Signs of life

I’m sitting in a black beanbag chair, watching the projection of a record spin one of my favourite Vampire Weekend songs, and thinking about myself. The record is entitled Sounds For An Exhibit and is featured in a glass case next to the video installation. But when I close my eyes and lean back in the moderately comfortable bean bag chair, it’s easy to forget that I’m in an art gallery.

My narcissism is (kind of) justified. The most recent exhibit in the Justina M. Barnicke Gallery, Ron Terada: Who I Think I Am, is all about identity. Ron Terada is a 42-year-old Vancouver-based artist, known mainly for his appropriation of street signs and word-for-word recreations or representations of these found objects. This particular exhibit easily blurs the lines of the-shit-you-see-on-the-street-next-to-highways and “high” art.

The first room is filled with baffling signage: most notably, a poster for a previous exhibition, Universal Pictures, which features a photo of a “Welcome to Vancouver” sign. A glossy photo across from the video installation shows a large sign next to what looks like a construction site with the fluorescent words: “See Other Side of Sign.” In the adjoining room is a neon sign in the shape of a star. It says “BIG” in the middle of the star. The star isn’t big. It’s moderately-sized, at best.
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I’m starting to wonder about Ron Terada’s idea of self-conception. There is no explicit reference to the artist — but in the other room his favourite songs play next to a poster for his own exhibit — that either references his own confidence in his music taste and a celebration of the design team of whatever gallery put on his last exhibit, or it is an elusive reference to self-representation. The piece in the next room seems to be more explicitly autobiographical. A series of black canvases inscribed with white text narrates the tale of a New York artist’s haunting account of the nature of art, art-world snobbery, self-destruction, and crippling isolation.

“In a way, I ruined my life, but I did a body of work, and for that body of work it was worth ruining my life,” the piece concludes, leaving the last canvas a mass of black space with only a few lines of white text. It’s clear this isn’t Terada’s own autobiography. Everything about the exhibit exudes a sense of play, a light-hearted tongue-in-cheek in juxtaposing a piece called “Big Star” with a purportedly self-identifying exhibit. He listens to Vampire Weekend. He hardly seems like the self-destructive artist who wrote: “And the only way I can make art is by taking drugs to ease the pain of the emptiness in my stomach, the emptiness of my life.” Yet, here are the words, neatly configured against the white wall, in an exhibit entitled Who I Think I Am.

Reading the text-based piece is almost an uncanny experience. Reading is a familiar and comforting process for me, something I like to do in the fetal position, in bed, with a cat curled up beside me and maybe some hot chocolate. This exhibit requires you to stand, physically move across the room, crane your neck and hurt your eyes if you endeavour to read it. It’s physically demanding to read, and reading white on black text is difficult. After a while, it’s almost dizzying. You can’t just look at this piece; you have to engage with it for it to make any sense at all.
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I find out later that the excerpted text is a chapter from the biography of Jack Goldstein, a conceptual artist who achieved fame in the 1980s until secluding himself well beneath the poverty line in Southern California. In true artistic form, his works weren’t really included in any kind of artistic cannon until after his death in 2003. He is, as such, the quintessential tortured artist, who romantically sacrificed everything for his body of work, and never saw the fruits of his labour.

What Terada has assembled in this exhibit is a collection of signs. Deviating from his representation of street signs, he’s given us a collection of the kind of signs that we all use to represent our own identity. Terada chose an excerpt from the autobiography of a tortured artist, a tongue-in-cheek neon sign, an installation of his favourite music, and advertisements for his art exhibits. I would probably choose an excerpt from Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar and my Facebook profile pictures.

UC student cycles and freezes for Haiti

On January 29, U of T student Andreas Kloppenborg plans to cycle non-stop from Kingston to Toronto in a charity effort to sponsor schoolchildren in Haiti. Kloppenborg will attempt to complete the 280 km trek — a route usually completed in three days — in 24 hours. The Canadian winter, which will be Kloppenborg’s biggest obstacle, inspired his cause’s name: Frostbike.

