A Bit More Detail

Assorted Personal Notations, Essays, and Other Jottings

Archive for February 2012

[LINK] “How Dolphins Say Hello”

Research findings like those described in Elizabeth Norton’s article at Science Now on cetacean language make the argument in favour of granting legal personhood to certain species of cetaceans all the more compelling. Names matter.

Bottlenose dolphins have a knack for language. They can understand both the meaning and the order of words conveyed through human hand gestures—correctly putting an item on the right side of their tank into a basket on the left, for example. Now humans, too, are beginning to understand dolphin language as more than just a cacophony of clicks, pulses, and whistles. A new study shows that dolphins use their own unique calls, known as signature whistles, to introduce themselves to others when meeting at sea.

[. . .]

Marine biologists Vincent Janik and Nicola Quick of the Sea Mammal Research Unit at the University of St. Andrews in the United Kingdom were focusing on signature whistles as a way of understanding how dolphins communicate in the natural world. “Dolphins are comparable to great apes in their cognitive skills, but all we know is what they do in a lab,” Janik explains. “We wanted to understand how dolphins use their intelligence outside of the tasks that humans set for them.”

To learn more, Quick and Janik followed a group of bottlenose dolphins that swim long distances around the eastern coast of Scotland. The researchers used a small boat to tow an array of underwater microphones, called hydrophones, about 2 meters below the surface and recorded the sounds of individual dolphins identified by their dorsal fins. The animals were matched with their calls by their surfacing locations and swim speed, as well as by digital cameras while they were near the surface.

The dolphins used signature whistles when meeting up with another group, Quick and Janik report online today in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B. What’s more, they gave the distinctive whistle only if they actually mingled with the other dolphins. Of 11 “conversations,” only two did not result in the groups’ joining together, and only once did the groups join up without first exchanging whistles.

Even more intriguing was that only one member of each group gave the signature whistle. According to Janik, there could be several explanations. The group could have a leader doing the “talking;” the dolphins may have identified each other using echolocation (the clicks the dolphins send out that echo back from nearby objects), and the whistle was more of a ritual; or the groups may have been together previously and already known each other.

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Written by Randy McDonald

February 29, 2012 at 11:54 pm

[LINK] “Ontario’s McGuinty surprised comments caught heat in the West”

CBC’s coverage of the consequences of the Ontario premier’s ill-timed speculations about the possibility of Canada’s oil-driven currency precipitating a nation-wide case of “Dutch disease”–a high, even overvalued currency making industrial exports uncompetitive–is worth reading in full. Canadian regionalism: a force to watch out for?

Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty tried to turn down the heat generated by his comments earlier in the week, about preferring a lower dollar to a growing oil and gas sector in Western Canada.

McGuinty admitted he was “a bit surprised” by the extent of the blowback from his comments Monday, when he said Canada’s high “petro-dollar” was bad for Ontario manufacturers and exporters.

“I think I should clarify … we are very, very proud of the work that is being done by Canadians in every province and territory to strengthen our country,” McGuinty told reporters Wednesday.

“We have a strong sense of partnership with Canadians from coast to coast to coast.”

The mea culpa wasn’t enough for Alberta Premier Alison Redford.

Her position is that the entire Canadian economy, and Ontario in particular, benefits from the oilsands.

[. . .]

Redford, a Progressive Conservative whose party will head to the polls in the coming weeks, has had an ally in this spat in the form of Saskatchewan’s Premier Brad Wall. Wall said Tuesday that the Ontario premier was being “unnecessarily divisive.”

Editorial writers across the country also took McGuinty to task for being “ungracious” in his response to Redford’s request that Ontario and Quebec speak up for the oilsands.

Although he never apologized for Monday’s comments, there was a hint McGuinty regretted having said that given a choice between a lower dollar or a growing oil and gas sector in the West, he’d take the lower dollar.

“It can be difficult in this kind of context to convey exactly what you want to say,” said McGuinty. “I work in real time. So sometimes I may not self-edit before I go to press, so to speak, unlike the luxury you good people enjoy.”/blockquote>

Written by Randy McDonald

February 29, 2012 at 9:59 pm

[BRIEF NOTE] Timberg and Halperin on the origins of HIV in colonial Africa

Joe. My. God. linked to an excerpt (published in the Washington Post of Craig Timberg and Daniel Halperin’s new book Tinderbox, one of several books recently published which draw upon molecular biology and history to describe how HIV became a global pandemic with tens of millions of dead and infected when a century ago it was limited to chimpanzee populations in central Africa. Colonialism–specifically, the demand for ivory in southeastern Cameroon where HIV-infected chimpanzees lived, a century ago udner German control–is responsible for the shift.

