Blog dedicated primarily to randomly selected news items; comments reflecting personal perceptions

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Only Human

"All of the survivors were conscious, although two later died; including a woman in her 30s who spoke to the police one moment then suddenly collapsed and died, perhaps of a hemorrhage."
Italian first-responder firefighter, Monteforte Irpino

"My niece, Annalisa, told me a left-side tire of the bus burst. The driver tried to keep control in any way possible but could not manage and the bus swerved, ending up in the ravine."
Vincenzo Rusciano

"People here still can't believe what is happening. My wife should have been on the trip, but couldn't make it, and I thank God for that."
Giuseppe Di Lorenzo

"He was a great organizer -- setting up trips to religious sanctuaries and fun trips was his passion. Everyone [in Pozzuoli] will know someone who died."
Salvatore Defelice
Shock and disbelief. People embark on trips through public conveyances, their numbers together on a bus, on a train, an assurance in and of itself that nothing bad can happen. A bus driver is a professional driver, a bus is a large conveyance, if there is an accident with a car the bus will come out of it in good shape.

A train is a large, powerful mode of transport, there is an engineer who knows his profession well, there are reliable tracks, communications systems, what could conceivably go wrong? Planes move a large number of people daily from one part of the world to another. There are far fewer airplane accidents taking the lives of people than accidents that occur on the road, with private vehicles.

When accidents occur they are generally attributable to human error. Failing that, to technical errors, equipment that fails. Despite which, in the Western world, there are relatively few accidents, unlike what often happens in Africa, in India, Central America, where equipment is outdated and sheer numbers using public conveyances make it a miracle every time nothing untoward occurs.

In Italy the speeding tour bus crashing off the elevated roadway killed 38 of the 48 passengers aboard. It is thought that the bus lost parts of its engine before careering out of control. The bus collided with a number of cars as the driver desperately attempted to regain control of his vehicle. Nothing could stop it from crashing through a concrete barrier to fall 30 metres into the ravine below.

The runaway train with its 72 tank cars full of raw oil headed for a New Brunswick refinery, that destroyed the central downtown of Lac Megantic Quebec killing almost 50 townspeople in the ensuing explosion and fire was a result of both technical equipment failure and human carelessness. The seasoned engineer failed to take complete safety precautions by parking the train on a steep incline and inadequately putting on all manual brakes required to prevent a roll-down.

 A train accident south of Paris in mid-July killed 6 people, injured 200.
  • Train derails
  • A view of the Bretigny sur Orge train station, south of Paris, after a train derailed Friday July, 12, 2013. A packed passenger train skidded off its rails after leaving Paris on Friday. (AP)
An unattached rail joint may have caused that train derailment in France during a busy holiday weekend that left six dead, according to rail officials. Nearly 200 people were injured, including nine in critical condition. Yet another tragedy, inexplicable to people who trust that nothing untoward could conceivably occur on a state-operated, public-run railroad.

spain train crash phone call
In this July 25, 2013 file photo, a rail personnel worker checks the cabin of a derailed train following an accident in Santiago de Compostela, Spain. (AP Photo/Lalo R. Villar)

In Spain, the Spanish train driver was on the telephone when he was approaching a problematical curve at an unsanctioned speed which was double the limit for that section of track that hadn't been fitted with a  high-tech automatic braking system. The train heading to Santiago de Compostela from Madrid, carrying 218 passengers in eight carriages hurtled catastrophically off the tracks and directly into a concrete wall, killing 79 passengers.

Human error the cause. The driver was given to speeding, flaunted his interest in speeding, wrote of it on his Facebook site, and when the disaster occurred was heard to plaintively cry "I'm only human!" The very human driver, Francisco Jose Garzon Amo was charged with multiple counts of negligent homicide. Sniffer dogs are set for use in a search for any possible human remains in the wreckage.

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Super Mouse Gene Paves Path For New Cancer Treatment

July 31, 2013




Image Credit: FikMik / Shutterstock
Alan McStravick for – Your Universe Online
The mouse as a model for genetic study has been a relationship our furry friends have served well in. The mouse is a convenient subject of study for its close mammalian similarities to we humans as well as for their short reproductive and growth cycles. Back in 2007, researchers at the University of Kentucky genetically manipulated one of these creatures to become a so-called “super mouse.” And from this genetic strain of mouse have come several new lines of research and study aimed at the prevention and treatment of various types of cancer.

A team of University of Kentucky researchers led by Vivek Rangnekar, professor of microbiology, immunology and molecular genetics, discovered a gene known as Par 4 which targets and kills cancer cells while leaving healthy cells alone. It was the discovery of Par 4 that let Rangnekar’s team develop the cancer resistant super mice.

