Category Archives: Society

Space police

A group of skywatchers set their sights on secret space missions—including a U.S. Air Force project

U.S. Air Force/Reuters

An orbiting weapons platform, a spy plane, or a decade-old, billion-dollar money pit. The U.S. Air Force’s X-37B space planes are a cloak-and-dagger project, but their secret orbits are known, and that discovery was made, in part, by Canadians. They’re part of an international organization of volunteer skywatchers who’ve been tracking secret government satellites for over 30 years.

The purpose of the planes is now a closely guarded secret, but they started as an open NASA project before being moved to the air force, so some information about them is known. The first X-37B is on the ground following its initial mission, which lasted from April to December 2010, and its sister is currently in orbit. They look like miniature versions of the space shuttle, with stubby wings for gliding at high altitudes, a solar panel array that keeps them powered in space, and a cargo bay about the size of a standard pickup truck’s bed. They’re also fully robotic, and their launches led to speculation, especially from the Chinese and Russian governments, that the U.S. was attempting to weaponize space.

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‘Keep out of my fridge’

An Ottawa man is fighting for the right to slaughter and process meat for his friends

David Gonczol/Ottawa Citizen

Four squad cars squealed into Mark Tijssen’s yard with their lights blazing, just after dark on a cold November night last year. Tijssen, who was having dinner with his nine-year-old son at the time, politely showed the officers around his Ottawa property before being charged with several crimes under the Ontario Food Quality and Safety Act (OFQSA), including killing uninspected animals and distributing meat without a licence. It was all because he had slaughtered a pig and given a friend some of the meat. “I didn’t set out to be an activist or a revolutionary—I grew up on a farm,” says Tijssen, 48, a Canadian Forces major. “There was no need for this.”

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A league of their own

In Seoul, StarCraft is a sport with pro athletes, and big salaries. And now the rules of play are about to change.

Wikipedia/ Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

Heavy metal music booms and strobe lights flash on a sleek, multi-level black stage as the standing-room-only audience cheers. They’re captivated by two stone-faced players sitting apart in logo-covered black booths, their fingers filling the air with the machine-gun sounds of rapid-fire keyboard clicking. It’s the first round of the GomTV StarCraft II Open, the largest StarCraft II competition in the world. Taking place in Seoul, South Korea, from Oct. 18 to Nov. 13, it’s a holy sacrament in what has become all but a national religion.

StarCraft is a fairly successful, if outdated, sci-fi military simulator where players build bases and armies and attack one another. But it has the status of a sport in South Korea, with half of the 11 million copies sold worldwide spinning in the country’s PCs—meaning almost one in 10 Koreans owns a copy. Two cable channels are dedicated solely to streaming StarCraft matches, and career players, known by nicknames like SlayerS_`BoxeR`, Flash and [ReD]NaDa, practise up to a dozen hours a day to hone nearly superhuman reflexes.

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FanExpo: freaks, nerds and corporate takeover

Are bigger comic cons better? Veterans Stan Lee and Lloyd Kaufman tackle the issue.

Photography by Tom Henheffer

The cramped and kind-of-smelly halls are packed with blue-haired anime nuts carrying six-foot cardboard swords, gangly Chinese Checkers experts with an encyclopedic knowledge of Star Wars, and far too many fanny packs. The 15th annual FanExpo is Canada’s largest celebration of pop culture, and it brought more than 60,000 freaks, nerds and people dressed like ghostbusters to the Metro Toronto Convention Centre.

Like other events that were once strictly comic-book-centered—such as the San Diego and New York Comic Cons—FanExpo has exploded from a humble celebration of multi-paneled visual storytelling into a full-blown, corporate-sponsored pop culture bacchanal, combining horror, sci-fi, anime, comic book and video and board gaming conventions into one massive festival.

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Never say die

Nearly immortal jellyfish could help unlock health secrets. PHOTO BY: Barcroft Media

The world’s oceans are being infested with a specific species of jellyfish—one that can potentially live forever. “We’re facing a worldwide silent invasion,” says Maria Pia Miglietta, a biology researcher at Pennsylvania State University. What makes this particular creature—the Turritopsis dohrnii—so special is its ability to change from its adult state (the tentacle-trailing dome we all know and avoid) back into tiny polyps, restarting what would normally only be a life cycle of a few months and allowing it to create more colonies, and thousands more jellyfish. “It’s like a butterfly,” says Miglietta, “but instead of dying it turns back into a caterpillar.”

The process is called transdifferentiation—that’s when specialized cells change from one type into another. It occurs elsewhere in nature, mostly in partial organ regeneration, but scientists don’t know of any other animals that use it the same way as this particular jellyfish. And learning how the Turritopsis “switches on genes that rejuvenate their cells” may result in major breakthroughs in reversing the cellular degeneration that causes diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, says Stefano Piraino, a professor of biology and environmental science at Italy’s University of Salento. It could also lead to greater insight into the world’s most deadly illness: “I don’t want to say that we will find a solution for cancer,” says Piraino. “But it could contribute to the understanding of how cancer occurs.”

