Friday, January 30, 2009

A closer look at the budget's impact on science

Notwithstanding my previous comment about the funding for quantum computing research being positive, there are a lot of other aspects of the budget that don't seem so positive for science:

The only agency that regularly finances large-scale science in Canada was shut out of Tuesday's federal budget, putting at risk thousands of jobs and some of the most promising medical research, and forcing the country to pull out of key international projects.

For the first time in nine years, Genome Canada, a non-profit non-governmental funding organization, was not mentioned in the federal budget and saw its annual cash injection from Ottawa - $140-million last year - disappear.

"We got nothing, nothing, and we don't know why," said a stunned Martin Godbout, Genome Canada president and CEO. "We're devastated."

The news spread like a virus through the research community yesterday as the country's top scientists wondered whether the oversight was a mistake. Genome Canada supports 33 major research projects in areas such as genomics, agriculture and cancer stem cells with operating grants of $10-million a year. The projects employ more than 2,000 people. By comparison, medical research grants from the federally funded Canadian Institutes of Health Research run in the $100,000-a-year range.

It also remains unclear how the budget will affect the funding abilities of Ottawa's three government research-granting agencies, including the CIHR.

Government spokespeople said the three agencies had "identified savings to be made" of $87.2-million over the next three years in overlaps of grants and programs. But they said the details were still being worked out.

Gary Toft, communications director for the Minister of Science and Technology, part of Industry Canada, insisted "researchers will not get less money."

While research leaders have applauded the Conservatives' plan to spend billions on construction and fixing old buildings on university campuses, they are mystified that the money to operate these facilities seems to be shrinking - particularly when U.S. President Barack Obama plans to double research funds in the U.S. over the next decade.

"When President Obama comes to Canada, we can show him some nice labs with no one in them," said Dr. Godbout, who compared the situation to supplying planes but no pilots or ground crews.

From the Globe and Mail.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Iggy and Steve patch up their differences

Not a big surprise:
The Liberal party will only support the minority Conservative government's federal budget if Prime Minister Stephen Harper agrees to an amendment calling for a "clear marker" of regular updates to Parliament on the impact of economic stimulus projects, Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff said Wednesday.

The move by Ignatieff appears to have staved off the immediate defeat of the Tories. Hours after Ignatieff's news conference, Tory House Leader Jay Hill said the government has no problem with the amendment.

"The government will be supporting the Liberal amendment to the budget," Hill told reporters. "We're very pleased as well the Liberals have decided to support our budget. We look forward to working cooperatively with them."

From the CBC. I think Jack Layton put it best:
Layton refused to specify whether the coalition between the Liberals and NDP was dead, saying only that: "We have a new coalition on Parliament Hill. It’s a coalition between Mr. Harper and Mr. Ignatieff."
Of course, the coalition was always a hard sell with the public, but I guess we'll have to put up with Steve for a while yet.

To be fair, not everything in the budget is totally awful, but the pros are often very mixed. Take the environmental initiatives therein:
The federal budget contained more than $3 billion in spending to address the environment, but it fell short of markers set by those who had called on the Conservatives to deliver a "green" economic stimulus plan.

The big-ticket items, including a $1 billion fund aimed at developing clean technologies over the next five years and a program to help pay for environmentally sustainable infrastructure, also worth $1 billion, were announced prior to yesterday.

The budget also included $300 million to expand an existing home retrofit program that gives grants for improvements to energy efficiency, $10 million to better monitor water and air quality and greenhouse gas emissions, and $292 million to help develop the Candu nuclear reactor and operate the Chalk River facility.

"The provisions in the budget relating to the environment are very significant," Environment Minister Jim Prentice told the Star. "When you add all this up, it's certainly the largest green stimulus that we've ever seen."

But critics say the federal government's plans fall far short of national public transit and other infrastructure needs while spending too much taxpayers' money in Alberta's oil sands and not enough on renewable energy.

"The only green measures in this budget ... of any importance go to nukes or carbon capture and storage," said Stephen Gilbeault of Montreal-based Equiterre.
From the Star. While I'm not as negative about those technologies as some, they have some serious issues. Besides the well-known concerns about nuclear waste, there's the fact that nuclear plants are ridiculously expensive and take a long time to build. Think of how many wind turbines and solar panels that could be built in the time taken to build a nuclear plant. In some parts of the world they might still be necessary (i.e. in places where there isn't enough hydroelectric capacity to stabilize the grid) but most of Canada has no need of additional nuclear plants. As for carbon capture, it's still pretty much hypothetical at this stage.

