How not to microwave a former Premier

Stop the Smart Meters, says Vander Zalm. (Photo by Bruce Stotesbury of the Victoria Times-Colonist. Click for source.)

Stop the radio waves, says Vander Zalm. (Photo by Bruce Stotesbury of the Victoria Times-Colonist. Click for source.)

Most members of the Former Premiers Club live relatively low-profile lives after surrendering their province’s top political job to someone else. Former 1969-1977 premier Ed Schreyer, the dean of the club’s Manitoba branch, makes the odd public appearance these days, but otherwise lives in quiet retirement. Ditto for Howard Pawley (1981-88) and Gary Filmon (1988-1999), despite recent attempts to pull the latter back into the limelight.

Only Gary Doer (1999-2009) continues to lead a high-profile existence, owing to his new career as Canadian ambassador to the United States.

There’s no quiet retirement planned just yet however for Bill Vander Zalm, the rambunctious former B.C. premier. Forced out of office in 1991 by a conflict-of-interest scandal, he charged back into the political ring a mere eight years later as leader of a largely unsuccessful populist party from 1999 to 2001.

Seventy-nine years old and 22 years out of office,  Vander Zalm continues to play a curious role in B.C. politics, not so much as elder statesman as a rabble-rouser.

His campaign in recent years to rescind B.C.’s Harmonized Sales Tax (HST) is perhaps the least colourful of his efforts. Recently, he filed a federal Freedom of Information request, seeking out information on whether or not the federal government is spraying high-altitude “chemtrails” in an effort at “climate-control engineering”.

“Governments will go ahead and do things, particularly in the name of climate control or, you know, for the sake of agriculture or whatever other excuse they can use . . . They’ll keep it a secret, and they’ll go ahead and do it anyway,” he told a B.C. newspaper.

And don’t get him started on B.C. Hydro’s new Smart Meters.

“Eventually we’ll be governed out of Brussels, Belgium or someplace like that,” Vander Zalm says in a 2011 YouTube video. “They can monitor what’s happening anywhere in the world [using the Smart Meters].”

“They’ll even know what you’re cooking. It’s sad. It’s crazy.”

In an Aug. 7 commentary in Vancouver’s The Province, Vander Zalm expresses concern about the effects that the Smart Meters, which send information back to a central point using a low-powered radio transmitter, might be having on his neighbours’ health.

“We and our neighbours will suffer the effects of an ongoing barrage of radio waves,” he wrote.

For speaking out on the issue, Vander Zalm expresses concern that B.C. Hydro might have tried to get revenge.

“Last week, B.C. Hydro had its ‘get-even’ with me. We had the biggest micro-wave installed in front of our house . . . They could have installed it a block south of our home in a purely agricultural area. They could even have respectfully installed it on the next pole north or south, but instead they put it right in our face by the front gate.”

B.C. Hydro denies that the pole outside of Vander Zalm’s home has any transmitting equipment installed on it.

The Smart Meters remain controversial nevertheless in B.C., despite tests showing that the signals emitted by the smart meters are, in fact, no stronger at just 20 centimeters away from the device than a local FM station’s signal is from a transmitter situated miles away.

In fact, Vander Zalm is likely getting zapped by far more radiation, at least in relative terms, from that agricultural area just south of his home in Ladner, B.C., an outlying Vancouver suburb near the U.S. border.

According to Industry Canada’s Spectrum Direct web site, Rogers Communications has a cell tower in a field just a 16-minute walk south of Vander Zalm’s home.

The tower, 37 metres above ground, pushes out wireless signals at about 780 watts, with few obstructions between the tower and the former premier’s home to weaken the signal.

Entering the known information about the cell tower into an Industry Canada signal coverage estimator shows that the signal from the cell tower is probably in excess of 100 decibels on Vander Zalm’s property — very strong, but still far below the exposure level at which human health becomes a concern.

Smart Meters, by comparison, operate with about one watt of power according to a U.S. radio hobbyist web site.

Punching the known information about Smart Meters into the same Industry Canada signal coverage estimator suggests that the signal from a Smart Meter on the side of Vander Zalm’s home, one metre (three feet) above ground, would be in the 80-90 decibel range at most — roughly equivalent to the amount of radiation one would receive walking down the street 5-10 miles (8-16 kilometres) from an FM radio station’s transmitter.

