MMP was bound to fail

On October 10, Ontarians had the chance to change this province’s electoral system for the first time in nearly 90 years. But the referendum on proportional representation failed, and Ontarians chose to keep the status quo that’s been in place since 1792. This referendum defeat shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone, because from the outset its mismanagement meant it was bound to fail.

Too many Ontarians did not understand what the referendum was about, let alone the differences between the voting system proposed and the one we have now. Those who did realize that Ontario had to choose between two voting systems were unclear on the issue, such as how list members would be selected, if this process of selection would be transparent, for whom or what they would be accountable, and how coalition governments would be formed in legislature.

To address these complicated questions, Elections Ontario set up the “Referendum Ontario” web site (yourbigdecision.ca), but the site did not adequately address voters’ uncertainties about how government under a new system would work. The advertisements put together by Elections Ontario were terribly vague: they did not even make clear that Ontario was holding a referendum on electoral systems. The only message that came across was “Do not let others speak for you.” How were these ads ever going to inform the general public on what the referendum was about? On the whole, Elections Ontario didn’t do enough to educate the public. Out of the $93 million spent on this election, only $7 million was spent on education about the referendum, a scant portion given the historic importance of the vote.

The proposed Mixed Member Proportional system was far more complicated then the one Ontarians are familiar with. There should have been more information distributed about how the MMP system would work before commentary was given on the pros and cons of each system. Unfortunately, the province’s political parties were all too keen to voice their position on the referendum. The Conservatives encouraged Ontario to vote against the referendum, while Green Party leader Frank De Jong tried to whip up support for MMP. The October 1 issue of the Varsity carried an op-ed by federal NDP member Olivia Chow, arguing in favour of the referendum. While every citizen has a right to their opinion, decisions on electoral reform should not be infl uenced by political parties.

The irony of the failure of this electoral reform is that it sought to boost voter turnout. Under the current system, the votes of people living in ridings with high populations mean much less than those living in small ridings. MMP would have meant that every vote would have counted and Ontarians would have had more of a chance to be involved in the democratic process. But the referendum was so poorly publicized that voters didn’t realize the opportunity they were being presented with, and passivity reigned. As things turned out, only 52.6% of eligible voters cast a ballot, a record low for our province. If Ontarians didn’t endorse the new system because they didn’t want it, then that’s truly the public’s choice. It’s another thing if it failed because of ignorance and apathy.

American Ruffalo

Not only is Mark Ruffalo one of the finest actors working today, he’s also probably the most self-effacing.

The former stage actor’s brand of performance is the kind that too often goes unnoticed. Like a chameleon, Ruffalo inhabits the space of a character to an extent that most don’t recognize the actor beneath. Sure enough, audiences end up showering his costars with recognition instead.

Overdue for some awards recognition of his own, Ruffalo has already punched in two memorable performances this year that could serve as his ticket to the Oscars, with stand-out roles in Zodiac and Reservation Road (which opens this Friday). Ruffalo would rather not play favourites. After some arm twisting he leans towards Zodiac, but not for his own purposes.

“For Dave Toschi,” he explained in an interview during the Toronto International Film Festival, referring to the real-life cop whose life was consumed in pursuit of the elusive, titular serial- killer that he portrayed in Zodiac. “It would be nice to win something in honour of him. He was kind enough to open his life up to me for that part. It would be vindicating for him for something like that to happen, because he had a really rough go at it and really poured his life into it.”

Though he has humble reasons for preferring the performance in Zodiac for awards consideration, Ruffalo didn’t want to downplay his impressive turn in director Terry George’s Reservation Road. In it he plays Dwight Arno, a man who accidentally perpetrates a hit-and-run that takes the life of a 10- year-old boy. Dwight spends the rest of the film ducking the child’s vengeful father, Ethan Learner (Joaquin Phoenix).

