could just be tables in the gym with size 2, 3, 4... above each table. Parents could drop off at the beginning of the evening under the right size, and sort through later on for new stuff.

It could be easily monitored by a few grade 6 kids. And if people felt guilty for taking more than they left, there could be a donation jar as well - cash going to the school or as a charity drive. At the end of the night, you'd just need someone with a van to cart all the clothes somewhere - or you could arrange in advance to have them picked up by one of the charities that takes clothes. It could be an event that happens at meet the teacher in the fall and again during any earth day celebrations in spring. Maybe Christmas have a re-gifting area somewhere in the school during whatever concert or pageant you put on.

It keeps consumerism down and helps shrink the rich/poor divide when we all help each other.
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Saturday, September 18, 2010

Cool Video from Grist

There are a couple of great videos at I especially like this one that links to a study done that show that women on bikes are a good indicator of a healthy city. Interesting, eh?

Women In Motion: New Lady Riders Reflect on NYC Cycling from Streetfilms on Vimeo.

There's another on the miniature earth: what would we look like if there were 100 representative people on earth. That almost half the world doesn't have clean water is the one that gets to me the most.

And an excellent analysis of a car commercial in which a polar bear hugs the driver of an electric car. I'm linking the whole article in hope people read the analysis.

Now turn off your computer and go outside!
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Sunday, September 12, 2010

Wireless Controversy Rebuttal

A former student tried to comment on a previous post, but the comment was blocked apparently because it was too long. I'll put it here instead:

Hi Marie, Devin here with the comment I promised. This will get pretty sciencey, and I'm glossing over some parts in a hand-wavey manner simply because there's too much material to cover. If you have any questions please don't hesitate to ask, this is something which would be easier to explain in person and it's no trouble for me.

To understand why I don't think cellphones and WiFi are harmful you need to understand electromagnetic waves. But first you need to understand a bit about waves in general.

All waves have two basic properties (that we're concerned with), wavelength and frequency. There's a nice image that explains what wavelength is here. It is the distance it takes for a given wave to complete one full cycle. This has a standard unit of meters.

Frequency is the number of cycles the wave can complete per second. This is measured in Hertz (which is the same unit as 1/seconds).

The velocity of a wave is given by the equation: v=λf. Where v is the velocity, λ (Greek letter lowercase lamda) is the wavelength, and f is the frequency.

Looking at the equation this should be fairly intuitive. Think of the classic v=d/t (velocity is distance per unit time). Our wave equation above is identical, we have wavelength (distance) times frequency (1/time).

Now the neat thing about electromagnetic waves is that they always travel at the speed of light, c. So the equation above becomes c=λf.

From this equation you can see that if you increase the wavelength, the frequency must decrease (since otherwise their product would no longer equal c). The opposite is also true.

Now we can talk about the electromagnetic spectrum found here. As you can see, on the left there is decreasing frequency as you progress down the chart, and an increasing wavelength on the right.

Note the positions of radio waves and microwaves relative to visible light and ultraviolet (sunlight). Radio waves have a very low frequency compared to visible light (seven orders of magnitude lower).

The energy carried by any electromagnetic wave is given by the equation E=hf, where E is the energy, h is Plank's constant and f is the frequency. Plank's constant is just a number (a very small number), for the sake of this example we can pretend it's one so that it is clear that the energy is directly proportional to the frequency.

Clearly then, if radio waves carry 10^8 Joules of energy, visible light carries 10^15! Radios obviously operate in the radio wave range, cellphones and WiFi operates in the microwave range. This is still 4 orders of magnitude lower than visible light.

If you take nothing else away from this understand this part: The light coming out of your lightbulb is bombarding you with significantly more powerful radiation than anything your cellphone or WiFi router could ever push out.

Of course once you breach a certain energy level this radiation becomes what is called "ionizing radiation", and that's why you wear sunscreen for ultraviolet light or lead vests for X-rays.

Again, this is a lot to understand and I'm breezing through several hundred years worth of scientific discoveries in a few paragraphs, so if you have any questions please let me know and I'll do my best to clarify.


