Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Harper could stack Supreme Court

Upcoming Supreme Court of Canada retirements make this a very important federal election

Charlie Smith, Georgia Straight: The next prime minister of Canada could be in a position to appoint four Supreme Court of Canada justices. The nine-member court's mandatory retirement age is 75, and four will reach this milestone by the end of 2015. Morris J. Fish will be the first to turn 75... Ian Binnie and Louis LeBel will be 75 in 2014, and Marshall Rothstein reaches that age [on] 2015.

For years, conservatives have wanted to rein in the Supreme Court of Canada, which has issued numerous decisions over the years that have enraged right wingers. Those rulings include striking down Canada's abortion law, 'reading in' sexual orientation to the list of equality rights guaranteed under Section 15 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and requiring that the Crown provide full disclosure to the defence in criminal cases.

In 2000, University of Calgary professors Ted Morton... and Rainier Knopff wrote a book called The Charter Revolution & the Court Party, which alleged that 'university-based intellectuals' had embarked on an 'astoundingly successful strategy' to promote an activist, rights-based agenda through the courts... Morton and Knopff, along with future prime minister Stephen Harper, were among six Albertans who signed [the] famous 'firewall letter' in 2001...

If Harper were to win a majority government on May 2 and later stack the court with judges who share the views of right wingers... this could have profound ramifications on the future of Canada.
Image source here.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Canada-US border 120 million years old

Geological record surprisingly mirrors today's Canada-U.S. border
Postmedia News: Two scientists probing the ancient foundations of the Rocky Mountains have discovered -- to their great surprise -- that today's Canada-U.S. border also marked a clear geological dividing line during a key phase of the continent's formation more than 100 million years ago.

'The modern political boundary between the United States and Canada originated roughly 200 years ago,' states the summary of a study co-authored by geologists Andrew Leier of the University of Calgary and George Gehreis of the University of Arizona. 'However, it appears that even as much as 120 million years ago, rivers and sediments in the two regions developed their own distinct characteristics.'...

'Sand grains made of the mineral zircon show that Cretaceous sediment in the United States has a clear 'American' signature, whereas that in the Canadian Rockies has a different and definable 'Canadian' signature.' observed the researchers, whose study is published in the journal Geology...

The tiny zircons used to profile strands of sandstone on either side of the border not only showed that the rocks are different in each country, Leier added. 'Rivers were flowing out of these Cretaceous mountains, from west to east,' he noted. 'The second implication of the data is that the rivers that flowed from the mountains in the United States stayed in the U.S., and those in Canada stayed in Canada... 'There is no evidence that rivers were crossing what is today the border.'
Image source here.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

UN for small farmers, not corporate ag

Groundbreaking New UN Report on How to Feed the World's Hungry: Ditch Corporate-Controlled Agriculture

Alternet: 'To feed 9 billion people in 2050, we urgently need to adopt the most efficient farming techniques available. And today's scientific evidence demonstrates that agroecological methods outperform the use of chemical fertilizers in boosting food production in regions where the hungry live,' says Olivier de Schutter, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food. Agroecology is more or less what many would simply call 'organic agriculture,' although important nuances separate the two terms.

Used successfully by peasant farmers worldwide, agroecology applies ecology to agriculture in order to optimize long-term food production, requiring few purchased inputs and increasing soil quality, carbon sequestration and biodiversity over time. Agroecology also values traditional and indigenous farming methods, studying the scientific principles underpinning them instead of merely seeking to replace them with new technologies. As such, agroecology is grounded in local (material, cultural and intellectual) resources...

'We won't solve hunger and stop climate change with industrial farming on large plantations.' Instead, it says the solution lies with smallholder farmers.'... The report calls for investment in extension services, storage facilities, and rural infrastructure like roads, electricity and communication technologies to help provide smallholders with access to markets, agricultural research and development, and education... It notes the importance of providing farmers with credit and insurance against weather-related risks...

