Campus divides at AGM

Partisan politics emerged as a key theme of the UTSU annual general meeting that took place last Thursday. The three-hour meeting saw all agenda items pass and publicly unveiled a right-leaning student group critical of UTSU, which featured prominently in discussion and debates.

As in past years, the meeting scheduled for 6 p.m. started late. At about 6:30 p.m., Chair Ashkon Hashemi, who also serves as internal coordinator for CFS-Ontario, called the meeting to order. Many UTM students were also in attendance.

No Q&A

Five minutes into the meeting, student Brett Chang asked if there would be a general question period for business not stated on the agenda. Hashemi replied that discussion would be limited to motions already stated on the agenda.

Peter Buczkowski, a board of directors representative for UTM, attempted a motion to add a period for general questions onto the agenda, but Hashemi replied that general questions can be asked after the president’s address.

Michael Scott asked why there would be no separate question period held. Hashemi reiterated that questions could be asked after the president’s address and invited Michael Scott to make a motion moving the address to the meeting’s end. Mischa Menuck made the motion, which was defeated.

Throughout the meeting, student Brent Schmidt stated that motions had to be submitted by a November 17 deadline that he described as ill-advertised.

“I feel that there’s many people in this room who came here wanting to talk about things who haven’t been able to,” Schmidt said.

Invited guest-speaker Leslie Jermyn, chair of CUPE 3902, touched on student political engagement “in these difficult times.”

In his address, UTSU President Adam Awad spoke about recent UTSU successes that included both increased student participation in events and a rise in movie and event ticket sales from 200 per week to often over 200 a day. Awad also criticized university administration for their handling of the G20 and the Faculty of Arts and Science academic planning.

Partisan accusations

Schmidt and Chang both accused UTSU for only increasing clubs funding by 15 per cent while raising the campaigns budget by 120 per cent. They both claimed that students are better represented by clubs they participate in than what they allege to be “partisan advocacy campaigns.”

Awad explained that campaigns often represent all members and include the recent protest against flat fees and academic planning proposals from the Faculty of Arts and Science. He added that percentages are misleading and that he considers campaigns to be underfunded.

“If you feel unrepresented, it’s important to engage with the organization,” said Awad. “Coming out to this meeting is a great first step, but it requires coming often, it requires sending emails, and asking ‘What’s going on with this?’ […] It requires going out to meetings on a regular basis because all members have a vote every time we have a commission meeting.

“If people have specific issues that they want to see the union take up, it’s a matter of engaging with us and actually coming out and participating and that’s the only way that we’re going to be able to respond.

“But if we don’t ever hear from you, we’re not gonna know what your issues are.

Michael Scott criticized UTSU-run events such as disOrientation for “not embracing a diversity of opinions,” citing the pamphlet’s “blatantly one-sided” stance against ideologies such as capitalism and neoliberalism. Awad replied that UTSU sponsors a diversity of events and cited its participation in a Campus for Christ fundraiser.

Menuck challenged Awad to name a UTSU-run event that strained from its normally left-leaning ideology. Awad reiterated that students have to participate in UTSU to have their views voiced.

“We haven’t been approached by a group that has a completely opposite ideology from the groups that did disOrientation,” admitted Awad. “That has nothing to do with our capacity to deal with groups that have different beliefs doing events. It’s about people using the student union as a structure for organizing engagement with issues on campus.”

One specific club was mentioned during the discussion.

“The basic principle of a democratic society is that people of different ideologies and opinions should be heard and should be given equal treatment,” said Jorge Prieto, before explaining that the University of Toronto Free Democrats, a group whose website declares its advocacy for “traditional democracy and free market capitalism,” was denied funding.

Prieto alleged that the group was denied funding after it was “deemed to be right-wing and elitist,” before noting the funding of multiple left-leaning political groups.

“My question is should the purpose of UTSU be to provide services and things that are good for all students,” asked Prieto, “or should it be to promote a particular ideology that tends to divide rather than unite the campus?”

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Awad responded that services are just as political as campaigns, citing how offering health and dental plans is done in response to a lack of comprehensive drug and dental coverage. He then referred club funding allegations to VP Campus Life Corey Scott, who called the allegations “upsetting” and said the process is not political.

