Monday, 12 March 2012

Update: The Search for the Perfect Veggie Burgers

I wrote several years ago about how I had been searching for the perfect veggie burgers and was playing with ingredients to try and perfect my own. At the time, I had been vegetarian for about a year and hadn't eaten the many, many veggie burgers that I have today. Let's say I'm enthusiastic about them, k?

Now armed with the wisdom of a million burgers, I present to you my recommendations for best veggie burgers around. I've separated the list into several categories depending on whether you want fast food, portable BBQ burgers, or to make your own.

Portable (Grocery Store)
The best burgers I've had that I actually bought at a grocery store are undoubtedly the PC Mushroom Swiss Vegetarian Burgers. Though these are your standard soy-based patties, the mushroom and cheese addition make them far from bland.

Special Mention: I am definitely a fan of Licks' nature burger, but I've only had it in-store. They are sold frozen in some grocery stores though, so if you want they are probably worth a shot.

The trouble with getting veggie burgers at restaurants is 9 times out of ten it's on the menu just to pacify any vegetarians who happen to wander in. This means you are likely getting one of only a few varieties of frozen soy patties, not anything original or remotely inspiring. This said, there are still many honourable mentions in this category and I know I will omit some of my favourites. In particular, I had an absolutely dynamite mushroom based burger in Chicago, but for the life of me I can't remember what it's called. There is also VegOut in London, which puts forth a valiant effort and offers a solid vegan menu in general. Lastly, although I've never had a veggie burger at Toronto restaurant FRESH, everything else on their menu is so good, that you can't go wrong trying it. 

However, definitely my favourite veggie burger at the moment however is at Harper's Burger Bar in Kingston, ON. Aside from having a fairly well executed chickpea patty, what sets Harper's apart is that they really make the burger come alive with their toppings. Every single burger on their menu (my favourite is "the Delicious", with avocado, BBQ sauce, and an onion ring) is able to substitute the chickpea patty in, which means every time can be different and a new adventure. 
(Photo: Harpers in Kingston)
So here is it, the piece de resistance. As a veggie burger enthusiast, I've tried a lot of different recipes to see what works: chickpeas, mushrooms, kidney beans, you name it. I've even tried every conceivable binding agent to keep things together, whether is was bread crumbs, oats, nuts, eggs...everything. Here's what I came up with.

After all my experimenting, what I found had (by far) the best outcome was adapting a recipe for chana masala (indian dish of chickpeas in a curry sauce) to suit my needs. This particular recipe used cream and ground almonds to make a really rich, creamy sauce. All I did was scrap the cream altogether and double the amount of almonds. What you want to go for is a substance that binds as much as possible (any fresh veggie burger will fall apart) and has great flavour - the almonds accomplish both of those goals. I wish I could give you an exact recipe but it's a little different every time.

My recommendation is this: learn how to make chana masala, and then pull back on the liquids and add almonds. Remember, this is all to your taste - as long as you have the foundation, you can't go wrong. Top with some raita (an indian yogurt dip) and fresh chopped cilantro. It'll be a big hit!

Friday, 25 December 2009

Incredible Soup, from Scratch! (almost)

Whether you are vegetarian or not, you will LOVE this recipe for Mexican style tomato soup.  You can even make it vegan by simply omitting the sour cream.  Makes 10-15 bowls, and ideal for large parties or freezing

45 roma tomatoes
1 can black beans
1 can corn
1 bulb garlic
olive oil
vegetable broth
salt and pepper
cayenne pepper
fresh cilantro, chopped
sour cream
tortilla chips

1. Cut the tomatoes in half.  Cut out the fleshy bits and seeds, and lay on baking sheets
2. Cut off top of the garlic bulb.  Cover in oil and place on the sheet with tomatoes.
3. Toss the tomatoes in oil; enough so that they are covered, not so much that they are swimming.  Lightly season with S&P
4. Bake tomatoes at 375F for about 40 minutes.  You will know they are done when the sugars caramelize and leave black marks on the baking sheet.  This is the most difficult part and may take some practice, but fortunately the recipe isn't ruined if you don't get it quite right.  Longer cooking times and more caramelization means a more smokey flavour to the end product.
5. Blend tomatoes and garlic in a food processor.  Place in a large pot and put on low heat
6. Pour vegetable broth on baking sheets and heat on medium high on the stove until the caramelized tomato juices loosen and you are able to scrape them off.  The broth should take on a dark brown colour.  Add to pot and stir
7. Drain and rinse beans.  Add to soup along with corn.  Continue to stir on low heat.
8. Add salt, pepper, cayenne pepper to taste.  If you want a bit more smokey flavour you can also introduce a bit of red wine to the mix
9. Serve in a bowl and top with cilantro, sour cream and tortilla chips to taste.  1-2 tbsp of each is about right, depending on tastes

It's a bit tricky to get it just right, but the end result is some of the best soup you will ever have.  It's smokey, sweet and springy, and just a bit spicy (depending on the cayenne).  It even works with canned plum tomatoes, so you can give it a try in season or not!

