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Archive for the ‘breaking news’ Category

The Globe and Mail has a short item on the new logo for certified organic foods in Canada.

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Here is part of the official statement from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, with emphasis added:

The Canada organic logo will be permitted for use only on those food products certified as meeting Canadian standards for organic production such as using natural fertilizers and raising animals in conditions that mimic nature as much as possible. Certified products must also contain at least 95 per cent organic ingredients. Following the phase-in period ending in December 2008, it will be mandatory that all organic products be certified for interprovincial and international trade.

Raising animals in conditions that mimic nature as much as possible? That caught my eye, so I looked up the the Organic Products Regulations (which are enabled by the Canada Agricultural Products Act) and found it requires compliance with a set of policies that includes this: Organic Production Systems — General Principles and Management Standards. In that document, not only do we find this regulation is part of a (long overdue) legal effort to stem the use of agricultural antibiotics, but we see this enjoinder

Livestock shall be managed responsibly with care and respect.

That’s encouraging, but it would be more convincing if statements like the following were not included:

Tail docking of pigs is prohibited except to control tail biting and shall be permitted only when all other efforts to eliminate this behaviour have proven unsuccessful.

Beak trimming and de-toeing of birds is prohibited unless all other efforts to control problem behaviour have proven unsuccessful.

The sort of people who buy organic food might just think cutting off bits of animals should be prohibited entirely, especially when its purpose is to prevent behaviours caused by poor living conditions.

Regarding those messy details, I’ll point you in the direction of a book by Peter Singer & Jim Mason: The way we eat: Why our food choices matter (2006). It reveals how the legal and moral issues about food certification are not as black and white as the logo pictured above.

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In a timely news item, following on the heels of my earlier post on misplaced pride in gut feelings, we have the following:

A British Columbia Provincial Court judge ruled last week that Canadian border guards seeking to dismantle and search a vehicle need a warrant to do so. The judgement is already being appealed.

For comment, we have Ron Moran, president of the Custom Excise Union. I’m not sure why a union official feels a critique of Charter jurisprudence to fall under his mandate, but he gives some good sound-bites in his interview with As It Happens, which appears about 10 minutes into the show. He is also quoted in this Globe and Mail article,which includes a lot of Charter- and judge-bashing in the comments by people who have obviously not read the judgement.

If you do read the judgement, R. v. Sekhon 2007 BCPC 0224, it seems clear the judge understands the necessity of border searches but was not impressed by the customs officers behaviour – either at the border or in court – and wanted to send a message:

The Inspectors, to a person, took the view that all borders are Charter-free zones… Canada Border Services Agency officers must somehow be made aware that while individuals seeking to enter or return to Canada have a reduced expectation of privacy from that which they have on the streets of Canada, that such people do in fact have Constitutional rights that must be respected.

Whatever the merits of the case, I mention it here to illustrate how gut feelings – in this case hunches – are routinely considered by border officers to be sufficient grounds for a search. Take the example of Ron Moran, who says in the CBC interview:

The intuition of officers is probably one of their strongest tools, and certainly nobody comes up to us and tells us when they care carrying that type of contraband, so we are left with our intuition and our hunches, unless there is specific intelligence involved.

Gut feelings are the principal mode of investigation for border officers? How reassuring.

While the courts have taken a relaxed view of customs searches since R. v. Simmons 1988 CanLII 12 (S.C.C.), they have yet to approve of gut feelings as a sufficient reason for an detention and search. Quite the opposite is true: In R. v. Jacques, 1996 CanLII 174 (S.C.C.) and later in R. v. Mann, 2004 SCC 52, a majority of Supreme Court of Canada followed the Ontario Court of Appeal in R. v. Simpson, 1993 CanLII 3379 (ON C.A.). As a result, “hunches based on intuition gained by experience” are not good enough.

I wonder how border officials will cope with being denied what they see to be their strongest tool. So far, the Canada Border Services Agency has yet to release a statement beyond that carried by the Globe and Mail article.

