Trade talk heats up prior to winter meetings

With the annual Major League Baseball winter meetings only two short weeks away, what better time to start talking about the hot rumours that circulate around baseball? Forget Barry Bonds and the controversy surrounding his indictment. We’re interested in stories about those big-time free agents, potential trades, and re-signings, and how they will affect what happens on the field.

New York Yankees

Any discussion about spending money during the baseball off-season begins with the evil empire, the New York Yankees. Right now the biggest name in Yankeeland is Alex Rodriguez. It did not sit well with fans, reporters, and owners when A-Rod and agent Scott Boras tried to make themselves bigger than the World Series by announcing during game four, a series-clinching game, that A-Rod is opting out of his contract. General managers have called Boras’ marketing of A-Rod at $30 million a season a ridiculous bluff, as talks between Boras and any team interested in A-Rod’s services have ceased. That’s why A-Rod sat down with the Yankees about signing a deal to stay in the Bronx. The result ended in another record-breaking deal for the recently announced MVP, now signed with the Yankees for $275 million over 10 years. New York has retained the services of arguably the best player in baseball, a man that, in the long term, will be box office gold, a likely home run king.

Boston Red Sox

The other big spender during the off season, the Boston Red Sox, was able to lock up its big-time third baseman, World Series MVP Mike Lowell, for $37.5 million over three years. This may not be good news for fans. Lowell, while very talented, tends to perform only in a contract year. This same trend has followed him on his way to Boston. Lowell’s numbers last year were pretty good, but they’re nothing like the astronomical figures he was putting up this year—while in a contract. Red Sox fans, be wary. Mike Lowell may not be as great as you think he is.

Centre of attention

There is an even more intriguing race going on between multiple teams for three big centre fielders up for grabs this off-season: Andrew Jones, Torii Hunter, and Aaron Rowand. The Dodgers are rumoured to be looking at all three since the team is looking to upgrade Juan Pierre in centre. In all likelihood the Dodgers won’t be able to go after Hunter, since it seems he has his mind set on Texas. Hunter has gone and met with Rangers owner Tom Hicks, now both sides must come to an agreement.

Blue Jays flying below the radar

How does all this bode for the Toronto Blue Jays? Well, given how we just picked up utility infielder Marco Scutaro from the A’s for two pitching prospects, it seems like the Jays won’t be making much noise at the winter meetings.

Orlando heads to Chicago

In an extremely puzzling move, the LA Angels have traded star shortstop Orlando Cabrera to the Chicago White Sox for starter Jon Garland. It’s a questionable move on the Angels’ part because Orlando Cabrera is a top tier shortstop in the league, and Jon Garland is considered only a solid starter at best. So it would seem that the White Sox got away with a steal.

Big fish being dangled

In trade rumours there is one name that keeps popping up, Miguel Cabrera. The 24-year-old third baseman seems to be priced out of the Marlins’ reach. Thus, the Marlins are doing what they always do, putting their best guys up for sale for young prospects. As Alex Rodriguez and Mike Lowell are now locked up with their respective teams, Cabrera is far and away the best option available at third. A reported eight teams are hunting Cabrera, with the Angels and Dodgers as front runners.

How well does U of T cater to students with special diets like vegetarian, Halal, or nut-free?

From left to right

Grady Johnson, 4th year Economics and Political Science

I mean, you can be a vegetarian on campus if you want to have salad everyday, but in my experience the selection’s pretty limited. It’s not like you can have a tofu dish or anything. I have much more faith in student-run things like Diabolo’s or the Hot Yam in the International Student Center than the franchises.

Taina Wong , 4th year English and Political Science

There’s a lot of franchise stuff—U of T doesn’t really specialize in anything for students. People with allergies to things like nuts—there’s nothing really specialized for them on campus. Student run things [like Diabolo’s and the Hot Yam] seem to be much more sensitive to these kinds of needs.

Baharak Zarbafian, ’07 Commerce alumni

I think they can do better. There’s only one vegan place on campus. It’s unfair to those who have class at St. Mike’s or Vic because it’s a 20-minute walk across campus. When Ramadan happened, restaurants closed at 7:00 p.m. even though fasts ended at 7:30 p.m. If you live on campus and have a meal plan, then for an entire month you can’t really eat on residence and you can’t use your money.

