For prof, grass is greener with biofuel startup

John R. Coleman, VP of research and graduate studies at UTSC, will be trading his red pen for a consulting job come Nov. 3. The veteran botany prof will begin work as Algenol Biofuels’ chief science officer.

“After being an administrator for 10 years, its time to go back to being a real scientist,” said Coleman, who will remain on staff at U of T’s downtown campus, teaching grad students in the department of cell and systems biology.

“His office has been a reliable resource to researchers and students in completing grant and research applications, and he has introduced a number of programs to assist faculty in expanding their research activities,” said Franco Vaccarino, principal of UTSC.

At UTSC, Coleman conducted research in molecular biology, genetics and plant biology, specializing in cells and systems biology. His expertise in algae will come in handy at Algenol when he supervises research to create ethanol from algae. The company’s method, said Coleman, creates ethanol that does not divert food sources and is safe for the environment. He will try to make the process more efficient.

A successor won’t be chosen for several months, according to Mary Anne Gutton, communications director at UTSC. Plans to fill the role will be announced at a later date.

John Shavluk and political Darwinism at its finest

British Columbia Green Party candidate John Shavluk was pulled from the running late last week after a blog post surfaced in which he had written anti-Semitic jargon. The 2006 post, which appears to be a directionless rant about the Iraq War, drug laws, and 9/11 conspiracy theories, alluded to U.S. government involvement in “the attack on [their] shoddily built Jewish world bank headquarters.” In case there is any confusion as to which towers Mr. Shavluk was referring to, the entry elaborates: “you know ‘the two towers’ (who has the ring I wonder) better invade there too eh, oh no oil?…”

This incident has prompted something of a backlash in the blogosphere, particularly among Mr. Shavluk’s associates, who insist the remark was taken out of context. Of course, Shavluk is the first to insist that he’s no anti-Semite, claiming that his remarks were meant to echo statements made by a documentary film and that people reading his blog entry would have understood the reference. If this is true, then is John Shavluk simply another victim of our reactionary, overly-P.C. media machine? Did he deserve to lose his candidacy over a single instance of loose lips—or, in this case, idle typing hands?

The answer to both questions is yes.

John Shavluk made an irresponsible remark—actually, an irresponsible series of them. Referring to the fallen twin towers as the headquarters of Jewish bankers not only plays upon outdated racial stereotypes, but it encompasses a whole series of claims made in bad taste. Addressing outlandish arguments made by a documentary film is one thing; addressing outlandish arguments with rhetoric so poor that no casual reader could decipher the film’s ranting from Shavluk’s own—well, that’s just sad.

Our society has grown intolerant of intolerance—arguably, to the point of hypersensitivity—but that’s the way things are and we’re better off because of it. Yet I don’t think anti-Semitism is really the whole cause of Shavluk’s predicament. The real issue is that John Shavluk is an ass.

It’s hard to read the infamous post, which was originally published at enMasse.ca, without feeling embarrassment. After all, what respectable political hopeful would devote the time and energy to creating a blog post without even bothering to run a simple spelling and grammar check? Candidates should know better than put out such incomprehensible drivel for public consumption. Shavluk’s true intentions in writing that post determine whether or not he has integrity as a human being. But, as we all know, integrity is never really the bottom line in politics. The bottom line is presentation, and no presentable politician would ever write anything like that.

It’s not just the stupid things you say, it’s the stupid way you say it,

Alleged Hezbollah threats are likely a fear tactic

In the cloud of hysteria that surrounds the post-911 world, scapegoating is commonplace. Foreigners have increasingly been portrayed as crusaders for the destruction of Western civilization. Sometimes the threats are real, other times they’re exaggerated, and more often than not they’re used solely as a fear tactic to push forward an agenda—harsher immigration laws, for instance. In some cases, scapegoating can frame certain groups as victims of a campaign against their own kind. The “fear card” seems to be at work here in Toronto: Israeli officials and news outlets claim that a Hezbollah cell has been monitoring the actions of El Al crew members in the city.

It is difficult to tell if any of these threats are verifiable, especially when the security and intelligence unit of the Toronto Police Service, which maintains contact with the RCMP and CSIS, has stated that there’s no evidence that the surveillance took place. Of course, these threats were assumed, not substantiated. These threats aren’t clear, which shows that intelligence agencies do not want to make any assumptions that would cause mass panic and hysteria. Thus far, a convenient measure has been to portray groups as threats to global prosperity. Sure, there are real threats in some instances, but causing panic and hysteria over an unproved rumour is something which is all too common these days.

