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

Friday, February 28, 2014

Their Ravaged Psyches

BBC News Photojournal
"When I got a bit older, they started a school inside the institution. One of the volunteers took this picture of me in my uniform.
"Some of the teachers were nice, but there was one woman I hated. She used to strip children naked and put them in cold water as a punishment. One time she beat me so much it made my head bleed.
"I never wanted to see her again – I still don’t. But a while ago I saw her in town and I ran off in the other direction."
BBC News Photojournal
Foreign volunteers
"Everything got a bit better when the volunteers came. But as soon as they left, things went back to normal."A few weeks after this photo was taken, we had our heads shaved again. [Viorica is on the bottom row, second from right]
"One time, when I was 10 or 11, I got hepatitis and no one noticed for a whole week.
"Eventually I was taken to the local hospital where some women felt sorry for me. They gave me some food to take back to the institution, but the staff took it away."
Those are the voices of Romania's children who have lived their lives in Romanian orphanages. The country is more humanely and economically advanced now than it was during its Soviet years under the dictatorship of Nicolae Ceausescu, who himself and his extended family lived in palaces, though the people lived in desperate need. With the fall of the Soviet Union, a mass uprising in Romania removed Ceausescu from power, and he was summarily lynched.

Soon afterward the world was treated to photographic and news analysis of the living conditions in the country, its people deprived of normal indices of human comfort and entitlements. Not the least of which was freedom and hope for the future under an unspeakable tyranny. But the most abysmal conditions were those suffered by the country's out-of-sight-out-of-mind orphans living in inhumane concentration-camp conditions.

Those abandoned children were twice discarded; once by those who gave them birth, another time by the government.

When the outside world heard of the tens of thousands of wan and sickly, profoundly neglected Romanian children warehoused in pitiless, barely functional cold, grey institutions, stacked one upon the other in their own excrement, the normal human reaction of deep compassion and an eagerness to help resulted. There were television images of small malnourished children rocking themselves silently for inner comfort, lying on threadbare mattresses. Those images galvanized people to act.
"When people saw those images after the fall of Ceausescu, they looked at those babies and thought, 'What that child needs is love and I'm going to love that child and everything is going to be OK.' It turns out that that's not always the case. Everything isn't always OK and what they need is actually more than just a loving home. In fact, the kinds of challenges and difficulties of those kids make it very challenging to provide a really warm, supportive and loving home."
"I would hate for anybody to get the impression that all of the Romanian adoptees are sociopaths, because they're not. But given the early experiences of some of these children, they were very extreme. The deprivation, the horrific conditions they came from, I suppose in some ways we ought not to be surprised that some of them have really extreme disorders as adults now."
Lucy LeMare, associate professor, Simon Fraser University, Vancouver

"It was so overwhelming. The kids are there with their little pyjamas on, in their cribs, sleeping in their own excrement and urine. Horrific conditions."
"We adopted, as we were aware, children that were going to have special needs."
Sonya Paterson, adoptive mother
"Three-year-olds didn't chew because they'd never had solid food", explained Ms. LeMare. Bottles were tied to cribs for babies to feed themselves, in the compassionless expectation that they would figure out for themselves how to nourish themselves without the nourishment of loving care. "Nobody held it [the bottle] for them, or fed them or held the child. If the baby could cope with it, good; if not, they got sick and died", she explained.

Western families without children of their own flocked to Romania in hopes of adopting these abandoned, neglected, needy children. Over 1,400 children were brought from Romania in 1990 and 1991 to Canada, about half of them out of orphanages. Researchers at Simon Fraser University conceived of tracking the children's progress to attempt to ascertain how early deprivation of emotional bonds would later impact on these children.

They have used the past two decades to study the development of the children, surveying them as toddlers, following up twice as school-age children, and again at around age seventeen. A new survey is being initiated to gauge the social development and coping skills of the adults, in hopes that they might learn what helped and what failed to aid their capacity to handle their catastrophic early trauma in emotional deprivation and human bonding.

What the research has revealed to date is that the scars of their early neglect have created a deep reservoir of struggle and dysfunction. Survey results published in 2007 pointed out that about 40 percent of the Romanian adoptees were diagnosed with a mental disorder in comparison to 15 percent among the general Canadian youth population. Hardly a surprising conclusion, given the circumstances. The researchers found that difficulties experienced appeared directly proportional to the time children spent in the orphanages.

The last study found, in fact, that the need for helpful social coping services did not diminish with time; they increased as the children moved into their teen years. A spotlight was turned on the issue when a young woman in British Columbia by the name of Kayla Bourque tortured and killed her family pets and a court case developed. The judge hearing her case heard the expert testimony of a witness for the defence, that she was a psychopathic sexual sadist, adopted at eight months of age from a Romanian orphanage.

Professor LeMare speaks of that young woman as an extreme case. Among the adoptees there are more than their share of university graduates, young parents and role models. Along with the higher-than-average numbers of people with developmental disabilities, mental-health issues, criminal records and social struggles.

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Found Opportunity

It’s actually rather amazing what you can see from orbit. Once you’re off the ground, above it, your perspective changes, and you can put things in context. Signs of civilization can shrink down to almost nothing compared with the glory of nature, making them difficult to spot.
For example, peruse this image taken by a satellite:
View from a height: Can you spot any signs of human activity in this satellite shot?
Photo by NASA/JPL/University of Arizona
Can you even see any signs of human activity there on the surface?
Oh, wait a second. My apologies. I forgot to mention: That’s not the surface of Earth … it’s the surface of Mars. And the signs of humanity you see there are really just a single sign.
Can you spot that blip right in the center? That’s the Mars rover Opportunity!
I figured I'd take this opportunity to zoom in.
Photo by NASA/JPL/University of Arizona
It’s only about 2.3 x 1.6 meters (7.5 x 5.2 feet) in size, so it’s just a few pixels across as seen by the HiRISE camera on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. If the scientists and engineers programming the probe didn’t know exactly where Opportunity was, it would be impossible to find! But we know exactly where all our working hardware is on Mars, and we know exactly where the orbiting cameras point, making it far simpler to get pictures of the land-bound rovers.