When asked to provide more detail about crop breeding, De Schutter... noted that genetically engineered crops not only carry environmental risks, but are also 'associated with unsustainable farming practices and with a worrying concentration of the seed industry... Rather than treating smallholder farmers as beneficiaries of aid, they should be seen as experts with knowledge that is complementary to formalized expertise.'

The entire report, 'Agroecology and the Right to Food' is available here.
Image source here.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Evidence of people in Americas 15,500 years ago

Humans in North America earlier than thought
CBC News: The recent discovery of ancient tools in a Texas creek bed shows human settlers arrived in North America about 2,500 years earlier than originally believed... 'We have found evidence of an early human occupation... 2,500 years older than Clovis,' [said] Michael waters from Texas A&M University. The Clovis people -- once thought to be the continent's oldest human culture -- go back to about 13,000 years ago, which would make these newly discovered artifacts about 15,500 years old. Details of the excavation are published in the journal Science.

For many years, the Clovis people were thought to have arrived here from Northeast Asia by crossing the Bering Land Bridge, which once connected Asia and North America... But no Clovis technology has been found in Northeast Asia... Meanwhile, the Texas excavation has revealed blades, scrapers and choppers in the 20-centimetre layer of earth below where Clovis artifacts had previously been found.

The Toronto Star: North America's first settlers have long been believed to have arrived from northeast Asia... down through the ice-free corridor in Canada. But at 15,500 years ago, said Waters, the two ice sheets were merged. 'giving credence to the idea that people came along the coast... Tied up in those bones is a lot of evidence of where these people came from. We can begin to mesh the archaeological evidence with the genetic evidence.'

The new cache of tools, studied since their discovery in 2006, represent a lightweight 'mobile tool kit' used by hunter-gatherers who could pack them up and move... The site produced a 'continuous record' of people coming back season after season, said Waters... 'These tools are recognizably different from highly distinctive Clovis tools, although they do share some similarities... Clovis tools could have evolved' from them. That would make Clovis tools North American-born.

The artifacts woud have been 'maybe 5 per cent of the material culture these people had. All of the clothing, the hats, the perishable objects, the wooden tools, are all gone. Using techniques developed in the last 20 years, scientists were able to date the tools, said Steven Forman of the Luminescence Dating Research Laboratory at the University of Illinois. 'The possibility is that pre-Clovis is all around us, but we just can't recognize it yet,' he said.
Image source here.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Salmon feed the forest

Globe and Mail: When bears, wolves and other animals drag salmon carcasses from spawning streams they cause an intricate chain reaction that changes the nature of the surrounding forest, according to new research from Simon Fraser University. Plant species that efficiently take up nitrogen from the decomposing bodies of salmon flourish -- and soon there are more song birds, drawn by the dense growths of wild berry bushes and prolific insect hatches.

The change is so dramatic, according to the research done in one of the largest field studies on salmon in the world, that it is possible to look at the forest in a watershed and tell how well the associated salmon run is doing... In addition to looking at plant species, Prof [John] Reynolds said it is important to consider the physical characteristics of a stream as well, because animals avoid fishing in places where getting out of the water with a salmon is difficult because of steep banks.'...

Starting in 2007, a team of 10 researchers began examining 50 relatively small watersheds in the Great Bear Rainforest, a vast area of old growth forest on British Columbia's wild Central Coast. Prof. Reynolds said the area was chosen because there has been little human impact on the watersheds. 'That area is mostly without roads... it is the last place that hasn't been logged,' he said...

The research findings support another recent paper, by Prof. Reynolds and Rachel Field, which found that song bird density and diversity is linked to the size of salmon runs. That paper looked at estuaries and concluded that 'breeding birds may benefit from residual salmon-derived nutrients in landscapes adjacent to spawning grounds and that this trend extends... well beyond the salmon spawning season.'

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Organized religion on the way out in Canada

God keep our land? The math is against it
Postmedia News: Religion may be on the road to extinction in Canada -- mathematically speaking, that is. Traveling with us are Australia, Austria, the Czech Republic, Finland, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Switzerland.