Thursday, 24 December 2009

Merry Christmas! Some Quick (and yes, late) Tips for the Greenest Christmas Wrapping

Yes, I know this is extremely late for a green Christmas posting, but I would like to share what I do to cut down on waste during the holiday season. It has got a great response from family and friends, as well as from my Tweeps in the Twittersphere, so here goes...

I will be honest, I never liked wrapping gifts before; it is tedious and usually a last minute endeavour for me right before the guests begin to arrive on Christmas Eve. Last year (though more in 2009) I began wrapping all my presents in photos ripped from old magazines, and poof! wrapping became an entirely different experience.

What is amazing for me about this method is that beyond the obvious green benefits of repurposing materials, the magazine pictures hold a lot more meaning for the recipients. This year for example, I wrapped my uncle's gift in a picture of Roger Bannister, the first man to ever run a 4-minute mile. In his younger years, said uncle had been a world class 1,500 meter runner, so Sir Roger is a hero of his. My Dad's Curb Your Enthusiasm DVD (it's ok, he doesn't read my blog)is covered by none other than Larry David himself.

So maybe this isn't the greatest thing to hit Christmas since Jesus, but it does make things a little bit more special. Custom wrapping shows that you really care about the recipient, and when it's repurposed, that you care about the Earth too.

On that note, I wish you all a very Merry Christmas (or whatever your chosen holiday may be) and a Happy New Year. I have included a few more tips to greening your Christmas below as well as pictures of my magazine paper if you are interested. Cheers!

Other Tips:
1. Reuse bags for wrapping
2. Use old shredded paper instead of tissue paper as filler for bags
3. For larger packages, use newspaper- it's not as pretty but it works! You can also write personalized messages on it to make it a little more special.

Sunday, 13 December 2009

Hate to Say I Told You So..

I wrote a lot in past months about how the reality or accuracy of human-caused climate change is irrelevant.  Many in the environmental community and otherwise hopped on the global warming bandwagon, hoping that it would be the spark that finally ignited an environmental movement in the mainstream.  Unfortunately, in doing so they placed all their eggs in one basket, and not even one that was worth betting on.  Worse, by pushing for change on only one front, skeptics needed to merely dismantle a single piece of the science to discredit the entire movement and the people involved in it.  In the end, it all came down to a few emails between colleagues.

As far as building a movement is concerned, climate change was always going to be plagued by the reality that the science was not 100%.  As close to a consensus as it was, it was still disputable, and difficult to use as a platform for overhauling our entire way of living.  This is in contrast to related issues like species extinction and resource depletion, which I laid out in July.  These are issues which are well documented, indisputable, and are are more threatening than climate change (if anything), and yet they are generally ignored by the public and media.  Had Al Gore given a slideshow on peak oil, perhaps we would be in a different position today.

Amazingly, amidst the leaked emails, almost nothing has changed, and yet everything has.  The science behind climate change itself is still very much intact, but this will certainly mark a shift in public perception and support.  So what do we do now?  We can decide that climate change is the hill we are willing to die on, or switch gears and try to deal with one of the real problems (as opposed to the symptom).  Unfortunately, in either scenario, the green movement has taken a huge blow to its credibility, so any route will now be an uphill climb.

Waiting to see how it all plays out...

Monday, 9 November 2009

Photos From the Wall-20 Years Later

Kristen and I were fortunate enough to be able to be in Berlin this summer to witness what has been going on at the East Side Gallery, the longest remaining section of the Berlin Wall. 20 years ago this year (today specifically) the wall came down, and the long stretch of interior wall known as the East Side Gallery was decorated with murals of peace, freedom, love, and just art in general.

Over the years, the murals became covered with tags and other assorted graffiti until some were virtually unrecognizable. Then, in the 20th year after the wall fell, the entire gallery was whitewashed, and the original artists were invited back to redo their murals. This is what we were fortunate enough to witness during our visit, as you can see in the video below.

Aside from the unique experience of witnessing the redecoration of the East Side Gallery, traveling to Berlin this year was an absolutely stunning experience. As outsiders, we became witness to a city that -20 years later - is as modern as any Western city, but still bears the physical and cultural scars of the last 100 years of its history. More so than visiting Dachau concentration camp, the Colleseum in Rome, or even Anne Frank House, the remnants of Cold War Berlin were an extraordinarily real experience in person.

Partially, Berlin was so shocking because unlike other sites we visited, the Cold War has an immediate relevance to our generation. We were alive while the wall was up, although I was too young at the time to notice or even care. Furthermore, the wall in particular is a source of shared experience, both for my family and for people in general. Both my father and grandfather had visited Berlin during the Cold War, seen the death strip, Checkpoint Charlie, and glanced from a distance at Brandenburg Gate. They took the same photos, stood in the same places, saw the same things; it is a strangely shared and yet completely unique experience for each of us, and I suspect that we are not alone in this.

Personal experiences aside, visiting Berlin from a tourist's perspective is a touching and often upsetting experience, even today. The city is a living museum of a country's history (and world history), of which the Wall that once divided it plays a major part. Now 20 years later, still relevant to people all over the world. Please take a look at some of the photos we took of the remaining sections of the Berlin Wall, as well as the video above.

In the early versions of the wall, East Berliners would often drive their cars through the wall to the West side. The wall was later reinforced with steel, making this impossible.

