Friday, February 05, 2010

In Memory of Bo

No, not this Boe:

But rather, this Boa:

Boa was the last living speaker of the language Bo, named for the tribe of Bo, of the Great Andaman peoples who once populated the Andaman and Nicobar islands off of India.

If this link works, you'll be able to see a video of Boa singing in her now extinct native language.

Maybe it's hard for a non-academic pointy-head to appreciate the singular tragedy of Boa's passing, but give it a shot. Beyond the sad tale of military decimation by the British, then the effects of paternalistic colonial-style policies by both the British then the Indian governments, leading to the literal extinction of complete races of these aboriginal peoples, there remains the tragedy of our lost links to human pre-history. Yes, as with all things, the passing of Boa is being characterized first and foremost as a loss to the selfish modern world, and not so much as the legacy of a brutal crime committed by the modern world.

Very few anthropological links remain to human prehistory. It's remarkable how little we actually know about how the human animal lived, felt and thought prior to the innovation of writing and thus the recording of history. To examine such times would help answer some of the most fundamental questions of human existence having to do with what is natural and what is constructed. The perhaps thousands of years of human language prior to the advent of civilization a mere 6-10 thousand years ago reflect a sentient mind emerging from the grace of naturalism and into the realm of instrumentalism and exceptionalism.

With the passing of Boa goes one of our last connections to a language that reflected that ethic. In fact, it's believed that the language of Bo predates the Neolithic period, thus pre-dating what we define as civilization.

The continued paternalistic treatment of the surviving Andamanese concerns me greatly, as does modern civilization's treatment of extant tribal Aboriginals globally. In my review of the movie Avatar, some commenter made the annoying and all too common criticism, "I’m wondering why we don’t call Europeans in Europe with family ties dating back centuries aboriginals as well".

Well, fool, we don't call them that because the word "Aboriginal" refers both to a lengthy historical attachment to a place (typically lasting thousands, maybe tens of thousands of years) combined with a modern political, geographical and cultural marginalization of that extant and threatened race. I'll never understand why so many people feel threatened when the plights of such vulnerable peoples so rarely manages to make it onto the public agenda.

Species, peoples, cultures, languages, religions and ideas all go extinct. That's the way of things. But, you know what? It's not necessarily the fact of it that should worry us. It's the how of it. The Andamanese tribals are the victims of centuries of genocidal policies. As far as I can tell, one tribe remains.

You know what the first image I found when I Googled "Andaman"? This one:

Yeah, it's a British tourist ad. Boa is dead. Her race is extinct. And her ancestral land is now the domain of drunken, shagging chavs from England.

In Other News

My latest article is up at India Currents.

And I've begun to archive my haikus!

Labels: , , ,

Monday, August 24, 2009

Pompeii and Circumstance

Image stolen from here.

Today marks the 1930th anniversary of the eruption of Mt Vesuvius and the destruction of the Roman town of Pompeii, a holocaust that lasted 48 hours. Today Pompeii is celebrated as a still-life museum. It's a weird and disturbing thought to consider how close-- biologically, culturally and even technologically-- those doomed people were to ourselves. Consider modern holocausts and how they may (or may not) be remembered in 2000 years.

Just sayin'.

In other news, NASA's Stardust spacecraft has provided proof of amino acids in the tail of a comet, giving credence to the panspermia, or exogenesis, theory of life, in that it arose extraterrestrially and was seeded on Earth.

What's also interesting is the existence of the Stardust mission itself. I remember in the 1970s reading about futurists' conception of such a mission, that it was decades away in the distant future, if possible at all. And here we are today, collecting comet dust from such a craft, and it barely makes the news.

In even other other news, D-Mack sends us this list of forgotten or underrated science fiction films. I don't like the list. Equiilibrium and Existenz sucked. City of Lost Children and Brazil were not strictly SF. Pitch Black was okay, but was essentially an action film. Same goes for Dark City, which was a great concept and spooky film, but without an inspiring SF ending. I'm sure you will disagree.

Lastly, check this out. It goes best with this music.

Labels: , ,

Sunday, August 16, 2009

India Independence Day

I am most definitely showing off when I announce to you that this year I received an invitation from the High Commissioner of India to attend the India Independence Day celebrations at the embassy in Ottawa. I could not attend, due to competing engagements in Toronto, but I was itching to bone up on my Hindi!

Yes, August 15th was the 62nd anniversary of India's (and Pakistan's) date of independence from British rule. It comes this year at an interesting time in history, when all the world sees India now as an economic juggernaut (ironically a Hindi word, co-opted into English) and possibly the next true global superpower.