Okay - here are some question:

1. How do we explain incidents such as the increase in headaches, blurred vision, etc. in a group of people once a system was turned on, and their symptoms disappeared as soon as it was turned off - and they had no knowledge of the new transmitter? Coincidence? Or the fact that tumours of the auditory nerve are three times more frequent in people who have used cell phones for more than a decade, and always on the side they favour as was reported by Dr. Devra Davis in The Secret History of the War on Cancer. I know they're only showing a correlation and not causation necessarily, but it still gives one pause.

2. If we held lightbulbs up to our head for many hours a day, would we likely increase our chances of getting tumours? That is, does the fact that we have very close contact with these devices affect the chance of the microwaves affecting us even if the radiation is extremely low?

3. And, this might be a stupid question, but if microwaves are not at all harmful to us, how is it that they can be used to cook meat? I mean, I've made little cakes with a lightbulb in an Easy Bake Oven, but I don't think the lightbulb could cook a piece of steak as efficiently as a microwave oven. I suspect the microwaves are used differently in that application than in phones and such; is that the case? As far as I understand it, microwaves cook food by making molecules vibrate. Why isn't it possible for phones to have the same effect?
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Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Wireless Controversy

There have been a few articles in the paper recently about parents in Simcoe County trying to stop wireless networks from being available in schools due to health concerns. There are a few schools that don't offer Wi-Fi for these reasons, yet the article suggests there isn't any evidence it's a real concern. My issue is that there really isn't any evidence that there ISN'T a connection between long term exposure and cancer.  We really have to get on board with the precautionary principle and make sure things are safe before we use them instead of using them until they're proven harmful.

I suggest, again, that interested readers peruse this GQ article on the topic. From the GQ article:

Wi-Fi operates typically at a frequency of 2.4 gigahertz (the same frequency as microwave ovens) but is embedded with a wider range of modulations than cell phones, because we need it to carry more data. "It never ceases to surprise me that people will fight a cell tower going up in their neighborhoods," Blake Levitt, author of Electromagnetic Fields: A Consumer's Guide to the Issues and How to Protect Ourselves, told me. "They they'll install a Wi-Fi system in their homes. That's like inviting a cell tower indoors."

In the summer of 2006, a super-Wi-Fi system known as WiMAX was tested in rural Sweden. Bombarded with signals, the residents of the village of Götene—who had no knowledge that the transmitter had come online—were overcome by headaches, difficulty breathing, and blurred vision, according to a Swedish news report. Two residents reported to the hospital with heart arrhythmias, similar to those that, more than thirty years ago, Allen Frey induced in frog hearts. This happened only hours after the system was turned on, and as soon as it was powered down, the symptoms disappeared.

The concern about Wi-Fi is being taken seriously in Europe. In April 2008, the national library of France, citing possible "genotoxic effects," announced it would shut down its Wi-Fi system, and the staff of the storied Library of Sainte-Geneviève in Paris followed up with a petition demanding the disconnection of Wi-Fi antennas and their replacement by wired connections. Several European governments are already moving to prohibit Wi-Fi in government buildings and on campuses, and the Austrian Medical Association is lobbying for a ban of all Wi-Fi systems in schools, citing the danger to children's thinner skulls and developing nervous systems.


Our school is introducing Wi-Fi in some areas of the school this fall, along with student e-mails and access to facebook.  I'd like to be able to show YouTube clips in class, but they're still firewalled.  But I'm not convinced adding more technology to teaching necessarily makes for a better learning environment - or a healthy one.

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Thursday, July 8, 2010

Negligent Blogger

It's been almost a month since I wrote anything environmentally-minded.  It's not that I'm not thinking about it; just too busy to act.  Protesting in Toronto?  Regretfully, no.  Prepping in advance for the first day of school?  Nope.  Weeding my gardens?  Close...  I spent my limited time on this earth watching every single episode of Weeds - all five seasons.  I can't believe he killed her with a croquet mallet!  Will he get caught?  Will the marriage survive?  How many men will happily watch Fried Green Tomatoes with their wives now?  Did Mary-Louise Parker find a time portal? 

