The smoking stigma

This spring, some acquaintances and I were relaxing between exams at University College. Relaxing, to us, meant smoking.

A woman walked by in a huff. “You shouldn’t smoke here,” she said. But there were ashtrays installed next to where we stood. “This is a historic building,” she explained, “and smoking degrades things.”

Students have a longstanding tradition of congregating in the UC quad to smoke, a tradition which, presumably, dates back to “historic” times. While smoking is not particularly good for anything, I’ve never heard it cited as a leading cause of structural degradation.

Of course, smoking degrades the smoker, but she didn’t need to tell us that. Her implication seemed to be that smoking degrades a smoker’s moral character, and as a non-smoker, she therefore had the right to chastise us.

This is a common opinion and to refute it, given all the tangible damage that smoking causes is generally considered self-righteousness on the smoker’s part. But why did this woman feel so justified in scolding us?

Perhaps her quarrel is with the tobacco companies we support. Fair enough. The tobacco industry is obviously a nefarious one, and I wholeheartedly support activists like EBUTT, the student group that made U of T’s tobacco investments public (and successfully encouraged them to divest ten million dollars from cigarette companies).

Certainly, the consumer assumes some culpability. But, as everyone knows, the corporate lineages of most products are far from morally sound. So why harp on one purchase and not another?

Perhaps she had a loved one who died of a smoking-related illness. That would make her cause a noble one, but I doubt many would be sympathetic to someone who berated chefs at greasy spoons in order to avenge their father’s cholesterol-induced heart attack.

Maybe she was crusading on behalf of non-smokers forced to breathe in second-hand fumes. But we were outside, and as long as we were lit up, that was where we were staying.

To equate “smoker” with “inconsiderate asshole” is unfair. I wouldn’t smoke next to a stranger without asking. If it’s raining, the by-law states that I must brave the elements rather than risk endangering a bystander. I assume it would be futile to point out that we live in a polluted city, with almost daily smog alerts during the summer.

Maybe she has children, and doesn’t want them subjected to bad influences. In that case, she has her work cut out for her. Sure, recent studies have shown that onscreen smoking, for instance, can influence younger viewers. Common sense, however, says that classmates and parents have a much greater impact on a child’s decision to smoke. And parents, not strangers that children might encounter, are responsible for instilling good sense in their children in the first place.

Finally, she might resent the burden that we smokers present to the health care system, and therefore to her as a taxpayer. But I pay hundreds of dollars a year in tobacco taxes, not for nothing.

Everyone has a vice, whether tobacco, alcohol, or trans fat; we all have to indulge our self-destructive instincts somehow. Granted, some outlets are healthier than others, but one person’s stupid decision is not necessarily another’s business. I can only conclude that most people who go about haranguing peaceful, unobtrusive smokers do so based on personal prejudices rather than genuine concern for the greater good.

Something happened on the way to the funny

Hart House Theatre’s season kickoff production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum holds much enjoyment: an energetic and appealing cast, some creative—if not limiting—set design, plenty of dynamic dance numbers, and a terrific band. The quandary then is the show itself, an old chestnut which, despite noble efforts from many of the performers, was just not that funny.

Forum has a pretty basic plot—in Ancient Rome, three houses fill the stage—The House of Lycus (a.k.a., the local cathouse); the House of Senex, a wealthy and licentious citizen; and the House of Erronius—owned by an old man who’s hit the road in search of his children, stolen by pirates. Got that straight? Within that, there’s a cockeyed scheme by the adorable rapscallion slave Pseudolus to win his freedom by hooking up his smitten teenaged master Hero with the foxy virgin courtesan next door, a charmer by the name of Philia.

Leading the audience through the various ridiculous plots and schemes is Pseudolus, who seems to have a pretty sweet gig lined up considering he is able to spend most of his time getting up to no good. Cory Doran’s Pseudolus is charismatic and warm with a voice to match, but what he lacks is connection with many of the other performers on stage. Director Graham Maxwell’s choice to have him and most of the actors play the majority of the dialogue directly to the audience makes for an embarrassing amount of elbow-nudging against the fourth wall.