We shouldn’t have to fight for our education

Last week, in an extraordinary display of protest, university students took over Montreal’s streets, highways, and public buildings, and even occupied the Quebec premier’s Sherbrooke riding office. The students, who were eventually dispersed by pepper spray and tasers, were protesting the $50 per semester rise in tuition fees that the province has imposed upon its students, an increase made worse by an accompanying $100 million cut to bursaries. The fee hike and bursary cut was surprising news in a province that has long boasted the lowest tuition fees in Canada. It’s no wonder that Montreal students are fighting tooth and nail against the fee increase. More than 100 were arrested.

Judging by the results (or rather, the lack thereof) of the National Day of Action rally that Ontario post-secondary students held on a bitterly cold February day earlier this year, many might think that these mass protests and the resulting injuries and arrests are not worth the trouble. Despite our best efforst, a whole generation of students will likely be trapped in debt and financial misery in order to fund an education that should be a right, not a privilege, in a wealthy country like Canada. Yet students in most provinces are contending with ever-increasing fees and shrinking financial aid every year. And now Quebec, which was previously held up as a model for accessible education, is now following suit.

It is ironic that in Canada, where future economic growth is highly dependant on a knowledgeable and technically skilled workforce, higher education has been made into an inaccessible dream for so many. Countless studies have proven that a college or university grad will make $1 million more in their lifetime than a high school grad. A higher education ensures more productivity in a knowledge-based economy, which leads to a higher income, which in turn leads to a higher standard of living for Canadian citizens, ultimately fueling further economic growth. Yet policy makers who increase tuition fees while simultaneously slashing student aid seem not to recognize this close relation between economic growth and accessible higher education.

Little wonder that Montreal students have walked out of their classes (in midterm season too!) in the hopes that someone up there will take note of their plight. If students do not take serious action en masse that gains the sympathy of the general public and the media, then policy- makers will believe their unjust policies against students are being quietly accepted. This sets a dangerous precedent for further cuts to financial aid and tuition fee increases in the future, without any worry about repercussions from students and their supporters.

It is unfortunate that in a democratic society, where politicians can only remain in power so long as their policies satisfy voters, students have to shout as loud as they can, risking violence, arrest and injury in order to get policy-makers to pay attention to their needs.

Off with its head!

After reducing the Goods and Services Tax by a percentage point last year, Prime Minister Stephen Harper recently announced his resolution to drop the unpopular tax down to five per cent, effective the first day of 2008.

Harper’s decision is the latest evidence of the paradoxical policy shift between the two main Canadian parties on the GST issue. Harper’s Conservative Party, whose predecessors launched the GST during the Mulroney years, is now hastily dismantling this unpopular tax. Dion’s Liberals, who promised to rid Canadians of the GST during Chrétien’s first term, are currently defending it.

Tory Finance Minister Jim Flaherty said that the cut would encourage greater spending, which in turn would stimulate the economy and generate GST revenue via increased consumption. But what does this mean to the average taxpayer?

For starters, there will be considerable savings for homeowners: a family can save over $5,000 if they buy a new $300,000 home next January. A two per cent cut would save a shopper some $500 on the purchase of a new $25,000 vehicle. The more expensive the item, the more money one can save. Considering that the national economy is so heavily dependent on exports to the United States—and the rise of the Canadian dollar has suddenly made Canadian products less affordable—policy aimed at increasing consumption of local goods isn’t a bad idea, economically speaking. When the government cuts expenditures and taxpayers increase consumption, the result is typically neutral in the big picture.

Critics decry the loss of billions in tax dollars that could be used for social funding. The flip side is that regressive multi-level value-added taxes, like the GST, are a burden to low-income Canadians. Individuals in the lower economic strata tend to spend more of what they earn—thus paying more in sales tax as a proportion of their net income—than those at the top. The tax burden has become more and more regressive over the past two decades: the poor now shoulder a larger proportion of the tax load compared to the 1980s, and the main culprit of this change is the addition of the GST and a hike in other regressive tolls.

Economists project that Ottawa will have a surplus of $100 billion at its disposal over the next five years. However, only time will tell whether GST cuts and spending initiatives will keep the Canadian economy robust well into the 21st century

Somalia’s forgotten war

Last week, United Nations officials announced that the armed conflict in Somalia has created a humanitarian crisis that is likely Africa’s worst, eclipsing that in Darfur. The fighting in Somalia has been nearly constant in the country since 1991, and recently flared up in Mogadishu, sending thousands fleeing from the capital. At least 850,000 people are now internally displaced in Somalia, with some officials placing the figure at closer to one million. Deaths from disease and famine have already begun.

