Saturday, July 31, 2021

Why are Canadian women doing the heavy lifting at the Olympics?

I know we're barely halfway through the 2020/2021 Olympics but, thus far, Canada is doing quite well, and has won 12 medals (3 golds, 4 silvers, and 5 bronzes), with several 4th-place close calls (aka "the Canadian bronze"). What seems really strange, though, is that every last medal has been earned by a woman.

We do have some medal prospects among our male athletes and, by the end of the competition, we do expect more of a mix of male and female medal winners. But, at this point, the imbalance is stark.

So, I wondered, has it always been thus? Have women always provided a disproportionate share of Canada's medal haul? Well, apparently not. A quick perusal of Canada's Summer Olympics record, shows that, in 2016, for example, 73% of our medals were won by women; in 2012, though, it was 50%; in 2008, 40%; in 2004, 50%; in 2000, it was again 50%. The Winter Olympics results also reveal a pretty much even split historically

So, what gives? Well, we'll have to wait and see how things stand by the end of the 16-day games, but there does seem to be a trend of increase participation by Canadian women (60% of the athletes attending the Games are female). But it's also a quirk of the kinds of sports that are concluded earlier in the Games' schedule of events, with its emphasis on swimming, gymnastics, rowing, etc, rather than the track and field and team games that dominate the second week of the competition. In 2016 too, the first 12 medals won by Canada were won by women; by the end of the games, however, 16 of the 22 total medals earned went to women (still disproportionate, but not quite so much).

Either way, you have to think that changing gender roles and attitudes, and some positive media coverage, may be having some long-term effect on female participation and performance in sports. Some of this happens through enlightened government policy, and some of it just through the actions and tenacity of some strong individual women role models. Either way, we should encourage it and celebrate it.

Thursday, July 29, 2021

Noise, noise, noise

We live in a relatively quiet, laid-back area of Toronto, not exactly the suburbs, but still far from the stress and hubbub of downtown. It's a middle-class residential area, probably upper middle-class these days, given recent house prices. A desirable area.

Our house is on a relatively quiet street, a couple of blocks from the quiet end of the main shopping street. It's not actually a cul-de-sac, but a short one-block street linking two cul-de-sacs. It doesn't really go anywhere, and it's not a short-cut to anywhere.

It is, however, right by the boardwalk and the beach, overlooking a pleasant park, and, although it is at the quiet end of the beach, it's a magnet for dog-walkers and paddle-boarders in the summer (it really is a quiet, peaceful place in the winter, when the residents get to reclaim their neighbourhood from the tourist hordes).

But, as I was sat out on the front porch with a cup of tea and the newspaper the other day, looking forward to a nice relaxing half hour on a sunny Wednesday morning, I was beset by noise from multiple sources. It was not so much traffic noise, although our little street has a surprising amount of that, including the ridiculously noisy impositions of garbage trucks, deliveries to the small lakeside sports club, and the occasional de-mufflered motorbike (why?)

No, the noise was mainly coming from my neighbours. In addition to yapping dogs (there are always yapping dogs, any time of day or night, it seems) and loud kids' summer camps (which it's hard to complain too much about, I guess), at any given time there are: lawnmowers and weed-whackers (both household and municipal); leaf-blowers; circular saws, drills and other construction noise; chain saws from the constant tree maintenance crews that tend the many mature trees in the area; compressed-air paddleboard inflators; screaming Sea-Dos out in the lake; and any number of other sources of noise.

Much of this cacophony seem totally unnecessary, but we have become so innured to all this ambient noise these days that often we don't even notice it. How I wish it weren't so.

Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Why Simone Biles pulled out of rhe Olympics

After Simone Bules suddenly pulled out of the US gymnastics team mid-Olympics, there has been a lot of confusion and hypothesizing. Did she just choke? Shouldn't she be able to handle the pressure with all her high-level experience? Doesn't she owe it to her team-mates - to her country - to suck it up, whatever "it" is? Is she a "selfish, childish national embarassment", as one Texas politician has it?

In her press conference, the diminutive American gymnast stated that she was stopping for mental health reasons, not physical ones, so most people probably assumed that it was something along the lines of the anxiety attacks that have plagued other sports personalities like Naomi Osaka. And yes, she does suffer from anxiety and srress from the immense pressure of expectations on her small shoulders, what she has called her "demons".

