Skule Nite gears up for Toronto Sketch Fest

What happens when you cram tons of highly intelligent, enthusiastic, hardworking students into one place and try to transform them through four years of rigour and sleep deprivation into successful engineers?

Even non-engineers should know that such a person requires some sort of outlet, and for the cast of Skule Nite, it’s a musical comedy revue. Logic should follow that overloading these diligent students with even more classes and depriving them of even more sleep can turn them into a world famous musical sketch comedy revue. At least, that is what Skule Nite hopes will happen when they compete in this year’s Toronto Sketch Comedy festival.

Ever since their first variety show performance at Massey Hall in 1921, Skule Nite has been dazzling audiences with their witty scenes and zany musical numbers. Featured every March at Hart House, the group’s annual show has become a mainstay of the university’s theatre scene and plays to packed houses every year. According to group member Jonathan Sun, Skule Nite’s brand of comedy “is made up of short scenes touching on a variety of different subjects that don’t necessarily have to do with one another. Just think Saturday Night Live.”

He adds that unlike many other comedy groups, Skule Nite members do not generate their material through improvisation, but plan and write it ahead of time. “Since we’re associated with the Faculty of Engineering, we do include some engineering jokes in our routines, but we try to make sure that they are suitable for a general audience.”

Group member Hasan Alkabeer adds, “At least 70 per cent of our material has to do with other topics: politics, pop culture, anything really. We want to be accessible to everyone.” For example, one of last year’s sketches featured “Four Years to Save the World,” a song that parodied Barack Obama using the Madonna hit “Four Minutes.”

Engineering students find themselves joining Skule Nite through a variety of paths. Elissa Caccavella, a fourth-year chemical engineering student and assistant director of this year’s March show, recounts, “In my first year here I went to see the show and could not pass up the chance to audition. I’ve always been a dancer, so I appreciated the incorporation of musical theatre elements into the show. It’s a good way to meet new people and engage with the wider community. It’s also a nice break from school.”

Not all Skule Nite members are engineering students. A friend introduced Gete Berhe, who studies human biology, to the group. “I auditioned because a friend who studies engineering needed someone to audition with. I got in, and since then, I’ve absolutely fallen in love with Skule Nite,” she said.

Nina Mason, who recently graduated from U of T’s Drama department and is now training to become a Montessori teacher, appreciates the laid-back atmosphere of the group. “This is much less formal than the kind of work I’m used to,” she says. “It’s more casual and participants have a more direct impact on the creative process. In the drama department I did various kinds of classical and contemporary theatre and I liked that. However, with Skule Nite I get to do something completely different.”

Building on the success that they have enjoyed over the years, Skule Nite members decided to expand their scope by entering Sketch Fest, an annual competition for sketch comedy groups from across Canada and the United States. According to group member Peter Raimondo, “Of about 120 entries from across Canada and the U.S., 48—including Skule Nite—were selected. We are very excited about this.” Sketch Fest will allow Skule Nite to perform alongside such well-established professional groups as Toronto Second City. Prizes include a range of cash awards, free workshops, and further performance opportunities.

One of the many hilarious sketches to be featured in the performances is entitled “Coming Soon,” and tells the story of three roommates, one of whom has recently started a job doing voice-overs for film previews. Perhaps overzealous in his career, he has begun to narrate all aspects of his daily life as voice-overs, and his omniscient insight into his surroundings soon leads him to reveal his two roommates’ dirtiest secrets, to his own advantage.

This year’s festival features three other groups that have attended U of T: Statutory Jape, The Boom, and Shoeless. But let’s see how far Skule Nite can go while they continue to spend their days in class.

The Toronto Sketch Comedy Festival runs November 10 to 15 at The Second City and other venues. For more information, visit

‘Get off our property!’

