The Russian bear is back in a big way

Does Russian president Vladimir Putin’s visit to Tehran signal the formation of a new strategic alliance between the ex-Soviet republic and the Islamic revolutionary state? Upon initial consideration, the answer seems apparent given that U.S. post-9/11 interventionist military policies have irked the governments of both countries. But looking past the political theatre, it is painfully obvious that Russia is demonstrating diplomatic maneuvering not seen since the height of its power during the Cold War. The association with Tehran will last only so long as it is in Russia’s national interest, and Russia is only using Iran as a stepping stone on its rising path back to its role as a great power on the international stage.

Putin’s visit was hailed in the Iranian press as a victory for the country’s position on the nuclear issue. Iran’s leaders have been desperate to gain international support in light of the two rounds of imposed sanctions by the UN Security Council which have put the squeeze on Iran’s tanking economy. Putting aside historical animosities, which had peaked after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1975, Putin was received by both President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Islamic Revolution Leader Ayatollah Sayyed Ali Khamenei—a sure demonstration of Tehran’s determination to court Russia’s support. The question is, at what price?

Notwithstanding the urge to exploit any opportunity to stick it to the United States, Russia’s foreign policy is a complex creature. Spurred on by the skyrocketing price of oil in the past five years, Russia is on-track to re-establishing itself as an international superpower. With the U.S. facing formidable challenges in Iraq, the scent of injured prey has emboldened even the most reluctant of predators. Russia’s primary objective concerning Iran is to prop up the regime, and while Moscow is defending Tehran’s nuclear program (supposedly for civilian purposes), even Putin wants to prevent the mullahs from getting their hands on “the bomb.” Russia’s alliance with Iran is in line with its national interests; the possibility of Iran as an independent nuclear power is not.

Besides its strategic benefits, the alliance also has positive economic repercussions for Russia. The ever-present threat that the U.S. could invade Iran is proving profitable for Russia’s weapons industries. Already, Iran’s leaders have purchased a $700 million air defense system from Russia. These are not going to be the last petrodollars finding their way to the Kremlin.

After having witnessed seven years of his administration, we should recognize that Putin, for better or for worse, is a shrewd politician. Despite the appearance of friendship, Putin is all too familiar with the irrationality of Islamic revolutionaries, and in light of Iran’s geographical proximity to Russia, will not support Iran’s presupposed determination to build a nuclear bomb.

The degree to which Russia has control over Iran’s nuclear program is uncertain; however, demonstrations of support such as Putin’s visit to Tehran pose an obstacle to the West. If the West is truly concerned about the prospects of a nuclear-capable Iran, it will have to come to terms with Russia’s re-emergence as a great power and its determination to exercise its strategic and economic muscle in the region. In short, the U.S. is going to have to play ball. The merits of Russia’s re-ascendance are not immediately apparent, but it is about time we re-evaluate the U.S. leadership in the nuclear standoff and consider whether it is capable of diplomatically resolving this issue under the administration of George Bush, the bumbling “decision-maker.”

Real-life ghostbusters?

From Shakespeare to primetime television, supernatural beings pervade human culture, tantalizing us with questions of the afterlife. For some, however, ghosts are more than just a scary campfire tale. One-third of those who recently took part in an Associated Press poll believe in the existence of ghosts, and one in four claimed to have seen or been in the presence of a supernatural spirit.

Ghost-hunting clubs and paranormal research organizations have been around since the late 1800s, yet it is American psychologist William James to whom present-day ghost hunters, or paranormal investigators, are the most indebted. James’s contribution lay in applying the scientific method to these studies. His small number of followers, including British naturalist Alfred Russell Wallace and British philosopher Henry Sidgwick, founded the Society for Psychical Research to gather evidence about claims of paranormal activity through case studies and tests. Despite attempting to keep their findings scientific by applying statistics to their results—they were apparently unsatisfied with small sample sizes—as skeptics claimed the society performed nothing more than pseudoscience.

