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

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Queenly Malice

"The investigation shows that the suspect used various methods to harass her victims, including by eavesdropping on private conversations and by communicating with victims through the speakers of their infected computers."
"She also frightened her victims by taking over control of their computers and by logging on to extreme pornography websites."
"Her victims included under-age children both in Canada and abroad."
"She's well known. She's been known for a while in those [hacker] forums."
Constable Philippe Gravel, lead investigator, RCMP, Integrated Technological Crime Unit
Valerie GignacYouTube   A screenshot from QUEEN SH0CKA's YouTube account

Looking for notoriety, she found it. Aspiring to be admired for her creatively intrusive mischief, she lost it. She used a variety of pseudonyms, all reflecting the high esteem in which she held herself; Internet-mischief aristocracy. And for confounding and terrifying people whom she didn't know, but whose computers she managed to control, causing them no end of consternation and perhaps sleepless nights, she's getting off lightly.

QUEEN, QUEEN SH0CKA, and UNSEENz, to name a few of her favourite on-line identities is either an imbecile stuck in juvenile-troublemaker mode, mentally imbalanced or simply deeply malicious in character. None of those characteristics represent admirable traits. She must imagine herself the queen of shock. After the RCMP charged the 27-year-old who lives in Saint-Alphonse-de-Rodriguez northeast of Montreal with hacking into computers for the express purpose of intimidating people, those in the courthouse in Joliette, Quebec on Wednesday heard her sentencing.

Accused of committing mischief, and of fraudulently using a computer along with two other charges, Valerie Gignac was released once she agreed to eight conditions imposed on her to ensure she no longer pursues her vendetta against human decency. She must cancel her Internet service within 48 hours, nor can she frequent Internet cafes, among those conditions. Her skilled use of a malicious software, a remote administration tool (RAT) permitting cybercriminals to spy on their victims through gaining control of the webcam on an infected computer doubtless gave her countless thrills.

That her activities were discovered occurred by happenstance, when police came upon her activities in the course of investigating another case altogether. The Surete du Quebec became involved and assisted the RCMP in their investigation. While it's not yet known completely how she managed to infect peoples' computers and remotely control them, the computer equipment seized from Ms. Gignac's possession will ultimately reveal the process. "So far, we don't know that", said Constable Gravel. And nor is it yet known whether her purpose was for financial gain.
It is known, however, that this woman was so arrogant that she took to posting videos of her operations on YouTube "in which she can be seen taking over control of infected computers". How creepy is this...? According to, one of her online videos shows her recording her voice to gain the attention of a hacked computer owner. In the video, a window in Ms. Gignac's computer shows streaming footage of a woman and in the background her family members.
The hacker then proceeds to speak directly to the woman at her computer, doubtless puzzled no end by a voice that speaks in phrases such as "look behind you", to arrest her attention. Upon which Ms. Gignac uploads an audio file of a piercing scream, eliciting fright on the faces of those on the receiving end of her nasty prank; intruding on strangers' privacy for the purpose of instilling fear.

She had, it seems, ample followers. And perhaps that was her ultimate reward; a young woman working in obscurity, mastering a method by which she is able to unleash a bot to control other peoples' computers and through that intrusion, revealing herself as a psychopath, one skilled at using malevolent software to harm people psychologically. She uploaded videos of her Internet exploits to YouTube, sharing them with an online hacker forum she ran with over 35,000 avid followers globally. 

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Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Living Rough, Exposed and Vulnerable

"He was left for dead in the alley."
"Ostamas attacked and murdered Bushie within the parkade and left him for dead."
"I wouldn't say they were friends. There is no motive that I'm aware of."
"Investigators have learned that John Paul Ostamas is very transient. We know that he is originally from the Thunder Bay area. We also know that he has spent time in Winnipeg on and off for the past 10 years."
"Our investigators will be contacting police in other jurisdictions where Ostamas is known to have travelled."
Superintendent Danny Smyth, Winnipeg Police Service

"This person [serial killer] was also a part of this community [the homeless] so, at one point, he was involved with the community. He was friends with people."
"Everybody is really surprised and kind of heart-broken right now."
Mark Stewart, residential manager, Salvation Army, Winnipeg

"The reality is, they're prepared for this [potential violence] every day [the homeless]."
"It is a different way of life when you don't have the security that you and I do."
Lisa Goss, executive director, The Main Street Project shelter, Winnipeg

"He [Stony Bushie] was always a happy kind of guy, always joking around. He would come out [to Winnipeg] and hang out with his friends and then go home."
"He just wanted to see his friends again."
Chief Martin Owens, Little Grand Rapids First Nation reserve
Stony Bushie, an aboriginal Canadian, lived on the First Nation reserve northeast of Winnipeg during the winter. He would travel to Winnipeg and there live on the street, or use the resources of a shelter during the summer months. And he had made many friends and acquaIntances among the homeless population. Among them was a man by the name of John Paul Ostamas, originally from Thunder Bay, Ontario. And this is the man who has been accused of two counts of first-degree murder.

Over the week-end just past two homeless men within a short distance of one another in an area where the homeless are known to gather were found beaten to death. It was assumed that the same man had killed the two homeless men. A closed circuit video had caught the image of someone whom local police were suspicious of. And police released to the public scrutiny security footage of a "person of interest" in the deaths of the two homeless men.

Aside from Stony Bushie, 48, Donald Collins, 65, was also beaten to death by John Paul Ostamas hours apart, the same night. And he is as well, now, a suspect in the murder of a third man, Myles Monias, 37, who had been assaulted brutally enough to cause his death, earlier this month in a bus shelter. When Ostamas was arrested it was for a totally unrelated charge of assault. Undergoing questioning, it became apparent that he was the man police were looking for.

He has a record that goes back many years, of multiple assaults in the area of Thunder Bay. And there was an arrest on his record as well for domestic battery. Winnipeg detectives are now actively working with investigators in other jurisdictions where he is known to have been, on suspicion that the man could be considered a suspect in other, unsolved crimes. Being homeless, living on the streets, is undeniably risky business.