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Good news, Canada. Your national crime rate has fallen to the lowest in a quarter-century.

While the steady increase in violent crime might be alarming, feel some consolation that there are 10% homicides than there were a year ago.

I wonder what happened around 1990 to create that spike in crime rates, and if the drop in crime rates can be accounted for by an aging population.

Click through to see the details, or read the CBC coverage.

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This week CBC unveiled its newly designed website, which looks prettier but falls short of the mark of being CBC 2.0.

It’s easy to see the drivers for this redesign. The website is first and foremost a way to promote the broadcaster’s offline content (radio and TV), but they are also wrestling with the need to serve up the ton of online content they can make available to readers across Canada.

It’s a dangerous balance which seems to have already alienated many visitors, but they are moving in the right direction. More white space, bigger headlines, and prominent graphics make it a much snappier site. Better yet, they have finally begun integrating their site with the blogosphere, with links to Technorati and blog posts which connect to the news items.

They’ve adopted a portal approach, which is at the same time perfectly sensible and unfortunate. While it helps organize the information, it also turns the front page into a soup of information, most of which any given user will not use. It also stratifies the webpage, which is a bad thing when it involves scrolling three screens to browse for what might interest you:

  1. At the top is the local weather – a great idea.
  2. Under it, there’s a set of simple, easy-to-find navigation tabs – also good.
  3. A large, splashy promotional banner, advertising a rotating selection of 5 CBC TV and radio programs, fills the rest of the screen ‘above the fold’ – they should get rid of it, as people hate scrolling to get to the real content. Beside this is a useless list of top searches which should also go, or be placed on a dedicated search & site-map page if for some reason one forgets that people are always looking for weather and sodoku.
  4. Under that, large graphics linking to the top story in each of the news, sports, and arts & entertainment portals. These define 3 columns for the top 3 headlines in each category – they should consider starting the page with this, although I’d recommend reducing the prominence given to the sports, which is now front and center.
  5. Then there’s the ‘mystery meat’, a selection of miscellaneous items belonging to no real category. They are really just clutter – they had them on the old site too, and should have axed them for this one. Hint – if you can’t give a section of a webpage a decent title, it should go. (At best, they deserve a small box with rotating content which collects them together)
  6. To anchor the bottom of the page, there are two large boxes telling you what’s on CBC radio and TV, and offer links to schedules – a good idea, but the titles don’t let you click through to the radio and TV portals, even though you can click on the news, sports and A&E portal titles in layer 4, above.
  7. After that, there’s localization: a set of 3 local headlines and geographical categories for regional content – since these are very important to most people, these should be given a higher placement on the page.
  8. Last comes two column lists of headlines: most blogged and most viewed – an excellent idea, and with good placement.
  9. The footer contains the usual corporate stuff, although you’d think a simple link to ‘About the CBC’ would be enough for the front page.

Gosh, nine strata over three screens of content. How much of it is useful to you?

If the CBC really wanted to make the audience drive the content of the main page, they would do something similar to other Web 2.0 portals like Netvibes. These allow users to construct their own page using modules of information. If that is too adventurous for a broadcaster hobbled by bureaucracy, then I offer this simple solution…

Treat the front page like a page that has content and is an end-destination, instead of a page promoting offline material. Most people go to CBC.ca for news – local and otherwise. If they want something else, they are willing to click about as long as you don’t make it hard for them. So, put the news up front and make it pretty. Everything else should follow in slide-show graphics smaller than that now occupying the bulk of the main page, and linking to portals instead of individual stories.

It’s a given no-one at CBC is going to do this, because they are driven by different priorities. This means it is up to the audience to control how they get their information. Here are my 3 very simple recommendations that will help you get what you want from the CBC website.

