Facebook for hypochondriacs

Is spending that much time on the internet good for your health? The millions of people who frantically track their social lives on Facebook and other such networking sites now have a reason to stay online even longer, with the release of a new social networking tool to help Canadians self-manage their illnesses at the click of a mouse.

Two years ago, frustrated with traditional health care establishments and research funding agencies who, he said, only invested in curing diseases rather than supporting those living with them, University of Toronto professor Alex Jadad contacted Dennis Bennie, a managing partner of equity investment firm XDL Capital Group, with a proposal for the novel health care system.

Known as Wellocities, the site claims to provide the first online, community- based health directory of services and resources for Canadians.

“The idea [of the website] became more and more of a reality, and was molded into something that would really be a very practical solid idea,” said Bennie, who began investing in the proposed project.

Designed by a community of patients and health care professionals, Wellocities caters to those who want to dabble in managing their own health-care. The site offers alternatives and information about illnesses and provides resources such as medication and medical devices that, according to Jadad, could help people increase their life expectancy.

“We are facing a real tsunami of chronic disease, but the public is not aware of that,” said Jadad, who is also the chairman of Wellocities.

He claimed that 30 to 40 per cent of people in Canada have at least one chronic disease, and that one in three born after 2000 will have diabetes. “The number of people in our society living with a chronic disease is increasing dramatically,” said Jadad.

The site offers a directory of health care professionals and services across Canada, and tools that can help people manage their health, such as a blood-sugar tracker.

The rogue element is the site’s social networking factor, which lets users create or join groups, rate various health-care services, and share first-hand accounts of their health problems. Wellocities can be accessed through Facebook.

“We have a lot of Facebook users at university, and we have perhaps the first generation of university students that we could call digital natives,” said Jadad.

Misery loves company, but what would Wellocities say about eye strain, posture problems and inactivity— symptoms of digital addiction?

The great grocery store dilemma

It’s no wonder we’ve been kept in the dark about our food for so long. After all, if all the pro-organic food propaganda is true, those of us still consuming conventionally-grown crops are walking repositories of pesticides and other toxins. Oh, and we’ve been cheated of nutrients and hearty flavours. Given all the evidence, surely, any day now Canadians will begin to wage a culinary crusade against those toxic delicacies that are still lurking in our kitchens.

Yeah, right. Most of us, including myself, will switch to an organic lifestyle as wholeheartedly as we follow our inevitably-neglected New Year’s Eve resolutions. And really, what’s wrong with that?

While by eating non-organic food we may miss out on dubious promises of “feeling great” and “looking fabulous,” we do not necessarily compromise our health. Let’s take the case of fruits and veggies. Organic food produce do not use additives or pesticides in growing their crops. Advocates also emphasize higher nutritional content—recent studies prove this claim—of some products, as well as a generally better taste.

But this is not the whole picture. What proponents of organic food don’t tell you is that natural toxins and bacteria such as botulism and E. coli, can appear in organic foods. How about the fact that natural veggies are susceptible to higher rates of pest damage, thereby creating pathways for aflatoxins, dangerous to our health? All of a sudden, I’m reminded of why we began spraying crops with chemicals in the first place.

A campaign recently launched in Toronto has been portraying locally-grown food as a healthy and delicious alternative. After all, it seems sensible to consume what a season’s harvest brings. But while there are many reasons for switching to a “local” diet, we shouldn’t completely discount the factor of taste. Bok choy’s seasonal availability doesn’t make it any more delicious. And let’s admit it, most of us do enjoy having a vast assortment of fruit and vegetables all year round, regardless of where they are from or how they are produced. Would I buy tasteless strawberries in the middle of winter? Sure, I’ll just dip them in some chocolate and they’re as good as strawberries can get.

So what should we remember on our next trip to the grocery store? While we should take a closer look at what we consume, it’s important to appreciate the variety of food options (organic or not) that we are fortunate to have in Toronto. Whatever our personal choice, it’s comforting to know that all products, regardless of their methods of growth, must meet the same government safety standards. As long as they are washed and prepared properly, they are not a hazard to our health. And as far as flavour goes, well, it’s just a matter of taste.