“Reading over the application, I didn’t even get the idea that it was a right-wing club,” said Corey Scott. “I don’t know where you’re getting your information from, because we aren’t denying any clubs on the basis of ideology. There were actually several clubs I didn’t even want to fund, but I would because it’s not my place to be saying that and the committee agrees.”

In a follow-up email to The Varsity, he noted that the club did not apply for funding for the current academic year

“Our correspondence shows that the club applied for clubs recognition on October 9, 2010 and sent an email inquiring about long-term funding on Friday, October 15, 2010 — the deadline for long-term clubs funding applications,” said Corey Scott. “This club has not attended the mandatory Club Executive training session which is requisite for long-term funding. We have not received a hard or digital copy of a funding application to date.”

He added that the club is still eligible for short-term funding if a representative attends club executive training and noted that Prieto was not one of the official contacts UTSU was corresponding with.

After Awad’s address, both UTMSU President Vickita Bhatt and board of director member Mariam Sheikh praised UTSU for their work for UTM students. Neither mentioned their affiliations with UTMSU.

Name Change Semantics

A motion passed to legally change its name from the current “Students’ Administrative Council of the University of Toronto” to “U.T.S.U.” after the name change was approved in a 2004 referendum.

Awad explained that senior administration would only allow the use of “University of Toronto” if it was able to approve all by-laws, audits, elections, and more. He said “a bit of creativity was needed,” admitting that having to use initials only “is a bit ridiculous” but ultimately useful since UTSU will save legal fees by not having to change documents related to the student commons project.

Awad then presented three proposed name changes for commission, “to make them more accessible to students.”

While replacing “Equity Commission” with “Social Justice and Equity Commission” generated little feedback, the other changes provoked substantial debate.

Two students criticized switching “External Commission” with “Community Action Commission” for being less value-neutral, while most controversy surrounded replacing “University Affairs Commission” with “Academic and Student Rights Commission.”

“Personally I don’t think UTSU works for students’ rights. I think UTSU has been actively working against the entire student body to target specific groups. I don’t believe their policies focus on the lives of students and improve them directly,” said Chang. “Until UTSU begins to represent students, not just one group of students […] I don’t believe they have the legitimate right to change their name to student rights.”

Michael Scott disagreed with the change for another reason.

“There are lots of student issues external to the university that should be brought to a commission that don’t necessarily fall into the community action label. I think renaming it as such will have the affect of self-selecting out [students] who don’t identify themselves as activists.”

Jiayi Zhou noted that she participates in all three commissions and said that “there is value in asserting” their roles.

“I dispute the idea that Community Action Commission must mean ‘Activist’ Commission,” said Zhou. “Community action has a much broader and more important meaning than the narrow pigeon-hole the opposition had tried to put it in.”

Criticisms of student engagement

A handful of students who participate in commissions criticized detractors for not doing likewise. Schmidt gave an impassioned response.

“I think it’s maybe a little a bit offensive to those students who are in this room who find it hard to even find the two hours of day to come to this AGM, to be told that our opinions only matter if we come to the commission meetings.

“’Cause quite frankly I study a lot to attend this university; I do a lot of activities in the community, and to be involved in student politics as well is a heavy burden. And I do want to participate and I try to come to meetings, but I do not believe that my opinion is only valuable insofar as I attend one of those meetings.”

Schmidt was met with an indirect reply from a single-parent student who says she commutes four hours each day.

“It really upsets me when I see students who don’t participate in the community,” she said. “When you put yourself into that ring and file a complaint and stand up and make statements at the podium, you need to be accountable for how much time you’ve invested into student affairs.”

After conversation digressed, the motion was called to question and was passed. A five-minute break was then called.

By-Law Changes

Seven changes to UTSU by-laws were approved, most involving minor rephrasing. One proposed ammendment generated about half an hour of discussion. It would change the three executive appointees to the Elections and Referenda Committee from the top executives positions to any three executives.

VP Equity Danielle Sandhu clarified that the was motion intended to “avoid situations of conflict of interest” that UTSU executives have had to manoeuvre around for years, since many executives have sought reelection.