"The least among us are entitled to the same protection as the best", Justice Gregory Warner said from a courtroom in Nova Scotia, delivering a life sentence to two men who had set a homeless man on fire, and watched him burn to death, at the opposite end of the country, in Berwick, northwest of Halifax. There, 62-year-old Harley Lawrence had sought refuge in a bus shelter in the February winter cold two years ago.

And there he was discovered, a homeless man, ripe for the amusement of 27-year-old Daniel Wayne Surette, and 26-year-old Kyle David James Fredericks, who pleaded guilty to second-degree murder. In the winter of 2013 they set the homeless man on fire and watched as he died an agonizing death. "It's hard to imagine somebody so animalistic they would pour gas over somebody and watch it", the judge commented.
Kyle David Fredericks arrives at provincial court in Kentville, Nova Scotia on February 9, 2015. Photo Andrew Vaughn, The Canadian Press

Kyle David James Fredericks arrives at provincial court in Kentville, N.S., on Feb. 9, 2015. Two Nova Scotia men have pleaded guilty to second-degree murder after they poured gas on a homeless man and set him on fire. Daniel Wayne Surette and Kyle David James Fredericks were charged in April 2014 with first-degree murder in Harley Lawrence's death. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan
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Kyle David James Fredericks arrives at provincial court in Kentville, N.S., on Feb. 9, 2015. Two Nova Scotia men have pleaded guilty to second-degree murder after they poured gas on a homeless man and set him on fire. Daniel Wayne Surette and Kyle David James Fredericks were charged in April 2014 with first-degree murder in Harley Lawrence's death. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan
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Tuesday, April 28, 2015

In Perspective

"There are more Western doctors, more facilities, more medical supplies and more equipment to manage that situation in the Everest Base Camp than anywhere else in Nepal."
"Any climber who has any sense of attachment to Nepal, or any sense of fairness or right or wrong would agree."
"Those climbers are up there because of a chosen avocation, or sport, and they're fine. And I think they all know that. You might see some occasional pleas or cries for help, but they have to think, 'I'm up here by choice."
"It's with manual labour and toil and engineering and risk that the sherpas go in there [Khumbu ice fall infrastructure] and put the ice screws in and fix the lines and position the ladders. That's why we hear reports of climbers being trapped. Some of the climbers I talked to today said they can't go down to get this thing fixed."
"Some are talking about taking helicopters to shuttle them back and down across through the icefalls so they don't have to climb. But I sure hope somebody is saying they should use those helicopters elsewhere in Nepal because there should be a great deal of demand for that equipment elsewhere."
Wally Berg, Canadian mountaineer
In this photo, released on Monday, a rescue helicopter is shown at Mount Everest’s south base camp. (

"We all rushed out to the open and the next moment a huge wall of snow just piled on me."
"I managed to dig out of what could easily have been my grave. I wiggled and used my hands as claws to dig as much as I could."
"I was suffocating. I could not breathe. But I knew I had to survive."
Bhim Bahadur Khatri, 35, sherpa cook, Everest Base Camp

What Mr. Berg, who operates an adventure company out of Canmore, Alberta, and who has himself climbed Mount Everest repeatedly feared, has in fact occurred. A handful of helicopters was diverted from search-and-rescue operations in Nepal's earthquaked zone, to rescue the estimated 170 people who were on the slopes of the world's tallest mountain. A relative handful remain, and will be taken off the mountain by Wednesday.

There were nineteen climbers whom the avalanche killed -- triggered by the 7.8- magnitude earthquake that devastated Kathmandu and surrounding area -- whose bodies will be taken off the mountain for return to their families and burial. The injured are being treated. The death toll in Nepal itself, with many of its isolated villages still to be reached by rescue crews, has surmounted five thousand, with countless thousands of people having sustained injuries, some very serious.

Mr. Berg's observation that the mountaineers take risks when they decide to trek up Mount Everest is quite correct; most of them are fairly well provisioned, with food enough and medicines to last them weeks. But in the event of emergencies and when natural events occur of such disastrous proportions people tend to lose perspective, knowing that many have died and there is no guarantee that aftershocks causing other avalanches will not recur, and they prefer to be evacuated, their aspirations of summiting shattered.

The reality is, as Mr. Berg has observed, people die on the mountain year on year. As did 16 sherpas last year, in one fell swoop in the Khumbu Icefield area, cancelling that season's climbs. The Khumbu Icefall, a perilous portion of the climb, just above Base Camp, has become infinitely more treacherous since the avalanche began with huge rocks being dislodged from a promontory directly above the Icefall, rendering all the preparatory ascent/descent work done annually by sherpa volunteers useless, and stranding mountaineers on the slopes above.

Some climbers posted appeals on social media for help. "Huge disaster. Helped, searched and rescued victims through huge debris area. Many dead. Much more badly injured. More to die if not heli ASAP", wrote Romanian climber Alex Gavan. The response to his appeal ensured that those on the mountain were taken away from the area posing such potential danger to them.

A rescue chopper carrying people down to Everest base camp on Monday. (Nima Namgyal Sherpa/AP)

Mr. Berg's long experience in Nepal and his care for the country and its people were front and centre in his statements, that many from within the climbing community have been assailed with grim sadness and yet a sense of inevitability. Seated on a major fault line, Nepal is quite simply vulnerable to the tectonic shifts taking place in the bowels of the Earth where an Indian plate and a Nepali plate grind against each other, gradually shifting Nepal itself under Mount Everest in incremental steps long into the geological future.

There is a "long and deep sentimental and emotional attachment to the people. They are humble; they have great integrity and inner spiritual strength and resilience. We care for them and we're thinking about them. A lot of us from the developed world who have been to Nepal and love it, I know, are wrenched with this loss of those ancient medieval streets that we used to walk", stated Wally Berg, of a country and a people that have taken his heart.

