It’s getting better

“They tell me that things will get better. I can only hope so.” With the recent suicides of five LGBTQ youth in three weeks this fall, issues of discrimination and bullying based on a person’s sexual orientation have gained prominence.

The community, faced with a suicide rate four to six times higher than in the general population, has manged to harness attention from politicians and media on continued inequalities. These struggles take place across society, including at U of T.

“It still feels […] like fighting the man,” said fourth-year student Alex Legum, sighing and shaking her head. “These are human issues.”

Legum, a member of the LGBTQ community, added that despite being a student in one of the most diverse universities and cities in North America, she continues to search for a sense of respect that remains elusive.

Steve Masse knows this struggle well. As a member of the LGBTQ community and former president of Woodsworth College, Masse advocates for increased awareness on discrimination, bullying, and respect for LGBTQ students.
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He is the first to admit, however, that many of the most vulnerable end up “suffering in silence.” According to Masse, discrimination and bullying can lead to “feeling worthless, misunderstood, or hopeless.”

Syndicated sex columnist Dan Savage started the “It Gets Better” project in the wake of five teen suicides caused by societal homphobia.

University Life Assessment and Special Programs Coordinator Melinda Scott believes “students don’t know the best way to address [suicide].” Scott explained that acts of suicide are often the result of larger issues of discrimination and hate, that the problems can appear too large to solve.

To address these problems, U of T provides a series of programs and services that support the LGBTQ community. Initiatives such as Positive Space as well as student clubs like LGBTOUT work to create spaces within which individuals can “be themselves” without shame or fear of reprisal. Additionally, the Sexual and Gender Diversity Office provides an online harassment reporting system to ensure students can report incidents of hate or mistreatment anonymously.

However, Sexual and Gender Diversity Officer Jude Tate is worried about the “increased tolerance of intolerance” that has created a culture of silence and acceptance that can reduce the number of reported abuses and conceal issues of hate and harassment towards the LGBTQ community. Issues of intolerance appear to be found in the very fabric of U of T’s communities.

This is why Legum is realistic about the merits of programs such as Equity Studies, Women’s Studies, and Sexual Diversity Studies. While these programs can be seen as progressive, in some sense, “structural issues [have] made it impossible to integrate [this information] into other classrooms.” For Legum, the presence of these programs allows LGBTQ issues to be dealt with within these specific departments while ignoring the need for broader integration.

Unfortunately, Tate further suggests that curriculum reform on a broader scale to include diversity issues and address these issues has been very tough, and obstacles remain.

“They still have a long way to [go],” said Masse, who acknowledges that universities are heading in the right direction. But even if “places of education are becoming more and more inclusive and supportive,” the fact that we aren’t hearing about the sexual and gender diversity discrimination issues on campus does not mean they no longer exist.

“We assume we are modern enough that we don’t need to have [conversations about discrimination] anymore,” said Legum.

University comes together for holiday season

The University of Toronto Students’ Union, the Family Care Office, and the Student Housing Office are organizing their ninth annual food and clothing drive to help support needy families for the holidays.

“Every year, we help anywhere between 75–100 families. It’s a rather big project, and we want whatever little bit of help we can get,” explained Marketing and Events Coordinator at the Student Housing Service, Jerry Zhuang. “Every single bit of contribution will make a huge difference.

Drop boxes have been set up across campus to collect toys and canned food. Once items are collected, UTSU Member Service Coordinator Terri Nikolaevsky explained how the goods will be distributed. “The donation of new toys will then be distributed through the campus food and clothing bank to families in need on December 10 and 17 at our site location, 569 Spadina Avenue, in the Multi-Faith Centre between 12 p.m. and 3 p.m.”

“While the food and clothing bank runs all year long, we specifically collect toys at this time of the year to ensure that our student families have a great holiday season in the face of tight budgets,” continued Nikolaevsky.

Zhuang hopes U of T will come together this season and improve upon last year’s results. “We delivered around 200 toys last year. Looking to deliver to the same number of families, maybe a bit more, it’s definitely growing.”