  1. Bypass the main page and just bookmark the CBC News portal, which is chock full of content.
  2. Use a browser with an ad blocker. Firefox has ad-ons which can help you cut down on the advertising clutter. Thanks to them, I haven’t seen a banner ad on my iBook in months.
  3. Avoid visiting the website entirely. No, really. If you are a no-nonsense news junkie, this is the way to go: just collect the RSS feeds that serve the content you want. Once you’re outfitted with a feed reader like Google Reader or Netvibes, you only need to go to the CBC website to check for scheduling information, streaming audio, and the weather.
  4. Get your weather elsewhere. Oddly, neither the CBC nor Environment Canada offer RSS feeds for the weather. An official with the latter told me they are working on getting an RSS feed, but that was months ago. For now, they only have a hurricane alert feed. Still, if you click across the pond and enter your city into the World 5 Day Forecast form at the BBC Weather website, it will generate a daily RSS feed for you.

How well do these strategies work? Enough that I didn’t know they’d changed their website until several days after they rolled it out, when a friend told me about it over the phone.

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While it took some time to hit the press, on May 28 the environmentalist organization Friends of the Earth filed a lawsuit against the Queen in right of the federal government of Canada. Co-defendants are the Minister of the Environment, John Baird and the Minister of Health, Tony Clement.

Press releases are available from Friends of the Earth Canada and Sierra Legal Defence Fund.

The application was made to the Federal Court in Ottawa for judicial review of the government’s failing to meet its domestic and international legal obligations. It seeks two orders of declaration from the court, the guts of which I paraphrase here.

  1. Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions violate the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Kyoto Protocol.
  2. The government is failing to meet its obligations to control greenhouse gas emissions under s.166 of the Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA).

The application also requests an order of mandamus, which would command the government to comply with s.166 of the CEPA by implementing controls that meet Kyoto targets.

Their argument is a mix of international law and statutory interpretation. Statements about Canada’s failure to comply with international law can be found in this legal opinion, provided by the German firm Günther Heidel Wollenteit Hack. However, the filed application focuses mostly on the matter of statutory interpretation. Friends of the Earth argues greenhouse gases are air pollution, so the Environment Minister has a legal duty under s.166 of the CEPA to control it. Government lawyers will doubtless argue a contrary definition.

You might recall the same arguments happened in the United States. There, the US Supreme Court narrowly decided the Environmental Protection Agency had the authority to regulate greenhouse gases as air pollutants.

Because greenhouse gases fit well within the Clean Air Act’s capacious definition of ‘air pollutant’, we hold that the EPA has the statutory authority to regulate the emission of such gases from new motor vehicles.

A visit to the Environment Canada website for Bill C-30Canada’s Clean Air Act – shows that the Government of Canada has taken notice of the debate south of the border. The text of the bill, which would amend CEPA as well as the Energy Efficiency Act and the Motor Vehicle Fuel Consumption Standards Act, clearly distinguishes between air pollutants and greenhouse gases.

At present, CEPA defines air pollution expansively:

“air pollution” means a condition of the air, arising wholly or partly from the presence in the air of any substance, that directly or indirectly

  1. endangers the health, safety or welfare of humans;
  2. nterferes with the normal enjoyment of life or property;
  3. endangers the health of animal life;
  4. causes damage to plant life or to property; or
  5. degrades or alters, or forms part of a process of degradation or alteration of, an ecosystem to an extent that is detrimental to its use by humans, animals or plants.

The amendment would add separate definitions for ‘air pollutant’ and ‘greenhouse gas’.

There are several things about the application which are interesting. Consider how the list of cited authorities includes the following environmental values:

e) the precautionary, intergenerational equity and public trust principles;

Only two of these have found their way into Canadian environmental law, and neither are particularly forceful as authority.

The preamble to the CEPA sensibly appeals to the precautionary principle this way:

[W]here there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation;

The public trust doctrine, on the other hand, is the common law view that there are public rights in the environment that are held by the Crown. While the Supreme Court tangentially acknowledged its validity in British Columbia v. Canadian Forest Products Ltd. (2004), it shied away from the “novel policy questions” implicated by the concept. In that case, after a short historical survey of the doctrine in Anglo-American common law, the court opened the door only to walk on by – a perfect example of obiter dicta in action.

It would be tough to argue that either of these have great weight as legal authority. Of the three, only one is a legal principle, and the court has been reluctant to think about its implications.

