Jasper station
It turns out that riding a heavily-delayed train is an enjoyable experience. While I did have to wait an unexpected 4 hours in the Edmonton train station, I did get to enjoy three hot meals that would have otherwise been unavailable to those of in coach (at least for free). The food was pretty good, far beyond anything I’ve ever eaten on a plane, and the chance to sit at a dining car table with three strangers was enjoyable (and reminded me of my unpopular idea of mandatory random seating at debate tournament banquets).
The Canadian's observatory
Even in coach, sleeping on a train sure beats sleeping on a bus (or an airplane, for that matter): the seats reclined to a decent degree and combine with pull-out footrests. Although we passed through the Rockies in the dark, we did get the “rare” sight the Fraser Canyon the following day – rare because when the train is on time, it’s dark at that point.
Vancouver station
Although Vancouver is my favourite city, it received a short shrift on this trip; I arrive at 4pm and left the following morning. As much as I love the city, I’ve seen most of the tourist sites (save Grouse Mountain) and more importantly, will probably return many times in the future. I picked up some supplies at Mountain Equipment Co-op, did some research on Seattle and Portland, and stayed with some friends of mine. Upon entering their one-room apartment in Port Moody (25km from the city centre), I was told that “this is what a quarter million dollars buys you in Vancouver”. Ouch. Hopefully those housing prices level out after the Olympics. We chatted about debate gossip, law schools (I was subject to the hard sell for the University of Victoria) and I got some tips for what to see on the American west coast. This isn’t the first time I’ve called these particular Vancouverites at 9pm, begging for a place to stay, so hopefully I can reciprocate at some point in the future.

The following morning I caught the Amtrak-operated bus to Seattle. That’s right – the 30-day rail pass involves buses, as Amtrak operates them to supplement its rail coverage. Although still a step up from Greyhound, I’m hoping to avoid these whenever possible. I’ve also been told multiple times that the Seattle-Vancouver train ride is quite scenic, but this time of year it’s only at night. The border crossing was quick, which a pleasant surprise that put us in Seattle an hour ahead of schedule.

Seattle is as great as I’d expected, given its Pacific Northwest character; the gray sky and light rain were also unsurprising. The Seattle Public Library, which I’d watched a TED talk about, completely blew me away – it’s now probably my favourite building on the planet. From the bright-yellow escalators to the glass walls to the unorthodox shape to the “book spiral” (where the entire Dewey Decimal system is laid out over 3 floors on a shallow incline), it is incredibly functional and aesthetically satisfying. For anyone visiting Seattle who has a moderate interest in architecture or libraries, this is a must-see.

Seattle Public Library - living room

I visited the flagship stores of a couple of gear manufacturers (REI, Outdoor Research) and justified some outrageously expensive coffee as “local cuisine”. The Pike Place Market, while historically interesting, wasn’t that useful to someone trying to conserve his dollars. The Seattle science fiction museum is a good concept, if a bit on the small side; I thought it struck a good balance between highbrow genre analysis (“Feminism in Science Fiction”) and pure, unadulterated fandom (the captain’s chair from Star Trek).

I checked out a gold rush museum run by the National Park Service, where I bought my “National Park Passport” – that’s right, I now will be getting a date-stamp at every American national park I visit. How geeky is that?

Best of all, these two sights reminded me of the common political ground I share with this area of the world:

Seattle City Hall banner
License plate
I’m pleased to report that couchsurfing was a stunning success – my host picked me up at the train station, gave me a comfortable futon for two nights, my own set of keys, and we had dinner with some interesting friends of his. It was pretty much the ideal outcome, because not only did I get a free place, but I got to spend time talking to genuine “locals”. Hopefully this is a trend that continues. Onward down the coast!


Day 1: Edmonton


Imaged from Wikimedia Commons

In an attempt to get in some traveling between jobs, I’ve decided to spend some beetle probing money on a 30-day unlimited North American rail pass. My final destination is unknown at this point, but for the immediate future I plan to check out the American west coast.