The Turritopsis, which National Geographic has dubbed the “Benjamin Button of the deep,” was first discovered about 130 years ago. It’s only a few millimetres in size, uses tiny stingers to capture, kill and feed on crustacean larvae, and is a favourite meal of sea spiders. The Turritopsis is also quite susceptible to viruses, fungi and bacteria, especially in its polyp stage. Those facts have been known for decades. But the regenerative abilities that set it apart weren’t discovered until 1992. That’s when an Italian student accidentally left an adult specimen in an uncovered bowl of water. He returned to the lab a few days later to find the jellyfish gone and a group of cells in its place. The animal had reverted to an earlier state to survive the stressful conditions in the bowl, something the researchers had never seen before and have so far been unable to study in nature. This finding went relatively unreported until Miglietta published a paper last year, which identified the species’ invasive spread.

Turritopsis has been found all over the world, from Japan to Italy to the United States, and it continues to proliferate. Miglietta believes that cargo ships are carrying the species, causing colonies to pop up whenever ballast water—which ships pump in and out for stability—is dumped in foreign ports. The fact that the jellyfish have also been found nearly 500 km from the entrance of the Panama Canal, far from major shipping routes, is proof that Turritopsis is fully capable of covering large distances on its own. And the jellyfish are adapting to their new environments. In tropical areas, for instance, the species is beginning to shed a few of the tentacles present in its genetically identical relatives living in more temperate places.

But is the jellyfish’s spread an environmental problem? After all, foreign species stowed away in ships have resulted in disastrous consequences in the past. “Some invasions have really nasty, dramatic economic and ecological effects,” says Miglietta. In the 1980s, for instance, a ship dumped ballast water containing another jellyfish, Mnemiopsis leidyi, into the Black Sea. Within a few years the numbers had exploded—the population was estimated to weigh about one billion tonnes, and it completely decimated the fishing industry.

Although worldwide numbers are increasing, experts aren’t predicting a similar catastrophe involving the Turritopsis. This particular jellyfish is usually only found in small colonies, so population concentration remains quite low. Piraino, who was part of the research team that in the early ’90s discovered the species’ ability to restart its life, says that even though Turritopsis is capable of surviving in harsh environments—and has been seen restarting its life cycles up to three times, according to researchers in Japan—it’s simply too small and has too little an impact on ecosystems to be considered a threat. Plus, it appears to be quite tame compared to some of the larger, more virulent species that are carried in ballast water, such as the Mnemiopsis or the Asian clam, a small mollusc that is now clogging underwater intake pipes all over the world. The Turritopsis would only become dangerous, say experts, if the population suddenly exploded.

Piraino says the bigger issue involving the Turritopsis is unravelling its potential medical value. The next step for researchers, he says, is to begin sequencing the Turritopsis’s genome, a process that will likely take a year or two. At that point, scientists will be that much closer to understanding the mechanism that kick-starts transdifferentiation. Then, says Piraino, who knows what the potential might be.

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The big player

The kiri is all the talk in

the carbon credit market. Will it deliver?

Jean-Pol Grandmont

The Chinese kiri tree is a miracle of nature. It grows 10 to 20 feet in a single year and up to 80 in seven, it regenerates from the roots after it’s been harvested, it’s so hearty that it can survive wildfires, and millions of the deciduous trees are about to be planted around the world.

“They grow fast. That’s probably the one outstanding characteristic that gets everybody’s attention,” says David Drexler, who owns a kiri plantation in Georgia. He says the tree, which produces a pale and lightweight hardwood, has an untapped potential that farmers and investors are beginning to notice.

The tree’s rapid growth and regeneration mean it can go through three harvest cycles in the 30 years it takes to grow a single pine. Those same characteristics also allow it to sink an amazing amount of CO2—about 2.5 tonnes per tree over seven years—making it a lucrative new player in the emerging carbon credit market. “It’s literally like pulling canisters of CO2 out of the air,” says Martin Tindall, president of ECO2, a California-based company. “It’s fantastic.”

Kiris are already popular across Asia, where they’re made into boats, furniture and musical instruments. The trees also play an important traditional role—it’s said the regenerative phoenix will land only in their branches, and it’s an old custom in Japan to plant one when a girl is born so it can be harvested to make a dowry chest on her wedding day.

Tindall plans to use the trees for “aforest­ation”—creating a forest where there wasn’t one before. Next month his company will plant three million trees across 14,000 acres in Reno, Nev., kicking off a 50-year project that’s expected to create hundreds of jobs and generate over $220 million in revenue from lumber, biofuel and carbon credit sales. And, if the project is successful, the trees will remove a total of 6.5 million tonnes of CO2 out of the air every seven years.

