A Bit More Detail

Assorted Personal Notations, Essays, and Other Jottings

Archive for March 2011

[OBSCURA] Scott Snider, “Rob Ford Hiking Trail”

Rob Ford Hiking Trail by sniderscion
Rob Ford Hiking Trail, a photo by sniderscion on Flickr.

“This sign indicating a pedestrian walkway is on a fence; behind a fence; perpendicular to another fence along Bloor Street. Unless you can walk through fences you aren’t going across this street. Rob Ford is a local politician running for Mayor who has famously said “roads are built for buses, cars, and trucks, not for people on bikes”. I suspect that his views on pedestrians are fairly similar.”

Ford is mayor, now.

Written by Randy McDonald

March 31, 2011 at 1:51 am

Posted in Assorted

Tagged with , , , , ,

[LINK] “Dark Matter Heat Could Make Exoplanets Habitable”

Lisa Grossman’s Wired Science article reminded me of a “Earths are over-rated. It’s the un-earthly worlds that will shake us to the core.”.

In a new paper posted on arXiv.org and submitted to the Astrophysical Journal, physicists Dan Hooper and Jason Steffen of Fermilab in Illinois suggest an exotic internal radiator for cold, rocky planets: dark matter. In certain parts of the galaxy, they say, dark matter could effectively outshine the sun.

“It’s not something that’s likely to produce a lot of habitable planets,” Hooper said. “But in very special places and in very special models, it could do the trick.”

Dark matter is the name given to the mysterious stuff that makes up about 83 percent of the matter in the universe, but generally ignores regular matter. No one knows exactly what dark matter is, but one of the most popular theories says it’s made of hypothetical particles called WIMPs — weakly interacting massive particles — that interact with regular matter only through the weak nuclear force and gravity. WIMPs are also their own antiparticles: Whenever one WIMP meets another, they annihilate each other in a burst of energy.

If those explosions happen inside a planet, they could warm the world enough to melt ice, Hooper and Steffen suggest.

Physicists are still waiting for WIMPs to show themselves by colliding with detectors in deep underground mines. But the fact that the detectors haven’t seen anything conclusive yet puts limits on how heavy and large the particles can be. If WIMPs were bigger or heavier than a certain theoretical limit, physicists reason, the particles would have shown up by now.

Hooper and Steffen considered two possible model WIMPs that interact as often as they possibly can while still being consistent with the experiments, one particle that’s 300 times heavier than a proton and one that’s just 7 times the proton’s mass. Then they calculated how much energy the explosions from colliding these hypothetical dark matter particles would contribute to the planet’s overall warmth.

On Earth, they found, dark matter doesn’t make a difference. Earth lies in a part of the Milky Way where dark matter is relatively thin, so it contributes at most one megawatt of energy to Earth’s internal thermostat. By contrast, the Earth absorbs about 100 petawatts, or 100 quadrillion watts, from the sun.

But in the dark matter-rich centers of galaxies, WIMPs could be a contender. The researchers considered rocky planets that lie within 30 light-years of the galactic center, and found that planets with masses 10 times greater than Earth’s could scoop up enough dark matter to generate 100 petawatts of energy. That could be enough energy to keep liquid water on their surfaces, even without the aid of a nearby star.

These wouldn’t be very Earth-like planets, but they would be heated for very long periods of time.

Written by Randy McDonald

March 30, 2011 at 9:30 pm

[URBAN NOTE] “Subway City?”

Steve Munro is not very happy at all with the development of Toronto’s mass-transit system under Mayor Ford’s policies.

Queen’s Park will fund the Eglinton line as an underground LRT from Jane Street to Kennedy Station, with an extension over the existing Scarborough RT line’s route replacing the RT technology. This project will cost $8.4-billion and will be completed in 2020.

Toronto will undertake funding for a Sheppard Subway extension west from Yonge to Downsview, and east from Don Mills to Scarborough Town Centre. This project will cost $4.2b and will be completed in 2019. Although this is touted as a public-private partnership, Toronto hopes to raise money from a Federal program for PPPs, “PPP Canada“. However, this program only has an investment of $1.25b. Obviously, much more money will be required from Ottawa if this is to have additional projects beyond a Toronto subway, or conversely the contribution it will make to the Sheppard Subway will be small. It is unclear where the $333m originally announced by Ottawa for the Sheppard LRT will wind up, but this should be clarified in the formal announcement.

