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Where is Canada’s Obama? November 24, 2008

Posted by eyegillian in analysis, Canada, change, history, life.
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There was a major wave of excitement when Obama was elected as President of the United States. Since I live in Canada, this meant two things:

  1. my friends were all thrilled in a genuine, earnest and polite way
  2. everybody secretly (or not so secretly) wishes Obama was running for Prime Minister of Canada instead.

Compare the exciting campaign south of the border with the recent federal election in Canada. Ho-hum. The intelligent but not-so charismatic Liberal leader Stephan Dion failed to win the confidence of voters, so we have the dubious pleasure of listening to the stolid sweater-vested Stephen Harper for the next four years. Why can’t we have a leader who is smart, energetic, young and inspiring? Why don’t we have a leader who is even one of those things?

Pierre Elliot Trudeau

Whenever there’s a survey asking who the best prime minister of Canada, Pierre Elliot Trudeau is at or near the top of the list. Trudeau, who was voted Newsmaker of the Century in 1999 and the Greatest Canadian of the Twentieth Century in 2002, was certainly one of Canada’s most colourful and memorable prime ministers; he was also arrogant, controversial, and brilliant (not to mention smart, energetic, relatively young and inspiring), among other things. Other PMs considered top picks include Lester Pearson, William Mackenzie King, Wilfrid Laurier, and John Diefenbaker. No doubt people remember these names from their high school history classes, and have already forgotten more recent prime ministers — and whether history will have much to say about Paul Martin, John Turner, Brian Mulroney, John Chretien, Kim Campbell and Joe Clark is a matter of conjecture.

the first Canadian-born Prime Minister)

Name this man. (Hint: he was the first Canadian-born prime minister)

So now the Liberals are picking a new leader. Will it be Bob Rae, a lawyer and former NDP premier of Ontario; Michael Ignatieff, an intellectual and writer; or Dominic LeBlanc, a New Brunswick MP. Ironically, a survey conducted last month showed that Canadians would prefer as leader someone who isn’t ready to run for the job… yet. Someone with big shoes to fill: Justin Trudeau. Well, he’s young and energetic, at least, although he’s just started out on his political career, so it’s too soon to tell whether he could (or would want to) follow in his father’s footsteps.

But I would still rather vote for Obama. I’m tired of the endless procession of old white men — are there no other candidates for PM? What (or who) would your ideal prime minister be?

Oh, and who was the first Canadian-born prime minister? Sir John Abbott (PM from 1891 to 1892). Yes, of course you knew that.

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Related links:
Washington Times Editorial: “Obama’s America is Canada”
Vancouver Straight: “With Barack Obama president-elect, what’s next for Canada?”
Maisonneuve: “Where’s our Trudeau?”
Angus Reid Poll: “Trudeau best, Mulroney worst for Canadians”
Prime Ministers of Canada
— take the PM Quiz
National Post: Justin Trudeau top pick for Liberal leader: poll


Paris is behind me now July 2, 2008

Posted by eyegillian in change, explore, journey, learn, life, urban, world.
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along the Seine 1

Holidays are hard. Well, maybe not the holiday itself, but the post-holiday adjustment. I’m not talking about jet lag or laundry, but a kind of ennui that seems to last for weeks.

rue MontorgueilWe lived in Paris for 10 days. The five of us rented an apartment, bought groceries, walked everywhere, visited museums, took a couple of train trips, attended concerts and lunched at a café on the Avenue des Champs-Élysées. I believe that the tight itinerary expertly researched by Lavenderbay (check out her daily Paris blog starting here) helped us to truly experience the best of the city. It was wonderful and exhilarating. At times it was overwhelming and exhausting, but it wasn’t hard.

The hard part was coming back. The hard part was getting used to no longer having fresh croissants for breakfast, or stepping out of the door to browse any number of interesting boutiques or market stalls, or being able to take one of a multitude of metro lines to another exciting destination. We live in downtown Toronto, the biggest city in Canada, but it doesn’t feel at all like Paris. It feels, well… disappointing, sleepy, provincial.

Chinatown - 5.24 pmI know that sounds harsh. But think about it: there are lots of cars and pedestrians at rush hour, but at most other times, all except the malls are nearly deserted. There is a city market, and a few other neighbourhood markets if you know where to look, but they are the exception and not the rule. It feels like most of the population is indoors — in their cars, at home in front of the television, shopping in a grocery store or mall… The part of Toronto that most seems like Paris is Chinatown. Does that seem as strange to you as it does to me?

Obviously, Toronto (and Canada in general) just doesn’t have the wealth of history, architecture, and upheaval. Canada isn’t centralized like France, where Paris is not only the capital but the cultural centre, the showcase and heart of the country. And Canada is too big and too under-populated — even in the city-centres — to support such an efficient transportation system.

metroWe might imagine improvements, though. For example, I could like to see what would happen if a large population centre actually decided to excel in public transportation, and invested in it, so that everyone who lived in that geographic area could travel quickly, on time and relatively cheaply. Imagine what our cities would look like if they were designed for people, not cars!

taxiAh, well. Canada is where I live and Canadian is who I am. So, what would bring a tourist here if they come from a city such as Paris? We pondered this question for a while, and decided that it was the space, the open vistas, the wild country, the untamed wilderness. Toronto is not a cosmopolitan city, it is merely a place where people live and work. There are some nice museums and art galleries, some decent culture and beaches. And we do have history here, it’s just different, it’s just spread out and diluted by this huge country.