Though Ruffalo didn’t realize it at first, the film carries some larger post- 9/11 themes. Ethan, the film’s dramatic centre, emulates his country in his preference to seek revenge rather than working towards healing. It’s an aspect of the film that Ruffalo himself finds extremely satisfying, since he’s no stranger to speaking out against such mentalities.

Many noticed the orange ribbon that Ruffalo was sporting on his wrist during his appearances at TIFF. The ribbon represents the actor’s commitment to an organization called World Can’t Wait, which is lobbying for the impeachment of George W. Bush. Though such an imperative may seem like a waste of time with the U.S. elections impending, Ruffalo insists that the “world can’t wait” even until then.

“It just so happens that as time has gone on I’ve gotten more and more frightened by what I’m seeing happen in the world,” Ruffalo explained, “especially with the United States, and the consolidation of power into our executive branch, and the shredding of our constitution. World policies are being put into motion that are highly destructive and could snowball into really ugly stuff.”

“They have their sights on Iran now,” elaborates Ruffalo. “If we attack Iran, I think it’s going to be very hard for China and Russia to stay out of the fray. I’m not sure that at this point in time the way we’re trying to deal with these problems is actually constructive.”

Ruffalo has his convictions, but convincing the American public to notice the dangerous road they tread seems beyond reach, especially for a selfeffacing award-worthy actor who is barely noticed in his own movies. But then again, maybe we should hold our reservations to see what good fortune awaits both Ruffalo and America.

Reservation Road opens everywhere this Friday.

It’s Not Rocket Science – Episode 3

In Soviet Russia, jet flies you!

Back when they were still in an arms race with the West, the USSR designed the world’s largest and heaviest jet. Called the Antonov (or AN-225), it features a 32-wheel landing gear system and an 88-metre (291-foot) wingspan, for use in their space system. It is capable of hauling 250,000 kilograms internally and up to 200,000 kilograms on its fuselage. The link below has a video of this beast in action with a Russian space shuttle hitching a ride on its back. It’s too bad the Berlin Wall fell—it would have been neat to see what crazy things the Soviets would have come up with next.

Link: tinyurl.com/39qgyq

Ever wonder what it’s like to die?

This engaging (and slightly unsettling) article on the New Scientist website describes how it feels to kick the bucket in a variety of gruesome ways. From the guillotine (swift) to a heart attack (sometimes not so swift), each description of how the final moments probably feel is reconstructed from survivor accounts and expert insight. In my opinion, a good way to die would be a hotdog overdose at an eating competition— at least your hunger would be satisfied before you croaked.

Link: tinyurl.com/2yd9vp

Two-tone moons are in this season (NASA agrees)

The Cassini satellite snapped this neat shot of one of the most curious objects in our solar system. Named Iapetus, this ice-coated moon of Saturn features a distinct “walnut” shape and several massive impact craters. No word yet if this moon also comes in solid colours.

Link: tinyurl.com/2cv2nb

Tired of sex

Bdelloid rotifers haven’t been getting laid for over 80 million years and, surprisingly, they are all the better for it. These tiny microorganisms reproduce asexually and have two copies of the same gene, each copy functioning differently. This allows them to survive long periods of time in a desiccated state when the ponds they inhabit evaporate. This is the first time this tactic has been seen in asexual organisms, and may help explain how asexual organisms can survive over so many generations (typically, asexually reproducing organisms are not seen as viable in the long term for a variety of reasons). The best part is, these little guys don’t need to spend money on birth control.

Link: tinyurl.com/22cpau

The best of the worst

Every year, those industrious chaps at the Annals of Improbable Research give out their Ig Nobel Awards, a humours antithesis to the Nobel Prize (and announced at the same time). This year’s highlights: “Sword Swallowing and Its Side Effects,” and a study from the Air Force Wright Laboratory regarding a chemical “gay bomb” that would make enemy soldiers irresistibly attracted to each other. My personal favourite is the chemist that found a way to make vanilla flavouring from cow dung. Already, an ice cream shop in Cambridge, Massachusetts has named a flavour after the lead researcher on the piece, Mayu Yamamoto, named Yum-a-Moto Vanilla Twist. Who would have thought that cow poop could be so delicious?