But, it seems there is something in gymnastics called "the twisties", and this is what Biles has been suffering from, and what caused her to abandon hopes of personal and team glory, apparently in mid-flow. It is kind of the gymnastics version of "the yips", an equally poorly-understood psychological condition that can affect sports people in mamy different fields.

From the name, the twisties sounds like a spurious, frivolous, or at least mild, issue. But it is a recognized problem that has affected many gymnasts at different times (although rarely at such a crucial time). It can set in when a gymnast is doing high-level elements, typically in floor or vault, and it causes a gymnast's brain to kind of stutter, or forget basic moves that are normally part of muscle memory in a highly-trained gymnast. Without complete control or an accustomed perfect rhythm, such a competitor risks some pretty grave injuries, which is in no-one's interest, least of all the gymnast concerned. It can be overcome, but with time and training, and not overnight.

The twisties are well-known within the gymnastics discipline, which is why Biles' team seems quite so supportive and forgiving, but hardly known at all outside of it, which is why people like me were so confused by it. It seems like Byles made a difficult, but good, call.

Certainly, Ms. Biles and Ms. Osaka between them have probably trained the spotlight on the mental health of high-level athletes like never before. "I say put mental health first ... It's OK sometimes to even sit out the big competitions to focus onbyourself", quoth Biles, which is all but anathema in ultra-competitive Olympic circles. I was actually pleasantly surprised to learn, though, that the International Olympic Committee already provides trained sports psychologists in the Olympic Village, as well as a mental health helpline available in no less than seventy languages.

Monday, July 26, 2021

De-sexualizing Olympic gymnastics (and beach handball)

Kudos to the German Olympic women's gymnastics team for bucking the trend and wearing a more skin-covering, full-length unitard

After various #MeToo revelations in the field of gymnastics, it is taking an unconscionable time for any attempts to de-sexualize the sport, which tends to feature barely-pubescent girls (and grown women who look like barely-pubescent girls) wearing skimpy, skin-tight, high-cut leotards, not for any reason related to the execution of the sport, just because that's how it's always been. 

It doesn't have to be that way, and the German team (which unfortunately did not progress to the finals) are leading the way, even if their new uniforms are actually still pretty damned skin-tight and, frankly, sexy.

This comes after the Norwegian female beach handball team - who knew that was even a sport?! - was recently fined €1,500 for having the audacity to flout the sexist rules and wear skin-tight shirts instead of bikini bottoms. The European Handball Federation found the team to have competed in "improper clothing" and fined all ten members €150 each. 

The International Handball Federation (EHF), which I'm guessing is run by a bunch of middle-aged guys, specifies that "women must wear bikini bottoms ... with a close fit and cut on an upward angle toward the top of the leg. The side width must of a maximum of ten centimetres." Why? Tbey may as well specify that the bikini bottoms be crotchless. Guys on the other hand can wear pretty much what they want.

Kudos to singer P¡nk too, for offering to pay the Norwegian team's fine in solidarity, and claiming on Twitter that "The European Handball Federation SHOULD BE FINED FOR SEXISM". The EHF president has since announced that the Federation will "re-evaluate" their dress code. Don't be too surprised if crotchless bikini bottoms are specified, though.

Sunday, July 25, 2021

De-emphasizing COVID case counts would be a mistake

We seem to be at a bit of a turning point in the COVID-19 pandemic in Canada, maybe not so much because we are nearly out of it (cases remain low, if climbing very slowly, but a fourth wave is expected to ensue as the summer wanes and the Delta variant begins to outperform the vaccines). Rather, it is expected that Canada, and possibly much of the rest of the world, will move away from daily case counts and concentrate more on hospitalizations and deaths.

I must confess this worries me a bit. Yes, I understand that the virus and our ability to control it has changed. Daily cases in many countries are already approaching the height of the second wave, even outstripping it in some, but the death rate is probably a tenth of what it was during the second wave. This, at least, is a good thing. 

