A Bit More Detail

Assorted Personal Notations, Essays, and Other Jottings

Archive for March 2015

[URBAN NOTE] “Exploring Halifax’s secret underground world”

The Halifax Chronicle-Herald‘s Stephen Cooke looks at the literally hidden history of the Nova Scotian capital.

The city of Halifax has been building upwards since it was founded in 1749, as newer and shinier buildings replace older wood and stone structures, but there is another history beneath the streets and sidewalks that has remained unchanged since long-forgotten labourers constructed it.

Halifax Underground is a new documentary by filmmaker Scott Simpson and Tell Tale Productions, airing on CBC-TV’s Land & Sea on Sunday at noon, that looks at the mythology and reality of a secret world underneath the city’s pavement and landmarks and examines stories of secret tunnels extending from Fort George on Citadel Hill to the waterfront, or even out under the harbour to Georges Island.

The stories have been passed down through generations, and like many urban myths there is an element of truth to them, but Simpson says many of us have never taken the extra step to find out what really lies beneath our feet.

“We’re not tourists in our own town,” he says.

“When we travel abroad, we’ll often take a tour or explore a museum or whatever, but we rarely do that at home. I’m learning things through my kids because we take them to museums and places like that, so I’m learning new things through their eyes because I’m doing things with them I wouldn’t have done on my own.

Written by Randy McDonald

March 30, 2015 at 10:46 pm

[URBAN NOTE] On the future of renting in Toronto

Denise Balkissoon’s article in The Globe and Mail, “The renting gap: Is Toronto in the midst of a rental renaissance – or is it just more of the same?” is not very hopeful.

The rental sector is desperate for square footage – the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation puts Toronto’s vacancy rate at 1.6 per cent – so every unit is welcome. Yet even as 32,726 new condos have gone on the rental market in the past half-decade, tenants continue to struggle with affordability, unit size and family-friendliness, plus trickier issues such as security of tenure and landlord-tenant relationships. Once the first rush of gladness about new space wears off, many landlords, tenants and market watchers are left frustrated at a piecemeal approach that isn’t necessarily filling the gaps that exist.

Rental properties, when they are built to meet all of a prospective tenant’s needs, attract a range of incomes and living circumstances that elevate the diversity of a neighbourhood. “I think the enlightened development community that get it, they see integration as an important public benefit,” says Sean Gadon. As director of the City of Toronto’s Affordable Housing Office, his job often requires much liaising between other public agencies and developers to find innovative means of adding affordable housing to new construction. With the current state of the rental market, Mr. Gadon has seen that “key workers in the economy are squeezed out of access to housing.”

Private developers have 12 tower projects designed specifically for rental currently under way, but most of them are clustered along the city’s wealthy north-south axis. A few carefully negotiated city-led partnerships between developers and non-profit organizations are bearing fruit, but not nearly as much as is needed.

Gillespie, whose company has almost 4,000 new rental units under way across Canada, knows that his brand-new complex in an upper-middle-class neighbourhood won’t be accessible to all. He believes the Honest Ed’s project will add to “the housing continuum,” saying that as new buildings go up, “older housing becomes more affordable.”

Geordie Dent, executive director of the Federation of Metro Tenant Associations doesn’t agree the trickle-down effect will materialize. He points out that despite all of the new individual condo rentals that have come online, the FMTA still gets thousands of calls a year from people who can’t find affordable places to live.

Written by Randy McDonald

March 30, 2015 at 10:44 pm

[LINK] “Wooly Mammoth Genes Inserted into Elephant Cells”

The Dragon’s Tales linked last week to this Discovery News report suggesting that the resurrection of the mammoth may not be too far off.

Researchers from Harvard University have successfully inserted genes from a woolly mammoth into living cells from an Asian elephant, the extinct giant’s closest remaining relative.

Harvard geneticist George Church used DNA from Arctic permafrost woolly mammoth samples to copy 14 mammoth genes — emphasizing those related to its chilly lifestyle.

“We prioritized genes associated with cold resistance including hairiness, ear size, subcutaneous fat and, especially, hemoglobin,” Church told The Sunday Times.