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Monday, April 27, 2015

A Day In The Life of Nepal

"Villages like this are routinely affected by landslides and it's not uncommon for entire villages of 200, 300, up to 1,000 people to be completely buried by rockfalls."
"It will likely be helicopter access only."
Matt Darvas, World Vision aid group

"We don't feel safe at all. There have been so many aftershocks. It doesn't stop."
"I've watched hundreds of bodies burn. I never thought I'd see so many ... Nepal should learn a lesson from this. They should realize proper buildings should be built."
"There should be open spaces people can run to."
Rajendra Dhungana, at Pashuputi Nath Temple, Kathmandu
Volunteers and emergency workers search for bodies buried under the debris of one of the temples at Basantapur Durbar Square on April 27, 2015 in Kathmandu, Nepal. (Omar Havana/Getty Images) 

Many countries of the world with special units aligned with their military set up for just such emergencies, have sent along to Nepal their specialized groups of search-and-rescue specialists, doctors, nurses, field hospitals and technicians, to help the Himalayan country cope with the devastation brought about by the 7.8 magnitude earthquake that hit the capital Kathmandu and surrounding areas on Saturday afternoon.

A series of aftershocks, the worst of which occurred the following day with a magnitude 6.7 shock had residents of the city rushing again for wide open spaces to protect themselves from the crush of falling debris. The nation is in shock, not only for the thousands who have died and all those many more thousands who have been injured, but also for the irreplaceable loss of its heritage sites. Nepal has the most heritage sites of any other country listed with the UNESCO World Heritage group.

Aid workers have warned that the situation, devastating enough as it is where humanitarian aid can reach, may be far, far worse in those isolated and now difficult-to-reach areas closer to the epicentre of the quake. This was an earthquake that was the most violently powerful in more than 80 years to hit Nepal, destroying swaths of the most ancient portions of the city of Kathmandu. It was powerful enough that people also died in India, Bangladesh, Tibet and Pakistan.

Before: Trailokya Mohan Narayan Temple, Katmandu
Niranjan Shrestha/Associated Press  Trailokya Mohan Narayan Temple, Kathmandu, Volunteers help remove debris of a three-story temple.

Rescuers, including international teams of search specialists, spent Sunday looking for survivors under the rubble of buildings with the wreckage of concrete slabs, bricks, iron beams and wood, complicating their efforts and breathing air full of chalky concrete dust. In one neighbourhood, a backhoe was digging through what was left of a budget-rate guest house, finding six people dead, and extracting a dozen others. Still, 20 people are believed to be trapped under the wreckage.

India, Israel, Canada, the United States, Germany, France and the United Arab Emirates have all sent support to Nepal. The capital city is rife with warrens of small brick apartment buildings of poor construction. Those modern structures that are part of the city landscape by contrast managed to survive intact, while other buildings became piles of rubble.

Tens of thousands of people, fearing the results of further aftershocks spent Sunday in the streets, crowded and frantic with shock and fear.

People burn the bodies of earthquake victims at a mass cremation at Pashupatinath in Kathmandu on April 26, 2015.

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Sunday, April 26, 2015

Binge-Eating Consequences and Curatives

"We have essentially a fake diagnosis that will be vigorously peddled on airwaves across the Canadian border, convincing people that the reason they're overweight is they have binge eating disorder [BED] and that there is a chemical solution."
"It's called disease mongering; sell the illness, and then sell the pill."
Dr. Allen Frances, professor emeritus, Duke University, North Carolina

Now there's an interesting observation from a fascinating source, in that Dr. Frances chaired the task force producing the fourth version of the the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) which its critics fault for classifying too many obsessive human traits as genuinely authentic mental disorders requiring treatment with a pharmacopoeia of drugs. And he himself is bitterly assailing those who have gone overboard in assessing and claiming that compulsive overeating is being classified as a mental disorder.
"Most of the clients I see clearly talk about dieting at six, seven or eight years old. So they start getting into the habit of sneaking food, and eating huge amounts of their forbidden foods when they can, because they're not going to get it again."
"You start to develop these really abnormal eating patterns."
"The reason they were struggling with their weight was that they couldn't follow a meal plan, they couldn't make healthy, non-impulsive choices -- they were kind of all over the place."
"Once they were put on treatment for attention deficit they were actually able to lose weight."
"It would be very bad if every single person who had weight difficulty simply went in to their family doctor and said, 'I want to be on this drug to be thin', and they were given this drug."
"This is not just, 'I only wanted to eat one cookie and I ate four. This is, 'I ate the box and then I went back and got two more'."
Dr. Valerie Taylor, psychiatrist-in-chief, Women's College Hospital, Toronto
Some critics accuse the drug manufacturer of 'disease mongering' and fear Vyanse will be prescribed to overweight people who don’t have binge-eating disorder.
Andrew Barr/National Post  

American drug regulators have given the green light to the first pill to treat binge-eating disorder; it's called Vyvanse and was designed for the express purpose of treating attention deficit disorder. Now, however, it is going to be used as a prescription pharmaceutical not only in the treatment of hyperactive minds, but because it has the capacity of reducing impulsive-hyper-overeating in adults, it is set to hit the North American market. Most often when a drug is approved in the U.S. it also is approved for use in Canada, and Vyvanse is now awaiting Health Canada approval.

Its developer and manufacturer Shire makes claim to the drug's efficacy for binge-eating; emphasizing it is not a dieting tool. It will not be approved or recommended for use as a weight loss agent, or in the treatment of obesity. Its use is limited as strictly relating to a drug whose potency is meant to 'normalize' eating for people whose compulsive-obsessive focus leads them to binge-eating and the inevitable regrets that follow, let alone the weight factor that ensues, impairing health outcomes both short- and long-term.

There have been other, previous drugs on the market purporting to successfully do what Shire's new venture is promising. And they've also been taken off the market as a result of their serious side effects which have included liver damage and sudden death. Two decades ago, the weight loss fix known as fen-phen was taken out of distribution when users started having leaking heart valve and other heat problems. Spurring the pharmaceutical industry to develop a number of new anti-obesity drugs because the potential market and the vast sums of money to be made are that influential.

In Canada alone, 'normal weight' people are in the minority, with 62 percent of the population now deemed overweight or obese. People with "morbid" obesity, with a body mass index of 40 or over represent the fastest growing demographic in this health-afflicted category. The formula is inflexible in its results; the greater the weight, the higher the risk of diabetes, high blood pressure, coronary artery disease, fatty livers and obesity-related illness of various descriptions. Greater numbers of people are showing up with BMIs in the 50s and 60s, once thought unheard-of.