The super mouse has been subsequently utilized by researchers across the nation for their own cancer studies. Most recently, a team from the University of Pennsylvania published their findings on how Par 4 downregulation affects breast cancer recurrence.

Rangnekar, along with colleagues Tripti Shrestha-Bhattarai and Nikhil Hebbar, published an article for the journal Cancer Cell which looked at the Penn study and noted that its findings could be instrumental in the future development of novel treatments for breast cancer.

Statistics on the disease – particularly its rates of recurrence – are why the Penn study is so exciting. As it stands, breast cancer is currently the second leading cause of cancer death in women. Once an initial diagnosis is treated, a full 20 percent of women will experience a cancer relapse within 10 years time. Furthermore, patients diagnosed with so-called triple-negative breast cancer, which does not express the genes for a number of protein-hormone receptors, experience even higher rates of recurrence. As oncologists note, these more aggressive cancers are more difficult to treat due to their resistance to standard-of-care therapies.

In the Penn study, the team was able to definitively show how women who experienced breast cancer relapse were also experiencing a suppression of the Par 4 gene. It was the lack of this gene’s protein product that ultimately allowed the cancerous cells to survive and thrive despite the patients having undergone a full course of treatment. By identifying how a suppressed Par 4 protein level relates to relapse, the team believes their findings may soon make it easier to determine which patients are at highest risk for cancer recurrence.

“What this tells us is that low Par-4 may act as a predictor of breast cancer recurrence,” said Rangnekar, associate director for U of K Markey Cancer Center. “This is important, because although this group studied only breast cancer, their observations may be relevant to recurrence in a broad range of cancer types because Par-4 is a general tumor suppressor gene.”

As Rangnekar points out, there are other known ‘tumor suppressor’ genes. However, what makes Par 4 so unique is its inability to mutate as frequently as the other known suppressors.

Additionally, Par 4 is selective in the cells it targets, killing only cancer cells and leaving healthy cells alone. Another interesting feature of Par 4 is its ability to be suppressed and subsequently reactivated. Due to its ability to be reactivated, researchers are now trying to establish a safe and effective manner to effect reactivation of Par 4 in cancerous cells.

“If Par-4 is still present in the cells, the strategy should be to try and utilize that Par-4, so as to restore its apoptotic function and bring about apoptosis [cell death] of the cancer cells,” Rangnekar said.
Do not, however, expect this new theoretical treatment to go into human clinical trials any time soon. Teams are still trying to explore both natural and synthetic agents that are able to to restore gene expression of Par 4 in human cells. The six years that have elapsed since the discovery of Par 4 have led to significant advancements in the field of cancer research. As teams continue studies involving Par 4, researchers feel they are inching closer to being able to develop treatments for and prevention of some of the deadlier forms of cancer.

Speaking on the studies taking place at his own university, Rangnekar stated, “Our multi-disciplinary team, working together, uses a multi-faceted strategy in our research. This allows us to gain a better understanding of the complexities of cancer in order to effectively kill recurrent tumor cells, especially those that have spread from their origin to distant tissue sites.”

Source: Alan McStravick for - Your Universe Online

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Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Shifting Social Mores
Luca ZennaroThe Associated Press

"In only one blow, he carried out a very brilliant operation, separating the theme of homosexuality from that of pedophilia. We know that a part of reactionary clerical thought plays on the confusion between these two completely different categories."
Nichi Vendola, Italy's first openly gay governor
This man, Pope Francis, is an open book, speaking with clarity and kindness, a true shepherd of the Faith that he represents. "If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has goodwill, who am I to judge? We shouldn't marginalize people for this. They must be integrated into society." An utterly refreshing change from his predecessor, Pope Francis speaks in gentle colours of gradations of grey between black and white.

All, he believes, evidently, are creations of the Divine Creator. If God loves them all as his children, who is his representative on Earth to question otherwise? It has been revealed that there exists a cadre of Roman Catholic priests who are gay. And while Pope Benedict XVI signed a 2005 document denying priesthood to those who were homosexual, conciliatory words pass this new Pope's lips. Clarifying how he feels, though while prepared to bless them, he forgives their 'sins'.

Forgiven for being, in other words, what nature has endowed them with. Nature, or God, however it is to be interpreted. Do we forgive people for being unattractive, for their dark complexions, for having flaxen hair, for being born blind or deaf, tall or short? Are those limitations to 'normalcy' seen as sins? Women are not and will not be permitted to serve the highest offices of the Church, precedent will not permit it.

