Sunday, February 2, 2020

The In Crowd

Murmuration of Dunlin over Boundary Bay
I'm sure everyone has at some point in their life seen a large flock of birds clustered close together, flying in some sort of strange formation that defies logic, and wondered how they managed to do it without crashing into one another. I'm not talking about the orderly V-shaped procession of migrating Canada geese that skillfully allows each bird to change positions as they tire or take the lead. I'm talking about hundreds or even thousands of a particular bird species that suddenly band together and act as a single entity in some strange organized pattern.
Murmuration of Sandpipers in Semiahmoo Bay
Turns out there is a name for this behavior and it's called a murmuration and it can occur when the birds are migrating, being chased by a predator, or simply going about their daily business. One of the daily murmurations  takes place on Still Creek Ave. in Burnaby where 3,000-5,000 crows come home to roost every evening just as the sun sets.
Murmuration of Crows at Still Creek Ave Burnaby
Murmuration of Starlings
It's not just birds that form these swarms or murmurations, they can also be seen with insects and fish. As we all know, bees in particular live in incredibly organized and tightly structured communities that quickly mobilize into swarms when they are moving to a new home. Locusts or grasshoppers are another insect that can form swarms numbering in the billions when suitable climatic conditions exist.
Bee Swarm

Locust swarm in East Africa
Small, ocean going, fish that travel in schools often form what is referred to as a bait ball as a defensive mechanism to protect themselves from predators and is another example of murmuration.

Sardine bait ball

Sardine bait ball
What all these birds, insects and fish have in common is the ability to move in concert as if they had a single mind and do it without bumping into one another. By simply keeping an eye on their closest neighbours, moving in the same direction, and staying close together they are able to move as one giant organism. In the case of birds, scientists have determined that each one keeps an eye on a maximum of seven others and this allows them to maintain perfect synchronization.
Swarm of bats
Vancouver Marathon
Caribou migration
Warm blooded creatures such as bats, ungulates, and humans also form swarms or murmurations though humans are more successful when they are walking or running rather than operating a vehicle. But thanks to studies of birds in particular and mathematical models of fish, new advances in artificial intelligence and robotics may start to make vehicle murmurations safer. There is also evidence of plants and algae using swarming techniques to optimize growth.

But while being part of the crowd can perhaps offer some measure of safety, the herd instinct also discourages independent thinking and as humans this makes us particularly vulnerable. With social media and skillful advertising shaping the way we think and the choices we make, our "group thinking" society is making it all too easy to behave like lemmings. Perhaps before we rush off to join the latest in-crowd we should take a closer look at where it's going.

Sunday, January 5, 2020

Madmen and Women Across The Water

January 1st 2020 was a special morning for Vancouver along the English Bay waterfront. After a week of heavy rain the sun magically reappeared with perfect timing for the 100 year anniversary of the Polar Bear Swim. Originally organized in 1920 by Peter Pantages, along with 10 fellow swimmers, the annual event has continued ever since with an ever increasing number of swimmers braving the cold water and an even greater number showing up to watch and cheer them on. In 2014 a record 2,550 swimmers registered for the swim but in 2020 that record was shattered by the 6,500 who officially registered and the more than 45,000 spectators who came to watch.

Prepping in some cases for hours in advance, the crowd patiently formed a line all along English Bay beach sipping warming beverages and waiting until the last possible moment to remove their clothing There were plenty of costumes, entertainers, and even a live band to keep everyone in a festive mood.

At precisely 2:30 PM the horn signaled the start of the event and then as fast as it started it ended with everyone running screaming into the ocean (this year a balmy 7 degrees celsius) and then came running right back out to pose for the obligatory photo. A few hardy souls tried to pretend they were as tough as polar bears and more than a few went back for a second or third dip but generally the swim or rather plunge lasted less than a couple of minutes.

It was all good fun of course and a great way to clear any lingering cobwebs from the Xmas season as yet another decade comes to a close. It also proved that men and women were equally mad when it comes to Polar Bear swims.

Sunday, December 8, 2019

Blinded By The Light

Luna - photo by Junie Quiroga
At this time of year when it's dark and gloomy and the slow countdown to the winter solstice has begun, lights start to appear throughout the city. But none are brighter or more cheerful than the ones brought to us by the folks at Lumiere who, in collaboration with various business associations, corporate sponsors and media partners, put on an annual event "inspired by light and artistic expression" at English Bay. It started in 2015 with the sudden appearance of Luna, a 7 metre long by 2.5 metre high metal sculpture with 6,000 LED bulbs made by MK Illumination. Inspired by the well known orphaned orca whale that lived in Nootka Sound, Luna reminds us of all the whales living in the waters around Vancouver.

