Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Climate: a much higher priority than it should be

I just received yet another of those myriad e-mails from friends, acquaintances, and, presumably, random people who coughed while typing and somehow entered my e-mail address.

It's one of those e-mails that invites you to get involved with this campaign, or go to that event, or to otherwise bitch about somebody's inaction climate change. Heck, this week's Charlatan even has a full-page article on how you can save the world if you stop using plastic bags.

Fancy that, eh? And you didn't even have to go out and buy that Prius!

Nobody's really asked me whether or not I believe in climate change, but that hasn't stopped me from telling them that I don't care.

For me, environmentalism is mainly a byproduct of pragmatism. That is to say, any choice I could make for the benefit of the environment is likely to have other benefits that affect me in much more direct and concrete ways.

Consider my decision to use the bicycle as my primary mode of transportation. What are the benefits of riding a bicycle?

Well, for one, I'm not contributing to the smog problem. That means that it is slightly easier to breathe in my neighbourhood and city. That's an environmental benefit. But considering I live on a major street in downtown Ottawa, the difference is negligible.

My community benefits on a financial basis as well: a bicycle is much smaller and lighter than a motor vehicle (including a bus). Having a smaller vehicle means I contribute less to traffic congestion (a benefit you don't get with low- or zero-emission cars), and having a lighter vehicle means the roads I travel on will take longer to deteriorate. These mean it will be longer before the municipality has to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to rebuild the roads I use, and when they do, there will be less need for additional lanes.

But all that means is that property taxes in my city might be very very slightly lower in a decade or two.

A bicycle can't travel as fast as a motor vehicle, and therefore my trips either must take more time, be less frequent, or go less far. Some might see this as a drawback, but it also acts as a benefit, as it requires me to plan my trips better, and consider what I choose as destinations. As proof to that, I rarely go more than 2 kilometres from my home. When you consider that the average person travels four times as far in a day today than they did sixty years ago, and there are many more people, a heckuva lot of roads need to be built to accommodate that traffic. That's extremely expensive for taxpayers.

So by making this choice to cycle, I may have reduced everyone's tax bill by a couple pennies over a decade, not counting inflation. Don't bother giving me an award just for that.

But let's get to the person who really matters in today's society: me.

By cycling, I am getting cardiovascular exercise, thereby improving my health and increasing my life expectancy. If my trips were longer than my average 15-minutes-in-traffic rides, my body would release more serotonin and I'd feel happier, too.

A cynic would say, "If you care so much about your health, why do you eat so much unhealthy food? And why don't you get a doctor to check out that twitch in your eye?" Okay, the twitch thing I should get checked out, but our cynic is correct on the other point. Being healthy and active simply is not a high priority for me, nor is it for the average North American.

While some people put time out of their day to go to the gym or to jog, I cycle precisely to avoid this. Since I need to get to work anyway, why don't I get my exercise while going to work? That's all there is. It saves me time, and saves me having to worry whether I should dedicate a specific time to exercise to improve my health.

Cycling saves me money, too. If I could own and use a car for as little as it costs to go by bike, I would certainly consider it. But even the bus is more expensive: in 2006, my total transportation costs for all modes totaled $706--less than twelve monthly adult bus passes.

While society tends to push money as the most important goal, for me it's time. I don't believe in an afterlife, and I might die in sixty years or in sixty hours--so I'd better make good use of the time I know I have--right now.

There's a wonderful quote by Ivan Illich reprinted in the book "Divorce Your Car!" by Katie Alvord (and probably on my blog once or twice):

The typical American male devotes more than 1,600 hours a year to his car. He sits in it while it goes and while it is idling. He parks it and searches for it. He earns the money to put down on it and to meet the monthly installments. He works to pay for fuel, tolls, insurance, taxes, and traffic tickets. He spends four out of his 16 waking hours on the road or gathering his resources for it. And this figure does not take into account the time consumed by other activities dictated by transport: time spent in hospitals, traffic courts, and garages; time spent watching automobile commercials or attending consumer education meetings to improve the quality of the next buy. The model American puts in 1,600 hours to get 7.500 miles; less than five miles per hour. (Ivan Illich, Energy and Equity, 30-31.)

