The Daily Visionary: Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Free speech policies are now in effect at Ontario’s colleges and universities


Last August, after incidents on campuses across North America where speakers faced protests, Ontario’s Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities Merrilee Fullerton told colleges and universities they needed to implement free-speech policies and have them in place for January 1, 2019.


Institutions will be monitored and have been told they could face funding cuts for failing to comply with principles outlined by the provincial government. These include ensuring that universities and colleges are "places for open discussion and free inquiry," that they "should not attempt to shield students from ideas or opinions that (those students) disagree with or find offensive;" and that "members of the university/college ... may not obstruct or interfere with the freedom of others to express their views."


Ontario has experienced protests and arrests since Wilfrid Laurier graduate student and teaching assistant Lindsay Shepherd showed a video to her class of University of Toronto professor Dr. Jordan B. Peterson on TVO challenging federal legislation regarding gender-neutral pronouns that imposes restrictions on freedom of speech. Ms. Shepherd was unfairly disciplined by faculty and staff and recorded the meeting. She and Dr. Peterson are now suing Laurier University for defamation.


Of the new standard policy adopted in mid-December by all publicly-funded colleges, President of Colleges Ontario Linda Franklin said people on campus have to know there are "speakers that you may not like or who support your world view," and open dialogue is essential, adding, "We're committed to the open discussion of diverse ideas and respecting everyone's rights to express their opinions." The University of Toronto has a free-speech policy that has been in place for more than twenty-five years. Queens University in Kingston approved its new policies so December 18, stating that the "failure to explore or confront ideas with which we disagree through disciplined and respectful dialogue, debate, and argument, does society a disservice, weakens our intellectual integrity, and threatens the very core of the university."


Minister Fullterton said the government is "constantly" hearing that free speech is being stifled on Ontario campuses, adding "We heard that from students, we heard that from faculty — it was a message that we heard consistently during the campaign and after. So we know [it was an issue]." She continued, "I think what (the free speech policy) will do is create some certainly around expectations, and we want to make sure that there's an environment of respect, of open debate, respectful dialogue and that's really the foundation. We don't want to see hate speech — we will not tolerate hate speech — that is not permitted. Anything that is against the law already, there will be repercussions."


Solar storms could cause blackouts and leave Britain with £16 billion worth of damage, warns Oxford University 


Earth is vulnerable to space weather events such as solar flares, or coronal mass ejection, which fling huge amounts of electromagnetic radiation at the planet, potentially causing severe disruption to power grids, air transport, and satellite communications. Experts at Oxford University in the United Kingdom (U.K.) have called for urgent updates to space weather forecasting satellites to prevent solar storms from causing Britain £16 billion worth of damage, as the first economic risk analysis has projected, which was published in Risk Analysis journal.


The inability to forecast and prepare for solar flare events could be catastrophic for the economy, Oxford University warned, due to the ripple effects on vital infrastructure, businesses, and homes. The most severe incident, known as ‘the Carrington Event’, occurred in 1859, shorting Telegraph circuits, starting fires, and causing the northern lights to dance in the sky as far south as Hawaii. In 1989, a geomagnetic disturbance caused a voltage collapse of Canada’s Hydro-Québec power grid, leaving six million inhabitants without power for nine hours. In 2005, X-rays from a solar flare disrupted the GPS system for about 10 minutes. More recently, a solar flare narrowly missed Earth during London’s 2012 Olympic Games. Oxford’s model suggests that blackouts would be likely in the northeast and north west of England, East Anglia, and Wales, where power supplies are most vulnerable and where transformers failed in the 1989 solar storm.


Dr. Edward Oughton of the Infrastructure Transitions Research Consortium (ITRC), currently at the University of Oxford, said, “If the Earth were to experience a Carrington-sized event without upgrading our current forecasting capability, it could cost the UK up to £16bn in the most severe scenario. The ‘do nothing’ scenario where the UK fails to invest or invests minimally in replacing satellite monitoring capabilities means existing forecasting skill levels will decline. This increases the risk of critical national infrastructure failure because there may be little early warning that an event is taking place. There would be less time for infrastructure operators to implement mitigation plans.