Kloppenborg, who has volunteered in the past helping other charities such as UNICEF, was inspired by the struggles happening in Haiti since its tragic earthquake exactly one year ago. January marks a year since the catastrophic event, and Kloppenborg thinks it is important to remember the devastation and to continue with support for the struggling country.

“I’ve been following the Haitian story closely,” explained Kloppenborg, “and things don’t seem to be getting that much better. I figured that cycling would definitely raise some money, and cycling really long and in the freezing cold would make a lot of money.”

FrostBike is directly affiliated with the Starthrower Foundation, a larger Canadian charity organization based on providing education to Haitian youth. Kloppenborg’s goal is to raise $1,320 dollars, the exact amount needed to fund two students. Starthrower Foundation is a very humble charity with a little school that currently has hundreds of Haitian’s waitlisted to attend.

Kloppenborg chose to partner with Starthrower Foundation in part because of its small size. “A small charity would benefit the most,” said Kloppenborg. “It will mean the most.”

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Kloppenborg has always been a cycling enthusiast. He spent the entire summer clocking in miles across bike routes in Europe, but his training for his upcoming venture only hit high gear this winter break. During the holidays, Kloppenborg was cycling over 220 km every week, along with consistent weight training. His training has slowed since the start of term to avoid leg injury.

Balancing training and academics has worked out nicely for Kloppenborg. “This month school is just starting up which is nice in two ways, people are more willing to help when there’s less school work, and it’s easier for me to train.”

During the charity cycling mission, Kloppenborg will not be alone with only snow to keep him company. Two of his friends, Diane Ashbourne and Chris Frankowski, will be riding in a car behind him. The car will be prepared for any emergency, and will be packed with a first aid kit, multiple jackets and socks, cycling shoes, a toolbox, spare wheels, and more.

So far the charity has raised $1,000 dollars and has been receiving support from both students and other charities. Lance Armstrong’s charity, Live Strong, donated wrist bands and other paraphernalia, and is now an official associate of FrostBike. Students from both U of T and Queen’s university have helped support Kloppenborg’s noble cause. Most notably, the UC Lit and U of T UNICEF are hosting a pub night on January 27 at O Grady’s.

To donate or find out more about Frostbike, visit frostbike.ca.

A good sport: Super Bowl skepticism

Upsets have been the dominant narrative of NFL post-season coverage this year, and that narrative hasn’t been lost on the players or coaches.

One of the biggest upsets of the playoffs came before they even began — when the Seattle Seahawks won the National Football Conference Northwest Division with a 7–9 record. They became the first losing team to make the playoffs in NFL history, a remarkable (and largely unforeseen) feat.

The Seahawks took the approach, as articulated by several of their players, that the only thing worse than being the first playoff team with a losing record would be to lose to that team. The Seahawks trounced the New Orleans Saints — the defending Super Bowl champions — in Seattle, and pulled off one of the biggest upsets in recent playoff history.

The Seahawks’ had a remarkable year, despite the fact that their path to the Super Bowl was interrupted by the Chicago Bears last weekend. The Chicago Bears fell to the Green Bay Packers yesterday afternoon, which effectively ended their chase for the Super Bowl as well.

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Any conversation about upsets has to centre around the New York Jets’ performance this postseason, though. The Jets came into the first round against the Indianapolis Colts with a massive bull’s-eye on their backs after head coach Rex Ryan called the rivalry “personal.” The Jets pieced together a good enough game, capitalizing on key mistakes by Peyton Manning, and pounding home the winning field goal with no time left on the clock.

The Jets went to New England the next weekend to play the dynastic Patriots. The week prior to the game featured a lot of public chatter, most of it by Ryan, about the importance — and yes, personal nature — of the game. When it came time to play, the Jets flat-out delivered and wound up winning 28–21 in a game that they had greater control of than the final score suggests.

They fizzled out this weekend against Super Bowl favourite the Pittsburgh Steelers who will be playing the Green Bay Packers in two weeks.

