Thursday, July 20, 2017

Mother Nature Fights Back

‘Don’t mess with Mother Nature’ used to be a cute and humorous expression. Not these says. Too often now we witness how an angry Mother Nature fights back.

Here in Haliburton County extreme rainfalls and damaging winds are becoming more frequent. In the past month a small tornado flattened dozens of trees on my bush lot on Highway 35. Days later another violent storm closed Highway 117 and damaged properties between Baysville and Dorset.


Haliburton rainfall from April 1 to mid-July totalled more than 550 millimetres, just shy of two feet. That is more than double the average for the same period.

Across North America record high temperature days are increasing while the frost-free season is 10 days shorter than it was 100 years ago.

A recent article in New York magazine says there has been a 50-fold increase since 1980 of the number of locations suffering extreme or dangerous heat. The historically warmest summers in Europe have been in the last 15 years.

Daily headlines report environmental disasters created by weather extremes. A piece of Antarctica ice the size of Prince Edward Island breaks away. Wildfires threaten huge parts of the U.S. West. Williams Lake, B.C. is being evacuated because of fires. Last summer it was Fort McMurray, Alberta.

More fires, floods, droughts and tornados prove without question that we have a major climate change problem. Crazy Donnie, the U.S. president, says it’s all a hoax - fake news - but most people just ignore him now.

"We’ve got to move past getting a consensus that the world is warming,” Professor Adam Switzer of the Asian School of the Environment noted recently. “That consensus is done."

Scientists report that between 1880 and 2017 the earth has warmed two degrees Fahrenheit. More warming, many warn, will weaken the world’s ability to support life. Some believe that a mass extinction already has begun.

Earth has had five major mass extinctions in which 50 to 90 per cent of all species were killed off. A review of data from 14 biodiversity research centres predicts that 15 to 37 per cent of all land species could be on their way to extinction by 2050.

Drought, which brings severe food shortages, which in turn bring violent conflicts, now affects 70 million people in parts of Africa, the Middle East and Asia, says The Famine Early Warning Systems Network.

Ironically, while millions suffer from drought, a major concern is rising water levels. Sea levels have been rising 3.4 millimeters a year since 1993, according to some studies, making for a total rise over 20 years of six to eight centimetres.

The rise is complicating, and might threaten, the lives of millions of people living in low-lying coastal cities. One-third of world major cities are on the coast and an estimated 600 million people live within 10 meters of sea level today.

An immediate concern in all this is how increasingly hotter weather affects how humans treat each other.

Too much heat turns people ugly. Studies have shown there is more violent crime when temperatures reach 35 Celsius than when they are 23C. Posts on social media tend to get nastier as outside temperatures rise.

Canadians probably have more reason to worry about climate change than people in some other parts of the world. Canadian temperatures have been warming at roughly double  the global mean rate, according to Environment Canada.

“A two degrees Celsius increase globally means a three to four degrees Celsius increase for Canada,” says an EC website.

Unlike Crazy Donnie, the Canadian federal government is unequivocal about global warming, saying: “Warming over the 20th century is indisputable and largely due to human activities.”

Much of our Canadian concern is over the Arctic. Our Arctic ice has been diminishing over the past three decades, adding significantly to the rise in the world’s oceans.

Permafrost is melting across the Arctic, destabilizing buildings built on stilts sunk five or six metres. Construction crews now drill as deep as 20 metres to get a stable foundation.

There is concern that Arctic melting will accelerate, eliminating more permafrost and creating more serious problems.

Good news: awareness of weather problems is increasing and more people are working to find solutions.


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Thursday, July 13, 2017

'It's Tom Thomson!'

One hundred years ago this week a vacationing Toronto doctor was relaxing at his rented cottage on Algonquin Park’s Canoe Lake . He looked out over the water and noticed an odd piece of flotsam.

The flotsam was hard to distinguish, but a canoe with two paddlers was passing by so he hollered for them to check it out. The paddlers were park guides George Rowe and Larry Dickson, and at first glance the flotsam appeared to be an animal carcass.


As they approached the object, the doctor, G. W. Howland, a neurologist at the University of Toronto, heard one of the guides shout: “It’s the body of a man.”

That was followed quickly by: “It’s Tom Thomson!”

It was July 16, 1917 and the discovery of the body was the beginning of The Great Canadian Mystery.

Tom Thomson was a commercial artist who fell in love with the Algonquin wilderness. He canoed it, fished it and painted it before dying just short of his 40th birthday. He is Canada’s most famous landscape artist and inspired the Group of Seven movement after his death.

