Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Advent Wednesday #1

Christmas cheer is brightening Arcola streets these dark chilly evenings. Since there's so much beauty and joy around, I figure it needs a foil of doom and gloom in order to be fully appreciated. That means I get to be the Grinch.

Advent? Waiting? Not at this house. Santa has landed and is hard at work (that's him on the roof there), even though it's still November. I guess he has to start earlier these days to get all that stuff delivered. But that's another post.

So far it's just individual properties that are decorated, but soon the town workers will be hanging an array of tinsel-and-light figures above the streets, fastening the stars and candy canes to the permanent brackets on the power poles, and plugging each one into a handy outlet right there on each pole. I had never noticed how the power got to those lights, but last year one of those town workers showed me, when he happened along as I was struggling with extension cords for my own string of Christmas merriment. I had draped a string of clear lights along the front hedge as a concession to the custom, letting it do double duty as a light source for the sidewalk where it passes my yard. He joked that I could just run my extension cord right from the power pole, and it wouldn't matter, because SaskPower doesn't charge the town for the extra electricity for Christmas lights.


I guess I shouldn't be surprised, considering that SaskPower is the title sponsor of the Festival of Lights in Regina. That has irritated me for years. Winter evenings are the peak demand time for electricity, and here is our power utility promoting even higher demand by sponsoring light festivals and giving away free lighting power to municipalities. I seem to recall inquiring about this conflict, and being told that Christmas lighting is not a significant issue for power conservation.

I find it amusing that my latest power bill had a flyer enclosed, promoting power conservation through LED Christmas lights.

It's also interesting that I can't find any website promoting this year's Festival of Lights, except for a brief mention on a single calendar of major Saskatchewan events. As of today, both SaskPower and the Regina Chamber of Commerce are silent about it. What's happening? Did someone finally begin to feel a twinge of conscience?

There's a note of hope for you. On a related (hopeful) note, just last week, the federal and provincial governments announced "a new five-year Memorandum of Understanding on climate change" that includes funding for a feasibility study on a proposed SaskPower "clean coal project . . . capable of near-zero emissions of greenhouse gases and pollutants normally associated with coal fired thermal power plants." I just hope they can find the coal under some marginal cropland, instead of tearing up more native prairie pasture.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Advent Tuesday #1

Trouble and hope. Today I dwell upon the trouble.

I found a good overview of recent news about climate change and related politics, by Lord Robert May, president of the UK's national academy of science, the Royal Society (posted yesterday at the Environment News Service).

My thinking on climate change has shifted recently. I used to be fervent about warning people and convincing them to change before it is too late. Now there is too much evidence that it is already too late; the changes are well underway. Maybe we can still limit the impacts with swift action, but as Lord May points out:
. . . we have here a classic example of the problem or paradox of co-operation - also known as the Prisoner's Dilemma or occasionally the Tragedy of the Commons - referred to at the outset - the science tells us clearly that we need to act now to reduce inputs of greenhouse gases; but unless all countries act in equitable proportions, the virtuous will be economically disadvantaged whilst all suffer the consequences of the sinners' inaction.
I was intrigued to see that, when listing four major areas of action on climate change, Lord May said, "First, we can adapt to change . . ." I believe there is growing agreement that we will not be able to prevent significant, rapid, human-induced climate change. Instead we must find ways to adapt.

Here on the prairies, modelling suggests that forests will retreat northward, and island forests such as that of our Moose Mountains will shrink and change, if not disappear. It seems ironic that in the recent Throne Speech, Premier Calvert announced:
Agroforestry, including the growing of trees as crops, is underway. My government has a bold vision for the future of this industry. Over the next twenty years, the goal will be to transform ten per cent of the arable land of Saskatchewan to agroforestry, creating another sustainable industry in our province.
Umm, the arable land is in the south, and the forests are moving north. How is this "bold vision" going to work?

Monday, November 28, 2005

Advent Monday #1

When I turned off the highway toward the hills this morning, the land was warm with the long light of morning, and at the same time icy with last night's dusting of snow and frost. Every subtlety of the prairie scene stood out. I gazed at those hills and remembered again what a great gift it was to grow up among them, sheltered in their hollows, toughened on their slopes, and lifted high on their ridges to see for thirty miles or more across the plains below.

I wish everyone could grow up so immersed in the patterns of nature. I have never thought of myself as an outstanding student of nature, and yet in recent years, being paid to observe natural things, I have realized that I see things that others don't. I notice the golden-pink patches of little bluestem grassing the lower slopes. I see where a shallow draw has only snowberry and rose for brush cover, while a deeper one has saskatoon and chokecherry, and another for some reason is bristling with hawthorn. Here and there a clone of aspen throws its fan of slightly spreading trunks toward the sky.

This morning, all the gentle shadings of faded autumn seemed sharper and clearer. The patterns leapt from the scene, and I imagined that anyone could see them, if only they could be here to see.

Friday, November 25, 2005

New evidence that current CO2 levels are extreme

Just in: there is new ice core data from Antarctica going back 210,000 years farther than the previous Vostok ice core (which I discussed here), and the findings are consistent.
The analysis shows that today’s rising atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration, at 380 parts per million by volume, is now 27 percent higher than its highest recorded level during the last 650,000 years, said "Science" author Thomas Stocker of the Physics Institute of the University of Bern, in Bern, Switzerland...
The new data adds two full glacial cycles to the record, and suggests that natural changes in atmospheric composition through these cycles were much slower than the changes seen since the Industrial Revolution. The researchers are now discussing the possibility of even deeper cores that could extend the record to 1.2 million years or more.

