Only in chemistry is polarization good for solutions

Water is the universal solvent.  Given enough time, water will pull just about any molecular compound apart into its component pieces.  Water is polar.  The H20 molecule is configured in such a way that negatively charged electrons spend more time around the oxygen molecule than around the hydrogens, resulting in a partial negative charge on the oxygen end and an opposing partial positive charge on the hydrogen end.  This polarity allows the H2O molecule to viciously tear apart any compounds held together by electrostatic forces, and contributes to water’s great solution capabilities.

But as any quantum physicist will tell you, processes that operate on a small scale don’t necessarily work on a large scale.  In the macro world of human interaction, polarity rarely makes for a good solution.  The questions we face as human beings are virtually never “either or”; rather, we should be asking “how much of each”.

Polarity has huge, HUGE implications for so much of what we do.

On an interpersonal level, it can make otherwise pleasant meandering conversations of mutual discovery into heated debates that leave neither party satisfied, nor any wiser than they were before.  When a conversation becomes an exercise in trying to convince one another that “this is right and that is wrong”, when you start to feel invested in making your point and sticking to it, everybody misses out on an opportunity to refine their opinions and incorporate new information.  Debate is important – I’m not advocating to end it, and there is definitely a time and a place for trying to convince someone of a particular view (like when they’re obviously WRONG, and you know that you’re RIGHT and they’re just being STUPID) – but what would debate look like if it were a little gentler?  How would the face of debate (formal or informal) change if we shifted from an “either-or” approach to a “to-what-degree” approach?

On a political level, polarity results in a messy kind of partisan system that doesn’t really give anyone what they want, and discourages both collaboration and the moderate voice.  Polarization hampers the policy-making process, and ultimately results in less and lower quality legislation.  What’s worst, is that it can become a reinforcing loop: polarization among political parties encourages polarization of the electorate, which encourages parties to continue taking the extreme stance, drowning out the moderate voices and ultimately representing only the loudest and most zealous.  When you add in the financial support of corporate entities, which makes it harder for independents to have a fighting chance of election, you are likely left with two or three ideologically dissimilar parties who are committed to an extreme position.

Polarity in the political sphere affects the judicial system as well.  A polarized government in which the majority party has a well-defined ideological stance will be more likely to appoint like-minded judges.  In Canada, judges are appointed to the Supreme Court of Canada with no input from opposition leaders, allowing majority governments to stack the courts with judges who will support them.  The superior courts of the provinces are also federally appointed, and many feel that the recent appointment of Vic Toews to the Court of Queen’s Bench in Manitoba was just such a “stacking” move.  Very recently, Prime Minister Harper appointed Justice Marc Nadon to the Supreme Court of Canada in what seems to be another impartial move – the appointment was overturned in an unprecedented review by the Supreme Court of one of its own members.  You can read about it here and here.

I am by no means an expert on political systems, and the above discussion is pretty off-the-cuff.  But polarity in politics has been on my mind lately – my involvement in this year’s UWSA election, and in particular running for a contested position, got me thinking about how and why partisan politics develops.  Several studies have suggested that political polarization increases voter interest and engagement – an example that can be brought close to home for university students in Winnipeg when we look at the differences in the UWSA (mainly uncontested, ~9% voter turnout) and UMSU elections (mainly contested, ~22% voter turnout).  I have to wonder, though – did the University of Manitoba end up with a better student council, or just a louder one?  *Disclaimer #1: I happen to think this year’s UWSA board is pretty great, though it would have been terrific if more students had run & voted!*  On the other hand, several more studies have suggested that polarization alienates voters and, due to confrontational dynamics between parties, decreases public trust in government (the Wikipedia page on polarization (politics) is pretty well written and has lots of sources – which I have not read through).

To bring this back around and wrap it up: though there are issues that I feel very strongly about, and wouldn’t be excited to budge on, in general the answer to most questions is “a little bit of both”.  Polarized and polarizing debates/elections/what-have-you don’t seem to be particularly useful in a complex world where multiple interests and viewpoints have to be taken into account.  One size rarely fits all, and I would love to see a shift away from polarity on all kinds of levels.