Thomson had gone fishing alone the late morning or early afternoon of July 8. It was the day following a late night drinking party during which Thomson is said to have had a heated argument with Martin Bletcher Jr., a German-American summer resident at the lake. The argument apparently was about the war with Germany.

Thomson was not seen after he left for fishing and the next day his distinctive dove grey canoe was found floating empty in the lake. A land search was begun because Thomson was an expert canoeist and strong swimmer. The theory was the canoe had tipped and he swam to shore, or that he was on shore and the canoe had drifted away.

The guides Rowe and Dickson towed the body to Big Wapomeo Island, left it in the water but tied it to shore. This was a common practice to slow decomposition while a coroner travelled from outside the Park.

By the next day the coroner still had not arrived and the body was rotting in the July sun. It was decided that Dr. Howland would examine the body without waiting longer for the coroner, and write a report so Thomson could be buried.

There was a quickly-arranged funeral attended by Thomson’s friends, park staff, guides and staff and guests at Mowat Lodge, a summer vacation place on the lake. The body was buried in a small cemetery in the woods behind the lake.

The coroner arrived after the funeral, held an inquest and ruled the death an accidental drowning. It was noted that Thomson had a bruise on his left temple and blood in his right ear, indicating he had fallen or been struck before entering the water and drowning.

The Thomson family, when told of the burial, said Tom should be buried at home at Leith near Owen Sound and arranged for an undertaker to go to Canoe Lake, dig up the body and ship it home.

The undertaker arrived at night. There was speculation that he dug a little, tired, then quit and shipped an empty coffin.

In the 1950s some cottagers and their visitors went to the little cemetery and began digging for Thomson’s body to prove it was still there. They exhumed a skull and bones which forensic testing showed belonged to an indigenous man.

To this day arguments continue over how Thomson died and where he is buried. Books have been written, films have been made but all are based on speculation. No one really knows how Thomson died or where he is buried.

The Thomson family always said the coffin that arrived home contained the body of their son and brother. They always refused, and rightly so, to have it exhumed to settle the arguments once and for all.

Meanwhile, there also are theories that Thomson was murdered, perhaps the result of bad blood between he and Bletcher. Or by someone else for other reasons.

My view is in my 2003 book Tom Thomson: The Life and Mysterious Death of the Famous Canadian Painter. An updated version will be released by Formac Publishing this coming fall.


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Wednesday, July 12, 2017

The Lab Who Wouldn't Swim

I’ll never forget Canada Day 2017. It was the day Louie learned to swim.

Louie is my 14-month-old great-granddog. He is a chocolate Labrador Retriever, a water dog who feared the water. A Lab afraid of the water?

On his first visit Louie loped down to the dock and stared out over the lake. We figured he was anxious to begin fetching, so someone tossed a tennis ball into the water.

Louie pranced anxiously, peered nervously over the dock edge and waited for the ball to float into his reach. More tosses, same reaction. He quivered with excitement over wanting to fetch, but  wanted nothing to do with the water.

We got him to wade up to his knees along the shore. He seemed to like that but whenever the ball was tossed he stretched to get it, but would not swim for it.

At one point he stretched too far and slipped off the rocks. We figured that was it. He was in and had broken the ice, so to speak. However, within seconds his panic became apparent and I wondered if someone would have to dive in to rescue him.

He thrashed his paws and his eyes filled with panic until his feet hit bottom. Wading with him, then swimming to show him how it is done had little effect. Louie was terrified of getting in over his head.

Labs always have been part of life at Shaman’s Rock. Gussie, a neighbour’s Lab, used to come to our deck at 7 a.m. with a ball in his mouth and stare up at my bedroom door until I came down and threw the ball for him.

Moose, an aging chocolate Lab on the other side of our place, still pesters people to toss balls and sticks so he can swim to get them.

Emma, my son’s chocolate Lab, exhausted people until they refused to toss for her. So she would take her ball to the dock, play with it in her paws until it flew off into the lake, then would dive in after it. She spent hours doing that.

So it seemed impossible that we now had a family Lab who was afraid of the water.

Some dogs are not built to swim. Bulldogs and dachshunds, for instance, have short legs that cannot provide the thrust needed for swimming.

Labs, however, have long, strong legs and over decades have been bred to retrieve. Swimming is in their DNA.