In May 2008, the Beaver Lake Cree launched a lawsuit against the government of Canada and the province of Alberta to prevent the expansion of the tar sands into their territory, located in Lac La Biche, Alberta. According to the lawsuit, an 1876 treaty between the Cree and Alberta states that “in exchange for the surrender of land,” the Cree have “the right to hunt and fish through the tract surrendered.” But development of the tar sands will render the land uninhabitable, the Cree say. Jack Woodward, who represents the Beaver Lake Cree, spoke Tuesday evening at the George Ignatieff Theatre, hosted by the group Environmental Defence.

“What this case is about, for the Cree People, is protecting the integrity of their land, and protection of the land in which they hunt and fish. And they are guaranteed that right to hunt and fish in their treaty,” said Woodward.

According to the lawsuit’s 745-page statement of claim, Alberta has granted over 16,000 permits for companies to extract oil from the Beaver Lake Cree’s traditional territory, with the permits representing infringements on this treaty right. The method of extraction, called steam-assisted gravity drainage, destroys large swaths of boreal forest and releases toxins that seep into the land.

The Canadian Constitution enshrines Aboriginal treaty rights, which, according to Woodward, means no statute of Canada or Alberta can infringe on these rights. In a 2005 decision, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of the Mikisew Cree when they sued the Canadian government, ruling that the construction of a winter road through their reserve in Alberta infringed upon their treaty right to hunt, fish, and trap. “This is an exercise of the most potent environmental law available in the Canadian legal system,” Woodward said.

Neither Canada nor Alberta have issued a statement of defence, although they are required to do so within three weeks of the statement of claim being filed. The Attorney General in Ottawa declined to comment for this article, as did representatives of BP Canada Energy, Canada Natural Resources Ltd., Conoco Phillips, Devon Corporation, and Husky Energy.

“It’s very, very difficult to do what Beaver Lake Cree are doing, what my community is doing, and what hundreds of other [aboriginal communities] are doing,” said Ron Plain, program manager of Environmental Defence’s aboriginal program. Plain said that departments in the Canadian government are set up to work in the best interest of the Crown, and highlighted the personal struggles that community members go through.

President of Guyana visits U of T to speak on climate change

Climate change due to deforestation is one of the biggest threats facing our species today. President Bharrat Jagdeo of the Republic of Guyana thinks he knows how to solve it. Jagdeo gave a lecture at Hart House on Thursday, October 22 discussing sustainable forestry and climate change.

Jagdeo, who Time magazine and CNN named as one of the heroes of the environment in 2008, spoke about the failure of past international environmental initiatives. “I think we fail because the Kyoto model did not address the crude costs of deforestation. In Haiti and in the Dominican Republic, trees are being cut down because people need firewood to cook and eat. There is a rational incentive to deforest,” said Jagdeo.

He argues for a new global environmental model called Reduction of Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation, a strategy that merges a low-carbon economy with sustainable forestry. “In Guyana, we have decided to do a large-scale pilot [study] to encompass the whole country. We have 16 million hectares of forest. We are prepared to save the forest if the incentives are there.”

REDD is based on the idea that former international agreements, such as the Kyoto Protocol, left out an important detail in the battle against climate change: the protection of forests and their ability to preserve biodiversity, regulate rainfall, and act as carbon sinks. In order to generate revenue, countries such as Guyana that possess large areas of rainforest will charge developed nations for the service of removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Jagdeo explained how the idea of REDD will work in Guyana: “What is the profit from timber, soybean production, and mining? Out of that sum, we subtract the loss of local ecosystem services.” He has come up with a cost effective model that works out to a profit of $580 million per year.

“We’ve had a consultation process, [we formed] a committee with indigenous people, loggers, miners, the private sector, every interest group. We are trying to develop a broad national consensus,” he explained.

He addressed where the revenue from the low carbon model will go. “Most of our people live below sea level, we want to spend some of the money on bettering our control of water management. We want to spend some resources on a whole series of low carbon investment opportunities, such as ecotourism and large-scale agriculture. To create alternative employment for people, we want to use some of the resources to transform the economies of indigenous villages, find sustainable activities for them to earn money,” he said.

