Sunday, July 29, 2012

Zucchini plant problems... again

Because we love zucchini, we planted another zucchini plant this year. It had three main stems and was producing lots of huge zucchini on each one. Then last week we noticed orange frass: the telltale signs of the Squash Vine Borer. (insert dramatic music here)

Yes, that damn SVB is back. We tried to poke holes in the affected stems and kill the larvae but the plant started wilting and we saw more frass. This sucks. Because the damage from the SVB was so near the root of the plant, the whole plant was about to go down. We ended up cutting off each of the three stems and sticking them into the ground. We did that last year and the plant grew; unfortunately, it was too late in the year to get an zucchini from it. We hope that at least one of the three former stems will bear zucchini before the summer is over.

We planted the zucchini in around the same place as we'd planted last year's zucchini so we're wondering if the SVB somehow overwintered in the soil and infested this year's plant. We're going to have to do some research on controlling and eradicating the SVB. I like zucchini and I want to grow it in our garden; the SVB, I can do without.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

2012 Olympics

The summer Olympics have begun! Last night's opening ceremony was the vision of Artistic Director Danny Boyle with the theme "Isles of Wonder" and it was lovely. It included a bit of English history: from tranquil, pastoral English countryside to the Industrial Revolution to celebrating English literature to English music through the 20th century.

My favourite part was Emeli Sandésinging "Abide with me" to only a heartbeat-like beat. I'm an atheist but the hymn sung only to the drumbeat brought tears to my eyes. During the song, dancers performed a moving tribute to the 7/7 victims. Apparently NBC cut that particular segment in favour of an interview with Michael Phelps. Why they did that I don't know - one would think that broadcasting the entire opening ceremony would be preferable to cutting out a segment in favour of an interview. Interviews can be broadcast anytime; a live opening ceremony cannot.

The parade of nations, which was only supposed to take an hour, took about two hours - and this was a surprise to no one who'd seen one of these parades before. Our Canadian athletes were horsing around a bit with some women riding on men's shoulders. It looked like they were having a great time.

I also loved that instead of having a celebrity light the Olympic cauldron, six young athletes lit six sections of a multi-piece Olympic cauldron. That cauldron was beautiful: each nation carried a piece of it during the parade of nations so it was like each country was a part of it.

I'm looking forward to watching the Olympics. I don't normally follow any of these sports but I enjoy seeing the competition.

Friday, July 27, 2012

The beginnings of the Penn State aftermath

I've still kept my eye on the Penn State sex abuse scandal over the last few weeks. I was so outraged about the whole situation that I wanted to follow its aftermath. Things are at a point now where lots has happened and it's going to be quite a while before lots more happens.

Penn State has removed the statue of Joe Paterno that was erected in 2001 after much debate. Interestingly, the day before Penn State removed the statue, sources from the board of trustees said that the statue would stay up, at least for a while. If that doesn't show how disconnected the university is from its board who is supposed to oversee it, I don't know what does. Clearly there are still some issues to work out there.

Penn State has received sanctions from the NCAA, basing their decision on the Freeh report instead of their own investigation: five years' probation, setting up new administrative oversight, a four-year bowl ban, a $60 million fine to go to an external charity for victims of child sexual abuse, vacating the results of the 1998-2011 seasons (making Joe Paterno no longer the coach with the most wins, aka the "winningest" coach), reduction of scholarships over four years, and allowing any player the ability to transfer to another institution and play right away. Apparently it was either these sanctions or a "death sentence" - no football at all - for up to four years. Clearly the university decided that a few years of reduced football was better for the community than no football at all.

The NCAA sanctions aren't the only punishment the university is facing. The Big Ten Conference has also sanctioned Penn State: Penn State will not be allowed to play in any post-season games and its share of the Big Ten bowl games will go to charity. Nike, Penn State's most visible and (some say) lucrative sponsor, took Paterno's name off of the child care center. State Farm is pulling their sponsorship from Penn State. The university's insurance company is trying to deny or limit coverage for anything related to this scandal because they were not kept informed of the liabilities that the university was facing in Sandusky; when the civil lawsuits start rolling in, the university will be on the hook for the entire amount. 

While the university is accepting the NCAA and Big Ten sanctions, not everyone is happy about them. Some feel that the Freeh report was written by the man who covered up the TWA 800 disaster. I say that if he did cover that up, he is the best person to recognize a cover-up when he sees one. Some others say that the Freeh report doesn't have enough proof that Paterno was involved, since only two "vague" emails were presented in the report as "proof". These people are conveniently ignoring the fact that the Freeh report also includes a thorough description of the culture that Paterno created: Paterno knew or was privy to everything that happened in that department. If you believe that this is true (and I think most do), you have to believe that he knew about the 1998 investigation of Sandusky. If you don't believe he knew about that, then he couldn't have known about everything that happened in his department. 

