February 3rd, 2010

cats, shakespeare

[CAT] "Furry angel of death profiled in doctor's book"

This is grim, if interesting. And no, it's not nearly as bad as the article's title might lead you to fear. It's sweet, actually.

The scientist in Dr. David Dosa was skeptical when first told that Oscar, an aloof cat kept by a nursing home, regularly predicted patients' deaths by snuggling alongside them in their final hours.

But his doubts eroded after he and his colleagues tallied about 50 correct calls made by Oscar over five years.

Dosa explains the process in a book released this week,
Making Rounds With Oscar: The Extraordinary Gift of an Ordinary Cat.

The feline's bizarre talent astounds Dosa, but he finds Oscar's real worth in his fierce insistence on being present when others turn away from life's most uncomfortable topic: death.

"People actually were taking great comfort in this idea, that this animal was there and might be there when their loved ones eventually pass," Dosa said. "He was there when they couldn't be."

[. . .]

The nursing home adopted Oscar, a medium-haired cat with a grey-and-brown back and white belly, in 2005 because its staff thinks pets make the Steere House a home. They play with visiting children and prove a welcome distraction for patients and doctors alike.

After a year, the staff noticed that Oscar would spend his days pacing from room to room. He sniffed and looked at the patients but rarely spent much time with anyone — except when they had just hours to live.

He's accurate enough that the staff — including Dosa — know it's time to call family members when Oscar stretches beside their patients, who are generally too ill to notice his presence. If kept outside the room of a dying patient, he'll scratch at doors and walls, trying to get in.

Confirmation bias is probably at work here, but still.

[LINK] "More Bhutanese refugees expected on P.E.I."

It looks like the diaspora of ethnic Nepalese expelled from Bhutan is getting everywhere.

In May 2007 Canada agreed to take in 5,000 refugees who had been living in camps in eastern Nepal since the early 1990s. Last year, more than 40 of them arrived on Prince Edward Island. Another 35 are expected this year.

Madan Kumar Giri and seven members of his family were the first Bhutanese refugees to arrive more than three years ago. They've applied for Canadian citizenship. Giri sends photos and videos back to the refugee camps in Nepal, in the hopes of attracting people to P.E.I.

"We would like to increase the number of Bhutanese immigrants here on the Island, so at least we would have a small Bhutanese community," he said.

The size of the community matters to Citizenship and Immigration Canada as well. Creating a sustainable community for immigrants is a central part of its planning.

"That is a contributing factor and certainly makes it easier for that particular group to settle into the province," said Jon Stone, director of communication for Citizenship and Immigration Canada in the Atlantic Region.

As Canada continues to work towards its commitment of settling 5,000 refugees, more are expected on the Island in 2011.

[LINK] "1 Bloor East will rise again, this time to 67 storeys"

Will this effort work, I wonder?

A curvy 65-storey condominium could be coming to 1 Bloor East, site of a much-hyped hotel-condo project that fell apart when a Kazakhstan-based developer lost financing.

The new plan envisions a tower with 687 units atop a two-storey, 104,000-square-foot retail podium, according to a site plan application submitted to the city's planning department Friday. It also includes four floors of amenities for residents – possibly including a spa – on top of the stores.

The luxury hotel envisioned by the site's former owner, Bazis International Inc., is no longer part of the plan.

Toronto firm Hariri Pontarini is designing the proposed tower at the southeast corner of Yonge and Bloor streets, but the architects have yet to formally unveil drawings.

Great Gulf Group, which bought the site last summer, aims to start pre-selling condos at 1 Bloor East in the spring.

“We'll be going to sale within the next 60 days,” said Bruce Freeman, vice-president of the development company.

[LINK] "Blogger arranges his whole life through Craigslist"

I'm at once impressed and saddened.

When he was in university, 22-year-old Jason Paul only ever used Craigslist to get rid of furniture and find apartments. But post-graduation, he was jobless and decided to give the online classifieds site another chance. In an unusual social experiment, the Washington, D.C. native vowed to devote nine months of his life to a three-city journey in the United States – completely executed through Craigslist.

He started out with his car, just one bag of clothes and food staples, a phone, a computer and $2,500. Everything else – jobs, housing, friends, leisure activities – he had to find through the popular classifieds community. And there was one more rub: He restricted himself from interacting with anyone new unless contact was initiated online.