It's important to remember, though, that India's power and wealth are in fact historic norms. In the history of the world, the globe's biggest economies have always been India and China, with the exception both of the past century and of the heydey of ancient Egypt.

It's also important to remember that India's power and wealth come at a great price: the extreme exploitation of the weak, poor and vulnerable. It's for this reason that I've been predicting for a while now a labour revolution in India, probably within the next 15 years.

These are some of the things I hope to talk about at this year's NetIP conference in Toronto. Plan to attend!

That's all for today. It's too hot and humid right now to be blogging. I leave you with the following photo I took in Toronto Friday night:

It's the "women's post".... for hitching your woman to while you get a coffee? Yes, yes, you know where to send your hate mail.

Labels: ,

Thursday, June 04, 2009


Know who I feel sorry for? The poor museum tour guide who has to lead around a busload of academics. Everyone thinks he's an expert... and probably is.

Today I joined a tour of "Spanish Jamaica", which was put together by the organizers of the Caribbean Studies Association conference. The term refers to the period between Columbus's "discovery" of Jamaica and the arrival of the British under the command of Oliver Cromwell. It may not have been a brief period, but few beyond bookish academics pay much attention to Jamaica's Spanish history. In that period, the island was referred to as "Xamayca", which was a Spanish mispronunciation of the Taino tribal word for something like "land of water and forest".

The tour consisted of a visit to a special museum exhibition, lead by a knowledgable historian. The poor fellow had to deal with frequent challenges to his expertise, though, by we all-knowing and annoying PhDs.

Interesting factoid: the Spanish crown had bequeathed Jamaica in perpetuity to the Columbus family. Indeed, Christopher Columbus and his leading heirs were all granted the title, Marquis of Jamaica. The surviving ones still occasionally try to assert their "ancestral" ownership rights! I'm sure the descendents of the Taino, the Aboriginal race who were here when Columbus arrived, and whose culture was demolished by the Europeans, find the Columbian assertion rather drole.

In the exhibit, there was a great panting from 1590 by Alonso Sanchez Coello called "View of the Port of Seville". If anyone knows where I can buy a print, cheaper than the list price of $180, do let me know!

Labels: ,

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Back When Swine Flew

I'm an epidemiologist, a word derived from "epidemic", which means that I'm supposed to know something about diseases. This past week, several people have approached me for "expert" commentary on the emerging swine flu pandemic. The university has asked me if I'm comfortable enough with the topic to field inquiries from the media, and the Maytree Foundation has asked me to offer an official statement, also for media digestion. As well, concerned friends have been asking for advice on how to protect themselves.

I'm wary of misrepresenting my expertise. A few years ago, I wrote an article for The Toronto Star called "Are We Overdue For A Pandemic?" It garnered so much attention that CBC Newsworld invited me to go on-air to be interviewed by Evan Solomon. Uncharacteristically responsible, I told them that I am not a flu expert, but rather a global health generalist, and that I could only discuss the issue on those terms. They thanked me for my honesty and retracted the offer.

The same day, CanWest Global called with a similar offer. I told them the same thing. The producer then asked me, "Are you good looking?"

"Um," I said, "My mother thinks so."

"Can you be controversial?"

"Sure," I said, thinking about all the penis jokes I could offer.

"Then come on down!"

So I went down to the Global "studios" in Ottawa to be interviewed remotely by Bruce Dowbiggin in Hamilton. It was quite a farce. I was on with Donald Low and a couple of other experts in what quickly devolved into a WHO-bashing session. The "studio" was me standing in the middle of the Global TV offices, alone with an unmanned camera and a wonky microphone and earpiece, with no local producer or technician to guide me, and no monitor to show me what was going on in the Hamilton studio, but with a buzz of unconcerned office drones scribbling away behind me in their cubicles.

My audio cut off early into the segment, and I spent the rest of the time looking like a mute doofus, tapping my ear in frustration. After 15 minutes of that, with no one telling me whether the segment had ended, I just took off my earpiece and went home.

I don't think I'll be doing Global TV again anytime soon.

Thus, with the current flu panic, I am loathe to stretch my expertise too thin, lest I find myself knee deep in another media travesty. Having said that, I thought I'd put up one token blog post to summarize what little I know about the current swine flu epidemic.

If you're an old codger like me, you may remember the first big swine flu scare in 1976. Panicky public health officials convinced President Gerald Ford to push for a widespread vaccination programme across the USA, for fear that another 1918 pandemic was imminent. (The 1976 virus was believed to be closely related to the 1918 strain). Well, the side effects of the vaccine --predominantly Guillain-Barre Syndrome-- ended up hurting more people than did the flu itself.