While I’ve crossed the continent via bus several times, I’ve never done a long-distance train trip outside of Europe. Generally, this has been an economic decision; however, it turns out that for youth under 25, the cost of a 30-day pass on VIA is identical to a Greyhound one (I happily discovered this after agonizing over the $130 difference between regular prices). That leaves the trade-off of comfort on the side of VIA versus flexibility (both in terms of frequency of trips and available destinations) and access to Mexico on the side of Greyhound. Additionally, I think that the points I will get from this purchase through VIA’s rewards program will also net me a free, short trip at some point in the future.

In the end though, I think it came down to pure curiosity about train travel: its historic role in Canadian and American expansion; its under-used presence on a continent of car-lovers; its position atop the pedestal of sustainable transport. Hitchhiking would be cheaper, flying would be faster, and busing would let me practice my Spanish, but my hope is that the rail system can serve up the best intangible travel experience. I’m sure that 30 days of non-stop travel of any form is enough to burn that kind of naivety out of anyone, but let’s hope not.

I’m currently in the Edmonton train station; while the VIA trains out west may not have wifi, at least the station does. Currently, I am eating pizza and watching the hockey game while waiting on a train that has been delayed 30 hours. Luckily, I knew it had been delayed, so only have to put in about 3 hours waiting. Interestingly, I’m told that if I were not on the North American pass, I would be entitled to something like a $180 credit for this delay. For the flexible and frugal traveler, it seems that intentionally booking delayed trains would be a great way to travel for cheap. While VIA doesn’t post updated train times on their website, I imagine calling their reservation line would work.

I also plan to try out Couchsurfing, the website/social network for co-ordinating free places to stay, for the first time on this trip. I’ve long been curious about it, and have heard positive reviews from several friends, but yet to put it to use, as either a guest or host. I will be sure to report back on my experiences with it.

90 minutes until the train allegedly gets here. So much for getting to see the Rockies in daylight…

Image by Leonard G. on Wikimedia Commons, released under CC-SA 1.0

This is the question I asked a month ago, and the interweb had no answer. Let now this knowledge be added to our collective memory:


Beetle probing is a seasonal occupation in the forestry industry that is a combination of surveying and pest control. It involves assessing which trees in a given area have been infested by the mountain pine beetle and is part of the ongoing effort to limit the extent of the beetle infestation (and the ecological and economic destruction it brings) in Western Canada.

To start, aircraft fly over pine forests and look for groups of red-needled trees of four or more. They mark GPS points for each of these sites. The job of the beetle prober is go to these sites (finding access via bush roads, pipelines, and walking) and set up a 50, 75 or 100 meter circle, then inspect every pine tree within this circle for signs of the beetle – stripped bark, red needles, and “pitch outs”, where sap has dripped out of the small holes left by beetles as they crawl into the pine bark.

Every infested tree must be marked with spray paint. Red-needled trees must be hatcheted into; if larvae are found, then it is marked as a “current” tree, to be cut down; if no larvae are found, then it is assumed the beetles have already left this tree.

This all done so that the infested trees can be cut down and burned (Although not every site will have its trees cut; this job is also serving as data collection, to assess which sites are worth sending loggers into and which aren’t). Probing is only done on the margins, since the point is to save money only cutting down the identified trees, instead of a full clear-cut, which is what happens in areas that are red for as far as the eye can see. Due to the fact that someone else will be coming to the sites that are probed, every step of the process is meticulously documented: The line in is marked with flagging, the infested trees are mapped out, and there is paperwork for everything.

As far as I can tell, probing is done exclusively by tree planting companies, who use summer staff for probing. The contracts are offered by lumber mills (like planting contracts) for their timber, but there is a lot of government funding as well. Numerous companies bid on the contract, and eventually the contract gets assigned. On the contract I am working, the terms are that my company gets paid on a per-site basis, but I’ve heard of other contracts where the mill pays the probing company on a per-employee-day rate.

The main difference between probing and planting is that workers are paid day-rate, whereas the defining characteristic of tree planting is its piece-work nature. This isn’t really out of the probing company’s trust in its workers; rather, it’s because it would be brutally injust to pay workers per site, because there is a massive degree of randomness in the amount of work required for a given site. The types of trees, the level of infestation, the length of the walk-in, the site terrain all vary widely, and are the most part, not known by anyone untill a prober arrives at the site. My most productive day (4 sites) was also my easiest day – some of my least productive days have also been when I worked the hardest.