What is quite clear in this shuffle is that Queen’s Park has decided to build something, anything on Eglinton as long as they can get shovels in the ground. That the line will now cost billions more than the original subway-surface LRT scheme seems to be of little concern even though “Benefits Case Analysis” was supposed to be at the heart of the Metrolinx Big Move. As usual, the political benefit outweighs all others.

What we have lost, at least for the coming decade, is any hope of a Finch west line, or a line to the airport (other than the premium fare GO-ARL link from Union), or a line to Malvern or UofT’s Scarborough campus.

Beyond that, Metrolinx and Queen’s Park must wrestle with the “Investment Strategy”, a fancy word for whatever new taxes or revenue generation mechanisms will be used to build the rest of The Big Move. Major expansions of GO, the proposed Richmond Hill subway extension (and all of its follow-on projects to relieve subway capacity limits), and a host of projects in the 905 are all queued up waiting for money.

As for Sheppard, the real problem is to make the numbers work out. I have already commented at length on this, and won’t belabour the point. In brief, $4.2b is a lot to raise from development charges or other similar schemes, and much greater densities will be needed on Sheppard than on traditional suburban arterials to pay for this scheme.

While everyone celebrates this new era in transit, let us not forget the TTC’s operating and capital budget crunch which I detailed in previous articles. None of this money addresses the needs of the existing system for ongoing repairs and renovation, nor does it provide money to relieve the pressure on service capacity. Later this year, we will doubtless see another proposal to cut marginal services “for the greater good”, but they will have to be much more substantial given the expected shortfall in TTC funding. A fare increase, probably a big one, will be needed to make up for the lack of a smaller jump in 2011.

It’s worth noting that this transit system will also leave the peripheries of Toronto neglected by fixed-line mass transit routes. The “Three Torontos” reproduce themselves again.

Written by Randy McDonald

March 30, 2011 at 8:29 pm

[CAT] “The failing fight to save India’s tigers”

Stephanie Nolen’s Globe and Mail article about the decline of the Indian tiger is grim. The only good news that the cat family can claim, really, is the rapid diffusion of Felis catus worldwide, to the point where the domestic housecat is unlikely to become extinct (or, more accurately, unlikely to become extinct as the result of any event that doesn’t make human beings extinct, too). Cats can speciate quickly, did speciate quickly. If India’s tigers go, at least the potential for new cat species is secure.

The tiger, of course, is one of the planet’s most endangered animals. Three of its nine species have been wiped out, a fourth exists only in zoos. India is ostensibly home to nearly half the world’s remaining population of some 3,200 animals. Here the tiger is the subject of a thousand years of scroll paintings, epic poems, sculpture and classical dance. They are dreaded as “man eaters” for their brutally swift ability to drag off unsuspecting farmers, but have proven little match for poisoned carcasses left out by fearful villagers, or poachers.

A century ago, when Rudyard Kipling created the scheming tiger Shere Khan, who stalked a jungle much like this one, there were an estimated 40,000 tigers in India’s forests. The government announced Monday the results of a new population estimation: 1,706 tigers. That was a gain of 12 per cent over the population counted in the same area in 2006, and included a further couple hundred tigers found in areas that had not been surveyed previously.

A jocular Jairam Ramesh, Minister of Environment and Forests, announced the new numbers to a hall packed with international delegates from all the tiger-range countries, environmentalists and conservation funders such as the World Bank. “We have reason to feel satisfied with what we have done,” he said.

But even the government’s own experts expressed alarm as they announced the figures. While they say they found more tigers (through camera-trapping, radio tracking and other means) in the most sophisticated and extensive such exercise ever undertaken in the world, the amount of the country where tigers were found was found to have declined dramatically the past four years. “Tiger occupancy areas declined from 93,000 to 72,800 square kilometres and this is extremely alarming,” said Y.V. Jhala, a biologist who co-directed the census.

Also troubling: fully a third of the tigers counted are living outside the country’s 39 tiger reserves – many of them in regions with high population density – which makes it critically difficult to protect them.

While Mr. Jhala described an impressive process of forest “sampling” in nearly 30,000 different spots, the improved tiger count raised some eyebrows in the conservation community. Most of the country’s independent conservationists say the true tiger population figure is likely no higher than 1,000. “The minister and the Forest Service needed some good news today, they needed good numbers,” one environmentalist said with a shrug after the announcement. But the continual reports of tiger deaths, disappearances and clashes with humans mean the population can only be declining, these experts say.

Go, read.

Written by Randy McDonald

March 30, 2011 at 7:00 pm

Posted in Assorted

Tagged with , , , , ,

[BRIEF NOTE] Is Bahrain heading towards political _and_ ethnoreligious conflict?