Public health messages urging people to watch their food intake, to eat more wholesome foods and reject processed foods; to get out and exercise, are not influencing those that should be taking heed. Lifestyle modification messaging "has very little efficacy when it comes to decreased weight" for those in the obese category, stated Dr. Sean Wheaton, an internal medical specialist and medical director of the Wharton Medical Clinic in Mississauga, Ontario. Dr. Wheaton speaks of obesity as a chronic, progressive, relapsing medical problem, neurochemicals- and hormones-driven.

Taking human biology back to primal times when existence was a struggle to find sufficient nutrients to sustain daily energy needs, when humans were equipped with the built-in urge to consume whatever was available, as much as was available, as insurance against lean times. Drugs that do appear on the market, approved in Canada, such as orlistat [Xenical] to prevent dietary fats from absorption by the intestines have had the field to themselves. More recently Health Canada approved Saxenda, an injectable drug known for its "weight management" function.

 JB Reed/Bloomberg News
JB Reed/Bloomberg News    Xenical is a drug that prevents dietary fats from being absorbed by the intestines but whose side effects include oily or fatty stools.

The ADHD drug Vyvanse, is a central nervous system stimulant which the FDA warns may cause psychotic or manic symptoms, like hallucinations. Its other risks are somewhat more serious, and include heart complications or sudden death in people with heart disease. What is also worrying for regulators is that the drug may become another social medical-health problem, through its high potential for abuse by people wanting to lose weight, despite its inappropriateness for that purpose.

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Saturday, April 25, 2015

Wealth of the Gods

"Our hunger for gold had led to a severe current account deficit a couple of years ago because gold was the number two imported item after oil."
"Gold has consistently given good returns even as stock market and land prices have fallen, and has been the chosen mode of investing wealth among Indians."
"But if the temples start allowing the government to melt the gold jewelry donated by devotees, will it hurt their religious sentiments? Will gold offerings slow down in the future?"
Gnanasekar Thiagarajan, director, commodities consultancy Commtrenz, Mumbai

"The jewelry belongs to God. Why should the government melt it?"
"By auctioning it, the jewelry is only circulating among the devotees."
Chandan Male, 42, Siddhivinayak Temple devotee

"The myth [of serpents guarding the vault treasures] kept the gold safe for centuries."
"I am certain that 99 percent of the people would not like it to be melted."
Ravi Varma Raja,74, custodian of vault keys, Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple
India eyes temple gold tofix trade deficit
The Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple in the Indian state of Kerala. Such temples have collected gold jewellery, bars and coins worth billions of dollars over the centuries. PHOTO: REUTERS 
The new government of India led by the hugely popular Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has declared India open to the world for business and investment, is trying to crack yet another financial nut of tradition and heritage that locks monumental tons of gold and jewellery in temple vaults, dedicated to the worship of Hindu gods, the gold and jewellery given as gifts in veneration of those gods, becoming the sole property of each temple.

Now the Government of India sees that treasure as a means to grow the Indian economy, to take it out of the vaults, with the permission of the temples, and either melt it down or sell the items. As one of the largest gold consumers in the world, importing about a thousand tons each year, the government hopes that if it can coax temples to relax their grip on the gifted gold so the country's trade imbalance could be addressed.

One temple alone in south India was discovered to have in its possession over $22-billion in gold locked away in rooms that rumour had it were guarded by venomous snakes. On its inner walls snakes are engraved, as a warning to any who might consider theft. Another temple has more gold than the riches owned by the Vatican, the pride of an urban legend would have it.

Finance Minister Arun Jaitley pointed out in a February budget speech that the potential of that gold neither monetized nor traded, could comprise far more potential advantage to the country than the government's own gold reserves of a much lesser amount. It's a hard sell to the traditionalists who make up the boards of the leading temples who prefer their gold to remain where it is.

The 16th Century Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple located in the southern state of Kerala's huge treasury includes sacks of gold coins, diamonds and jewellery, along with gem-encrusted ceremonial clothing and solid gold idols resting in huge cellars. A petition filed with the courts accusing temple officials of mismanaging the temple's wealth in 2011 led to the discovery that the temple's treasure was valued at $22-billion.

That wealth was traced to the local royal family having deposited it in the temple as a gift to the gods. Some temples have deposited small portions of their gold in banks. One of India's richest temples in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh, Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanams, deposited over five tons in a state-operated bank in response to a "gold for gold" program where the gold is melted down and held and the interest paid back to the temple in gold.

At the Siddhivinayak Temple in Mumbai, an auction took place when 352 gold items with a collective value of $130,000 items were put on display, inviting bids from worshippers. The temple earned $82,300 when 179 pieces of gold jewelry were sold at the auction. Within the temple the wall and ceiling of its inner shrine are plated in pure gold. The Ganesh idol standing there is adorned with exquisitely priceless jewelery.
Donated gold jewelry was put up for auction this week at a Hindu temple in Mumbai, India. Credit Kuni Takahashi for The New York Times

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Friday, April 24, 2015

The Complexities of African Politics and Wildlife Preservation

"You can't beat DNA. Without DNA analysis, we'd be lost."
Kent Hodgin, Ontario conservation officer

"People heard shots from an island where hunting was prohibited. A boat landed at the nearest docks laden with deer meat, but the hunters claimed they had killed the deer further up the coast. Conservation officers found the kill site and took some DNA samples. We compared those samples with the meat samples in the boat. It was the first time animal DNA was presented as evidence in a North American court." 
Dr. Bradley White, director, Wildlife Forensic DNA Laboratory, Trent University

"Through DNA, we will be able to track the crime chain."
"It is often easy to catch the person who does the killing. But it is the person in the middle, the traffickers -- the kingpins -- and the end consumers, that are hard to identify."
Patrick Omondi, deputy director, Kenya Wildlife Service

Hunting was banned in 1978 in Kenya, but despite the ban, the slaughter of big-game wildlife, protected in Africa's many wildlife preserves relentlessly continues. There is high demand for ivory and for various parts of animals' horns and viscera in traditional oriental medicine. Apart from the demand of ivory for purely ornamental purposes to be carved into finely chiseled objets d'art, forbidden for import into most countries of the world aware of the illegal trade and the devastation it brings in animal life.