But to begin to ignore case counts is to risk losing track of the fact that case counts are, or should be, still important, partly because a higher number of cases means that the virus is still circulating, meaning that we cannot let our guards down and pretend that life has returmed to normal. 

But also, we should be ensuring that no-one catches the virus, let alone becomes hospitalized by it, because even mild cases can lead to debilitating illnesses. Not only is there the risk (admittedly low, but nonetheless very real) of "long COVID", whose symptoms can persist for months, but also long-term lung, heart and brain damage are increasingly being identified as distinct possibilities. And now, it is becoming clear that there is a cognitive cost to even mild cases of COVID

If we start to get blasé about keeping track of cases, we risk losing track of these implications too. And that would be a shame. 

Certainly, abdicating all responsibility for the virus, even as new cases spike, as Alberta is planning to do (and as several US states have done already) cannot be a sensible move at this juncture, as most medical people, both within and without Alberta, are warning. This thing is far from over; pretending it is finished will not make it happen, as this  Globe and Mail cartoon says quite eloquently.



Saturday, July 24, 2021

Dubai's cloud-seeding efforts a mixed benefit at best

I have seen several articles about how the Arab Emirate of Dubai has been seeding clouds to cause rain to mitigate the ongoing drought in the area. It is usually reported as an interesting and successful application of science to a persistent and at least partially man-made environmental problem. But the solution has some unfortunate environmental ramifications too.

The idea of seeding clouds with silver iodide in order to force precipitation is not new. It has been around since the 1940s, when the Americans originally developed it as a weapon.

Unfortunately, silver iodide is toxic. There is some evidence that the precipitation it encourages is damaging to marine life, as well as a threat to the purity of Dubai's expensively-desalinated water resources. It also increases water temperature, and its toxicity can also damage precious agricultural soil. Another issue is that provoking rainfall in one place may rob another place of its precipitation (there is, after all, only so much moisture in the air, and the silver iodide treatment does not, in itself, create more).

So, I guess the moral is: be careful what you wish for. These purely technological environmental solutions are often a mixed benefit (for example, look at various attempts to import predatory species to keep down pests over the centuries).

Friday, July 23, 2021

Olympics Parade of Nations order explained

If, like me, you are totally flummoxed by the order of countries at the Parade of Nations at the Olympic Games Opening Ceremony, help is at hand. Someone has already done the homework.

The country order might seem pretty random. In Japan this year, for example, El Salvador is followed by Australia, then Austria, then Oman, Netherlands, Ghana, Cape Verde, Guyana, Kazakhstan, Qatar, etc. Further down the list, China is followed by Tunisia, Chile, Tuvalu, Denmark, Germany, Togo, Dominica, etc

But there is actually some order to it, some theory behind it. Firstly, Greece always parades first, in recognition of its role as the original inventors of the Games, back in the 8th century BCE. This year, a team of mixed refugee athletes enters second. The last team to enter is always the host country, and this year a new innovation has taken hold whereby the next Olympics host country (France, 2024) parades second to last, and the next host country after that (USA, 2028) is third to last.

Between these poles, countries parade in alphabetical order IN THE LANGUAGE OF THE HOST COUNTRY. So, depending on the language of the host country, the order of the countries parading may be similar to what we mignt expect in English, but might be totally different. Wikipedia does us the service of giving the Gojuon Japanese script transliteration of the country names (Gojuon is the traditional listing of the phonetic pronunciation of Japanese characters). Thus, Iceland is Aisurando, and thus comes just before Ireland (Airurando) and Azerbaijan (Azerubaijan). Cayman Islands (Keiman Shoto) isnfollowed by Kenya (Kenia), Ivory Coast (Kotojibowaru) and Costa Rica (Kosutarika), etc.

Thursday, July 22, 2021

Clueless (sorry, Fearless) Boxing Club bans vaccinated members

The aptly-named Fearless Boxing Club in west Toronto has banned vaccinated people from attending. Yes, you read that right, it is banning "vaccinated", not "unvaccinated", members.

Well, maybe you wouldn't expect much different from a boxing club. But this particular one seems to be making a stand for anti-vaxxers, anti-maskers and anti-lockdowners everywhere by disallowing as new members anyone who has received "the experimental Covid vaccine", on the grounds that its current members "feel safer waiting until more research is done on the side effects being discovered right now". It declines to explain what those side effects are, and how they might affect other members.