The UN’s pronouncement of this crisis fell with a thud in North American media. Most major newspapers in Toronto didn’t even carry the story, let alone put it on the front page where it belonged.

This should come as a surprise, considering the amount of media attention that has been garnered by ongoing conflicts in the Darfur region of Sudan. Given that Somalia’s crisis is more than comparable in scope, why are Canadians taking so little notice?

Like so many Westerners before them, the majority of Canadians have a very hard time thinking of Africans as fellow human beings in the same way that they conceive of Europeans or North Americans. In the minds of many, Africa is the continent of perpetual disaster: poverty, famine, AIDS, and constant war. We seem to think that Africans naturally just have harder, shorter lives than we do. No one is surprised to hear of another outbreak of war in the “dark continent.”

The violence in Darfur is the only conflict to have broken into the Western consciousness with any force in recent years, largely because of it has been portrayed by media and activists as a different kind of African conflict.

The conflict in Darfur has been deemed a genocide. This separates it from other serious conflicts such as the largely unheard of Congolese war, which since 1994 has claimed more than 3.8 million lives. The situation unfolding in Sudan is clearly serious and requires the full attention of the international community, but should we disregard the deaths of people in other regions simply because they are being killed for different reasons?

Labeling Darfur a genocide seems to contextualize the violence for Westerners. Genocide is something we can understand. After all, it wasn’t so long ago that Europeans suffered one. We identify the victims of the Sudanese violence with those of the Holocaust. This is a comparison made explicit by the hundreds of activists who wave Israeli flags at Save Darfur rallies, and chant “Never Again!” at our politicians.

Any slogan or historical allusion that urges action against the atrocities in Darfur should certainly be used to full effect, but what about the victims of conflicts that aren’t so easily analogous to Western history?

The war in Somalia seems to confound our sympathies. We do not see ourselves in its victims, only an unlucky mass of humanity unfortunate enough to have been born into a continental maelstrom of unending violence.

Our difficulty in identifying with Somalis should be all the more troubling because 200,000 Somali-Canadians live in this city. Many of those who are now facing hardships are erstwhile Torontonians who have returned to Somalia during lulls in the fighting.

If we could call them neighbours a few short years ago, why can’t we spare them space on our front pages today?

Chia: More than just a growing fad

Recently U of T researchers discovered that eating a certain variety of grains similar to the variety found in Chia Pets significantly reduces the risk of heart disease in individuals with Type 2 diabetes.

In a research study by U of T nutritional science professor Vladimir Vuksan, he discovered while working with researchers at St. Michael’s Hospital that the inclusion of the whole-wheat grain chia in diets helped lower blood pressure. The white seed variant, trademarked under the name Salba, also proved useful in reducing the formation of blood clots and minor inflammation throughout the body.

All the individuals involved in the study were being treated for Type 2 diabetes as these patients are at higher risk for heart disease.

Vuksan sees this whole grain addressing the link between these two conditions: “Salba seems to possess important cardio-protective properties in Type 2 diabetes [patients] by reducing conventional and emerging heart disease risk factors that are associated with diabetes,” he told the U of T Bulletin. Vuksan further described the findings as good news to those advocating an increase of whole grain consumption as part of a healthy diet.

Vuksan’s study, the results of which are to be published in the November issue of Diabetes Care, was one of the first clinical trials looking at the benefits of whole grains in their ability to protect individuals at high risk of getting heart disease.

Whole grain food products have long been found to be an important aspect in preventing diseases such as diabetes and various heart conditions. However, a majority of grains eaten today are heavily refined and therefore lack much needed omega-3 fatty acids and insoluble fibre. Since chia seeds are unrefined, they have important nutrients along with calcium, iron, and a high level of anti-oxidants. Omega-3 has been cited as especially helpful in reducing the risk of heart disease and improving circulation. This medical claim was even given “qualified” status by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 2004 following much convincing research.

Chia Salba (Salvia hispanica) is actually an ancient grain. Its cultivation originated in Central America, a staple food of the Aztec culture. In the 16th century, Jesuits noted how corn and beans were the only food other than chia considered more critical to Aztec culture. In fact, nobility and the priesthood were often paid tribute with the gift of chia seeds.