Despite being roughly aligned with the Christmas season, Nikolaevsky stresses that all faiths and cultures are encouraged to participate. “This year we welcome Multi-Faith groups to the fold who are actively seeking donations for our students and student families.”

“We’re doing things a little differently this year,” Nikolaevsky added. “Our efforts extend further to include an annual fundraiser for the food and clothing bank [that will] showcase […] exceptional U of T talent, a wonderful three-course dinner, and an auction.”

Jennifer Bennett, manager of the Student Housing Service, said the food drive is a very key community-building event.

“The food drive is important because it’s raising awareness and creating a community between people during the holiday time, which is such a hard time for so many.”

Cheryl McGratten believes that beyond just fostering a community, the fundraiser is a way of making those who are studying abroad or are new immigrants to the country feel more welcome. “The U of T food and toy drive is one way to help those recently separated from their countries, and share some encouragement, joy, and fun,” explained McGratten, adding that she hopes they will also enjoy the diversity and multiculturalism of this city.

“It’s a great feeling, to be standing in the middle of a mountain of toys, and knowing that lots of kids will be having a wonderful winter holiday,” explained Zhuang.

In helping promote the fundraiser, the co-coordinators’ favorite catch phrase is: “We want people to help us gift a smile.”

Students gather to present visions for next big app

Last Tuesday a lecture hall in the Bahen Centre was packed for DemoCamp2, a symposium of eight presentations by U of T students demonstrating their web developments and entrepreneurial skills.

“People were actually standing in the back. They couldn’t find any more seats,” says Reginald Tan, president of Web Startup Society, who hosted the event in partnership with the U o T Entrepreneurial Society. Over 160 guests attended, well exceeding both the expected attendance of 100 and the room capacity of 150.

“We had to start turning people away after they exceeded the room capacity,” said Nitish Peters, president of UTES.

Tan and Peters created DemoCamp2 to combat what they perceived to be a lack of entrepreneurial spirit in the University of Toronto’s technology field.

“At Stanford, it seems like every single computer science student was creating a startup,” said Tan. “But when I went to U of T, I didn’t really see anything like that going on.”

Peters attributes U of T’s focus on high GPAs as a detractor from the “startup culture” found at other institutions. “DemoCamp fosters an environment where people can define their own success and show how they are following their dreams as opposed to the stereotypical environment right now where people are very marks-focused,” he said.

It wasn’t just U of T students who attended, students from all across Ontario came for the presentations as well.

“A lot of people from Queens and York showed up and really loved it, and said they wanted to start a DemoCamp at their university, which is really cool. I’d like to see that happen,” said Tan.

In contrast with last year’s DemoCamp, which was run by WSS in partnership with Rafal Dittwald, President of Skule Webdev, this year’s collaboration with UTES focused on the utility and marketability of students’ web applications, as opposed to nitty gritty tech details.

“The audience at this one was much more focused on the startup aspect, rather than the craft of making the project,” notes James Cash, the only presenter to even mention code in his demo for the Google Chrome extension, ComicNav.

Three of the eight demos were presented by student entrepreneurs with limited technical knowledge. Danial Jameel of OohLaLa, who switched from computer science to political science, showcased a mobile app for discount student coupons.

First-year commerce student Donny Ouyang, of the tutoring site Rayku, hires developers out of his own pocket. “Donny buys websites, hires developers to make improvements, then sells them off for five times the profits — instead of flipping real estate, he flips websites,” said Tan. “Rayku was his first start-up.”

When Khaled Hashem of NoteWagon.com was asked a technical question, his response was, “I don’t know, ask the tech guy.”

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The other five presentations were given by so-called “hackers.” First up was fourth year electrical engineer Bijan Vaez with EventMobi, an iPhone application that allows users to view important details about the live event that they are attending. Next were Lori Lee and Andrew Danks, undergraduate students in computer science who developed LoveUT, a dating site exclusively for U of T students that has accumulated over 800 users. Michael Rice, a second year computer science student demoed Remember To Watch, an SMS reminder for TV shows recently featured in PC Magazine and lifehacker.com. After James Cash demoed ComicNav, wunderkind Vincent Cheung took the stage and demonstrated his massively successful Shape Collage, an automatic photo collage maker.

