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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