In a Q&A session after the lecture, Jagdeo addressed the possibility of government corruption within his low-carbon model: “We need new government structures to deal with global climate change funds which should have separate procedures. A global governance structure for the government is a vital part of the discussion in Copenhagen.”

Jagdeo also spoke earlier in the day at York University and Trent University. When asked why he wanted to speak at universities, he responded, “It is important to raise awareness within academia and the public at large. Negotiations for a replacement to Kyoto have taken place at a technical level, but what is needed now is a political breakthrough to have a successful agreement. The political incentive will only come about if everyone gets involved in the debate.”

The Republic of Guyana plans to debut the model at the Climate Conference in Copenhagen later this year. “We want to prove before Copenhagen that we have a model that works,” said Jagdeo. “Encourage your government to get involved. Non-governmental organizations, the private sector, we all need to take positions. It will happen when we all become involved.”

I think we fail because the Kyoto model did not address the crude costs of deforestation. In Guyana, we have decided to do a large-scale pilot study to encompass the whole country. We have 16 million hectares of forest. We are prepared to save the forest if the incentives are there.

The Soviet Union fell 20 years ago, but remnants of Russian authoritarism remain strong today

The Economist published a story last week illustrating an important fact about today’s Russian society. As a joke, a restaurant called themselves the Anti-Soviet because of its location opposite a hotel called the Soviet. Local authorities ordered the restaurant change its name. Spreading anti-Soviet feelings, the restaurant was told by the local state, is not acceptable in Russia.

This is only one example of such state intervention. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, an ex-KGB member, has repeatedly engaged in acts that embrace the old Soviet Union ideology. He has called the USSR’s fall “the greatest geo-political catastrophe,” has re-entered pro Stalin teachings into school curricula, and has created a statue in honour of the cruel dictator in a Moscow Metro station.

Putin and his administration increasingly use methods associated with the Communist Party of Soviet Union and the Soviet regime. They have rigged elections, and have arrested and harassed lawyers, journalists, activists, trade unionists, and anybody who is in opposition to those currently in power. They’ve appointed hand puppet President Dmitry Medvedev, who everybody knows carries no real weight without Putin’s approval.

The traditions of the CPSU are not carried by its legal successor, the Communist Party of Russian Federation, but by Putin’s party, United Russia. The genealogy of United Russia goes right back to the same CPSU and the Soviet elite. They had enjoyed their privileges for years, while letting the Soviet economy sink in its inability to compete on a world scale. But they weren’t content with that; they wanted to plunder the assets of the Russian people. That is to say, they wanted capitalism.

These poster boys only wanted western-style democracy when it was accompanied by capitalism because it would let them sell national property, knock-down prices, and become rich overnight. They didn’t really want democracy at all.

It is natural that Putin stands for a lot of what Soviet bureaucracy stood for, while at the same protecting the private economy and never talking about going back to the nationalized economy of the USSR. After all, what would be better than a capitalist regime where bureaucrats can make themselves wealthy by selling national assets, accompanied by all the repressive measures needed to silence the society? Market without democracy—that is what they stand for.

It is true that Putin is popular among the people. Tired of the miserable life they had to live, especially in the first years after the fall, people turned to a strongman who wouldn’t talk about boring politics and would single-handedly rule the country. A man of common sense, who is “one of them.” Putin has been very successful in promoting this picture of himself.

But who are the real opponents of these authoritarian measures? Who has fought against them, and who can actually put them to an end?

The right, the liberal critics, and the champions of western liberals have no base in Russian society. Their two per cent of the vote in the last election might be lower than what it actually was (due to rigging by the government), but the real result couldn’t have been much better. They have failed to win any support in Russia, which is why they’re easily repressed.

It’s an historical irony, then, that the only real opposition to the Putin regime comes from the Communist Party of Russian Federation. Workers, trade unionists, youths and left radicals are coming to the ranks of the CPRF in recent years, and it has managed to be by far the second biggest party in country.

