Jonathan Crowe

My Correct Views on Everything
↳ April 2011

Don’t Eat the Armadillo!

Armadillo A new study has fingered armadillos as the source of about a third of the cases of leprosy (Hansen’s disease) in the southern United States. (The other two thirds get it overseas; that remaining indigenous source of leprosy had been a mystery.) Casual contact isn’t enough to catch it; eating armadillo meat is a more reliable vector for spreading Mycobacterium leprae — and yes, people do eat armadillo in the areas where these cases of leprosy have been found. So stay away from the armadillo chili!

But it’s not simply that armadillos give M. leprae to humans: we gave it to them first.

[Lead researcher Richard] Truman says there was no leprosy in the New World until European settlers arrived. Somehow armadillos contracted the disease, and now about 15 percent of armadillos carry it. They are ideal hosts, because M. leprae likes their low, 89-degree body temperature. It can’t thrive at a human’s core temperature, which is why it only attacks our cooler extremities.

Article abstract. Via Brian Switek. Photo by Rich Anderson (CC licence).

Wind and Power

High winds knocked out the power here for more than nine hours today. It was a major inconvenience, and I was quite grumpy about it (particularly since Hydro-Québec kept moving back the estimated time the power would be restored), but we managed in the end; and, considering the havoc wreaked in the Ottawa area and the fact that we were among 115,000 Hydro-Québec customers who lost power today, things could have been a lot worse. Tomorrow we will no doubt find out if there has been any significant local damage.

Pontiac in Play

Mathieu Ravignat My impression was that the NDP’s candidate in this riding, Mathieu Ravignat, was one of those placeholder candidates, but ThreeHundredEight.com is projecting that he’ll actually win. (Actually, they’re projecting the NDP to sweep all three Outaouais seats, including Gatineau and Hull—Aylmer, which is practically a Liberal fief.) If Ravignat wins, he’ll have to show his mettle pretty quickly: I figure that most of the NDP poteaux elected next week won’t survive another election, and this riding is turning out to be one of the more volatile ones in this province.

Meanwhile, the Citizen endorsed Lawrence Cannon again.

Previously: Pontiac in the 2011 Federal Election.

At the Canadian War Museum

Canadian War Museum

Jennifer’s parents visited over Easter weekend, and one of the things they wanted to do was visit the Canadian War Museum, which I’d never been to. We went on Saturday, and I took my usual metric arseload of photos, which you can peruse here. There’s a lot to see: the exhibits are densely packed and thickly described, and the path winds like it’s going through an IKEA showroom. Plan to spend at least several hours there.

A New Nifty Fifty

Its existence has already been leaked online, but today Nikon announced a new version of its 50mm f/1.8 lens — the so-called “nifty fifty” (Digital Photography Review, Photography Blog).

I have its predecessor, the AF 50mm f/1.8 D, which doesn’t autofocus on entry-level digital SLRs (that matters less than you might think: I focused mine manually with my D40, and got great results). This one does, and adds an aspherical lens element (which reduces coma and chromatic aberration). It also costs $220, which is more expensive than its predecessor but still cheaper than most other lenses — and for the quality of images you get, it’s a bargain. I use mine as a short portrait lens and it’s crazy-stupid sharp.

(The nifty fifty also comes in an f/1.4 version, but you pay two or three times as much for an additional two-thirds of an f-stop.)

NGC 2174 in Infrared

NGC 2174 (WISE)

I haven’t foisted a false-colour infrared image from WISE on you in nearly a whole month, so here you go: emission nebula NGC 2174. As usual, different colour channels represent infrared wavelengths invisible to the human eye: red is 22 µm, green is 12 µm, cyan is 4.6 µm and blue is 3.4 µm. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA.

How Belief Trumps Fact

A must-read (albeit depressing) article in Mother Jones: The Science of Why We Don’t Believe Science by Chris Mooney, who looks at the mechanics of denialism, and how people cling to beliefs in full defiance of the facts.