*Disclaimer #2: Sticking to your point and trying to convince someone that you are right and they are wrong is an important skill, and a good thing to do when they are WRONG, like if they think climate change isn’t happening or that racism is no big deal*

*Disclaimer #3: I am aware that the chemistry metaphor doesn’t quite hold up – I did it for the sake of the “solution/polarity” pun and I REGRET NOTHING*

No one will live or die by this vase

Writing a paper, for me, is like making pottery on a wheel.

It is a sculpting, a reshaping of material already present.  When you make a bowl on the wheel, you don’t construct a perfect base and then add clay bit by bit, maintaining structure and integrity throughout.  No.  You slap down a misshapen lump and get to work re-forming it, revisiting and reworking every part of it as you go.

A primary step of any pottery making is to remove any air bubbles by kneading and “slapping” the clay.  Slapping is the one of the most satisfying parts – throw the clay from hand to hand, or smack it down onto the table to force out trapped air.  In paper-writing, this step is like  talking through your topic and creating an outline – it’s a good stage to drop what isn’t relevant and focus in on a particular topic.

After slapping, you have to get your clay into some kind of moderately even shape, and get it centred on the wheel.  If it’s not centred, you may as well not go any further, because it won’t work out for you and you’ll just have to start over.  As far as paper-writing is concerned, getting your clay on the wheel is analogous to filling in your outline with random bullet points.  It looks messy – don’t worry, it’s not a bowl yet.  The point is to have something to work with.  Preferably something relatively focused – otherwise, as with an uncentred lump of clay, you’ll just have to start over.

That’s really the hard part – though it depends what you’re going for.  I always have to try a few times before I get focused in, and it can be discouraging to not “get it” right away… But at this point, you’ve got the clay in hand, and unless you decide that that particular clay is stupid and you want to try a totally different type (which totally happens all the time and that’s FINE), the most you have to do is keep playing around with it until you get it in the right place.

Now, it’s time to make the bowl.  And – it’s probably important to have some realistic expectations about what you want your bowl to look like.  How much time do you have to make this bowl?  Who’s going to be using it, and for what?  Does your future depend on this bowl?!  Will anyone die if you screw this up?!?  (The answer to that last one is almost always “no”.  The answer to that second last one is also almost always “no”.  So don’t stress out too much).

For a solid, useful (if thick and crude) bowl, once you’ve got your clay centred on the wheel you’re pretty good to go.  Start it spinning, work it over a bit, draw it out, and there you have it.  It might not be the most beautiful thing, but it’ll work.  Most of the time, this kind of bowl is good enough.  It’s for soup and cereal, practical and not too fancy.  Put a nice glaze on it, and this bowl will serve most of your bowl-y needs.

It’s when you want to craft this tall, delicate, lovely vase that things get frustrating.  You have your clay – it’s bubble-free and smack-dab in the middle of your wheel.  You start working it into a vase-shape, and things are going pretty well until-

-You try to make it too tall.  Or too thin.  Or it wasn’t quite as centred as you thought, and the whole things collapses down into a sticky, bumpy mess that is the opposite of what you wanted it to be.

And then you have to start over.

And then you get this idea that this vase is the most important thing you’ll ever do, that everyone is going to see this vase and if you don’t make it REALLY GOOD you’ll ruin your reputation and no one will ever ask you to make a vase again, and really you’re probably not even very good at making BOWLS never mind VASES (though you’ve been making bowls for years, and already have a few lovely vases in your portfolio) and if you can’t make a perfect vase you should just quit being a potter and go be an academic somewhere…


At this point it’s pretty important to take some deep breaths, maybe go for a walk, and remind yourself that NO ONE WILL LIVE OR DIE BY THIS VASE.  It’s just a vase.  It’s not even a vase yet.  It could be a bowl.  It could be a mug.  It could be one of those awesome clay goblets that are perfect for drinking mulled wine out of…

The point is, even if your vase collapses on you, you still have the clay.  You don’t QUITE have to start over (though you can! and sometimes new clay is refreshing and inspiring).  You just keep working with it, and eventually it’ll turn into something.  Probably something pretty decent.

