on the news this morning...

The Billy Graham ministries announced today that they would be sending a "Rapid Response Team" to the Vancouver Olympics in 2010. Apparently, they've been known to send out teams of evangelists to disaster zones to "provide spiritual guidance" (i.e., prey on the spiritually weak) in their time of need. Oh yeah, there's nothing like preaching conversion to the destitute, impoverished, needy, and/or devastated at their lowest moment. Anyway, it makes me wonder exactly what kind of disaster they expect to see at the Olympics. They claim that they will pray with/for anyone feeling angst, confusion, stress, etc.. due to the excited atmosphere. It just makes me suspicious though - what do they know that we don't? Did Nostra-dumbass predict disaster for Vancouver in 2010? I'll be in Van in 2010 enjoying myself, but if I get stressed or confused, I'm pretty sure I'll be more likely to turn to the nearest bottle of merlot and a Flight of the Conchords DVD for soothing before I approach any of these godbots. :P


CBC News - Calgary - Alberta researchers study rock snot

"How to make someone's perfectly logical research seem ridiculous in 3 easy steps!"

CBC News - Calgary - Alberta researchers study rock snot

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cultural diversity

I've been living in Smithers, BC for the past 2 years now. it's a lovely little town - inspired by Bavarian villages, dominated by a big mountain and surrounded by rolling hills, hay and cows. it wasn't a hard decision to move from Vancouver - the overinflated prices, crowded streets, crazy drivers, and distance from the wilderness eventually had me frustrated and cynical about where I was going in life. In Smithers, I bought my first house, I live with my significant other, I can go fishing, biking, or skiing whenever the mood strikes me. But I do miss a few things about Vancouver - I miss my friends, and I miss my bands.

Smithers is bagpiping no-mans-land. The nearest band is 2.5 hours away in Terrace. There is no such thing as a Highland Games. or a piping instructor. At first, I thought I'd made arrangements with a rather well-known piper in the Lower Mainland to take Skype lessons, but those fell through when he found out I had..well.. a job. So my piping languished for the better part of a year while I tried to sort myself out. Finally, I plucked up some determination and found another instructor - in South Africa. Oh wonders of the interwebs. It's gone remarkably smoothly given the 10-hour time difference. I set a goal of competing solo in Vancouver last March, and I did (not my best performance, but nothing to sneeze at either). And lately, I've been attempting to create some sort of piping culture in Smithers.

The cultural roots of Smithers are largely Swiss-Dutch-German. Main Street is styled after a Bavarian mountain town, the bakery is German, and the collection of surnames includes a lot of Van Der__'s and ___ersma's. So perhaps I shouldn't be surprised that I only have 1 piping student so far. Smithers, it seems, just doesn't know what to do with a bagpiper.

In June, I played for the Canadian Cancer Society's Relay for Life. When I showed up in my uniform, the organizer said, "wow, you dressed up and everything!". I kind of wondered what he expected when he hired a bagpiper... shorts and flip-flops? bunny suit? Anyway, I piped the cancer survivors and their caregivers around the track. twice. Now, in my experience down south, this would be a cause for celebration. Imagine, all these people beating cancer! It's inspirational! It's thrilling! And now they're being celebrated with a bagpipe-led procession, complete with RCMP colour guard! But you know what? As I marched around, leading these inspirational people, the crowd was dead. silent. and when I finally pulled up to the front of the stage and stopped, the crowd looked at me like I had a second head. The MC politely said thank you, and I wandered off. The RCMP were appreciative - "wow", they said. "You're actually a good bagpiper!" I gather the standard they've previously witnessed hasn't been too high around here. And apart from that, nobody else talked to me. There just doesn't seem to be that much interest in bagpipes here. So my latest poster around town advertising my services as a piping instructor proclaim that there's "no Scottish-ness required!" lest this be keeping my Dutch neighbours from trying a new hobby.

So apparently, I have a tough job ahead of me if I want to create a bagpiping culture in Smithers. But I'm hopeful - my dad's band has included in the past, people of Japanese, Romanian and First Nations descent, so there's hope for me yet. Now I just need to learn some German tunes.


and a photo..

.. because i can

a word on those nasty IPP projects

A friend recently sent me a link to a series of videos produced by the Save Our Rivers Society regarding the "selling off of our river resource". While I don't necessarily agree with our provincial government's approach to developing the small power projects in question, there are always 2 sides to every story and those videos only show you one.