Opportunity is seen here at what’s called Solander Point, where it found that odd rock nicknamed the “jelly doughnut.” The rock suddenly appeared next to the rover, when earlier images taken by Opportunity showed bare ground. That was quite a mystery, but it’s now pretty clear that the rock was a piece of a larger one broken off by one of the rover’s wheels. Images like this one from HiRISE are pretty useful when things like this happen; it shows no fresh craters nearby, making it unlikely the rock was ejected by a small impact.
Jelly doughnut
Now you don't see it, now you do: before and after shots of the weird "jelly doughnut" rock. A "sol" is a Martian day, in this case measured after Opportunity landing on Mars.
Photo by NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell Univ./Arizona State Univ.
But for those of us back home who don’t study Mars for a living (and, I’d wager, even for those who do), images like this are still a thrill. As my friend Emily Lakdawalla puts it, “Seeing a spacecraft on the surface of a planet from another spacecraft never gets old.”
She’s right. It’s a great reminder that we humans are amazing when we want to be. We can, in a short time, go from creating myths about lights in the sky to landing on them and discovering their truths for ourselves.

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Fat in, sugar out: Label creates new food hierarchy

Avacados, milk, brownie with whipped cream Good fat, good fat, sugar
This week first lady Michelle Obama proposed new rules for the nutrition labels on packaged foods sold on US shelves. The new recommendations draw attention away from dietary fat while casting light on an even less nutritious ingredient - added sugar.

It's a big day for fat, which spent years as an enemy of health.

A growing body of research shows that fat can actually be good for you - and that when it comes to poor diets, another, more dangerous ingredient is hiding in plain sight.

Fat, carbohydrates and protein are macronutrients, the building blocks of all other foods. Carbohydrates and protein have four calories per gram, and fat has nine calories per gram.

As obesity rates rose toward the end of the 20th Century, health professionals looked for ways to slow the growth.

"The idea in the late 1980s was if you cut down on fat, you'd be cutting down on calories," says Marian Nestle, professor of nutrition, food studies, and public health at New York University
And so a new era of snacking began, with food companies promoting fat-free or low-fat items and consumers trying to cut down on fat in the name of healthful living.

The new label

A section of the new nutrition label
Highlights from the proposed updates to the US nutritional label
  • Calorie content given in bigger font
  • Serving size more realistic. A pint of ice cream goes from four servings to two
  • Items that could be consumed in one sitting, such as a 20oz (0.56l) soft drink, must give nutrition for both suggested serving sizes and total package size
  • Potassium and Vitamin D levels listed
Fat earned a slight reprieve at the turn of this century, when carbohydrates became the focus of many diets. But David Grotto, author of the Best Things You Can Eat, says the current conventional wisdom is moving away from the philosophy that an entire class of macronutrients can make or break your diet. 

"We need carbohydrates, we need protein, we need fat," he says. "Fat as a category is not bad," even though certain types of fat, such as trans fatty acids, can be harmful.

In fact, research shows that dietary fat serves an important purpose: many vitamins are fat-soluble, so vegetables and other nutrient-rich foods are best consumed with a bit of fat to help the body better absorb the nutrients.

And a new study from Sweden suggests that consuming high dietary fat is associated with lower rates of obesity. Researchers suspect that full-fat foods make one feel full - and therefore less inclined to overeat.

"Most nutrition experts are on the same page now that it's not fat that's the villain, it's calories," says Grotto.

And one of the biggest culprits in boosting the calorie contents of food, say nutrition experts, is sugar.
"If you were on a desert island, eating sugar would be preferable to drinking seawater," says Walter Willet, dean of the nutrition department at the Harvard School of Public Health.

But that's about all he can say in favour of the sweet stuff. A type of carbohydrate, sugar only packs four calories per gram. But many products use a lot of it to boost taste. Consumption offers other problems, too.

"We know that high intakes of added sugars are associated with a number of risk factors for coronary heart disease," says Rachel Johnson, a professor of nutrition at the University of Vermont. Eating calories from sugar means you're not getting other essential nutrients that you might from a less sugary snack.

There is also increased risk of dangerous blood fat levels, inflammation and, according to a recent paper, heart disease-related death.

Troublingly, that same paper showed that sugar consumption was at a dangerously high level in the US. In fact, more than 70% of Americans exceed the recommendation that only one-tenth of the day's calories come from sugar.

Even though ingredients used the most in a packaged food usually sit at the top of the ingredient label, "food companies have gotten clever at breaking up the added sugar," says Walter Willet. You may see some of these listed instead:
  • High fructose corn syrup
  • Cane crystal/cane juice
  • Isomalt
  • Sucrose
  • Maltose
  • Sorbitol
  • Dextrose
Why? While everyone was cutting back on fat in the 1980s and 1990s, sugar was slowly taking hold of the American diet. Those boxes of low-fat snack cakes? Nestle says that to replace the flavour benefits of fat, food manufacturers just upped the sugar, and therefore the calorie content. 

The new nutritional labels announced by Mrs Obama aim to change that by giving new, prominent real estate to sugar, especially the added sugars which pose the biggest threats.

"Naturally occurring sugar comes along with vitamins, minerals, and fibre," says Nestle. "No one is worried about the amount of sugar in fruit or milk. It's the added sugars that dilute the vitamins, minerals, and fibre in food," and that contribute to high-calorie choices.

After all, says Grotto, it's total calories and quality of calories that make a meal choice good or bad - not necessarily what's in it.

"It's myopic to look at a single ingredient, but we always seem to love demonising something," says Grotto.