Russia’s political development is still far from a finished process. The people who are tired of Putin’s rule remain apathetic and avoid politics, or focus on NGO-style operations and human rights activism, which doesn’t extend into the realm of political power. But the CPRF has shown that it can attract protest movements, and maybe under better leadership, be a voice of opposition.

The subsequent history of Russia will depend on the degree to which the CPRF, or any other party, could lead a mass opposition to the country’s elite authoritarian rule, and demand the political power.

Explain my Brain: Fear

Fear comes in many forms. Whether it’s the pre-exam jitters or a deathly dread of insects, fear can be an important factor in the way we interact with the world.

A healthy dose of fright is a natural part of any lifestyle. It can even be exciting—why else watch horror movies? But when fear starts to get in the way of everyday functioning, it becomes problematic. Psychologists group conditions resulting from overwhelming fear under a diagnostic class called anxiety disorders, which involve excessive apprehension and anxious behaviours.

Phobias are among the most common anxiety disorders. They involve an intense and irrational fear of an object or situation that does not actually present any kind of danger. Some of the most common phobias involve insects and animals, tight spaces (claustrophobia), heights (acrophobia), and water (hydrophobia)—but people can develop phobias for practically anything. Another type of phobic disorder is social phobia, which is the fear of social situations, meeting new people, and feeling embarrassed or humiliated in front of others.

The best treatment for phobias is exposure to the feared object or situation. Whether it’s snakes, balloons or public speaking, there’s no need for pills or extensive therapy. The most effective way to get over it is, well, to get over it. But it’s not as easy as it sounds. Individuals with phobias often experience panic attacks when they are exposed to their feared object, and in some cases suffer these attacks simply by thinking about it. Panic attacks are marked by an intense feeling of fear along with physiological reactions like trembling, palpitations, nausea, lightheadedness, and even a fear of dying.

Panic attacks are one way the body responds to a perceived threat. In general, this reaction mechanism is referred to as the fight-or-flight response. This response is regulated by the autonomic nervous system, which controls automatic and involuntary functions like heart rate and digestion. When a person encounters something that is frightening, the ANS responds by preparing physiologically to attack or flee. During a panic attack, a person’s heart rate goes up and digestion slows down so energy can be used for other, more immediate purposes.

Scientists who have studied the fight-or-flight response in animals have determined that the response has evolutionary significance. From the days when we faced the constant threat of becoming prey for a wide set of predators, humans adapted to deploy the body’s emergency resources as a means of survival. But in modern humans, this response is no longer beneficial, since most of the threats we encounter don’t require fighting or fleeing. In fact, the fight-or-flight response can work against us. It’s why your heart starts racing before writing an exam, or why your blood pressure goes up when you’re stressed out.

Along with the autonomic nervous system, a number of systems in the brain contribute to the feeling of fear. The amygdala is a key structure for processing emotions like fear and anger. Researchers have found that activity in the amygdala increases when patients are exposed to frightening objects or situations. However, while the amygdala generates the fear response, another structure of the brain located in the frontal lobes can limit it by suppressing activity in the amygdala. Without it, we wouldn’t be able to control our emotions or fears. How’s that for a reason to panic?

ISPs throttle students

Last week, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission made a ruling that could change the quality of every Canadian’s Internet connection. On the request of Rogers and Bell, the CRTC allowed Internet service providers to “shape” Internet traffic through a process known as throttling. Throttling would allow ISPs to slow downloading through peer-to-peer file sharing, video streaming, and other high-bandwidth activities with only marginal oversight from the CRTC.

This decision, like so many others made at the highest echelons of our country, disproportionately affects students. As one of the most wired groups in Canada, university students tend to be the largest data consumers. Our computers have ceased being just word processors; they now function as a library, classroom, movie theatre, and television. We live in an age when global connections are necessary and crucial for higher education: journal articles need to be downloaded, online courses need to be streamed, and web-conferences need to take place. These new restrictions imposed by the CRTC will restrict students’ ability to fully utilize their learning capabilities.

