Sunday, 27 April 2014

Dr. Strangelove - or how it is time to build resilience and go off grid

The CBC, in their Sunday edition, had a fantastic essay today about the crisis in Ukraine and how it compares to Kubrick's masterpiece "Dr. Strangelove or how I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb". 

You can find the essay here

Ironically, fifty years after the tragic comedy hit the screens the world finds itself in a situation that could maybe develop into a new kind of Cold War. While I personally think that such disaster scenarios are often pushed by hype and the media I believe that this world is indeed a fragile one. 

For us people in the developed, western world names like Iran, North Korea, Afghanistan and, yes, Russia spell worry and concern. Whether this concern is based on real threats or propaganda managed hype I will not discuss here. 
But nevertheless the essay got me thinking. 

What IF we find ourselves in a scenario where the peaceful and trade willing world collapses into a chaotic and suspicious one? A world where trading partners suddenly embargo each other. A world where the bananas from Honduras are not being delivered anymore. Or, heaven forbid, a world that actually goes to war.

Nobody would want such a scenario, but sometimes I wonder whether it could be down to a handful of lunatics such as Dr. Strangelove and Major King Kong in Kubrick's 95min movie. Could it be that Putin, Harper and the likes start to play a game with the people as playing figures? 

The lessons that can be learned from the past are all to often forgotten. What is the first thing that we would notice should such a scenario arise? 
During World War 2 the United Kingdom faced a brutal blockade by the German Navy. The U-Boots had drawn a tight ring around the Island and trade as well as food and other supplies did not make it to the country. Since Germany lost the war many English think they beat the Nazis. The fact is that England was on it's knees. The country would have never lasted another year if it would have not been for the Americans to join in the war. The most critical thing that ground the people down was the lack of food. The country was hardly able to sustain itself, in fact it wasn't. And this was at a time where farms were still omnipresent and food production was still a skill that most people understood.  Even in the cities gardens were not uncommon.
A blockade of the UK of the magnitude of 1940 in today's world would spell utter disaster and cause famine within less than 6 month. 

What to do? My father always says to me that I can't change the world. While I believe that one person can make a difference I also see that this is difficult and requires certain parameters that are extraordinary. So I am not banking on it. What I can do, however, is trying to become resilient to such situations. I can try to produce enough food for myself that I can survive. Maybe even comfortably.
I can try to set my house up in a way that I am independent of energy supply from the outside. On a slightly larger scale it can be possible to create a community based resilience scheme where enough food, water and energy is created within the community to sustain it in a comfortable manner. 

This is not only a strategy to combat dooms day scenarios, but also to position ourselves better in terms of economical uncertainty. While such a strategy could be adopted by whole countries it will never happen. The world is lacking the will for such "hippie" ideas. 

This is why I strongly believe that it is down to every single person to make such a difference. A One Straw Revolution. One person at a time.       

Monday, 9 December 2013

A Simplified Demonstration of the Scientific Method

You have a glass of water on the table

Pic 1: One of these

You have some food colouring

Pic 2: One of any of these

Out of interest, you add a drop of food colouring into the glass of water, then another one and another one. You realise that the water is changing colour, it's taking on the colour of the food colouring. You stir the water and the colour change is uniform, all the water in the glass is the same shade. You become intrigued and write out a hypothesis (a practical argument that attempts to answer the question "what is happening here?") to explain what is happening. Your hypothesis is that as food colouring spreads through the water it changes the colour of the water and the colour change gets stronger as more food colouring gets added. Stirring the water makes the change uniform because the food colouring becomes evenly distributed. Now you are ready to set up an experiment to test your hypothesis.

You arrange many glasses of water in a row, all the same size and shape and temperature, and you arrange measured tubes of food colouring, again all the same, above the water so that the food colouring drops out at the same rate all along the row (chemists and chem students should know this as a titration set-up). 

