America Votes 2008 Debates

Round 1: Presidential Smackdown

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the main event! In the red corner, Republican Senator from Arizona, Mr. Straight Talk himself, John “Maverick” McCain! And, in the blue corner, the junior Senator from Illinois bringing change we can believe in, Barack “The Star” Obama! Hold on to your seats, folks. This could be one heck of a show!

Except that it wasn’t. Both candidates did well—they reiterated their positions, and clarified the differences between their policies and ideologies. But there were no zingers, no confrontations, and no real interactions. PBS journalist Jim Lehrer, the moderator for the evening, practically had to beg the candidates to speak to each other.

The score:

Point to Obama for linking McCain to deregulation and trickle-down economic policies.

Point to Obama for countering McCain’s earmark-and-pork-barrel spiel with his plan to cut taxes for 95 per cent of the population.

Point to McCain for highlighting his own foreign policy experience.

Point to Obama for switching the focus to the war in Afghanistan and the unfinished business there.

Point to McCain for making Obama capitulate on his previous pledge to meet with dictators without preconditions.

Point to McCain for his stamina and energy—and not looking like he was going to die and leave (shudder) Palin with the presidency.

Could anyone have predicted this? After 90 intense minutes there is no clear winner!

Round 2: Vice Presidential Sudden Death

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome! Tonight, the number-twos go head to head. In the red corner, armed with a hockey stick in one hand and lipstick in the other, Alaska’s very own pageant queen, Governor Sarah “Pitbull” Palin! And in the blue corner, the scrappy senator from Scranton, “Average Joe” Biden! Place your bets now, people. This could be the last time you see such an uneven match-up!

It was hard to look at Palin without thinking about SNL’s Tina Fey. But alas—Palin (seemed) to have her act together, and didn’t leave Fey with (many) “Silly Sarah” moments to spoof. Still, the match was won before it started. All Biden had to do to succeed was avoid a memorable gaffe.

The score:

Point to Biden for being an excellent surrogate for Obama, and accurately outlining the ticket’s policies and positions.

Point to Palin for being “Maverick” McCain’s biggest fan.

Point to Biden for answering the questions that were asked.

Point away from Palin for going off on random tangents when she didn’t like and/or understand the question.

Point away from Palin for answering “I’ve only been at this for five weeks” when asked what campaign promises she’d have to break in light of the bailout plan.

Point away from Palin for attributing climate change to the cyclical temperature changes of the planet.

Point to Palin for correcting Biden: “The chant is ‘Drill, baby drill!’” (as opposed to “Drill, drill, drill”).

Point to Biden for being a foreign policy expert and countering Palin on every count. (Surprise, surprise.)

Point to Palin for just being so adorable!

What’s this? The judges have reached an agreement: “Pitbull” Palin is awarded a honourary win for NOT making a fool of herself! “Average Joe” may have shined out there, but not failing counts too.

All Nuit Long

6:42p.m. Jade: But is it art? Preparing for the long haul ahead, I pick up a coffee at Bloor and Spadina. As usual, there’s somebody sitting directly outside the door, ratty coffee cup in hand, asking for change. This time though, it’s a lady wearing a nice red coat, singing operatically about how she got a free pizza at the park. Whether it’s official Nuit or not, we’re off to the races.

7:37p.m. Chandler: Took a cab to Ryan McGuinness’ collaged and colourful symbol-laden paintings in the Distillery District. It’s nice, think Takashi Murakami without the misogyny with a black light installation that’s like cosmic bowling, only cooler.

7:45p.m. Jade: Took a good 15 minutes to find Kelly Mark’s Horroridor, but it’s no fault of the artist. What does “west lower entrance” mean, anyway? The exhibit itself, representing the pervasive gendering of fear, was a great starting point for the evening. As they were leaving, a group of women started mock screaming. Kelly Mark smiled from the sidelines. Said another woman: “I should write comments at the bottom of my booklet: ‘Took way too long to find the exhibit.’”

8:30p.m. Sarah: I arrive at Lamport Stadium in Liberty Village, where a security guard has to check my purse so I can see some mascots dancing in John Solecki’s I Promise It Will Always Be This Way. We’re calling out, ordering them to dance, but they don’t seem into it. This isn’t ironic enough to be funny.