And it might just happen that you wake up at 5 in the morning with a fresh perspective on your clay, and do a whole bunch of inspired work with it, and after you’ve set it aside to wait for the next step, you start on another project, cause who needs to sleep when you’ve got all this CLAY to work with?!


So I have this presentation that I need to put together, and it just isn’t any fun trying to organize my thoughts about it. Phytoremediation.  It is a super cool topic, potentially really useful for cleaning up contaminated areas, and all around a neat application of natural systems and mechanisms to lessen anthropogenic messes. “Phyto” – from Ancient Greek, meaning “Plant”.  Phytoremediation is “the use of plants for the containment, degradation, or extraction of xenobiotics from water or soil substrates”.  Basically: Plants take up stuff (really scientific term for ya) from the soil matrix; if there are heavy metals present in the soil, plants will absorb them into their roots.  Some plants are better at this than others/more tolerant of heavy metals, and these are called “hyperaccumulators”.

So you have your soil.  It has heavy metals in it – things like lead, cadmium, copper, zinc – some of which are essential for life in small quantities but become very toxic at higher concentrations.  And you have your hyperaccumulators.  They absorb the heavy metals and store them in root or shoot tissues.  You harvest the plants.  Voila!  Heavy metals are gone from the soil!

I mean, it’s not quite as straightforward as that.  Sometimes metals are present in forms that are unavailable to plants – maybe they form compounds with other elements, or get locked up (adsorbed – a real really scientific term) in the soil matrix by electrostatic forces.  If that’s the case, those metals aren’t going anywhere, no matter how hyper your accumulators are.  So in addition to choosing the right kind of plants (the hyper ones), you also have to think about the characteristics of the soil, and figure out what else you might need to tweak to ensure that the metals are available to be absorbed by the plants.  That could mean…. changing the soil pH, or adding materials that promote the dissolution of heavy-metal-containing-compounds.

Another challenge: the reason we need to clean up heavy metals in the first place is that they’re toxic.  Not very conducive to plant growth.  So you gotta add fertilizers and maybe engineer some plants to be more tolerant to heavy metals. It’s a new field.  A lot more research needs to be done.  But phytoremediation has the potential to be a very effective technique.  It’s cheaper than traditional remediation methods such as excavation and removal, soil washing, or chemical immobilization, and it actually removes contaminants from the soil rather than just immobilizing them.  There’s even potential to recover the metals from the plant tissue, in order to reuse it – the quantities are fairly small, so not quite practical at this point… But one day.

That’s it.  It’s really interesting, and I like to talk about it.

Taking care of Business

Busyness.  An odd-looking word.  That “y” really clutters things up, throws things off.  It’s not at all the neat and tidy “business”, headed by the bold line of the “b”, all the other letters falling precisely into line.

Busyness.  There’s just something off about it.

I read this bit of writing by Tyler Ward recently, eschewing the frantic lifestyle that so many humans seem to lead these days.  In a nutshell, what Tyler says is that being busy all the time can be a crutch.  Busyness can be indicative of poor time management skills, a lack of confidence and self-worth, it can restrict professional performance and limit mental capacity, and can keep us from enjoying “the finer things in life”.  A friend of the author’s, quoted in the article, experimented with cutting the word “busy” out of his vocabulary, and Tyler extends a challenge to the rest of us to do the same.

On my first read-through, I felt pretty smug.  I agree with a lot of what the article is saying, and have said similar things myself about the scourge of busyness in the modern world.  “I’m not a busy person”, I thought to myself; “I have so much time to take care of myself”.  Stop using the word busy?  “No problem, already done.  When do I ever say I’m busy?”.

I often choose to not take on a lot, with the justification that the world we live in is too busy, our society is too focused on productivity and we should all take a little more time to relax and enjoy those finer things.  My smug feeling started to ebb, though, the more I thought about this idea of “busyness”.  It’s true that I don’t have a lot of things that I *have* to do – I rarely have to tell anyone that I’m too busy to hang out (except during exam season – that’s a whole different story) – but there is a whole lot of useless activity that I keep myself occupied with.