Pic 3: Lots of these

Behind each glass of water you place a colour chart so you can track the colour change. In this way you can carry out many experiments at the same time that are the exact same as each other. You find that every glass of water reaches the same colour saturation at, or close around the same amount of food colouring and that in every case, stirring the water makes the change uniform. You find this same result in hundreds of glasses of water. You are happy.
Pic 4: Yes, that happy

You describe your experiments in such a way that anyone in the world can set up the same kind of equipment and materials and get the same result. To this you add your hypothesis, your results, and your conclusions (conclusions being what happens when you compare your original hypothesis to your results). You send off the paper (as this is what you have written) to a scientific journal to be reviewed. The journal sends copies of your paper to several other scientists so they can check what you have written. After testing your results by following the instructions you gave in the paper, the answer is "Yes, the experiment is sound, the results match what we got, we agree with the conclusion, this paper is fit to print." You are now a published scientist and you are delighted.

Pic 5: However you wish to celebrate

You continue your work on food colouring and water, testing all of different factors that can have an impact like changes in temperature, pressure, salinity, chemical composition etc., etc., publishing more papers and working with different groups as you go. You are not the only one doing this anymore. Many scientists all over the world read your original paper and are not only closely following your work and progress but are also doing their own experiments on the premise of food colouring and water. Some have taken different dyes than food colouring, some have taken different liquids than water, but they and you are all pursuing the same goal; how does it work? What makes this happen? What are the mechanics of the process?

Pic 6: Pondering...

Over time the original hypothesis become hypotheses (plural) and they get more and more defined and specialized to explain the results that come from more and more specialized experiments and better instruments that can track the change to a much finer degree. But the original premise of dye + liquid = colour change remains the same because no-one has been able to come up an experiment that proves it wrong. (This, by the way is what you actually do in a scientific experiment, you try to prove things wrong.) Over time, there is enough evidence that you can form a General Theory of Colour Change in Liquids and it is accepted by the general scientific community as it appears to explain what's going on on a large scale.

Now, here comes a new paper that describes an experiment carried out that shows the basic mechanism to be something different than what everyone thought. A research lab working with a new machine with a different detector  method has carried out experiments to show that it is not just the dye but how that dye interacts with the oxygen in the liquid to change the liquid's colour. These new results show that while the original and accepted observation is correct, the mechanics of the process were misunderstood because the observational machinery was not able to get to the lowest layers where the action was taking place. In other words, the liquid changes colour, but not for the reasons everyone thought.

Pic 7: WTF Meatloaf?!

Every lab that has this new machine and new detector copies and expands on these new experiments and the results come back, "Yes, we agree. This is actually how it works." You yourself run the same experiments and come up with the same results and draw the same conclusions. Your theory is proven to be fundamentally flawed. What is your reaction now?

Pic 8:

A real scientist would be happy. Happy because the mechanism of food colouring changing the colour of water is being more accurately described. Because the point of science is to make our knowledge match what is in the real world. If you spend time trying to chase down the wrong idea, you are wasting your time. Your accepted theory on how dyes change the colour of liquids was not accurate, it did not reflect what really happened at the atomic level. Thanks to these new results, you don't have to waste any more of your time running experiments under the old theory. You can go on to something else.

Pic 9: Yep

This is why real science is different from any other discipline. Scientists are expected to chase knowledge, wherever it lies and whatever it leads to. In return, scientists demand proof. They demand replicable experiments and will dismiss anything else. No anecdotes, no personal experiences, no heart-stirring stories. Proof.
Pic 10: Because he says it best...

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

The Saga of Travelling with Cats, Phase 2!

If you have not read Phase 1, this might not make much sense.

Fast forward two weeks of frustrated attempts to fly the cats into Ireland because that is not an option UNLESS you are coming from three or four airports in the states..(apparently its not the airlines, its the planes, yeah right!). Realisation dawned that we would have to buy a car ahead of schedule. It turned out to be quite difficult trying to buy a cheap car that was not going to prove to be rigged or stolen. We finally found one at a reputable dealer. Phew! We also  managed to get European Passports for the cats, which took a load off our minds.

So, its 4am Tuesday morning (Nov 18th!), the car is packed, the cats are in and we are on the road again. The plan is to drive from Dusseldorf to Galway via the Channel Tunnel and the Holyhead Ferry. It will take 19 hours and 6 countries (7 if you count Wales). We are psyched.