The best sequences come when Maxwell slows down some of the non-stop prat-falling/dashing about the stage. Certain numbers, like “Lovely,” between Hero and Philia are completely charming in their restrained silliness; relying on a few awkward leg movements to bring in the laughs. That being said, there was real chemistry between Hero (Robert Rainville) and Philia (Megan Nuttall). Their matched ingenuousness added a thread of candor within the manic wheeling about of some of the other scenes.

On that note, the houses on wheels got a little tiresome and didn’t really provide the sense of mobility that seemed to be the intention. Maxwell’s set, although eye-catching, had very little sense of the Greco-Roman, and began to feel rather claustrophobic by the middle of the first act. Because the houses surrounded a smaller opening downstage-centre, Maxwell’s design effectively hemmed in all the action, cramming the ensemble into what felt like a space that would be a tight squeeze even for a SmartCar. And that reminds me—what was with the Trojan product placement? It’s one thing to give a half-page programme ad to a sponsor, but to actually incorporate a brazenly modernday banner into the pseudo-ancient action, that’s just discouraging! Also conspicuously out of place were placards with Arabic numerals. In ancient Rome didn’t they use, ah, Roman numerals?

Acknowledgement must be accorded to the ladies—and gentleman— who made up the company of courtesans. In a way, they’re the ones with the most thankless roles (and the least clothing), but they bring a definite sexiness to the staid suggestiveness of the book. The same praise is due to Matt Selby’s Miles Gloriosus, a swaggering general more taken with himself than anyone else.

In spite of the cheesy songs and vaguely uninteresting storyline, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum is still a good time, if only because—to paraphrase a line from one of the numbers—the cast and general atmosphere are positively winsome.

A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum runs until September 29th.

Who is caring for Gaza’s refugees?

This summer was a disastrous one for Palestinians. After months of stalled negotiations, their Hamas-Fatah unity government was fractured in June. Fighting broke out between the two factions, and when the smoke cleared militant group Hamas had taken control of the Gaza Strip, while Fatah retained the West Bank.

As the governments of Israel and the West become ever more involved in the dispute between Hamas and Fatah, Gazans have become the victims of not only a crippling Israeli occupation, but the political maneuverings of leaders from all sides who seem unwilling to do anything to help them.

Despite the fact that 1.5 million Gaza refugees live in intense poverty, the West, Israel, and even Fatah have cut off aid to the region since Hamas took over. As long as Hamas is in power, it seems Gazans will be left to wallow in their misery. While leaders pass blame around like a live grenade, who is really responsible for the disaster in Gaza?

The finger must be pointed at Hamas. In clinging to the doctrine of military resistance against Israel, they condemn their people to defeat. It is time for them to realize that armed struggle against Israel is ineffective and has failed to emancipate the Palestinians.

But the United States and the European Union are also complicit in Gaza’s troubles. They demand that Hamas must renounce violence once and for all in order to receive aid, yet they make no such demands of Israel. The Jewish state receives billions of dollars’ worth of military aid each year, using it to build an army that has killed innocents on a scale that Hamas can only dream of.

The U.S. and E.U. must end their economic and diplomatic boycott of Gaza and acknowledge the unfortunate reality that Hamas is a democraticallyelected major player in the region. No solution can be reached without their inclusion.

Israel too is contributing to the suffering of Gaza’s refugees. They have effectively sealed off the borders to the Gaza Strip, bringing the region’s already meagre economy to a standstill. Palestinians are dying at border crossings because they can’t access proper medical care on the outside. Electricity, supplied to Gaza by an Israeli company, has been periodically shut off, plunging hundreds of thousands of people into darkness for days at a time.

But what is truly astonishing is that even Fatah, which under Yassir Arafat became synonymous with the Palestinian cause, will do nothing to aid Gaza.

While Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas is touted by Israel and her allies as more “moderate” than Hamas, what they really mean is that he is more likely to do what Israel wants. While at university, Abbas speculated in his doctoral thesis that the number of Jews killed in the Holocaust might have only been a few hundred thousand, and that Zionists had inflated the number to gain sympathy for a Jewish state. This is not the kind of person Israel would normally praise as “moderate.”