Link: tinyurl.com/22cpau

A weird animal that you’ve never heard of

Presenting the Guatemalan Beaded Lizard. There are less than 200 of these guys alive in the wild and efforts are under way to save them, headed by the Nature Conservancy. It can withstand extremely high temperatures and drought by being completely dormant. During periods where it is in this mode, it survives on food that it stores in its tail. Its venom has been used to treat diabetes and it is currently being researched for any other medicinal properties that it may have.

Link: tinyurl.com/22cpau

Al Gore is the new Mother Theresa

By awarding the Nobel peace prize to Al Gore and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the world community sent out a strong message about the importance of climate change. I can hear the weeping of thousands of climate change deniers across the world. Let’s hope they soon become an extinct species.

Review: Halo 3 (Xbox 360)

At first glance, Halo 3 looks exactly like the other games in the series. Other than souped-up weapons and vehicles, what makes this game worth your while?

For one, the control layout has been tweaked for both comfort and speed, which helps you use another cool new feature: the deployable item. Multi-player games get much more exciting when you can use stuff like bubble shields and gravity lifts. Another huge addition to the game is forge mode. This allows you to customize any pre-existing map and upload it to Xbox Live for the rest of the community to download and play.

The last major addition is the theatre feature, where the game regularly saves your actions so you can go back and review, from multiple angles, that sweet move you just pulled. Upload a clip to either Xbox Live or Bungie’s website so that people who don’t even have Halo 3 can see how astute you are with an energy sword.

Of course, while the new goodies are nice, the meat and potatoes of any Halo game are still the single player campaign and the multiplayer modes. These, executed at the expected high level, are still a ton of fun. It’s just a shame that the campaign’s light challenge on any setting other than legendary will only take you about 10 to 12 hours complete. However, with the inclusion of a four player co-op, multiplayer is now more fun than it’s ever been.

From a technical standpoint, Halo 3 is top of the line. The sound design is still second to none. Everything— the music, voice acting, and sound effects—is outstanding. The exaggerated physics are still as hilarious as they have always been, and the graphics are gorgeous—as expected.

Halo 3 is about as close to a perfect video game as you will find. You definitely need to try it if you have an Xbox 360. If you don’t, you might want to consider picking one up for the sole purpose of playing this game.

Clearing the fog surrounding smog

Coined by medical doctor Harold Antoine des Voeux in 1905, “smog” originally referred to the dense, black fog associated with the burning of coal. The effects of smog had also been seen well before the Industrial Revolution, in ancient Rome, where wood-burning fires blackened many of the buildings. It is also speculated that the Chinese may have burned coal as fuel starting around 1000 BC.

These days, the visible haze that hangs over cities is mostly caused by exhaust fumes from the combustion of fossil fuels in vehicles and other anthropogenic sources concentrated in urban areas. A mixture of noxious gases known as criteria air contaminants—such as ground-level ozone and sulphur dioxide— and particulate matter, smog can severely affect human health, especially amongst children, the elderly, and those with pre-existing respiratory and heart problems.

To make matters more complicated, the sunlight that normally brings warmth and life to the world also causes primary pollutants (those emitted into the atmosphere) to chemically react, producing secondary pollutants, collectively termed photochemical smog. More specifically, it is the nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds emitted into the atmosphere that react with sunlight to produce ozone and secondary particulate matter. While ozone in the Earth’s stratosphere filters out most of the sun’s ultraviolet radiation, ozone at the ground level in the troposphere causes severe irritation to the lungs. In other words, people are now advised to stay indoors on warm, sunny days in order to avoid a trip to the nearest hospital.