I guess it is one person's way of establishing a (rather slim) marketing niche. Or it may just be sheer pig ignorance. Either way, remind me to avoid that particular part of Etobicoke, at least for a while.

Wednesday, July 21, 2021

The first billionaires in space - yawn!

I'm getting a bit tired of reading about the "billionaires' race to space". As Richard Branson narrowly beat out Jeff Bezos as the first billionaire in space - like there is a specific entry in the Guinness Book of World Records for this - and the mainstream media salivates over the youngest person in space and the oldest person in space (and probably the shortest person in space, or the first person in space with diabetes, for all I know), I am getting more and more bored and indeed more and more resentful.

Why does anyone really care what Richard Branson does in his spare time. Yes, they are going to space, technically, although the very closest and easiest execution of that definition, and for all of ten minutes (three minutes of weightlessness). A moonshot this is not. It's not even "outer space", really - the earth's thermosphere, the outer part of its atmosphere proper, extends to about 435 miles (700km) out, and the exospehere technically continues way beyond that, to around 6,200 miles (10,000km). Branson's and Bezos' trips, by comparison, are to 50 and 62 miles (80km and 100km) above the earth respectively, and even the International Space Station is only about 250 miles (400km). 

Bezos made it to the Kármán Line, the imaginary line that is often conveniently used as the boundary between aeronatics and astronautics, Branson not even that far (just enough to induce a little weightlessness). In fact, neither Bezos nor Branson may qualify for their "astronaut wings" under the US Federal Aviation Authority's Commercial Astronaut Wings Program, which used to automatically apply at 50 miles (80km) above the earth, because, on the very same day that Bezos flew, the FAA changed their policy and included a requirement for "activities during flight that were essential to public safety, or contributed to human flight safety". So, just paying a lot of money and being a tourist no longer qualifies.

And incidentally, for what it's worth, they are actually not even the first billionaires in space: Microsoft software engineer Charles Simonyi travelled on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft to the International Space Station way back in 2007, and then again in 2009.

And the more I think about how much these trips are costing - yes, I know they can afford it, they are not short of a bob or two - the more I think how solipsistic and how vain they are, and how much better that much money could have been spent. Flights on Virgin Galactic's "space" flights are expected to sell for about a quarter of a million dollars when they become publicly available, but Branson himself obviously didn't pay that. Virgin Galactic's market value shot up $841 million after Branson's ego-trip. A public auction for a seat on Bezos' flight went for $28 million. Bezos even had the temerity to "jokingly" thank Amazon employees and customers for paying for his trip. Har-de-har, Jeff. Three people have already signed up to pay $55 million for an eight-day stay on the International Space Station, although that at least is closer to actual space, rather than just a rather high plane journey.

I'm not alone in thinking that these trips are the ultimate exercise in futility and vanity, in a world beset with a climate emergency, raging wildfires, devastating floods, crushing poverty, oh, and a pandemic that is still killing thousands as we speak. Buy, hey, you can't stand in the way of progress and economic development...

Proof: EVs are much more environmentally-friendly, whatecer the nasayers may say

Much of the push-back against electric vehicles, including from the automotive industry itself, is that, over the full life of the vehicle, from resources extraction and construction to end of life, EVs aren't much cleaner and environmentally sound than internal combustion vehicles. This has always sounded spurious to me, especially given that ICE vehicles have to be resourced and contructed too in much the same way, but I've never really had much evidence to support that feeling.

Now, though, there is a reasonably robust study that shows, even in countries with dirty carbon-heavy power grids, EVs are still a better option environmentally, and in more enlightened low-carbon economies they are MUCH better.

The International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT)  has produced a report that compares lifetime emissions of medium-sized EVs with their internal combustion engine equivalents, looking at the different cases of Europe, the United States, China and India, which between them make up about 70% of new vehicle sales globally, and which are pretty representative of most other countries not included in the study.