The Paterno family deserves a special mention of people who are struggling with the aftermath of the report. The Freeh report is inaccurate, they say, in part because the investigation didn't interview the family who knew Paterno best: their own family. They're determined to conduct their own investigation, which is fine. If they stopped there, I'd have no issue with the family. However, every time something happens, they issue a statement saying something about the Paterno legacy being defamed. There's only a token phrase in each statement about the victims; it's all about the family being victimized by the actions of everyone who believed that Paterno had done wrong. The more they portray themselves as victims, the more ridiculous they seem.

I do understand how hard it is for people to accept that their beloved grandfather-figure, Joe Paterno, and other university officials could have covered-up Sandusky's crimes. It must have been shocking for the people involved to realize that their friend was molesting boys, just as it is shocking for others to realize just how far people at the university went to cover up Sandusky's behaviour. It's almost too much for people to take in so instead they focus on small things and argue about them. Hopefully over time people will come to accept what happened.

If only it was so easy for Sandusky's victims to accept what happened and to heal. Everything that Penn State has to pay, all the hardships the fans and players will experience - that's nothing to what those boys have had to live with. I hope that some of the money being taken from Penn State ends up helping them.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

James Franco movie weekend

Can a person ever get enough of the actor James Franco? Well, yes. I didn't think he was that great of an actor after watching his dismal performance during the 2011 Academy Award ceremonies. Fortunately, we managed to not overload our delicate James Franco sensibilities by watching one of his movies yesterday and again today.

Yesterday we watched the Academy-award nominated 127 Hours about Aron Ralston, a canyoneer whose arm was pinned by a boulder after falling in a slot canyon. He stayed in the canyon for 127 hours before freeing himself, hence the title of the movie. Apparently except for the bit with the two hikers, which didn't happen as shown in the movie, everything was very realistic and happened as shown. 

James Franco took up the screen for most of the movie as his struggle and experience trapped in the canyon was shown, and he was able to carry the movie and make it very compelling to watch. He was able to accurately show the range of emotions that Aron Ralston experienced during those five days: his despair, loneliness, anguish, and the realization that he would almost certainly die there alone. James Franco definitely deserved that Best Actor Academy Award nomination; had he not been up against Colin Firth in The King's Speech, he could have won it.

I wasn't expecting the cinematography and music styles used during the movie but they worked perfectly with the subject, helping to convey the stark beauty and isolation of the canyon country and the emotions Aron Ralston was feeling. The music and cinematography are perfectly balanced throughout the movie, working with and not against the script.

While some might think that watching one man trapped in a canyon for an hour and a half is a form of torture, this movie is interesting and compelling enough to make the time pass quickly. It's well worth watching.

I didn't expect as much from Rise of the Planet of the Apes. This movie restarted the Planet of the Apes franchise by providing a new origin story and although it had a huge budget, I figured it would be lacking in plot and believability. I was (mostly) mistaken.

Sure, there are some flaws. When shots are flying everywhere, I expect all the cars to be hit by bullets, and I thought all windshield glass was tempered safety glass. Those are small details compared to the success of the rest of the movie.

The most obvious plot hole was the lack of proper ethics at the pharmaceutical firm .... but really, how unrealistic is that? Aside from that, the sequence of events seemed to be believable. James Franco plays a researcher who is trying to find a cure for Alzheimer's disease. His research on chimps makes them smarter and looks promising but things go awry and he doesn't get the funding he expected. He raises a baby chimp who got the "cure" and resultant smarts from his mother but when the chimp attacks someone he's forced to put it in an ape care facility. From there, the apes begin to rise.

The movie is well-paced and beautifully shot. The real star of this movie is the computer generated imagery. The lead chimp was generated by motion-capturing Andy Serkis (who played Gollum) as he acted out the part and then applying the chimp characteristics. This CGI was flawless: the chimp looked real (with some extra facial expressions) and was fully integrated into the surrounding imagery. I actually thought that the filmmakers had used a chimp in the movie, and I knew better than that before I started watching.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes isn't an inspiring movie, or a classic movie, but it is worth a couple of hours if you've got it. Personally, I find the re-imagination of the origin of this franchise much more interesting than the original movies and I'm interested to see where things go next. 