[A]n array of new discoveries in psychology and neuroscience has further demonstrated how our preexisting beliefs, far more than any new facts, can skew our thoughts and even color what we consider our most dispassionate and logical conclusions. This tendency toward so-called “motivated reasoning” helps explain why we find groups so polarized over matters where the evidence is so unequivocal: climate change, vaccines, “death panels,” the birthplace and religion of the president (PDF), and much else. It would seem that expecting people to be convinced by the facts flies in the face of, you know, the facts.
The theory of motivated reasoning builds on a key insight of modern neuroscience (PDF): Reasoning is actually suffused with emotion (or what researchers often call “affect”). Not only are the two inseparable, but our positive or negative feelings about people, things, and ideas arise much more rapidly than our conscious thoughts, in a matter of milliseconds — fast enough to detect with an EEG device, but long before we’re aware of it. That shouldn’t be surprising: Evolution required us to react very quickly to stimuli in our environment. It’s a “basic human survival skill,” explains political scientist Arthur Lupia of the University of Michigan. We push threatening information away; we pull friendly information close. We apply fight-or-flight reflexes not only to predators, but to data itself.
We’re not driven only by emotions, of course — we also reason, deliberate. But reasoning comes later, works slower — and even then, it doesn’t take place in an emotional vacuum. Rather, our quick-fire emotions can set us on a course of thinking that’s highly biased, especially on topics we care a great deal about. […]
In other words, when we think we’re reasoning, we may instead be rationalizing.

It’s hard-wired: this is the sort of thing that Peter Watts goes on about.

Suburbs in Decline?

Market forces and demographic shifts may be killing the suburb, Kaid Benfield writes in an interesting post summarizing several analyses. It’s not just high gasoline prices discouraging growth in car-friendly suburbs; it turns out that zoning doesn’t necessarily help real estate values, the mortgage market is in the crapper, and younger people are preferring urban lifestyles more and more. Not to say that suburbs don’t have a lot of life left in them: wake me when suburban schools close in favour of schools downtown.

The Other London Underground

Mail Rail The London Post Office Railway, a 10½-kilometre underground railway that shuttled mail between eight stations, was mothballed in 2003. The infrastructure is still relatively intact, however, as trespassers urban explorers discovered while traipsing about the abandoned line recently. The photos are amazing. Via Boing Boing.

Arp 273

NASA's Hubble Celebrates 21st Anniversary with "Rose" of Galaxies

A new Hubble Heritage image released this morning of Arp 273, a pair of interacting galaxies (UGC 1810 and 1813) about 300 million light years away. This image was taken by Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3 through visual and ultraviolet filters. Image credit: NASA, ESA and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA).

Pontiac in the 2011 Federal Election

And now for some thoughts about the local campaign in the federal constituency of Pontiac. Despite that the fact that my riding was listed by the Globe and Mail as one of 50 ridings to watch this election, I’ve been hard pressed to see much campaigning around here. (Then again, I’d be hard pressed to catch any political action, given my reclusive ways.) The Conservative incumbent, Lawrence Cannon, has an office open in Shawville, and his first brochure turned up in the mail today; his Liberal opponent, Cindy Duncan McMillan, has signs up around here as well.

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Tenuous Ties to Tyrannosaurus

Tyrannosaurus Brian Switek again, arguing that using Tyrannosaurus as an all-encompassing point of reference for all paleontological news is starting to be a problem:

But our love for Tyrannosaurus can be unhealthy. You don’t need to look further than the headlines to see that the great Cretaceous predator has become the standard by which almost all of prehistory is judged. Dunkleosteus — a Devonian armoured fish — “had [a] bite stronger than a T. rex; the invertebrate Hurdia was heralded as the T. rex of the Cambrian period”; and, despite having a different shape, Colombia’s fossil snake Titanoboa was said to be “as big as T. rex.
I’m almost convinced that there is a journalism guide that advises: “If a catchy headline doesn’t readily present itself for a new fossil discovery, a reference to T. rex will do at a pinch.”

T. rex: the Kevin Bacon of the prehistoric world.

First Orbit

I’m about a week behind in telling you about First Orbit, a movie released to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first human spaceflight — Yuri Gagarin aboard Vostok 1 on April 12, 1961. The film merges Gagarin’s radio transmissions with new views from the International Space Station and a musical score by Philip Sheppard. You can watch the entire 99-minute film on YouTube; what’s embedded above is a short “making-of” feature. Via Universe Today.