In terms of food applications, chia can be ground into flour and used in the same way as wheat flour to make baked goods. Chia sprouts can be eaten in salad in the same way as bean sprouts.

While the white-seed variety called Salba is currently grown in Peru, a country with ideal climatic conditions for the crop, the grain’s status in pop culture has long since existed.

The seed is actually the key component behind Chia Pets, the iconic clay figures that sprout when watered. Popular in the ’80s and ‘90s they were developed by Joseph Enterprises Inc. in San Francisco, California and quickly became a fad, helped along by a memorable if somewhat annoying advertising jingle (ch-chchia!). The variety of shapes even include characters like Shrek, Mr. T and Homer Simpson.

It should be noted that the species of seeds used in Chia Pets (Salvia columbariae) is slightly different from the edible version used in Vuksan’s study (salvia hispanica). The seed’s name actually comes from “chian” the Aztec word for “oily” – which would explain for the grain’s high amount of omega-3.

So, while chia is great for your health, it doesn’t mean you should start chomping your Chia Pet now in the hopes of avoiding coronary disease. Adding more whole grain foods to your diet is probably a better— and tastier—solution. Buying salba futures might not be a bad idea, either.

Don’t worry, it’s only temporary

It may come as a shock, but once you graduate from university you will be required to start paying for things yourself. Of course those exempt from this annoyance are the offspring of financially successful families and students in graduate school. Being neither rich nor academic, I was forced to get a job. I enjoy my part-time job at Book City, but it doesn’t bring in enough dough to pay the rent. Being lazy and not confident in my own abilities, I recently became a temp.

I found a company online and applied to a few postings. Two days later they called me to make an appointment to take a skills test. I showed up at the agency’s offices located above a hair salon in Yorkville. I completed a spelling, typing, and Excel test (man, my pie chart was pristine) and then chatted with a woman named Felicia about the job I would be looking for. “An office job,” I said. “I think I’d be good in an office environment.”

“You seem shy,” she said. “Are you shy?”

“No, I don’t think I’m shy . . . Maybe it’s just that you have to get to know me before I open up.”

“I hope it’s not the interview. I hate it when people tense up because of the interview.”

“I don’t mind being interviewed. Honestly, my friends would not describe me as a shy person.”

“How would your friends describe you?” I blanked. There was a long silence.

“ . . . A nice guy, I guess.”

“Okay . . . Well, Keith, we’ll be in touch, and hopefully we’ll find you something.”

Two days later I accepted a position at a truck insurance company in the financial district. The office was on the fourteenth floor of a nondescript building. I was a claims administrator, which basically meant I was a glorified secretary. I delivered mail, sorted faxes, and filed, filed, filed. Required to deliver faxes to cubicles at least six or seven times a day, I got a pretty good feel for the environment in no time.

Most employees were bored and desperate for conversation, especially in the afternoon. Talk came in starts and spurts, inquiries about kids’ soccer games and cross-border shopping, whispers of scandalous loss claims. People wanted to distract themselves. While productivity requirements forced workers to push paper most of the time, the office was eerily quiet except for my periodic awkward chime of “Hello, I have a fax for you.”

The office was constantly monitored like Bentham’s Panopticon. The advent of the cubicle has created a privacy-free space, as anything above a whisper can be heard, the office walls so short that a supervisor can poke their head over and spy you shopping for Hello Kitty merchandise online. Not that this stopped anyone from procrastinating. Many times I dropped off mail to people playing “guess the TV sitcom character” or reviewing the Leafs highlights. But paranoia ran rampant. A lack of privacy combined with little job security for most employees (it seemed that no one had been with the company for more than three years) led to a high level of anxiety carried on the shoulders of claims adjustors. No wonder Edward Norton’s character in Fight Club was so stressed out.

Ultimately I was fired before my two-month term was up. Perhaps because I was a young male in a cubicle full of three gossipy women that everyone referred to as “the girls.” The day before I was fired, I saw Paula, the 35-year-old, 270-pound woman who still lived with her parents, complaining to my supervisor in the conference room. The die was cast.

The next day I came in, put down my bag, and opened my e-mail.

Just to let everyone know, Keith has been replaced with a new temp.

Wow, I thought, what cowardly assholes.