Cheung emphasized the value of every utility-based web startup in his presentation: “A lot of [the entrepreneurs in the audience] laughed at the ComicNav extension, but I liked it. You never know, it really could be the next big thing.”

When the event ended, Reginald Tan appeared very pleased with the results.

“Ultimately, what we wanted to achieve from DemoCamp is to glorify these student hackers and hustlers. And we did just that. Democamp UofT encouraged students to do what they do best: build great things. And the great thing about the Internet is that you can make an immediate impact on the world if you create something really valuable.”


Note: this article originally stated that Danial Jameel hired student developers with money he won from business competitions, but this is not the case. It also neglected to mention that last year’s DemoCamp was in partnership with Rafal Dittwald. The Varsity regrets the errors.

UTSC Library operating hours shortened

The University of Toronto Scarborough Library has launched reduced hours in response to recent pilot studies, stirring mixed feelings from staff and students.

Last year’s 24/7 service ran 10 weeks through fall and 13 weeks through winter. This year, the service is scheduled only during exams from December 7 to December 21, and from April 9 to May 1. This represents an almost 80 per cent reduction from the previous year. For the remainder of both semesters — after Thanksgiving during fall and after February 7 during winter — the new extended hours stretch from 8 a.m. to 2 a.m. on Mondays to Thursdays, 8 a.m. to 12 a.m. on Fridays and noon to midnight on Saturdays and Sundays.

“The library worked very closely with students in determining hours that will best serve their needs,” said Victoria Owen, UTSC’s head librarian. “We spent years conducting pilot projects, […] consultations, surveys, and focus groups to establish a schedule that is most beneficial to them.”

Since 2005, the library has been running a series of pilot projects that test the efficiency of various operating hours. Last year’s study showed that after 2 a.m., average student usage fell to 31 before exams and to 78 throughout the exam period. The numbers continued to drop until 7 a.m. when they reached an average of 17 and 50 respectively, followed by an upward trend throughout the day.

Owen explained that the changes were “designed to maximize resources and meet student demand where it exists,” but some are concerned that the library‘s current layout is still not quite meeting students’ needs.

“As a university, we aim to educate students and have them attain academic success — longer library hours will help us achieve [this] mission,” said Fran Wdowczyk, special advisor to the chief administrative officer and chair of the study space working committee advocating for the increase of 24/7 study spaces on campus.

“Some students have approached me troubled with the reduced hours,” said Scarborough Campus Students’ Union VP Academics Sulaimaan Abdus-Samad. “They just want a place where they can focus for long periods of time and not have to think of leaving at a certain hour.”

Third-year student Philip So has his own reservations. “Though a 24-hour service is ideal, we are throwing away resources by keeping the library open when less than one per cent of the [student body] is using it,” said So.

The Hazel McCallion Academic Learning Centre is the library at UTM, a campus of similar size to UTSC. It holds extended hours until midnight and also offers 24/7 services only around exam periods.

“UTSC has some of the longest hours among the U of T libraries,” asserts Owen, but Wdowczyk believes that there is still room for improvement.

“Increasing hours is a move that will propel the students towards success, and we will continue to work with the library so that the needs of students are realized.”

A good sport: Between now and spring training

While the baseball offseason is just heating up, there has already been a lot of chatter and no shortage of subjects to chatter about; there’s only more to come as the free agency period gets rolling. Chances are some of today’s major storylines are really going to take off between now and mid-February when pitchers and catchers report to sunny Florida and Arizona for spring training.

Toronto native Joey Votto was the near-unanimous pick for National League MVP. The Cincinnati Reds’ first baseman has terrorized opposing pitching by leading or being at the top of most major offensive categories. It’s a feel-good story all around because as recently as a couple of years ago, Votto was best known for spending time on the disabled list for mental health issues.

