Wednesday, July 01, 2020

Naked mole rats are very cool, but they may not be immune to cancers

Naked mole rats are curious things, and undeniably cool. With their hairless, wrinkly bodies, oversized teeth and tiny eyes, they have been described by one scientists as "sabre-toothed sausages". Their physiology is also unique in the animal kingdom: they live exceptionally long lives (for their size); they don't feel certain kinds of pain; they can survive for long periods without oxygen, using a system previously only observed in plants; they live in complex, multi-generational colonies similar to ants and bees; and it is thought that they may be immune to cancers, and certainly show much fewer cancers than other animals as they age.
It is this last feature which has made them so interesting to scientists, but those cancer claims are now under fierce debate. Most of the claims date from a 2013 US-led study which found that cancer-causing genes introduced into naked mole rat cells did not result in cancers, whereas when introduced into mice they did. However, a new University of Cambridge study published in the journal Nature, using those same genetically-engineered naked mole rat cells, showed that cancers did develop when they were transplanted, throwing the initial conclusions into doubt.
The Cambridge study's conclusion was that the original 2013 study used problematic cell selection techniques. The US-led team have fired back that the Cambridge study introduced new variables into the test, and is thus unreliable. They further argues that using the original 7-year old cell cultures is also misleading as mutations may have accumulated over the years. It's all getting a little heated, and the jury seems to be out.
It does, though, show the value of constantly re-evaluating science, and the risks of trusting one-off studies.

The inexplicable (and increasing) popularity of Fox News

Donald Trump may be doing badly in the polls at the moment (and in every other way, come to think of it), but don't count him out, if for no other reason than the inexplicable popularity of Fox News.
In fact, Fox News Channel is more popular than ever at the moment and, for the first time EVER, has been the most popular prime time channel for three out of the four weeks in June, taking into account both broadcast and cable channels.
So, what is happening here? Is this confused Republicans looking to see what they should be thinking as Mr. Trump appears to self-destruct? Is this serious beer drinkers at a loss for what to do while their favourite bars are still closed? Is it wary Democrats checking out the opposition?
The two most popular individual shows are those of alt-right pundits and demagogues Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson. Although both have had their differences with Trump at various times over the years, he is still most definitely their man, and the power of these viewing numbers should not be underestimated.

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

We know what leads to new COVID spikes, so why relax airline restrictions?

Many countries that thought they had beaten the pandemic virus are frantically backtracking at the moment. Most of the new outbreaks have resulted from failures in certain specific areas: in China, it's a market in Beijing (yes, markets again! Seeing a trend?); in Japan, karaoke bars; in South Korea, nightclubs; in Spain, large family gatherings and birthday parties; in Germany, religious services; etc, etc.
In the USA ... well, let's not talk about the USA. Suffice to say, the USA is a mess, and should be used as a case study in what not to do in a pandemic. Top doctor, Dr. Anthony Fauci, is now expecting 100,000 new cases a day!
Within Canada, British Columbia, poster province for best pandemic reponse, and long with hardly any new cases, has just seen two new outbreaks, one in a care home and one in a small hospital. And here in Ontario, the city of Kingston, which has been exemplary in its response until now, let its guard down and has seen a sudden spike in cases traceable to a specific nail salon (although its response to this new challenge has also been exemplary).
So, we have oodles of real-life evidence that opwning up after this particular virus outbreak is really difficult, and should be approached very slowly, and with plenty of controls and restrictions (masks, for God's sake!) still in place. Give it any opportunity at all, however small, and this virus will come raging back. This is not even the second wave of the virus - we have that still to look forward to! - this is just an extension of the first.
With all that in mind, then, why the hell are Air Canada and Westjet (and other airlines) relaxing restrictions and ending their physical distancing requirements, contrary to Transport Canada guidelines and recommendations? Well, I know the answer is profit or, as they might term it, solvency. But is the federal government, which has, sensibly, just extended its ban on most foreign travellers until July 31, not able to stop them?
There is an avoidable spike just waiting to happen, right there.
Air Canada CEO Calin Rovinescu has been all over the media recently, fulminating at the restrictions imposed by governments which are not allowing him to reach his full God-given capacity for profit-making. But what is a responsible government to do? Go down the American road? If we have to return to full lockdown, how is that going to affect his bottom line?
I understand that airlines, like so many other businesses, are just leaking red ink at the moment. But that doesn't mean that we should just throw caution to the wind and risk having wasted the last three or four months of privation. The government has thrown billions of (present and future) tax-payers money at various measures to help businesses survive in these times. They should be grateful for that, and not just whine about unfair government restrictions on the free market. That just makes them sound like Donald Trump, and non-one wants that.