I ask my readers because of two worrisome articles.

  • The Inter Press Service’s Suad Hamada writes, in “Foreign Labourers Targeted Throughout Bahrain”, about attacks against foreign labourers whose communities–of one South Asian background or another–came under suspicion after not joining in the general strike.
  • Eight migrant workers died and approximately 49 sustained various injuries since Mar. 17 when the government with the support of Cooperation Council of the Arab Gulf States (GCC) peninsula shield troops started cracking down on demonstrations blocking roads in Manama – the financial capital of Bahrain. The government has also declared a three-month state of emergency to be enforced by the Bahrain Defence Force.

    Most expats are not yet considering leaving the country, hoping for the situation to revert to normal. They fear losing their jobs and not finding new ones back home.

    On Mar. 13 before the beginning of the attacks, the Civil Disobedience Support Committee sent a letter to foreign embassies in the country asking diplomatic missions to ask their nationals to leave immediately, while warning that the routes leading to the airport might not be safe. IPS obtained a copy of the letter.

    Expatriates, mainly migrant workers from Asia, are in high demand for their skills and are valued for their low salaries – essential to prop up sustainable growth in Bahrain. Migrant workers represent almost half of the country’s population of 1.2 million. Migrant labour in the region is a huge source of remittance income in the workers’ home countries – and some embassies here seem to be taking the violent hate crimes against their nationals with a grain of salt.

  • Reuters, meanwhile, suggests that immigrants–many given citizenship, in marked contrasted to precedents elsewhere in the Gulf, to weaken the Shi’ite majority–are also coming under rhetorical fire.
  • Thousands of mostly Shi’ite Muslim Bahrainis protested on Wednesday against giving citizenship to Sunni foreigners serving in the military, whose troops have killed seven in the worst unrest since the 1990s.

    [. . .]

    A thorny issue for all opposition groups has been Bahrain’s practice of giving citizenship to Sunni foreigners serving in the kingdom’s armed forces, which they see as an attempt to alter the country’s sectarian balance.

    The protesters marched by the immigration authority in Manama, chanting anti-government slogans and holding up signs that read “Stop naturalization!”

    “All those that are naturalized will be pro-government, and those in the police and army will follow their orders even if they are against the Bahraini people,” said protester Khaled Ali.

    Only half of Bahrain’s population of about 1.2 million are native Bahrainis. Protesters said they only oppose settling those foreigners who are recruited to serve in the armed forces.

    The opposition also complains that families of naturalized Sunnis have better access to government services such as housing, education and health.

    “We want them out because they’re sharing the services with original Bahrainis. We have to wait 15 years for (government) housing, and they get it immediately after arriving,” said Ali.

    Opposition activists estimate that up to half of Bahrain’s approximately 20,000-strong national security apparatus could be made up of Sunnis from Pakistan, Jordan and Yemen.

    Is Bahrain’s political crisis becoming an ethnoreligious one, too?

    Written by Randy McDonald

    March 30, 2011 at 3:47 pm

    [OBSCURA] Jamaal, “The scene when a packed train goes out of service on a packed platform #TTC #Bloo

    The scene when a packed train goes out of service on a packed platform #TTC #Bloor by Jamaalism
    The scene when a packed train goes out of service on a packed platform #TTC #Bloor, a photo by Jamaalism on Flickr.

    Everyone reading this in Toronto has been in one of these crowds at some point.

    Written by Randy McDonald

    March 30, 2011 at 8:31 am

    [LINK] “When is an Asteroid Not an Asteroid?”

    When it’s my favourite asteroid dwarf planet Vesta, of course. This NASA press release makes the case.

    Vesta is most commonly called an asteroid because it lies in the orbiting rubble patch known as the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. But the vast majority of objects in the main belt are lightweights, 100-kilometers-wide (about 60-miles wide) or smaller, compared with Vesta, which is about 530 kilometers (330 miles) across on average. In fact, numerous bits of Vesta ejected by collisions with other objects have been identified in the main belt.

    “I don’t think Vesta should be called an asteroid,” said Tom McCord, a Dawn co-investigator based at the Bear Fight Institute, Winthrop, Wash. “Not only is Vesta so much larger, but it’s an evolved object, unlike most things we call asteroids.”

    The layered structure of Vesta (core, mantle and crust) is the key trait that makes Vesta more like planets such as Earth, Venus and Mars than the other asteroids, McCord said. Like the planets, Vesta had sufficient radioactive material inside when it coalesced, releasing heat that melted rock and enabled lighter layers to float to the outside. Scientists call this process differentiation.