Why toss these three environmental values into the application, then? I suspect it’s to allow them to be used as part of later arguments – arguments which might bait an adventurous court into entrenching the principles in its judgement. That would be an important victory for Canada’s environmental movement, and radically reshape environmental law.

Even if the environmentalist lawyers fail to make their case, the court action might yield politically important results. The process of disclosure allows them to gain access to important ministerial documents and correspondence that might embarrass government.

Still, legal counsel for Friends of the Earth might want to update their boilerplate. They refer to the court as the ‘Federal Court – Trial Division’, but that name changed with amendments in 2003 to the Federal Court Act. It is now just called the Federal Court.

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Borders can’t contain persistent ignorance.

Yesterday, a creation museum opened in the US. In a few weeks, one will open in Canada. No, really.

The province of Alberta has the distinction of hosting both of the creation museums north of the 49th parallel. There’s the traveling museum of Creation Truth Ministries, and the Big Valley Creation Science Museum which will open this summer. Both of these awful websites pale in comparison to the Creationist 2.0 glory made available by their wealthier American cousin, Answers in Genesis.

This might remind you about the dismay in the scientific community when the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) denied Brian Alters a grant to study Detrimental effects of popularizing anti-evolution’s ‘intelligent design theory’ on Canadian students, teachers, parents, administrators, and policymakers. The stated reasons:

The committee found that the candidates were qualified. However, it judged the proposal did not adequately substantiate the premise that the popularization of Intelligent Design Theory had detrimental effects on Canadian students, teachers, parents and policy makers. Nor did the committee consider that there was adequate justification for the assumption in the proposal that the theory of Evolution, and not Intelligent Design theory, was correct. It was not convinced, therefore, that research based on these assumptions would yield objective results. In addition, the committee found that the research plans were insufficiently elaborated to allow for an informed evaluation of their merit. In view of its reservations the committee recommended that no award be made. [emphasis added]

When this hit the press, SSHRC’s Janet Halliwell characterized this as a “framing” problem, and later was compelled to say “The theory of evolution is not in doubt”. I’m willing to give her the benefit of the doubt, but it should be noted that the members of the SSHRC committee who reviewed the grant proposal were not biologists.

  1. Susan Bennett (Chairperson), English literature professor at the University of Calgary
  2. Lawrence Felt, sociology professor at Memorial University of Newfoundland
  3. Ruby Heap, history professor at University of Ottawa
  4. Gilbert Larochelle, human sciences professor at the Universite du Quebec a Chicoutimi
  5. Ruth Rose, economics professor at the Universite du Quebec a Montreal.

Coverage of the new Alberta museum is rare, and the timing suggests it is about providing a local angle to the news of last weekend’s creationist museum opening. Perhaps Canadians just aren’t interested in this, except as a commentary on how we might be different from Americans.

Given the political context – 3 Republican candidates for the presidential election do not believe in evolution! – the American museum has had more attention in the press. The New York Times treated it with kid gloves in its culture reportage, Adam and Eve in the Land of the Dinosaurs. The Washington Post does a little bit better in its story about A Monument To Creation, but the strongest words come from an LA Times editorial, Yabba-dabba science, which begins:

Note to would-be Creation Museum visitors: the Earth is round.

Thank you, LA Times.

Some of the best and most critical coverage of this comes from the blogosphere. At Pharyngula, PZ Myers has a good round-up at his Creation Museum carnival. See also the posts at the Panda’s Thumb and Boing Boing.

I ask again: Can neurophilosophers out there tell me why people are so susceptible to this sort of nonsense?

Postscript

After enjoying this comic about beliefs, consider a weekend exploring The Royal Tyrell Museum in Drumheller. Take more time if you’d like to see more of Dinosaur Provincial Park and the Canadian Badlands.

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What should we make of dinosaur publishers leading the charge against dangerous drugs?

On Monday, GlaxoSmithKline received some bad news about Avandia, its drug for diabetes patients. According to a study in the New England Journal of Medicine, Avandia – Rosiglitazone Maleate – increases the risk of heart attack.