An interesting tidbit: Nepal has ratified the Kyoto protocol.
Nepal with about 0.025 per cent of annual greenhouse gas emission in the world is the only South Asian country yet to ratify the Protocol. The global effort of reducing greenhouse gas emissions is in favor of Nepal for several reasons. First, it is a matter of honor and responsibility to be a part of the international pact where most of the countries have participated for a long-term interest of the mankind. Second, Nepal can meet most of the energy needs from non-carbon sources because the use of alternative energy sources (hydropower, biogas, solar and wind power, impoverished appropriate technology) has been increasing. This indicates that Nepal can directly benefit from the mechanisms of the Protocol by developing clean infrastructure projects in collaboration with other countries and also by trading its quotas with Annex I countries.


Finally, reducing a large number of possible natural disasters like melting of Himalaya, receding glaciers, and bursting of numerous glacier lakes, losing of biodiversity, which affect long-term interest and future of Nepal will be a major benefit in the long-run.
From another Nepali online newspaper I just discovered: The Rising Nepal.

"It is a matter of honour and responsibility..." Now if all of us could just deliver on our promises.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Of mice, . . .

. . . missing mousetraps, and . . . sniff-sniff-sniff - do I smell smoke?

I dread the missing mousetrap. I have been on trapline duty at the farm this fall, and for the most part I'm okay with that, but I quail at the sight of an empty spot where a trap should be. There is one trap site that is very effective, under the angle where a beam meets the floor, next to a side wall. It gives a perfect sheltered spot for a mouse to pause and check its surroundings for danger before giving its full attention to a feast of peanut butter.

There is almost always a mouse in that trap. Once in a while, though, the trap isn't there.

The first time it happened, there were little shavings of grey plastic littering the floor. I followed the trail of shavings and found the grey plastic mousetrap empty nearby, its perfectly molded plastic jaws now jagged with tiny toothmarks.

The second time was similar.

The third time, I stood by the trap site, scanning for the trap, and soon saw it resting at an odd angle, way across in the far corner of the room.

That corner was another trap site.

Before I got close, even though my mind was saying it couldn't be, I knew the truth: there was a mouse this time, and it was caught in two traps.

Its foreleg was caught in the grey plastic trap, which it must have dragged across the room. The other trap was fastened as a trap should be, firmly and lethally.

I wonder. Was this tableau a sign of great stupidity (or just typical stupidity, for a mouse)?

Or was it the record of a remarkably intelligent escape from suffering?

* * *

A couple of days later I decided to use the old truck to haul some things to town. I'd been warned about its quirky starting, so I pumped the gas as instructed, and the engine coughed, roared, sputtered, and died. This was typical, as I recalled, so I fired it up again, and then once more, and finally got it rolling. The farm dog galloped excitedly alongside as I gathered my load, jumping into the box the moment I stopped, and out again just as quickly when she remembered she hadn't had the "okay."

The south wind was bitter cold, and I was glad I had taken the time to find Dad's warm red hunting cap, quilted, with ear flaps, instead of the blaze-orange mass-market cap I'd been putting up with for deer season. I wondered if the dog was getting cold, but she seemed happy to trot back and forth nearby, checking out scent trails. Suddenly she dashed forward, intent on something under the truck. She raced around to the other side and then trotted triumphantly off with a mouse in her jaws. She played with it for a while, just like a cat, letting it go, batting it with her paws, dancing over it, pouncing, and finally clamping it in her mouth again and gazing off somewhere as if nothing special was happening.

I finished loading, drove back to the buildings, put my tools away, and paused to notice the dog once more. She was standing where the truck had originally been parked, eating something off the ground.

Dog food. Oh, those rodents. Her food bucket was in the shed nearby, and I guessed that something must have been stashing pellets under the truck. I didn't stop to wonder why such an exposed spot. My mind was on other food, for the kids, who would soon be arriving home (in town) for lunch.

I said farewell to the dog, got the truck started again, and during the trip down the lane, between episodes of purely sliding downhill on the icy patches, I tried to figure out the best route into town. Should I take the shortest way, and get there quicker to feed the kids, or should I take a slightly longer route around by the auction barn and the oilfield service yard, where nobody would care about the noisy old truck?

As I watched the exhaust spreading away from the road behind me, I was glad I had settled on the latter. That exhaust was awfully thick and white. Had the engine sputtering and dying been out of the ordinary, after all? I kept glancing at the gauges, not at all reassured by the fact that the oil light wasn't on. I couldn't hear the engine well over the rattling of the load. What to do? Well, it's a very old truck. If I kill it by finishing the trip into town, it's no great loss.

I settled into a slower speed, and the exhaust seemed to ease a little. By the time I passed the auction barn, it was looking almost normal - well, normal for a rusty old farm truck. I pulled into the yard as Ruth was leaving, on her way back to school. She had found herself a juice box and two cookies. That was her lunch.

James was still inside, standing by the kitchen table, still wearing his coat, with its hood up, and finishing a more substantial meal.

I sent him off, found some leftovers for myself, and spent the early afternoon unloading and puttering in the yard, until that raw south wind drove me inside to warm up. Towards supper time I walked downtown, and still the wind cut through my clothes. There was a hint of smoke in it, sometimes strong, and I thought about my friend who worried that his house would burn down while he was out working. The wind direction was right, but he would be at home today. Not to worry. Or should I worry more?

After supper, Ruth and I walked to the church for a choir rehearsal, of sorts. The main rehearsal is Sunday mornings now, to save people driving in on wintry roads at night (although right now, the snow is gone again). Thursday evenings I just go to the church and practise at the organ, and if somebody shows up I will help them with their singing, or play their favourite old hymns, or let them look through our music library and tell me what they like. Julianna came over to rehearse her solo for Sunday, and I polished up some hymns, and then we braved the wind once more.

