You, me and STV

Let’s make it fly

You have to ask yourself; why don’t we adopt STV in BC? Are we a bunch of chickens or what? Are the politicos a little worried about losing control of the flock? Perhaps too few of us give much of a cluck about democracy? Don’t be chicken; let’s make this bird fly.

– Alan Cassels
drug policy researcher
University of Victoria, BC

heatherA fresh start for democracy

On May 12 in BC, we can have a fresh start for democracy. We have an historic opportunity. The UK has the same dysfunctional system as we do and they have been trying to change their electoral system since 1875. The UK never even had a referendum! We can lead the way. We can bring in a new system in which citizens know their votes count, where politicians can be held to account and where elections give genuine results. Voters will have more incentive to vote because every vote counts. We can bring in a system that creates a legislature that reflects the views of voters and the diversity of the electorate.

– Heather Dale, LL.B, MA
Vancouver regional organizer
YES referendum campaign

donEvery vote should count

I have long been convinced of the need for proportional representation. Every vote should count and every voter’s voice should be reflected in the legislative body. Although I believe that a mixed member proportional format is the best system, I think that any electoral reform that introduces proportionality is a positive step. I look forward to discussing STV with all British Columbians in the weeks ahead.

– Don Davies
M.P. Vancouver Kingsway

fredGovernment for the people

Under BC-STV, each person gets to rank candidates in order of preference 1, 2, 3, etc. If your favourite candidate is eliminated, your vote is not wasted; it is simply transferred to your second choice, and so on. No need to vote strategically for the “lesser of two evils” as we do currently. I truly believe that BC-STV is a tool to get our democracy to work better, to get governments more responsive to the people and to improve the “government of the people, by the people, for the people” as per Abraham Lincoln’s famous saying.

– Frédéric Van Caenegem
SFU student
Centre for Sustainable Community Development

davidCloser to what voters want

BC-STV will improve our democracy. It will give us a legislature which is what we want and voted for. It gives voters the power to choose the MLAs they want for their preferred party. It moves power from the party leaders down to the MLAs and moves power down from the MLAs to the voters. It gives women and popular independent candidates more opportunity to get elected. BC-STV will often lead to coalition governments which have to work on a consensus. They will have policies much closer to what the voters want, and voters will be more satisfied because they will see the system as being fair. FPTP is an unfair system which does none of these things.

– David Huntley
Professor Emeritus
Department of Physics
Simon Fraser University

maharaHere’s our chance BC!

I remember the night of our last federal election. I scurried down to the local pub to get the election results in the warm buzz of dedicated neighbours. What a shock to find only 58 percent of Canadians had voted versus 30 years earlier in 1978 when close to 80 percent had! What’s up with that? Clearly, two reasons: a rising disillusionment with politicians and secondly, an antiquated voting “First Past the Post” system that has left many Canadians asking, “What’s the point?” Finally, we can do something about the second. Here’s our chance BC to make some good history. Okay everybody; let’s do the referendum!

– Rev. Mahara Brenna 
speaker, mediator, community builder

The rebellion of the tools

Techno-Darwinism, cyber addiction and natural play

by Geoff Olson

I like to play indoors better ‘cause that’s where all the electric outlets are.

– A fourth grader in San Diego, 
quoted in Last Child in the Woods: 
Saving our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder


IN A Punch cartoon from 1959, two scientists in lab coats stand next to a huge computer, programmed to answer the question, “Is there a God?” One of them holds the computer’s printout response: “There is now.”

Things didn’t quite work out that way. Instead of cartoon monoliths demanding our worship, we found ourselves saddled with millions of little, attention-seeking consumer gadgets. Yet electronic networks also expanded to planetary scales with microwave relays and fibre optics. I guess you could say God moves in mysterious ways.

In his book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, Richard Louv recalls his son asking why it was so much more fun when his father was a kid. “You are always talking about your woods and tree houses, and how you used to ride that horse down to the swamp,” his son explained. Louv is wary of overly romanticizing his childhood, but he knew his son was on to something. “Americans around my age, baby boomers or older, enjoyed a kind of free, natural play that seems, in the age of kid pagers, instant messaging and Nintendo, like a quaint artifact.”

The author rhymes off the dreary health data that condemns the sedentary ways of electronically swaddled kids. This has accompanied the “criminalization of natural play,” through the overenthusiastic efforts to protect our children from any conceivable risks and dangers. Over the past two decades, tree houses, monkey bars and slides have been ripped from playgrounds across North America, for fear these municipal oases would become litigious scourges if little Johnny scraped a knee. And as kids’ playgrounds were childproofed into absurdity, parents coached their kids to distrust strangers and to stay close at hand. The process was compounded by the marketing of video games, filling a void left by the outlaw of natural play.

The lives of middle-class children of western societies are increasingly structured and gadget mediated. “Helicopter parents” monitor their every move, scheduling them like little technocrats with playdates, excessive homework and electronic nannying. I recall an anecdote from a teacher in eastern Canada who assigned her primary school students to write about interacting with nature. A student sidled up to her desk and told her the assignment was too difficult, as she had “never climbed a tree before.”

It’s not that difficult to imagine a possible future where any tree climbing will be done by keyboards or consoles. With every gain in computer processing power, the virtual worlds of videogame shoot-em-ups and social networks like Second Life expand in bandwidth and eye-catching realism. Yet at the same time, pristine wilderness recedes that much further from personal and collective memory, along with kids’ access to its remaining patches.

Swiss architect Max Frisch defined technology as “the knack of so arranging the world that we don’t have to experience it.” By that measure, our culture has a real knack for digital dissociation. But as BC author and education and addictions specialist Ross Laird notes, our species has existed in its present form for at least 40,000 years. Only in a blink of an eye have we been exposed to sedentary ways of life, mediated by technology. “We are animals. Our well-being depends upon bodily movement, expression, and integration,” he writes in a recent paper, Adolescent Addictions: Creative Challenges and Opportunities.

