The Varsity presents

On Saturday, November 3, The Varsity is hosting it’s first Off The Record party at the Boat (158 Agusta Ave.). Cover is $5, or free with a T-Card, with all proceeds going to Journalists For Human Rights.

Performing at Off The Record will be five of the best musical artists Toronto has to offer: oneman guitar scientist Now Yr Taken, shimmering heartbreakers The Coast, nocturnal rockers Uncut, indie-garage cheerleaders Germans, plus dance-floor filler Shit La Merde will be DJing before, after and in between the bands. Here’s a bit more about the talent The Varsity has in store:

UTSU undermining democracy

You’ve most likely seen their posters, flyers, and buttons, and their stickers on the free coffee—right across from the polling stations—in support of the “yes” vote. Undergraduate students are being asked to vote on the construction of a Student Commons on the St. George campus. However, have students had a chance to access information in support of a “no”?

We all agree that student space is an important part of our university experience. The administration is well aware of our needs, but prefers to reserve its own budget for expanding high-cost, revenue-generating programs like the expansion of the Rotman School of Business. Students have long resisted these projects. In 2002, an overwhelming 82 per cent of students voted against the proposed Varsity Stadium levy, which would have funded a building useful only to the school’s elite athletes.

This year’s referendum could easily dupe a new generation of students into paying for buildings through levy contributions rather than expecting the university to responsibly distribute tuition and government subsidies. Our university is a public institution: the government, not students scraping by on loans, should pick up the tab to ensure space needs are met.

The “vote yes” flyers flooding campus are misleading. They advertise a $5 levy, while in reality, students would pay $10 per year from summer 2008 until its completion. In its first year upon opening, the centre would cost each student $41.50, increasing by up to 10 per cent in each subsequent year. Once the first 25 years are over, the operating costs would remain subject to a continuing 10 per cent maximum annual increase permanently. Yet pro-levy flyers reveal none of these substantive costs. Raising incidental fees through levies like this is a very serious burden to put on students, especially considering that OSAP will not take this levy into account when assessing loan allotments.

All materials critical of the project have been torn down almost immediately. Dissenters have been followed, confronted, and felt harassed by the elected leaders of UTSU. On October 29, UTSU executives also called campus police on critics peacefully handing out flyers—a form of free speech—on St. George Street, claiming that they were violating UTSU bylaws. Only UTSU members fall under the organization’s bylaws.

The “yes” campaign run by UTSU has channeled student money into a high-cost campaign—which includes promotional t-shirts, free food and drinks near polling stations—and have done their best to intimidate any critics of the project. These unjust tactics have been witnessed by shocked students across campus.

Part-time students have been criticized for opposing the proposed student centre, even though the referendum is an issue that impacts our campus as a whole and sets a dangerous precedent for the future. The “yes” side, however, has brought students from York, Ryerson, and the Canadian Federation of Students onto campus to campaign on behalf of the levy.

This is not a democratic referendum. Pro-levy campaigners are clearly afraid of losing, given that they are resorting to such underhanded, juvenile, and unprofessional behavior.

Katie Wolk is involved in the APUS campaign against the Student Commons levy.

Ryan Gosling is lazy in Lars, so why all the Oscar talk?

From his combustible performance in The Believer to last year’s Half Nelson, the deceptive laziness in Ryan Gosling’s Brando-like eyes has been a force to admire. Behind those half shut lids, Gosling’s corneas are discreetly at work observing, calculating, and often times judging.

It’s those same eyes that kept me in a state of trepidation during Lars and the Real Girl, a whimsical comedy about how an entire town accommodates the titular character’s delusion that his “anatomically correct” doll is actually his real girlfriend. For the duration of this leap-of-faith plot, Gosling’s eyes were no longer working a character within the narrative of the film. They looked directly into my soul, snickering, calling me a sucker.

In Lars and the Real Girl, Gosling delivers one of his most memorably lazy performances and dares us to buy it, and we do. In fact, we go so far as to shower the fucker with praise—there was no shortage of Oscar talk in the washrooms directly after the screening.

It’s not that Gosling’s performance was lacking. In fact, the actor plays Lars as low-key as this obtuse role would allow him to. It’s just that in this drive-thru performance, Gosling does what so many Oscar winners of the past have done: he feigns a mental imbalance and lets everyone else bend over backwards to give him an award.

It’s fitting, considering that this is exactly what his character does: he gets it on with a life-size doll named Bianca and his entire town goes bonkers, giving her jobs, taking her to church, putting her to bed, and even allowing her to abuse the American Health Care System with repeat check-ups and ambulance calls (does she come with her own insurance plan?).

