Sunday, February 28, 2010

Gratitude et joie

Going into Sunday...

The Canadian Press: The host country at the Vancouver Games jumped into the record books Saturday with a total of 13 gold medals -- an all-time, all-season best that matched the most top-tier podium finishes by any nation in a Winter Olympics.

Canada won three golds in one day for the first time ever in a Winter Games... In terms of gold medals alone, the three on Saturday gave Canada the record for a host nation at a Winter Games -- previously 10, won by the US in Salt Lake City in 2002 and by Norway in Lillehammer in 1994.

Ten was also Canada's own benchmark for most golds claimed at an Olympics, summer or winter, established in Los Angeles in 1984.

Canada now shares the all-time biggest crop of gold medals for any country in a Winter Olympics with Norway in 2002 and the Soviet Union in 1976, and has a chance to outstrip it Sunday in the men's hockey final versus the United States.
Image source here.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Chile's 8.8: tsunami ETAs

Earthquake February 27, 12:34 AM in Chile;
five hours earlier in Vancouver

'The space to celebrate, to sing and dance'

Video: Spectacular Olympic Night Lights of Vancouver

'It's been a bit of a smash hit, closing a bunch of our streets and creating this walking celebration.'

Vancouver Sun: For the past two weeks downtown Vancouver turned into a big street party as up to 150,000 people per day flooded into the core to wander around, take in the sights and check out the many cultural events. 'Downtown feels like a downtown should,' said heritage expert John Atkin. 'It's busy, it's crowded, it's active all hours of the night and everyone is having fun.'...

Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson thinks one of the keys to the success one of the simplest: closing off several blocks of Granville and Robson. 'The road closures have enabled people to have the space to celebrate, to sing and dance'... The streets are animated with art, with musical acts, with street performers. The most important single factor in the vibe might be the Cultural Olympiad and the LiveCity sites... 'I stand to be corrected, but I think this is the largest arts and culture festival in Canadian history,' said Mayor Robertson...

The Cultural Olympiad was programmed by Robert Kerr, who put together a diverse program... The interesting thing about the cultural stuff is that it hasn't been mainstream. Kerr's philosophy is that people will respond to intellectually challenging music or culture, if only they get a chance to experience it... The masses have responded by coming out, and Kerr is delighted...

'I'm hoping we learn from this that we can actually do crowds. We don't need an omnipresent police [presence]'... Atkin said one of the ways the city has blossomed is that authorities have relaxed and allowed street life to just happen.
Image source here.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

'Our allies' shameful methods'

Did we turn a blind eye to Afghan prisoners?
James Travers, Toronto Star: In the winter of 2007, three insurgents captured by Canada's top-secret Joint Task Force Two disappeared into the notorious Afghan prison system. Prime Minister Stephen Harper suspended Parliament rather than release related documents that raise difficult questions about the role of this country's special forces and spies in targeting, capturing and interrogating key enemies.

Linking those events are fears about Isa Mohammed and two other prisoners transferred to Kabul control by Canadians after successful Kandahar operations. In a private 2007 briefing, the prestigious International Committee of the Red Cross expressed concern to Canada that the men had either been killed or were being held by the US in one of its controversial 'black site' military prisons.

Dispatches detailing those worries, the names of the three missing men -- as well as a fourth who Canadians found -- and Red Cross frustration over the military's persistent failure to provide timely, accurate prisoner information are in the files the Harper government is withholding. Along with the parallel testimony of Canadian diplomat Richard Colvin, those documents pose a political problem for ruling Conservatives. More significantly, they are a threat to relations between Ottawa and Washington, which this country sent its troops to Afghanistan largely to reinforce...

Harper prorogued Parliament in December at least in part to put an end to awkward opposition questions about what generals and ministers knew about Afghan abuse of combatants... Now the Prime Minister can only hope that next week's throne speech and budget will distract attention from something much worse: Worry that Canadians turned a systematically blind eye to their allies' shameful methods.
Image: Members of Canada's secretive JTF2 unit escort three detainees across tarmac at the airport in Kandahar, Afghanistan, on Jan. 21, 2002. Source here.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Gut feelings

Think Twice: How the Gut's 'Second Brain' Influences Mood and Well-Being
Scientific American: Technically known as the enteric nervous system, the second brain consists of sheaths of neurons embedded in the walls of the long tube of our gut, or alimentary canal, which measures about nine meters end to end from the esophagus to the anus.

