Saturday, September 30, 2006

Time Passing

Yesterday was the fall/fowl supper, now held in Prairie Place Hall instead of the church basement. Much easier to organize, and wheelchair accessible, but some people miss the routine of sitting upstairs to wait your turn, then picking your way down the narrow winding back stairs, and finding out who would be sitting next to you or across from you at the long supper table in the basement. There was lots of deliberate visiting during the wait upstairs, and then random chance visiting with the people at your elbows during the meal. Nowadays, in the new hall, with all those tables of eight, people can sit with those they know, linger over coffee, and then leave with hardly a mingle.

I was signed up to help with cleanup, but it wasn't much of a job, because the tables were all left up for today's luncheon in honour of Joe Hengen. He passed away earlier this week. It was a shock to the whole community, because he was vigorous and active in everything - literally just about everything going, and more than just about any of us realized. He was 70, though, and had been living with heart problems for a long time, so I'd say he did very well. He was principal of our school when I was in elementary, and later mayor of the town, right up until a few years ago. He acted in the community theatre group, danced with the Scottish Country Dancers, took part in curling and lawn-bowling, sang with choirs, served on numerous boards and committees, and I'm sure he holds the community record for most events emceed. From the photo display at the luncheon, I learned that he was a recipient of the Saskatchewan Centennial Medal.

At the two events this weekend, I saw several people that I haven't seen in many moons, or even years. A neighbour from our first years here in the Arcola area, whose family made us welcome like no others did; and my piano teacher to whom I owe so much for the joy I find in music. Her husband was my English teacher in high school. Funny, when I thought about what to post on this blog today, the first thing that came to mind was a little poem I wrote in those years - one that he particularly praised.


watch my life ticking a-
way overdue

Too easy to be wrapped up in schedules and deadlines like that. In the long run, I guess it's not the deadlines met that matter so much as the times shared in between.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

CESD Report 2006

Today the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development released her much-awaited report for 2006, assessing the Canadian government's response to the challenge of climate change.

While politicians and bloggers are busy using it for mud-slinging, I thought you might be interested in looking at the report itself.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Autumnal Equinox

Here's something fun for today. I went looking for it after noticing, at around noon a few days ago, the striking appearance of the day-night boundary on the Seismic Monitor that Kate has displayed in her sidebar. I wondered if I could find a similar display without the earthquake data. I haven't found one to use as a constantly-updated sidebar icon, but I did find a page where you can look at Earth's areas of daylight and darkness, for any date and time you choose between 1700 and 2030.

Try looking at the light map for today's date, and then switching the month to June, and then to December.

A curious note from the text:
Because our atmosphere bends sunlight about a half-degree (60 km) into the area of the Earth that would otherwise be dark, the sunlit part of the Earth is slightly more than half of the entire surface (there is actually more than 12 hours of daylight at the equinoxes).

Thursday, September 21, 2006

For Sunday

A Prayer of Approach
Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Sunday, September 24th, 2006

Mighty and merciful God,
you are the God
of darkness and of light,
of water and of dry land,
of creatures that creep and creatures that soar,
of creatures that swim and creatures that walk,
of the weak and of the strong,
of the least and of the greatest,
of the last and of the first.

You welcome all.

You call us all
to give our all in loving you
and to let the love we know ourselves
flow on to neighbour
after neighbour
after neighbour.
Help us to remember
that the child Jesus welcomes
is every child of your creation.

And remembering this,
in everything we do, everywhere we go,
may we share that welcome.
So may we welcome your son, Jesus,
and so, welcome you.


If You're Trekking to the North Pole... might want to bring a dinghy.

More meltdown here.

Hello-o-o . . . Ottawa . . . Calgary . . . coffee row . . . Hello?

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Thinking of Switching

All you Beta Bloggers out there - have you tried using the new "labels" function? Does it apply only to new posts, or can you go back and add labels to old posts - and if so, do you have to go into each post and republish it individually, or is there a way to do this in a batch?

I just noticed that I haven't updated my subject index since 2005/09 - yep, that's a year ago. I'd really like to give people a chance to look back through my thoughts on, say, climate change, but updating my subject index was always tedious and I just can't face doing a whole year's worth the old way.