The burden of believability falls on the outstanding supporting characters, who share our reaction to Lars and Bianca. The standout is the constantly charming Emily Mortimer (Dear Frankie), whose name sadly went without mention in the post-screening washroom Oscar chats. Playing Lars’ pregnant sister-in-law, it is Mortimer’s performance that layers bewilderment beneath warmth, and brings this rather flexible mannequin—and an otherwise wooden movie—to life.

In this indie equivalent to a guilty pleasure, where folks like Mortimer do all the work, Gosling’s eyes crack wise as he steals all the credit.

Rating: VVV

It’s Not Rocket Science – Episode 4

The great dark matter debate

In the September 10 issue of The Varsity, we ran a piece about the history of the search for dark matter and evidence supporting its existence (“The dark side of the universe”). A recent study led by Douglas Clowe provides indirect evidence for dark matter, from observations of a collision between two large galaxy clusters. The observed bending of light around the massive collision allowed astronomers to infer that a large amount of invisible dark matter was present. Two Canadian astronomers— John Moffat of the University of Waterloo and his graduate student, Joel Brownstein—have publicly disagreed with the work, and propose that a Modified Gravity hypothesis can explain the findings of the study. They believe that changing the current understanding of how gravity works can account for the perceived extra mass. The two stress that direct evidence of dark matter has yet to be found, while Clowe maintains that dark matter exists and that the results of his research are valid. No conclusion to the debate is yet in sight. As one side looks for new sub-atomic particles that could make up dark matter, the other looks to change a long-standing view of how the universe functions, trying to rework the ideas of Newton and Einstein. For simplicity’s sake, I am inclined to believe dark magic is to blame.

Hollywood was right, for once:

As it turns out, Jurassic Park had the behaviour of Velociraptor right. A fossilized stretch of footprints unearthed in China’s Shandong province demonstrates that the dinosaurs travelled together in packs, as the six paths do not overlap and were made at the same time. The fossils also prove another aspect of dinosaur behaviour shown in the movie: the dinosaurs held their long claw off the ground when travelling, possibly to avoid wearing them down. Judging by the footprints, researchers say the dinosaurs would have been around 200 pounds and 1.2 metres high at the hip. Although Steven Spielberg got the dinosaurs right, I still don’t understand why Jeff Goldblum’s character had to survive.

Info graphics are worth a thousand words:

The link below shows the proportion of people across the different countries of the world in a cool info graphic. The distorted world map illustrates the huge amount of people in Asia compared to other continents. Australia nearly falls off the bottom of the map and Canada looks like a thin blanket on top of the United States.

Organism of the week:

The American Bison, scientific name Bison bison. Commonly, although incorrectly, referred to as the buffalo, millions of these brown beasts once inhabited the great plains of the United States. They are the largest terrestrial mammals in North America, reaching three metres in length and two metres in height. They can weigh as much as 900 kilograms, equivalent to the weight of a mid-size car. Curiously, male bison often display strangely amorous behaviour by courting and sometimes mounting other males. Although seemingly slow and laconic animals, bison can easily outrun humans and have been recorded travelling up to 56 kilometres an hour. Surprisingly, there were four times more bison attacks than bear attacks at Yellowstone National Park between 1978 and 1992. Bison were hunted to the point of near-extinction by the mid 1880s. The government sponsored this over-exploitation because, among other reasons, reduced bison numbers reduced costly train delays or damage from herds milling about train tracks. The American government also wanted to starve the Native Americans inhabiting the plains to get them to leave. Buffalo hunting was a lucrative trade for the hides, coats, and meat, and some hunters, such as Buffalo Bill Cody, became famous for killing over one hundred bison during a single hunt. The bison’s impact on the course of early American history is demonstrated in its inclusion on the American nickel from 1913 to 1938. Bison numbers have rebounded quite well, with current estimates at apporixmately 350,000. Comically enough, a subspecies of the animal bears the scientific name Bison bison bison.

Lovelock’s visions of the apocalypse:

The loveable and slightly crazy Professor James Lovelock has a message for the world’s inhabitants: we’re screwed. In a recent speech, he explained that humans have to brace for the inevitable changes that global warming will bring. He agrees that nations should reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but describes the International Panel on Climate Change’s recent report as misleading. He says that it gives the idea that climate change is reversible, which he strongly disagrees with. His dire view is that 6 to 8 billion people will experience serious problems in the future, including issues with water and food supplies. If his name sounds familiar, it’s because Lovelock came up with the Gaia hypothesis, which suggests that the whole Earth functions as a single organism. Although widely criticized—it smells heavily of acid and the ’60s—the hypothesis highlights the importance of interactions between organisms and their environments. Either way, it is enjoyable watching a scientist unafraid to speak his mind.