They too, perhaps, should be forgiven for having been born the wrong gender to serve as priests. Their sin, then, is being female. Forgiveness will permit them, nonetheless, to serve their church, to serve in important ways, relevant to their religion and their times, but they may not serve as priests. Gays can, because they can be silent about their sexual orientation and appear without 'sin'. Women cannot guise themselves as men, therefore they may not serve as priests.

Pope Francis is clearly a devout and extremely good soul. How can he be faulted for believing, extolling and supporting the most basic precepts of his religion? He does because this is the manner in which he has been exposed to enable him to reach his exalted position by upholding the tenets of greatest important to the Roman Catholic Church.

His compassion and his willingness to present himself as a modestly ordinary human being is to his huge credit. He hides nothing, and speaks from his heart. He demurs rather than standing in judgement. Although he does judge greed and lack of compassion, and war-mongering and prejudice.

Ask no more of this good man.

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Perseids Identified By NASA As Most Active Annual Meteor Shower

July 29, 2013 -- Red Orbit




Image Credit:
[ Watch the Video: ScienceCasts: Perseid Fireballs ]
Brett Smith for – Your Universe Online

Meteor showers are some of the most exciting and unpredictable displays of nature and a team of NASA astronomers have just identified one shower as the most active of any annual display.

“We have found that one meteor shower produces more fireballs than any other,” said Bill Cooke of NASA’s Meteoroid Environment Office (MEO). “It’s the Perseid meteor shower, which peaks on August 12th and 13th.”

Astronomers consider a fireball to be as bright as Jupiter or Venus in the night sky. Although they can be seen on any given night, fireballs appear more frequently when Earth’s orbit carries it through the debris stream of a comet, as it will in the second full week of August.

Perseids come from Swift-Tuttle, a larger-than-normal comet that is prone to leaving a big debris field in its wake.

“Comet Swift-Tuttle has a huge nucleus–about (16 miles) in diameter,” Cooke said. “Most other comets are much smaller, with nuclei [a little more than a mile] across. As a result, Comet Swift-Tuttle produces a large number of meteoroids, many of which are large enough to produce fireballs.”
Earth passes through the comet’s debris cloud around the same time each year — late July to mid-August. Swift-Tuttle takes 133 years to complete its orbit and the annual meteor shower is the result of meteoroids coming off the comet the last time it approached the sun.

When the Perseids hit Earth’s atmosphere, they do so at around 132,000 mph. The friction produced by all those collisions makes for an annual light show that has become a favorite of many nighttime sky watchers.

Using a system of specifically calibrated cameras distributed across the southern US, Cooke’s team has been recording fireball activity since 2008. According to their data, the Perseids have produced more fireballs than any other meteor shower in the last five years. During the same time span, the Geminid meteor shower has produced about 140 less than the Perseids. Also, the December shower’s fireballs aren’t typically as bright as the Perseids.

“The average peak magnitude for a Perseid observed by our cameras is -2.7; for the Geminids, it is -2,” Cooke explained. “So on average, Geminid fireballs are about a magnitude fainter than those in the Perseids.”

The NASA scientists recommend looking for the Perseid fireballs on the nights of August 12th and 13th between 10:30 pm and 4:30 am local time. Earlier in the night, the rate of fireballs will be fairly low and increase as the night turns to early morning. Peak fireball activity typically occurs just before sunrise when the constellation Perseus is high in the early morning sky.

“Get away from city lights,” Cooke suggested. “While fireballs can be seen from urban areas, the much greater number of faint Perseids is visible only from the countryside.”

According to NASA, for every visible fireball, there are dozens of other meteors. Those in rural areas without much light pollution can expect to see around 100 fireballs per hour.

The Orinids are the next major meteor shower to occur after the Perseids. The fireballs from Halley’s Comet are expected to peak in activity around mid-October.

Source: Brett Smith for - Your Universe Online

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Monday, July 29, 2013

Paying Attention

We are so readily diverted, bored as we are by the mundane, the ordinary, the expected. Anything to lift us out of the ennui of knowing what comes next, whatever will inject a small note of the unexpected. Continual focus on something that is utterly routine, a skill long since mastered, is difficult and its nuisance factor can perhaps be cited in the fact that as we view driving to get from one point to another as natural as say, physical locomotion, an art now long lost on people reliant on their vehicles, it can be done casually.