A returning Artist

One of the many messages of peace that adorned the East Side Gallery

Returning artist in action

Free Hugs people in what was formerly the Death Strip section of Berlin. Showing some love.

Checkpoint Charlie, what was formerly an intimidating border crossing is now a tourist trap

Memorial of the wall that runs through the city

Couldn't get this picture 20 years ago
Or this one

Brandenburg Gate

Great Potato Salad Recipe (Courtesy of Mark Bittman)

Normally I don't post recipes, but this one is simply superb. Please bear in mind that Mark Bittman used entirely approximate amounts, so adjust based on your tastes

3 Yams/Sweet Potatoes, peeled
1/3 of a red onion, sliced into squares
3tbsp olive oil
Juice from 2 limes
1 Jalapeno Pepper
2 cloves of garlic
1 cup fresh cilantro, chopped
1/2 can black beans

1. Dice the potatoes into bite-sized cubes and roast on a baking sheet with onions for approximately 25 minutes at 375F
2. Combine oil, garlic, lime juice, and jalapeno into a food processor. Blend until fine
3. Remove potatoes and onions from oven, and allow to cool
4. Drain and rinse black beans until clean
5. Combine all ingredients in a bowl. Toss and serve.

It's just that easy, and truly blows regular potato salad out of the water. Check out out some of the pictures we took making it last night, and find the original vid here.

Citrus-y, sweet, springy, and just plain awesome. Who said eating vegetarian had to be boring?

Sunday, 27 September 2009

How Crude!!

I wrote in July about how I feel the environmental agenda has been hijacked by debate over climate change, and would like to weigh in again on that topic.  Specifically, I want to explore in some depth the economic implications of resource scarcity.

Here is the issue:  It is near impossible to determine what the true effects of peak oil will be.  Peak oil doesn't just mean paying $2.00/litre at the pump.  The globalized economy we live in is saturated with cheap oil.  In fact, it cannot survive without it.  Former CIBC Chief Economist Jeff Rubin discusses this issue in his book "Why Your World is About to Get a Whole Lot Smaller".  Expensive oil means it will no longer be profitable to use cheap labour abroad, as the cost of transportation will outweigh the savings.  Just Imagine Wal-Mart without products from China.

There is an interesting historical comparison that arises if you are reading Malcolm Gladwell's "Outliers" along with Rubin.  Gladwell discusses early on how some of the wealthiest people in history were Americans in the late 19th Century.  Unlike the rest of the list, many of these people were from modest backgrounds, but rose to extraordinary wealth regardless.  The difference?  They were alive during a major shift in the American economy.  Prior to the Civil War, slaves had been a major tool in securing profits in various industries.  Their economy was built on an assumption of low input costs, the same as our current system depends on oil.

What Gladwell teaches is that the extraordinary wealth accumulated by Americans during this period was a result of these people embracing and pioneering the new economy, built on industry, transportation, and mass production.  Instead of slave owners, they were oil barons and railroad tycoons.

The lesson to be learned is that once in a while, we are dealt a new deck of cards and the game changes completely.  Those that are successful are those that recognize the limitations, but also the opportunities of the new world.  By focusing on climate change, we have become distracted by the symptom, rather than the true problems.  People fail to be motivated to change because we believe that we can simply eschew the problem by feigning ignorance; that it will pass, and we can proceed with business as usual.  What is not realized by so many is that our environmental problems don't mean and end to prosperity, but potential for a new prosperity.  All we have to do is embrace it.

Thursday, 3 September 2009

From TED: Cary Fowler on Crop Biodiversity

I recall just over a year ago, Kristen and I were at a green living festival in Newmarket, Ontario, and passed by a number of activism booths.  Somewhere in between the Green Party of Canada and several climate change petitioners, there was a lone man asking for signatures to support crop biodiversity.  At the time, we didn't understand the problem, and wrote him off as extreme.  Perhaps we thought he should be focussing on bigger issues like climate change, organics, or renewable energy.

Fast forward a year.  I have experienced a little bit more, read a whole lot more, and grown in my appreciation for the breadth of environmental issues facing us.  I have tasted beautiful, meaty heirloom tomatoes and learned about the risks that come with loss of biodiversity.  So recently, when I saw Cary Fowler's lecture on crop biodiversity, I was able to appreciate why his work is so important.

What Fowler really delves into at the end of his lecture is that -not unlike many other environmental issues- we canot solve any of our major problems without dealing with biodiversity.  Climate change, the water crisis, species extinction, deforestation, renewable energy, and all other similar problems are not easily solved, are require a holistic solution.  That is, we cannot solve any of them properly without dealing with all of them.  Even a superficial evaluation yields that deforestation causes both species extinction and climate change (as does the mining of non-renewables).  Our current farming practices lead to loss of biodiversity, soil errosion, deforestation, greenhouse gases, and the cycle goes on.

The good news is that Fowler, along with his colleagues and the government of Norway, are doing something about it.  I won't ruin the ending for you, so check out the video for yourself.  You can also do something yourself, watching out for Heirloom vegetables, and explore all the varieties that you can find in stores and on farms.  What I suspect you will find is that many of the rarer varieties are not so because they are worse than the grocery store variety.  In many cases, they are much, much, more flavourful and tastier (the best sandwich making tomatoes I have ever had were a big, red, meaty type of Heirloom)

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

You say you want a revolution...

