Thursday, February 25, 2016

Election Tattoos and Star Wars

I’ve been thinking about getting a tattoo. Thinking hard.

Getting a tattoo is no lightweight decision. What statement do I want to make? What design? On which body part? These are serious questions, so I decided to do some serious research.

Trolling the Internet I learned that arrows, roses, and birds are among those most favoured designs worldwide. Also Roman numerals and glyphs.

Everything I read about tattoos was interesting, although not necessarily helpful. Then I landed on some totally unexpected, bombshell information: Some tattoo studios in the United States are offering free Donald Trump tattoos.

You can get The Donald’s full face, complete with that pompous gray-blonde hair wave. And you can get his campaign slogan “Make America Great Again.” You can even get his face at the centre of the Stars and Stripes, in full colour. All at no charge.

Trump tattoos are showing up on people’s shoulders, necks, arms, ankles and calves.

It is another absurd twist in what has to be the most bizarre presidential election in U.S. history. It is a  freak show reminiscent of the bar scenes in Star Wars.

You might recall the Mos Eisley Cantina on the planet Tatooine. The bar was a dark and seedy dive where star pilots landed for drinks, weird music called Jizz and to engage in some violent rough housing. The regular customers are some of the most villainous scumbags you hope never to encounter.

Each time I watch a presidential candidate debate on TV I feel like I have walked into the Mos Eisley Cantina. All the candidates are there. Republican and Democrats.

There’s Donald Trump, looking and sounding just like Chewbacca. (except Chewbacca has a nicer hair style). Someone asks him if as president he would nuke Mexico to stop the flow of illegal immigrants.

“Whoaa waamaa warrgth,” he answers, which I think translates as: “It’s unbelievable. They're bringing drugs, they're bringing crime, they're rapists.”

Beside him is Jeb Bush, his eyes darting side to side. He looks terrified at being there. Either that or he has Irritable Bowel Syndrome and is urgently looking for a toilet. Or, maybe he just realized that he is about to be bounced from the campaign.

Ted Cruz is there, looking calm as a jellyfish. He has a smile that gives the impression he has swallowed not just the canary, but an entire aviary.

At the far end of the bar Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders are locked in argument. Hillary thinks she is Princess Leia but is more like Leesub Sirln, alias the Weird Girl.

Bernie is doing his Obi-Wan Kenobi routine but still can’t figure out how to switch on his laser lance.

Latest word is that some Democrats are getting Bernie or Hillary tattoos. You can get a full face tattoo of Hillary or simply  “HRC 2016” which fits nicely on a wrist.

Bernie fans are getting the hair-askew-on-top-of heavy-rim-glasses tattoo, some with the slogan “Feel the Bern.”

Election tattooing is not a new trend, nor solely the product of the U.S. In our federal election last fall a Montreal tattoo studio offered free election-style tattoos with a twist. It challenged the party leaders to have their election promises tattooed on their bodies and offered to do it for free.

"Because, like a tattoo, a promise is for life," the studio said in an video launching its Ink Your Promise campaign.

Those tattoo dudes are not only artists, they are smart business people. Tattoo politicians with their election promises and 100 days later they will be lined up at the door willing to pay whatever to have them erased.

Neither Justin the Good, Stephen the Evil or Tom the Whatever is believed to have taken them up on the offer.

At any rate, I’ve decided not to get a Donald Trump tattoo. If I did, however, I know where I would put it. It would adorn the very lowest reaches of my back, closest to the body part that best describes him.

Instead of that I will to get one in large letters across my forehead. It will read:



Thursday, February 18, 2016

Little Flu. For Now

It has not only been an unusually mild winter (except for last weekend), but an unusually mild influenza season. Everyone hopes it will stay that way.

Up to Feb. 1 there had been only 421 hospitalizations for flu reported in all of Canada. Reported flu deaths were 14 country wide.

That’s a huge improvement from last flu season when 7,719 people were hospitalized with influenza and 591 died. The year previous there  were 5,284 hospitalizations and 331 deaths.

Light flu seasons tend to make us forget just how dangerous influenza really is. The World Health Organization (WHO) says that each year there are three to five million cases of severe influenza worldwide. Anywhere between 250,000 to 500,000 people a year die from it.

You have to approach those big numbers with some skepticism. Flu statistics are never totally accurate. They are based on computer models and quite a bit of guesswork. For instance, if a terminally ill cancer patient comes down with a flu bug and dies, did she die from influenza?