"Sugar has become the new fat."

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Thursday, February 27, 2014

Witness To Genocide

"You train your brain to die. Then suddenly you live. But you can't train your brain back to life. A piece of you is always dead."
Twenty years may seem a long time. Twenty years of pain, 20 years of suffering, 20 years of bad memories, nightmares and loneliness; when you're in so much pain, time doesn't mean much."
We have an obligation, a duty, not to forget. Having survived I owe something to the dead, and anyone who does not remember betrays them again."
"We were naive. We trusted the peacekeepers. We trusted the diplomats. We trusted that the international community would be there to save us."
"We heard people passing by, screaming and crying and begging for mercy. We waited for them to come in. We expected to die."
Chantal Mudahogora, Tutsi Rwandan genocide survivor
Rwandan genocide survivor moves audience to tears
Genocide survivor Chantal Mudahogora speaks about her escape from the 1994 Rwandan genocide, marking the 20th anniversary of the genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda, one of the darkest moments in human history.  Photograph by: Bruno Schlumberger , Ottawa Citizen
At a memorial held at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa to mark the 20th anniversary of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, there was a gathering of politicians, diplomats and human rights activists, some to speak, and all of them there to pay tribute in sad memory to the suffering of an ethnic group of people targeted for mass slaughter. Chantal Mudahogora was there to speak from personal experience of what it was like to have been there.

“Someone called and told us that militia was coming, so I went to my neighbour, with my son, to search for a safe place and she chased me away.  She said, ‘You guys are going to die, I don’t want you in my house,’ so we had to go back. She wasn’t targeted and had been my friend for years.”
“He was so terrified,” Mudahogora said. “The last thing he said to me was, ‘Chantal, I think they are coming, I can see them by our gate, I have to go in the backyard, I have to join the children there,’ and then he hung up. After that, I called back – again and again – but there was no response.”
 “A friend of Christian’s was among the killers and came into our compound with this long sword full of blood. He used to hold Christian’s hand, go to the market and buy soda and sweets for him,”  “When Christian saw him, he jumped on him and started saying, ‘I want a soda, I want a sweet.’ Christian just starting talking to him and then, I think, his humanity came back… he jumped over the fence and went away.”
“We did not know what was going on outside; all we could hear were screams from people in the street.They were screaming, ‘Don’t kill me, please, don’t kill me!’ and kids were screaming, ‘I will no longer be a Tutsi!’ Those screams are vivid and when they come back, you feel like you’re reliving it.”
“That was the date they came to our gate. That’s also the date when my parents were killed; they were gathered in one of the local churches with about 6,000 Tutsis. The killers first tried to bang down the door. My son and I went to the guest room to see who was banging at the door and then they threw a grenade by the window; I had my son in my hands, I turned around, so my back was facing the window, luckily it did not touch us.”
 “We began crawling along a big wall and then hit a large brick fence, which we had to go through to get to the other side. We couldn’t go left or right – there were roadblocks each way – so one of the men used his gun to make a hole in the fence, so everybody could climb through. He could only remove about four bricks, the hole was so small.”
 “I had my son on my back. My fear was always being separated from my son. I thought, ‘I can’t remove him from my back and put him through first or leave him behind,’ so I had to make a quick decision. I climbed through the tiny hole with my son on my back. I still don’t know how I did it.”
From early April to mid-July of 1994, over a hundred-day period of horrible pain, confusion and bloodshed committed by the majority Rwandan Hutu population in a concerted attack against the minority Tutsis, an estimated million people died. Mostly ethnic Tutsi Rwandans, but including also a minority of Hutus who hadn't joined the bloodletting, who attempted to stop the slaughter, who tried to protect their neighbours from their marauding counterparts out for blood.

At one time it was the minority Tutsis who had been in the ascendancy of power, put there by their Belgian colonizers who considered them superior to the Hutus, until in time the tide turned and favour was given to the Hutus. Relations between the two were strained and became increasingly so with the departure of the Belgians and Rwandan independence. When the Hutu attacked Tutsis in the 1950s over 100,000 Tutsis fled to neighbouring countries. Independence arrived in 1962.

But conflict continued, culminating in the Rwandan genocide. The Rwandan Patriotic Front, a Tutsi militia that conducted cross-border raids into Rwanda attacking Hutus in 1990, started the Rwandan Civil War that ended in a draw. The Hutus planned their revenge to be expressed in the elimination of the Rwandan Tutsi population. During the remembrance at the Canadian War Museum, Chantal Mudahogora kept her audience spellbound as she recounted the events she cannot forget.

She spoke of the situation facing the Tutsi population gradually deteriorating and in late 1993 marauding Huti militias and gangs began the serious business of terrorizing Tutsis. In many instances Hutu neighbours who had lived side by side for many years in peace, took up the cause of eliminating their Tutsi neighbours in the general atmosphere of hatred, responding to the continued propaganda and calls to slaughter.

Tutsis were dragged from their offices, from schools, their homes, and were never seen alive again. People would attempt to go about their normal day, in the full knowledge that there were no guarantees that their days would end normally. By April of 1994, the killing machine kicked into full gear. Co-ordinated attacks saw Hutus flocking to Tutsi neighbourhoods, throwing grenades into homes, forcing people into the open, butchering them.

As the men, women and children fled in terror for their lives they were hacked to death. Many fled for safety to churches that were then lit afire, and they died in churches become charnel houses. Chantal Mudahogora and her family somehow survived. Thanks, she says, to the appearance of troops with the Rwandan Patriotic Front. They fled the country to live in a refugee camp until they were informed they could return to their homes in safety, that all was now in order, the horrors gone.

But Rwanda, to live there again amidst all the memories that refused to fade, among Hutus whom they could no longer trust, seemed a living death to them. Although the mass killings had ended, they feared the presence of Hutus, believing they would be killed because of the wish to rid themselves of witnesses to the horror. And in the late 1990s the Mudahogora family came to Canada.