Over in the American League, Josh Hamilton took the MVP prize for his dominant offensive showing this year. His story is also one of battling demons — he was out of baseball for several years due to an alcohol and cocaine addiction, and has finally realized his potential.

Former Blue Jay Roy Halladay captured a well-deserved National League Cy Young Award for being the best pitcher. ‘Doc’ truly deserves it, having tossed a regular season perfect game and a playoff no-hitter.

‘King’ Felix Hernandez triumphed in the American League, in a rare victory for stats-geeks. Despite posting a mediocre 13–12 win-loss record, the baseball writers voting on the awards recognized that Hernandez’s other statistics were superb. His win-loss record only reflects how poorly the rest of his team played around him, and it’s nice that the voters separated that from his personal performance.
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With the awards dished out, all eyes are now squarely on the free agent pool. The New York Yankees are leading the charge to acquire star left-handed pitcher Cliff Lee, who beat them in the playoffs as a member of the Texas Rangers. Look for him to get a contract in the range of five to seven years for about $20 million per year. The Rangers want him back, but the Yankees have the biggest chequing account.

Derek Jeter, however, might not be as sure a bet as Lee to be a Yankee in 2011. He just finished a 10-year contract that he signed at a far younger age, and the Yankees are hesitant to pay him what they once did because, as his age increases, his skill set goes south. Don’t expect to see a nasty divorce in the end, but it could take these two a while to reconcile.

To bring it back home, our very own Toronto Blue Jays have also found themselves in the thick of the rumour mill recently. In the most unexpected story of this offseason, the Jays have been linked to aging slugger Manny Ramirez, who wants to play for their new manager, John Farrell. Whether or not the Jays actually pull the trigger and bring Manny to the Rogers Centre remains to be seen, but it’ll sure be fun to watch this develop.

What happened to Bill C-393?

What has the support of 80 per cent of Canadians, could improve the lives of millions, yet is being destroyed in the House of Commons? The answer: Bill C-393.

In observance of World AIDS Day 2010 on December 1, I’d like to share the true story of a groundbreaking Canadian idea to fight HIV/AIDS.

Once upon a time lived an act called Jean Chrétien’s Pledge to Africa. Born on May 13, 2004, it was the first of its kind, representing a bold attempt to circumvent the World Trade Organization’s Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights in favour of greater global access to medication. That year, Minister of Foreign Affairs Bill Graham announced “Canada is very proud to be the first country to take concrete action to implement this important decision, which will go a long way toward improving global health.”

In 2005, an all-party agreement transformed the act into the Canadian Access to Medicines Regime. Despite the nice words on paper, CAMR is fraught legislation, and has been from the start. CAMR poses numerous barriers to developing countries, and is not financially feasible for pharmaceutical companies.

In the past five years, the only “success” CAMR has to its name is a sole shipment of only one kind of drug to a single country. Contrary to the view of many Conservative MPs, the isolated shipment to Rwanda in 2008 does not render CAMR a successful Canadian law. Far from facilitating access, CAMR is nearly unusable.

CAMR’s practical failure was met with a hopeful alternative in May 2009. Bill C-393 is a private member’s bill submitted by New Democratic MP Judy Wasylycia-Leis. Bill C-393 is an act to amend CAMR in an effort to create a “one-licence solution.” Passing the bill into law would mean that a generic pharmaceutical company like Apotex Inc. would only require one licence in order to distribute its low-price drugs to multiple countries on multiple occasions. Apotex is Canada’s largest generic pharmaceutical manufacturer, and has made a pledge to export low-price drugs to developing countries should CAMR embrace the simpler “one-licence solution” proposed in Bill C-393.
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Make no mistake: Bill C-393 has defied odds. Now in its second reading, the private member’s bill was submitted to the Standing Committee on Industry, Science, and Technology in March, 2010 once Parliament resumed after prorogation. Die-hard supporters include former prime minister Paul Martin, former UN special envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa Stephen Lewis, and Founder of Dignitas International James Orbinski. The bill also has the support of 37 humanitarian organizations.