“I find that there’s actually a truckload of things that could be put under this category of elections,” said Schmidt, explaining why he would abstain from the vote. “I don’t think this deals with any of the things that students came here to talk about.”

After some confusion, Daniel Bertrand, UTSU representative to the Students’ Law Society, clarified to attendees what a conflict of interest entails.

One student moved that the board, rather than the executive, be made responsible for choosing which executives sit on the committee. Hashemi ruled the amendment out-of-scope from the original proposal. He welcomed an appeal to his ruling, which was discussed in depth before being defeated.

A motion was passed to remove chairing the Blue Crew, a campus cheering squad, from the list of responsibilities for the VP Campus Life. Sandhu explained the group had become redundant after four years of inaction and replaced by other campus spirit groups, although Chang and Michael Scott said the motion was defeatist.

Hashemi closed the meeting at 9:30 p.m.

The print edition of this article incorrectly quoted Corey Scott as saying “…we are denying any clubs on the basis of ideology.” He actually said that UTSU is not denying funding on ideological grounds. The Varsity regrets the error.


In case you missed it…

Didn’t attend the meeting and think our article is long winded? 6 fun facts from the UTSU AGM:

Last year’s AGM started at 6:45 p.m. and finished at 11:00 p.m.

Hashemi asked a moustached Bertrand if he was aware that movember was over.

Noting the success of pancake brunches for commuter students, Awad observed that UTM students seemed to eat four times as many pancakes as St. George students.

There was slight confusion as Hashemi addressed “Scott,” pointing in the direction of both Michael Scott and UTSU VP student life Corey Scott.

Sandhu said she was relieved at not having to wear the Blue Crew over-alls

Awad mentioned that UTSU could focus more on offering movie tickets, but stated he’s more of a bookworm.


A challenger appears

Student Political Action Committee (SPAC)

SPAC’s Facebook group describes itself as “a forum for ideas of how we can pursue the mission of increasing accountability, efficiency and realism in our student union” to confront individual grievances with UTSU.
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Co-founders Schmidt (top) and Chang (bottom) stressed that the group will launch next year and is a non-partisan advocacy group. A significant amount of members participate in right-leaning groups on campus. When asked if they would be running for election, Chang told The Varsity he would not, while Schmidt declined to comment.

SPAC photos by ANDREW RUSK/The Varsity

U of T gives nurses a check-up

A new study on the trials and tribulations of Ontario nurses working in correctional facilities has recently been released. Generally, correctional nursing is an unexplored topic, but the results of this new study reveal the problems unique to the profession.

“It’s a study that hasn’t really been looked at. No one has really examined the work environment of these nurses before,” said Joan Almost, co-principal investigator exploring worklife issues in provincial correctional settings. Approximately 500 nurses work in Ontario’s provincial correctional system, caring for almost 9,000 people. The study included interviews with 17 nurses from different jails, prisons, and detention centers. The study also surveyed 30 managers.

“Understanding the perspectives [of] correctional nurses […] is critical to providing appropriate support,” said Linda Ogilvie, manager of corporate health care at the Ministry of Community and Safety and Correctional Services. Results of the study show the following main issues with correctional nurses’ working environments: heavy workload, lack of up-to-date nursing education, and the prioritizing of security over health care.

“The main focus of correctional facilities is security,” explained Almost. “Security hinders their scope of their practice and thus they have limited control over it. They can’t control their practice due to the security focus of their setting.” Explaining the intricacies of this specific problem, Joan points to the issue of the correctional officer always having to be present in the health unit. “If the officer is busy, a potential medication delivery might be delayed. If the inmate has to be moved from the cell, and the officer is not around, medical attention is delayed.

“Correctional officers are really in control,” she added. “Officers can either limit the role of the nurse or be a great asset to them.”

These problems, according to Almost, “Ultimately impact job satisfaction, and job burnout. The correctional nurses need support to do their jobs effectively.”

The study compared with older national reports of nurses outside correctional facilities showed interesting contrasts. Correctional nurses surveyed said that they had more emotional and relational disputes with their colleagues. They also showed a lower sense of personal accomplishment than nurses in other sectors. “However, correctional nurses reported similar levels of autonomy as well as similar levels of collaboration with physicians,” explained Almost. Correctional nurses reported lower levels of burnouts and higher intent to stay in their job. “Even though they had higher dissatisfaction, they stay in their jobs because they do enjoy them,” said Almost.