Where her neighbours were Canadians of a variety of ethnic origins; none among them, however, Hutus.

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A Monster Star Plows Through the Galaxy? Shocking.

When you look up at the sky, you’d be forgiven to think that the stars are motionless, frozen in time, mounted on the velvet vault of the heavens.

But in fact they are in motion, orbiting the center of our galaxy much like the planets orbit the Sun. The Sun itself, for example, is moving along at roughly 200 kilometers per second (450,000 mph). Some orbit a lot faster.

Take Kappa Cassiopeiae, for example. It’s what’s called a runaway star, screaming through space at a terrifying 1,100 kilometers per second … 2.5 million miles per hour! As it happens, it’s also a blue supergiant, a massive, hot star. These kinds of stars tend to blow out a fast wind of subatomic particles, like the solar wind on steroids. As the star plows through space, its wind rams into the material around it, creating a vast shock wave like air off the nose of a supersonic fighter jet. It’s invisible to the eye, but when you point an infrared telescope like Spitzer at it, you get stunning beauty:
Kappa Cas
Runaway star Kappa Cas slams into material floating between the stars, creating a shock wave trillions of kilometers across. Click to enchuckyeagerenate.
Photo by NASA/JPL-Caltech
How about that? Kappa Cas is the blue star in the center, and you can see the material arcing around it, snowplowed by the fierce interaction of the star and its surroundings. This image is infrared, which means the colors aren’t “real”; blue is a combination of light at 3.6 and 4.5 microns (five and six times the wavelength of the reddest light the human eye can see), green is from 12 microns, and red is 24 microns. What you see as red is dust that floats between the stars, and green is from complex particles very much like soot (created by stars both when they are born and when they die). In Spitzer images, stars tend to look blue because they give off most of their light toward that end of the spectrum.

The Sun is also moving through interstellar material, but the effect is nowhere near as profound as that from Kappa Cas. But then the wind from Kappa Cas is millions of times more powerful than the Sun’s and is blowing outward several times faster. Add that to the already incredible speed of the star, and you get a bow shock that’s a mind-crushing four light years ahead of the star: 40 trillion kilometers. That’s the same distance as the nearest star from the Sun, so you can see the influence of Kappa Cas extends a long, long way.
Zeta Oph
Zeta Oph, another runaway star, seen by NASA's WISE infrared observatory. Click to embiggen.
Photo by NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA
We’ve seen other cases of this as well. Zeta Ophiuchi is one; another massive star barreling through the night. Spitzer has observed it before, and it’s so beautiful that it’s one of my favorite all time astronomical photographs. Another infrared observatory, WISE, also took a great shot of it.

This raises the question: Just why is Kappa Cas on the run? There are a few ways stars can get accelerated to such high velocities. One is if they started out life as a binary, two stars locked in a tight orbit. If the other star exploded as a supernova, the two stars lose their grip on each other, and the angular momentum can fling them both away at high speed, just like a slingshot. Another possibility is that Kappa Cas was born in a cluster of a stars, and a close encounter with a pair of stars in the cluster gave it a kick sufficient to fling it out and into interstellar space.
The constellation Cassiopeia, located near the north pole of the sky. Kappa Cas can be seen from moderately dark sites.
Rendering by SkySafari
Kappa Cas is actually bright enough to see with the naked eye; it’s a fourth magnitude star in the W of Cassiopeia. Better take a look while you can, though; being a blue supergiant, Kappa Cas doesn’t have long to live. Even though it has something like 40 times the Sun’s mass, it burns through its nuclear fuel at a far faster rate, shortening its lifespan considerably. Someday, perhaps in the next few hundred thousand years or less, it will explode. It’s 4,000 light years away, so we’re safe, but it’ll get really bright when it goes, getting far brighter than Venus in the sky. What a sight that will be!

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Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Under-Treating Pain

"These numbers are not negligible considering the huge amount of CABG (coronary artery bypass grafting) that is occurring in the U.S., in Canada and all over the world. It's among the most frequent type of surgery."
"Given the impact such pain may have on daily functioning and quality of life, patients should be informed about this possibility."
"Patients wait until they're in a lot of pain before asking for something, or they don't ask for it because a 'good' patient doesn't complain."
"For the health expert, the priority is the success of the surgery. The pain is something that will 'go away anyway' -- it's not a priority."
"But if the acute pain in the first few days after surgery was better managed, we would decrease the prevalence of persistent pain."
"[Patients should not have to ask for them, or wait for nurses to offer], because we know that's the worst method to administer painkillers. We have to give them on a regular basis to make sure we maintain an appropriate level of analgesia."
Dr. Manon Choiniere, Professor, University of Montreal

"We are under-treating pain in Canada. We're doing more and more surgeries on more and more people. We're extending life longer than ever before because of these treatments. But they can be nerve-damaging, and so we have a rising incidence of chronic pain, and we need to do something about it."
Dr. Mary Lynch, professor of anaesthesia, psychiatry and pharmacology, Dalhousie University, Halifax

A study to measure post-operative pain after cardiac surgery has seen Canadian researchers reporting that one in ten patients is left with intolerable pain a full two years after surgery has taken place. Dr. Manon Choiniere was lead author in the study, a researcher with the Centre hospitalier de l'Universite de Montreal research centre.

The researchers reported the results of their study concluding that the more intense pain that patients report the first week following surgery the more likely it will prove to be that they would report pain on an ongoing, daily basis, a full two years afterward. "Pain can predict later pain", the authors reported. Their study involved over a thousand cardiac surgery patients, 18 and older, from Montreal, Quebec City, Toronto and Halifax.