Playoff upsets pose interesting questions about the nature of the sport. The goal of each team heading into a season is to win the championship, but the winner of the championship depends more on the one-month playoff period than the regular season.

In the NFL’s short playoff series, factors such as momentum, luck, and injury can do more to determine the outcome than which team is better. That is not to take away from teams that post big upsets, but it’s a self-evident fact when a six-month season’s final outcome is determined in a compressed time frame.

But after all, isn’t that the fun of the playoffs?

Campus Stage: Homicidal hilarity

Two seemingly harmless old women are actually stone cold killers — this is the premise of Arsenic and Old Lace. Written for the stage in the 1940’s by Joseph Kesselring and adapted to the screen around the same time, it was first performed on Broadway, and, more recently, performed by the Victoria College Drama Society.

Who doesn’t have the occasional oddball in the family? Did they ever murder someone? Well, Mortimer Brewster, the protagonist of the story, has a family filled with eccentric characters with homicidal tendencies. Victoria College’s Drama Society did a superb job adapting this retro play without making it feel old, with the cast of around a dozen students and alumni overacting just enough to make it clear that murder doesn’t always have to be so depressing without too much over-the-top cheese.
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The plot centers around a love story involving the two characters who are not totally off their rockers, and the characters are played with reassuring normalcy. The play is all about comic timing and physical comedy, which the actors exhibit throughout. Michael Mackinnon, as Teddy Brewster, and Michael Welch as the evil assistant, Dr. Einstein, played their roles with relish. Teddy Brewster, a delusional who thinks he’s Theodore Roosevelt and plays the role with a perfect deadpan. Michael Welch as the doctor nailed a comedically-over-the-top German accent and maniacal giggle. The old ladies played by Gwyneth Hodgins and Nora Boydell, embodied the comedic physicality necessary to their roles, and were absolutely hilarious.

Things heat up as Mortimer discovers that his aunts have killed 12 men who have stayed at their house. They rent out rooms, and happily explain that the dead bodies in their window seat are poor souls that they have “put out of their misery” — by promptly serving them wine with arsenic. So, when Mortimer’s brother, Jonathan comes home and tries to stash a body of a man he has killed in their cellar, he finds killing certainly seems run in the family. The sinister facial expressions of Jonathan (Matthew McGrath) were alone worth the cost of admission.

The geometry of strings

Last Wednesday, Bancroft Avenue was abuzz with mathematicians. Dozens of PhD students and professors crowded around the Earth Sciences Auditorium to attend a public lecture presented by world-renowned Fields Medalist, Professor Shing-Tung Yau.

The Fields Medal, often described as the Nobel Prize for Mathematical sciences, has earned Prof Shing-Tung Yau a great deal of respect within the academic community. One would think that having such a display of scholars in attendance would suggest an esoteric and elite discussion of mathematics. However, these attitudes are precisely what Professor Shing-Tung Yau’s new book, The Shape of Inner Space, sets out to prevent.

Yau explained in his lecture that mathematics does not need to be a strictly abstract discipline, contrary to popular characterizations of the field. Instead, it plays a central role in the understanding of our immediate universe. The Shape of Inner Space attempts to portray such ideas in a manner accessible to any general, yet curious, reader.

Yau is famous for his 1976 proof of the Calabi conjecture, a proposition offered by Eugenio Calabi over twenty years earlier, in 1954. Along with much of his additional work, this proof has provided a framework for attempts at unifying various theories concerning our physical world.

However, Yau explains that although his work has applications to string theory and theoretical physics, these applications were not something he directly intended. As a mathematician specializing in geometry, he is interested in mathematically describing a diverse collection of shapes and objects, an interest which took him to the study of “curvatures.” These curvatures are coincidentally what make up the geometry of physical space.
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Yau admits that, although his studies in geometry were not wholly motivated by their relationship with the physical universe, he is nonetheless pleased and inspired by how his work was, and is, able to answer many fundamental questions in physics. He describes mathematics as a beautiful field of study, where discoveries or propositions have the potential to account for many different implications and results that extend beyond the original motivations.

