December 28, 2011

On-line fiction project breaks new ground

As published in The Erin Advocate

Instead of retiring after a long career in publishing, John Denison has been writing the books he's always wanted to write. And this Sunday, January 1, he is launching an on-line project that challenges the traditional concept of a book.

"I just wanted to have fun," said Denison, who operated Boston Mills Press on Erin's Main Street for many years, specializing in books about Ontario's heritage. He's out of that field now (Firefly Books now has the Boston Mills brand), and has turned to fiction for teens and young adults.

Occam's Razor is the story of a comic book author nearing retirement who is kidnapped by one of his arch-evil characters. The tale swings between the "real" and fantasy worlds (with a different typeface for each) as the author's daughter dresses up as the comic book heroine Major Occam and crosses over to rescue her dad.

The publishing industry has seen the rise of e-books, to be read on computers or portable devices, and of sophisticated graphic novels from the comic book tradition. Digital presses can now produce high quality books very quickly, at low cost, and in very low quantities if necessary.

Denison's venture builds on these trends, combined with an old-fashioned serial technique – a new short chapter will be released every day for 120 days. He pushes the definition of a book by allowing readers to contribute illustrations, music, video and games, which will appear with the text. When the story is over, readers can order their own customized e-book or paper copy, with the illustrations they choose. Artists can order a version with their art alone.

"I think I'm the first one to do this," he said. "The book world I knew is flying away and whatever's next is arriving like a subway train. Hop on or go home seem to be the only choices."

The project is happening world-wide at, with the help of Forsefield, a young design team from Newmarket. They have also created downloadable apps and an Occam's Razor video game, available on iTunes.

Denison always liked the sound of "Occam's Razor". It's the name of his comic book universe, but also the real name of an ancient scientific principle that favours simple theories. Einstein is said to have summed it up thus: "Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler."

The story has lots of visual imagery, including a young dragon, that provide starting points for illustrators. And because the characters live in each person's imagination, they do not have to look the same in each picture. Denison says that all submitted images (screened only for good taste) will be posted with the chapters – everything from sophisticated illustrations to crayon drawings by little kids.

Go to the site's Artist Portal to find out about submitting your work. Or just check out the art that has already arrived, from as far away as Indonesia. Registered artists will get the chapters five days before the public, giving them a chance to create something related to the text. Music, video and games are also welcome, along with recordings of the text that could become part of an audio book.

Following the story or being a contributor is all free, but Denison is hoping to recover some of his investment through an on-line store that sells his other novels on a linked website, The home page there has previews of Fartboy and Booger (aimed at the adolescent male reader), along with Hanna The President's Daughter and Unlock Holmes Space Detective.

These books are available through the "print-on-demand" business model, which reduces traditional publishing risks and costs. There is no inventory, no expensive equipment and no chance of book stores returning the product. When you order a book on-line at a site like, it can be printed, bound and shipped in just a few days, and the publisher/author makes a better profit margin than they could ever hope for in the traditional model.

Denison's stories have brisk plots, prose that is easy to read (but not dumbed-down), engaging characters, believable emotional interactions and a range of modern issues. After reading a few preview chapters of the Occam story, I was left with an important question: "What's going to happen next?"

Major Occam probably won't be the next Harry Potter (but you never know). And maybe others will come along and take this new genre to new heights. That's all fine with Denison, as he gets ready to fling his creation out to the world.

December 21, 2011

'Tis the prime season for waste generation

As published in The Erin Advocate

How shall we celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Blue Box Recycling Program in Wellington County? A big party might be fun, but perhaps a bit wasteful. Maybe we could just kick our recycling efforts up to the next level. You know, like, go for the gusto, or the whole nine yards, or maybe we could give 110 per cent.

Actually, since only about 85 per cent of recyclables are being captured in the curbside programs, even a small increase would be good news.