8:35p.m. Rob: I kick my night off with the NB Post exhibit in Yorkville. I scribble down a quick message onto a postcard and drop it in the box. The post cards will be delivered randomly all over Zone A, and I hope mine gets to the right person. To my right, a large group of revelers are waving a giant Russian flag and singing what must be their country’s national anthem. Go Art! Go Russia!

8:39p.m. Chandler: Larry McDowell plays a tortured prisoner, blindfolded and silent in Berkzy Park. The fountain is full of foam that my brother and I fling at each other despite the eerie ambience.

8:46p.m. Sarah: The aptly titled SMASH! Droppin’ Stuff is pretty much an accurate description of two teenage girls in a cherry picker dropping a twenty year-old computer monitor onto a pile of junk.

8:49p.m. Jade: Alternator features miniature nodding donkeys seeping up oil spills on the ground of a parking garage. While conceptually nice (maybe I’m just part of the problem), I find the scale of the pumpjacks somewhat underwhelming.

8:50p.m. Sarah: I stop at Balzac’s for a coffee. It takes ten minutes and costs four dollars. It’s still early enough that hyperactive children are everywhere. Ew.

8:52p.m. Jade: “That’s a little explicit for me,” a boy, maybe seven years old, commented on Stillnessence as he left. “Oh my lord!” exclaimed another. Kids’ honest response to this projected collage of Torontonians clothed and naked was the main point of engagement for audience members with this work.

8:57p.m. Rob: I take in the Rockers exhibit at Liss Gallery. It’s mostly just famous photos of John Lennon and the Clash in New York. Across the street at the Four Seasons, a group of dudes with guitars are being loaded into a white limo. One of them tells the driver, “We’re in a band, we just wanna, like, cruise around for an hour. Cool?”

9:00p.m. Sarah: Next to the stadium is a giant white sign announcing Yoko Ono’s exhibit Imagine Peace. Organizers are handing out white cards and pencils, encouraging passers-by to write hopes, dreams, etc. hung on the surrounding trees. I’m there early, but all the good branches are taken. I spitefully read everyone’s wishes.

9:02p.m. Justin: Maple Leaf Gardens—Toronto’s hallowed grounds. The place where so many dreams have been broken. Were the Leafs ever good? Does this exhibit even matter? Screens are set up on the arena floor displaying what seems to be two bubbling milk vats gone so sour they’re waxing philosophical. The congealing substances discuss the Other and their place in an urban environment. I’m confused.

9:25p.m. Justin: Zombies have taken over College Park. This exhibit is largely ineffective—no one knows what’s going on and the zombies aren’t even staying in character. Wait! A sexy zombie girl is approaching me. Damn, I wish I were dead.

9:40p.m. Chandler: I’m smoking suspiciously free shisha care of the Ryerson Urban Hip Hop Union. Somehow this neither decreases nor increases my understanding of “art.”

9:45p.m. Sarah: SNIFF, LICK, PINCH, NIBBLE, SWALLOW by Noni Kaur is a visual project made of coloured coconut and rice, and it may be the highlight of my night. You can eat it, make designs in it, and it looks like actual art, not some amateur OCAD project. Plus, after you walk around, they give you free soup. I’m waiting for the point in the night when you can step in it, but I never get there.

9:50p.m. Justin: At Ryerson’s Devonian Pond, rubber ducks float amid an artificial mist.

10:00p.m. Sarah: I stumble upon a renegade project, Fugitive Chicken by Bryan Belanger. It’s a little plexiglassed truck, and inside the artist is wearing a chicken mask with three hens sitting around him. It seems Twyla, Rose and Buttercup lived with him for weeks before the show, and he’s obviously developed quite a bond with them. Adorable.

10:05p.m. Wyndham: After waking late from a three-hour nap and stumbling through the subway, I arrive at a disappointingly quiet Queen’s Park. The only evidence of the scheduled Sound Forest exihibit is the strains of a drum circle, so my comrade and I busy ourselves by scoping the crowd for sexy strangers.

10:16p.m. Jade: The financial advisor execuspeak of Commerce Court advertised the opportunities presented by global warming and the market’s “correcting” of itself, degenerating into “Are you tired? Want to get off?”

