Employee testing doesn’t cure drug use

The TTC is considering random drug and alcohol testing for employees who hold “safety sensitive” jobs such as drivers, mechanics, and maintenance workers. The idea arose from a recent report detailing almost 40 instances of intoxication among TTC employees, including Tony Almeida, who was killed by a subway car on the job; post-mortem analysis revealed that he had been smoking marijuana during his shift.

TTC Chief General Manager Gary Webster, believes that it is necessary to test employees in order to ensure the safety of the general public. Amalgamated Transit Union President Bob Kinnear feels that drug testing violates the privacy of employees.

According to Statistics Canada, the rate of marijuana-related crimes has increased by at least 34 per cent since 1991. Cocaine offenses are also on a steady rise. Drug overdoses account for the deaths of nearly 1,300 people per year, and half of all reported cases of HIV infection occur among drug users.

These statistics show that substance abuse is not a an issue confined to the TTC, but a societal dilemma. Launching a drug and alcohol testing program for employees in safety sensitive jobs will not cure the evils of drug use in our society.

Ensuring the safety of our citizens is a top priority, but our biggest concern should be whether or not drug testing will bring an end to drug use. There should be a zero tolerance policy towards intoxicants on the job. Drug use is not acceptable under any circumstances, whether one is employed by a transit company in a major city, or working a job with less public importance. The principle behind this drug testing initiative (i.e., eradicating drug use on the job) suggests that drugs are acceptable, as long as employees are not on duty. Additionally, defining a job as “safety sensitive” is problematic. Safety is a major priority with every job, regardless of the institution.

Our society needs to approach drugs in a different way, and employer-enforced drug and alcohol testing won’t eradicate the billion-dollar illegal industry thriving in the Greater Toronto Area. The TTC drug testing initiative seems to condemn drugs only when they compromise work safety, but illicit drug use is wrong at any time.

Highly Evolved

Have you ever wondered why you solemnly bow your head upon hearing Paul McCartney’s somber yet hopeful vocal turn on “Let It Be?” Or why you can’t help but move your body to the opening guitar lick of “Satisfaction?”

If you’ve ever pondered the science behind the effect of music upon the human brain, Daniel J. Levitin’s book The World in Six Songs: How the Musical Brain Created Human Nature might have the answers you’re looking for.

The book accomplishes more than a simple explanation of our reactions to certain songs. Through neuroscience in combination with evolutionary biology, Levitin attempts to provide a scientific explanation as to why we sing around the campfire, why music plays such a big role in religious services, and even why we whistle while we work. He cites these and countless other musical activities as being essential to the way human beings evolved.

The study of how the brain responds to music is a relatively new interdisciplinary science that’s received significant press in the last few years. Levitin got the ball rolling in 2006 with This Is Your Brain on Music, and celebrated British neurologist Oliver Sacks addressed the subject a year later with his book Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain. Levitin admits in his chapter on joy that the concept of music therapy—based on the connection between singing and the release of endorphins in the brain—has not yet been conclusively proven, but he makes an argument in favour of it anyway.

Levitin is not only an accomplished author and a professor of Psychology and Behavioral Neuroscience at McGill University, he’s also a former sound engineer for Santana, Chris Isaak, and Jonathan Richman, the former president of San Francisco’s 415 Records, and the kind of music junkie who posts his entire iTunes library on his website.

At his lecture at the U of T Faculty of Music on Tuesday afternoon, Levitin gave a packed house of psychologists and music lovers a brief introduction to the six categories into which he divides the whole of music history.

The six types of songs don’t fall along any musical genre lines; instead they are grouped thematically to sum up the reaction elicited in our brains. They are as follows:

Friendship—Sharing a song leads to the creation of trust, which is essential to social bonding, synchronized labour, and battle.

Joy—“Music tries to take [the listener] on an emotional ride and encapsulate the many human emotions. When people listen to music they like, it activates the ‘reward centres’ in the brain that modulate dopamine (the brain’s feel-good hormone).”