Not far from where HIV-1 group M was born was a major river, the Sangha, flowing toward the heart of Central Africa. This section of the Sangha was not ideal for navigation because of its ribbons of sandbars and the dense vegetation along its banks.

In the especially treacherous middle section, near where Hahn and Sharp’s team found the viral ancestor of HIV, few major human settlements ever developed. But there were numerous communities on the Sangha’s more accessible stretches. And due south, past riverside trading towns, was the mighty Congo River itself, the superhighway of Central Africa.

[. . .]

In December 1895 German colonial authorities heard reports that Cameroon’s southeastern corner contained fabulously rich ivory and rubber stocks awaiting exploitation.

The Germans soon after gave authority to a colonial company to take control of the region by force. Over the next four years they extended their power all the way through southeastern Cameroon and established a trading station on the Ngoko River about 75 miles upstream from where its waters merged with the Sangha. In the wedge of land defined by these two rivers, HIV either had just been born or soon would be.

The trading station was called Moloundou, and a busy town remains there today. But at the time it was almost unimaginably remote. Few human settlements had developed among these forbidding forests. And there were only two practical ways out: by steamship down the Ngoko to the Sangha and on to the Congo River; or overland by foot to the Atlantic.

The river route was the easier of the two, and steamships transported the bulk of the ivory and rubber collected in southeastern Cameroon. But overland routes were necessary to connect Moloundou with other trading stations and inland areas rich with rubber and ivory.

[. . .]

In just a few years [syphillis] reached epidemic proportions along porter routes and riverside trading posts in Cameroon and throughout the Congo Basin. It’s impossible now to determine how much of this spread resulted from rapes as opposed to other kinds of encounters, but it’s clear that colonial commerce created massive new networks of sexual interactions — and massive new transmissions of infections. (In later decades, transmission through the reuse of hypodermic needles in medical care probably had some role in HIV’s spread as well.)

So HIV’s first journey looked something like this: A hunter killed an infected chimp in the southeastern Cameroonian forest, and a simian virus entered his body through a cut during the butchering, mutating into HIV.

This probably had happened many times before, during the centuries when the region had little contact with the outside world. But now thousands of porters — both men and women — were crossing through the area regularly, creating more opportunities for the virus to travel onward to a riverside trading station such as Moloundou.

One of the first victims — whether a hunter, a porter or an ivory collector — gave HIV to a sexual partner. There may have been a small outbreak around the trading station before the virus found its way aboard a steamship headed down the Sangha River.

[. . .]

Most of this colonial world didn’t have enough potential victims for such a fragile virus to start a major epidemic. HIV is harder to transmit than many other infections. People can have sex hundreds of times without passing the virus on. To spread widely, HIV requires a population large enough to sustain an outbreak and a sexual culture in which people often have more than one partner, creating networks of interaction that propel the virus onward.

To fulfill its grim destiny, HIV needed a kind of place never before seen in Central Africa but one that now was rising in the heart of the region: a big, thriving, hectic place jammed with people and energy, where old rules were cast aside amid the tumult of new commerce.

It needed Kinshasa. It was here, hundreds of miles downriver from Cameroon, that HIV began to grow beyond a mere outbreak. It was here that AIDS grew into an epidemic.

I’ll be looking out for Tinderbox when it comes out. It’ll be worth comparing it with Jacques Pepin’s The Origins of AIDS, which I blogged about at Demography Matters back in December. Pepin’s narrative places greater importance on medical campaigns–specifically, the use of unsterile needles in campaigns against sleeping sickness in French Equatorial Africa–in letting HIV infect enough people to create the critical mass necessary for a global epidemic.

Clearly, though, the two books share a common emphasis on the misdeeds, knowing and otherwise, of colonial empires in central Africa. That’s enough for a first approximation.

Written by Randy McDonald

February 29, 2012 at 8:59 pm

[URBAN NOTE] “Flourishing French school systems could be the harbinger of a more bilingual Toronto”

Via Torontoist comes a Yonge Street Media article by Bert Archer talking about recent growth of French-language education in Toronto. Apparently all it took was immigration from Francophone communities and shifts in Ministry of Education policy that allowed the transfer of unused school buildings between boards.

Thirty years on, it seems Torontonians are finally twigging to the implications of Section 23, the bit that guarantees parents the right, under certain conditions, to educate their children in French.

According to the Charter, if your first language is French, or if you were educated in French, your children have the right to French education. This applies to people born in Canada, as well as immigrants from the approximately 50 countries where French is an official language. And according to an executive at the French Catholic system in Toronto, admission in his system is extended further through a “grandfather” clause, which allows any child with a French-speaking or French-educated grandparent to register, as well. In a country with about seven million native French speakers, whose population growth is increasingly dependent on immigration, and in a city like Toronto that acts as a magnet for both domestic and international migration, that accounts for a lot of kids.