Lack of proper equipment and reliable methods for identifying ghosts are the main reasons why some scientists distrust ghost hunting evidence. Now more than ever, ghost hunters are using technology to detect the presence of spirits. One of the most popular pieces of equipment is the electromagnetic field meter, commonly used by physicists to detect changes in electromagnetic radiation. Ghost hunters who use this instrument believe that ghosts emit an electromagnetic field that can be detected in the spirit’s vicinity by higher levels of electromagnetic radiation. Other signs that paranormal investigators believe accompany a ghost’s presence are cold spots, ectoplasm, an excess of negative ions, orbs or bright spheres found in photographs, and electronic voice phenomena (speech-like sounds that are only audible upon playback of a recording). Many skeptics challenge these claims, arguing that none of these signs have been shown to accompany a ghost’s presence, and that no equipment is manufactured specifically for ghost-detection. Ghost hunters improvise by using scientific instruments designed for other purposes.

Despite the large number of people studying paranormal phenomena, there has yet to be irrefutable evidence of ghost detection. Claims are often debunked as fakes, especially in the case of video or audio “evidence”. This is the most popular criticism of television programs such as SciFi Channel’s Ghost Hunters. However, not all ghost hunters are out to trick you. Most are just hobbyists who enjoy the hunt and the idea of finding something supernatural. Besides, if ghost hunting was truly about finding scientific evidence to support the existence of paranormal entities, wouldn’t that take all of the fun out of it?

Why I’m voting ‘no’ on UTSU’s referendum

Having been a member of several campus groups over the years, one would expect that I would be first in line to vote yes on the funding referendum for the new “Student Commons” proposed by the University of Toronto Students Union. Well, you couldn’t be more mistaken.

The idea of a shared space for students to rehearse, perform, pray, eat, and lounge 24 hours a day sounds highly appealing. Hearing about such a utopian area certainly sent sinful thoughts of beautiful dance studios and majestic theatres (all for free!) racing through my mind. However, upon examining the notices of the referendum, I was horrified to find that few specific plans have been made.

Being the keen user of campus space that I am, I hoped that there might be some more information on the UTSU website so I could tell all my friends and group members to vote “yes.” Sadly, my hopes were crushed as I was unable to find any information available to the public.

Because of this lack of specific information, two big questions kept running through my mind; “What will this space look like?” and “Who is going to be running it?”

Thinking about this only spawned more uncertainty: has a design even been drawn up for this building? What if I do not like the design that I voted to pay for, or the space is not adequate for my group’s needs? If no design exists, is the $30 million price tag an estimate? Could the price increase? Does that mean another referendum in 10 years to support any unanticipated costs? Will alumni get to use the space we partially paid for? How can we guarantee all student groups have equal access to the facilities? The list goes on.

With U of T constantly growing, one would naturally assume we will never have enough space. The problem is not a lack of facilities, but a mismanagement of them. A multitude of buildings are virtually deserted at most hours of the day. Surely it would be possible to reevaluate the space we already have and use it more creatively.

At the end of the day, it is not about money. I would not mind paying for something well-designed and well-run. Nonetheless, until specifics are given, I will, regrettably, be voting “no.”

Rain, sweat, and tears…

They say that every cloud has a silver lining, but as skies darkened earlier than expected on Varsity Centre, the men’s and women’s soccer teams could only look back on a season that likewise ended too early, and wonder what could have been. “We came a long way from last season but I just think we could have gone a lot farther with the talent that we had on this team,” said a disappointed Rosanna Dalimonte following Saturday’s loss to Carleton.

It had rained for most of the day, but when the game ended the real water-works began. A teary-eyed women’s soccer team left the field to a standing ovation from the crowd of family, friends, and other Varsity athletes. It was a tribute not to the outcome of one game, but for the season that was, and all the toil and sweat it took to get to that point.

On the men’s side, there was a feeling of shock and disbelief, the players’ silence illustrating their disappointment after having fought back from a slow start to the season, finishing second overall in the Eastern Conference (8-3-3). Two months suddenly came down to a single game and in the blink of an eye their season was over. “It’s tough to take,” remarked Blues midfielder Nevin Korompay. “We feel bad because we’ve had success against them [Queen’s] throughout the year, but in the playoffs anything can happen.”