It is 6:30am and we are stuck on the side of the road in Belgium, 172.8km into the journey. The car hit the cheesegrater Belgian roads and the check engine light came on, then started blinking. A piston was clearly not working right and we ended up with something resembling a tractor with no power to accelerate. It was cold.

Sidenote: Do not ever get stuck in Belgium. Ever. If you have to push your vehicle over a border to prevent getting stuck in Belgium, do it. We got police who claimed to not speak English then was able to carry out a full conversation quite handily. When we called the AA, we got someone who apparently couldn't read a map or realise what "junction of N140 and E34" meant because "there are a lot of roads here, Sir. I can see 2 crossings over the E34 there, but one is the N132". My husbands response was simply: "Well, we are not there...obviously, because we are at the N140!!" (no I'm not exaggerating, and that isn't the half of it) and then tried to make us pay for when their vans apparently couldn't find us. Shysters doesn't even cover it. When they finally sent round a local contractor we had been there for 4 hours and the battery was dead from trying to not freeze. When we told him how long we had been waiting his first reaction was a shocked "F**k!" because he got the call 20 minutes before and came straight to us. "No, I knew where you were, it was easy to find...." Dont EVER get stuck in Belgium!

Anyway, the local pick-up guy was lovely and made a point of pointing out that he was actually Dutch. He brought us to the nearest Skoda dealer (cos we had a Skoda) and sorted out the paperwork for us quite handily. I dug into my emergency cash to pay him upfront (this is why you always have emergency cash when travelling) and we got ourselves and the cats inside the dealership. Luckily there was a spare office we could use and lock so I fed and watered the cats while the husband dealt with the car. And we waited, and waited.

Finally at around 2pm, or 8 hours after the breakdown, we were back on the road. It had been a burned out ignition coil ("babine" in the Belgian language) and they had the part right there so no problems to fix it. The delay meant however that we could not possibly continue with our original plan of driving straight through England and Wales to the ferry. A call had to be made. First my in-laws tried to rebook for us as we only had a Canadian cell phone which cost $1.50/min for calls. It turned out that the agent was on holiday that day and we had to book a completely new trip potentially losing all the money for the first booking. Then getting a tunnel crossing that evening, but no chance of ever making a ferry that day in Wales.

The second call went to England.

Luckily, my dad is currently working in England and he was able to put us up for the night, we just had to get there. With the new booking for the Channel Tunnel, we got to Calais with an hour to spare. Getting the cats checked in was nice and easy and we were even able to get an earlier crossing than we had booked, sweet! I will recommend the Channel Tunnel to anyone by the way, its 35 mins long and you barely know you're moving. Just about enough time to have a little picnic in the comfort of your own car, brilliant. Then it was off the train and up to Chelmsford in Essex where Dad brought us out for a lovely dinner and we fell into bed.

Out the door again at 4am and off to the ferry terminal. We had a sinking feeling as we neared the Welsh coast, there was a Force 9 gale blowing with gusts up to force 11. For those of you who don't know what that means..."F*cking windy" might cover it (see video).  But we decided that if the ferry was cancelled we'd find out fairly quickly so we got booked in and joined the queue. The ferry sailed, albeit with one hour delay as we had to wait for a window in the gale gusts as it was pushing us into the dock wall.

Unfortunately there are no pets allowed on the passenger decks of the ferry and the two little critters had to stay in the car. So we went up to the bar and got a sandwich and a pint and waited. We set off an hour behind schedule, heading into the wind. The husband and I are used to rough seas but many of our fellow passengers were not. Particularly one lady who didn't appear to know that if you are seasick, the worst thing you can do is sit in the pointy end with your back to the waves.

Tip for the seasick: Move. You get seasick (all other kinds of travel-sickness) because your inner ears are telling you that you're moving but your eyes are telling you that you're not and the resulting confusion turns your stomach. Do not try to brace yourself into a solid position, this is the very worst thing you can do. Take a hint from a salty instead, walk around and roll with the motion of the waves. And if you really can't walk around, find the centre of the ship, lengthwise and breadthwise and stay there as the centre moves the least.