These were patients scheduled for surgeries relating to coronary artery bypass grafting, valve replacement or both, between February 2005 to September 2009. Anxiety and depression expressed pre-surgery was assessed, as was pre-existing pain if any, such as angina. After which they assessed how may people still suffered pain beyond what is considered the normal time for tissue healing; three months.

Patients rated the intensity of their pain on a scale of zero (none) to ten (most excessive pain level), at 24, 48 and 72 hours, and seven days post-surgery. And then once again during the months after surgery. They were then asked to report any pain that wasn't related to pain they experienced before surgery, and lasted for at least three months.

A full forty percent of patients reported experiencing persistent post-operative pain three months afterward, of any intensity. Over time the proportion decreased progressively, to 22 percent at six months, and then about ten percent at 24 months. Pain was rated as "moderate" to "severe" in four percent of patients at the 24-month post-surgery assessment. Some people described their pain as a burning electric shock or a tingling sensation at the scar site.

Treatment of patients’ post-operative pain overlooked, study into heart surgery reveals        A surgeon (C) and an assistant surgeon (R) operate on a patient during an open-heart surgery in a cardiac surgery unit at the hospital in Angers, western France, on October 24, 2013  Photograph by: JEAN-SEBASTIEN EVRARD/AFP/Getty Images , Postmedia News

Women appeared likelier than their male counterparts to report intense, persistent post-surgical pain, as were younger patients aged 21 to 55. Two of the risk factors considered for lingering pain were patient anxiety pre-surgery and the severity of pain felt immediately after surgery. Doctors are aware of professional guidelines along with campaigns relating to the importance of providing people with pain relief after surgery.

Yet two-thirds of the heart patients reported moderate to severe pain during the first few days after surgery. Health professionals, it would seem, and patients themselves consider painkillers along the line of addiction risk primarily, and pain alleviation a distant second thought.

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Why? Just for the Hell of it!

"You've been in your boat for 15 hours and you've got another 12 hours to go. You just do everything in your power to not think about how much you don't want to be paddling."
"For the first month, I kept thinking to myself, 'Why are we doing this?'"
Graham Henry, 23, Victoria, British Columbia
Photo courtesy
Photo courtesy
"You can see the storms coming. It would be blue skies. Then the wind and rain comes and you're in the middle of this massive, dark, brutal thunder storm.
"And our paddles are carbon fibre, so they're conductive. We're just hoping we don't get hit [by lightning'."
Russell Henry, 21
Anyone living in beautiful British Columbia has access to any number of outdoor adventures. From paddling the Bowron Lakes circuit, to embarking on a week-end of alpine camping. When I was in my 50s, I did both. We clambered up Long Peak, making our way over the Gates of Shangri-la, a rockfall with boulders the size of a vehicle, halfway through the scramble to the mountainside where we pitched our tent on the gentlest slope we could find, vaguely approximating level ground, above a melting glacier, in August, where we got our drinking water.

As for the Bowron Lakes canoe circuit, it took us a week to canoe all the lakes and rivers to complete the circuit. We did that in September, the adventure of driving from Vancouver to Cache Creek and beyond to our Cariboo Mountains destination at the 3,000-foot-above-sea-level area where we had to wear winter jackets against the cold and rain gear over that, because it rained every single day without let-up. I know what it's like to paddle for long, long hours, exhausted and wanting to stop.

But brothers Russell and Graham Henry embarked purposefully for "the hell of it", on a 7,000-kilometre kayaking expedition across the Atlantic. It took them 200 days to paddle from Brazil to Florida. They spoke afterward about "that gnawing sense of dread". I'm familiar with that feeling too, the joy of the unknown adventure ahead mingled with worries about what obstacles you may meet on the way.

Russell and Graham Henry kayaking in the Dominican Republic. (Yanna Cueto)
I can relate to that too, in a minor way, for the day-trips that took us further up the mountain from our camp site, along ridges leading to other summits, finding blue-green lakes high in the mountains and glaciers pink with algae bloom also introduced us to the adrenalin-high adventure of sitting atop a mountain summit admiring the view when, looking up, up and beyond where we sat, where the mountain tops marched on endlessly, we saw a huge black cloud formation headed our way.

We did an absolutely mad scramble back the way we had come, telescoping the area from here to there in record time, managing to dive into our welcoming tent just as the massive storm struck, wind pushing and shoving our tent, rain pelting down all around us for what seemed like hours in the dark, cramped and worrying circumstances of being caught out, vulnerable, and by that time getting fairly hungry.

When the storm finally wore itself out and moved on elsewhere, we saw across from where we sat, on another mountain peak over at the Stein Valley, that someone had succeeded in lighting a fire, and we cheered lustily.

Our adventure was as nothing compared to brothers Russell and Graham, needless to say. They travelled, according to their account, as long as 27 hours between rest stops. Tropical storms and massive waves were what they were forced to contend with. They were on a vast, open and endless ocean, in two specialized, one-man kayaks.

Russell Henry, 23, took this photo from his kayak as he and his brother paddled into a thunderstorm off the coast of the island nation of St. Vincent and the Grenadines. (Russell Henry)

Seven months after they set off from northeastern Brazil, along the South American coast, and kayaking between Caribbean Islands, they landed at Juno Beach, on the southern tip of Florida. This was their bid for "adventure for adventure's sake". Quite the adventure for anyone to boldly contemplate much less to commit to because what they had looked forward to was "being outdoors for the hell of it."

It no doubt helped enormously that their father is a water sports outfitter. Who designed the Kevlar boats his sons depended on throughout their trip. No strangers to kayaks the brothers were confident in their proficiency at handling the small craft. And handle them they did under the most excruciatingly concerning circumstances. Their travels on the high seas took them past twenty countries and territories.

Sending regular email updates to their parents throughout their adventure. They also maintained a daily website. They had a number of sponsors who helped with their adventure in a supporting role with the equipment and provisioning they required. An inheritance they had from their grandmother was an additional expenses lift. They memorialized their grandmother by painting each of their watercraft with her name.