Entering the game against Queen’s (6-4-4), the Blues were confident having beaten the Golden Gaels 4-0 in their last meeting. Toronto would come out strong, attacking and putting pressure on the Queen’s from the opening draw. Blues forward Evan Millward was the first to draw blood for Toronto, on a penalty shot in the tenth minute of the first half. He was a Queen’s antagonist throughout the game, generating many scoring chances with his speed, and drawing a warning from a referee during one altercation with a Queen’s player.

In the 30th minute of play, the Golden Gaels would answer with a goal by midfielder Nick Milonas. Blues fourth-year goaltender Luciano Lombardi was caught out of position, turning a seemingly innocent play into a tied game after he couldn’t get back to his net in time. Lombardi would finish the game with four saves.

The Gael’s would capitalize again early in the second half with Alexander Makin scoring to give Queen’s a 2-1 lead. Toronto tried to battle back, creating scoring opportunities off four corner kicks by Joe Rini that almost resulted in header goals. It was a game with a fast pace and a lot of intensity coming from both sides. With the team trailing by a goal late in the game, Toronto’s Michael Yat would try to fire up his teammates, almost pleading as he yelled, “dig deep boys, dig deep, let’s go.” The closest the Blues would come to a point was a shot over the Queen’s field goal post. The Blues would go on to lose 2-1 in a game that started with a bang but ended in a whimper. “It’s a tough pill to swallow,” said men’s coach Anthony Capatosto. “We’re extremely disappointed right now. We didn’t meet the goals that we set at the beginning of the season, and the standard for men’s soccer at U of T should be the highest in Canada. We made two critical errors and Queen’s capitalized on both. That was the difference in the game.”

Both soccer games were hard fought and the final result should take nothing away from the teams accomplishments this year. The women’s game in particular was a grueling match undecided until the final play. It was a scoreless affair without many opportunities. Mary Anne Barnes was her usual steady self finishing with her 12th shutout on seven saves to keep the score deadlocked through regulation and overtime. In contrast, her Ravens counterpart, Katherine Shaugnessey, made only three saves in the game, but would have the last laugh by making two more stops than Barnes in the shootout. Carleton would notch four straight goals to start the shootout, from Hilary Pierce and Aisha Stinson, among others. For Toronto, Laura Arduini, Kristine Fantozzi, and Rosanna Dalimonte would try to keep the Blues’ hopes alive with one goal apiece. But after a Barnes save on the Raven’s Heather McKim gave the team life, Shaugnessy stopped Blues captain Katie Hill to end the game 1-0 in Carleton’s favor.

“Katie wanted to win more than anyone,” reflected midfielder Heidi Borgman. “There’s nothing the coaches can say to make us feel better right now, we feel awful for the leaving players.” Hill is in her last year with the Blues, and so exiting under these circumstances was less than ideal. She is joined by men’s captain Joe Rini, and leading scorer Mike Bialy as Varsity Blues who will also wave goodbye to the team after this season.

“It’s just a heart breaking way to lose,” Borgman said, “It’s unbelievable, there’s no way that I thought we were going to lose that game.

It was a bittersweet farewell for the Blues, with the rainy night providing an appropriate setting. At the end of the movie Casablanca under dark skies, Humphrey Bogart—no stranger to heartbreak or bittersweet goodbyes— coined the phrase: “This is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.” Reflecting on the end of her team’s season coach McCharles seemed to echo Bogart’s sentiments saying: “I’m really proud of the girls and what they accomplished this year. It’s the start of a fantastic program.”

Privacy? What privacy?

Last week, the Toronto Transit Commission announced plans to install over 10,000 security cameras throughout the city’s transit system by next June. Every one of the TTC’s 1.5 million daily riders will be photographed on streetcars, buses, subways, and at every exit of each TTC station.

No sooner had the plan been announced than did public outcry arise about the “invasion of privacy” the cameras supposedly represent. London-based activist group Privacy International filed a formal complaint with Ontario’s privacy commissioner, and people flooded message boards to complain that “Big Brother is watching us” and “1984 is coming true.”

While it might sound cool in that “Hey I’ve read a book!” kind of way to liken TTC chairman Adam Giambrone to Orwell’s Head Comrade, the analogy simply doesn’t hold up. Totalitarians, both real and fictitious, surveil their citizens in order to eliminate the part of their lives which is private, ensuring that they must always act as model citizens.