That bolded part is the most important to me (as much as I get a kick out of the five-miles-per-hour bit): There are some people who actually spend hours each day commuting to and from their boring jobs. To me, this is insane. Commuting is most often a means, not an end.

A means? To what?

To work, which itself is often just a means to get money (which is an end goal only for the most pathological of people). There have been many attempts to make commuting less stressful and more productive (for example, the car radio), but at the end of the day, if you're not deriving pleasure from traveling from one place to another, and if you do a lot of that, then you should think about how your life is structured.

If you live your life in such a way that you don't have to spend so much of it getting from one place to another, you'll have more time, more money (or less need to spend time earning money), and you may have helped keep the mean global temperature from increasing by one degree over the next fifty years.


Remember, this blog post is about Global Warming; cycling is just an illustration. Compared to my arguments based on pure hedonism, greed, and utility, the altruistic "prevent climate change" argument is pretty weak.

And that's just for the argument to get one person to ride a bicycle. Individuals making changes in their own lives will never solve more than a fraction of the world's problems. There are also many institutional, industrial, and international problems that require change. The changes necessary to address these problems might also affect climate change, but somehow I doubt that a person in a war-torn Middle-Eastern country would really care to sign your petition to prevent Global Warming by reducing bombing in their country to 5% below 1990 levels.

Whenever I hear someone citing "Climate Change", or "Greenhouse Gases", or "Kyoto Protocol", I get the same feeling in my gut as when I hear "Mandatory minimum sentences", "War on Drugs", or "Tough on Crime". It shows that they haven't got their priorities straight.

Like any other buzzword, these terms are used by people to draw attention to themselves, to their groups, or to the events they are organizing. Were these people to actually look at the goals of these events, how to achieve them, and how to sell them, they might actually elicit some real change.

- RG>

Sunday, November 25, 2007

SMAP: Corporate Edition

While my previous attempts to get the City of Ottawa to acknowledge its support for Motherhood and Apple Pie (SMAP) did not succeed, I found inspiration on the door of a cruiser that was parked by the closed Bank/Somerset intersection:

(click for larger version)

Since there isn't a war being fought with Motherhood and Apple Pie that warrants a sticker on police cruisers, maybe I can get corporate sponsorship from companies like Microsoft, MBNA, and various corporate media outlets did here.

I mean, if they can get endorsement by the Ottawa Police Service in the form of their logos being on police cruisers, then certainly SMAP can! It's open season!

I must, however, acknowledge the two polite police officers who did not tase me while I photographed their cruiser door. Either they were too busy chatting amongst themselves to notice me, or maybe they actually respected my right to photograph them in a public place.

- RG>

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Explicit Hedonism

Feeding the wardrobe

I realized this morning that I had only packed two shirts, when I had intended to pack three. I decided that I'd go out and buy one, since I'd wanted to get a new shirt for a while anyways.

The last shirt I bought, which is the nicest one I have, I got at the thrift store in Hintonburg for $5.29 plus tax. The tie, which goes along with it quite snazzily, I got at the same store for a dollar. Unfortunately, that store and the Phase 2 in the Glebe were both out of any decent shirts. So I had been meaning to buy a new one, but never got around to it.

So today, once I was satisfied that everything would run smoothly in my absence, I trotted off to a store to shop. I didn't want to shop at Tommy Hilfiger, or any of those other brand-name outlet stores. After walking around and noticing surveillance cameras at nearly every intersection, I found a nice place. It had an old-fashioned charm to it--including its fast-approaching closing time of 6 pm. There were two people who assisted me in finding a good shirt, based on my requirements (namely, what colour ties I had brought with me).

