Star Columnists (pun intended) – and a dumb question

This is in praise of the Toronto Star. I will list some ten columnists, explain what each has done, and give a pointer you can click on, to an example.

Other Star columnists not mentioned here are missing simply because, looking up ten took long enough, and these were the ten I happened to think of first. They are not the only good columnists at the Star.

And, I have included James Travers, deceased, among the ten as I think his could be the most important column mentioned here.

Ready? My list of columnists includes:

  1. Rosie DiManno. Fearlessly following up on the G20 disaster, where bad people were initially allowed to vandalize businesses outside the G20 fenced area, and then where decent citizens were subjected to overzealous policing. This is only one such article. DiManno writes about Toronto, about things city citizens should know and perhaps act upon or against.
  2. James Travers. Changing a country, one backward step at a time. A stunning critique of Stephen Harper.
  3. David Olive. Politics, this one on our military purchasing incompetence. Olive is always well researched, to put it mildly.
  4. Heather Mallick.Politics. This one is on Justin Trudeau and is upbeat. (see later for a differing opinion, eh?)
  5. Royson James. Social issues. This one is city politics and Rob Ford.
  6. Tim Harper. Politics. This one is about American tax reach and its consequences, especially for those ‘deemed’ to be American and living abroad.
  7. Chantel Hebert. Politics. This one is also on Justin Trudeau, and is not upbeat.
  8. Kevin Donovan. Social issues. Donovan was one of two reporters who saw the crack video before the police found it on some hard drive. The article linked here is about bad charities, which spend most of your donation on themselves and advertising.
  9. Edward Keenan. I think this is a newer columnist, but I’ve been noticing his work lately. Social and political issues. This one is also on the Fords.
  10. Ellen Roseman. Financial help for small people, especially being treated badly by large corporations. This pointer is to her website, from whence you can find several articles. I ‘met’ Roseman in the sense I was at a financial session where she spoke. I ‘met’ Roseman again by eMail when I had a problem with a credit card company. Her contact list must be longer than the Toronto phone book. She is effective.

Now for the point of all this, and the dumb question.

A random selection of articles that I happened to be able to find is of course uneven in its coverage of issues in Canada, Ontario, and Toronto. I trust it will serve to show readers the scope of reporting information delivered by Toronto Star columnists. This is a major source of relevant, current information.

Without this, would Adam Nobody have lost his case in court? Would ordinary Canadians simply not notice the ‘boil the frog’ technique of adding small changes to our laws? Would our military continue weird and inefficient (to put it nicely) purchasing practices?

I could ask a similar question about the other seven columnists. I’m sure you get my point, but here’s the dumb question:

What happens when print media becomes less interested, less motivated, or simply less well-funded, and gradually waters down the present high level of columnists and their informative opinions? Will we become ignorant sheep? Or are we already?

I said it would be a dumb question.

A Cynical Dumb Question

Here you will find a BBC News report on the town of Kobane, on the Syrian border near Turkey. This town is under serious attack, and I am not making light of that fact. What is interesting about the news item is the following:

  • A Pentagon spokesperson stated that a town could likely not be held merely with the assistance of air strikes.
  • The spokesperson quoted is Rear Admiral John Kirby.

Now for the cynical dumb question: Why is a naval person making this announcement?

Now for the cynicism:

  • We don’t want an Air Force person to be the one saying air strikes aren’t enough.
  • Marines probably won’t be interested in voicing an opinion on a desert town.
  • The Army does not want to be seen as the force suggesting that ground troops are necessary.

Are we being sucked into another ground war?

I note that Canada, under our micro-managing omnibus-bill Prime Minister, just passed a bill that changed our involvement from 30 or 60 days to six months with renewal a possibility. The wording of the bill that passed seems to allow ground troops, should the PM decide they are necessary. Earlier, our PM volunteered assistance while claiming Obama requested it.

It’s as if we just can’t wait to have a war, so long as it’s far away. Is that a dumb question, or am I just cynical?

Elected Officials: Should there be Term Limits?

With a municipal election coming up in Toronto, the ‘incumbent advantage’ looms large. Incumbents generally get re-elected. It is not obvious to this observer that this is a good thing. Relatives and spouses also generally get re-elected. This isn’t obviously good either.