The likelihood of Hezbollah launching an attack outside of the Middle East is questionable. Judging by the historical tendencies of militia or resistance groups like Hezbollah—unlike al-Qaeda, they do not strive for international political recognition—targets remain at home, not abroad. In the unlikely event that Hezbollah will attack targets outside of the Middle East, the attackers would likely be splinter groups. It seems unrealistic for Hezbollah to initiate attacks that aren’t directly related to their goals.

The possibility of a Hezbollah attack in Canada is overblown. It is easy to speculate on an attack from a group that is widely criticized. However, there is a difference between suspicion of a threat and evidence of one. It goes without saying that intelligence agencies and services should take action on imminent threats, but this assumed threat lacks any substance.

What I learned at TIFF ‘08

The Varsity recently sent film critic Will Sloan to his first Toronto International Film Festival, and he came back a changed man. We’ve seen the pictures and read the reviews. It’s a movie lover’s paradise, from the whirlwind of gala screenings to the A-list parties. We asked him to describe what it’s like off the red carpet and behind the scenes. As a public service, he has agreed to provide some words of wisdom in the form of the life lessons he gleaned from our city’s annual film extravaganza. One thing is for certain—he’ll never look at the entertainment industry the same way again.

  • In my estimation, the best thing about TIFF is the glory of the press pass. It separates you from the unwashed masses that stand for hours on end outside Yorkville hotels and, if they’re lucky, eventually might get to see the top of John Malkovich’s head. With a press pass, you are different—you are special. Be sure to wear it around your neck at all hours of the day and night. Sleep and shower in it too. Stare lovingly at yourself in the mirror with your press pass and say, “Hot damn, I am one bad-ass film critic.”

  • Don’t get too excited when your press pass comes with a Pizza Nova “mystery gift card”—mine was only worth two dollars. I wonder how much Ebert gets? The guy’s got an appetite.

  • Big crowds tend to form outside the InterContinental Hotel, easily the most star-studded hub during festival time. When you exit the front doors, don’t take it personally when the hundred-strong crowd of gawkers gazes up at you hopefully and then quickly looks away, disappointed that you’re not a celebrity.

  • It’s time to face the facts: Kevin Smith just isn’t a very talented director. Stop clinging to the fact that Chasing Amy was a fluke. Zack and Miri Make a Porno is only slightly funnier than Hotel Rwanda.

  • Don’t even dream of asking Adrien Brody where he keeps his Oscar. He’ll only glare at you and say, “I don’t discuss that.”

  • Brad Pitt was staying at the Park Hyatt. Sorry you missed him.

  • At press junkets, journalists will not always ask the most penetrating questions. I actually heard someone ask Brothers Bloom director Rian Johnson if his con-man movie was inspired by the fraud scandal surrounding Anne Hathaway’s fiancé. (I had one of my better TIFF moments when I then immediately asked Johnson if all his films are inspired by National Enquirer headlines. His response: “Yes!”)

  • Don’t even think you can get rush tickets to the big Hollywood movies. It’s not happening. I did things no man should have to do to get my JCVD ticket.

  • I misinterpreted Deepa Mehta’s Heaven on Earth. Deepa Mehta told me so herself.

  • Varsity favourite Mark Ruffalo promises to move to Canada if John McCain is elected President.

  • Having Bill Maher and Larry Charles look you straight in the eye and respond angrily to your criticism of their film Religulous is a terrifying experience.

  • Best movie at TIFF ‘08: Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York. Best excuse to re-watch a great one: Wong Kar Wai’s Ashes of Time Redux.

  • If you can make a roomful of journalists and Rachel Weisz laugh, it’ll pretty much be the best moment of your life.

Larger than life

Wouldn’t it be great if one resource, containing everything you’ve ever wanted to know about any species, was a single click away? That’s the ultimate goal of the Encyclopedia of Life (EOL), an ambitious and deceptively simple enterprise aimed at creating a single website that brings users face-to-face with reliable information about species ranging from the tiniest bullet ant to the giant helicopter damselfly.

Comparable to an online field guide, the EOL is home to a set of intuitive web pages, each of which provides information about the natural history, conservation status, habitat, and evolutionary history of the species. By typing the common or scientific name into the search box, users will be directed to that species’ page. Alternatively, users can explore the database by classification, such as animals, fungi, or plants. If you’re not looking for something specific, browsing the EOL is sure to reveal an interesting species you never knew existed.

Each web page offers interactive illustrations, maps, sound, and video clips. Currently available in English, French, German, Russian, and Ukrainian, the encyclopedia is catered towards the general public. However, links specifically intended for scientists, geneticists, specialists, and academics alike will provide access to more complex material.