A study presented... at the American Physical Society meeting in Dallas noted a steady rise in the percentage of those countries' residents who claim no religious affiliation, and explained how social factors could help push religion toward the dustbin of history.

Richard Weiner, a University of Arizona researcher and one of the study's authors, explained the formula's conclusions. 'There'll be a continuing loss of membership among people that identify themselves as belonging to a religion. Over time, we could reach a time where society is dominated by people who claim religious non-affiliation,' he said...

The model predicts that for societies in which the perceived utility of not adhering is greater than the utility of adhering, religion will be driven to extinction,' the study said... Weiner speculated that... 'People no longer see the slate of benefits as being as great as they probably did 100 years ago. It's become less socially useful.' Daniel Abrams, one of the study's co-authors, used a similar model in 2003 to predict the decline of the world's lesser-spoken languages.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Radiation Dose Chart

By XKCD. View the full chart here.

I'm not an expert in radiation and I'm sure I've got a lot of mistakes in here, but there's so much misinformation out there that I figured a broad comparison of different types of dosages might be good anyway. I don't include too much about the Fukushima reactor because the situation seems to be changing by the hour, but I hope the chart provides some helpful context.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Canada's 'global treasure' of freshwater

Canada urged to protect water in boreal forests
Postmedia News: 'Canada has the unrivalled opportunity to protect the world's largest intact freshwater ecosystem and the responsibility to enact sound conservation and sustainable development policy to safeguard the boreal forest,' says the International Boreal Conservation Science Panel, composed of leading scientists from Canada and the U.S.

The 76-page report, entitled A Forest of Blue: Canada's Boreal Forest, the World's Waterkeeper (.pdf), is published by the Pew Environment Group, a U.S.-based non-profit group... It says that Canada's boreal forest contains 25 per cent of the world's wetlands, more surface water than any other continental-scale landscape. The forests also hold an estimated 147 billion tonnes of carbon -- that's equivalent to more than 25 years worth of man-made greenhouse gas emissions.

The boreal... is a 'vital bulwark; against the global loss of biodiversity, provides irreplaceable food and cultural benefits, and 'ecosystem services,' says the report... There are more than 3,000 abandoned mines in the boreal... 'Many continue to leak toxic byproducts into surrounding waters.'... More water diversion occurs in Canada than in any other country... More than 155,000 active and 117,000 abandoned oil and gas wells exist in Canada's boreal... Alberta's oilsands gets special attention for destruction for destruction of wetlands, lowering water tables, and generating contaminants...

The report calls for reform of mining legislation and hydroelectric policy and creation of a national strategy that stipulates no net loss of wetlands and peatlands. It also calls for protection and conservation of the entire Mackenzie River watershed...

'It is imperative that the world recognize and protect the fresh water that is left,' ecologist Stuart Pimm, at Duke University, said in a statement released with the report. 'Canada has an extraordinary opportunity that does not exist anywhere else in the world to keep its aquatic ecosystems intact and to create a positive ripple effect on the land, animals, birds and people who depend on these resources.'
Image source here.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

'Extreme supermoon' full at perigee tonight

'Supermoon' to loom large on Saturday

CBC News: Earth's closest celestial neighbour will appear to loom larger and brighter than usual on Saturday night, as astronomers anticipate a cosmic event called an 'extreme supermoon.' Scientists say the natural phenomenon -- in which the moon reaches its closest point to this planet -- will cause abnormally high and low tides worldwide.

The occurrences, technically known as 'lunar perigees,' were previously visible in 1955, 1974, 1992 and 2005. But what makes this one particularly special is that it coincides with a full moon, which hasn't happened since 1993... The full moon should appear to be about 15 per cent larger and up to 30 per cent brighter than usual on Saturday evening... Stargazers are advised to check it out around sunset, when it's closest to the horizon.

The average distance between the Earth and the moon is about 383,000 kilometres. The full moon on March 19 will be about 356,000 kilometres away.
Image source here.

