Archive for February, 2008

Birth defects warning sparks row

Wednesday, February 13th, 2008

A minister who warned about birth defects among children of first cousin marriages in Britain’s Asian community has sparked anger among critics.

Phil Woolas said health workers were aware such marriages were creating increased risk of genetic problems.

The claims infuriated the Muslim Public Affairs Committee (MPAC) which called on the prime minister to “sack him”.

MPAC spokesman Asghar Bukhari said Mr Woolas’ comments “verged on Islamophobia”.

Mr Woolas, an environment minister who represents ethnically-diverse Oldham East and Saddleworth, risked sparking a major row after warning the issue was “the elephant in the room”, Mr Bukhari said.

Expert analysis

Mr Woolas said cultural sensitivities made the issue of birth defects difficult to address.

The former race relations minister told the Sunday Times: “If you have a child with your cousin the likelihood is there’ll be a genetic problem.

“The issue we need to debate is first cousin marriages, whereby a lot of arranged marriages are with first cousins, and that produces lots of genetic problems in terms of disability [in children].”

Mr Woolas stressed the marriages, which are legal in the UK, were a cultural, not a religious, issue and confined mainly to families originating in rural Pakistan.

But he also told the paper: “If you talk to any primary care worker they will tell you that levels of disability among the… Pakistani population are higher than the general population. And everybody knows it’s caused by first cousin marriage.”

“Awareness does need to be raised but we are very aware of the sensitivities,” he added, pointing out that many of the people involved were the products of such marriages.


Back in the U.S.A.

Wednesday, February 13th, 2008

32 hours of airplanes and airports.   Yahoo!   That was fun.   But, all is well.

New Zealand departure

Saturday, February 9th, 2008

Aotearoa iconsI’m leaving New Zealand for the U.S. day after tomorrow on Tuesday. I’ve been here for three months now and it is time to return home to my other life.

I’m looking forward to seeing my wife very much. And our friends and our animals as well.

But, it’s hard to leave. I’ve made good friends here as well and I love living in this Kiwi culture.

I’ve grown discouraged with the U.S.’s corporate-driven culture the ascendancy of its religious right. And I daily grow more worried about the long term stability of our global civilization. I want to live in a simpler time and place in the remaining years that have been given me. And I think New Zealand is the place.

I will resume Blogging in a few days from the Seattle area. Until then, cheers, my friends.

Why bird flu has been kept at bay

Saturday, February 9th, 2008

– This is good news. Perhaps the idea that we are only one or two small mutations away from Bird Flu evolving so it can jump from human to human is incorrect.

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Scientists say they have identified a key reason why bird flu has so far not posed a widespread menace to humans.

So far, the H5N1 strain has mainly infected birds and poultry workers, but experts fear the virus could mutate to pass easily from human to human.

However, Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that to enter human respiratory cells the virus must first pick a very specific type of lock.

The study appears in the journal Nature Biotechnology.

The researchers say their discovery may help scientists better monitor changes in H5N1 – and find better ways to fight it.

Flu viruses attack by binding sugar chains, called glycans, that line the airways and lungs.

Latching on

The chemical linkages between the sugar molecules in these chains differ between humans and birds.

Until now it has been assumed that bird flu viruses would be adapt to humans simply by acquiring mutations that enable them to attach to the human types.

But Dr Ram Sasisekharan and colleagues found this step depends on the shape assumed by the flexible sugar chains rather than the type of linkage.

Bird flu viruses currently require cone-shaped glycans to infect birds, so the umbrella shape found in humans has protected most of us from avian flu.


Thousands Of Crop Varieties Depart For Arctic Seed Vault

Saturday, February 9th, 2008

– This is a follow up story on one I covered earlier here: and here: .

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At the end of January, more than 200,000 crop varieties from Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Middle East—drawn from vast seed collections maintained by the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR)—will be shipped to a remote island near the Arctic Circle, where they will be stored in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault (SGSV), a facility capable of preserving their vitality for thousands of years.

The cornucopia of rice, wheat, beans, sorghum, sweet potatoes, lentils, chick peas and a host of other food, forage and agroforestry plants is to be safeguarded in the facility, which was created as a repository of last resort for humanity’s agricultural heritage. The seeds will be shipped to the village of Longyearbyen on Norway’s Svalbard archipelago, where the vault has been constructed on a mountain deep inside the Arctic permafrost.

The vault was built by the Norwegian government as a service to the global community, and a Rome-based international NGO, the Global Crop Diversity Trust, will fund its operation. The vault will open on February 26, 2008.