The French classes mandated in the English school system are mostly lamentable. French immersion has become enormously competitive, with far fewer spots than kids. But a spot in a French immersion program is not guaranteed by the Charter. Wholesale French education is. So when a school in Toronto’s public or Catholic French school boards gets crowded, it doesn’t turn students way or get ludicrously selective, it expands. The Catholic school board, the Conseil scolaire de district catholique Centre-Sud (CSDCCS) has grown by more than 10 per cent over the last four years. The public system, the Conseil Scolaire Viamonde, by 23 per cent. Because land zoned for schools is at a premium in the GTA, expansion has in the past meant crowded classrooms and portables. But ever since 2006, when the Ministry of Education has its Pupil Accommodation Review, which forced the English system to consolidate its students, shutter sparsely populated schools and offer those schools up to other boards before they could put them on the open market, the French systems have been positively blossoming.

“We’re building a new elementary school is Scarborough,” says Rejean Sirois, the director of education for the Catholic system, “and we’re also building a new school northwest of the 401 to replace an existing school.” The growth is impressive. They’re also expanding two elementary schools that are over-crowded/, have received funding to buy a school in Etobicoke (formerly known as Richview), have already bought the former Essex public school near Christie Pits and have a new high school at the corner of Eglinton and Markham Road. The public system has five new schools in the works, including the school formerly known as West Toronto Collegiate, a three-storey, 1,000-student school they’re renovating jointly with the Catholic board. On Lansdowne between College and Bloor, the as yet un-named school is in the heart of Dufferin Grove, and will open up some much needed spots in the downtown core.

Written by Randy McDonald

February 29, 2012 at 8:09 pm

[LINK] “Defeated MP suspected dirty tricks used elsewhere”

News like this from the Toronto riding of Etobicoke Centree brings a local perspective onto Canada’s growing robocalling scandal.

27 ridings are described in the CBC article as having been subject to this, but I’ve heard mention of upwards of forty ridings having seen robocalling. For comparison, the Conservative Party has a majority of 16 seats in parliament.

If these allegations are true, the potential for chaos is substantial. How many by-elections would there be? Just what would happen?

A former Toronto MP who lost a razor-thin election contest in Etobicoke Centre last year says he is not surprised to hear of claims that so-called dirty tricks may have been used in dozens of ridings across Canada.

Borys Wrzesnewskyj, who served for three terms as a Liberal MP, told CBC News that he has long suspected that he wasn’t the only candidate who heard about suspicious events during the last election.

He has alleged in an application filed in Ontario Superior Court that there were “widespread incidents of mistake and error, voter intimidation and active voter interference” that contributed to the final result in Etobicoke Centre, in which he lost to Conservative candidate Ted Opitz by fewer than 30 votes.

[. . .]

The Liberals have said that Etobicoke Centre is among 27 ridings where “false or misleading” calls were reported to the party during the election.

While Wrzesnewskyj said the wider allegations being raised by the Liberals and New Democrats are “disturbing,” he believed the alleged irregularities and incidents in Etobicoke Centre did not occur in isolation.

“Just by the nature of the allegations, it spoke to — potentially, if this is proven — to a meticulously planned-out system of suppressing vote,” Wrzesnewskyj said in an interview on Sunday.

“And let’s be clear here, what we’re talking about. It’s disenfranchising Canadians, taking Canadians’ right to vote away from them in an incredibly underhanded way.”

[. . .]

Prior to the election, Wrzesnewskyj had served as the MP for Etobicoke Centre for nearly seven years.

But Wrzesnewskyj was defeated, finishing behind his Conservative opponent. The result was subject to a recount, but was upheld and Opitz became Etobicoke Centre’s new MP.

Wrzesnewskyj subsequently filed an application that seeks to void the result of the previous election in Etobicoke Centre and hold a byelection within six months of a court order.

[. . .]

Wrzesnewskyj’s application claims that Elections Canada staff working in Etobicoke Centre during the last election made “numerous discrepancies and significant errors” that “affected more than 50 per cent of the polling stations during the vote and which impact on the integrity of the electoral process … and the victory of Mr. Ted Opitz since the votes exceed the margin of victory.”

His application also claims that “there were irregularities, fraud or corrupt or illegal practices” that affected the outcome of the election, some of which he alleges involved individuals connected to the Conservative party.

Written by Randy McDonald

February 29, 2012 at 6:38 pm

[BRIEF NOTE] Timberg and Halperin on the origins of HIV in colonial Africa

Joe. My. God. linked to an excerpt (published in the Washington Post of Craig Timberg and Daniel Halperin’s new book Tinderbox, one of several books recently published which draw upon molecular biology and history to describe how HIV became a global pandemic with tens of millions of dead and infected when a century ago it was limited to chimpanzee populations in central Africa. Colonialism–specifically, the demand for ivory in southeastern Cameroon where HIV-infected chimpanzees lived, a century ago udner German control–is responsible for the shift.

Not far from where HIV-1 group M was born was a major river, the Sangha, flowing toward the heart of Central Africa. This section of the Sangha was not ideal for navigation because of its ribbons of sandbars and the dense vegetation along its banks.

In the especially treacherous middle section, near where Hahn and Sharp’s team found the viral ancestor of HIV, few major human settlements ever developed. But there were numerous communities on the Sangha’s more accessible stretches. And due south, past riverside trading towns, was the mighty Congo River itself, the superhighway of Central Africa.

[. . .]

In December 1895 German colonial authorities heard reports that Cameroon’s southeastern corner contained fabulously rich ivory and rubber stocks awaiting exploitation.

The Germans soon after gave authority to a colonial company to take control of the region by force. Over the next four years they extended their power all the way through southeastern Cameroon and established a trading station on the Ngoko River about 75 miles upstream from where its waters merged with the Sangha. In the wedge of land defined by these two rivers, HIV either had just been born or soon would be.

The trading station was called Moloundou, and a busy town remains there today. But at the time it was almost unimaginably remote. Few human settlements had developed among these forbidding forests. And there were only two practical ways out: by steamship down the Ngoko to the Sangha and on to the Congo River; or overland by foot to the Atlantic.

The river route was the easier of the two, and steamships transported the bulk of the ivory and rubber collected in southeastern Cameroon. But overland routes were necessary to connect Moloundou with other trading stations and inland areas rich with rubber and ivory.

[. . .]

In just a few years [syphillis] reached epidemic proportions along porter routes and riverside trading posts in Cameroon and throughout the Congo Basin. It’s impossible now to determine how much of this spread resulted from rapes as opposed to other kinds of encounters, but it’s clear that colonial commerce created massive new networks of sexual interactions — and massive new transmissions of infections. (In later decades, transmission through the reuse of hypodermic needles in medical care probably had some role in HIV’s spread as well.)

So HIV’s first journey looked something like this: A hunter killed an infected chimp in the southeastern Cameroonian forest, and a simian virus entered his body through a cut during the butchering, mutating into HIV.

This probably had happened many times before, during the centuries when the region had little contact with the outside world. But now thousands of porters — both men and women — were crossing through the area regularly, creating more opportunities for the virus to travel onward to a riverside trading station such as Moloundou.

One of the first victims — whether a hunter, a porter or an ivory collector — gave HIV to a sexual partner. There may have been a small outbreak around the trading station before the virus found its way aboard a steamship headed down the Sangha River.

[. . .]

Most of this colonial world didn’t have enough potential victims for such a fragile virus to start a major epidemic. HIV is harder to transmit than many other infections. People can have sex hundreds of times without passing the virus on. To spread widely, HIV requires a population large enough to sustain an outbreak and a sexual culture in which people often have more than one partner, creating networks of interaction that propel the virus onward.

To fulfill its grim destiny, HIV needed a kind of place never before seen in Central Africa but one that now was rising in the heart of the region: a big, thriving, hectic place jammed with people and energy, where old rules were cast aside amid the tumult of new commerce.

It needed Kinshasa. It was here, hundreds of miles downriver from Cameroon, that HIV began to grow beyond a mere outbreak. It was here that AIDS grew into an epidemic.

I’ll be looking out for Tinderbox when it comes out. It’ll be worth comparing it with Jacques Pepin’s The Origins of AIDS, which I blogged about at Demography Matters back in December. Pepin’s narrative places greater importance on medical campaigns–specifically, the use of unsterile needles in campaigns against sleeping sickness in French Equatorial Africa–in letting HIV infect enough people to create the critical mass necessary for a global epidemic.

Clearly, though, the two books share a common emphasis on the misdeeds, knowing and otherwise, of colonial empires in central Africa. That’s enough for a first approximation.

Written by Randy McDonald

February 29, 2012 at 3:59 pm

[PHOTO] BMV Books, 471 Bloor Street West

The BMV Books located on 471 Bloor Street West in the heart of The Annex was recognized as special as soon as it opened at the end of 2006. At night, the store’s three illuminated stories beckon.

IMG_0586.JPG

Written by Randy McDonald

February 29, 2012 at 3:13 pm