Knowledge—Levitin argues that our ancestors used music to preserve important information and teach children basic lessons like the alphabet and number systems.

Comfort—“In every society we know of, mothers instinctively sing to their children.” Levitin stressed the importance of lullabies and our tendency to take solace in sad songs like the blues.

Religion—Music is used in religious ceremonies to create a sense of ritual that remains firmly entrenched in our memory.

Love—“What binds together [different] forms of love is a deep sense of caring. We respond to that, it’s a uniquely human quality. It’s one of the things that characterizes us as a species, and it’s [a topic that is] written about so often in music.”

As he describes the countless effects of music upon the brain, Levitin’s thesis determines that music is not only a form of entertainment, but a central force in all our lives. He makes reference to over 350 songs, and snippets of lyrics are printed to provide a clear illustration of this core belief. Levitin’s theory drives the urge to qualify one’s favourite songs under one of his six stated types. Starting with the two previously mentioned examples, it quickly becomes clear that qualifying each track is no easy task because the greatest pieces of music elicit multiple emotions.

The driving instrumentation on “Satisfaction” could easily qualify it as a song of joy, but Mick Jagger’s lyrics make it more like a song of comfort, specifically self-comfort, as Jagger laments society’s state of meaninglessness and his own personal “losing streak.”

It would be easy to call “Let It Be” a friendship or love song, but the combination of church organs and “Mother Mary” references make it practically a religious hymn.

Levitin references Johnny Cash’s “Walk the Line” three times, deeming it a friendship song, love song, and knowledge song. At his lecture, he clarified this distinction, saying, “It’s a knowledge song. I think he’s writing this song to himself to remind himself not to cross that line of infidelity.” If nothing else, Levitin’s categories spark an interesting debate.

It’s possible that our evolution as a species will continue to develop in tandem with music, but if our songs are indeed a measure of humanity’s evolution, should Soulja Boy’s “Crank Dat” be considered a sign of a coming apocalypse? It’s a scary thought.

Daniel J. Levitin’s book The World in Six Songs: How the Musical Brain Created Human Nature is published by Penguin Books and is available now. His book tour will see him return to Toronto twice this fall: for an interview at Indigo Books, 55 Bloor St. W., on Oct. 2, and the Royal Conservatory of Music on Nov. 4.

Preserved zebras and sharks smash Sotheby’s records

British artist Damien Hirst is known for defying expectations in his artwork—his signature pieces are animals soaked in formaldehyde and skulls coated with jewels and precious metals. This week, however, Hirst changed the face of visual arts through economics. His newest collection of preserved animals, stuffed cabinets, and butterfly paintings, titled Beautiful Inside My Head Forever, garnered £111 million at Sotheby’s ($168 million CAD) —the highest earnings for a single-artist auction. This is also the first time in Sotheby’s 250-year history that the auctioneers have sold new work. Choosing not to showcase his collection in galleries before selling it, Hirst claims this process is more ‘democratic.’ The record-breaking profit from Beautiful Inside My Head Forever seems strange as art sales continue to stagnate and global financial markets seem to implode. 20,000 art lovers attended the London auction, but only a handful of bidders were seriously contesting Hirst’s work. Not so democratic, perhaps—but do you really need that gold-plated bullock or a cupboard full of cigarette butts and diamonds?

ASSU goes bottom-up

Within the span of two days, the Arts and Science Students’ Union has lost its student fees and its president.

Interim VP and provost Cheryl Misak has decided to withhold ASSU’s funding for the time being after she reviewed their two controversial elections from last year, as she informed the union Tuesday. On Wednesday, Sept. 17, ASSU president Ryan Hayes resigned via an emailed statement.