This first installment from the CGIAR collections will contain duplicates from international agricultural research centers based in Benin, Colombia, Ethiopia, India, Kenya, Mexico, Nigeria, Peru, the Philippines and Syria. Collectively, the CGIAR centers maintain 600,000 plant varieties in crop genebanks, which are widely viewed as the foundation of global efforts to conserve agricultural biodiversity.

“Our ability to endow this facility with such an impressive array of diversity is a powerful testament to the incredible work of scientists at our centers, who have been so dedicated to ensuring the survival of the world’s most important crop species,” said Emile Frison, Director General of Rome-based Bioversity International, which coordinates CGIAR crop diversity initiatives.

“The CGIAR collections are the ‘crown jewels’ of international agriculture,” said Cary Fowler, Executive Director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust, which will cover the costs of preparing, packaging and transporting CGIAR seeds to the Arctic. “They include the world’s largest and most diverse collections of rice, wheat, maize and beans. Many traditional landraces of these crops would have been lost had they not been collected and stored in the genebanks.”

For example, the wheat collection held just outside Mexico City by the CGIAR-supported International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) contains 150,000 unique samples of wheat and its relatives from more than 100 countries. It is the largest unified collection in the world for a single crop. Overall, the maize collection represents nearly 90 percent of maize diversity in the Americas, where the crop originated. CIMMYT will continue to send yearly shipments of regenerated seed until the entire collection of maize and wheat has been backed up at Svalbard.

Storage of these and all the other seeds at Svalbard is intended to ensure that they will be available for bolstering food security should a manmade or natural disaster threaten agricultural systems, or even the genebanks themselves, at any point in the future.

“We need to understand that genebanks are not seed museums but the repositories of vital, living resources that are used almost every day in the never-ending battle against major threats to food production,” Bioversity International’s Frison said. “We’re going to need this diversity to breed new varieties that can adapt to climate change, new diseases and other rapidly emerging threats.”


Uproar over Archbishop’s sharia law stance

Saturday, February 9th, 2008

– I’ve expressed my concerns before over the high rates of Islamic immigration into the various European countries. 3% of Britain and Germany’s populations are now Islamic. In the Netherlands and France, it stands at 6%.

– Personally, and in spite of the fact that I consider myself a liberal thinker, I do not believe that societies can stand such a high rates of immigration – especially when the newcomers do not particularly care to be assimilated into their new country’s culture and strive, instead, to import and preserve their own culture in the midst of their host’s. And then, on top of that, you have the deeply uncomfortable fact that sincere Islamic believers believe that their religion is right and that all the others are wrong. It’s not a formula for evolving a harmonious multi-cultural society – it’s a formula for a culture war.

– I think it is right to offer hospitality to your guests. But I think the guests have a responsibility as well to respect your house if they want to be there. I think it’s reckless to invite someone in who has already declared that they think how you live and worship is wrong and who covets your house and the destruction of your society.

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The Archbishop of Canterbury has been widely criticised after he called for aspects of Islamic sharia law to be adopted in Britain.

Dr Rowan Williams said that it “seems inevitable” that elements of the Muslim law, such as divorce proceedings, would be incorporated into British legislation.

The Archbishop’s controversial stance has received widespread criticism from Christian and secular groups, the head of the equality watchdog, several high-profile Muslims and MPs from all parties.

Amid the storm of protest, Downing Street moved quickly to distance itself from the Archbishop’s remarks, insisting that British law would and should remain based on British values.

A spokesman for Mr Brown said: “Our general position is that sharia law cannot be used as a justification for committing breaches of English law, nor should the principles of sharia law be included in a civil court for resolving contractual disputes.


Date with Extinction

Friday, February 8th, 2008

For a thousand years before people settled in
New Zealand, a small alien predator may have been
undermining the islands’ seabird populations.

Our yellow Zodiac bobbed across the choppy sea and made its way slowly through the clouds of seabirds that wheeled and soared around us. Albatross, cape pigeons, diving petrels, mollymawks, mottled petrels, and sooty shearwaters all took their turns skimming our bow wave for fish. In the distance my boat mates and I could see the final stop on our sub-Antarctic tour: the Snares Islands, about 130 miles south of New Zealand’s South Island. The chorus of screeching birds drowned out our rumbling boat motor, and even from several miles away we could smell the acrid white guano that coats much of the Snares’s rocky coasts. During the summer breeding season the Snares, whose entire area totals not much more than one and a quarter square miles, are home to more than 6 million seabirds—as many as nest along the coasts of Great Britain and Ireland combined.