Discovered in the study was the statistic that while emotional abuse is high within nursing in correctional facilities, physical abuse is hardly present; there is more physical abuse found in regular hospitals. “It’s a security issue, and the goal is to maintain safety of everyone working there. Because security’s the main focus, it makes sense that there is a lot less physical abuse,” explained Almost.

While correctional nurses seem to be dissatisfied with a lack of support towards problems in their profession, they also seem to be very satisfied with the work they do. “It’s very satisfying seeing progress made with the inmates,” explained Almost. “The combination of the autonomy and being able to do a lot more in their role are one of the many reasons why correctional nurses enjoy their profession.

“The next study we’re hoping to do is to make some sort of educational process for the nurses. Since they are short staffed, they don’t have the opportunity to go to educational sessions outside their work.” Almost added that correctional nursing is very unique. “As a profession, we haven’t looked at it closely. We should explore and look at their work environment and try and improve the support for their role.”

Life on the line

The CFL has always worked alongside various charities with the aim of fostering better communities and making a difference to the lives of those in need. This fall, Taylor Robertson, offensive linesmen for the Toronto Argonauts, partnered with the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation to launch the campaign Life on the Line. The charity, which aims to raise awareness and money for breast cancer research, is a cause close to Taylor’s heart, having lost his mother to breast cancer when he was seven. It was this event that propelled Taylor to partner with the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation and begin LOTL. Despite his busy schedule, The Varsity was able to interview him right after the Eastern Division Playoffs.

The Varsity: You recently tweeted “12 yrs (4college, 8pro) never won any kind of post season game, can’t explain how good this feels!!” Could you try and describe this past season in comparison to the others you have played as a CFL player?

Taylor Robertson: Every season is different. For me the feeling of winning a playoff game was unlike any other because it was a first for me. Any time you have a first in your career its special.

TV: What made you decide to start up Life On The Line? And that name: where was that derived from?

TR: I have always been associated with different cancer charities throughout my career. While playing in Calgary I was involved with the Canadian Cancer Society, which in turn formed a very successful partnership with the Calgary Stampeders and the CCS which still exists to this day. However, I have always wanted to have my own program with the capabilities to have my own iniatives and send the messages that I felt were important. After being traded to Toronto, I felt the time was right to start creating my own program. The name actually was going to be the title of my blog entries on my website, however when I decided to go the non-profit route and create this, I thought that name would be perfect. Life on the Line comes from, well, my position on the field is an offensive lineman, and the blogs were going to be somewhat about my life. When I decided to use it for the program, I thought it related well because of what I do for a living, and also because of the severity of breast cancer and how peoples’ lives are on the line when they get diagnosed by this disease.
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TV: When did you decide to set up LOTL? And how does it work?

TR: I made the decision about a year and a half ago. I had talked about it for a while and did a lot of research. When I was comfortable with everything I started the process. A lot of people probably don’t realize that this stuff doesn’t just pop up overnight, it takes alot of time and effort to create — especially if you want to do it right! LOTL is a non-profit organization in support of the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation. All money raised goes directly to the CBCF.

TV: What do you see LOTL doing in the future?

TR: We have a large number of events planned for this upcoming year and we will be announcing them as they come up. The events will be something people can keep checking out lifeontheline.ca for information about.

TV: In October there was Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation Run at UTM, which you had attended. How was that? Is there something similar to that coming up? Will LOTL ever do anything on that scale for fundraising, or is LOTL meant to function as a purely donation charity?

TR: It was great. I had the opportunity to speak during the opening ceremonies which was awesome. I was grateful for that opportunity. The run for the cure was the first event we did and unfortunately, [we] barely had any time to put anything together due to time constraints. But we’re already working on next year’s run, and will have some big things planned for it. We will do lot of fundraising events ourselves, again though. We are not announcing those events at this time, but we will be in the very near future, and they will be big. May 2011 — that’s the only hint I’ll give out!

TV: How much has LOTL raised thus far?

TR: Since our launch in September we have raised $4,745. Only a small portion is from Run for the Cure. It’s mainly from the win-matching donation program.