So casually that other actions can be incorporated into the automation of driving. Scarfing down a quick fast-food meal, drinking coffee, combing your hair, shaving, putting on make-up; all accomplished, no fuss, no muss, and eyes on the road -- mostly. There are exceptions, of course. All it takes is a distracted moment, like the time the driver awkwardly bent toward the floor of his car to pick up a toy his infant child had tossed over from the back seat. And that's all it took for him to plow into the car in front of his that came to a sudden stop in traffic.

There are so many annoying rules to be factored in when you're driving; rules that, if ignored can result in a traffic citation and that's a real nuisance. Seat belts, for example, so damn uncomfortable, little wonder they're not yet legally required in many U.S. States; some that do require them only for people under 18. Forget to buckle up in any Canadian Province, and you're ticketed. Gotta watch how you open a car door because a bicyclist may be zipping past at the time....

Cellphones are another distraction, but it's illegal now in Ontario to use one other than mounted on the dashboard and bluetooth-controlled. Talking and texting on cellphones while driving holds the risk of crashes - the chances increase by up to 23 times. Two Edmonton-based doctors are now launching a campaign to enlist doctors to influence their patients not to focus on a cellphone while they're driving.

"Unfortunately many physicians also use their cellphones while driving and are setting a poor example for families and patients", wrote Victoria K. Lee and Louis Hugo Francescutti in a paper published in the journal Canadian Family Physician. The two physicians are focused on the need to convince people that they're engaging in hazardous activities; commonplace, ordinary but potentially lethal when cellphone use is linked with driving; no one can give their full attention to two such disparate activities; one is bound to fail, and it's not the conversation.
Third screen of DriveMode app. Credit:
"The evidence is overwhelming and irrefutable that no human can talk on a cellphone, let alone text, and drive (safely) at the same time", Francescutti, an emergency physician and professor at the University of Alberta's School of Public Health. "Fifty percent or more of our brain's capacity is focusing on the conversation, leading to inattention blindness. You think you're observant of what's going on around you, but, in essence, you're not."
Picture of what was left of two cars after they collided head -on. The driver of the red car was texting while driving. There were no survivors. Credit:
"Whether it is hand-held or hands-free, the conversation is the distraction, regardless what the laws say." Many jurisdictions which have legislated against cellphone use while driving, permit the use of hands-free devices. As far as the two doctors are concerned, this simply encourages people to trade "one dangerous habit for an equally dangerous one". It is not just the physical manipulation of the cellphone itself, but the mental distraction that is harmful in its net effect, interfering with the focus on driving.

People must take full responsibility for what they're doing when they're behind the wheel. And though people feel they are alert to the road and the other drivers around them, that even while using a cellphone they're perfectly capable of dividing their attention without shortchanging one activity for the other, it simply isn't possible. Incidentally and in the very same vein, people become so focused on texting that it is becoming increasingly commonplace for people on foot, crossing busy roads, to become accident victims as well.
Car crosses median into oncoming traffic and slides;driver was texting while driving. Credit:;

"If I'm driving and my boss phones me and there's a problem at work, and I'm about to merge and it's raining and there's a mom with kids crossing the road and there's a big truck blocking the traffic, whoever I'm talking to has no clue that's going on", observed Dr. Francescutti.

They point out that injuries resulting from car crashes remain a major cause of death for Canadians. Representing, in fact, the leading cause of death for Canadians under age 34. Studies give proof that at any given time one in 20 Canadian drivers is in the process of using a cellphone while driving. Common sense dictates: CEASE AND DESIST!

Aftermath photo of commuter train accident causing 132 injuries & 25 deaths including the conductor who was in the middle of sending/receiving 40 texts and missed a red light signal. Credit:

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Ghostly Glow Of Planetary Nebula IC 1295

April 10, 2013

Image Caption: Planetary nebula IC 1295 surrounding a dim and dying star. Credit: ESO
[ Watch the Video: Zooming In On The Planetary Nebula IC 1295 ]

Lee Rannals for – Your Universe Online

A new image released by the European Space Observatory (ESO) shows the glowing green planetary nebula IC 1295.

The new pictures taken by the Very Large Telescope (VLT) shows the nebula surrounding a dim and dying star located about 3300 light-years away in the constellation of Scutum (The Shield).

“It has the unusual feature of being surrounded by multiple shells that make it resemble a micro-organism seen under a microscope, with many layers corresponding to the membranes of a cell,” according to an ESO statement.

The glowing green bubble seen in the image is made out of gas that used to be the star’s atmosphere. The gas has been expelled by unstable fusion reactions in the star’s core that generated sudden releases of energy. It contains ultraviolet radiation, which gives it its glow.