Here’s the report, although readers without medical training may find it impenetrable:

For a measure of the confusion that results from this type of disclosure, see Dr. Charles’ coverage at Unanswered Questions About Avandia & More on Avandia. [Update: see also this Washington Post article, presented as a FAQ.]

This may remind readers of the medical, financial and legal panic following indications that Cox-2 Inhibitors prescribed to arthritis sufferers had serious side effects. The most popular of the Cox-2 drugs were Celebrex (sold by Pfizer) and Vioxx (sold by Merck). Responding to panicking patients, doctors, regulators, and investors, the FDA and Health Canada were quick to issue warnings.

The Vioxx scandal was a natural result of a general failure to regulate drug safety, and there were widespread calls for closer and more reliable monitoring – both before and after their approval for sale by government agencies. The targets for regulatory reform don’t tax common-sense:

  1. the merits of post-market surveillance, including provisional licensing.
  2. the dangers of early pre-market licensing, and
  3. the unhealthy demand created for untried prescription medications by direct-to-consumer advertising.

An editorial from the journal of the Canadian Medical Association nicely summed up the problem, and advocated a sweeping regulatory solution:

The FDA and Health Canada have demonstrated their structural inability to do ongoing safety monitoring of new drugs and devices, and industry is far too conflicted to be able to carry out this important task. We need new national agencies to monitor drug safety independently from the approvals process. Only then can physicians and patients be assured an unbiased safety assessment of the drugs they are prescribing and taking.

Two years later, and very little has changed at either agency. Despite tentative forays in the US Congress, and ‘critical path‘ talks at the FDA, no legislation has been passed which would respond to the problem. In Canada, discussions about progressive licensing have yet to assume regulatory force, and there are indications the situation will become worse, not better.

The most significant development has come from member journals of the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE), who issued a statement declaring they will only publish trials previously registered with ClinicalTrials.gov, a database hosted by the National Institutes of Health.

Soon after, the ICMJE adopted recommendations of the World Health Organization, in part to counter Big Pharma’s attempts to circumvent their requirements.

This is a story with enough alarm and money involved that it has gained significant attention. But unlike the Vioxx ‘fallout’ story in 2004, this story is made new by an extra twist. Major newspapers are framing it as a triumph for open access to information.

Each of these focus on how Nissen and Wolski used information culled from GlaxoSmithKline’s own public database, the Clinical Trial Register.

This story works. It has a personalized David and Goliath theme that invites schadenfreude when a large drug company is caught by its own data.

I worry, though, that this will create confidence in informal drug monitoring that relies on whistle-blowing by objective and motivated researchers and medical journals.

It’s already happening.

Joe Weisenthal at Techdirt, floats the idea that medical journals could replace the FDA.

Looking down the road, one could envision a system whereby it’s the FDA’s job to ensure that drug companies properly report safety and efficacy data, while third parties (think highly specialized versions of Consumer Reports) make judgments on a drug. Then, instead of having blanket pronouncements on whether a drug can be sold or not, it would be up to doctors to weigh all the risks and decide what’s best for their patients on an individual basis.

This a dangerous and naive view of informed medical choice. Front-line physicians don’t have the time, resources or skill to mount strict, comprehensive and authoritative analysis of drugs. GlaxoSmithKline’s Rosiglitazone Studies are no good to your family doctor. Moreover, doctors are swayed by drug marketing and browbeaten by patient advocating specific treatments.

Even worse, we can’t rely on uncoordinated third-party research specialists to study all of the effects of medicines that go to market, and we can’t rely on peer-reviewed journals to publish only good results.

Open access to the data is a good idea, but it is not enough. Public health cannot take place voluntarily or in a legal vacuum. We need regulation to enforce that open access, we need regulation to uncover harmful effects and screen for snake-oil ‘alternative therapies’, and we need regulation to free doctors and patients from biased sales pitches.

Absent this, informed choice about medical treatment is a myth.

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