Then, using a kind of DNA cut/paste system called CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeat), Church dropped the genes into Asian elephant skin cells.

The result? A petri dish of elephant cells functioning normally with mammoth DNA in them, marking the first time mammoth genes have been on the job since the creature went extinct some 4,000 years ago, as Sarah Fecht, from Popular Science, noted.

Written by Randy McDonald

March 30, 2015 at 10:42 pm

[LINK] “Sturgeon Says Nationalists Can Win Every Seat in Scotland”

Bloomberg’s Robert Hutton reports. British politics can get very interesting, I think.

Scottish Nationalist leader Nicola Sturgeon said her party can win all of Scotland’s 59 seats in the May 7 U.K. general election.

The SNP is meeting in Glasgow, Scotland’s biggest city, for its pre-election conference on the back of a huge surge in support after failing to win last year’s referendum on independence. Polls suggest the SNP may win as many as 50 districts and become the third-biggest party in the House of Commons in London.

“No constituency is off limits for the SNP in this election,” Sturgeon, who’s also the first minister in the Scotland’s semi-autonomous government, told activists Saturday. “We will fight for every vote and every seat. Let’s get out there and turn these poll predictions into reality.”

Written by Randy McDonald

March 30, 2015 at 10:40 pm

[LINK] “Bizarre Bulge Found on Ganymede, Solar System’s Largest Moon”

National Geographic‘s Nadia Drake reports on an unusual feature of Ganymede’s surface that is, among other things, a hint about the existence of an ocean.

There’s a big, weird bulge on Ganymede, the largest moon in the solar system. Protruding from a spot on the moon’s equator, the bulge is about 375 miles (600 kilometers) across, about the area of Ecuador, and two miles (three kilometers) tall, about half the height of Mount Kilimanjaro.

It’s not at all what scientists expected to find on this moon of Jupiter.

“I found it a bit by accident while I was looking to complete the global mapping of Ganymede,” says planetary scientist Paul Schenk of the Lunar and Planetary Institute, in Houston. He reported the weird feature on March 20 at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference.

The size and location of Ganymede’s bulge, which appears to be made of thick ice, suggest that once upon a time, the moon’s icy shell rotated atop the rest of the moon, like an interplanetary Magic 8 Ball.

First, Schenk thinks, the bulge began growing at one of the poles. Then, once the bulge grew big enough, its mass began to drag the shell into a different position. The shell slid atop the ocean, while the moon’s interior stayed in the same orientation. Eventually, the part of the shell that once capped the poles ended up at the equator.

Written by Randy McDonald

March 30, 2015 at 10:38 pm

[BLOG] Some Monday links

  • The Broadside Blog’s Caitlin Kelly considers old friends.
  • Centauri Dreams considers the search for extraterrestrial civilizations using infrared astronomy, concentrating on Dyson spheres and the like.
  • The Dragon’s Gaze has two links to papers looking at unusual brown dwarfs.
  • The Dragon’s Tales reports on the flora of late Permian Antarctica.
  • Language Log notes a potentially problematic effort at Bangladesh to put hundreds of thousands of Bengali words online with Google, ready for translators. What of quality control, Victor Mair asks?
  • Lawyers, Guns and Money comments on the Burmese slaves in the Thai fisheries and looks at the desperate last efforts of Confederates to persist.
  • Marginal Revolution suggests that air conditioning really didn’t drive much interstate migration in the United States.
  • The Planetary Society Blog observes discoveries and anticipation for more at Ceres and Pluto.
  • Savage Minds looks to the example of Lesotho to point out that giving people land title by no means necessarily helps them out of poverty.
  • Torontoist looks at the Prism music video prize.

[PHOTO] Saturday evening in the Village

Saturday evening in the Village #toronto #churchandwellesley #churchstreet #torontophotos

Written by Randy McDonald

March 30, 2015 at 2:04 pm

[CAT] On the cat island of Aoshima, Japan

Earlier this month, The Atlantic featured a Reuters photo essay by Thomas Peter depicting the cats of the Japanese island of Aoshima. As one source describes it, Aoshima–located off of the coast of the major Japanese island of Shikoku–is an island with an aging human population and a rapidly growing cat population. This latter gives it some economic heft.