During days when air at elevated altitudes is higher in temperature than air at lower altitudes, a temperature inversion occurs. Since cold, dense air sinks, there is no vertical mixing between the two layers, resulting in that concentrated haze of pollutants that hangs over a city. This effect is especially pronounced in cities located in low lying areas where horizontal air flow is blocked by land features. While a breeze might be able to lower the concentration of pollutants, it also transports unwanted and highly reactive pollutants to rural areas, affecting agricultural lands, water sources, and ecosystems many kilometres away from the city. As a result, areas located downwind of areas emitting primary pollutants usually have the greatest ozone concentrations

Airborne particles, or aerosols, do not simply hang around waiting for an unsuspecting human being to inhale. They may be suspended in the air for hours or days, and acidic particles, such as nitrogen oxides and sulphur dioxide, may be deposited on surfaces (termed dry deposition) or washed out of the atmosphere through various forms of precipitation (termed wet deposition). This generates acid rain, which not only destroys human architecture, but also creates havoc for ecosystems. Soil, especially in eastern Canada, does not have sufficient alkalinity to neutralize the acid that is deposited. The now acidic soil, in turn, is less able to retain minerals, causing leaching and affecting organisms that rely on these nutrients. Conversely, the high content of nitrogen present in acid rain actually promotes algal growth in aquatic ecosystems, leading to eutrophication and the depletion of oxygen. This process severely affects many organisms that reside within affected lakes and streams.

Persistent organic pollutants are, as their name suggests, difficult to break down. POPs include certain pesticides (like DDT), industrial chemicals (such as PCBs), and certain chemical by-products. Once POPs enter the food chain, they are able to bioaccumulate in animal and human tissue alike. Because of their persistence, these compounds are carried well away from their sources and many become concentrated in polar regions where the cold dense air sinks, adversely affecting local people and wildlife. POPs have been linked to problems with the reproductive system, neurobehavioral disorders, and cancer.

Surprisingly, some of the substances that are referred to as “air pollutants” today are also organic vapours generated by vegetation, smoke from naturally-occurring fires, and gases from volcanic eruptions. The problem now lies in the level of concentration at which these substances are being produced through industrial activities, and secondary pollutants produced from chemical reactions between them.

About a month ago, the Southern Ontario Centre for Atmospheric Aerosol Research officially welcomed the abundant atmospheric pollutants waiting outside its doors. Comprised of U of T faculty members from the Department of Chemical Engineering and Applied Chemistry, the Department of Chemistry, and the Faculty of Medicine, the centre aims not only to decipher the sources of atmospheric aerosols, but also their chemical and physical properties, the effects on humans and the environment, and possible improvements that can be made to reduce the severity of these effects. With the help of up-to-date technology located in the Walberg, Lash Miller, and Gage buildings on the St. George campus, these researchers are set to clear the air about smog and its effects.

For more information on what you can do about improving air quality, visit:

  • socaar.utoronto.ca
  • cleanairpartnership.org
  • cleanairalliance.org
  • ec.gc.ca

Celebrity causes: fad or rad?

The September 2007 issue of Glamour would have been an average edition of a fashion periodical if not for one element: a grim article written by Vagina Monologues author Eve Ensler about Congolese women who had been brutally raped and tortured. While flipping the pages, the topics suddenly jumped from fall jackets to accounts of human barbarity so horrifying that it made the rest of the magazine seem laughable.

The appearance of such a serious article in a fashion magazine unquestionably reflects the recent drastic increase in celebrity social awareness. Newspapers, weekly tabloids, and entertainment shows are all overflowing with footage of yet another A-lister traveling to Africa, founding their own charity or participating in awareness campaigns. With all this mass-media coverage, many people are naturally inclined to ask: what good does celebrity activism actually do?

As with any situation, there are two main perspectives to this issue. The easiest is the one that tends to be more widespread: famous celebrity activists such as Bono, Angelina Jolie and Oprah are routinely accused of being deceptive attention-seekers and hypocrites, especially in terms of their charities and funding programs. (Product) Red, of which Bono is a co-founder, is increasingly attacked for its allegedly misleading goals and misused funds. Although the criticisms may not exactly be fair, they are contributing towards the phenomenon’s negative image.