Observing on Ellesmere Island

Ellesmere Island may turn out to be an ideal location for astronomical observing, thanks to its long winter nights, clear air, and high altitude (it’s quite mountainous). Its seeing conditions might be comparable to Hawaii and Chile (if not as pleasant to visit). The Montreal Gazette reports on a project that aims to have a small telescope up there by next winter: “Astronomer Nicholas Law says the Ellesmere telescope is to spend the ‘wonderfully’ long and dark Arctic winter looking for potentially habitable planets. … Law says the project is different than other planet-hunting operations, which concentrate on larger stars. The Ellesmere telescope will survey stars as small as a tenth the size of our sun, which are believed to harbour plenty of small planets. ‘We have the possibility of detecting rocky planets on which liquid water could exist,’ Law said.”

Four Generations

Four generations of my family

So apparently my brother and his family are in Winnipeg this weekend, which permitted the above photo to be taken (presumably by my sister-in-law, who wields the digital SLR in that household). That’s four generations of my family right there: my grandfather, my father, my brother and his two kids. Since I know you’re curious: my grandfather is 94 years old (yes, he’s the other one in my family with AS).

Brian Switek’s Written in Stone

Book cover: Written in Stone Brian Switek’s Written in Stone: Evolution, the Fossil Record, and Our Place in Nature talks about the fossil record and Darwin’s theory of natural selection. That’s not as straightforward a subject as you might think: while the discovery of fossils of so-called transitional forms — Archeopteryx comes to mind — did much to fill in one readily admitted gap in Darwin’s theory, paleontologists weren’t always on-side with Darwin. Sure, they believed in evolution, but not necessarily that natural selection was the process; no few believed that evolution proceeded in a linear fashion, teleologically, from lesser to greater forms. Which is not what Darwinism is about. What the fossil record shows is not a linear progression, but a messy tree of life that is pruned as ecological niches disappear (at one point, for example, there were more than a dozen different kinds of horse in North America, with different kinds of horses adapted to different environments).

Switek builds his case chapter by chapter, looking at the fossil evolutionary record of everything from amphibians, mammals and birds to, more specifically, horses, whales, elephants and hominids. (It’s not, in other words, just a dinosaur book.) As a synthesis it’s an impressive virtuoso performance, wide-ranging without sacrificing depth. But I wonder whether it might not be too technical for beginners: I think I have enough amateur grounding in the language of taxonomy and cladistics not to have been bewildered by the book, but, you know, the clades do come fast and furious.

Switek has announced his next book, A Date with a Dinosaur, which will contrast dinosaurs in the popular imagination with the latest research. His article in today’s Wall Street Journal gives some indication of how he’ll deal with that subject.

A Nuclear North?

Remote northern communities are off the grid; they have to rely on diesel generators for electrical power. This is, as you can imagine, insanely expensive (in some communities, an order of magnitude more expensive than in southern cities). Among the alternatives being considered: miniature nuclear reactors. Before you start thinking about Fukushima (or, say, Armenia’s Metsamor station, said to be the most dangerous nuclear plant in the world), note that smaller nuclear reactors are supposedly much safer than their larger cousins. Also, northern communities don’t have many other options: it’s not feasible to connect Baffin Island to the grid, and solar panels aren’t really a year-round solution near the Arctic Circle. Apart from the safety and political issues, one remaining question seems to be whether small reactors would be cost-effective in practice, even against diesel.

NGC 3582

NGC 3582 (ESO)

It occurs to me that I haven’t inflicted any astrophotography on you in a while. Here you go: a gorgeous look at NGC 3582, a nebula in the constellation Carina, based mainly on data collected by the Wide Field Imager on the MPG/ESO 2.2-metre telescope at the European Southern Observatory’s La Silla facility in Chile. This false-colour image combines visual and hydrogen-alpha wavelengths with infrared data from the Digitized Sky Survey. Image credit: ESO, Digitized Sky Survey 2 and Joe DePasquale.

The World’s Largest Dinosaurs

I do love dinosaur exhibits. This Saturday, a new one opens at the American Museum of Natural History in New York; it’s called The World’s Largest Dinosaurs, and it features a 60-foot model of a Mamenchisaurus. That’s right: it’s all about the sauropods, baby! Gothamist and UPI both have sneak-preview photo galleries.

