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Reading Beyond the Spin

One of the best books I have ever read was Trust Us, We're Experts: How Industry Manipulates Science and Gambles with Your Future by Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber. If you want to know how industry-hired public relations firms use science to influence (or spin) public opinion, then this is the book for you. Why science? Because the general public, myself included, tends to shy away from the scientific and is easily convinced by quantitative "facts."

I recently came across what appears to be a perfect example of questionable science being used to influence consumer habits.

On May 19, 2009, the Environment and Plastics Industry Council, the shill representing the Canadian Plastics Industry, published a scientific study which concluded "swab-testing demonstrates that single-use plastic shopping bags and other first use carry bag options are more hygienic than reusables" (reusables = cloth or any other type of reusable shopping bags). I should also add that only 25 bags were actually tested. Not exactly a large-scale study.

The study also concluded that the "test findings clearly support concerns that reusable grocery bags can become an active microbial habitat and a breeding ground for bacteria, yeast, mold and coliforms."

Okay, so according to the study, we're not supposed to use reusable shopping bags because they are not as hygienic as the new bags we get in the store. It appears from these conclusions that reusable shopping bags are breeding grounds for bacteria, yeast, mold and coliforms.

Sorry, I don't know what "coliforms" are. Sounds pretty sciencey though, doesn't it? And if we break the word down we have "coli," as in E-coli. Scary stuff...

Luckily, I had a chance to read a critique of the study by Dr. Ben Chapman, Assistant Professor at North Carolina State University. He had this to say about coliforms in the study.
...coliform isn't an indicator of really anything in a shopping bag. It's a great indicator of water quality, but not great for food (coliforms are all over the place, including on produce). And mean relatively nothing.

In addition, the study found that "64% of the reusable bags were contaminated with some level of bacteria, and close to 30% had elevated bacterial counts higher than 500 CFU/ml considered safe for drinking water."

I chose this last sentence because initially it, too, caused me to shy away from science. However, I found it odd to compare the bacterial counts in shopping bags with those in water. After all, we don't drink our shopping bags, and presumably, most of the things going into the shopping bag are already wrapped in some form of packaging. In other words, we don't put unwrapped raw meat into the bag, so what is the problem?

I also have to admit that I was stumped by the CFU/ml unit of measure. Now, just what was it measuring?

Dr. Chapman had this to say in reference to CFU/ml,

The lack of real data is probably why it was reported in CFU/ml (a water measurement -- pretty hard to tell what a ml of a shopping bag represents). The most telling data was that no generic E. coli or Salmonella was found.

(By the way, CFU is an acronym for Colony Forming Units. This expresses the number of viable microbial cells per millilitre.)

So what does this all mean?

According to Dr. Chapman, it means that we should regularly wash and dry our shopping bags, and use single-use plastic bags to wrap our meat, which most of us do anyway.

It seems that the Environment and Plastics Industry Council is using science and some scare tactics to get consumers to go back to using single-use plastic bags.

And by reading beyond the intended spin of this study, we can see that a large enough number of consumers have opted for reusable shopping bags and that the Canadian Plastics Industry is feeling the pinch.

To read the Environment and Plastics Industry Council's press release and study click here.
To read Dr. Chapman's blog post on the Environment and Plastics Industry Council's study click here.
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Just Observing Trends Not Individuals

In my previous post, I wrote my observations about fashion on a typical Friday night in Montreal. One of my colleagues thought that I was a bit harsh with respect to the mature woman I saw at the St. James Hotel in Old Montreal.

My colleague, who is a few years older, told me that some women are just more coquettish than others and that this trait didn't change with age; it was part of who they are. Fair enough. I appreciated her input.

It's true. Increasingly, we criticize people's appearances with little regard for the individual beneath the exterior. In addition, we are harsher critics of women's appearances than those of men.

Another colleague told me that she, too, had the same observation: that sexy seemed to be the overriding trend in the way women of all ages dressed for a night out on the town. Showing a lot of leg, cleavage and skin in general was the trend du jour, or rather du soir.

If you'll recall in my previous post, my criticism of this trend, and not the individuals, was that it was a lot of the same. There was little variety, originality or style.

After that post, I also started to question my own memory. Was it selective? I seem to remember more variety in club wear, but I could be wrong. Was there more variety in style in the 1990s?

In order to be fair to the sexes, the next time I go out on a Friday night with friends, I will be sure to check out the trends in what men are wearing.
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Cookie-Cutter Plain

I joined some friends for drinks in Old Montreal to celebrate an engagement on Friday night. We met at the beautiful St. James Hotel, which caters to the well-heeled over-forty crowd. We saw a deeply tanned 60-year-old woman who had obviously had breast augmentation surgery. She was wearing a black mini dress, and when she walked past our table, there were a few comments. "She was well put together," said one. "She didn't have the legs to pull off that dress," said another.