In the center of the image, you can see the burned-out remnant of the star’s core as a bright blue-white spot at the heart of the nebula. The central star will become a very faint white dwarf and slowly cool down over many billions of years.

Stars that have masses like the Sun and up to eight times that of the Sun will form planetary nebulae as they enter the final phase of their existence.

The name ‘planetary nebula’ has nothing to do with planets. It is actually a descriptive term applied to some early discoveries because of the visual similarity of these objects to the outer planets Uranus and Neptune. Early astronomers using older telescopes saw these far away planets as glowing gas.

ESO released another beautiful image of the bright star cluster NGC 6520 back in February. The image shows NGC 6520 alongside a strange dark cloud known as Barnard 86. These two objects sit inside millions of glowing stars in the brightest part of the Milky Way galaxy. Barnard 86 is a dark nebula known as a Bok globule. Although in the image it appears as if it was a break in the stars, the nebula is actually made up of small dust grains that block out starlight. Astronomers believe this nebula formed from the remnants of a molecular cloud that collapsed to form the nearby star cluster NGC 6520.

ESO’s VLT is the world’s most advanced visible-light astronomical observatory. The space observatory continues to provide scientists with unique views of the universe that exists beyond what conventional backyard telescopes pick up.

Source: Lee Rannals for - Your Universe Online

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A Jupiter Cakewalk

Jupiter cake
It's delicious, by Jove!
Photo by Rhiannon at

This cake is not a lie: It’s an actual scientifically rigorous Jupiter cake!

I was wondering what kind of cake I’d ask my wife to make me for my next birthday (she’s a wonderful baker), and now I think I’ve found it. This was created by Rhiannon, an Australian woman trained in zoology but clearly with a knack for baking (she has a blog and a Facebook page which you really need to look through if you like yummy beautiful desserts).

Jupiter cake interior
Mmmm, metallic hydrogen filling.
Photo by Rhiannon at
I was already impressed enough with how she decorated it with the festoons and storms seen in Jupiter’s cloudtops, but then I saw that it’s actually layered based on what we know of the interior of the solar system’s largest planet.

That’s amazing. Apparently she bakes the inner cake first, puts it in the batter of the second layer, bakes that, and so on, until she has a planet. She tried this out first on a hemispherical Earth cake that has to be seen to be believed.

The Earth cake was done on commission as a geological educational tool for schoolkids. The Jupiter cake was made so she could put together a tutorial (coming soon, she promises) on how to create these planetary wonders.

I think this is a fantastic educational opportunity. What kid wouldn’t want to eat a planet? Assuming Galactus isn’t the teacher.

The biggest problem with this cake is what to drink with it, though I imagine it would go well with a cup of tea made in Russell’s Teapot.

And the best part? It makes a hundred billion servings.

Tip o' the frosting piping bag to Ellen Brundige.

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Yellowstone wolves spur recovery of bears' berries

Wolves chase down elk Wolves were re-introduced to the park in the 1990s in an effort to control elk numbers
The return of wolves to Yellowstone National Park may be leading to an improvement in the diet of grizzly bears, a study suggests.

When wolves were eradicated from Yellowstone in the early 20th Century, the elk population boomed, devastating berry-shrubs relied upon by bears.
Details are published in the Journal of Animal Ecology.

A team from Oregon and Washington links the reintroduction of predatory wolves with a fall in over-browsing by elk.

There is a consequent recovery in the availability of late-summer berries, the favoured pre-hibernation food of the grizzly bear.

The study indicates that the number of berries measured in bear droppings has doubled as elk numbers have decreased, following the wolves' return in the 1990s.

The complex interactions of the Yellowstone ecosystem were revealed in data measured before and after the reintroduction of wolves.

The BBC visits Wyoming and Montana to hear whether humans and wolves can co-exist

David Mattson, a US Geological Survey (USGS) wildlife biologist, commented previously on Yellowstone: "It's a complex system and grizzly bears are a kind of consummate connector of all of the species in that system."

The study shows that berry shrubs have increased since elk populations declined, and as shrubs recover from over-browsing the fruit consumption of bears has increased.

William Ripple, lead author, commented: "Wild fruit is typically an important part of grizzly bear diet, especially in late summer when they are trying to gain weight as rapidly as possible before winter hibernation".

"Elk browsing reducing berry production is well known in Europe as well," said Atle Mysterud, an ecologist from the University of Oslo.

"The study shows that new patches of berries have formed after the wolves were reintroduced. It is clear that berry production is very important for bears."

But the reduction in elk may not be all good news. Yellowstone's northern elk population hit 19,000 in 1988, but last winter the herd was estimated to number just 3,900 animals.

