Archive | July 2009

Homeopathy is not a natural remedy

I must admit, I am somewhat embarassed by most natural/organic food stores and sections in grocery stores. And obviously not because of the organic food, but because the shelves full of homeopathic “remedies” are indefensible.

Most people don’t know what homeopathy actually is. The idea is very simple: if you have an ailment, you find some substance that causes symptoms similar to those of the ailment, dilute it in water to a minuscule, barely- or not-detectable level, and then… take it as a remedy for the ailment. Why does this work? First, placebo effects can be very real. Second, it doesn’t. And in some cases it does active harm because it prevents people from seeking an actual treatment.

Homeopathic claims are well-established quackery. The concentrations that are used often ensure that not a single molecule of the original substance is even present in the water. No, the water molecules do not “remember” anything about the intention of the homeopath. They’re just molecules of water, nothing special — and no curative effects. It’s not that the mechanism is unproven, it’s that current scientific knowledge precludes the operation of any conceivable mechanism.

So homeopathy is not a natural remedy because it is no remedy at all. I’m sure plenty of supposed natural remedies are placebos as well, but at least there is a possible mechanism — plants contain numerous substances and it’s entirely possible that some of them have an effect on the condition for which they are used. There are plenty of well-established plant medicines, including many that have made the jump to purified pharmaceuticals (e.g. willow bark to aspirin). When you have a cold, it’s a better bet health-wise and certainly more pleasant to have chicken soup or tea with honey and lemon than any homeopathic placebos.

My concern is that association with homeopathy and related quackery makes a bad name for other alternative, but vastly more legitimate items that are to be found in natural food stores.


Good ideas: Hybrid garbage trucks

Hybrid buses seem to be all the rage these days in many cities — and including Grand River Transit. If hybrid buses make sense, then why are there no hybrid garbage trucks?

Especially when operating suburban-type routes, garbage and recycling trucks make very frequent stops. This means they lose quite a lot of energy to braking, which could and should be recaptured. From each of their frequent stops, they have to accelerate their massive weight — and here an electric motor would do a much better job than a diesel one, I would think.

As with buses, the hybrid drive should make the diesel engine last longer and of course improve fuel use. In addition, there is the significant external benefit of lower diesel emissions and, especially, less noise. Garbage trucks struggling to accelerate with their diesels is a truly awful sound in the mornings.

So hybrid power makes sense for garbage trucks at least as much as it does for buses. Why aren’t they on the roads, then? My uninformed guess is that it has to do with them being owned and operated by private companies as opposed to the public transit operators that buy hybrid buses. GRT’s hybrid buses cost around 50% more than the regular ones, and that probably has something to do with it as well.

Upon investigation: within the last year or two such trucks have appeared, not just in hybrid electric form, but also as hydraulic hybrids. The industry group Calstart has a Hybrid Truck Users Forum that is working on hybrid refuse trucks, and impending U.S. government emissions standards seem to be pushing manufacturers in this direction. New York City is trying out a few competing versions, and will probably set the example for others. With increased demand, competition and scale will drive down costs, and I suspect hybrid garbage trucks will become the norm for new purchases within a couple of years.

Good ideas: Lawn-mowing bicycle

Mower bike

Somewhere along Highway 8 between Cambridge and Hamilton, I thought I glimpsed a weird-looking old tricycle / lawn-mower. Using a bicycle to make it easier to mow with a reel mower seemed like a terrific idea. To my surprise I found that such a thing appears to have never been mass-produced. What I did find, however, was a gallery of such bicycle lawn mowers at TreeHugger. If you are handy then these are apparently not too difficult to construct.

Lawn mowers (and their small-engine ilk) are the sources of some of the most annoying but ubiquitous sounds in all places with lawns, so I am all for people replacing them with quieter bicycle mowers — or even just regular reel mowers. Of course, they also don’t stink up the neighborhood, and I suspect they’re probably a fair bit safer.

When voting with your dollar, interpretation matters

Much is made of consumers’ ability to influence how things are produced and services performed just by choosing how (or whether) they spend their money. But instead of “What is my dollar supporting?” a better question to ask is “How will my dollar be interpreted?”