Canada: the international weapons dealer

Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s meeting with the Dalai Lama last month was received warmly by most Canadians, despite stringent objections from the Chinese government. It seemed a subject of national pride that the federal government took a principled stand against the Communist regime noted for its persistent human rights violations, and welcomed a man whose name is virtually synonymous with non-violence.

It should then come as unwelcome surprise to many of us that the Canadian company. a Pratt & Whitney subsidiary, is currently being investigated by the U.S. State Department for possible arms control violations for its Chinese attackhelicopters. Astonishingly, the Canadian government has no plans to conduct an investigation of its own. Even as we applaud our government’s token diplomatic gestures, millions of dollars’ worth of hi-tech military equipment is quietly being made in this country and exported to China and other unsavory regimes.

This most recent demonstration of hypocrisy merely illuminates the secretive nature of Canada’s military industry, which is not being appropriately disclosed to the public. This is a significant liability to a government, whose foreign policy includes support for a new United Nationsled international arms-trade treaty. If Canada secretly exports arms to global hot spots, we lose the moral high ground of condemning other nations for the same activities.

A recent investigation by CBC’s Margo Kelly recently revealed not only the sharp growth in Canadian military exports as of late, but, more troublingly, the federal government’s complete lack of transparency. Embarrassingly, Canada’s current level of divulgence, as measured by the Small Arms Survey, is just slightly ahead of Iran. A lethal combination of corporate greed and bureaucratic red tape raises the troubling possibility that Canadian military technology might be contributing to a number of deadly conflicts around the world.

Over the past seven years, Canadian military exports have increased three-fold, making us the sixth largest arms dealer in the world, just slightly behind China. This growth has nothing to do with the latest Conservative government, as the trend can be observed as far back as 2002. Our self-endearing image as a peacekeeping nation surely requires re-evaluation, for there is a troubling contradiction in preaching global peace while making profits off the instruments of violence.

Canadians should not delude ourselves into thinking we ship military exports only to the most respectable of governments. A quick run through the list of buyers quickly does away with such notions: $527 million in military exports went to Saudi Arabia, a Wahhabist absolute monarchy which imposes severe limitations on the rights of women. Canada has also sold over $17 million in military arms to the Shi’ite-controlled Iraqi government, which is undeniably culpable in that country’s ethnic violence.

As troubling as these examples may appear, they are overshadowed by the nearly $2-billions’ worth of Canadian arms bought by the United States. Night vision goggles, ammunition, missile components, unmanned aerial vehicles, and light-armored vehicles are just some of the equipment Canada sells to the U.S. The very real harm inflicted by these arms—in Iraq and elsewhere— should be obvious to all but the willingly naïve. However, the industry represents about 70,000 technology-based jobs across Canada, and this presents a huge political obstacle in the way of more stringent regulations. Ultimately, we will have to decide whether our growing military exports are in line with our moral values, and whether we are willing to shed a long-held aspect of our national identity.

To market, to market, to buy designer jeans

A Kensington Market relic nearly half a century old, the Augusta Egg Market, closed its doors last month. Not only will shoppers have to satisfy their cravings for duck eggs elsewhere, but another business will fill in the old storefront—and, if recent area trends are any indication, it will be one that caters to an entirely different breed of consumers. As a casual stroll down Augusta will attest, there’s a change in the weather. Gentrification, that nefarious force of urban transformation, is in full swing, and ain’t nobody going to slow it down.

Take the new Blue Banana Market as a forecast of a Kensington to come. Located down the road from the former egg market’s shell, Blue Banana is a glorified, gargantuan, three-storey eyesore of cutesy consumption. Under garish fluorescent lighting, fatwalleted consumers have their pick of world music CDs, touristy “folk art” pieces with unfortunate price tags, and $5 blocks of fudge. The warehouse would fit nicely in Yorkville or the Distillery District, but Kensington? Who exactly do they think they are?

There’s also the fancy-schmancy vegan sandwich shop on the corner of Augusta and Oxford (where $10 will almost satiate your hunger), and a few doors down, the upscale French bistro owned by—surprise!—none other than Shamez Amlani, the populist King of Kensington himself. While these places aren’t among the newest crop of luxurious market stops, they have nevertheless established themselves as pioneering fixtures of a palpable movement.

