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My other car is a train

I got my drivers licence at 27. Bought my first (and only) car at 33. It’s safe to say I’m not a car person, though I think my little blue Toyota Echo hatchback is cute and pragmatic, and am quite fond of reliable Azulito in an anthropomorphized way.  He even doubled for the Psych Blueberry one episode. Which doesn’t mean I wouldn’t ditch him in a second if it were practical.

He’s 10 years old now and I’d started to think it might be prudent to consider a trade in before any major problems cropped up … until it occurred to me that maybe I just don’t need him or anyone like him anymore. I take the SkyTrain to work — it’s much more convenient and often faster than driving — and because I have the transit pass I use transit when it’s easy otherwise, too, like getting downtown without facing hordes of jaywalking pedestrians, one-way streets and expensive parking.

Unwilling to make the immediate leap to no car at all, I explored car sharing organizations. For the summer, every time I brought Azulito out, I’ve been considering how life would get more complicated if I were to give him up. I figured I’d use a car share to pick up my Little Sister and for some shopping trips and transit for yoga (assuming I actually go). No problem.

And then Azulita helpfully wouldn’t start one day when I was going to be lazy and take him to work, so I got to test the concept in practice. I had a Car2Go and Zipcar membership. It’s been a few weeks and I finally caved: I’m getting my car fixed tomorrow. The breaking point? The opportunity to go on a set visit in Aldergrove, with the option of a ride if I backtracked about an hour to go downtown from work first, or to get a Zipcar for the day … and I found I resented paying the daily charge when I actually only needed it for a few hours.

Because my biggest learning is that if your life extends outside Vancouver’s city boundaries — and I work in Surrey, fell in love with a yoga studio in Burnaby, and Big Sister events are sometimes far-flung — car share isn’t always convenient. Well, that and Smart Cars are fun little things but very clunky to drive.

I adore Car2Go for the right kind of trip: you can take them one-way, leave them, and pick up another one for the return trip if needed, only paying for the driving time ($14.99/hour, and both car shares include gas and insurance). There are always a couple parked on my block. But the zone where you can leave them doesn’t even encompass the entire city, and my Little Sister happens to live outside that zone.

Zipcar’s advertised rates are from $7.75/hour but the cars in walking distance from my home are over $12/hour, and there’s a small insurance fee per month or a very large deductible in case of damage that I didn’t see advertised before signing up. And again, because I’ll be in Surrey when I need a car, I’d need to pay for it starting from when I leave for work in the morning or backtrack nearly as long as I would to catch a ride.

I haven’t given up on the car share idea. I plan to continue using Car2Go for one way trips. I’m planning to check out Modo, whose rates seem more favourable than Zipcar and who have more cars closer to me (and are, incidentally, the car co-op I was going to sign up with before needing to buy a car for my job at the time). And I’m planning to get Azulito fixed so I can go to Aldergrove on Thursday and maybe a spontaneous trip to Trader Joe’s this weekend.

Azulito, I just can’t quit you. Yet.

We Have Liftoff: Watching the Earth Breathe from Space

We Have Liftoff: Watching the Earth Breathe from Space

T-46 seconds.

We could hear the anticipation in the voices crackling over the loudspeaker broadcasting from the control room: a calm voice with its rapid-fire listing of each system, and before the last syllable ended a new eager voice would chime in with “go”.

All systems go for the Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 launch … until T-46 when a failure in the water system made the voices grow somber. A 30 second launch window doesn’t give a lot of time to fix problems that aren’t found until 46 seconds before it begins, but the voices consulted their manual and started another checklist until time ran out and the crowd deflated.

“What does that mean?” we asked our Vandenberg Air Force Base guide for the day, Chief of Community Relations Larry Hill. “What’s a water system failure?”

He gestured helplessly. “I’m just a trumpet player from Albuquerque.”

He’s more than that, with 24 years of active service behind him, including, yes, playing trumpet in the Air Force Band. But no one had clear answers yet at the public viewing site where our NASA Social participants gathered for the 3 am launch on July 1. Bleary eyed, knowing we’d see little through the fog, knowing a scrub was a possibility but excited to be there, together — our little social media mission with our major access to what many – but not us — would consider a minor launch (as in, unmanned and orbiting Earth rather than sexier Mars).

The fact that many of us had travelled a great distance to attend the pre-launch event and dragged ourselves out of bed to the viewing site in the middle of the night didn’t seem to enter into the decision. We’d even eaten the lucky peanuts and sung a few bars of “The Final Countdown.”

It was later explained as a problem with the Vandenberg launch pad, not the NASA satellite itself or United Launch Alliance’s Delta II rocket that would send it into orbit (US space travel is a cooperative effort between NASA, the air force, and private industry): “The system provides sound suppression to dampen acoustic waves at liftoff and protects a launch pad flame duct.” Right, of course.