Say you want to support local producers, and you go buy local apples at the grocery store. The grocery store might misinterpret your dollar for local apples as just a dollar for generic apples. When they run low on that variety, they will get more from their distributor – who may be carrying imported ones this time around. If they are not paying attention to the distinction the consumer is making, then they might miss it.

A concrete example is with hydroponic on-the-vine tomatoes in local grocery chains. Even during the same time of year, sometimes they’re from Canada, sometimes they’re from Mexico, and sometimes there’s both kinds in the same bin – and all have the same scan code. If I buy only the Canadian ones, to that grocery store it’s a vote for hydroponic tomatoes, whatever their source.

Perhaps you buy some household item in part because it is made in Canada and not China. The manufacturer could easily interpret this as a dollar for that item (regardless of source). When they ramp up production, they decide their customers won’t notice and take manufacturing offshore.

Or say you buy something from a local, large-scale producer. Your dollar is supporting them, but do they interpret it as a “local dollar” or just as a dollar? It’s very possible that they don’t pay much mind to where their business comes from. With initial local support they can expand to nationwide sales and cease to care about local sales, and then perhaps move their production elsewhere.

The direct question of “What is my dollar supporting?” is still a valuable one, and I am not suggesting to disregard it. What I would suggest, however, is to pay attention to the cases where the interpretation of the dollar will differ significantly from the intent – and to try to remedy them. Wherever the dollar vote may be misinterpreted, one can try to point out the intention to the party responsible for interpretation. However, in some cases the misinterpretation is likely endemic, and the only way to have your dollar understood properly is to take it elsewhere.

Cheap organic fair trade hand soap

It may seem like some sort of contradiction, but it’s legit and ridiculously simple. Find any flavor of Dr. Bronner’s liquid soap — which is fully organic and fair trade certified. Then take a foaming hand soap dispenser (the ones from Method are nice), fill it perhaps 1/8th full with Bronner’s soap, and fill the remainder with water. That’s it.

You can use one of the scented varieties, or just get the basic one (called Baby Mild) and add some essential oils yourself if you like. Dr. Bronner’s soap comes in large containers that are relatively inexpensive, and you don’t need very much of it for any of its numerous uses. It certainly works out cheaper than any of the chemical-laden cleansers/washes that are sold at the same concentration in which they are used.

Apart from the cost and ingredient sourcing, this does make for a pretty nice hand soap, in my opinion.

Transit infrastructure, not just transit

The streetcars that crisscrossed North American cities and towns in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were generally built and run by private companies, and operated at a profit. With the rise of the private automobile and due to other factors, they were no longer able to turn a profit, even in the cities in which streetcars were not deliberately run into the ground. I don’t think cities realized at that time that the infrastructure of the streetcar lines may have actually been worth paying for — and not just something to be allowed if paid the usage fees by streetcar companies. And so the infrastructure was swept away with the streetcars, which paved the way (no pun intended) for the downturn of urban areas and boosted suburb development.

Fast forward to now. Many people still participate in discussion of, and decisions about transit in North America without understanding that transit is not just about moving people effectively. From such a point of view, it can make sense to advocate for high-frequency buses and not much else in many cases. (Of course, there are also factors such as comfort and simplicity to consider.)

The other side of transit is infrastructure. Transit infrastructure, generally rail-based, changes the fabric of its surroundings. It transforms the geography, and attracts disproportionate development to its stations or corridors. Once built, it is taken as a permanent and reliable connection and short-cut between disparate places. It is visibly in place, a financial and social investment that is both useful and that cannot be easily picked up and moved. In other words, it is infrastructure. And such infrastructure is central to reclaiming an urban landscape.

We should stop talking about just transit, and start talking about transit infrastructure. The way discussions are framed makes a difference, and currently discussion about transit allows the ignorance of all the implications of transit beyond the movement of people. The only way to build liveable cities in North America that are not car-dependent is by building strong transit infrastructure. Transit can only follow, while transit infrastructure leads.