Since the company gets paid per site, obviously there is a motivation gap between it and its day-rate workers. This is filled by a carrot and a stick. The stick is the kind of motivation that is familiar with tree planters: we need to do a good job, we need to meet certain production quotas, we promised certain production when we bid on this contract, the amount of work we will get is dependent upon production, etc. The carrot is an end-of-contract bonus for those workers whose average production meets a certain rate.

Like planting, there is strict quality control. You are allowed a 5% margin of error, in terms of missing infested trees on your site. If your site is checked by either a probing company checker, or a mill checker, and found to exceed this margin (so missing more than 1 tree for every 20 trees found), then you will have to go back to this site to fix it – an expensive process, given the time and money overheard per site. Like with planting, you are trying to find the sweet spot between quality and production.

The season is a rather short one, so it makes sense that beetle probers are seasonal workers. Last winter my company offered about three weeks of work; this season, a month for some and six weeks for others. Probing is done in the winter because of the life cycle of the beetle; it’s during this time fall-and-burn is most effective.

For this contract, we live in rented buildings at Wonowon, BC. Workers aren’t charged for housing, but are responsible for their own food (purchased in “town” on days off) and cooking. The housing is plusher than a planting camp, but cooking for myself is a drag.

Probing is certainly physically difficult work – mainly from the cold conditions and the long distances walked – but pails in comparison to the difficulty of tree planting. Stress levels, though, seem to be higher, mainly because of the combination of high production expectations with widespread inexperience. All in all, it has the same fundamental characteristics as planting: hard work over a short time for big money, soaked in the never-ending grind that comes from living with your co-workers.

In case anyone stumbles across this post looking for information on probing, here is the gear list I was given:

    Daily field gear

  • Parka and thinner waterproof jacket with a good hood to keep snow from going down neck.

  • Polypropylene long underwear

  • Fleece or wool sweaters (layers)

  • Warmer clothes for sledding – Balaclava, goggles, wind-jacket, helmet, thick mitts.

  • Field vest (Cruise vest)

  • Rain-pants (tough fabric)

  • Wool pants are good when its really cold

  • Good snowboots (eg. -40 Sorrels)

  • Thin liner gloves (+x-tras)

  • Thick over gloves or mitts (+x-tras) –wool is good esp good if fingers open

  • Small flashlight or headlamp

  • Whistle

  • Hatchet

  • Snowshoes


      Survival kit

  • space blanket

  • Fire starter

  • Matches (in water-proof container)

  • Pocket knife

  • Power bar, cup’o’soup etc

  • Some wire (2 feet)

  • Tin can container (old soup can – for melting snow over fire)

  • X-tra base layer (long underwear) of dry clothes

  • All in a ziplock bag


    Supplied gear

  • Field notebooks (1/crew)

  • Pencils and markers

  • Clinometer (1/crew)

  • Handheld radio

  • Compass

  • D-Tape

  • Flagging

  • Hip-chain

  • Tree Marking paint

I plan to partially cross-post this to Wikipedia.

The Google Public Policy Blog reports that Google is asking the US government (among others) to consider pursuing a WTO complaint against China on a matter that seems to combine the good and the profitable: that censorship constitutes a barrier to trade for the information industry. Despite Google’s much-publicized agreement with China to co-operate in censoring its search results (in order to avoid a blanket ban), the post maintains that “it is fair to say that censorship constitutes the single greatest trade barrier we currently face”.

There are a couple things to consider, were this to gain some traction. One factor is that while it’s difficult to imagine an authoritarian regime giving up a tool so vital to control over its citizens solely at the bequest of international law, China is in a very vulnerable position at the WTO. Its ascendancy to the organization in 2001 has been key to its industrial boom; without membership in it and GATT/GATS, there would very little stopping Canada, the US and Europe from slapping protectionist measures on Chinese imports.

Given the high level of hostility to Chinese trade, for reasons of human rights, economic nationalism and latent anti-Communism, this is a real possibility. When coupled with China’s hunger for markets to feed its booming industries (and other countries’ fears of being swamped by said industries, like Quebec’s textile market), it’s clear that if leverage is needed to improve its free speech record, then the WTO is the place to go.

