Facebook could save the world

In John Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation, the character of Ouisa Kittredge finds the eponymous six degrees both a comfort and torture—the latter because “you have to find the right six people to make the connection.” At Social Networking Week, a conference hosted at U of T by Bell University Laboratories in conjunction with U of T’s Department of Sociology that ran from Oct. 30 to Nov. 2, researchers met to discuss the new vistas of angst—and insights—opened by the rise of the Internet and its information technologies. One of the greatest research tools is the ability to visually represent social networks. In large part, it’s the same technology at work on your Facebook page, though researchers are able to put it to some surprising uses.

One example is U of T mechanical engineering professor Mark Chignell, who, with a team of grad students, is visualizing social networks in the public health sector as a means to evaluate the processes currently being used. Social network diagrams are often called “egocentric” because they are organized around one individual. One project Chignell’s team is working on is a “patient-centric” model, mapping the process a patient moves through at Toronto General Hospital—a complex one encompassing discussions between doctors, nurses specialists, and outside caregivers who look after a patient once discharged.

For Chignell, visualizing these relations means pinpointing where errors happen. Chignell cited a recent study by the Institute for Medicine estimating that anywhere between 44,000 and 98,000 people die in U.S. hospitals each year due to medical error. Chignell’s study of TGH found several points where such errors could be introduced, from communication to diagnostics, treatment to preventative care.

“It’s not surprising that errors are made, because there are so many points of contact for an error-prone process to express itself,” Chignell said. “One of the problems is that doctors and nurses tend to speak different languages.” In some cases, Chignell suggested the solution could be as simple as offering better technology for conferencing.

Social network diagrams are nothing new. Sociograms, introduced into psychiatry in the 1930s by psychiatrist and professor Jacob L. Moreno, depicted interpersonal connections through lines and dots, largely the same way as the social network diagram widget available on Facebook today. But whereas on Facebook you can upload your friends list to create a diagram very easily, a sociogram in Moreno’s day took much longer, representing hours being interviewed by a therapist.

But even as the Internet has made the basic network diagram easier to produce, it has also created new communities to challenge researchers. Presenting at the conference was Caroline Haythornthwaite, professor of library and information science and the University of Illinois.

Together with PhD student Anatoliy Gruzd, Haythornthwaite uses Natural Language Processing techniques to mine for social relations amongst the bountiful data on online bulletin boards such as Usenet. It’s easy to map a chain of posts—not so to visualize how posters relate to one another.

“We don’t want to know just how many people answer the questions,” Haythornthwaite said. “We want to be able to see the network structures: who is doing the answering, when, under what circumstances, for what kinds of relations.”

The human brain easily recognizes that “Frederick” may become “Fred” over a chain of posts. But watching programming try to mimic the same process, it becomes clear just how complex that thought process actually is. How do you “teach” a program to recognize Fred responding to Dan’s question about something Mary said, but to not recognize “Shrek” as a community member?

How do you recognize names that aren’t capitalized? NLP is designed to read documents such as newspaper text—proofread sentences with proper grammar—not computer-mediated text with all its different spellings, its typos, its half-finished sentences. Having come up with the right iterations to solve these issues, Gruzd can save Haythornthwaite the hours she would have spent manually mapping out an online social network. Solving each of these issues is slow-going.

There’s no question though that visualizations of personal information hold a strong fascination. “People want to look at these pictures,” said Fernanda Viegas. She is part of IBM’s Visual Communications Lab, a small team that develops visualization tools for researchers.

The traditional node-link network diagram used by Facebook is intuitive, Viegas said, because we seem to naturally understand a node to be an identity, though the multi-variant pivot graphs developed by her lab are actually better for representing large-scale networks. That people like to look at the pictures is an important aspect for Viegas. “What are people doing with these visualizations? We tend to think that these are really cool for data analysis. They are. They are valid tools. But they only go so far,” she told the audience at the conference.

“One of the things that people hardly think about, in terms of visualization, is that they are really good conversation catalysts and that they actually function as social artifacts. People love to look at themselves. They love to look at their social network, and they love to tell stories about it.”

The lab’s latest project is a public website, many-eyes.com, which allows a user to upload data into one of various ingenious visualizations. All visualizations and data uploaded to the site are made public. The point is to foster discussion. The lab was initially surprised that members of the general public are uploading data—everything from “Co-occurances of Names in the New Testament” (guess who’s number one) to “John’s Freezer Contents (only the meat).”

Visual Complexity, a blog that showcases complex networks, has celebrated some Many-Eyes productions, as well as those of other sites, such as Vizster and Social Action. The same narcissistic fascination with ourselves, which drives sociology, could also explain the popularity of sociologists’ work.