Better than the Letterman countdown:

Discover magazine has some nifty pieces, especially their “20 things” countdown. The latest edition, on astronauts in space, features some helpful advice: don’t hold your breath if you are ever exposed to the vacuum of space, as it could cause your lungs to rupture. It’s information we can all use, really.

Not even being adorable will save you:

The machinations of the global economy can often produce some bizarre situations. According to The Ecologist, 250,000 lambs in Britain are going to be made into bio-fuel or incinerated. The animals cannot be sold for meat, as meat industry critics say that the abrupt input of a large amount of lamb meat would make already low prices drop drastically. In addition, animal feed has almost doubled in price, making it uneconomical to keep the animals. Little Bo Peep was reportedly devastated at the news.

Mr. Burns, on neuro-surgery:

“Dammit Smithers—this isn’t rocket science, it’s brain surgery!”

Germans keep on rocking in the free world

There’s more to Germans than a love of schnitzel and lederhosen. Or is there? While it’s tough to get a straight answer out of this cheeky Toronto outfit, one thing is certain: while none of them are German, their brand of indiegarage rock is certainly worthy of international buzz. Recently named one of Spin’s artists of the day, Germans are signed to Portland, Oregon’s Arena Rock Records, which also boasts Elf Power, Liars, and The Gloria Record on its roster.

Reluctant to describe their own sound, the band doesn’t elaborate much on their influences. Like most hip young acts, they are quick to cite Pavement and their sound harkens back to the indie heyday of early 90s bands like Archers of Loaf. Whether their proclaimed love of Can-con shitsters Our Lady Peace is honest patriotism or a tongue-in-cheek in-joke is hard to tell, but the band peppers their tracks with moog synthesizers and video game bleeps to distinguish them from the mainstream fray.

And hey—like Tom Waits once said—they are big in Japan. The band’s full length, the quizzically-titled Cape Fear, has just debuted across the Pacific. Would De Niro be proud? You be the judge, when Germans blow up at the Boat as part of The Varsity’s Off the Record party. Toss them a “guten tag” and get down.

Denzel Washington delivers as NYC drug lord in American Gangster

Consider the bitter irony of it all. Frank Lucas, the once notorious drug kingpin who blasts the “Thug Life” fetishism of the gangster rap era as “bullshit,” is now to be immortalized in American Gangster, a studio pic that’s being heavily marketed to exactly that generation of “bling” heads.

In an appeal to draw every doo-ragged Scarface idolizer to theatres, the film dangles such household rappers as T.I., Common, and RZA amongst its cast, and has apparently “inspired” the Jigga Man himself to record a complimentary soundtrack.

Though he may not like it, Lucas’ legacy is being marketed to the very generation that makes him irk: the kids who worship the shameless flaunting of money and violence in America’s new corporate sponsored “gangsterism.” Call it bittersweet justice, since, after all, gangster-crazed America is something he—along with fellow Harlem Renaissance O.G., Nicky Barnes—helped design.

However, what Ridley Scott’s deftly orchestrated American Gangster makes explicit is that while this new America is a product of the likes of Frank Lucas, the entrepreneurial business man himself came from the dark womb of corporate America.

Tracking the large-scale dope supplier’s rise to power during the turbulent late-sixties/early-seventies, American Gangster depicts the cold and calculated Lucas (played by an impeccably smooth Denzel Washington) as a man who made a name for himself on 116th St., but could have just as easily done the same on Wall St. Lucas has acumen for branding, pricing, and cutting down the competition so that they too end up buying from him.

If Lucas gives back to the community—like his mentor Bumpy Johnson regularly did—it’s only to keep his public relations image on the up-and-up while he bled the city dry with his 10 per-cent pure heroin (a product that no doubt cost a number of lives to deliver). Just like America, Lucas had a particular investment in Vietnam: the steady supply of caskets for dead soldiers would be the transport for his heroin supply from East Asia.

Ridley Scott and his team (with due credit to writer Steven Zaillian) develop a symbiotic relationship between Lucas and his country while paying close attention to New York’s climate in the seventies. The heroin epidemic was just one of several plagues in America, and Frank Lucas and his compatriots were not the only ones supplying it. This was, after all, the period of the French Connection scandal, where corrupt SIU officers used their unlimited resources not to shutdown the drug trade but to compete in it—an ordeal the filmmakers aptly play out against Lucas’ enterprise.