Firstly, run-of-the-river (ROR) power projects such as these have (on their own) a much smaller impact on the environment than traditional large dam projects like the ever-on-the-table Site C. Typically, ROR projects are constructed on smaller, steep rivers and streams where there is little to no fish habitat to begin with. A small dam is constructed to divert most of the water through a pipe, which will run alongside the stream for up to a few kilometers, through a few turbines, then back into the river. The direct impacts will obviously be loss of water in the dewatered section, which will have somewhat of an impact on aquatic invertebrates and such, and on the surrounding riparian area which may benefit from the moist environment, but those are generally considered to be minor impacts. If there is no fish habitat in the dewatered section, then there is little to no impact on fish. Of course, there are always impacts associated with access, and maintenance and the like, but most of those can be mitigated through proper construction practices, monitoring and compensation. Compare that to mega-dams like the W.A.C. Bennett dam, or any on the Columbia. Those projects swamped millions of hectares of land, extirpated entire species from watersheds, destroyed archaeological sites and marginalized First Nations communities. The cumulative effects of several IPP projects in a small area is definitely a concern, so I'm concerned about the number of independent power companies who want to operate these things. Certainly, I think that BC Hydro could do a better job of developing some of these projects while keeping the cumulative impacts down. A single company can centralize their infrastructure and minimize impacts, while a million small companies will attempt to do everything on their own, creating more roads, more power lines and more infrastructure. Campbell definitely has more of an eye toward promoting business than promoting the environment, so his approach to ROR projects should definitely be challenged.

Secondly, the costs of developing these projects are not as simple as getting a $100 permit. In order to get that permit, you have to commit to a minimum of 1 full year of environmental, archaeological and socio-economic baseline studies, including the preparation of an environmental assessment through the BC environmental assessment office and, potentially, the Canadian EA agency too. It's no small change (running up to $6 million per year for a detailed study on a large project). If any fish habitat is proposed to be impacted, a fish habitat compensation plan must be prepared that holds the proponent to recreating at least twice as much habitat as is proposed to be lost. In many cases, project will either live or die on the issue of fisheries impacts, since the Fisheries Act is probably one of the most "toothy" of the environmental acts.

Some of the Save our Rivers Society's concerns are definitely valid, including the cumulative effects assessment (CEA) process. Currently, under the environmental assessment act, a cumulative effects assessment must be done with every EA. this includes identifying every single human activity that could have an impact on the valued ecosystem components (VECs) that you're studying (i.e., in the EA process, VECs can include specific species, watersheds, or even parameters that are considered to be important either on a regional or global scale, and anything that could affect these VECs must be studied in detail). The potential impacts of every project must be considered. In practice, the first project to do an EA in an area has it pretty easy because it's pretty hard to sum up with any certainty what the future effects of development are going to be on your resource if nothing else is built in your project area. Anyway, the CEA process involved quite a bit of guesswork, but I can't think of too many ways of improving it either. You essentially have to guess at the worst-case scenario if every project that is on the table gets built, which will probably never happen.

The biggest threat to our rivers (in my opinion) comes from the proposed changes to the environmental assessment act, which would remove a lot of the red tape associated with building projects like these. People should be really concerned about any government that proposes to "relax" these rules for big companies, because that's what determines how many studies they do, how much public participation is required and the level of detail in their study that is required before they are given a permit. Already, there are less strict rules for smaller projects that don't trigger a comprehensive assessment. Small power projects may only have to do a cursory investigation of potential cumulative effects, so this is definitely a concern when we're dealing with multiple small projects.

People should also be concerned about just getting involved in the EA process. Most people think that the environmental assessment process is just a bunch of developers fudging data to make their project look good, but it's actually a hugely involved process whereby qualified professionals (who are bound by codes of ethics specific to their trade) conduct a vast array of studies to try to determine the impacts of a proposed project. We generally work together with government agencies, first nations groups and communities to attempt to come up with a plan that will have the smallest impact on the environment. Of course, there are come proponents who will try to do as little as possible to get through the permitting process, but that's why there is public consultation and government regulation. In the end, the EA is required to go out to review, and if you don't get out and learn about the project, comment on the project, and follow-up on the project, then the government regulators who hand out those permits will jsut assume that everyone is ok with it. I've seen several examples of people who disagree with a project, and boycott all of the public consultation opportunities - and the only thing that comes out of that is a statement in the EA that "so and so" did not participate. There is no record of your concern. I've also seen many many examples of people who just follow the advice of special interest groups and oppose a project without really taking the time to learn about what studies have been done and why the author of the EA came to the conclusions that they came to. I think that if people took more time to actually come to the meetings, read the EA (that is always made available tot he public) and learn about the process, they would be better prepared to comment in an informed manner without just repeating the one-sided opinions of a special interest group. Public consultation has killed several large projects, including the Kemess Mine expansion. In fact, the EA process in general has killed several large projects (that you just don't hear of because the environmental implications cause the project to be shelved before it ever gets to the EA stage). If the public disagrees with a project, the proponents has not addressed the public's concerns, and it's still going ahead, then you should be turning a critical eye on the government regulators who approved the project and on the government itself.

So yes, stand up for the environment, stand up for our rivers, but be aware that the issue is never as simple as "All IPP projects are bad". Learn the process, learn how to work within it, and learn how to make it better.