10:17p.m. Rob: I dig the lighting of the plastic Waterfall at the Toronto Hydro building, but it isn’t quite as big as I expected. Why are so many exhibits not nearly as towering as advertised?

10:20p.m. Justin: Dundas Square is packed tight with energized patrons waiting for their fifteen seconds of fame. The spotlight descends, sending its target, a frail old man, into hysterics. He bursts into dance. I never get my fifteen seconds.

10:30p.m. Sarah: Overflow is set in an abandoned building, with water flowing onto the rubble below. Not much to say about this, but then that’s probably because there’s a giant gate separating us from the “art.”

10:33p.m. Wyndham: Since it housed my favorite exhibit last year (the adorably awkward Dance With Teacher) I had big hopes for Hart House. The series of video instillations, however, plays like Visual Studies 101-reject projects. The only upside is Loverboy, an artistic confection of candy spread out across the floor of the map room that shifts shape as passerbys stop to sample the goods.

10:39p.m. Justin: A gentleman exits the Massey Hall exhibit, looks me in the eyes and shouts, “There’s art, and then there’s just stupid!” I walk in to find a faux office corridor in an alleyway, covered in garbage—the epitome of contemporary art. I wonder what the message is?

10:42p.m. Rob: I approach Stock Extravaganza with limited expectations. It’s a miniature concert in a trashcan. Yes, that’s right, patrons are lined down the block and around the corner to leer into a trashcan. The security guard assures me it’s not worth my while, and I’m inclined to believe him.

10:45p.m. Wyndham: After pilfering a coconut souvenir from the courtyard, we make for Atom Egoyan’s much-hyped Adoration Street. The streetscape is not as expansive or detailed as promised, and the effect of the various screens is difficult to decipher. The crowd is eating it up with a spoon though, so maybe it goes over my head.

10:57p.m. Rob: The giant twirling blue balloon at the Eaton Centre is a masterpiece. Unquestionably the highlight of the evening. I love stuff you don’t have to think too much about.

11:05p.m. Wyndham: After munching on a lemon tart for sustenance, we make for OCAD. The excitement is palpable at Grange Park, and everyone seems to be waiting for something to happen. The AGO light show is only mildly interesting, and the conversation of art doesn’t seem to be extending much beyond the comparison of hipster moustaches.

11:45p.m. Rob: City Hall’s Stereoscope is excellent on a grand scale. Every window is lit up like a giant pixel. Someone’s playing Pong and Snake on a massive cell phone of bureaucracy!

12:30p.m. Sarah: Oh, here’s that giant blue bubble in the Eaton Centre. What the heck is this? It looks like an inflatable pool.

12:31a.m. Justin: Devonian Pond has devolved into a free for all. People are knee-deep in the water hurling ducks at both the crowd and each other. The crowd scatters and the ducks are gone. I imagine the artists will get a fierce reprimand from PETA.

12:51p.m. Rob: Justin’s odd description of Maple Leaf Gardens turns out to be spot on. I think I appreciate this more as a sports fan and less as an art lover.

1:00a.m. Chandler: I met God (played by Evan Tapper) at InterAccess Media Centre just in time to absolve my sins for Yom Kippur. The automated receipt makes me feel much more secure.

1:05a.m. Jade: Definitely one of the best exhibits this year, Conversation #2 is partly destroyed by the time I arrive, so I can’t walk inside the room created from this circular mosaic of book spines. Still well appreciated though, the piece lived up to its name, both as subject of conversation and suggestion of how books speak to one another.

1:04a.m. Rob: Why was the 15 Seconds spotlight set up at the brightest intersection in Toronto?

1:06a.m. Wyndham: Trinity-Bellwoods is almost completely empty, so we make for Swizzle Studio to get our fake IDs made. It’s all fun and games, but the artistic element seems a little lacking. Despite ample searching, I’m unable to spot the Lausberg Contemporary’s 1,000 glowworms that are supposed to be illuminating the park.

1:17a.m. Rob: Where did all the Ryerson ducks go?!

1:43a.m. Chandler: At a tiny Queen West gallery near Gladstone, a local artist exclaims his love for Rod Stewart, miming an air-mandolin solo. I’m examining portraiture inspired by Led Zeppelin’s Zoso, drinking complimentary red wine, and saying “wassup” to Kevin Drew.