It hadn't occurred to me up to this point the price of these shirts, until I had started to narrow down the selection. Each one was at least one order of magnitude higher in price than the shirt I was wearing cost at the thrift store. I bit my tongue and told myself it was the price of small-town charm and old-fashioned service.

I picked a shirt, tried it on, and learned from the clerk that I needed new pants, because there were at least two things wrong with them (the third one--the bike grease stains--I had already pointed out). Who knew? I think I'll check the thrift store first.

I made my way back to my hotel room to scurry away my expensive new shirt. Fine if my laptop gets stolen, but if this shirt gets stolen before I even get a chance to wear it, I'm in total shit!

Dressing the appetite

In my room, I tried to find a place to eat. I eventually decided that I wanted steak. A good steak, from a good steak place. And even though I could get a taxi voucher covered, I'd rather walk, so it would have to be within a few blocks.

The phone book and travel guide weren't giving me very useful information, and my laptop was still at work, so I headed back there to do further research.

At work, I searched for a place nearby that served steak. Unfortunately, none of the places that put their menus online had steak! My mouth watered as my hunger grew. As amusing as it would be for RealGrouchy to eat at Crabby Joe's, I wasn't in the mood for a "family atmosphere". The only other place that I could find was a bit out of my price range.

My boss happened by, and when I asked her about my steak-hankering, she suggested a place not too far away, and gave clear directions, noting the number of blocks and the names of the streets. "It's got a big red sign--you can't miss it!" So at around 7 pm, I went.

When I got there, I--

I didn't get there. Well, I got to the general location that she had indicated, but I couldn't find the place. The only place with a big red sign you couldn't miss was Canadian Tire, and I'm pretty sure they serve grills, not steaks. I walked around the general area--"exploring", then headed back in a more familiar direction in the hopes I might magically find this, or any other, steak house.

Heading back in the direction of my hotel, near which I knew there was at least an Honest Lawyer, I passed the Union Mission (which, unfortunately, looked very large and well-used). I passed one convenience store and considered going in to ask, but there was a customer in there, and I didn't really feel comfortable asking for a steak house right across from the Mission.

Around the corner was another convenience store, where I asked the guy behind the counter if he knew a place where I could get a steak. He flagged down Walter, who I assume lives in the condo building next to the store. Walter directed me back to Crabby Joe's. I asked about the place my boss told me about. Turns out it had been closed for a couple years already!

So I headed toward Crabby Joe's. My hotel was on the way, so I decided I'd step in to ask the clerk if they knew a place. The counter was busy, so without leaving the revolving door, I went back out and asked the security guy. He suggested a place that was a bit higher fare than Crabby Joe's, and gave me what I thought were clear directions.

Following his directions, I went hungrily for yet another walk. I found the clubbing district, which I believe also was the gay district. There weren't as many surveillance cameras here, and there were noticeably more panhandlers. I gave the last two quarters in my pocket to one lady. Anything to buy off the guilt of buying a ridiculously expensive shirt.

(Actually, while there are a hell of a lot of panhandlers here compared to Ottawa, they are all incredibly polite. Last night, on my misadventure searching for the hotel, one guy asked me "Excuse me, sir, but would you happen to have a cigarette?" Maybe it has to do with the panhandling market being saturated, or maybe the cameras.)

I went down to the end of the street, and found no such restaurant. All the places were clubs with their gates still closed until later at night. The record store guy was standing outside his door, so I asked him where I could find the place I was looking for. If I had room in my bags on the way back, and were I not flying Air Canada, I would probably have gone in and bought a record or two.

He knew where I was going, and gave me better directions. It still took me a bit of walking around, but eventually I found the place. I walked in, and asked to see the menu. Turns out, it was the pricey place I had decided against earlier! Fuck it, I was hungry, and damned if I was going to find another steak house!

All in all, I think I would have been better off taking a taxi to the Keg. This place was the kind that puts less on your plate the more you pay. Sigh.

On the way back, I took note of a couple other places I might eat. I'm glad that I'm eating all this rich-people food on my trip, as it reminds me how much I prefer regular fare.

