The lake caught this weekend

Ice on the Bras d'Or copy

A thin skim of ice formed on the Bras d’Or Lake this weekend, and the forecast week of bitter cold and light winds promises to deepen and strengthen its wintery cover. Forty years ago, this was an all-but-annual occurrence. In the middle decades of the 20th Century, Victoria County’s legendary physician C. Lamont MacMillan routinely crossed the lake in a homemade half-track to reach ill patients in the depths of winter. But as our climate has changed, the frozen lake has become a rarity.

Consider this a placeholder for a compilation, coming soon, of the outraged comments that flooded in from defenders of the “wind chill” notion, in response to Contrarian’s (and Scientific American’s) repudiation of the concept.

(I will just note in passing that it is an absence of significant wind, as much as extreme cold, that allows the Bras d’Or freeze over. Quelle ironie!)

How fake temperatures came to dominate weather forecasts

Scientific American calls bullshit on wind chill:

[I]f the air temperature is, say, 15 degrees F, and a 20–mile per hour wind makes the wind chill –2 degrees F, would the temperature of your exposed skin drop to that temperature?

No. Your skin temperature cannot drop below the actual air temperature. The coldest your uncovered face could get would be 15 degrees F whether the wind is calm or howling at 40 mph….

Try an experiment: Put two thermometers outside, one in the wind and one shielded from it. When you return they will read the same. Or just ask yourself a simple question: If you are driving your car at 20 mph and you read the dashboard thermometer, then speed up to 60 mph, does the temperature drop? No. Because the air temperature has not changed. There is no wind chill for your car—even if you have given your vehicle a human name.

Wind chill is an artificial construct that makes temperatures sound worse than they are. A parallel set of fake numbers makes summer temperatures sound worse than they are. Both serve the interests of broadcasters who seek to exploit public fears about their personal safety by fanning them with constant hype and faked data like “wind chill.”

The evolving symbol of accessibility

The International Symbol of Accessibility (ISA), more widely but less correctly known as the handicapped sign, is evolving. The original symbol (far left), designed by Susanne Koefoed in 1968, was pretty much just a stylized wheelchair. The International Commission on Technology and Accessibility (ICTA), a committee of Rehabilitation International, humanized the it by adding a head (second from left). This is the icon we are most familiar with.

Critics complain that its static nature stigmatizes the wheelchairs as instruments of helplessness and passivity.  In 2005, VSA, an international organization on arts and disability, produced a more active icon implying self-propulsion (third from left). At least one store, in Cambridge, MA., strengthened this impression by adding cartoon-like motion arcs to the wheel. To date, I haven’t seen these last two in wide use,  but I sure like them better.

I was led through this history by Sara Hendren, an artist whose work focuses on disability issues, and who blogs at For the last year, Hendren has kept tabs on human icons in everyday signage, and found herself “astonished to see how animated and evocative these signs can be.”

Hendren was initially tempted to recreate the ISA from scratch, but instead decided to “edit” it by adding color and motion. Using a mini-grant from the Awesome Foundation (a story in themselves), Hendren and a collaborator, philosopher Brian Glenney, created clear plastic decals that can be overlaid upon existing, old-style accessibility signs, jazzing them up in the process.

“I felt strongly that our decision to edit the image should make its own process visible, resulting in this clear-backed icon that fits over a number of standard, traditional signs,” Hendren wrote recently. “The juxtaposition of old and new draws attention to the comparison, and to the unconscious ways we consume images that drive our ideas about one another.”

If you would like some of these stickers, Hendren will send them free, as long as you promise to document their use. Email her at sarahendren @ gmail dot com.

H/T:  Christina Agapakis, Scientific American

Can Down syndrome cure cancer?

This winter, Contrarian hosted an interesting discussion about whether Down syndrome needs a cure. Now reader Denis Falvy offers an intriguing footnote. It seems that people with Down syndrome rarely get tumors.

Recent research at Children’s Hospital in Boston, reported in the journal Nature, suggests that a gene (gene 231) on the extra chromosome (chromosome 21) carried by people with DS may inhibit cancer by blocking the activity of a protein tumors need to grow. Money quote:

The gene suppresses the growth of new blood vessels that cancers need by blocking the activity of the protein calcineurin, suggesting a new target for future cancer drugs. The investigators… add that chromosome 21 might possess four or five anti-angiogenesis genes.

Does Down syndrome need to be “cured?”

