The fantastic four

On Saturday, the Varsity women’s tennis team won its fourth straight gold medal against Université du Montreal 4-3. The win capped off a season where the Blues went 5-2 and won a thrilling semi-final match against York 4-3 on Friday, after a third doubles match in which Aisha Bhimla and Maia Kirk won 8-7 to boost the Blues into the finals.

“It’s an unbelievable feeling,” said Blues coach Nabil Tadros. “I am really happy for the new players, that’s where the real excitement is. This is something they will talk about for the rest of their lives.”

The Blues were led by the strong play of their number one, Natalia Lech, who extended her twoyear unbeaten streak, winning in straight sets in the finals. “I just played my game. I did what I had to do and came through,” she said.

The Blues were able to take the doubles point with two demanding 8-2 wins. This was due to great serving and smart baseline action, forcing errors on Montreal’s part.

“Our doubles have great chemistry,” said Blues player Roxana Soica, “everyone here gets along so well that it creates a no-pressure atmosphere and you can just play without worry.”

The Blues were not as strong in the singles matches, but managed to hold off Montreal for the 4-3 victory. The highlight of the singles matches was Roxana Soica’s straight sets 7-5, 7-5 victory, coming back from 5-2 and 5-3 deficits in the first and second sets, respectively.

“I just had to play, and not think. I adjusted to the way the game was going and played my slice shots. You just can’t give up,” explained Soica.

“This just shows the type of pressure player Roxana is. She has a great competitive edge and being down 5-2 is nothing for her,” said Tadros.

Throughout the afternoon the Blues played tough and made the shots they had to, frustrating a Montreal squad with their precise use of the width and length of the court.

“It isn’t enough for a player to be able to play the court up and down. They must be able to move side to side and that is where our players were able to play their shots to capitalize,” said Tadros. This victory shows the strength and power of the women’s tennis program at U of T. With four straight OUA championships, the women have become strong opponents to OUA teams. They now hold the record for the most number of consecutive gold medal wins in OUA championship history, beating York’s record. Though they lost two matches this year, their ability to win close matches and capitalize in important situations, like against Montreal on Saturday, show how good the team and the tennis program have been.

“Each year we have new players. This year we were fortunate enough to get players like Aisha Bhimla, Maia Kirk, and Roxana Soica. They are all top players and they bring something special to our team,” Tadros said. “School comes first. For the ladies on this team to play so strongly and be into their studies shows just the kind of people they are,” he remarked.

Saturday was far from cloudy for women’s tennis—it was golden.

Massive monolith makes Massey master…angry

The Rotman School of Management’s planned new building on St. George Street is not sitting well with its neighbour, Massey College. While the move will relocate the Classics department, CIUT radio, the Sexual Education and Peer Counseling Centre, and the adjacent parking lot, students of Massey College with have to put up with numerous annoyances in their backyard—the new structure will be built directly to the west of the picturesque college.

John Fraser, the master of Massey College, evinced displeasure over the prospect of the proposed 10 to 13-storey tower casting a shadow over the main courtyard where students spend much of their spare time. “It will just be gruesome if they get that height,” he told the Globe & Mail. “The only positive thing to say about this is it will block our view of Robarts.”

Fraser is optimistic that Rotman’s plans will fall through. “Many projects get approval but don’t get done,” he said.

While this has certainly been the case in the past, as with the 46-storey condominium proposed by the ROM in 2005 that was cancelled due to fierce community opposition, it seems unlikely that Massey will win this battle. Roger Martin, Rotman’s dean, has relentlessly pursued the goal of positioning Rotman as one of the best in the world. The plans call for the tower to be completed by 2011, and by 2015 Rotman hopes to increase its faculty and student body by 50 per cent.

Fraser is also concerned about noise pollution that construction will bring. The college is home to 60 graduate students, who had similar thoughts. “The reality is, is that with any project of this kind there are both positives and negatives,” said James Harrington, a U of T student. “In this case it seems that U of T believes the positive implications of a brand new building for the business school far outweigh the negative ones such as casting a shadow over our quad or generating a lot of noise.”

Money can’t buy you love

Another $200 million for nothing. Well, $195,229,045 to be exact, but you get the idea. This was the amount the New York Yankees spent on player salaries in 2007, only to fail in their quest to live up to the Steinbrenner Doctrine—win the World Series or else.

The recent 3-1 series loss in the American League Division Series to the Cleveland Indians stretches the Yankees’ championship drought to seven years. At some point during that time, I became what I thought I’d never become: a frustrated Yankee fan.