Today in the New Zealand archipelago, such dense seabird colonies persist only on small offshore islands, but at one time much of the coastline of the North and South Islands (by far New Zealand’s two largest islands, commonly called the mainland) would have been equally pungent and raucous. New Zealand once supported one of the most diverse seabird faunas in the world; the country was particularly rich in species of petrels. Nowadays those populations have crashed, and many species have been extirpated on the mainland. One can only imagine what it must have been like for ancient Polynesian seafarers reaching the shores of uninhabited New Zealand. The archipelago, no doubt a welcome sight after months of arduous ocean sailing in a double-hulled canoe, would also have presented a far different scene from that of most of New Zealand today.

But did these colonizers encounter a truly pristine environment? It would be easy to “round up the usual suspects” and blame the loss of so many species from the mainland on the encroachments of civilization. But in reality, the early Polynesian settlers were not responsible for the destruction of many of the seabird populations. Even before people settled this southern land, other visitors may have already irrevocably altered the New Zealand environment.

Those earlier arrivals on the New Zealand mainland were Pacific rats (Rattus exulans), or kiore, as they are called in the Maori language. It has been known for almost a decade that these small stowaways helped drive some of the native bird species from the mainland, or, in some cases, to outright extinction. According to the standard account of the invasion, the rats arrived in New Zealand between 800 and 1,000 years ago, in the canoes of the first Polynesian settlers. But in 1996, Richard Holdaway, an independent extinction biologist, presented evidence that the rodents first made landfall perhaps a thousand years earlier. That date has called into question the entire sequence of prehistoric events that shaped New Zealand—and, not surprisingly, has fueled much debate in New Zealand about the strength and validity of Holdaway’s evidence.

But even more, Holdaway has hypothesized that a rat-generated crash in island bird populations could have led to “a cascade of damage” and even to a change in the nearshore oceanic food web: seabird colonies generate a prodigious quantity of guano, which can form a kind of organic bridge between sea and shore, enriching soil and promoting plant growth. If the seabird populations crashed, Holdaway argues, so did this bridge. The islands would have lost a major source of nutrients. If Holdaway is right, the rats had accidentally landed on a choke point of the ecosystem, causing a ripple effect that went far beyond the destruction of seabirds.

Thanks to their remoteness—New Zealand lies 1,200 miles east of its nearest neighbor, Australia—the North and South Islands faced the onslaught of invaders considerably later than did many other islands around the globe. But just as they have on Hawaii and Guam, alien species that were suddenly introduced onto the islands have had devastating effects. New Zealand birds were particularly at risk, because they had evolved for millennia in the absence of mammalian predators (indeed, the only land mammals of prehistoric New Zealand were three species of ground-feeding bats). Many of the native birds were flightless and seminocturnal, making them easy prey for the rats and the eleven other introduced species of predatory mammals that eventually prospered in the archipelago. Even seabirds were vulnerable; though they can spend months of each year at sea, many of them nest in ground burrows and are helpless against terrestrial threats.


New Zealand Sweet Stakes

Friday, February 8th, 2008

Natural History, May, 2001 by Laura Sessions

Sugar was a shared resource in a forest community until a greedy newcomer moved in.

Biologist E. O. Wilson has called invertebrates “little things that run the world,” because of their numbers, variety, and influence on larger organisms and even entire ecosystems. New Zealand is home to “little things” that, while each only a few millimeters long, have benignly modified about 250 million acres of the country’s beech forests. Known as sooty beech scale insects, these agents turn the resources of the beech trees into a substance crucial to their own survival and to that of other forest dwellers, from fungi to birds. The association of the insects and the trees is an ancient one, and the expansive food web in which they are actors was, until recently, intact.

Sooty beech scale insects (Ultracoelostoma assimile and U. brittini) are sap suckers, or homopterans, that grow in the furrowed bark off our species of southern beech trees (Nothofagus) in New Zealand. During its complex life cycle, the beech scale insect goes through several developmental stages called instars. The females pass through four stages, the males five. Second- and third-instar females insert their long mouthparts into the cells of a beech’s phloem–the tissues that carry nutrients through the tree–and suck up sugars. After satisfying their appetites, they excrete the excess sap and wastes through a waxy anal tube. A sweet liquid, called honeydew, accumulates one drop at a time at the tip of this tube, which looks like a thin white thread.

Homopterans are common and widespread. Most of the world’s 33,000 species produce honeydew, but few can match the beech scale’s enormous and constant output of the substance. In the Northern Hemisphere, honeydew producers such as aphids are active only seasonally, but beech scale insects draw off and convert energy from beech trees year-round, and they do so copiously during the austral summer. From January to April, the tree trunks in a southern beech forest often shimmer with a thick coat of honeydew, and the droplets’ heady, sweet smell fills the air.