Both decisions came after The Varsity uncovered the collaboration between then-candidate Hayes, elections chair Ausma Malik, and then-exec Alanna Prasad on elections procedures and reports. Leaked emails and chats cast doubt on Malik’s neutrality, showing that Hayes and Prasad decided to put forth Malik as a candidate for election chair.

As chair, Malik threw out the initial election that Hayes’ rival, Colum Grove-White, won. The second election was pushed as far into the exam period as possible to “avoid an appeals process after the elections,” reads an email message from Prasad. Malik also asked Hayes and exec Alanna Prasad for input on her decisions and let them edit her verdict and the election report. When Grove-White lost the second election, he appealed to Jim Delaney, director of the Office of the Vice-Provost, Students. The investigation was handed over to Misak because Delaney is a claimant in an unrelated investigation involving ASSU executives.

In her decision, Misak invoked the Policy for Compulsory Non-Academic Incidental Fees, which allows her to withhold funding “if the Office of the Vice-Provost Students has reason to believe that a student society is not operating in an open, accessible and democratic fashion.” Her office, the Office of the VP and Provost, is responsible for U of T’s academic and budgetary matters.

Part of the dispute over the initial election stemmed from ASSU’s lack of official written rules for its elections. Hayes said he operated under past practice that disallowed campaigning. “Those were always the rules,” he said. Grove-White received written rules from an ASSU staffer stating that campaigning was permitted. Hayes and those who ran alongside him have claimed that ASSU staff, who are in the midst of a labour dispute with the execs, were not neutral in the election and supported the Grove-White slate. Misak’s letter to ASSU exec Sheila Hewlett, dated Tuesday, Sept. 16, voiced concern over the lack of written rules. “There was an absence of specific rules or procedures that might have brought openness and democracy to the situation,” the letter reads.

In an interview that took place immediately after he resigned yesterday, Hayes rejected the validity of the policy governing ASSU’s funding from student fees, which he said has a vague definition on the student society’s undemocratic conduct.

“They only need reason to believe, not definitive proof. The administration as an entity is biased in a referendum or election. The administration has interests because we negotiate with the administration,” he said. “The point that was made to her was that procedures already exist within ASSU to deal with any disputes.” The ASSU constitution states that instances not covered would be addressed by Bourinot’s Rules, parliamentary-style rules of order and procedure. Misak’s letter said referring to Bourinot’s is insufficient.

Sandy Hudson, president of UTSU, agreed with Hayes. “Under no circumstances should the administration withhold funds based on internal student union governance matters,” she said. “When there are electoral improprieties, it is the members, that is the course unions of ASSU, who have the responsibility to ensure that the organization is running smoothly.”

Grove-White called Misak’s decision “a double-edged sword.”

“On one side it will result in a transparent democratic process,” he said. “But on the other it jeopardizes funding for those course unions who really work on behalf of their students.”

In her letter, Misak said the ASSU constitution does not describe “a clear procedure for dealing with complaints from members” and later noted that “ASSU has no rules for the conduct of elections for President.”

When asked whether ASSU should have specific rules for complaints and the election, Hayes said, “If you want to do something, whether it’s a complaint, or something else, it’s the same policy. It’s all the same, because it’s all democratic. It would be redundant.”

Hayes’ written statement of resignation does not admit any unethical behaviour on his part. “This [the leaked emails] has resulted in sensationalized reporting largely revolving around petty personal politics and gossip, which I feared would be used to distract from the important work of ASSU for the remainder of my term,” it reads.

According to ASSU’s constitution, the exec can select a replacement for vacated positions until a by-election can be held. Regularly scheduled elections for four exec positions will take place next Monday, Sept. 22. Exec Edward Wong said the presidential election will not be held on that date, because there is little time for nominations. At press time, the chief elections officer position has not been filled.

Grove-White isn’t sure if he will run. “I think I need to talk to some course unions,” he said. “I’m a little worried because of ASSU’s current predicament and about who is willing to step up to the plate if I don’t.”

