Endless highway

The world’s longest road networks

Endless highway

We tend to think about long distance communication in terms of electronics — making a telephone call, writing an email, or chatting online. But the technologies that allow us to communicate across great distances are comparatively recent inventions. For most of human history, if you were at point A and wanted to talk to someone at point B, you would need to either go there or send a letter. Even before automobiles, roads served as crucial arteries of communication. Postal services may be declining in importance, but roads and highways still allow people and goods to move easily across countries, bringing with them new ideas, culture, or even a sense of national identity.

China's highway networks. NATHAN WATSON / THE VARSITY

The following countries boast the world’s three longest road networks, including both paved and unpaved roads. Some of these roads, like India’s, have ancient origins, but most modern construction occurred in the mid-twentieth century, especially in America, where highways have been romanticized through the idea of the classic road trip. China is a late but impressive entrant to the field, having undertaken massive infrastructure expansion over the past decade.

India's highway networks. NATHAN WATSON / THE VARSITY

1. USA, 6,506,204 km
2. China, 4,106,387 km
3. India, 3,320,410 km

 

 

Source: CIA World Factbook

Patchwork

Illustration by Minhee Bae

Patchwork

MINHEE BAE / THE VARSITY

The web grows up

Tracking the evolution of social networks

The web grows up

Online social networks have been around for a long time. Well before Mark Zuckerberg built the Facebook empire and his former partners were told to “lawyer up,” sites like TheGlobe and Classmates gave users the ability to connect with friends online.  The early emergence of social media and the exponential growth of its user population is a testament to the power of community — even when isolated to their offices or homes, users of these sites are dedicated to connecting with others through online networks.

Yet despite the siren call that causes people to periodically join social networks in droves, these sprawling online empires eventually collapse. Social networks tend to implode when their users are seduced by the novelty of competitors, site infrastructure isn’t updated, or their funders never quite find a way to monetize human interactions and end up bankrupt. Whatever happens, an abandoned site is rarely taken fully offline; it becomes a virtual ghost town where the only interaction between users are crude offers of free porn to inactive accounts from spambots unhindered by the site’s out-of-work moderators…

Article and illustration by Dan Seljak.

Mistaken culinary identity

Croatian food and its rich regional influences

Mistaken culinary identity

“How can you even call yourself Croatian?” was a question I was greeted with nearly every time I had to divulge the details of my diet to family friends as a child and teenager. Constantly interrogated, for many years I absolutely hated eating at functions or in someone else’s home. The concept of vegetarianism confused my parents’ friends, who simply could not comprehend my distaste for the food that they so adored. If I was lucky, they’d offer me bowls of chips to munch on in the tv room, for it was a rare occasion that I’d actually be seated at the dining room table. Having an entire spit-roasted lamb or pig on the table really grossed me out, but since then I’ve learned to accept the overbearing smell of Croatian dietary staples.

In retrospect, it was silly of them to think that food could define just how ethnically-relevant you can be. I went to Saturday language school, sang and danced folklore, and even played the organ in Croatian church. But as soon as someone found out that I didn’t eat meat, well, I was deemed a truly Canadian kid who probably didn’t give a damn about my parents’ heritage. Little did they know, I loved eating every other dish within Croatian culinary culture that my parents had brought with them to Canada.

My mama found ways of catering to my lacto-ovo sensibilities while still staying true to the meat-heavy cuisine of the Southeastern European country. She simply made traditional desserts, albeit much more often than the average Croatian woman.

A trip to Europe when I was 19 was an eye-opening experience for me for loads of reasons. I started to broaden my dietary horizons and notice dishes that overlapped with Croatian food. While staying in a small town in the Austrian province of Styria, I tried something rather familiar called a knödel. Then in Bosnia, I had something called sirnica, which was known to me as burek. I thought, whoa, Croatian food is everywhere! Brate, was I ever mistaken.