These hot sticky days always remind me of seeing Stephen Lewis speak about his time in Africa, and his disappointment at Canadians with air conditioners.  Most people in Africa make it through the hottest temperatures without peaking out the electrical grid, but we entitled masses think of A/C as a necessity.  There are alternatives, but some are too weird for their liking - like sleeping on the front porch.  It's cool and dry, and only a few of the neighbours will think you just passed out there.  Most will understand it as a very reasonable reaction to several days of plus thirty temperatures.

I finally got hold of a copy of the CTV newscast of KCI's Earthfest.  It was a lot of work for less than three minutes of air time. 

That's it!
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Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Why Environmentalism Needs to be Legislated

Many standard-issue philosophers agree that happiness is predicated on an increase in pleasure and decrease in pain. Yet all too often the choices we make don’t lead towards our intended outcome of increased pleasure. We make choices that lead us towards misery. We want a clean world, but we drive everywhere. We want a strong uptown core, but we don’t stop shopping at Wal-Mart.....

Plato might say our problem is that we don’t have the skill of measurement and call for better education. Epicurus called the same thing a lack of prudence. And B.F. Skinner would agree that our immediate reinforcers or punishers seem much larger than distant rewards and punishments. It all boils down to a society full of people making poor choices. But I don't think it's entirely the case that people are unable to make wise choices. Some people measure well because they care more about making wise decisions while the rest just can’t be bothered to worry about long-term consequences. I think what makes the difference between those that measure well and those that don’t isn’t so much a skill they learned, but a personal disposition they inherited.

Most of the ancients insist that a citizen of any intelligence will prefer the joys of contemplation; sensuous entertainments are for the vulgar, the cretins or plebeians. But I wonder if we can be so quick to judge what different people enjoy because I believe what we find pleasurable to be largely innate. We are comfortable judging traits that we think are changeable: sloppiness or friendliness. We assign blame or praise for the actions associated with these characteristics. But we refrain from judgment of traits that are genetically determined: height, race, or gender. We might criticize someone for throwing like a girl (if we're willing to take on some feminist wrath) but typically not criticize her for being a girl as it’s largely unalterable.

But, since the genome project began, there are traits that were once seen as a choice and now are viewed more often as unalterable. Psychologists typically, hopefully, no longer try to convince gay men to go straight. Alcoholism is somewhat genetically predictable. And recent studies are insisting weight has less to do with diet than DNA. These are at once disempowering and comforting. It's not my fault, yet it's also not entirely within my control, if at all.

I propose that what we find pleasurable, what makes us happy, is determined by the axis of two dispositions: conscience and drive. My argument on the relationship between virtue and happiness rests on the premise that where we are on the continuum of each is primarily innate.

First, our conscience. At one end of the scale sit people with anti-social personality disorder. They have no desire towards kindness. If they want to get the privileges of freedom they can be trained to keep from harming others to avoid punishments, or they might just continue to harm and learn to avoid getting caught. But being kind just doesn't give them that warm-all-over glow. It's annoying. At the other end of the scale is the Mother Theresa type. They have a total and profound desire to act for the sake of others.

Regardless of the innate predisposition towards kindness or cruelty, we still have the free will to act against our basic personality. A psychopath could choose to be kind, and a Mother Theresa could choose to sell medical supplies for beer money, but these behaviours, while possible, wouldn’t make either happy. What makes them happy is not within their control.

Most of us are in the middle of these two ends. Personally, knowing the destruction consumerism takes on the environment or about specific companies that are exploiting or otherwise harming people, I avoid shopping, and shop carefully when necessary. But I will happily drive four hours to a cabin for yet another weekend away. The twinge of guilt I might feel about the amount of pollution I'm creating is no match for the enjoyment of the trip. And since it’s not my car, and I’ve never even owned a car, I can continue to foster and be praised for the illusion of extraordinary environmentalism, falling into the trap of loving honour more than loving the Good. I can be good to the environment worldwide, then add to the air pollution in my own province. I know what's right, what I should do, but I'm happy to add some future misery to my world. This is a complex continuum that dictates how happy we can be harming others, refraining from harm, and actively helping others.