Yellowstone bear NPS Double-edged sword: the bears feed on berries in late summer... and elk in spring
Elk calves are an important food source for grizzly bears in the spring and Arthur Middleton of Yale University suggests that the decline in elk may pose a threat to the grizzly bear rather than a benefit, since their other spring food source, cutthroat trout, is also in decline.

"This is an interesting paper and it is important that we understand the consequences of wolf recovery", Dr Middleton added.

Berries The berry bushes also produce flowers of value to pollinators like butterflies and hummingbirds
"But wolf re-introduction is not the only change that has occurred in recent years in Yellowstone. Bears eat elk and bear numbers have increased three or four times during this period.

Bears eat about three times as many elk calves as wolves do and it may be that reduction in elk numbers and the increase in berry eating is feature of the increase in bear numbers.

"Unfortunately, as wildlife ecologists working in a vast landscape such as the greater Yellowstone ecosystem it is very difficult to unravel the complexity of the patterns."

The latest results demonstrate that acknowledging the many inter-relationships between species and environments in these systems is key to understanding that complexity.

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Sunday, July 28, 2013

Relieving Pain

He lived as a free soul for years as a young man. He worked in construction, met the woman who became his wife, and they lived for years as "free souls", travelling throughout the United States and Canada. Rob Kamermans did volunteer work at a Carmelite monastery in California for three years. They had five children. And in his late thirties he decided to study at medical school. At age 48, in 1994 he began practising as a physician, and his wife Mary, took up nursing.

In 2008 they set up a family practise in Coe Hill, Ontario, north of Belleville. Their clinic was open to high-needs, socially-marginal people. That clinic operated at a financial loss, and to help make ends meet Dr. Kamermans worked at the emergency departments of nearby hospitals. In 2009 Dr. Kamermans came across some patients who asked if he would sign government marijuana forms and he signed off on a few.

Dr. Rob Kamermans was arrested by police while working at the emergency ward of the hospital for having given out too many medical marijuana prescriptions.
Tyler Anderson / National Post   Dr. Rob Kamermans was arrested by police while working at the emergency ward of the hospital for having given out too many medical marijuana prescriptions.

He was convinced that opioids like OxyContin did a poor job of managing pain from cancer, severe arthritis, multiple sclerosis and epilepsy, people suffering and convinced that marijuana made their lives livable, as they looked for some relief from their pain. As far as Dr. Kamermans was concerned medical marijuana enabled his patients to stop using OxyContin, Percocet and other narcotic painkillers that while legal prescription drugs, kill hundreds across the country annually, with far greater numbers addicted.

He has the affirmation of a 2000 Ontario Court of Appeal decision that concluded no evidence has ever existed of any user ever suffering a fatal pot overdose. "I felt 'I'm doing the right thing'. I was just surprised that no other doctors would do it", he said. "I never really clued in to the money part, because I was so busy." Never a pot smoker himself, he began to respond affirmatively to the increasing number of patients who, through word-of-mouth heard there was a doctor who would prescribe marijuana for their medical needs.

Eventually people all over the province as well as other provinces began a pilgrimage to his Coe Hill location to pay their respects to the marijuana-dispensing physician who had sympathy for their need. A local journalist who is a family friend described patients arriving in wheelchairs, even ambulances. "I was just as shocked as anybody", Dr. Kamermans related.

Most of the patients, he said, were between 45 to 65 years of age, and all in legitimate pain. Eventually he took his services further afield, seeing up to 80 patients a day in Halifax, charging $100 for signing forms in Coe Hill, but $250 when he travelled, taking into account the additional costs being wracked up in the effort; a not unusual charge for physicians to make for consultation and form-filling, not charged to medicare.

Soon the Ontario College of Physicians and Surgeons informed him they were launching an investigation into his marijuana consultations. He stopped signing the forms. Not long afterward OPP officers came to his Coe Hill clinic, handcuffed him and took him off for interrogation. They went through his patient files, laying no charges, but hauling away over four thousand medical charts, not returning them for months.

Months later he was finally arrested on charges including six counts of forgery for allegedly bogus marijuana forms, three counts of fraud for allegedly billing Ontario's medicare agency for "services not rendered", one of possession of the proceeds of crime and one of money laundering. Police took possession of $60,000 in cash, and later revoked bail when he attempted the transfer of money to New Mexico for mortgage payments on a family property there.