The second brain contains some 100 million neurons, more than in either the spinal cord or the peripheral nervous system... Thus equipped with its own reflexes and senses, the second brain can control gut behavior independently of the brain...

'The system is way too complicated to have evolved only to make sure things move out of your colon,' says Emeran Mayer... For example, scientists were shocked to learn that about 90 percent of the fibers in the primary visceral nerve, the vagus, carry information from the gut to the brain and not the other way around...

'A big part of our emotions are probably influenced by the nerves in our gut,' Mayer says. Butterflies in the stomach -- signaling in the gut as part of our physiological stress response... is but one example. Although gastrointestinal (GI) turmoil can sour one's moods, everyday emotional well-being may rely on messages from the brain below to the brain above...

The enteric nervous system uses more than 30 neurotransmitters, just like the brain, and in fact 95 percent of the body's serotonin is found in the bowels... It's little wonder that meds meant to cause chemical changes in the mind often provoke GI issues as a side effect. Irritable bowel syndrome... also arises in part from too much serotonin in our entrails, and could perhaps be regarded as a 'mental illness' of the second brain...

Scientists are learning that the serotonin made by the enteric nervous system also play a role in more surprising diseases... 'It was totally unexpected that the gut would regulate bone mass to the extent that one could use this regulation to cure -- at least in rodents -- osteoporosis,' says Gerard Karsenty...

Serotonin seeping from the second brain might even play some part in autism... The same genes involved in synapse formation between neurons in the brain are involved in the alimentary synapse formation. 'If these genes are affected in autism,' says [Michael Gershon, author of the 1998 book, The Second Brain], 'it could explain why so many kids with autism have GI motor abnormalities.'... Cutting edge research is currently investigating how the second brain mediates the body's immune system response; after all, at least 70 percent of our immune system is aimed at the gut to expel and kill foreign invaders...

Mayer is doing work on how the trillions of bacteria in the gut 'communicate' with enteric nervous system cells (which they greatly outnumber). His work with the gut's nervous system has led him to think that in coming years psychiatry will need to expand to treat the second brain in addition to the one atop the shoulders... It may well behoove us all to pay more heed to our so-called 'gut feelings' in the future.
Image source here.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Male privilege for transmen

How the Unconscious Mind Can Act Out Our Prejudices
From The Hidden Brain, by Shankar Vedantam: Transgendered people allow us to scientifically apply the research on sexism to the lives of individuals... There is compelling empirical evidence to show that when men transition to becoming women, they experience all kinds of disadvantages that they did not experience when they were men. Their incomes, on average, fall. When women transition to becoming men, they find they have all kinds of new privileges. Their incomes, on average, rise. Transmen -- people who transition from female to male -- often report aspects of their professional lives getting easier. Transwomen -- people who transition from male to female -- often report the reverse...

The sociologist Kristen Schilt has tracked this phenomenon. Between 2003 and 2005, she followed the lives of twenty-nine transmen in Southern California. The transmen were white-collar and blue-collar workers, professionals, and retail salesmen. They ranged in age from twenty to forty-eight. They included people who were white, black, Latino, Asian, and biracial. Eighteen of the twenty-nine were open, meaning their co-workers knew they had once been women. Eleven of them were 'stealth' transmen.

Overwhelmingly, the men told Schilt that they were being treated better than they'd been treated as women... One thirty-nine-year-old white man who worked in a blue-collar job told Shilt: 'I swear they let the guys get away with so much stuff! Lazy-ass bastards get away with so much stuff, and the women who are working hard, they just get ignored.'...

Cal, a thirty-four-year-old 'stealth' transman, told Schilt about the hardware store where he worked after he made the transition: 'Girls couldn't get their forklift license, or it would take them forever. They wouldn't make as much money... I would never have seen it if I was a regular guy. I would have just not seen it.' A Latino attorney told Shilt that an attorney at another law firm had complemented his boss for firing an incompetent woman and hiring a new lawyer who was 'just delightful.' The attorney at the other firm did not know that the incompetent woman and the delightful new lawyer were the same person.