Friday, March 18, 2011

'It can't be helped'

When I talk to my friends and family in Japan today about their situations, they all used the same expression, "Shikata ga nai," (仕方がない, "it can't be helped") ... Some things are simply beyond our control, and we can only find strength to suffer through them... That leads to another concept in Japanese culture of gaman (我慢, loosely, "endurance" or "perseverance"), of putting up with something unpleasant without complaint. Being known as gamandzuyoi (我慢強い, a compound of gaman and tsuyoi, the word for "strong", meaning having a high capacity for this endurance) is highly valued... Each person feels a duty to struggle on, and that they don't really have the right to complain, since someone else inevitably must have it worse.
Image source here.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Disappearance of bees now worldwide

Decline of honey bees now a global phenomenon, says United Nations

The Independent: Declines in managed bee colonies, seen increasingly in Europe and the US in the past decade, are also now being observed in China and Japan and there are the first signs of African collapses from Egypt, according to the report from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

The authors, who include some of the world's leading honey-bee experts, issue a stark warning about the disappearance of bees, which are increasingly important as crop pollinators around the globe. Without profound changes to the way human beings manage the planet, they say, delclines of pollinators needed to feed a growing global population are likely to continue...

The scientists warn that a number of factors may now be coming together to hit bee colonies... ranging from declines in flowering plants and the use of damaging insecticides, to the worldwide spread of pests and air pollution...

"The way humanity manages or mismanages its nature-based assets, including pollinators, will in part define our collective future in the 21st century," said Achim Steiner, UN Under-Secretary-General and UNEP Executive Director. "The fact is that of the 100 crop species that provide 90 per cent of the world's food, 70 are pollinated by bees."...

The transformation of the countryside and rural areas in the past half-century or so has triggered a decline in wild-living bees and other pollinators,' said one of the lead authors, Dr. Peter Neumann of the Swiss Bee Research Centre. "Society is increasingly investing in 'industrial-scale' hives and managed colonies to make up the shortfall and going so far as to truck bees around to farms and fields in order to maintain our food supplies.

"A variety of factors are now making these man-made colonies vulnerable to decline and collapse. We need to get smarter about how we manage these hives, but perhaps more importantly, we need to better manage the landscape beyond, in order to recover wild bee populations."
Image source here.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Japan: Interactive photos, maps, video, graphics

Before-and-after interactive photos:
Aerial photos taken over Japan have revealed the scale of devastation across dozens of suburbs and tens of thousands of homes and businesses: Hover over each satellite photo to view the devastation

Satellite images before and after: Select a location using the tabs, then use the slider to compare before-and-after images of selected regions

Andrew Sullivan, The Daily Dish: If you haven't seen this video of the tsunami approaching from the street level, you haven't quite yet absorbed the terrifying power of this death machine. When the buildings start moving off their foundations and sail through the city streets, it is hard not to gasp. I wish I could be more eloquent, but sometimes words fail.

Interactive map:


Sunday, March 13, 2011

CBC Alert! Radioactive fallout on the way to BC

VIDEO: CBC ALERT! Japanese Nuclear Jetstream Fallout Map for Canada, BC

CNN: The quake was 'hundreds of times larger' than the 2010 quake that ravaged Haiti. AFP: USGS seismologist Paul Earle: 'We've had aftershocks (in Japan) larger than the Haiti earthquake.'
Image source here.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Ice melting faster, sea levels higher than projected

Pace of polar ice melt 'accelerating rapidly'
Agence France-Press: The pace at which the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets are melting is 'accelerating rapidly' and raising the global sea level, according to findings of a study financed by NASA... The findings suggest that the ice sheets -- more so than ice loss from Earth's mountain glaciers and ice caps -- have become 'the dominant contributor to global sea level rise, much sooner than model forecasts have predicted.'

This study, the longest to date examining changes to polar ice sheet mass, combined two decades of monthly satellite measurements with regional atmospheric climate model data to study changes in mass.

'That ice sheets will dominate future sea level rise is not surprising'... said lead author Eric Rignot, jointly of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the University of California, Irvine. 'What is surprising is this increased contribution by the ice sheets is already happening.' Under the current trends, he said, sea level is likely to be 'significantly higher' than levels projected by the United Nations climate change panel in 2007.... The findings were published in the March edition of Geophysical Research Letters.
Image source here.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

BSE: Agribusiness disaster a boon for birds

European mad cow outbreak fuelled surge in Canadian birds through 'butterfly effect'

Postmedia News: In a study described as a 'striking illustration' of the long-distance links between a global trade disruption and impacts in the natural world, two Canadian scientists have connected the dots between the emergence of mad cow disease in Europe in the mid-1980s and a subsequent series of population spikes among grassland birds in southern Saskatchewan, Alberta and Ontario.

The rare example of successfully tracking a 'butterfly effect' linkage between seeming disparate phenomena, carried out by researchers from Trent University in Peterborough, Ont., showed how 18 of 20 bird species in North America appeared to benefit from the 1985 outbreak of BSE -- bovine spongiform encephalopathy -- after it destroyed cattle herds in Britain. [The study is published in the Proceedings of The National Academy of Sciences.]...

First, the scientists describe how the appearance of the bovine brain-wasting disease prompted cattle culls and beef export bans across Europe. This, in turn, led to increased beef exports from Canada and the U.S., thus shrinking herd sizes in North America and reducing the need for hay to feed cows. Reduced hay harvesting, then, meant a greater availability of grassland habitat for such birds as the sage wren, grasshopper sparrow and Eastern meadowlark, each of which thrived form greater nesting opportunities in fields that were uncharacteristically left uncut.

The researchers determined that the time lag between the closing of European beef exports and the population explosions among grassland bird species was about three years.
Image source here.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Sudden chill of seas killed 75% of marine species

Quebec island a window on Earth's second-largest extinction

Postmedia News: Canada's historic Anticosti Island has produced the first clear evidence that the planet's second-largest mass extinction -- the sudden disappearance of 75% of all marine species on Earth about 450 million years ago -- was caused by a rapid, five-degree plunge in ocean temperatures. The discovery on the large Quebec island was reported just days after another team of scientists pointed to ash deposits on Axel Heiberg Island in the Canadian Arctic as proof that the planet's biggest extinction event -- when 95% of all life died out 250 million years ago -- was linked to volcano-fed coal fires in ancient Siberia.

Anticosti Island, located in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and first described by French explorer Jacques Cartier during his 1534 voyage of discovery to inland Canada, is widely viewed as a geological treasure. The steep cliffs along the island's shores preserve a fossil-rich record of Earth history from a time when present-day North America was situated around the equator...

Using the alignment of telltale molecules in the animals' preserved shells as a 'paleo-thermometer,' the scientists discovered that a spike in extinctions during the Ordovician era coincided exactly with the sudden cooling of the seas. 'Our study strengthens the case for a direct link between climate change and extinction,' California Institute of Technology researcher Seth Finnegan said in the study overview. Study co-author Woodward Fischer, also a Caltech researcher, noted that 'our observations imply a climate system distinct from anything we know about over the last 100 million years.'
Image source here.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Dinosaur refuge in New Mexico?

Bone discovery suggests dinosaurs survived 700,000 years past meteorite strike

Postmedia News: A fossilized sauropod bone, dated by a team of Canadian and U.S. scientists to 64.8 million years ago, appears likely to force a serious rethinking of the demise of dinosaurs, which were supposed to have been wiped out in a catastrophic meteorite strike no later than 65.5 million years ago -- 700,000 years before the death of the giant, vegetarian beast that left its femur behind in present-day New Mexico.

A study of the bone in the journal Geology, co-authored by University of Alberta paleontologist Larry Heaman and two U.S. colleagues... also represents a landmark achievement in the use of a uranium-lead dating technique -- developed at the University of Alberta -- that allowed the team to pinpoint the age of the bone directly from a fragment of the specimen, not just indirectly from the layer of rock in which it was found.