In some forests, ten and a half square feet of tree trunk (think of the top of an average card table) may support as many as 2,000 scale insects. More than 40 percent of the food the trees have produced through photosynthesis may be lost to sooty beech scale insects. These beeches do not appear to be harmed, although for most plants, losses of much less than 40 percent of their energy reserves would be insupportable. Currently, scientists can only guess how the trees are able to withstand such a drain, but various theories are being explored. Possibly only the more vigorous and faster-growing beech trees are tapped by beech scale insects. Fallen drops may recycle sugars to the soil and thence to trees, or the insects may promote extra photosynthesis in host trees.


India culls 3.4m birds but fails to contain avian flu outbreak

Friday, February 8th, 2008

India is struggling to contain its worst avian influenza -epidemic, in spite of culling 3.4m birds and setting up a 5km poultry exclusion zone round the state of West -Bengal, the epicentre of the outbreak.

The government’s failure to reassure farmers that they will receive fair compensation for birds culled by rapid response teams has left experts scrambling to stop the disease entering the crowded markets of Calcutta and Delhi and led to a crisis of confidence in India’s -poultry industry.

The latest outbreak of the H5N1 strain of bird flu, confirmed on January 15, is proving more difficult to contain than earlier manifestations at large poultry farms in the states of Maharashtra and Gujarat in 2006 and, last year, in Manipur.

Roughly 80 per cent of rural households in West Bengal keep hens and ducks in their backyards to supplement their incomes, a practice encouraged by the state government, which distributes millions of chicks to poor communities each year.


Another big motorcycle trip

Thursday, February 7th, 2008

The open road and its choices…I went off today on another big motorcycle adventure. This will probably be my last one this trip as I am departing for the US on Tuesday.

Today, I went off east from Christchurch searching for a particular type of land. Hilly and wooded land with natural woods, not managed forest. This type of land is harder to find here than many folks might think. Much of the Canterbury Plains have been cleared of its original cover in favor of grazing lands or managed forests. You can go for very long stretches in some areas and see nothing else.

Today, I headed east out of Christchurch on Hwy 73 until I got to Darfield when I switched onto the eastbound Hwy 77. This took me to Glentunnel when I took my first excursion off the main road. Glentunnel is the beginning of an area that fronts up the the southern flanks of some foothills of the Southern Alps. It is in areas like these that we think we have the best chances of finding the kind of land we’re looking for. At Glentunnel, I went north to Whitecliffs and then west again on gravels roads that took me onto the north side of Pullwool Peak and Mt. Misery Peak.

I found this area disappointing. On the map, it is marked as the Glen Arlie Forest and I’ve now begun to understand that here in NZ, an area marked forest generally means ‘managed forest’. And I ‘get’ now that the many roads shown weaving through the bodies of these forests are not there because they are densely settled with holiday homes but rather because they are logging roads which the New Zealanders, oddly enough, give names to just as if they were normal roads. So, enough with ‘forests’ on the maps.

The entire Canterbury Plains is a relatively dry area as well. It isn’t unusual to see big mountain ranges on the western side just as bare as a baby’s butt. I don’t know if they’ve always been like that or if they were logged off earlier and have just degraded into bare rock and soil but they look very bare. In general, the plains and the foothills are mostly areas cleared for crops or grazing or for managed forests.

After the disappointment of the Glen Arlie Forest, I continued west on Hwy 77 to Windwhistle. here I cut north to Coleridge Road. And from it, I went a long spur to the east called High Peak Road. It was pretty, but again, it was grazing or managed forests. Then I cut back to Coleridge Road and was just going to go north for a bit.

I can see now that when I was on my way to Windwhistle and I did some exploring on Washpen Road, I missed a good bet when I failed to go north up Dart’s Road because I see now that it went up and into a Conservation Area called Rockwood (which I now understand is likely to hold the kind of forest we’re looking for). I’ll need to revisit this area next time.