People say that liking the Yankees is akin to cheering for Microsoft, and if that’s true, then the past seven years have been one giant iPod commercial with dashed playoff hopes taking the place of annoying music.

During the glory days of the late ’90s, all I heard from jealous Yankee haters was the tired and factually incorrect cliché that “money buys championships.” However, the Yankees have seen trying times since their unraveling in Game 7 of the 2001 World Series. They have been unable to fill the gaps left by clutch performers like Paul O’Neill, Tino Martinez, and Scott Brosius, despite a run of unprecedented spending that seemed to all but guarantee a championship at some point.

But they have failed to win one, making the Yankees the latest and most conclusive proof that money does not buy championships, it merely stands in for wise personnel decisions, and gives the illusion of impending success that rarely ever materializes.

For seven years, the Yankees have been playing their own style of moneyball—essentially throwing in as much cash as they can at the wall and hoping it sticks.

It’s no shocker that the Yankees’ core players during the glory days were mostly home-grown talent, and the act of bringing in increasingly bigger names for increasingly higher salaries (Mike Mussina, Gary Sheffield, Randy Johnson, Alex Rodriguez) has done nothing but raise the team’s expectations to unreasonable levels. Winning a championship should be an ideal, not a necessity.

But it’s not just the Yankees who are guilty of thoughtless spending. Examples can be found in European soccer, where London’s Chelsea Football Club have in recent years transformed themselves from an average, mid-table finisher to one of the biggest clubs in Europe, setting transfer records in the process. Yet they have failed to win the UEFA Champions League, the trophy designated as the ultimate goal by team owner and Russian oil magnate Roman Abramovich.

For further proof, look to Real Madrid and their collection of “Galacticos,” a team of international all-stars who failed to even win the domestic league title before they were broken up.

This problem even exists at a local level. In the years before the NHL leveled the playing field with a salary cap, it was our beloved Maple Leafs who spent carelessly. The Leafs’ payroll was up there with other big-market teams like the Detroit Red Wings, Dallas Stars and Colorado Avalanche, yet among these teams, it was only the Leafs who came away with nothing to show for it. Despite a payroll that placed the Leafs consistently among the top spenders in the league, we’ve remain cup-less since 1967. But I’m sure no Torontonian needs a reminder of that.

For the Leafs, trade deadline quick-fixes became the norm. The team would acquire a bunch of aging veterans (Owen Nolan, Brian Leetch, Phil Housley, Doug Gilmour, the list goes on) at mid-season and be promptly eliminated from the playoffs by a younger team that had been put together more cohesively.

In each of these cases, teams have favoured a high-priced free agent over a role player who would better fit the team’s needs. The problem only gets worse with time, as said free agent’s value decreases considerably each year, leading to a Jason Giambi-type situation where a player is owed tens of millions despite a complete inability to perform at a professional level.

Regardless of the cause—be it a 40-year championship drought (the Leafs), a meddling and unreasonable Boss (the Yankees) or just plain stupidity (see Baltimore Orioles or New York Rangers for more on this)—an unlimited budget inevitably leads to poor decision making as a way to appease the fans, the owner, or both.

Is the Yankee dynasty really over? I’d rather wait until they miss the playoffs to make that call. But through the mismanagement of the nearly $1.3 billion the team has spent on player salaries over the last seven years, proves that reckless spending is definitely not the cure for the championship blues.

Home page on the range

If you remember your spaghetti westerns, the greatest threat to a cowboy isn’t a shootout— it’s the settlements slowly encroaching on the frontier and his way of life. So it goes in the world of IT at U of T.

Stefan Zukotynski doesn’t look like a cowboy. He wears glasses and the list of research interests on his web site includes “plasma assisted chemical vapour deposition of thin film amorphous semiconductors.” Stefan Zukotynski is definitively un-cowboy-like in every way, except in his relation to the Learning Management System known as CCNet.

In software development, “cowboy coding” is used to describe a distinctly individualistic, go-it-alone methodology. CCNet—decidedly unflashy and functional—had “cowboy” written all over it. Before moving to U of T’S Central Networking Services at its height, the server containing a large portion of the university’s grades was kept under Zukotynski’s desk. “It was really organic,” says Zukotynski, “there was never any marketing push or anything like that.”