In Yau’s opinion, major advances in physics can be partially credited to advances in geometry — in particular, classical geometry and calculus work behind classical physics, and Riemann geometry work behind Einstein’s theories of physics. Yau’s findings led him and his colleagues to open up a new avenue of geometry, an avenue known as “geometric analysis.” In response to a question from the audience, he also explained that the future will bring about a new kind of geometry — one that will be able to account for many theories in quantum physics.

The lecture also aimed to provide its audience with a sense of his individual experiences with mathematics, and how his investigations brought him through a personal journey spanning much of his career.

Yau recalled his first encounter with curiosity in geometry. He explained that with all the geometry and mathematics he had learned throughout high school, he still could not describe an object so common and seemingly simple as an apple. From there, and throughout college, Yau had a deep interest in being able to describe objects mathematically — objects common to everyday experiences, as well as abstract idealized objects.

Yau personally adopts an imaginative approach. He explains that his investigations have lead him to ponder the possibilities of most “extreme cases,” — that is, he wonders how a certain object would be affected if some property were ignored, or reduced to null.

Yau also explains that a geometer who relates his work to the realm of physics is much like a painter or artist who relates his work to reality. When a painter sets out to paint a landscape, he is first guided by his imagination. Only when he is satisfied does he look back to see how much of it is physically accurate.

City segregation?

New U of T research suggests that if current trends continue, Toronto will be divided between wealthy neighbourhoods and poor neighbourhoods, with little middle ground.

Authored by Professor David Hulchanski of U of T’s Cities Centre, The Three Cities Within Toronto suggests that Toronto is divided into three different cities. Using 2006 census data, Hulchanski’s study updates his 2007 study that analyzed the the progression of Toronto’s city neighbourhoods from 1970 to 2001.

The report, published last month, divides Toronto into three “cities.” City #1 consists of high-income earners who are located in the city centre, close to subway lines. This group makes between 20 to 40 per cent above the median income for the city. City #2 and City #3 are the middle and lower income neighbourhoods respectively.

These three groups are defined by the average individual income of their residents. In the neighbourhoods of City #1, the average income is 20 per cent or more above the average individual income for the census metropolitan area as a whole. In City #2, the average income is within 20 per cent above or below the average. In City #3, the average income is 20 per cent or more below the average.

Hulchanski’s research validates his 2007 findings, which indicated that Toronto’s middle class is disappearing. Since 2001, four per cent of formerly middle-income neighbourhoods rose in income. Meanwhile, seven per cent of these middle-income neighbourhoods dropped to lower income status.
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Hulchanski stressed that these trends are not only limited to the city boundaries of Toronto. “The suburban municipalities around Toronto are subject to the same trends.”

Income is not the only dividing factor among the three cities. Population, visible minorities, and levels of education are all defining characteristics. City #1, City #2 and City #3 contain respectively 17, 38, and 43 per cent of Toronto’s total population. In 2006, 61 per cent of residents in City #1 had a post-secondary degree compared to 35 per cent in City #2 and 31 per cent in City #3.

Hulchanski’s research suggests that if this trend continues, by 2025 City #1 will consist of about 30 per cent of all Toronto’s neighbourhoods and City #3 will cover 60 per cent of the city. That would leave only 10 per cent of Toronto as middle-income neighbourhoods, down from 66 per cent in 1970.

While difficult, Hulchanski suggests that changes in public policy might halt this demographic progression. “We need the federal and provincial government to work together to fix this problem.”

The research was completed in consultation with both the University of Toronto and St. Christopher House. It was funded through the federal government’s Community-University Research Alliance program.

It’s personal

As the era of gene-based medicine comes increasingly closer, current scientific research is focused on identifying genes linked with disease. A complete DNA sequence harbours many variations and differences, ranging from small changes in a single letter of code, to variations in the number of copies of a gene. These variations are the focus of extensive investigation, as researchers try to link each variation with the risk of developing certain diseases, disease prognosis, and even a prediction of patients’ responses to medications.

