three library issues, part 3: the human library

January 26, 2013 was the first Human Library Day, but the Human Library, also known as the Living Library, has been around for several years.

The idea is to assemble a diverse group of people to be "books", then invite an audience to "borrow" the books by engaging them in conversation about themselves. The "book" person talks to the "reader" about her or his life, giving people an opportunity to interact with a greater range of human diversity than they might normally encounter. Human books might be called, for example, activist, musician, lesbian, Muslim, doctor, cancer survivor, wheelchair-user, kindergarten teacher, single parent. It's like a career day, on a broader scale.

Sounds great, right? So why does it give me the creeps?

When I first heard of the Human Library in one of my library courses, the idea made me cringe. It sounded like a jumped-up freak show, or a more socially acceptable version of "some of my best friends are...". It still bothers me and I can't quite put my finger on why. Maybe it's that the Human Library seems to reduce human beings in all their glorious complexity to one piece of self-identification. Maybe it's that one individual cannot represent any identity other than their own unique experience. Maybe it's because I harbour deep skepticism that anyone who needs such exposure will voluntarily participate. Or maybe it's something I haven't yet figured out.

This story in Torontoist says the Human Library "breathes life into an age-old pastime".
But the event isn’t just for satisfying your curiosity about local celebrities; importantly, it’s also about facilitating conversations with other Torontonians whose life experiences are worth sharing: cancer survivors, mental-health experts, entrepreneurs, and a surrogate mother for a gay couple.

The Human Library’s youngest participant is 17-year-old Haille Bailey-Harris, who once struggled with being bullied as the only black student in his small-town school. “I just think the best way to help someone through something is to show that other people have been through it, so that people understand they’re not the only one,” he said.

According to Anne Marie Aikins, the TPL’s community relations manager, the Human Library is a project that started in the early 1990s in Copenhagen, in reaction to a violent gay-bashing incident. “They were started to help people have a broader understanding of differences, to deal with prejudices and stereotypes,” Aikins said. “It’s an alternative way to learn and gain knowledge. Reading a traditional book is one way, downloading an ebook is a modern way, and this hearkens back to the old days when we told stories one-on-one to each other.”

Aikins admits that if someone is staunchly homophobic, chances are slim that they’ll check out a queer-focused human book and have their attitude changed right away. However, for all of the subjects covered in the Human Library collection, she hopes that the attention from the public and the media will help people to hear positive messages about difference.
Promoting positive messages about difference sounds like a worthwhile endeavour. What's your take? Am I the only one cringing?

three library issues, part 2: rfid self-checkout

Increasing numbers of public libraries are moving towards a self-checkout system, based on radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology. This is not the slow and often painful process you encounter in Ikea or Home Depot, where customers are forced to supply free labour by doing the work of cashiers, while corporations pocket the savings. (I've been planning to write about that for a while; future post.)

RFID in libraries is a simple process: you can view an example here. Customers can check out a big stack of items by placing the entire stack on the sensor and inserting their library card into a slot. RFID checkout eliminates the need to scan the barcode of each item individually, and several customers can check out all their items at the same time. Libraries will (or at least should!) still have a circulation clerk on hand to greet customers and help people who don't want to use the RFID equipment.

I have mixed feelings about this. RFID checkout is quick and easy to use. It does make the checkout process faster and more efficient. It also puts people out of work. And there are privacy issues inherent in the use of RFID that are largely being ignored.

First the labour issue. I don't expect companies to retain outdated technology in order to keep people employed, and in the public sector there is an obligation to hold down costs. But is the technology actually outdated, or is some corporation profiting from their ability to convince us that it is?

As the Mississauga Library System transitions into RFID self-checkout over the next couple of years, no one will be laid off (or so we are told), but people who leave or retire will not be replaced. This has been the case for many years; the workforce is being cut by attrition. Lower-skilled jobs continue to disappear, and options for decent employment continue to shrink.

The Mississauga Library is aggressively promoting RFID self-checkout to staff. In addition to saving time and being more efficient, we are told that self-checkout improves staff health and safety, and improves customer privacy. This strains credibility. The health of circulation staff has not been a major concern, and while circulation clerks will no longer see what items a customer borrows, RFID is not a privacy protector. It is a privacy threat. For more information on RFID privacy issues, see "RFID tags: Big Brother in small packages" by Declan McCullagh at CNET. Katherine Albrecht and Liz McIntyre, authors of Spychips: How Major Corporations and Government Plan to Track your Every Move with RFID follow RFID-related news on their website, SpyChip.com. A more nuanced view is found here: How RFID Will Impact Consumer Privacy.

Customer privacy is of the utmost importance to the library, given the library's strong commitment to intellectual freedom. The ALA has formulated policy and best-practice guidelines for the use of RFID, but whether any given library system will follow them, I cannot say.

Karen Schneider, Chair of the California Library Association Intellectual Freedom Committee, has written an excellent paper outlining the pros and cons of RFID use in the library. Among the concerns, she writes:
8. Librarians nationwide have acknowledged that privacy concerns related to RFID are new territory. No profession cares more about its users’ privacy than librarianship. However, we are only beginning to connect the dots with respect to RFID. We as a profession need to develop best practices for RFID and advertise these practices widely. We can either manage this issue or let it bite us in the fanny as watchdog organizations and the general public ask, correctly, why, and how, we are implementing this technology in libraries.

9. Libraries are part of the general world commons, and none of our actions take place
in a vacuum. There is an inexorable march toward RFID in libraries, for highly
compelling reasons outlined in the first section of this testimony. However, we cannot
assume that our tags cannot be read by (or have no interest to) other organizations, or that we are not contributing to the accumulated It has been observed that libraries adopting RFID en masse send an overarching message that we understand and approve of this technology.

10. Libraries have proved vulnerable to national agendas. Recent legislation (CIPA and
the Patriot Act) demonstrates that libraries have become highly porous battlegrounds for
some of the larger privacy and public -forum debates in our society. With CIPA, many
library budgets became dependent on the telecommunications discounts made available
through E-Rate, essentially forcing some libraries to adopt draconian policies and
procedures that limit Constitutionally-protected speech to adult users. With the Patriot
Act, we have seen the government become increasingly inventive and aggressive in its
efforts to track the reading habits of library users.
We're told the principal reason for adopting RFID in the library is as a cost-cutting measure. Will it really save money? The system purchased by Mississauga costs $2.6 million, which doesn't include staff training or maintenance or future related costs. I honestly don't know how this compares to the savings in labour. It's possible that public funds have merely been shifted from employing people in the community to purchasing equipment and maintenance contracts from private vendors.

The frustrating part of this, for me, is the same as with most technological changes: the technology drives the change. This is available, so we'll use it. Those of you who want to study the issues can do so later, when it's too late.


three library issues, part 1: the all-digital library

An enormous number of library-related stories cross my path, either through school or this blog. A few have stayed on my mind and seem worth fleshing out.

A San Antonio, Texas public library will become the first in the US (and possibly in the world) to go completely bookless - that is, its collection will have no paper books, only digital books.

Much has been written about the pros and cons of digital books, and without recapping all that here, I think it's important to realize that there are both positives and negatives. The digital book, like all technology, is not a panacea, not without issues, and some of those issues are very relevant to the public library.

For one thing, e-books are incredibly expensive for libraries. For the price of one digital edition, the library can order as many as ten paper editions. Many digital titles are not available for library use, and at least three major publishers are not making e-books available to libraries at all. This means there's no way the all-digital public library can offer as many titles as a public library that collects both paper and digital editions.