But the TTC is not invading anyone’s private life by installing these cameras, because in case you haven’t noticed, there’s never been anything private about riding the TTC.

During a 30-minute rush hour ride, a Toronto commuter is seen by thousands of people, who are able, should they wish, to discreetly watch you and think all kinds of creepy things. Not only do your fellow passengers see you, they may actually touch you too, not to mention breathe/slobber/fart on you. A guy actually licked me in a subway station once. And no, it wasn’t because I asked him to.

TTC riders have about as much privacy as cattle in a feedlot. Will a few more pairs of eyes watching us really make a difference? Besides, the cameras’ won’t be monitored regularly. The tapes will only be reviewed should a crime take place on the TTC. Only police will have access to the footage.

Privacy International is claiming that the new cameras aren’t in the public interest because they will do little to deter crime. Whether or not increased surveillance actually leads to lower crime rates is up for debate— they certainly didn’t prevent terrorist bombings in London, one of the most heavily monitored cities on the planet, and regions’ crime rates don’t necessarily correspond with the number of cameras per capita.

But it’s hard to imagine the TTC’s new cameras won’t help catch criminals after the fact. This past April, a 21-year-old man was stabbed to death on a subway at Victoria Park station. In that case, security footage led to an arrest. Last week, a man randomly stabbed four people on Queen Street. He was arrested within hours because he was captured on the security cameras of local businesses.

If the police and the TTC think that 10,000 cameras will help fight crime, who cares? What’s the difference if the guy across the aisle wasn’t the only one who saw you pick your nose at that last stop?

Red Sox change style

After falling to a 3-1 deficit in the American League Championship Series, Manny Ramirez, left fielder for the Boston Red Sox and post-season philosopher, wondered what all the fuss was about.

In a television interview with FOX, Ramirez said, “Why should we panic? We’re just going to go play the game, and move on. If it doesn’t happen, who cares? There’s always next year. It’s not like the end of the world or something.”

While it is easy to dismiss Ramirez’s comments as another case of “Manny being Manny,” the outfielder actually has a point. In fact, this is one of the first times in Red Sox history when losing in the post-season isn’t a big deal.

Prior to winning the 2004 World Series, the Sox spent 86 years desperately trying to capture the title of World Champions—and failing miserably. Boston’s ubiquitous post-season failures even inspired the “curse of the Bambino”, a superstitious theory that the Sox’s epic playoff woes resulted from selling Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees in1918. Every error, every miscalled play, and every deficit became another sign of the curse and the impending “end of the world” for Red Sox Nation. For Boston, the only consolation was that futile promise of next year.

But after reversing the curse in 2004, the team can finally abolish that apocalyptic attitude, relax, and just play ball.

Naturally, it was Ramirez and his laid back attitude that boasted two home runs, 10 RBIs, and a .409 batting average in the ALCS, that ultimately led the Red Sox to victory over the Cleveland Indians. As Boston continues to surge in the World Series against the Colorado Rockies, it has become apparent that the team has undergone more than an attitude adjustment in the past three years.

Sweeping changes in the Red Sox have drawn comparisons to their archrivals, the New York Yankees. Both have been accused of using their inflated payroll to buy championships.

But their $143 million payroll isn’t the only thing fueling the Sox this postseason. If anything, they have been successful in spite of their big-budget acquisitions. Shortstop Julio Lugo and pitcher Eric Gagné have been disappointments, and outfielder J.D. Drew was the most hated man in Boston until his $14 million, clutch grandslam in Game 6 of the ALCS.

The real stars of the Red Sox are the homegrown talent. Potential Rookie of the Year Dustin Pedroia, star first baseman Kevin Youkilis, and lights-out closer Jonathan Papelbon, who came out of Boston’s minor league system, have carried the team throughout the year. Notably, Pedroia is hitting .444 in his last 27 at-bats, Youkilis batted .500 in the ALCS, and Papelbon has pitched nine shutout innings this postseason.