 A friend recently posted a great video on Facebook (thanks, G!)about what the author refers to as the "Social Media Revolution".  Mostly, the clip was entertaining, and perhaps a little bit shocking with some of the statistics.  However, I was struck when they rhymed off stats regarding how long it has taken various media to reach 50 Million users (Facebook was light years faster than everything from radio to the Internet itself).

I was not surprised at how fast Facebook reached its users, but more so that the Internet and Social Media had actually been split into separate categories. That got me thinking, "Is social media really THAT big that it necessitates separate consideration?"  The answer I came up with was both yes and no.

On one hand, the statistics given are difficult to argue with (if Facebook were a country, it would be the world's 4th biggest).  Social Media has taken the world by storm and is unprecedented in its penetration.  However, it is also necessarily dependent on the Internet as its host, and could not survive without it.

I don't mean to argue over the minutia of whether the videographer should have mentioned the Internet  and Social Media in the same breath or not.  The point is to really think about the magnitude of this new, dynamic way of connecting people and decide whether this is a total game-changer or just a pit stop on the way to something different.  After all, its greatest appeal comes from the way it empowers the individual.  This is being threatened by an increasing infringement of commerce in the social spaces, and may hit a critical point at which users leave en-masse to bigger and better things.  If managed well, social media will continue to serve individuals and commercial presence will add to its success.

One thing is for sure: the dynamic nature of digital media means that its future is not only unwritten, but unpredictable even among its most astute followers.  Anyone with a computer can be the next Zuckerberg or Anderson and come out of nowhere to change the way the world connects.  Even though Social Media is indisputably a revolution of media, its legacy remains uncertain: is it the new radio/television/Internet, a modern 8-track, or somewhere in between?

Tuesday, 11 August 2009

Where's the Beef?

Paula Alvarado recently posted a study on Treehugger, concluding that Brazillians take global warming more seriously than Americans and many EU countries as well.  Alvarado uses the study to hail South America's progressive views on the environment, as opposed to many Northern countries that are dragging their feet.  However, it is difficult to extract any real conclusions from the study, as Brazil is a major environmental offender, ESPECIALLY regarding climate change.

It is now a well known fact among the environmental-minded that Brazil's enormous growing cattle industry comes at the expense of the extraordinarily biodiverse Amazon rainforest.  In order to create grazing space for cattle, enormous sections of rainforest are being plowed and burned.  This means in addition to the extremely carbon-intense practice of raising cattle (methane), more carbon is being released from the clearing of the forest (plus the future carbon that will no longer be absorbed).  Many companies have pulled their support from Brazillian cattle, including Wal-Mart and Timberland, recognizing the absolute unsustainability of the practice.

So, what does this all mean?  On one hand, the Brazillian people say they care about climate change and are willing to make sacrifices to that end, but their country as a whole is acting quite differently.  It remains to be seen whether there is a disconnect between government and citizens, ignorance, or perhaps it's all just hot air...

Sunday, 9 August 2009

A Daily Dose of Silly

I can't think of a better use for stimulus dollars...

Friday, 24 July 2009

Public Options and Profiteering

America is addicted to capitalism, and it's about to strangle their efforts at health care reform.  For a while it looked like the ultimate goal was a universal, free system like we have north of the border, but so far that has proved too socialist for even the most liberal of politicians.  The best they have been able to do is to propose "public options" to "compete" with the current system.  As much as they end goal is to provide coverage for everyone, it still leaves motivations in the wrong place.

Using competition as the means still leaves profit as the end goal and avoids the whole point: getting quality, healthcare for everyone, all the time.  Offering a "public option" simply gives a fall back for people unable to pay premiums or dropped by their other programs.  It's business as usual (with less guilt) for healthcare corporations except that just as Republicans have feared, costs go up, quality goes down, and in the end nobody wins.

The idea that seems to be left out of the debate is this: some things work better as a collective effort (ie socialism).  If you need proof, just take a look what happened before the Fire Department came into play.  It used to be that people would pay private fire companies to protect their house in the event of a fire.  In exchange for payment, they would receive a badge to display outside their house.  Sounds like a pretty good deal, except if your house caught on fire and you had the wrong badge, you were out of luck.  People realized this was a ridiculous system and a public Fire Department was created.  It remains to be seen why almost nobody identifies privatized healthcare as the exact same problem.

Why does this matter to me as a Canadian? Perhaps because I care that everyone has access to proper healthcare, or maybe because it SHOULD matter to Canadians.  We have long been worried about the "brain drain", losing quality doctors to the Americans, and because more than a few Canadians have had health related accidents south of the border, returning home with thousands in hospital debts.  Mostly though, this matters to Canadians because it makes us appreciate how lucky we are to live in the country we do.

As Bill Maher recently wrote in the Huffington Post, "Not everything in America has to make a profit".

Tuesday, 14 July 2009

The War on Warm

They're here.  They're loud.  They're climate change deniers, and they aren't going away.

