Microsoft gives away software to students

Since well before the IT boom, the University of Waterloo has been jumping- off point for many of Canada’s best and brightest software designers, hackers and engineers. It’s no surprise, then, that Bill Gates made Waterloo his only Canadian stop on a tour of North America’s top computer science schools.

One talking point was the Dream- Spark program, which plies students around the world with free Microsoft software, including the Visual Studio programming suite for web and video game design, and Expression Studio, which provides tools for animation and photography. The download site comes with a large dose of lifestyle marketing, promising “access to the inside scoop about our products and life working inside Microsoft and information on cool things coming out. This is your community.”

Critics say DreamSpark is a last desperate attempt to win back a generation of programmers weaned on free, open-source software, but Gates is always well received at Waterloo. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation recently gave the university’s school outreach programs a $12.5-million boost.

“We want to do everything we can to equip a new generation of technology leaders with the knowledge and tools they need to harness the magic of software to improve lives, solve problems and catalyze economic growth,” said Gates.

In his speech, Gates highlighted the decreased interest in IT jobs after the high-tech boom fizzled out. “When we want to hire lots of software engineers there is a shortage in North America—a pretty significant shortage…It’s partly that the enrolment in the field is going down.” Gates commented that Waterloo is pushing the trend in the other direction: applications are up in fields like computer science.

John Gantz, chief researcher at the IT market research company IDC, emphasized the importance of IT jobs. “The emerging economies are forecast to drive over 25 per cent of the new IT jobs over the next four years. These jobs will be driven by an evolving, highly skilled labour force. Tech skills are key to employability.” According to a report by the Conference Board of Canada, 90,000 IT workers will be needed over the next five years to employ the wireless Internet business. Each unfilled position could cost the economy $120,000 a year.

Shame on all the Nader haters

Despite the criticism he’s faced since unveiling his presidential campaign last week, Ralph Nader has every right to run for president. The idea of him as a “spoiler” obscures more important threats to American democracy, such as faulty voting machines and a populace largely too apathetic and alienated from the political process to vote. The man is not a pointless candidate—he brings a diversity of ideas to a political arena often grossly lacking them.

As just one of many examples, Nader is the only candidate to promote single-payer health care, a model favoured by many doctors and nurses, but ignored by Democrats and Republicans. While Americans fear involvement in another catastrophic war with Iran, Nader is the only candidate willing to take military force off the table once and for all.

Though Nader may sound like a wacko conspiracy theorist when he talks about the “corporate” Democratic and Republican parties, he raises an issue that mainstream candidates aren’t even willing to debate. The reality of Washington politics is that politicians get most of their fi nancial support from powerful private sources, i.e. corporations. Their loyalty to working- and middle-class Americans, who cannot possibly compete with major companies’ financial influence, is cast into doubt. Barack Obama may be the recipient of more small donations than anyone else, but he still isn’t willing to level the playing fi eld by making a public fund for campaigns like John Kerry suggested in 2004. Nader is the only candidate still talking about it.

Candidates with similarly progressive views exist in the Democratic Party—Dennis Kucinich comes to mind—but are inevitably shelved for more moderate (read: conservative) candidates. Is it any wonder that many liberal Americans are fed up with the Democratic Party? If the Democrats want to gain more votes, they should use their Congress majority to stand up to Republicans, and nominate better candidates. Barack Obama’s current surge is a sign that the Democrats may have learned the latter lesson.

The idea of Nader luring liberal voters away from the Democratic Party is absurd. This denies a voter their right to choose, something that is sacrosanct for a reason. Americans may not always know what is best for them (the past eight years show that clearly enough) but they have the right to vote for who they want to run their country. Giving them one more candidate to choose from won’t spoil the election.

There are far greater threats to the electoral process. Take voting machines, for example. Experts say machines in many districts are faulty, and could be used to manipulate election results without leaving any evidence. There’s your spoiler.

Mind over grey matter

Studying cognitive pyschology is an exceedingly self-referential task. It also poses an interesting question: when using one’s own brain for study, do different observational methods hold any relevance? I’ll be frank—I started writing this article as I read over my second year cognitive psychology text. While I found other topics interesting, such as the basic cognitive structures, I could hardly remember anything about brain-scanning methods. Maybe there’s something in that.

The oldest method for eavesdropping on the brain is termed electroencephalography (EEG). The EEG technique measures fluctuations in electrical activity over time. The experimenter puts electrodes on the head to accomplish this task. While spatial resolution is poor, due to representing a flow of data, temporal resolution is excellent. It also has an advantage that many researchers find appealing: it is inexpensive. Many later developments, such as event-related potential and magnetocenphalography, are variations on EEG.