"We have used actual DNA before, but only at limited levels", Moses Otiende, a molecular biologist in charge of a laboratory newly established in Nairobi, representing the second of its kind in Africa, and paid for by the Government of Canada. As was the trip to Canada by Mr. Otiende, along with a Kenyan veterinarian, two laboratory technicians, a lawyer and a deputy conservation director, all associated with the Kenya Wildlife Service.
A human rights group says Kenya wildlife rangers are allegedly executing suspected elephant poachers to cover-up their collusion with the criminals.
Ben Curtis / The Associated Press
A human rights group says Kenya wildlife rangers are allegedly executing suspected elephant poachers to cover-up their collusion with the criminals.

They were being exposed to the experience and professional techniques utilized by Trent's forensic laboratory, a world leader in animal DNA forensics. For the past several decades the laboratory has been assisting in the tracking of illegal poachers. The trip to Peterborough by the Kenyan team was meant to bring them up to speed on the techniques and interpretation of DNA forensics use, part of a $2-million "emergency" fund, courtesy of the Canadian taxpayer.

Mr. Otiende plans to build a comprehensive African elephant DNA database to enable his new laboratory to trace ivories showing up anywhere in the world to an elephant carcass discovered in the Congo. His Canadian trip represented a headstart in acquiring the skills needed to extract DNA, analyze samples and thus accustom themselves to the science it will take to track rhino horn and elephant ivory, and prosecute the poachers, where feasible.

AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell
AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell   A baby hippo bobs next to its mother in a Kenyan Game Reserve. An Ontario lab is helping the nation tackle poachers.

It has been estimated that one hundred thousand African elephants were slaughtered between 2011 to 2014 to satisfy the illegal trade in ivory. Ivory is viewed as a status symbol in Asia, a precious element that declares the owner has taste and the money to fund that aesthetic appreciation for the finer things in life; ivory that once was an integral part of a majestic living creature transformed into an object of material beauty.

And then there are the animal parts viewed as vital ingredients in traditional Asian medicines. Where the Vietnamese believe that rhino horn is a cure for cancer, and horns sell on the black market for $100,000 per kg. Often enough, impoverished African farmers succumb to the allure of trapping animals for their ivory or viscera to earn money far in excess of what they are able to earn as simple farmers.

And nor do employees of the Kenyan Wildlife Service earn great salaries. Some conservation officers among them have been accused of collusion with poachers. Last year a scandal erupted where eighteen suspected poachers had disappeared in the space of three years, close by Kenya's Tsavo National Park. The Park is a wildlife sanctuary that once held 25,000 elephants, but in the decades since, only 11,000 remain.

Of the 18 poachers missing, eight were seen last in the custody of Kenya Wildlife Service officers. Those eight were eventually found in nearby forests, their bodies ravaged by animals. The remaining ten, according to witnesses, were shot dead by rangers, in a bid to cover up their collusion with the poachers.

Richard Leakey, of the famed Leakey family of archaeological anthropologists whose discoveries of early humanoid fossils in Kenya made history -- himself a founding chairman of the Kenya Wildlife Service -- said in 2014 when the scandal arose, that it is his belief that extrajudicial killing does take place by officers in the Kenya Wildlife Service "from time to time". Poachers are mostly Muslim of Somali origin, he pointed out.

And it is entirely feasible that some Kenyans employed in the Kenya Wildlife Service could very well be resentful and suspicious of Somalis because Somali jihadists representing Al Shabab have been mounting deadly atrocious attacks in Kenya. "Sadly, the extrajudicial killing is all too common in the uniformed services", Mr. Leakey stated.

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Thursday, April 23, 2015

Changing the Gender-Violence Culture

"We hope that the symposium can help put a very serious problem in a perspective that doesn't demonize men in general and does recognize that there have been undeniable improvements in male-female relationships."
"Noting that the rate has been decreasing is not the same as claiming that sexual violence and coercion are not serious and extensive problems."
"In many places and settings there is still an unacceptably high level of violence against women [and] there are some men who take advantage of women's new freedom of movement and action, using it as an opportunity or excuse for rape or other exploitative behaviour."
"On campuses this often takes the form of having sex with a woman who is clearly incapacitated -- or actively working to incapacitate her."
"While none of these papers offers definitive answers to the complex and multi-faceted issues involved in understanding and preventing inter-personal violence, we hope that the information they provide and the need they demonstrate for more reliable data-gathering [will help]."
Stephanie Coontz, director of research and education, Council on Contemporary Families, U.S.
Move for Hope May 30, 2015
Canadian Women's Foundation

Academics across the United States have contributed to a new American analysis through a collection of papers from the Council on Contemporary Families, an organization sharing academic research on families with the public to complete a National Crime Victimization Survey which concludes that similar to the diminishing of the overall crime rate, instances of intimate partner violence have been in decline in the last two decades nationwide. Similarly, the finding is that rape and forcible sexual assaults have also been in decline since the 1970s.

Many, receiving this information scoff at its conclusions, at the very least view it with a healthy dose of skepticism, given the recent revelations emanating from Britain, from the United States and Canada of high-profile celebrities being involved in sexual predation and violence against women and children related to sexual proclivities Those who are knowledgeable about the universality and prevalence of intimate partner violence and the seemingly growing incidence of male predation even among the young of high school and post-secondary age point out that many such incidents are simply not reported.

  1. Justice Department, National Crime Victimization Survey: 2008-2012
  2. FBI, Uniform Crime Reports, Arrest Data: 2006-2010
  3. FBI, Uniform Crime Reports, Offenses Cleared Data: 2006-2010
  4. Department of Justice, Felony Defendents in Large Urban Counties: 2009
  5. Department of Justice, Felony Defendents in Large Urban Counties: 2009

Police-reported sexual assault in Canada too has been seen to have declined by four percent in 2013. The decline was among those sexual assaults reported to police falling into the category of "Level 1" (Level 1 involves minor physical injuries or no injuries to the victim), while reports of aggravated sexual assault [level 3] rose by nine percent between 2012 and 2013. Of sexual assaults committed against Canadians over the age of 15, according to a document produced by Statistics Canada, 88 percent are not reported to police.