Knedle, plum-filled potato dumplings. BERNARDA GOSPIC / THE VARSITY

Croatia’s geographical location lends itself to influences that stretch across the Adriatic, just over the Drava, and way past the Danube. Because of this, each region enjoys its own culinary traditions. For example, Dalmatian cooking touches upon Italian and French kitchens, whereas Slavonians rely heavily upon Hungarian and Austrian culinary styles. My favourite part of ‘Croatian’ food is obviously the dessert portion of every menu. This can be attributed to my stubbornness and my affinity for sweets, but I’ve happily learned to live with it. And to all those geezers who made me feel badly about not being Croatian enough, have you looked at what’s on your dinner plate?

Knedle are plum-filled potato dumplings that are served as a sweet dish, often eaten as a desserty dinner. Although the spelling is different, they are typical components in the kitchens of Central Europe, popular with the Austrians, Czechs, Germans, Poles, Bosnians, Serbs, Slovenes, Hungarians and Ukrainians, not to mention the Croats.

Palacinke, a popular crepe-like dish. BERNARDA GOPIC / THE VARSITY

Palačinke are a perennial favourite all across the Slavic language speaking world, as well as Central Europe. The first time I had heard of someone else knowing what these delicious, crêpe-like pancakes were was when my Polish friend, Maggie, came to my house and saw that my mom was making “naleśniki!” They can be filled with anything your heart desires, but are traditionally rolled with plum, apricot or rosehip jam, or with sugar and ground walnuts. If you wanna get crazy, grab some Nutella or Eurocrem.

Sirnica, or burek sa sirom in Croatian, is a pastry with Turkish origins. BERNARDA GOSPIC / THE VARSITY

Burek are known as sirnica in Bosnia and burek sa sirom in Croatia and Serbia. This baked pastry  most likely originated from what is now modern Turkey. Burek is a staple in the cuisines of many countries that were once part of the Ottoman Empire, especially in Northern Africa and the Balkans. The cheese pie, however, was perfected in Bosnia and is very popular in the cuisines of former Yugoslavian republics. If you come from one of these households, you know it’s going to be a good day when you see phyllo dough stretched across an entire kitchen table. Rolled with cottage cheese, these spirals are a savoury treat that can also be made with spinach and potatoes. Dobar tek!

Sorting it out

Behind the scenes at the campus mailroom

Sorting it out

WYATT CLOUGH / THE VARSITY

In the early hours of each morning, a small team assembles on the eastern side of Spadina Crescent. In just a few hours, they sort, stamp, ship, and deliver almost every piece of mail heading to or from campus. By 3 pm, the mailroom’s valuable work is mostly done, allowing the campus to function smoothly. The team’s intimate knowledge of the streets, alleys, and buildings of the St. George campus allows them to deliver mail quickly and efficiently. More often than not, mailroom staff are able to track down a recipient on campus by name only. To learn more about the mailroom team and their everyday experiences, check out broadcast.thevarsity.ca.

WYATT CLOUGH / THE VARSITY

The Video Team has been working on a new series in which we explore under appreciated jobs on campus. Far from the obvious headlines, we’re searching for the people that make this campus tick. If you know of any departments that go unnoticed all too often, please shoot us an email at video@thevarsity.ca.

Rewriting your favourite universe

Fan Fiction and its vibrant community

Popular book, film, and television series offer fans huge worlds to explore, with plots that can span several volumes and episodes, and casts of memorable characters whose hopes, dreams, and desires have been absorbed by hundreds of thousands of people. So, what happens when the original creators stop creating new instalments in their series, or there are other latent possibilities in the text that are ready to be pulled out and explored, fleshed out, or brought to light for the first time? A fictional universe never truly dies; its threads are always taken up by a new generation of creators, ready to transform them into something exciting, different, and even dangerous. These new creators are often the same fans who have been reading or watching with intense passion the exploits of their beloved heroes in their favourite universes. Fan fiction is not only an avenue for fans to explore their own creativity, but also a chance from them to collaborate and connect with others.