Yes, I agree that she was an attractive woman, but her blond hair, tan and implants are just so common these days. Do these "enhanced" attributes make someone more attractive or just create another cookie-cutter replica--one in a long line of many. On any given day at the St. James Hotel, you can find several women who fit this exact description.

When I left the hotel that night, I was struck by a similar phenomenon. I saw several groups of young girls walking down the street in groups of four and five. They all had long hair and were wearing high-heels, miniskirts and spaghetti strap camisoles. The pastel colours varied slightly, but there really was no distinguishing trait that made one stand out from the other.

Are we buying so blindly into these impossible beauty standards that we can't see our loss of identity? Whatever happened to individual style and originality? What about the beauty in variety?

Please tell me, what's going on?

Related posts:
The Gold Standard of Beauty: Targeting Insecurities
In Response to Impossible Beauty Standards
More Impossible Beauty Standards
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Some Not So "Crafty" Undertakings

As the mother of a 6-year-old who loves crafts, I bought the book Making Stuff For Kids for some "easy" craft ideas I could do with my daughter. And what better time to start than on a long weekend...

We looked at the book together, and she showed me the one she wanted to do first, the Bean Bag Buddy, an odd, but fun looking little cat. (Click on above-book link to see the cat on the book's cover.)

(If you have a favourite craft book or site you would like to share, please leave us a note in the comments. I'm a big fan of foolproof craft activities.)

At the outset, I explained to her that the cat would take some time to make because it involved drawing a pattern, cutting it out and sewing it together by hand. As my daughter tends to be a perfectionist, I told her that our cat might not look exactly like the cat in the book. She seemed to understand this. I also informed her that the activity would take more than a few hours to do. Yes, she understood that too.

The material used looked like a knit in the activity. I thought that a knit might be a little difficult to cut out, so I chose some old denim, which is easier to cut and holds its shape better...I'm so darn smart.

We drew the pattern in chalk complete with cutting and sewing lines, and my daughter helped me cut it out. She was so enthused about the project that she was up early the next morning to continue the sewing we had started the night before. So far so good. By 11:00 am Saturday morning, we were ready to cut a hole for the mouth and stuff the cat with beans.

I encountered a problem when I tried to sew the mouth shut. Since I used denim instead of a knit, every time I tried to sew the mouth shut, it frayed, and the hole opened again. After the third time, frustration set in. The large ugly stitches on the cat's mouth made it look angry and slightly disturbed. My daughter came over to have a look and said, "Oh Mom, that doesn't look very good!"

And I didn't have a reasonable solution in mind...an iron-on patch, a set of lips. This might throw the perfectionist into a tailspin. Within a few minutes, there was a tug at my elbow, she wanted to know when we would finish the cat. I didn't have an answer. I tried one more type of stitch so the freakin' frackin' denim wouldn't fray...but it was hopeless.

I set the cat aside...okay, so I threw it. The cat had a nice weight, and it felt good...but this was not the type of behaviour I wanted to be modeling for my daughter. She came over, patted me on the back and told me "not to get upset, that I did a great job, and the mouth was just a small part." I felt a little foolish.

I had an idea and explained to my daughter that the cat would not look like the picture because we would have to sew something over the mouth. She was fine with that. I went out in search of a sewing store open on the long weekend and eventually found one. I bought some felt to make a cat nose, some embroidery floss and a bell to make a cat collar.

In the end, fixing the hole did not take long. I embroidered a mouth and added a collar, which wasn't part of the pattern. The cat did not look like the one in the book. In fact, ours looked like he might be planning a coming-out party in the near future.

I had some mixed feelings about the end result, but my daughter loved it and was anxious to start the next craft in the book...

Here's how I described our initial crafting experience to the Twitterverse.

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Produce Police: Is that Orange Really Organic?

You know those annoying little stickers that you always have to peel off fruit and vegetables? Well, they give some very important consumer information: the name of the fruit or vegetable producer and the Price Look-Up (PLU) code.

This four- or five-digit code not only facilitates the lives of cashiers everywhere, but also helps grocery stores keep better inventory. By entering the PLU into a cash register, the cashier immediately sees the type of produce, the price per weight and whether the produce was conventionally or organically grown.

For instance, the code for a conventionally grown standard yellow banana is 4011. However, the code for an organically grown standard yellow banana is 94011. And if your standard yellow banana has been...(cringe) genetically modified, the code will be 84011.