2:07a.m. Wyndham: After enduring some cringe-worthy beat boxing and spotting a few errant zombies along Queen West, we try to get a buzz off the cuteness emanating from the yarn-made Toronto streetscape in Knit City mingling with the ganja that is increasingly perfuming the air.

2:16a.m. Justin: The excitement is dying. Rob and I decide to look for a cab, kicking off perhaps the most frustrating adventure of my entire life. Stay tuned.

2:21a.m. Justin: Rob’s having trouble thinking of a word that starts with “a” and means “selfless.”

2:28a.m. Chandler: An amazing Queen West gallery installation intersperses pictures of Scar Jo’s ass and the Third Reich with German nihilist élan. Someone must have really hated that Tom Waits album.

2:29a.m. Justin: Fight! A massive brawl rolls on to Queen Street and completely destroys an independent exhibit. In the distance, sirens are heard amid sounds of glass and noses breaking. Two guys escape the fight, faces smeared with blood. I guess it’s the art of street fighting?

2:30a.m. Sarah: I am lame. I decide to ditch the party and go home, but not before scamming the TTC by using my five hour-old transfer.

2:38a.m. Justin: An impromptu folk jam breaks out on Queen West, and I join in. Looks like it’s just a regular night in the neighbourhood.

2:45a.m. Chandler: The Gladstone’s Eyes On Toronto all-night talk show is doing “Comedy-okee,” in which everyday civilians recite material from Bill Cosby and Sarah Silverman. Too bad the teetering sorority sister onstage is too drunk to even read, let alone pull off George Carlin’s “7 Words.”

2:49a.m. Justin: The word is altruistic.

3:00a.m. Chandler: The evening’s most sentient advice comes in the form of a four foot-high snowman mounted on the top of the Queen/Dufferin bridge with a hand-scrawled sign reading “Fuck The Past!” We scream it all the way to Brock Street, which advertises a free peep show. It’s a bust.

3:01a.m. Wyndham: A gallery between Ossington and Dufferin showcases my favourite display so far, a falling snow exhibit entitled Black and White that isn’t even part of Nuit Blanche (and will be up for a few weeks.)

3:21a.m. Rob: I still haven’t found a cab. I feel like Don Quixote.

3:34a.m. Justin: A disgruntled drunk emerges from the darkness and beats the crap out of an inflatable sex dummy. Typical.

3:48a.m. Wyndham: All night I’d been waiting to witness the dancing mascots in I Promise It Will Always Be This Way, and they deliver. Again, it’s debatable whether a crowd encouraging a furry, fatigued warthog to shake it has artistic merit, but I love it—the role reversal and audience participation are as post-modern as the night has been thus far. Just like me, the costumed shark and jersey-clad bumblebee are sleepy and disillusioned, but they keep on dancing.

4:00a.m. Jade: I arrive at the UC back campus. As usual, Hart House is coehesive, fun, and conceptually rigorous. Wild Signals and Innis College’s Adoration Street are personal highlights.

4:06a.m. Justin: After two and a half hours of excruciating exploration, we find a cab and are homeward bound.

4:15a.m. Chandler: Local novelist Brian Joseph Davis has got two stacks of TVs playing various DVD menus, buzzing and bleating in conjunction with his luminous soundscapes in an abandoned Liberty Village barn. I’m not sure if I’m ending Nuit Blanche with a bang, or a cacophonous whimper.

4:17a.m. Rob: On the way home, earlier than last year. I guess that’s progress. The consensus tonight seems to be that while most of the art wasn’t…and the expectations were…but it’s great that people come out to Nuit Blanche to see and experience….ZZZZZZZ.

5:01a.m. Jade: I’m cold, tired, and think it’s contextually inappropriate to celebrate any sort of car (let alone somebody’s weird brand fetish for Subaru, specifically) in the UC quad. Walking around Zone A to catch up on some of the things I missed the first time around, most things are closed well before dawn.

7:00a.m. Jade: What constitutes dawn? Not sunrise, right? Whatever, the sun is breaking, I’m going to bed.

Born To Be King

You’ve seen his picture by now: a weatherbeaten old guy who looks like he’s seeking revenge on the punk who stole his bathrobe. Most Toronto theatregoers are probably no less familiar with King Lear’s story of family betrayal than they are with the new Hart House Theatre production’s poster. At a moment when most are concerned with real life conservative leaders, the story of a fifth-century politician might not seem like the coolest ticket. But Hart House offers a slick, cinematic Lear which embraces the play’s drama and humanity, making a thriller out of a wizened script.