So the former premier need not lose sleep over the amount of radiation he’s receiving from Smart Meters, much less the idea that the Belgians have any interest in what the Dutch-born ex-politician had for dinner.

But that was a tasty steak your neighbour made tonight, Bill…

Toxic Alaska, and other findings from the world of research

  • Alaska the most toxic state in the U.S. It’s a favourite destination for the cruise ship lines because of its rugged wilderness, but it’s hardly unspoiled. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Toxic Release Inventory, Alaska was home to the largest amount of toxic waste in the United States in 2008 — nearly 567.8 million pounds (257.5 million kilograms) of toxic releases. This put America’s northernmost state well ahead of runners-up Ohio, Utah, Indiana, Texas and Nevada. The least toxic state: Vermont (with lower counts registered in Guam, D.C., the Northern Mariana Islands and American Samoa, which are not technically ‘states’).
  • The Meh Generation. A study from University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research came to the conclusion that today’s U.S. college students are more likely to be indifferent to the feelings of others than those of 20 or 30 years ago. The findings arise from “standard tests of this personality trait” undertaken in 72 studies of U.S. college students between 1979 and 2009 according to researcher Sara Konrath. This included lower levels of agreement with statements like “I sometimes try to understand my friends better by imagining how things look from their perspective” and “I often have tender, concerned feelings for people less fortunate than me.”
  • Cannabis leaving people “dim and demented”. Researchers at the University of Wollongong in Australia have found further evidence that cannabis use has long-term negative effects on the brain. Despite finding evidence that cannabis users sometimes perform some tasks better than non-users due to the brain’s ability to adapt to changes caused by drug use, the buildup of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) that is associated with ongoing cannabis use makes even simple tasks more difficult to perform, and puts users at greater risk of developing dementia in later years. “It is kind of like if you are driving your car down a freeway and the freeway is the most efficient neural pathway,” explained clinical psychologist Robert Battista. “[Cannabis users might find] the road has potholes or there is fog so that it is more effortful, more resources have to go into doing that same task.”
  • Outdoor breaks better than indoor breaks. Pity the poor industrial park worker who has nowhere to go for a walk on his or her break. A test of 537 students at the University of Rochester found that those who took a short break in natural, open-air surroundings were more refreshed by the experience than those who took indoor walks or who had more sedentary breaks. “”Often when we feel depleted we reach for a cup of coffee,” said University of Rochester psychology professor Richard Ryan, “but research suggests a better way to get energized is to connect with nature.”
  • The one European city guaranteed not to be overrun by tourists. Parisians might be perpetually fed up with their city being overrun by les touristes, but it’s not a problem in Minsk, the capital city of Belarus. One critical reason: Mercer, the global human resources corporation, ranked Minsk as Europe’s worst city in a 2008 study, out of a total of 183 cities examined. The study, which looked at 39 factors for each city, was denounced as “pure political vileness” by one Minsk resident, a professor at the city’s National Technical University. Another resident, however, tended to agree with the study’s findings. “Here, the only places open at night are the casinos and train station,” the unnamed woman said.

Crack! Boom! It’s lightning season again!

Lightning strike (© NOAA)Mirror, mirror, on the wall… who’s the fairest of them all?

Hopefully those weren’t the words just off the lips of two people in a house in Jefferson County, Colorado when, on the evening of Sept. 4, 1995, the building was struck by lightning.

The bolt’s energy entered through the attic, traveled through the house, and caused a mirror to explode, showering  the two occupants with shards of glass.

Others have been injured by electrical charges speeding across the ground following a lightning strike or by electricity traveling down utility lines, as documented on a U.S. National Weather Service web page.

All hazards worth remembering as Manitoba enters another thunderstorm season.

“You’re more likely to be hit by lightning,” is an often-used phrase to denote a rare event or unlikely outcome.

Rare, but not quite one-in-a-million. Every year, roughly 125 Canadians are struck by lightning, a 2008 Toronto Star report noted, based on Environment Canada sources. Most are victims of indirect hits and survive.

In other words, the average person still has a greater chance of being struck by lightning than of becoming prime minister or a provincial premier.

As might be expected, open fields and elevated areas are risky places to be when lightning is nearby. (Relieving yourself by the side of the road when there’s lightning in the vicinity is also not recommended, as a Croatian motorcyclist will attest.)

But those aren’t the only places where lightning strikes:

Even a bit of faith in the Almighty is insufficient protection, as demonstrated in incidents where:

With the possibility of more thunderstorm activity in the forecast, be careful out there.