Eventually, the captain got us to Dublin port and we took the wrong turn to Galway. Luckily, the toll booth people let us do a U-turn and we battled our way through Dublin traffic. I hate Dublin. We got on the right road and joined with the new Motorway that cuts straight across the country. We took a brief detour into Enfield to fuel up and find out if the cats could handle being out of their boxes in the car. It was pitch black outside so we set up their toilet and get them out. They loved it so it was back on the motorway again. We got dinged for tolls again entering from Enfield but what can you do? We got to Galway a lot faster than we expected (we're passing Athenry already? What the hell?) and picked up a Supermacs! Then on to Clifden.

We finally arrived at our destination around midnight, called people to let them know we had arrived and fell into bed. We had finally arrived. It was Nov 20th. 

The Saga of Travelling with Cats, phase 1

Earlier this year, my husband and I decided that it was time to leave Canada for a while and spend the winter in Ireland. There were several reasons from family obligations to the crazy short growing season but it resulted in our saying au revoir to our friends and companions and packing up the house. Oh yes, and the cats.

We booked flights home from Halifax to Heathrow on Nov 2nd and, since its actually way cheaper to book a return flight than a one-way, we also booked flights to come back in May for several reasons including the fishing season. We got flexible dates for the return flight, but not the out-going. More on that later.

We realised fairly early on that this journey was going to be more stressful than most, even more stressful than our initial journey to Canada, because my Irish passport expired without our noticing it. We realised this when my mother-in-law (!) reminded us to check our passports. A frantic internet search later revealed that the passport renewal forms could only be physically handed out in person (ie no faxing, no internet download) and that the nearest Irish Embassy was in Ottawa, approximately 12 hours drive away. Luckily, someone had thought of this problem and allowed registered Irish Associations to hold copies of the forms for people in my situation. I found the address of the secretary of my local Association and arrived on her doorstep that afternoon. She told me that she did not personally know of these forms, but would talk to the President at the formal event that was happening tonight, and did I want to meet the Irish Ambassador?

Yes, the Irish Ambassador for Canada and Jamaica and his wife were in town that night for a flying tour of the Maritimes. How lucky was I? We raced home, showered and dressed, grabbed dinner in a local take-out and were sitting in the hotel bar inside 90 minutes. We met a lot of lovely people, listened to a singer who certainly didn't need the microphone and got to have a great chat with the Irish Ambassador and his wife who were very sympathetic. They were genuinely lovely people and he gave us a very important name. This was the Thursday.

I won't bore you with more details on this but in short I got the forms inside 2 days (because they were in the main office in a city 2 hours away), got them filled out and signed up and shipped out for the Monday afternoon. I made contact with the very important lady in the Ottawa Irish Embassy (who, I have to say, did an excellent job) and after that it was the waiting game for the passport.

We had the house on the market for 8 months with no bites when a lady that I knew from work called by and asked if were still willing to rent it out. We made an agreement to hand the house over Nov 1st. This was the end of October and the move began in earnest. We purged and purged.

The husband quit his job on the 5 year anniversary of his hiring as there had been no advancement at all in his career and it didn't look like any was coming along either. He finished up with 2 weeks to spare.

We discovered after this that our flights had to be re-booked for two reasons: all English airports demand that pets travel only in cargo and that they are checked by specialists on arrival. We were not prepared to put our cats in cargo (it took 4 years of work to get my cat relaxed enough to be petted) and anyway, we would have landed at 7am on Sunday morning and no-one was on duty until 9am Monday morning and we would have had to pay through the nose for leaving them in the shelter etc., just no. Secondly, it didn't look like my passport would be there on time. We did not have insurance for the flight out and that cost us. My husband managed to get back some of the money when he re-booked the flights and this time, we made damn sure to get the insurance. So instead we changed the airports and would fly from Montreal to Frankfurt on Nov 4th. Montreal was 9 hours drive away, how to get there?

