A Bit More Detail

Assorted Personal Notations, Essays, and Other Jottings

Archive for February 2014

[URBAN NOTE] “So the WBB is closing.”

Livejournal’s James Burbidge has a post reflecting on his experience of the World’s Biggest Bookstore. In his experience, it wasn’t all that much.

I remember when it opened. At the time, the Coles chain, which it was a part of, was the very bottom of the barrel as bookstores went. Even in Peterborough, where I lived at the time, it was the last stop if you were looking for something. In Toronto, the top of the pecking order was occupied by Britnell’s and the U of T bookstore, and there was a vibrant collection of good second hand bookstores as well as various other chain and independent bookstores. (This was before W.H. Smith[1] and Coles merged into the monster which would later become Chapters.)

Coles was good only for mass-market paperbacks and for Coles’ Notes. The staff rarely knew much about books. Quality always lost out to price: if you were looking for Shakespeare, for example, you could find Signet Classic editions but never New Arden ones.

The WBB was a bit of a step up — its section mangers, by and large, were relatively knowledgeable, and its larger size meant that, just by brute force, it was more likely to have something you were looking for. But it was, and remained, basically a bigger Coles. If you had been exposed to Foyles in London or FNAC in Paris, its rather grandiose claims to size were a little wearing.

It was a good place to shop for genre paperbacks — it retained an independent ordering policy for a long time, perhaps up to the end — and would frequently have midlist books absent from other stores. It was still worse for SF than Bakka, or for mysteries than Sleuth of Baker Street, but if you worked downtown it was closer. But it would never have the interesting books reviewed in the TLS, for example.

There is fuss, he argues, simply because there has been so much change–specifically, so many stores closing down or being consolidated–in the book retail landscape.

Ignoring the online world, Britnell’s has gone; Nicholas Hoare has gone; Lichtmans has gone. (Ben McNally on Bay street is the last independent bookstore downtown, AFAICT.) W.H. Smith and Coles were swallowed into Chapters which was itself devoured by Indigo and the branches which aren’t Indigo superstores are now IndigoSpirit stores which are (unbelievably) worse than the old Coles stores were (less selection). In the downtown Toronto PATH area two surviving Coles bookstores (in BCE Place and Commerce Court) have closed within the last year.

Go, read.

Written by Randy McDonald

February 28, 2014 at 11:05 pm

[NEWS] Some Friday links

  • The Toronto Star notes that Mississauga is celebrating its 40th anniversary with–among other things–a new logo.
  • The Atlantic Cities shares photos of a Soviet Second World War memorial that keeps getting repainted as a form of political graffiti and notes that banks of offshore windfarms could conceivably cut down the strength of hurricanes.
  • The Guardian notes the slave-like conditions that less privileged foreign workers suffer in Qatar.
  • The CBC notes that the roommates of Loretta Saunders–the Inuk student found murdered in New Brunswick–have both been charged with first-degree murder.
  • National Geographic examines the consequences of a storm in Wales that uncovered a storied forest.
  • BusinessWeek shows how many prominent Ukrainians have been living in luxury, with extensive property holdings throughout Europe.

[BLOG] Some Friday links

  • Centauri Dreams reacts to yesterday’s announcement that Kepler had found another 715 planets. What an embarrassment of riches!
  • Crooked Timber’s Chris Bertram mourns the freer blogging culture of old, before things because set and professionalized.
  • A Fistful of Euros’ Edward Hugh argues that, with a shrinking population and stagnant incomes, Japan-style deflation is inevitable in Spain.
  • At Geocurrents, Claire Negiar summarizes the simmering separatism of the southern Senegalese region of Casamance.
  • Marginal Revolution’s Tyler Cowen starts a discussion about the impact of bringing extinct species like the passenger pigeon back to life.
  • The New APPS Blog’s Mohan Matthen argues that an independent Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom should maintain a currency union. (I’ve made arguments against.)
  • The Power and the Money’s Noel Maurer maps the declining power of Chavista politics at the polls in Venezuela.
  • Savage Minds has a neat interview with an ethnographer who is also a designer.
  • The Speed River Journal’s Van Waffle celebrates the avocado, with photos and recipes.
  • Torontoist links to a cool video showing the exploration of some hidden nooks of the Toronto transit system.
  • Window on Eurasia notes that, at least in terms of declared ethnic identity, Ukraine is as Ukrainian as Russia is Russians.
  • Wonkman points out that mores in cities take a while to get used to, just like the mores of non-urban areas.

[PHOTO] Sandy Carruthers, Lobster!, 2013

Sandy Carruthers, Lobster!, 2013

I saw Island cartoonist Sandy Carruthers‘ sketch of a giant lobster ravaging a coastal community in the basement of Charlottetown’s Art Guild and loved it. There is something decidedly and uncomfortably non-vertebrate about these uncuddly things; were they larger, or if they tasted less good …

Written by Randy McDonald

February 28, 2014 at 1:49 pm

[LINK] “Winnipeg veteran told to return vet’s licence plate”

The CBC report concerning a Manitoban veteran of the Vietnam War upset that he can’t claim a veteran’s license plate because he fought in the Vietnam War somewhat infuriates me.

Canada was not a combatant in the Vietnam War, and Canadian citizens–even Canadian citizens in the United States–were not forced to fight. Why should anyone who volunteers to fight in a foreign country’s wars get honours because of it?

(Yes, this principle also applies to volunteers fighting in other conflicts, too.)

In 2012, the Royal Canadian Legion approved Ron Parkes’s application for the specialty plate because of his service in Vietnam. A couple of months later, it reversed that decision.

Staff told the 71-year-old Parkes that only those who fought in wars on behalf of Canada and its wartime allies qualify for the plates. He’s been told he has to give the plate back.

“It hurts,” Parkes said. “It just hurts that the legion seems to have nothing better do than to bully us.”

Parkes said he was 19 years old when he signed up with the U.S. military, as he did not want to linger on the Canadian army’s year-long waiting list.

“I sincerely felt I’d be serving my country as well in the U.S. army as I would in the Canadian army,” he said.

Parkes said he is proud of his service as a paratrooper.

“I’m a Canadian. I’m a veteran. I served honourably,” he said. “I met the criteria. I have no understanding why veterans don’t want to recognize veterans.”

Other vets like William Douglas of Winnipeg disagree, saying the rules are there for a reason.

“The plate is a veteran’s plate, so it should be restricted in my opinion to Canadian veterans,” he said.

In Ontario, those who fought in Vietnam do qualify for a veteran’s specialty plate, but that is not the case in Manitoba.

Written by Randy McDonald

February 28, 2014 at 4:08 am

[LINK] “Lake Erie’s algae blooms threaten its survival”

News that Lake Erie, southernmost of the Great Lakes and one upstream from Lake Ontario, is facing environmental catastrophe again as phosphorous runoff feeds algae blooms, featured prominently in this evening’s news. See the observation by CBC’s Margo McDiarmid.

Lake Erie, once a success story about how a polluted lake can be brought back to life, is once again struggling to survive.

During the summer months, the most southern of the five Great Lakes is smothering under huge blooms of green algae, often thousands of square kilometres in size.

A new report to be released by the International Joint Commission (IJC) this Thursday recommends some immediate steps to save the lake.

The acting Canadian chair of the IJC, Gordon Walker, told the House of Commons environment committee that Lake Erie is in a crisis.

[. . .]

Phosphorus was a problem that many people thought had been solved in the mid-60’s.

Canadian researchers discovered that phosphorus in laundry detergent was turning lakes green with algae.

The phosphorous feeds the algae, which absorb the oxygen in the lakes and create dead zones.

In 1972, the U.S. and Canada signed the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, which committed them to take action.

That included banning phosphates from all laundry detergent. Within 10 years the levels of phosphorus had dropped and the lakes were on the mend.

But in 2011, a 5,000-square-kilometre algal bloom in Lake Erie was a sign of more trouble. It prompted the IJC to launch a study into the problem.

The report concludes that phosphorus is getting back into Lake Erie from agricultural fertilizers used in growing corn for ethanol and other crops. Domestic lawn fertilizers are also a source of the phosphorus, said Walker.

“Every home wants to have it on their front lawn, he said. “It all runs into the river and it’s untreated and that becomes a problem.”

The report says rivers in Indiana and Ohio that flow into Lake Erie are the largest sources of phosphorus, but some of it also comes from Ontario’s Grand and Thames rivers.

Written by Randy McDonald

February 28, 2014 at 1:35 am

[LINK] “Why the Plan to Dig a Canal Across Nicaragua Could Be a Very Bad Idea”

Greg Miller’s Wired Science article explaining the Nicaragua Canal connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans is a worthy read. This canal, currently being promoted by the Nicaraguan government in conjunction with Chinese investors, could have serious environmental consequences, by dividing areas of land and uniting hitherto-separate bodies of water. (A background of extensive seismic and even volcanic activity complicates.)

A final route for the canal has not yet been announced, but the proposed routes pass through Lake Nicaragua, which covers about six times the area of Los Angeles and is Central America’s largest lake.

The lake is a major source of drinking water and irrigation, and home to rare freshwater sharks and other fish of commercial and scientific value, Huete-Pérez and Meyer say. The forest around it is home to howler monkeys, tapirs, jaguars, and countless tropical birds–not to mention several groups of indigenous people (some of whom have challenged the project in court, so far to no avail).

Meyer, who’s done field work in Nicaragua for 30 years, says the area is a natural laboratory for evolutionary biology. Just as Darwin’s finches evolved into different species as they adapted to the unique environment of individual islands, so it goes with fish as they’ve colonized the region’s network of crater lakes. “These crater lakes are like islands in a sea of land from a fish’s perspective,” said Meyer, who has been characterizing genetic changes in the region’s cichlid fish populations.

[. . .]

Huete-Pérez and Meyer worry primarily about the dredging necessary to accommodate massive container ships: The proposed canal is 90 feet deep; the lake averages just 50 feet. “The initial digging would create a huge sediment issue that would be bad for water quality in the lake and the wetlands around it,” Meyer said.

Pedro Alvarez, a civil and environmental engineer at Rice University raises another water-related concern. It may be necessary to dam the San Juan River, the main route for water flowing out of the lake, to keep the water levels high enough for the canal’s locks to work properly, Alvarez says. “If you do that you’re going to change the hydrology of many lakes and rivers,” he said. “Some may dry up.”

Lovejoy sees other potential problems. He’s especially worried about creating a conduit between the Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Sea. “It’s creating the potential for an enormous invasive species problem,” he said. That problem could include venomous Pacific sea snakes invading the Caribbean and a disruption of Caribbean fisheries from an influx of competing species, predators and disease.

[. . .]

The seismic risks may have been overblown for political purposes. But they’re not negligible, and they probably represent the worst-case scenario, says Alvarez, the engineer from Rice University. “Releasing a dam could be a catastrophic event that I don’t even want to think about,” he said.

Written by Randy McDonald

February 28, 2014 at 1:30 am

Posted in Politics, Science

[LINK] “Making Babies with 3 Genetic Parents Gets FDA Hearing”

Dina Fine Maron’s Scientific American article concerning new technologies that could marry DNA from three individuals, creating three-parent children, is a good overview of the technology’s position in the United States right now. (I’m for it, for whatever it’s worth, in that preventing inherited mitochondrial DNA diseases in children is a good thing.)

Scientists have already had successes with this type of reproductive approach in monkeys and in human embryos, and are now eager to launch human clinical trials. First, however, they must get the green light from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which will convene a public hearing before an advisory committee on February 25.

The technology, called oocyte modification (but sometimes nicknamed “three-parent IVF”), involves scooping out potentially mutated mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) from a woman’s egg and replacing it with the mtDNA of an unaffected donor woman. The process is designed to prevent the transmission of some debilitating inherited mitochondrial diseases, which can result in vision loss, seizures and other maladies. Such inherited diseases, often unfortunately known by acronyms for complex medical names that include LHON, for Leber’s Hereditary Optic Neuropathy, along with MELAS, MERRF and NARP, occur in about one in every 5,000 live births and are incurable.

Once the mtDNA has been swapped out, the egg could be fertilized in the lab by the father’s sperm and the embryo would be implanted back into mom where pregnancy would proceed. The resulting child would be the genetic offspring of the intended mother but would carry healthy mitochondrial genes from the donor.

[. . .]

Scientists already have evidence for the promise of this type of oocyte modification. Shoukhrat Mitalipov of the Oregon Health & Science University and his colleagues created human embryos in this way, although they did not implant those embryos to make babies. Their findings were published in October 2012 in Nature. Other work from that same team also found that in monkeys the process could lead to the birth of healthy offspring that remained free of complications into adulthood. (Scientific American is part of Nature Publishing Group).

[. . .]

But wading into this type of approach is also fraught with ethical issues. Marcy Darnovsky, executive director of the Center for Genetics and Society, fears that this reproductive approach could soon lead to tampering with other traits, such as intelligence or sports ability. “Life is full of slippery slopes and we need brakes,” she says. “This is described as saving lives but it is not aimed at people who are sick,” she adds. The FDA advisory committee does not plan to consider ethical issues at this meeting. Instead it will focus on the scientific aspects of future clinical trial considerations, including long-term risk of carryover of abnormal mtDNA, the potential benefits and harm to mothers and future children, and the need for multigenerational follow-up in any trials (because female children could pass on mitochondrial disease to future offspring). “Our job will be purely to air the issue and bring it out into the open,” says Evan Snyder, chair of the committee and director of the Stem Cell and Regenerative Biology Program at Sanford–Burnham Medical Research Institute in La Jolla, Calif. “We’re not going to come out at the end of the meeting and say we are advocating for clinical trials or any particular technique. This is educational,” he says.

Written by Randy McDonald

February 27, 2014 at 8:47 pm

[URBAN NOTE] “‘Arrest me’: Mayor Ford dares police chief as war of words escalates”

After reading Ann Hui and Jill Mahoney’s article in The Globe and Mail, I want the Ford brothers’ bluffs to be called. In spades. Live.

Mayor Rob Ford slammed Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair Thursday, accusing the chief of playing politics and saying “if he’s gonna arrest me, arrest me.”

Mr. Ford’s remarks come after a war of words this week between the police chief and the Ford family. On Wednesday, Chief Blair accused the mayor’s friend, alleged drug dealer Alessandro Lisi, of levelling threats against him, and told reporters he was “deeply offended” by a video that shows the mayor using explicit language to describe him. Mayor Ford’s brother, Councillor Doug Ford, fought back by calling on the chief to step down, after submitting a formal complaint with the Office of the Independent Police Review Director.

“He’s embarrassed? How about embarrassing my family, my kids, my community, my friends, following me around for five months, spending millions of dollars using taxpayers’ money, coming into my office trying to politicize things and making announcements,” Mr. Ford said Thursday. “If anyone owes an apology, he owes an apology to the taxpayers for not telling people how much he spent.”

Mr. Ford’s comments are a reference to an ongoing Toronto Police investigation into the mayor, dubbed Project Brazen 2. That investigation has already netted the arrest of Mr. Lisi for drug trafficking and extortion related to a video that shows the mayor smoking crack cocaine. The Fords and Chief Blair have been at odds ever since the chief revealed in a news conference in October that Toronto Police have a copy of that video – telling reporters that he was “disappointed” – and said that police were investigating Mr. Ford.

“If he’s gonna arrest me, arrest me,” Mr. Ford said, before accusing Chief Blair of playing politics.

[. . .]

Councillor Ford, who is Mayor Ford’s election campaign manager and often speaks for his brother, said Chief Blair violated the Police Act by saying Mayor Ford’s friend, alleged drug dealer Alessandro Lisi, warned officers that “your guy is going to get his” after his arrest on an extortion charge last fall. Police interpreted the remark as an apparent threat that foreshadowed a complaint the councillor later filed against the chief.

“He kept saying, ‘I don’t speak on ongoing investigations,’ but when it comes to Rob Ford there’s two rules: ‘I’ll speak all day long.’ And he just keeps breaking the law. And who holds this character accountable?” Councillor Ford said on AM640 radio on Thursday, later saying he has never spoken to Mr. Lisi and calling the chief’s comments “a lie.”

Written by Randy McDonald

February 27, 2014 at 8:41 pm

[BLOG] Some Thursday links

  • blogTO chronicles the time when Toronto bus transit went as far as Niagara Falls.
  • The Burgh Diaspora’s Jim Russell notes that falling global mobility is combining with low fertility rates to produce labour shortages.
  • Centauri Dreams’ Paul Gilster, thinking of pulsar planets, starts a discussion about science fiction set in extreme environments.
  • The Dragon’s Gaze notes the complexity of discovering exoplanets around young–hence very active–stars.
  • The Dragon’s Tales, meanwhile, observes evidence that the Indus Valley civilization collapsed because of climate change.
  • Far Outliers observes the speed with which German and Austro-Hungarian fronts collapsed in 1918 and comments on American respect for their German counterparts in the First World War.
  • Marginal Revolution notes a paper claiming that immigration doesn’t undermine public support for welfare states.
  • Livejournal’s pollotenchegg maps the distributions of Russians and Crimean Tatars in that autonomous–and contested?–Ukrainian peninsula.
  • The Power and the Money’s Noel Maurer thinks that, though things are bad in Venezuela, they aren’t nearly as bad as one database on democracy claims.
  • Peter Rukavina shares the story of how much he cost the Prince Edward Island health system and how he found out.
  • Towleroad goes into greater detail about the changes in royal nomenclature forced by same-sex marriage.