By the way, my recent posts (June to September '06) on climate change are here:
Climate Change Is Good for Me - Part Two
Climate Change Is Good For Me
The Sporting Mind (2nd Edition)
Klein's Breath in the Grand Scheme of Things
Climate and Energy News Coming Thick and Fast
An Enormous Step Forward
Not for Gore's Sake, but for Your Sake (Updated)

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Santa and the Stone Soup

Ruth had an assignment in art class, to write a children's story so that she could then illustrate it as a children's book.

She was not amused.

As an expression of her frustration, she wanted to kill Santa off in her story, but that was not very original, since she knows a fellow who actually did that, and got sent to the school counsellor for it.

(Now she's telling me she actually wanted to kill the Easter Bunny.)

In the end, she wrote something about a pink penguin, which wasn't all that original either, considering the song I used to sing to the kids when they were younger (Boom, boom...). "But," she says, "my penguin was a loner, because he was actually pink."

Anyway, back when we were still discussing the assignment, we did cook up a bit of a yarn about Santa. I asked Ruth if I could post it here, and she said "Sure - you're the one who made it up." Ummm - before you call the folks in the white coats, I insist, it wasn't all my idea.

Once upon a time, in a village far away, a great pot was set over a hot fire. The pot was filled with water, and a strange, quiet, happy man carefully lowered into the simmering water a single, plain-looking stone.

Curious villagers began to gather. First the youngsters came, their first timid steps giving way to bold rushes, and then to questions. Each time the man answered that he was making stone soup, and it would be very good. But each time he added that it would be even better if he had a little bit of this or that.

And the villagers came with their little bits of this and that, and each bit was solemnly added to the simmering water with the same strange look of quiet joy.

The joy spread, and grew noisy, and the pot bubbled, and the smell of the stone soup grew stronger and richer and spicier and sweeter and stronger still, and mounted to the sky.

And across that sky came the strangest thing yet: a sleigh borne aloft by some great magic, and pulled along by eight reindeer. Or was it nine? After the peculiar events of that evening, no-one could clearly remember. But they all remembered the jolly face of the rotund man in the sleigh, his white beard trailing in the breeze of his flight, his tall red cap tilted sideways too, and a look of pure pleasure on his features as he leaned far out to catch the smell of the stone soup. Farther and farther he leaned, straining his great bulk against the side panel of the sleigh, until all at once he tumbled over.

Down he fell, down, down towards the centre of the village. And it seemed that the soup pot had grown wondrously large, and the steam had grown fiercely thick and hot, and on its updraft the rotund fellow settled softly into the simmering water with hardly a plop, his face still suffused with rapture at the scent.

And all who tasted it agreed: it was a very good soup.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

For Today

Believers know that while our values are embodied in tradition, our hopes are always located in change.
William Sloane Coffin

Found in today's edition of Rumors.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Climate Change Is Good For Me - Part Two

Well, well. More evidence that climate change is a good thing.

Depending on how you look at it, of course. Is civilization a good thing?

I'm reading "The Alphabet Versus the Goddess" (which, strangely enough, I don't seem to have mentioned here before), and Shlain is discussing the same time period. I may have more to say later.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Be Patient - They Really Do Have Brains

I browse and blog; Mom watches TV and passes tips on to me. With this one, I believe she has in mind the survival of her grandchildren. Now, I'm not talking about vague, hypothetical grandchildren surviving an ecological crisis. I'm talking about those two specific grandchildren of my mother that happen to live with me, and their chances of surviving their own adolescence and its effects on me.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Climate Change Is Good For Me

They've extended the ice-core record back to 800,000 years, and still no challenge to our modern triumph: the highest atmospheric CO2 levels in the entire record! And beyond! Way beyond! Hooray for civilization!

I did a Blogger blogs search for reaction to this news, and found Tim Denton's cheery response, as well as an even cheerier post of his from a couple of days ago, in which he has the arrogance to suggest that (gasp) humans may be contributing to global warming! But wait - his arrogance goes even further: he is so certain about the future of Earth's climate, he can assure us that this anthropogenic global warming is a good thing. The larger trend is global cooling, you see, so this warming event is a pretty fine human accomplishment.