Recycling fans will be glad to learn that three new types of material will be accepted in blue boxes as of January: milk and juice cartons (remove caps, but do not flatten), drink boxes (remove straws, but do not flatten) and frozen food boxes (flatten, and put in an unflattened box). I'll bet some people didn't even know these items were previously prohibited – or perhaps some were sneaking them into their blue boxes.

Of course, being responsible with your waste involves a lot more than dutifully filling the blue box. It requires an effort to reduce the volume of trash and recyclables we generate. County residents sent 12,800 tonnes of garbage to landfill last year, and recycled 5,000 tonnes through blue boxes. It is most important to reduce the first figure, but desirable to also reduce the second one.

It may require an occasional trip to the Belwood Transfer Station – think of it as a scenic drive and a chance to re-live the good old days of lining up at the now-closed Hillsburgh Transfer Station.

You might start with your natural Christmas tree. Urban curbside collection of trees will be done in the week of January 9, but all residents can bring them to the transfer station until January 31. There is no charge, but food bank donations will be accepted.

"Holiday celebrations and gift packaging dramatically increase household waste," says Solid Waste Chairman Don McKay, in the department's current newsletter.

Remember that wrapping paper, gift bags, ribbons and bows cannot be recycled, so it is worth trying to re-use them. Greeting cards can be recycled, as long as there is no plastic, fabric or metallic surfacing.

If you get new clothes for Christmas, consider donating some of your gently-used older ones at the Thrift Stores operated by East Wellington Community Services. Or, if you are going to Belwood, drop them at no charge in the transfer station textile bins. Other items like footwear, stuffed animals and linens are also accepted, and picked up by the Canadian Diabetes Association for reuse and recycling. Find out more at

Belwood also has a Reuse Centre, where you can leave household items like furniture, toys, luggage, dishes, electronics, books and sports equipment. You pay a small fee, the same as you might pay to dump the items in the waste bin. Instead, they go to a building where people can browse through the goods. It's like a garage sale, but everything is free to take.

The main website for waste services is at, where you can get lots of tips on diversion programs. There is also an online re-use service at, where items are also free.

For metal, tires, appliances, electronics, large batteries and motor oil, it may be most convenient to drop them at Erin Auto Recyclers on 17 Sideroad – all at no charge, except for freon appliances. But if you have to make a trip to Belwood with bulky material, you can save some money by bringing your regular garbage with you as well. Pack it into plain garbage bags and you will only be charged $1 per bag, as opposed to the $1.75 cost of the county's yellow pre-paid curbside pick-up bags. It's also $1 per bag (or equivalent) for wood, brush and scrap metal.

Some people save up their household hazardous waste for the once-a-year drop off day at Centre 2000, to be held in the spring instead of the summer this year. But you can reduce that collection by bringing household batteries to any county library. Belwood accepts some hazardous material, specifically motor oil and filters, antifreeze, household and automobile batteries, aerosol cans and propane cylinders, at no charge.

Don't mix hazardous materials with regular trash, or dump them down the sink or toilet. Old medications and vitamins are accepted at many pharmacies, and old paint is accepted by some retailers. Medical sharps require special precautions – check with your pharmacy or the county website for instructions.

December 14, 2011

1911 Christmas in Erin strikes a familiar chord

As published in The Erin Advocate

Christmas in the village 100 years ago was not all that different from what it is today. Browsing through issues of The Advocate from December 1911, the vocabulary seems strange, but the themes are the same: food, parties, concerts, Santa, hockey, church and shopping.

It had been 25 years since Karl Benz received the first patent for a gas-fueled car and three years since Henry Ford released his Model T ($950), but in this part of the country, motoring was still a fair-weather activity for the well-to-do. In December, a rural shopping trip for most people was dependent on good snow conditions.

"The sleighing of the past week has made business in all lines brighten up," said publisher Wellington Hull in the News Notes column. As always, it was interspersed with snippets of humour, such as, "Money isn't of any use to a man if his wife finds out he has it." Of course, the publisher was always ready to unite couples: "Marriage Licenses – Private Office – No Witnesses Required – Issued at any time – The Advocate Office".