This fast-paced production does everything it can to keep the audience on the edge of their seats. Director Jeremy Hutton makes the most of the web of deceptions which keep Lear’s plot moving. The King’s famous offer to reward his daughters’ love with political power is refracted throughout the play: love is a currency to be counterfeited, and the relationships are so confused that even honest characters must wear disguises. Hutton intersperses scenes with split-second tableaus that hint at the progress of each character’s schemes. The performances are highly energetic and physical, and the violence comes early and often as every character fights for their life. (The physicalization of the language does get a bit literal: there’s more pelvic thrusting in this Lear than in any production of Rocky Horror.) Still, the eagerness in which the actors embrace the humour of Shakespeare’s storytelling adds to the suspense. When Benjamin Blais’s slimy Edmund calmly assures the audience that he has “seen drunkards do worse in sport” while preparing to slice his arm, the ripple of laughter running through the theatre is just as surprising as the abrupt slaps, shifts, and scene changes.

Not that the show isn’t technically impressive. Even Scott Penner’s set keeps you guessing. It starts as a line of pillars and an archway, which obscure half the stage. But during the frequent blackouts they move as nimbly as the actors, as hollow and changeable as the edifices the characters create. Whenever someone drops their act and speaks directly to the audience, time suspends, the others freeze, and backlighting renders the granite transparent. As Lear gradually abandons the social and political structures upon which he’s always depended, the set makes itself scarce.

Lear’s journey from a ruler who conceives of love as a political tool to a desperately grieving father is the heart of this play. Peter Higginson’s dynamic performance makes us pant to keep up with Lear’s rocky spiritual journey. He begins as a swaggering SOB who soaks up his family’s knee-jerk applause and determines the fate his country with a whim and a map. Higginson shows us a complex Lear whose series of self-discoveries leave him cranky and infantilized, comically self-pitying, then utterly liberated, dancing in the flowers and the rain.

When most of us think of modernizing Shakespeare, we think of swapping swords for guns and jerkins for jeans. But this production has no trouble pulling us into a world which is—or at least looks—very different from our own.

Rating: VVVv

Party lines

Green Party – Stephen LaFrenie

First-time Green candidate Stephen LaFrenie is a performer and teacher of physical theatre. For the past two years he was the Green shadow cabinet’s critic for International Cooperation and the Canadian International Development Agency. LaFrenie is a community volunteer and has experience working with third-world development charities, especially in Haiti. In 2006, the Greens won 3.8% of the vote in Trinity-Spadina.

Education: Increase post-secondary funding through a program that would replace the Millennium Scholarship Fund. Forgive 50 per cent of a student’s loan when they complete a degree or certificate program. Use targeted grants to promote trade and technical education.

Energy: Phase out nuclear power completely. Use regulation to promote energy consumption efficiency in households.

Environment: Amend Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms to add the right to clean air and water. Carbon tax of $50 per tonne and the creation of a rubric to measure environmental progress.

Food safety: The platform mostly addresses sustainable production and expanding local agriculture. Also includes developing area-specific food safety regulations that help local farmers meet national standards.

Health care: Keep single-tier health care system. Restoration of the 2005 agreement to create a universal child health care program. Invest to promote healthy lifestyle as prevention measure.

Housing: Loans and funding for sustainable, affordable housing developments. Subsidization of private developers to stall neighbourhood gentrification through creation of mixed-income housing.

Transit: Double federal funding for urban transit. Investment in sustainable transportation infrastructure such as pedestrian, cycle, and car-sharing. Immediate cancellation of federal funding for certain highway and bridge expansions that encourage urban sprawl and vehicle use.

Also of note: The Greens support the draft of UN Declaration on Human Rights of Indigenous Peoples for those affected by mining and oil and gas exploration in Arctic areas. They would ask for a UN ruling on the disputed areas and the US gas and oil leases in these regions.

Liberal Party – Christine Innes

Christine Innes is a Toronto lawyer who has lived in Trinity-Spadina for over 25 years. The wife of former Liberal MP Tony Ianno, who lost to Olivia Chow by a narrow margin in the last election, she is running for the first time.