Alex Higgins has written in the Huffington Post that even some media sources are getting in on the act, despite all evidence to the contrary.  Higgins hilariously describes the process:

"1. Global Warming Denier makes claim

2. Claim is comprehensively, indisputably debunked

3. Claim is withdrawn, while Denier publicly continues to assert they are the new Galileo and their critics are religious fanatics with no regard for facts 
4. New Global Warming Denier makes exactly the same claim as if previous debate never happened"

Although I wholeheartedly agree with Higgins' assessment, I believe that even he misses the point.  You will never be able to quash claims that deny history or science, so long as someone stands to profit from it.  Evolution is still disputed in certain circles, and even the Holocaust has its deniers.  Those who deny global warming provide themselves an easy excuse not to take action on our quickly fading environment.  However, what nobody seems willing to admit is that in the grander scheme of things, the legitimacy of human-caused global warming as a theory is irrelevant.  We are facing multiple issues that are as serious (if not more so) than global warming which are not only indisputable but have not been seriously dealt with.

Let's take a look at some of the issues that have been put on the backburner while argiuing about global warming:

1. Species extinction- not new, indisputable, and a serious threat to the survival of millions of species, including ourselves.  Keep an eye in particular on sharks and bees, on whom entire ecosystems depend.

2. Resource depletion- according to the world's leading geologists, peak oil will likely happen in the next 10 years, if it has not occurred already.  Results include prices hitting the roof on oil and everything that requires it for transportation, manufacturing, or as an ingredient.  Global economic collapse that will dwarf the current recession, and little that we will be able to do about it once it has started.

3. Population control- arguably the greatest threat to the environment.  Humans have by far exceeded their carrying capacity on Earth and have created unsustainable strain on their surroundings.  Other scary results include the potential for worldwide viral pandemics.

4. Global Water Shortages- the next big issue.  Over a billion people currently depend on the Himalayas for water, and like other glaciers, the mountains are losing their permanent ice.

Enough with the partisan bickering.  Let's deal with this thing while we still can.

Friday, 3 July 2009

The Long Road to Local

It seems we have reached a tipping point with local food in mainstream media.  Enough Canadians have demanded to know the source of their food such that many companies have started to claim "local" ingredients in their products.  This is very encouraging for the local food movement in that it means people are starting to care about where their food comes from.  Furthermore, it shows that the market has been willing to respond to these consumer demands.  However, even a passive viewing of some of these "local" claims suggests many are not all they are hyped up to be.

One of the most popular claims to "local" ingredients is simply to call them Canadian (Lays potatoes), which if you know your geography doesn't mean much.  Certainly, this gives some quality assurance, but removes any guarantee of environmental benefits.  Hellman's boasts their canola oil from the prairies, which run into the same problem (if you are from Toronto, your food might as well be sourced from Texas)

I am not one to be picky.  I think it's great that Canadian citizens and commerce are hopping on the local bandwagon.  I just think we need to be able to discern between a real change in operations and just a change in what we are being told.

Sunday, 21 June 2009

Iran: An Update

I wrote a few days ago that the protests over Iran's allegedly stolen election were a major victory regardless of the actual outcome of the election or the first protests.  The demonstrated outrage that the Iranian people have shown has now indicated that the likelihood of foul play in this election is no longer a possibility so much as a probability.  Furthermore, the situation on the streets or Iran has gone from bad to worse in only a few days, and has set the world's eyes on what is happening.  As usual, foreign press has been cut off, internet time restricted, etc, but that has not stopped what is now a raging river of amateur video feeds and reporting that have found their ways through the filters.

What we are seeing in Tehran is no longer a 2000 U.S. Presidential kind of stolen election, but a genuine human rights violation and a deliberate oppression of peaceful, dissenting voices.  It is unknown how many protestors have been killed or injured since no reporting has been allowed, with the most common estimates hovering around 19 confirmed, but others indicating a much higher death toll.  Video footage found on CNN or youtube depicts a scene of total chaos, with random gunfire and clouds of tear gas  found everywhere.  One dark video on CNN depicted the pro-government militia breaking into houses to take people away.  Although you could see very little, subtitled screams of "they're coming! they're coming from the terrace! get out!" were audible.  It was certainly tough to stomach, especialy after recently spending 6 days in Berlin learning about the oppression that had occurred there over the last 80 years via the SS, Gestapo, and Stasi.  Not to be one of those people that compares every injustice to the Nazis, but it was particularly reminiscent of the case of Munich's White Rose movement in 1942.

I have been quickly and deeply engaged in what has been going on over the last few days, as I cannot remember the last time there was such a major human rights case that was also so important for the fate of the collective world as well.  I wrote earlier about how groundbreaking a Mousavi presidency would be for Iran, with similar rhetoric leading many officials (in the U.S. and Britain in particular) to call for an intervention by Western forces.  Unfortunately, as the more historically educated have recalled, both of these countries have a long history of interference in Iranian affairs, from their CIA supported reinstalling of a violent regime in 1953 to their backing of Iraq in the Iran-Iraq War.  Ahmadinejad supporters have already blamed the unrest on interference from foreign influences, although so far this appears to be entirely a domestic issue; one can only imagine how this rhetoric would be stepped up if there was actual involvement of Western governments, even in a peacekeeping capacity.