The ruling threatens the central concept of net neutrality—an idea that seems to be in rapid decline in Canada. Net neutrality is the basic premise that all Internet traffic should be considered equal. Whether we like it or not, ISPs have gained control over when we can access the Internet, and at what speed. As a result of this new ruling, you may no longer be able to stream that 6 p.m. lecture at the cost or speed you’re used to. When ISPs are able to shape how people use the Internet, the net can no longer be considered neutral.

Throttling, in its basic form, shows that all Internet traffic is not created equal. Streaming of television shows or online classes will be relegated by acceptable, “throttled” Internet traffic, which will get full bandwidth.

My question is: why haven’t heavy data users, students among them, spoken out? Have we just accepted that Bell, Rogers, and the other ISPs get to increase our charges while minimizing our access? Have we decided that net neutrality doesn’t matter, and that we’re fine with being treated as second-class Internet users?

Here I thought neutrality meant unbiased usage, where according the CRTC and the ISPs, it means regulation. The telecommunication companies say this is only about ensuring better efficiency to their customers, but in reality, it creates two classes of users. Sadly enough, I, like many university students, will now be in the disadvantaged Internet user category, and there’s little that I can do about it. So download, stream, and be merry; for tomorrow we will be throttled.

Programming the brain

University of Toronto researchers have discovered a brain protein that could shed light on the underlying causes of brain disease such as Alzheimer’s.

Researchers characterized a previously unknown regulatory protein known as nSR100 and described its role in neuronal development. This marks the first time this family of proteins has been found to play a specific role in tissue development in the body. The findings were published in the prestigious journal Cell last month.

The nSR100 protein functions by regulating “alternative splicing events” in target genes. It acts to increase the complexity and diversity of the nervous system’s cells by tailoring neurons to perform the specific functions that distinguish them from other cell types. The process of alternative splicing is akin to editing a film: nSR100 works with the raw footage of the genetic code to cut the unnecessary scenes and determine which of the required segments are pasted together.

This specific type of protein is found only in vertebrate genomes, which suggests it evolved to enhance cell diversity in the nervous systems. The team’s findings may partially explain why less complex organisms, such as nematode worms, have simpler nervous systems. Humans can produce a much larger array of cellular messages from roughly the same number of genes as nematodes through the action of tissue-specific splicing regulators, such as nSR100. These messages can then act in concert to orchestrate the diversification of functions in specific tissue systems.

A graduate student in the Department of Molecular Genetics, John Calarco, began the search for a nervous system alternative splicing regulator over four years ago under the supervision of professor Ben Blencowe (Donnelly Centre for Cellular and Biomolecular Research) and professor Mei Zhen (Samuel Lunenfeld Research Institute, Mount Sinai Hospital). After a computational search of mammalian genomes they idenfified nSR100, a member of the SR protein family, as a potential candidate. Its expression was then tested experimentally and found to be present specifically in the nervous tissue of mice and zebrafish. Calarco and colleagues then performed a series of additional biochemical experiments to confirm that nSR100 contributes to fine-tuning the expression of
genes to customize undifferentiated cells into brain-specific cells through alternative splicing.

The authors noticed that their computational search identified more than 100 RS domain protein genes, many of which are yet to be studied. In other words, scientists are sitting on a potential treasure trove of proteins that may unravel some of the darkest mysteries lurking in the human genome.

Such discoveries are leading the way to a new paradigm shift in molecular genetics. Rather than survey the expression of thousands of mRNAs (the chemical messengers that turn the info in DNA into proteins), scientists can now observe more complicated aspects of RNA processing, including alternative splicing, to get at the heart of how gene expression is regulated. Now the race is on not only to identify proteins that regulate cell development, but also to describe how all those proteins act together to develop the complexity of the human body, and particularly the brain.

According to Calarco, “The brain is a playground for many factors that coordinately control numerous ‘layers’ of gene regulation. A major goal now is to figure out how these various layers communicate with each other to generate the incredible degree of cellular and molecular diversity observed in the vertebrate nervous system. Further investigation into the network of splicing events regulated by nSR100 may uncover important aspects of how neurons normally function and also how they become impaired in neurological diseases like Alzheimer’s.