The studies results show that electric vehicles in Europe, which has a pretty clean electricity grid as regards carbon emissions, emit between 66% and 69% less carbon than ICE vehicles over their lifetimes. The equivalent figure for cars in the American market, with its slightly dirtier mix of power sources, is 60-68%. Even in China, with its increased reliance on coal, EVs work out to have 37-45% lower lifetime emissions, and in still dirtier India, EVs are still environmentally prefereable by a margin of between 19% and 34%. As countries around the world gradually reduce the carbon emissions of their electricity production, these comparisons will only improve.

So, don't let the naysayers bamboozle you with ill-researched and unproven claims: EVs are the way to go.


Sunday, July 18, 2021

South Korean hairstyles banned in ... North Korea, of all places

It doesn't get much more surreal than this. North Korean supreme, leader Kim Jong-un - he of the weird hair - has specifically warned North Koreans against adopting hairstyles popular among the K-pop crowd of South Korea.


Imagine a whole country walking around with Kim Jong-un hairstyles! How wild would that be!

The news is not all frivolous, though. In addition to banning South Korean hairstyles and the use of South Korean slang, North Koreans caught watching South Korean or American entertainment now face up to 15 years in a prison camp, and those caught with "large amounts" of South Korean media on their computers (whatever that might mean) might even face the death penalty.

Well, that's no fun! What a place!


How is it that more vaccinated Brits are dying of the Delta variant than unvaccinated?

You may have seen a report doing the rounds of the internet claiming that significantly more of the people dying of the Delta variant of COVID in the UK are vaccinated than unvaccinated. It's hard to pin down where the report came from - some articles say the low-life UK newspaper, the Mail on Sunday - but it has gone viral on Facebook and Instagram and apparently on some pro-Trump websites. It provides yet more ammunition for anti-vaxxers and the vaccine-hesitant.

But can it be true? It seems improbable, especially given the claims from the US that COVID deaths are almost all among the unvaccinated. Luckily, it is not hard to find refutations, or at least plausible explanations, from more reputable outlets like The Guardian and the BBC, as well as fact-checkers like Full Fact.

The original stats in which the claims are made come from the latest Public Health England (PHE) Technical Briefing (Table 4). It says that, of the 117 people who have died from the Delta variant in the UK, it was unknown whether or not three of them had been vaccinated (what? why?). But, of the rest, 70 (61%) had received at least one dose of the vaccine, and 50 (44%) had received both, while 44 (38%) had not been vaccinated.

This might seem worrying at first glance, and lend credence to viral claims that the vaccines are ineffective or even dangerous, and that they make people more likely to die, at least from the Delta variant (which is now by far the most common variant worldwide, and particularly so in the UK). But, as more sober analysis reveals, it's actually not that unexpected.

For one thing, as the BBC points out, only 8% of recent cases have been among the fully vaccinated (although that's actually higher than I would have expected), so the vaccines are indeed quite effective at preventing the virus. But most of the fully-vaccinated people are among the over-50s, the very cohort that is significantly more at risk of dying if they do catch the virus, which is why they appear over-represented among the death statistics. An Israeli study shows just how much chronic "old people" comorbidites like hypertension and diabetes skew the death rates from COVID (only 6% with no comorbidities died, according to that study).

The vaccines are not perfect and, if everyone were fully vaccinated, then 100% of the deaths would be among the vaccinated. Britain has a pretty good vaccination rate, particularly among older adults, but some will always slip through the net and get infected and some of those will become hospitalized, and some of those will ultimately die. If the vaccines prevent 95% of deaths, as it is estimated they do, one in twenty will still succumb, more in the more deprived ethnic areas.

I kind of understand the logic of this as I read it, but it is really not easy to understand, and it does still seem a bit counter-intuitive. If a double-vaccination is supposed to reduce the likelihood of catching COVID by over 90% (and the likelihood of hospitalization and death by much more than that), then surely we should be expecting a figure closer to 1% or less for deaths among vaccinated people.

Also, I don't understand how these British statistics square with the American ones that suggest that very few unvaccinated people are dying (which is more in line with what I would have expected logically). The only difference I can see is that the US figures are over the last six months, during most of which a much smaller proportion of the population were vaccinated, rather than the much more recent past in the case of the UK figures.