This is the land called “big lonely” by the hobos who used to travel by boxcar during the Depression. This is the country that spans a continent, bordering on three oceans. This is an open country, not confined by history or geography, celebrated for its peaceful and liberal attitudes. Yesterday was Canada Day. I’m glad I’m home.

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On board for the Arctic March 17, 2008

Posted by eyegillian in arctic, Canada, environment, explore, global warming, nature, science, world.
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Amundsen in the Arctic

Concerns about climate change and interest in polar ecosystems go hand-in-hand in the Canadian Arctic, and this year, students, journalists and scientists around the world are participating in a global research program. The classroom is the Canadian Coast Guard Ship Amundsen, a scientific research icebreaker locked in the ice in the Beaufort Sea near Banks Island.

The CCGS Amundsen is hosting one of the largest IPY research projects being conducted in the Canadian Arctic during International Polar Year (2007-2008): the Circumpolar Flaw Lead (CFL) system study. The $40-million project is examining the circumpolar flaw lead system — areas of open water in the ice — which is expected to show how the Arctic might change as the global climate grows warmer.

What makes this project unique is that, not only does it involve more than 200 scientists from 15 different countries, but also high school students, teachers, and Inuit youth leaders from Canada, Norway, Sweden, Scotland, England, Germany, Spain, China, Russia, and Greenland. The students and teachers have the opportunity to board the icebreaker and participate in an experiential science education program aimed at introducing them to the scientific and indigenous knowledge related to climate change research in the Arctic.

I first heard about the Schools on Board program from a blog written by Emily Chung, the CBC.ca’s regional journalist for Ottawa. She is one of 15 journalists from around the world selected and sponsored by the World Federation of Science Journalists invited to spend seven days on the Amundsen. Her trip is finished, but another group will be joining the Amundsen from April 12 – 27, 2008. A final program, designed for Inuit and Indigenous students and educators, will run from July 15 – 27, 2008.

Schools on Board is an outreach program of Arctic marine science and research, based out of the Faculty of Environment at the University of Manitoba (Winnipeg, Canada). It was developed to bridge Arctic research with science education in high schools across Canada; to increase awareness of issues related to climate change in Canada, and to excite young Canadians about the challenges and career opportunities of Arctic research. The main thrust of the program is the Field Program “on board” the CCGS Amundsen.

Programming “onboard” includes presentations, group projects, lab activities, fieldwork, and lectures with graduate students and scientists. Students are introduced to subjects such as: oceanography, physical geography, biology, chemistry, meteorology, zoology, geology, and climatology.

The educational program also introduces participants to “two ways of knowing” – the traditional and scientific approaches to understanding the complexities and interconnectedness of the Arctic environment. Each trip includes at least one northern community visit to introduce participants to northern culture and knowledge.

This program is a wonderful example of international cooperation between Canada and our northern neighbours. Let’s hope this trend continues as the Arctic region ecosystem faces increased warming as part of climate change, and the circumpolar countries face increased pressure for access to traffic and resource extraction.

Schools on board logo

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Related Links:
Schools on Board
Arctic Climate Change: CFL study

CBC: “Aboard the Amundsen”

CCGS Amundsen

CBC: “The Big Melt”

Dextre: a helping hand in space March 11, 2008

Posted by eyegillian in Canada, design, explore, science, space, technology.
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Space station mobile servicing systemThis morning’s launch of the shuttle Endeavour also launched the career of a new astronaut: Dextre.

The Dextre manipulator (or Special Purpose Dexterous Manipulator), a sophisticated dual-armed robot, is part of Canada’s contribution to the International Space Station (ISS). Designed for servicing the Station, Dextre can remove and replace small components on the Station’s exterior that require precise handling.

Like a mechanic in space, Dextre can pivot at the waist, and its shoulders support two identical arms with seven offset joints that allow for great freedom of movement. It is equipped with lights, video equipment, a stowage platform, and four robotic tools.

At the end of each arm is an orbital replacement unit/tool changeout mechanism, or OTCM-parallel jaws that hold a payload or tool with a vice-like grip. For fine manipulation tasks, Dextre has a unique technology: precise sensing of the forces and torque in its grip with automatic compensation to ensure the payload glides smoothly into its mounting fixture. To grab objects, each OTCM has a retractable motorized socket wrench to turn bolts and mate or detach mechanisms, as well as a camera and lights for close-up viewing. A retractable umbilical connector can provide power, data, and video connection feed-through to payloads.

Dextre in cargo bay of space shuttle EndeavorThe cargo bay of Shuttle Endeavour with the Canadian robot Dextre and the pressurized component of Kibo, the Japanese Experiment Module.

Dextre can accomplish tasks that require high precision and a gentle touch such as removing and replacing Station components, opening and closing covers, and deploying or retracting mechanisms. Some of the many tasks Dextre will perform include installing and removing small payloads such as batteries, power switching units, and computers, as well as manipulating, installing, and removing scientific experiments.

A typical task for Dextre would be to replace a depleted battery (100 kg) and engage all the connectors. This involves bolting and unbolting, as well as millimetre-level positioning accuracy for aligning and inserting the new battery.

Like the Canadarm2 and the Mobile Base System, Dextre can be controlled from a workstation inside the space station or by controllers on the ground in mission control centres in Houston, Texas and at Canadian Space Agency headquarters in Longueuil, Quebec. Its five cameras, including two pan/tilt cameras below its rotating torso, provide operators with multiple views of the work area.

Dextre, Canadarm2 and the Mobile Base System form a robotic system called the Mobile Servicing System (MSS). The MSS is built for the Canadian Space Agency by the Canadian company MD Robotics.


(Information and illustrations: Canadian Space Agency)

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