Professor George Cree, of UTSC’s department of pyschology, gave some insight into the progression of brain examination.

“Functional neuroimaging techniques have really taken off in the last decade as a means of peeking inside the human brain, while it is working, to try to figure out how the brain gives rise to the mind,” said Cree.

Positron emission tomography (PET) is perhaps the most interesting. To perform the PET scan, a radioactive isotope is injected into the blood of the individual. Considered invasive and expensive, this method measures how much blood is detected in the brain when it is active. Like a car’s engine, the brain draws in more blood the higher it functions. As blood flow increases to different areas, the machine picks up the radioactive elements introduced into the blood. These measurements are run through a computer program that constructs a three-dimensional image.

“The research has become really interesting now that researchers have moved beyond ‘mapping the brain’ (i.e., trying to figure out what each region ‘does’) to more interesting questions, such as how different regions work to produce complex cognition,” said Cree.

A well-known technique for studying various parts of the body, magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI, was originally designed to assess structural, rather than functional, components. This tactic is expensive but non-invasive. Researchers also claim that MRI spatial resolution is as good as its temporal resolution. MRI uses magnetic fields to alter the alignment of specific sub-structures. The next step is to distort the alignment, and measure the output as the atoms move back to their original position. Recently, something called fMRI replaced PET to peer into our thoughts. Based on structural MRI, this method follows activity in the brain.

The most current brain observation technique was welcomed to the University of Toronto in the summer of 2007 with the addition of Professor Laura-Ann Petitto, a world expert in Near Infrared Spectroscopy (NIRS).

“[NIRS] combines the strengths of fMRI and EEG to produce excellent spatial and temporal data regarding processing in cortical tissue,” said Cree.

While many find these correlational methods robust, the highly technical methods involved can be difficult to grasp. Correlational methods themselves make claims about their limitations, namely the famous “correlation doesn’t imply causation” argument. As well, there is a lesser-known lesson from behavioural statistics: two variables that appear correlated could have absolutely no effect on each other—they may just be activated simultaneously.

Which brings me to another point: is there a double dissociation between my long-term memory for this material and my recall? I hope not.

Born to be Wilde

One’s real life is often the life that one does not lead. —Oscar Wilde

When history is made in Hogtown, it’s a pretty big deal to Torontonians. From the city’s cameo in the Oscar-nominated I Met The Walrus to becoming the final stop on the Spice Girls’ farewell tour, Toronto becomes more established with each historical notch on our belt.

A lesser-known Toronto story is explored in Martin Hunter’s production Stephen and Mr. Wilde, which opens at Hart House this Thursday. The play centres on British author Oscar Wilde (Jonathan Schuster), and his 1882 lecture tour through the United States and Canada. This was the journey that made Wilde notorious for his wit and decadence, a reputation that remains unchallenged even today. Stephen and Mr. Wilde, however, imagines the role of the writer’s intellectual equal—his African-American valet, Stephen Davenport (Drew Ngomba).

During the 24-hour period fictionalized in the story, Wilde is beleaguered by reporters from the Toronto Chronicle and the Toronto Empire, forerunners of today’s Globe and Mail. Already, critics were ridiculing Wilde for his role in Aestheticism, an art movement already gasping for air. The drama sets in, though, when one journalist accuses Davenport of being a fugitive murderer. Through a combination of truth and fantasy, the strain of the relationship between Davenport and Wilde is deeply examined.

Based on the play by Toronto writer Jim Bartley, performances of Stephen and Mr. Wilde have remained limited to the Canadian stage. It premiered in 1993 at Saskatoon’s Persephone Theatre, then made it to Toronto in 1995 and Stratford in 2000 for a CBC-sponsored performance. This production, directed by Hart House veteran Martin Hunter, has given the play a chance to shine once again on a prominent Toronto stage. Hunter, who started out acting at Hart House Theatre in the 1950s, has a long history here. In 1967 he saw his first play Out Flew the Web produced there, and in 1969 directed a production of Sergeant Musgrave’s Dance. Soon after, Hunter became Hart House Theatre’s artistic director. His last stint at Hart House saw him direct 2006’s superb production of Timothy Findley’s The Stillborn Lover.

Hart House’s revival of Stephen and Mr. Wilde arrives just in time for U of T’s Festival of the Arts, which runs through March 20. Just as students and faculty emerge from the depths of winter and midterms, all three campuses are participating in a celebration of creative culture with music, literature, dance, film, and more. Stephen and Mr. Wilde launches the festival on a charming, homegrown note, setting the stage for over 100 local pieces and performances over the course of the month.