The last serious flu outbreak was in 2009. It was the H1N1 virus that became a pandemic which WHO said killed 285,000 people worldwide. A pandemic is a worldwide outbreak as compared to an epidemic, which is when a disease affects more people than usual for a region.
No matter how light a flu season might be, none of us should ever become complacent about influenza. Last fall a report to the British government identified pandemic influenza as the highest priority natural hazards risk facing humans.

We are, however, far too complacent about the danger of avian influenza - the bird flu - and the virus breeding grounds of Asia.

Some health experts believe another flu pandemic is only a matter of time. Some have for years been predicting a flu pandemic that will infect more than one-third of the world’s population and kill hundreds of thousands.

It has happened before. The 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic was a global disaster with 50 million deaths. There have been other flu pandemics since, including the 1967-68 Hong Kong flu, which I remember well because it sent me to the hospital.
Many believe the next flu pandemic will begin in China, the world’s main mixing bowl for bird flu.

Avian flu bugs live harmlessly in the bodies of waterfowl, such as ducks and geese.  When these birds mix with domesticated poultry, or sometimes pigs, the flu virus gets passed on and can mutate. Most of these influenza viruses do not affect humans, but some do and cause epidemics, and even pandemics.

The flu virus world is like alphabet soup. H1N1. H5N1. H7N9. The names keep changing as the viruses mutate until one comes along that is the Big One that allows easy human-to-human transmission.

China is an excellent bird flu factory because it has huge open air poultry operations where waterfowl can easily mix in. And southern China lies inside  major waterfowl migration routes, so there are many opportunities for waterfowl to pass along their viruses.

Worsening the situation is the world’s increasing appetite for chicken. Chicken rapidly is becoming the world’s most popular meat. Global poultry production is said to have quadrupled in the last few decades.

Poultry consumption and production is soaring in China. More of those open air - and in many cases unsanitary - markets or production areas increase the chances for bird flu virus production.

There is not much average folks can do to reduce the chances of a serious flu outbreak. We can only hope that agencies like WHO, the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention and other public health agencies are diligent in their work.

We all should become better educated about flu. There are many misconceptions, such as cold weather being a cause of the flu. There often is more flu in colder weather but that’s only because people spend more time indoors, increasing contact and the chances of spreading germs.

Better educated and certainly more aware so we can prod our politicians. We don’t need our politicians and bureaucrats dozing like they were during the 2002-2003 SARS disaster.


Thursday, February 11, 2016

Midnight Swims without Bathing Suits?

Maybe it’s the fine winter weather. Little snow to shovel. Some ice, but I’ve spread salt and sand on the driveway only once. Never any thought of having to shovel the roof.

With few winter chores, I’ve had more time to think. When I have too much time to think, I worry.

I have many things to fret about. Like, what if Donald Trump becomes the next leader of the free world? And, why is Justin the Good still grinning and taking selfies while the economy continues to sink? Then there is that constant worry about one day having to go to downtown Toronto.

And climate change. The world is melting. When spring comes and the mosquitoes return will they be carrying not just West Nile, but Zika virus and even chikungunya? I’m not sure what that last one is, but even its spelling looks dangerous.

This week my main worry is about drones. Drones are becoming so popular that I’m thinking maybe it’s time to wear a bathing suit on those midnight swims.

The Consumer Technology Association expects that one million drones will be sold in the U.S. this year. That’s an increase of 145 per cent over 2015.

More than 181,000 people in the U.S. have registered drones under the new Federal Aviation Administration drone rules laid down Dec. 21 last year.

We don’t know how many drones are being sold in Canada, or how many are being registered with Transport Canada. And that’s another worry. How is that a country with some of the world’s heaviest taxation loads doesn’t have current statistics?

All those drones buzzing around are worrisome. What will happen if one smacks into an aircraft windshield, or gets sucked into a jet engine?

Some countries, Canada included, are making rules to help prevent serious situations involving drones. Transport Canada has regulations prohibiting drones from flying higher than 90 metres, and within nine kilometres of a forest fire, airport or built up area. They can’t be flown over prisons, military bases, crowds of people or in restricted air space.

There is also the worry about what equipment these little buzzers can carry. There is talk about using them for pizza deliveries. If a drone can carry a pizza box, it certainly can carry a camera, firearm, or even a small bomb. Or drugs.

My biggest worry about drones, however, is privacy.

I worry that one morning I’ll step out of the shower to see a camera-equipped drone hovering outside the bathroom window. Although that might be more frightening for the viewer than for me.

Worse, what if a very astute fisherman like Steve Galea used a drone with camera to follow me to my secret fishing holes. Or, cottage visitors secretly viewing from above all the places where I stash my favourite beers and wines that I don’t want them to know about.