Environment Canada lightning safety information

Lightning activity across Canada (Environment Canada)

Manitoba Weather Warnings

Intellicast Radar Summary from Bismarck, N.D. (includes southern Manitoba)

Weekend Update: The latest insights from the world of research

Have you ever had one of those weeks where it seems like Monday morning and Friday night were just 48 hours apart because you had so much on the go? That’s what the previous week was like for this blogger.

Suddenly it’s the weekend and I notice that it’s been an unusually long time since I’ve posted anything new. Indeed, I do have something good in the works: a historical piece on Transair, Winnipeg’s former hometown airline, which has become a labour of love for me. I’m hoping to have that ready to post next weekend.

Other people have been working away at their own endeavours, too — researchers and scientists all over the world trying to figure out what makes our world what it is. They continue to come up with some interesting findings that are worth sharing here.

Using shame and guilt to try to get young people to change their ways can backfire. In a joint effort, researchers at Indiana University and Northwestern University looked at the effectiveness of ads that tried to steer young people away from drinking, smoking and other vices by trying to induce shame or guilt. They found that, far from steering young people away from these vices, these ads actually steered young people toward them by putting them on the defensive and leading them to underestimate their own vulnerabilities. “These ads may ultimately do more harm than good,” concluded Prof. Adam Duhachek of Indiana University.

When is sex not sex? Researchers at Indiana University presented 204 men and 282 women in that state with a list of 14 sexual behaviours and asked if each behaviour constituted “having sex” with someone. Some people might be surprised to hear that three-in-ten respondents (30%) denied that oral sex constituted “having sex”, and that one-in-five (20%) said that anal sex didn’t count.  No word on whether or not they’d feel the same way if they caught their mates at it with someone else.

Languages tend to simplify as they become more widespread. Two researchers, one from the University of Pennsylvania and the other from the University of Memphis, found that languages tend to evolve and simplify as they spread throughout the world so as to become more easily learned.

Gary Lupyan, a post-doctoral fellow in the Department of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, noted in a recent paper published in the Public Library of Science that “as a language becomes more popular, as it spreads beyond its original place, different types of people with different backgrounds and cultures need to learn it,” and that the language’s grammatical rules begin to simplify. Thus, the most complicated languages tend to be those restricted to fairly limited areas, such as the Icelandic language and the multitudes of Native American and Australian Aborigine languages.

Ever wonder why backpackers tend to be happy-go-lucky types? A joint study by the University of California at San Diego and The Netherlands’ Leiden University found that people who are happy tend to feel less need for the comfort of the familiar and are more likely to seek out adventures and new experiences. Unhappy people, however, tend to value things that are familiar and comforting. “Familiarity signals safety, which is pleasant in an unsafe or stressful context but might actually get boring when all is going fine,” said researcher Marieke de Vries of Leiden University.

Weekend Update: Thomas the Repressive Tank Engine and other tidbits from the world of research

Thousands of scientists and social scientists around the world are working day and night to understand more about why our world is the way it is. They’ve been busy releasing more studies recently, which means it’s time for another Weekend Update.

Thomas the Repressive Tank Engine. A political science professor at the University of Alberta received 30 angry e-mails from fans of “Thomas the Tank Engine” after producing a study concluding that the popular children’s TV show features a “conservative political ideology that punishes individual initiative, opposes critique and change, and relegates females to supportive roles”. Professor Shauna Wilton said that her daughter is a fan of the program, but that “the show comes out of a particularly historical time period when society was hierarchical and there was a blind following of authority. I want my daughter to think for herself.”

It seemed like a good idea at the time. A Université de Montréal study that was supposed to examine the effects of pornography on young men went off the rails after researchers couldn’t find enough participants. The problem, however, wasn’t in finding young men who admitted to looking at pornography — which was a fairly easy task. The problem was in finding young men who had never looked at pornography. “We started our research seeking men who had never consumed pornography. We couldn’t find any,” said Prof. Simon Louis Lajeunesse.

Coffee won’t make you sober up. If you’re trying to sober up after having a little too much to drink, don’t bother ordering coffee. A study in the Behavioral Neuroscience journal found that coffee only decreases alcohol’s sedative effect – it does not improve brain function, which is the key to sobering up. Worse yet, the combination of caffeine and alcohol could cause people to underestimate how impaired they really are.