Here are some of the drawbacks of elections whose results are biassed toward a sitting candidate or a ‘name’ candidate echoing a previous name candidate:

  • Incumbent re-election can make ‘career politicians’. They never go back to their ordinary citizen jobs. My councillor recently became an MPP, and will never look back. I think this creates a cadre with a mind-set of ‘must get elected, it’s my job.’ Does this make for sound decisions, or popular ones?
  • Right-name election can create dynasties. While I think Justin Trudeau is a good guy, the electorate will decide whether he should govern. Municipally we have the brother of the most (in)famous Toronto mayor running in his stead, and a relative who changed his name early this year (a nephew? this from memory) is running for school trustee. Democracy is not about inherited power. Or is it?

I’m too lazy to search out how various governments decide on term limits of politicians. However here you will find a fine Wikipedia article listing petty much all the heads of state of the world, by geographical area, and what their term limits are.

I can’t help but remark here that Canada has ‘fixed election dates’ except when our Prime Minister says they are not. Let me instead point out a few things you can check for yourself on the Wikipedia page.

In the Americas, only three countries out of twenty-two have unlimited state leader terms. Either there is a term count limit, a gap-between-terms rule, or some other obstacle to being elected over and over and over. The three heads of state with no term limits are:

  • President of Venezuela (unlimited six-year terms)
  • President of Nicaragua (unlimited five-year terms)
  • Prime Minister of Canada (no term limits)

In all of Oceania, (ten countries) only Australia has no term limits.

In all of Europe, (36 countries plus the EU) only six have no term limits, and they are: Azerbaijan, Belarus, Germany, Italy, Serbia, and the UK.

I may note sarcastically that Italy, with unlimited seven-year terms, was under Silvio Berlusconi for ages.

So, back to the dumb question: should elected officials have term limits? Should this be the case at the municipal level? At the provincial level? What about at the head-of-state level? Should we have dynasties or kings?

Comments with real content and real eMail addresses will appear here. EMail addresses are only seen by the blogmeister and never are revealed.

So, if you think, what do you think about this question?



Ebola: did we learn nothing from AIDS?

Very early in the AIDS catastrophe, I read an article about how new infections spread. This was likely in Nature or Scientific American, and I’m not sure which. The article was not deeply technical, but explained how a new sickness can suddenly be everywhere.

What disgusted me then was, the AIDS epidemic was still tiny and the article was, obviously, ignored by those prophylactic institutions that supposedly guard our health. In simple terms, it was explained how the disease was about to spread. The prediction turned out to be dead on for AIDS. It went something like this:

A new disease arises in some remote locality. Generally it has jumped to humans from local animals. The number of cases is small, and remoteness may keep them unnoticed by the world at large.

Communication (travel) allows some carriers to spread the disease to new centres. Often the sick will be perceived as being in a minority group (gays and needle users, in the AIDS case.) This will allow the general public to be complacent. Meanwhile more carriers bring the disease to more locations, to larger and larger cities with more interpersonal contact.

(( One story has it that the North American ‘patient zero’ was a gay male flight attendant landing in various Canadian and US cities. (I personally believe this, having seen ‘patient zero’ trackback reports. “And who are your friends?” led back to a very small number of individuals.) ))

Suddenly the disease is capturing ‘normal’ people, i.e. not the original minority group(s). With AIDS, when sufficiently present, the normal ‘fooling around’ of heterosexuals was enough to greatly increase the spread of the disease. In some places, prostitution was a major factor.

The point here is that ‘regular society’ abruptly finds itself in an exposed position, as the disease is no longer limited to minorities of one kind or another.

The eventual size of the AIDS epidemic was in fact warned of, but ignored.

Back to Ebola.

Ebola was originally confined to poor African countries. Travel being limited, nobody much noticed. Health workers seemed to be at risk, but that was ‘over there.’ So we did little, with the WHO being harangued by the head of Medecins Sans Frontiers (Doctors Without Borders) for their inaction.

Now Ebola is present in a few North American hospitals. BBC News reported Spain as having “the first Ebola case outside of Africa” – the first Spanish resident, I assume they mean.

I predict we will continue to sit on our duffs until many hospitals are housing Ebola cases. Then it will not be safe to have any serious health problem, because one will be unwilling to go to Emergency.

I predict the disease becoming more communicable as time goes on. We are ‘selecting’ for communicability, eh?

Back to the comparison with AIDS.

While an Indian pharmaceutical company can produce a month’s worth of AIDS cocktails for about $6.00, it sells for about $1300.00 in North America. AIDS is an ideal pharma company disease: you pay, and are glad to be alive to pay, for the rest of your life.

Ebola has had a different twist: pharma companies are rushing relatively untested vaccines and compounds to be tried ‘live’ on Ebola victims. This is an amazing reduction in cost: Phase III trials of drugs are Really Expensive and can take years. The WHO decided, probably with the moral right on their side, to allow experimental drugs to be tried on human subjects. Given the high Ebola death rate, it seems to be by far the lesser of two evils.