“This is what both current and ancestral research consistently demonstrates: our relationship with our own bodies is central to every aspect of our development. Modern challenges such as obesity, ADHD, cancer, diabetes, addictions of all kinds, depression, anxiety, eating disorders, trauma, and so on are consistently correlated with diet and exercise. In fact, healthy diet and exercise are the only two factors that are almost always linked to improvement across the domains of health and wellness… Insight alone cannot heal the fractured nervous system. Only movement and physical challenge can do that. With the average Canadian youth already seated in a chair and watching a screen for more than 40 hours per week, more chair-sitting seems like a poor idea.”

Personally, I can attest to the perils of techno-addiction. I’m a gadget freak who sets himself boundaries, like a boozer who knows how one little drink can lead to another. I don’t have a cell phone or a Blackberry. I don’t “tweet” or chat online and I rarely post on Internet forums. But I do have a website and an iPod, and wherever I go, Steve Jobs’ most impressive spawn goes. It’s great that I select my own personal soundtrack for a walk in the woods or a hike up a local mountain, from Monteverdi to Mott the Hoople. (So there’s at least one form of technology around that doesn’t work against fitness.)

I’m not against technological advance, per se. We shape our tools, and in turn our tools shape us. That’s been true ever since the first anthropoid used a rock as a projectile. There is much to praise in the digital age, including one of the greatest inventions for free speech ever conceived: the Internet. Any discussion of the downside of the Internet has to entertain the idea of where we might be without it. The creative explosion of commentary on blogs and videos has challenged the mainstream manufacture of consent and put the so-called alternative press on notice. I don’t applaud the failure of newspapers, but I have even greater concern over the Internet being throttled by marketers and fear-mongering politicians.

With that big qualification aside, I’ve long noticed an interesting phenomenon among my adult friends and acquaintances. The happiest seem to be those who spend the least amount of time at their desktop computers and laptops. I can’t say if it’s a cause or an effect, and no doubt there’s all kinds of confounding variables, but I’ve noticed the connection.

So where is all this going with the next generation? As Ross Laird points out, the body is the vehicle of consciousness. Considering what kids are up against now, with the colonization of imagination by digital media, what does the acceleration of infotech bode for the future? If the technology is increasingly “wearable,” working into our clothing and our bodies, is that a solution to sedentary habits or a further concession to our own mechanization?

According to Wikipedia, the statistician I.J. Good was first to seriously suggest “that if machines could even slightly surpass human intellect, they could improve their own designs in ways unforeseen by their designers, and thus recursively augment themselves into far greater intelligences.” The highly regarded inventor and writer Ray Kurzweil believes we are only a few decades away from computers matching humans for natural intelligence. We are close to a “technological singularity,” he claims, where the human/machine interface will morph and blend in presently unimaginable ways. So far, Kurzweil’s record for predictions has been good. Through similar reasoning, citing the exponential growth of new technologies, he anticipated the PC explosion and the fall of the Soviet Union.

The idea that events are speeding up isn’t just some abstract idea kicked around by the geek community. Nearly all of us feel the tectonic shift in the times. Late night radio broadcaster Art Bell pegged it “The Quickening,” imagining it as some massive, paranormal trend. I prefer Kurzweil’s more rigorous take, in which the acceleration of events is connected to the explosion of information technology. The inventor constructed a logarithmic graph out of 15 separate lifts of key paradigm shifts in human history. The information, from the American Museum of Natural History, Encyclopedia Britannica and other sources, demonstrates a 45-degree angle upwards. In a world of downward trends, this one is unequivocally upward and that worries some observers, though not the Libertarian minded Kurzweil, who thinks this trend offers an evolutionary upgrade to the human species.

The problem is that we are fundamentally different than our inventions. Human beings are part of a DNA-based biotech that is billions of years old. In spite of all our grey matter, our neural firing rates are no faster than those of field mice or tadpoles. Our brainwaves cycle at a leisurely 8 to 12 Hz range, in synchrony with the “Schuman resonance,” the Earth’s electromagnetic signature. This is far from the 1000000-plus Hz range of personal computers. As biological beings, our natural pace is closer to the phases of the Moon than the frequency of the motherboard. Yet as our devices get smarter, we struggle to keep up with them, like Fantasia’sMickey Mouse and his magical, misbehaving brooms.

The perception that things are speeding up is about speedier information processing – not of our nervous systems, but our cell phones, pagers, PDAs, computers and electronic networks. Employers expect their employees to keep pace, even as more decision making is given over to the machines. Even the explosive growth of the recently trashed financial market, out of all proportion to the production-based economy, is largely owed to the dawn of electronic capital and its microsecond movement on exchanges.

There’s never been a civilization on Earth as wired as our own, but the inhabitants of previous empires thought, as we do, that they were on history’s cutting edge. By the 1920s, Germany could claim some of humanity’s greatest achievements in art, science and literature. The home to Beethoven, Goethe and Einstein soon became the playground for Hitler, Himmler and Goebbels. Yet the Nazis’ “Thousand Year Reich” lasted less than a decade.

Historians have found no demonstrable correlation between a culture’s technical sophistication and its lifespan. Yet across the ages, there were always artists and poets to warn against hubris. In the Maya creation epic Popol Vuh, there is a story called The Rebellion of the Tools, in which human beings are conquered by their own instruments:

“And all (those things) began to speak… ‘You … shall feel our strength. We shall grind and tear your flesh to pieces,’ said their grinding stones… At the same time, their griddles and pots spoke: ‘Pain and suffering you have caused us… You burned us as if we felt no pain. Now you shall feel it, we shall burn you.’”

The Mayans, a violent society with a late-era habit of human sacrifice, never had a chance to learn any lessons from history. They disappeared entirely into the mists of time. Occasionally, they are resurrected as a cautionary tale or for the edification of those who believe the Mayan’s prophesied End Time (December 12, 2012) is the harbinger of vast, global transformation.

We may think our civilization has outgrown the habit of ritual sacrifice, but in the past few decades, we have sacrificed our leisure time on the altar of “faster, cheaper and more competitive.” Under this cyber-onslaught, pulling the plug occasionally isn’t just necessary for mental and physical health; it’s almost a subversive act.