David Gunn leaping - cJenn Power, Community Leader of L’Arche Cape Breton, mother of twin boys with Down syndrome, and—disclosure—Contrarian’s daughter-in-law, had an interesting reaction to news that a Stanford University research team has made headway toward a potential treatment for the intellectual impairment that is one of Down’s symptoms: She welled up with tears.

The researchers probed the brains of mice genetically engineered to develop a rodent version of Down syndrome. They found that a region known as the hippocampus lacked a neurotransmitter that enables the brain to perform contextual learning. This is the process of gaining and applying knowledge in real-world situations—things like remembering where you left the car keys.

The team found that injecting the mice with a drug the brain converts to the missing neurotransmitter markedly improved their learning skills, albeit temporarily.

The lead researcher, physician and neuroscientist Ahmad Salehi, emphasized that this may not work in humans. He also pointed out that Down syndrome is a multifaceted condition, and cognitive impairment is just one of its characteristics.

“No kidding,” said Jenn.

Try incredible smiles, overflowing affection, stubbornness, great sense of humour, cute toes, love for orange pop and Rita MacNeil, endless capacity to forgive… the list goes on and on.  I am not sure I can articulate why, but I find this article both upsetting (lump in my throat and eyes welled with tears right now) and disturbing.  Why does everything need a “cure?”

I have mixed feelings about this. My grandsons, and the many L’Arche core members with Down syndrome (including the irrepressible David Gunn, pictured above in a photo by L’Arche assistant Amil Zavo), have taught me to appreciate the wonderful qualities that often accompany the condition.

On the other hand, I have seen Josh and Jacob struggle painfully with learning tasks that come easily to other children (and the pride and delight they take when they do learn a new skill).

We would not hesitate to treat the heart conditions that afflict many people with Down syndrome. So why does someone with Jenn’s great love for, and insight into, Down children and adults feel so troubled by the theoretical possibility of treating their intellectual impairment?

Jenn didn’t elaborate, but I think it’s natural to wonder whether the quest for a “cure” arises out of, or at least accords with, the undervaluing of people with Down syndrome that is so prevalent. I also wonder about the impact a chemical treatment might have on the wonderful aspects of Down Sydnrome.

This issue may get wrapped up in the emerging debate about smart pills, discussed in the October issue of Scientific American.

I suspect Dr. Salehi has heard these misgivings before. Contacted by Contrarian, he kindly offered to comment on this blog post. I look forward to his observations, and those of Jenn or anyone else who wishes to respond.

A shocking coywolf attack in Cape Breton – updated

Skyline Trail-sA very sad update: The woman attacked by two coywolves succumbed to her injuries overnight. Deepest sympathy to her family and friends for their unimaginable loss.

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The shocking news that a 19-year-old Toronto-area woman was attacked and “very, very seriously” injured by a pair of coyotes in the Cape Breton Highlands National Park this afternoon will undoubtedly focus attention on recent reports that Eastern Coyotes are in fact a hybrid of coyotes and wolves, or coywolves.

We offer heartfelt hopes for a speedy and complete recovery for the unidentified woman, who was hiking on the popular and well used Skyline Trail north of Cheticamp—a trail Contrarian has often hiked with family and friends. The injured woman has been airlifted to Halifax, where she is in critical condition. RCMP officers who happened to be nearby came to her assistance. They shot and apparently wounded one of the animals; however both escaped into the woods.

CBC Radio’s Quirks and Quarks recently interviewed Dr. Roland Kays, Curator of Mammals at New York State Museum, about genetic testing he carried out on coyotes in that state, indicating that, as they moved east, coyotes interbred with remnant wolf populations:

Coyotes are a newcomer to Nova Scotia, the earliest confirmed specimin having been taken in Guysborough in 1977. The 30- to 50-pound Eastern Coyote is larger and darker than its western cousin, and typically occupies woodlands, not the grassy habitat favored by pure coyotes.

Coywolf-csKays found that the head and jaw of the coywolf are better adapted for taking down the white tailed deer that flourish here. In effect, as the coyote took over the wolf’s ecological niche in eastern North America, it became part-wolf.

The Knight Science Journalism Tracker has links to more stories about the coywolf, including articles from AAAS Science Now, Discovery, and Scientific American.

Canadian Press quotes Nova Scotia Department of Natural Resources spokesman Don Anderson as saying a young Ontario girl was bitten several years ago on the Skyline Trail. “That coyote was put down and sent away for testing and it came back negative for rabies or anything like that,” he said.

Hat tip: SP.