“Better a good scrub than a bad launch,” said Stephanie Smith, one of our NASA guides and one of the brains behind NASA’s social media accounts, including Mars Curiosity Rover. And indeed, the disappointment of OCO-2’s one-day delay (it successfully launched 24 hours later) was nothing compared to the devastation of OCO-1’s crash into the ocean shortly after launch in 2009.

A small number of our group – those with more flexible itineraries — stayed for the next day’s liftoff and saw not even the promised red glow through the heavy fog. But we all cheered that launch success, and the continuing news that OCO-2 is operating as expected so far.


It’s personal

This is our mission too, now. Faced with a disinterested media, budget cuts and questionable political support, NASA has turned to Twitter in particular to build an army of social media advocates. Their NASA Social events gather select social media users to get a crash course on a particular mission or project and maybe to witness a launch first-hand (preferably with no crash included).

The day leading up to that early morning, we had been given incredible access to the people behind the machines, from the mission scientists and engineers to NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. They were human beings to us now, and we felt their disappointment more keenly than our own.


When Project Architect Randy Pollock started on the original Orbiting Carbon Observatory project – the one that made a bottom-of-the-ocean synchronous orbit — his son was in kindergarten; now he’s an intern at NASA JPL. That’s’ 13 years of Pollock’s life invested in a mission that was lucky to get a second chance. I suppose more important than our need to see the rocket’s red glare was their need to have a long-awaited success.


At the launch pad site we asked questions of NASA Administrator Bolden, who boldly stated that we’ll send humans to Mars by 2030, and encouraged us to share our excitement about our OCO-2 experience widely. The undercurrent, of course, is that future missions are in jeopardy due to current funding cuts.

One measure of our enthusiasm (apart from the number of selfies taken with the rocket) was our eagerness to see the launch from a prime vantage point. One of our group asked what would happen if we witnessed it from this very spot, metres away. Before enumerating the disastrous physical effects of standing too close, former shuttle astronaut Bolden said “I’ve never been this close before. Well actually I have; I’ve been on it.”

When pressed at the social media briefing earlier in the day what one message they’d like to convey, the OCO-2 team said “Science is fun.” They aren’t just words to NASA – they instill a spirit of fun and awe into their social media advocacy.

All that and a purpose too


OCO-2’s mission isn’t to prove climate change, nor to prove the human contribution to greenhouse gases. NASA’s earth scientists have moved on and call those questions a false debate. Scientists are able to accurately measure the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere – the key driver of climate change — both today and in the past, and see our impact.

“Climate change is real. Period. We have all the data to show it’s happening; we don’t have all the data to know how to address it,” said Annmarie Eldering, OCO-2’s Deputy Project Scientist.

OCO-2 will gather that data about where all the carbon dioxide in our atmosphere comes from and how the various natural “sinks” – oceans and forests – absorb and later release carbon back into the atmosphere. Eldering knows more data won’t convince skeptics, but believes the more we understand and can measure, the more informed our actions and policies can be.

When people found out I was going to see a rocket launch, a common question was “NASAs still does that?” With the demise of the shuttle and the US ability to send man into space, the media and public’s attention has wandered.

Seeing a satellite-bearing rocket head into space, meeting the people who made it happen, and knowing the importance of the mission and the consequences of failure — both in launch and in societal acceptance of climate change — made it personal all right. I’ll be cheering OCO-2 on as it makes its way into its orbit and starts collecting and transmitting its crucial data.

Originally published on Because Geeks

All the Single (Parent) Ladies (and Gentlemen)

I know what my friends mean when they say they’re a single parent while their spouse is out of town. Everyone knows what they mean. Obviously logistics and stresses are increased without the usual in-home support of the spouse, and a two-parent household is more likely to have a lifestyle that requires two adults to maintain it while maintaining sanity.

I’m not a single parent myself, or a parent of any kind. If you call me my cats’ mother I will mock you, and if you look for any nurturing examples to suggest I have mother-like qualities I will cut you. It’s really not an insult not to say I’m not a mother. And yet hearing coupled people call themselves single parents makes me cringe. That’s my issue, and no one should stop using the natural shorthand, and I’d feel bad if anyone felt bad for using it, but here’s why it I cringe.

My mom became a single parent when my brother was 3 and I was 10 months old, after the death of our father. I know others who are single parents by circumstance or choice. Some co-parent with an ex, which can be fraught with other issues. Some have supportive families, some are very alone. There’s no one face of single parenthood.

But the faces I’ve seen most closely, the ones that deserve to be seen most closely, have half the income, if that, of those whose spouses are on a business trip. They haven’t signed their kids up for as many activities, if any, because they can’t afford it or can’t find ways to get them there or can’t find the time and energy. And they can be almost invisible to those of us who look around our social circle and see people mostly like ourselves, not those who rely on subsidized housing and food banks.