Despite these clearly anti-Semitic leanings, Abbas has become Israel’s go-to guy in Palestine, for the sole reason th at he does what Israel wants. Adhering to the old strategy of divide and conquer, Israel has demanded that he not attempt to heal the rift between Hamas and Fatah, and Abbas has obliged. In August, he even took the unprecedented step of quashing a UN draft resolution expressing concern about the humanitarian disaster Gazans are facing under the economic boycott.

Since his defeat by Hamas in the 2006 elections confirmed that he does not have the support of the majority of his people, Abbas’ only legitimate claim to leadership is that he is the only Palestinian with whom Israel and the U.S. will negotiate. Now, he will apparently do anything he can to maintain that position, even if it means abandoning Gaza.

The world may one day grant Palestinians leaders who are capable of bringing them out of the darkness they have been mired in for 60 years, but for now they are surely nowhere to be found.

No more condos, please

In the spring of 2007, Toronto was ranked as one of the best places in Canada to buy real estate. A centre for scholarship, employment and tourism, more people are flocking to live here every year, but space is getting tight. Very tight.

Downtown Toronto is stretching to its breaking point with new condominium developments sprouting up like weeds. In the last few years some 17 000 units have been built. It seems like every week, another parking lot, old resturant or struggling corner store is scrapped for the sake of another shiny glass condo.

U of T’s campus is surrounded by developing real estate, the most recent example of which is on the north side of Bloor street where construction is set to begin on a high tower, replacing storefronts and restaurants. All these units may be necessary for our city’s growing population, but how much is too much?

The architecture of condominiums is generic, and is now clogging our skyline. Construction cranes and hard hats have filled our city and coupled with garish work sites and giant pits perforating the downtown core, they are quickly turning Toronto into a concrete jungle.

Pedestrians must navigate construction blocks and parking lots, clogging traffic. Tall, dominating towers create hideous shadows and often block out natural sunlight. Moreover, in erecting all these condos we are creating residential areas devoid of natural green spaces and backyards. However, there are more than just cosmetic criticisms of condominiums in Toronto. Increasingly, condo builders are responding to a newer, larger market. Once reserved for the rich, condos are coming down in price and are being built more cheaply. Often environmental sustainability suffers on this account. Rushed and inexpensive construction sites often do not incorporate green roofs, solar power, or energy saving tools as they would increase fees for tenants, making units less and less sellable.

While Toronto has a vested interest in building more housing, city landmarks and neighbourhood hang outs are often targets of construction. Toronto landmarks are at risk of being built over to create more housing. Even our beloved CN Tower competes for attention in the skies with the bevy of condos surrounding it. Toronto must limit the number of new developments in downtown Toronto to save its cultural integrity and pedestrian traffic. Condos might be classy and sophisticated, but only in small doses.

Girl Talk and Dan Deacon get rowdy

My toes are still aching from last Wednesday night. The overzealous crowd of hipsters, club urchins, and fresh-outta-Frosh-week party kids that populated the sold-out show showed no mercy in their fight to claw/elbow/stomp and otherwise propel their sweaty bodies closer to Pitchfork-darling Gregg Gillis (a.k.a. Girl Talk).

The Philly-based mash up DJ responded to his frenzied followers with a lush and generous set, looping together a collection of samples so massive and eclectic that it’s difficult to distinguish whether Gillis is a genius or just ADD-addled. Either way, the crowd ate up his blend of Dance Cave tunes and spaz-attack beats with eager energy.

An impromptu dance party epitomized the evening, with throngs of concertgoers helping each other climb onto the Phoenix’s stage to thrash around the shirtless DJ and his glowing laptop. Not even the predictable security cleanup that ensued—which almost led to the performer himself being carted offstage by a confused guard—could put a bump in the buzz, which culminated in a communal sing along to a sample of ‘70s band Pilot’s cheesy tune, “Magic.”