One transman told Shilt that he was not asked to do different work after the transition, but doing his work suddenly became much easier. He recalled that before the transition, he would often be told that crews and trucks were not available when he needed some help. 'I swear it was like from one day to the next of me transitioning. I would say, 'I need this, this is what I want' and -- the man snapped his fingers. 'I have not had to fight about anything.'

'While transgender people have the same human capital after their transitions, their workplace experiences often change radically,' Shilt and Wiswall wrote in a paper they published in The B.E. Journal of Economic Analysis & Policy.... For many male-to-female transgender workers, becoming a woman often brings a loss of authority, harassment, and termination, but that for female-to-male workers, becoming a man often brings an increase in respect and authority.' These findings... illustrate the often hidden and subtle processes that produce gender inequality.'
Image source here.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Low oxygen led to land and breathing

Lack of oxygen forced fishes' 1st breath
CBC: A global drop in oxygen levels may have been the driver that led ancient fish to leave the water and evolve into the first air-breathing animals on land... Doctoral student Alice Clement, from the Australian National University's Research School of Earth Sciences, and Museum Victoria researcher Prof. John Long... make the claim based on the fossilized remains of a fish that lived about 375 million years ago... known as Rhinodipterus...

A number of features found in modern lungfish that are important to its air-gulping behaviour were found in the fossil. These included a long mouth cavity and cranial ribs attached to the base of the skull... The longer mouth cavity enables them to hold a bubble of air in their mouths, while the cranial ribs anchor the pectoral girdle during air gulping.

Yet while modern lungfish exist in freshwater environments, The Rhinodipterus lived in the ocean. 'This runs counter to the standard theory that fish evolved the ability to breathe air once they moved to freshwater habitats,'... said Clement.

The researchers suggest low global oxygen levels during this period, known as the Devonian, may explain the evolution of air-gulping characteristics. Previous studies have shown oxygen levels fell as low as 12 per cent of the total atmosphere. Today, global oxygen levels are about 20 per cent...

'This makes us believe that breathing air arose twice at this early time in vertebrate evolution: once in lungfishes and once in the fish lineage leading to land animals, and ultimately to us.' [Long] said.
Image source here.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Cole calls out Canadian Zionist David Frum

The Decline of the Israeli Right and the Increasing Desperation of the 'Anti-Semitism' Charge
Juan Cole, Informed Comment: ... This Iraq strategy, which intended to stop the Rabin peace process and prevent the return of Gaza and the West Bank to the Palestinians for their state, was laid out by... Neoconservatives in a white paper for Bibi Netanyahu in 1996. Many of the authors were subsequently put in high office by Bush-Cheney... They included Canadian gadfly journalist David Frum, who authored Bush's 2002 'Axis of Evil' speech...

Frum, a Canadian who only became naturalized as a US citizen in 2007, was important in the early years of the Bush presidency and crafted many of the falsehoods and propaganda points that got up the Iraq War. He bears a heavy responsibility for the unnecessary deaths of over 4000 military personnel, for the deaths of some 600,000 Iraqis, and for the displacement of nearly 4 million Iraqis. In a just world, David Frum would be on trial for his role in severe violations of international law...

Since supporters of the Likud government, Christian and Jewish, are even now attempting to foment a US war on Iran on behalf of rightwing objectives in Israel,... I rather stand by my condemnation of them.... But I will complain about David Frum's dual loyalties. I am very suspicious of a rightwing Stephen Harper-style Canadian becoming so influential in the United States... I fear he may be influencing my country in directions that benefit rightwing Canadian politicians and war industries in Ottawa.
Image source here.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Canada #4: UN Human Development Report

Human Development Reports (United Nations Development Programme)

UNDP: Human Development... is about much more than the rise or fall of national income. It is about creating an environment in which people can develop their full potential and lead productive, creative lives in accord with their needs and interests. People are the real wealth of nations. Development is thus about expanding the choices people have to lead lives that they value...