Quantifying the bus experience

Yesterday I took the iXpress bus from Uptown Waterloo to Conestoga Mall (with only four stops in between). In those 20 minutes I counted around 130 minor rattles of the bus, and 80 major rattles. So on average, that’s around a rattle every 6 seconds, with a major one every 15 seconds. It’s not surprising why it’s difficult to read on a bus, and why headaches are a frequent result of the ride.

Waterloo Region LRT as a tipping point for transit

On June 24, Waterloo Regional Council nearly unanimously endorsed the plan for light rail between Waterloo, Kitchener, and Cambridge. Pending firm commitments from provincial and federal governments, the first stage will consist of light rail between Waterloo and Kitchener and temporary adapted bus rapid transit between Kitchener and Cambridge.

The case for LRT in the region is solid, but it is of course unusual for North America to date in how proactive it is. the transport politic wrote about the plan, saying we would be the “smallest in North America to build a modern electric light rail system.” Hamilton — the city with a bus system called the “Hamilton Street Railway” — is now working on a plan for rapid transit as well, with a strong citizens’ push for light rail. GO Transit is slated to bring commuter buses to Kitchener in a few months, and trains to Guelph and Kitchener by 2011. The City of Cambridge and the Region of Waterloo are pushing for extending GO trains to Cambridge via Milton.

Most interestingly, in light of the LRT plans here and under the same provincial pressure to grow up and not out, the even smaller city of Guelph is now going to consider light rail in a review of its transit system.

I think as it progresses into the procurement and construction stages, the Region of Waterloo light rail plan will serve to tip transit in Southwestern Ontario to something more serious and more usable. Currently, public transit infrastructure is assumed to be something for large cities (at least in North America), and our plans will show otherwise.

First will be Cambridge, which will be increasingly clamoring for its light rail extension. Other cities and areas — Hamilton, Guelph, London, Brantford — will consider light rail and bus rapid transit (BRT), and people there will know that LRT is a serious option, and that BRT is a pale imitation. Cambridge and Guelph will get some kind of rail link along an existing right-of-way. GO Transit will perhaps provide the missing link between Kitchener/Cambridge and Hamilton. And once the LRT is in place in Waterloo Region (if not before then), we will certainly start exploring additional transit infrastructure, such as to St. Jacobs and Elmira and along cross-corridors.

People in Southwestern Ontario will realize that true, useful, and pleasant transit is possible, and will stop being satisfied with token bus service and congested roads. And the Region of Waterloo will lead the way.

Deconstructing Dinner

Why does my tomato look so perfect, and how much fuel was required for it to travel here from Mexico? What about the truck my tomato hitched a ride on? How much energy was required to build that truck, and wait a minute, how much energy was required to make that fuel? I know a guy down the street who grows tomatoes. Why doesn’t the grocery store around the corner sell his tomatoes? What about the road my tomato travelled on. How many workers are required per year to maintain that road? And how much fuel do they use to get to the highway that they’re paid to maintain? Didn’t I buy this tomato like a month ago? Why does it still look so perfect? And why did that girl at the checkout counter assume I needed a plastic bag for my tomato? She even gave me a puzzled look when I told her I didn’t need one! Did I mention the guy down the street grows tomatoes?

Deconstructing Dinner is a radio show and podcast produced at Kootenay Co-op Radio in Nelson, British Columbia, and hosted by Jon Steinman. Over the last half-year I have listened through the entire archive of the show going back to 2006 — well over 100 hour-long podcasts. So with some confidence I can recommend Deconstructing Dinner as an excellent program that touches on many aspects of food security. The delivery is matter-of-fact, and occasionally incredulous (as it should be). The show’s point of view is clear but transparent, the interviews are well conducted, and the recorded talks are generally good and sometimes great.

The Deconstructing Dinner podcast archive is perhaps the easiest way to become aware of the issue of food security and all its facets. I’d recommend starting with a few episodes to get acquainted (or whichever ones suit your fancy), but then to just go chronologically. (Note, as I neglected to do, the remastered versions of a couple of the earlier episodes.) My listening was mostly done during my daily commute — generally on foot.