So who sets these codes?

In 2001, produce associations worldwide banded together to form the International Federation for Produce Standards (IFPS). Its purpose was to implement a global standard by way of PLUs to improve supply chain efficiency.

The IFPS site claims that PLU codes have been used in supermarkets since 1990, but I can remember using PLUs working as a cashier in the 80s. However, at the time I probably wasn't concerned about whether them apples were organically grown.

Have you ever thought you may be paying organic prices for conventionally grown produce?

With my new found knowledge, I decided to hit some neighbourhood stores. I started at the convenience store where we shop regularly. Sure enough, I found four-digit PLUs on all fruit and veggies sold in bulk. This store rarely, if ever, carries organic produce. (Incidentally, nuts and herbs also have PLUs.)

The second store I visited is where I buy all our weekly organic products. I did some checking around and saw that they all appeared to have five-digit PLU codes starting with a 9. Very good. But then, I seized upon some mangoes without an organic code. I raised the issue with the shopkeeper's son, who looked at me in disbelief, as I explained the PLU coding for organic fruit. The shopkeeper then ran over to rescue his son from the mad produce shopper.

"No. Those are not organic," he said. "Come inside. I show you organic mango."

Now, I asked this same shopkeeper last fall whether everything in his store was organic, and I specifically remember him answering, "Yes." But I guess that depends on the time of year and what is available. I went back to look at the conventionally grown mangoes and was happy to see that they were in the conventional price range.

My green grocer was off the hook. Will yours be?

Related posts on fruit and vegetables:

Meet the Clean 15
Evironmental Working Group Updates its Dirty Dozen
Buying Local: Vegetables Year Round
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Graphic Novel: Paul Goes Fishing by Michel Rabagliati

As a child growing up in English-Canada, I read more than a few comic books, but none past age 10. Comic books or graphic novels, "les bandes dessinées or BD," as they are known here, occupy a prominent place in pop culture in the French-speaking world. Comics are not cast aside after childhood. Nor is it unusual to hear adults make a cultural reference to classic BDs, such as Asterix, a reference often lost on English-speakers.

I was reluctant to read a graphic novel because I initially found them too pricey. There was a fair bit of buzz several years ago about Michel Rabagliati's Paul series. I tried to find copies in used book stores to no avail. People do not give them up....

I read a few of the Paul series and enjoyed them immensely, but thinking that they could not get any better, I didn't buy anymore.

I recently bought Rabagliati's latest effort, Paul à Québec, as a gift for my husband. He read it the same day, and I read it the next. Emotional tally: laughing out loud (lol) - three times; the waterworks (tears) - twice. Rabagliati expertly steers his reader through some tricky content, which never comes off as maudlin or trite. In this novel, Paul and his immediate family experience the demise of a much-loved family member.

Rabagliati's use of recognizable Quebec landmarks in his drawings gives the reader a real-time experience. However, it's the author's use of flashback and his attention to the cultural details of the day that really add to the book's realism and further draw the reader into the story.

After finishing Paul à Québec, I was curious about the English translation of the Paul series. Would English readers get the full Paul experience? I picked up Paul Goes Fishing, a title, which I admit did not interest me in the least, to see how the translation measured up.

However, once again, I was pleasantly surprised. Fishing merely serves as a backdrop for the story, and it is through this theme that we learn more about Paul, his past and his city ways. It is also through the fishing trip that we learn more about his in-laws Monique and Clément. In fact, it's the fishing trip which leads us to the main storyline, the trials and tribulations of Paul and his wife Lucie in their quest to carry a child to term.

Rabagliati draws us in with the familiar. Paul is short and thin. He is neither rich nor powerful. We learn he was a poor student, and a short-lived high school drop-out who later works in graphic design--an average guy. And that is what is so compelling about Paul and the rest of the characters. They're real...like so little in today's mass media. It's easy to identify with the characters, and their actions and reactions are both refreshing and reassuring.

Paul's fishing trip eventually leads us back to Montreal. A flashback takes the reader with Paul through the impoverished Centre-Sud area and to the Jacques-Cartier bridge. There are also heart-wrenching trips with Lucie to the hospital, and finally Paul's stop at St. Joseph's oratory.

This book ran the gamut of emotions, and they were just as intense in English as in French. Initially, I found it odd to read Paul and Lucie in English, but after about 20 pages, I was completely drawn into the book.

If you're curious about Montreal or already know and love it, then you will be enamoured with the Paul series. I highly recommend Paul Goes Fishing in both French and English.