Anthropologist Ruth Benedict spent years of field research trying to determine why some cultures are integrated and welcoming, while others are closed off and repressive. Convinced that cultures are “personality writ large,” she determined that it came down to a simple division between generosity and greed. It is that essential spark of selflessness, as a culturally nurtured value, that will likely determine if Darwin’s clever monkey learns to use his tools properly, or his tools learn to use him. Perhaps we will get the singularity we deserve.

If the future is shaping up to be global, command-and-control militarism, one part Orwell and two parts Huxley, our machines’ relationship with us will likely be parasitic. The environment will continue to degrade and children will be shadows of their true potential, their status to machines comparable to the unconscious human batteries in the film The Matrix.

But there is always the possibility of positive social transformation, ironically aided by a free and unregulated Internet (the copyleft and open-source movement may be the first signs of this transformation). If the future is driven by creativity and compassion, the machine/smart monkey relationship is more likely to be symbiotic. Decentralization of energy systems and political power will accompany the empowerment of the human spirit, in part through technical advancement of physical and mental capabilities. Children will have plenty of opportunities to clamber up trees, whether they are virtual beanstalks or real-world oaks.

I’m still optimistic enough to think this second option is not some Pollyannaish pipe dream, but the Cassandra in me suspects it will be by the skin of our teeth.

There’s also a third possibility for our species. We will continue to stumble along through serial social and ecological catastrophes, narrowly sidestepping extinction, accompanied by a bright and gleaming technology that is as morally ambiguous as its carbon-based creators. It will be a mixed bag of gains and losses, and long-winded essays like this one, debating the effects of technology, will continue into the indefinite future. The only difference is that the authors will include the occasional robot or neural network.

And on that note, I’m off for a walk in the woods. With the iPod, of course.

Saying yes to change

by Joan Borysenko and Gordon Dveirin

Sometimes you get guidance that you don’t understand until much later. My husband Gordon and I woke up one morning a few 

Joan Borysenko

years ago with an idea that we couldn’t shake. We were to write a book about change. That book was published by Hay House two years ago, and it helped us adapt to the sudden change in the economy that has affected our entire family. The wisdom from Saying Yes to Change…continues to inspire me personally in what the media likes to call “turbulent times.” I hope you’ll enjoy this excerpt from our book.

WE WERE watching the movie Cast Away starring Tom Hanks. A friend of Joan’s, Jim Curtan, had done an exciting exegesis of the film at a course that she’d attended, and we decided to watch it together from the perspective of change and transformation. Cast Away is not only the story of an unexpected catastrophic change, but a truly elegant demonstration of a three-part process of transformation that’s been described by anthropologists as a rite of passage.

Hanks’ character is a hard-driving, clock watching FedX trainer who metaphorically worships Chronos, the god of Time. Tick, tick, tick is his watchword, and nothing is more important than shaving a few minutes off of worldwide delivery times. The relational aspect of Hanks’ life is a pale specter in comparison to his endless work as a harried road warrior. There’s no time for the woman he loves, he wolfs his food down on the run and he can’t even look his colleague – whose wife is dying of cancer – in the eye. He’s not a bad guy, just a preoccupied, unconscious one.

Hanks’ old life ends abruptly when the FedX plane carrying him to Malaysia crashes in the South Pacific and he’s the only survivor. Marooned on a desert island for four years, he’s sustained by the antique pocket watch his fiancée gave him for Christmas on the night they parted. The mechanism is ruined when the plane crashes and time stops – both literally and figuratively. Chronos has, in fact, become irrelevant in the new dimension he’s entered. It’s the picture of his lost love, mounted in the top half of the watch that keeps him alive. Several FedX packages wash ashore with him, and one contains the other source of his salvation, a soccer ball. He paints a face on it with the blood of his wounded hand and names it Wilson, the brand name on the ball. It’s this imaginary friend who becomes integral to Hanks’ developing compassion.

His four-year sojourn in the ocean wilderness is a time of transition. His old life went down with the plane and he hasn’t yet been reborn to a new life. He’s in a kind of no man’s land, a transitional place, where there’s plenty of time to think about the meaning of life. The end of his long transition from the man who he was to the man he is becoming nears an end when the metal carcass of the plane’s Portapotty finally washes ashore. He builds a raft and uses the metal structure as a sail. The ordeal at sea on the tiny raft is terrifying and the defining moment comes when Wilson washes overboard in the aftermath of a storm. Torn between swimming out to sea to rescue his friend and losing his own life, Hanks chooses life. His grief is almost unbearable, a tribute to the humanity that’s been growing inside him during his ordeal on the island. At this point in his journey, magic happens. A whale keeps watch over him, singing mysterious songs of beauty. In the nick of time a ship passes by and rescues him. The Hanks who returns to America, however, is a far different man than the one who left.

On the FedXplane home – just after his rescue – he looks straight into the eyes of the man whose wife was dying when he left. With deep humanity, he apologizes that he wasn’t there for him. Hanks has become a mensch – a wise and compassionate human being. His fiancée, meanwhile, believing him dead, married and has a child. Their reunion is poignant and while it’s clear that she’d give up her marriage to be with him again, he knows that she’s found a new life that needs to be honored.

The film ends with a reflective, mature Hanks standing at the intersection of four dusty country roads, the same place where the film began. It’s a deeply symbolic image, both a crossroads and a cross. Father Thomas Keating, a modern Christian contemplative, speaks of the cross as symbolic of two movements in our lives. Its horizontal arm represents the death of our time-bound false self, the ego that developed early in life to keep us safe by conforming to other people’s notions of what it means to be human. The vertical arm represents resurrection into the realm of kairos, the eternal present in which our true nature resides. Moving from one to the other, from the fearful, time-bound world of chronos to the compassionate, timeless world of kairos is at the heart of the transformational journey. But what does this mean in practice? How does the shift from one story to another happen?

