Friday, June 23, 2017

Whispering Killer Wings

I love the sound of dragonfly wings in the evening.

From my deck easy chair I savour the whispering clicks of their translucent wings as they float through the air like prima ballerinas. Such grace. Such precision. Such great killers.

They move like ballet dancers but are powerful war machines, intercepting and destroying millions of blackflies, mosquitoes and other flying terrors that arrive each summer to torment us. They actually catch their prey with their feet and tear their wings off so they can’t escape. Then they chew them up with their razor mandibles.

I love them and the work they do. Sometimes when the Irish whiskey jug accompanies me to the deck I stand shouting: “Attaway. Way to go. Kill baby, kill!”

Dragonflies are said to have a 97-per-cent success rate in hunting. A single dragonfly eats hundreds of mosquitoes, blackflies and midges every day. It can eat its weight in mosquitoes in 30 minutes.

They have a computer-like connection between their tiny brains and their flight controls. Each of their four wings can operate independently, allowing them to fly backwards, sideways; basically any direction that they wish at average cruising speed of 16 kilometers per hour and top speeds of 30 to 40 kph.

Their heads are pretty much all eyes that give them exceptional vision, combined with an uncanny ability to focus and zero in on prey. They are able to select and target a single blackfly among an entire swarm.     

They are said to have the best vision of anything in the animal kingdom. Humans have three light sensitive proteins that allow us to see colour and details. Dragonflies have up to 33, which allows them to see colours that humans cannot even imagine.

Although they are deadly hunters, dragonflies do not bother with humans. They don’t bite us because their razor mandibles are not strong enough to break human skin.

It is a strange twist of nature that the much tinier blackfly is able to cut human skin, allowing it to soak up the resulting blood. Only the female blackfly bites because she needs blood for laying her eggs.

The blackflies thankfully are almost done for this year. They usually come out in mid-May and are mostly gone by the end of June. The life span of a black fly is only three weeks, far too long for many people.

Mosquitoes, however, are with us for the entire summer and the early autumn. They are continually laying eggs that produce adult mosquitoes in less than 10 days if conditions are perfect. And they are perfect right now – 22 to 27 degrees Celsius with plenty of humidity.

Like the blackfly only female mosquitoes bite, or to be accurate, drill down to get blood for egg development. Females live only one or two weeks, which of course gives them plenty of time to lay hundreds of eggs that become new populations.

While blackflies like moving water for hatching, mosquitoes prefer slow moving or still water. That is why it is so important to get rid of small puddles of standing water around homes and cottages. Even a Frisbee left overturned in the rain will collect enough water to become a breeding site.

Dragonflies were among our planet’s first insects and are believed to have been around for 300 million years. There are more than 3,000 known species of dragonflies, some of which now are endangered because of habitant loss and pollution, notably pesticides and insecticides.

There is enough concern about and interest in dragonflies that dragonfly sanctuaries are being developed. In recent years important sanctuaries have been established in the United Kingdom, Japan and the U.S. southwest.  

Dragonflies are found throughout the world and are important not just because they eat other flies that irritate us. Their exceptional vision and flying mechanics have been studied to help advance engineering innovations.

They also have symbolic importance. For some people they represent adaptation and transformation. For others, joy and lightness of being, and yet others, power and poise.

Samurai in Japan see the dragonfly as symbolising power, agility and victory. The Chinese see the insect as prosperity and good luck.


Thursday, June 15, 2017

When A Culture Changes

There is an important anniversary in my life this month. It is an anniversary that tells more about a changed culture than my individual life.

Twenty years ago June 27 I left a daily newspaper career to become a freelance writer. I left not because I tired of the work, but because I could not stomach some of the people.

No, not the real workers. Not the gals and guys who work observing and reporting the important events of each day. They were dedicated, honest and fair journalists doing their best to inform their communities of what was happening in their lives.

Some of these folks were quirky. Some could be irritating at times, but I don’t  recall working with any that I truly disliked. Or any who put profit ahead of producing a factual and balanced news report.

What I truly disliked were the new ‘leaders’ brought into the daily news business during the late 1980s and the 1990s. They came with an increase in chain ownership; invaders with different values. They were business bobble heads from outside the news industry and bootlickers they brought with them or converted on the inside.

Their God was the bottom line and they replaced old-time publishers and others whose passion was product. For these invaders, producing news reports was no different than producing widgets. Many were narcissists who practised situational ethics, played loose with the truth, and were devoid of empathy.