Dr. Kamermans felt he responded to peoples' dire needs in aiding them with medical marijuana forms entitling them to qualify for medical marijuana. Something the greater preponderance of practising physicians, unwilling to complicate their already stressed practices, are reluctant to become involved with, uncertain of the outcomes. What he has experienced as a result seems to him to be clearly harassment.

His arrest endangered Sturgeon Falls residents, leaving their emergency department without a doctor. And now, Dr. Kamermans may no longer perform emergency-department work at the local hospitals that provided most of his income. As a result of loss of income he will have to sell his Coe Hill clinic. The college has laid several disciplinary charges in relation to the marijuana work.

"Mary is seething with anger most of the time", Dr. Kamermans said in an interview. "It's just horrible. They feel they can trash your life."

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An Impact Melt Crater You'll Flip For

I love illusions, and one of my favorites is the “dome/crater” illusion. It’s pretty simple, actually: a depression in the ground, like a crater, looks like a dome when you flip it. Our brains like to interpret lighting as coming from the top of a picture (we evolved to see our landscape lit from above from the Sun), so when a crater is actually lit from below, it looks like a dome.

I run across this illusion so much when I look at pictures of the lunar landscape I don’t even hesitate to flip the image over when I sense something’s amiss. Like this one:

The impact crater Schiaparelli-E on the Moon.
The impact crater Schiaparelli-E on the Moon. Click to enlunenate.
Photo by NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University

This is a shot of the crater Schiaparelli-E taken by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. It shows the central floor of the crater, surrounded by the rim (which is not completely framed; you can see the edge of the rim to the upper left).

The weirdly-shaped stuff in the middle looks like a series of pits to my eye, and I knew that couldn’t be right. Craters usually have raised features in the floor! So I flipped it over, and voilà:

Ah, that’s better! Now you can see those features really are raised lumpy hills.

So what’s going on here? The crater still looks weird.

This is an example of what’s called “impact melt”, when an asteroid or comet slams into the surface with so much energy it melts the material around it. That happens every time with a big impact, but in this case the molten material pooled around the bottom of the crater floor, filling it partway. Hills or mountains are common in bigger impacts, as the rock pushed out from the impact flows back in, a bit like the way a drop of milk splashed into a glass causes a rebound drop to shoot back up.

So after the hills formed, more molten material filled the crater, giving it a smooth, flat floor that is higher than it would have been without the melting. The hills poke out of it, giving it that weird look. Later, rocks and boulders rolled down the inside rim wall, many stopping at the floor boundary while some managed to make their way further in. You can easily see hundred of such boulders in this wonderful high-resolution image.

It's funny. The original Moon Illusion—the Moon looking huge on the horizon but smaller when overhead—is due to your brain misinterpreting the shape of the sky and the apparent size of the Moon, and supposedly can be overcome by standing on your head. The same is true for this other Moon illusion, too!

Pictures don’t generally lie, but our brains do, all the time. Which is why we skeptics have a pair of sayings: Seeing isn't always be believing, and what you see is not always what you get.

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Saturday, July 27, 2013

Stirring the Mary-Jane Pot

Liberal leader Justin Trudeau has gone out of his way to bring the welfare of the Canadian middle-class under the broad umbrella of his musing concerns, expressing dismay presumably matching their own that family earnings have not maintained their upward momentum, falling behind while inflation eats up more of disposable income. He has now extended his concern to the topic of legalizing marijuana. Once alcohol was prohibited and it is now, by force of social pressures, legalized and heavily taxed, as is tobacco.

These substances are both avowedly and through scientific-medical research attested to represent health-averse materials whose constant use constitutes a threat to the integrity of users' bodily health. They are both heavily taxed, as a kind of moral penance. The idea being that taxes raise their cost to the consumer and in this manner make them less attractive to purchase. But people become accustomed to paying high prices for certain items, and go on to consume them regardless.

Presumably the taxes, which go into government general revenue streams, help pay for the cost to society in treating the eventual health consequences of their over-use. Both are well enough known to cause organ breakdown; heart, liver and lungs, aiding in the eventuality of strokes and heart attacks. Now, it seems, we can add another substance inimical to health. Not to hold Justin Trudeau to account for any of this; recreational drug use is a reality, and marijuana is the lesser of all such drug use.

Legalizing its growing, marketing and use would make it more accessible, more acceptable within society and lead to greater use. On the other hand, even as an illicit substance it is widely used, including among those too young to fully comprehend how it might conceivably deleteriously impact their lives. The operative word here is "might", since light, casual social use likely would never result in ill effects.