Since its May 2007 launch, the EOL has established 30,000 web pages. It is estimated that at the time of completion—approximately 10 years and $70 to $100 million dollars from now—1.77 million pages will have been created. Currently, the EOL’s 30,000 web pages contain information about fish, amphibians, and plants. Twenty-four prototypes have also been created to demonstrate how much information such a service can generate and contain.

“It’s going to have everything known on it, and everything new is going to be added as we go along,” said EOL honourary chairman Dr. Edward O. Wilson. Over the next five years, the EOL plans to create one million species pages, digitize a considerable amount of biodiversity literature, and build an educational resource for schools, scientists, and specialists. They hope that by completion the EOL will be in use as a resource to generate new scientific analyses. “Once we get all the information in one place, think of the impact this will have—available to anybody, anywhere, anytime,” commented Wilson.

Although the EOL’s headquarters are based at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC, it is a global enterprise involving a multitude of experts, scientists, and institutions from around the world. Similar to Wikipedia, the Encyclopedia of Life is edited by volunteers, combining the collaborative efforts of experts and amateurs. Contributors help out in a variety of ways; by donating funds, becoming volunteer curators for species pages, or creating related content for submission. Each species page will have two contributor sections: one that a scientific editor verifies, and another that will be available to members of the public.

The EOL’s goals are far-reaching. They also want to transform science and inspire scientists, engage a wide and curious audience, and increase the collective knowledge of life on Earth. Some scientists are not convinced the EOL team can reach these goals. As University of Toronto biologist Daniel Brooks told the New York Times, “I have seen 20 years of good ideas go nowhere.”

On the other hand, proponents of the Encyclopedia of Life believe that its “encompassing scope and innovation will have a major global impact in facilitating biodiversity research, conservation, and education.” “You’ll be able to download a personalized field guide,” said Dr. James Edwards, executive director of the EOL. “You can say, ‘I’m going to go to this preserve in Thailand—what do we know about what might be here?’”

Already, one group of scientists will use the EOL for original research by comparing different species to further understand the biology of aging. Edwards notes that completion of the EOL will not be easy; especially considering the project is far from finished. Wilson, however, takes a less conservative approach. “It’s going to be a fun adventure for the next few decades,” he said.

Check out the beta version of the Encyclopedia of Life at www.eol.org.

Third CT scanner makes UHN international leader

University Health Network (UHN) is now the proud owner of three fully operational 320-slice computerized tomography (CT) scanners, more than any other establishment in the world. This is good news for patients at Toronto Western, Toronto General and Princess Margaret Hospitals as these scanners represent the finest in CT technology.

In a CT scan, image “slices” of the body are taken by rotating a thin x-ray beam in the region of interest. A computer interprets the information gathered by the x-ray beam and produces detailed, three-dimensional images of the scanned areas. The 320-slice CT scanner is capable of taking 16-centimeter-wide image slices in approximately one second. By contrast, a 64-slice CT takes ten seconds and can only capture a 3.2-centimeter-wide area. The large slices of the 320-slice CT make it possible for entire organs to be imaged in very little time. This makes it easier to detect and diagnose medical conditions like blood vessel blockages and tumours.

“The 320-slice CT will allow us to measure breathing-induced motion of both tumours and normal tissues within the patient,” said Dr. David Jaffray, Head of Radiation Physics at Princess Margaret. “With this information, we can accommodate for movement and develop highly precise radiation treatments that induce minimal side-effects.”

Uniquely situated in the emergency department, the newly operational scanner at Toronto Western Hospital can be used to quickly diagnose patients who are exhibiting stroke symptoms or have undergone severe trauma. Toronto Western’s Medical Imaging Site Director Dr. Karel Terbrugge believes that having the 320-CT in the emergency department will allow medical professionals “to more accurately [treat] triage patients.”

The 320-slice CT scanner at Toronto General Hospital has been in clinical operation since 2007. Given that the scanner can scan the entire heart in very little time, it has aided in the diagnosis of heart conditions. In addition, the dose of radiation required to treat cardiac patients has reduced over the last year.

“Breathing artifact, which causes image blurring, has been reduced with the 320-slice CT. This means that we have better diagnostic confidence,” said Dr. Narinder Paul, Medical Imaging Site Director at Toronto General. “We’re at the point where we can start to look past anatomy and start to look at [the pumping of organ fluid].”

Physicians hope that these advanced CT scanners will continue to help pinpoint tumours and cardiac complications, as well as reduce wait times for people with stroke symptoms.

“We have always been pioneers and early adopters of cutting edge CT technology,” said Chair of the Department of Medical Imaging at the University of Toronto Faculty of Medicine Dr. Patrice Bret. “Embracing this technology represents the next step in a continuum of technological advancement.”