E-Mail Footers

Those warnings and disclaimers at the foot of certain e-mail messages, written in legalese jargon? Turns out that, legally speaking, they’re utterly pointless. Via Daring Fireball.

Keeping Reptiles in Winnipeg

In the wake of the seizure of nine snakes from a Winnipeg apartment with more than 50 of them, Winnipeg’s head of by-law services has gone to great pains to reassure pet owners in the city. (He must have been getting phone calls.) Leland Gordon told CBC News that the city is not tracking snake owners, and so long as the species are legal, you can have as many reptiles as you like. (We’ll see how long that lasts.) So, which species are legal?

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Buddy Holly Is Alive and Well on Ganymede

What the hell? I didn’t know that Brad Denton’s comic science fiction novel, Buddy Holly Is Alive and Well on Ganymede, was being made into a movie. (Distressingly, the novel is out of print, but available for free download.) Via Boing Boing.

(Can I just say that Denton’s story, “The Calvin Coolidge Home for Dead Comedians,” is one of my all-time favourites?)

Doctored Cosmonaut Photos

Airbrushed cosmonauts Wired Science looks at the different versions of doctored photos of Soviet cosmonauts: some cosmonauts that appear in the originals disappear from later, doctored versions. “The lies illustrated by these images fueled Western suspicions that a number of cosmonauts had died in secret space disasters, but it turns out this wasn’t true. The erased men had either misbehaved and been expelled, or even more innocently, had simply developed disqualifying medical conditions,” writes James Oberg. That they went to such great lengths to cover up such minor things speaks volumes. Via Boing Boing.

Tele Vue Delos Eyepieces

NEAF is coming up this weekend, and that usually means a new eyepiece or two from Tele Vue. This year is no exception: they’re announcing a new line called Delos — long-eye-relief, short-focal-length eyepieces with a 72° apparent field of view. Other eyepieces have wider fields of view, but less eye relief at that focal length, or as much eye relief, but a narrower field of view. (Eye relief is how far away you can hold your eye from the eyepiece: more eye relief is easier, especially if you use glasses.) Tele Vue’s Radian line, for example, has 20 mm of eye relief, but only a 60° AFOV, so this is a step up. On the other hand, a Delos weighs a lot more than an equivalent Radian. Two focal lengths so far: 6 mm and 10 mm. Don’t know what the prices are yet; it’s Tele Vue, so they won’t be cheap. Via Focus Scientific.

Garter Snake Spring

For my friend Stewart Stick, the first sign of spring is when the garter snakes and painted turtles come out. Here’s a video he shot recently of garter snakes active in Mark S. Burnham Provincial Park near Peterborough, Ontario.

I’m seeing a lot of springtime garter snake photos on Flickr. It may be time to put together another spring post on Gartersnake.info (see my posts for 2009 and 2010).

Ducts and Cats

A rather eventful day at home today. This morning, the furnace ducts were cleaned for what was apparently the first time in the more than 50-year history of this apartment. That should help the air quality here: it’s been rather stuffy and dusty. Duct cleaning, however, is not an activity favoured by cats: it’s loud, affects every room and lasts for a couple of hours. Doofus was much put out.

Extracted teeth Goober, on the other hand, missed the whole thing, because he was at the vet getting his teeth extracted. Four in all, including his top right and bottom right canines. He came home dazed and groggy, but with enough fight that he thrashed inside the carrier, and immediately wanted to eat when he came home. No can do, cat: you were under general anesthesia and you’re NPO until tomorrow morning. Meanwhile, Doofus was all growly at him, probably because after surgery he didn’t smell right. (Goober had the same problem with Maya, four years ago, after being out on the lam for a week. The poor, wrong-smelling cat.)

Snakes in Winnipeg Apartment Seized

CBC News and the Winnipeg Free Press report that 50 snakes were seized from a Winnipeg apartment after a missing snake turned up in a neighbour’s apartment. Some other reptiles were also seized, but police aren’t releasing a list of species, which could mean anything from “nothing noteworthy” to “we don’t want to alarm you,” with a good chance of “we don’t know what these damn things are.” This is another one of those “there but for … ” stories, since I’ve had considerably more than 50 snakes in an apartment, though I’ve always been a lot more above board about it, in terms of legality and landlord awareness.