(If you had a chance would you read Paul Goes Fishing?)
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Liz Christy Seed Bombs and Some Not-So-Covert Bombing

On a rainy Saturday afternoon, my daughter and I created our arsenal of seed bombs. It didn't take much convincing to enlist my six-year-old's support in a covert operation. She was an enthusiastic participant. She loved the idea of throwing water balloons, filled with muck...and other stuff.

We quickly discovered that the seeds and crushed peat pellets readily clogged the balloon opening. Blowing up the balloon first to stretch it out is key, as is using a funnel with a fairly large opening. We got the hang of it after the third balloon. For best results, you should add the fertilizer beads first, then the seed mixture, some tissue, the crushed peat pellets and finally the water. (For the Liz Christy seed bomb recipe, click here.)

(If you try this recipe or any other please drop us a line and let us know your secret.)

It was a messy affair, requiring an extensive clean-up afterwards, but it was fun! My kids love anything with balloons.

My daughter's attention waned after the ninth bomb, so that is when we called it quits. Besides, this was just "a test."

On Monday morning, as I was walking my son to daycare, I noticed that the fenced in area on the corner lot was actually unlocked (for a picture of our bombing site click here). Major coup! This meant that I could actually rake up some of the debris and dead leaves so the seed bombs would land on soil and improve their chances of survival.

After raking for about an hour that afternoon, I was pleased to discover that much of the debris and leaves accumulated over the years had decomposed into fairly good soil. I also collected the usual suspects: broken bottles, and a fair bit of polystyrene and styrofoam, which, as we know, never decomposes. In total, I filled five garbage bags before my husband reminded me that I was only looking for a place to "test" the seed bombs.

As we only made nine seed bombs, I thought we could target a small area in the corner where debris collects. Maybe future debris would serve as mulch.

Both my kids took part in the offensive, and although I told them to aim for the corner, several bombs...veered off course, while others did not explode at all and had to be relaunched.

Even if nothing grows, fun was had by all. I will keep you posted if we see any result.


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The Blog Makeover: Helpful Advice from the Pros

For those of you who do not know, I have been taking an online course, 31 Days To a Better Blog, with ProBlogger himself, Darren Rowse. It has been quite a challenge to keep up with the tasks and reading, but I highly recommend this course to anyone who is interested in improving their content and driving traffic to their blog.

One of our assignments was to work with a buddy, and I hit the jackpot. I found a tech-savvy gal with a voracious appetite for reading blogs. You might already know Liz Hover, that super funky Londoner now living in Winnipeg, from her blog Diary of a Tech Gal. She also has an extremely cute pooch, but I'll let her direct you to her brand new blog, sadie shih tzu: adventures of a web 2.0 puppy. If only other bloggers could be so lucky.

Liz cut straight to the chase and told me that my blog needed some reorganizing, a new tagline and a facelift, ie, a better template. As it turns out, I was already starting to feel the limitations of my template and was excited about the change. She spent quite some time fishing around for a template for me.

The process was a bit overwhelming at first and did require my husband to play around with code for the better part of a day. But I am so pleased with the final results. Thanks Liz and hubby for all your hard work.

So dear readers, what do you think of my new look? Is it easier to read and find different posts? Do you now have a better idea of what my blog is about? Do you like the layout? Please tell...

If you are a feedburner subscriber and want to see the new me click here.

By the way, I found out about 31 Days to a Better Blog by following Problogger on Twitter. Another exciting tidbit of information--the course was absolutely free.

It doesn't get any better than that.

See the old me below:

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Never Losing Sight of the Big Picture

In my previous post, I described my parents and their proclivity to rant. Their rants often exposed the ills of humanity: unfairness, selfishness and greed. In my father's blog post on May Day, he writes about the middle class being financially ruined by a select few, and he finishes with this diatribe,

If I were King, I'd line them up and shoot them and charge them for the ammunition to do it.

(Please bear in mind that my father has a dark sense of humour. He is not serious.)

Unfortunately, my parents' rants, which always had some basis in truth, never translated into any concrete action. Although I understand that this was my parents' method for teaching us values, as a child, I saw this as little more than wasted energy--all talk, no action.

True, raising awareness is the first step towards change, but concrete action has to follow...Otherwise, it's pointless to rant in the first place. I'm more interested in coming up with a plan, or the steps to take, to bring about some sort of transformation.

Yes, the plan and the various steps are important to bring about change, but as I discovered a few days ago, it's easy to lose sight of the big picture.

This weekend I went to the hardware store for materials to make seed bombs (see recipe here) with my daughter, and on my way home, I walked past my guerrilla gardening plot. Much to my chagrin, I noticed that someone had already cleared the debris and planted flowers. In addition, I noticed that a row of expensive seedlings had been planted alongside the sidewalk for a fair distance down the street.