Amidst all of this is Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe’s outrageously honest version of Frank Serpico) the pariah of the police force. Roberts has the far from glamorous task of bringing Lucas down—a job made all the more difficult since half of the justice department is on the crime boss’ payroll. As Roberts observes, “If we stop bringing dope into this country, about a hundred thousand people are going to be out of a job.”

If this film doesn’t strain your moral fibers—it paints a somewhat alluring picture of the murderous Frank Lucas—don’t feel bad. America did the same thing. The very Judge that put Lucas away described him as “easy to like,” and most followers of gangster rap (as well as the corporations that neatly package their sonic addictions) have ingrained the crime figure into the consciousness of popular culture

American Gangster opened in theatres November 2

Rating VVVV

The peril of being a penguin

A penguin’s plight is one often marred by existential crisis. Aside from surviving arduous treks and difficult environmental conditions, no one is quite sure how many species of penguins there are, with debate on what other species they are related to. On top of that, pressure from human activity is putting many of them at risk.

Depending on whom you ask, there are between 17 and 20 species of penguin. Whether the Royal Penguin is a different coloured version of the Macaroni Penguin, or the White-flippered Penguin a subspecies of the Little Penguin, still remains unclear. Why are scientists in such a flap over these flippered, flightless seabirds? The answer has to do with evolution.

There isn’t a solid definition of what constitutes a species, though there are two competing concepts. The biological species theory considers species separate when they are unable to mate and produce offspring that can survive. Some closely related groups form hybrids when they mate, however, throwing a wrinkle into this overly simplistic definition.

An alternative solution doesn’t fare all that much better. The phylogenetic species concept considers species separate when they show a certain degree of genetic difference. But how much difference is enough? And when does a genetically different population become a species?

What the differences between these two concepts show is that the term “species” is a mental construct created by humans in an effort to order the often-complicated natural world. As Darwin wrote in 1859, “I look at the term species as one arbitrarily given, for the sake of convenience, to a set of individuals closely resembling each other.” Harkening back to the days of Carl Linnaeus, the father of binomial nomenclature (listing it as a genus followed by a species name), there has been a consistent effort to list, describe, and compartmentalize all the various forms of life that surround us. Today, there is a dark side to that drive for understanding: determining which species are a higher priority to save from extinction.

Instead, conservation authorities use terms that are more flexible, such as the idea of a designatable unit, which allows for any species, variety or genetically extinct population to be defined and protected. As it is, 12 species of penguins are at some risk of extinction due to habitat degradation, introduced predators, over-exploitation of fish (their major food source), and pollution.

The worldwide collapse of fisheries due to mismanagement is a key example of economic interests butting heads with environmental concerns. The upward effect such collapse has on the food chain— starving penguins—shouldn’t come as a surprise. Global warming compounds the problem further for many Antarctic species, including the photogenic Emperor, star of the documentary March of the Penguins, as deteriorating ice shelves could make many essential penguin breeding grounds unusable. As well, shifts in prey-ranges due to warmer weather may force certain species to travel farther to obtain food.

All in all, it’s hard out here for a penguin. When you aren’t busy having an identity crisis, you’re trying to keep up with the rapidly changing world. Between the cold and the state of affairs, one can see how these guys might be feeling blue.

Getting loopy with Now Yr Taken

Mikey Crichton is a scientific pioneer. But he’s not breaking ground in chemistry or biology. Instead, he uses a series of loop pedals to layer one guitar riff over another, developing an art form that he lovingly calls “loop science.”

After Crichton spent three years playing bass for local heroes The Postage Stamps, a self-imposed exile to Australia opened his mind to a combination of noise rock and loop pedals that would become the initial inspiration for his one-man band Now Yr Taken.

“There’s a big noise scene in Australia, it rivals the one here, and everyone was doing this really messy, multi-layered kind of…” Crichton then emits a deep-throated static noise into the telephone receiver that’s loud enough for me to get the picture immediately.

On the philosophy of Now Yr Taken, he says, “You can do a lot more with this kind of technology than just some fucking noise.”

The band’s name, lifted from a Mogwai song, was a conscious decision to appeal to the particular type of listener who would be fond of reverbwashed crescendos.

“I put up a really obscure flag that the right kind of people would notice, and it kind of worked. People were finding me all over the place.”

Having gigged relentlessly around town for three years, Crichton returned to the land down under last winter to craft a freshly-released EP, MEL2YYZ, named after his journey home from Melbourne Airport to Pearson International.

Crichton was clearly inspired by his travels, as tracks like “Home” and “Robot Ghost” explore the dilemma of leaving loved ones behind as one sets off on an adventure.

“It’s a love letter between the two cities,” says Crichton. “The songs are about longing, missing people that you’re not going to be able to reach out and touch.”