Asshole of the Month: Free Conrad? No thanks

Disgraced media baron Conrad Black has asked disgraced U.S. president George W. Bush for pardon of the six-and-a-half-year prison sentence he is currently serving for fraud and obstruction of justice.

Experts predict that Bush—who has only granted 142 pardons in eight years—might offer a commutation of Black’s sentence. After all, six and a half years is a long time to serve for stealing a few measly millions, and then using more stolen money to cover up the fact that you stole money to begin with. Is that such a crime?

An American jury thought that there was enough evidence against Black—commoner that I am, even I wouldn’t deign to call him “Lord” at this point—to convict him. Given the astronomical amount of money involved, his sentence seems to be pretty fair. Let’s not get distracted by fancy terminology: he stole millions from stockholders and then lied about it—a rather disgraceful crime, and certainly not one befitting his social position. The principles of retributive justice therefore dictate that he needs to be sufficiently punished for thievery and dishonesty.

In the U.S., the president has the authority to grant pardons as outlined in the Constitution and as interpreted by the courts, to anyone he or she feels deserving of pardon or to someone who has fulfilled his or her debt to society. Mercy is truly in the hands of the most powerful, and as mercy must be dispensed carefully and tempered by justice, the president must be careful not to make too many merciful displays. (Bill Clinton pardoned all sorts of people, including his rich friends, on his last day in office. This did not make him seem powerful—it tarnished his presidency.) Most presidential pardons show mercy to those who need it the least: the rich and the powerful disgraced by pettiness.

Of course, this is precisely what Conrad Black is—a disgraced old man, who has neither fulfilled his debt to society, nor been sufficiently punished for his crime. Given the trends, Black’s chances of getting a commutation of his sentence are pretty high. And though it’s a shame, it shouldn’t come as a surprise.

Conrad Black is an arsehole, but he’s rich. George W. Bush is also an arsehole, and he is also rich. The rich take care of their own. While he will very likely receive his commutation, and assert that he is a disabused “freedom fighter,” no one will be better for it—not the shareholders he shamelessly defrauded, nor the Canadian public he has insulted consistently, nor the fragile American justice system. Black committed a crime and deserves punishment, just like the rest of us. He ought to serve out the full term of his sentence.

But I won’t hold my breath.

Taking a rock ‘n’ roll gamble

Imagine being forced into a band without any knowledge of who you’re going to work with, and what genre you’re going to play. Worse yet, you and your new band will only have one day to put together a full set of music and perform to an audience of other musicians and discerning fans.

While the stress of band dynamics can be bad enough as it is, the pressure has been cranked up to 11 for the second annual Toronto Rock Lottery, happening this Saturday at Sneaky Dee’s. Modeled after similar events across North America, the Rock Lottery takes 25 musicians whose work runs the gamut of the Toronto scene, from heartfelt singer-songwriters (Great Aunt Ida), to rock n’ roll bands (The Golden Dogs, The Old Soul), to truly avant-garde composers (Slim Twig, Nif-D) and rearranges them, creating five new bands by luck of the draw.

“Going into it, you don’t know what [the band] will be. It could be a rock act. It could be a punk act, it could be a country act,” says Jane Duncan. Duncan started the Toronto version after participating in the Rock Lottery in Victoria, B.C. for four years as a musician. “It can be so diverse, it’s just really thrilling.”

The process is intensified by the lack of time—each new band has seven hours to get to their assigned rehearsal space and write a twenty-minute set list of original material to be performed that night. No one is allowed to come in with anything prepared.

So how do professional musicians deal with the pressure?

“I’m both very excited and very nervous,” says Kyle Donnelly, who plays bass in Toronto bands The D’Urbervilles and Forest City Lovers. “It’ll be a definite adjustment to go from years of experience working with some of my closest friends to seven hours working with strangers.”

While Donnelly says he’s looking forward to playing with new musicians, he’s worried about every other part of Rock Lottery that remains alien to him.