Update, April 13: A more thorough article from the Free Press: it seems that only some of the snakes were seized, which is to say that some, not all, were violating the city by-law (which prohibits giant and venomous snakes).

Ad Astra 2011: Top Ten SF Novels

We attended the Ad Astra science fiction convention in Toronto last weekend. I’ll have a main entry on the convention later. But in the meantime:

One of the panels at Ad Astra was called “Top Ten SF Novels Everyone Should Read.” The panelists were Peter Halasz, David Hartwell, Michael Johnstone and Claude Lalumière, each of whom gave their lists, which rarely added up to ten books, of must-read science fiction. Unfortunately, I didn’t attend due to goddammit-two-great-panels-at-once: I was off listening to James Alan Gardner and Peter Watts on the “Understanding the Alien” panel. But Jennifer did, and took notes. Here are those lists.

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Reading Jules Verne

Jules Verne I’ve set myself the project of reading the complete works of Jules Verne. This seems like a good idea: I’m a hardcore science fiction fan and I’ve extensively studied 19th- and early-20th-century France, but I haven’t read much Verne at all (certainly not since childhood). But this is going to be complicated by the fact that English translations of Verne’s novels are frequently terrible; newer translations aren’t available for all the books, and the newer translations won’t be the ones available for free on Project Gutenberg. I’ll have to investigate what’s available for each book: maybe the bad translations will be sufficient for my purposes; maybe I’ll have to buy (!) a new edition. Reading the original French would also be possible, but not easy.

At any rate, I’m well into (a problematic English translation of) Five Weeks in a Balloon (Cinq semaines en ballon), Verne’s first novel, published in 1863. More on that after I’ve finished.

Links for future reference: The Jules Verne Collecting Resource Page, The North American Jules Verne Society, Zvi Har’El’s Jules Verne Collection, The Works of Jules Verne.

Messier 12

Cluster's Deceptive Serenity Hides Violent Past

After all those political posts, I need some science to cleanse the palate. Here’s globular cluster Messier 12, 23,000 light years away in the constellation Ophiuchus, as seen by Hubble through blue, red and near-infrared filters. (In this image, red light is coloured green and infrared light is coloured red, just to confuse you.) Image credit: ESA/Hubble and NASA.

About Some Stupid Shit Some Candidate Said

Since I blogged last week about some stupid shit a Bloc MP said about his NDP opponent, I’m kind of obligated (out of a naive sense of fairness) to report on more incidents of stupid shit said by local candidates. Getting outraged at local candidates’ stupid shit says seems to be a standard feature of political campaigns. The main purpose of said outrage being to beat up the party of the offending candidate or beat up the party who’s calling out the offending candidate if you think that the callout is unfair.

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Missing Boa Found

See? I told you the missing boa constrictor in Saskatchewan wasn’t necessarily dead after two months: it’s been found — alive and well.

Follow the Data

The Liberal war room is making some fun at the Conservatives’ expense with the above ad, but I believe that this issue is more than just the cut-and-thrust of the election campaign — scoring points on the other side over campaign tactics that are essentially trivial. I think that how political parties collect and use personal data is important from a civil-liberties standpoint.

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Harper’s Potemkin Campaign

Political campaigns generally want friendly crowds at their events, but the Conservative campaign went too far to ensure that Stephen Harper’s audience would never utter a discouraging word. You’ve probably heard the story by now: two young women were tossed out of a Conservative event in London, Ontario because one of them had a picture of herself taken with Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff on her Facebook profile. Not only has the blowback done far more damage than any amount of heckling — the Conservatives are in full damage-control mode — but it has allowed the other leaders to score some terrific points at Harper’s expense, especially since his audiences seem to undergo more screening than his political advisers, one of whom had a criminal record.

It’s bad enough that you have to pre-register to attend a Conservative event. What’s truly spooky is that Harper’s minions are using those registrations to troll through Facebook for suppressive persons — and that the reason for requiring attendees to register is presumably so that they can do just that. My Canada does not include vetting people for doubleplusungood crimethink.

More coverage: CBC News, Montreal Gazette, Toronto Star.