I'm so relieved. But, Mr. Denton, I have such a long habit of worrying, please excuse me, but I still have a couple of questions.

How do you know we're increasing the CO2 at the correct rate? I mean, sure, it's colder now than it has been at various times in the past 15,000 years, but how do you know just exactly how much higher the CO2 should be now than it was then, to correct for the mystery factor that's been making it colder? Wait a minute, I'm confused. I thought you said that the global warming hypothesis doesn't fit the facts, and you mentioned those warmer times . . . Were you saying that there is no link, after all? But then, how can you say that our global warming is good?

Oh dear. I wanted to believe your good news. Give me a minute to spell out the implicit points of your argument here, and see if I can understand it.

During time period A (shortly after the last ice age), temperatures were higher than they are today.
During time period A, CO2 levels had not been significantly elevated by humans.
Therefore, CO2 levels being elevated by humans did not cause the high temperatures of time period A.
Therefore we should not expect CO2 levels to have any significant effect on temperatures.

Umm, Mr. Denton. Isn't that argument analogous to this one:

Car A was in an accident.
Car A was not travelling over the speed limit.
Therefore travelling over the speed limit did not cause Car A's accident.
Therefore we should not expect speed to have any significant effect on car accidents.

I'm sure you'll agree with me that this argument is false. So, now I can happily accept your larger argument, that CO2 is leaching out of the atmosphere causing global cooling, and humans came up with their Industrial Revolution just in time to turn this around. Maybe, to clear up your minor confusion about the global warming hypothesis, you'll be glad to hear my alternative interpretation of those earlier warm times. You see, things moved slower then. CO2 levels increased and decreased over centuries and millenia, instead of just decades. So you see (I hope you're following this), it could be that the current temperature just hasn't caught up to the current CO2 level. If I may be so bold, I'd say we have only barely begun to see the scope of our accomplishment here. We're going to set that global cooling trend back a lot more yet! Good news, I know.

But I'm such a worrywort, Tim, my friend. What if - what if it's true what I hear, that the sun is kind of slowing down and giving us less light and warmth, and - what's that you say? Oh, yes, I know, that makes global warming a good thing, but, but - what if we're doing it all too fast, kind of like burning up your whole firewood supply in the first few days of winter? What if we run out of carbon-based fossil fuels before this solar dimming spell turns around, and then - oh dear, I hate to think of it - and then we don't have all that petroleum to fuel our economy to keep the research going to find another solution - oh please, Mr. Denton, tell me you've got this all figured out.

Oh, I'm freaking out here. Let me take a break, go for a walk, breathe deeply . . .

Ah, that's better. Now, you'll be happy to hear that I can be an optimist too. I just realized that I've been worrying too much about this whole thing. I really was wrong to think that human activity could disrupt natural cycles so badly. Sure, CO2 levels are way outside their natural range for the past 800,000 years. The way I see it, we've moved them so fast that the temperature has barely begun to catch up. But here's the good news. The temperature may never catch up! We're about to run out of cheap oil (if we haven't already), but we're still very determined to burn it as fast as we can, so it's probably only a few more decades - or years, even - before oil is suddenly ridiculously expensive, and our CO2 emissions will drop like a stone. We won't run out of oil, but as soon as we run out of cheap oil, our economy will collapse and we'll leave lots of oil in the ground. Fertilizer will become ridiculously expensive; food production will plummet; people will die and be buried and thus create billions of little carbon sinks; forests will spring up on the abandoned farmland; and lo, the crisis will be over. We could have been cautious and tried to conserve our fossil fuels and spread this CO2 peak over a few centuries, but no, we made it a harmless little blip.

The Earth will go back to its 40-million-year-old cooling trend, moving slowly enough for us to adapt, research or no research.

And it's all thanks to you and your friends! You climate-change skeptics have been so effective with your bold rallying cries (Damn the tornadoes! . . . go ahead . . . full speed!) that you've completely foiled the dangerous plot of the petroleum conservationists. You knew that we might get all worried about Peak Oil, and actually tackle it successfully, so you created a wonderfully clever diversion with all the noise about climate change. You had us all looking very nearly straight at the scary short-term problem, but not quite. And so we missed it, and it will play out as it should, and in the long run, the world will be safe.