Mr. Paul is now more than halfway through his expedition, which began in Oakland, Calif. (where he made cash by street canvassing) and has taken him to Denver (where he’s working at a Denny’s restaurant).

He’s been documenting it all at livingcraigslist.com. He’s scored a free Thanksgiving dinner with strangers, found a friend he meets weekly for crochet lessons, and experienced the highs and lows of searching for roommates online. But with each passing week, he’s had more difficulty defining his role – is he an interloper running an experiment, or a legitimate member of the Craigslist community? And, as Mr. Paul told The Globe and Mail in a phone interview, this has led to some tough questions about how honest he should be with the people on the other end of the Craigslist ads.

More's at the Globe and Mail site.

I also feel a certain sense of bemusement. As a commenter notes, any number of books have come out recently which purport to deal with the author's year-long experiment, everything from organic cuisine to following the Bible. Is this really a news-worthy story?

[LINK] "History of Typography - Toronto Subway, Page 4"

A Rusty Little Box linked to this wonderful, wonderful TTC graphic.

For History of Typography course, 2nd year Graphic Design at the Ontario College of Art and Design; I had to research the old and new typographical styles of the entire Toronto Subway system and make into a timeline. This is page 4, Kipling/Kennedy, Scarborough RT, and Sheppard Subway.

I tried to make it as perfect and faithful as possible in terms of text kerning and tracking (spacing between letters); the Toronto Subway font was purchased from Quadrat Communications.

All the illustrations were made by me and are based on research and observation of the stations.

[BLOG-LIKE POSTING] On the new directions of the American space program

The official site for NASA's Constellation manned spaceflight program seems forlorn in light of that program's impending cancellation.

A plan to return US astronauts to the moon "is dead," a White House advisor on space issues said Friday, confirming reports that NASA will instead focus on developing commercial space transport.

"Constellation is dead," the advisor told AFP on condition of anonymity, referring to a program that envisioned returning to the moon by 2020 and using Earth's nearest neighbour as a base for manned expeditions to Mars.

Florida Today newspaper first reported the demise of the program Thursday, saying the plan was doomed by financial constraints in the 2011 budget which President Barack Obama is to present to Congress on Monday.

Reports added that the US space agency will work on finding a commercial solution to ferrying US astronauts to the International Space Station after the scheduled end of NASA's shuttle program in September 2010.

Only five more shuttle flights, including a mission by the Endeavour set for a February 7 launch, are planned.

Astronauts will be able to hitch rides aboard Russian Soyuz spacecraft, but the United States will need a commercial alternative if Congress approves White House plans to scrap development of a successor to the shuttle program.

The administration reportedly plans to hike NASA's budget by 5.9 billion dollars over five years to boost commercial development, with the goal of a first commercial flight to the ISS launching by 2015, the source said.

I'd certainly have liked a NASA program for manned lunar exploration, but if the program was overbudget and behind schedule I've no particular objections to Constellation's cancellation. Manned space travel is very expensive, and while it might be relatively affordable for the world's leading economies now that technology has become cheaper and economies larger, manned space travel has to compete with any number of other budgetary priorities, especially manned space travel to relatively uninteresting and economically unattractive targets like the Moon. In this current economic climate, manned spaceflight isn't going to be very important for the United States. China may well continue with its own manned program, even sending its own lunar expeditions in a conscious imitation of Apollo. The United States, in the meantime, may finally have happened upon a viable program for commercial spaceflight.

[I]n this proposed budget, which must be approved by Congress, NASA will provide funds for commercial space companies to build vehicles to ferry astronauts to and from the ISS. With the space shuttle program ending this year, NASA had agreed to pay Russia $50 million a seat. Commercial space companies could likely provide the seats for less money, but their vehicles are not yet human rated or tested.

It is true that the Constellation program was "over budget, behind schedule, and lacking in innovation due to a failure to invest in critical new technologies." But $9 billion has already been spent on developing the Ares rockets and the Orion crew capsule, and $2.5 billion is in the budget proposal to close out Constellation.

Proponents of Obama's budget proposal say moving towards using private commercial space companies will create more jobs per dollar because the government's investment would be leveraged by millions of dollars in private investments.

"NASA investment in the commercial spaceflight industry is a win-win decision," said Bret Alexander, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, in a statement released last week. "Commercial crew will create thousands of high-tech jobs in the United States, especially in Florida, while reducing the spaceflight gap and preventing us from sending billions to Russia.'