In addition, the sheer amount of reporting that has recently appeared on this topic has unsurprisingly rendered it worn out. In Princess Diana’s time, a celebrity posing with HIV/AIDS infected patients was considered heroic. Today, they are seen as unoriginal, even annoying. Furthermore, the “trend” factor of social activism is discouraging potential participants from getting involved because they do not want to feel like followers. For this, celebrities cannot be blamed. Not for the first time in history, mass media has blown the entire affair out of proportion and, unfortunately, made it headline news a few too many times for it to remain original or inspiring.

On a positive note, some of these celebrities have truly achieved remarkable things through activism. Angelina Jolie has personally funded her way to becoming a recognized UN spokesperson and is credited with feats that could have only been realized with a powerful celebrity status. She has convinced presidents to acknowledge civil rights groups, travelled to many parts of the world, written serious pieces on her experiences and, all the while, kept an image of human authenticity that is very hard to compromise. Using money, media, and a desire for change, she and other celebrities have helped raise mass awareness and exposure to humanitarian crises that could have otherwise remained unknown.

The general situation with famous activists is clearly very delicate. One thing is for sure: celebrities and their actions will always be a hot topic. Willingly or not, status, money, and psychology have led our society to view certain members of this small group of people as role models. Consequently, any messages that these stars may wish to send will usually manage to find their way into our lives. This being said, the phenomenon of celebrity activism may not be the most in need of critique after all. Surely messages calling for tolerance, compassion, and generosity of heart cannot be all that bad. All accusations considered, maybe some positive will even come from Paris Hilton’s desire to visit Rwanda: increased awareness, aid, or if all else fails, worldwide comic relief.

Battle for Burma

Hundreds of Torontonians marched to protest atrocities committed by the military junta in Burma (officially called the Union of Myanmar). Marchers demanded the immediate release of all political prisoners held by the junta, including Aung Sun Suu Kyi, the Burmese elected leader, who was never allowed to take office. The march was part of the Oct. 6 Global March for the People of Burma, a global movement for democracy in Burma.

“The outrageous actions of the generals and the support given to them by India and China solicit a struggle for democracy in the region,” said Paul Copeland of the Toronto Burma Roundtable, one of organizers of the demonstration. “Regardless of where you are, this is a concern for the cause of democracy.”

BBC reports that the State Peace and Development Council’s 19-year-old military government has arrested up to 10,000 dissidents over the last month, including thousands of monks in a democratic movement that has been growing amidst escalating military violence against it.

Protesters have brought international attention to what many feel is an illegitimate government. The first ever Burmese elections, held in 1990, saw Aung Sun Suu Kyi’s National Democratic League win 392 out of 489 seats in the national parliament. The election’s results were rejected by SPDC, then called the State Law and Order Council.

The current wave of protests, spearheaded by monks and nuns, began when the government decided to remove fuel subsidies, setting off a series of demonstrations against the resulting jump in food prices and costs of other basic necessities.

Military governments have ruled Burma since 1962, when General Ne Win overthrew an unpopular, collapsing democracy led by the prime minister U Nu. The short-lived democracy had lasted only 14 years, and never flourished, since the British administration was forced out in 1948.

“We are trying to establish a democratic country in Burma,” said rally organizer Minthura Wynn, a former activist during the 1988 movement in Burma which was crushed when the SLORC took over the state. “I took the opportunity to find some support among the concerned Canadian citizens.”

The 88 Generation Students, activists like Minthura who have become associated with the spirit of the 1988 Uprising, have made the Burmese democratic movement global.