Though Augusta Street is becoming a veritable smorgasbord of Yuppie attraction, the rest of the marketplace is barely half a step behind. Remember Planet Kensington, that crusty metalhead dive on Baldwin? Well, its former locale is now home to the Freshwood Grill, a “fresh, local, organic” eatery that’s almost so classy it’s insulting. COBS Breads, another recent franchise addition to Kensington’s Baldwin strip, greets passers-by with a similar dose of wholesome-meetsposh audacity. With places like these popping up left and right, how can people expect to preserve the roughedged appeal of the old market?

It’s hard to replicate the past. Yet much of Kensington’s charm has rested upon its uncanny ability to do just that, by sustaining yesteryear’s alternative to the pedestrian strip mall, maintaining cozy produce stalls and small, specialized businesses. The market’s unique atmosphere is a legacy of its history, the remnant of enterprising immigrant residents who set up shop in front of their homes as a way of making ends meet. The area sprung organically into the residential and commercial hodgepodge through the initiatives of its dwellers, not voracious city planners, architects, or entrepreneurs trying to anticipate the next “hip” thing.

Nevertheless, Kensington has become just that—a viable commercial hot spot in a convenient location, cherished by artists, students, and most importantly, moneyed folks who consider themselves cultured. The area’s many mid-century immigrant homeowners are beginning to vacate the premises and, naturally, developers have their eyes on the prize. Kensington Lofts, a box of upscale condos that a Toronto real estate website flaunts as “a chic alternative to the quaint houses in the area,” likely won’t be the market’s sole housing cash-cow for very much longer; similar projects are already tentatively in the works.

True, Kensington has always been a site of metamorphosis, having made the transformation from its “Jewish Market” roots in the early 1900s to its mid-century incarnation as a Portuguese immigrant neighbourhood to, eventually, the multicultural enclave we know today. What these various embodiments all have in common is the unpretentious working-class spirit that gentrification threatens to overrun. This, above all else, is the entity most seriously at stake.

Meanwhile, the front window of the former Augusta Egg Market is still heralding a “For Lease” sign, and though I’m hoping that a worthy contender will replace it, I’m not counting my chickens before they hatch.

Blending into the background for survival

A close examination of animal processes reveals that defence mechanisms and predatory tactics are pivotal parts of ecosystem dynamics. These predator-prey relationships, sometimes amounting to an evolutionary arms race, have resulted in some interesting adaptations: animal mimicry, camouflage, and scare tactics that are often ingenious and sometimes downright spooky.

Mimicry can take two forms in the wild. Batesian mimicry occurs when a harmless organism copies a toxic species. The other kind, Mullerian, occurs when two equally toxic species mimic each other to the benefit of both.

Monarch and Viceroy butterflies are common examples of Batesian mimicry. The Monarch butterfly consumes milk thistle, which contains poisonous and foul-tasting glycosides, thus making Monarchs rather unpalatable for many predators. They advertise this feature by way of a brightly coloured wing display. The Viceroy butterfly has evolved a remarkably similar appearance— most likely due to passive natural selection—which greatly reduces predation.

In a natural environment, mimicry is less of a conscious strategy than a process of elimination. Organisms without a blatant toxic appearance are consumed, leaving only “mimics” in the gene pool.

But mimicry is not limited to sensory mechanisms. Some species display rational deployment of mimicry as a means of adaptation to specific circumstances. The Indo-Malaysian Octopus is a good example, having the ability to selectively alter its form, shape, color, and behaviour to imitate a wide range of organisms. The octopus can emulate a sole fish and a highly venomous sea-snake with equal adeptness. Whether a function of evolutionary elimination or simply a conscious choice, biomimicry is a common tendency of many successful species.

Self-mimicry is also used for selfdefence. Animals may have body parts that mimic another to increase chances of survival during an attack, or adaptations that can help deter predators. Many moths, butterflies, and freshwater fish species have eyespots, dark markings that momentarily startle a predator and give prey extra time to react. For example, attacks to a moth’s outer wing are less likely to be fatal or detrimental.