Education: $5000 in loans for all students, regardless of family income. Lower interest rates and extend the grace period for interest-free repayment from six months to two years. 300,000 new bursaries and access grants for post-secondary education.

Energy : The Carbon Plan would raise taxes on fossil fuels and make new investments in renewable energy and conservation.

Environment: The Green Shift, the keystone of the Liberals’ campaign platform, plans to tax polluters while giving tax breaks on personal income, investment, and innovation.

Food safety: $50 million to improve food safety system. Hire more inspectors and conduct review of Canadian Food Inspection Agency.

Health care: The focus is on a $900-million plan for catastrophic drug coverage for Canadians with serious illnesses. $420 million to address the shortage of doctors and nurses.

Housing: Improve access to affordable housing with funding for 30,000 new units and the repair and renovation of 30,000 existing units.

Transit: $8 billion to help cities expand their public transit systems and make them more environmentally friendly

Also of note: Cut poverty by 30 per cent and child poverty by 50 per cent in the first four years of a Liberal government.

New Democratic Party – Olivia Chow

The incumbent MP ran unsuccessfully in Trinity-Spadina in 1997 and 2004 before winning in 2006. Chow is married to NDP Leader Jack Layton, and both live in the riding. Chow was elected Toronto school board trustee in 1985. She served as Toronto city councilor between 1991 and 2005.

Education: $1,000 grant to undergrads who qualify for student loans. Reform the Canada Student Loans system so that students doing internships, co-ops or placement programs aren’t asked to repay loans at the same time. Increase graduate and postgraduate research funding.

Energy: Stop tax breaks to the tar sands, nuclear power, and oil and gas industries. Funding for energy-efficient homes and buildings.

Environment: Reduce carbon emissions through a “cap and trade” system. $3-billion “green-collar” jobs and remove bureaucratic hurdles for zero-emission vehicles.

Food Safety: Hire more inspectors and improve warning system. Require labeling of genetically modified foods and farmed fish.

Health care: Train up to 28,000 additional health care workers. Streamline credential recognition for foreign professionals. Create a national home care system and a national prescription drug plan.

Housing: Give one per cent of federal spending to affordable housing by 2018. Build new affordable housing projects, upgrade old ones, extend homelessness programs and transitional housing.

Transit: An extra cent per litre from the federal gas tax and fining big polluters comes to $4 billion ($840 million for Toronto) over four years. Increase railways and bike paths.

Also of note: National minimum wage of $10 an hour. Reduce overcharging and hidden fees by major corporations, including a ban on ATM fees and incoming charges on text messages. Allow provinces to ban handguns.

Conservative Party – Christine McGirr

Christine McGirr is a consultant and a former school trustee candidate. She sits on the board of directors for two riding associations. McGirr has worked on campaigns for a number of conservative candidates.

In an unusual move, the Conservatives waited until the campaign’s last week to release an official platform. The Tories landed a distant third in the last election.

Education: Tax breaks for programs geared towards saving for post-secondary education. $2,000 bonus to apprentices from certain trades who complete their training.

Energy: $2 billion to promote smarter energy use, greater use of clean energy sources, and cleaner use of traditional energy sources.

Environment: Reduce Canada’s greenhouse emissions by 20 per cent by 2020 and cut air pollution in half by 2015. Industrial polluters will be forced by law to meet certain standards for emissions, with a Canada-wide limit on four major toxins that contribute to smog and acid rain.

Health care: Tax break for children enrolled in arts and sports programs, with deductions up to $500 per year. Stephen Harper has stated he would ban candy-flavored tobacco products.

Housing: $2 billion plan to combat homelessness. With current anti-homelessness programs expiring in March, a new five-year plan has been promised.

Transit: Harper announced a $1 billion transit grant for Toronto in March, and promised another $586 million later.

Also of note: Proposes stiffer sentences for offenders as young as 14 years for first and second degree murder and other serious crimes: it would now be as much as life in prison. Also proposes removal of ban against publicizing their names.