Great minds for an apathetic future

Whenever Sid Smith transforms into a veritable Marrakesh market of posters and prints for sale, I get to thinking that in this place where deep thinkers congregate with the hope that classes in Marxist Philosophy will pay off, we, the next generation of scholars, are hurtling along a path of complacency, conformity, and mass consumerism.

The common paradox of higher learning is that while we strive to break down barriers and defy categorization, in the end many of us get our degrees and settle into a complacent, comfortable lifestyle that little resembles the hell-bent activism we embraced as undergraduates. The status quo swallows us whole. Think outside the box? Fuck, we become the box. Sure, some of us will go on to conquer the world and accomplish groundbreaking feats, but for the rest of us, our university experiences will be remembered in the same way a forty-something former-jock recalls his days as captain of the college football team. We coulda been contendas.

Our collective apathy has grown to such proportions that even our antiestablishment symbols have become little more than recycled institutions. We don’t go out of our way to make new discoveries, to be different from the young people who came before us. The pop culture icons we devour at those poster sales—Led Zeppelin, Scarface, Bob Marley, Warhol, Picasso, Van Gogh—were the same ones peddled to students thirty years ago. The Che Guevara T-shirts we parade down the catwalks of St. George Street were worshipped by rebel-wannabes in the 1970s. But even rejecting this behaviour is an exercise in futility. If you refuse to identify with the nerds, jocks, preppies, goths or geeks, does that make you unique, or do you just have an identity crisis? At least the moneyhungry business school types who dream of working on Bay Street know what they want.

Maybe it is our fault. If we care about the genocide in Darfur, we would learn more and help do something about it. If we are passionate about politics, we would spend our energy improving our communities. If we showed the same sense of urgency towards substantial issues as we do in our decisions as to whether we should boycott Starbucks—and get our pumpkin spice lattes somewhere else—we could salvage something from our university experience. No one is holding a gun to our heads and forcing us to act like self-important morons.

In the end, we will probably fail. The lofty goals we had as fresh-faced firstyears won’t seem worth fighting for. And that’s alright. Nobody expects us to save the world anyway. All we have to do is perpetuate the cycle of sameness that keeps our cookie-cutter world afloat.

And we’re doing a great job at that.

Immigrants: Say ‘au revoir’ to your native culture

The debate over “reasonable accommodation” is currently making huge waves in Quebec political forums. At issue is how much native Quebeckers, who officially have a distinct culture in this country, should accommodate the cultural differences of immigrants. Among other complaints, politicians say that new immigrants to the province are not learning French, and that this is killing Quebec culture. They have proposed a number of measures to protect Francophone culture from this supposed looming immigrant menace. Among the measures is the requirement that you must learn to speak French within three years of immigrating to the province in order to get Quebec citizenship.

This demand blames immigrants for something they are not responsible for. When moving to a new city, most people usually learn the language they will need most to survive. If immigrants do not find it necessary to learn French, it must not be vital to their livelihood. Why learn a language you feel you can live without?

Francophones started this self-perpetuating spiral themselves, not the immigrant population. With birth rates falling in all developed nations, we cannot maintain our economy without the help of immigration. The French language is not being passed on to people’s children because fewer Quebecois children are being born. This is not the fault of the immigrant population. Rather, the blame lies in the hands—and beds—of Francophone society.

You cannot constitutionally force a language on a people. Immigrants— and any other group of people for that matter—should be able to decide whether or not they will learn English, French or any language they want. Quite a few people who immigrate never learn their new home’s native language. They should be in charge of their own lives in every aspect, including how they speak.

Frankly, there are some people born-and-raised in Quebec who speak very little French. Who among these are incapable of learning a second language? What about people with learning disabilities, developmental delays, and other special needs? Will Quebec refuse to accommodate someone for whom learning one language is hard enough? Quebec risks further marginalization of immigrant groups with its policies. Any marginalization goes against the spirit of the Canadian constitution, which applies to Quebec as it would to any other province, distinct society or not. Where everywhere else in the nation, Canadians are celebrating our multiculturalism, Quebecers are actually fighting it.

As soon as a language is forced upon someone, it becomes a chore, and people are less likely to learn it. Instead of implementing these policies, the Quebec government should make it easier to learn French through free French language classes, by reimbursing people for time lost at work to learn French, and through helping immigrants attend French festivals. After losing an estimated 12 per cent of their population last year through death and emigration, the Quebec government should be doing everything it can to encourage immigration, not wasting time debating whether or not to accommodate other people’s cultures

Kucinich, the little elf that can’t

As a self-hating leftie, I find it a little embarrassing to see my politics refl ected back at me. And no one in politics today sums up the values of small-L liberals than Democratic presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich. For better or for worse, it’s all there in that peculiar little face.