UPDATE

Different figures were given in a recent news conference by Sir Patrick Vallance, Chief Scientific Advisor to the UK government, who reported (after a Twitter correction for an error in his verbal report) that 60% of British COVID hospitalizations were unvaccinated, suggesting that 40% were partially or fully vaccinated. This is still a hugely larger number than would be expected, and at odds with the American stats. 

Vallance explains it rather cursorily by saying that the vaccines are not 100% effective, and that, as more and more people are vaccinated, this kind of death level is not surprising. Well, I'm surprised.

UPDATE UPDATE

This graphic, also apparently based on UK government data, should give us more confidence that things are going as they should.

It shows new cases and deaths from the first 50 days of the second and third waves of the pandemic in Britain. It shows how deaths have stayed very low during the third wave (right-hand graph) compared to the second wave (left-hand graph), even as cases sky-rocket once more.

Friday, July 16, 2021

We should be more careful what we claim about residential schools

Manitoba's new Indigenous Relations Minister, Alan Lagimodiere, is off to a rocky start in his new job, as he has to apologize for apparently defending residential schools

Mr. Lagimodiere, who is Métis, took over from Eileen Clark, who resigned recently under a bit of a cloud, following Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister's own comments about residential schools.

Lagimodiere was chastised for saying that the people responsible for the residential school system believed they were doing the right thing at the time. He took particular flak from (Indigenous) opposition leader Wab Kinew, and was forced to admit later that he "misspoke". Such attempts to reach back in time and try to understand the context and thinking of the era are not considered publicly acceptable these days.

But here's the thing: what Mr. Lagimodiere said is actually right, politically correct or not. This in no way excuses the residential school system, which everyone understands was iniquitous and inexcusable, in its effects and even in its intentions. But to say that the system's architects - both politicians and Church officials - did not think that what they were doing was the right thing to do is clearly incorrect (or revisionism, or even censorship, depending on how you look at it). 

There were some more enlightened individuals who objected to the idea, even back in the day. But the evidence suggests that most people thought - rightly or wrongly - that educating and assimilating "the Indian" was the best thing white Canada could do for the Indigenous population. This was the prevailing colonial settler mentality of the times, similar to what was happening in the United States, Australia and elsewhere. And yes, this applies even to some of the (now) most reviled politicians of the period, like then-Chief Superintendant of Education Egerton Ryerson (who, by the way, learned to speak Ojibwe, developed close friends among the Mississauga people, and who consistently campaigned against corporal punishment in residential and other schools).

Yes, they were wrong-headed by the standards of modern ethics, arguably even by the standards of the time. Yes, the system continued way longer than it should have. But a large proportion of the population, and their political representatives at the time the residential school system was established, would have seen little or nothing wrong in the ideas behind it, even thought it commendable. This does not excuse it, but that is the reality, and to claim otherwise is to call black white.

Not a cure for cancer, but maybe a significant breakthrough

It's not a cure for cancer, but a very promising test for cancer has been developed at MIT. And, as we know, an early diagnosis is a good step towards beating the disease.

The test uses a simple urine test and nanoparticles, which sounds very science fiction but which actually is a practical reality these days. These particular nanoparticles can create "synthetic biomarkers" in urine if any kind of cancer is encountered anywhere in the body. Very simply, the nanoparticles introduced into the body are coated in peptides which get cut up by the proteases that cancers create as they spread through the body, and the scars on the peptides caused by an encounter with a tumour can be read as evidence of a cancer when the nanoparticles reach the person's urine. Clever!

Even better, if cancer biomarkers are found using this test, a secondary test can be performed to more accurately locate the problem area. This time, the nanoparticles are coated in specific peptides that are attracted to acidic environments like those that tumours tend to create around themselves. They will therefore tend to cluster around cancers, and the addition of a copper-64 radioactive tracer means that these clusters can be located using a PET scan. Also very clever!

So, no, it is not a cure for cancer, but we know that cancer outcomes are significantly improved the earlier it is diagnosed. The team envisage the urine test being routinely carried out at annual checkups. It is still in the long process of development and testing, but what a breakthrough that would be!

UPDATE

Japanese researchers are also looking at nanoparticles, this time to more accurately target radiation therapy to kill cancer cells from within while sparing healthy cells. Heady times in cancer research.