The bone was unearthed near the New Mexico-Colorado border by U.S. paleontologist James Fassett... In the past, Fassett has controversially proposed that the region may have been a refuge for some dinosaurs that survived the colossal meteorite strike widely believed to have ended the dinosaur age between 65.5 and 66 million years ago. The new findings appear to support Fassett's theory...

'For some time, there's been other evidence that suggests dinosaurs survived,' he said, at least in some small pockets... But it hasn't been 'ironclad evidence,' he noted. 'What was missing was some way to directly date the bone itself. Up to now, it's just never been possible, so this is the first real success.'
Image source here.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Egypt's young activists: 'Like planting a palm tree'

VIDEO: Egypt's Facebook Faceoff
PBS: Back in July 2008, Australian television profiled Egypt's young democracy activists and their savvy use of social media. The film included the April 6 Movement's Ahmed Maher and blogger Wael Abbas, both features in FRONTLINE's Revolution in Cairo. Several activists, who just got out of prison, were reluctant to appear on camera; much of the film, reported by Sophie McNeill, was recorded in secret.

One young activist, Belal Diab, recalls how he heckled Egypt's Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif at a Cairo University event, and made sure his friend used his mobile phone to record and update his protest to YouTube. He had demanded the release of all April 6 Movement detainees. His family told him not to return home that night.

Although Egyptians weren't yet ready to support the young activists back in 2008 because of the regime's brutal crackdown on the April 6 Movement, the young activists never stopped believing that their day would come: 'Our generation believes it is like planting a palm tree,' Diab says about their growing use of online tools. 'We might not eat its dates, but the next generation will.'
Image source here.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Canadian wild salmon at risk from GE fish

Genetically engineered fish could pose threat to wild stocks: DFO scientists
Postmedia News: There's a risk Canadian fish stocks could be harmed if the world's first genetically engineered salmon is approved for commercialization, federal scientists suggest... Experts from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans are concerned about 'limited' and possibly 'constrained' regulatory powers around the approvals for GE fish. The analysis, from senior scientists specializing in biotechnology and aquaculture, comes as a company called AquaBounty Technologies works to bring GE salmon to the dinner plate...

The company cleared an important hurdle in August, when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's preliminary analysis concluded that the salmon, engineered in Atlantic Canada to grow twice as fast as normal fish, are safe to eat and not expected to have a significant impact on the environment... The company plans to produce the eggs in Prince Edward Island... where the Massachusetts-based company currently grows sterile female GE salmon for research purposes...

During early consultations a year ago involving... the Department of Fisheries, Environment Canada and Health Canada, fisheries officials voiced concerns... according to the minutes, redacted in many placed and released under access-to-information legislation.

Lucy Sharratt, co-ordinator of the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network [said] 'The documents confirm the fish cannot be contained, infertility cannot be 100 per cent achieved, and when fish escape, there's a risk it will come back to affect our fish stocks... Michael Hansen, a scientist at the New York-based Consumers Union, said... 'The assessment that the FDA did was scientifically completely inadequate.'
Image: A transgenic (top) and a non-transgenic salmon at the AquaBounty hatchery in Bay Fortune, PEI. Source here.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Quote for the day

The modern conservative is engaged in one of man's oldest exercises in moral philosophy; that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The Index of Potential Unrest

To enlarge image, go here and scroll down.

'Can Data Predict Political Revolutions?'
Richard Florida, The Atlantic: With the help of my colleague Charlotta Mellander, we pulled together statistics from 152 nations and sorted them according to eight key variables: human capital levels in combination with percent of the workforce in the creative class, life satisfaction, GDP per capita, perceptions about local labor market conditions, Internet access, freedom, tolerance, and honesty in elections. The data comes from the World Bank, the International Labor Organization, and the Gallup Organization. The map below shows how these nations stack up...

Among the highest scorers are the West Bank/Gaza Strip (.75), Yemen (.75), Egypt (.74), and Iraq (.72)... On the other wise of the ledger, the world's most stable nations are the Netherlands (.25), Norway (.15), Australia (.17), Finland ((.18) and Canada (.19). The United States is in 20th place (.3).