“There will be no time to dwell on the tiny elements of a song with Rock Lottery, which is not how I write. I write songs with people who I’ve known for four years. We usually spend weeks on songs, sometimes just deciding on structures. With Rock Lottery, it’s quite possible that I’ll be writing songs with people whom I have never met before and whom I have never heard play music.”

Donnelly’s concerns are far from unique. Judging from the other participants, a general sense of dread seems to be pervasive. But how much of this anxiety is justified?

“I’ve never seen a truly disastrous performance,” notes Duncan. “Even if it doesn’t make any sense musically, it’s still entertaining. In fact, those are the bands that have the most fun.”

Past participants agree that writing music is rarely the problem for the assembled bands.

“Coming up with a band name took up more time than anything else last year,” notes Woodhands’ Paul Banwatt, who played with Sook-Yin Lee and Brendan Howlett from Gravity Wave for last year’s show. Their band ended up putting together a set of surprisingly polished post-punk, while other configurations ranged from airy electronics to intricate choral melodies. Other bands were not quite as productive. “People wasted time in a lot of funny ways.”

In the past, Duncan reveals that some groups have spent their rehearsal time buying “band merchandise” from Value Village, while others have squandered valuable hours working on stage costumes and orchestrating banter. Last year, a group led by Wavelength music organizer Jonny Dovercourt spent their rehearsal time trying to work a mentally unstable homeless man into their act. “They just found him on the street outside the rehearsal space and thought it would be amazing to include him. But he was just far too crazy,” deadpans Banwatt. “It had the potential to be awesome, but it was just such a failure.”

In the end, the best Lottery bands are those that focus on having fun. “Some aren’t the most developed or polished, but those tend to be the ones that have great concepts,” says Duncan.

Nearly all the former participants said the experience itself was excellent. Some groups even consider keeping the new band together.

“We’ve talked about it, but everyone’s so busy. Sook-Yin’s probably the least geographically reachable. But if it came together again I’d be really happy,” says Banwatt, remaining adamant that he would do the Rock Lottery again in a heartbeat.

“I would definitely do this again, but I wouldn’t want to take a space from someone else. It’s just really fun.”

The participants of the Toronto Rock Lottery 2008 will unveil the outcome of their day’s work at Sneaky Dee’s on Saturday, November 29. Doors at 9 p.m. Tickets are $7 at the door.

Play of giants: Nobel Laureate says Africa doesn’t have to play the empire game

“I’m not sure which arm of various empires the University of Toronto is at the moment, but don’t deceive yourselves, you are also part of the new forms of empire.”

Poet, playwright, novelist, memoirist, reluctant if ardent political activist—the focus of Wole Soyinka’s speech Monday night to a standing audience at Massey College was not the role of universities within growing spheres of influence, but that topic served as a touchstone.

Soyinka, who in 1986 became the first African to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, spoke on “the re-affective empire-building and the need for African nations to be aware of this process and to make a decision of their own volition whether they want to continue to be satellites of the new empires.” The Nigerian writer addressed how artists and intellectuals can contest what many see as the homogenizing effects of globalization, while using more possitive aspects to their advantage.

He cited Nigeria’s film industry. Also known as “Nollywood,” it is currently the third largest in the world after the United States and India. Soyinka characterized the cultural output of the films for which Nigeria has become known as “garbage.” As artists, what we are obliged to do is move into this industry and raise the standards,” he said.

But Soyinka stressed that empire-building is not reserved for Western European, American, or Chinese business interests alone. The desire to have greater influence over people and entities that would otherwise be independent is widespread. In his opening remarks he described how “Endowments are not entirely neutral, but are loaded with the imperial impulse,” referencing late Nigerian dictator Sani Abacha, who attempted to set up a chair in his name at Harvard, and had in fact begun paying that university before anyone stepped in. This was, said Soyinka, an attempt at “sanitizing Abacha by creating a little empire in the United States at a prestigious university.”