As we stepped round the corner onto the driveway, I wondered out loud whose farm had the fire that had been stinking all day. Ruth had noticed it too. We passed the old truck, and the smell disappeared.

Had I imagined it? We circled the truck, and sure enough, downwind the smell was strong. Ruth got nervous and started worrying about her room being the closest if it exploded. I shooed her inside, changed to my work coat, and went over the truck in detail.

No smell at all in the cab.

Nothing around the engine.

It was definitely worst around the back, but there was nothing much in the box. I ducked down and saw an actual curl of smoke from somewhere underneath.

I hurried back to the house for a flashlight. All the while my mind was running through what it could be, and who I could phone to ask what it could be, and whether it could get worse in a hurry. There was dry grass right next to the driveway, and always that knifing wind. No lights at Brian's house across the street. I could phone Mom and Dad, but I knew I'd only get Mom tonight, and I didn't want to worry her.

The flashlight made a shaft across the smoke, and I quickly zeroed in on the source. There was no tailpipe on the muffler, and its rear opening was milky white. Something was smouldering in there.

What to do? Who to phone? I finally thought of my sister. She assured me that water wouldn't hurt the muffler itself, and insisted that it couldn't be a hot fire after all these hours. We traded ideas about something to just cover the hole and smother it, until I hit on the idea of aluminum foil. A couple of wads did the trick.

Now I know why that dog food was scattered on the ground where the truck had been. I also know what burnt dog food smells like.

The only thing I don't know, is how I'm going to get it out of the muffler before I drive that truck back out to the farm.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005


Garth is drawn to musicians. (That could explain something...) He has found jazz in Nepal, of all places. Check it out in his latest article. I hope he will be telling us something of homegrown Nepali music in future weeks.

Eco Golf (?!)

What's all this stuff creeping into my blog about golf? Arcola doesn't have a golf course (anymore, although I hear rumours that there used to be one out in our central vernal slough), and I haven't been on a golf course in years (*sniff!*). Must be a suppressed desire breaking out through all the layers of "Golf courses are bad for the environment" and "Garth hates golf." Hey, he's been golfing more recently than I have. What's going on?

Anyway, this morning via Grist, I discovered Eco Golf. The answer to all my hang-ups?

Monday, November 21, 2005

Trouble and Hope: My Advent Calendar

Sunday is the beginning of Advent (in Western Christianity). If that seems early, you're right - it never falls earlier than the 27th. Edwin Searcy suggests holding a New Year's Eve party on the 26th, to celebrate the turning of the church year. If you're thinking "Oh, no, not another party date to be commercialized," - wait. Searcy writes:
Advent begins with trouble. This is the odd counter-cultural movement of the Christian year. Just when the stores are in full swing, with jingling bells providing encouragement to shoppers and their credit cards, along comes Advent. Advent is a blue season. It is the season that tells the truth about the blues. It is the season that refuses to ignore the troubles that plague the world, the nations, the church, the family, the soul. Advent is the deep blue of the morning, just as the dark night is coming to an end.

. . . . The first text of the first Sunday of Advent this year begins: "O that you would tear open the heavens and come down." (Isaiah 64:1) . . . .

. . . . Advent is an invitation to linger with odd texts that take the church deep into the ache and grief that cries out for a saviour. Instead, we reduce it to four safe platitudes: hope, peace, joy, love. Christmas is a journey into the vulnerability of God's redemptive mission. The saviour cannot escape the troubles--born into obscurity, hunted down by the powers. How much of this fragility and danger remain in our festivities?
Gathering, A/C/E 2005-6: Reflections for the Season: Advent Begins with Trouble

I don't know if I'll get around to organizing the party for Saturday. But I am thinking about an "Advent Calendar" series, with photos, news links, and other tidbits of honesty about our troubled world, along with chinks of starlight and hints of the dawn - the hope, peace, joy and love that are always coming into the world anew.

And if I don't deliver any of that, there is still church. Any church. The First of Advent is a wonderful time to begin.

I'll be the doughnut, thanks.

Kate finds Kurt Vonnegut distasteful (on the basis of a few quotes in an Australian review, suspiciously lacking in context). I decided to learn a bit about Mr. Vonnegut (oh, I'm so naive), and came across this evidence that "the great divide" I've been lamenting is nothing new:

Even crazier than golf, though, is modern American politics, where, thanks to TV and for the convenience of TV, you can only be one of two kinds of human beings, either a liberal or a conservative.

Actually, this same sort of thing happened to the people of England generations ago, and Sir William Gilbert, of the radical team of Gilbert and Sullivan, wrote these words for a song about it back then:

I often think it’s comical
How nature always does contrive
That every boy and every gal
That’s born into the world alive
Is either a little Liberal
Or else a little Conservative.

Which one are you in this country? It’s practically a law of life that you have to be one or the other? If you aren’t one or the other, you might as well be a doughnut.

Cold Turkey by Kurt Vonnegut, at In These Times

Now, in case you're thinking I agree with Vonnegut about golf, let me clarify. I hope James and his Grandpa will take me along sometimes, and I will try not to be too distracted on the one hand by the spiritual experience of walking a nine-by-three-or-four-hundred-metre labyrinth, or on the other hand by the environmental impact of all that landscaping and of our getting there. I'd like them to invite me more than once.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Arcola Community Band is meeting again...

