December 8th, 2010

[URBAN NOTE] On Toronto's culture wars, now from the other side

Don Cherry, host of the CBC's Hockey Night in Canada, was invited by Mayor-Elect Rob Ford to speak at his City Council inauguration, to </i></i>drape the chain of office around Ford's neck and to give a speech. And what a speech it was.

Actually I'm wearing pink for all the pinkos out there that ride bicycles and everything. I thought I'd get it in. What'd ya expect, Ron MacLean, here? To come here?

You know, I am befuddled, because I thought I was just doing a good thing, coming down with Ron—Rob—and I was gonna do this here, and it was gonna be nice and the whole deal.

I've been bein' ripped to shreds by the left-wing pinko newspapers out there. It's unbelievable. One guy called me a pink...a jerk in a pink suit, so I thought I'd wear that for him too, today.

You know, it's funny. In those articles I was made fun of 'cause I go to church. I'm easy to do it that way. And I was called maudlin for the troops, because I honor the troops. This is the kinda, uh... You're gonna be facin', Rob, with these left-wing pinkos. They scrape the bottom of the barrel, but AGAIN, I was asked, why I was asked, and I asked Doug, "why?" And he said: "We need a famous, good-looking guy." And I said, I'm your man, right? Right off the bat.

You know, I was asked: why, why, why [the] landslide. And I was in their corner right from the start. They phoned me. Doug phoned me, the morning. They'll get a landslide! And why? Because Rob's honest. He's truthful. He's like Julian Fantino. What you see is what you get. He's no phony. And I could go on right now, all the millions and millions and thousands of dollars he's gonna save and everything, but I'd just like to tell a little story that was in the Sun, I think it was in the back pages. It was just a little, little thing. And Fiona Crean, for eighteen months, has been trying to get something done with City Hall. And then the story—I think some of you know the story—that there was a little old lady and all of a sudden she got banged on the door and two guys were there and said: "We're cutting your tree down." You know that's just a little thing, but to me that's a big thing. "We're cutting your tree down!"

And she's, well: "I don't want it. That's my favourite tree. A hundred year-old..."

"No! It's down. Cut it down." And then they give her, send her a bill for five-thousand dollars, for cutting it down. And for eighteen months her son and Fiona were: "City Hall. City Hall. Please help us." Thirty, forty calls. Unbelievable. Nothing. Laughed at. Rob's the mayor one day, apology comes, and a five-thousand-dollar cheque.

And that's why I say he's gonna be the greatest mayor this city has ever, ever seen, as far as I'm concerned! And put that in your pipe, you left-wing kooks.

The video is here.

His speech drew plenty of reaction indeed. The term is now appearing on T-shirts and buttons. Steve Munro thinks that Ford should apologize for inviting Cherry. Globe and Mail columnist John Doyle exorciates Cherry for his new involvement in politics, bringing such an important CBC show into the political arena (on the right).

Why is Ford Don Cherry’s kind of guy? According to the Toronto Star: “Voters are ‘sick of the elites and artsy people’ running politics, says Don Cherry.” Cherry is also reported to be pleased by things “shifting around a bit to the right” and is further quoted as saying, “It’s time for some lunch-pail, blue-collar people.” That wouldn’t be Ford, exactly, as he’s a well-off career politician. Even just reading Cherry in the paper one can hear the tone of sanctimonious self-importance so familiar from Hockey Night in Canada.

This is Cherry’s second foray into politics. Recently he endorsed Julian Fantino, the Conservative candidate in last week’s by-election in Vaughan, and recorded a telephone message endorsing the former Ontario Provincial Police commissioner. These acts have unleashed some peculiar commentary, much of it of the gee-shucks variety written with a lavish number of puns about hockey. Like it was all meaningless. But it isn’t.

Here’s the thing: The politicization of Hockey Night in Canada is now complete.

Cherry’s always been bombastic about vaguely political issues, but disguised his reactionary rants as folksy, on subjects such as French guys and Canada’s failure to join in the invasion of Iraq. Then, more significantly, came those ceaseless, maudlin memorials to young women and men who have died fighting in Afghanistan. As if their deaths deserved nothing more noble than a TV freak in a pink suit spouting cracker-barrel philosophy about the worth of the mission in Iraq.