- RG>

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Conspicuous Consumption in Action

I am posting this from a train.

My employer is sending me down to help with our annual conference in southern Ontario, and I decided to take the train down first class, which is a much more pleasant (if longer) trip than a 70-minute up-down flight in cattle class, plus all the associated probing of cavities and containers (which I'll experience for the way home).

The last time I took the train I was literally too young to remember. It's quite the pleasant experience, and far, far simpler than any plane ride I've ever been on. I haven't done much traveling within Canada, so it was nice to walk around downtown Toronto for an hour (albeit with my bags). Much more vibrant than Ottawa, with plenty of pedestrians, although I don't know if that's just because of the hockey game that was an hour away from starting. The multicolour lights on the CN tower does a good job of hiding its ugly.

I could only see two types of people on the street: rich-looking metropolitans walking places who didn't make eye contact, and panhandlers who quietly sat and asked for change. I literally saw nothing in between. I held a door open for one man, and he was absolutely shocked (but he did thank me!).

I'm on the second (and last) leg of my trip, right now, and it looks like the internet connection is stable enough on this train to warrant spending the ten bucks for the internet connection. I mean, work is paying for the whole trip, so I can splurge a bit on my own expenses, right?

- RG>

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Kill A Watt for free in Ottawa

A couple months ago, a friend of mine mentioned online that she had used a device called the Kill A Watt (description, photos and review available here) to determine how much power her idle electronic devices use.

Lately, I've been wanting to do the same, but since the $30 or so price tag for the device is half my last hydro bill, I didn't really want to shell out for one. (Looking at my records, my hydro bills in the last year range from $62.88 to $195.38. Ottawa Hydro bills every two months)

It turns out that in Ottawa, I won't have to.

The Ottawa Public Library has a number of Kill A Watt devices at each of their branches. And according to their online catalogue, almost none of them are in use.

I'll definitely check one out...of the library!

- RG>

Thursday, November 01, 2007

On a Swap Box mission

Edit: see the first and second blog entries on this topic.

Thanks to Monocle Barbie's tip leading to's blog entry on Swap Boxes, I discovered that the Swap Box Project was started by a fellow who goes by the name maks (or elmaks), and that the project is still in its infancy.

I realized that I should write a story on the swap boxes for one of the local community papers to build more visible community support before it gets killed by the BIAs. To do so, I'd need to get in touch with maks. I looked around on the internet, but everything led back to his deviantART page, and there's no contact info for him there. I could do the lame thing and post comments in other peoples' blogs, but that would be lame.

Instead, I decided to go the more creative way. I rummaged around in my apartment for some Swap Box-sized stuff (no shortage of that here!). I found a small, round mirror, a small key, and a dead 0.3A fuse. I assembled them with some silicone aquarium sealer, and wrote in red Sharpie "LOOKING FOR MAKS - RG>".

Here's a photo.

I needed something white for a backdrop, so in true hipster fashion, I used the Beatles' White Album. I then hipster-whored it up further with some simple photo editing functions. That was all purely for my enjoyment. (Note: it was only after taking this photo that I discovered that he goes by maks, and not elmaks, his deviantART handle. I corrected this before placing it in the box.)

I took it to the nostalgia swap box on Elgin, took out the empty mini-bottle of Bailey's that someone had shoved in the box, and put the mirror in. Hopefully someone who knows him--or maks himself--will find it and get the message. I also hope he appreciates the symbolism in the pieces I used in making it.

Apologies for the poor photo quality. Also in the box at the time were a small figurine and a narrow pad of orange post-it notes. Also, looking at that photo just now, I realize that the frame on the front of the box is derived from one of those stupid ads you see in washrooms. Good on you, maks, for defending our mental environment from those damn things!

maks, if you're reading this, I can be reached at

- RG>

PS: I discovered unexpectedly that you can get Sharpie off a mirror by freezing it, breathing on it, then wiping the condensation off with a tissue. Unexpected, but gave me a chance to spell his name properly.