For history's sake, here's a PSA from 1976 advertising the swine flu vaccine:

The current strain of swine flu is a new strain that, I believe, is unrelated to the 1976 variety. Today we have reports of the first death in the USA, while Canada's tally holds at 13 cases, but no fatalities.

These numbers are to be expected. They are the result of travelers returning from the endemic zone of Mexico. As far as I can tell from news reports, there have been no cases in Canada of someone contracting the disease from someone who has just returned from Mexico. This means that the system is working as it should: those returning from Mexico with the disease are being quarantined and treated... for the most part.

The fatality rate thus far is about 5-7% (which is actually higher than the 2.5% rate of the world-changing pandemic of 1918). Also, the cases in Canada have all been of the mild variety, which means there is a reasonable expectation of full recovery for each case. This is not the Bubonic Plague. In other words, if current controls are kept in place, there is every expectation that our very thorough and professional public health infrastructure will keep civilization quite safe from this disease.

Having said that, it is too late to fully contain the disease. It is already among the population. But its mildness suggests that most people contracting it will recover on their own. Flu viruses tend to mutate very quickly. If an individual is infected with several viruses simultaneously, those viruses may swap DNA and become something new. With more infections in the population, there is an increased chance of a virus mutating into something really lethal... or into something quite banal and barely noticeable.

Let's not forget the killer bees scare of the 1970s. Back then, there was genuine panic that as the killer bees migrated north from Brazil, they would destroy scores of people, animals and infrastructure as they went. But as the interbred with tamer species, by the time they reached the northern climes, they were barely noticed. The same is always possible with varieties of influenza: with greater mutation and DNA exchange, there's always the chance the predominant strain will be something quite manageable.

Every flu pandemic is compared to the 1918 Spanish Flu, which killed so many people in the prime of their lives that it is thought to have contributed to the stoppage of World War I. As the current swine flu is actually more fatal than the 1918 variety, there is cause for concern. But the world today is much different from that of 100 years ago. In terms of disease threats, we now have a great many more people, each of whom represents a possible vector for disease. We also have a lot more international travel and a lot faster travel. This means that a voyage from Mexico City to Toronto actually takes less time than the incubation period for most diseases --a far cry from the situation in 1918.

On the other hand, we also have a great many advantages today. We have a remarkable communications infrastructure, which allows us to know of outbreaks everywhere in the world, pretty much as it happens. Combined with our much more advanced public health system, we caqn then theoretically marshall resources rapidly in preparation for anticipated stressors on our health care system.

Lastly, today we have technologies for treating the flu which were not available in 1918. In Canada, our hygiene options are much greater than they were 100 years ago when many more people lived in agricultural environments with limited access to fresh water and indoor plumbing. We have hospitals with quarantine protocols and the experience of SARS to guide us. And we have superdrugs, like neuraminidase inhibitors (that I did some work on), which can serve as both prophylaxis and treatment for many varieties of influenza.

So it looks as if we are in a very good position to avoid a major influenza pandemic.

Frankly, though, I don't know. No one knows. The next few days will tell the tale. Is the epidemic outside of Mexico dying off, or is it yet to fully manifest? I think it's foolish to give an opinion one way or another.

As for what we can do to protect ourselves, just do what your mother told you: wash your hands, sneeze into your elbow pits, don't touch your face or mucous membranes before washing first, avoid extremely crowded areas (like sporting events, theatres, etc) and keep yourself in good health to maintain a robust immune system. You can do the latter by practicing good daily health: eat fresh foods, particularly fruits and vegetables; enjoy moderate exercise regularly; get lots of sleep; drink lots of fluids; avoid stress; practice basic hygiene; and avoid unhealthy products like alcohol, tobacco and preservatives.

Oh, and don't worry about pork products. That's just ridiculous. The food chain is safe from this particular disease. I avoid pork for an entirely different reason: eating pig is just gross.

Labels: , ,

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Spinal Crap

Well this has been quite the interesting week for me. Due to my herniated disc, I've been pretty much disabled, living in agony on my living room floor, unable to do the most basic tasks for myself. I have a new appreciation for the difficult lives of people with debilitating diseases. At times, the pain has been unbearable, almost driving me to tears. The strongest drugs at my disposal have done nothing, and some hours there wasn't a single position that was pain free.

I had to proctor three exams this past week, and did each while lying on the floor of the exam room, my lower back supported by either my acuball or a hot water pad. Not exactly pain free, but manageable. Actually getting to the exam room was the issue, as I limped along in blinding agony. Here are some photos I took on my cell phone while lying on the floor:

And here's a self portrait of my creepy mug trying hard not to grimace in pain while lying on the floor of the exam room:

Last night, the pain was so intense that I decided to go to the Emergency Room and request an epidural steroid. Putting on my shoes took half an hour, and was so tiring that I had to lie down to rest. Well, I was so exhausted that I fell asleep right there on the floor by my door, and never made it to the hospital. This is a good thing, since all I was looking for was a good night's sleep.