Like many rich and famous TV personalities, Cherry now comes across as a narcissist. His embrace of Conservative orthodoxy is his business, apparently, even as he’s shoving it down the country’s throat on a publicly funded broadcaster.

The National Post's Kelly McParland gets it right, I think, when he says that Torontonians can be divided into people who like Cherry (like Ford) and people who don't (like the "pinkos"). He's pro-Cherry himself.

The difference between anti-Cherry people and pro-Cherry people (like me), seems to be in how seriously you take him. Yes he makes lots of controversial comments (though, if you read the transcript of his remarks yesterday, you realize there’s always the issue of deciphering just what he’s actually saying.) And some of it is a bit rude (for instance, his determination to mispronounce names, even when he likes people. It took me a while on Saturday to figure out that the ”Jack Martin” he kept referring to was Montreal coach Jacques Martin.

What they miss is that Cherry is authentic. He’s a showman, but he’s not a phony. He doesn’t temper his views to suit his audience in the way a politician would. So, unlike a politician, you know what he really thinks. He’s not malicious. He’s a patriot, as sincere as they come. When he chokes up every time he announces another casualty, it’s because the man cares so much. And what, exactly, is wrong with a Canadian hockey coach caring so deeply about the men and women who give their lives for their country, and using a few moments on the national channel to ensure other Canadians recognize the sacrifice being made on their behalf? The pink suit, is that it? Can soldiers only be mourned by people who wear whatever is current fashion in the Globe and Mail newsroom?

So, the Toronto culture wars begin; or, rather, they continue, with people on the left (like me) now on the side opposite the mayor. How fun.

[REVIEW] Nowhere Boy

Nowhere Boy
Originally uploaded by randyfmcdonald
The 30th anniversary of the murder of John Lennon is being marked in his adopted New York City and around the world. I wasn't even 11 months old when he was assassinated, but I've certainly heard and learned plenty about him in his pop star era: the "Imagine" controversy, the dynamics of the Beatles, his complicated personal relationships. (His potential as a political and cultural figure, cliched as it might sound, was only just beginning.)

The genius of Nowhere Boy, a 2009 film directed by Sam Taylor-Wood--a multi-faceted artist; she covered "I'm In Love with a German Film Star" with the Pet Shop Boys--is that it strips all that away to make a simple film about a teenage boy in early 1960s Liverpool, troubled and complex and trying to find his way in his music, his city, and his family. The genius of the film is that it isn't a "pre-Beatles" film; it's much more tightly focused than that, never mentioning the band's name while showing how he developed to the point. The script's both compelling and true to live; my mom, from the Beatles generation, thought the film quite good, though it rearranged the chronology somewhat to come up with a more compact narrative. Aaron Johnson channels Lennon; Kristin Scott Thomas, as his aunt Mimi, is as good as we have a right to expect; Lennon's mother is played well by Anne-Marie Duff. Seeing Nowhere Boy is as good a way as any to honour Lennon; go, see.

[BLOG-LIKE POSTING] On the purported Mono Lake discovery of arsenic-using bacteria

The recent, highly-hyped announcement by a team of scientists that they found a species of bacteria, founded in California's Mono Lake, that used arsenic in place of phosphorous, is one result of the ongoing search for a shadow biosphere. Used by Paul Davies among others, the term "shadow biosphere" refers to life that evolved alongside our DNA-using form we all know, but which is based on different forms--RNA, perhaps, or something more exotic. If a shadow biosphere of non-DNA life was found, this would have profound implications, not least on the search for extraterrestrial life; if life evolved at least two separate times here on Earth, that would tend to suggest that there should be plenty of life out there. The scientists' paper is available in full here, at Science. Wired Science goes into more detail about the discovery here.

rsenic is toxic and is thought to be too chemically unstable to do the work of phosphorus, which includes tasks such as holding DNA in a tidy double helix, activating proteins and getting passed around to provide energy in cells. If the new results are validated, they have huge implications for basic biochemistry and the origin and evolution of life, both on Earth and elsewhere in the universe.

“This is an amazing result, a striking, very important and astonishing result — if true,” says molecular chemist Alan Schwartz of Radboud University Nijmegen in the Netherlands. “I’m even more skeptical than usual, because of the implications. But it is fascinating work. It is original, and it is possibly very important.”

