Searching for privacy

There is something about the relationship of a person and an Internet search engine that should involve complete anonymity. We type in a few words, they belch out a few more. Generally speaking, such an arrangement works well, and we don’t have to worry about whether somebody from the other side of the globe is viewing our house at that instant. Unfortunately, in parts outside of Canada, people do. Google Maps has implemented a “Street View” function, which allows users to zoom close enough to identify faces or license plates. Fortunately, in Canada, where reason and thought process play a much bigger role in politics than they do in the United States, this spiffy new Google feature will require the blurring of faces and other personal objects.

Is blurring really enough? There are always other ways to identify someone, namely by their body type or clothing, or even by where they are located. An eerie camera-happy world is steadily descending upon us, slipping into our streets and our intersections subtly, feeding the concept of privacy to a new technological monster that wants to see everybody in great upclose clarity. We have cameras virtually everywhere. They’re placed strategically on intersections, in schools, in stores, in workplaces, and even in some public washrooms. Our world is bloated with clever ways to monitor and control.

There is, of course, a fundamental difference between the cameras we encounter on a day-to-day basis and those that would allow us to be seen from hundreds, even thousands of miles away by people we’ve never met. The former protect us from theft, vandalism, and other such threats prevalent in society today, and the latter are there simply for the reason of… wait, what are they there for exactly? Surely purchasing a simple road map at the local hardware store shouldn’t be that hard. And if Google is assuming that people need to zoom in that close to find a location, then their picture of humans in general is unintelligent.

Canada’s Personal Information Protection and Electronic Document Act requires all private companies to obtain consent from individuals before making public any image of them, which may affect the Google tool’s introduction to Canada if the images are not sufficiently censored. All this being said, the question remains: is this enough protection? Do we really want our houses, not to mention us, displayed on the Internet, where millions will have access to the images, blurred or not? As individuals, we should maintain strict personto- computer relationships that exist with search engines like Google. We search. They give us results. They don’t publicly display where we live or what we’re doing sitting on a park bench eating an ice-cream.

Wintersleep rise and shine

Tireless east-coast rockers Wintersleep have been a busy band this year. Last week they released a new record, Welcome to the Night Sky, on a new record label, and have just embarked on a cross-country tour with a new bass player.

“Yeah, there’s a lot of news, I guess,” said singer Paul Murphy on the phone from his home in Halifax.

The changes began back in the summer of 2006 when Wintersleep were approached by Labwork, a new record label started as a partnership between indie imprint/institution Sonic Union and EMI Canada. Labwork made Wintersleep their first signees and quickly saw to re-releasing the band’s excellent first two LPs Wintersleep, and Untitled.

So, considering the dual nature of Labwork’s partnership, is the label an indie or a major? “It makes them an indie label with the possibility of major label involvement,” said Murphy over the background din of Radiohead’s In Rainbows. “It’s an indie with perks.”

One such perk was having “Weighty Ghost,” the first single off Welcome to the Night Sky, remixed by Michael Bauer (Coldplay, My Morning Jacket). Another was working with producer Tony Doogan (known for his knob twisting with artists like Belle and Sebastian, Mogwai, and David Byrne), who flew from his home base in Glasgow, Scotland to record Welcome to the Night Sky in Halifax.

“He was amazing,” said the always affable Murphy of Doogan. “It seemed like he was an actual member in the band. He knew how to get really good takes out of us.”

For Wintersleep, Welcome to the Night Sky will be their last record with bass player Judd Haynes, who left the band right after recording was finished to spend more time at his job as a graphic designer.

“Going on tour for two months at a time just got to be too much for him, and he knew we would be really busy with this new record,” said Murphy.

Stepping in to fill Haynes’ place on bass is Mike Bigelow (of Holy Fuck) who actually played keys in Wintersleep once upon a time.

Known for being rampant road warriors, I asked Murphy about Wintersleep’s upcoming tour and what he liked least about being away from home. “Right now I can’t think of anything bad about being on tour, I’m just really excited to go back on the road. The best thing, of course, is the show. That’s the reason why you’re there.”

