This week: Good news, bad news

Good news/bad news

Good news

Issei Kato/Reuters

Good News

Good news
Issei Kato/Reuters

Cuba libre?

Signs of glasnost appeared in Cuba as the ruling Communists held a party congress and Fidel Castro prepared to step down as first secretary. Fidel’s successor as president, brother Raul, opened the meeting with a speech endorsing term limits for senior leadership—a surprising suggestion, coming from half of the duo that has held power since 1959. Delegates discussed an astonishing package of market-based reforms, including property rights, free currency flows, and the elimination of universal food rationing.

More news is good news

Quebecor launched its Sun News Network cable channel, receiving praise and catcalls for its “populist” programming in the visual style of Fox News. Key figures in the day-one lineup included talk-radio star Charles Adler, multimedia reporting vets David Akin and Brian Lilley, and daytime anchor Krista Erickson, who provided a special fillip to the rollout by posing as the Sun papers’ Sunshine Girl. Perhaps the biggest surprise was the presence of Liberal campaign advertising; party president Alf Apps noted that “the price was right.”

Disaster control

Researchers at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich announced results from simulations of crowds that may help police prevent fatal panics like the one that killed 21 at a music festival in Duisburg, Germany, last year. New models show that when a crowd reaches a critical density, a coordinated “undulation” begins, signalling the potential onset of a turbulent “crowd quake” of deadly physical force. Review of video from Duisburg confirms that a wavelike motion preceded the stampede, raising hopes that similar disasters could be averted in real time.

A real shell game

The University of Maine and the Canada-U.S. Lobster Institute introduced a biodegradable golf ball made from discarded lobster shells. The balls can survive just a few swings, but they are a good fit for use on cruise ships, since they break down in water within a few weeks. The cost of the lobster balls is lower than that of existing biodegradable alternatives, and the lobster industry is eager to find profitable uses for the shells, which make up half of the weight of the total catch.

Bad News

Bad news
Edward Echwalu/Reuters

Flood risks

Residents of the southern Prairies coming off a wet growing season and a very snowy winter are facing spring flooding. In Manitoba, a total of 700 people, including 576 from the Peguis First Nation, had to evacuate threatened homes, and Highway 75, the province’s key overland link to the U.S. border, was closed. Floodways and dikes have performed well during the crisis, protecting all but a handful of homes, but two rural Manitoba motorists were killed trying to navigate flooded roads.

Bad medicine

A Fraser Institute study shed harsh light on the recent increase in Canadian health care costs, showing that provincial health spending grew by an average of 7.5 per cent a year from 2001 to 2010; during the same period provincial revenues expanded at a pace of 5.7 per cent and the Canadian economy by 5.2 per cent. Ontario and Quebec will already be spending 50 per cent of total revenues on health by the end of 2011, said analysts Brett Skinner and Mark Rovere. But their proposed solution—a five-year waiver of Canada Health Act provisions outlawing private insurance and care providers—found no takers among those running for election.

MinUS sign

Bond rating agency Standard & Poor’s stunned markets by downgrading the debt of the United States Treasury. U.S. bonds remain AAA-rated, but S&P, firing a warning shot across Washington’s bow, adjusted the outlook from “stable” to “negative.” An S&P analyst noted that “policymakers have still not agreed on how to reverse recent fiscal deterioration,” adding that S&P estimates the likelihood of the U.S. losing its triple-A status within the next two years at “at least one in three.”

Head feint

As the NHL playoffs began amidst a clamour over ill-defined “head shot” rules—which came into play after Vancouver Canucks forward Raffi Torres received only a two-minute minor for blindsiding Chicago’s Brent Seabrook—new research from the University of Calgary confirmed estimates that players experience about 1.8 concussions per 1,000 hours of ice time. Breakdowns of the numbers emphasize the risks of repeat concussion and of attempting to play through one.