More important, I think, is the digital divide. We live in a society of tremendous inequality, and that inequality extends to technology - access, the regular use that builds comfort levels, the ability to stay up to date, and so on. The digital divide doesn't map exactly onto income inequality, but there is certainly a great overlap. The digital divide excludes many seniors, no matter what their income level, and many people who work at non-computer-related jobs, who struggle to manage computer time in between work and family.

The public library has an obligation to mitigate the digital divide. Offering free internet access is part of that, as is lending e-readers so that people can experience digital books at no cost. But the library also has an obligation to serve people who are not reading e-books and who may never want to. Because despite the impressive sales figures for Kindles and Readers, most people the world over are still reading paper books. We shouldn't lose sight of that.

To read a paper book, all you need is literacy and a book. No other technical skill or equipment is required. No format is proprietary. No downloading is needed, no file conversions.

Those of us who are adept with technology - which includes me, by the way - may barely take note of our many digital interactions. Last night, Allan downloaded an episode of a TV series, converted the file, transferred it to a USB drive, plugged the USB into our Roku streaming device, which is already connected to our wireless network. And we watched the show. To us, this was simple and easy (and far superior to ordinary television). But to my mother, for example, it would be a complete impossibility. To her, watching TV means turning on the TV set and selecting from what's on.

I don't read e-books and I have no great desire to do so. I'm perfectly satisfied reading paper books; I don't buy gadgets simply because a lot of other people are buying them, if I don't see an advantage to adoption. Most books I want to read aren't even offered in digital format. However, if I have read some digital books and could easily continue to do so if I wanted to. My mother, on the other hand, would find making the switch to e-books a source of great anxiety.

This is a digital divide, and a library that doesn't work both sides of the digital divide has lost its way. The Bexar County Public Library will probably help some people discover what its like to read in digital format. Whether or not that helps those people become more adept at and comfortable with technology is open to question. One doesn't necessarily follow the other. I'm sure you know many people, as I do, who have learned to deal with email but who still fear and avoid new technology. And many other library users will be completely excluded.

Why should libraries choose between paper and digital? Isn't there room for both?


best of wmtc, 2012 edition

The wmtc greatest hits page has been updated with the best posts of 2012, as chosen by my editor and second-biggest* fan. Thanks for reading, and thank you always for your support.

* My mother, who else?!

what i'm reading, children's books edition: # 5

In this post, I look at two nonfiction books for young readers. Both are featured in the current "Forest of Reading" program, a province-wide recreational reading program sponsored by the Ontario Library Association. Both fiction and nonfiction winners of the various Forest of Reading awards - Silver Birch, Red Maple, and so on - are featured in public and school libraries throughout the province. In other words, lots of kids will read these books. And that is a very good thing.

The Sea Wolves: Living Wild in the Great Bear Rainforest, Ian McAllister and Nicholas Read, 2012

This beautiful book introduces young readers to some fascinating creatures and their unique habitat. The Sea Wolves begins with the many cultural myths and fears about wolves, then dispels those misconceptions with facts about these beautiful, intelligent, highly social animals. The book examines a unique sub-species of wolf that lives in the rainforest on Canada's Pacific coast. Smaller and thinner than the gray wolf, the sea wolf can swim like an otter, and fishes for salmon like a bear! The sea wolves are also unique among wolves in that they have never been hunted. The First Nations people of the area have lived side-by-side with wolves for thousands of years; their culture holds wolves in a position of respect and admiration. The book also describes the wonders of the Great Bear Rainforest, an isolated wilderness now threatened by plans for the tarsands pipeline.

A lot of information is packed into this short book, richly paired with Ian McAllister's stunning photographs of the sea wolves and the rainforest. (McAllister and Read's earlier book about the Great Bear Rainforest, The Salmon Bears, was also a Forest of Reading selection.) The book is truly a love-letter to wolves and to the Canadian rainforest.

Although The Sea Wolves makes a strong case for conservation and preservation, and does mention that the wolves' future is uncertain and the rainforest is threatened, it stops short of endorsing activism. One never knows about the politics behind the scenes - if the authors had wanted to make the activism piece stronger, but were prevented from doing so - but a short piece of "What you can do to help" would have been better than merely giving a website where interested readers can get more information.

This is a beautiful book, both visually attractive and extremely well written. It has the potential to propel many young readers towards a fascination with wolves, the sea wolf, and one of our continent's last bit of wilderness.

No Shelter Here: Making the World a Kinder Place for Dogs, Rob Laidlaw, 2011

Talking to children about cruelty is always tricky. I've written about, for example, being traumatized by learning about the Holocaust as a child in Hebrew school, and by seeing certain details of animal abuse on a documentary. Children need to see the world as it is, but a sensitive child can be overwhelmed by the view.

In No Shelter Here, a book about animal abuse and injustice, Rob Laidlaw has found the perfect approach. The book alternates between problem and solution, first showing us an arena of maltreatment - such as puppy mills, research, or dogs kept alone and chained - then introducing us to "Dog Champions," actual young people who have taken action. For every injustice, there is a real person fighting for justice, and suggestions on how a young reader can get involved. In this way, the book is not merely informative and depressing, it is motivating and empowering.

Young people from all over the world are spotlighted as Dog Champions, each with photos, a short story of how they got started, the actions they chose, and their accomplishments. At the end of the book, readers are invited to take The Dog Lover's Pledge, and to visit animal-welfare websites.

No Shelter Here is full of photographs of imploring brown eyes and dogs in need of champions, but the photos are not shocking or explicit. There are also plenty of photos of Dog Champions at work, and joyful, healthy dogs who have been championed. As one reviewer put it, the issues are "addressed frankly but gently". Animal-loving children will find this book disturbing, but they are likely to motivated to educate others, and to become part of the solution.


25 years since morgentaler: celebrate and re-commit to action

Twenty-five years ago, the Supreme Court of Canada overturned the federal abortion law in the Morgentaler decision, making Canada one of the few countries in the world without criminal restrictions on abortion access. That historic court decision was the result of activism on the part of women and their allies, a strong, broad-based movement for reproductive justice.

Monday night in Toronto, you can hear some of the veterans of that campaign speak about their experiences, and what it took to win significant steps forward for women's liberation.

We'll also hear about the challenges we face today - repeated private members' motions and bills trying to roll back our rights, calls to defund abortion in Ontario, women in New Brunswick forced to pay for services, and no services in Prince Edward Island.

Monday, January 28, come and celebrate Canadian women's reproductive freedom and learn what we must do to protect and extend it.

WHEN: Monday, January 28, 7:00 p.m.
WHERE: Innis Hall, University of Toronto campus (TTC: St. George)
With a discussion panel featuring:
• Judy Rebick
• Michele Landsberg
• Carolyn Egan
• Angela Robertson
• Jillian Bardsley

Followed by a screening of "The Life and Times of Henry Morgentaler"

$5 donation at the door.

Sponsored by the Ontario Coalition for Abortion Clinics (OCAC)
Endorsed by Medical Students for Choice UofT and Arts for Choice


40 years old and already irrelevant: happy birthday roe v wade

Right now there are no American women who were of reproductive age prior to Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion. Yet reproductive rights in the US have never been more threatened. 2011 marked the passage of the most state-level restrictive abortion laws ever. 2012 saw the second-highest.

More than half of all US women of reproductive age (15–44) now live in a state that is hostile to abortion rights. Ten years ago, it was fewer than one-third.

The Guttmacher Institute has produced a series of infographics to illustrate the state of reproductive rights in the US. They are encouraging allies to share them widely.

What happens to women who want abortions and can't obtain one? We're finally getting some actual data to answer that question. Annalee Newitz at io9 reports.
Public health researchers with the UC San Francisco group Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health (ANSIRH) used data from 956 women who sought abortions at 30 different abortion clinics around the U.S. 182 of them were turned away. The researchers, led by Diana Greene Foster, followed and did intensive interviews with these women, who ran the gamut of abortion experiences. Some obtained abortions easily, for some it was a struggle to get them, and some were denied abortions because their pregnancies had lasted a few days beyond the gestational limits of their local clinics. Two weeks ago, the research group presented what they'd learned after two years of the planned five-year, longitudinal "Turnaway Study" at the recent American Public Health Association conference in San Francisco.