Though shorter and less rowdy than Girl Talk’s frenetic contribution, co-headliner Dan Deacon’s set of bizarrely endearing electro- absurdism was arguably the highlight of the night. Deacon, a portly guy with thinning hair and grandpa glasses, had scenesters and cool kids alike clamoring to rub shoulders with him as his distorted vocals scraped against a mix of pulsing beats and cheerful synthesized tunes. Unfortunately, conditions in the stiflingly overcrowded concert hall foiled Deacon’s attempts at orchestrating a friendly dance-off, the initiative quickly deteriorated into neartrampling chaos causing toes to get stomped on and glasses to be flung off of poor, nearsighted faces.

Opener White Williams channeled Joy Division in a pleasant but otherwise unremarkable set, providing a mellow backdrop for initial beers and washroom runs before the crowd got too territorial.

Metropass hits $109

The estimated 70 per cent of U of T students who rely on the TTC for daily transit are facing yet another fare hike, the eighth in 11 years. University students who buy discount metropasses from the UTSU offi ce face a hike from $87 to $96, an increase of 10 per cent. Those buying metropasses at regular prices will pay $109, up from $99.75.

UTSU and student unions at York, George Brown College and Ryerson, and the Canadian Federation of Students— Ontario, jointly condemned the fare hike in a Sept. 13 statement. The statement urged city council to keep transit affordable and called on the provincial government to “pay its fair share.”

The University of Toronto Students Union sells up to 12,000 discounted metropasses per month as part of the TTC’s Volume Incentive Program, according to UTSU VP external Dave Scrivener. The hike is supposed to make up for a projected $100 million shortfall in the TTC’s 2008 operating budget. At U of T alone, the hike should generate between $432,000 and $1,296,000 annually.

“It makes a pretty big difference for a commuter student,” said Scrivener of the $9 hike.

Scrivener noted that the increased cost of discount metropasses could limit the number of passes UTSU can afford to buy on behalf of students. UTSU orders its VIP metropasses in bulk, paying the TTC and then making the money back by selling the passes to students at cost. Scrivener warned that the “seed” money UTSU uses to run the program will likely not buy enough passes to meet student demand.

Jiwoong Choi, a second-year commerce student who commutes to the downtown campus, hadn’t heard of the upcoming hike, and wasn’t worried.

“Nine dollars isn’t really a signifi – cant amount,” he initially said about the increase.

Choi, a user of UTSU’s discount metropass program, then remarked that the small discount was a factor in his fi nances.

“It always helps out,” he said of the VIP metropass price, which, after the hike, will be only a dollar less than the metropass’s current regular price.

Dev Saxena blamed the city’s, and the TTC’s, fi nancial woes on provincial mismanagement and competition between cities for funding. He said that even as transit becomes a less attractive option for him, it’s still the only choice.

“It’s inconvenient,” he said. “They’ve definitely got the monopoly on public transit. The alternative is taxis, which are substantially more expensive.”

Asked if student unions play an important role in the price of transit, the fourth-year Poli Sci and Economics major was blunt: “No.”

The TTC’s announcement came hot on the heels of news of service cuts city-wide, with community centres, libraries, public pools, and other services running on severely reduced hours to cope with a budget shortfall. Among these cuts was a $26.6 million reduction in TTC funding.

Toronto mayor David Miller said the cuts were necessary unless city council agrees to pass two proposed taxes at an Oct. 22 vote.

“City Council has an opportunity to put this city on a path to a sustainable future and we must seize it,” Mayor Miller said in a Sept. 13 statement.

The two taxes, on real estate sales and vehicle registration, are projected to make $350 million a year for the cash-strapped city. Some of the money raise by the vehicle registration tax was earmarked for transit.

Asked whether UTSU had a position on the Oct. 22 vote, Scrivener said that UTSU considers the city’s budget problems the result of provincial funding policies in place since Mike Harris’s Conservative government of 1995-2002. He added, however, that he had urged any city councillor he met with to approve the new taxes.

Self-publish or perish?

“When people first started thinking about what putting art and literature online might be like, they had a sort of sexier idea of the way that it would work,” says former Coach House senior editor and Wilfred Laurier communications professor Darren Wershler-Henry. “There’s a kind of gap between what the publishing world is doing and the kinds of content that people tend to get excited about.”