TV: How do you see players moving around in the offseason? Any major changes you think are coming?

TR: No team is ever the same from year-to-year. You always have retirements, trades, free agency, and releases. It’s just the nature of this business. You never know what to expect in the offseason. Even the championship teams make changes. Nobody is ever safe in pro sports.

TV: What’s your primary goal for the offseason?

TR: Do what I need to do to improve and to help my team improve for the 2011 season, as well as build LOTL to help make a difference in the fight against breast cancer.

The end of women’s intramural hockey at U of T?

Women’s intramural hockey is dangerously close to dying at the University of Toronto. With four teams left in the league, the league is one drop-out away from game over.

As per U of T intramural sport guidelines, a league needs four teams to run. If one of the four teams currently playing drops out next semester, there will be no league.

The University has had a league on and off since 1908. For over 102 years, women have been playing the nation’s most popular sport on campus, representing different colleges and faculties.

In its hay day, during the 1970s and 1980s, there would be more than 20 teams spread out over several divisions, all jockeying for the Division 1 Hartson Cup or the Division 2 Addison Cup.

According to Intramural Manager John Robb, the sport wasn’t any more popular at the time than it is now.

“It was just a fun thing to do,” said Robb. “Of course, back then, girls hockey was unknown.”

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Today, that is not the case. There are women playing in the men’s intramural hockey league, and in an effort to revive the women’s league U of T is going to allow men to play in the women’s.

Alexis Goldenberg, a third-year concurrent education student, who has been playing in the Lower Lakes Female Hockey League for five years — first with the Vaughn Flames, and for the past three seasons, with the Scarborough Sharks — explained that one of the reasons she chose to play boy’s hockey is that there was less stigma around it.

“I played boys contact hockey up until I was 16,” she said. “It’s more aggressive and there’s more puck control.”

Women’s intramural hockey gets evening hours at Varsity Centre when Varsity Blues hockey doesn’t impede, although the league is not guaranteed the same night each week due to Varsity Blues athletics and rentals by other groups.

Like many U of T students, Goldenberg — a commuter — likes to have her evenings to herself.

“I like to go out at night and play hockey mid-day,” she said. “I don’t want to play hockey on a Saturday night at 10 o’clock,” she said.

“And it’s not really accessible. You’re not going to take your bag on the subway.

Many women who are interested in playing recreational hockey are, like Goldenberg, already playing in leagues outside the university.

“I’ve been playing with my team for so long and I’m still eligible to play with them. Why not keep moving along?” said Goldenberg.

The women’s intramural hockey league at U of T is seemingly in need of a pick-me-up, and a few strong leaders to guide it in the right direction.

“Good leaders make the team,” said Robb. “We need builders in hockey.

“It’s a great opportunity right here on campus, and it’s Canada’s national sport. Why not take advantage of it?”

A good sport: CFL season wrap-up

Last week in Edmonton, the finale of the 2010 Canadian Football League season played out between the Montreal Alouettes and Saskatchewan Roughriders. There was an acute sense of déjà vu, as the same two teams had met for the 2009 championship a year earlier.

Both games were close, though this year’s version could not touch last year’s, which will live on forever because of the shocking mental lapse that caused Saskatchewan to lose. They had too many men on the field for what would have been the game-ending play; instead, Montreal got another shot at a game-winning field goal and made it.

Of course, the Grey Cup is only 60 minutes of football, and it caps a campaign that begins every year in May and entails 18 regular season games. The 2010 version, like all others, came with its share of pleasant surprises, disappointment, and predictability.

The least surprising outcome this year? The Montreal Alouettes’ Eastern Division championship and subsequent Grey Cup appearance.

The East Division may as well be called the Alouettes Division, as they’ve made eight of this decade’s 10 Grey Cup appearances as the eastern representative. The team has only walked away with three Grey Cup victories, but that’s certainly a dynasty by any standard.