The experiments began with sediment from eastern California’s Mono Lake, which teems with shrimp, flies and algae that can survive the lake’s strange chemistry. Mono Lake formed in a closed basin — any water that leaves does so by evaporation — making the lake almost three times as salty as the ocean. It is highly alkaline and rich in carbonates, phosphorus, arsenic and sulfur.

Led by Felisa Wolfe-Simon of NASA’s Astrobiology Institute and the U.S. Geological Survey in Menlo Park, California, the researchers cultured microbes from the Lake Mono sediment. The microbes got a typical diet of sugar, vitamins and some trace metals, but no phosphate, biology’s favorite form of phosphorus. Then the team started force-feeding the critters arsenate, an analogous form of arsenic, in greater and greater quantities.

One microbe in particular — now identified as strain GFAJ-1 of the salt-loving, mostly marine family Halomonadaceae — was plucked out and cultured in test tubes. Some were fed loads of arsenate; others got phosphate. While the microbes subsisting on arsenate didn’t grow as much as those getting phosphate, they still grew steadily, doubling their ranks every two days, says Wolfe-Simon. And while the research team couldn’t eliminate every trace of the phosphate from the original culture, detection and analytical techniques suggests that GFAJ-1 started using arsenate as a building block in phosphate’s place.

“These data show that we are getting substitution across the board,” Wolfe-Simon says. “This microbe, if we are correct, has solved the challenge of being alive in a different way.”

Arsenic sits right below phosphorus in the periodic table and so, chemically speaking, isn’t that different, Wolfe-Simon notes. And of the six essential elements of life — carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and sulfur (aka CHNOPS) — phosphorus has a relatively spotty distribution on the Earth’s surface. If a microbe in a test tube can be coerced to live on arsenic, perhaps life’s primordial home was also arsenic-rich and life that used phosphorus came later. A “shadow biosphere” of arsenic-based life may even exist unseen on Earth, or on some lonely rock in space.

The problems with this are also outlined by Wired Science.

[O]there biologists started raising red flags almost immediately, questioning the methods the team used to purify the DNA and asking why the researchers skipped certain tests.

“It seems much more likely that the arsenic they’re seeing is contaminating arsenic that’s going along for the ride,” biologist Rosie Redfield of the University of British Columbia told

Redfield posted a biting critique Dec. 4 on her research blog. As of today, the post has received more than 40,000 hits.

She points out that the team didn’t properly clean their DNA before or after running it through a standard device for separating DNA and RNA from other molecules, a technique called gel electrophoresis.

Cleaning the samples would require “a little kit that costs $2 and takes 10 minutes, and then you have pure DNA that you can analyze,” Redfield said. The researchers used this method elsewhere in the paper, but not in the critical experiment that was supposed to show arsenic was incorporated into the bacteria’s DNA.

“That’s just asking for contamination problems,” she said. The arsenic they found could have been hanging around in the gel, not in the cells, she added. “It’s as if they wanted to find arsenic, so they didn’t take a lot of trouble to make sure they didn’t find it by mistake.”

In a guest post on the blog “We, Beasties,” Harvard microbiologist and geochemist Alex Bradley raised another issue.

The NASA team immersed the DNA in water, where arsenic compounds quickly fall apart. If the DNA was really built from arsenate, it should have broken into pieces, Bradley wrote. But it didn’t. That suggests the molecules were still using stronger phosphate to hold themselves together.

The paper's authors have declined to respond to critiques from blogs, saying that this should be something for scientists to discuss not blogs, notwithstanding the huge publicity and hype that had been built up before and after the presentation. The general consensus among some experts seems quite negative, some going so far as to say that the paper should never have been published, others repeating the criticisms above or adding others (suggesting that the bacteria are actually bloating and sequestering the bacteria). I've seen some people suggest that an adaptation to arsenic-heavy environments is possible for a DNA-based life form without any shadow biosphere at all, especially over the seven or eight hundred thousand years that Mono Lake has existed. Compare the bacterial life in Spain's highly acidified Rio Tinto, which adapted over successive generations in a five thousand year time period to increasing amongs of mine waste.