My supervisor was surprised to see me. She ushered me into the conference room. “Oh, I’m really sorry. The temp agency was supposed to let you know last night.”

“Well they didn’t.”

The official reason was that I was too slow on the uptake. I had been ten minutes late in the morning twice, and that I was “socializing too much.”

“With who?” I enquired, shocked. Did Bill, the kind old man who asked me how I was liking the job, rat on me for talking to him about soccer for too long? “I don’t know,” she said, “that’s just what my supervisors said.”

“Okay, fine. Whatever. Can you just sign my pay stub please,” I held out the form I had prepared with my working hours the moment I read the e-mail.

“Sure. Of course.”

As I was leaving, I looked over the cubicles and saw a new, young, short, blonde, fresh-faced girl standing by the fax machine. In my mind I wished her luck.

Side-stepping the great stem cell debate

Once or twice a year, a major scientific breakthrough appears on the front page of the major newspapers. Not coincidentally, this story is usually controversial. Travelling through the messy intersection of science and society is hazardous— collisions between moralizers and proponents of progress are common, the wreckage likely to be ugly.

For once, the tidings from the world of science are refreshingly distinct from the norm. Researchers from the University of Wisconsin- Madison announced that they genetically modified regular skin cells to closely resemble embryonic stem cells. The incredible part is that they did so without destroying an embryo or using egg human cells. In one swift move, the entire stem cell debate may have become a moot point.

Heat from the religious right in the United States—led by their uncharismatic mega-leader George Bush— has increased since the end of the Clinton years. Numerous vetoes on bills for federal funding for stem cell research and increasing money for private stem cell research have fueled the slow-burn ethical debate. Bush repeatedly denied researchers the permission to destroy already made human embryos from fertility clinics. In one corner of the ring, pro-life groups backed by the supposed word of God. In the other, scientists pursuing what could very well be the most important breakthrough in medicine: harnessing the power of stem cells to cure diseases.

This new discovery may lead to a cancellation of the bout. With embryos no longer being destroyed, the Catholic Church and other faiths will have no reason to oppose stem cell research. Where there is no body, there is no crime.

Before this latest breakthrough, a technique called “therapeutic cloning” was used to create specialized stem cells from normal cells. The process requires that the cells be grown inside an embryo, which is destroyed after the stem cells are retrieved. The destruction of that potential life irked religious groups and led to religions (including the politically potent Catholic Church) adopting anti-stem cell research stances.

Using a mix of four different genes, the two research teams involved in the work, from the U.S. and Japan, forced regular skin cells to show characteristics similar to embryonic stem cells. Termed pluripotent stem cells, embryo-derived stem cells have the unique ability to specialize and transform into any of the over 200 cells types present in the human body. The first initial divisions of an embryo are these cells: they have to be adaptable to create the multitude of complex structures in the human body.

An analogy made by Dr. Robert Lanza is particularly apt. He describes the research as figuring out how to make gold from lead. For modern- day alchemists toiling in cellular research labs across the world, this discovery is the Holy Grail.

With groundbreaking research, there are always caveats. In this case, the research is by no means certain in its conclusions. It is a baby step in the long road to potentially using stem cells to fight the variety of diseases that plague the Earth. The two teams needed to use a retrovirus to transport genes to their proper locations. Manipulating a cell’s DNA this way could lead to the development of cancer—a case of one step forward and two steps back. So while these cells are not yet used to treat disease, they represent a monumental step forward in the realm of science, perhaps comparable to something like Einstein’s theory of relativity.

Perhaps most incredible is how simple it is to replicate this new research. James Thomson, a stem cell research pioneer from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, put the idea in certain terms: “Thousands of labs in the United States can do this, basically tomorrow.”

The study from Kyoto University headed by Dr. Shinya Yamanaka appears in Cell magazine. The American research, led by Junying Yu, is published in Science magazine. The replication of similar results by both teams is an extremely positive sign that research is headed in the right direction.

The typical hyperbole of major newspaperss claims that we are on the cusp of a great new age for medicine can be forgiven. Results of this magnitude and importance are heralding an important fact: scientific research is clearing the moral and ethical hurdles in its path and uncovering new ground at a breakneck pace. Scientists are raising their beakers the world over. There is much joy in this birth announcement—these new findings will make stem cell research an infinitely easier pursuit and we are all the better for it.