Soyinka’s creative, academic, and political lives have long been intertwined. In 1967, when he was 33 years old, he attempted to negotiate a ceasefire with the Biafran secessionists in the lead-up to the Nigerian Civil War. He was imprisoned without trial under the military rule of General Yakubu Gowan, and was held in solitary confinement for 22 months. After his release, he went into voluntary exile in 1971 until the Gowan military regime was overthrown in 1975. He was in exile once more in 1997 when Abacha placed Soyinka on trial for treason in absentia and declared him wanted, dead or alive. In 1999, with the return to civilian rule in Nigeria, Soyinka accepted the position of professor emeritus at Ife University in Nigeria on the condition that no chancellor of the university could be a military officer.

“There are too many Scholars at Risk here who have come from Africa,” said the Master of Massey College, John Fraser, in introducing Soyinka. Massey, home to U of T’s Scholars at Risk program, co-hosted the event with the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at U of T, the Nigeria High Commission Ottawa, and Hart House, where a similar lecture had been held earlier that day. “One of the reasons I’m so proud that Dr. Wole’s come here is he is someone who has stood up for many years against the reasons that have brought academics, artists, and writers from Africa who have the courage to stand up and be caught out and who have sometimes barely managed to escape with the clothes on their back.”

Soyinka once remarked that “truth and power for me form an antithesis, an antagonism, which will hardly ever be resolved.” Asked after his speech about whether universities can also be centres for resisting empire-building, he again emphasized that to want influence is human, but that people cannot be free unless they are given choice.

“First, the important thing about universities and youth is that they both be independent. So second, for resistance, what I would say to students is to create a space of their own where they can be independent and create an empire of their own, where they can be themselves.”

That’s not Clipart, that’s my masterpiece

In today’s world of DeviantArt, Flickr, and Google, fame in online art comes with unexpected consequences. While many see the Internet as a tool to gain recognition, artists often see their works plagiarized for personal or financial gain.

Traditionally, art theft has been defined as the use of art in any manner that violates the artist’s copyright. This includes, but is not limited to, the use of an artist’s work for profit as well as the plagiarism of another’s work.

Vitaly S. Alexius is a 24-year old professional illustrator who runs a studio on Baldwin Street. “Art theft is when somebody steals a painting,” he explains. “When somebody takes your painting [and] posts [it] as their own.” Alexius believes art theft is akin to music piracy. “It’s all about copyright law and sharing. There isn’t a single solution to this.”

The effect of art theft depends on the artist’s pre-existing fan base. “The more people steal from a famous artist, the more famous he or she becomes, ” maintains Alexius. It’s easy for the famous artist to threaten the guilty party and have the image removed and damages paid. But for an unknown artist, theft comes at a much greater cost. Smaller artists face the possibility of being accused of thievery themselves.

As a result of wide-scale theft, many popular artists have removed their galleries from the Internet, or have ceased to post work.

DeviantArt, an online international artist community, has been increasingly affected by the advent of digital art theft. In 2007, photographer Lara Jade discovered a self-portrait she took as a 14-year old had been used for the cover of a pornographic DVD.

Thousands more discovered their works being sold online or employed as a form of corporate advertising. In addition to the 60,000 to 80,000 illegally-posted works within DeviantArt, a search of the site lists over 15,000 journal entries concerning theft.

Many artists simply refuse to upload high quality images, or they watermark their works, a process in which the piece is obscured by a translucent logo. They also use software imbedded in the images capable of discovering if it has been used anywhere on the Internet.

Alexius feels such extremes are overkill, saying, “Let’s watermark the Mona Lisa and nail down all the chairs in public libraries while we’re at it for fear of the chairs being stolen.” He believes such security measures violate the integrity and quality of the image.

The art community has reacted against the epidemic. Alexius frequently writes online journal entries read by over 28,000 subscribers on how to fight theft. Alexius provides insight on how to write a proper copyright infringement letter, as well as how to take the necessary legal steps to receive compensation, and reports the progress of his legal battles on a monthly basis.

Alexius refuses to watermark his images because it is impossible to stop art from being taken off the Internet. Instead the best method of defense is knowledge of copyright law. “Threatening the thieves with a copyright infringement letter works 90 per cent of the time. But if it doesn’t work—that’s when you go to a lawyer.”