Be sure to travel back in time this week to a different, yet oddly familiar Toronto with Stephen and Mr. Wilde. You may just find yourself heading over to the lobby of the Four Seasons with a copy of The Importance of Being Earnest. Let Oscar Wilde’s Toronto story become yours as well.

Stephen and Mr. Wilde runs from Thursday through March 8. Tickets are available at or at the Hart House Theatre Box Office.

U of C’s accidental oil field

The University of Calgary has announced plans to use engineering students to search for oil or gas deposits on a small patch of land it owns in Spring Coulee, an oil-rich area near the American border.

Two questions still linger around the discovery: How did the university come to own the land (the paper trail leading to the previous owner seems to have vanished), and, more pressingly, is the land worth anything?

“There is a producing oil well nearby, so we too could have some black gold,” said Rob Steward, a geoscience professor at U of C.

If the land proves to have sufficient oil reserves to merit mining, U of C will most likely bring in an established oil company such as Trican or Shell, with which it has close relations, for the extraction process. This would not be a first for the university as it already receives money from oil production on land it has leased out.

Either way, the land will allow U of C students to try oil prospecting with the university’s newest gadgets. Last month, in surveying the land to assess resources, students got to test the university’s new seismic vibrator truck.

“This is a great treasure hunt that is going to provide real-world experience that might even result in a new source of revenue for the university,” said Stewart. “We are in the remarkable position of being able to do a lot of the exploration work ourselves, which is a wonderful way for everybody to learn. The data we acquired is a treasure trove of information that students are analyzing in class.”

The two patches of land, five square kilometres in total, will be the site of summer field courses organized by the geoscience department. Gathered data will be further analyzed by students from the Schulich School of Engineering, home to the new Trican Petroleum Engineering Laboratories. The new lab gives students access to equipment similar to that used by the oil industry.

The project is expected to expand and include students from the Haskayne School of Business and the environmental sciences department. “I think this is a real motivating opportunity for students, who can be involved in every step of the oil and gas development process,” said Dave Eaton, head of the geoscience department.

Steward expressed interest in using the potential revenue stream, which could be significant for U of C, to create new scholarships. The money could also be used to reduce the school’s tuition, one of the highest in the country and the object of lobbying efforts by U of C’s student union.

With increasing environmental concerns about Alberta’s oil sands development, U of C’s new land will also serve as a testing ground for the university’s commitment to reduce its impact on the environment.

Diary of the Dead suffers from rigor mortis

George A. Romero is a living legend. Having pioneered the zombie subgenre with Night of the Living Dead (1968), one of the best horror films of all time, he returned to undead territory with three alleged sequels, Dawn of the Dead (1978), Day of the Dead (1985), and Land of the Dead (2005), a big-budget studio production. Following the last film’s box office failure, Romero has returned to his independent roots with George A. Romero’s

Diary of the Dead, a reboot to the already tenuously connected series. It’s also his weakest zombie movie to date: dull, tired, and very mistaken in what it thinks is profound. Diary of the Dead comes advertised as “a new vision of terror from the legendary filmmaker.” This “new vision” is the decision to structure the story almost entirely from the perspective of the protagonist’s video camera (he’s documenting the action). Sound familiar? To be fair, Romero’s film made its festival debut several months before a certain J.J. Abrams monster movie did the same idea better. (Back then it only looked like a Blair Witch Project rip-off.)

Apart from this creaky structural innovation, the monotonous plot should be familiar stuff: a group of college students making a cheapie horror flick learn that the dead have risen. They hop into an RV and head for sanctuary. When they arrive, they find zombies, and someone dies. Repeat.

Romero has never been an actor’s director. While this film’s unknown cast don’t exactly humiliate themselves, they recite their awkward dialogue stiffly, the characters painted with such broad strokes that very few make an impression. The unfortunate exception: Scott Wentworth as a middle-aged British professor in charge of delivering ominous pronouncements. He evoked quite a few titters from the audience I saw the film with. Is Wentworth trying to do camp? It certainly doesn’t work within the solemn context of this film.

Romero is known for infusing his horror films with social commentary— Dawn of the Dead famously attacked consumerism by having hordes of zombies heading mindlessly to a shopping mall. At the TIFF Q&A session, Romero said he was interested in exploring a culture that, with the proliferation of YouTube, MiniDV cameras, and blogs, gives everyone the power to be a reporter. Still, Romero does little more than point out that an increasingly democratized media exists. The film hits its lowest points when Romero includes voice-over narration to hammer a few simplistic ideas home, for those who thought the image of zombies in a shopping mall was too subtle.