...and even though Mom wasn't there this week, we still had cookies! We have a little bit of everything: beginners and old hands; a huge library of music to satisfy all our ambitions and desires; some keeners to keep us on track, and lots of fun-loving people to make sure we don't take ourselves too seriously. We even have shelves full of extra instruments, if you'd like to borrow one to try something new, or to decide whether to replace that horn that you haven't had since high school. Even if you've never played a single note in your life, you're welcome to come out and see if band is for you. We meet Friday evenings, 7:30 p.m. in the school music room, and we play at various community events through the year. Our next scheduled appearance: we're sitting in with the Arcola School Band at the Grand Opening of the new curling rink, Friday, January 6th.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

The great divide

Yesterday at Coffee and Scriptures (10:00 a.m. Wednesdays at the United Church, downstairs, everyone welcome...) the question was asked: "Do you think bigotry is getting worse?"

I responded with a lot of my personal frustration about discussion getting shut down by the divide between "right" and "left." I don't know if it's getting worse, or if I'm just new to the whole arena, but it seems to me that a lot of viewpoints (on all sorts of subjects) get either claimed by or rejected by each side, and then anyone speaking up with a viewpoint gets cheered or dismissed simply on the basis of which side "owns" that viewpoint. It's as if you choose once whether to be "right" or "left," and then your side tells you how to think.

Today at small dead animals I read Kate's opinion and a lot of commentary about how the right sees the left. I churned for a while but did not comment. I would have to write a book to reply, and first I would have to learn a lot more history, and by the end of that, I don't know what my opinion would be.

I suspect that many people would percieve me as "left of center," simply because I speak up about environmental issues. And yet, left-wing politics baffle me. I survived Political Science 100 at the University of Regina (a required class for pre-journalism students) by finding familiar-looking words in the exam questions and regurgitating similar-sounding paragraphs that I had memorized out of my notes. (The frightening thing is that I got 70% without having a clue what I was talking about.) I tried to support the New Green Alliance Party for a while, but the most active members seemed to be far more concerned about minimum wage than they were about conservation.

A while ago I commented on the Gristmill Blog: "...where I live, 'Eat less beef' should be changed to 'Eat more beef, as long as it's range-fed.'" Another reader said, "Wrong, LauraH. Bring back the bison and wildfires, get rid of the cattle." I asked how far that reader wanted to take that reasoning - get rid of the people, maybe? A third reader jumped in and suggested that I should be more open to compromise; bison would be a good idea. He went on to say: "Bring natural spiritual energy into the lives of those you meet, even if you only meet them on the world wide web."

I still think "bring back the bison" is simplistic, but I was mollified. I wanted to learn more about this seemingly gentle, wise reader, so I visited his blog. To my shock, I found it laden with mocking names for the U.S. President. How is that "natural spiritual energy"?

All I can say is this: I believe it is up to us as individuals to refuse to be boxed up in political ideologies. It is also up to us to insist on seeing one another as people, not as members of this or that group. Maybe in politics we need parties with clearly packaged positions, but in day-to-day life, as individuals, we need to counteract the magnetic force of those political positions, through our personal determination to think for ourselves. For myself I would add that if I am going to be absolutist about anything, I will be absolutist about allegiance to God. But that's just for myself.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

EnergyStar as a non-tariff barrier

As you've heard, I'm not impressed with "EnergyStar" labels on appliances. EnerGuide, on the other hand, tells me what I need to know.

It sounds like energy efficiency labelling is being challenged at the WTO. What isn't clear to me is the breadth of the challenge. If they're only going after EnergyStar and similar programs, I'd have to wonder: maybe this challenge is a good thing. If they're going after EnerGuide and other programs that simply disclose facts about energy use, that's another story. If your product is inferior, don't blame the label, and try to call it a "non-tariff barrier." The inferiority is the barrier, as it should be.

Bullying Awareness Week

I heard on Estevan FM radio this morning that it's "bullying awareness week." National Bullying Awareness Week, I discovered. I saw a lot of emphasis on what youth can do to stop bullying through "peer power," but I think we parents should give some thought to what madcap mum has to say about bullying, and the book she recommends that explains "why parents matter." I'm not saying we should all be homeschoolers, but I for one am learning that it doesn't hurt me at all to pay some positive attention to my kids. So what if I don't get much blogging done? Sledding with the kids for an afternoon will probably do far more to build a better world than any article I might have written.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Know the cost

We saw large flocks of geese feeding in a field some weeks ago, but I hadn't noticed any since then. Yesterday they were flying over in large "V"s, high up, heading south. That's rather late, isn't it? The fall has been very warm over all.

Phyllis and I had found ourselves walking the same way for a while, and we stopped to look up and listen to their calls. She said, "Can you imagine wanting to shoot one of those?" I replied that I had considered hunting geese, and she gave me a poke and said, "Oh, don't you even think about it." I mentioned that I have hunted deer, but we were coming to the parting of our ways, so the conversation ended there.

With hunting seasons a popular topic on various blogs, and discussions about tighter gun control in the news, I thought I'd post a poem that sums up my feelings on the subject. I sometimes hear this as a sort of bluesy song lyric, taking some liberties with the tune from one verse to the next, but it's not a comfortable genre for me so I haven't worked on it much.

I’ve Got a Rifle
©2003 Laura Herman

You call me a killer.
You call me a killer.

Before you criticize
my way of life,
you'd better check your hands.
You might be holding a knife.

They say the pen is mightier,
mightier than the sword.
Well, I've got a rifle.
You've got a credit card.

On foot in the bush,
knowing there's hard work ahead,
I may bring down a deer
to keep my family fed.

And you walk in to your
favorite restaurant,
look down that menu,
and pick out whatever you want.

They list all the items with
mouth-watering names,
but you don't know where that food
was grown, or how it came.

Tell me how many deer
die in front of semi trucks.
Tell me how many grainfields
no longer have marshes for ducks.

As you break that bread, and
sip that sweet wine,
tell me how far it travelled
from the field and the vine.

And for every calorie in your
vegetarian meal,
tell me how many calories
burned up in fossil fuel.

You don't know much about my life.
You know less about yours.
Thanks for listening, and sorry
if you're not that hungry anymore.

Take a look at that plastic in your hands.
Look at it hard.
Yes, I've got a rifle.
You've got a credit card.

I don't actually have a rifle, by the way, in case you're thinking of reporting me. I took firearm safety when I was a teenager. After we went to the shooting range, one of the parents told my mom, "If you're as good a shot as she is, she'll never have a chance at a boyfriend. You'll just sit up on that hill and pick them off!" But life was very hectic during that year when I could have got my possession license just by applying, and ever since then, I just haven't got around to taking the test. One of these years...

A reprieve

In the U.S., the proposal to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling has been pulled from a House spending-reduction bill. This move came after a group of Republicans said they would vote against the bill unless the proposal was removed.

Of course, there could still be other moves to have the drilling go ahead, but we can hope that I was wrong.

The more I read about American politics, the more I admire their system. As far as I can see, Canadian elected representatives have far less power to act independently of their party leadership. Basically, Canadian citizens get one chance in four years to influence the overall policy direction. After that, you can try talking to your MP, but unless you've got the time and resources for direct lobbying of the leaders, you're not likely to make much difference. And of course, if you live west of the Great Lakes, it's painfully obvious as you watch election results come in, that your one chance in four years doesn't amount to much.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Monday, November 07, 2005

A Tai Chi Labyrinth

I hesitate to post this design, because I might just leave it at that. Please encourage me to go ahead and build one.

During the week that we were learning about and building a labyrinth last summer at Calling Lakes Centre, we were also playing some Tai Chi on the same piece of ground. Somehow the two concepts got mixed up in my head.

I remember standing in the Centre's bookstore, leafing through a book about labyrinths, and stopping short at an old engraving of a labyrinth of stone walls, in which the tops of the walls were the walking surface. It was an imaginary scene, meant to represent the perilous journey of pilgrims through life.

The image seized me, because as I looked at it, I saw a way to build a labyrinth based on the Tai Chi symbol. It was a complex plan involving a two-level structure, above and below ground. The path would start on the upper level, following the outline of one swirl of the symbol and then working inward in concentric swirls to reach the central dot, where a ladder or steps would descend to the lower level. The path would then work outward from the central dot to the perimeter of that swirl, and as it traced the 'S' through the centre of the symbol, it would lead into the other swirl. The whole process would repeat in this other half of the symbol, except that it would be starting on the lower level and the central dot would take the walker back up to the upper level. Then the path would work its way out and exit the labyrinth.

I started sketching, and the design went through several simplifications.

First, instead of two levels, there were just some low walls, perhaps 20 cm high. Walkers would start out walking on top of the walls, then go down a step or two at the first dot and walk between the walls to travel back out of that half of the symbol and into the second half, where the dot would return them to the wall tops for the journey out.

I simplified it again, by replacing the low walls with some sort of pavement surface, and grass between, so that walkers travelled first on the pavement and then on the grass, and finally on pavement again.

I don't know why it never occurred to me that the design could be done with a single path, instead of two levels or walking surfaces. All that was needed was to outline all the boundaries between one walking surface and another, and then the spaces between the outlines would be the path. I guess I couldn't get my head around what would happen at the margins and the dots. The solution came to me after I saw the Baltic variation of the classical labyrinth, which has a little S-turn at the centre and a second path travelling out between the circuits of the first.

This made the idea much more practical to build. It bothered me a little that the black-and-white distinction between the two halves of the symbol would be lost, but I pressed on, intending to deal with that problem later.

Even after I sensed that the design would work, I fumbled around for some time trying to actually draw it. I finally got it when I started constructing a Tai Chi symbol in CorelDraw, using three circles as I had seen in a diagram somewhere. I began playing with sets of concentric circles, and gradually figured out that I could construct all the arcs I needed for the entire design from just three sets of circles: one working inward from the border of the design, and two working outward from the dots. As I worked, I made the border-circle set a different color to help keep things straight. Once I started connecting the arcs, though, new arcs took on the color of the border arcs, and this color started flowing inward through the design. There was a thrilling moment when I realized that the path borders were actually just two lines, and if each line was a different color, the underlying pattern of the symbol would be appear.

Here it is:

I think I will outline the paths with rocks, either painted black and white, or simply chosen for their dark and light colours. Here is the same design with some perspective added to give an idea of how it might look as you approach it from the south:

If you want to take the design and build one, please go ahead. You might want to read a bit about the influence of location and compass orientation and so on, or find someone with some Feng Shui or dowsing experience to help choose the spot. I'd love to hear how it turns out.

Golf courses as labyrinths

Back at the end of August, James went golfing with his Grandpa. He came home excited to show me his score card from the Lampman course, and how difficult (long) Hole 3 was. He pointed it out on the little map, but (sorry James) I was distracted by a flash of recollection. The sketch of the course powerfully reminded me of the layout of a labyrinth.

This summer we spent a week at the Calling Lakes Centre (or Prairie Christian Training Centre, PCTC for short). Garth and I were helping Anita Warriner of Alameda area to lead the "Summer at the Centre" program, which is sort of a cross between summer camp and a rest-and-renewal retreat. Among activities ranging from nature walks to home spa sessions to watersliding...

(the water is just pumped up from the lake;
the plastic is used again and again)

...we also offered participants a chance to help build a labyrinth for the Centre. The labyrinth is a tool for meditation, laid out with a single path leading through many curves and turns (but no forks) into the centre. You can't get lost; you simply walk until you reach the goal, perhaps pause there to reflect for some moments, and then retrace your path back out again. The labyrinth we built is a classical 7-circuit design, laid out on a grassy area with stones marking the boundaries of the paths.

I discovered today that there is a variation on the classical design, called the Baltic type, which has one path in and another path out, allowing a continuous procession without the necessity of meeting other walkers on the return trip.

How different is that from a golf course?

I wonder if the similarity has been noticed by any of the numerous authors writing about the spirituality of golf.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

The Refrigerator Saga, Part 2: What makes a star a star?

(Part 1 is here.)

The first part of this post was drafted back at the end of September. I received some more information since then, and I finally have some time to give you an update. Reader warning: the following contains some grumpiness, and probably far more detail about fridges than you could ever want.

Now, about that fridge. I spent quite a bit of time at the Office of Energy Efficiency (OEE) website, reviewing their refrigerator energy efficiency ratings, and getting irritated. The fridges are grouped by volume and features, so you can examine a set of comparable fridges and see which models are most efficient. Volume categories don't work very well for me, because I have a definite width limit (24" max.) and the volume category I'm looking at (10.5 to 12.4 cu. ft.) includes a mixture of wider and narrower fridges. Feature categories just get in the way, because the features are less important to me than the efficiency. However, I persisted, wading through all the different menu combinations, and checking manufacturer or retailer specs for each model in turn to find out which ones actually are 24" wide. I looked at a lot of ratings. I became convinced that there is something fishy here.

EnergyStar models are supposed to be the most efficient. Within a given category, the EnergyStar fridges should have better EnerGuide ratings than the other fridges in that category.

They don't.

Take, for example, the 10.5 to 12.4 cu. ft. category, with auto defrost, any freezer location. Out of 35 fridges listed, three are EnergyStar qualified. All three have the same EnerGuide rating, 439 kWh/yr. Only two fridges in the whole list have worse EnerGuide ratings. Fully 29 of the non-EnergyStar models have ratings that are better by at least 30 kWh/yr.

What's going on?

What's more, those three EnergyStar fridges are all "Liebherr" brand, not available this side of Ontario as far as I can tell. What good is an incentive to buy a fridge, if the fridge isn't available?

In the same size category, without auto defrost, the EnerGuide ratings are better (across the board), and there are no EnergyStar fridges at all. How can that be? Somebody has to be the best in the category; there can't be a blank at the top. A salesman explained that the standard to qualify for EnergyStar labelling is set higher for smaller fridges, and almost no fridges meet the standard. Huh?

I sent an inquiry to the Office of Energy Efficiency:
Why do you set the efficiency standards higher for smaller fridges? The higher standard means that if I want to buy an EnergyStar fridge (no provincial sales tax here in SK), I have to buy a larger fridge, which actually uses more energy per year!
They replied:
Dear Ms. Herman: This is in response to your question from August 22, 2005 regarding refrigerators. Your questions/statements are not necessary [sic] correct.
They went on to tell me (as if I didn't know) that "today's refrigerators are much better energy performers than older models..." Then they repeated exactly what I had asked about:
To be ENERGY STAR qualified, standard-size refrigerators must exceed Government of Canada minimum regulated energy efficiency levels by at least 15 percent. Compact refrigerators must achieve energy efficiency levels that are at least 20 percent higher than the minimum regulated standard in Canada.
Then, without bothering to answer my question, they listed a bunch of places where I could get the same specifications and ratings that I had already reviewed. They went on to state that "the best energy performers are ENERGY STAR qualified refrigerators," and then gave a general description of how energy performance standards and test procedures are set. They didn't mention how the EnergyStar targets are set. Finally they informed me that
The ENERGY STAR is a voluntary (not regulatory) labeling program designed to identify and promote energy-efficient products to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and aimed at market penetration. ENERGY STAR specifications are intended to recognize the most energy-efficient models in the market; not add cost to these models. Please visit our website (listed above) for more information on energy efficient appliances and other issue [sic] related to energy efficiency. Best Regards, Office of Energy Efficiency
How can they claim that EnergyStar models are best, if the program is voluntary? That small point, buried in their rambling reply, could explain a lot.

I wrote again, pointing out that they hadn't answered my question, and finally got something more like an answer:
As a general rule when developing product specifications, the approach is to recognize the TOP performing models in the marketplace in terms of energy-efficiency. This usually works out to be approximately the top 25% of the best performing products of a given category available in the market.
This is why the 20% was the case for the smaller refrigerators. The selection of the refrigerator size is a personal consumer choice. You are correct, the smaller refrigerators will consume less energy, and choosing an Energy Star product will result in even better energy savings (please refer to 2005 EnerGuide Appliance Directory). The availability and diversity of the products is market driven and controlled by the manufacturers and supply and demand to give the consumers the choice of products based on their lifestyle.
It's more like an answer, but it isn't an answer. If the top 25% of models in a category should be EnergyStar qualified, why are there 0% of models qualifying in the small-fridge category?

I finally decided to give up on the EnergyStar label (even though it confers a sales tax exemption here in Saskatchewan) and just consider the EnerGuide ratings. That makes everything much easier.

So... why do we have the EnergyStar program? How often do people choose EnergyStar as "better," without checking the EnerGuide ratings, and actually get a worse performer? They might even step up to a larger size, or an unnecessary energy-consuming feature, just to get the EnergyStar label. I'm baffled. The only rationale I can think of for the EnergyStar program, is that it helps manufacturers highlight their products as best in a category, instead of having to compete on the full scale of EnerGuide ratings over the full range of products. On the consumer side, the EnergyStar program actively hides the choices that consumers can make to adjust their lifestyle to conserve energy. For example, it gives equal approval to the following products:
  • a 26 cu. ft. side-by-side fridge/freezer with auto defrost and through-the-door ice service, at 618 kWh/yr
  • a 17 cu. ft. all-fridge, at 335 kWh/yr
and it denies approval to the 10.5 cu. ft. fridge that meets my needs at 328 kWh/yr. As I see it, the cost that goes into administering this program would be much better spent by simply providing a more powerful interface to the EnerGuide directory, so that consumers can short-list models based on their own specific requirements (not generalized categories), and then see for themselves which model has the best rating. A better rating is a better rating.

That concludes what I wrote in September. When I finished, I decided to try just a couple more questions, and give the OEE another chance to give me a clear answer. Here's an update:

Well, well. They took another run at answering my question about smaller fridges, and instead of a clearer answer, I got a different answer. I suspect that this is (finally) the correct one:
As mentioned in earlier email from my group, the ENERGY STAR levels are based on the potential for energy efficiency improvements of a current technology. Smaller fridges have a greater potential for energy efficiency improvements, which is why the level was placed at 20%.
As for that "earlier email," if it exists, it wasn't delivered to me. At any rate, this answer makes more sense than the previous ones. It surprised me, because I would have thought that the high surface-to-volume ratio in a smaller refrigerator would limit the potential for efficiency improvements. (Smaller objects have more surface area for their volume; hence shrews have to eat a lot more for their size than do elephants, because they lose their body heat very fast.) Now that I think of it, if you had two refrigerators equally insulated, one larger and one smaller, the smaller would have to work harder per unit volume. If you increase the insulation equally on both fridges, it should make more difference to the efficiency of the smaller one. Okay, I see the reasoning. It makes sense, but it does nothing to address my objections about the actual impacts of the EnergyStar program.

As for my question about the Liebherr fridges getting EnergyStar qualification even though they are nearly the worst for their size: they tell me it's because they have the freezer on the bottom, and they are competing only with other bottom-freezer fridges. As I suspected, this program is designed for manufacturers, not for consumers. If you're buying an appliance, ignore the EnergyStar labels. The EnerGuide is all you need.

A scary Hallowe'en picture

What's so scary about that, you say?

Well, that's my dress...

but that's not me in it.

That's my daughter.

My favourite part of the picture? The cat's tail.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

The 2000-acre scam

I can't tie this story to Arcola other than to say that we're oil country, too, and almost all of us drive cars. The few of us who walk for our errands will be even fewer now that the sidewalks are covered in snow and ice. Anyway, another barrier has fallen for the proponents of drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (Alaska). What amazes me is that Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist is still talking about the 2000 acres that will be affected as if they were a single block of land.
Drilling supporters note the provision only opens 2,000 acres of the refuge’s 1.5-million acre coastal plain – an area Frist said is “the equivalent to a postage stamp on a tennis court.”
A mist net on a tennis court would be a better analogy. How would that affect your tennis game?

I think the drilling supporters could be honest about this and still get what they want. Matthew Simmons is convinced that we need to find alternatives to petroleum fuels, immediately, but he still supports drilling in the Refuge because of the need to buy some time for transition. I am assuming that, as an industry insider, he would be aware of the reality of those 2000 acres.

As I see it, the drilling will go ahead, but an honest discussion might help some people see the real ecological costs of their own day-to-day choices. A Senator's comments affect more than just the outcome of a Senate vote. Who is going to worry about cutting back on unnecessary car trips, when their leaders are steadily reassuring them that oil development is environmentally benign?

Friday, November 04, 2005

Five point one, point two...

After posting "Fives" (previous post; read it first to make sense of this one), I drove out to the farm, which gave me computer-free solitude in which I thought of all sorts of things I should have said.

Five Creatures: Uh-oh, I listed a bunch of officially rare creatures. That's far out of character. Here's Pet Peeve #6: being sent chasing hither and yon after reports of rare plants, wasting everybody's time and resources on an effort that might shift a development twenty or thirty metres left or right if something officially rare happens to be growing there that year (and visible during the week that I happen to be there). Let's face it: native prairie is rare. If oil is unlimited, or if technology is about to come up with a substitute, then there's no need to be drilling for the oil that's under native prairie. And if oil scarcity is looming, drilling on native prairie isn't going to do much to stave off the crunch.

So, other creatures I'd like to see instead of the official rarities? Brumbies! No, not really, I don't need to go flying halfway round the world just to see brumbies, and don't tell Garth I mentioned them, because he dearly longs to take the family to Australia. I figure I've got plenty to see right around here. I also have an irrational dread of meeting one of their deadly poisonous creatures. I can't imagine appreciating the wonder of the moment between being bitten or stung, and dropping dead.

How did brumbies come to mind? It must have been the article I saw recently about conflicts between grazing and parks management in the high country of Victoria. "The Man from Snowy River" would probably still make it onto a short list of my favourite movies, but I'd completely forgotten the word "brumbies." In Moose Mountain Provincial Park just north of here, we have a similar heritage of grazing within the park, and from what I have heard, the cattlemen have been quite proactive in figuring out ways to manage the grazing patterns and avoid overuse of particular areas. In the Australian article, they mentioned
...testing...virtual fencing technology that uses global positioning systems to plot exclusion areas. The information is stored in a collar or ear tag on cattle and a signal emitted when they approach a no-go zone.
"Signal" sounds like a euphemism for something that animal-rights activists might not like. What is it, a blue heeler's growl? Or would it be more like the tried-and-true signal that a cow gets from an electric fence? Say, I wonder if a growling fence would work. Speaking of electric fences, I fondly remember a young man from California who came up to Alberta to train me in collecting surface soil samples for microbial oil exploration. He gave me my first introduction to GPS technology, but Alberta gave him his first introduction to electric fences. Too bad I hadn't thought to warn him. He had a wonderful self-deprecating way of telling a story. He said he pulled his quad up to the fence, and went to lift the wire over it. He couldn't figure out why a wasp kept stinging him every time he grabbed the wire.

Back to the Australian grazing story: a GPS system to herd cattle is something I had already daydreamed about, several years ago. It was after I heard that grazing behaviour is substantially different without predators harassing the herds. Grass health declines under more constant, distributed grazing. I wondered if you could use a GPS collar system to keep herds bunched and moving, and thus keep pastures healthier and more productive. Sounds like my daydream just might come true.


Madcap Mum (at maison madcap) has yelled "Tag! You're all it," and set this meme out for anyone who wants to play. Sort of like those boxes of tomatoes I see in every porch this fall. "Help yourself, any time..."

I've changed some headings back toward an earlier version at Earth Home Garden. Here goes:

Five Pet Peeves:
  1. Wads of newsprint printed with anything but news and dumped in my mailbox and on my doorstep just because I exist
  2. The claim that gasoline taxes should only go to building more and better roads so we'll have even more incentive to burn more gasoline (when they could also go to mitigating the impacts of roads and CO2 emissions, or go into a refunded tax system (scroll down in the first comment) that rewards fuel efficiency, giving even more incentive to burn less gasoline)
  3. Rising speed limits
  4. Straw-man labels like "eco-communists" and "compassionites"
  5. The ban on private and community posters on the Arcola post office bulletin board, which has killed our one and only way to inform the whole community of events that help keep the whole community alive (Psst - somebody - let's see if the folks at Arcola Building Supplies would be willing to put up an outdoor bulletin board on their south wall, right next to the post office sidewalk. Plexiglass sliding doors on it to keep the posters dry. A few donations for materials, volunteers to build it...)
Five Wild Creatures I'd Like to See (in the wild) Before I Go:
  1. Surprise me!
  2. and if I get to see a big predator up really close, in the wild, right before I go, I pray that I be able to appreciate the wonder of the moment.
  3. Sage grouse
  4. Black-footed ferret
  5. Small white lady's-slipper
- and I'd like to see them all here in Saskatchewan, please.

Five Moments in My Life that Have Changed Everything I've Done Since
  1. Whenever it was that my parents decided to move to Saskairie (Outdoor Education Centre)
  2. Starting piano lessons
  3. Deciding that even though I had had almost no friends in school, I was going to have friends in university. Period.
  4. A waking vision of a vertical board with a row of round holes up the middle, and a peg in the very bottom hole, representing my worth; realizing that it was I who put that peg in that bottom hole; seizing hold of it and putting it up where it belongs
  5. A dream in which I saw a mansion with light pouring out of the upper windows, where there was a party going on; I tried to get to the party by building a staircase to the windows out of strawbales and blue boxes; I couldn't get there because the staircase squished and sagged under my weight; and someone told me gently, "You have to come in through the stable."
Five Books (Not Movies) that Changed My Course
  1. That little New Testament that the Gideons gave me in elementary school
  2. The textbook for Biology 200 (which was biology for non-biology majors), because it took me out of pre-journalism and into biology
  3. "Happiness Is a Choice" by Barry Neil Kaufman (enough said)
  4. "For Christ's Sake" by Tom Harpur, because it stripped away the doctrine and gave me confidence to read the bible for myself
  5. "Emotional Infidelity" by M. Gary Neuman, because it got me out of a very close call (which could have been #6 on the list above), and primed me for Marriage Builders.
And as Madcap Mum said: "Anyone who likes may feel free to steal the meme and apply it to him/herself. Consider yourself tagged!"

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

"a different world"

In the second instalment of his column from Nepal, Garth explores the credit union system, and is grateful...

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

What I really read

I have a tall stack of worthy-looking books to read, but what I actually read is whatever the kids have left lying around. I'm very tired of the Animorphs series, but James keeps bringing them, so I occasionally skim another one. I haven't tried Guardians of Ga'hoole yet. Ruth tends to read single novels rather than series, and she comes up with some fine ones. Two that stand out recently:

Halfway to the Sky by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley
I suspect that part of the power of this book for me was the mother-daughter struggle to connect across barriers of bitterness, guilt, and plain old busyness. I'm particularly sensitive to such themes these days as we adjust to more-or-less solo parenting. Come February, when Garth gets home, I'll probably be intrigued by stories of newcomers in the family.

True Confessions of a Heartless Girl by Martha Brooks
This was a gem. I love a story that is set so close to home (just across the border in southwest Manitoba) that I can see and hear and smell everything. Then on top of that, the characters are as breathtakingly real as a stubbed toe or an unexpected hug, and the tale winds its way through the sorts of wrenching struggles that can happen inside of a week or two, right here in a little prairie town.

I just noticed that both books focus on runaways. I'll admit it, I used to dream about running away, taking over the controls of my own life. Now that I am flying solo, I can't imagine voluntarily choosing this existence for the rest of my days. It's okay, Garth, you don't need to come flying home early, but you can bet I'll be glad when you do.