To the immense shame of a Canadian legacy, Bill C-393 has now made a turn for the worst. On November 1, 2010, Liberal critic of industry, science, and technology Marc Garneau, amended the bill by eliminating the crucial clause which called for a “one-licence solution.”

Garneau’s amendment undermined the entire process, rendering the bill meaningless and irrelevant. It is now time to go back to the drawing board for the MPs, activists, and humanitarian organizations who have fought endlessly for this life-saving bill.

What’s more, Garneau’s rationale holds no water. The Liberal MP disregards the WTO’s Doha Declaration, which states that “the TRIPS Agreement does not and should not prevent Members from taking measures to protect public health.” This explicit statement welcomes the immense reform demanded by supporters of Bill C-393.

According to UNAIDS, 10 million out of the 33.3 million people living with HIV still do not have access to medicine. The epidemic of HIV/AIDS is a long-proven threat to global public health and must take precedence. Intellectual Property Rights need to take the backseat.

What can we do in the face of Canada’s frustrating double standard?

“Shut the F#$% up.”

Remember Senator Nancy Ruth’s notorious statement prior to this past summer’s G8 Summit? After Canada announced its exclusion of abortion from the country’s Maternal Health Initiative, Ruth cautioned development organizations to keep quiet.

“This is not about women’s health in this country,” Ruth said. Her words depict the precise problem of the Canadian double standard.

Is Canada — a country dedicated to the right to universal health care — truly concerned with the health care of non-Canadian adults and children who live with HIV/AIDS?

Though it looks grim, it’s not the end of the story for Bill C-393. Its survival depends on our own political will to speak up.

Although last May Senator Ruth warned us to “be quiet for five weeks,” this December we need to remind ourselves of the words of Canadian AIDS activist Stephen Lewis.

“Every day counts.”

Mission extended

We were promised by Prime Minister Stephen Harper that our troops would be leaving Afghanistan originally in February 2011. The deadline was then pushed to July 2011. Now Harper tells us that we are keeping 950 troops in Afghanistan until 2014 — the deadline NATO has set for a complete withdrawal and the turnover of security to the Afghan military. Harper says that this falls within the scope of the vote that occurred in the House of Commons and that it is his government’s executive authority to make such decisions without another vote in Parliament. This attitude goes against both what Harper promised in his last election platform and what he said to Parliament four years ago.

A recent Canadian Press Harris-Decima poll has found that Canadians are weary about the fate of the Afghan mission. While sentiment is split on the new role of training the Afghan military, an overwhelming 60 per cent of respondents said they oppose outright any military presence in the region, and only 37 per cent support it. Canadians do not wish to see any more fatalities, and feel that the 152 soldiers we have lost in the nine years since this mission began is enough.

So with this sentiment, it needs to be asked — where is the opposition? Why are we letting a minority government make such a monumental decision that could cost the lives of more Canadians?

The answer is simple — it comes down to party politics.

Michael Ignatieff has not denounced the government’s decision, nor has he called for any public debate in the House of Commons or demanded a new vote, while the NDP and Bloc Québecois have cried foul. Having been quite un-engaged on the matter, Ignatieff has said very little about this important issue.
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The Liberal leader has two main reasons for not forcing a proper debate and vote in Parliament on this issue.

It would be advantageous to allow Harper’s Conservatives to make this decision, which is incredibly unpopular, as a form of political suicide. The next time there is an election which could come any time in this minority parliament, Ignatieff is likely to use the decision as fodder to help the Liberal campaign. They will position themselves as the party that truly listens to the people, and ride on the coattails of the unpopularity that is sure to dog Harper’s Conservatives. We must not ignore the fact that the Liberals and Conservatives are currently in a virtual tie in the polls, according to EKOS Politics, and if an election were to be held today the Conservatives would garnish 29.4 per cent of the popular vote, compared to the 28.6 per cent for the Liberals. This means that an election result is completely up in the air, so any advantage one party has over the other is worth exploiting.

Also, the Liberal caucus is incredibly divided on the issue of extending this training mission until 2014. Ignatieff simply cannot let these divisions show or else his party may lose some of the confidence the Canadian public has in them to form the next government. Simply put — Ignatieff does not have the support of his party to oppose this decision that Stephen Harper has forced upon Canadians. So, he will keep the criticisms in check, and smile and nod for the decisions that are being made.