A friend who’s single parenting this weekend explained that her kids are too young to do anything for Mother’s Day by themselves. The thing is, if they were growing up with a single parent, they wouldn’t be. They’d give her the homemade card they made in school or daycare, and maybe some toast and peanut butter. Birthdays would be sketchy because there are no societal reminders of the day, so she’d be lucky to get a Mars bar and a comic book a couple days late. They’d likely be coming home from school alone younger, cooking the family dinner younger, taking public transit younger than kids with two parents at home, and that’s their normal.

There’s no reason for anyone to stop using the term single parent to describe a temporary state, or to assume single parenthood means deprivation, but there is always reason for us to open our eyes for those who are struggling around us. So if a spouse’s business trip can help build empathy for the struggles of some actual single parents, I’m all for the shared label.

You posts your vacations and you takes your chance

You posts your vacations and you takes your chance


When I was in grade seven, seven people died in Chicago from taking Tylenol that had been laced with potassium cyanide somewhere along the distribution chain. My not-well-loved social studies teacher used the incident as the starting point of a discussion about our modern reliance on pre-packaged goods or some such nonsense. The question was how we could trust the products we buy. My answer was because you can’t live in fear on the off-chance your Tylenol has been poisoned by a madman.

Believe it or not, this is a post about why I’m ok with posting my vacations on social media. Bear with me.

On the whole, us humans are terrible at evaluating risk. We tend to underestimate common risks and overestimate the very unlikely. I just wrote a post about the possibility of human annihilation from an asteroid strike: unlikely, but fun to ponder.

We’re more likely to die in a car crash than a plane crash. To be murdered by an ex-lover than a gang member.  Kids are far more likely to be kidnapped by a non-custodial parent than a stranger. Our lungs are more likely to be damaged by poor indoor air quality, including second-hand smoke, than car exhaust.

I’m far more likely to be burgled by the wrong kind of person gaining entry to my building at the wrong time, maybe even a neighbour who has seen me coming and going often enough to realize I work during the day, maybe knows the car I drive so knows what its absence means.

Far less likely is the scenario that the wrong person stumbles across a tweet hinting I’m away for the weekend, who also knows where I live, assumes no one else is here when I’m gone (not a safe assumption with someone who has pets), and assumes I have something worth stealing to make it all worth the effort (I’m quite fond of my cats but they’re more of a money drain than a bonanza).

For some people, the obvious solution is not to post vacations on social media. For me, the obvious solution is to build a bunker and never leave. But then that poor indoor air quality would probably kill me.

Yay! Science!

Yay! Science!


I don’t like a lot of clutter on my fridge but I do have a few magnets I love. Bonus: one holds tickets to the next event I’m attending, and one covers a mysterious dent in the stainless steel that was either caused by a visitor’s bike or Foster my fat cat trying to break in.

The newest is my favourite right now, from the Yay! Life! series. (Though I’m sure I would also love a Boo! Life! series.)

I picked it up partly because of one aspect of the void I feel without my brother — he and I were on the same side of the skeptic scale, and in a world of people who want to talk about astrology we could mock pseudoscience together. But also, I just love the simple expression of unabashed enthusiasm … that inevitably provokes people to yuck on your yum, as Ze Frank would say.

Voluntarily placing yourself in the yay science camp with the rationalists, skeptics, humanists, whatever label you like, gives people a box to put you in. “You’re a nice person for an atheist” a friend once told me. “You don’t believe in anything” said another, though my beliefs are strong – just opposed to hers.

Science is sterile. Cold. Unemotional. Denies the mysteries of life.

Bullshit. Science is critical thinking. Experimentation. Miraculous (figuratively speaking).

Science is this:

Science is this:

Science is this:


June 29 – Actor/Author Q&A for Kids Help Phone

June 29 – Actor/Author Q&A for Kids Help Phone

Over a year ago I sort of accidentally held the first TV, eh? charity auction, raising $6800 for Kids Help Phone. When people told me they’d be happy to donate next year, I decided sure, I guess should do it annually. At least, annually-ish.

I didn’t do it late last year as originally intended, so I’m now going to launch the 2nd Annual-ish TV, eh? Charity Auction later this month. I’m slowly asking people for donations of TV-related items to put up for bid, and they are rapidly agreeing, so look for news on that soon.

But tying in to the online auction, I’m holding a small real-life fundraiser in Vancouver, too, with Quinn Cummings, an Oscar-nominated actress and now author. She’ll be giving a talk and Q&A where you can pick her brain about her life as a child actress (that Oscar nomination was for The Goodbye Girl) and successful writer. Her book Notes From The Underwire is hilarious and even poignant, and I even loved The Year of Learning Dangerously though I have no exposure to homeschooling. She just released Pet Sounds and I’ll be downloading that one soon.

All proceeds will go to Kids Help Phone again. And by proceeds I mean the entire ticket price minus the modest amount the ticketing site takes in fees. I’ve set a suggested ticket price of $25 but please take advantage of the pay what you can option in order to not let money get in the way of coming out. There will be an engaging speaker who will let you pick her brain, a silent auction and a room full of interesting people.

More details and tickets are available here.