Under fire from many across the aisle, Obama has steadfastly refuesd to be involved in the Iranian conflict any more than condemning the government's human rights abuses from afar.  This does not show any signs of changing for now, so protestors will have to rely on their continued solidarity and the foreign diplomatic pressure that has arisen from their constant stream of video and text to outside news sources.  Stay tuned on this issue, it looks like it is far from over.

Thursday, 18 June 2009

Election 2009: Small Victories Amidst Violence and Unrest

Let me start by saying that I am by no means an expert on Iranian politics (as I am sure you are all aware),  but what is going on right now in Iran promises to be truly groundbreaking, so I am going to try and spread what I do know in hopes that we will all try to learn more about the situation right now.

So for those who have not been following, Iran held their presidential elections on June 12th of this year, with the incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad facing off against reformist challenger Mir-Hossein Mousavi.  We are much more familiar with the fundementalist Ahmadinejad, but the reformist Mousavi also has a long history in the upper ranks of Iranian leadership.  He was the Prime Minister until 1989 when constitutional changes removed his position, and also has been a candidate or potential candidate for presidency for the last 3 elections.

The controversy from this election came after Ahmadinejad won a two thirds victory over Mousavi on June 12th.  However, Mousavi has asserted allegations of election fraud and a partial recount has been ordered.  Mousavi (with 33 percent) was even so bold as to claim victory over Ahmadinejad, which seems extreme until one sees the massive empassioned following that Mousavi has.  Their protests  have filled the streets of Tehran with seas of green (Mousavi's campaign colours) despite of an order to shoot protestors that has already claimed several lives.

What makes this election so important is that Mousavi, a reformist, would drastically change the face of Iran if elected.  During the campaign, he promised to bring privatized television (free press) and more secular leadership to Iran.  Specifically, foreign policy and the military are controlled by The Supreme Leader, a religious, non-elected position.  Mousavi, along with many other Iranians, feel that such major responsibilities should be carried by an elected official, namely the president, who has an actual connection to the people.  He also criticized Ahmadinejad's economic policies.

A free press and more secularized government in Iran would mean major change not only domestically but also for the rest of the Middle East.  I am sure I don't have to tell you that historically, Iranian-Western relations have not been peachy keen since the Iranian Revolution in 1979.  Iran has clashed with the United States as well as Israel (Ahmadinejad does not recognize Israel's right to exist) on numerous occassions, and has consistently been seen as a threat by their leaders for decades.  Free (non-state controlled) press and truly democratic control of major government functions (military) could change everything.

Although it seems that Mousavi will almost certainly not take office (even with the recount pending, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khameni has backed Ahmadinejad's victory) There are small victories to be found in this election.  Empassioned citizens have taken to the streets to demand reform and better control of their government, as well as an end to the alleged corruption of their current leaders.

I recently visited the remains of the Berlin Wall, and what struck me in learning about it is that even in oppressive or non-democratic regimes, leaders are aware of their people and en-masse, their voices can still be heard.  Iran is far from the oppression of East Germany (despite the shooting of protestors), and therein lies the hope for change.  Even if the election results are legitimate and the reformist movement is still a minority, it has received worldwide media attention and demonstrated its power domestically and internationally.  I am not familiar enough with Iran to know whether this is the right party to lead, but what I do know is that freedom of press and secularized government are some of the first steps towards greater peace worldwide.  As a major cornerstone of the Middle East, a major shift in Iran might make all the difference.

In the meantime, over 100,000 people are attending a "day of mourning" rally for the 8 protestors killed while Amnesty International says at least 170 have been detained for their involvement in the protests .  There has been a crackdown on domestic and foreign press reporting on the events transpiring, but small bits of coverage are still leaking out.  This paints a scary picture of the tense aftermath of thise election, and will hopefully not escalate into further violence or political arrests.

(Please note that although I have been following the story as much as possible in the last week, a lot of my information was taken from wikipedia so I could get a brief history of the candidates and Iranian politics in general.  As I said before, I am hardly an expert, so if any of my information is wrong please let me know and i will correct it)

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

Recessionary Guide to Summer Fun! (ok, and help the environment too)

So I write a lot about the environment and social issues a lot, but this blog is really about creating a better positive world for everyone.  That said, the recession has certainly set in and is bumming a lot of people out, and therefore is clearly an obstacle to fun and positivity.

I spent the last 35 days backpacking Europe with my beautiful girlfriend Kristen (and with our friend Mike for 3 of those weeks) and although the trip was by no means cheap, it certainly taught us how to have fun for little or no money.  I also happen to be unemployed upon returning home, so in that spirit, I present my Recessionary Guide to Summer Fun!  In it, you will find great things to spice up your summer without breaking the bank.  As an additional bonus, I limited the guide to activities that are gentle on the environment (although I can't guarantee the overall impact of festivals, etc)

1. Skip the gym, get outside!  I have always preferred the pavement to the treadmill, but for those who are more inclined to choose the gym, try going for a run, organize a casual baseball game, or just go for a walk!  
Save Money On: gym membership, gas money
You will get:  Excercise, a tan

2. Pedal Power.  Park the car in the garage, pump up those tires, slap on a basket or rear rack, and bike!  Unfortunately, if you live in the 'burbs like me, it can be difficult to walk to the grocery store and elsewhere for errands.  However, even in Markham, most things are well within reach by bicycle.
Save Money On: Gas money
You will get: Excercise, sun.  In addition, I promise you will have more fun than you would have driving.  Lastly, if you are unemployed like me, it will also give you something to do to fill your time!