Casual sex not necessarily emotionally or psychologically damaging. A study by University of Minnesota researchers found that young Minnesotans whose most recent sexual encounter was “casual” had about the same levels of self-esteem and emotional well-being as those whose latest encounter was within the scope of a more serious relationship. The researchers warned, however, that this was not necessarily a licence to engage in casual sex, which they warned increased the risk of sexually transmitted diseases and unexpected pregnancies.

Justice is a woman. Two researchers at the Institute of Criminal Justice Studies at the University of Portsmouth in Britain found that women are more likely than men to fight for justice in that country’s judicial system. It was noted that women and men react to injustices differently: women by fighting to reverse the injustice, men by seeking to move on with their lives.

Is e-mail making us less productive? That could be one conclusion of a Cardiff University study that showed that participants who were disrupted by pop-up messages while doing a simple, seven-step computer task took longer to complete the process than those who were not interrupted. The researchers suggested that e-mail alerts and other on-screen distractions should be either disabled or be made as unobtrusive as possible.

Thoughts from a tiny corner of our Universe

It’s tempting sometimes to look across the night sky at the array of stars out there, and wonder whether or  not there is other life in our Universe. And if so, what is life like out there?

It’s a question that has preoccupied humans for centuries, but which has never been solved.

Scientists have made impressive strides toward determining whether or not other solar systems could support life, however. Using advanced technology, they have now been able to pick out more than 300 planets circling other stars out there in the distance. Most of these planets have been “gas giants”, similar to Jupiter and Saturn in our solar system.

However, earlier this year, signs showed up of a rocky planet circling a star called Corot-7, about 500 light years from Earth. Planet Corot-7b is too hot to support life, however, with tomorrow’s daytime high estimated at a scorching 1,000 to 1,500 degrees Celsius — hot enough to melt copper.

Though the search for planets has become easier, the search for life remains more difficult.

Perhaps it is possible that someday we’ll pick up a faint radio signal from a distant planet, or that they’ll pick up a signal from our planet. However, it has been only about 90 years since high-powered radio broadcasts began here on Earth.

With our own galaxy being about 100,000 light years across, these radio signals traveling out into space are only just starting to leave our galactic back yard after all those years, and won’t even be out of the neighbourhood for another two or three thousand years.

To put the vastness of the Universe into perspective, imagine yourself standing in front of the Richardson Building, at Portage and Main, with a tennis ball in your hand.

That tennis ball represents the Sun. (The bright thing in the sky, not the newspaper.)

The Earth orbits a mere 7.2 metres (23 feet, 7 inches) away — six billion people and all the world’s continents reduced to a tiny sphere with a diameter of six-tenths of a millimetre.

Neptune and Pluto continue to orbit out on the fringes of the solar system. Relative to our tennis-ball Sun at Portage and Main, Neptune is about the size of a mere pebble out by the intersection of Main and Graham.

To get to our nearest neighbours in the galaxy, you’d have to get on a plane to Minneapolis, make a connection to Washington, D. C. and then take a taxi out to suburban Bethesda, Maryland. Once you get there, you’ll be looking for a ball of light slightly smaller than a marble. That’s the star Proxima Centauri, the next-closest star to Earth after the Sun. Near it are the larger Alpha Centauri A and B.

The nearly 2,000 kilometres between Winnipeg and Bethesda would represent the dark, cold, silent emptiness between the Sun and Proxima Centauri.

Even if you took a longer trip to Sydney, Australia, it would still only take you the equivalent of 31 light years from our tennis-ball Sun. In celestial terms, 31 light years is considered “local”. Only a small number of stars are that close to Earth.

To find life out there in our great, vast Universe, we are possibly looking for that one star in a billion or even a trillion — or more — that has just the right conditions to support life.

With our galaxy containing about 200 billion stars by more conservative estimates, a one-in-a-billion incidence of life might mean that our galaxy is home to hundreds of planets that support life.

And our average-sized galaxy is thought to be just one of at least 100 billion galaxies in the Universe.

A one-in-a-billion incidence of life in the Universe would still leave room for 20 trillion planets harbouring life in our Universe.

Even if only one in a trillion stars have life within its solar system,  it’s plausible that ours might be just one of 20 billion worlds in our Universe — three for every man, woman and child on Earth.

The next time you look up into the night sky, give some thought to the fact that in the bigger scheme of things you, I and more than six billion other human beings are essentially sharing a tiny speck of dust.