Dogs have distinct individual personalities and some develop phobias. Louie is a cautious dog; not one to do anything reckless. It was apparent he was not going to go in water over his head without some training.

My grandson Robert and his partner Laura got Louie a life vest and took him to a doggie pool where they could swim beside him.

When Louie returned to visit on Canada Day weekend the big question was whether he would take to the water. He pranced about the dock, stretching to reach sticks tossed for him but would not jump in after them.

At one point he became so excited about getting the stick that he fell off the dock into the water. He grabbed the stick and sort of swam his way to shore. His strokes still looked a bit panicky but at least he was swimming.

The stick was flipped off the dock again and Louie stretched to get it and fell in. He grabbed it and swam a bit more confidently to shore.

Then someone pitched the stick out 15 feet and Louie actually jumped off the dock, swam to it, then swam back. I swear he was smiling as he swam to shore. Everyone applauded and breathed relief that we had a Lab that could swim after all.

Louie accomplished something that I never could.

Years ago my wife and I joined our twin girls in learn-to-swim classes. The twins and mom graduated and moved through higher levels. I never made it out of  baby class.

So when Louie comes to visit again we will go swimming. He will be the one swimming with the tennis ball in his mouth. I’ll be the one floating in the life jacket.

Email: shaman@vianet.ca
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Thursday, June 29, 2017

Paying By The Piece

There is hope.

Despite the collapsing daily newspaper industry and concern that people are not getting enough factual, balanced news on current affairs, there is hope.

Hope is difficult to see through dark statistics showing fewer sources of truthful and objective reporting of world affairs.

Pew Research Centre data shows that in 2015 only 16 per cent of adults 18 to 34 years old read a daily newspaper. Among people 65-plus, traditionally the age group with the largest per cent of readers, only 50 per cent were daily newspaper readers.

News Media Canada, which represents print and digital news platforms, puts a brighter face on it. It says nine out of ten Canadian adults read a daily or community newspaper in print, online or mobile format every week.

Forget all the research, statistics and various commentary on readership, however. The plain fact is there is more fake news, less trustable news and fewer people reading reliable news that can help them to make informed decisions.

That is a serious problem for democracy. Even more serious considering that three of the planet’s most dangerous countries – Russia, North Korea and the U.S.  – are led by psychopaths.

News is as vital to democracy as clean air, safe streets, good schools and public
health, an American blue ribbon commission on information has noted.

Daily newspapers are providing fewer stories of importance. Radio and television don’t have the length or depth to fill much of that role. New media such as Twitter and Facebook don’t do it either because they can’t be relied on to provide unvarnished facts.

Where is the hope then?

There are some new initiatives, and the one that has impressed me the most is the Dutch startup named Blendle. It is an online news platform launched three years ago by two young Dutch journalists. It aggregates articles from newspapers and magazines, which can purchased on a pay-per-article basis. The average cost of an article is roughly 30 cents.

The service was Europe-only at first but has been tested in the U.S. and will officially launch there this fall. It has about 25 U.S. titles now but so far none in Canada.

To use Blendle you go to its website and read the menu of stories available. You might see a New York Times piece on how Trump’s new health care plan shifts dollars from the poor to the rich. The article will cost you 19 cents to read, which you pay by opening a digital wallet where you have deposited some money.

An interesting aspect of Blendle is that if you don’t like a story you have paid for, the service will refund your money. That seems a dangerous policy. People read  articles, say they don’t like them, even if they do, and get their money back. How many unscrupulous readers are doing that?

Not many, Jessica Best, head of Blendle editorial, tells me in an interview from Amsterdam, Blendle’s headquarters.

The U.S. refund rate is only seven per cent, she says, “. . . partly because people care about our mission. They believe in our mission.”

I love the pay-per-article idea. You don’t have to pay a subscription or buy an entire newspaper or magazine to read one article when you don’t have interest in - or the time to read - the rest.

To be successful Blendle must offer top drawer content tailored for its readers. Or as Ms. Best puts it, “original quality journalism.”

And that means more than reporting just what happened this morning, or yesterday, with no perspective, background or why what happened, happened.

“We are looking for people willing to pay for the why, not the what,” she says.

So therein lies the hope: two young guys invent a new way of bringing trustable news to readers who need it to make informed decisions on what is happening in their world.

There are others out there who will find more ways of delivering the vital and trustable news and information we need to understand this increasingly complicated world and give us ideas on how to best navigate it.

What we all need to do is dedicate more time to consuming it.
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