3. Eat Local.  Find your nearest farm/farmer's market and make a day trip out of it!  During the summer, many towns have a weekly farmer's market that you can visit, and if you can get to a farm, that is equally as rewarding.  You have to eat anyways, and buying local food is fresher, better for the environment, and often cheaper.  Furthermore, you have the added benefit of developing a relationship with you food and where it came from, as you can meet the people who produced it!  Last summer, Kristen and I made  trip to Whitamore's Farm, where we were able to not only buy fresh, but opted to pick out own strawberries and snow peas.  What we found was not only is it something to fill an afternoon, but you get to completely control your own food quality and really feel as if you have "earned it", for lack of a better phrase.
Save Money On: Food
What you get: Quality Control, cheap fruits and veggies (which is super for making pies and jam, etc)

4. Festivals.  Summer is the season for music festivals like Lollapalooza, Bonnaroo, and others, but those are often expensive.  Fortunately, summer is also the time for local festivals for music, food, and drink that are cheap or even free.  If you are looking to save money, look into main street festivals that seem to run every weekend, or if you want more stimulation, try The Beaches Jazz Festival, Burlington Sound of Music or others.  Although it is actually in the fall, Kristen and I attended the Bala Cranberry Festival last year for some fun in Muskoka, and had a great time!
Save Money On: Entertainment
What you get: Food, music, drinks, new friends and good times!

5. Hit the beach or the park.  Pack a picnic and some friends, or even just a towel and a book, and relax!  If you've got a cottage that's great, and if not, a personal favourite park for me is Edward's Gardens at Leslie and Lawrence.  The Gardens are park of a parks network that starts at Lawrence and stretches uninterupted south almost to the Danforth.
Save Money On: Everything, the sun is free, man!
What you get: Soft grass/sand, clear air and skies, sun, and a tan.  Relaxation!

So that's all for now, if you have any other suggestions I would be glad to hear them!

Wednesday, 29 April 2009

My ideas as your ideas as you are me and we create together...

There is a sweet sort of irony in the fact that Darwin was not the pioneering mind of evolutionary theory, but rather its adopter, refiner, and perhaps perfecter.  Although he undoubtedly contributed a great deal to the theory (probably more than his predecessors) it is important to note that like Darwin's creatures of the Galapogos, great ideas are rarely born, but developed, often collaboratively.

The source of ideas is especially important today because in an increasingly technological world, they are often come and gone before we are able to slow down and realize what is happening.  In his lecture "The Rise of the Amateur Professional"

Charles Leadbetter talks about how cultural innovation is becoming increasingly collaborative, evolving through user modification and testing.  What is amazing is that in many fields, R&D labratories may not be able to keep up, as open-sourced culture will not only be designed by consumers for consumers, but also will be able to be tested for free, running hundreds, thousands, or even millions of trials simultaneously.

Although Leadbetter uses examples like the invention of the mountain bike to demonstrate his point, there are greater examples happening right now.  The existence of sites like YouTube (outside of simply posting existing material) say to established media "We don't need you!", offering a programming channel for everything from comedy to cooking shows to comentary on the politicians we love to hate.  All open source.  All amateur.  All the time.

Time Magazine's 2006 Person of the Year article (it was you, congratulations!!) says,
"America loves its solitary geniuses—its Einsteins, its Edisons, its Jobses—but those lonely dreamers may have to learn to play with others. Car companies are running open design contests. Reuters is carrying blog postings alongside its regular news feed. Microsoft is working overtime to fend off user-created Linux. We're looking at an explosion of productivity and innovation, and it's just getting started, as millions of minds that would otherwise have drowned in obscurity get backhauled into the global intellectual economy."

Learning from the music industry's major failure to embrace user control of media and culture, many companies have simply given up trying to stay ahead, and are simply turning to the users to tell them exactly what they want, when, and how much of it to give.  Countless artists have been signed because of large followings on Myspace (see: Fall Out Boy) or YouTube, or the Idol shows, the latter of which do it in real time.  It seems that those that have adapted to the new sources of culture have survived, and those that have dragged their feet have fallen behind.

Lastly, and on a slightly more serious note, in this new collaborative culture machine, it is extremely important that we take our responsibility seriously as users.  When we buy or use products or services, we give it our personal stamp of approval, and in avoiding them, we can demonstrate our disapproval.  We have a tremendous amount of power as individuals today to change our own world, and it starts with what we do, what we buy, what we wear, and what we eat.  I am not asking you to boycott anything, but simply to be aware, be informed, know your options, and if you desire change, always know that what you do makes a difference.

Wednesday, 1 April 2009

Could Obama Pull the Plug on the Volt?

It seems that President Obama's economic and environmental goals are at an impasse.