Eugenia - photo and video by Junie Quiroga

Luna became a regular appearance thereafter and then in 2017 another spectacular installation was added called Eugenia.  Paying homage to the oak tree that lived on top of the Beach Avenue residence called Eugenia Place, this artwork has 7,600 colour changing LED lights and was also made by MK Illumination.

Stanley - photo by Junie Quiroga
Then in 2018 Stanley made his entrance and, standing 13 ft. tall and sporting 10,320 lights it was quite an entrance. Paying homage to one of the largest Great Blue Heron colonies in North America which have made Stanley Park their home, Stanley is another MK Illumination masterpiece.

Davie - Photo by Junie Quiroga
But in 2019 MK Illumination really outdid themselves with Davie, a 24 ft. tall grizzly bear with too many thousand LED lights to count. Completely taking over the corner of Davie & Denman streets, a playful looking Davie, sitting on his platform surrounded by salmon, pays homage to the B.C. wilderness and its 15,000 grizzlies which make up half of Canada's grizzly bear population. There are some other very cool Lumiere displays going on in different parts of the city but it's the nature themed installations at English Bay that will stay with us throughout the darkest hours of the winter season and help to keep us cheerful and blinded by the light.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

Pay You Back With Interest

Proposed Senakw Development by Squamish Nation

The biggest news for Vancouver as the month of November got started was the announcement by the Squamish Nation of their plan to double the size of their original development to 6,000 apartments. Spitting in the eyes of all the Kitsilano NIMBY's and the City's gridlocked planning/zoning department, neither of whom have any jurisdiction or say in how they can proceed, this First Nations group, in partnership with Westbank, is going to build something that is truly radical in design to address both the shortage of rental housing in this City and how the environment is impacted.

Originally a two-tower 3,000 unit development that would be 56 storeys high, another 9 towers have now been added to the plan. In addition to being a long term rental project that will maximize revenues for the Squamish Nation, what makes this development truly unique is the almost complete absence of parking spaces. Residents will need to either walk, bike or use transit to get around instead of relying on the automobile, which would make this a first for Vancouver and finally show some leadership on how to build a community that takes its impact on the environment seriously.

Kitsilano Reserve (Senakw) 1907
Sadly this oddly T-shaped track of land at the entrance to Kitsilano is all that remains of the Squamish Nation that once resided in an area called Senakw that included what is now Vanier Park. In 1877 the federal government granted 35 hectares of land to the 20+ families/150 inhabitants living there and called it the Kitsilano Indian Reserve No.6.  However, by 1903 the City considered the reserve "no use to anyone, an eyesore to the city, an easy resort for criminals, and a waste of valuable land that could be used for better and more practical uses". In 1913, at the request of the City of Vancouver, representatives of the provincial government coerced the residents into selling the land and paid each male head of family $11,250.00 to evacuate. The residents and their possessions were loaded onto a barge and then the village was set on fire and burned to the ground. The barge was cast adrift in English Bay until the owner of Cates Tugs rescued them and towed them to the Squamish reserves in Howe Sound and Burrard Inlet.  

Squamish people being loaded onto a barge 1913
Over the next 100 years the Kitsilano Indian Reserve No. 6 had railway lines going through it, the Burrard Street bridge was built on it along with the Vancouver Museum, Planetarium, Maritime Museum, and the Molson's brewery. But in 1977 the Squamish Nation sued the federal government for failing to protect them from their reserve lands being wrongfully taken and finally, after 23 years of litigation, were awarded in 2000 $92.5 million and the return of 5 hectares of land which is what they are planning now to develop.

Building under and around the Burrard Street bridge will be a challenge but already the renderings of what might be possible has caught the imagination of many local residents and City Hall is quite supportive. Recognizing this as an opportunity to try and correct an historical injustice the City has made it a goal to create "sustained relationships of mutual respect and understanding with local First Nations and the urban Indigenous community." Other than provide services such as fire, police, water, sewage and waste removal, which the Squamish Nation says it will pay for by collecting taxes on the development, there is nothing else the City needs to be involved in.

What would perhaps be even more interesting is to see how Concord Pacific, the new owners of the old Molson brewery site right next door, decides to proceed with their development. Will they go through the many years of hearings, delays and other obstacles of the infamous Vancouver planning process or will they do something really radical and donate the land back to the Squamish Nation in return for a share in the profits? This would allow them to immediately capitalize on a high density development free of the City's involvement and potentially generate an even higher return on investment.

