Catching the wind in a camera

The Toronto Star began its Dec. 17 story on York Distinguished Research Professor Gordon Shepherd with a few lines from the poem Who has seen the wind? which he easily quotes from memory. That’s only to be expected since the emeritus professor of space science at York University has seen winds like no one else in the world. For 12 years, Shepherd took pictures of winds blowing at hurricane speeds 100 kilometres above the Earth, winds that pulsated in regular tides, winds no one knew existed when his research began. The insights gleaned from those pictures are currently being applied to improve weather forecasting models and help unravel the intricacies of climate change. How many pictures? Shepherd isn’t sure. “Somewhere between 23 million and 25 million,” he says. After being stored for years on a NASA computer in Maryland, the wind pictures now reside on just three DVDs at York’s Centre for Research in Earth & Space Science (CRESS). These images were recorded by one of the country’s unpublicized scientific success stories, a designed-in-Canada, largely made-in-Canada specialized camera flying aboard a NASA satellite pushed into orbit from the space shuttle 14 years ago. The satellite and its 10 instruments were originally intended to run for three years.

On Dec. 15, after 5,208 days operating in space, the Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite (UARS) was switched off for good. One of six instruments still in working condition aboard the satellite was Shepherd’s detector, the Wind Imaging Interferometer, shortened to WINDII and pronounced “windy.” WINDII’s pioneering has made Canada the world leader in the science of measuring atmospheric winds from orbiting satellites. A follow-up satellite called SWIFT, also originally conceived by Shepherd, is in the advanced planning stages with enthusiastic support from the Canadian Space Agency (CSA). A workshop sponsored by CSA and York  Dec. 16 to celebrate WINDII attracted dozens of collaborators from across Canada, the US and also France, which contributed about one-fifth of the project. “This was true exploratory science,” Shepherd says. “We went into unknown territory.” 

So far, the WINDII research has generated more than 100 peer-reviewed scientific papers and produced roughly one thesis a year by master’s and PhD students. It’s also given birth to a new computer model of the middle atmosphere that’s used to project climate changes from greenhouse gases. As well, Shepherd estimates those 25 million pictures of the wind can be profitably mined by researchers for at least five more years. And by 2010, the successor SWIFT (Stratospheric Wind InterFerometer for Transport) detector could well be aloft on Canada’s next small science satellite at a cost estimated at $100 million. “We have a fairly good picture of the dynamics of stratospheric winds in the middle to upper latitudes but we don’t know what happens in the tropics,” says Ian McDade, the York University space scientist who now leads that project. “That’s why we need SWIFT.”

  • CTV Newsnet interviewed Shepherd about the WINDII project and Radio Canada (French) interviewed French scientist Gerard Thuiller of the Centre nationale d’études spatiales about WINDII and France’s partnership with York on Dec. 16.

$12,000 bill forgiven, Rogers will come to tea

After months of fighting with Rogers Wireless over a cell phone bill of more than $12,000, Susan Drummond, a professor at York’s Osgoode Hall Law School, finally reached the ear of someone who can make a difference when her phone rang this weekend; it was none other than president and CEO Ted Rogers himself, ready to play Mr. Fix-It. The Globe and Mail reported Dec. 19 that Rogers told Drummond he would do everything in his power to end a dispute that has mushroomed into a public-relations debacle for his company. He apologized to Drummond and offered to cancel her extraordinary bill and cover any costs. But Drummond and her partner, Harry Gefen, told Rogers that they have an extra condition: that he come to their home for a cup of tea. “There’s a lot more to this than money,” said Drummond. “We want Rogers to know what customers actually go through.” Although Rogers has agreed to the visit, the date has not yet been set.

The battle that led to this weekend’s extraordinary call began last August, when Drummond returned from a trip to Israel to find a Rogers Wireless bill for $12,237.60 awaiting her. Drummond’s phone had been stolen and was used to make 352 calls in a single month, most of them to foreign countries that included Pakistan, Libya, Syria, India and Russia. The company subsequently added a series of late fees to the bill, bringing the total to more than $14,000. In the months that followed, Drummond and Gefen have spent hundreds of hours researching the law and probing Roger’s security and billing procedures.