There is one bright spot in the budget, though. Maybe:
There is a good chance no one was applauding the federal government's decision to provide $50-million Institute for Quantum Computing in Tuesday's budget announcement louder than Research In Motion co-chief executive officer Mike Lazaridis.

The Institute was the brainchild of Mr. Lazaridis as well as several other researchers who founded the group in 1999 to advance the University of Waterloo's research and international standing in the areas of computer, engineering, mathematical and physical sciences.
From the National Post. Maybe this will enable us to be a world leader in something. Hopefully, though, we'll turf Harper soon, and move back in the direction of being a world leader in things we're known for (such as peacekeeping, social programs, etc), while keeping such nice research institutes as the aforementioned one. Surely we can do both?

Will Iggy pull the plug on Steve?

The NDP and Bloc are thoroughly dissatisfied with the budget, as we know. Not without good reason I think; here are some of the NDP's reasons. The folks at the Progressive Economics Forum have some more points. Here's something that's worth noting:
The infrastructure investment overall is very modest in size and falls well short of what the cities and environmental organizations were looking for. At about $5 billion per year the total package, if spent, might create only 50,000 jobs.

The Budget does not remove or limit the current costly and time-wasting mandatory requirement to actively consider P3s to access the Building Canada Fund, and the launch of the P3 Fund combined with required city support for new projects will likely give yet another boost to P3s moving forward.
The second point is critical. If a municipality wants to access the infrastructure money, they have to accede to the Tories' ideologically driven demand that they look at the highly questionable "public private partnership" model, presumably so that Harpo's buddies get their share of the cash.

So will the Liberals vote for it? Probably. Ignatieff is likely nervous about whether the Governor-General would allow the coalition to take power, and also is probably reluctant to become prime minister at a time when the economy is just starting to tank. Expect the Liberals to pass the budget "with reservations".

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Jesuits accused of using Alaska as dumping ground for pedophile priests


This morning, 43 Alaskan Natives filed a lawsuit against the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits), claiming a widespread conspiracy to dump pedophile priests in small Alaskan towns and shelter them from exposure.

The suit was filed in the Bethel, Alaska Superior Court.

Reverend Father Stephen Sundborg—current president of Seattle University and head of the Northwest Jesuits from 1990 to 1996—is named as a co-conspirator.

From here, via Martin Dufresne in this babble thread.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

God on the brain

This is rather interesting. It seems they've found a possible link between temporal lobe epilepsy and religious experiences:

Was Ellen Gould White truly divinely inspired? Were her visions authentic? Or were 12 million people misled?

Neurology professor Gregory Holmes believes that Ellen’s religious visions were the result of a neurological condition called temporal lobe epilepsy (TLE).

The temporal lobes are a section of the brain associated with higher cognitive processes such as attention and interpretation of visual and auditory input, and are located on either side of the brain just above the ears. Importantly, the temporal lobes are associated with the limbic system, which is responsible for attaching emotion to stimuli.

At times, individuals with TLE have seizures, which occur when there is a significant increase in electrical activity in some part of the brain — you can think of them as electrical storms in the brain. In TLE patients, these are rarely the type of seizures which involve physical convulsions; to the outsider the individual may simply look vacant and be uncommunicative.

Holmes’ hypothesis regarding Ellen White’s visions is supported by research on the clinical presentation of temporal lobe epilepsy. Seizures experienced by these patients are often preceded by “auras” involving sensations of bright lights and fragrances (such as “burning toast” for those who remember Wilder Penfield’s CBC Heritage Minute). During the seizure itself, patients engage in automatisms such as wringing their hands, pacing back and forth, or repeating particular words. They often have visual and auditory hallucinations which are religious or supernatural in nature. These hallucinations are very likely the visions that are commonly believed to be divine in nature.

Even during the periods between seizures, patients with TLE exhibit specific personality traits. They tend to display hypergraphia (extensive and obsessive writing), hyposexuality (a lack of sexual desire), hypermorality (obsessively following some high moral standard), as well as a preoccupation with religious and philosophical issues.

From the Manitoban. Fascinating, if this can be confirmed by further studies. I suspect a lot of people will find this a bit hard to accept, though.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Heathrow third runway gets go-ahead

Which is kind of odd; given that the UK's economy is almost as bad as that of the US, who the hell can afford to fly anyhow?
The transport secretary, Geoff Hoon, gave the go-ahead to a third runway and sixth terminal at Heathrow airport today as opponents promised a decade of legal protests and direct action.

Hoon brushed off concerns over the environmental impact of the decision to announce that a third runway should be built by 2020, adding an estimated 400 flights a day at the west London site and increasing annual passenger numbers through the airport from 66 million to around 82 million.