What is more disturbing is the idea that Canadians will not be in military combat — something that Canadians are vehemently against. The government is spending $85-million to transfer the Canadian Forces Base at Kandahar to Kabul, where they will train the Afghan military. Stephen Harper wants us to believe that our 950 troops will be safe there, and will be free from combat. But how can he guarantee this? The Taliban, which has been battling NATO forces in the region for nine years now, is not going away. They are continually finding ways to attack NATO troops. Sure, the Canadians will not be going out looking for a fight, but there is no guarantee that the fighting will not come to them.

All in all, it comes down to the fact that we were lied to. The Conservatives are going back on their election platform, and the Liberals are letting them. The only parliamentarians looking out for us are those in the NDP and Bloc. Too bad neither of those parties are going to form the next government.

Gird your loins

A recent study from Concordia University lead by Professor Wayne Brake has shown that high levels of estrogen in female rats interfere with their learning of previously encountered stimuli.

The study confirms recent findings that high levels of a major female sex hormone, called estradiol, interfere with latent inhibition. Latent inhibition is a kind of “hidden” learning that results in decreased performance on tasks.

Brake’s study is a follow-up to a previous study in which estrogen was experimentally manipulated by removing the ovaries, replacing them with low or high doses of estrogen. Interestingly, both studies yielded the exact same results.

This study is the first to show that the interference of estrogen is based in the activational and not organizational actions of hormones. As U of T’s Gillian Einstein explains in her book, Sex and the Brain, the cornerstone in the field of hormones and behaviour is the organizational and activational hypothesis. This is the idea that the organization of hormones early in development forms a circuit that is later activated at puberty. Fro example, these circuits set up the behaviour of “mounting” and “lordosis,” in which a male rat will mount onto a female after she performs the receptive cue of arching her back.

Another key idea when thinking about estrogen is that its influence can either be beneficial, such as in memory and aging, or negative in that it can cause cancer. In response to the results of Brake’s study, Professor Einstein explains that “the picture is a lot more subtle for [estradiol].”

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In other words, we don’t know whether the effects of estradiol on learning are “negative to behaviour, or positive to behaviour [when] interfering with latent inhibition. That could be positive in memory or it could be negative in memory. But it’s the first [study] to show that this is based on the activation of actions of hormones,” says Einstein.

So what does this mean for human females? As it turns out, ladies and female rats are quite different. In contrast to a female human’s average 28-day menstrual cycle, female rats cycle every four to five days, meaning that rats are continuously dominated by their estrous cycle. For the people out there wondering whether female rats experience PMS symptoms the same way female humans do, the short answer is no: the two species are riddled with complexities that make them difficult to compare.

As Professor Brake explains, “It’s hard to measure what we would call PMS in rodents, simply because what goes on with them is far more outlandish — because the female now only has one thing on her mind, and that’s to reproduce.”

Both researchers stress that the effect of estrogen on mental resources involves a highly complex relationship.

When asked whether there was any task that was most likely to tax a woman’s memory resources, Professor Brake responded, “I wouldn’t even try to guess that. There are lots of cognitive tasks that people use in psychology that tax resources. Some tasks show that estrogen helps with these tasks, and sometimes it hurts.”

Brake’s study also supports the idea that estrogen affects women’s abilities to problem-solve. “An example [of estrogen influence] would be mental rotation tasks. There is a huge sex difference in mental rotation tasks, in that men are much faster at figuring out this task than women. Women are usually only worse at this task when their estrogen levels are high. When their estrogen levels are lower, they perform just as well as men. The practical application of that is if you’re the navigator on a road trip, you’re going to be better at figuring out the map when your estrogen levels are low.”

Although rats provide a decent window into human nature, it would be far too early to conclude that estrogen has either a particularly adverse or advantageous effect on female cognition. However, researchers like Brake and Einstein bring science closer to the answers, one rat at a time.