Oh, Mr. Denton, you're my hero.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Five Sisters Found

Madcap Mum posted a picture of an odd-looking hill, and it drew a lot of questions. Some thought it was a modified image, with a fanciful landform plopped into it, but to me the hill looked quite believable as an industrial feature.

Some Googling revealed that the "Five Sisters" hill is a real place in Scotland, also known as the Westwood Bing. Here's the pdf document where I found out about it. The document as a whole is a fascinating discussion of the way old industrial sites are often important habitat, with much higher biodiversity than agricultural land. Attempts to manage this habitat throw some stark, disturbing light on the question of "what is nature?"

But in case you just wanted to know about the hill, here's an excerpt.
Five Sisters

The most spectacular remains of the great West Lothian oil industry have received national recognition and protection. The conical mounds of waste shale, called bings, once dominated this landscape. Many had disappeared by the end of the 20th century but the best-known, the Five Sisters and Greendykes bings, have been designated as scheduled ancient monuments by Historic Scotland.

The industry used local shale to extract crude oil, which was then turned into paraffin. At its peak in the 1860s, there were 120 works, producing 25 million gallons of oil a year.

Miners came to the area from Cornwall, Wales, Ireland, the north of England and all over Scotland. When the industry collapsed in the early 1960s, the bings contained 200 million tons of waste shale. Many were mined for building material. But the rest became important local landmarks. The Five Sisters, the only bing with more than one peak, is valued so highly that it is now included in the county crest.
The document has a picture of the bing from the opposite angle, showing the steep fall slopes of the peaks. (Jump to Page 16.)

We have a similar (if less visually striking) situation close to home here, around Bienfait (east of Estevan), where old ridges of overburden from the coal mines were left in place long enough to become overgrown with shrubs. The steep narrow troughs between them held water, and wetland communities developed, complete with trees along their margins, in a landscape that previously had almost no deep ponds or trees at all. When the mining company and the government's environmental officials were talking about reclaiming this highly-disturbed landscape, the local people protested that it was some of the most important habitat for wildlife in the entire region. As far as I know, a decision was made to leave the ridges and wetlands as they are.

One thing that fascinates me in the Five-Sisters story is the fact that there was a large oil shale industry in Scotland, but it collapsed, due to competition from what we now call conventional oil production. Now there is talk of huge oil shale reserves in the U.S. becoming economically viable for production as conventional petroleum reserves are depleted. I wonder how they compare to these that were mined in Scotland. It's funny how we hear about things like extraction of oil from shale as if it were a new advance, when in fact it has been done in the past, and (I just learned) is an active industry in some other parts of the world. It brings to mind my post about small stoves that burn wood at much higher efficiency through a gasification process, and my Dad's response. He said that gasification is nothing new. It had some significant use in the past, for automotive fuel and for municipal gas supplies, during periods when petroleum was in short supply.

I wonder what proportion of the so-called promising areas of energy research are actually just re-examinations of old ideas that were bypassed for one reason or another in the past. Those recycled ideas are not great places to look for a breakthrough, I'd say.

Friday, September 01, 2006

The Gate Post

. . . or, How to Open and Close a Wire Gate.

The closing part is the most important. Never open a gate that's meant to stay closed, unless you're sure you'll be able to close it again. It's like knowing how to stop a car before you try starting it.

Some people say "Always close gates," but I say, always leave gates the way you found them. Even if you come upon a gate lying open, and you can see the cattle coming, don't be too sure there aren't some herders behind those cattle, who would be more than a little annoyed if they finally got the herd up to the opening and found that it wasn't.

On the other hand, even if you can see the whole pasture and there is no livestock in sight, don't be too sure it would be okay to leave the gate open. Just picture the above-mentioned herd moving along the roadside ditch, heading for the home farm, only to come upon your left-open gate and turn aside into the wrong pasture.

If it was open, leave it. If it was closed, close it.

