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.
below the fold

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."
below the fold

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.
below the fold

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.
below the fold

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.
below the fold

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.  

below the fold

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.
below the fold

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!
below the fold

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?
below the fold