More surprising than the Als’ presence in the big game is the fashion in which they got there. It wasn’t surprising, painful as it is to admit, that they steamrolled the Toronto Argonauts 48–17 in the Eastern Division final the previous week. What was surprising is that the recently hapless Argos found themselves in a position to be one win away from reaching the Grey Cup in the first place, even if they came up abysmally short in that one game.
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In 2009 the Argos went 3–15, missing the playoffs. Their coach, with no previous coaching experience in the CFL, got into a fight with their star offensive player Arland Bruce III, and sent him Toronto’s arch-rival, the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.

This year, the American-born (but CFL-seasoned) Jim Barker took over. It was his show from the get-go, and he made moves based on his own intuition, even though many of them baffled critics throughout the year.

Still, his starting quarterback — an NFL cast-off named Cleo Lemon who scuffled badly in his first full year in the CFL — pulled through to a 9–9 record with help from the defence, one significantly better than what most Argos fans would have settled for before the season.

The Argos then found a way to beat their rival in a playoff showdown on the road in front of a notoriously hostile Hamilton crowd. It was a tight 16–13 win that came down to the last play, but it represented a remarkable turnaround, both symbolically and in substance, for a club that appeared utterly hopeless just a year before.

In a small league, some predictability is inevitable. That the Montreal Alouettes found themselves in the Grey Cup is no surprise. But the Argos’ unlikely bounce-back year illustrates that CFL fans can always count on at least one unexpected storyline to pop up every year.

WikiLeaks no friend of democracy

Last Sunday WikiLeaks, a non-profit organization that seeks to enable anonymous sources to leak confidential information to the world, began to release over 250,000 confidential American diplomatic cables. WikiLeaks and its supporters claim that they are doing the world a service by releasing these documents. However, the reality is that this is a reckless, shotgun approach to whistle-blowing, with no clear aim apart from disrupting US and international diplomacy. It is irresponsible at best. The release has the potential to unravel years of hard work and complex negotiations, has put lives at risk, and is likely to cast a shadow over future diplomacy that will end up making international relations more insular, not more open and transparent.

Julian Assange, the organization’s charismatic leader, has a long history of distrust of government. His goal, as he describes it in his 2006 manifesto “Conspiracy as Governance,” is to “[prevent] or [reduce] important communication between authoritarian conspirators, foment strong resistance to authoritarian planning, and create powerful incentives for more humane forms of governance.” In his mind, the US government which he describes as an “authoritarian conspiracy,” is “a system of interacting organs, a beast with arteries and veins whose blood may be thickened and slowed until it falls.”

Thus WikiLeaks’ release shouldn’t be seen as an act of journalism (as Assange has tried to frame it), but an act of calculated sabotage against the American government and the international system to which it belongs. These leaks aren’t designed to unveil any specific wrongs, but instead to “reduce total conspiratorial power via unstructured attacks on links.”
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Unfortunately for Assange, these releases don’t seem to be having their desired effect. By shining light on these private American diplomatic wires, WikiLeaks has revealed that American policies were overwhelmingly responsible and nuanced — perhaps more so than many believed — and the absence of a smoking gun to justify this scattershot attack on American diplomacy is telling.

The American government has spent years (many during the Bush administration) pushing back against Arab states’ pleas to attack Iran, and has remained quiet while the leaders of said countries publicly denounced American policy, took credit for American military operations, and funded terrorists. It has been balancing knowledge of clearly irresponsible and hostile Chinese policies — such as their hacking of foreign government computers and refusal to denounce North Korean aggression — with the need to maintain a healthy relationship with China’s growing power. The wires demonstrate frustration over Russia’s lack of true democracy, its rampant corruption, and its sale of weapons to countries supplying terrorist organizations, but an understanding that open confrontation would do more harm than good. The “New Start” arms control treaty, which was negotiated earlier this year and is now being met with Republican consternation in the US House of Representatives, is an example of the good that comes from this kind of moderation in foreign policy.

It’s assuring to know that despite American political discourse becoming more and more ridiculous, there is still good, well-informed, evidence-based work being done behind the scenes. Unfortunately, a lot of this good work is being damaged by this reckless leak. Diplomacy is a constant balancing act in which trust is a key component and the secrecy of internal communication is vital. A world in which all negotiations could take place in public and stated policies could match what takes place behind the scenes is an understandable ideal, but an untenable one in today’s world. This leak is going to strain vital American relationships in the world’s most unstable regions, where governments often seek to distance themselves from the Americans publicly while working with them privately. Disengagement isn’t in anybody’s interest, and WikiLeaks would do well to learn that complicated problems almost never have simple solutions.