Less often, predators utilize selfmimicry, making themselves appear less threatening than they really are. In southeast Asia, several turtle species and the Frogmouth Catfish use tongue extensions to lure prey. Another type of self-mimicry is the Central African “two-headed” snake, which has a virtually indistinguishable tail and head. This snake moves its tail in the way most snakes move their heads, thus confusing prey about the origin of the attack.

There are many examples of rainforest species showcasing cryptic colouration to match their surroundings. This camouflage poses obvious and useful advantages. As well, certain organisms seek to look inanimate or inedible to avoid detection by predators. The Uroplatus geckos of Madagascar are incredibly talented at blending in with the colors of their surroundings, as are katydids, a group of grasshopper- like insects. Katydids are nocturnal insects that use their green, leaflike bodies to remain unnoticed during the day, a time when they are inactive and otherwise defenseless. Another example is the electric blue Morpho, a butterfly found in many rainforests, with iridescent blue upper wings and a seven-inch wingspan. As the Morpho flies through the flickering light of the forest, or even out in broad daylight, it seems to disappear into its surroundings. Similarly, some forest-dwelling species have spots or stripes to help break up the animal’s outline in the view of potential prey. Large mammals like leopards, jaguars, ocelots, and okapi are surprisingly difficult to spot because of their colouration under the shade of the jungle canopy.

Adaptations are undoubtedly useful mechanisms, employed by many organisms to ensure survival, including humans. After all, camouflage jackets are used by soldiers in combat so that enemy fighters have difficulty spotting them. Through millions of years of natural selection and evolution, nature came up with these tactics first—and we have now mimicked it.

Exposing skeletons in the closet—literally

Recently, an almost complete *Barosaurus skeleton *was uncovered in the Royal Ontario Museum’s personal collection by Dr. David Evans, associate curator of vertebrate paleontology. Estimated to have weighed 15 tonnes when alive, the skeleton will be 24 to 27 metres in length when assembled. The dinosaur will be shown in the second floor of the Michael Lee Chin Crystal starting in mid-December as part of the new Age of Dinosaurs Gallery.

The story of the skeleton’s discovery is certainly an odd—although fortunate— one. Evans was searching for a sauropod (the largest of the dinosaurs) to be the centerpiece of the new exhibit along with the Tyrannosaurus rex, Stegosaurus, and Triceratops skeletons that the museum already owns. As it turns out, the ROM received the bones as part of a trade with the Carnegie Museum in 1962. Dr. Gordon Edmund arranged the exchange of two duck-billed dinosaurs and other items for the Barosaurus— originally thought to be a Diplodocus. The skeleton was supposed to be displayed in 1970 after renovations were made to the ROM, but there was insufficient space. Edmund retired in 1990 and the bones were separated and stored in several different drawers, forgotten by the curatorial staff.

Evans came across an article by Jack McIntosh—a famous sauropod expert— on a recent trip to Wyoming. In the piece, Evans noticed a reference to a Barosaurus skeleton located at the ROM. Although unlisted in the museum’s database, he managed to track down the various pieces of the dinosaur skeleton and uncovered a nearly complete specimen. The lucky find solved the problem of having to purchase or excavate a skeleton for the upcoming exhibition.

“We were searching for an iconic sauropod skeleton, and we had one under our noses the whole time. When all the parts were pulled together, we realized just how much of the animal the ROM actually had—the better part of a skeleton of a rare, giant dinosaur,” said Evans.

Once assembled, the Barosaurus— nicknamed Gordo in honour of Dr. Edmund— will be the largest dinosaur on display in Canada. The late-Jurassicperiod creature lived 150 million years ago on the North American continent. The American Museum of Natural History owns the only other full Barosaurus skeleton in the world. The Barosaurus is unique among sauropods for its extremely long neck relative to its body. The Carnagie Museum unearthed the ROM’s specimen in Utah’s Dinosaur National Monument in the early 1900s.

Who knows what will be discovered during spring cleaning next year? Opening weekend for the James and Louise Temerty Galleries of the Age of Dinosaurs begins December 15.

New cells good listeners

Our generation might be notorious for not listening to its elders, but our brain cells never stopped listening to theirs. Scientists at Yale University recently discovered that newly synthesized neurons in our brains “listen” to older neurons before they send out their own impulses. In other words, brain cells listen before they speak.