The most basic capabilities for human development are to lead long and healthy lives, to be knowledgeable, to have access to the resources needed for a decent standard of living and to be able to participate in the life of the community. Without these, many choices are simply not available, and many opportunities in life remain inaccessible.

This way of looking at development, often forgotten in the immediate concern with accumulating commodities and financial wealth, is not new. Philosophers, economists and political leaders have long emphasized human wellbeing as the purpose, the end of development. As Aristotle said in ancient Greece, 'Wealth is evidently not the good we are seeking, for it is merely useful for the sake of something else.'

In seeking that something else, human development shares a common vision with human rights. The goal is human freedom. And in pursuing capabilities and realizing rights, this freedom is vital. People must be free to exercise their choices and to participate in decision-making that affects their lives. Human development and human rights are mutually reinforcing, helping to secure the well-being and dignity of all people, building self-respect and the respect of others.

10. Japan
The United States was ranked #13, the United Kingdom #21.
Image source here.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The death of Bo Sr, her tribe and language

Ancient tribe becomes extinct as last member dies
CNN: The last member of an ancient tribe that has inhabited an Indian island chain for around 65,000 years has died... Boa Sr, who was around 85 years of age, died last week in the Andaman islands, about 750 miles off India's eastern coast, Survival International said in a statement... She was the the last member of one of ten distinct Great Andamanese tribes, the Bo...

'[It is] A very fast erosion of indigenous knowledge base, that we are all helplessly witnessing,' read an obituary in Boa Sr's honor... Project director Anvita Abbi, a professor at New Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University, met with Boa as recenly as last year. 'She was the only member who remembered the old songs... Bo Sr was the only speaker of Bo and had no one to converse with in that language'... Her husband and children had already died...

Survival International estimates there are now just 52 Great Andamanese left. There were believed to be 5,000 of them when the British colonized the archipelago in 1858. Most of those tribal communities were subsequently killed or died of diseases... The British also held the indigenous tribal people captive in what was called an Andaman Home, but none of the 150 children born there survived beyond two years of age.

The Guardian: Bo Sr, who lived through the 2004 tsunami, the Japanese occupation and diseases brought by British settlers, was the last native of the island chain who was fluent in Bo... thought to date back to pre-Neolithic human settlement of south-east Asia...

'Her loss is not just the loss of the Great Andamanese community,... Narayan Choudhary, a linguist of Jawaharlal Nehru University... wrote on his webpage. 'To me, Boa Sr epitomised a totality of humanity in all its hues and with a richness that is not to be found anywhere else.'

The Andaman Islands, in the Bay of Bengal, are governed by India. The indigenous population has steadily collapsed since the island chain was colonised by British settlers in 1858 and used for most of the following 100 years as a penal colony.

Tribes on some islands retained their distinct culture by dwelling deep in the forests and rebuffing would-be colonisers, missionaries and documentary makers with volleys of arrows. But the last vestiges of remoteness ended with the construction of trunk roads from the 1970s.
Image source here.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Arctic could be ice-free in three years

Arctic sea ice vanishing faster than 'our most pessimistic models'
Vancouver Sun: Sea ice in Canada's fragile Arctic is melting faster than anyone expected... raising the possibility that the Arctic could, in a worst-case scenario, be ice-free in about three years.

University of Manitoba Prof. David Barber, the lead investigator of the Circumpolar Flaw Lead System Study, said the rapid decay of thick Arctic Sea ice highlights the rapid pace of climate change in the North and foreshadows what will come in the South.

'We're seeing it happen more quickly than what our models thought would happen,' Barber said in a student symposium on climate change in Winnipeg. 'It's happening much faster than our most pessimistic models suggested.'...

'If you go into the rain forest and you cut down all the trees, the ecosystem in that rain forest will collapse,' he said. If you go to the Arctic and you remove all the sea ice or if you remove the timing of the sea ice, the system will change.'

That change will include more invasive species moving up from the South and species that live in the Far North having to adapt to a different environment. The occurrence of Arctic cyclones is also on the rise, which contributes to ice breakup...

This impact means more variability in the Earth's climate -- warm trends are warmer and cold trends are colder... Those extremes may include more frequent summer droughts and more spring floods in southern climes...