Furthermore, there is no defence for releasing the names and locations of the brave confidential informants whose work has no doubt saved American and Afghan lives. It’s easy for those who aren’t putting their lives on the line to claim that the risk has been exaggerated — and maybe they’re right — but it’s hard to imagine that the risk of being outed without warning isn’t on the mind of current and prospective informants.

This release isn’t going to make the world a better place, and that shouldn’t be surprising to anyone — Assange’s goal isn’t to expose any particular wrong-doing, but to destroy the very institutions that make the United States a great, if at times flawed, nation. Those who believe in liberal democracy and think that the way to improve the world is to work within the system and expose specific wrongdoing when appropriate — rather than attempting to upend the table — should be calling this what it is: an act of sedition, not journalism or civil disobedience.

Robot hospital

Anyone who has had a prolonged stay at the hospital knows it can be an unpleasant experience. Aside from dealing with your illness or injury, you must also bear the frightening task of absorbing volumes of information from your doctors and nurses, most of which is new and confusing and ultimately only adds to your apprehension.

The staff in hospitals tend to a large number of patients, and can rarely ever devote their time and effort to one person’s specific needs. Doctors themselves can be impersonal individuals, who must convey similar information repeatedly to patients with the same illnesses or ailments. And health care budget cuts — more likely to occur in times of economic crisis — only exacerbate these conditions.

Fortunately for patients, researchers at the University of Plymouth in the UK are seeking to ameliorate some of these issues. With help from robots.

The project is called ALIZ-E, and involves the placement of human-resembling robots in hospitals to deliver health education to patients.

If successful, the project could set a new precedent for the role of technology in health management. It may also push for the emerging practice of computerized care-giving, a revolutionary integration of robotics and health care that has already seen human-controlled robots performing surgery at a distance.
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The project was initially inspired by animal-assisted therapy, in which animals, including dogs, cats, elephants, and dolphins, become part of a patient’s treatment. This treatment poses certain constraints however, most of which having to do with hygiene. Some patients cannot be exposed to certain animals, and the presence of animals in hospitals poses certain sanitation risks.

The solution reached by project coordinator Dr. Tony Belpaeme was to use robots. Similar to animals, robots could take on the role of a “companion” to patients, one that you could have an actual conversation with. The robots would also take on the educational roles of medical practitioners, lightening the load on doctors and nurses.

So far, the project has been implemented at one institution, the San Raffaele Hospital in Milan. The target audience of the project is children aged eight years and under, who have been diagnosed with diabetes.

“The kids have often been admitted to the hospital for one week, and that’s no fun!” says Belpaeme. “The robots will help educate the kids on the effects of poor diet and lack of exercise, as well as help with teaching kids about how to measure glucose levels and how to inject insulin.”

Belpaeme says that so far the robots have worked very well with kids. “Children are open to anything. They have a willingness to suspend disbelief. Based on the trials, the children don’t seem to see the robots as metal — they see an actual living creature!”

An important goal of the project is to test human-robot interactions. “How do humans respond to robots? Will they get attached? Why is it that children often describe emotions to robots? Why is it when the robots have less of a resemblance to humans, the kids want to converse with them?” Belpaeme asks.

The robots themselves are about one metre tall, are composed of metal and plastic, and resemble the remote-controlled robots sold in toy stores. They have two cameras built into them, two microphones, and an Internal PC that connects to the internet over Wi-Fi.

The robots’ programming is much more complex than their structural components. The program relies on a cloud computing system, in which the robot’s actions are controlled by databases in several locations.

“Language is controlled in Germany. Mannerisms are controlled in Belgium. Emotions are controlled in the UK. The robot is merely an interface in which computers in different locations make calculations and send the info back to the robot,” explains Belpaeme.

The benefits of the robots’ use have already been well established. Not only do they lighten the load on medical staff; researchers have found that the children tend to learn better if taught by the robots.

“We want to make the children’s stay fun. The kids not only retain more information when it’s fun, they recover faster!”

Belpaeme describes one example in which the robots quiz the children on healthy eating. “Which is better, a lollipop or an apple?” If the kids choose the apple, they win a certificate. The robots also play physical games with the children. For example, the robot can perform a dance, and the children will imitate it.

The project has been running for a year, and still faces some challenges. One of these problems is speech recognition, since children’s voices differ greatly from those of adults, and propagate at a higher pitch. Although children are less discerning of the robots’ structure, adults are more sensitive to their build and would only briefly see them as entertaining, then recognize them as machines. At present, the robots are only capable of simple interactions, and can only work within limited scenarios.

The project is funded by the European Commission, and research is conducted at the University of Plymouth. Belpaeme’s research primarily focuses on developmental robotics and machine learning.

On how he got involved in such a project, and on the difficulties within the field of artificial intelligence, Belpaeme comments, “I wanted to understand the human brain, so I decided to build an artificial brain. The problem with A.I. is that we don’t know how the human brain works. We need to understand how the brain works for artificial intelligence to progress.”

What makes cops so special?

Police chief Bill Blair is certainly good at making enemies.

He lashed out last week at the Special Investigations Unit for concluding that excessive force was likely used by police in two incidents over the G20 weekend. The unit, which deals with police infringements, said it couldn’t press charges since the officers couldn’t be identified.

One case involved Adam Nobody, a man beaten by six officers, apparently for not running fast enough. A video of the incident went viral, showing what seems like a mob of riot police chasing and beating an unarmed citizen. A false badge number was written on the incident report.


Blair slammed the SIU force for suggesting excessive force, saying his cops acted according to the highest standards and claimed the tape had been altered. Luckily, the SIU has reopened the investigation.

What Blair doesn’t realize is that some G20 police acted wrongly. Regardless of how difficult the circumstances are, police are expected — at all times — to protect the public and obey the law. Many Torontonians have stories of being kettled, chased by police, arbitrarily searched, and even beaten, often by riot police that were seemingly impossible to identify. There are lasting repercussions.

As Eye Weekly columnist Shawn Micallef put it, “when you mess around with [cities’] sense of basic liberty, the collective civic brain is short-circuited.”

Many Torontonians have a shaken sense of civil society. After my own G20 run-in with the police — albeit minor — I still get uneasy when I see a police cruiser drive by.

Until justice is done and guilty officers are prosecuted, Toronto’s public safety will remain compromised. The only way to fix our civil society is to restore trust in the police. The only way to do so is by prosecuting those police officers who acted wrongly — which shouldn’t be that hard, considering the many camera-wielding locals who went to protests and the thousands of tweets detailing every minute of the action. There’s plenty of documentation available, including photos of Toronto cops who illegally removed their name tags.

Right after the summit, Toronto Police Services launched an appeal for photographs, seeking information through social media to hunt down the Black Bloc protestors who caused the most damage. TPS dedicated many resources into finding the culprits, putting cops on the prowl full-time.
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Given this, it’s ridiculous to assert that the police wouldn’t be able to identify their own. It would be prudent for community groups to organize a similar appeal for photos and start a private database of malignant cops.

There could be profiles for police that citizens allege to have used excessive or illegal tactics. The goal would not be to mount a smear campaign, but rather a concerted effort to organize documentation and bring the bad cops to justice. With no public inquiry in sight, it might be the best we as a society can achieve.

Innocent police don’t deserve to be distrusted, and nobody wants a boy-cried-wolf situation. Weeding out the bad apples — the relatively small number of officers who are guilty — will reintroduce public confidence in our police.

Similarly, the public deserves to know that no one is above the law, including the authority figures charged with enforcing it.

The Toronto Star recently ran a series of investigations into SIU probes that went unpunished or were under-prosecuted. One included a cop who sped into an illegal right turn, hitting 67-year-old grandmother Mei Han Lee and killing her instantly. The cop, who wasn’t on a call, lost 40 hours’ pay.

We need to trust our authorities. Ensuring safe communities is a shared task: police enforce the law and citizens report infringements and dangers.

It’s unreasonable for Blair to expect Torontonians to collaborate on solving crime when many feel disillusionment and indifference towards police. Until our authorities are bound by the rule, we will remain an untrusting society.