Past studies have showed that the regions of the brain produce new neurons and incorporate them into the existing brain circuitry. The mechanism behind this function of activity was not known until the Yale School of Medicine made this most recent discovery.

A team of researchers led by Charles Greer, professor of neurosurgery and neurobiology at Yale, discovered that new brain cells take time to mature. New synaptic connections in a brain cell are not made until 21 days after the cell’s birth. In the meantime, the cell receives signals from others, ensuring that these new brain cells do not disturb ongoing signals in the brain.

The team studied the olfactory bulb, a part of the brain associated with the perception of odours, in order to find the mechanism by which new brain cells are incorporated into existing brain circuitry. They found that new neurons receive signals from parts of the brain for up to 10 days. During this period, these neurons do not generate their own signals. It takes these neurons six to eight weeks to mature, during which period they are monitored by signals from other brain cells.

This finding has important implications for the use of stem cells to cure neurodegenerative diseases. This mechanism implies that newly synthesized neurons from stem cells will not interfere with ongoing brain signaling until the stem cells mature. Said Greer: “If we want to use stem cells to replace neurons lost to injury or disease, we must ensure that they do not fire inappropriately, which could cause seizures or cognitive dysfunction.”

How to dismantle conflicts abroad

Michael Ignatieff gave a simplified picture of a successful military intervention at a discussion about the often-controversial Responsibility to Protect policy with Janice Stein at the Munk Center on Monday.

“We have to take sides in what is usually an ongoing civil conflict ” said Ignatieff. “Let us remember Bosnia, 1994-5. We put the Croats together with the Muslims, armed the Muslims, made them stronger, pushed back the Serbs, and at a decisive moment, rained air power on the Serbs, forcing them to the table.”

The next example was Kosovo. “We intervened to make one side prevail.” The West did not want Melosovic to continue his war in the Balkans because this would fracture Europe, so they intervened to make one side win.”

Ignatieff said it was painful to watch the Serbs flee. But in intervention, he said, the interplay of means and ends were as complex as the politics involved. “You may not like [the means], but nobody’s died in Bosnia since.”

He spoke not as a the Liberal deputy leader but as a former commissioner on the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, an ad hoc organization that promotes humanitarian intervention. Ignatieff’s talk began with the “very unpopular notion” of preemptive war that the commission’s R2P policy is about.

Ignatieff recalled a meeting of the ICISS in Brussels that determined R2P did not apply to the terrorist threat behind the Sept. 11 attacks, not only because the policy is preemptive, but also because it involves threats abroad rather that at home.

Armed intervention in Kosovo and Bosnia was justifiable, Ignatieff said, because there had been a “just cause, legitimate authority, right intention, reasonable prospects, proportional means and last resort.”

The conflict in post-Sept. 11 Af- ghanistan, though not considered a case for R2P, fits the “just war” principle, invented by Saint Augustine. He stressed that the principle, which requires that a war be fought justly, “with one hand behind their backs.” even when the enemy followed no rules or wore no uniforms, should be followed in whatever actions Coalition forces there take.

Ignatieff aimed to show that the intervention in Afghanistan meets all of the just war criteria. He said there was adherence to a just authority, namely UN approval. It was a last resort, he added, because the U.S. had already been attacked. He saw trouble, however, in the Coalition assertion that the armed reaction was proportional to the threat posed by Afghanistan. “Those are acute moral issues which all citizens ought to be concerned about,” he said.

Ignatieff invoked another of St. Augustine’s concepts, the “reasonable prospect” principle. This is a jus ad bellum criterion, meaning it is to be considered before the use of force. Under the principle, use of force cannot be condoned unless it has a reasonable chance of succeeding in its goal.

“Reasonable prospect is something we’re in fact debating now when we think about whether to extend this mission [in Afghanistan].”

On the subject of a global leadership, he was asked whether “we need a (hopefully) liberal hegemony who can define the order and then police it,” Ignatieff clarified, however, that a hegemony was not what he wanted to live under. That in fact he did not want a liberal hegemony at all. Ignatieff envisioned a multipolar world, with power distributed across many centres worldwide.