The surprising results of their investigation hit the national stage this weekend when they were reported in The Globe and Mail. Among the revelations: that a group linked to Hezbollah had repeatedly “cloned” the cellphones of senior Rogers executives, including Rogers himself, and used them to make thousands of overseas calls in 1997 and 1998. Drummond and Gefen also learned that Rogers has fraud-detection software that automatically alerts them to dramatic changes in calling patterns, but often “lets the meter run” instead of protecting customers by shutting down phones that have been misappropriated, as Drummond’s was. Although she’s glad that Rogers has offered to settle the dispute, Drummond says she will continue to pursue underlying issues, including a contentious clause in the Rogers contract that forbids consumers from taking the company to court or joining a class-action lawsuit against it. “It’s completely ridiculous,” she said. “I’m glad that we got somewhere with this fight, but it shouldn’t take a law professor and a technology journalist to make them behave like decent corporate citizens.”

  • Drummond’s story was also featured on Toronto radio stations CFRB-AM and 680 NEWS on Dec. 17.

Giving creativity a stage

For eight weeks this fall, 11-year-old Safiya Smith has given up her Saturday free time to go to her Malvern school helping to re-create tribal life in a cave, reported the Toronto Star Dec. 19. A Grade 6 student at Emily Carr Public School, Safiya doesn’t mind all the hard work it’s taken to learn the crafts of the stage – creating drums, costumes, backdrops, dance, music and story – and the even more precious skill of being a team player. The Cave is the fruit of an innovative arts project for kids in neighbourhoods often dubbed “at risk” which was a response to Mayor David Miller’s call for neighbourhood safety initiatives for youth. The Distillery Arts Outreach brings together visual and performing artists, York University teaching students, and retired teachers in a unique program for children who ordinarily couldn’t afford training in the arts.

Free vote strategy on same-sex marriage is a long-shot, says Monahan

Opponents of same-sex marriage say they’re unhappy but undaunted by Conservative Leader Stephen Harper’s promise not to use the notwithstanding clause to overturn the law – even if he’s doomed to fail without it, reported The Leader-Post (Regina) Dec. 17. Opponents of same-sex marriage say they believe unprecedented use of the clause to override the Charter of Rights and Freedoms is not needed and say that a simple, free vote on new legislation will do the trick. That’s a longshot, said Patrick Monahan, dean of York’s Osgoode Hall Law School. “Although technically it’s still open…it’s highly unlikely you’re going to be able to re-institute the opposite-sex definition of marriage without using the notwithstanding clause,” said Monahan. “The reasoning has been seen as pretty compelling, such that the government of Canada did not even appeal those [lower-court] rulings.”

Meanwhile, opponents of same-sex marriage cling to the belief that while the Supreme Court would eventually get dragged into the debate, there is nothing to stop Parliament from holding a free vote on new legislation. “I don’t believe it’s doomed to fail,” said Charles McVety, head of Canada Christian College and a founder of the Defend Marriage Coalition. “Osgoode law school is not the Supreme Court of Canada.”

  • Monahan also told CBC Radio Dec. 17 the Conservatives would likely end up in a showdown with the Supreme Court. “I think that Mr. Harper would have to use the notwithstanding clause were he of a mind to reinstitute the traditional definition of marriage.”

Personal-attack ads can backfire, says Fletcher

Canadian election campaign history shows that negativity is an unpredictable, explosive device capable of doing more damage to the attacker than the intended target, reported The Ottawa Citizen, Dec. 17. Part of the problem is that Canadian politicians and their communications advisers don’t have a clean grasp of what negativity actually is, and don’t know for sure what they can get away with until they try. “Attack ads are usually defined as personal attacks on party leaders,” says York University’s Fred Fletcher, a specialist in campaign advertising. “An ad that has a negative tone, like that NDP ad [featuring a Christmas present of a ‘boot’ for the Liberals], is fairly normal. People may react negatively to them because they have an edge, but they don’t produce the same kind of outrage that personal attacks do.”