Kucinich is, in many ways, a caricature of his beliefs. He’s short, elfin, and excitable. He’s a devout New Ager, and reportedly at one point consulted a spiritual guru for advice. His dating troubles worked their way into his campaign during his first presidential bid in 2004: the twice-divorced Kucinich, publicly lamented his bachelorship rather pathetically. “I still hold open to hope, but I can tell you that that’s one area I’m not going to be trying to give anyone any lessons in,” he told ABC’s Peter Jennings. He then became the centre of an unsuccessful online dating contest called “Who Wants To Be a First Lady?” Karma has since made ample reparations in the form of his current wife: Elizabeth Harper, a beautiful British do-gooder 31 years younger and five inches taller than Kucinich. You couldn’t find a better example of the carnal circuit between aging radicals and their young, nubile torch carriers.

But Kucinich also holds the distinction of being the only candidate to be Right About Everything. Though he often gets brushed aside in debates, Kucinich doesn’t need to waste his airtime explaining past mistakes: he was the only Democratic candidate to have voted against the Iraq invasion, he has consistently voted against funding the war, and he opposed the PATRIOT Act. His plan for health care (single-payer, not-for-profit, universal coverage) exceeds even that proposed by John Edwards in terms of fairness and he is currently the only hopeful, along with Mike Gravel, to vocally—and with a trademarked whimsical grin—support gay marriage.

Social security? Workers’ rights? The environment? Check, check, check goes my liberal pen. He’s nearly beyond reproach since reforming his nasty pro-life voting record in Congress. Even his more harebrained ideas—impeaching Dick Cheney, a cabinet-level Department of Peace, repealing NAFTA and the WTO immediately upon gaining the presidency— he puts forth with such earnestness and benevolence it makes one simultaneously swoon and blush with mortification.

It’s shocking how steadfastly Kucinich sticks to his principles, however outlandish they might seem. In 1978, as Mayor of Cleveland, he refused to sell Muny Light, the city’s publicly-owned electric utility corporation. The banks which were poised to buy out the company, in turn refused to excuse, as was routine, the city’s debt. The city defaulted for $15 million. The Cleveland mafia, who also had a stake in the deal, put a hit out on Kucinich, and planned on shooting him at the Columbus Day Parade, a fate he escaped when a burst ulcer kept him from attending. He was voted out of office the following year, and was unable to find work for years after. His declared income for 1982 was $38.

Fortunately, Kucinich’s other distinguishing characteristic is his resilience. Fifteen years after the Muny Light debacle, Cleveland recognized the error of its ways— keeping the utility public had saved the city almost $200 million—and congratulated Kucinich, spurring his return to public life after several failed attempts. He was finally elected into the House of Representatives in 1997. Now he’s running for the Democratic nomination for the second time. Of course, he doesn’t stand a chance. But despite being a very easy target, Kucinich will not yield to bullying. He sticks it to his high-power critics and smiles adorably for the audience amid charming comebacks. The fans go wild, even though voters won’t.

Kucinich knows he’s right. Other candidates know he’s right. Even the Right, I suspect, in their heart of hearts, know he’s right. Still, it’s awful to see how stupid your cherished values can look when pressed against the backdrop of the real world. It might be easier if Kucinich didn’t proudly exhibit all the traits that make leftists a laughingstock. But if that were the case, nobody would even pay attention to him.

Rewriting the rulebook on supernovae

Supernovae—the final explosive efforts of dying stars—are the most beautiful of astronomical phenomena. Usually occurring in higher-mass stars than our sun, a supernova produces an explosion so bright that its luminosity can rival that of the galaxy.

In astronomy, supernovae are used as standardized candles to understand dark energy and the expansion of the universe. Scientists can predict the distance of a supernova from earth, given average supernova brightness. If a supernova is dimmer than expected, it is farther away. When a supernova is observed moving farther away, it is said to be redshifting. This is evidence of the acceleration of the universe. However, astronomers at the University of Toronto have recently put the validity of the supernova average brightness into question.

Supernovae occur in stars with masses great enough to turn hydrogen and helium into heavier elements. Bigger stars burn more rapidly and their hydrogen fuel eventually runs out. At this point, the shell of the star begins to contract, increasing the star’s pressure and temperature and starting a reaction in which helium produces carbon. The same chain of events occurs until carbon turns into heavier elements. Each time this chain of events takes place, the star becomes more and more unstable, eventually leading to the implosion of its core. The implosion has enough force to create an outward explosion, which can be brighter than the light of ten million suns. These kinds of explosions provide an environment for the birth of new stars.