There was another marvellous bit of luck there, a friend of ours had to drive to Hamilton Ontario, passing through Montreal on Nov 1st, which was when we had to leave the house. So we made the arrangement that we would drive with her to Montreal and stay in a hotel until Nov 4th. We picked a pet-friendly hotel and gritted our teeth over the extra cost.

On the evening of Oct 31st there was no trick-or-treating in our house, it was last boxes getting packed and picked up, suitcases getting zipped up and all hands to the cleaning supplies. Without a certain friend of mine who came around to help out, we would not have made it, but finally 12:30am came around with the job done. We had arranged that our lift came at 3:30am so we stretched out on the futon mattress that we had left for exactly that purpose and took as much sleep as we could.

At 3:30am our friend arrived and we piled in the suitcases and packed in the cats and everything that they would need for three days in a hotel room. We ended up taking more stuff than we needed of course, but we reasoned that we could re-pack on Sunday afternoon. We drove the 9 hours to Montreal.

Montreal itself is a freaking nightmare to drive as we discovered and we got lost trying to find the hotel. The husband got directions at a gas station, which ended up being the wrong hotel (the building had changed hands and the locals kept forgetting, it happens). We took a room anyway as we were both reeling, even though it cost more money and was not pet-friendly. We snuck the cats in the back way and prepared for the weekend.

Inside ten minutes however, it was clear that it was not meant to be. There was a power outage just as we got the cats settled and I went up to the front desk to see what was going on. I was told it was because of the storm, then was asked if we had pets in the room because I had hairs on my t-shirt. I smiled and said no, and left fairly quickly. When I got back to the room I made it clear that we had to leave and find the other place because I couldnt take the stress. So while the husband sorted out the front desk, I packed in the cats and their paraphernalia and stood everything outside in the storm (luckily, "just" hurricane force winds). When the staff made a check of the room there was no evidence of our ever being there, which got us our money back.

When the taxi finally got there (cos we were standing in the wrong place apparently, oh well) we had a lively conversation about the construction situation on the Montreal roads and he found our original hotel fairly quickly. We booked in with officially one cat instead of two ($25/pet/night, you'd do it too), piled our baggage into one of those cart things and encountered the longest hallway in the world. We made a video. We opened the door, set up the cats and fell into bed. This was approximately 2pm on Friday 1st.

Thankfully I had internet access on my phone during the journey so I was able to establish that my passport would be in Ottawa on Monday 4th and that the husband could pick it up on my behalf which made the whole process easier. Whether it would be there for before lunchtime when we needed it was another worry. But that was for Monday morning and, after booking a rental car to make the drive, all we could do for the weekend was arrange to meet with some friends who lived in Montreal and lounge in the hotel room. Which is what we did.

Monday morning arrived and the husband left to get the rental car as early as he could. I packed up the last bits into the suitcases, left what we were leaving for the hotel staff with a note, and sat in the room with my knitting, waiting to hear if we would fly out that day. Housekeeping knocked and I managed to keep them at bay, same with the front desk. Lunchtime was crawling around and it looked like we would have to re-book again, until I got the phone call from the husband saying we were a-go. Front desk was notified, suitcases went into the cart, cats were stuffed into their bags and we waited in the reception for the shuttle bus to the airport.

Met the husband at the airport (who due to the chaotic traffic forgot to fill up the rental car and got dinged for it), checked in, finally got a Montreal Smoked Meat sandwich and waited to board. Boarded, stowed away the cats under the seats, watched movies for 7 hours and landed an hour early in Frankfurt airport.

We were stressing out about getting the cats through customs because there was a fair song and dance with their forms and vaccinations in Canada as well. But there were no problems, we glided on through, were told by German Customs to keep going because if they called the vet it could take forever, changed the cats bedding in a disabled toilet then waited for the husbands parents to pick us up.

We had entered Europe and after further 2 and a half hours on the Autobahn, reached the childhood home of my husband.

Phase 1 complete! Stay tuned for Phase 2, it ain’t over yet!