Wintersleep’s fall tour takes them clear across Canada—and back— with two stops in Toronto and one stop in New York City. While they don’t anticipate any trouble crossing the U.S. border this time, Murphy was quick to recount a previous complication that went down a few years back, “We totally got denied access the first time we tried to go across,” he remembered.

“They kept us there for four hours and then took all of our information and finger prints, it was crazy. It felt a little invasive. The worst part was that they didn’t really ask us any questions. They just decided that we weren’t going through and then they kept us there for a really long time and then got rid of us. It was a really odd experience.”

After their fall tour is complete, Wintersleep will turn their attention to touring Japan. The band has just signed a deal with the Japanese rockists at Imperial Records, which should see the quintet travelling across the Pacific early in the new year.

Wintersleep play The Horseshoe Tavern Tuesday October 16.

Harper gets tough on drugs, soft on logic

On October 4, Steven Harper announced a new $64 million antidrug program with an approach to drug use that closely resembles the American “war on drugs.” Given the spectacular failure of the American program, why is Harper refusing to learn from the mistakes of our neighbours?

In his latest speech, Harper said that harm reduction for drug addicts was not a priority for his government and that “no matter how much harm you reduce, if you are a drug addict, you are still going to live a short, miserable life.” This is a terrible oversimplification. Harper assumes that all drug addicts are poor and are attempting to seek help. It is hard enough to convince people go to needle exchange programs or safe injection sites, let alone to rehabilitate them. Some addicts do not even know these places exist. This is why increased promotion of safe injection sites, such as Vancouver’s Insite, HIV testing sites, and health education sites, is necessary. Harper needs to spend money on public awareness of these incredibly crucial resources, not remove their funding or shut them down, both of which are distinct possibilities under his new plan.

Harper promises that someone caught selling even the smallest amount of drugs will face harsh penalties. Frankly, doesn’t the government have better things to devote tens of millions of dollars to than chasing around people dealing a few grams of marijuana? Wait a minute: five years ago, wasn’t there widespread support for legalizing marijuana?

What does Harper plan to do for people with addictions that extend beyond existing structures like the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health? The safe drug injection site in Vancouver has proven to be an excellent method of dealing with the city’s drug problem. Providing willing addicts with health information and illness testing, Insite is a prime example of what the country’s drug program should look like. Needle exchanges and other such programs are also reaching ahead and providing the country’s addicts with a proper, healthy way to do drugs, accompanied by information urging them to stop.

You cannot penalize people into not doing drugs, Mr. Harper. Experts will tell you your proposed method is fl awed. What should be happening is the implementation of more safe injection sites and more needle exchanges. These sites may be taboo, but so was condom distribution to the public when that practice was first started. Clean syringes don’t encourage drug use, they just make drug use safe. They save lives.

I’m not suggesting putting needles in every public place, but an increased availability and knowledge of their whereabouts would definitely be an improvement, especially in parts of the country where drug use is known to be high. Without harm reduction and more education, the country’s drug problem will spin out of control, and no amount of money will save it.

Burning questions for Susanne Bier

Susanne Bier, the Danish director of Things We Lost in the Fire, is obsessed with catastrophe. Her best films are devastating slow burns, as characters make impulsive choices derived from their own loneliness and slowly watch the ramifications mount. Few contemporary directors are as effective in dealing with the struggle between the head and the heart.

After directing several successful comedies, Bier made a sudden shift to serious territory with the Dogme 95 film Open Hearts (2002) and the tragic Brothers (2004), both of which received rapturous critical acclaim and surprisingly strong numbers at the box office. In 2006, Bier’s international exposure broadened with After the Wedding, which was nominated for Best Foreign Film at the Oscars.

This month sees the release of her first English language film, Things We Lost in the Fire. Benicio Del Toro plays Jerry, a heroin addict who everyone has given up on except for his childhood best friend, Brian (David Duchovny). Brian’s life has turned out better: he’s married to a lovely woman, Audrey (Halle Berry) but he still feels a loyalty to Jerry. After Brian dies suddenly, a lonely Audrey finds herself inviting Jerry to stay with her, and filling her husband’s role as his friend/rehabilitator.