The US-China relationship at the WTO, however, may not be the best option; this is why it’s not just a matter of politeness that Google is also courting EU member states for a white knight (only states have standing, so Google can’t pursue this complaint on their own). The conditions China agreed to in its 14-year ascendancy agreement allow some trade barriers to be placed on it which full-fledged WTO members are protected from, and the US has been using exploiting them as much as possible. With this tension already in monumental proportions, throwing censorship on top of the pile may not have much success.

At issue would be whether information industries are considering purveyors of goods (as regulated under the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs) or services (as regulated under the General Agreement on Trade in Services). It would be in Google’s interest for information to be considered a good, since trade rules tend to be stricter on goods, while services have more loopholes and lenient regulation, since member states’ attachment to them is a little more delicate.

Of interest is the fact that Google makes it clear that to them, “[s]ome forms of censorship are entirely justifiable”, their example being child pornography. Presumably, this means that the politically repressive censorship practiced by China is of a fundamentally different nature. There are, however, other forms of censorship which are more well-intentioned, but would still fall foul of both international trade agreements and, I suspect, Google.

An example of this lies in the closest thing to precedent that this complaint would have, a case well-known to Canadian cultural nationalists, Canada – Certain Measures Concerning Periodicals [.pdf]. The WTO appellate body ruled that the Department of Hertige’s attempt to protect the domestic magazine industry from American competition, via an excise tax and an indirect postal subsidy, constituted an unfair barrier to trade. While not censorship per se – although many CanCon regulations are, in my opinion – this does show that limiting information flows can be considered a commercial impediment. Significantly, in this decision, information – at least in a textual form – was ruled to be a service.

I’ve never been a fan of the theory that economic rights are necessarily conducive to political and civil rights; in fact, China is the best example against it. While economic freedoms are increasing in its state-administered capitalism, freedom of speech and other political activity are being limited at the same pace. However, even if the two rights aren’t intrinsically linked, perhaps this case could show that they are legally linked.

If this complaint were to have any success at all, it would demonstrate how the best chances of pursuing political-civil rights on the international stage could be through the legal guarantees of economic rights. Unfortunately, while international human rights law is still weak in many ways, international trade law seems to be accumulating more and more power. Google may have found a way to use that to their (and everyone’s) advantage.

There is a downside to this route of information liberation, though: commercial information flows could be privileged over non-commercial ones. Another digital knowledge giant – and one which has refused a compromise with China, and thus, is completely censored – is Wikipedia, which as a project of a non-profit corporation presumably would not be protected under GATT/GATS. It would seem perverse if we lived in the letter-of-the-law world where China stopped censoring a search engine, but continued to block the biggest encyclopedia in history. When freedom of speech is purely a right to do business, however, this is a natural result.

[Wikipedia is a bad example, of course, since all of its text can be freely reproduced for commercial or non-commercial purposes under the GNU Free Documentation License, and there are already many Wikipedia mirror sites which generate ad revenue by essentially copy and pasting. Given that, anyone could found Wikipedia-China Inc., mirror the encyclopedia, and be legally protected. The point still stands, though – we can imagine other non-commercial sources of information with more restrictive licenses.]

While academically interesting, the fact that most trade cases have a 20 year timeline leads me to believe that the point is moot, and technology will solve the censorship problem before law will. Obviously, technology is what helps the Chinese government keep its Big Brother so ubiquitous; on the other hand, clever technology is also helping anti-censorship efforts. For example, psiphon is a decentralized filter-bypassing program (developed by the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab) which seems virtually invincible, albeit small-scale; I’m sure many other tools will emerge as information technology grows and grows.

Nonetheless, Google’s reputation for having smart people and smart ideas seems to be extending easily into the legal and public policy fields. The same company that pioneered smart searching and information management could also lead the way in international law.

NYC cycling


NYC cyclist style

This lock is called the “New York Chain”, and for good reason – every bike you see here is locked up with a massive chain, and due to the weight the most comfortable way to transport it is to wear it. On top of that, a U-lock is necessary to keep the wheel your chain isn’t through (even without quick-release). Seat locks are also pretty common. Even with precautions, I still can’t help returning to the bike rack every 10 minutes to make sure the Iron Horse hasn’t become a property crime statistic.