But drug use of any kind is a portal to the potential of abuse of far more potent drugs. And statistics appear to pinpoint that while the incidence of driving while under the influence of alcohol has been falling in prevalence, there has been an alarming rise of impaired driving relating to the use of drugs. Marijuana is a relatively light, casual, recreational drug but it is a drug and smoking it can cause ill health effects. would be fallacious to conclude that because the chemicals in marijuana have been found to present fewer dangers than some very harmful substances, the medical or recreational use of marijuana is perfectly safe. In a recreational context, marijuana has been shown to affect health, brain function, and memory. And in a medical context, marijuana is like any other powerful prescription drug: it has potentially dangerous side effects, and the decision to use it to treat patients must involve the same balancing test as the one required for chemotherapy or AZT: do the therapeutic effects of the drug outweigh its harmful effects? Though there are many more studies to be done on this issue, current data shows that the answer to this question may not always be "yes."
Harvard University Berkman Center for Internet & Society
"I'm actually not in favour of decriminalizing cannabis. Tax it, regulate. It's one of the only ways to keep it out of the hands of our kids because the current war on drugs, the current model is not working. We have to use evidence and science to make sure we're moving forward on that", he said to an audience in Kelowna, B.C. this week. A statement that will find him in wild favour among the voting youth contingent in the country.

An April-released UNICEF report cited 4% of children aged 11, 13 and 15 reported smoking cigarettes "at least once a week"; 16% of that age group reported having been under the influence of alcohol on at least two occasions, and to round out the good tidings, fully 29% of young respondents reported "having used cannabis in the last 12 months." Canada ranks 29th on the UNICEF report; last among "rich" nations.

The Netherlands, Estonia, and Belgium where marijuana is decriminalized or legalized boast a lower number of children using (17%, 15% and 13% respectively). Compare those numbers to restrictive jurisdictions like Sweden with 5.5%, Norway with 4.6% and Iceland with 7% child usage of marijuana. The puzzle as to why and how it is that Canadian youth use is so relatively high isn't addressed.

This is a difficult topic to tackle. The 'war on drugs' has worked just about as well as the period of crime, bootlegging, cross-border smuggling and alcohol syndicates that arose when alcohol was under prohibition in the United States and Canada. Eventually it was recognized that more harm than good came out of the prohibition legislation.

Perhaps that will be the direction in which all national jurisdictions will eventually guide themselves. Latin America, where incendiary crime is associated with drug cartels costing innumerable lives, is now considering the feasibility of relaxing its prohibition laws. Human beings engage in self-destructive activities of all kinds, the insistence on prohibiting substances deleterious to health and longevity is a choice that cannot always be controlled.

Even if and when the greater society is left to pick up the sometimes disastrous results.

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Around Saturn

Saturn and its breathtaking rings.
Photo by NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI

Saturn’s a long way off, and it’s unlikely that anyone alive today will get to take a personal tour of the ringed wonder of our solar system.

But we do currently have the Cassini spacecraft, which for the better part of a decade has been busily snapping away, taking hundreds of thousands of images of Saturn, its rings, and the bizarre retinue of moons orbiting it.

Fabio di Donato is a consultant by day, but video editor by night. He took a huge number of those Cassini pictures and stitched together this engrossing and ebullient video, creating a virtual tour of Saturn for us Earthbound humans.

I love the choice of music; I’m a big Shostakovich fan. But it does seem particularly fitting for the occasion.

There’s a lot to see in this video, way too much to describe. But my favorite parts include:

At 1:00, the potato-shaped moon Prometheus pulls ripples into Saturn’s narrow F ring;

At 1:20 a series of moon flybys include several “mutual events”, where moons pass next to or in front of each other;

At 2:26 we see a few moons close up, like (in order) Iapetus, Helene, and the extremely bizarre Styrofoam moon Hyperion;

At 2:45 the camera stays centered on (what I’m pretty sure is) the tiny moon Pan, while the perspective changes due to spacecraft motion;

At 2:50 or so, you can see the sunglint—sunlight reflected off the ice particles in the rings;
…and all throughout the video the rings are magnificent as we flip, twist, and turn our point of view, reflecting the spacecraft’s motion. Astonishing.

Which part is your favorite? Can you figure out from the video just which moon or part of the ring you’re seeing? I was rather surprised with how much I know about Saturn from memory just from writing about it so many times; the names of moons sprung to mind pretty easily (though I double checked with some pictures online).

Still, clearly, there’s a lot more to know. A lot. Saturn is at least a rich and varied environment as Earth, and perhaps far more. We could use a dozen Cassinis orbiting it. And a lot more videos like this to show their results to us.

Tip o’ the dew shield to Jorge Flores on Twitter.   

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