    McCord and colleagues were the first to discover that Vesta was likely differentiated when special detectors on their telescopes in 1972 picked up the signature of basalt. That meant that the body had to have melted at one time.

    Officially, Vesta is a “minor planet” — a body that orbits the sun but is not a proper planet or comet. But there are more than 540,000 minor planets in our solar system, so the label doesn’t give Vesta much distinction. Dwarf planets – which include Dawn’s second destination, Ceres — are another category, but Vesta doesn’t qualify as one of those. For one thing, Vesta isn’t quite large enough.

    Dawn scientists prefer to think of Vesta as a protoplanet because it is a dense, layered body that orbits the sun and began in the same fashion as Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars, but somehow never fully developed. In the swinging early history of the solar system, objects became planets by merging with other Vesta-sized objects. But Vesta never found a partner during the big dance, and the critical time passed. It may have had to do with the nearby presence of Jupiter, the neighborhood’s gravitational superpower, disturbing the orbits of objects and hogging the dance partners.

    Go, read!

    Written by Randy McDonald

    March 29, 2011 at 11:59 pm

    [LINK] “The Netherlands Is No Longer a Low Country: Conundrums of Geopolitical Classification”

    At GeoCurrent Events, Martin Lewis points out that the arbitrariness of national frontiers as enclosing discrete categories can sometimes become particularly arbitrary. What is a “constituent country” anyway?

    The modern Netherlands forms the heart of the so-called Low Countries, a historical region composed of the flat and watery delta formed by the Rhine, Meuse, Scheldt, and Ems rivers. As the name suggests, the Low Countries have no mountains. On WikiAnswers, the second-highest-rated response to the question, “What is the highest point in the Netherlands?” is simply, “Nope, we don’t have mountains. Large hills is the best we can do.” The first return, however, is strikingly different, referencing Mount Scenery, a precipitously sloped volcano that reaches 870 meters (2,800 feet) in elevation. Mount Scenery became the Netherlands’ highest point on October 10, 2010, when the Caribbean island of Saba, which essentially is Mount Scenery, was transformed into a “special municipality” of the Netherlands.

    The incorporation of Saba, Bonaire, and Saint Eustatius into the Netherlands transformed the basic parameters of the country in several regards. The demographic change was relatively minor; the Netherlands’ population jumped by 18,000. More significant were shifts to the country’s geography; its southernmost and westernmost points were suddenly relocated by thousands of miles. The Netherlands also became, in part, a tropical land.

    Such changes may seem trivial, but the reformulation of the Netherlands’ Caribbean holdings opens a fascinating window onto some surprisingly tricky issues of geopolitical conceptualization. What does it require for a formerly separate area to fully become part of a country—not just in legal terms but also in the popular imagination? No one doubts that Hawaii is fully part of the United States. Likewise, the French overseas departments, including Guadeloupe and Martinique in the Caribbean, are by all accounts integral portions of France. But Saba, Bonaire, and Saint Eustatius are “special” municipalities of the Netherlands, and remain distinctive in a more profound sense than that of sheer distance from the mainland. While the use of English as the language of public school instruction in Saba and Saint Eustatius is odd enough, it is the official status of the US dollar that really sets the three islands apart. The relationship maintained by the Netherlands proper with Saba, Bonaire, and Saint Eustatius is in some ways similar to that between China proper and its “special administrative regions” of Hong Kong and Macao, both of which have their own currencies. Although Hong Kong certainly falls under the umbrella of Chinese sovereignty, whether it is an integral part of China is another matter. It is not treated as such by the CIA, the World Bank, and other many other international agencies, and is instead accounted as a separate though subordinate unit.

    Similar conundrums of geopolitical classification are posed by a number of other European outliers, starting with the Dutch anomalies of Aruba, Curaçao, and Sint Maarten. Legally defined as “constituent countries” of the Kingdom of the Netherlands,” these three islands are too autonomous to be counted as integral parts of the Netherlands (whose westernmost point is said to be Bonaire, not the more westerly island of Aruba.) Greenland is treated in a similar manner. Denmark is never regarded as including this “constituent country;” if it were, Denmark would jump to thirteenth rank in the standard list of countries by area. Yet the relationship between the United Kingdom and its “constituent countries” – England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland – is completely different, entailing much tighter linkages. Geographers would never think of excluding Scotland from a depiction of the United Kingdom the way we habitually exclude Greenland from Denmark.

    Go, read.