These three key players’ salaries, combined to total a dismal $1.23 million, barely enough to make a dent in that overblown Red Sox payroll. Add up-and-comer outfielder and post-season contender Jacoby Ellsbury to the equation, and the Sox’s future looks bright and reasonably priced.

Another change in the Red Sox’s favour came in the form of their dynamic pitching staff. Boston had previously been known as an offensive powerhouse. But with likely Cy Young candidate Josh Beckett at the top of his game, Curt Schilling looking as good as ever, the aforementioned Papelbon, and the addition of Hideki Okajima to the bullpen, the Sox are virtually unhittable.

With such security in the rotation and bullpen, Boston no longer needs to rely on offensive power. Now, the Sox can depend on Manny Ramirez’s words as much as his potent swing.

Although a World Series win would be nice, a post-season loss for the Red Sox will not signify the end of the world. At the very least, there’s always next year.

The new Wikidemocracy

I have mixed feelings about the Internet. I find myself constantly aware of Marshall McLuhan’s concept of “allatonceness” (the idea of being perpetually connected to a medium) because, let’s face it, I’m almost always online. This is not to say that I am necessarily using the Internet, but with DSL and an ever-present wireless line, we can’t help but remain constantly connected—a stark contrast to the days of dial-up. The ability to go from writing an article to checking one’s Facebook account is constantly present. With the click of a button, I can go from passively connected to actively connected.

This constant state of connectivity gives us a false sense of interaction with the outside world; in reality, when we use the internet we’re only interacting with ourselves. However, the Internet has great potential to further human knowledge and growth, and that potential is probably expressed most fully in Wikipedia, the online, public-written encyclopedia. Wikipedia is poster child for the Internet as mass-communication. It can be edited by anyone, and within certain boundaries (growing stricter every day) anyone can create an article and share their knowledge. There’s never been a better way for people so physically removed from one another to share their collective wisdom.

Although the Internet is a 20th century invention, Wikipedia recalls medieval times in its form and methods. In the Middle Ages, scholars would often create and keep a glossed text of an original material, usually the Bible, with their notes in the margins and directly over the text itself, thereby “glossing” it—expanding the material and contributing to new knowledge. The gloss would pass from one scholar to another, each contributing more and more. A welltraveled text could potentially represent entire systems of thought on a particular topic. This is the spirit of Wikipedia. Each user has the same opportunity to contribute as any another. In a way, we are continuing the medieval tradition of the glossed text in our digital age.

However, unlike the indelible notes in glossed texts of old, users’ entries are increasingly being deleted from the digital universe as Wikipedia attempts to address concerns about its legitimacy. The encyclopedia often comes under attack for its democratic editing process and lack of scholarly standards, but Wikipedia is not intended as an academic source because it, like other encyclopedias, does not contain substantial analysis of its topics. The online articles do not have a thesis or an argument because they are only intended to present a broad picture of what many users know.

No doubt, Wikipedia can be used in a negative way. The CIA has allegedly manipulated entries, Dow Chemical reportedly edited articles to falsify its history, and of course students happily plagiarize from it. But this is part of the Internet’s nature as a medium, and lying is as old as speech. Wikipedia represents the height of what the Internet can achieve: the democratic sharing of collective wisdom. Each time we access its knowledge, we perpetuate history.

The Shortcomings of Adrian Tomine

For someone who reportedly hates being labelled an “Asian hipster Woody Allen,” cult graphic novelist Adrian Tomine sure fits the bill. Hanging out at his hotel room before his highly anticipated International Festival of Authors appearance (Tomine visited the festival three years ago, sandwiched between two political novelists), all the signposts of a serious New York artist are present—the thick-framed glasses, the sweetly meditative work about a self-obsessed youth in a distressed, long distance relationship, the jibes about West Coast culture. Tomine is a recent California expat, and his move from Berkeley to Brooklyn (spurred by a marriage to a longtime New Yorker) is the undercurrent to his first long-form graphic novel, Shortcomings, in which thirtysomething Bay-area resident Ben Tanaka must confront his friends’ and lovers’ “total hard-on for New York.”

“It’s on my mind a lot,” admits Tomine. “Especially as I was mulling over the decision to move. I kept going back and forth on these trips where I’d visit New York in the summer and think, ‘Oh my god, the weather here is awful and I can’t stand the humidity,’ and then travel back to Berkeley and complain, ‘Oh, there’s only three restaurants that I like to go to here.’”

“It’s an observation I’ve made from living in the Bay Area for so long. There’s always been this idealization of New York there, it seems to be the place where most people from the Bay Area go on vacation or want to move to, but then again, New York has always been the most mythologized American city. It’s made up for people like me, who’ve spent their childhoods seeing movies and reading books about it and have this fantasy version of the big city.”

Tomine began his particular brand of sharply outlined, intimately personal novella-like renditions of tortured relationships (both real and idealized) when he was 16, mailing copies of Optic Nerve to Montreal’s prestigious Drawn and Quarterly Press (publishers of Julie Doucet, Chris Ware, and Seth). The press ignored his letters for years before printing a small run that eventually grew to an exclusive contract with the artist. His mini-comics offered glimpses into the lives of protagonists you didn’t want to admit you (desperately) related to. Take Hilary Chan in Optic Nerve’s “Holidays in the Sun”—a pessimistic Delia’s mail-order operator who begins placing hateful phone calls to strangers as a kind of vicious entertainment. As a critic from Time revealed, “I worry about Hilary Chan in a way that I don’t worry about other fictional characters.” Said a fan in the next issue, “Poor Hillary…what a sad little bitch she is.” Now Tomine is illustrating full-page covers for The New Yorker.

Tomine’s portrayal of compromised humanity continues in Shortcomings. Ben Tanaka pursues his harbored fetish for white women once his Japanese girlfriend leaves for a New York internship. (Asks one woman: “Don’t you think is this just a sublimated form of assimilation?”) For Tomine, labelled a “Twinkie” by his Asian dorm-mates at Berkeley, he’s just speaking honestly on obvious racial issues that others would rather sweep under the rug—including an unfair stereotype about Asian penis size.

“For as long as I can remember, my work has always had a strangely polarized response… People either seem to say, ‘I fucking hate this! It’s garbage!’ or ‘It’s so great! I really loved it!’— and I’m always freaked out by either response. After ten years of this, it was really good preparation for how this book would be received…

“I first published this story in a serialized form in Optic Nerve, so I’ve received a responsein- progress—which isn’t always a good way to finish a work. There’s been a whole range of responses, really. Especially with Asian- American readers, people have come up to me at signings and said really negative things. No one is having an idiotic response; they think my take on stereotypes is at least…interesting. But instead of saying, ‘you’re a racist, Adrian!’ or even, ‘You’re an idiot!’ they’re asking, ‘Why did you even bring that up? Isn’t it better just to push it aside and not even address that?’”

Tomine spent four years creating Shortcomings, from illustrating Flatbush Avenue in twopoint perspective to sketching out the pages in stick figure form to making sure it would fit the page count. During this time, Adrian’s life changed immensely—including a move to New York, a marriage, and adjusting from his introverted “vampire” hours to his wife’s nineto- five work schedule, so he can’t help that the novel encompasses his own shortcomings, as much as those of his fictional character.

“Especially in the world of alternative comics, every step of the way is made by the same hand, and that is perfectly suited to the world of very personal storytelling. I mean, sure, other people have managed to convey very personal stories in other media, but to me it seems that the more hands that touch something, it can’t help but be compromised or diluted. The way someone experiences a comic is very personal, more so than sitting in an audience with a hundred people watching a screen…

“There are enough autobiographies strewn throughout my work. No matter what I do, people seem to read it as a straightforward autobiographical story of my life. A lot of people have approached Shortcomings that way—that I’m Ben Tanaka and that’s it. But it’s my own thoughts and personality that are spread out within all the characters, even the more minor ones.

“I certainly don’t abide by the saying that these characters started to write themselves and took on a life of their own…There was really specific ground of who Ben had to be, how he had to move within the story. But the Alice character was definitely inspired by friends of mine, especially the relationship she has with Ben. I’ve always had female friends that are much more outgoing, much more open, and often had better luck with girls than I have. It’s definitely a dynamic that I’m familiar with.”