Just then, I saw Mariette, the former Olympian handball player who had lent us a hand getting our guerrilla project started last year. She is the neighbouring condo association's paid gardener. I stopped to chat with her, still slightly taken aback by losing my gardening plot.

She told me that I was responsible for getting the condo association involved in beautifying the street. She also added that she had the property owner's permission to garden, something I never had.

Anyway, I was miffed about losing my spot until I realized that my ultimate goal, or the big picture, was to beautify our dirty, industrial, unloved street. And now, a condo association was actually paying for flowers, seedlings and a professional landscaper to reach that goal. So, although I initially felt like I had been hip-checked by the Olympian and her condo association, other people were getting involved, and the entire street would reap the benefits.

Besides, there are lots of unloved plots in our area. I'm sure I'll find another one. Like the one below:

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Ranting Twitter Style: Not Your Parents' Rant

Did Your Parents Rant?
I come from a long line of ranters on both sides of my family. My father was a prodigious ranter, particularly when it came to listening to the evening news. He gave more than running commentary. It was loud. But for some reason it was getting behind the wheel of a moving vehicle that really seemed to stir his blood and lead to a fair bit of excitement and a long string of expletives.

He and my mother were both in the habit of invoking Jesus H. Christ. I never did figure out what the "H" stood for, but mid-rant was never a safe time to ask. (Does anyone know what the "H" stands for?)

Unlike my father, who ranted to blow off steam, my mother was a strategic ranter. She ranted to galvanize us into action. Her rants were a little heavy on the raving with a dollop of guilt for good measure.

In spite of this, I still find rants entertaining, as long as they are short. Twitter is a great place for rants because (1) there is no volume and (2) the 140-character limit precludes any raving, so people have to get straight to the heart of the matter.

Recently, I came across fellow twitterite DailyRant who has started the Twitter Rant Hall of Fame, or a collection of his favourite rants from Twitter. I had the chance to ask DailyRant how he would define this "art form," and he had this to say,
A rant is a loud declamatory monologue that doesn't present a well-researched or calm argument, usually expressed w/ strong emotion.
Here are two examples of DailyRant's work in action:

dailyrant Every time someone sneezes it is not necessary to mention the swine flu!! You all are hypochondriacs!!
dailyrant Listen up old people if you are blind *zoom* in on your text! Your large fonts are annoying and ALL CAPS is like yelling.

Here are a few from his collection:

On poor grammar, punctuation and word choice:
schellack I don't believe that "irregardless" is even a word, and it certainly shouldn't be used when you mean "regardless".
dzesika Sheesh, people, apostrophes are not a protected resource. Use them (but use them correctly, please).
Fruvous Stop saying "literally" when you don't mean it! If you say "I literally died from embarassment" then you better be talking via seance.

On the opposite sex:
hear_raven_rant  I am curently feeling femanism. Women aren't put here to cure the laziness of men. Cook your own food damn it!

On a crappy day:
jpramey I just sent a test email to myself, and Outlook flagged it as spam. I hereby resign from the internet.

On better movie ratings:
aussiehost Movies that are musicals should come with warning labels.

On indecision in large groups:
danheinz why does deciding lunch between multiple parties always have to be some complex algorithm? it's f'n lunch

On cheap employers:
mattoas  I survive the entire drive to work only to nearly die in the parking lot because my office can't hire a half decent plow.

On exasperating prospective employees:
celsbels Hey Intern Hopefuls, a 10page resume with achievements dating back to pre-school days does not impress me at all.

On journalists:
dreamnotoftoday Note to journalists writing about Twitter - we fucking know its 140 characters already

On poor table manners:
RoyaltyGT If you chew with your mouth open, you deserve to have your teeth pulled out. Especially if you do so in an (almost) quiet office!

On Twitter's technical glitches:
kdarty Twitter's "Remember Me" option during Login is really annoying because it does not "remember me"... ever

On poor driving:
heysanford Is it just me or are more than 50% of California drivers direction signal challenged? 
IDKwhat2use when u r on a 2 lane hi-way and u r driving the same speed as the car next to you one of you should move over.

On social media experts and marketers on Twitter: 
brainpicker If I get another automatic "thanks for following" DM, especially from ppl who purport to be social media "experts," I'll self-combust.
jpramey Every time a "social media expert" follows 20,000 people on twitter, God kills a kitten.

If you enjoyed these rants from DailyRant's collection, you might want to visit his Twitter Rant Hall of Fame.
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