"Doing nothing will damage our economy and will have no impact whatsoever on climate change," he told the Commons.

However the government attached three conditions to the announcement, alongside confirmation that a company would be formed to build a high-speed rail line from London to Birmingham via Heathrow. The three conditions were:

• The third runway will operate at half its capacity when it opens in 2020, raising the total number of flights from 480,000 to 600,000, rather than the 702,000 intended

• Aircraft using the new runway will have to meet strict greenhouse gas emissions standards

• Total carbon emissions from UK aviation must fall below 2005 levels by 2050

"This gives us the toughest climate change regime for aviation anywhere in the world," said Hoon.
From the Guardian. The bit about requiring aircraft using the new runway meet "strict greenhouse gas emissions standard" is a bit odd. Will they refuse to allow half-empty aircraft to use the runway? Will they only allow turboprops to use it? Somehow I doubt it.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

UK to ban plasma TVs

Definitely a good idea. I wonder if they'd have had the nerve to do it if LCD screens weren't widely available, though.

Energy-guzzling flatscreen plasma televisions will soon be banned as part of the battle against climate change, ministers have told The Independent on Sunday.

"Minimum energy performance standards" for televisions are expected to be agreed across Europe this spring, they say, and this should lead to "phasing out the most inefficient TVs". At the same time, a compulsory labelling system will be drawn up to identify the best and worst devices.

The moves, which follow last week's withdrawal of the 100W incandescent lightbulb, are part of a drive to slow the rapid growth of electricity consumption in homes by phasing out wasteful devices and introducing more efficient ones. Giant plasma televisions – dubbed "the 4x4s of the living room" – can consume four times as much energy as traditional TVs that used cathode ray tubes (CRTs).

From the Independent.

The end of Nortel

It was a long time coming, I suppose:
Nortel Networks Corp., North America’s biggest maker of telephone equipment, filed for bankruptcy protection in a U.S. bankruptcy court.

Nortel, based in Toronto, had more than $1 billion in assets and debt, according to today’s Chapter 11 filing of its U.S. subsidiary in Wilmington, Delaware.

Nortel has lost almost $7 billion since Chief Executive Officer Mike Zafirovski took over in 2005, leaving him struggling for the funds to operate the company. Bank of New York Mellon was listed as Nortel’s largest unsecured creditor in its role as trustee on more than $3.8 billion in notes.
From Bloomberg. Glad I never invested in that one...

Monday, January 12, 2009

"Joe the Plumber" on the appropriate role for media in wartime

Yep, not satisfied with the 15 minutes of fame he got during the US election campaign, he now feels qualified to chime in on the situation in Israel/Palestine:

Via Think Progress.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Auto industry bailout has a catch...

... the employees lose their right to strike:
Provisions of General Motors' and Chrysler's US$17.4-billion in federal loans automatically places them in default if union workers go on strike.

A General Motors Corp. filing this week with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission detailed the provision as part of its $13.4 billion in federal loans.

From the Winnipeg Free Press. I wonder if the loans will automatically be placed in default if executives are paid bonuses? Somehow I doubt it...

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

‘Broken’ Billionaire Merckle Killed Self, Family Says

Yep, it's happening for real:

German billionaire Adolf Merckle committed suicide by throwing himself under a train, “broken” as his business empire crumbled under a growing burden of debt, his family said.

The 74 year-old businessman was hit yesterday evening near his hometown of Blaubeuren, 44 miles southeast of Stuttgart, a police officer said in an interview. His body was found on the tracks at around 7:30 p.m. about 300 yards from his home and a suicide note had also been found.

Merckle, whose holding company owes banks about 5 billion euros ($6.7 billion), owned stakes in HeidelbergCement AG and drug wholesaler Phoenix Pharmahandel AG. He had been seeking emergency financing for more than two months from a group of more than 30 banks led by Commerzbank AG, Deutsche Bank AG, Royal Bank of Scotland Group Plc and Landesbank Baden-Wuerttemberg.

“The dedicated family businessman was broken by his inability to handle the situation and he ended his own life,” his family said in a statement today. “The distress at his companies caused by the financial crisis and the resultant uncertainty of the last few weeks” contributed to his death, the family added.

Merckle, whose estimated $9.2 billion fortune put him 94th on Forbes’ list of the world’s richest people, was hurt by bets on Volkswagen AG, a drop in the value of HeidelbergCement stock and increasing debt. The family’s spiraling debt threatened holdings including its VEM Vermoegensverwaltung GmbH holding company, which owed the bank about 5 billion euros, people with knowledge of the matter said last month.