U of T researcher Andrew Howell explained in a recent interview that there are two recognized kinds of supernovae, one brighter than the other. The brighter kind has a greater rate of occurrence in galaxies where more stars are created, whereas the dimmer supernovae are more prevalent in older galaxies.

Howell and other U of T researchers from the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics measured the brightness of a supernova and quantified it by constructing a stretch distribution.

A stretch distribution is a graph that compares the brightness of a supernova over the amount of time it takes for the explosion to subside. The greater the width of the graph, the brighter the light, because it takes longer for that light to subside. Using this technique, Howell and his team made a key discovery in their 2007 paper: they found the stretch was getting larger with greater redshift, as one moves further away from the earth.

Since light takes time to travel to Earth from far-away supernovae, the light that we see now is, in reality, from a time far in the past—closer to the beginnings of the universe and the big bang. The further we look, the further back in time we are seeing, but supernovae from earlier in time bear different characteristics from more recent ones. Supernovae have evolved so that the average ratio of bright to dim supernovae today is different from that in the past. In fact, the average supernova now is becoming dimmer as compared to a supernova from earlier in the universe’s history, when there was a much higher rate of star formation.

Howell concluded, therefore, that the averages used by cosmologists for predicting brightness will change over time. This discovery is important for the study of dark energy and the expanding universe, as a change in the average opens up possible inaccuracies in former conclusions.

Howell chose to study astrophysics because of dark energy, a substance that composes over 70 per cent of the entire universe. The nature of this substance is largely unknown. In a field with very little a priori knowledge, Howell’s discovery is important, though the bias noticed in the stretch distribution has always been corrected for, despite not being understood. However, Howell explains that in future research in this mysterious area of astronomy, even the slightest changes are sure to make a difference.

Fast Facts: Supernovae

  • Chinese astronomers observed the first recorded supernova in AD 185

  • After the invention of powerful telescopes, it became easier to observe supernovae. The 1885 discovery of S Andromedae (in the Andromeda galaxy) heralded this new age of astronomy

  • The core of a supernova collapses in on itself at a velocity close to 70,000 km/s

  • After a supernova is discovered, it is reported to the International Astronomical Union’s Central Bureau for Astronomical Telegrams and named

  • Amateur and professional astronomers discover hundreds of supernovae every year–367 in 2005 and 551 in 2006

  • After exploding, a supernova can emit the same amount of energy over a period of a few months as the sun would put out over 10 billion years

  • In a galaxy the size of the Milky Way, supernova occur on average once every 50 years

An ethical tango with television

If you’ve ever lost yourself in a good book or a dramatic TV show, you’d know what it feels like to cheer on the good guys and hate the bad. But if you find yourself egging on Kiefer Sutherland as he executes his boss to save the country, you have to ask yourself just how far you’re willing to get pulled in.

This was one of the questions discussed at a bioethics session hosted by the Joint Centre for Bioethics Undergraduate Initiative on October 24. Sue MacRae, the former deputy director of the centre, started the session by screening an episode of 24 and discussing the ethical conflicts—whether relevant to real-life or not—that emerged.

“With the world moving as quickly as it’s moving, just a couple of years is a generation now,” said MacRae. “The kind of ethical issues I studied 15 years ago are […] similar, but they’re changing rapidly as our world’s changing and as technology is changing.” For MacRae, media, whether accurately representing the issues or not, can be a good place to get a sense of the emerging ethical quandaries we face as a society.

As a former bioethicist in Canadian and U.S. hospitals, MacRae’s interest in applied ethics intersects with narrative elements in movies, books, and other media outlets. Though plots have changed over time—15 years ago it was Star Trek, now it’s terrorism and cell-phone-era 24—ethical concerns haven’t gotten any simpler.

The issue may be assisted suicide, for example, or the sacrifice of few to save many, or the conflict between private interests and public health. MacRae stressed that these are more than academic questions. They are real-world concerns. In 2004’s SARS scare, for example, health officials needed to make difficult decisions such as what liberties and restrictions to impose on the public in order to contain the outbreak. Is it better to enforce quarantine or leave it voluntary? Do you disclose private information about people for the greater public good? These are the questions MacRae examines.

The complexities of today’s media (the Internet, TV shows, news outlets) can raise awareness of certain issues, but they can also skew our world view. For MacRae, the media is so strongly opinionated and value-laden that it may change the way we see scenarios that are already ethical hotbeds: disability and end-of-life choices, for example.