Both of ASSU’s remaining execs, Wong and Hewlett, declined to comment on Hayes’ resignation and the fund freeze. Wong said the execs would meet and would respond to Misak’s letter, as requested, by noon on Friday, Sept. 19.

Pink Floyd’s Richard Wright Dead at 65

Classic rock fans across the globe shed a tear on Monday when Richard Wright, the keyboardist for Pink Floyd, passed away. Wright co-founded the band in 1965 and was integral in the composition of many Pink Floyd classics, such as the landmark albums Meddle, Dark Side of the Moon, and Wish You Were Here. Due to mounting tension with Roger Waters, Wright opted out of The Wall recordings, but continued to play with the band in live shows. He officially re-entered Pink Floyd in 1988 and contributed to the band’s final album, The Division Bell, in 1994. Wright also released two albums as a solo artist, Wet Dream (1978) and Broken China (1996). Wright passed away from cancer in England on September 15th at the age of 65. Before his death, Wright was working on a new album composed mainly of instrumental pieces.

Carleton kid couldn’t hack it

A third-year math student at Carleton University has been charged with mischief to data and unauthorized use of a computer, and could face up to 10 years in prison after exposing security flaws in the university’s computer system.

Mansour Moufid, 20, used a key logging program to breach the school’s card-reading software and exposed the confidential information of 32 students. His case is renewing the debate over whether hacking can ever be ethical.

Moufid claims that he wrote the software to reveal flaws in Carleton’s card-reader software, and sent a 16-page report to the University Secretary’s Office explaining his actions. With the students’ user names and passwords, he had access to students’ e-mail, library records and card balances. Moufid made mistakes when covering his tracks, however, and his identity was exposed and given to the police.

Moufid’s report, available online, explains that “the author hereby wishes to elicit a response from the reader and the community leading to greater awareness of the issues of privacy and security (or lack thereof) affecting students.” Moufid goes on to say that the Campus Card, like U of T’s T-Card, does not store passwords, and is a “weak link” when combined with rudimentary key-logging hacks. He claims that in its current form the card could be exploited for financial fraud “on a large scale, and it is likely that this is merely the tip of the iceberg.”

It is not known whether Moufid will remain a student at the university, but spokesperson Steve Blais said the matter was taken to police before the student was identified. “The [administration was] deeply concerned about the nature of the breach, and the university believed that it was a criminal act, so we called the police because it was appropriate.”

Bruce Lee-Shanok, a law student at Dalhousie and a Waterloo graduate in computer science, has started a Facebook group called “Leave Mansour Moufid Alone.”

“Ultimately,” he said, “what Mansour did was a public service. Imagine the harm that someone with his knowledge could have done. Thanks to him, Carleton is aware that a problem exists. The fact that he’s being treated like a criminal should be making people angry.”

Carleton’s Campus Card is similar to U of T’s T-Card. A magnetic stripe on the back contains a student’s username, linking it to the university database, and on the front is a bar code with library information. The main difference, according to Adam Wunker, a help desk advisor at Robart’s Information Commons, is that U of T stores student data differently. Access to one account, such as UTORid, does not lead to ROSI access. U of T students also use their T-Cards for fewer things, whereas Carleton gives discounts to students who use their card to purchase goods on campus, including textbooks.

“Keylogging is the biggest vulnerability,” said Wunker, but there are very few ways to install such software on U of T’s computers. “There have only been a couple cases of circumvention in the last few years,” he said, and those didn’t endanger the information of multiple students.

Moufid’s case is spurring intense debate on tech websites.

“The university should spend money hiring admins with better computer and teaching skills rather than paying lawyers,” wrote Aqui, one user on the popular site Slashdot.

Others disagreed. “If you steal something and decide to bring it back, it doesn’t mean you didn’t steal it,” said a representative for the High Tech Crime Unit at the Ottawa Police Department. “This was a serious breach of [the students’] data. If we don’t prosecute these things, it leaves the door open for other people to do the same thing.”