Six percent of Canadian women self-reported sexual assault in 2009 according to StatsCan's General Social Survey on Victimization, thought of as the best self-reported source government has available in tracking this type of abuse. In the United States, as in Canada, campus sexual assault remains a serious issue with between 14 percent and 25 percent of college women having been forcibly raped or assaulted. Another analysis revealed alarmingly that women not in higher education are more at risk; 21 percent of non-college-educated women suffer domestic violence in comparison to 13 percent in university.

Yet the conclusion reached by the survey results indicates that violence between married and common-law American couples has declined, even while the papers continue to consider sexual assault prevalence remains a serious problem. The government of Ontario's #WhoWillYouHelp bystander public-service campaign has helped to highlight a campaign of awareness of sexual exploitation, emphasizing that it's everyone's business to be involved in combating the societal menace that it represents.

The research also spotlights the obvious, that in lower-income, lower-education communities a higher "tolerance for violence" exists, with a concomitant slower shift toward progressive ideas of what constitutes masculinity. Economic stress is also pointed out, predictably, as a major concern, along with the fact that there are few societal institutional supports to combat intimate violence. It is  hoped, however, that the release of the data "will generate a more nuanced discussion of sexual violence", stated Stephanie Coontz, acknowledged as one of the top family historians in the U.S.

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Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Taken On Trust: Who Knew? Practising ... On Me?

"We graduate, and then we start practising. And nobody watches any more. Nobody sees what you do and how well you do it. We're waiting on adverse outcomes."
"Performance, with time [of those already practising], will deteriorate, and we need to find a way to keep ourselves within the safety limits."
"We either tell people [MDs in training] that they suck, or we tell them that they're good. Neither type of feedback is helpful."
"People always told me [in training], 'Great job, you're really good'. And then one day I started recording it [surgery in progress] and looking at myself, and I thought, 'Oh, my God, this is embarrassing'."
Teodor Grantcharov, surgeon, St.Michael's Hospital, Toronto
Dr. Teodor Grantcharov
Dr. Teodor Grantcharov
"In the sports world, this is how they take people from being good to being excellent athletes -- by coaching them. You're actually instilling in them the capacity to make themselves better."
Debra Wirtzfeld, president, Canadian Association of General Surgeons

The ordinary person on the street -- or, in this case, the ordinary person in hospital awaiting surgery -- views the medical professional about to operate on them as just that, a medical professional, and with that view comes the unstated but dearly held belief that that well-trained and seasoned surgeon knows exactly what he's doing, has had ample experience and is at the top of his/her game. We trust; what else can we do?

Oh, the canny ask around, if they can dig out any background, but really, most people place their trust in any surgeon whom they have been referred to in the belief that they are more than capable of bringing them through the ordeal of surgery in better shape than when they went into the operating theatre. Yes, there are poor outcomes, even disastrous ones, and we mentally shrug and think: it couldn't be helped; alternately that it wouldn't, couldn't happen to us.

We assume, because it is reasonable to do so, that surgeons newly released from their probationary period of internship after long years of study and the achievement of their professional credentials, have been monitored and mentored, and whipped into a sterling semblance of an acutely reliable and capable professional. So, along comes this surgeon, deploring the lack of oversight of new surgeons released from the slight oversight that exists, to do their damage, or very best as the case may be.

It is Dr. Grantcharov's insight into the decided lack of on-site training that has led him to the opinion that it is time something was done about it. And he has ventured the opinion that one-on-one coaching of surgeons, using video replays of operations to discuss operational flaws and how they are best avoided, might solve this problem that no one appears to have identified previously -- as difficult as this is to credit.

The black box used by Dr. Teodor Grantcharov
The black box used by Dr. Teodor Grantcharov.

Who thought of a newly-trained surgeon as being on par with the learned skills of a plumber or a bicycle-repair technician; they're either good at what they do, or they're not, and the market will settle things out. Except that, with the shortage of specialists in the field of medicine, and the interesting factoid that those in the medical profession avoid criticizing one another, the market is at risk and hardly knows it.

Videos used to critique sport plays are common enough; never thought of, simple as it is, for teaching surgeons? The mind boggles. University of Toronto general surgical residents undergoing coaching sessions were demonstrated to perform at a higher skill level, hardly making half as many technical errors as those undergoing more traditional training; which is to say very little oversight, according to Dr. Grantcharov and his colleagues in their report.

It is Dr. Grantcharov's thought that it is high time that this simple enough technique geared to improve proficiency, skill and self-confidence, should become a standard in the training of new surgeons and other medical specialists. As for those already long in practise, the process could be of benefit to them too, in helping them to brush up their operational skills. Don't we expect medical professionals to keep abreast of the latest in new medical techniques? Why should practise be any different?

As far as Dr. Grantcharov is concerned -- give that man a cigar! -- the result should be anticipated to produce surgery with fewer complications and increased improved outcomes for patients. Coaches, needless to say, would need to themselves be properly trained to enable them to impart to trainees the conclusions they reach  through keen observational skills and interpretive results.

“We either tell people that they suck, or we tell them that they’re good. Neither type of feedback is helpful,” Dr. Teodor Grantcharov, centre, says.
Handout  “We either tell people that they suck, or we tell them that they’re good. Neither type of feedback is helpful,” Dr. Teodor Grantcharov, centre, says.

A black box for the operating theatre was developed by this enterprising surgeon, to record the action inside the patient's body and within the wider area of the operating room. The purpose of which is to show surgeons where something may have gone awry. At one time  -- traditionally -- it was deemed sufficient to expose a new surgeon to witnessing of a surgical procedure "see one, do one, teach one"; and that has remained the standard.

Senior surgeons take residents on hospital-patient tours, they attend lectures, join their seniors in the operating room for instruction while action is ongoing. Throughout their five-year residency, the new specialists begin by performing slight portions of the operation, then incrementally increase their proportional activities until finally they feel they are adequately prepared to undertake the entire operation.

Nine residents were selected to take part in the Toronto study, meeting from time to time with an experienced coach, a video of a trainee's "game tape" portion of operations dissected, enabling the mentor to point out where there was a lack of technique, then demonstrating how the procedure is to be done expertly, guiding the trainees to an improved version of their own functioning.