A solar storm of the size which hit Earth during the Carrington Event is estimated to happen every 100 years, and the planet is already overdue such a catastrophe. If it happened today, researchers estimate there is a 71 percent chance the British power grid would be affected, while mobile phone reception could die, and airlines would be grounded without GPS.


Many of the satellites which currently monitor coronal mass ejections are nearing the end of their lives. The research authors, which include experts from The Met Office, are calling for a fleet of new spacecraft equipped with Heliospheric Imagers and Solar Coronagraphs, in different locations to monitor the Sun. Such a system would increase the current early warning system from a maximum of four days to up to a week ahead and would be more exact in predicting when the storm would hit Earth, narrowing the current window of six hours to four.


Report shows Canadian insolvencies increased 5.2% in November from the prior year


In the face of five interest rate increases during the past year and a half, the Office of the Superintendent of Bankruptcy Canada released a report showing the number of consumer insolvencies in November 2018 rose by 5.2 percent from a year ago, accounting for 97.2 percent of total insolvency filings, while business insolvencies increased by 8.9 percent.


Business insolvencies decreased by 0.6 percent compared with the 12-month period a year prior, with the mining, oil, and gas extraction and manufacturing sectors falling the most, while construction and retail insolvencies sustained the greatest increases. Last year, the federal government’s fall economic statement projected two percent growth for 2019, which many predict will be lower due to low oil prices.


For the 12-month period ending November 30, the number of bankruptcies and proposals (final stage) grew by 2 percent with consumer bankruptcies falling by 5 percent and proposals increasing by 8.4 percent. The number of insolvencies rose in all provinces except Nova Scotia in November compared with the same period a year earlier. Newfoundland and Labrador's filings rose 11 percent, followed by Alberta at 8.3 percent. Quebec and Ontario grew by less than 1 percent.


The combination of high household debt, rising interest rates, and slowing wage growth has been "terrible" for about half a year since early in 2018, said Director of Economics for the Conference Board of Canada Matt Stewart. He said higher interest rates have delivered a hit to household spending, which has been the primary driver of Canada's good economic fortunes. "It's been a long time since we've had a recession. As of yet, I think most of the news is still positive, but there is a growing amount of risks," he added.


Therefore, business investment is seen as the next critical source of growth, however Mr. Stewart said the transition has yet to materialize because investment has underperformed, likely due to competitiveness concerns; businesses aren't sure whether Canada's the best place to put their money.


Cancer breakthrough: Scientists say immune system transplants mean 'future is incredibly bright'


Scientists have discovered a breakthrough treatment to fight cancer, claiming the disease will no longer be deadly for future generations. Researchers at the Francis Crick Institute in London believe it is possible to strengthen the body's defences by transplanting immune cells from strangers. Immunology expert Professor Adrian Hayday, group leader of the Immunosurveillance Lab at The Crick, said scientists and doctors could become more like engineers, upgrading the body rather than bombarding it with toxic chemotherapy. “Using the immune system to fight cancer is the ultimate do-it-yourself approach,” he said.


Professor Adrian Hayday said, “Even a few years ago the notion that any clinician would look at a patient and deliver a therapy which wasn’t going to directly affect the cancer in any way, shape or form, would have been pretty radical. But that’s what happening. We’re seeing impressive results with cells called natural killer cells. It’s very early days but there are patients receiving them in this next year and the year after, and the nice feature is, unlike other immunotherapy, these cells aren’t rejected. So you have the possibility of developing cell banks that could be used for anyone. It could be someone else’s immune system. You would have cell banks and you would call them up and deliver them to the clinic just hours before they were needed to be infused. We’re not quite there yet. But that’s what we’re trying now. There is every capability of getting cell banks like this established.”


Patients will begin to receive the new treatment next year, and the team now wants to establish ‘immune banks’ to store disease-fighting cells.  Until this year, scientists thought it would be impossible to import a stranger’s immune cells as the immunosuppresent drugs needed to ensure the body did not reject them, would cancel out the benefits. However, in 2018, scientists realised that immune cells are unlike other cells, and can survive well in another person, opening the door to transplants.