I woke up with a modicum less pain, but it was still a nightmare getting to my feet and down the street to pick up my vrtucar. See, I had to give a presentation this morning to a group of medical students going abroad. I wrote the bloody thing, in agony, while lying on the floor the night before. Luckily, I'd given several similar presentations over the past 2 years, so it was only a matter of plucking slides from existing sets.

Once again, I had to do the presentation alternating between standing, sitting, leaning, and lying on both a table and the floor. Sort of like William Shatner on The Family Guy:

Then I even managed to do a recording for a radio interview in my office, again while lying on the floor and coked up on pain killers. This horizontality is becoming my thing, I think.

By the time I got home, the drugs had all but knocked me out. I took a nap, half hanging off my bed, and awoke to.... painlessness. More or less. There are still twinges, but hallelujah, I'm no longer cursing in 4 languages and mixing narcotics. Only one way to celebrate: more narcotics!

In Other News...

A little late on the draw, but Janet Jagan, one of the people responsible for the independence of Guyana, and President of the country of my birth from 1997 to 1999, died on March 28. Some love her and some hate her, but there's no denying that she was a giant figure in the history of a tiny South American nation most people have never heard of.

Mrs. Jagan was a nice Jewish girl from Chicago. Amazingly, she found herself in a scandalous interracial marriage with Guyanese freedom hero Cheddi Jagan, a man of my racial extraction. It's a remarkable thing that this unremarkable suburban woman found herself kneedeep in the political intrigue of this hot country, eventually facing the warships of Winston Churchill, sent from Britain to topple their embryonic, Marxist government.

The movie, Thunder In Guyana, was based on her life. Frankly, I'm surprised big-money Hollywood types haven't latched onto this story.

I met Mrs. Jagan back in 2000, when she was briefly my "handler" when I was awarded a Guyana Prize for Sweet Like Saltwater. I was so nervous at the time that I didn't recognize her, and was vaguely annoyed that this old woman was trying to talk to me about her Canadian grandchildren while I was frantically trying to formulate a speech in my head.

When I realized who she was, I was quickly abashed and humbled. Now that she has passed, I am proud to have spent those few moments as her escort in the theatre. Here's the one photo I have of us:

RIP Janet Jagan, October 20, 1920 – March 28, 2009.

Labels: , , , ,

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Yuri and the Wonder Twins

Apparently The Wonder Twins are back, if only in toy form:

As a commenter on put it, "I especially like the Praise Satan grins they're sporting."

Now compare this new buffness and boobishness to the original:

In other news, today marks the 48th anniversary of the historic flight of Yuri Gagarin, hero of the Soviet Republic and the first human being to both enter outer space and orbit the Earth. Here's a picture of me and a couple of students, from earlier this year, in which I am sporting a Yuri Gagarin T-shirt. It was given to me by a charming and gorgeous Ukrainian woman I was dating last year, and was purchased in the Ukraine, where Gagarin's is still a household name:

It's so very sad that most people in the West today have no idea who this great man was. His accomplishment ranks up there with those of Columbus and Champlain, yet the might of American media has erased his name from our school books. I once polled my students to see how many could identify the name on my T-shirt; none could. Some even thought "Gagarin" was the name of a clothing line.

So let me set the record straight. Yuri Gagarin was the first human being in space. Yuri Gagarin was the first person to orbit the Earth. Alan Shepherd was the first American, and second human being, in space, though he only did a sub-orbital flight. The Americans didn't make orbit till the flight of John Glenn, a whole year after Gagarin. In the interim, another Soviet, Gherman Titov, became the second human to orbit the Earth, but the history books have all but forgotten his name.

If I ask people who the first woman in space was, they always answer "Sally Ride", which infuriates me no end. Sally Ride was the first American in space, and flew in 1983.

The actual first woman in space was Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova, who did the deed two decades earlier in 1963.

In fact, Ride was actually the third woman in space, beaten by a year by yet another Soviet, Svetlana Savitskaya.

The USSR may be gone, and there may have been a great many things about that regime that we find unattractive. But let's not forget that they were the ones who took the real pioneering steps in manned space exploration. Today we remember and honour Yuri Gagarin, hero of the Soviet Republic, and with him the legion of lesser known cosmonauts whose legacies do not benefit from the mighty machine of American media.

Labels: , ,