However, when it comes to genome sequencing, there are two limiting factors in implementing scientific findings from the bench to the clinic: the cost, and the time involved.

In response to these limitations, a research group at Imperial College London has ambitiously sought to tackle the obstacles in genomic research by patenting a technology that they propose can sequence an individual’s genome within minutes. What’s more, while current commercial sequencing costs at least a couple of thousand dollars, these researchers propose that their technology will cost a fraction of that.

“It should be significantly faster and more reliable, and would be easy to scale up to create a device with the capacity to read up to 10 million bases per second, versus the typical 10 bases per second you get with the present day single molecule real-time techniques,” stated Dr Joshua Edel, lead researcher in the study, in a press release,

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In their study, published this month in the journal Nano Letters, the researchers describe this new method of chemical sequencing. They demonstrate that DNA strands can be rapidly propelled through a 50-nanometre pore, or nanopore, using an electrical charge in a silicon chip base. A tunnelling electrode junction recognizes the coding sequence as the strand comes out from the opposite face of the chip. A computer algorithm is then used to interpret the signal and construct the genome sequence.

Dr Christian Marshall, interim facility manager of The Centre for Applied Genomics’ DNA Sequencing Facility at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, states that the technology appears promising. “I think the technology is really interesting, and represents an important, however minute, step towards the ultimate goal of sequencing a single DNA molecule.”

Marshall also outlines the present limitations. “Obviously there is a long way to go and many details that have to be worked out [such as computing power] in order for the technology to be feasible.”

In the next ten years, the researchers anticipate that their technology will eventually be applied to create tools yielding complete genome sequences in a single lab procedure.

“The next step,” says Dr Tim Albrecht, an author of the study, “will be to differentiate between different DNA samples and, ultimately, between individual bases within the DNA strand. […] I think we know the way forward, but it is a challenging project and we have to make many more incremental steps before our vision can be realized.”

According to Marshall, “The timeline of ten years does seem reasonable for commercial implementation, and it will be interesting to see if the technology comes to fruition and is viable in this timeframe.”

If this technology eventually makes it into the clinic, the implications for healthcare will be enormous. With rapid genome sequencing, DNA from any patient can be obtained, and a picture of their unique susceptibility to diseases can be painted, opening the door for personalized medicine.

While it’s unlikely that this technology will be readily available to patients themselves, it will be at the disposal of healthcare providers, and may be a potential tool to further guide clinical decision-making. Clinicians would be equipped to see, at the molecular level, factors contributing to a patient’s disease, and could look to current research in appropriate management.

With DNA information available for individual patients, two patients with the “same” disease may not be treated with an identical therapeutic strategy. That’s not to say that genetic information alone plays a role in elucidating disease and patient characteristics. Rather, this knowledge can be combined with current clinical and laboratory tests to provide a more robust strategy for managing disease.

If this technology proves successful, its applications span far beyond DNA sequencing. Sequence information from viral and bacterial DNA can play a role in diagnosing infectious diseases, which would bypass the culturing process currently in place. In addition, other nucleic acids such as microRNAs may be predictive of disease outcomes, and can also be sequenced through this technology.

The extent to which this technology can improve patient care is also dependent on federal and provincial healthcare models. Will the government fund or subsidize such tests? Will there be immediate barriers to implementation? In any case, the utility of such a technology cannot be ignored.

As Marshall puts it, “Beyond the low cost and speed, sequencing single molecules would help us understand somatic genomic changes and have a huge impact on personalized genomic medicine.”

The ‘N-word’

Mark Twain was a man who liked being talked about. After the release of his autobiography last fall he was discussed in many papers, due to the book’s overwhelming success. This holiday season brought more media attention to feed the ghost of Twain’s ego with the publication of new, censored versions of his two most famous works: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. In the case of Huckleberry Finn, the book has removed the N-word (a racial slur used 219 times over the course of the novel) and replaced it with the word “slave.” This upset the literary world.