Dr. Steve Ferguson, a research scientist with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, said the thinning ice and warming of the water brings species from the south and the potential for the spread of disease.
Image source here.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Flag Day: 45 years

Douglas Bell, Globe & Mail: Americans (progressives particularly) console themselves with the notion that we're a lot like them and that when 'the people' get out of hand, throwing up fundamentally irrational policy (isolationism, the death penalty, state sanctioned torture, 'welfare to work'), pointing at their dozy younger brother will help pull manifest destiny back into line. Well, actually it's a little more involved than that... Put simply, the United States is a radical experiment in libertarian individualism. Canada, er, isn't. Sorting similarities between Americans and Canadians is like fishing about dancing.
History of the flag of Canada here. Image source here.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Canada: oldest evidence of animals on Earth

Yukon fossils reveal earliest traces of animal life
Vancouver Sun: Microscopic fossils at Mount Slipper, a 1,500-metre peak north of Dawson City near the Yukon-Alaska border, have been dated to nearly 800 million years ago... That situates the fossil bed at a crucial time in Earth history, when primitive, unicellular forms of life were beginning to evolve more complex structures ahead of the rise of mobile, Ediacaran-era organisms 600 million years ago and the Cambrian-age 'explosion' of larger and more diverse animal species about 500 million years ago...

These microfossils are perhaps the earliest eukaryotic 'biomineralizers' -- the first organisms to incorporate minerals in their body to form a shell of sorts,' [said] 'Harvard University geologist Francis Macdonald, lead author of the study...

Macdonald said Mount Slipper and nearby sites in Yukon and Alaska 'preserve some of the best records in the world of Earth history between one billion and 540 million years ago, which captures the time of eukaryotic diversification and the origin of animals.' The fossil records in the area 'are complete, organic rich, and contain volcanic ashes, which allow us to calibrate the age of our discoveries.' he added.

Canada's unrivalled geological diversity -- including some of the world's oldest rocks and vast tracts of exposed fossils -- attracts many international researchers working to record the story of evolution as it unfolded at microscopic scale in the dawning era of life. In the same edition of Geology in which the Macdonald-led study appears, a team of British and Canadian paleontologists reported the discovery in Newfoundland of the oldest evidence of animal locomotion -- a 565-million-year-old fossilized trackway of an unidentified, sea anemone-like marine creature...

Last year, a team of Canadian and US scientists reported a major discovery in the Mackenzie Mountains near the Yukon-Northwest Territories border. They found chemical traces left by what they believe to be an 850-million-year-old, spongelike organism -- possibly the oldest evidence of an animal ancestor ever found on Earth.
Image source here.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Economist 2010: Vancouver still #1

Olympics host Vancouver ranked world's most liveable city
Reuters Life: Vancouver has again topped a list of the top 10 most livable cities in the world... In the annual survey by the Economist Intelligence Unit, Vancouver scored 98 percent on a combination of stability, health care, culture and environment, education and infrastructure -- a score unchanged from last year. The city has also topped the index since at least 2007.

In the 2010 ranking, there was little change in the top positions with Vienna, Melbourne and Toronto still taking the second, third and fourth positions and the top 10 dominated by Canadian and Australian cities, which took seven of the top 10 slots... The Economist Intelligence Unit survey ranked 140 cities on 30 factors such as health care, culture and environment, and education and personal safety... New York was ranked 56th, two slots behind London which was at number 54, while Los Angeles ranked at number 47.

Following is a list of the top 10 most liveable cities as ranked by The Economist:
1. Vancouver, Canada
2. Vienna, Austria
3. Melbourne, Australia
4. Toronto, Canada
5. Calgary, Canada
6. Helsinki, Finland
7. Sydney, Australia
8. Perth, Australia
9. Adelaide, Australia
10. Auckland, New Zealand
Image source here.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Close encounters with a black hole

New black hole simulator uses real star data
New Scientist: A new interactive program reveals the spectacular light show you'd see if you dared to wander close to a black hole... A black hole forms when a massive star explodes at the end of its life, the core collapsing to a point with huge density and an enormous gravitational pull. Even at a safe distance from the black hole, its gravity can distort the apparent positions of background stars, an effect called gravitational lensing.