In the 2004-05 school year, 1,856 courses at U of T used CCNet and 150, mostly confined to the Faculty of Medicine, used Blackboard. But as of October, according to the Arts & Science Vice- Dean Students Suzanne Stevenson, the edge has shifted to Blackboard (58 per cent of A&S courses, as opposed to CCNet’s 40 per cent).

When Zukotynski got frustrated trying to develop a course page using WebCT (since bought out by Blackboard) in 2002, he enlisted the aid of a student, Keyvan Mohajer, who further developed the software after graduation, extending usage to other professors. CCNet was born.

Zukotynski argues that in contrast to Blackboard, CCNet was easy for professors to learn. “We have to make it very easy, extremely user friendly, so that an average instructor can start using it quickly.”

In June 2007 the university told Zukotynski— and all U of T instructors—that CCNet would not be receiving university support this year. When they came back to Zukotynski in August, because Blackboard could not yet carry all the university’s courses, he shot back with, for the first time, a licensing fee: the same amount Blackboard was getting per course. “That, I think, scared them out of their minds.” No riding into the sunset just yet.

His is a compelling story, but according to Marden Paul, the university’s director of strategic computing, CCNet is a cowboy competing with at least half a dozen other LMSs for university resources. Frontier life at U of T is fast disappearing. Settlement encroaches.

U of T’s IT frontier could be said to run along the very unassuming Galbraith Road, with the Galbraith Building on one side and Simcoe Hall on the other. In fact, the geographic midpoint between Zukotynski’s office and the office of Marden Paul could very easily be the parking attendant booth.

As overseer of how all the disparate parts of the school’s IT connect—not just LMS, but also things like the online library and classroom podiums— you’d expect Paul to have a different perspective than Zukotynski’s. And he does, but it’s due to the experience of one who has gone to the frontier and come back, realizing that a person can’t live the cowboy lifestyle— and stay sane—forever.

When Paul talks about his experiences coding (for a large clothing company, and then United Way), there’s a certain swagger in his voice, an individualism that was present in Zukotynski’s story as well. But his employers’ dependence on Paul came back to haunt him. Until about 2002, he kept an old DOS PC at his U of T desk in case the company called, needing some new code. This arrangement, Paul is the first to admit, was more than a bit silly—and pretty risky for his former employer.

Like companies in a capitalist economy, like universities, it is the nature of software programs to expand and multiply. There comes a point where there can be no wild west anymore, because there’s no land to roam on. In Paul’s telling, the numerous email systems (at least 128) once used at the university is a classic case of the tragedy of the commons.

In his 1968 article “The Tragedy of the Commons,” Garrett Hardin borrowed an example from William Forster Lloyd to illustrate the existence of “no technical solution problems.” In a pasture open to all, every herdsman will be motivated to add an animal to his herd because he shares the cost of the ensuing environmental degradation with everyone else using the commons, while sharing the profit of that extra animal with only himself. This human behaviour leads to ruin for all.

Ironically, information technology— or, more accurately, the proliferation of IT core systems, such as email, calendars, and LMS in the face of limited university resources—can be described as a no technical solution problem.

“This allocation is not malicious or intentional, it’s just what happens over time because the core service is essentially not as good as the one I can do locally, and that makes a lot of sense until time passes,” says Paul. When a user chooses a program, that user enjoys the freedom and individualism of a homegrown LMS, while dividing the negative aspects of decentralized core services with everyone else in the university. As an aggregate, this can lead to a misallocation of the university’s resources: the cost of Blackboard is paid many times over in the cost of several cowboy LMSs.

Drowning in Blackwater Private security firm has been getting away with murder in Iraq

The suggested retail price of an Iraqi civilian’s life? $8 million. Last Tuesday, Reuters reported that the Iraqi government is asking that amount from Blackwater, the private security firm, to compensate the families of 17 Iraqis killed in a September 16 shootout.

According to an investigation initiated by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, Blackwater agents “deliberately killed” innocent civilians in Baghdad on Sept. 16. The Iraqi government says the shootings were unprovoked and therefore the contractors must be tried for murder.

Politicians and policymakers can create as many investigative committees as they would like (there are already at least three underway), but it is unlikely the American and Iraqi government will ever agree on how the tragedy unfolded. A lack of accountability is the issue getting lost in this storm of he said, she said. There is no collective agreement because the shooters were not American soldiers and investigation cannot be completed as easily as it would be for an army caravan.

Upwards of 30,000 Blackwater agents are employed in Iraq, protecting diplomats and officials considered to be high-risk targets. After the U.S. Army, private military contractors are the largest non-Iraqi force in the country.