Here's the short version of what they discovered, from a post they made on the Global Turnaway Study Facebook page:

We have found that there are no mental health consequences of abortion compared to carrying an unwanted pregnancy to term. There are other interesting findings: even later abortion is safer than childbirth and women who carried an unwanted pregnancy to term are three times more likely than women who receive an abortion to be below the poverty level two years later.
It's an excellent article about the study's preliminary findings. You can read more at The Turnaway Study website, along with their plans for further research.

Next week, Canadian women celebrate 25 years of legal abortion access. If you're in the Toronto area on Monday, January 28, come find out how Canadian women won the right to abortion, and what we must do to keep it. More about this soon: here's the event on Facebook.

And finally, one last thought about reproductive freedom, which I've lifted (and edited) from a Tweet making the rounds.
Do you support abortion? Only if absolutely necessary. Like when a woman is pregnant and she doesn't want to be.


more books on books

A while back, I wrote some "what i'm reading" posts under the general category "books on books". Allan has just added to this small collection with a post about The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction, a book by Alan Jacobs. If you are a self-reflective reader, and if you suffer from a tendency to judge yourself and your choices, I recommend it.

For the record, my earlier posts:

Part 1: Robert Darnton's The Case for Books

Part 2: James Shapiro's Contested Will, his demolition of the who-wrote-Shakespeare "scholarship"

Part 3: Reading Matters: What the Research Reveals about Reading, Libraries and Community by Catherine Sheldrick Ross, Lynne McKechnie, and Paulette M. Rothbauer

Sharp Pencils: The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction

what i'm reading, children's books edition: # 4

Still Classic?

A Wrinkle in Time, Madeleine L'Engle, 1962

A Wrinkle in Time has always been one of my favourite books. Although I have re-read it a few times over the years, I approached it for this series with some trepidation, a bit concerned that I might no longer recommend it to young readers. I needn't have worried. The book - continually in print since it was first published in 1962 - was reissued last year in a special 50th anniversary printing, and with very good reason.

From the moment we begin, we are drawn to Meg - confused and frustrated, feeling like she can't do anything right. Scrappily defending her odd younger brother. Clinging to her mother's calm faith that her father will return. Feeling destined to never fit in.

And as we're identifying with Meg, the mystery begins to unfold. Who is this strange Mrs. Whatsit, and how does she know a secret about Meg's mother, one that even Meg didn't know? Family bonds, the pressures of conformity, and the shifting landscape of our own self-esteem quickly become entwined with time travel, the limits of our known world, and the battle against the nameless evil, fascism. The language feels fresh, the characters alive. We follow them into a fantasy, only to learn a basic truth: that we must find our own moral courage, and we must witness the power of love. This book is timeless.

Where to go from there? There are the other four books in L'Engle's "Time Quintet": A Wind in the Door, A Swiftly Tilting Planet, Many Waters, and An Acceptable Time. I haven't read them all, but young people love series, and I wouldn't hesitate to recommend anything by L'Engle. However, I would recommend following up in a different direction.

* * * *

Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time, The Graphic Novel, adapted and illustrated by Hope Larson, 2012

Madeleine L'Engle died in 2007, so she didn't live to see her greatest work thrive in a new format. I suspect she would have loved it. The award-winning author and illustrator Hope Larson has brilliantly adapted A Wrinkle in Time into a graphic novel. It's faster-paced than the original, as you might expect, but true to both plot and feel.

A reviewer at io9.com calls it "a love letter" to the original.

On HuffPo, Hope Larson writes about why she took on the project and what was involved.

* * * *

And finally, I want to (again) mention a contemporary children's novel that pays homage to A Wrinkle in Time: Rebecca Stead's 2009 When You Reach Me.

Miranda, the protagonist of When You Reach Me, is obsessed with A Wrinkle in Time. She carries the book with her and reads it again and again. Perhaps that helps prepare her for what is to come. This book is a daring meld of a realistic story with something fantastical and other-worldly. It is a treasure.

* * * *

Previous books in the Still Classic? series: My Side of the Mountain, Hatchet, Little House series, The Borrowers, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs Basil E. Frankweiler.


jimmy carter: we are calling on all leaders to challenge misogyny

Jimmy Carter:
This view that women are somehow inferior to men is not restricted to one religion or belief. Women are prevented from playing a full and equal role in many faiths. Nor, tragically, does its influence stop at the walls of the church, mosque, synagogue or temple. This discrimination, unjustifiably attributed to a Higher Authority, has provided a reason or excuse for the deprivation of women's equal rights across the world for centuries.

At its most repugnant, the belief that women must be subjugated to the wishes of men excuses slavery, violence, forced prostitution, genital mutilation and national laws that omit rape as a crime. But it also costs many millions of girls and women control over their own bodies and lives, and continues to deny them fair access to education, health, employment and influence within their own communities. . . .

We are calling on all leaders to challenge and change the harmful teachings and practices, no matter how ingrained, which justify discrimination against women. We ask, in particular, that leaders of all religions have the courage to acknowledge and emphasise the positive messages of dignity and equality that all the world's major faiths share.

The carefully selected verses found in the Holy Scriptures to justify the superiority of men owe more to time and place - and the determination of male leaders to hold onto their influence - than eternal truths. Similar biblical excerpts could be found to support the approval of slavery and the timid acquiescence to oppressive rulers.

. . . The truth is that male religious leaders have had - and still have - an option to interpret holy teachings either to exalt or subjugate women. They have, for their own selfish ends, overwhelmingly chosen the latter.
Read this excellent (short) piece here.


urgent: help defend ontario's endangered species!

The Government of Ontario is poised to gut the province's Endangered Species Act.

Right now, according to the David Suzuki Foundation, Ontario's Endangered Species Act is one of the strongest in Canada. Under the ESA, companies that intend to develop land or extract resources must apply for permits that leave the species better off than where it started.

Last month, the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources quietly proposed exempting most industries from meeting these requirements - and giving industries the power to regulate themselves.

Exempted activities could include logging, mining, quarries, hydroelectric dams, transmission lines, windmills, roads, infrastructure and municipal developments - and more.

Under this proposal, Ontario's Endangered Species Act would exist in name only.

Click here to speak up for Ontario's endangered species. Tell the Province that the proposed exemptions must be rejected!

This is urgent. The period to comment closes this Monday, January 21. Please sign and share widely.

More background:

Ontario’s mixed message on protecting endangered wildlife by Anne Bell, director of conservation and education for Ontario Nature.

things i heard at the library: an occasional series: # 8

At the branch library where I'm currently working as a page, the magazine section is along a back wall forming an L shape - the long part full of magazines, the short part with teen magazines and comic books. This isn't the graphic novel section; it's Archie, Amazing Spider-Man, and such. Around another corner from that short wall is a cozy reading area arranged among the youth novels.

The other day, as I was beginning to file a big pile of magazines, I came upon a girl, maybe tweens or early teens, wearing a hijab (not unusual), standing in the very corner of the L, looking through teen magazines. She was facing the shelves so her choice of reading material was hidden, and every few seconds she would look over her shoulder nervously.

I smiled to myself. I wanted to tell her, it's ok, I'll cover for you.

My presence didn't seem to increase her nervousness - she wasn't worried about me - so I continued to shelve nearby while she read. At some point, I noticed she had moved on to comics, still interrupting herself as a look-out as she enjoyed the forbidden fruit.