But I continued on Coleridge Road because the valley I found myself in, while not naturally forested, was arrestingly beautiful. On the western side, a huge range of bare but imposing mountains rose up over one of New Zealand braided rivers; the Rakaia. The Rakaia river, the bare mountains and the Southern Alps in the distanceFar to the west at the head of the valley, some of the big southern Alps rose up, covered with snow. I kept driving and driving just to see more and went miles away from the places I’d intended to investigate. I was tempted to just keep going and let the wanderlust take me but finally, I stopped at a place called Lake Coleridge; a town with the same name as a nearby lake. The road goes on for awhile beyond Lake Coleridge but I could see on the map that it just died before long. So, Lake Coleridge was literally the end of the world. A strange place. I think it mostly exists to support the hydroelectric plant there. Rakaia River - yep, the water really is that colorThey bring water over the hill from Lake Coleridge and huge pipes and deliver it to the plant by gravity which uses it to spin the turbines and then dumps it into the Rakaia River.

I turned around after taking a look at Lake Coleridge and its plant and headed back to Windwhistle where this diversion began. Once there, I turned west again and continued to follow Hwy 77.

A Kiwi BLTI was running low on gasoline and it was time for a cup of coffee and some lunch so I took a detour down to Methven, a touristy town a few miles south, and filled up (an attendant who knows motorcycles came out and had a very good look at my motorcycle because very few of this model have ever made it to New Zealand) and I then had a Latte and a BLT at an outside table at a restaurant on the main drag in town. Ordering food in New Zealand can still bring the occasional surprise. The BLT, when it arrived, was open faced and had the NZ style thin round cut bacon on it. Surprising – but excellent to eat!

The next area I was interested in was the Alford Conservation Area and, specifically, the southern slopes of the area’s foothills. As I approached the area, I could see that the foothills here were forested and it looked like natural forest. Yahoo. Real forest at the end of the roadI went up a couple of the gravel side roads trying to get up into it and on the second one, Flynn’s Road, I got lucky and it took me right into the forest and to a trail head area that serves as a stepping off point for hikes to Sharplin Falls and other points. I spent a fair amount of time here shooting pictures and walking around. It was definitely the right kind of country. That’s what we’re talking about !And it soon occurred to me that the real question was did anyone have private land for sale in the area that abutted the Conservation Area and that contained this same type of forest.

Today was suppose to be a partial solar eclipse here in New Zealand (unless I’ve been the victim of a hoax) and it was due to hit maximum darkness at 437 PM. It was now about 405 PM and so I decided to zip down the Hwy to Mt. Somers and find a place to have an ice-cream cone and sit outside and watch the fun.

This was a very good decision. (I found out the following day that the eclipse was, indeed, real but I was unable to see it using the pin hole in a paper method). In the meantime, a fellow came up to the store where I was sitting eating my ice-cream and we began to talk and I asked him about properties in the area. What a stroke of luck that question was. Ken had moved from Christchurch nine years earlier to the Mt. Somers area and knew many of the farmers who owned properties along the southern flanks of the conservation area foothills. He invited me home for a cup of tea where I met his wife, Lynn, and he made a phone call to a friend of his with a property in the area I was interested in and off we went. How very lucky is that?

Ken and Jocelyn with her land behind Ken and Lynn at their house as I’m ready to depart

Jocelyn and her husband, Errol, own 94 hectares or about 233 acres of land just at the base of the foothills. She took Ken and I on a long tour of the place. A beautiful property it is. Paddocks, creeks, good outbuildings, well maintained and great views. After a good look around, I came to doubt it’s the place for us, though, as we’re looking for a place with more hills, less pasture and more forest (or bush as the Kiwis say) on it but someone’s going to get a great place here.

While we were looking at one corner of Jocelyn’s place that did have some bush on it, I ask them about the black encrustations I see on so many of the trees in naturally forested areas in New Zealand. They said it was a bug that lives there and that if you look close you can see a little hair that it puts out that often has a small drop of honey-like liquid on it. Honeydew, it is referred to. Sure enough, I looked and saw what they were talking about. They said it seems harmless to the trees and it’s been around for a long time. When I got home last night, I did some searching on the Internet and came up with some more information about what going on with this black encrustation. They are called, “Sooty beech scale insects”.

Ken and I went back to his placed and talked for a bit more. By now, it was 730 PM and I needed to take off for my ride back to Christchurch before it grew dark. Ken invited me to stay for tea (that’s how Kiwis refer to the evening meal) with he and his wife and daughter and her partner but I declined after consulting my watch. So, a few handshakes, the exchange of E-mail addresses and I was off. What a great bit of luck to meet someone like Ken who knows the area so well.

The ride home wasn’t much fun. Long straightaways across the Canterbury Plains at 100 kpm blasting into the teeth of a strong wind. But, it passed and about 830 PM, I arrived home after putting 220 miles or about 366 km on my bike for the day. A great machine, by the way. Never a complaint and it just roars down the road straight and true.