Concussion research has potential to save athletes’ careers

Concussions are the most common type of traumatic brain injury, causing a momentary interference with the brain’s ability to function, regardless of their severity. Contrary to popular belief, concussions do not involve a loss of consciousness, but may affect memory, judgment, or coordination. The most frequent concussion symptoms are amnesia—loss of memory of the impact that caused the trauma—and confusion. Although the brain is surrounded by cerebrospinal fluid, which functions to protect it from light trauma, this fluid is not always capable of absorbing more severe impact forces associated with a concussion.

To better understand the impact of concussions on athletes, U of T researchers Dr. Lynda Mainwaring and Dr. Doug Richards of the Faculty of Physical Education and Health, in collaboration with their colleagues from Toronto Rehab, Dr. Comper and Dr. Green, are in the midst of the Varsity Athlete Concussion Research Project. Started in 2000, one of the study’s key research objectives is to empirically validate the existing University of Toronto return-to-play guidelines. According to Michael Hutchison, a graduate student working on the project with Dr. Mainwaring, “there exists over 25 return-to-play guidelines in the world for allowing athletes to get back to the field after injury but none have been validated [experimentally].” Experimental affirmation of return-to-play guidelines consist of balancing the athlete’s desire to return to the field with the possible risk for musculoskeletal injury or another concussion. Essentially, it’s a matter of finding the time that, as Hutchinson puts it, is “just right.”

To achieve this objective the researchers combine science and sports. Their study consists of neuropsychological baseline testing, post-injury neuropsychological follow-ups, and prudent medical management. Athletes who undergo baseline testing are those deemed to be at a high risk for concussion through their involvement in contact sports such as basketball, football, rugby, or hockey. So far, 500 Varsity athletes have undergone a baseline test, 5 to 10 per cent of which have sustained a concussion. Baseline testing not only incorporates computerized neurocognitive measures but also neuropsychological tests, which includes a standardized paper and pencil test known to be sensitive to mild traumatic brain injury.

If an athlete experiences a concussion, they are re-tested immediately and then at regular intervals until recovery is complete or baseline functioning is achieved. After each concussion, every athlete goes to the sports medicine clinic run by Dr. Richards. To assess neurocognitive and emotional functioning, the research team measures indicators like reaction time, information-processing, attention, working memory, visual-spatial processing, and the athletes’ emotional response to injury.

The Varsity Athlete Concussion Research project is a truly multifaceted undertaking. Dr. Mainwaring hopes that this research will reveal better ways to ensure a smooth rehabilitative process for concussed athletes. The study has also allowed numerous students to delve into this field of research and pursue pertinent graduate work. The rehabilitative success of our Varsity athletes can be attributed to a true partnership between the athletes, coaches, and other staff members. The tremendous potential this study could have on research and clinical care can be summed up by Dr. Mainwaring’s remark that, “There will always be another game, but you only have one brain.”

Palestinian students under siege

Riham Al-Nahhal is one of the lucky few who have left the Gaza Strip to pursue their education. But for now, university will have to wait.

Her original plan was to arrive in Toronto in time to attend Ryerson and pursue her graduate degree in biomedical science. Instead she was held for 26 hours at the Israel-controlled Rafah crossing, on the border between Gaza and Egypt. Riham said she arrived in Toronto on Sept. 4, too late to join class. She will not be starting school until next semester. “We are still deciding between Ryerson and U of T, but right now she is relaxing,” said Wal.

Riham completed her undergrad at Al-Azhar University in Cairo, Egypt, and claims she has been trying to make it to university in Canada for a year.

Israel has imposed a siege on the Gaza Strip since the Hamas government took control in June 2007. The borders have mostly been kept closed, and when they do open, only a few hundred people are allowed to leave at a time.

Around 670 aspiring international students in Gaza have been prevented from leaving to attend schools in foreign countries.

Riham’s husband, Wal Al-Nahhal, sponsored her entry into Canada with a family sponsorship visa. Without such a document, most Palestinians wishing to leave the country have to rely on patience and luck.

“They seem only to open the border once every three weeks,” said Wal. “It’s like collective punishment for the Palestinian people.”

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had harsh words for the Israeli government when she visited the Middle East in May of this year. “If you cannot engage young people and give them a complete horizon to their expectations and to their dreams, then I don’t know that there would be any future for Palestine,” she said. Shortly after that, then-Foreign Minister and Prime Minister-elect Tzipi Livni made a few exceptions and allowed four of seven Fulbright scholars to leave the territory.