You go, girl. Libraries are your friend.


are we seeing the beginning of a global people's revolution?

"There's something happening here, what it is ain't exactly clear..."

This week, I attended a talk put on by the International Socialists, featuring an organizer with OUR Walmart, by Skype from Texas, and a Toronto-based union activist. Both speakers were terrific and so inspiring, but although I took copious notes, I'm not posting a summary of the talk.

It was similar to the talk I blogged about here - from greece to chicago to toronto, workers fighting back against austerity - and an extension to an article I wrote recently: workers doing it for themselves: fighting the austerity agenda in north america. The themes are the same. In a unionized workplace, rank-and-file membership need to challenge the complacency of the official union (so-called) leadership, and apply pressure to be more militant.

In a non-unionized workplace, workers need to meet, discuss their issues, work out their demands. They need to link up with other workers, possibly contact established unions for support, and think of ways to challenge their employers.

It's not easy. It's scary, and it can be costly. But there are examples to follow, people who can give support and advice based on experience. And above all, there is no other way. Without worker action, conditions will never change. No one can liberate the working class but the working class.

But that's not want I want to write about today. Here's what's on my mind.

The Occupy movement

The uprising in Wisconsin

The Arab Spring: Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen, and other countries

The Quebec student strikes and demonstrations

Walmart workers organizing and striking

Fast-food workers in New York City organizing and striking

Ongoing mass demonstrations and general strikes throughout Europe

Miners in South Africa on a wildcat strike

100 million people striking in India

The Chicago teachers' strike

The global environmental movement

Idle No More

And hundreds of smaller struggles that we may never hear about, all around the globe

These movements are all inextricably related.
Think of how powerful we would be if we all came together.
Think of how we might achieve that.


workers doing it for themselves: fighting the austerity agenda in north america

I'm re-running this, which I wrote for Socialist Worker Canada (now at a temporary site while a new website is being completed). If you are part of this struggle - or if you want to be part of it - and live in the GTA, please join us tomorrow night for Fighting Austerity in North America: Walmart Workers to Bill 115. Details below.

* * * *

Workers Doing It For Themselves: Food service workers in New York and Chicago unite to improve working conditions

One of the most exciting developments currently unfolding among the working class in North America is the organizing efforts of non-unionized workers. Non-union workers make up about 70 per cent of the labour force in Canada and about 88 per cent in the US. This represents untold volumes of untapped power.

The recent actions of Walmart workers, while significant and exciting, represent only one of several groups of non-union workers organizing to improve their own working conditions.

Historic win for Hot and Crusty Workers Association

In September 2012, New York City restaurant workers walked off the job and won a historic victory – a collective bargaining agreement that is a first for low-wage food-service workers, many of whom are undocumented people.

Twenty-three workers at one Hot and Crusty café (part of a chain) were organizing for more than a year, with support from Occupy Wall Street and the Laundry Workers Center, a workers’ support group. The Hot and Crusty workers were earning below minimum wage, were forced to work overtime (sometimes as much as 70 hours per week) without a higher hourly pay, and endured verbal and sexual harassment on a regular basis. They formed an independent union, the Hot and Crusty Workers Association, and demanded salary increases and improved conditions.

In retaliation, their employer closed the restaurant. Workers occupied the store, holding a workers’ assembly until forced to leave by the police. Undaunted, the workers opened their own café on the sidewalk outside the closed restaurant, serving coffee, bagels, and donuts in exchange for voluntary donations.

After only four days, the company asked to negotiate – but the workers rejected the company’s initial offers. Like restaurant workers throughout the US, most Hot and Crusty workers are undocumented, meaning they cannot work legally in the US. Employers routinely use the workers’ immigration status as an excuse for dangerous and unhealthy working conditions and illegally low pay, believing undocumented workers will be afraid to speak up. In this case, the company’s initial offers would have applied only to people with official work permits. In a strong show of solidarity and commitment, the Hot and Crusty Association workers rejected attempts to divide them.

Over the course of a 55-day picket, the workers received a tremendous outpouring of support, including thousands of petition signatures from the community (a high-income area), daily visits from students and faculty from nearby Hunter College, and letters of support from dozens of unions and labor organizations. Eventually, the owner sold the restaurant and the new ownership negotiated in good faith. The Hot and Crusty Workers Association now has a three-year collective agreement, truly a ground-breaking moment for food-service employees in North America.

The agreement includes wage increases, paid vacation and sick time, seniority, grievance and arbitration procedures, and union recognition, and is the first of its kind for food-service workers in North America. The agreement is the direct result of the workers’ own intelligence, determination, and courage – and their unity.

“We can’t survive on 7.25!”

Also in New York City, 200 fast-food employees walked off their jobs in November 2012, demanding a $15/hour minimum pay – a figure slightly more in line with the towering cost of living in that city. With the slogan “We can’t survive on $7.25,” workers from dozens of fast-food outlets, including McDonald’s, Burger King, and Wendy’s, organized under the banner of Fast Food Forward. It was the largest strike ever in the US against the fast food industry, which reaps some $200 billion a year in profits. Fast Food Forward emphasizes that better pay for workers benefits the entire community, calling for “better pay for a stronger New York.”

Along with pay increases, Fast Food Forward seeks health benefits and reliable scheduling. Fast-food workers cannot attend school or organize adequate child care, because their scheduling is often so erratic. The restaurants also force workers to work “off the clock” – with no pay at all – by scheduling tasks either before workers punch in or after they punch out.

Fight for fifteen

In Chicago, retail and food-service workers formed Workers Organizing Committee of Chicago. Like their sisters and brothers in New York, the Chicago workers received support from community groups but did the organizing themselves. WOCC’s “Fight For Fifteen” campaign calls for a $15/hour minimum wage. The workers have organized pickets and marches through the Michigan Avenue shopping area, and in an upscale, Michigan Avenue vertical mall, unfurled a banner reading “$1.5 billion” – that’s the combined salaries of the CEOs of their employer companies last year. WOCC represents workers of more than 100 different employers, from widely different backgrounds, all united in their struggle to improve their own lives.

* * * *

Fighting Austerity in North America: from Walmart to Bill 115
Tuesday, January 15, 7:00 p.m.
OISE - Room 2227
252 Bloor Street West
Subway: St. George

Elizabeth Clinton, OUR Walmart campaigner, by Skype from Texas
Ritch Whyman, International Socialists

Event on Facebook

why you cannot save your way to a comfortable retirement

I was very pleased to see this run in the New York Times. I guess it was safe because the writer didn't actually use the word socialism. But this Op-Ed is all about the dead-end of capitalism, choking the life out of the working person, and more recently, the middle class.
...we struggle with our personal finances not because we spend too much money on small luxuries but because salaries have stagnated at the same time as the costs of nonluxuries have gone up.

Even as the average household net worth plunged by almost 40 percent between 2007 and 2010, the cost of everything from health care to housing has risen for decades at rates well beyond that of inflation. Almost half of us are living paycheck to paycheck, barely able to save a penny.

In fact, it’s long been known that the majority of bankruptcies result from health issues, job losses and fractured families, something no amount of cutting back can protect against.

One of the main reasons we need to borrow money is college loans. Our collective student loan debt is more than $1 trillion, a sum greater than both our credit card debt and our auto loans.
Cross-reference wmtc: what are people supposed to do? or, why we need socialism.


it's time we all starved the trolls: stop reading comments on mainstream news stories

Robert Fisk has a good piece in The Independent about the incivility (to put it mildly!) that is endemic in the comment sections of online news stories: "Anonymous trolls are as pathetic as the anonymous "sources" that contaminate the gutless journalism of the New York Times, BBC, and CNN".

Fisk wonders why newspapers that will not publish an anonymous letter to the editor will allow anonymous lies and hateful screed in comments. Surely he knows the simple answer: money. Advertisers are paying for clicks, and the idiots in the comments section are increasing the clickage.

Why should we help them by reading those comments? Consider this.

We know that governments pay people to troll the comments section with disinformation and misinformation, just like they hire fake journalists and bribe working columnists to influence public opinion.

We know that the number of comments in any one direction cannot be taken as a gauge of public opinion. When Common Dreams responded to a flood of reader complaints after they opened articles for comments, they learned that one person was posting under more than 50 names.


1. Media needs comments to generate advertising income.

2. Governments pay people to write comments.

3. Comments that may appear to represent a majority may be written by one or two people.

4. We have no idea how much #2 and #3 overlap.

Every time I share these facts, at least one person has not heard them before. This has led me to make it a personal mission: to always ignore comments to online news stories and to always encourage others to do the same. I hope you will join me in this mission.

Many people seem to believe that these comments reflect public opinion. They may or may not - we have no way of knowing. The only thing we know that comments reflect is corporate media's need for clicks.

Media sites won't close down their comments sections anytime soon, not as long as clicks are associated with income. But we have a choice.

I know it can sometimes be seductive. You want to see what people are saying. Don't go there. Refuse to look. Refuse to click. Remind yourself: you will not learn anything, the ignorance and hate will upset or anger you, and you will change nothing.

What's more, it's not an effective use of our time. If we're busy reading and responding to comments, we're not building a movement to change the world. Think of it this way: Stephen Harper and Jason Kenney would love it if we spent our time responding to comments on news stories.

That sewer of hate and lies lives on clicks. The only way it will die is if we starve it.


help defend whistleblowers who defend animals: marineland suing former employees who went public on animal abuse

Company abuses animals/the environment/labour.

Employee comes forward to make the abuse public.

Company tries to silence employee.

It's an old story, and it repeats itself again and again, in many different contexts. You've seen it dramatized in movies like Silkwood and Erin Brockovich. It's what Bradley Manning is going through on a grand scale.

Whistleblowers risk their jobs, and in some cases their lives, to stand up for others. Often, without whistleblowers, we would never know the truth. That's why we have an obligation to stand up for whistleblowers.

If you live in Ontario and watch any television, you've seen the ads for Marineland, with that cloying song: They come from a land of ice and snow, now belugas have a home in On-tar-ee-o... Everyone loves Marineland... Everyone loves Marineland...

That chorus is bitterly ironic. If the residents of Marineland could speak, I doubt those marine mammals would say they love living in unhealthy water that causes constant eye irritation and blindness, being held in waterless concrete pens, living alone (a practice that amounts to a prison of solitary confinement, banned for marine mammals in the US), bleeding, neglected, abused. But these animals can't speak, and they can't leave, and they can't change the conditions of their lives.

Trainers at Marineland were so upset about conditions there, and so frustrated at being unable to make improvements, that they quit their jobs, and went public.

Now Marineland is suing them for $1.5 million.

A fund has been started to help with the mounting costs of their legal defence. If you can give, any amount will help. As little as $5.00 or $10.00 will make a difference. Click here to donate.

Background, all from the Toronto Star:

Marineland animals suffering, former staffers say

Marineland: Heartache for Smooshi the walrus as top trainer quits

Ontario SPCA to inspect Marineland

‘Everyone loves Marineland!’ singer wants voice pulled from commercials

Marineland: Killer whale bleeding for months, trainer says

Marineland sues former trainer Christine Santos for $1.25 million for Toronto Star article

Donate to Christine Santos' legal defence here.


what i'm reading, children's book edition: # 3: a war resister story of sorts

In this children's book review, I look at a book about military war resistance and analyze its lessons and conclusions.

Shot at Dawn deals with many unpleasant realities of war - including some shameful episodes in Canada's past - with open eyes and without sugar coating. Ultimately, the author pulls his punch, forcing a conclusion that is palatable to mainstream sensibilities. At the same time, though, the book insists on difficult questions without clear-cut answers. So while it doesn't square with my own views, neither does it satisfy pro-military or nationalist propaganda. I add this book to my ongoing exploration of war and war resistance.

Boys read about war

I recently compared some children's historical fiction that I read as a child, such as the Laura Ingalls Wilder Little House series, with more contemporary books in the same genre. I was dismayed to find that most children's historical fiction is marketed to girls. For example, Scholastic's Dear Canada series, for girls, includes 31 books. The I Am Canada series, for boys, comprises only six books.

Theoretically, a child of either gender can read any book. But in reality, it would be a very unusual boy in unusual circumstances who would knowingly choose a "girl book". At the age children read these books, stereotyped gender roles are strictly enforced through the most effective methods: their peers. If a book is marketed as "girly," you can be sure that most boys won't go near it.

Adding to my displeasure, of the six books in the I Am Canada series, four are about war. (One is about the Titanic, and another deals with the building of the trans-Canadian railroad, told in the voice of a Chinese labourer.) But I had reason to hope: one of the war books appeared to be - perhaps - about war resistance.

I Am Canada: Shot at Dawn

This fictional, historically-based story of war propaganda, PTSD, and resistance to war is set during the only time it possibly could be: the Great War in Europe, what we now call World War I. World War I is usually the setting for treatments of these issues, both because of its utter brutality and senselessness, and because it is distant enough from the present to allow frank criticism in the mainstream.

In the fictional diary, one Allan McBride, Canadian, is eager to volunteer to do his patriotic duty, be part of the action, go kill some Huns. Against his parents' wishes, young Allan enlists, following (he thinks) in the footsteps of a friend and mentor he deeply admires.

In France, Allan gets a sudden dose of reality. He witnesses gruesome wounds worse than death, and sees the arbitrary and decidedly unheroic nature of death all around him. He experiences the rush and exhilaration of battle, but the author paints an appropriately grim picture of the trenches - the desolation of No Man's Land, the nauseating smells, the casual horrors.

He also learns about war's class system - how the enlisted man, the common soldier, is mistreated, and expendable, while the officers are pampered and protected. He learns about war profiteering, and I credit the author, John Wilson, with this unsparing view of just how government always "supports the troops".

The rabble-rouser

Part of young Allan McBride's education is his introduction to a war resister, a radical who preaches resistance. This character is presented ambiguously: it's up to Allan McBride and the reader to decide what to make of him. But the words the man speaks are unambiguous and strong.
"But a short while back you also called me a coward. Now that's a serious thing.

"I've seen 'brave' men with chests full of medals reduced to gibbering wrecks by days of shelling or the sight of their best friend's brains smeared along the wall of a trench. Are they cowards?"

I stayed silent.

"Of course they're not. They've just been pushed beyond what any sane man can stand.

"I've been down the coal mines at Cumberland and Extension on Vancouver Island, where it's so gassy that a careless spark can create a wall of fire that'll incinerate fifty men before they even have a chance to run. By the Somme River I've seen sixteen-year-old boys walk forward until machine-gun bullets stitched a neat line of holes across their chests. I've heard wounded men in no man's land scream insanely for two days before they died. I've seen men drown in mud holes at Arras when six of their friends weren't strong enough to pull them out. I've felt the last breath of a young German soldier on my cheek while I struggled to pull my bayonet out of his chest." Sommerfield paused for a long minute, still holding me with his stare. Around us the other men stood in a silence I had only ever heard in church. Eventually, Sommerfield continued.

"I've felt fear so intense that I was paralyzed and I've wept uncontrollably at some of the things I've seen and done, but have I run away? No. After every horror I buried my comrades, picked up my rifle and fought on like a good soldier. So, yes, I am a coward. I'm a coward because through all of that I went on doing what the stupid generals wanted. I never stood up and said, 'No!' I never screamed, 'Enough!' I never shot the officer who ordered another thousand young men to go over the top, knowing that half of them would be dead an hour later."

Confusion overwhelmed me now. What was this man talking about? His list of horrors had nothing to do with bravery, honour and fighting for your country. Did it?

Before I could think of anything to say, an Australian in the crowd shouted, "But you did run away, Harry."

Sommerfield turned his stare on the man who had spoken, releasing me.

"Some would say that," he murmured. "Others might say I'm simply fighting a different war. I'm taking as much of a chance coming here as any I took in the front lines. Only difference is, if I'm caught now, it's my own side that'll shoot me, not the Germans."

"You're a deserter," I said with sudden realization.

"That's what some would call me." Sommerfield turned back to look at me. "I've also been called a Socialist, a traitor, a conspirator and a rabble-rouser. I prefer to think of myself as a sheep who has seen the light and no longer wants to be led unprotesting to the slaughterhouse."

Deserter or victim? The army shoots you either way.

Eventually, Allan McBride suffers "shell shock," what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder, what I hope one day we will finally acknowledge is the normal, human response to the insanity of war. He wanders away from his unit, believing he is walking home to Canada. He meets a band of deserters, led by the same Sommerfield, who help him recover. Sommerfield speaks bluntly about their predicament.
"Only one choice as far as I can see," Sommerfield said. "Nothing's going to stop the Germans. As soon as they reach the coast, Britain and France are going to have to make peace.

"Oh, there'll be lots of shouting and a big peace conference. Some money and some land will change hands and everyone will try and claim that they did well out of it. There'll be a few years for everyone to lick their wounds and build up their armies." He spat into the fire. "And then it'll all happen again."

"But that means that we'll have fought for four years for nothing."

"For the average man it always was for nothing. What did you or I ever stand to gain from this war? If we were lucky, we'd stay alive. The only people who profit from war are the businessmen who make the guns, shells, bombs, uniforms and all the rest of the paraphernalia an army needs.

They're making fortunes and you don't see a single one of them risking his life in the mud. The worker — whether he's British, French, Canadian, German or, now, American — is fighting to put money in some fat slug's pocket in London, Paris, Toronto or Berlin."

"Like the bloody Ross rifle," Pete muttered. Sommerfield caught my questioning look and said, "You weren't out here at the beginning, but the Canadians in 1915 and '16 were given Ross rifles instead of the British Enfields. The government wanted the contract to go to a Canadian company so their cronies could profit. Trouble was, the rifle didn't work. It jammed when the least bit of dirt got in it, the bayonet tended to fall off and, if you weren't really careful assembling it, the bolt flew back and took the side of your head off when you fired it. Everyone hated it. At Ypres in 1915, the first thing you did when you got out of the trench was find a dead Brit and take his rifle.

"Canadian boys died because of the Ross rifle, but would the government stop issuing it? No. Good old Sir Charles Ross was making a packet and he had friends in high places. What did it matter if the rifle was killing a few young soldiers? Eventually, General Haig had to order the Canadians to issue us with Enfields."

If Sommerfield had told me this story last summer, I'd have shouted him down as a liar. Now I was angry, but my anger was at Ross and the others, not Sommerfield.
So our hero has grown. His experiences have changed him. Where there was once only flag-waving patriotism and utter disdain for dissent, there is now a painful and confusing doubt. All the while, McBride suffers from nightmares, outbursts of anger, episodes of confusion.

Eventually, Allan McBride comes to a crossroad. He can either take off with Sommerfield and make his way back to Canada, lying about his circumstances but likely saving his life. Or he can return to his unit, where he will probably face a firing squad.

Sommerfield and others make it clear that the Army will have no sympathy for McBride. He was out of his mind. He didn't know where he was or what he was doing. He did not intentionally desert. But if he returns, he probably will be executed for desertion. The injustice of this will be obvious to most young readers. (In the epilogue, back in the present, we learn how many British and Canadian soldiers were executed this way, and how long their families waited for their posthumous pardons.)

Making the means fit the end

Both sides of Allan McBride's dilemma are presented. But this is a children's book, and our hero cannot knowingly desert his duty. He cannot hold fake identification documents and stow away on a steamer ship to Canada. He must do the honourable, dutiful thing: he must face the consequences of his actions and return to his unit.

How are we to make this credible? How many people will knowingly walk to their deaths - not in the heat of battle, and not to save someone else, but calmly and with consideration, choose an unjust death for principles like patriotic duty? The only way this ending can be justified - meaning, the only way it won't look like a crazy deus ex machina decision - is to discredit the road not taken.

Allan is torn between two opposites, the classic two-father-figure scenario: his commander, who is his friend and mentor from home, and Harry Sommerfield, the rabble-rouser. The author pushes his character into the right choice by discrediting Sommerfield, who is suddenly motivated purely by self interest.

Of course, some political operatives are primarily self-interested, but nothing in Sommerfield's character up to this point has hinted that he is anything but a charismatic true believer. Suddenly he is transformed into an entirely selfish, manipulative opportunist.

So Allan McBride is freed from Sommerfield's spell, and can return to his unit - where he is immediately incarcerated and scheduled for execution.

Allan's commander (who is also his friend and mentor from home) pulls some strings, gets the execution stayed, and gets Allan treatment. The famous army hospital at Craiglockhart War Hospital, where Dr. Rivers has been breaking new ground with his humane treatment of "shell shock" (portrayed in Pat Barker's excellent book Regeneration, based on the memoirs of Siegfried Sassoon), is available only to officers. But somehow Dr. Rivers will treat Allan privately.

A Hollywood ending, but I understand

It's a fairy tale ending, tacked on to a story that is anything but a fairy tale.

And yet, as someone who wrote for kids, I acknowledge that is likely the only choice available to the author. (I can't speak for the author; perhaps this is exactly the ending he wanted.) Our hero can't very well be shot for desertion. And no mainstream publisher wants a book where the hero deserts and sneaks back to his country with faked papers. So I get it. But I don't like it.

But more importantly, Shot At Dawn shows a reality of war that is often not available to young people - not only war's brutality, but its inherent injustice. And through the character of Harry Sommerfield, strong ideas of pacifism and socialism are spoken alongside the more familiar words of nationalism.

The book is perfect for advancing classroom discussions or for writing assignments asking children what they think Allan should have done, or what they would do, and why.

dr. dawg on the extraordinary acts of ordinary people, and the pundits who cannot abide them

Dr. Dawg has written a terrific piece about the mainstream media's disturbing, if predictable, response to the courageous actions of Chief Theresa Spence.
Extraordinary things, we are being instructed, may only be done by extraordinary people. Spence is frumpy, not particularly witty or intellectual, somewhat inconsistent as things change around her by the day, perhaps untutored in Constitutional matters, maybe above her level of competence as a manager. And after days of hateful mockery, she doesn’t want to talk to the jeering media any more—how self-indulgent of her. How dare she commit an act of self-abnegation? That’s for her more presentable betters.
It's a must-read: Ordinary people.


what i'm reading: chango's beads and two-tone shoes (and maybe more, again) by william kennedy

I am reading Changó's Beads and Two-tone Shoes, the latest novel by William Kennedy, one of my very favourite authors, and in my opinion, one of the greatest English-language writers of our time. Changó's Beads is Kennedy's first novel in several years, and after not reading him for so long, his work is a bracing shock of beauty and possibility.

I've read all of Kennedy's fiction - Legs, Billy Phelan's Greatest Game, Ironweed, Quinn's Book, Very Old Bones, The Flaming Corsage, and Roscoe - and loved each one, each book very different, but all linked and related to one another. I've also seen him read a couple of times, and although audiences tend to fixate on his political savvy, it's Kennedy's understanding and articulation of the human heart, and his intricate weaves of events, that win my admiration.

Ironweed put Kennedy on the literary map, but his story might have been very different. His two earlier novels were ignored, and Kennedy's publishers were about to dump him. The late Nobel laureate Saul Bellow somehow got the Ironweed manuscript; he encouraged Kennedy to keep writing, and he went to bat for the book. Ironweed went on to win a Pulitzer Prize, but more importantly for us, Kennedy continued to write.

Changó's Beads and Two-tone Shoes takes you from Cuba on the brink of revolution, to Albany on the brink of riots, through several generations of Quinns and Suarezes, through Hemingway and Castro and the assassination of Bobby Kennedy, through yet another side of Albany (and America) that Kennedy can escort you through. A marriage ceremony performed by Santeria dancers, a newspaperman's quest to witness a revolution, a city's ancient political machine - the old world - seen through its victims' eyes, the new world. Changó's Beads is all these things, but it's not written as an epic. Kennedy always brings you close-in, on the ground, into the heart of the confusion - the love, the desire, the loneliness - that drives the human condition.

I seldom re-read books, as there are far, far too many that I want to read and will never get to. But there are a handful of books that I have read two or three times each: 1984, which everyone should read once every ten years, The Grapes of Wrath, which I've read three times and will probably read again one day, Mark Helprin's Winter's Tale, which holds a kind of magic for me. I read Kennedy's novels so long ago, and can't remember them clearly. So now I'm considering re-reading them all, in order.

Meanwhile, this book has me in a kind of trance. Here, Daniel Quinn, grandson of Daniel Quinn of Quinn's Book, has gained an audience with Fidel Castro, the elusive and charismatic leader of the revolutionaries. Quinn has trekked through the jungle and risked death to meet with Castro, supposedly to write a newspaper article about him, but knowing that his own reasons are more complex, but not fully understanding them himself.
He's not doing it because he thinks he's a coward, or because of a personality disorder, or a love affair with war such as Hemingway has had. He's doing it because it's a continuation of an earlier life choice: to be a witness, a writer, something to do while he's dying that isn't boring, and he will write about that, which seems his primary motive. He has a strong impulse to salvage history, which is so fragile, so prismatic, so easily twisted, so often lost and forgotten. Right now a full moon is rising on the revolution, rising on a day like none other and, if Quinn doesn't report on it, who will? It will fade into the memory bank of those here, and if they survive they'll tell what they remember, fragments of the actuality which they'll skew with their prejudices (and so will you, Señor Quinn). Yet monitoring the whatness of the previous unknown, that seems to be Quinn's job: I was there and then he said this, then this happened, and then they went that way - following the path of the machete, you might say.

Why bother?

Well, Quinn is young and his motives may be more opaque that they seem, but he has no interest in gaining power for himself. He's fascinated by those who want to transform the day, the town, the nation for other than venal or megalomaniacal reasons. Is working for the just cause one of his motives? It seems to be on his agenda. He intuits that it's worth his time to bear witness to people living for something they think is worth dying for. He also has another reason: he wants to escalate himself in his grandfather's dead eyes.

things i heard at the library: an occasional series: # 7

I must preface this post with a statement. If you aren't a regular wmtc reader, if you've stumbled on this post without knowing anything about my views: I am a fierce proponent of free speech, and I am passionately committed to intellectual freedom.

Once, discussing my opposition to capital punishment, someone asked me, "Even for George Bush?" And I thought, you don't know me very well, do you? I'd give my eye teeth to see a POTUS - former or sitting - stand trial for war crimes. I'd dance in the streets as he were sentenced to life behind bars, his wealth distributed to survivors as partial restitution. But if he were sentenced to death, I would protest.

My commitment to intellectual freedom is along those lines. If I am bothered by a book in the library, that doesn't mean I want it removed from the collection or banned from publication.

So that's out of the way.

For the past few weeks, I've been working as a page in one of the system's branch libraries, so I'm seeing not only children's books now, but a full spectrum of books for adults, youth, and children. And certain books really irritate me. I cringe as I pass them on the shelf, or worse, as I shelve them - which means someone has recently borrowed them.

Discussions about intellectual freedom in the library usually focus on controversial material, especially concepts that are known to be false or harmful - anti-reason books about so-called "intelligent design", anti-Semitic propaganda, outdated children's books bristling with racism. In some communities, librarians regularly defend keeping The Communist Manifesto or A People's History of the United States on the shelves.

Alternative theories of creation are catalogued in religion, where they belong. And as far as I'm concerned, you can never have too many political ideas in the collection. What ends up bothering me is much more mundane. Diet books promising 30 days to a "new you". Books on how to look younger. Or a book that combines the two, announcing that the path to longevity is starvation. (I kid you not.) Get-rich-quick schemes. How to become a millionaire next year. How to make your fortune in real estate. Top tips Wall Street doesn't want you to know.

Books that reinforce the traps, the treadmills, the dead-ends of consumerism.

Books that exploit our insecurities, that reinforce personal envy and dissatisfaction.

Books that sell a "system" for attaining happiness - happiness defined by material wealth and commercially-approved beauty, a system which of course begins with buying this book. Snake-oil salesmen in book format.

Could we file these under Fiction?


my magic number is 13

Today I begin my last term of grad school. There are thirteen weeks to a term, so as of today I am counting down weeks to the finish line.

My courses may be interesting this term: graphic novels and comic books in the library, which I'm excited about, and issues in children's and youth services, which is at least relevant to my career.

The term itself will be difficult, because both classes are at night, plus I will be working at least one night a week, possibly two. Working at night is fine, and standard for the public library, but night classes are tough for me. I am a total morning person. I do my best mental work before noon, and in the late afternoon, my concentration and mental clarity plummets. I'll need to come up with some sort of routine where I have downtime in the afternoon before going to class.

But who cares! Here we go... thirteen!


updates: acupuncture, slow cooker, star trek

I decided to try acupuncture again. In October, I saw my nephew and niece-in-law who practice Traditional Chinese Medicine and other holistic healing methods. They encouraged me to use our small insurance benefit on more treatment, even though I can't afford to continue it past that.

I purposely started in December, so I could use the acupuncture allowance for 2012, then go straight into the benefit for the 2013 calendar year, for maximum bang for my insurance buck.

I definitely feel a change. I have more energy, my head is clearer (less fibro fog), and I am cooler. Like many women my age, I am always overheated. My face is usually flushed, and I have frequent and pronounced hot flashes. I always ran warm - always preferred winter to summer, rarely complain about the cold, and so on - so this age-heat thing has been pretty dreadful. And suddenly, it's 90% gone.

The doctor expected immediate results and seemed frustrated that it took five or six treatments to start working. He asked if I've had the pain and fatigue for a long time, and seems to indicate that that's why it takes several treatments to put right.

It's remarkable. But it's also frustrating. After our small insurance benefit is used, there's simply no way I can afford to continue.

As for the acupuncture experience itself, I enjoy it. The needles are completely painless, and once they're in, I lie there in a kind of floaty, meditative state. It's deeply relaxing. As the needles are removed, I feel a tiny, extremely brief sensation at each point, less than a pin-prick. I am also taking herbs, mixtures which the doctor changes weekly.

It's a bit difficult to enter into the concept of TCM. I'm accustomed to thinking along the lines of Western medicine: this helps with fatigue, this helps with pain, this helps with metabolism, and so on. TCM treats the body as a whole, so when energies are aligned, when the body is harmonious, pain will decrease, energy will increase, unpleasant sensations will stop. I don't pretend to understand it, but it's not as if I understand the chemistry behind the Western medicine I take, either. The results, however, are unmistakable.

[If you are interested in treatments and strategies that I use for fibromyalgia, you may want to read my fibromyalgia information site.]