NASA already has contracts with SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corp. to bring cargo to the station, and . SpaceX is also developing vehicles to bring astronauts to orbit and back.

Besides. So we wont have Ares rockets. Who cares, when the fleets of robotic space probes are proving so productive? News like this (via james_nicoll) makes me feel hopeful about space programs.

NASA will extend the international Cassini-Huygens mission to explore Saturn and its moons to 2017. The agency's fiscal year 2011 budget provides a $60 million per year extension for continued study of the ringed planet.

"This is a mission that never stops providing us surprising scientific results and showing us eye popping new vistas," said Jim Green, director of NASA's planetary science division at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "The historic traveler's stunning discoveries and images have revolutionized our knowledge of Saturn and its moons."

Cassini launched in October 1997 with the European Space Agency's Huygens probe. The spacecraft arrived at Saturn in 2004. The probe was equipped with six instruments to study Titan, Saturn's largest moon. Cassini's 12 instruments have returned a daily stream of data from Saturn's system for nearly six years. The project was scheduled to end in 2008, but the mission received a 27-month extension to Sept. 2010.

[. . .

This extension], called the Cassini Solstice Mission, enables scientists to study seasonal and other long-term weather changes on the planet and its moons. Cassini arrived just after Saturn's northern winter solstice, and this extension continues until a few months past northern summer solstice in May 2017. The northern summer solstice marks the beginning of summer in the northern hemisphere and winter in the southern hemisphere.

A complete seasonal period on Saturn has never been studied at this level of detail. The Solstice mission schedule calls for an additional 155 orbits around the planet, 54 flybys of Titan and 11 flybys of the icy moon Enceladus.

Send more unmanned probes, everyone! Wait another couple of decades for technology and economics to make manned spaceflight beyond Earth's orbit more potentially productive, but in the meantime we should really chart the neighbourhood.

[BLOG-LIKE POSTING] On queerness and evolution and demographics

This post was inspired by a tweet by @osirius: "If homosexuality is genetic, will there be fewer gays born as fewer of us masquerade as (breeding) straight people and pass on our genes?" I took this over to my Facebook status, and talked about some recent studies which suggest that queer orientations among men are a by-product of genes correlating with elevated fertility among his sisters. (No word on queer women, sadly. Ideas, anyone?) If that's the case, and--as Bryn pointed out on Facebook--women are the carriers of the genes which produce queer sons, then it wouldn't necessarily matter if queer men stopped contributing to the gene pool.

In a December 2008 [FORUM] I wondered--and many people agreed with me--that when tests to determine the future sexual orientations of embryos come into play, there's going to be a lot of abortions or in vitro genetic editing. I'm not so sure that would be the case now, not only because decreasing stigma, with technological and legal innovations, make it easier than before for same-sex couples to become parents and so relieving their own parents, but because queerness could have many different origins. don't see any reason why different mechanisms couldn't lead to queer orientations, to different places on the Kinsey scale and to different behaviours (gay accent, anyone?), or, whatever. Is it genes? Is it environmental influence on the fetus? Is it social influences? Is it a combination of the three, or the two, and in what proportions? Are there other factors? As always, thinking about homosexualitity strikes me as less of a useful thing than talking about homosexualities.

The data's murky, and confusing. As Stephen points out in his own follow-up blog post, the fact that heterosexuality has happily coexisted alongside homosexuality in any number of different bird and mammal species indicates either that homosexuality doesn't have a deleterious effect evolutionarily or, maybe, that it has some kind of positive impact. Increased intra-gender sociability, maybe? It doesn't help that the data regarding human sexuality isn't necessarily all that good. The studies reporting that 2-3% of men are queer along with half that proportion of women depend on the honesty of the participants, and considering the continued if lessen stigma, even in anonymous studies like the ones that produced these percentages some people with same-sex activity in their past--never mind same-sex interest--may well respond falsely in the negative.

Without good data on the proportions of queer people in the general population and the nature of their orientations--Kinsey scale, Klein grid, you name it--it's going to be hard to come up with a model for the current situation. Determining what's going to happen in a generation's time is going to be even more difficult: what impact, precisely, will openness towards out queers and same-sex families have on the proportion of queers in the general population? That, as Stephen also notes, is the great question. Who knows? Maybe the proportion of non-heterosexuals might increase over the next generation if it turns out that queerness is associated with some sort of reproductive advantage?