So there you have it - two good James Franco movies. Who'd have thought?

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Penn State scandal

Have you been following the Penn State scandal? In short, Football Defense Gerald (Jerry) Sandusky was tried and convicted on 45 of 48 counts related to molesting young boys from 1998 onwards. He recruited these boys at The Second Mile charity he set up in 1977 for young, underprivileged children. Sadly, it seems that child molesters are practically a dime a dozen, but what makes this case compelling is that several Penn State officials knew that he was molesting boys on Penn State property and didn't report it to the authorities or the Second Mile charity.

The Penn state-commissioned Freeh report showed that Joe Paterno, beloved head coach for the football team; athletic director Tim CurleyGary Schultz,university vice president responsible for overseeing the university police, among other duties; and university president Graham Spanier knew about two molestation incidents and did nothing to punish Sandusky or prevent future crimes from occurring. Worse, during the grand jury investigation of Sandusky, Schultz and Curley lied about what they knew and are now under investigation for perjury.

I remember when Paterno was fired in November 2011 after Sandusky was formally charged and the students rioted. How could their football leader, the one who made the university what it was, have anything to do with Sandusky's crimes? Now we know: he had a lot to do with them. By all accounts, he was the most powerful person at that university because he ran football and football brought in the money. Therefore, he could call the shots when it came to his players and his team.

He clashed with Vicky Triponey, former head of student affairs, over how football players were disciplined. He didn't want the public to know about football player's crimes (does that sound familiar?) and he wanted football players to receive gentler punishment than everyone else. And who supported him? Why, Curley and Spanier, of course. Winning at football was more important than ethics and honesty. Football was more important than anything else, and it forced Triponey out of the school after she was threatened and shunned.

Paterno died in January, 2012, of complications related to lung cancer. Before he died, he wrote a letter that said that the Sandusky situation was not football-related. In another university, that might be true, but not at Penn State where football ran the school. If football wasn't so important to the university, Sandusky's crimes would never have been covered up and that makes this situation very much related to football.

Clearly there's a problem with Penn State's culture and it's going to take a long time to fix that culture. The "Penn State way" is wrong. Some are speculating that the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), a member organization that creates rules and policies for a number of university sports, and who could punish Penn State for organizational failures - the ones that covered up Sandusky's crimes and then lied about it. Those punishments could include the "death penalty" or preventing the team from playing in the league for a full season or more. It's also possible that the NCAA could ban post-season play or levy any one of a number of other punishments.

I'm outraged by the entire situation. How could football - a sport - be more important than ethics? How could keeping players on the field be more important that those players completing their punishments? How could fans maintain that Paterno had done nothing wrong when it's clear that did? I know, I know, football brings in money and everyone loves money. At Penn State, they also loved Paterno who had been there for 61 years. Bringing in a ton of money in no way justifies the kind of insular, "football is most important" views that Paterno and others shared.

The priorities at Penn State are a mess and will stay that way unless the university takes gigantic steps to fix them. The culture is just too deeply entrenched in the minds of people connected to Penn State for real change to occur easily. I don't think that the university should wait for the NCAA to dole out punishments; I think that Penn State should prevent the football team from playing for a year. Anything less than that will say that football is still the most important thing at Penn State, that it's more important than ethics or morals.

At the same time, Penn State needs to bring in new people from outside the community who have experience  guiding change in a large organization. Penn State needs to finally step up and do right by its students and its communities.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Heat wave

Our little dog was groomed today and she looks so much littler! Apparently she screamed during the drying process again so we really do need to work on desenstizing her to the the sound. I hope she'll be more comfortable with shorter hair in this terrible heat. It's supposed to stay above 30C for the next few days and even though the nights will be cool, those daytime temperatures make life pretty unbearable for her.

The only things that seem to love the heat are those lupine aphids. They've found their way to the other plant and they're starting to really take over. Every leaf cluster has a set of baby aphids on it and every single leaf on some clusters has a set of baby aphids. I killed as many as I could but I know that the population is about to explode. It's heartbreaking because that plant was doing so well and had a number of flower buds on it and now the leaves are crinkled and misshapen, all of the flower buds have died, and the plant appears to be dying due to the aphids. I wish there was a way to get rid of them.

The heat had sent most of the grass into dormancy so it's yellow everywhere. The weeds really show up against the dormant grass but the soil is so dry that it's hard to pull them out. Not that I'm spending a lot of time outside. Hanging out with the dog in the basement is more fun.