This is what the abolition of the police might look like

Getting rid of the police force, which is now the goal of many of the more radical defunders is probably not going to work. For evidence, you only have to look at the experience of Seattle's "Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone" (possibly now called "Capitol Hill Occupied Protest" until they can come up with a better acronym), a specifically un-policed region of the city.
The zone has now seen four shootings amid the supposedly peaceful protesters in just the last ten days. Openly-armed "watchemen" now patrol the area at night, and the whole zone is classified as "not safe for anybody". Not a good advertisement for the cause.
Abolishing the police has never been done, anywhere, to my knowledge, not even in the most progressive reaches of Scandinavia. Even the much touted dismantling of the police force in Camden, New Jersey, in 2012 (ostensibly due to the corruption in the old force, although as a result the city was one of the most violent in the country) was not actually an abolition. Likewise with the Republic of Georgia's police "dismantling" in 2003. Basically, they just dismantled the old police force and then reconstituted a new one (including many of the old officers), with better rules. This is otherwise known as "reform", albeit a radical one. There are definitely lessons that can be learned from this experience, though, and Camden NJ is certainly a much pleasanter place today than it was eight years ago.
People who want to abolish the police say that reforms have never worked in the past, why should we expect them to work now? It's true that minor reforms have only had minor success, and in the meantime other aspects of policing have got worse. But if we think big and look at major reforms - and there is now an appetite and a will for major reforms, I think - there could be major successes.
The author of this abolish-the-police piece says that, "We should redirect the billions that now go to police departments toward providing healthcare, housing, education, and good jobs. If we did this, there would be less need for the police in the first place." While this shows a touching faith in humanity, I think that faith may be misplaced. Call me cynical, but just because housing and healthcare improves, drug dealers, gang members and rapists are not suddenly going to change the habits of a lifetime, and mental health issues are not going to just disappear. And all those noise complaints, parking and traffic citations, drunk and disorderly tickets, etc, will still be there and need dealing with, however many jobs are available.
These ideas sound appealing in the abstract and, when I was younger and more idealistic, I would probably have been right behind them. As I got older, I became more cynical, but also more realistic, I think. Now, I just find that kind of idealism misguided and even annoying. I would love to be proven wrong, but I'm still waiting.

Monday, June 29, 2020

Where did all the monarchs go? (again!)

It's not so long ago - September 2019, just nine months ago - that I was writing about how the populations of monarch butterflies were suddenly booming, after a severe dip the year before. Well, guess what, they're back in the doldrums again this year. We have seen a total of ONE monarch this year here in Ontario, and we are nearly into July!
I'm not saying that all is necessarily doom and gloom, and that extinction is surely nigh - we have already seen how quickly their numbers can bounce back. But what is normally our commonest sunmer butterfly is suddenly a rarity, and psychologically that's hard to deal with.
So, where did they all go to? The latest survey of the over-wintering population in central Mexico (and we were there in February, as it happens!), shows that the area of forest occupied by monarchs was down 53%, from 15 acres in 2018-19 to a measly 7 acres in 2019-20. They were certainly harder to see when we were there in February than usual, apparently, although it was still a splendid sight.
The best explanation that the researchers could come up with is that temperatures in southern Texas were substantially lower than usual in March and April 2019, leading to slow growth for the migrating monarchs' eggs and larvae, and fewer monarchs in the following generations that continue the migration up to Canada. Therefore, there were fewer making the big migration back south to Mexico in the fall of 2019, and therefore fewer butterflies over-wintering in Mexico this year. That's the official story, according to the National Commission of Protected Natural Areas of Mexico and WWF Alliance-Telmex Telcel Foundation, which conduct the count each year.
EXCEPT THAT... that was definitely NOT our experience here in Ontario. Rather than a dearth of monarchs in the summer of 2019, we experienced, at least anecdotally, a bumper year - as good as, if not better than, the big bounce-back summer of 2018. So, that explanation makes no sense to us, although the poor over-wintering populations does explain why we are seeing so few here this summer.
It makes you realize that, much as we now know about the once mysterious monarch migration, there is still much we don't know, even now. The only good thing we can say is that we do know, from past experience, that those resilient little insects are capable of bouncing back from a dire situation.

American anti-mask protests bemuse the rest of the world

As Texas, Florida, Arizona and some other largely Republican, southern states that have seen huge spikes in COVID-19 cases since relaxing lockdown conditions, start to re-impose some restrictions on restaurants and bars (as well as odd things like rafting and river tubing) and make masks mandatory in some indoor circumstances, anti-mask demonstrations have also, predictably, sprung up.
One example is yesterday's protest in Austin, Texas, led by Info Wars leader Alex Jones. Jones and fellow Info Wars contributor Owen Shroyer, speaking through a megaphone from his trademark armoured car, railed against the ordinance to wear masks, calling it "illegal" and "unconstitutional", and (incorrectly) claiming that masks have "scientifically" been shown to be ineffective against the virus.
It's fascinating, if depressing, to observe these events from the outside. The mask is seen in some quarters as representing an infringement on individual liberty, as being just plain "un-American". I wondered for a while whether some of it comes down to a feeling of inadequacy or denial as they see how effective masks have been in places like South Korea and Singapore, "foreign" places that demonstrate a very un-American willingness to submit to authority. But, on reflection, these are not people who spend much time looking outside of their own back yard, and are not prone to deep contemplation or analysis.
The world is watching in disbelief and sadness - and not a littele schadenfreude - as America embarrasses itself on the international stage again. The obsession with "liberty" and "freedom" of many Americans is all well and dandy until it starts to agitate against the common good (or common sense). The average European or Asian watches these overweight, bearded, American stereotypes yelling for death rather than masks with with absolute incredulity. And where it will all end? Well, we are starting to get a sense of that now.