The current Israeli policy is to allow only “extreme humanitarian cases” to leave Gaza, according to Major Peter Lerner, a spokesperson for the Israeli Military. International students, he said, “are not people who need humanitarian aid.”

Changing lives with WiFi

Dr. Eric Brewer believes WiFi can save the developing world.

Speaking before a crowd of budding computer engineers at U of T’s Bahen Centre last Tuesday, Brewer delivered a lecture entitled “Tech for Developing Regions: Computer Science Matters,” the first of U of T’s Computer Science Distinguished Lecture Series.

An accomplished computer scientist himself, Brewer co-founded the Inktomi Corporation in 1996. Since 2005 Brewer has also been on partial leave as director of research at Intel. His current work focuses on connecting rural and urban regions of developing nations through a wireless networking scheme he invented called WiLDNet.

WiFi as we know it provides internet service within a radius of several meters, as found in coffee shops and school libraries. On the other hand, WiLDNet, which is short for Wireless Long Distance Network, will be used to connect rural communities across entire nations. These communities include three to four billion people worldwide who live on less than two dollars a day. His goal is to use technology to accelerate growth and prosperity among these populations.

Brewer’s driving force is his “wireless hypothesis” which claims that wireless systems are the first truly viable infrastructure for rural areas because they connect large areas at a very low cost. “Wireless is so affordable that you can put it in rural areas right now, and we’re going to do that,” he explained. He believes that introducing such systems can lead to increased rural income, bringing about other types of infrastructure such as health care, education, and government.

How feasible are these grand intentions? According to Brewer, there have already been a number of successful WiFi experiments where connectivity has increased rural income and quality of life. The introduction of wireless connectivity to the Aravind Eye Hospitals in Tamil Nadu, India has provided thousands of rural villagers with eye care they would have otherwise never received due to the severe shortage of doctors in the area. Connected by an antenna and a small Linux router, these one-room clinics are equipped with a single PC and a high-quality webcam which allows patients to video-conference with doctors in distant hospitals. For these doctors, who are used to working without instruments, the patient interview is the most important tool in diagnosis. Of the 80,000 patients who have used this service, over 14,000 have gone from being essentially blind to having effective vision, and 85 per cent have since been able to generate their own income.

Another company, I.T. Mountain, uses WiFi connectivity to send medical audio files to Bangalore, where trained workers transcribe the files and send the text documents back to the doctors. Outsourcing transcription from cities to isolated areas generates an average of eight dollars an hour—a huge amount by rural standards—for each employee.

Of course, the wireless revolution has its setbacks. The biggest challenge Brewer has faced so far is the low power grid quality in these areas. The unpredictable spikes and swells of voltage are responsible for 90 per cent of WiLDNet’s hardware faults, such as damage to power adapters and batteries. This poses a health risk to residents, who often try to refill the battery acid themselves. As solutions to these problems, Brewer’s team developed a low-voltage disconnect circuit which completely shuts off the power at the first sign of fluctuation. This includes a solar controller that effectively charges batteries independent of varying power levels.

For Brewer, who offers his software for free, the next step is to find a company that shares his goals to operate the WiFi networks. “It’s not about getting web pages to a rural village, it’s about using the technology to directly address the real problems, whether that’s health care, education, good governments, remittances, microfinance. All those need technical innovation.” Though it may take some time to convince companies of his project’s worth, Brewer shows no signs of worry: “I think they will come, if we’re patient about it.”

Free tuition for Lakehead nerds

Starting next year, Lakehead University will offer free tuition to undergrads who enter with a 95 per cent average and who maintain an 85 per cent average in upper years. Robert Perrier, manager for undergraduate recruitment at Lakehead, said the scholarships are a move to attract top students from all over Canada to northwestern Ontario’s only university.

Lakehead’s current student body was not exactly jubilant. Calling the initiative “spearhead recruitment” for “garnishing attention in making people interested,” Richard Longton, president of the Lakehead University Students’ Union, said the university is shortchanging current students who will not benefit from this decision in any way.

University of Toronto Students’ Union VP external Dave Scrivener sees things differently. Scrivener said he’d like to see similar policies at other universities. “It’s great to see a university accept that access to post-secondary education needs to be centred on a system of merit, and not money,” he says.