The New York Times wrote an op-ed about the replacement of the n-word and showed how such censorship has resulted in the life being sucked out of art. The article displayed lines from Shakespeare, rendered to be politically correct; they became plain pieces of poetry, worlds away from Shakespeare’s masterful prose. And, while it’s understandable for the literary world and artists to be up in arms over the censorship of Twain’s classic book, I feel it’s a slight overreaction.

The newly censored version of Twain’s book was produced by Alan Gribben, a professor of English in Auburn University at Montgomery, Alabama. Gribben produced this edition with the hope of seeing the book re-appear on school reading lists. Gribben believes that the book has been slowly disappearing from syllabi due to its harsh language. He wanted to present a more user-friendly version of the text, so that anyone who felt alienated or found the language too appalling could now read it. With these reasons in mind, I think it is absolutely fine to release a politically-correct version of the book. It would have been a larger issue if Gribben’s edition was going to replace the original. But the new version of Twain’s book should not be seen as some government “big brother” move that is attempting to destroy literature Fahrenheit 451-style. No, the edition has been produced by a professor of literature, who is attempting to widen the book’s readership. Is that not a virtuous goal?

Furthermore, it seems no different from musicians releasing cleaned-up versions of their songs. Censoring a song or an album opens up the artist’s work to a wider audience. For instance, rap tracks have for years been censored when played on the radio. In such songs the n-word has been used in such a way as to remove its original derogatory meaning, unlike Huckleberry Finn which only portrays the maliciousness of the word. But even with the empowering usage of the N-word in such songs, the term still gets censored along with other inappropriate phrases.

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Many may see the censorship of Huckleberry Finn not only as a violation of Twain’s original words, but something that undermines the central themes, tensions, and ironies of the novel. But while the removal of the n-word definitely weakens the overall harshness of the society that is being presented, the irony is not removed. African-Americans were horribly discriminated against and de-humanized, and while removing the racial slur used against blacks might make the world of that time seem less evil, the black characters are still being de-humanized — actions, and things said beyond the n-word in the novel, go so far as to present those very problems, to an even harsher degree than the use of the n-word. When a character asks Huck whether anyone got hurt in a boat explosion, does it really matter if Huck says “No Ma’am, a slave,” or “No Ma’am, a nigger”? The fact still remains, that the likeable child hero, Huck, after spending days on a raft with his runaway slave friend Jim, still doesn’t consider a black person a human being. It seems that the conflict and tensions of that time are in full effect, regardless of the N-word being there or not.

Unearthing the themes, ironies, and tensions of the novel (which I believe are the reasons why the original text should be studied at a post-secondary level): are those things somehow secondary to the literature itself? Can literature no longer be read and enjoyed for the sake of it? An artist doesn’t write something for its themes to be dissected by academics, so isn’t the argument that the censoring of the novel undermines the central themes of the book not itself undermining the very purpose of why the novel was written in the first place, which was to be read and enjoyed by readers?

While I fully support the study of English literature (The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is, after all, an exhilarating tale of a boy running away from home) can we really expect children in grade five to understand the full impact of the N-word when reading the story? The word would probably fly over the child’s head, if anything, and would be detrimental to their vocabulary. It thus seems beneficial to have a child-friendly version of the novel, so our youth can engage with classic literature. Some would argue that children shouldn’t be engaging in such a complex text, but that seems counter-productive. It is beneficial for the youth of our society to read classic literature, and if reading altered texts, they can go on to study the original text and dissect it to their hearts’ content when they enter university.

While it can seem like society’s attempts to make everything politically correct might seem overbearing and sometimes unnecessary, the censored version of Huckleberry Finn seems more beneficial than detrimental. It should be remembered that this is a censored version. The original text is not being banned. But offering readers a more inclusive version of the story is a good thing. And what would Mr. Twain want? He’d probably want to sell more books and have more people talking about him. Censored or uncensored, at the very least, Twain is still grabbing our attention.