Rho Ophiuchi in Infrared

Rho Ophiuchi (WISE)

The Rho Ophiuchi cloud complex is a popular (and spectacular) target among amateur astrophotographers, but here’s a different look at it, from the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE), in false-colour infrared. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA.

‘Can’t-Miss’ SF and Fantasy Novels for 2011

I already thought that 2011 was looking like a great year for science fiction and fantasy novels; Kirkus Reviews’ list of 10 “can’t-miss” SF and fantasy novels includes some that I knew about and some that I didn’t; some that I was planning to read, and some that I might have to take a look at. Via Jo Walton.

Deathless

Book cover: Deathless Catherynne M. Valente’s latest novel, Deathless, is a beautiful, note-perfect, poetic novel that combines the mischief of Russian folk tales and the horrors of twentieth-century Soviet history.

Ostensibly a retelling of “The Death of Koschei the Deathless,” but drawing, I think, on other Russian fairy tales, Valente’s story is a tale well-woven, with the warp and weft of history and mythology seamelessly woven together into a tapestry that is both funny and wise, and with just the right storytelling rhythms. Deathless brings domoviye and rusalky into the Soviet era; Marya Morevna is taken from “The Death of Koschei the Deathless” and made not the prize but the heroine (and Ivan not the hero but the prize). She lives in Revolution-era Leningrad, where her family shares a house with 11 other families, before Koschei, the Tsar of Death, sweeps her away to Buyan. Marya must survive both Baba Yaga and the Siege of Leningrad; the fairy pantheon is also changed by the Russian Revolution.

As a synthesis of the fairy and the modern it rings true, comparing very favourably to Spirited Away and The Iron Dragon’s Daughter, but with greater depth, power, and mythic truth — and I love the fact that Slavic mythology, which I knew so little about, is its source material. Highly recommended.

About the Baby Boa Constrictor in Saskatchewan

Regarding the story of the baby boa constrictor that escaped two months ago from its cage in an environment ministry office in Weyburn, Saskatchwan (CBC News, Regina Leader-Post): while conservation officers say the snake has probably died, I’m not so sure. I’ve seen cases of escaped snakes surviving somewhere in their owners’ homes for more than six months before turning up again, alive and well (albeit thin and hungry). Granted, if the boa has no access to water or sufficient heat, then yes, it’s probably already done for, but don’t overestimate how much water or heat it needs (particularly if it has gone into hibernation), or where it can go to find it. Two months is nothing.

NGC 5882

NGC 5882 (Hubble)

It occurs to me that I haven’t yet posted an image of a planetary nebula — the shell of ionized gas thrown off by a dying star. Well, then: how about this image of NGC 5882, a planetary nebula 7,000 light-years away in the constellation Lupus, taken by the Hubble Space Telescope through visual, hydrogen-alpha, oxygen-III and nitrogen-II filters? How about that? Image credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA.

A Newly Discovered Chinese Tyrannosaur

Zhuchengtyrannus magnus, a newly discovered species of tyrannosaur, was announced this week: a big bloke in the same size class as Tyrannosaurus or Tarbosaurus, described from tooth and jaw fragments found in Shandong province, China. The article is in press at Cretaceous Research; the lead author, Dave Hone, talks about it on his blog. More at Dinosaur Tracking and from BBC News.

Bloc MP Apologizes for Aboriginal Comment

Yvon Lévesque Bloc Québécois MP Yvon Lévesque put his foot in it by telling Rue Frontenac that some voters in his district won’t support his NDP opponent, Romeo Saganash, because he’s aboriginal. The 71-year-old Lévesque has held the riding of Abitibi—Baie-James—Nunavik—Eeyou since 2006. The riding, home to both Quebec’s Inuit and the James Bay Cree, is also one-third aboriginal. After what must have been an interesting call from BQ leader Gilles Duceppe, Lévesque issued an apology today. Quite the clusterfuck: Lévesque offending his aboriginal constituents while suggesting that some of his non-aboriginal constituents are racist; the Bloc watching its attempts to prove that it’s not just the party of pur laine Québécois go down the drain. Meanwhile, people are calling for Lévesque’s head (politically speaking); candidates have been dismissed for less, but they weren’t usually sitting MPs. News coverage: Canadian Press, Globe and Mail, Montreal Gazette. Via Paul Wells.