Radical advances over the past decade have seen the number of people surviving cancer for at least a decade rise to 50 percent and the team at The Crick want to make that 75 percent in the next fifteen years. Professor Charlie Swanton, of the Cancer Evolution and Genome Instability Laboratory, said the ability now to sequence tumours was heralding a new era of medicine tailor-made for a patient. He said, “It’s a very exciting time. The technology available to us now is just incredible. We’re able to sequence the genome of a tumour, understand its microenvironment, how it metabolizes, what cells are controlling the tumour, and how those can be manipulated. Using the body’s own immune cells to target the tumour is elegant because tumours evolve so quickly there is no way a pharmaceutical company can keep up with it, but the immune system has been evolving for over four billion years to do just that.”


Tumours evolve in a branched way, like trees, but scientist have recently found immune cells in their ‘trunks’ which could be crucial to battling the disease from the base up. Next year, Professor Swanton’s team begin trials to see if ramping up those specific cells could be effective in fighting lung cancer, saying “It’s personalised medicine taken to the absolute extreme. Each patient has a unique therapy, it’s pretty much impossible to have the same treatment because no two tumours are the same.”


The team is also studying a group of people known as ‘elite controllers’, who have genetic mutations which prevent them from developing cancer. In mice who have been genetically engineered to have the same mutations, it is almost impossible to induce skin cancer. “One of the pivotal breakthrough in HIV was the recognition of people with elite controllers who had mutations in receptors which rendered them resistant to infection and that changed the landscape utterly,” said Professor Hayday, “Bear in mind 30 years ago that was one in four so survival has doubled in my lifetime and I think it will double again over the next 30 years. The future is incredibly bright.”


He added, “We have a group in Sardinia who have a conspicuously low rate of cancers. Technology which allows you to sequence the genome opens the possibility to start looking at elite controllers and learn the pathways. There is every reason, despite the suffering that continues to plague the oncology wards, the family, the friends, the basis for optimism is extraordinary. I would go so far as to say that we might reach a point, maybe 20 years from now, where the vast majorities of cancers are rapidly treated diseases or long term chronic issues that you can manage. And I think the immune system will be essential in doing that. Between 1980 and 2010, 519,000 cancer deaths were avoided because of cancer research. If that’s not a note for optimism I don’t know what is.”


New documents link Huawei to suspected front companies in Iran and Syria


The United States (U.S.) court case against Chief Financial Officer (CFO) Meng Wanzhou of China’s Huawei Technologies, who was arrested in Canada last month, centers on the company’s suspected ties to two obscure companies. One is a telecom equipment seller that operated in Tehran, and the other is that firm’s owner, a holding company registered in Mauritius. U.S. authorities allege Ms. Wanzhou deceived international banks into clearing transactions with Iran by claiming the two companies were independent of Huawei, when in fact Huawei controlled them. Huawei has maintained the two are independent: equipment seller Skycom Tech Co Ltd and shell company Canicula Holdings Ltd.


Corporate filings and other documents found by Reuters in Iran and Syria show that Huawei, the world’s largest supplier of telecommunications network equipment, is more closely linked to both firms than previously known. The documents reveal that a high-level Huawei executive appears to have been appointed Skycom’s Iran manager, and show that at least three Chinese-named individuals had signing rights for both Huawei and Skycom bank accounts in Iran. A Middle Eastern lawyer said Huawei conducted operations in Syria through Canicula.


The previously unreported ties undermines Huawei’s claims that Skycom was merely an arms-length business partner. Huawei, U.S. authorities assert, retained control of Skycom, using it to sell telecom equipment to Iran and move money out via the international banking system. As a result of the deception, U.S. authorities say, banks unwittingly cleared hundreds of millions of dollars of transactions that potentially violated economic sanctions Washington had in place at the time against doing business with Iran.


Meng was released on CAD $10 million bail on December 11, 2018 and remains in Vancouver while Washington tries to extradite her. In the U.S., Meng would face charges in connection with an alleged conspiracy to defraud multiple financial institutions, with a maximum sentence of 30 years for each charge. The exact charges have not been made public.


Meng’s arrest on a U.S. warrant has caused an uproar in China. It comes at a time of growing trade and military tensions between Washington and Beijing, and amid worries by U.S. intelligence that Huawei’s telecommunications equipment could contain “backdoors” for Chinese espionage. The firm has repeatedly denied such claims. Nevertheless, Australia and New Zealand recently banned Huawei from building their next generation of mobile phone networks, and British authorities have also expressed concerns.

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