NANCY JI/THE VARSITY

“I think it started back in middle school. It would have been grade six or seven when Lord of the Rings came out. I was looking up random stuff about Lord of the Rings and I stumbled on it,” my friend Sara Patterson says of her first encounter with fan fiction. “I think it was fanfiction.net, which was new and exciting 10 years ago. I started by writing it script-style, where you would have the character’s name and then dialogue. It wasn’t actual written prose… Lord of the Rings was the first big one… Then the second big thing I started writing for was Pirates of the Caribbean.”

Now posting her fan fiction online under the moniker “oneinspats,” Sara has stories set in the universes of Lord of the Rings, Terry Pratchett’s Discworld (specifically the “City Watch” series with Vetinari and Vimes), and Les Miserables.

“For me personally, it’s because I really liked the characters, and usually the series, or film, or TV show was done. It’s kind of a way of continuing the adventures, when the producers, authors, or creators have finished. You’ll be sitting there and you’ll be like, what if x, y, z happened? How would the characters react to that?” Sara says.

Fan fiction has become more accessible, and come to the attention of a much wider audience since the advent of the Internet. However, fan fiction predates the Internet. In fact, amateur press associations, which first flourished in the early decades of the 20th century, provided a way for aspiring writers to put together and share their own magazines and works of fiction. A distribution manager or official editor would collect the magazines and letter publications and send them to other members of the association. In the 1930s, fans of science fiction magazines printed their own mimeographed or hectographed works which contained their own reviews, printed fiction, and even art. Prominent fanzines such as The Fantasy Fan and The Science Fiction Digest even contained articles, fiction, and commentary by notable fantasy, horror, or sci-fi authors of the day like H.P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith. Zines dedicated to sci-fi TV shows like Star Trek and Doctor Who, and movies like Star Wars were produced by fans well into the 1990s.

Fandom quickly adopted the Internet. Fanfiction.net started in 1998 and gave fans one of the first central locations to share, rate, and review their pieces, known as fanfics. However, the site fell into disfavour when it started cracking down on “fics” that featured sexually explicit material.

“If you’re writing an explicit sex scene it can’t go on there. They’ll shut your account, they’ll delete everything. It’s heavy censorship because of child pornography problems around the fact that people were writing Harry Potter smut. Because even though they are fictional characters, they are underage for most of the books,” Sara explains. Fans migrated to Livejournal in the early 2000s — one of the Internet’s earliest social networks — but left around 2006 after Livejournal began to crack down on material it deemed inappropriate. Many fans now use the micro-blogging site Tumblr to share and tag their own stories, or post stories to the fanfic database Archive of Our Own.

Writers of fanfic range in age their mid-teens to late-30s. The audience and social network of a fanfic is largely determined by the fictional work itself. For example, Les Miserables — especially fans of the original Victor Hugo novel — tend to be older. My friend Carla Mesa Guzzo, who writes fanfic for the BBC TV series Merlin under the name “bulfinch,” reads fiction that is often written by younger fans, many of whom may still be in high school.

Stereotypes about fan fiction being merely “bad writing” sometimes stem from the participation of younger audiences of shows like Merlin, or the Harry Potter series, but this is often an unfair characterization. “You have a lot more people writing for it, and you have to wade through a lot more stuff. They’re not bad writers, they’re just undeveloped. It’s just a matter of volume. You’re going to get some not so great stuff and you’re also going to get some quite literary work as well,” Carla explains.

The sheer volume of fanfic means that there’s a lot of creativity in how fans reconstruct their favourite fictional universes. A fan vernacular has evolved over the years in the fan community, which easily categorizes the fiction that someone is reading.