This is what discussions about the “rat race” are missing: how do we go about not being busy in a beneficial way?  It’s tempting to think that you can “not be busy” just by cutting your obligations.  Done.  Now you have no one and nothing to hold you accountable for what you do with your time.

But that doesn’t mean you’re not busy, in the sense of… cluttered.

Facebook.  Twitter.  Reddit.  Imgur.  Google.  We have endless sources of information – some more useful and relevant than others – at our fingertips all day every day.  This makes it not only possible but SO LIKELY that even when we’re not “busy”, we’re so occupied with looking up the news or some funny pictures or some lame puns or just browsing, that we become “cluttered”.  Finished your homework?  Read a blog.  (Read this one!).  There doesn’t have to be any rest for the weary.  We live in a world in which we never have to turn our brains off, and so we don’t know how to.  (One could argue that we never really need to turn our brains ON, either…)

What this is all coming around to is that the backlash against busyness might be a dangerous thing, if we don’t recognize that so much of our busyness is self-inflicted and entirely unproductive.  I’m still an advocate for down-time, but that down-time needs to be intentional.  Maybe we don’t need a shorter work-week, or more vacation time.  Maybe we just need to close 5 of the 7 tabs (that might be a conservative estimate) we have open all day every day.  We (I) need to cut down on busyness, and get down to business.

For your listening pleasure, while you get crackin’:

Your stupid nose probably isn’t as stupid as you sometimes think it is

It might seem like I haven’t been procrastinating lately, because I haven’t written anything on this ol’ blog… But that isn’t true.  I’ve been putting things off left right and centre in favour of totally non-creative internet browsing.  (I just went back to re-read my first-ever blog post, and renewed my commitment to making internet-time more active.  Yeah!  Also made a commitment to use less flowery language, yeesh.)

I do have one artsy project on the go… I have been thinking a lot about perceptions, and how they differ from realities – particularly our perceptions about how we look and how much that changes day to day, while the reality is that our faces/bodies are more or less consistent.  I suspect probably everyone with a mirror experiences this shifting perception to some extent; maybe one day your eyes are big and beautiful and expressive, and somehow overnight they become squinty bloodshot little things, and at the same time your cheeks got really fat, and has your nose always looked that stupid?

The wild thing is, nothing has actually physically changed *that much (maybe your eyes are actually bloodshot ’cause you have allergies or were crying a bunch, or you didn’t get enough sleep or you drank too much).

The project is a bit of a take off of the “365 days” (or whatever length of time) idea, where you take a picture of yourself every day.  My twist is that in addition to the photos, I’m drawing a quick sketch of how I think I look that day – not super realistic or skilled sketches, but kind of interpretations of my perception of myself.  And the goal is, that after a chunk of time, I’ll have a neat comparison between actual and perceived appearance.

It doubles as a good record of emotional state.  If you are like me, and tend to think that you ALWAYS feel the way you do NOW, it’s pretty useful to have some evidence that emotional states do, in fact, come and go.

And it triples as a little creative thing to do every day, which is also useful.

IMAG0120 IMAG0085


Two of my favourites – from a squinty-eyed fat-cheeked day, and a too-tired too-much-coffee day.

How to use old school notebooks to gain wealth and power

What in the world can one do with old school notebooks?

I have stacks and stacks of 3-subject, spiral-bound notebooks filled with notes (of questionable quality) and scribbles and doodles, and not a clue what to do with them.  Last spring I made paper pots for seedlings out of old notes, but that won’t take up nearly all of my notebooks, and at the rate I fill them up, I’ll have paper-pot-fodder well into my 40s.