When asked about the future of art’s security, Alexius seems to hope for a change. “We can all learn to share art in a way that doesn’t leave the artist destitute. As long as the art is really good, people will find [it] and hire the original artist to create new images, because only the artist can create that style.”

U of T student missing

Twenty-one-year-old Abu-Ubaida Atieque was last seen in the Neilson Road/Sheppard Avenue East area on Tuesday, Nov. 18, at 8 a.m., according to a Toronto Police Service news release issued last Friday.

Scores of posters marked “MISSING PERSON” were posted at all the entrances to the Student Centre the same morning. The Scarborough Campus Students’ Union is hoping that the posters will encourage anyone with information to speak up.

The report describes Atieque as white, 5 foot 7 inches, approximately 165 pounds and last seen wearing a black jacket, black pants, and brown shoes.

“He’s missing and we really wish he’ll call us,” said Detective Stanley Bydal.

SCSU president Zuhair Syed said he believes that Atieque is a fourth-year student at St. George campus who is studying engineering on an academic scholarship. The police have not confirmed or denied this.

“It was an obvious decision for the SCSU to fully support the search of

Abu-Ubaida. There is a great deal of urgency,” said Zuhair Syed, President of the SCSU. “We are doing whatever we can to help find him and we will continue to do whatever we can in the near future to assist in this matter.”

Wednesday morning, some of the posters were found torn off a door and ripped into pieces.

Toronto police ask that anyone with information contact 42 Division at 416-808-4200. Crime Stoppers can also be phoned at 416-222-8477.

Don’t believe everything you see

A recent episode of medical drama House opened with MD Remy “Thirteen” Hadley and her latest conquest engaged in a steamy girl-on-girl romp. Later, as Thirteen injected her lover with a massive needle for a bone marrow biopsy, Dr. House did some probing of his own, pressing the pair for details of their one-night stand.

With screenwriting like this, it’s not surprising that the show attracts 20 million viewers per episode. As with any major network drama, the focus is on developing the characters and their relationships. Naturally, attention to detail dwindles elsewhere: namely, the medical issues that the show supposedly revolves around.

According to most professionals, the “science” of shows like House misrepresents reality, and is often utterly inaccurate. U of T Professor Dr. Marsha Cohen recently worked with the writers of House to create a character—Thirteen’s lover—that displayed the symptoms of the debilitating lung disease lymphangioleiomyomatosis, or LAM for short. As the founder of LAM Canada, Dr. Cohen is an expert on the disease. Unfortunately, even her collaboration with the writing staff could not guarantee an accurate portrayal. Upon watching the episode, she was stunned with the number of errors they had made.

“With LAM, you get cysts in the lungs. And so in the show they had them cut out the cysts by surgery. That’s totally ridiculous, it just would never be done,” she said. “They specifically sent [the lung biopsy] to a pathologist who said there were smooth muscle cells, but then in the end, she gets a diagnosis of Sjogren’s Syndrome. There’s no way a pathologist would ever not distinguish between the two conditions on a lung biopsy.”

The blog Polite Dissent (, written by a family physician known as Dr. Scott, offers professional medical reviews of each episode of House, often criticizing errors in the most fundamental of medical judgments. His recent observations include criticisms such as: “the team should not have missed an ectopic pregnancy, that’s a first-year medical student mistake,” and “it’s sad when a team of alleged medical geniuses can’t diagnose a tension pneumothorax.” Each post receives a stream of comments from medical students, doctors, and fans who view the show with a healthy degree of skepticism. The site’s popularity remains a comforting indicator of the number of people who take the show’s scientific content with a grain of salt.

Granted, these shows never claim to be accurate. But at the same time, the science they feature has sound scientific foundations—the writers are just exceedingly liberal with dramatic license. The right balance of fact and fiction is crucial to the success of programs like House, ensuring that they are both compelling and believable. The problem with the constant intermingling of reality and fiction emerges when viewers cannot distinguish what is true.