From Bloomberg. Sad, but not too surprising when "money becomes your God", as NorthReport says in this babble thread.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Robert Fisk: Keeping out the cameras and reporters simply doesn't work

Surprise surprise:

What is Israel afraid of? Using the old "enclosed military area" excuse to prevent coverage of its occupation of Palestinian land has been going on for years. But the last time Israel played this game – in Jenin in 2000 – it was a disaster. Prevented from seeing the truth with their own eyes, reporters quoted Palestinians who claimed there had been a massacre by Israeli soldiers – and Israel spent years denying it. In fact, there was a massacre, but not on the scale that it was originally reported.

Now the Israeli army is trying the same doomed tactic again. Ban the press. Keep the cameras out. By yesterday morning, only hours after the Israeli army went clanking into Gaza to kill more Hamas members – and, of course, more civilians – Hamas was reporting the capture of two Israeli soldiers. Reporters on the ground could have sorted out the truth or the lie about that. But without a single Western journalist in Gaza, the Israelis were left to tell the world that they didn't know if the story was true.

On the other hand, the Israelis are so ruthless that the reasons for the ban on journalism may be quite easily explained: that so many Israeli soldiers are going to kill so many innocents – more than three score by last night, and that's only the ones we know about – that images of the slaughter would be too much to tolerate. Not that the Palestinians have done much to help. The kidnapping by a Palestinian mafia family of the BBC's man in Gaza – finally released by Hamas, although that's not being recalled right now – put paid to any permanent Western television presence in Gaza months ago. Yet the results are the same.

From the Independent. Meanwhile, there's plenty of speculation about a possible reason for the timing of the attack itself:

Many Middle East experts say Israel timed its move against Hamas, which began with airstrikes on Dec. 27, 24 days before Mr. Bush leaves office, with the expectation of such backing in Washington. Israeli officials could not be certain that President-elect Barack Obama, despite past statements of sympathy for Israel’s right of self-defense, would match the Bush administration’s unconditional endorsement.

“Obviously Bush, even by comparison with past U.S. presidents, has been very, very pro-Israel,” said Sami G. Hajjar, a longtime scholar of Middle East politics and a visiting professor at the National Defense University. “Despite Obama’s statements, and his advisers who are quite pro-Israel, the Israelis really didn’t know how he’d react. His first instinct is for diplomacy, not military action.”
From the New York Times.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Scientists hope to prevent malaria by cutting lifespan of mosquitoes

Interesting idea, though I'm not entirely comfortable with it:
Old mosquitoes usually spread disease, so Australian researchers figured out a way to make the pests die younger - naturally, not poisoned.

Scientists have been racing to genetically engineer mosquitoes to become resistant to diseases like malaria and dengue fever that plague millions around the world, as an alternative to mass spraying of insecticides.

A new report Friday suggested a potentially less complicated approach: breeding mosquitoes to carry an insect parasite that causes earlier death.

Once a mosquito encounters dengue or malaria, it takes roughly two weeks of incubation before the insect can spread that pathogen by biting someone, meaning older mosquitoes are the more dangerous ones.

The Australian scientists knew that one type of fruit fly often is infected with a strain of bacterial parasite that cuts its lifespan in half.

So they infected the mosquito species that spreads dengue fever - called Aedes aegypti - with that fruit-fly parasite, breeding several generations in a tightly controlled laboratory.

Mosquitoes born with the parasite lived only 21 days - even in cosy lab conditions - compared with 50 days for regular mosquitoes, University of Queensland biologist Scott O'Neill reported in the journal Science.

Mosquitoes tend to die sooner in the wild than in a lab. So if the parasite could spread widely enough among these mosquitoes, it "may provide an inexpensive approach to dengue control," O'Neill concluded.

Theoretically, it could spread: This bacterium, called Wolbachia, is quite common among arthropod species, including some mosquito types - just not the specific types that spread dengue and malaria, the researchers noted. And Wolbachia strains are inherited only through infected mothers, with an evolutionary quirk that can help them quickly gain a foothold in a new population.

From the Woodstock Sentinel-Review. Certainly it seems less disruptive than the proposal to completely exterminate all Anopheles mosquitoes by introducing harmful segregation distorters to the insects' genomes, though engineering a significant change in the life cycles of wild populations is not something to be taken lightly even if extermination is not your goal. But maybe the benefits do outweigh the costs; certainly malaria is a grave problem throughout much of the world, and it may become worse as global warming opens up new habitat to the mosquitoes that carry it.