“Crackfic” is fanfic written solely for the amusement of the author. “PWP,” short for “Plot? What plot?” is, according to Sara, just meant to denote porn. “Slash” is the sexual pairing of two male characters (there is also “femslash”). “Altu” is short for an alternate universe written for a fictional world in which whole plots are rewritten or characters are changed. This can involve everything from Harry Potter being adopted and raised by Voldemort to Sherlock Holmes being transformed into a master criminal. “Altcanon” often sticks close to the canon of the universe but deviates slightly from the original. Sara, for example, had the Black Death visit the fictional city of Ankh-Morpork in Prachett’s Discworld.

“Essentially, I wondered: ‘what if you killed off a third to a quarter of the population? How would the city deal with it? How would the city’s infrastructure deal with it?” And because this happens a lot in the series I made the plague an anthropomorphic being,” she says with a slight laugh.

Fan fiction represents a continually burgeoning area of creativity and community on the Internet. Despite hostility from some websites and even occasionally from the creators of the original series being referenced, it continues to flourish, sustained by the close associations built around the simple love of an imagined world and its memorable cast of characters.

Getting the neurons firing

The networks inside our minds

It’s almost like a spark. As I put fingers to keys to write this article, and as you read and understand it, tiny electrical signals pass between synapses within our brains. Although estimates vary, some say there are around one billion neurons in the brain and up to one hundred trillion synapses between these neurons. What makes this number so staggeringly large is the fact that synapses and neurons connect with each other in many different and constantly changing ways, multiplying the total number of patterns. In an interview with The Varsity, Dr. Sheena Josselyn, a neuroscientist at U of T, quotes Richard Morris and colleagues in the Annual Review of Neuroscience: “It is a big leap from the synapse to the behaving animal — and the chasm in between is the neural network.”

These neural networks may be one of the most complex systems we know of, but recent technological advances have lead to significant advances in our understanding of the brain and how it works. Research into neural networks at U of T is helping us to understand how we learn, why we feel stress, and how to treat the causes of mental illness.

Learning and Memory

WENDY GU/THE VARSITY

Amidst the loud music, stale beer, late-night pizza, movie marathons, and time-consuming extra-curriculars of undergrad, it’s often hard to remember that we’re actually here to learn. But as exams loom on the horizon, many of us will need a little insight into how to learn effectively — or maybe just quickly.

In the brain, learning begins as physical changes to the connectivity of individual neurons and overall neural patterns, known as synaptic memory consolidation.  This important process occurs in a structure near the centre of the brain known as the hippocampus, and involves changes in the expression of proteins in the neurons within minutes of a learning episode. Over longer periods of time, memories that were first encoded in the hippocampus move into more stable, long-term storage in the pre-frontal cortex. This process is called systems consolidation. Some hypothesize that systems consolidation occurs only while we’re asleep. So pulling an all-nighter may not be the best way to cram all of European history into your head. However, getting a decent night of sleep after a long day’s studying may, in fact, help to lock that information into your neural networks.

Josselyn, a senior scientist in neurosciences and mental health at SickKids research institute and a U of T associate professor of physiology, studies learning and memory, with a focus on fear memory.

“Using a variety of different methods we have been able to identify the precise brain cells within the amygdala that store key components of a fear memory.  When we selectively ablate these neurons, it is as if the fear memory is erased!  We are very excited about this work and are now examining whether this general principle applies to other types of biologically important memories (such as memory of a food location, etc),” she writes.

Being able to selectively erase certain memories is amazing enough by itself, but Josselyn anticipates practical applications as well. “By being able to identify and then manipulate the small number of brain cells involved in a given memory, we hope to one day help people that either remember too much (or too vividly), such as those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (ptsd).  If we can identify the precise brain cells that make up this intrusive and unwanted memory, perhaps we can decrease just this memory (leaving all other memories intact).”

As for learning, Josselyn has some clear, practical advice for students, which stems from her neural expertise and experience as a professor.