At the Town Hall, a Union Sunday School Xmas Tree Entertainment was held on Dec. 21, with adults paying 25 cents to see a "splendid" musical program by students. This was Erin's first "Union Xmas Tree", a community party that was popular in many towns in Canada and the US in that era, often with presents from Santa for kids in attendance. It appears to be the precursor of today's "Tree Lighting" event.

At the R&R Store (Ritchie and Ramesbottom) the "Fresh for Christmas" advertised specials included mixed peel at 20 cents a pound and mince meat at 10 cents a package. Johnston's offered "Xmas Dainties" like navel oranges at 20 cents a dozen. In the "Notes of Particular Interest to Women Folks" there were instructions on how to pickle a mix of cabbage and celery.

In celebrity news, the nation was all aflutter with word that Princess Patricia, granddaughter of Queen Victoria, was moving to Canada now that her father Prince Arthur had been appointed Governor-General. She would be named Colonel-in-Chief of Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry when the First World War started. She was described in The Advocate as "the only princess in Great Britain who is really pretty, clever and witty, as well as young. She has a little atmosphere of romance...and a most unroyal sense of humor."

It was the one (and only) year in which Ontario issued car license plates made of porcelain. In December, Norwegian Roald Amundsen led the first successful expedition to the South Pole, and the Royal Canadian Mint, in existence only three years, responded to public outrage over "Godless coins".

The newly-crowned George V had been identified on Canadian coins as: DEI GRA:REX ET IND:IMP, a Latin abbreviation meaning "by the grace of God, the King and Emperor of India". The mint removed the grace of God words (dei gratia) in July, but was forced to restore them in December. Today's coins have a shorter version for George's granddaughter Elizabeth: D·G·REGINA.

In church news, Presbyterians were preparing to vote on uniting with Congregationalists, part of the decades-long turmoil that led to partial union with Methodists and creation of the United Church in 1925. The congregation of Burns Presbyterian in Erin rejected the union and remained with the Presbyterian Church in Canada.

In village news, councillors couldn't decide whether to provide a loan to the Woollen Mill. The Advocate said, "Council have shown the grossest negligence over this matter, which is one of vital interest to the community". Council also got a letter from H. Murdoch, complaining that his cellar was being flooded by water backing up on his premises from B. Mundell's planing mill flume being raised. Council decided it was a private matter and took no action.

In hockey news, home town Erin defeated Acton 10-4 before a large crowd on Christmas Day. Admission was 15 cents, but for ladies, 10 cents. "The Erin boys made a very natty appearance in their new suits, which were worn for the first time."

There were about 60 social notices in the paper of December 27, 1911, listing exactly who had visited who for Christmas, along with details of various school concerts. Large ads from local stores wished customers a happy and prosperous New Year – just as they do today.

The largest ad, however, was for the new edition of the T. Eaton Co. catalogue. A sale started on Boxing Day, with a promise "to reach the highest pinnacle in value-giving, and with it all this guarantee – We Gladly Refund Your Money If Goods Are Not Satisfactory." The two featured bargains were Corset Covers for 39 cents, and Lace Petticoats for $1.98. Orders over $25 got free delivery.

December 07, 2011

Resisting invasive species often a losing battle

As published in The Erin Advocate

Invasive species of plants and animals not only threaten local biodiversity, but create a costly burden for our society. The damage to agriculture and forestry, plus the costs of suppressing the invaders is estimated at $138 billion in the US. And with fears of biological attacks, it has also become a Homeland Security issue.

For humans – perhaps the most invasive of all species – the effort to control relatively new arrivals is often a losing battle. It is simply impossible to allocate enough resources to reverse these forces of nature. Ironically, we have in some ways unleashed them upon ourselves, by clearing land, moving species away from natural predators and accelerating climate change.