Wednesday, July 14, 2021

What every American kid needs - a real gun that looks like Lego

What goes through these people's minds. Utah-based gunmaker Culper Precision starrted selling a custom modification of a Glock 19 pistol that makes it look like it is made from Lego blocks. It's called the Block 19. Ha! Get it?

I guess they thought it was amusing, and I'm sure they would have found buyers among the low-life yahoos of Utah. Their advertising suggests the gun is "super fun!" and that "we love shooting guns!", which sounds like it is designed to appeal to a five-year old, or at least adults with childish mentalities. The advertising also riffs on Denmark, and even mentions a villain from a Lego movie, but falls short of actually mentioning the Lego name.

The Lego company had to issue a cease-and-desist letter to Culper Precision, which has now withdrawn the product. But God, these people! What kind of a world do they live in? The company's president remains upbeat and unapologetic, claiming he was just trying to reawaken a bit of nostalgia and fun in his clientele. 

It seems that there are laws in the US against making toys that look like firearms, but no laws against making a real firearm that looks like a toy.

Monday, July 12, 2021

Are viruses alive? (and other old chestnuts)

Deep into Carl Zimmer's book Life's Edge: The Search for What It Means To Be Alive, it was only a matter of time before the issue of viruses had to be broached. 

Ask a scientist whether viruses are alive and you are likely to get an embarrassed cough or a roll of the eyes, and a "We don't really know", or "That depends", or more specifically, "That depends on your definition of 'life'". A few may be bold enough to say "Yes" or "No", and may even be able to justify their answer. But the very fact that some say "Yes" and some say "No", however confidently, reveals that the jury is most definitely still out.

Even a definition of life is tough to narrow down. The so-called NASA definition - "Life is a self-contained chemical system capable of undergoing Darwinian evolution" - is a very careful formulation that hopes to avoid many of the pitfalls previous definitions have fallen into. So, are viruses "alive" under this definition? Well, "we don't really know" or "that depends"...

There are literally trillions of viruses in a human body, most of them not at all dangerous (and many even positively beneficial) to human life and health. Most of them infect the trillions of bacteria, fungi and other single-celled organisms that make up our microbiome, and indeed help to keep our microbiome in balance, paradoxically keeping us healthy. 

Also, there are literally trillions of different species of viruses in the world, many of which have adapted to very specific niches. There are more viruses in a litre of seawater or a spoonful of dirt than there are humans on earth. There are more viruses on earth than every form of cell-based life combined, perhaps by a factor of ten. Viruses are tiny, much smaller than even the smallest bacteria, but we now have powerful electron-microscopes that can see them. So why is it so hard to decide whether or not they are alive?

Bacteria are single-celled organisms that can generate energy, make their own food, move, and reproduce themselves (usually by binary fission, in which DNA is duplicated and carried down, much as it is in our own cells). Bacteria, it is widely agreed, are alive. Although viruses do exhibit some of the hallmarks of "life", and they certainly do evolve (as we have seen with COVID-19), they can only grow and reproduce inside the host cells they infect. They are essentially parasitic and, on their own, they just remain dormant. They do not eat or grow as such; they do not use enzymes to metabolize like our cells do; yes, they replicate, voraciously, but they do not really reproduce in the same way that we think of reproduction (a virus is just a "reorganized package of its host's own atoms"); some do not even contain DNA, having evolved to transfer their genes directly through RNA.

Wait, isn't DNA an easy way to decide whether something is alive or not? All cellular life we know of - animals, plants, bacteria, even archaea - uses the more stable double-stranded DNA genomes to transfer their genetic material. But, while some viruses also have DNA, many viruses use single-stranded RNA and still do a perfectly good job of passing on their genes, and it is thought that very early life on earth probably started out with RNA. Are RNA-based viruses any less alive than DNA-based organisms, then? Are some viruses alive and some not? You can easily run around in circles with these questions. 

And, of course, the very definition of life that scientists are working around is subject to debate, and there are many other alternative formulations, some more constrained, some substantially freer, than the NASA one (one study identified 123 different scientific definitions of life).