Biking in Manhattan is intense. The traffic is as bad as you’d expect. Traffic lights and laws are respected as much you’d expect. Bikes are appreciated by taxi drivers as much as you’d expect. Getting from point A to point B by bike is unhealthy (inhaling exhaust), dangerous (aggressive drivers), and claustrophobic (balancing at a red light between tour buses, trying to squeeze between yellow cabs). Since the goal for everyone – pedestrians, vehicles and bikes alike – is simply to move in the right direction, regardless of all other factors, it feels necessary to be watching in every direction at all times and expecting the worse from everyone.

At the same time, though, NYC cycling provides a rush I’ve never had in road biking – just going to the library is a challenge that takes determination and an immense amount of focus. I’m sure the novelty will wear off quick, but for now I’m somewhat enjoying zooming through gridlock; let’s just hope I don’t get the door prize.

While there are some attempts at bike paths in the city, they are incredibly patchwork and lacking in any coherence. To get from our place to the Brooklyn Bridge, about 3/4 of the distance is on bike lanes – but in between is a maze of one-way streets with no signage or any other evidence that planners are considering that cyclists will want to get from a west-bound bike lane to a north-bound one.

Similarly, when we set out to cycle the circumference of Manhattan last weekend, we were sorely disappointed with the NYC Greenway (.pdf). Although it had some great stretches of quiet paths by the water (and segregated bike/pedestrian lanes, which I’d love to see in Ottawa), these would be followed by the path going directly through packed tourist attractions and miles of biking under loud, dark freeways. Just when you got to enjoying yourself, you’re tossed out onto a garbage-smelling alley – and it’s hard to call a route a “greenway” when it includes about 40 blocks of normal street biking. Not to mention you wouldn’t expect the NYC government to direct tourists through a neighbourhood where a grocery store cashier stresses that they would prefer payment with food stamps over cash.

Hopefully the much-hyped PLANYC 2030 includes expanding biking capacity. Even with these mediocre conditions, apparently 120,000 New Yorkers cycle-commute, and with the smallest bit of institutional support, I’m sure this number would skyrocket.

Pro-bike graffiti

In this lecture the man who invented the term “ecological footprint”, William Rees, rips apart the notion that any North American city could declare itself sustainable.

Looking at Shanghai and Vancouver, it’s easy to think that there is a sharp difference in environmental practice is going on here: coal-generated electricity and overpopulation make Chinese cities dirty, while solar power, bicycles and environmentalism make Vancouver clean — and ethical.

Sorry BC, but for the most part, what’s really happening is displacement. All the pollution generated by the manufacturing of goods consumed by the Global North – electronics, clothing, vehicles – occurs within the manufacturing country, which nowadays means the Global South. Displacement over space and time (so over borders and generations) is what makes global warming and other environmental problems incredibly difficult to find solutions for.

Clearly, displacement presents political and legal problems, but what Rees seems most concerned with is the psychological problem. When you’re breathing in fresh air in Stanley Park, it’s hard to truly appreciate how the simple act of buying stuff is ecologically destructive, and this problem is compounded when the myth of successful sustainability emboldens consumers in BC, California and elsewhere.

I think Rees is oversimplifying, for effect – it is still important for cities to minimize their local ecological footprint, since transportation and infrastructure still make up a substantial portion of greenhouse gas emissions, plus the kind of reform needed to internalize the full cost of an iPod can’t really be expected from a municipal government. Nonetheless, his message is important. In all the press coverage the environment has received over the past year, I think that the thorough examination that comes with life cycle analysis – compiling the total amount of resources needed for a product over its lifetime – has been underplayed in favour of the much easier reductions in transportation and power use.

For example, at a conference I was at last fall, Green Party deputy leader David Chernushenko wryly pointed out people can hardly pat themselves on the back for buying a hybrid vehicle when half of all the emissions from cars comes during their manufacturing. As usual, the environmental solution is a hard one: instead of making better cars, we really need to make fewer.

When reading up on New York City, I repeatedly came across congratulatory statistics on the low per-capita impact of NYC residents, since the city’s density means its electricity and water use are (again, per capita) the lowest in the US. As life cycle analysis would show, this is incredibly misleading: when you factor in the ecological impact of the many, many manufactured goods consumed by New Yorkers, eco-city this ain’t.