“Don’t cram for an exam, study a little bit over a longer period of time.  In flies, slugs, and mice, it has been clearly shown that memory is better when learning bouts are spaced apart. Ebbinghaus, one of the forefathers of psychology, noted this trial spacing effect in his own memory. Studying a little bit every day is one good piece of advice that translates from the lab to the classroom!

A second principle is attending to what is being learned. If you want to learn and remember something, don’t multi-task. Divided attention is bad for memory.  We see this in the lab (and I see it when I teach in the classroom). Bottom line: in class or when studying, turn off your phone, shut down your Facebook page, and refrain from following what Lindsay Lohan is tweeting about.  You will learn and remember much better.”

Stress

For students, stress and learning seem unavoidably linked. From a neurophysiological point of view, however, a stressful exam season may be affecting more than your emotional state and caffeine intake. When you’re stressed, certain hormones are released into your brain and these can negatively affect your ability to form new memories
and retrieve existing ones.

One stress-related hormone, cortisol, is known to impair memory formation and retrieval, especially if there are high levels of it for long periods of time. Cortisol is known to negatively affect the functions of the pre-fontal cortex. This area of the brain is where long-term memory storage occurs, and it is also responsible for executive functions such as decision-making and working memory. Working memory, somewhat like ram on a computer, is the information that you are actively using or holding in mind at a given time. Especially when combined with decision-making, working memory is important for handling tasks such as, for example, writing three essays about Shakespeare in three hours. Cortisol in the pre-frontal cortex can also lessen your mental flexibility and reduce your ability to focus.

When you add up the effects of stress on learning and recalling knowledge, it may be more valuable to relax before your exams and between study sessions, rather than using those extra minutes to cram.

Mental Illness 

For many students, stress doesn’t end after the last exam. Beyond the normal demands of school, work, family, and social life, many of us must also cope with mental health issues. An estimated 3.2 million young people in Canada are at risk of mental illnesses and students are among the demographics most at risk.

Mental illness is widely studied but not well understood. Researchers can detect structural and neuronal changes in the brain that characterize different disorders, but have little insight into causes and remedies. At present, most mental health treatments focus on mitigating symptoms, and are only effective in a portion of cases. For example, only about 50 per cent of patients with major depressive disorder find treatment helpful.

Dr. Roger McIntyre, a professor of Psychiatry and Pharmacology at U of T, studies persistent mood disorders. In an email interview with The Varsity, he explained some of the flaws in current mental health treatment, and how his work is offering new alternatives.

“Available treatments for depression and dementia are not ‘disease modifying,’ because they do not target the pathology but suppress the symptoms. We hope our work provides a disease modifying treatment and possible prevention for mood and degenerative disorders and possibly a cure.”

McIntyre is currently studying the role of insulin in the brain. Insulin is usually associated with diabetes, but it is also active in the brain — affecting learning, memory, cell survival, and cell death. McIntyre emphasizes the link between insulin’s role in diabetes and the brain.

“It is better to prevent problems from the beginning rather than treating them after they have started, and we also believe that younger people, by living healthier lifestyles and avoiding diabetes and insulin resistance, would be at lower risk of developing depression and dementing disorders, since we know that metabolic problems [such as diabetes] cause [them].”

McIntyre’s work has also shown that administering insulin in the brain via nasal inhalation could be an effective treatment for the cause of these disorders, going beyond merely mitigating symptoms.

Overall, the field of neuroscience is only beginning to explore the endless possibilities of the brain and to what magnitude it affects one’s wellbeing. “Technological advances have allowed us for the first time to answer some very fundamental questions about how the brain works,” writes Josselyn.

When asked what he saw as frontiers for neuroscience in the near future, McIntyre had a lot to say about the dizzying potential of this field: “Major advances will be elucidating intracellular mechanism, mediating brain disease, characterizing brain circuits, and understanding more fully the interrelationship of how physical health affects the brain.” Josselyn concluded more simply, “It’s an exciting time to be a neuroscientist!”

The Networks Magazine

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