"I might have wanted to kill Russell on more than one occasion, but I couldn't, because I wouldn't have finished the trip", Graham stated jocularly, more in gratitude for having enjoyed the companionship of someone intimate who shared his ambitious idea of the outside and adventurous fun, than the expression of mild irritation that the adventure was finally over.

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UN Watch BriefingLatest from the United Nations  Vol. 479 |  February 26, 2014         
Blind Chinese Dissident Wins Courage Award
at UN Watch's Geneva Summit for Human Rights
Human Rights Heroes Assemble Ahead of UN Rights Session
GENEVA, Feb. 26 – Chen Guangcheng, the blind Chinese activist, received the 2014 Geneva Summit Courage Award yesterday from an international assembly of human rights groups, where dissidents shared harrowing testimonies of human rights abuses ahead of Monday's gathering of foreign ministers at the United Nations Human Rights Council.

Hundreds of dissidents, activists, diplomats and journalists gathered from around the world yesterday for the 2014 Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy, the
annual civil society forum that works to place urgent situations on the UN agenda.
The summit was organized by the Geneva-based human rights group UN Watch, supported by a cross-regional coalition of 20 NGO co-sponsors.
UN Watch chairman Alfred H. Moses presented the award to Chen, a former political prisoner who escaped house arrest in 2012, "for inspiring the world with his extraordinary courage in the defense of truth, justice and human rights."
Media from around the globe have broadcast the speakers' human rights testimonies, including:
Moreover, the Ottawa Citizen has just dedicated a major editorial to the summit here.
Chen, who has been blind since childhood, taught himself law and exposed forced abortions and sterilizations in his native Shandong Province before his imprisonment by local authorities.

In a drama covered on front pages worldwide, Chen escaped house arrest in China in May 2012 and sought refuge at the U.S. embassy in Beijing before moving to the United States.
"People who live in democracy and freedom don't realize how important they are to them, but people who are oppressed understand that democracy and freedom are very important," he said.

Dissidents or members of their families from countries including Syria, Iran and Cuba were present at Tuesday's conference.

With the world's spotlight trained on North Korea following a stinging UN report into the regime's mass atrocities, prison camp guard turned human rights activist Ahn Myong Chul explained that 90 percent of inmates don't even know the reason for their incarceration, punished for "crimes of their grandfathers."
Also in attendance was the aunt of Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, arrested by security forces on February 18 after a series of protests brought tens of thousands onto the streets of
Julieta Lopez read out a statement from her from nephew.

"Only dictatorships send dissidents to prison and if the government puts dissidents in prison, they accept openly that Venezuela is a dictatorship. The emperor has no clothes," she said.
Naghmeh Abedini (left)wife of jailed Iranian-American pastor Saeed Abedini, says she believes now is a good time for the United States to pressure Iran to release her husband, who was arrested for teaching Christianity. 
"At present my husband is suffering from internal injuries that resulted from beatings, but the Iranian government is denying him the necessary medical care needed to treat those injuries," Abedini told the conference.
"Freedom of religion, including the right to change one's religion, is a God-given right of all people, including the Iranian people. No human law should infringe upon that right."
"We must make sure China remains accountable for its actions. They sit proudly on the UN Human Rights Council, on the Security Council, and dictate how Syria should deal with its situation," said Tenzin Dhardon Sharling, the youngest member of Tibet’s parliament in exile.
She also criticized the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, saying, “Navi Pillay ends her second term in September and still has not visited Tibet.”
“During Mubarak’s time women were only mentioned to decorate the regime, said Egyptian women's rights activist Dalia Ziada, who heads Cairo's Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies..
"Under the Muslim Brotherhood, laws were made for early marriage for girls and genital mutilation.”
Conference organizers said that one invited speaker from Cuba, human rights activist Jorge Luis García Pérez, known as "Antúnez," was brutally arrested after State security forces raided his home on February 5, and barred from leaving Cuba to attend the Geneva event.
“I have devoted these past 25 years to work in common cause with others for the freedom of political prisoners, who represent hope and inspiration for their country, for their people, and for humanity as a whole, said Canadian parliamentarian and human rights advocate Irwin Cotler (above), in his opening address to the conference, offering a model on how to defend dissidents behind bars.

“I’ve learned from these political prisoners… we must speak on behalf of those who cannot be heard; bear witness on behalf of those who cannot testify; act and advocate on behalf of those who have put not only their livelihood, but their very lives on the line."
"We will come out of the shadows of darkness into the light of freedom.”
In the final session, UN Watch executive director Hillel Neuer, who chaired the summit, welcomed the fact that the UN Human Rights Council was expected next month to adopt resolutions on Syria, North Korea and Iran.
However, Neuer regretted that the council was planning to turn a blind eye to most of the country situations addressed at the session.
Despite testimony from activists and victims about abuses by Egypt and Cambodia, and about slavery in Mauritania, none of these countries is yet on the council's agenda, though they should be, he said.
And despite hearing from victims of gross violations of human rights from China, Cuba, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Vietnam and Venezuela—each of these countries is a recently-elected member of the 47-nation council, said Neuer, and the regimes enjoy impunity.
Le Monde's Annick Cojean, author of the book "Gaddafi's Harem," described to the hundreds of Geneva Summit delegates how the Libyan dictator raped thousands of women and girls on a systematic basis over four decades.
Yet across the street today, the UN Human Rights Council was addressed (photo right) by Jean Ziegler, one of its longest-serving officials, who in 1989 created the Moammar Qaddafi Human Rights Prize, an award he received himself at a 2002 ceremony in Tripoli, Libya.
Ziegler, who for 11 years denied receiving the award until video proving otherwise was released by UN Watch in September, attacked the United States for human rights abuses, and strongly praised the Cuban government. Cuba created Ziegler's original UN post in the year 2000.