    Written by Randy McDonald

    March 29, 2011 at 10:46 pm

    Posted in Assorted

    Tagged with , , , ,

    [LINK] “Principal takes over first gay alliance meeting, group says”

    More Globe and Mail coverage from Tamara Baluja on the presence of gay-straight alliances in publically funded Roman Catholic schools.

    A Mississauga high school principal faces the ire of students after she drew an umbrella on a blackboard at the launch of their first gay-straight alliance group meeting.

    Leanne Iskander, one of the founders of the St. Joseph’s Secondary School group, said she was shocked the principal drew an umbrella to symbolize their GSA would have to be a part of an all-encompassing equity group.

    [. . .]

    When the 16-year-old first approached principal Frances Jacques to start a GSA, she was quickly turned down and referred to other equity options with a Catholic spin. Bruce Campbell, spokesman for Dufferin-Peel Catholic District School Board, said that the response by the St. Joseph’s principal was one “the board wholeheartedly supports.”

    [. . . That means there is effectively] an unwritten ban on GSAs at the Catholic school board, argued Noa Mendelsohn Aviv, spokeswoman for the Canadian Civil Liberties Association.

    “It’s unconstitutional to deny these students the right to express themselves,” Ms. Aviv said. “It goes against their Charter Rights. At the end of day, yes, it is a Catholic school, but it is also a publicly funded Catholic school that is required to respect these students’ rights.”

    Ms. Aviv attempted to join the GSA launch meeting on Friday, but was not allowed entry on school property. In spite of the hostility the students face, more than a hundred came to the group’s meeting, Ms. Iskander said, adding several students were left without seats and piled into the hallway.

    “We’ve definitely got the support of so many students,” she said. “In fact, students from another [Mississauga] Catholic school also came to support us and they want to start their own GSA. Believe me, this isn’t going away.”

    Written by Randy McDonald

    March 29, 2011 at 7:39 pm

    [CAT] “Why is aspirin toxic to cats?”

    Not Exactly Rocket Science’s Ed Yong shares the latest findings on why cats–not just Felis catus, but Felidae generally–just can’t metabolize aspirin.

    Binu Shrestha from the Tufts University School of Medicine has found that cats may have developed their strange sensitivity because of their lifestyle as specialist hunters. Their penchant for meat could have ultimately turned aspirin into their kryptonite.

    Our livers break down aspirin using a protein called UGT1A6, encoded by a gene of the same name. In 1997, Michael Court, who led Shrestha’s study, showed that the cat version of this protein is barely produced in the liver. Three years later, he found out why – the cat genome has a broken version of UGT1A6. The gene has been riddled with crippling mutations that prevent it from producing a working protein, like a recipe with missing and garbled steps. In technical terms, it’s a “pseudogene”.

    This is an old problem. Shrestha looked at the gene in 18 species of cat, from cheetahs to servals to tigers, and found that all of them shared the same four crippling mutations. Several lineages had accumulated more. The common ancestor of all modern cats must have been just as sensitive to aspirin (or more realistically, similar natural compounds) than our house cats.

    [. . .]

    The gene was active and serviceable in other groups of meat-eaters, including the other three hyenas, dogs, bears, mongooses and racoons. What sets the cats, the seal and the brown hyena apart? Shrestha thinks it’s their diets. These species are all “hypercarnivores”, meaning that meat makes up more than 70% of their food. By comparison, bears and dogs are “mesocarnivores”, meaning that they eat some plant food too.

    Like many other “detoxifying” proteins, UGT1A6 evolved to help animals cope with the thousands of dangerous chemicals in the plants they eat. For animals that eat plants, even on an irregular basis, these genes are a boon. Individuals with broken copies would be forced into narrower diets and lose out to those with working copies.

    But if an animal’s menu consists largely of meat, it has little use for these anti-plant defences. The genes are dispensable. Individuals with broken versions can survive just as well as those with working ones, so the broken genes spread through the population. In this way, the ancestral cats gradually built up mutations that disabled their UGT1A6 gene. Evolution is merciless that way – it works on a “use it or lose it” basis.

    UGT1A6 isn’t the only gene that’s gone through this fate. Cats also have low levels of amylase in their saliva, and enzyme that starts breaking down carbohydrates. And unlike many other mammals, they don’t have a sweet tooth because their copy of Tas1r2 – a gene involved in taste –is also a pseudogene. Both events might also have been the result of their move away from plant foods.

    Cats may have gone through a near-extinction event which meant that rare mutations, like the faulty version of UGT1A6, got passed on.

    Go, read.

    Written by Randy McDonald

    March 29, 2011 at 3:33 pm

    Posted in Assorted

    Tagged with , , ,