Other projects are already under way. Australian company Environmental Forest Farms Management Ltd. started the Kiri Park Projects, planting 150,000 trees on 300 hectares of property to use as timber. Silva Tree, based in Central America, is reforesting 1,500 hectares of Panamanian rainforest with kiris, and the Sierra Gold Corporation, an African mining company, just purchased 1,000 trees to start a reforestation and carbon credit program in Sierra Leone. Even former president Jimmy Carter owns a five-hectare plantation in Georgia.

But experts say that although the tree has incredible potential, investors and the public need to be wary of overhyped benefits. “It’s easy to farm with a calculator,” says Drexler, adding that the kiri is “not a plant-and-forget tree.” He says it’s common for sellers to inflate the value of kiri lumber and their ease and speed of growing to promise gigantic returns for little work. He adds that people often don’t realize the trees need a huge amount of water and near perfect soil and weather conditions to grow quickly, and that he can’t see how Tindall could possibly hydrate plants in the middle of a Nevada desert.

JoAnne Skelly, a horticulturalist with the University of Nevada, also has questions about the water required, saying high winds and dry air will suck moisture from the trees, creating an impossible demand in an area that’s tearing up golf courses because of severe water shortages. And, she says, Nevada also gets quite cold, meaning the plantation will have to thrive with about 120 frost-free days instead of the 180 kiris normally need.

“I would be very excited for a business like that to succeed,” says Skelly, “but they will really need to go into it with eyes wide open.”

For his part, Tindall says his company is doing exactly that. “It’s not just a matter of ‘we think it’s going to work.’ That would be ludicrous. It’s securing that local expertise to make sure.”

To that end, he’s worked with forestry and horticultural experts to develop a cold-resistant and faster-growing strain of kiri called Paulownia elongata. Even though his company is only planting 14,000 acres of this strain, they leased 78,000 acres of land to secure extra water rights, and plan to use a form of piped irrigation to deliver nutrients and keep the trees hydrated without losing any liquid to evaporation. And he acknowledges the frost problem, saying it will slow growth by up to 20 per cent, but that the trees are so hearty and turn over so quickly that the business will stay profitable.

“It’s a natural phenomenon that we’re able to leverage,” says Tindall. “There’s a direct link between positive environmental impact and positive economic impact. We’re commercial tree huggers.”

Only time will tell if the kiri tree has been oversold or if it will actually deliver big.

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Sharks’ favourite lunch stop

One 75-km stretch of beach in Florida has the largest number of shark attacks in the world

Alexander Safonov/GETTY IMAGES

Most people bitten by sharks in the shallow, murky water of Volusia County, on central Florida’s east coast near Daytona Beach, just feel a tug, and maybe some thrashing around their ankles. Then they look down to see one of their legs streaming with blood, pierced by dozens of puncture holes. It happens all the time on the 75-km stretch of coast, because Volusia County has the largest number of shark attacks in the world. Of 639 bites worldwide between 1999 and 2008, Volusia County had 135. That’s more than one-fifth of the entire world’s attacks, and about one-third of all attacks in the U.S.

“When you’re surfing on a wave you can sometimes even see sharks underneath you,” says Jeremy Johnston, a long-time surfer raised on the east coast of Florida, who’s had sharks bump into his legs, but has been lucky enough to avoid any bites. “You see one and you lie down, float on the board and go straight into shore. It’s scary.”

The University of Florida recently did a study on the sharks of Volusia County, and figured out why they’re so prone to chomping on beach goers, and why they especially target surfers.  “The nature of the sport, the kicking of the feet, the wipeouts, are provocative,” said George Burgess, director of the university’s International Shark Attack File. “Sharks in that environment have to make quick decisions. Sometimes they bite and instead of finding a mullet they have a human hand.”

A nutrient-rich inlet with strong tides, high surf and well-developed sandbars brings in huge numbers of mullet, mackerel and other prey fish, which in turn attract the 1.5- to 2.5-m spinner, bull and blacktip sharks that are plentiful along the Florida coast. Those same conditions also make for excellent surfing, which attracts crowds of people. “On any given day where there’s a little wave you can find almost 200 people out in the water,” says Johnston.

The higher the concentration of people, the greater the chance someone will encounter a shark, and all those feet and ankles make it easy for multiple predators to mistake a human limb for a fish. The vast majority of bites are on legs, and Burgess’s study also found that they usually occur in less than two metres of water and with people wearing swimsuits with contrasting colours, which sharks can easily spot.

But because the sharks in the area are far smaller than the three-to six-metre great whites seen in Hollywood movies, there’s never been a lethal attack in the county, and the damage done is usually similar to a nasty dog bite. People “don’t even feel it,” says Johnston. “They see a big old gash or puncture and the flesh is flapped to the side.”

Signs warning about the shark-ridden waters are posted around area beaches, but they are little deterrent to surfers and swimmers, and short of avoiding the water there isn’t much they can do to prevent a bite. “You’ve just got to know you’re taking a risk,” says Johnston. “It’s their home. You get in the way, they’ll bite.”

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