The other part of the study had a control group of a similar number of trainees who simply underwent the usual training, without interpretive critique through a video of how they performed during surgery. When the study was concluded, the coached trainees were shown to have fared better than the standardized trainees on technical skills, recording fewer errors.

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Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Hope for Pancreatic Cancer Therapy

"The reason we're so excited about these viruses is that they take advantage of the same things that the tumour uses to become a really good tumour: they exploit those for therapeutic benefit."
"It was the complete opposite of what we expected [result of study of cell types in pancreatic cancer]. Something about the way they interact makes them much more sensitive to virus infection. So, potentially, virus infection could be a great treatment for pancreatic tumours."
"We think this is an opportunity to try something different. And I think pancreatic cancer patients would think the same thing: that it's worth trying because right now current therapies are not working."
Dr. John Bell, senior scientist, Ottawa Hospital Research Institute
Dr. John Bell of the Ottawa Hospital's Cancer Centre has pioneered the use of viruses to treat certain types of cancer.
Julie Oliver/Ottawa Citizen    Dr. John Bell of the Ottawa Hospital's Cancer Centre has pioneered the use of viruses to treat certain types of cancer.

Dr. Bell is speaking of a study he co-authoried with post-doctoral fellow Dr. Carolina Ilkow, along with other scientists, a study that was just recently published in Nature Medicine, that describes experiments whose purpose was to discover a finer understanding of pancreatic tumours and how they form and interact with the body's cells. The tumours are constructed of a complex network of stromal and malignant cells.

Normally the body's stromal cells aid in the maintenance of body tissue. They are susceptible, however, to being co-opted by cancer cells in the promotion of tumour growth. Once researchers isolated the cell types, they studied their interaction with each other and with viruses. And that led to the discovery that the relationship between stromal and malignant cells set them up to be vulnerable to viral infection.

The theory was tested with embedding a modified virus -- from Brazilian sandflies -- with the growth factor secreted by stromal cells, so very present in pancreatic tumours. The virus that had been engineered for the purpose proved itself "a more potent killer of cancer cells" than did the original Maraba virus. The virus resulted in "complete tumour regression" in some laboratory mice, according to the study.

Pancreatic cancer causes the death of around 4,400 Canadians annually. People diagnosed with pancreatic cancer are given a five-year survival rate of a mere six percent. This represents the lowest survival rate among all common cancer types, and it has seen no improvement in the past four decades. The only 'cure' remains major surgery, performed only if the tumour has not spread beyond the pancreas.

In 85 percent of cases, the cancer is not detected in an early enough stage to make surgery feasible.

Furthermore, pancreatic cancer is resistant to conventional treatments like chemotherapy and radiation in view of the unusual architecture of the tumours with their heavy concentration of stromal cells which protect the tumour, promoting its growth. But the very same biological process that makes pancreatic tumours so tough, also serves to make them vulnerable to attack by the engineered viruses.

Dr. Bell is known worldwide for his leadership in the use of virus-based cancer therapies. He is also scientific director of BioCanRx, representing a network of scientists involved in accelerating promising cancer treatments from the laboratory on to clinical trials. He does caution though that clinical trials are several years into the future, while holding out hope they may lead to a more effective cancer treatment for pancreatic cancer.

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Monday, April 20, 2015

4/20 Marijuana Rallies -- and Reality

"I think we should be very concerned. Canada's ... young people have the highest rate of cannabis use compared to other developed countries. There is a need to take a pause and consider that this is the future of our country. We certainly want to prepare our youth so that they can be productive members of society in terms of employment so there certainly is reason that Canada needs to be concerned about cannabis use among young people."
"It is not the cannabis of the '60s and '70s."
"We know there are harms associated with cannabis. We need to increase awareness among the public and among young people that the marijuana of today is different than that of previous generations. It has impacts on brain functioning, there are implications for kids in school and implications for driving."
Amy Porath-Waller, lead cannabis-youth researcher, Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse

"It is very clear that cannabis does impair driving ability in a number of areas, similar to alcohol, but slightly different."
"[Cannabis use impairs the ability to] plan a series of events necessary to accomplish a goal. After cannabis you tend to make mistakes doing that."
Doug Beirness, lead researcher, drug-impaired driving, CCSA
Hundreds filled Yonge-Dundas Square despite the rain on Monday, lined with booths selling various pot-themed products.
Daniel Otis / Toronto Star   Hundreds filled Yonge-Dundas Square despite the rain on Monday, lined with booths selling various pot-themed products.

The tradition of North American street parties to rally support for the full and open decriminalization of marijuana as a popular recreational social tool certainly has its enthusiastic supporters. This is most definitely not about, nor dedicated to medical use of marijuana, which has been acknowledged by some within the medical community and by governments at various levels, to be a useful health-affirming tool in some circumstances and for some people, suffering from chronic medical conditions.

Coinciding with April 20 celebration of a counterculture fixation on the release of marijuana freedom from legal interference, partial findings of research that comprise a larger study due to be unveiled in June called The Effects of Cannabis Use During Adolescence, has seen a few of its authors make public statements as a heads-up on the content and conclusions of the research findings. That advance is meant to balance the effect of the celebratory aspect of the street rallies in support of free access to marijuana by a more sober note.

That teens who begin smoking marijuana early in life and use it frequently are at risk of altering their brains; evidence that early and frequent use of cannabis in the young can have the effect of changing the developing brain structure. Rallies such as the one which for years has seen thousands of teens and young adults converge on Parliament Hill on April 20 to smoke marijuana, take place around the world. But it is among Canadian teens and young adults that this most commonly used illegal drug is most prevalent.

Young Canadians use marijuana three times more often than adults, and it is not adults who are vulnerable to potential interference with cerebral functioning, but youth. The top users of cannabis in the developed world, according to a 2013 UNICEF report, are Canadian teens and youth. Not only are Canadian teens the top users of marijuana in the developed world, but their use of alcohol is also more frequent than their foreign counterparts, as is their penchant for binge drinking.
  • Cannabis use negatively affects cognitive and motor functions and is a safety hazard for drivers;
  • Early and frequent cannabis use is linked to lower IQ scores, reduced school performance and the risk of dropping out;
  • 'There is consistent evidence' of a link between psychosis and cannabis use;
  • About one of six people who begin using cannabis during their adolescent years will develop a dependency at a rate higher than among adults;
  • Adolescents are at particular risk for cannabis-related harms since their brains undergo rapid and extensive development.
These research findings require further analysis, but the preliminary results have been presented to alert people to the realities behind the use of marijuana by the young beyond controlled medical-health issues. The impact of cannabis, which has quadrupled in potency in the past 24 years, drives much of the controversy over its potential for harm in the young; Canabis-impaired driving has become another side-show of the increased potency of cannabis.

Adolescents appear to have little recognition of their state of competence while under the effects of cannabis. A series of focus groups had researchers confronted with adolescents claiming that the use of marijuana had a positive effect on their driving skills. Conversely, coroners are increasingly testing for drugs as well as alcohol, in the wake of fatal crashes. Cannabis presents as the second-most-common substance behind alcohol found in fatal-injury crashes.

Researchers travelled to Colorado for a study of the effects of marijuana liberalization pioneered in that state and came away with the conclusion that cannabis is not the benign substance its users consider it to represent.

Thousand toke up in front of Vancouver Art Gallery during the 420 marijuana smoke-in in April.
Thousand toke up in front of Vancouver Art Gallery during the 420 marijuana smoke-in in April.  Photograph by: Mark van Manen, PNG

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Sunday, April 19, 2015

That Male Fighting Instinct

"Neuroscientists don't fully understand the physiology of a knockout, but here's the gist. The brain is a soggy, fatty, gelatinous meat computer, with chemicals and electrical signals running through trillions of wispy connections. The shock wave from a heavy blow rolls through the brain like a tsunami, shearing connections and disrupting signals. Effectively the brain shorts out. And the man falls stiff and twitchy to the mat until the brain can reroute the signals and get back online."
"I came to see MMA [mixed martial arts], especially at the amateur level, as a fairly healthy way for men to explore their capacities. To have a chance to struggle and to demonstrate, at least to themselves, that they have the right stuff."
Jonathan Gottschall, The Professor in the Cage
Gilberto Tadday
Gilberto Tadday   Jonathan Gottschall
"Fighting is hardwired into us, it is a part of who we are."
David Carrier, biology professor, University of Utah

"You hug [post-fight embrace] because you understand how hard your opponent has trained. And any fighter can say that they are not scared, but there is always fear, no matter how much experience you have."
"It takes a brave person to step in the cage and to go there."
"Being at that edge, and passing through that barrier [personal breaking point], was my favourite part of fighting. I never wanted to hurt anybody."
Mark Hominick, nine-time Canadian MMA champion
Canada's Public Health Agency reports that fights among Grade 6 boys is a common enough occurrence that 20 percent of male children find themselves at some point in their lives involved in physical violence. Assuredly this isn't all boys, but it represents a significant number; one in five. Some are bullies, some are boys who happen to fall into a disagreement that winds up being expressed physically.

It helps to remember that men are biologically programmed to be conflict-physical since it's an integral part of the survival instinct that nature endowed them with. In primal conditions, competition for scarce resources that could mean the difference between extinction and survival always led to conflict, and it still does in areas of the world where material privation is a fact of life. It is why tribes and clans reveal themselves to be hostile to those who don't belong to their group.

We may no longer need to complete for shelter from natural forces and preying animals, to defend a hunting territory that provides sustenance, to seek out opposite gender partners to pass on genes as part of nature's survival instinct, yet that instinct for survival has identified alternate routes, where goods acquisition has taken the place of the necessities of life, and we acquire an emotional need to possess material things that appear to assure our place in life through possessions.

Fighting, as a means of acquiring territory to provide for shelter and food may no longer prevail in civil society, but there are proxy activities that satisfy in many men that vicarious thrill of physical involvement, like sports, like signing on for the military reserves, like play-acting with others, using faux arms. But the 'sport' of martial arts has its consequences, when men batter one another with the intention of knocking out their opponents. Not that sports itself doesn't have similar consequences in the danger of concussions and knockouts.

The author of the book, The Professor in the Cage, found himself, as an academic, under-employed, ill compensated and bored, contemplating alternate means of expressing himself and in the process perhaps earning more than the pittance he was making as a contract teacher of English. He decided to look into the culture of young men fixating on martial arts competitions, training endlessly, building their body musculature and learning how to comport themselves in a boxing, a wrestling, a mixed-fight ring.

A University of Toronto study published in 2014 in the American Journal of Sports Medicine reached the conclusion that a mixed martial artist suffers traumatic brain injuries in close to a third of professional bouts; a rate of head injuries higher than what is sustained playing hockey, football, and boxing as well. The goal in MMA is physically beating your opponent out of competition, and that generally results in a knockout, completely physically incapacitating the other.

The Canadian Medical Association had launched a campaign five years ago to convince the provinces to ban the sport, citing the long-term health implications for those engaged as competitors in mixed martial arts. Their effort came to naught. Ultimate Fighting Championship since 1998 has held 17 events in Canada. Several sellout events held in Montreal grossed about $60 million on gate receipts.

As for Jonathan Gottschall, he began attending a gym to be taught how to handle himself in a ring against any opponents whose reason for being there was the same as his own. To demonstrate personal toughness and tenacity; to exercise the belief in themselves, that they are capable of fending for themselves and surmounting the adversity of another man's physical strength and dexterity overcoming their own. No hard feelings, just a spirited physical competition to see who would emerge the victor.

After fifteen months of tutelage in the ring, being battered in the gym of a professional martial art instructor, he felt on top of his game. He went up against a 24-year-old, when he was himself in his early 30s. When he took on the younger man he described the event as "maybe the coolest thing I have ever accomplished in my life". Having pinned the younger man down, preparing to finish him off, he was suddenly flipped, and he found himself trapped, and needing to surrender.

The fight of his life had lased 47 seconds. The professor, briefly turned martial artist, had come up against a younger man, a nurse, proving himself to himself.

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