Just around the corner of Kitsilano are the Jericho Lands which are now owned by a consortium of Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations and a Federal Crown corporation called the MST Development. This 21 hectare parcel is larger than southeast False Creek which includes the Olympic Village and is expected to have thousands of homes. MST also owns an 8 hectare parcel at Heather and 33rd Avenue and the Musqueam are developing a 9 hectare parcel with Polygon called Lelem, which means home, with over 1,200 homes on the UBC Endowment Lands. With First Nations having first right of refusal to buy back any federal or provincial land being disposed of they are actively making deals in Vancouver and other municipalities as a way of ensuring income for their members. Best of all none of these developments need City approval or consultation which may finally bring about some changes to the tepid mindset of the bureaucracy currently running things.

The neighbourhood of Kitsilano, originally the village of Senakw, is an anglicization of Chief Khatsahlano's name by the Canadian Pacific Railway who developed the neighbourhood. The grandson, August Jack Khatsahlano, was also a Squamish Chief and Vancouver historian who shared his indigenous oral history with Vancouver's first archivist, Major J.S. Matthews. Born in Stanley Park in 1877 he died in 1971 after witnessing the utter transformation of his homeland from a village on the shoreline with an abundance of fish and wildlife to a city filled with high-rise buildings.  While there is a certain sadness in the changes that have occurred in his lifetime at least now the traditional lands of the Squamish Nation will once again be providing for its dislocated people and it will be paying them back with interest. 

August Jack Khatsahlano

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Stop Recycling, Go Nuclear, and Plant Trees

Hundreds of thousands of protesters were out in full force across the country last Friday on a so-called Global Climate Strike demanding action now to save planet Earth. However it isn't planet Earth that's in danger, it's us. Things were a lot hotter long before we arrived on the scene; remember the dinosaurs? As much as everyone would like things to change there's no quick and easy fix, particularly if nobody is really prepared to change the way they live. So, rather than ask people to give up their disposable containers, their junk food, or their cars, why not try a completely different approach and simply stop recycling, go nuclear and plant a few trees.

Coventa Waste-To-Energy Facility
Our hopelessly misguided attempts to recycle not only wastes clean water washing out refuse nobody really wants anymore (including China) most of it ends up in a landfill somewhere anyway. In fact we are often trucking it for hundreds of miles to some rural community so it's out of sight and mind. Instead we should be incinerating all this garbage in state of the art facilities that convert waste to energy like they do in Sweden, which is much further ahead of us on the environmental awareness curve. We have one of these waste to energy facilities, the Coventa plant in Burnaby, which was used for disposing of the waste we tried to fob off on the Philippines but unfortunately for political reasons Vancouver won't use it. We should have a lot more of them and we should supply 3rd World countries with these facilities for free so they could stop dumping everything into the ocean and get themselves some electricity in the process.

Bruce Power Nuclear Generating Station
In spite of the enormous amounts of garbage we produce in our wasteful society, waste to energy facilities would only provide a very small percentage of the energy we need to run our homes and businesses, particularly if we all start switching to electric cars that need charging at night. There is really only one solution for pollution free energy and that is to go nuclear. Canada is already a world leader in this technology with its CANDU reactors and we have the world's largest nuclear energy facility at the Bruce Power Nuclear Generating Station in Ontario on the shore of Lake Huron. Not only does the CANDU technology allow for the almost endless recycling of fuel it can also process nuclear waste from dismantled nuclear weapons. We have sold our technology to many other countries and we should build more of these nuclear power plants in our own country to replace coal fired plants.

There have also been recent breakthroughs in much smaller nuclear power technology that could be used for powering communities in the far north and other areas not connected to the grid. Referred to as Small Modular Reactors one SMR, being developed and tested by the Ultra Safe Nuclear Corp of Seattle and Canada's Global First Power, is small enough to fit inside a standard shipping container. It has now entered the 3rd stage of a 4 stage process being run by Canadian Nuclear Laboratories to develop a 5MW reactor which would produce enough electricity to power 3,000 homes. Safer and less complex than traditional nuclear reactors these SMRs also use new technology like molten salt as a coolant. Canada is once again poised to take the lead in nuclear technology but this will require political support to really move things forward.
Ultra Safe Nuclear Corp SMR
And if you really wanted to feel good and do something all on your own what could be better than planting a tree? The benefits of trees are many but principally they absorb carbon dioxide, provide us with oxygen, and prevent soil erosion. They live for a long time and they are easy to manage so why not get behind a national annual tree planting day like they have in many other places around the world and make it a goal to plant at least one tree for every person in the country. Nothing could be easier and we could do it immediately.