Under Ne Win’s so-called socialist regime, which is known for its excessively patriotic and intolerant policies, Burma’s economy continued a downward trend, becoming one of the poorest in South-East Asia and being branded a “Least Developed Country” by the World Bank. When Ne Win resigned in July 1988, student unions had risen to try and establish a democracy in the country. Suu Kyi, daughter of Aung Sun, a slain leader of the movement for freedom against British rule was one of the heroes of this movement. However, it was General Saw Maung, of the SPLOC that brutally took control.

The demonstrations culminated in Uprising 8888, starting on August 8, 1988 (the number 8888 is considered lucky) and ending when it was brutally razed on Sept. 18, when the current junta fired on crowds, killing thousands of protestors.

Minthura has been imprisoned by the SPDC, and even claims to have been warned and followed for a long time. Following the 1988 coup d’etat by Saw Maung the All-Burma Student Democratic Front was formed by union leaders like Minthura.

“I was living in the jungle on and off for six years,” Minthura told The Varsity in an interview. “My responsibility was to deliver human rights and education information in the Mon and Karen states (two of more than 10 major ethnicities in Burma). I was arrested three times, then in 1994 I came to Canada to get legal status, and to continue our movement internationally.”

In Toronto, Minthura and other activists from Burma formed the Burmese Students Democratic Organization.

“Torontonians should be writing to Harper and Maxine Bernier to implement a sanction against Canadian Companies doing business in Burma, and the Burmese government,” says Copeland. “Canadian politicians have said a great deal about the issue, but nothing is yet being done. We should be telling our representatives to get the Canada Pension Plan to divest from companies that work in Burma, for example.”

Minthura and Copeland both point out that many North American companies continue to invest in Burma, which should be sanctioned. “We want Canada to support UN resolutions against the Burmese government and impose sanctions against companies investing there, and against the [Burmese] government,” said Minthura.

“We are trying to prove we haven’t given up yet.” The way Minthura sees it, 88 Generation Students are still very much alive.

All sound and fury—for nothing

They’ve heard it over and over again, and it’s one broken record they’ll be glad to hear the end of as the season draws to a close.

Following Saturday’s loss to the Western Mustangs, an eerie silence surrounded the Varsity Blues. Considering all the fanfare and hype that the game, played in front of 5,350 at TD Waterhouse, has engendered over the last few weeks, one couldn’t help but wonder, “Who died?”

No one, unless you’re counting the dead horse that media types have been beating ad nauseum in recent weeks. By Monday there were no more questions pertaining to the now-historic losing streak of 48 consecutive games, no more excessive coverage and redundant articles. Who would have thought that talking about a broken record would have turned into such a broken record itself?

Now with loss number 48 officially in the history books, the vultures can officially move on to their next story and the team can begin concentrating on football once again.

“Much adversity has been placed on the team from many sources,” said Blues player and Ticats draft pick Michael Goncalves. “The media, injuries, and negative talk have all been issues, but when I read the newspaper or watch the news, any negative media about the team only fuels me to play harder for the guys next to me, because we’re all playing the sport we love.”

Goncalves, one of the most senior players on the team, is a leader on a young Blues squad. Despite his arguments to the contrary, the streak must have weighed on both players and coach this season. With weekly reminders from every self-respecting journalist this side of the Edmonton Sun, how could they forget?

The season’s closer against Queen’s this Saturday is expected to be a quiet, low-key affair—a far cry from previous games. This development is not unlike what happened during Barry Bond’s march towards 758 home runs. Once he passed that magic number, the media vanished faster than a tiger in a Siegfried and Roy act. Like Bond’s record-setting feat, the Blues would also like a caveat placed on the infamous number 48.

“An asterisk should be placed beside the losing streak record because it doesn’t tell the whole story. We have come out each and everyday, giving 110 per cent,” Goncalves said.

“I have made great friends over my five years at U of T, and have grown as a player. There are too many positive things that have happened for this losing streak to defi ne our team.”

While an asterisk is not a likely option, Goncalves and his teammates should take solace. Today’s newspapers will be used to line tomorrow’s litter boxes, to the huge relief of the team as they try to bury this stinker of a season in the past.