Their mission was to resuscitate a failing newspaper industry through the bottom line. The result is well known: The North American daily newspaper industry is in a state of collapse.

A Pew Research Centre analysis indicates that U.S. daily newspaper circulation  fell eight per cent in 2016, the 28th consecutive year of declines.

The new leaders lacked the understanding and feel for the business. They were total duds when it came to innovation. They were incapable of managing a peanut stand.

What they and other business executives did manage well were their compensation agreements and future severance packages. From 1978 to 2013 Chief Executive Officer compensation increased 937 per cent, while a typical worker’s compensation increased 10.2 per cent. Those figures appeared in a 2014 report by the Economic Policy Institute, a U.S. non-profit think tank.

What happened in the news game also was happening in other industries. Workers were tossed from windows in the push for more profit. Sell more, care less about quality.

Appliances that used to last decades became throwaways after four to six years. Commercial airline service, once a pleasurable experience, descended to cattle car level.

The new culture in the business world rewrote the social contract under which people had lived since the end of the Second World War. It was a contract that set out the mutual expectations and obligations of workers and their employers and it helped to create the economic stability of the 50s, 60s and 70s.

The culture spawned in the 80s grew slowly but surely into what we see today. It is the culture of U.S. President Forrest Trump, his associates and their followers. It is a culture that values profit more than people.

Its theme: Everyone should be able to look after themselves. Why should society pay taxes to help pay for someone’s else’s medical problems?  If you don’t have a great life, it’s your own fault.

Change always will be a needed part of North American culture. But not change by oligarchs and moguls who are mean-spirited mongrels.

Certainly more change will come to the newspaper industry, some of it good. Major daily newspapering will be confined to large global centres – New York, London, Paris, Sydney and some others. These global newspapers will provide us with the most important and interesting news of the world.

News from our own surroundings will come from community newspapers like this one.

The culture typified by the Trumpists will disappear, overtaken by people who care for people and who work to find goodness, even in tragedy. People like the Castlegar, B.C. family of Christine Archibald who died in the latest London terrorist attack.

"Volunteer your time and labour or donate to a homeless shelter," the family said in a statement. "Tell them Chrissy sent you."


Thursday, June 8, 2017

Finding Haliburton 3

Finally, the mystery is solved.

It took considerable poking and prodding of the federal bureaucracy but we have found Hal 3. It is a weather site, in fact the only weather site recording daily weather statistics in Haliburton County.

Environment Canada (EC) does not have any weather stations in Haliburton County. Neither do other weather services such as The Weather Network, which feed off EC data and massage it for their own reports.

When you search EC online for Haliburton weather you get forecasts and data from Bancroft, an hour’s drive from the centre of Haliburton County.

Haliburton 3 does not do forecasts but provides temperature and precipitation information for days past. If you want to know how much rain fell on the holiday Monday about three weeks ago, it will tell you (almost 15 millimeters, or more than one-half an inch).

I learned of Hal 3 while stumbling around the Internet some years back, but could never find any specific information about it. January past I made it a mission to find out where it was and why its detail is so much better than anything provided by the EC station in Bancroft.

I started with messages to EC in Gatineau, Quebec. They ignored me. I sent other messages until a human finally replied, telling me that to direct my inquiry to the national severe weather centre.

“This has nothing to do with severe weather,” I shot back. “I just want to know where Haliburton 3 weather is collected.”

There was no response. I sent other messages asking if anyone in Environment Canada ever was going to talk to me about Hal 3. No response.

After almost four months of trying to penetrate the thick federal bureaucracy I resorted to a threat. I messaged EC saying it could ignore my requests, but I was certain the federal information commissioner and my local MP would not.

The response was very quick and Hal 3 no longer is a mystery. It is a Cooperative Climate Network (CCN) weather station staffed by a private individual who collects weather data daily and provides it to Environment Canada.

What makes Hal 3 information so much more useful is the word “staffed.” A person actually measures the amount of rainfall and snowfall.

In many locations, Bancroft included, EC has automated weather stations that do not measure rain and snow individually. They collect rain and snow together as liquid and report total precipitation in millimetres.

So it is virtually impossible to know how much snow fell on a given day, which seems bit unCanadian.