Anyway, as a result of all these considerations and more, many scientists consider that viruses only lead a kind of "borrowed life" or a "half life". Either way, you can see why this is such a fraught question in science. Of course, you might also say, "Does it really matter?" Just don't say it to a biologist or biochemist.


Sunday, July 04, 2021

The wonderful world of slime mold

I have been reading Life's Edge: The Search for What It Means to Be Alive by Carl Zimmer, and one chapter is devoted to slime mold, something I have never had cause to read about before. There are hundreds of species of slime molds, and they can be found in pretty much any forest, where they look like (if they can be seen at all) a kind of fine golden web spreading over decaying logs or fungi. They have no brain as such, and a very basic biology, but they do seem to exhibit some hallmarks of life: they use their own store of fuel, enzymes and the logic encoded in their genes to look for food and grow. While our cells divide and generate new cells each with its own nucleus, a growing slime mold generates new nuclei, but does not split its cells - it grows into a single gigantic cells with lots of nuclei, which is pretty cool, I'd say. Perhaps "not life as we know it, Jim", as Dr. McCoy might gave said, but life nevertheless.

A simple experiment shows how slime mold works: if it "smells" a food source, it extends tentacles out towards it, retracting any tentacles that were sent out towards any false food leads. If it encounters a barrier but can still "taste" sugars and other molecules that it considers food somewhere nearby, it will go around the barrier and continue the hunt for food. In fact, it can find its way through quite complex mazes in search of food and, even more amazingly it will eventually (and quite quickly) find the shortest and most efficient way through such a maze, and even the shortest path to several food sources at once. And all this without a brain!

It goes further. It turns out that slime mold ideally needs a food source that is two parts protein to one part carbohydrate. If presented with two different food sources - say, one with nine parts protein to one part carbohydrate, and the other with one part protein to three parts carbohydrate - it will actually "analyze" the foods in some way and "calculate" how much of each it needs to take to yield its ideal blend of food constituents. Again, all without a brain!

Slime molds even have their own rather bizarre version of sex. They make spores, which are carried away on the wind. If a spore lands in a promising spot, it tears open and cells called amoebae are released, each of which has just half a set of chromosomes, composed of different proteins, marking them as one of hundreds of different mating types. These amoebae crawl across the forest floor, and if they meet another amoeba of a different mating type, they merge to form the slime mold equivalent of an embryo. This embryo cell gradually grows tentacles, makes copies of its chromosomes, and a new generation of slime mold takes off. Sexy, eh?

It may not be what we normally think of as life or intelligence, but slime mold responds to a changing environment in a way that helps keep it alive. And, at base, that's what it's all about, right?

Thursday, July 01, 2021

The Canadian parliamentary system of passing bills is broken

Canada's parliament managed to pass two of the four supposedly priority bills it wanted to pass before the House breaks for the summer

The Liberals' budget bill (C-30) passed, finally, with the help of the NDP and the Bloc Quebecois, as was Bill C-12, the so-called "net-zero bill", which sets ambitious greenhouse gas emissions targets for the country, and which passed relatively easily. Two other bills, however, which were specifically flagged by the Liberal government as priorities during this parliamentary session, have failed to pass: Bill C-10, which aims to apply Canadian content rules to online streaming sources, and Bill C-6, which would have banned gay conversion therapy.

Both of these bills got bogged down in the Senate, and their failure to pass is therefore not really the government's fault. But it does call into question the whole system of parliament and the senate taking these long summer holidays (and other breaks). Why do they need such long breaks? They are well paid, are they not? So, can they not put in a few more days if need be, and just take a few weeks off each year like normal working people?

The parliamentary calendar is detailed here, including that summer break from June 23rd until Labour Day in early September. But I have never seen any actual justification for it. Something to do with 19th century gentlemen taking time for hunting and fishing perhaps? Yes, there is "constituency work", but they are supposed to handle that throughout the year, aren't they? And even this does not apply to Senators. The important thing to remember here is that, if a bill is not passed by both chambers during a session, it "dies on the order paper". It can then be reintroduced in the next session, but the process starts all over again, and valuable time is lost irrevocably.

If there is important legislation to be passed, legislation that has already been debated and argued over for months, can they really not see their way to working a few days more to get the job done, as would happen any other occupation? It seems a bit ridiculous.