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

The Wish-table, the Gold-donkey and the Cudgel in a Sack

There was, is a German fairy tale attributed to the Grimm Brothers called "The Wish-table, The Gold Donkey and The Cudgel" -not just a stick, a cudgel- "In a Sack." Now, that will tell you a lot about the German psyche. They're told from a young age that as long as they're good, obedient children they can live in a world where there are such things as wish-tables and gold-donkeys. No honey, you're in the world with the cudgel, in a sack. And apparently in this fairy tale, a lying goat caused three boys to be beaten out of their home. That's right, a lying goat. We called them "teddy-philes" when I was young, but who am I to argue?
     So anyhow, the first brother, let's call him Peter, became a Joiner and when he graduated to Journeyman-hood, his Master gave him a wish-table. This wish-table, whenever Peter took it out of his pack and set it on all 4 legs -cos 2 or 3 just wouldn't do!- and said "Spread yourself!", he would get everything he wanted. By way of food and drink of course, because although blood, guts, murder most foul, cannibalism and, let's be honest here, light bestiality feature heavily in Grimm's Fairy tales, actual physical, well verbal, even written sexuality is a no-no! Unlike every teen and adult mag in the world I might add. So Peter decides to go home and show his Dad how brilliantly he's done, but on the way he stops into an Inn and is daft enough to show off his marvellous wish-table to all and sundry and then fall asleep, allowing the crooked Innkeeper to swap it for another, non-wishing one. Because apparently he, Peter, couldn't tell the difference. Guess what he did when he got home. That's right, a demonstration of his amazing table in front of Dad and all the neighbours, without checking first....   
   Just to go off the point a little bit, there are people who think that the Brother's Grimm made up their stories instead of, as they claimed, gathering them from peasant folk. I do not agree with this theory and this is why, because of the gold-donkey that was awarded to brother number 2 on his graduation to Journeyman, we'll call him Paul. Why is the gold-donkey proof that these tales are genuine? Because it "spewed out gold." That is a direct quote from the Complete Grimm's Fairy Tales Collection of the Pantheon Fairytale and Folklore Company, so they know what they are talking about! "If you set him on a cloth and say 'Bricklebrit,' the good animal will spew forth gold from back and from front." That's another direct quote. And that's how I know that only country people could have come up with these stories. Only people who had spent their whole lives watching donkeys shitting all over the place could have come up with that. And how would you feel about that anyway? Handing over a piece of gold that not half-an-hour before had been your donkey's indigestion? I'd start wondering about my former wages for a start. And how could you make it do anything? Your whole life would be dictated by this donkey! Not that it's very different from most people's lives, but at least those donkeys have the decency to be two-legged. But imagine it! For the rest of your life, if you pissed off this donkey the next time you go 'Bricklebrit,' it'll go *raspberry, farts* streams of greeny-brown shit and vomit interspersed with now and then with some bits of gold. 'Yeah,' spit. 'Enjoy your dinner.' Anyway, back to the story.
 So this gold-donkey of Paul's looks just like every other non-gold-donkey in the whole, wide world apparently because when Paul calls into the same Inn as Peter and shows off his wonderful posession, the Innkeeper managed to swap that out too and Paul also never notices until he tries to show off in front of Dad and the neighbours. I'd have branded the damn thing!
 And the cudgel in a sack -yes, we got to the 3rd one, focus now, cudgel in a sack, brother number 3, right?- was essentially a bloody great club that would leap out of it's sack and pummel anyone who was "ill-disposed" towards you! Can you imagine it? I'd start pissing people off deliberately! 'Hey, Bobby Spencer, remember me?' 
I love how the story ends though and I'm sure you will too because that means I'm almost done talking about it. The story ends when the third brother beats up the crooked Innkeeper with his cudgel, gets back his brothers' things and their father welcomes them back because they've all proved that they're amazing at last. Then the father "locked away his needle and thread'" for he was a tailor you see, "yardmeasure and goose in the closet." Cos you're a bad goose! No, no I promise he did not lock a live goose in the closet, it's a tool that tailors use, but now! Now he has a table that will spread itself on command, a donkey that shits and pukes pure gold and a cudgel that beats up anyone he's pissed off! To hell with the goose!