Blackwater CEO Erik Prince defended his employees during a Congressional hearing last week, arguing that those in the convoy on Sept. 16 had lawfully defended the caravan after they were attacked from the crowd. But past episodes have shown that even if Blackwater agents do kill innocents, the repercussions are few in a country where scores die every day.

Last Christmas Eve, a drunken Blackwater employee shot and killed one of Iraqi Vice President’s bodyguards. The employee was fired and rushed out of the country but he has yet to be charged. Blackwater employees cannot be prosecuted under Iraqi law, ever since U.S. Ambassador Paul Bremner issued an order giving them immunity in the aftermath in the U.S. invasion. Only after the latest incident did Congress pass a law making security contractors in Iraq subject to U.S. law. For every event that the U.S. State Department ignores, they condone Blackwater’s mistakes. These people are performing the duties of soldiers and should be treated as such—that means the same punishment and the same paycheque—but private contractors in Iraq are paid nine times as much as uniformed men and women.

With such a difference in salary, no wonder there is a growing suspicion that the company is not only getting paid to protect American officials, but also to do the dirty work so that the U.S. military can wash their hands clean. Why else would America be willing to turn their head the other way, knowing that Blackwater members are a reflection of the military and Americans in Iraq? The only possibilities are that the command was so distracted and disorganized that they were unaware of the boundaries crossed by the private company, or that they were willing to overlook the lost lives of innocents for the end result a safer environment for U.S. officials. This mindset makes the United States military no different from the terrorists who justify their means by their ends.

There’s an elephant in the investigation rooms in Washington. The reality of the situation is that American forces are heavily dependent on Blackwater. The firm’s employees are highly trained and specialized and the United States simply cannot afford to take over all operations. A report from National Public Radio said that if Blackwater was forced to leave the area, America would need to deploy another 500,000 troops in their place. In an already unpopular war, neither Democrats nor Republicans want to talk about sending more young men and women overseas. While government officials waste their time arguing over who fired the first shot, Blackwater will most likely maintain their status in Iraq because there is no clean alternative. Hopefully, public scrutiny will ensure closer supervision by the State Department, as promised by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

When almost every headline reports another casualty, it’s easy to grow numb to the cost of war. The victims in that square in September included a 20-year-old medical student and his mother, brothers, cousins, and children. They were not soldiers, but citizens holding on to every thread of hope and faith to continue with their daily lives in a war-torn country. Had this happened anywhere in West, the world would have stood still. In Iraq however, it seems the culprits can simply drive their armoured SUVs away.

Naked streets get you there fast (and happy)

A European urban street design approach shown to reduce traffic and increase pedestrian space might make its way to Toronto, after being discussed at last week’s Walk21 conference, which aimed to build healthy, efficient walking communities.

Shared streets first appeared in the Netherlands 40 years ago, when Dutch engineer Hans Monderman started designing intersections without traffic signals or markings.

“The trouble with traffic engineers is that when there’s a problem with a road, they always try to add something,” Monderman said.

“To my mind, it’s much better to remove things.”

Monderman’s concept supposes that shared streets don’t need signs and markings because people are guided by the physical design of the streets themselves. He suggested that people take fewer risks when unaware of their driving environment and as a result, will drive at slower speeds and use more caution when in traffic.

He argued that removing simple separations and directives from roads forces people and cars to think as they negotiate their way through space.

“When you don’t exactly know who has right of way, you tend to seek eye contact with other road users,” said Monderman. “You automatically reduce your speed, you have contact with other people and you take greater care.”

Shared streets are designed to be part of the public area, not just an outlet for traffic. Vehicles are considered as users who take up space, on equal footing with pedestrians and other road users. Rather than setting cars and pedestrians against each other for street space, shared streets integrate them together as a whole. Therefore, according to the principle, all users have equal access and control of the street.

The idea is to make street users understand that they’re in a shared environment, and then behave accordingly. Since Monderman’s Dutch creation, shared streets—or “naked streets,” as streets are “stripped” of signs and markings—have been making their way all over northern Europe, to the UK and most recently, to the streets of New York City

Searching for privacy

There is something about the relationship of a person and an Internet search engine that should involve complete anonymity. We type in a few words, they belch out a few more. Generally speaking, such an arrangement works well, and we don’t have to worry about whether somebody from the other side of the globe is viewing our house at that instant. Unfortunately, in parts outside of Canada, people do. Google Maps has implemented a “Street View” function, which allows users to zoom close enough to identify faces or license plates. Fortunately, in Canada, where reason and thought process play a much bigger role in politics than they do in the United States, this spiffy new Google feature will require the blurring of faces and other personal objects.