I supposed I could feed them to my worms…

I recently received some red wigglers (a species of earthworm used for vermicomposting) and a vermicomposting set-up from a friend.  IMG_5375IMG_5376

… I haven’t given them too much attention since I got them, but they seem to be doing well:



And I think they might like to eat my notebooks.  Maybe they will learn something and I will inadvertently create a sub-species of highly intelligent Eisenia fetida.  I will call them E. erudita, and they will take the worm world by storm.  Perhaps I will feed them literature on composting, and they will excel in their craft.  My worms will be the most efficient decomposers, with a sense of social justice and environmental integrity to boot.  The economics notes I’ll feed them will enable us to monopolize the vermiculture market, together we’ll become rich and powerful, composters across the continent will depend on us!

Good thing I haven’t taken any politics courses… My worms won’t know what “sovereign” means, my position as their leader will be secure.

Some high-school-era poetry for ya

The last two weeks have been full of transitions – personal, locational, occupational.  I’m all set up in a new space, with absolutely wonderful roommates and a lovely serene green room; school is off to a good start; I landed a job as a lab demonstrator in Atmospheric Sciences (a favourite subject of mine).

In the course of moving all my stuff, I rediscovered a box of old journals, and today I came across this gem of a poem:

Stash, don’t flash, your cash to avoid a rash

of thieves or a gash

from a knife, lose your life

such strife for those who care –

Just share, don’t spare,

be aware

of the danger

from a stranger

who may steal

your money for a meal,

make a deal with the guy

don’t try

to be sly

or he’ll stab out your eye

or your heart.

So depart

from your cash not your life.

I think I wrote that while preparing for a trip, my mom was probably pressuring me to get a money-belt so my money and passport wouldn’t get pick-pocketed.

Anyway.  Perhaps now that school has started up again, and I have studying to procrastinate, these blogs will become a little more regular.

Project #3 Unveiled!

Dearly neglected, we are gathered here today to witness the unveiling of summer 2013’s much anticipated “Project #3”. Back in July I posted about my three projects of the summer – the Garden, the “job”, and a secret third project.  The garden is … I don’t want to say thriving, but it’s doing alright for itself.  We’ve been harvesting kale, broadbeans, some beets; there is even a baby watermelon on one of my plants!  The “job” is complete, and it was a lot of fun – I had the chance to go along on the first workshop and see my drawings put to use.  And finally, finally, I have something to show for secret project #3… First of all, the tools.  I was given a completely rad old sewing machine, which I think has got to be from the early 1900’s: IMG_5337 IMG_5339   I was able to find a pattern online, that I printed off for free: IMG_5332The next steps are pretty self-evident – bought some fabric, cut it out, pinned and sewed it together: IMG_5333 IMG_5334

And voila!


An adorable pair of mini-bloomers!  I’m not quite ready to put a picture of my butt on the internet, so you’ll just have to take my word for it that they’re really, really cute, and comfortable.  Once I have enough, I’ll be selling them, so stay tuned for that.

In other artsy, profitable news:  Bookmarks.  (Backstory:  I haven’t had a real job since I got home from planting, and I want to make some money in a creative way that doesn’t entail me finding a crummy job that I would have to quit in a month when school starts).  I spent yesterday afternoon working on these bad boys:


With the aid of a hole-puncher and some carefully selected ribbon, they will become bookmarks decorated with Manitoba wildflowers!  The ones I’ve completed already are yellow lady-slipper, wild bergamot (currently my favourite plant – it smells AMAZING and is surprisingly delicious in pasta sauce), early blue violet, prairie crocus (Manitoba’s provincial flower), and common blue lettuce.

So, despite the amount of time I spend surfing the internet, I have a few things to show for my summer.

I’m guessing you can expect to read about crisp air and crunchy leaves before too long, because I absolutely love fall and won’t be able to contain my enthusiasm about it.  There’s already a little nip in the air!

*As I went to tag and publish this post, I noticed “Monarda fistulosa” and “Pulsatilla patens” in the suggested tags – the scientific names for wild bergamot and prairie crocus!  Wordpress is so sciency!

“Once you arrive, settle in”

The prairies these days are deliriously hot and humid, even in the shade.  While these are excellent conditions for my latest houseplant (a venus flytrap!), the past week or so has left me feeling a little wilted.  Sharing in my suffering are the dozen pepper plants that I belatedly transplanted:


Sad sad pepper 😦  Amazingly enough, to perk up a parched pepper, just a little drink of water works miracles.  I splashed some river water on these bad boys, started weeding the broad beans (which are doing quite well) and by the time I was finished cleaning up, all those shriveled leaves had filled out again!  My camera battery died before that point, so you’ll have to take my word for it.

It’s similarly simple to perk up a wilty human.  All you need is some watermelon, some gin, tonic water, and ice.  Soak the watermelon in gin overnight, add some ice and tonic the next steamy afternoon, and voila!


I’d never heard of this drink before, just created it with the ingredients I had on hand – but I just did a quick google and found a recipe using ginger ale instead of tonic water, and adding some lime, which I will definitely be trying before the summer is out.  Another of my favourite summertime drinks: Jagermeister and ginger ale, particularly the green tea ginger ale.  Mmmmm.

As for the title of this post, it’s something I heard in a yoga video ( is a great site with all kinds of videos to stretch along to).  “Once you arrive, settle in” was in reference to the yoga poses – get yourself into position, and then make yourself comfortable there – but I’ve found it very applicable to life in general.  I’ve moved around a fair bit in the last three or four years, and I often find myself stressed out and anxious about the transition periods.  Focusing on settling in, wherever I am, for however long I might be there, makes dealing with change a whole lot more comfortable for me.  So, unpack your bags, literal and metaphorical, even when you’re only staying a night or two.  Make yourself at home wherever you find yourself, get cozy in the space you’re in, whether it’s a new house, a hotel room, a new stage in a relationship, or a brand new shiny idea for your life (I get these a lot).  Relax into your life.

Back to the Prairies, and Summer Projects

I have returned to the prairie home of my heart!  Tree-planting season is over, though the scars remain.  And what will fill the rest of the summer?  Well, there are several projects on the go which I will try to keep posting about:

1. The Garden

This one’s pretty exciting.  Together with my partner and a couple of good friends, I’ve indulged my growing interest in vegetables.  My interest in growing vegetables.  My vegetables in interest growing.  Remember my little peppers and eggplants from that long-ago paper pot tutorial?  They (along with their tomatoey cousins, a tray of onions, and an army of mystery squash) have outgrown their indoor nursery and are happily installed in a large community garden plot just outside the city.  “Happily”.  There’s been quite a lot of weed control needed over the last week, and I’m afraid the veggies were succumbing to the onslaught of unwanted greenery, but we humans came  in as reinforcements and decimated our enemies.  I meant to take a before picture… And an after picture… but I didn’t manage either.  Though I suspect my biggest fan is a certain “Pan”, and he’s already seen it, so the rest of the hypothetical audience will have to use their imaginations.

2. The “job”

My job right now… Is to draw things.  Specifically plants.  So that’s pretty awesome.

The deal is that my partner is putting together a plant ID workshop, to take place in Birds Hill Park this summer, and he’s commissioned me to illustrate it!  I just began some preliminary sketching, and tomorrow I’m going down to the art store to do one of my favourite things, which is to look around at art supplies and maybe even buy some.

3. This one is a secret

Yes, my third and final (for now) summer project is a secret, because I can’t have anyone stealing my idea.  Hopefully I will be able to unveil it soon!  I can give you one hint about it: I just finally got a hold of a sewing machine, which is a pretty integral part of this endeavor.  (Chances are, if you know me in person you probably know what this project is because I’m not actually very good at being secretive and I have been talking about it for approximately half a year).

Speaking of getting a hold of a sewing machine, I had a bit of a life lesson moment today.  I’ve been thinking and talking about getting a sewing machine for ages, and just never put any effort into it because for some reason it seemed like a daunting task.  So today I mustered all my strength, pumped myself up, sat down at my computer and made Facebook aware of my desire.  And it took maybe 5 minutes for someone to offer me a FREE machine.  And then a second person offered me one as well.  So.  To frame that as a life lesson, I guess sometimes you just gotta put it out there, what you want, and it might turn out to be not too much work at all.

I’ll leave you with that.