* * * *

I'm really enjoying my slow cooker. I'm using it about once a week, and I'm going to try to continue that during the school term. It's especially useful for making food in batches to take to work.

As I collect slow-cooker ideas, recipes, and websites, I've noticed two things. One, many people have difficulty explaining how they cook. Or perhaps they are embarrassed to share their methods? People say things like, "You just throw anything in," or "You just do whatever, put stuff in the pot and turn it on." But what do you put in? "Just anything. You know, chicken, whatever." Huh?

Also, many actual slow-cooker recipes use processed food. I see many recipes calling for canned soup, bottled barbecue sauce, powdered taco seasoning, and the like. All that adds massive amounts of salt, sugar, corn syrup, and various unpronounceable ingredients to your diet. I'm a little bit shocked that people still cook that way.

What's more, so many people seem completely unaware of what they're doing. One recipe called for packaged taco seasoning, bottled barbecue sauce, and canned soup. A commenter noted that it tasted kind of salty, so she's looking into salt-free beans.

I do use shortcuts. I don't make my own stock, as some of my friends do (some are reading this post, right?), and I use canned beans. But canned beans, when rinsed and drained, have the same nutritional content as dry beans, and I buy low-sodium stock. Canned soup is loaded with unnecessary sodium, and how difficult would it be to substitute whole ingredients that would give you the same effect?

* * * *

As I mentioned last week, I'm watching "Star Trek TOS" - the original Star Trek series - in order, from the beginning, on US Netflix. I've already seen my favourite episode - silicon-based life! - and two or three episodes that were totally new to me.

I'm enjoying it so much that I'm tempted to follow Allan's Stephen King example and write about each episode. Last term, in my children's culture course, I did some media analysis, and really enjoyed it. (I am occasionally forced to admit I like some aspect of my Master's program.) Star Trek is so ripe for review: racism, sexism, xenophobia, colonization, war and peace, capitalism... Stop me before I blog again!

I'm sure Star Trek has been analyzed to death. And I have no shortage of things to write about. And I have a distinct shortage of time. It's tempting. But I think I can resist.

michael moore: we do not "support the troops"

Michael Moore:
These young men and women sign up to risk their very lives to protect us -- and this is what they get in return:

1. They get sent off to wars that have NOTHING to do with defending America or saving our lives. They are used as pawns so that the military-industrial complex can make billions of dollars and the rich here can expand their empire. By "supporting the troops," that means I'm supposed to shut up, don't ask questions, do nothing to stop the madness, and sit by and watch thousands of them die? Well, I've done an awful lot to try and end this. But the only way you can honestly say you support the troops is to work night and day to get them out of these hell holes they've been sent to. And what have I done this week to bring the troops home? Nothing. So if I say "I support the troops," don't believe me -- I clearly don't support the troops because I've got more important things to do today, like return an iPhone that doesn't work and take my car in for a tune up.

2. While the troops we claim to "support" are serving their country, bankers who say they too "support the troops," foreclose on the actual homes of these soldiers and evict their families while they are overseas! . . .
Read it here.

naomi wolf: director kathryn bigelow is our generation's leni riefenstahl

Naomi Wolf, in The Guardian:
Zero Dark Thirty is a gorgeously-shot, two-hour ad for keeping intelligence agents who committed crimes against Guantánamo prisoners out of jail. It makes heroes and heroines out of people who committed violent crimes against other people based on their race – something that has historical precedent.

Your film claims, in many scenes, that CIA torture was redeemed by the "information" it "secured", information that, according to your script, led to Bin Laden's capture. This narrative is a form of manufacture of innocence to mask a great crime: what your script blithely calls "the detainee program".
This is an excellent and important piece. I hope you will go here to read it.


sliver of sky: barry lopez tells his story of sexual abuse and recovery

In the current issue of Harper's, there is a long feature by author Barry Lopez about the sexual abuse he endured as a child, and his path of recovery and healing. It may be the best first-person account of such trauma you will ever see.

Right now it is only available on the newstand or online by subscription. Harper's makes most of their features available online eventually. However, if you have a personal or professional interest in child sexual abuse, I highly recommend buying a copy of the January 2013 issue of Harper's as soon as you can.

Barry Lopez, Sliver of Sky.


enbridge line 9: all pain and no gain for ontario, quebec, and new england

Have you heard about Line 9?

Enbridge has begun a process that would create a third option to get their dirty tarsands oil out of Alberta to sell to the rest of the world. The Keystone XL pipeline would stretch from Alberta to Nebraska. (Gee, what could go wrong?) The Northern Gateway pipeline would see, impossibly, huge supertankers threading through the rocky, island-dotted British Columbia coast. (Another no-brainer.)

Under this third plan, Enbridge would reverse the flow in two existing pipelines - Line 9 and the Portland-Montreal Line. Oil would flow from Alberta through Sarnia, Ontario, onto Hamilton and the Greater Toronto Area, into Quebec, through Montreal, and down into New England, ending in Casco Bay in Portland, Maine - approximately 1200 kilometres (750 miles), through the most densely populated area of Canada, through the sources of drinking water for millions of people. The route passes through 99 towns and cities and 14 indigenous communities.

To quote NRDC, "...the dirtiest oil on the planet" would be carried "through some of the most important natural and cultural places in Ontario, Quebec, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine." Note that the oil flowing through that pipeline - diluted bitumen - is more dangerous than conventional oil, and spills more often.

Together, these three pipeline plans have the potential to devastate an enormous swathe of North America. All for the profit of a corporation and its shareholders.

The National Energy Board of Canada has already approved the reversal of Line 9 and work on the initial phase has begun. This affects your environment, your drinking water, your health. Were you consulted??

City councils in Hamilton, Burlington, Mississauga, and Toronto have passed motions requesting more information or attempting to get involved in the approval process.

I hope you will read more about Enbridge's Line 9 plan. Get informed, and in any way you can, get involved. You don't need to become a full-time environmental activist to make a difference. A huge, collective "NO!" stopped plans to convert a big piece of Ontario farmland into an enormous quarry. Stopping Enbridge is a bigger task, but so much more is at stake.

Read more here:

Environmental Defence: Ontario municipalities step up to protect citizens, as Enbridge files Line 9 proposal

NRDC: Going in Reverse: The Tar Sands Oil Threat to Central Canada and New England

Excellent resource from NRDC: Going in Reverse Fact Sheet (pdf)

Stop Line 9 (focus on Toronto)

Council of Canadians: Americans raise concerns of tar sands pipeline to Portland, Maine, Ottawa Town Hall: A public discussion on Line 9, Line 9 Facts.

CBC: Enbridge's Line 9 reversal touted as good oilsands PR

Our drinking water, our natural resources, our farmland, our wildlife, our coastline, our health are all more important than "good oilsands PR" and the dividends of Enbridge shareholders.

If you need more information about the tarsands, and how they produce the dirtiest oil on the planet, I highly recommend the film H2Oil. Watch a trailer here, and look for it at your public library.


haliburton wolf killed, others trying to come home

This beautiful wolf, the alpha male of the pack at the Haliburton Wolf Centre, was shot and killed on New Year's Day. The previous night, some idiot cut both the inner and outer fences on the pack's enclosure. Four wolves escaped. Haida is now dead, and the other wolves, who were born in captivity and are unlikely to be able to survive the winter on their own, were missing.

An update from a local paper says that the other escapees have been spotted outside the fence, trying to get home. Wolf centre people are trying to lure them in with food.

Poor Haida. What a terrible waste, and so traumatic for the rest of the pack. My wolf-loving friend J, who sent me this story, says: "It's just a shame that whoever vandalized the compound didn't get munched by the wolves on their way out." Can't say I disagree.