The opportunity to study the brain’s complexity drew Calarco to pursue research in neurogenetics as a graduate student at U of T. He began his research career as a modest research assistant mixing solutions in professor Blencowe’s lab. Calarco advises undergraduates interested in pursuing research to ask lots of questions and get lab experience early. Learning the ropes in a laboratory environment will help determine whether research is a good fit and give young researchers the skills and contacts to become innovators in emerging fields.

Calarco plans to continue exploring neuronal gene expression with a post-doctoral fellowship in neurobiology and to eventually run his own independent ‘gene searching’ lab. His work demonstrates that great research is about asking the right types of questions, and when it comes to brain research, it’s a lot to wrap your head around.

Funding for this project was provided by the Canadian Institute of Health Research, the Ontario Research Fund, and Genome Canada (through the Ontario Genome Project).

What’s up with swine flu?

On Tuesday, October 27, 13-year-old Evan Frustaglio died from the H1N1 virus. In response, Toronto Public Health officials said immunization clinics will open Thursday, four days ahead of schedule.

But what’s really up with swine flu? What are the stats? How does it differ from the seasonal flu? And most importantly, should you be worried?

The fact is that even if an outbreak of H1N1 occurs, death is unlikely—even more unlikely than with the regular seasonal flu. According to the World Health Organization, last season’s outbreak of H1N1 infected some 35,928 people around the world, out of which 163 died. That’s less than a half of a per cent of all those who contracted the disease. The WHO also reports that the seasonal flu kills about 41,400 people out of three to five million cases each year—approximately .08 to one per cent of those who get sick.

Despite such statistics, medical professionals across Canada say it’s time to fear being infected, and have launched a massive advertising campaign on how to avoid contracting the virus, including television advertisements and flyers mailed to every address in Canada. The Ontario Health Ministry has also launched a television campaign announcing, “This year, it’s a different flu season.”

I must admit, it is a new flu season—H1N1 kind of came out of nowhere and surprised many people at the WHO and health agencies around the world. But statistics show it’s no more risky than seasonal flu. It may be a new strain, and may have appeared suddenly, but the facts speak for themselves.

The University of Toronto is planning for an H1N1 emergency. Its website, which provides similar information to what the government had given on proper hygiene, states that hand sanitation stations have been installed on all three campuses. Furthermore, ROSI has a new section that you may have noticed, entitled “Flu Absence Declaration.” The university is hoping that those who contract the flu stay home to keep the virus from spreading.

As a result of these measures, classes are a little extra-empty this semester. I’m sure I’m not the only one getting a flood of emails every week from classmates in search of lecture notes for a missed class due to illness.

There have been instances where students have come down with H1N1, and have actually been hospitalized. In those cases, the university’s response has been appropriate. Professors have been instructed to choose the best course of action to accommodate those affected by flu symptoms so they do not lose marks for their absence.

However, there’s no need to fear contracting H1N1, because even if you do contract it, it’s a rather mild form of the flu according to researchers at McGill University. In fact, unless you go to the doctor to be tested for H1N1, you probably won’t even know you have it. The university doesn’t need to do anything it wouldn’t do in any other year. Students should observe a regular regimen of hand washing and avoiding contact with those who have the flu (any form of the flu), but no extra caution needs to be taken. Basic common sense should keep people safe.

A recent Strategic Counsel poll taken for CTV News showed that 51 per cent of Canadians do not plan on getting vaccinated for H1N1. Furthermore, only 67 per cent perceive the vaccine to be safe for adults, and 59 per cent believe it is safe for children. It seems that Canadians in general are not overly concerned with H1N1.

It is ultimately up to you whether you feel the need to get the vaccination for H1N1. Whatever you decide, make sure it’s a well-informed and safe decision. And, if you do get swine flu, stay home!