The medical consultant for Grey’s Anatomy, Dr. Zoanne Clack, admits a need for drama always takes precedence over keeping the show grounded in scientific reality. In an interview featured on CBC podcast White Coat, Black Art, Clack spoke of being frequently overruled by the show’s producers for Hollywood’s sake. “Usually what we don’t keep real are time periods, how long it takes to recover from something, or how long it takes to be cured from something,” she said. “We had an ear surgery recently where a boy got a new ear and that usually takes about six months. We did it within a day.”

The show Numb3rs, which revolves around FBI agents who use mathematics to solve crimes, finds this balance, though it too is heavy on the fiction and light on the details. Nobody wants to watch a show that gets bogged down in the finer points of fractal patterns and Dijkstra’s algorithms, though everyone would like to think they understand the concepts. The show’s technical jargon, when combined with its oversimplified mathematical ideas, gives the viewer a false but satisfying sense of comprehension.

Programs like CSI: are often guilty of sweeping generalizations that summarize complicated scientific processes into neat conclusions. For most viewers, these synopses bring a pleasing finality to each episode. But for members of the scientific community, the oversimplifications and inaccuracies are disappointing. They are seen as a dumbing down of work that takes years to understand and is constantly shrouded with uncertainty and ambiguity.

When asked if she watches any of the scientific dramas, Dr. Cohen responded with a laugh, admitting, “I can’t stand watching them because of these inaccuracies. It drives me crazy.” Fortunately for the TV networks, many scientific and medical professionals simply do not have the time to watch these shows.

Of course, most TV audiences are willing to believe what they see. Millions of viewers inevitably glean a sizeable amount of their “scientific knowledge” from them. Is there anything of educational value these shows can offer?

According to public health experts, the answer is yes. Despite the technical imprecision and misrepresentations of scientific reality, these shows have proven to be good for one thing: increasing awareness of health and scientific issues in the general public. A report by the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) entitled How Healthy Is Prime Time? analyzed the health content of popular programs, asserting “the health content in entertainment television has the potential to influence the public’s knowledge, attitudes and behavior—for good, or for bad.”

Studies show that the influence of television has been beneficial in increasing public interest in scientific issues. The KFF’s case study of Grey’s Anatomy found that 17 per cent of viewers have sought additional information about topics they saw on the show. A recent episode focused on the effect of treatment on the rates of HIV transmission from mother to child. The analysis found that “the proportion of viewers who were aware that, with the proper treatment, there is more than a 90 per cent chance of an HIV-positive woman having a healthy baby increased from 15 per cent to 61 per cent” after watching the episode. Dr. Clack acknowledges that television is an excellent way of getting public health messages out. She said, “When I see a patient, I can tell that one person and they can tell a friend, but you’re not going to reach 25 million people.”

In spite of her qualms with the depiction of LAM, Dr. Cohen was ultimately pleased with the huge spike in interest in the disease after the “Lucky Thirteen” episode of House aired. “That was my goal, to try and get it on the show,” she said. “I think that goal was met. The number of hits to the LAM foundation website was ten times the normal number of hits the week after the show.”

Producers, scientists, public health professionals, and doctors cannot ignore the educational power of television. The U.S. Centre for Disease Control and Prevention now offers fact sheets on their website for producers who wish to responsibly incorporate health and science messages into their shows. The increasing integration of certain issues into primetime drama has been likened to the blatant proliferation of product placement on television (with less negative connotations, of course).

All things considered, television’s capacity to educate cannot be denied. It’s the viewers who must do their part by ensuring that what they interpret as fact is actually true. Doing your own research will help to clarify the issues featured on these programs, but leave the technical education to your professors—nobody will benefit from the surgical techniques shown on Grey’s Anatomy.

Dr. Andrei Hirsch, a family physician from Toronto, acknowledges the educational value of these programs but reminds us that they are, first and foremost, for our entertainment. “If I would want to look for mistakes or things that are not the way they are in real life, I could. But that’s not the purpose, that’s not why I’m watching the show. When I go home at night I’m looking for something to relax me,” he said.

His advice to budding doctors and scientists? “For anybody who wants to learn, there are, obviously, other things to do.”

Kindred Café up in smoke?