In rite of passage stories, the protagonist recognizes and embodies his real self in a three-part journey. First, he or she is forced to leave the known world, and all that’s been loved. The loss and separation are wrenching, irrevocable. Perhaps you’ve had that experience. Maybe you lost your job, or had to declare bankruptcy. Maybe you’ve had a health challenge. When a person is diagnosed with cancer or AIDS, they often say that it feels like the earth has opened up and swallowed them. Nothing is the same as it was just a moment before. They’ve died to the person they were, and have not been reborn as who they will some day become.

That sudden catapulting from the known into the mystery is the end of the first stage of the transformative process, which is always marked by separation and loss. In the second phase of the journey, the main character enters a transitional state, what Cornell anthropologist Victor Turner, who studied ritual in the Ndembu tribe of Southwest Zambia, called the liminal phase. The initiate stands at the limen, the threshold of something new, but they haven’t arrived there yet. The boy who leaves his mother’s hut to go into the forest for circumcision is no longer a boy. But he’s not yet a man.

This intermediate stage is a place of magic where chaos rules and even the usual constraints of physics may be overcome. Getting through the transitional period of liminality in traditional rites of passage involves facing numerous ordeals. One of the most remarkable aspects of these ordeals is that they can’t be faced and overcome in the usual linear manner of the chronos world. The initiate must become still, and give up his personal will to attune with the higher wisdom of kairos. This is a challenge in its own right because it’s contrary to the usual way that the ego functions, using personal will to push forward. The transitional period when we stand at the threshold of possibility crackles with both danger and opportunity. The danger is getting so stressed out that anxiety, depression and despondency take over. The opportunity is self-realization.

The third stage of the rite of passage is return. The Ndembu boy who left his mother’s hut in the first phase of his journey usually spends a year or two in the bush. He’s no longer a boy during this liminal phase, but he’s not yet a man. In his transitional period, he learns from other men what it means to be a warrior and a man of heart. And he also spends time alone, like Hanks in Cast Away, learning to know himself. The person who finally returns from the initiation is not the same person who left. The boy has become a man with authentic wisdom to give to his tribe. The journeyer, having found true strength, offers it to the community for the common good. Mythologist Joseph Campbell described this transformational sequence of self-realization as the Hero’s Journey.

Adapted from Saying Yes to Change: Essential Wisdom for Your Journey by Joan Borysenko, Ph.D. and Gordon Dveirin, Ed.D. (Hay House, 2006) Joan Borysenko presents the workshop Saying Yes to Change at the Spirit Heals Conference, May 29, 9-12pm and delivers a public keynote, May 29, 7-9:30pm. To register call 250-472-4747.

Healthier pill popping


DRUG BUST Alan Cassels

SURELY OUR economic calamity couldn’t have any positive health effects, could it?

As people lose their jobs and watch their assets, retirement savings and homes diminish in value, one might assume that it inevitably means a big negative on the balance sheets of our lives.

Not so fast, I say. Among the pharmaceutical-popping public, recessionary times may indeed have a silver lining. In fact, this recession may be good for both our health and our pocketbooks, especially if it forces us to reassess our frequently thoughtless, overzealous and often un-economical, legal drug habit.

You have to admit that we have been somewhat conditioned by the media to believe that spending less on healthcare means rationing, longer waits and less access to health services. But can throwing less money at the pharmaceutical industry translate into better access and shorter wait times for things that actually count? It could, but I admit such heretical thoughts are based on my perspective that pharmaceuticals really do reside in a special place inside the healthcare world.

For each drug on the market that is truly lifesaving, providing profound benefits and extending the quality and length of our lives, dozens more either don’t deliver the goods or worse, provide the opposite – more harm than benefit. And the money we’re spending on those treatments could be buying less health.

Suffice to say, one of the side effects of these belt-tightening times could be that we spend more energy figuring out what is really essential for people who are truly sick and then making sure the system doesn’t reward prescribing what is unnecessary or harmful. After all, what better time to eliminate fat than when we are collectively facing lean times?

One clue that there is perhaps too much excess in the world of prescription drugs might be found in the way society pays for pharmaceuticals. In Canada, drug coverage operates by the rule of thirds: about a third of our collective pharmaceutical tab is covered by the public purse (in our case, BC Pharmacare). A third is paid for by your private and typically employer-sponsored health benefit program. And finally, a third is paid for out of your own pocket.

Since you, the employee, are essentially paying for the private drug plan, let’s conclude that two-thirds of all prescription drug spending is essentially coming from your bank account. Yet unlike visits to a doctor or an occasional surgical visit or your trips to the hospital that are 100 percent paid for by the government, the way we pay for drugs makes them seem discretionary. After all, if they were really essential the government would pay for them, right?

This might seem simplistic, but addressing the question of whether or not we can afford things should start with us asking whether or not we need them in the first place. Deciding whether or not to fill your prescription shouldn’t depend on how much is in your wallet, but you should always ask the big questions: “Why am I taking this drug in the first place? Is this really necessary?”

There is considerable evidence that discretionary, prescription drug taking is widespread; far too many borderline hypertensive patients are prescribed the latest-greatest pill for their blood pressure. Far too many people worried about high cholesterol take statin drugs, even when those drugs make almost no difference to the quality and length of their lives. And far too many seniors are drugged silly by over energetic nurses preaching “compliance.” Name any major class of drugs today and you’ll find gross examples of those products being overused in otherwise healthy people – hence a lot of spending for drugs of no impact, at great financial cost to ourselves and our health system.

So with an economy going into the tank, what should we, as individuals, do? How about making ourselves more knowledgeable about what is actually happening when the doctor’s pen is poised over the prescription pad?