Media reporting of assault case unconsciously stirs anti-police sentiment

The language being used around the recent sentencing of an off-duty Toronto area police officer for the assault on Black man Dafonte Miller some three-and-a-half years ago is interesting, and possibly instructive.
Mr. Miller was caught by Michael Theriault, and his younger brother Christian inside one of their cars, either trying to steal it or to steal something from it (Miller denies this part, insisting he was just walking along, but the judge ruled that the evidence shows that Miller and his friend were in fact "car-hopping"). The Theriault brothers gave chase and and beat up Miller horrifically, Miller losing an eye permanently in the process. Charges of aggravated assault were brought against the two brothers, although in the end Michael was found guilty of the lesser charge of assault and Christian, who played a lesser role, was found not guilty.
Anyway, whatever the facts of the case, and whatever you feel about the verdicts, it is the language used in the press that I have found interesting. Because Michael Theriault, 24 years old at the time of the incident, was a police officer of two years standing, and, although he was off-duty at the time, every single report I have read has stressed that he was a police officer. Often the headline specifies "off-duty cop" (e.g. CTV, Durham Region News, Toronto Sun, The Star), while other outlets have chosen to label him simply a "Toronto cop" or "Toronto police officer" (e.g. CBCGlobe and Mail, Global News, National Post, even the BBC).
So, this fits neatly into the recent news cycle about police violence against Black people. But it occurred to me that other assaults and killings hardly ever mention the perpetrator's occupation, and certainly not in the main headline. The press does not talk about an "off- duty welder" or a "Greek baker" carrying out a crime. Why, then, is the occupation of this particular criminal of such central concern, if not to fit in with the police-assaulting-Black-people narrative?
So, who is looking good here? Not Mr. Miller, who should not have been poking around in someone else's car. Certainly not Michael Theriault, who had no call to batter anyone, black or white, in such a horrific way (he should have called the police!). And not the media either, who can reasonably be accused of having abandoned journalistic objectivity and having chosen a "side", deliberately or otherwise stirring anti-police sentiment by the way in which they have reported the incident.
Possibly the only bright spot may be, perhaps surprisingly, the judiciary, which seems to have been able to keep its head (and its impartiality) in the heated circumstances. Justice Di Luca realized that this was a specific case to be judged on its own merits and the available evidence, and not an opportunity to investigate institutional racism or policing procedures. He managed to keep the facts of the matter separate from public opinion and from the heated discourse currently underway. Full marks to him.
And I say this, not because I am particularly pro-police or anti-Black, but because it would have been very easy for the judge in the case to blindly follow the anti-police Zeitgeist.

Saturday, June 27, 2020

Politicians take note, K-pop is a political force to be reckoned with

K-pop fans, including the formidable worldwide BTS Army who follow established Korean sensations BTS, have been turning more and more political in recent months. And they are seriously well-organized.
When BTS expressed support for Black Lives Matters movement recently and donated $1 million to the cause, the BTS Army responded by raising an equivalent amount. And it took them little over  24 hours to do it, which, considering they are mainly teens and twenty-somethings, is pretty impressive. They also flooded social media with anti-racist supportive messages, for example drowning out racist tweets on hashtags like #WhiteLivesMatter.
American K-pop fans, along with TikTok aficionados, also took much of the credit for the punking of Donald Trump's Tulsa rally, by reserving tickets en masse to an event they had no intentions of attending, resulting in a two-thirds empty stadium and a seriously disgruntled Donald Trump.
Although K-pop in general tends to be quite a small-c conservative movement, strong on squeaky-clean images and "nice" stars who do and say the right things, it has always taken a social stance, even if not a political one. K-pop stars are expected to be positive role models, and have always emphasized the importance of  volunteering in the community, donating to good causes, self-love, and caring about disadvantaged populations. So, politically, it is no surprise that its artists and its fans are progressive in their outlooks, and strong on anti-racism and social justice. BTS, still the biggest band K-pop has produced, are probably more outspoken than most, politically, and their legions of overseas fans in particular have taken this and run with it.
And these young people are products of the social media and internet age, quick to share tweets and petitions, and have shown themselves to be highly adept at chain messages and taking little actions and comments viral. They are a force to be reckoned with, so politicians should take note.