Is blurring really enough? There are always other ways to identify someone, namely by their body type or clothing, or even by where they are located. An eerie camera-happy world is steadily descending upon us, slipping into our streets and our intersections subtly, feeding the concept of privacy to a new technological monster that wants to see everybody in great upclose clarity. We have cameras virtually everywhere. They’re placed strategically on intersections, in schools, in stores, in workplaces, and even in some public washrooms. Our world is bloated with clever ways to monitor and control.

There is, of course, a fundamental difference between the cameras we encounter on a day-to-day basis and those that would allow us to be seen from hundreds, even thousands of miles away by people we’ve never met. The former protect us from theft, vandalism, and other such threats prevalent in society today, and the latter are there simply for the reason of… wait, what are they there for exactly? Surely purchasing a simple road map at the local hardware store shouldn’t be that hard. And if Google is assuming that people need to zoom in that close to find a location, then their picture of humans in general is unintelligent.

Canada’s Personal Information Protection and Electronic Document Act requires all private companies to obtain consent from individuals before making public any image of them, which may affect the Google tool’s introduction to Canada if the images are not sufficiently censored. All this being said, the question remains: is this enough protection? Do we really want our houses, not to mention us, displayed on the Internet, where millions will have access to the images, blurred or not? As individuals, we should maintain strict personto- computer relationships that exist with search engines like Google. We search. They give us results. They don’t publicly display where we live or what we’re doing sitting on a park bench eating an ice-cream.

Wintersleep rise and shine

Tireless east-coast rockers Wintersleep have been a busy band this year. Last week they released a new record, Welcome to the Night Sky, on a new record label, and have just embarked on a cross-country tour with a new bass player.

“Yeah, there’s a lot of news, I guess,” said singer Paul Murphy on the phone from his home in Halifax.

The changes began back in the summer of 2006 when Wintersleep were approached by Labwork, a new record label started as a partnership between indie imprint/institution Sonic Union and EMI Canada. Labwork made Wintersleep their first signees and quickly saw to re-releasing the band’s excellent first two LPs Wintersleep, and Untitled.

So, considering the dual nature of Labwork’s partnership, is the label an indie or a major? “It makes them an indie label with the possibility of major label involvement,” said Murphy over the background din of Radiohead’s In Rainbows. “It’s an indie with perks.”

One such perk was having “Weighty Ghost,” the first single off Welcome to the Night Sky, remixed by Michael Bauer (Coldplay, My Morning Jacket). Another was working with producer Tony Doogan (known for his knob twisting with artists like Belle and Sebastian, Mogwai, and David Byrne), who flew from his home base in Glasgow, Scotland to record Welcome to the Night Sky in Halifax.

“He was amazing,” said the always affable Murphy of Doogan. “It seemed like he was an actual member in the band. He knew how to get really good takes out of us.”

For Wintersleep, Welcome to the Night Sky will be their last record with bass player Judd Haynes, who left the band right after recording was finished to spend more time at his job as a graphic designer.

“Going on tour for two months at a time just got to be too much for him, and he knew we would be really busy with this new record,” said Murphy.

Stepping in to fill Haynes’ place on bass is Mike Bigelow (of Holy Fuck) who actually played keys in Wintersleep once upon a time.

Known for being rampant road warriors, I asked Murphy about Wintersleep’s upcoming tour and what he liked least about being away from home. “Right now I can’t think of anything bad about being on tour, I’m just really excited to go back on the road. The best thing, of course, is the show. That’s the reason why you’re there.”

Wintersleep’s fall tour takes them clear across Canada—and back— with two stops in Toronto and one stop in New York City. While they don’t anticipate any trouble crossing the U.S. border this time, Murphy was quick to recount a previous complication that went down a few years back, “We totally got denied access the first time we tried to go across,” he remembered.

“They kept us there for four hours and then took all of our information and finger prints, it was crazy. It felt a little invasive. The worst part was that they didn’t really ask us any questions. They just decided that we weren’t going through and then they kept us there for a really long time and then got rid of us. It was a really odd experience.”

After their fall tour is complete, Wintersleep will turn their attention to touring Japan. The band has just signed a deal with the Japanese rockists at Imperial Records, which should see the quintet travelling across the Pacific early in the new year.

Wintersleep play The Horseshoe Tavern Tuesday October 16.