Well, hanging out in the basement is mostly fun. I've been feeling a bit restless lately because I want to be doing more than just sitting around. But then when I try to think of what I could do, nothing comes to mind. Do you ever have that happen? Where you know you want to do something and then when you have a chance to do it, nothing comes to mind? Maybe I'm just getting old. Maybe the heat is reducing my ability to think.

I'll be happy to see the end of this heat wave so that I can start feeling more productive. Gozer will be at least as happy as I will because then she can spend more time chasing chipmunks, birds, and squirrels, and getting to watch the outside world.

Saturday, July 07, 2012

Adventures in weeding

It's been so crazy hot this past week that Gozer and I have spent most of our days holed up in the basement. While I love having no responsibilities or plans or anything, after a couple of days I started feeling really restless because I wanted to be outside doing things but it was just too hot.

Today the weather was slightly cooler - below 30C, at least - and so I went outside and spent about three hours weeding. I wasn't weeding in that relaxed way I usually weed; no, I was finally able to get outside and weed and I was going to make the most of the time I had. I was in some kind of weeding frenzy and I weeded with wild, reckless abandon.

I'm paying for being those hours. I felt so young and alive, being out there under the sun and working in the dirt and now I feel positively decrepit. My lower back is throbbing with pain no matter how I sit or lie down or stand, my legs are sore, and I'm bone-tired. I'm not sure that this back pain is worth those hours of happiness weeding under the sun - it's a higher price than I wanted to for those hours, even though I know that I overdid it.

Wishing that my body didn't betray me doesn't seem to be getting me anywhere, unfortunately. It would be better if I could remember that I can't do four days worth of work in three hours because then I wouldn't overdo it (and pay for it) like I did today.

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Home from Edmonton

I arrived home from Edmonton on Sunday after a happy but exhausting trip. I'd gone to see my niece and nephew graduate from high school and to celebrate the occasion with my sisters and their families. Although I'd planned to call some friends while I was there, I ended up seeing only one friend and spending the rest of my time with my family.

I felt honoured to celebrate the graduations with my sisters. Watching both my niece and nephew walk across the stage to receive their (fake) diplomas, I felt so proud of each of them: they made it! I also realized that finishing high school was a rite of passage not just for my niece and nephew but for the adults in their lives, too, who'd watched them grow into adults. It seems like just yesterday that they started kindergarten and now here they were, finished their public schooling. They're basically adults, now, and they get to choose whether and where they pursue further education.

While I was there we had a family gathering to celebrate my niece and nephew's graduation, which is something we haven't done for quite some time. It was a ton of fun and I really enjoyed myself. It felt relaxed and casual and it seemed like everyone had a good time. One of my sisters hosted it and I got to see her beautiful garden in the summer for the first time in I don't know how long. She has a number of sweet-smelling, very healthy roses and lilacs and has planted gorgeous sweet peas lining her fence, as well as some other ground cover and a healthy ash tree (side note: I didn't know that ash trees grew in Edmonton. There are oak trees now, too, and I didn't think they grew there either).

The trip wasn't all good, unfortunately: my cell phone battery refused to charge so I wasn't able to use it to send or receive texts about halfway through the week. My Kindle was also starting to misbehave with the buttons not working properly and now only every other line is displayed. 

I wasn't able to rent a car at all, either. I tried to, I really did. My plane was late arriving into Edmonton so I changed my booking for an office near my hotel. To my surprise, I discovered that that particular Avis doesn't take Sears cards. I thought about going with my backup plan but then I decided that I didn't need a car... I just wanted one. so I did without and it worked out just fine.

Also, while my hotel was lovely - and it was; in fact, I highly recommend staying there if you're in Edmonton - the only alarm in the room was a radio and I don't easily wake up to a radio because the voices end up being incorporated into my dreams. Usually I use my cellphone as an alarm but since it was in paperweight mode, I had to rely on the radio alarm in the room. Yes, I could have called for a wake-up call but I needed to wake up from naps, too, and multiple wake-up calls in a day seems a little silly. Therefore, I ended up not sleeping so well for the latter half of the trip because I was so worried about waking up on time.

Even with these technical issues, I really enjoyed myself in Edmonton and I was sad to have to leave. Edmonton is beautiful at this time of year: the weather is warm but the light wind makes it bearable, everything is blooming, and the air smells so clean and fresh. Every time I walked outside I'd just stand there, breathing in the air. I'll be going back to Edmonton in a couple of months as one of my sisters is moving to the UK this fall and I want to see her in Edmonton before she moves away.