So, to repeat the dumb question: did we learn nothing from AIDS? Will Ebola spread more rapidly than our response can contain it? Will there be expensive cocktails to control it? Will those with funds gladly pay?

Comments, anyone? Coherent ones with real eMail addresses will appear here.

An odd fact about viruses and mammals, including human ones

In researching the Ebola virus, I came across an interesting fact. Our very existence, birth even, depends on a virus and an enzyme its DNA codes for.

Those easily bored with biology can page back or forth to something more interesting. Those with some curiosity, please bear with me.

A virus is essentially DNA or RNA, usually with a protein coat. RNA viruses include a ‘reverse transcriptase’ which takes advantage of the infected cell’s machinery and makes a DNA copy of the RNA. Once there is DNA with viral information present, other enzymes attempt to insert that DNA into the host cell. Once there, the host cell is usurped to create viral proteins specified by the viral DNA. Eventually a large number of viral particles are produced, the host cell lysed, and the virus goes on to infect other cells.

It is possible for the viral insertion to go slightly awry, leaving viral DNA in the host cell but not effective for viral reproduction. It is possible for one or more viral proteins to still be ‘read out’ from this DNA and produced in the host cell.

It is possible for the above to occur in gametes – reproductive cells – of the host, and to be passed on to future generations. It is possible for this extra DNA to be transcribed, producing novel protein(s) based on the viral DNA.

Here you will find an article about this. I will summarize.

Mammals develop (embryogenesis) with the assistance of a placenta. The placenta invades the mother’s blood vessels to permit exchange of nutrients and wastes. (Mother becomes stomach and kidneys for the embryo.) The developing embryo will have half its DNA from the other parent – the father. It will produce proteins that the mother’s immune system has never seen – simple things like hair colour variants, and more complex things like blood type and predilection to health and/or disease.

If the mother’s immune system ‘sees’ these foreign proteins, it will attack them. To prevent this, the placenta must be impervious to white blood cells. White blood cells can penetrate between cells at their junctions. To prevent this, the outer layer of the placenta is ‘synctial.’ This means, there are no dividing cell walls: it’s all one big thin manifold-complex cell with many many nuclei, as required to manage that much cytoplasm.

The enzyme that makes it possible for the placenta boundary to be synctial is called synctin. It is coded for by a piece of DNA that is clearly viral in origin. Various mammals have different versions of this genomic necessity, implying that it was acquired several times in different lineages from distinct viruses.

So we owe our ‘birth right’ to a piece of viral DNA.

The complexity of life on earth is mind-boggling. The more I learn, the larger I estimate my ignorance to be.

Word Magic

I have updated this post because it was, in fact, misleading.

I suggested it was a mistake to call IS or ISIS ‘the Islamic State.’ This accidentally does do several regrettable things:

  • creates the implication that an Islamic State, or caliphate, actually exists. Problem: a caliphate does actually exist, and it is very dangerous.
  • upgrades a pretty rough terrorist organization to sound like a country. Problem: in their minds, they legitimately are a country.
  • conflates one fanatical group of, apparently, wonton killers to be thought of as representative of Islamic thought, culture, and viewpoint. Problem: for a specific subset of Islamic thought, they are de facto representative. All their literature confirms this.

What would I suggest? Here are some ideas.

Whenever the settlements in Palestine are mentioned as being considered illegal by most of the countries of the world, words are always added to say, ‘but Israel disputes this.’ We could do a similar work-around in referring to IS.

We could always precede ‘Islamic State’ with a downgrading phrase, such as ‘self-proclaimed but not universally supported.’  Maybe something like this:

Fighters from the self-proclaimed (but not universally supported) ‘Islamic State’ did …. whatever they did or experienced.

Even ‘so-called’ or ‘self-named’ would be better than simply using ‘Islamic State.’

Given that every single reporting of Palestinian settlements by Israel, every single one, has always included ‘but Israel disputes this,’ I’m sure journalists worldwide could agree to report Islamic State in the manner suggested here.

Let’s not dignify them by pretending that they are typical, leading Islamic persons, and let’s not dignify them further by assuming they have formed a ‘state’ simply because they call themselves such.

Problem: as long as the caliphate is successful, members of its belief system are obligated to go there and help it succeed. The caliph is obligated to expand his territory, with a campaign at least once a year. Sharia Law is to be enforced within that territory.

There is more on this topic on this blog entry. Have a look, and click through to the Atlantic Magazine article.

Sorry for this update. I think I’ve fixed your perceptions now. eh?