There are many private little places where I don’t want drones hovering.

Our federal government believes it is on top of the privacy concerns.  The federal privacy commissioner noted a couple years ago that checks and balances will become necessary as more people get drones. Transport Canada says it is working with the privacy commissioner’s office to make sure drone operators respect privacy laws.

That has me worried. Governments are known to say they plan to do lots of things that never get done.

My newest and greatest worry in all of this, however, is that I will succumb to the urge to buy my own drone. As a kid I flew model airplanes and loved it.

Owning a drone would open a world of new possibilities. I could fly it over my bush lot to check on intruders. Or check out deer movements for the hunting season.

When I’m on the bush lot cutting firewood I could send my drone back to the cottage with an order for beer.

Having my own drone could create other concerns, however. Would I spend too much time playing with it? Then who would cut my winter firewood? When would I find time to scope out where the deer are hiding?

I worry about these things. Maybe it would be better if there was more snow to shovel.


Thursday, February 4, 2016

Courage in the Cold

It was just before 1 a.m. on Feb. 3, 1943 when the torpedo struck, beginning one of the most inspirational stories of the Second World War.

Most of the 904 men aboard the USAT Dorchester were in their bunks, although probably not asleep because of the rough seas and fears of a submarine attack. The Dorchester, a luxury ocean liner converted into a U.S. troop transport ship, was just off Greenland when the torpedo exploded amidships, disabling the ship and causing it to list heavily to starboard.

The torpedo was fired from U-223, a German submarine prowling the North Atlantic for ships carrying enemy troops and supplies.

Many men on the Dorchester died immediately and many others were wounded. There was chaos as men fought to get through passageways and up stairs onto decks. Four Army chaplains, a Rabbi, a Catholic priest and two Protestant ministers, helped wounded, disoriented and desperate men to get to decks where there was some chance of survival.

Those who reached the decks found that some lifeboats could not be launched because of damage and heavy ice coating their ropes. Men flung themselves into the freezing sea hoping to reach one of the few lifeboats afloat, small life rafts or pieces of debris. The ocean temperature was one degree Celsius.

On one deck, the four chaplains opened a locker and distributed life jackets. The locker emptied quickly and there were not enough life jackets for everyone. One chaplain removed his own life jacket and gave it to the next man in line. The other three chaplains immediately gave away theirs.

One survivor, John Ladd, said later: “It was the finest thing I have ever seen or hope to see this side of heaven.”

Fewer than 30 minutes after being torpedoed, the Dorchester went down. Survivors reported seeing the four chaplains on deck, arms linked, praying and singing hymns as the ship slipped beneath the icy waves.

The four chaplains were: Rev. George L. Fox, Methodist; Rabbi Alexander D. Goode; Rev. John P. Washington, Catholic; and Rev. Clark V. Poling, Reformed Church in America.

They were four of 677 men who died in the Dorchester sinking. Only 227 were rescued.

Clark Poling was the last of seven unbroken generations of clergy in his family. He was one of my family’s distant cousins.

The selfless action of the chaplains was not the only story of courage from that night.

The Dorchester was travelling in a small convoy that included the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Comanche, which set about rescuing survivors. Nine Comanche crewmen and three officers volunteered to jump overboard, tie ropes around floating survivors and help pull them from the icy waters.

One volunteer was one of the lowest ranking men on Comanche - Charles Walter David Jr., 26, an Afro-American Mess Steward. As a black man, Charles David was not allowed to eat in the same restaurants, or watch a movie in the same theatre, as white people.

He and the other Comanche volunteers risked their lives to save 93 men from the Dorchester.

One of the men David saved was the Comanche’s executive officer, another volunteer rescuer. He was succumbing to hypothermia and could not get back onto the Comanche. Mess Steward David went back into the water and dragged him up a cargo net to safety.

David, who had a wife and three-year-old son, also suffered hypothermia working in the freezing wind and water. He came down with pneumonia and died after the Comanche reached Greenland.

There is an interesting epilogue to the Dorchester story. The Four Chaplains Memorial Foundation in Philadelphia held a special anniversary ceremony in 2000 and brought in two special guests from Germany. They were German sailors who were aboard U-223 that tragic night.

The foundation’s view was that even former enemies must be included in a world of peace and brotherhood.

The courage displayed on that night on the North Atlantic 73 years ago remains a timeless example of brotherhood and service to others.

 “Valor is a gift,” American writer Carl Sandburg once said. “Those having it never know for sure whether they have it till the test comes.”