A study published in 1996 in the New England Journal of Medicine made this point. The study examined the outcomes of real CPR interventions versus those on the TV drama ER and found that on ER the rate of recovery was much higher.

“It is fair to say that many people who watch these medical dramas such as ER get fooled into thinking CPR saves many more lives than it really does,” commented MacRae. “This may lead to a false sense of what technology can do for us.”

In our health care system, conflicts often emerge between patients and health-care professionals over issues such as risky treatments. For MacRae, these conflicts need to be discussed at the fundamental level of value systems and world views.

“I think probably the most interesting thing to me about media right now is that we live in an era where media has made us ask different questions about reality altogether,” said MacRae. Today, the Internet and news can offer us, simultaneously, different world views on a single event.

“It’s like we have a whole different approach to truth,” said MacRae. “What are the facts? What are opinions? And how do we begin to make sense of these competing values and world views?

“That’s where ethics comes in. Ethical frameworks can help us make sense of competing values and help individuals arrive at decisions together.”

Rocking the Boat

On Saturday night at The Boat The Varsity hosted its first Off The Record party which showcased some of Toronto’s best musical talent and raised $750.00 for Journalists For Human Rights. The evening—which saw the Kensington hotspot packed to capacity—kicked off with a powerful performance by one-man loop-orchestra Now Yr Taken, who was followed by the shimmering melodies of MTV-approved rockers The Coast. Next up, Uncut unleashed a killer set of spine-shattering hits including amazing renditions of “Taken in Sleep,” “Chain Fight,” and even managed to recover from a blown fuse (with the help of Boat booker Keith Hamilton) to cap off their set with “Understanding The New Violence.” Bassist Derek Tokar rocked so hard he cracked the head of his alpinewhite Thunderbird IV in their set-concluding melee. The final band of the night, Germans, impressed the crowd by constantly rotating between instruments, covering a Cap’n Jazz tune, and delivering energetic performances of “Nature’s Mouth” and “I Am the Teacher” off their album Cape Fear. Taking care of DJ duties for the night was Shit La Merde (bottom left) who managed to keep the dance floor hopping well into daylight savings. Thanks to everyone who came out to support local talent and Journalists For Human Rights. Watch out for another Off The Record party in the spring!

Blues get the ball rolling

For the third straight year, the Varsity Blues faced the Ryerson Rams on opening night–and the results stayed true to form. As the immortal Yankee Yogi Berra once put it, it’s déjà vu all over again..Toronto has won all its season openers against the Rams, 73-55 and 79-39 in 2005 and 2006 respectively. Over three seasons, the Blues have dominated Ryerson 6-0 in regular season play. With Ryerson set to arrive at the AC for a rematch this week, Toronto will look for a repeat of their opening night success.

Christine Cho, a fifth year co-captain with the Blues, knows exactly what her team can expect from these opponents. “Ryerson is a very scrappy team that will keep fighting regardless of what the score is. They’re small compared to most other teams, but they really hustle after loose balls and rebounds. They also have some decent shooters so it’s important for us to limit their shots.”

Following their game plan, the Blues forced their opponents into a poor shooting night on Friday. Ryerson shot an abysmal 32.7 per cent from the field, while U of T capitalized on most of its opportunities, with field goals scored at 45.2 per cent. The Blues also outscored the Rams in hustle stats, out-rebounding 31-24 over the weekend, and had 17 steals to Ryerson’s 10. Allaine Hutton led the way for Toronto with 19 points, while Cho also had a good game, finishing with 15 points, seven rebounds, and three steals. Toronto would cruise to a 73-46 victory, although a closeopening quarter left some cause for concern. “We didn’t have a good start to the game at all,” said Cho. We need to find a way to get ourselves going right from the tip off. As far as what we did well, we came back from halftime to pull ahead in the third quarter through our defensive pressure and good shooting.”

The beginning of any season is often filled with hope and optimism, and a few early victories, even against an inferior opponent, allow the team to build momentum heading into more difficult match-ups. With the roster from last season still intact, the Blues know what kind of team they have “We’re a team that works hard every night at practices and games,” Cho said. “If we do that, we are capable of beating any team on any given night.”

After a disappointing end to their 2006 season, which finished 12-10, it was good to get the first win out of the way. Cho said that the experience on their roster gives the Blues the advantage most nights. She is joined on the team by her co-captains, guard Kyla Burwash and forward Amanda Van Leeuwan, on a battle tested Toronto squad. If the team hopes to meet many of the goals they’ve set this year: winning the OUA and competing for a national title, they will need these three players to lead the way.