Bier recently discussed making Things We Lost in the Fire with The Varsity.

The Varsity: Thematically, Things We Lost in the Fire reminded me a lot of Brothers and Open Hearts in the way that it deals with loss and loneliness. Despite the fact that it’s a Hollywood movie with someone else’s script, it’s very much in keeping with your sensibilities.

Susanne Bier: You know, I was interested because when I read the script I felt very connected to it, and I felt very familiar with the subject matter, and I was kind of wondering, is it too much like something that I’ve already done? But then I felt that I hadn’t dealt for a very long time with a female lead, which I thought was really interesting. I thought she was a really interesting character, this woman who closes down out of grief, puts all her emotion into the fridge. So I thought that was very interesting, and then I had never dealt with addiction. For somebody [who doesn’t] really have any addictive traits, it’s very fascinating, and it’s kind of scary, but it’s very interesting, and I was very compelled by that. I thought, yeah, I can recognize it.

V: Also, you’ve said in interviews that you have a fascination with the potential for catastrophe, and there’s definitely a lot of that in this film.

SB: I don’t know whether I’m fascinated by it…I think I’m kind of obsessed by it.

V: This is obviously your first film for a major Hollywood studio. Did you find the transition between the Danish film industry and Hollywood to be a challenge?

SB: You come with all the European prejudices of the big evil studios that eat your artistic integrity, and kind of swallow it, and everything that is going to come out of you is going to be popcorn. You have these prejudices, but I met with DreamWorks and I felt that they were very open and very supportive and very interested in making a good movie, and were asking me really relevant questions about the script and were very open to the sort of cast I wanted. It’s a different thing anyway…I came onto the set and I felt it was like a camping site, and it was all the trailers that had to do with the set, lots more makeup artists and hairdressers and strange cappuccinos. There’s a different layer onto it. But as a filmmaker, what you do is the same always. You are telling a story, and you should concern yourself with that, and I decided that I wasn’t going to be overwhelmed by all of it.

V: How did you find working with Halle Berry and Benicio Del Toro? I think these are some of the best performances they’ve given.

SB: Movie stars are not necessarily great actors…but these ones are. These are great actors. And they want at all moments to make a deep description of the state of mind they are in, so it was very fun and stimulating. I would rehearse with them every morning. I would rehearse with them before the crew would come onto set, and they would change dialogue, we’d do a whole lot of stuff to it, and that sort of gives the actors a space to be creative and yet maintain their integrity. So when the crew comes, we feel very comfortable with what we’re doing. Benicio came to set every morning having re-written each scene, and most of it was brilliant, and some of it might have been brilliant but did not necessarily work within the story but might have worked for his character. It was like a constant exchange of thoughts.

V: What also struck me about this film was, while I wouldn’t exactly call it “upbeat,” I would say that it’s certainly a little more hopeful than something like Open Hearts, for example. Was this a conscious decision?

SB: This one certainly has a lot of hope in it… it’s not like a conscious decision: “This one is going to be different.” But my purpose with making this movie had to do with the hope. I think it’s very important that you leave the movie and you feel that these people actually might make it, and you might talk to whoever you went with about what’s going to happen to them in a few years’ time. There is a kind of sense of future, which I like.

V: You made very striking use of closeups in the film.

SB: They’re extreme close-ups. They’re almost like wide-shots in that they’re abstractions. Like, you look into an eye and it becomes an abstract image of an eye, because you don’t really see it as part of a face. It gives you, in a positive sense, a weird alienation, and so you kind of know what they feel. Their eyes tell you what they feel and not what they look, and I find it very important in my filmmaking.

V: Both Open Hearts and Brothers are set to be remade in America. What is your reaction to that?

SB: So is After the Wedding. It’s odd, it’s strange… I mean, I hope they’re going to make good movies out of them. It’s a little bit like your baby being adopted by some strange parents. You really hope that the new parents are going to be very nice. So it’s kind of odd. It’s also flattering.

Things We Lost in the Fire opens October 19.

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 (, 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.


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.


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.


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.


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?


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.


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.