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Planet Bonanza: The Number of Known Earth-Sized Worlds Just Topped 100

Astronomers working with the Kepler space telescope just made a series of announcements that are fairly staggering:
  • They have confirmed an additional 700+ exoplanets orbiting 300 other stars.
  • Ninety-five percent of these planets are smaller than Neptune.
  • One hundred or so are roughly the size of Earth(!!!).
  • Four of these new planets are in their stars’ habitable zone.
  • Like our solar system, these planets orbit in roughly the same plane.
Yegads. OK, let’s go over these point by point.

First, Kepler is designed to look for planets orbiting other stars by detecting a small drop in the starlight if a planet passes directly between us and the star. This is called the transit method, and it’s been used to great success. However, there are ways these observations can look like a planet is transiting when really it’s something else; a background star changing brightness, for example.
For that reason, when Kepler sees what looks like an exoplanet, it’s called a candidate until it’s verified. There are more than 2,500 candidates in the Kepler data! This has created something of a bottleneck in the data, making it hard to confirm planets rapidly. What astronomers did then is pretty clever: Look for multiple planets orbiting a single star. Why? Because you don’t expect to see very many of them if the candidate is a “false positive”; you might see just a handful out of thousands of candidates.

What they found instead were hundreds of such planets. They were able to then eliminate the false positives from the sample, leaving a pretty big set of more than 800 planets detected! Of these, more than 700 are newly found.
number of exoplanets found
This should give you an idea of how big a deal this announcement is; the total number of known alien planets jumped hugely.
Diagram by NASA/AMES/SETI/J. Rowe
The size of the planet can be determined by seeing how much light from the star it blocks. The bigger the planet, the bigger the dip in starlight, and if the star’s size is known (and that can be determined), then the diameter of the planet can be found as well. Of the planets detected in this survey, the vast majority are actually smaller than Neptune (which itself is about four times the diameter of Earth).

This is in contrast to most of the previous planets found, which are more like Jupiter in size (10 or so times the Earth’s diameter).

Of these, an amazing 106 are less than 1.25 times the diameter of Earth! Previously, only 16 had been found in Kepler data, and only about 20 were known in total (including those found using other telescopes). This is a major jump in known planets that are around the same size as our own world. The number sextupled.

Of all the new planets found, four orbit their stars at the right distance to sustain liquid water. This region around the star is called the habitable zone, and it’s really just an estimate; it depends on a lot of factors and has very fuzzy borders. Technically, the Sun’s HZ goes from Venus to Mars, more or less, but we know that Europa, a moon of Jupiter, and Enceladus, a moon of Saturn, have liquid water under a frozen shell of ice. So take the HZ size with a grain of salt; in reality, it’s probably bigger than these conservative estimates.
habitable zone
A schematic of a star's habitable zone, but be aware it's more complicated than this. Isn't everything?
Illustration by Petigura/UC Berkeley, Howard/UH-Manoa, Marcy/UC Berkeley
All four of the planets in their stars’ HZs are bigger than Earth, ranging from 1.8 to 2.5 times our width. We know almost nothing else about them, but just because they’re bigger doesn’t mean they aren’t Earth-like. Surface gravity depends not just on size but on mass, so a lower density but bigger planet can still have very Earth-like conditions. Either way, we can’t tell, so I won’t speculate.

The final bit of interesting news is that the planets found orbiting each star tend to orbit in the same plane, much like the planets do in our solar system. Seen from the side, our system forms a thin disk, and the same is true for these other systems as well. This makes it pretty likely that other systems formed the same way ours did. That’s reassuring!

All of this put together is pretty striking, and very exciting. We’ve been compiling evidence for years that stars with planets are common and that planets in the galaxy might outnumber stars. These new results support that; multiple-planet systems are common. Not only that, Earth-sized planets are also common, and Earth-like planets may be huge in number too. We think there are billions of them in our galaxy alone. Billions.

I’ll remind you: In 1990, we didn’t know of a single planet orbiting an alien star. Not one. Just a few years later the first was discovered, and now we have confirmed the existence of more than 1,700! Mind you, these new results only come from using the first two years of Kepler data; when the technique is applied to all four years of data there’s no doubt a new treasure trove of planets will pop out.

The Milky Way, the whole Universe, must be fairly buzzing with planets. Billions upon billions of them, just waiting to be discovered. This new technique shows we can find them, even better than before. As time goes on we’ll build better telescopes, better detectors, and find new methods that will make this even faster and better. This is truly a magnificent time to be alive, and to stretch the realm of our knowledge ever farther.

Correction, Feb. 26, 2014, at 20:00 UTC: I originally wrote that the number of Earth-sized planets quintupled. However, since 20 were known, and an additional 106 were found, the number more than sextupled.

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Chile's stunning fossil whale graveyard explained

Scanning tent The scientists brought in a number of digital techniques to record the discoveries
It is one of the most astonishing fossil discoveries of recent years - a graveyard of whales found beside the Pan-American Highway in Chile.

And now scientists think they can explain how so many of the animals came to be preserved in one location more than five million years ago.

It was the result of not one but four separate mass strandings, they report in a Royal Society journal.
The evidence strongly suggests the whales all ingested toxic algae.

The dead and dying mammals were then washed into an estuary and on to flat sands where they became buried over time.

It was well known that this area in Chile's Atacama Desert preserved whale fossils.
Their bones could be seen sticking out of rock faces, and the spot acquired the name Cerro Ballena ("whale hill") as a result.

But it was only when a cutting was made to widen the Pan-American Highway that US and Chilean researchers got an opportunity to fully study the fossil beds.

They were given just two weeks to complete their field work before the heavy plant returned to complete construction of the new road.

The team set about recording as much detail as possible, including making 3D digital models of the skeletal remains in situ and then removing bones for further study in the lab.