Scientia

The first, and perhaps most vital, step of the scientific process is observation. When it comes to science, observation refers to a systematic examination that requires both critical thinking and skepticism. True scientists stop their beliefs from impacting their ability to observe impartially. Being open-minded to all possibilities enhances an experiment and is essential for practicing good science.

Let us consider the mathematician, philosopher, and astronomer Eratosthenes. In the third century B.C., Erathosthenes was named the chief director of the library of Alexandria, which at one point held the greatest number of papyrus scrolls in the world. It was from reading these scrolls that he learned of another thinker’s observation that at noon on the summer solstice the temple towers in the city of Syene cast no shadows. This observation fascinated Eratosthenes, because he knew that the temple towers in Alexandria were never shadowless.

After considerable contemplation, Eratosthenes determined that the only way this observation was fathomable was if the world was curved. In order to convince others of his “round-world” hypothesis, he needed to support it with empirical evidence. On the next summer solstice, Eratosthenes measured the length of shadows cast by the temple towers, while an assistant simultaneously observed the towers in Syene and saw no shadows. This data gave him all the evidence he needed.

Eratosthenes proved his hypothesis by using little more than conscientious examination and his drive to determine the truth. We owe a great deal to our ancestors for their careful research and recordings. For the good of future generations, we must continue to make thorough observations of the world around us.

Blues basketball team aims to get to the point

Coming off a successful 2007-2008 season, Mike Katz, head coach of the Varsity Blues’ men’s basketball team, believes there could be a gaping hole at the point guard position.

“Last year, this team, I wouldn’t say it overachieved, I think it just surprised some people, including the coaching staff. But I think a lot of that had to do with the play of [point guard] Mike DeGiorgio,” Katz said. “The point guard is so important and that’s where we’re going to struggle.”

DeGiorgio, who has played out his eligibility, will now watch the games from the sidelines as the Blues assistant coach. Katz said fourth-year guard Nick Magalas has assumed the role as the team’s new floor general.

“Hopefully he’ll improve at it. It’s not his natural position. He’s a very, very gifted scorer, but he’s going to have to be able to do it from the point as well as direct the offence…it’s going to be tough,” Katz said.

He also hopes that Anthony DeGiorgio, Mike’s younger brother, will be able to give the team some quality minutes as Magalas’ back up.

“Obviously [our point guard play is] our Achilles’ heel right now,” Katz said.

As for the overall makeup of the team, Katz says it will be a combination of veterans and less experienced players.

“There are guys who played a lot of years, lots of minutes. We’ve got some who are returning who have not played a lot and brand new people who have never played. It’s an interesting mix,” Katz said.

Over the Labour Day weekend, the Blues had a chance to play together as a team for the first time this season, albeit against some formidable opponents, as they tipped off against three NCAA Division I schools in three days.

Toronto nearly defeated Mercer, Raptors’ head coach Sam Mitchell’s alma mater, losing 67-63, but got blown out in their other two games losing to East Tennessee State and UNC Charlotte.

Katz, however, doesn’t put a lot of stock into those games, considering his team only had their first official practice on Monday.

“First of all, two of the three teams we played were very good. I thought they were better and we probably weren’t going to do a hell of lot better than we did,” Katz said. “However, having said that, some of our guys only practiced one day. [For] other guys, [Monday was] their first time practicing.”

Katz realizes that he and his staff have their work cut out for them, with rookie players such as forward Jahmal McQueen and centre Junior Toby. However, they can rest easy knowing the team will be solid up front with both Nick Snow and Ahmed Nazmi returning for their fourth year.

“[Snow and Nazmi] have been around…so we’ve got some experience there,” Katz said.

Katz also sees second-year centre Drazen Glisic carrying some of the big men minutes. Fourth year guard Rob Paris will also be back to help take some of the scoring load off Magalas.

According to Katz, the preseason, beginning Oct. 5, is a better way of gauging how prepared his team will be for the regular season.

“As far as I’m concerned the Labour Day games are done. [The preseason] is when the season starts,” Katz said. “I was happy with the way things went [in practice on Monday]. We’ll see if we continue to improve.”

However, one good practice didn’t seem to be enough to keep Katz’s mind from reverting back to the loss of his star point guard.

“It’s going to be quite a challenge because I know that Mike’s play over the last two years, especially last year, really put us in a position to win,” Katz said. “It’s going to be a big void that will ultimately determine our fate this year.”

Find out if the Blues are up to this challenge when they begin their regular season October 31 at Ryerson.