A sweet new book, Ten Questions You Must Ask Your Doctor (Greystone, 2009), written by crack Australian health journalists Ray Moynihan and Melissa Sweet, succinctly captures the types of questions you need to be armed with when you talk to your doctor. (Disclaimer time: I wrote a book called Selling Sickness with Moynihan four years ago and was asked to write the foreword to the Canadian edition of this book, but I have no financial ties to its success.) I said in my foreword that people should never challenge their physicians for sport, but they can become more involved in their own healthcare by asking their doctors some simple questions, such as, “Do I need this test, this screening program or this drug? What’s the evidence behind the treatment? Are there potential benefits and harms related to the treatment and what are my treatment options? Are there things I should do on my own to maintain and improve my health?” While this book goes beyond drugs, it could have easily gone by the slogan “Just say “know” to drugs.”

Books like this help consumers deconstruct what is being offered to them and compel them to seek out better answers to what’s on offer. Considering that a new prescription is often accompanied by new side effects, asking your doctor for the safest, most agreeable (for you) and most proven drug – likely cheaper, as well – won’t hurt either.

Hard questions about our health should not be placed solely on the shoulders of doctors, but should also be asked of health system officials. Do we need to be offering all healthcare options all the time to everyone? What is most essential and what is least essential? Are there rational ways to provide access in the grey areas? This needs to be part of a larger public debate that strives to maintain society’s overall level of health, albeit on less money.

It’s also time to involve the drug companies that are seeing their profits – except maybe profits for anti-anxiety or anti-depressant drugs – decline. Can we help them sustain reasonable markets by negotiating better prices? After all, if people and health systems can’t afford what the drug companies are asking for, there’s no market. Radical as it might seem, lowering a product’s cost to the consumer might actually improve a drug company’s bottom line because, at least for some drugs, excessive prices might be preventing people from filling their prescriptions. I call it “Pharmacy Sticker Shock” and who knows how often people say, “Nope, can’t afford it?”

But beyond cutting out unnecessary treatments or negotiating drug prices, people taking a prescription drug for perfectly rational reasons will need to ask a few other questions: “Are there generic drugs that can do the same thing? Do I need to be taking the dose I am taking? Can I take the drug on an as-needed basis?” This is especially true for people taking proton pump inhibitors – drugs like Losec, Pantaloc or Pariet for reflux and heartburn. Most patients may do well taking the drug every other day with no impact on their symptom control. Many could even control their symptoms with lower cost, generic or over the counter products too. Basically, you won’t know until you ask.

“Can I consider splitting pills?” is another question to ask. Pill splitting is a growing phenomenon based on the “flat pricing” of drugs like cholesterol-lowering statins, whereas the higher dosed drugs cost about the same as lower doses. For example, a month’s worth of 20 mg tablets of the statin Lipitor costs about $67 and the 40mg tablet costs about $72. Doctors who think the patient needs 20mg could prescribe the larger 40mg tablet and ask them to split it, taking half a pill each day. This one small action will save the patient almost $400 off their annual drug bill.

So go ahead and pick up a pill splitter for less than five dollars at a pharmacy and proceed to get twice the medication for the same price. Pill splitting is not appropriate for every person or every type of medication, but in the case of statins, splitting the pills is safe and economical.

A study published last summer showed that patients in BC are already cutting their own drug costs by splitting their statins. Even without widespread promotion of the practice, it is estimated that about five percent of BC’s statin users were splitting their pills, saving BC consumers (and private health plans and governments) about $2.3 million per year. Every year, British Columbians consume more than $140 million worth of cholesterol-lowering statins, an amount that has been growing steadily throughout the past decade. If everyone split their pills, we’d save an easy $50 million per year.

Not bad. One drug class. One intervention. Tons of money saved.

Will this recession call upon more such ingenuity? I hope so. If it helps us put on our thinking caps and remove the waste from our prescription drug bill, it may well pay off in ways that allow us to reinvest those savings into things that count.

Alan Cassels is a drug policy researcher at the University of Victoria and author of The ABCs of Disease Mongering: An epidemic in 26 Letters.



I’M HAVING trouble these days; sure, life is great here in paradise, yet I’m struggling with what to do next. Things are so marvelous just the way they are, but I know they are changing. I need to carefully figure out my next moves.

As spring approaches, my activity level needs to intensify to use this new time for growth effectively. I need an inspirational way to make money, something that utilizes my talents and gives back to the world. Not that I think I’m above doing any kind of work, but I’m stubborn in wanting a vocation with variation and creative elements where I feel valued.

In one breath, I feel very confident and skilled and then in the next, I grasp at how anyone would want what I have to offer. I’m out of practice and often shy to describe my good qualities to others.

Being able to consider my upcoming steps is a privilege in a world where many people are simply “treading water” or responding to a new crisis. I’m not sure where I’d fit into Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, but I feel mostly satisfied with my life. The bits that I’m not satisfied with frequently take over my thoughts. It’s funny how often just one small anxiety can make the whole enchilada taste off.

We tell ourselves limiting stories about inadequacy, failure, past history and lack of potential and these can become our narrative about who we are. They prevent us from seeing ourselves as we really are: capable, talented and whole.

I look around at people and their relationship to work and wonder what motivates them. There’s an ethical range to generating an income everywhere, from “Hey yeah, I’ll put melamine into baby food” to “I’m going to replace gasoline with an amazing, sustainable alternative.” Am I naïve in hoping to find fulfilling and lucrative employment that not only doesn’t make the world worse off, but also actually makes it better?

What makes people choose their course? What inspires them? What inspires me? I’m getting into it, with trepidation and excitement. A new future unfolds.


Every time a man expects, as he says, his money to work for him, he is expecting other people to work for him.

– Dorothy L. Sayers

Money is like fire, an element as little troubled by moralizing as earth, air and water. Men can employ it as a tool, or they can dance around it as if it were the incarnation of a god. Money votes socialist or monarchist, finds a profit in pornography or translations from the Bible, commissions Rembrandt and underwrites the technology of Auschwitz. It acquires its meaning from the uses to which it is put.

– Lewis H. Lapham

Money does not corrupt people. What corrupts people is lack of affection… Money is simply the bandage, which wounded people put over their wounds.

– Margaret Halsey

Ishi graduated from Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design in 2001, with a BFA. He makes films, collects cacti, and ponders many things. Currently he is doing what he can for himself, his family and the planet.