200 years later, we still don't get it

yesterday was the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin's birth, so naturally the news was aflutter with stories of celebrations, anti-celebrations, and evolution factoids. but one of the most astonishing things that I read was that only 39% of Americans believe in evolution, only 15% believe in the evolution of humans from apes, and at least 25% firmly do not believe in evolution.

staggering. really.

it's true, I grew up in a relatively secular family. While I was exposed to religion and religious ideas, I was not indoctrinated into religious theory from a young age. By the time I was in high school, I had made up my mind that my science textbooks made a heck of a lot more sense than my bible. so maybe I can understand why people who grew up differently from me would be less than willing to give up their beliefs.

many religious leaders lead their parishioners to believe falseties in the theory of evolution. they question how a perfectly formed human eye could possibly have evolved by chance. they question how a [insert interesting animal here] can be so perfectly suited to its environment without the guidance of a higher being. and they falsely lead people to believe that the theory of evolution involves a series of "leaps" caused by random, beneficial genetic mutations from one species to another.

so most people have a vague and often flat out wrong idea of what evolution is and how it occurs. at this point, I'd love to recommend that everyone out there read "The Selfish Gene" by Richard Dawkins, but I doubt that they would. so I'm going to describe evolution as simply as I can.

imagine, if you will, a population of horse-like mammals living in a forest. they happily munch on the leaves of trees. Now the horses live like this for thousands, possibly millions of years. But at some point, the trees that they feed on start to die off (perhaps it's climate change, or perhaps a weird tree disease, or maybe a fire) and another tree species takes its place. The new tree is taller than the last one, so only the tallest of the horses can reach the leaves. obviously, if you happen to be a tall horse, you'll probably do ok. but if you're short, then you may die. Over many generations, the entire population of horses gets bigger because they are more likely to survive. This is natural selection - nature confers a survival benefit to individuals with one trait over individuals with another. Eventually, the short horses will die out altogether. and given thousands of generations, the tall horses may not look anything like their old ancestors.

speciation like what I just described can happen even faster when there is an element of geographical isolation. perhaps during a drought, some of the horses manage to cross a river that is normally impassable. They continue to feed on the short trees on the other side of the river, while back in the original habitat, the horses are forced to eat the tall trees. In this case, you get geoegraphical separation over several years. The horses on the tall-tree side are under selective pressure to breed taller offspring (i.e. the taller horses will survive better and will produce more offspring than the shorter horses, which may die before they reproduce), while the horses on the short-tree side of the river face no selective pressure. Over thousands of generations, the populations may diverge enough that even if you were to bring them back into contact with one another, they would not be able to mate and produce viable offspring. At this point, you have 2 distinct species.

this is only an example of how different species can evolve, but the principle of evolution remains the same across species (including ours). There must be selective pressure that confers a survival benefit to an individual with one trait over an individual with another. It doesn't happen overnight and it doesn't require a massive genetic mutation (i.e. one horse miraculously grows an extra mouth). evolution happens in minute increments that gradually, over multiple generations result in speciation. geographical isolation speeds up the process by preventing (for example) the short-horse genes from re-entering the tall-gene horse gene pool before speciation is complete.

finally, i want to illustrate that evolution is still happening, even today. For this, I'll need to describe another selection pressure - sexual selection. In this case, rather than the environment conferring a survival benefit, mate preference confers the survival benefit. The Paxton Lake sticklebacks - small fish on the west coast of Canada - illustrate this perfectly. Paxton Lake contains threespine sticklebacks (Gasterosteus aculeatus) that use 2 distinct habitat types and have therefore developed 2 distinct phenotypes (in this case, body shape). Some of the sticklebacks like to live near the bottom of the lake, and have gradually evolved to be rather stout and sedentary, preferring to blend into the background to escape predators. Some of the sticklebacks like to live in the middle of the lake and have gradually evolved to be thin and agile to escape predators in the open water.

Sexual selection comes into this because the sticklebacks that live in the middle of the lake select mates that are skinny and agile like themselves, whereas sticklebacks that live on the bottom of the lake select mates that are stout and well camouflaged. Gradual diversion like what I described with the horses likely led to the sticklebacks being able to take advantage of the 2 habitat types, but sexual selection keeps the populations isolated from one another (like the river did to the horses).

So at this point, it sounds like we've got 2 separate species, but in fact speciation is not yet complete, because when you muddy the water and prevent the sticklebacks from being able to see one another, they will interbreed and they can still produce viable offspring. And this is exactly what is happening in nature.

Crayfish were introduced to several lakes where these 2 phenotypes of sticklebacks are present. The crayfish muddy the water near the shoreline, making it impossible for the sticklebacks to see one another well enough to choose a mate. So they've started to interbreed, and the result is that the evolution that occurred up to now is being undone because the selection pressure that kept the phenotypes apart has disappeared. Evolution in reverse, you might say. The Paxton Lake sticklebacks are now considered to be a species of concern because the "evolution in action" that we were once able to see and document has been reversed by the careless introduction of a new species.

So, next time you doubt the theory of evolution, think about horses and sticklebacks and try (try!!!) to wrap your brain around the enormous timelines involved.. not hundreds of years... not even a thousand years! and definitely not in giant leaps of mutations!