Last year, scientists at the University of Colorado demonstrated a video of what you'd see if you fell into a black hole. Now [Thomas] Mueller and [University of] Stuttgart colleague Daniel Weiskopf have gone a step further, creating a program that lets you alter various inputs to tour a black hole's environs.

The program incorporates the real positions of around 118,000 stars mapped by the European Space Agency's Hipparcos satellite. Users can choose their distance from a black hole, then go into orbit or plunge straight in. At the start of each tour, you see a black circle that marks the hole's event horizon -- the boundary from which nothing, not even light, can escape...

This example simulation shows the view while orbiting a black hole at a radius five times larger than the even horizon... As well as accounting for gravitational lensing, the simulator shows how star colours would change near a black hole. The intense gravity makes background stars appear redder because it saps the energy of photons passing near the event horizon; the photons stretch to longer, redder wavelengths as they 'climb out' of the gravitational trap.

But this effect is counteracted by your speed when you're falling freely towards a black hole -- traveling at nearly the speed of light, stars in the black hole's backdrop turn bluer due to the Doppler effect. In a simulation mimicking such unhindered freefall, the light of the entire universe appears concentrated into a bright ring once you reach the middle of the black hole.

Video: Black Hole Light Show (or on standalone player here)
Other flight simulations: Welcome to the Black Hole
Image source here.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

What's out there is in here

Anything Beyond the Universe? New Theory Changes Our Destiny
Robert Lanza, Huffington Post: Loren Eiseley once wrote: 'While I was sitting one night with a poet friend watching a great opera performed in a tent under arc lights, the poet took my arm and pointed silently. Far up, blundering out of the night, a huge Cecropia moth swept past from light to light over the posturings of the actors. 'He doesn't know,' my friend whispered excitedly. 'He's passing through an alien universe brightly lit but invisible to him. He's in another play; he doesn't see us. He doesn't know. Maybe it's happening right now to us.'"

Like the moth, we can't see beyond the footlights. The universe is just life's launching-pad. But it won't be rockets that take us the next step The long-sought Theory of Everything was merely missing a component that was too close for us to have noticed. Some of the thrill that came with the announcement that the human genome had been mapped or the idea that we're close to understanding the Big Bang rests in our innate human desire for completeness and totality.

But most of these comprehensive theories fail to take into account one crucial factor: We're creating them. It's the biological creature that fashions the stories, that makes the observations, and that gives names to things. And therein lies the great expanse of our oversight, that until now, science hasn't confronted the one thing that's at once most familiar and most mysterious -- consciousness. Until we understand ourselves, we'll continue to blunder from light to light, unable to discern the great play that blazes under the opera tent.

Robert Lanza, MD is author of Biocentrism, a new book that lays out his theory of everything.
Image source here.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Books are our friends

Reading 'can help reduce stress'
The Telegraph :Reading is the best way to relax and even six minutes can be enough to reduce stress levels by more than two thirds. And it works better and faster than other methods to calm frazzled nerves such as listening to music, going for walk or settling down with a cup of tea...

The research was carried out on a group of volunteers by consultancy Mindlab International at the University of Sussex. Their stress levels and heart rate were increased through a range of tests and exercises before they were then tested with a variety of traditional methods of relaxation.

Reading worked best, reducing stress levels by 68 per cent, said cognitive neuropsychologist Dr David Lewis. Subjects only needed to read, silently, for six minutes to slow down the heart and ease tension in the muscles, he found. In fact it got subjects to stress levels lower than before they started.

Listening to music reduced the levels by 61 per cent, having a cup of tea or coffee lowered them by 54 per cent and taking a walk by 42 per cent. Playing video games brought them down by 21 per cent from their highest level but still left the volunteers with heart rates above their starting point.

Dr Lewis, who conducted the test, said: 'Losing yourself in a book is the ultimate relaxation... It really doesn't matter what book you read... This is more than merely a distraction but an active engaging of the imagination as the words on the printed page stimulate your creativity and cause you to enter what is essentially an altered state of consciousness.'
Image source here.