Wershler-Henry was speaking at a panel discussion, “Free-conomics: Free Culture and the Future of Creative Content,” on October 13 as part of BookNet Canada’s series analyzing intersections between book publishing and emerging technology. While publishing has been slower than other cultural industries to undergo a web-revolution, individuals are increasingly using avenues such as blogs to self-publish. The industry is starting to take notice.

Wershler-Henry notes that one reason the industry has yet to fully embrace the Internet as a medium is the stretched resources most small presses face: “everyone is so busy getting by doing what they’re doing, making books and publishing them and getting them out into the world, that the idea of trying to figure out how to do all this digital stuff on top of it has just seemed so daunting.”

He notes that several publishers are currently exploring different mixes of online and traditional formats. While he was at Coach House, the press began publishing books online, a move that even today could be considered ahead of the curve. But the industry has yet to reach any agreement on questions of what to sell and what to give away for free.

To help answer some of those questions, publishers are looking to other cultural industries that have embraced online media. The other speaker at the panel on Thursday, Gregg Taylor, is the founder of Decoder Ring Theatre, an independent theatre company that has moved to producing audio-dramas distributed as podcasts. Radio-dramas in the styles of the 1930s and ’40s aren’t what most commercial radio stations are looking for, yet Decoder Ring Theatre has been able to make it work through podcasts and voluntary listener- support donations on paypal. Taylor’s model could easily be applied to publishing poetry.

In much of Canadian publishing, says Taylor, the question at the heart of cultural creation remains “Would you do it if no one was paying you?” He argues that those who don’t answer to some extent, “Yes”, don’t have what it takes to become a success in the industry.

To those, Andrew Keen among them, who argue that online “amateur” culture is destroying the potential for “professional” culture (or culture that people can make a living at), Taylor and Wershler-Henry agree that publishers will continue to play the same role, as reliable filters of cultural product that consumers can turn to for expert advice. Online publishing may form a kind of “farm team” for the existing industry.

It’s an opinion directly contradicting Keen’s own. Where Wershler-Henry follows O’Reilly Media’s experiments in online publishing for potential models, Keen in his freshly-published Cult of the Amateur targets O’Reilly as Web 2.0’s main evangelizer.

Keen, founder of the now-defunct audiocafe. com, argues in his book that what is passed off as “democratized” online media is, in fact, “the noise of a hundred million bloggers all simultaneously talking about themselves.” Keen sees the end result for traditional media vastly different from that proposed by Taylor: “the free, user-generated content spawned and extolled by the Web 2.0 revolution is decimating the ranks of our cultural gatekeepers, as professional critics, journalists, editors, musicians, moviemakers, and other purveyors of expert information are being replaced.”

There’s an argument to be made for the other side though. According to Wershler- Henry, the number of amateur media analysts who provided evidence questioning the authenticity of documents in a 60 Minutes report tarnishing George W. Bush’s military record, is a counterargument to Keen’s self-described elitism.

SFSS seeks split

This spring, 78 per cent of Simon Fraser University students voted in a non-binding plebiscite to defederate from the Canadian Federation of Students-BC—at least, that’s what the Simon Fraser Student Society says.

SFSS issued a notice of withdrawal following that referendum, but CFS did not accept the plebiscite, which they claim was not conducted in accordance with the federation’s by-laws. However, the organizations have apparently agreed on a schedule to have the referendum by March 2008.

“The result of plebiscite means that students want to get out, and the SFSS is going ahead with the process under CFS by-laws,” said SFSS president Derrick Harder.

CFS alleged that the ballot was written in biased language.

Harder said that according to CFS bylaws, student societies are required to submit a petition signed by 10 per cent of the student body, after which a referendum providing enough time for student groups to respond with “yes” or “no” campaigns would be needed before a student union may quit the federation.

Harder said that he had not spoken to CFS President Amanda Aziz since March. “She is hard to get a hold of,” he said.

Harder said SFU students were dissatisfied with CFS-BC because it was “internally dysfunctional…ineffective as a lobby organization…and costing too much.”

Being federated with the CFS costs SFU students $400,000 a year, he explained, and said he believed that they were not getting any returns from it.

The current board of SFSS executives were elected after seven members of the last board were impeached in a court case involving a controversial fi ring.

SFSS has been part of CFS since 1981.