Second for consideration is our drive, how much pleasure we get from our effort, from hard work. This is alluded to by Mill (and earlier by Nietzsche) in his acknowledgment that pleasure can come from excitement or tranquility. Those who prefer excitement are more willing to accept some pain in order to get a higher intensity of pleasure. They’ll work for their joys which could encompass anything from the physical pain of falling repeatedly trying to learn new skateboard tricks to the mental angst of struggling to understand a complex film or song. They get a rush from the challenge. They set their sights higher, but take a chance at greater disappointment or even death. People content with tranquility want less pain for their pleasures. They aim for security over intensity. They might prefer simpler, more mainstream art forms, and easier pastimes that are safe and effortless to enjoy, unable to grasp others’ intentional choice to actually be harmed for fun.

This continuum might also be useful for understanding relationships. The high drive type might be willing to tolerate, or enjoy even, arguments for the sake of a greater depth or intensity of relationship, and like existentialists, call their trials with knowledge of the self and other authenticity, and take, as a reward of sorts, a stance of superiority over those who can live without the angst. The more tranquil might lean towards a pleasant, low maintenance relationship, content with trivial discourse, careful not to rile anyone up with pointed questions. This type might be considered painfully dull by a someone seeking greater intensity. Some philosophies, like Taoism, suggest we should be able to see all people as equally valuable and interesting. But the Tao is not a philosophy for the driven.

The axis of these two innate behaviours, and some very generalized personality derivatives, might look something like this:

Low Drive with Weak Conscience:  hedonist
Low Drive with Strong Conscience:  kind when it's convenient to be so
High Drive with Weak Conscience:  criminal
High Drive with Strong Conscience:  activist

The generally kind person will avoid harming and try to help when it’s convenient. They’ll donate money if you come to their door, but they won’t go out of their way to learn about your cause or rally with you. The hedonist will take what they can as it comes their way. They’ll make just enough cash to get drunk on the weekend. The criminal group (including some CEOs) will work hard towards increasing their own profits regardless of harm it might cause others. And the activists will work hard to try to change the world and fire up all the others groups.

I won’t hazard a guess at the number of people that fit each category except to suggest that the high drive, strong conscience group is in the minority. That it’s difficult to get the majority of students in my eco-club, possibly the most environmentally concerned students in the school, to bring garbageless lunches once a week, supports this suggestion. Of course they care, but only if the tasks are relatively effortless.

There are two implications to this position: if what makes us happy is out of our control, then it can’t be judged nor altered. But we do praise Mother Theresa regardless how much joy she happens to get from her acts. And even if we feel a bit bad for a heartless killer with a troubled past, we do condemn a psychopath even if he’s unable to change. Like having an alcoholic co-worker who's constantly late for work, because we can understand why he acts in a manner that harms others, we can better understand his actions, but this understanding doesn’t excuse the behaviours.

It's just a chance luck-of-the-draw whether we’re born to enjoy harming or helping, but society can only survive if we chastise harm. We can look down on the corporate executive that exploits slave labour because he’s making a buck off their backs. It may not be his fault that this is what gives him pleasure, but it’s just unfortunate for him that his pleasure is not entirely applauded by our culture – well, by the few that care and have the will to mention it. And the Mother Theresas of the world are just lucky that what they enjoy brings honour. It’s similar to our aesthetic appeal to others. It’s genetically determined, but we still bear the burden that comes with our appearance for better or worse. Life isn’t fair.

But what’s worse is the second implication: that if what brings us pleasure isn’t controllable, and therefore can’t be altered, then it’s not possible to teach people to care about their actions, nor to motivate them to work for the benefit of the world. The activists can only create concern by making concern personally profitable, or by creating legislation that punishes exploitation harshly. And they can only motivate by making changes convenient for people, more convenient than the system they’re already used to. If we really want people to drive less, we need busses to stop right outside their doors and be free of charge. If we want students to compost, we have to walk by their food-filled hands with a green bucket at the ready.