Big media bad for journalism


IN THE QUARTER ending November 30, 2008, media giant Canwest reported a $33M loss with an overwhelming $3.7 billion debt. (See links at end of article.) In the past 12 months, Canwest has also cut more than 1,000 jobs and is scaling back local operations. It is also considering shutting down some stations entirely.

Collectively, Canwest, Torstar, Quebecor and CTVglobemedia have cut about 1,300 more jobs in the past three months, on top of deep cuts made last year. With ad revenues expected to slump further, there is no end in sight.

The effects of these dramatic cuts in journalism will negatively affect public debate and discourse in Canada because, as former Toronto Star publisher John Honderich notes, “The quality of public debate, if not the very quality of life in any community, is a direct function of the quality of media that serve it.”

Journalism’s diagnosis

In his piece entitled All the News That’s Fit to Fund, John Honderich does a good job of explaining why journalism is important in a democratic society. And while Honderich also offers some good ideas on how to revive journalism, he fails to discuss why journalism is in its current state of crisis.

So what is the cause of the current state of journalism in Canada? In a statement made by Leonard Asper, Canada’s largest media baron, on the likely demolition of TV stations located in Montreal, Hamilton, Red Deer, Kelowna and Victoria, he declared, “As they are currently configured, these stations are not core to our television operations going forward… we believe that our efforts are best focused on the areas of greatest return.” Asper’s comments reveal that news outlets, and the journalists that work for them, are increasingly treated as a part of a business rather than a unique social institution that is essential to a functioning democracy.

“Big Media” executives, however, try to claim that journalism’s woes are caused by the slumping economy or the displacement of audiences to new online media. While certainly these are factors, the primary cause is highly concentrated media ownership combined with the deepening bottom-line mentality of big media corporations. Media ownership is more highly concentrated in Canada than almost anywhere else in the industrialized world. Something to think about is how just hours before CTVglobemedia announced its intention to take over CHUM they laid off 281 people and cancelled news broadcasts across the country.

Big Media’s race to the bottom

In 2007, the Canadian Energy, Communications and Paperworkers (CEP) union published a study entitled Voices From the Newsroom (see links), in which they found that only 9.5 percent of journalists indicated that they believe the corporate owners of their news outlet valued good journalism over profit. The CEP report clearly illustrates the sentiment felt by most journalists: that the bottom line mentality of big media owners is having an increasingly negative impact on their ability to do their jobs.

A newspaper is not likely to provide engaging journalism if it is geared towards efficiently delivering eyeballs to advertisers while investing the least amount of money possible in journalism. Combine this bottom-line mentality with an uncompetitive, concentrated traditional media market, along with the erosion of ad revenue, and you’ll find a race to the bottom for journalism in Canada.

Experiments needed

Despite the layoffs, weak morale and big media debt, journalism in Canada is far from its grave. On the contrary, with the decline of big-business-financed journalism, this is the perfect time for us to re-imagine what journalism in the 21st century should look like.

In my next column, I will lay out various schemes for a rejuvenated 21st century public services journalism in Canada. There’s no shortage of experiments underway and you may, in fact, be reading this column via one of those experiments right now.


• $33M loss:

• $3.7 billion debt:

Steve Anderson is the national coordinator for the Campaign for Democratic Media. He contributed to Censored 2008 and Battleground: The Media, and has written for The TyeeToronto Star, Epoch Times and Adbusters. Reach him at:

Veggies for vitality

NUTRISPEAK by Vesanto Melina

AT LAST we can celebrate spring and spend more time in BC’s beautiful outdoors. Here are some simple and/or collaborative meals to make when you return home. These and similar ideas are from Raising Vegetarian Children (J. Stepaniak and V. Melina, McGraw-Hill 2003). 

1. Create a spread of make-your-own tacos. Set out taco shells or tortillas, chopped lettuce, onion, tomatoes, sliced or mashed avocado, taco sauce and warmed, canned refried beans or pinto or kidney beans or crumbled veggie burgers. In some families, it works best to include a meat taco filling as well. As noted in Wikipedia, “The fact that a taco can be filled with practically anything that fits on a tortilla allows for its great versatility and variety.”
2. Have everyone make their own vegetable pizza (or their section of a bigger one). Start with a purchased whole-grain pizza crust or smaller pita breads. As toppings, set out bowls of pizza sauce, grated carrots, sliced mushrooms, olives and onions (red, yellow or white) and bell peppers (red, yellow or green). If you include veggie pepperoni slices, cover the slices with a little tomato sauce so they don’t dry out. You might top the pizza with raw baby spinach after baking and let it wilt slightly before serving.
3. Open a can of vegetarian chili or split pea soup. Add a fresh whole-grain bun and a carrot cut into strips.
4. Serve veggie burgers on whole-grain buns with all the fixings. If you like, serve these with oven-baked sweet potato wedges (instead of French fries).
5. Set out a salad bar. Provide bowls of salad greens, shredded or chopped vegetables, nuts and/or seeds, sprouts, cooked beans or cubes of marinated tofu, leftover cooked vegetables, avocado chunks and a couple of different dressings. Let everyone compose their salad just the way they like it.
6. Make a can of vegetable soup more hearty by adding some canned beans (such as black beans, chickpeas, pinto beans). Serve with whole-grain toast.
7. If kids (or adults) don’t eat vegetables at meals, set out a platter of vegetable sticks (carrots, celery, bell peppers) before a meal or as a snack, without saying a word. As an optional dip, many excellent flavours of hummus are now available from supermarket coolers.

Vesanto Melina is a dietitian and co-author of nutrition classics includingBecoming Vegetarian, Becoming Vegan, the Food Allergy Survival Guide andthe new Raw Food Revolution Diet.

Colourful kabobs

(Makes eight to nine 10-inch kabobs)
Kabobs are colourful, tasty and fun to make. They are welcome at a barbecue and you can make them any time by browning them under the broiler. Serve them on a bed of rice or in a pita pocket. Choose extra-firm tofu; it has been pressed to remove much of the water and holds its shape well on the 10-inch metal or bamboo skewer. Measurements are approximate.