Cerro Ballena The skeletons are remarkably complete, having being subjected to very little scavenging at death
Identified in the beds were over 40 individual rorquals - the type of large cetacean that includes the modern blue, fin and minke whales.
Among them were other important marine predators and grazers.

"We found extinct creatures such as walrus whales - dolphins that evolved a walrus-like face. And then there were these bizarre aquatic sloths," recalls Nicholas Pyenson, a palaeontologist at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History.

"To me, it's amazing that in 240m of road-cut, we managed to sample all the superstars of the fossil marine-mammal world in South America in the Late Miocene. Just an incredibly dense accumulation of species," he told BBC News.

The team immediately noticed that the skeletons were nearly all complete, and that their death poses had clear commonalities. Many had come to rest facing in the same direction and upside down, for example.

This all pointed to the creatures succumbing to the same, sudden catastrophe; only, the different fossils levels indicated it was not one event but four separate episodes spread over a period of several thousand years.

The best explanation is that these animals were all poisoned by the toxins that can be generated in some algal blooms.

Such blooms are one of the prevalent causes for repeated mass strandings seen in today's marine animals.

Digital scan The Smithsonian has produced tools to allow the public to tour and investigate Cerro Ballena
If large quantities of contaminated prey are consumed, or the algae are simply inhaled - death can be rapid.

"All the creatures we found - whether whales, seals or billfishes - fed high up in marine food webs and that would have made them very susceptible to harmful algal blooms," said Dr Pyenson.

The researchers believe the then configuration of the coastline at Cerro Ballena in the late Miocene Epoch worked to funnel carcases into a restricted area where they were lifted on to sand flats just above high tide, perhaps by storm waves.

The finds were a media sensation in 2011

This would have put the bodies beyond marine scavengers. And, being a desert region, there would have been very few land creatures about to steal bones either.

A lot of the fossils at Cerro Ballena are perfect but for a few nicks inflicted by foraging crabs.
The researchers are not in a position to say for sure that harmful algal blooms were responsible for the mass strandings. There were no distinct algal cell fragments in the sediments; such a presence could have amounted to a "smoking gun". What the team did find, however, were multiple grains encrusted in iron oxides that could hint at past algal activity.

"There are tiny spheres about 20 microns across - that's exactly the right size to be dinoflagellate cysts," said Dr Pyenson.

"They're found in algal-like mats all around the site. We can't say whether those were the killer algae, but they do not falsify the argument for harmful algal blooms being the cause in the way that the sedimentology falsifies tsunami being a potential cause."

Cerro Ballena is now regarded as one of the densest fossil sites in the world - certainly for whales and other extinct marine mammals. The scientists calculate there could be hundreds of specimens in the area still waiting to be unearthed and investigated.

The University of Chile in Santiago is currently working to establish a research station to carry this into effect.

To coincide with the publication of a scholarly paper in Proceedings B of the Royal Society, the Smithsonian has put much of its digital data, including 3D scans and maps, online at

Cerro Ballena Hundreds of fossils await unearthing and description at Cerro Ballena

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Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The Entitlement of Fraud

The Ottawa charity that provides housing and education for developmentally handicapped adults is out almost a million dollars. Through no fault of their own -- on the other hand, through their own fault, perhaps, for not being sufficiently alert to the potential of fraud by the very individual who they trusted for over a decade to act as their finance director.

Total Communication Environment has seen its former finance director, fifty-year-old Yolande Knight, plead guilty to defrauding them over an eight-year period -- while in complete control of their finances -- of no less than $800,000, perhaps closer to $900,000. She was arrested in 2010. Her salary at that time was a rather rich $90,000 annually.

Obviously, though most people would be satisfied with that remuneration, Ms. Knight thought she could do better, and was entitled to vastly more. So she undertook to expense her corporate credit card with such items as:
  • $77,944 for home furnishings and new appliances;
  • $152,04 for Amway products;
  • $68,937 for groceries;
  • $50,742 for gas and car repairs;
  • $10,885 for spa treatments;
  • $19,839 for hairdressing;
  • $77,271 for Internet and telecom;
  • $12,175 for theatre and shows;
  • $36,088 for foreign travel and shopping;
  • $38,844 for domestic travel;
  • $33,147 at restaurants;
  • $3,871 at LCBO/Beer Store.
Clearly, Ms. Knight rated herself very highly for compensation on behalf of her efforts representing the needs of handicapped adults and the charity for which she had worked since 1997. Her qualifications must have been quite high for bookkeeping, but no one likely thought it a requirement to look into her moral standards and sense of selfhood as extremely deserving of a lavish lifestyle, courtesy of charity.

Yolanda Knight, shown here in 2006, accepted cheques for Total Communication Environment regularly.
Yolanda Knight, shown here in 2006, accepted cheques for Total Communication Environment regularly. CTV News

She was, in fact, quite the charitable type of individual. She used her corporate credit card to purchase airline tickets for family and friends, and laptop computers and radios for her boyfriend in Haiti. She had sent over $60,000 of her entitled gains to Haiti, where her boyfriend, Rene St.Fort, was in the competition for president of the country. No doubt Mr. St.Fort was most helpful in mentoring Ms. Knight's venture into entitlement.

He had been himself sentenced to 18 months' imprisonment in 2002, having been found guilty of three counts of fraud over $5,000. He had been found guilty by a Haitian judge of defrauding three banks of $351,000; assisting two women to obtain mortgages with the use of false names and employment and credit information.

In the fall of 2009, a financial audit finally unearthed discrepancies in accounts, revealing the truth that the charity's trust in their financial director had been badly misplaced. "Ms. Knight hid her fraudulent conduct by manipulating the general ledgers and reports to the board of directors of TCE" the presiding judge stated without equivocation.
Yolande Knight covers her face as she leaves the Elgin Street Courthouse in this file photo/Ottawa Citizen

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