Some biologists argue that the tumultuous conditions created by globalization, human population growth and climate change have made the division between native and non-native seem irrelevant. Indeed, most of our food crops and livestock are not native to North America, and farming has been a prime destroyer of biodiversity. So it is more important than ever to defend the healthy native ecosystems that we still have.

"It is about picking your battles," said Rod Krick, a Natural Heritage Ecologist with Credit Valley Conservation (CVC), at a recent seminar on invasive species. CVC has made major efforts to control invasives on its own land and to educate private landowners about the threats.

"There are some that are so widespread that there is no feasible way to control them. The ones we can do something about, we focus on them, and on areas that still have a lot of native biodiversity."

One invader that has become virtually native is reed canary grass, a tall, perennial bunchgrass, up to 2.5 m in height, imported from Europe about 1850. It has been used as a landscaping ornamental, for hay and as a livestock forage crop. It creates single-species stands, crowding out other wetland species.

"While still considered invasive in our region, it is so widespread and so integrated into our wetland flora that management is all but impossible now," said Krick. The same approach has to be taken with certain species of fish – common carp and northern pike are considered invaders in the upper Credit River, but getting rid of them is considered unrealistic.

"This does not mean they are not invasive though, or that we accept them," said Krick. "Complete control may not be possible, but in some situations we can ‘manage’ them to acceptable levels."

Speaking in Erin recently, Don MacIver, Mayor of Amaranth Township and a senior climate change scientist with Environment Canada, said that once CO2 levels double, the conditions for good forest biodiversity that now exist near Windsor will be up north of Sault Ste. Marie.

"There is a tremendous migration that is expected in terms of forest species northward as the climate warms. What happens to the native tree species? They are under threat, they are growing outside their climatic optimum, and as a consequence they are subject to disease and infestation from invasive species. It's not surprising, we see the Ash Borer here today...there are many more that will come in from the United States and elsewhere, and it is going to be very difficult to maintain native tree species in this area."

The Emerald Ash Borer attacks and kills healthy ash trees. The Canadian Food Inspection agency has urged Wellington County residents not to move firewood away from source areas, to limit the infestation.

MacIver said that with proper land use controls (restriction of development), it may be possible to reverse the decline in biodiversity by 2020, and even restore it to the level it was at prior to European settlement, by the end of this century.

"Climate change has the opportunity to re-establish the original baseline of 1792, but it won't be with native tree species. It will be a combination of native and new. You have the ability right now to grow Washington DC species here in Ontario. The climate has changed, but we haven't caught up to it. We're still out there planting native tree species.

"You have the opportunity to bring in new species. That's called planned adaptation, assisted migration. It means sitting down with the community and deciding how you want that community to look."

Credit Valley Conservation is studying the impact of climate change and planning for adaptation, but has not yet changed its tree planting practices.

"We aren’t necessarily looking at new species to bring here that may be better adapted," said Krick.

"The most recent literature says assisted migration is generally not recommended by scientists and practitioners at this point in time. Any work done in this area has to be conducted carefully and within a rigorous experimental framework, as we don't want to be introducing problem species and this would include non-natives. Rather as a first step we are looking at creating better connections between natural areas that will allow species to move more freely to ‘assist’ with more natural migration."

The Ministry of Natural Resources is conducting experiments on the success of trees planted outside their normal ranges. While the areas being planted by conservation authorities would not immediately have a major impact on the forest population, they may be able to establish seed production areas for future climates, according to Barb Boysen of the Forest Gene Conservation Association.

"Though southern sources may suffer initially under the more extreme northern conditions, within decades they might prove to be better adapted than local sources," she said. "If we waited decades to bring southern sources north, they may be too maladapted in their changed local climate to produce seed.

"Strategic action requires understanding that forests are a diverse mosaic of species and local populations of those species, which are genetically adapted to local conditions. As these conditions change, local forests may not have the genetic capacity to adapt. And there is evidence that the climate is changing faster than natural migration rates."