Hal 3 however tells us how much snow and rain falls on a given day. For instance, it tells you that on April 6, a day when it both rained and snowed, rainfall was 17 millimetres, and the snowfall totalled 13 centimetres.

The automated stations simply report 30 millimetres of precipitation, which gives no idea of how much snow fell.

The EC bureaucrats, citing privacy laws, won’t give the name of the individual collecting weather information at Hal 3. They just say that it is a person operating somewhere at Latitude: N 45° 1' 56.094" Longitude: W 78° 31' 52.014" somewhere near Grass Lake.

They don’t tell us anything about the Cooperative Climate Network (CCN) but we can guess it is similar to the Cooperative Observer Program in the United States where more than 10,000 volunteers take daily weather observations and report them to the National Weather Service.

You can find Hal 3 on the Internet by going to

Most people are content to receive standard weather information provided by any of the weather services on the Internet and have little interest in the details. Some others, like myself, are keenly interested in accurate detail and say thanks to the Hal 3 volunteer, whoever you are.

Here are some interesting facts put together with data from Hal 3:

There were no days last winter with lows of minus 30C or colder.

March had more cold days than December, January or February, but December had more snow (134.4 cm) than January, February and March combined.

There was at least a trace of rain on 18 days in April and 21 days in May.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Machines with Screens

Machines and I don’t get along. I have never done them any bad, but they have never liked me. Whenever we meet, they treat me like an idiot. That happened again last week when I had to make a trip into the Big Smoke.

Going to the Big Smoke is stressful, so I decided I might lessen the strain by taking the train. Avoid the craziness of Highway 400, and the alleged city ‘expressways’ that are clogged arteries into that heart of madness called Toronto.

Go Train service now reaches as far north as Barrie so I decided to get a ticket there, hop on and ride relaxed.

I arrived at the Barrie waterfront station early one morning but could not find anyone to sell me a ticket. I wandered about looking and found a sign with a pointing arrow and the word ‘Tickets.’ I followed the arrow, then came face to face with . . . a machine. Apparently ticket machines have replaced humans at some GO stations.

I panicked. Did I have any coins? Could I remember my credit card password? Would I end up wrangling with the machine as the train pulled away without me?

I approached the machine cautiously. You can’t let them sense your nervousness. If they do, it can be bad. Very bad.

The machine seemed friendly enough. Big numbers with instructions. You spoke to it by tapping its screen, which was reasonably readable. Not like some parking meters that in the slightest bit of sunlight, you have to squat and bob your head up, down and sideways to see what they are asking you.

I tapped the GO’s screen and pushed my credit card in and out with mounting frustration as cancellation slips piled up around my feet. I began making faces at the thing, and shouted not-so-nice words.

“Do you need help?” came a voice from an open door of the train on the other side of the fence.

It was one of the train operators and he jumped onto the platform and came through a gate to either help me or restrain me. Turns out it was to help.

He obviously had never bought a ticket because he read the instructions slowly and tapped the screen cautiously. Then he paused.

“Oh, there’s a key punch board over here,” he said with surprise.

And, there it was, partly hidden away. After working with the screen you had to move over and tap the keys to enter your credit card information.

On board, I settled into my seat. There were nine other passengers in my section and I thought it would be nice to chat with someone. When I looked around, I saw all nine faces buried in cell phone screens.

Apparently the only way I could chat with any of them was to get their online addresses. With no one to chat with I sat back to think, which can be dangerous.

We live in a society that deals more with screens than people. We do banking with screens, shop through screens, buy tickets on screens. We even order our hamburgers and fries at MacDonald’s on screens.

I wonder about the jobs the machines with screens have eliminated. The GO train ticket seller might have been a single mom working a couple hours a day to help make ends meet. Or, an old guy whose pension was cut by a corporate CEO obsessed with building a better bottom line. Or, a lonely person seeking social contact with people through part-time work.

It is only the beginning. Already there are driverless cars, delivery drones, and Artificial Intelligence could bring even more. The future is more screens and fewer face-to-face dealings with humans.

I can imagine myself walking in the woods, brushing my arm against a plant, then noticing a rash rising on my skin. I photograph it with my cell phone and message the image to an online site.

The words Poison Ivy then flash across my phone screen. Seconds later a prescription appears. I go into town, find a kiosk and feed it the prescription code and my health card. A tube of poison ivy salve drops into the kiosk’s dispenser.

That’s the future, eh?