• 1/2 pound extra-firm tofu, cut in 1/2-inch pieces
• 16 to 18 small mushrooms (1-1/2 ounces or 1 cup of pieces) 
• 1/2 red, green or yellow bell pepper, cut in 3/4- to 1-inch pieces
• 1 small zucchini, cut in slices 1/4-inch thick or 3/4-inch cubes
• 1/2 medium red or white onion, cut in 3/4 inch pieces
• 8 to 9 cherry tomatoes

Sweet and tangy marinade
(Makes about 1/2 cup)
• ¼ cup ketchup
• 2 Tbsp. balsamic vinegar
• 2 Tbsp. water
• 2 tsp. olive oil
• 1/4 to 1/2 tsp. crushed garlic (optional)

In a jar with a tight fitting lid, prepare marinade by stirring together ingredients. Add tofu, put on lid and toss so that pieces are covered. Marinate four to six hours or overnight in the refrigerator, tossing occasionally to coat all pieces. Starting and ending with the mushrooms, alternate pieces of tofu and one or other of the vegetables on the skewer, with a tomato midway along.

Under broiler:
Place kabobs on cookie sheet or roasting pan, baste with marinade and place six inches under broiler for 10 minutes, turning and basting with more marinade once. 

On barbecue or grill:
Baste with marinade, turning and basting with more marinade once. Remove when heated through and browned a little.

Fate of the world’s seeds

ON THE GARDEN PATH by Carolyn Herriot

IN THESE uncertain times, with global food security under threat from climate change, do you ever wonder who is in control of the world’s food seeds? While it isn’t reassuring news, it’s not surprising that the world’s largest agrochemical manufacturers are the seed industry giants. With people all over the world now growing more food, ownership of food seeds becomes an issue worthy of major consideration.

Monsanto, the world’s fifth largest agrochemical company, is the world’s biggest seed company. DuPont, the world’s sixth largest agrochemical company, is the world’s second biggest seed company. Syngenta, with 19 percent of the market share of agrochemicals, is the world’s third largest seed company. Bayer, holding the largest market share, is the world’s seventh biggest seed company. (

World’s top seed & pesticide firms:
company Sales US$ % market share
1. Bayer (Germany) $7,458m 19%
2. Syngenta (Switz.) $7,285m 19%
3. BASF (Germany) $4,297m 11%
4. Dow AgroSc (USA) $3,779m 10%
5. Monsanto (USA) $3,599m 9%
6. DuPont (USA) $2,369m 6%

These companies are all gene giants so you’ll never be able to save any of their seeds and because most are being created for herbicide resistance, the worldwide market for agrochemicals is growing by 10 percent per year. This situation not only compromises our ability to feed ourselves, but the practice of applying ever increasing quantities of poisons to the soil borders on an insane war on nature.

A simple solution to this chemical fix lies in the ability to access open-pollinated seeds, produced by naturally occurring pollination, without human manipulation of the seed’s genetic makeup. Growing food with open-pollinated seeds means you can save seeds from the resulting plants, knowing they will provide the same food value and performance for future harvests. It’s what our forebears have been doing for thousands of years.

Unfortunately, only around two percent of food seeds today are open-pollinated and most are in the hands of a few small seed companies and grassroots seed saving organizations around the world.

The “glyphosate gap” is growing fast because at least 14 weed species on five continents have developed resistance due to massive applications of glyphosate. While BASF, Syngenta, Bayer, Dow and DuPont compete to fill the gap, farmers are employing more toxic chemicals to kill the resistant weeds. Agrochemical giants prefer to describe the resistance problem as a business opportunity. In the words of Syngenta’s Crop Science CEO, John Atki, “Resistance is healthy because we have to innovate.” I think resistance is imperative because we have to eat.

Carolyn Herriot is author of A Year on the Garden Path: A 52-Week Organic Gardening Guide. She grows her certified organic “Seeds of Victoria” at The Garden Path Centre where she blogs The New Victory Garden online.

Seed havens

BC Seeds, a FarmFolk/CityFolk project supporting BC’s organic seed growers. (

The Salt Spring Seed Sanctuary, learning centre and network, encourages local food and seed production, is committed to evaluating and maintaining records for all edible, medicinal and useful crops that can be grown in Canada. (

The Sunshine Coast Seed Collective is developing education and resources, as well as a local seed registry and seed bank.

Seeds of Diversity is Canada’s grassroots seed saving network, where growers can find heritage varieties of “tried and true” seeds from their resource list of open-pollinated seed sources. I recommend that anyone starting to save food seeds should read the organization’s booklet How to Save Your own Vegetable Seeds. (Purchase through for $12).

There are now 40 Seedy Saturdays across Canada. Last month, the 7th Annual Qualicum Beach Seedy Saturday set a attendance record of 1,850 people, a 12% increase from last year. (

Sample seed data form

Location: neighbourhood, mini geoclimatic zone, &/or street address
Species: refers to common species name 
Variety: refers to common variety name
Isolation Distance: distance to other plants of same species, or description of method of isolation to prevent unwanted crossing
# Plants: number of parent plants grown, necessary to insure genetic diversity
History: seed source and unique characteristics

From suffering to peace

THE POWER OF NOW by Eckhart Tolle

I READ about a stoic philosopher in ancient Greece who, when told that his son had died in an accident, replied, “I knew he was not immortal.” Is that surrender? If it is, I don’t want it. There are some situations in which surrender seems unnatural and inhuman.

Being cut off from your feelings is not surrender. But we don’t know what his inner state was when he said those words. In certain extreme situations, it may still be impossible for you to accept the Now. But you always get a second chance at surrender.

Your first chance is to surrender each moment to the reality of that moment. Knowing that what is cannot be undone – because it already is – you say yes to what is or accept what isn’t. Then you do what you have to do, whatever the situation requires. If you abide in this state of acceptance, you create no more negativity, no more suffering, no more unhappiness. You then live in a state of non-resistance, a state of grace and lightness, free of struggle.