For the activists, being happy and being virtuous is the same thing. For the criminals, it’s the opposite. They can only be moral or happy. The former group gets the honour, but the latter gets the cash.

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Thursday, June 3, 2010

Can We Get Patrick Duffy on the Phone?

I haven't written in a long while partly because I'm contemplating taking it all apart. The whole point of the blog is to share what students are doing at my school, and my hope was others would share what's happening at their schools too. I might just find a student rep to post here regularly in September. I'm not sure I'm allowed to say much of anything anymore, but perhaps I'll keep sharing, a bit more censored, until someone complains. 

But I'm also not saying much partly because the environmental issues right now are too devastating to think about. La la la I can't hear you. But now that James Cameron's there to save the day, we can all rest easy - or at least laugh at bit at the circus unfolding before us.  "Those morons don't know what they're doing,"  he laments, and lucky for us he knows some "really, really, really smart people" who can help. You can tell he's a master at writing dialogue.... 

Although I have to admit I agree with him here:  "The government really needs to have its own independent ability to go down there and image the site, survey the site and do its own investigation....Because if you're not monitoring it independently, you're asking the perpetrator to give you the video of the crime scene."  If the government doesn't set controls on corporations and act on the atrocities committed around the world in the name of profits, the environment doesn't stand a chance. In Nigeria, oil from corroded pipelines spew into the delta with little press or concern - so far, right this minute, the Niger's delta's got more oil in it than the gulf of Mexico.  In a way, it's lucky the BP accident happened where it did.  Otherwise, we'd completely ignore it. 

Here's some Daily Show and Colbert Report to keep us going. 

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Saturday, May 22, 2010

Access Denied

Apparently some teacher somewhere made a statement about girls playing on boys' teams, and it sparked controversy and outrage. So now our board has issued an edict that says, in part, "Comments by employees to any media, or in any public manner or forum, should not make direct reference to the student involved, including commenting on her athletic abilities, characteristics, motives or her family." They want direct permission from parents to say or show anything about any student each time something comes up. Those general forms we get signed at the beginning of the year about taking photos of students don't hold water anymore....

So now I think I have to delete much of this blog, specifically all the photos and videos that include students like the Before It's Too Late video letter to Harper. And I imagine I have to delete the You Tube videos that show students commenting on their environmental views. Do I also have to delete the You Tube videos of my daughter and her friends doing a drama presentation since they they are students at my school? Does this mean I can't share videos or photos of my kids and their friends on-line in any way because they go to the school where I teach?? I tend to save thing on-line so I don't have to worry about fire burning down the photo albums or my hard-drive crashing. This determination removes this right from any parents who are teachers with their own children attending their school or friends with students at their school.

As far as I can understand, all this is fair game if it's added by one of my kids or students and not me. The kids are free to post videos and photos of themselves with their friends; only sharing by teachers is limited.

I tend to hate blanket statements in general because they're often too stringent in some circumstances yet allow for abuses in other arenas. This is no exception. It's reasonable to prevent teachers from slamming students publicly, but we're now prevented from celebrating students in a public format as well. And teachers who are truly corrupted will continue to post under the cover of anonymity.

It's ironic that this is all happening at the same time as Facebook is being allowed in the schools. YouTube, with all its educational shorts, is still not permitted, but we can make Facebook groups for our clubs and teams and classes, even though we're still discouraged from e-mailing students directly.

I'm in the middle of creating a video on what KCI has done as an EcoSchool this year. It'll be shown at the EcoFest in June for select teacher and students, but it can't be shown here - unless, of course, one of my students adds it.

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Monday, May 10, 2010

Students Gone Wild

I've been dwelling for days on the article in the Record last weekend about students taking liberties on Albert Street.  Students are exposing themselves, urinating publicly, vomiting on the sidewalk, wandering on people's property, and simulating masturbation in front of shocked neighbours all in broad daylight.  When I first left home, my mom told me to never do anything I wouldn't want published on the front page of the paper.  Today, she'd update that to a Facebook warning.  But some of these guys posed for a photo..... 

We had a student house in our neighbourhood until recently.  One of the ladies that lived there left the house one day with some friends, got about three houses away, and squatted to pee on the boulevard in front of a family with kids sitting on the porch maybe ten feet away.