After ordering the replacement of GM's top dog, he is now taking aim at the Chevy Volt, GM's Hail Mary pass to try and leapfrog Honda, Toyota, and a handful of independent automakers in the race for affordable, practical electric transportation. It seems that because GM has been continually revising their estimated sale price for when the Volt launches, uh...whenever it finally does, Obama's camp is losing faith that it will be the saviour that GM has been hoping it would be. With the estimated price now up near the mid $40,000s and America mired in a recession with no end in sight, the car runs the risk of simply being too expensive compared to the new Prius and the Honda Insight.

Currently, the Prius and Insight are not available as plug-ins in North America, which does have an impact on their total emissions. The Volt on the other hand is designed for home and mobile plug-in, using gasoline only when you really need it, after about 40 miles (64km) of all-electric driving. Even though this is supposedly the greener option, the increased price sandwiches the Volt awkwardly in between the leading hybrids and some of the more rare, more expensive, all-electric cars already found on the road today. Whether the Chevy Volt ever sees market remains to be seen, but the last ditch hopes of GM and the American car dynasty may be tied directly to its fate, and for that, Barack Obama cannot be too careful about how he handles this situation.

Thursday, 26 March 2009

Spotlight On: Jessica Reiss, Founder of ecocessories

It's true that great ideas often come from the smallest companies.
Jessica Reiss is the founder of ecocessories, a growing recycled jewelry designer based in North Vancouver, BC.  Although Jessica is a good friend of mine, you don't have to be close to the company to know that it's an idea with legs.  She has been embraced by friends and strangers alike, and most recently by local forums for green living and fashion, including Granville Magazine.
ecocessories is based on the concept of taking old or unwanted pieces of jewlery, stripping them down, and designing new and exciting pieces from the truly staggering selection of elements that Jessica has accrued since her launch.  
If you were wondering, the "eco" element of Jessica's business is present from the moment she receives a new piece of jewlery, and is sustained throughout her process.  First and most obviously, the recycling of existing items cuts down drastically on their environmental impact.  Next, the recycled elements are sustainably cleaned and stored, and incorporated with new chains with the ecocessories signature touch.  Jessica's style is both recognizable and accessible, yet does not hesitate to challenge conventions of symmetry or to harmonize elements from completely different pieces or eras.
I recently had the privledge of talking with Jessica about ecocessories, including her plans for the future (conversation below).  If you are interested in green living, fashion, or are even just looking for a stylish gift for that special someone, I strongly urge you to check out ecocessories.

Rob: What inspired you to start recycling jewelry?
Jess: I attended a green consumer show called Epic Expo and was fascinated by all of the sustainable fashion. I knew I needed a second income so the wheels started turning about launching my own business. To recycle jewelry literally just popped in my head - a few artisans were sourcing vintage and antique jewelry for materials, but I wanted to recycle jewelry as the forefront of my mission. If I am making something to sell I like to know that I am giving a second life to recycled beads and I use sterling silver in my new jewelry designs because it is a precious metal that can be repurposed many times.
Rob: What has surprised you most since launching ecocessories?
Jess: Probably the outpouring of support. Everyone 'gets' my idea and is willing to help, which is very cool!
Rob: If you had to guess, how many pieces of jewelry have you recycled since you have started?
Jess: Hundreds!!
Rob: Other than recycling jewelry, what else does ecocessories do to reduce its impact?
Jess: Every time I need to make a new investment in office furniture tools etc. I always try to buy used first. I like knowing I am giving that item a second life and learning about the history attached. I also try to buy Energy Star appliances, such as the Printer/Scanner for the office and to use recycled materials when possible, such as the recycled cardboard boxes my jewelry comes nestled in. 
I truly believe that one person can make a difference in their environmental impact. Choosing to 'Live Green' is an easy choice because you end up with high quality, cherished possessions; you save money by reducing waste & consumption; and you inspire others to make the same decision!
Rob: ecocessories has recently been featured in a number of forums as a company to watch. What has been the biggest thrill for you so far?
Jess: The media attention has been pretty awesome at giving me exposure and driving some traffic to, so it has all been very thrilling. I was very excited when Granville Magazine - a local, renowned sustainability mag - sought me out for an interview. Their readers are exactly the market I want to reach with both my sterling silver designs and jewelry recycling services. Now my next mission is to grab Oprah's attention and I'll be set!
Rob: Any plans for the future?
Jess: I plan to just continuing to grow ecocessories and I have recently made a major change in my life to allow me to do that. I have left my full time job to focus on my entrepreneurial ventures and am very excited to focus some of this energy on the development of ecocessories. I will be attending a few markets locally in North Vancouver and Downtown Vancouver this summer, so stay tuned to to find out when/where you can find my booth!
Rob: You have said that you would eventually like ecocessories to contribute some of its revenue to not-for-profits.  Do you have any in mind that you feel are especially important?
Jess: Yes. I work closely with the Human Dignity Initiative which is a fledgling non-profit just getting started here in Vancouver. The first project taken on by Wendy, HDI's founder, is the Solar Light Initiative. Wendy wants to bring solar flashlights to households in Cambodia and Uganda. The stats are alarming about the risks associated with using kerosene lanterns and HDI's solution will allow women & children to extend their working hours with this safe and affordable light source. Learn more at my previous blog entry:
Once ecocessories breaks even I will be contributing to this amazing cause!

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