Toronto Police raided and shut down the Kindred Café this week, leaving potheads one less hangout. The owner of the shop on Bredalbane Street, near Yonge and Wellesley, turned himself in Monday.

Kindred customers pay once to stay the day. Memberships get you rent time in private rooms, or tokers can head to the rooftop patio. The café claims to strictly operate on a bring-your-own policy, with no sales on site.

“It’s illegal but somehow socially acceptable at Kindred,” said Tyler Bell, U of T student and Kindred spirit. “Kindred is a great place. I think creating a place like this for people to go to is very forward thinking.”

Undergrad Rohit Nadan also goes to Kindred from time to time, but said the café should avoid selling weed because of legal problems. “You could be serving underage kids, minors who have no permission to obtain the substance without any legal consent,” said Nadan, adding, “Locations that traffic weed should be eradicated. However, if the place doesn’t play a part in the selling, I think it’s fine.”

According to the daily Metro, Kindred Café is expected to reopen sometime this week.

A tale of two teams

Are you a hockey fan who abhors the stale, corporate culture at Toronto Maple Leafs games and wishes tickets were widely available to the general public? Are you a hockey fan excited by the prospect of attending a game as long as it doesn’t do significant damage to your disposable income? Are you a hockey fan who cares passionately about the well-being of the game?

If you answered “yes” to these questions, then you should be strongly in favour of the NHL’s proposed addition of a second franchise in southern Ontario. Here’s why:

The Leafs wouldn’t suffer at all

It’s obvious that there are more than enough rabid hockey fans to support two teams in the GTA. Our lovable losers currently hold the NHL’s highest average ticket revenue, as well as the longest consecutive sellout streak (as if that weren’t enough, the Leafs claim to have sold out every single game from 1946 to 1999). With such a rabid fan base, the Leafs continue to sell out every game, playoffs be damned. A second team in the area gives the average fan a chance to score a ticket once in a while, providing the Leafs with a little healthy competition—and there’s nothing wrong with that.

Think of the prospects for a classic new rivalry

It’s undeniable that sports thrive on big-time rivalries, and it’s really hard to get excited about the snooze-worthy Montreal Canadiens, and the underachieving Ottawa Senators. A team in Hamilton, or even Mississauga, would inject life back into the game by giving Torontonians something to argue about. Better yet, put the teams in the same division. When their baseball teams do well enough, New York gets to have a subway series, why can’t we have one every few weeks? It would get the city buzzing and provide endless front-page material for the Toronto Sun.

The NHL needs more teams in Canada

While we can’t blame the NHL for trying to expand its boundaries, it’s clear Americans don’t love hockey the way we do—and maybe it’s got something to do with the ice and snow we have in Canada. With the strong Canadian dollar, the six Canadian teams are the most profitable franchises in the league. It’s an outrage that we lost two teams in the ’90s to American markets, especially when you consider that the hopeless Phoenix Coyotes (formerly the Winnipeg Jets) are losing $30 million a season. If the league wants to compete against the other major sports in North America, the NHL needs to return to its Canadian roots. Toronto is the perfect place to start.

We need to stop Gary Bettman from ruining our game

After Stephen Brunt called Bettman’s tenure as NHL Commissioner “an unequivocal failure” in a Globe and Mail column earlier this year, he launched into a long-awaited diatribe Bettman sorely deserved. Take the Winnipeg-Phoenix debacle and add the NHL’s moribund franchises in Atlanta, Tampa Bay, and Sunrise, Florida—they’re all Bettman’s fault. Long the champion of American expansion (even to cities where the only ice is in the drinks), Bettman blocked a proposed move to Hamilton by the Nashville Predators, whose disgruntled owner was offered a handsome sum for the team by the founder of Research In Motion, southern Ontario native/U of T alum Jim Balsillie.

Balsillie’s decision to sell season tickets for the new Hamilton team before he had even signed the papers was a tad premature, costing him majority ownership. But both Wayne Gretzky and Premier Dalton McGuinty publicly supported the move, and it seems all but two parties are in favour of the prospect of a second hockey team in the GTA: the owners of the Leafs and Gary Bettman.

We need to stop them. Now who’s with us?