I was a student once, 25 years ago, and came away from it with many good stories.  University is a time for people to develop into leaders, but part of that might include periods of devolving into animals.   It's their first time away from home, and they need to feel wild and unconstrained.  It's a ritually liminal period in their shift from child to adult.  It's a time to push at boundaries.  But we're in big trouble if society doesn't push back strongly and consistently to restrain the acts of excess.   We need the energy and vibrancy of students in our city, but students need some help reigning it in.    
Back in the day, we had boundaries.  And in retrospect, it was the cops that set them firmly for us.

One letter to the editor on this issue is from a police officer who points a finger at Waterloo city council for not implementing stronger bylaws that can put a stop to this kind of behaviour.  The neighbours also claim the city is responsible for for the problem because they allowed too many lodging houses on one street in the first place.  I second Peter Foy's plea for tougher bylaws in the city.

As a student in the early 80s, I shared a house with a bunch of guys not too dissimilar from the type currently living on Albert Street. The difference is that anytime we had a party, the cops would show up at 11:00 to issue a $200 fine. At $3.35/hour, that was a week and a half's pay.  Worse than that, if we didn't shut things down, they'd be back thirty minutes later with another fine to add to the first one. Typically, at the second visit, they'd just stay until the house was empty constantly threatening more fines if we took too long.

We still had parties, but only three or four a year. We couldn't afford to have more than that. The rest of the time we kept it quiet, sent the rowdies packing early on, and stayed indoors.

Perhaps a $600 fine issued every thirty minutes, and arrests made for every single act of public indecency and public urination would help curb the partying.  Granted the bylaws need more teeth, and we'll likely need a few more officers on the force for an initial crack-down. I think it's worth it for the reputation, not just of the neighbourhood or the universities, but of my city.

This is one of those situations where I'm reminded of the famous lines by Martin Niemoller that sometimes starts, "First they came for the Jews...".  It's not enough for one small group of neighbours to take on city hall; they need backing from all of us.  If you have thoughts on the issue, take five minutes to phone or e-mail Brenda Halloran

But beyond the potential solutions, one line of reasoning from the students in the article really bothered me:  "It's not like we do it every single night....We throw a party here and there, but who doesn't?"  These students believe they have a right to behave like this. 

If I was a neighbour, I might go vigilante and arm myself with a digital camera and a facebook site: "Students who don't really want a good job."  Some will wear it as a badge of honour and spend their lives explaining the late fees policy on movie rentals  Other will recognize the importance of reputation, not just as a potential employee, but as a representative of their school, their city, and their family.

If I was part of the university admin, I'd might even go one step further than the fines and arrests to try to amend the policy of both universities to say that any students involved in parties that get a noise complaint charge will be temporarily suspended from studies and have to spend that time in a grade 10 civics class to learn the concept of rights and responsibilities.

I had a few students in my own class complain that some professors won't let students on facebook during class.  Their argument was similar to the students involved in the parties:  If they're paying to be there, they should be allowed to do whatever they want.  They added that they learn better if they're multi-tasking, despite opposing claims by current research on the topic. Really they just haven't developed the ability to sustain their attention, to cope with moments of boredom, or at least to listen politely if not attentively.  And we're back to that marshmallow test.

I think we have a responsibility as educators to ensure that, by their late teens, everyone grasps that they can't do anything that markedly affects the happiness of others.  They can't yell in the streets whenever the mood strikes because it bothers other people who have the right to peace and quiet.  And they can't surf the net during class because it might be distracting for others - not to mention rude to the professor.  And they can't pee on my boulevard because I don't want to see that.

And they can't clear-cut rainforests in Brazil to grow soy beans for McDonalds beef because it destroys habitat and the world's best carbon-absorbers, or drain the water from the aquifers in India to make Coke because it leaves entire villages without clean drinking water, or fail to check equipment sufficiently to prevent a devastating oil leak because... what a mess. 

It's all the same behaviour that says, "My desires matter more than your rights."  And it's wrong.

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