Moufid will appear at an Ottawa court on October 15.

Elbow wins Britain’s Mercury Prize

They’ve been around since 1990 and released four critically acclaimed albums, but it’s only now that Manchester five-piece Elbow have achieved international fame. How did they do it? Simple—by knocking off such luminaries as Radiohead, British Sea Power, and Estelle to claim the £20,000 Nationwide Mercury Prize. Much like Canada’s Polaris Music Prize, the award has a history for rewarding the underdog ahead of more commercially successful acts. Despite being virtually unknown in North America, Elbow have built a reputation as one of Britain’s premier indie bands and were nominated for the prize in 2001. Their album The Seldom Seen Kid was named the winner at a star-studded event at London’s Grosvenor House Hotel last week. “I know I’m supposed to be cool and say something coy, but it’s literally the best thing that’s ever happened to us,” said singer Guy Garvey. Whether or not the award will pave the way for (sorely deserved) greater success outside their native land remains to be seen.

Artsci budget loses four per cent

The Faculty of Arts & Science budget will decrease by 4 per cent this year, making 2008 the tenth consecutive year of cuts. The faculty’s base budget has been slashed by an average of 3.3 per cent annually since the academic year 1999-2000, and a total of $41.8 million has been removed.

Rather than cutting costs centrally, as has been the norm over the past seven years, costs are being handed over to individual units under the faculty. Each department, college, center, and institute will lose 4 per cent of its budget, except for the smallest.

“Despite making cuts we are doing everything in our power to ensure that we continue to offer the courses students need to fulfill their degree program requirements,” said interim Arts & Science dean Meric Gertler, “and we have succeeded in doing that.” Gertler said that the faculty had increased the number of total spaces offered in courses year after year despite the loss in budgets.

Many departments have been forced to cancel courses to negotiate the cuts. While the “Dean’s Promise” ensures that course cancellations don’t keep students from graduating in their last year, removed courses mean students have to go out of their way to cover requirements.

Danielle Sandhu of Woodworth College, who is finishing her Peace and Conflict Studies program this year, was disappointed when she found that a course she needed to compete her program was not being offered this year. Having declared POL 417 as a requirement for her program at the end of her first year, Sandhu had to request for a substitute course, and wait to have it approved by the program director.

“It was not a difficult process, but I was disappointed because I had been waiting three years to take that course, due to all the pre-requisites” said Sandhu.

“The support for undergraduate education is not what we would like it to be,” said Alex Bewell, chair of the Department of English. Bewell said it is the responsibility of Queen’s Park to increase funding.

Chair of the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures, Christina Kramer, said that her department had to resort to external funding to stay afloat. “We are very fortunate that we have successfully raised external funds from many communities, funds which help support language study in Polish, Ukrainian, Macedonian, and Croatian as well as Finnish, Estonian, and Hungarian.”

“The cuts force us to concentrate on our core mission, which is providing language, literature, and culture classes in ten different languages,” she said. “Other activities have already been diminished and we had to cancel a very popular second year course.”

“It speaks to U of T not seeing a priority in liberal arts education, humanities, and social sciences,” said UTSU VP external Dave Scrivener. “The University can make more money and get private funding from sciences, engineering and other professional faculties.”

U of T has increased revenue by raising tuition fees and international student enrolment. Tuition fees increases this year averaged 4.26 per cent across all programs and departments for domestic students.

However, according to Gertler costs have risen faster than tuition fees. He also pointed out that tuition fees account for only about one third of the faculty’s revenue.

Gertler and Scrivener agreed that the provincial government needs to increase funding. Currently, the provincial government is responsible for 40 percent of the operating budget.

“I think the most important thing is to make the case as clearly as we can to Queen’s Park that the grant revenues have to increase. It’s just impossible to continue to offer a high quality education so long as our grant revenue is declining,” said Gertler.

With files from Naushad Ali Husein