A remote island in southern Japan is home to 22 people and more than 120 cats.

Aoshima is a dwindling fishing community of elderly people who live mainly off retirement benefits. The cats were originally brought over to the island to deal with mice plaguing fishing boats. But they’ve since multiplied as there are no natural predators.

Tourists have been flocking to the island off Ehime prefecture on a ferry that runs twice twice a day. Cat lover Makiko Yamasaki, 27, said: “I came here looking to relax. And as for how is it? Well there is a ton of cats here, then there was this sort of cat witch, who came out to feed the cats, which was quite fun. So I’d want to come again.”

Many more photos are available at the links.

The phenomenon of the “cat island” or “cat village” seems to common in East Asia. Outside Japan, where the Pacific-coast cat island of Tashirohima received attention after being spared by the 2011 tsunami, I blogged back in 2011 about the Taiwanese village of Houtong, also taken over by cats after its human population had substantially departed. What these communities all seem to share in common is a recent sharp decline in human populations, coupled with a growth of cat populations. It’s reasonable to imagine that, in decaying human settlements, cats might do reasonably well, taking shelter in human constructions and feeding off of prey.

These pictures are cute. The huge problem with the phenomenon is that without humans actively taking care of their cats–one woman is shown in the photo essay as actively providing the cats with food, for instance–these dense cat populations could easily end badly. What would happen to them without food? What are their lives like, living largely in the wild exposed to the dangers of outdoor life?

Still. Cute photos, these. Go, see.

Written by Randy McDonald

March 28, 2015 at 9:21 pm

[CAT] “Music Made for Cats Wins Feline Approval”

Discovery News’ Jennifer Vargas writes about the interesting discoveries of some researchers that cats not only react well to music, but that it’s possible to create music for cats in mind. Half-minute samples of some of the songs created are available here.

Music that incorporates everything from purrs to meow-like sounds is gaining feline fans, according to a new study that suggests cats enjoy tunes that are crafted just for them.

The study, which has been accepted for publication in the journal Applied Animal Behavioral Science, adds to the growing body of evidence that many animals respond favorably to species-specific music. This is music that takes into account a particular animal’s favorite sounds, hearing range, commonly used tones and other factors.

“Here we found that cats showed orientation and approach behavior toward the speaker with the cat music, often rubbing against the speaker while the music was on,” lead author Charles Snowdon of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, told Discovery News.

Snowdon and colleague Megan Savage worked with composer and musician David Teie, who created the cat-centric music.

“We looked at the natural vocalizations of cats and matched our music to the same frequency range, which is about an octave or more higher than human voices,” Snowdon said. “We incorporated tempos that we thought cats would find interesting — the tempo of purring in one piece and the tempo of suckling in another — and since cats use lots of sliding frequencies in their calls, the cat music had many more sliding notes than the human music.”

The researchers then played this music for 47 domestic cats in their homes with their owners present. As a comparison, Snowdon and his colleagues also played “human” music for the cats. This consisted of two pieces that have been highly rated as being “pleasing and affiliative to humans”: Gabriel Fauré’s Elegie and Johann Sebastian Bach’s Air on a G String.

Written by Randy McDonald

March 28, 2015 at 8:58 pm

[CAT] “Bubba the cat found after 40 days under snow-covered deck”

CBC Prince Edward Island had a heart-warming story about a Prince Edward Island cat who survived more than a month buried under snow.

An 18-year-old cat was able to survive for 40 days under a snow-covered deck, much to the amazement of her P.E.I. owners.

Bubba lives with Howard Hogan and Lucina Costain in St. Felix, on the western tip of the Island.

One day in January, Bubba went under the step for a bathroom break, but then she seemed to disappear.

Hogan said he and his wife looked for her, but thought she had run off or been killed by a coyote.

The weeks passed, the snow fell. Close to three metres of snow has fallen on the Island since the end of January.

But from time to time Hogan thought he heard meowing.

So finally he decided to spend half an hour digging through the snow to a hole under the step.

Written by Randy McDonald

March 28, 2015 at 8:52 pm