Unfortunately, there are several factors that may make a gate harder to close than it was to open.

One is fatigue. If it's all you can do to slip that wire loop off the gate upright, your exhausted arms will have nothing left for working it back on.

Another factor is the tendency of wire gates to tangle themselves up the moment their tension is released. Then when you try to close the gate, it can seem suddenly several inches shorter than the opening it formerly filled, due to wires being hooked on their neighbours' barbs, uprights being angled out of position, and so on. I have a habit of keeping a firm hold on that gate post as the loop comes off, and then, as I swing the gate open, walking with an outward lean and hanging my weight against the pull of the gate, much like a dog straining at a leash. This keeps the gate straight and upright with no risk of tangling. Of course, if I'm alone, I have to lay the gate down to move my vehicle through the opening, but this can be done carefully and neatly to minimize sagging and tangling of wires.

Once you have the gate back in position, be sure that all the uprights are standing more-or-less, well - upright. A lean to one side or the other can add a surprising amount of resistance when you are trying to pull the gate tight. I have found that I can usually jump them into position with a sharp upward jerk (or two) on the end upright.

Now here's a more subtle trick to use when that top wire loop just doesn't seem to reach over the end upright: pay attention to the position of the bottom wire loop. If it's angled downward, because the upright hasn't been pushed into it all the way, then it will be pushing the upright higher, so the top wire loop has to reach higher to clear the top. The gate will also be out of alignment, so that you have to stretch it even tighter. I usually put the upright into the loop and then straighten it up some, and work that bottom wire loop upward with the toe of my boot until it's lined up well.
Bottom loop angled downward - upright (left) not in far enough


If you still can't get the gate closed (and the cows are coming, and people are shouting, and oh-no-there's-the-bull!), don't worry, there's still another trick to learn. This one involves using your own body to best advantage.

Chances are, your first attempts involved pushing the upright closer to the closure post. Maybe you had one hand on the upright and one on the closure post, trying to bring those two hands closer together, and as you got more desperate, perhaps you tried to guide the wire loop with your teeth.

Try this instead.

Get on the fence-ward side of the closure post, shoulder up to it, with your arms reaching around it to grasp the end upright and pull it straight towards you. Your thumbs can guide the wire loop into place without struggle or fear of pinching.

Whew! It's closed.

Apparently this stranger, struggling to open the gate, hasn't heard about that last trick. We'll just let her wear herself out and go home.

If you've been paying attention, you can easily see how some of my tricks for closing gates will also help with opening them. But I won't spell any of that out here. If somebody happened to use my advice to get a gate open, and then left it open, I might have a farmer after me with a post maul. And the more gates that are carelessly left open, the more farmers just tighten up those wire loops a little more, so that my little tricks aren't enough anymore - you also need the farmer's brawn, or another advantage which I won't mention here.

A few other notes about gates:

If you find a gate that is closed with a length of rope or chain wrapped around the closure post and the gate upright, be very careful to note how it is fastened before you release it, so you can get it back the same way. It can be a bit easier to manage than a wire loop, since you can get it wrapped loosely and then pull to cinch it up, but you may not get it quite as tight as it was to start with.

If you want to make a wire gate easier to close, consider a strap-steel lever device, like the one shown here (pdf).

While I was looking for illustrations, I found an interesting article about different kinds of gates. I like the looks of the hinged wire gate, with the rigid diagonal, that uses the weight of the gate to pull the wires tight. And the one-way wildlife gate, that lets trapped deer escape from an orchard.

Of course, the easiest kind of gate (if you're driving something with four wheels) is the cattle guard. A steel frame supports a series of pipes across the road, level with the road surface, so that there are gaps between the pipes, and an empty space underneath. Vehicle wheels easily span the gaps, but cattle hooves are too small, and cows don't usually dare to try to balance on the pipes. We used to play on this gate while we waited for the school bus, balancing on one pipe at a time, or bracing a boot sole across from one pipe to the next. I've seen Garth ride his bike straight across it, but I never quite found the nerve for that. It's not the best picture, but you can see the plants poking up between the rusty pipes. There are better pictures in that article I mentioned above.