Whenever you are unable to do that, whenever you miss that chance – either because you are not generating enough conscious presence to prevent some habitual and unconscious resistance pattern or because the condition is so extreme as to be absolutely unacceptable to you – then you are creating some form of pain, some form of suffering. It may look as if the situation is creating the suffering, but ultimately this is not so; your resistance is.

Now here is your second chance at surrender: if you cannot accept what is outside, accept what is inside. If you cannot accept the external condition, accept the internal condition. This means: do not resist the pain. Allow it to be there. Surrender to the grief, despair, fear, loneliness or whatever form the suffering takes. Witness it without labelling it mentally. Embrace it. Then see how the miracle of surrender transmutes deep suffering into deep peace. This is your crucifixion. Let it become your resurrection and ascension.

When your pain is deep, all talk of surrender will probably seem futile and meaningless. When your pain is deep, you will likely have a strong urge to escape from it rather than surrender to it. You don’t want to feel what you feel. What could be more normal? But there is no escape, no way out. There are many pseudo escapes – work, drink, drugs, anger, projection, suppression, and so on – but they don’t free you from the pain. Suffering does not diminish in intensity when you make it unconscious.

When you deny emotional pain, everything you do or think, as well as your relationships, becomes contaminated with it. You broadcast it, so to speak, as the energy you emanate and others will pick it up subliminally. You attract and manifest whatever corresponds to your inner state.

When there is no way out, there is still always a way through. So don’t turn away from the pain. Face it. Feel it fully – don’t think about it! Give all your attention to the feeling, not to the person, event or situation that seems to have caused it. Don’t let the mind use the pain to create a victim identity for yourself. Feeling sorry for yourself and telling others your story will keep you stuck in suffering. Since it is impossible to get away from the feeling, the only possibility of change is to move into it; otherwise, nothing will shift. So give your complete attention to what you feel. As you go into the feeling, be intensely alert. At first it may seem like a dark and terrifying place and when the urge to turn away from it comes, observe it but don’t act on it.

Keep putting your attention on the pain; keep feeling the grief, the fear, the dread, the loneliness, whatever it is. Stay alert, stay present – present with your whole Being. As you do so, you are bringing a light into this darkness. This is the flame of your consciousness.

Adapted from The Power of Now, copyright 1999 by Eckhart Tolle. Reprinted with permission of New World Library, Novato, CA, 800-972-6657 (ext. 52). Visit

Cultural exchange


Natar Ungalaaq stars in The Necessities of Life (Ce Qu’il Faut Pour Vivre) as an Inuit hunter forced by illness to a Quebec City sanatorium.

The Necessities of Life (Ce Qu’il Faut Pour Vivre) is a fish-out-of-water drama about an Inuit hunter forced by illness to move into a Quebec City sanatorium during the tuberculosis epidemic of the 1950s. Separated from his family and culture for the first time, in an alien place where he cannot speak or understand the language, Tivii loses the will to live. His sympathetic nurse, Carole, arranges for a young Inuit boy named Kaki, to be transferred to his sanatorium.

Kaki, who also speaks French, offers his elder companionship and a means to communicate while Tivii takes a paternalistic interest in renewing Kaki’s connection with traditional Inuit culture. Tivii rediscovers his pride and energy and the bond between the two hospital patients grows stronger.

The film, opening March 13 at Fifth Avenue Cinemas, received eight genie award nominations and was Canada’s submission for the 2009 foreign language Oscar. Critics have praised its sensitive handling of emotional life and the absorbing central performance by Natar Ungalaaq (star ofAtanarjuat: The Fast Runner), while Benoît Pilon, a director crossing over from documentary to make this debut feature film, provides a steady hand at the helm.

Cultural exchange is the name of the game at the Ozflix: Australian Film Weekend, a four-day showcase of films from Down Under at the Pacific Cinémathèque (

Among them is mid-teen, coming-of-age drama Black Balloon. It follows Thomas (Rhys Wakefield) who is desperate to fit in and meet girls at his new school in Sydney, but who suffers embarrassment about his autistic brother Charlie. A budding romance with attractive and spirited Jackie (Gemma Ward), who is in his swimming class, helps Thomas learn about acceptance and worth. As a slice of life in a crazy, loving family, it’s a slight film, but enjoyable thanks especially to excellent performances by Toni Collette as the devoted, workaholic pregnant mum and Erik Thomson as the military dad who takes advice from a teddy bear. The pretty stars look older than their parts, but this has the authentic feel of someone’s personal story.

Among Ozflix’s crop of shorts, animation and features, there’s a double-bill screening of two parts of the documentary series Great Australian Albums. I watched Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – Murder Ballads, the 1996 album that started life as a joke (an entire album of ballads about murder), but went on to become the band’s biggest, commercial success.

As someone who has acquired a taste for Nick Cave’s brooding, gothic lyricism over the years, I found this hugely enjoyable. The creative process is well documented – amazingly, the band still records live performances in the studio on tape – and the mix with archive footage going back to Cave’s punk roots decades ago is done well. In interview, Cave comes across as suave, wry and characteristically dark.

Persuading pop princess Kylie Minogue to duet with him on surprise hitWhere the Wild Roses Grow was not as difficult as one might think even though Cave admits the lyrics were “seriously creepy… with a capital ‘K’”. Interesting to learn that his simmering music video with songstress PJ Harvey on Henry Lee was done in one take. After its 52 minutes, I wanted to get the album. It screens with sunny, indie pop success of the eighties,The Go-Betweens – 16 Lovers Lane (15th, 5pm).

Finally, Michael McGowan’s One Week is a road trip movie about a young man (Joshua Jackson) who, when diagnosed with cancer, decides to ride a vintage motorcycle from Toronto to Tofino, BC. It’s described as “an ode to the Canadian landscape” with a soundtrack that includes Sam Roberts, Stars and Patrick Watson. 


Robert Alstead maintains a blog at