But what about the zombies? Well, there are some good, gory attacks here and there (dig the flesh-eater that gets his skull burned by acid) but the suspenseful/ horrific moments are shockingly sparse and flat. It breaks my heart to accuse Romero of being behind the times, but compared to something like 28 Weeks Later, the shenanigans of Diary of the Dead feel downright sedate.

While Romero isn’t the subtlest of social commentators, he’s proven himself to be one of the best that the horror genre has, and the clever Bush-era satire of Land of the Dead showed that he still has teeth. The Weinstein Company has expressed interest in making another entry in the Dead series, and as a longtime admirer of Romero’s films, it would be nice to see him get his undead mojo back. As it stands, Diary of the Dead is a stiff.

McMaster ban on phrase ‘Israeli Apartheid’ stirs protest

A massive protest is set to take place this Friday after a McMaster University administrator banned the phrase “Israeli Apartheid” from being used by student clubs.

According to a press release issued by the Coalition Against Israeli Apartheid, the protest is a response to a decision by McMaster University’s provost and vice-president academic Ilene Busch-Vishniac, which CAIA called an “unprecedented attack on the right to academic freedom and the right to organize.”

“At McMaster, they have a very strong code of conduct to protect their students, many who complained and said they felt intimidated and harassed by terms,” said Tilley Shames, the associate director of Hillel of Greater Toronto. “While I recognize the right to freedom of speech on campus, it can’t be abused to intimidate and harass others.”

“Even if even if the term is outlawed, the discussion is going to happen anyway,” said Liisa Schofield, a volunteer and programming coordinator with the Ontario Public Interest Research Group at U of T.

UTSU has booked two buses to leave Hart House at 8:30 a.m. Friday morning with the additional support from CUPE and the OPIRG. York and Ryerson’s student unions will also send contingents to the protest.

In a movie posted to Google Video, a member of the group Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights at McMaster University accuses Busch-Vishniac, as a long-time supporter of Israel and the Zionist movements, of a conflict of interest in his decision.

Toronto’s Yonder bring country to the city on their impressive debut LP

The word “yonder” was once a cowboy expression that combined the Germanic “yon” (“that”) and the Dutch “ginder” (“over there”), and was usually accompanied by a sweeping or pointing gesture. “Just over them hills yonder,” they used to say.

Now the term has been refashioned into the moniker of Toronto’s newest alt-country posse, who are blazing a trail of buzz following the release of their first LP Skywalk to Crescent Town (Northern Dust Records) last Friday.

Yonder, lead by charismatic singer and guitarist Zach Bennett, have been slow-cooking their rootsy rock recipe to sweet perfection since 2003. First, the band holed up in a secluded cottage near Havelock, Ontario—the perfect setting to distil their rural influences—to record a demo EP with producer Dean Marino (Born Ruffians, Amy Milan, C’mon). Those songs were strong enough to shore up support from local indie imprint Northern Dust Records.

Their next task was to build on the EP’s strength, and deliver the aforementioned Skywalk. Opting again to trust the board to Marino, Yonder re-recorded three tracks from the cottage sessions and banged out 11 new ones at Toronto’s Chemical Sound. The result is an extremely well-crafted album that combines elements of Wilco’s alt-country and Arcade Fire’s anthemic indie-rock into a memorable and unpredictable 55 minutes.

Going beyond the usual guitar/ bass/drums/vocal rock setup, Bennett has mixed in every instrument short of the kitchen sink. Combinations of strings, horns, organ, banjos, saxophone, pedal steel, every kind of guitar, and a diverse array of percussion give each song a unique character— the album even kicks off with a mood-setting story told over the beginning of lead track “Juvenile Haul.”

Verses build into stomping choruses on their heavier material (“Let YouDown,” “If Only”) while their quieter, more introspective fare (“Wear a Frown,” “Autumn Eyes”) will have you ordering up three fingers of the good stuff to dull the heartache. Yonder’s songs also benefit from a slew of talented musicians but also from Bennett’s obvious attention to detail—there are no sloppy shortcuts here. Even the packaging is top notch.

Fans of rootsy, homegrown indierock like Ottawa’s The Acorn and our own Elliot Brood will find a lot to like on this debut. Coming off a recent gig opening for Bry Webb of the Constantines, Yonder are looking forward to showcasing songs off Skywalk at their Canadian Music Week showcase March 6 at the Cadillac Lounge. We predict that big things are just over the horizon for Yonder.

Listen to Yonder: