Good News/Bad News

June 5 2006

Good News/Bad News

June 5 2006


STORY OF THE WEEK - HELLO? ANYONE OUT THERE? Busy whining that the Prime Minister was refusing to spoon-feed them news, members of the national press gallery underplayed the government’s announcement that it was increasing by $40 million Canada’s financial contribution to humanitarian and peace assistance in the Darfur region of western Sudan. “We are helping to put Darfur on the road to recovery,” said Stephen Harper to the one or two reporters still speaking to him.

Good news

We’re flush

Futuristic geologists say that toward the end of the present millenium, the Old Faithful geyser in Wyoming will run out of steam and Niagara Falls will exist entirely on the northern side of the Canada-U.S. border. That’s good news for the Canadian tourism industry, presuming that the appeal of the Falls as a honeymoon destination is indeed eternal. If present trends continue, the Canada-U.S. border will before long be more difficult to pass than Checkpoint Charlie (see story on page 22). We’ll need all the tourism advantages we can get to convince Americans it’s worth the trouble to holiday out our way.

Moving right along

The most genteel standoff in British Columbia history ended last week. For more than a month, some 100 activists had camped out on West Vancouver’s scenic Eagleridge Bluffs to protest construction of a 2.4-km section of the $600-million worth of improvements to the Sea-to-Sky Highway to Whisder. Public opinion was divided between those who agree the bluffs are a sensitive ecosystem, and those convinced the protest was an attempt to preserve real estate values. After the B.C. courts rejected attempts by the group to force the B.C. government to find an alternate route, police moved in last Thursday to ever-so-gently arrest the 23 individuals who declined to leave their barricades.

Toking up the sun

It was a good week for lazy pleasures. Pot smokers learned that their favourite vice is not a killer. A large-scale study funded by the U.S. National Institutes of Health found that while heavy cigarette

smokers are 20 times more likely than everyone else to develop lung cancer, chronic pot users have no higher incidence. Lead scientist Donald Tashkin, a UCLA pulmonologist, theorizes that THC, the active ingredient in pot, may actually ward off cancer by killing older cells before they can mutate. Meanwhile, the Canadian Cancer Society acknowledged that being out in a not-too-brilliant sun without protection for five or 10 minutes allows us to benefit from ultra-


violet rays, which the body transforms into vitamin D. But remember, kids, everything in moderation.

Who needs HBO

It seems even premium cable networks descend occasionally to rerun hell: there’s nothing new and exciting on HBO this week. For the first time since we began our watch several months ago, Canadians need not resent their regulators for denying them the world’s best television channel. (We should still have the choice, however.)

Bad news

Boring, but hot

It’s time to re-brief Governor General Michaëlle Jean on the largely ceremonial, non-partisan and issue-free functions of her office as the Queen’s representative. Last week in Halifax, the former CBC/Radio-Canada host lectured a roomful of journalists on the dangers of timely, attractive and profitable news presentation—it all leads to shallowness, “sensationalism,” public corruption, etc. She encouraged a more contemplative approach

to the editorial arts, a conceit beloved of public broadcasters. Her audience of private-sector journalists seemed chastened by her remarks. We thought her hair looked great.

Loss of Bliss

Michael Bliss, perhaps Canada’s greatest living historian, retires this month from active teaching at the University of Toronto. He made an enormous contribution to the underdeveloped discipline of Canadian commercial history with such books as A Living Profit and Northern Enterprise: Five

Centuries of Canadian Business. He almost single-handedly established the field of Canadian medical history with The Discovery of Insulin and Banting: A Biography. He has also been a leading commentator on Canadian political and constitutional affairs for several decades. While professor Bliss plans to continue writing, the teaching profession is poorer today.

Quack science

It is claimed in Britain that an expert panel of a geneticist, a philosopher and a chicken farmer has settled the age-old question: what came first, the chicken or the egg? They find for the egg, arguing that the first bird to evolve into a chicken in prehistoric times must first have existed as an embryo inside an egg. That embryo would have been the first appearance of the DNA combination that comprises every chicken. All of which sounds impressively scientific, but we’re still convinced the rooster came first.

Justice, but...

Former CEO Kenneth Lay was convicted last week of 10 counts of fraud and conspiracy for his part in the Enron scandal; he’s looking at a total sentence of up to 45 years in jail. His former colleague Jeffrey Skilling, guilty of 19 counts of fraud, conspiracy and insider trading, faces an overall prison sentence of 185 years. Twenty-three individuals have now admitted to or been found guilty of crimes at the Houstonbased energy giant, which, in 2001, became one of the largest bankruptcies in U.S. history. Justice is done, but that’s 23 ruined lives on top of 5,600 lost jobs, tens of billions in lost investor capital, and US$2.l billion in lost pension obligations. M


Unkindly likened by a TV critic to a young Captain Kangaroo, the 29-year-old grey-haired white southerner won American Idol with a classic-rock singing style that seemed to ignore any musical development of the past 20 years. The hoopla was tinged with sadness: as host Ryan Seacrest noted, more Americans voted in the American Idol finale than for any president in history, which just goes to show that they’d rather have Hicks for Idol than hicks for presidents.


Wet basement

Water doesn’t just circulate in currents in the world’s seas, it’s also sucked far below the ocean floor. Up to a 10th of the world’s sea water has been “subducted,” into the earth’s mantle since the planet was formed. Volcanologists have found the atomic “fingerprint” of water in volcanic gases brought to the surface during eruptions, indicating that in the past, huge amounts of water were absorbed far below the oceans. About half the water found deep in the earth was subducted from oceans; the rest was trapped underground when the world first formed.

Miss Brontë regrets

Newly uncovered letters show that British novelist Charlotte Brontë wrote an apology to her former school and its headmaster after an unflattering portrait of such an institution appeared in Jane Eyre. Brontë had based her description of Lowood School on the real-life Clergy Daugh-

ters’ School. Its headmaster, Rev. William Carus-Wilson, sought legal advice on a libel action, which was averted by Brontë’s apology. The incident was recorded in three personal letters written by Carus-Wilson’s grandson in 1912. The letters are to be auctioned off on June 21.

Tough times

Stone Age skulls dating from between 4000 and 3200 BCE indicate that a surprising number of ancient Britons got bashed on the head. Two researchers from British universities examined 350 Stone Age skulls in ancient mortuaries and found that two per cent of skull owners had died from head wounds, while another four to five per cent also received blows to the skull but probably recovered. That works out to a one-in-14 chance of getting clobbered on the head. Says Rick Schulting of Queens University Belfast: “We only studied the skulls. If other kinds of injury are taken into account, the death rate was probably even higher.”

RABBIT: A cultivated penis

Rabbit redux

Although the species doesn’t exactly need help, a rabbit has been fitted out with an artificial penis to help it mate. Smooth-muscle and blood-vessel cells were taken from a rabbit penis and cultivated in a collagen “scaffold.” The development gives hope, urologists say, in finding new ways of treating men who suffer from severe impotence.

Safe hydrogen

Anyone who has ever seen the picture of the Hindenburg burning knows that hydrogen is highly explosive. So how could it be used safely in automobiles that would run on hydrogen-powered fuel cells? The U.S. Department of Energy is experimenting with tiny, porous glass balls that could be pumped through a hose, just like gasoline. Palladium inside the balls would chemically fix hydrogen in an inert form until it is needed. Once inside a car, the glass balls would release the hydrogen.


Gay stork parents

Zookeepers in the Netherlands have found that when they gave “gay” and “lesbian” storks eggs to nurture, the same-sex couples were just as diligent as oppositesex pairs. Staff at the zoo, located in Overloon, placed one stork egg with two bonded males and two eggs with two bonded fe-

males. All three eggs have yielded healthy, well-tended chicks.

Iguana invasion

The town of Boca Grande, Fla., is overrun with 12,000 aliens from Mexico: black spinytail iguanas. The non-native species has no natural predators and grows as long as 90 cm. The iguana population in the island town located northwest of Fort Myers has exploded from a handful brought by residents from Mexico in the 1970s to serve as pets. Bad choice: spinytail iguanas use their tails as whips, causing injury. The animals carry disease and undermine sand dunes that provide protection for the town against storm surges. County officials are planning an “iguana tax” to pay for the animals’ eradication.

Fat piranhas

Piranhas are not just voracious eaters, but given a plentiful supply of food they’re capable of eating themselves to death. After the National Sea Life Centre in Birmingham, England, opened an Amazon wildlife exhibit this year, officials found that the fish were gaining weight at an alarming clip, thanks to a generous diet of vitamin-soaked trout, prawns and mussels. To prevent the notorious feeders from injuring themselves, the marine exhibit has put the piranhas on half-rations until they lose weight.


Womb pollution

Exposure to air pollution has been linked to lower mental development test scores in children. Now it turns out that the damage can be done while children are still in the womb. Surveys of non-smoking women exposed to combustion-related pollutants while pregnant found that their children had, on av-


Ralph Klein stages the last showdown of his career at the western premiers’ conference in Gimli, Man., against Ontario and Quebec over his demands that resource revenues be left out of equalization payments. The United Nations special session on HIV and AIDS reaffirms world leaders’ goal of universal access to drug treatment by 2010, despite a new, damning report by activists that thousands of patients are being hindered by denial, food shortages and squandered aid.

erage, significantly lower scores on mental development tests, and more than double the risk of developmental delay at age three.

Disable the carrier

Science has long fought deadly malaria and dengue fever by trying to vaccinate against the parasites that cause them, or by killing the mosquitoes that transport the parasites. Now, American scientists are working on something more subtle, yet farreaching: genetically disabling mosquitoes’ ability to carry parasites. They have added genes to mosquitoes that prevent them from spreading the parasites. But with zillions of mosquitoes in the world, a bigger task lies ahead:


The sleeper effect

Tobacco’s effect on children is even more insidious than previously believed. A survey of more than 2,000 children, sponsored by a British cancer research organization, found that kids who try just one cigarette are twice as likely to take up smoking than those who never try it—even if the habit doesn’t begin for years. A so-called “sleeper effect” has been found in children, in which their desire for nicotine becomes

getting transgenic non-carriers to breed with and then pass their new genetic makeup to carriers.

ingrained in brain pathways, then comes alive even years later in response to triggers such as stress.

Tots and TV

One third of children in the United States aged between six months and six years have televisions in their bedrooms. A study by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, a health care philanthropy, found the main reason tots got their own sets was to free up other sets to allow parents and other members of the family to watch what they want. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children under two should not watch any TV.


The cost of big meals

Supersizing fast-food meals not only means lots more calories, but it’s not the bargain it’s supposed to be. University of Wisconsin-Madison scientists have calculated the cost of the extra fries and bigger drink in terms of added medical costs and the gasoline needed to haul a big rump around town. They surveyed meal prices at three fast-food chains and found that iiber-meals cost just 17 per cent more than regular ones, while delivering 73 per cent more calories. But when they figured in medical and gasoline costs, the price of big meals rose by as much as 191 per cent.


Czech slap flap

Eight out of 10 Czechs said last week it was wrong for a former official of the opposition Civic Democratic Party to wallop the nation’s minister of health. In the middle of a dentists’ convention in Prague, Miroslav Macek slapped David Rath from behind, causing minor injury. It was apparent retribution for

Rath’s recent allegations to an interviewer that Macek had married his wife for her money. The otherwise buffoonish exchange

is significant because Czechs vote this week for their Chamber of Representatives, and Macek’s party has topped the polls.

FEMAfor Fido

A poll cited by the Humane Society of the United States found that 49 per cent of American adults would refuse to evacuate during an emergency if they could not take their pets. Hurricane Katrina resulted in 600,000 animals either dying or being abandoned without shelter. The U.S. Congress is apparently listening: last week the House of Representatives approved legislation obliging emergency preparedness plans to include pets.


Organ payback

Twenty years ago, Ahmet Adulovic saved Remzo Pivic from drowning in Bosnia. Pivic never found a meaningful way of thanking him, and Adulovic eventually emigrated to Canada. Now, two decades later, Adulovic is suf-

fering from renal failure and Pivic has found a way. A tissue match was made, and Pivic donated a kidney to his saviour.

Unhappy client

John Gomes, on trial for murder in a Boston courtroom last week, became so angry with his lawyer’s performance that he attacked and tried to strangle him in front of an astonished judge. This conduct was not only prejudicial to the case, it took several policemen to disengage the 250-lb. Gomes from the throat of lawyer Bruce Carroll. “I think he didn’t like the way some of the rulings the judge was making were going,” Carroll said.


Bernard Ostry, 78, senior civil servant. One of the most highprofile mandarins in Ottawa and the Ontario government, Ostry presided over numerous cultural positions in the Trudeau years.

Jack Fallon, 90, Canadian-born jazz bassist and fiddler long resident in Britain. He performed with Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, and provided the violin on the Beatles’ White Album. M