Obama: progressive or pragmatist?

As President-elect Obama’s transition team takes on the seemingly insurmountable task of fixing a broken country, they’ll grapple with a laundry list of requests from the left and the right. The global financial meltdown, military occupations in the Middle East, and ecological catastrophe are currently on everyone’s mind.

But to some, there is a much more pressing issue at hand. Conservatives say that President-elect Barack Obama mustn’t steer too far to the left: America is a centre-right nation, and must be governed based on centre-right principles. After the Republicans’ tremendous loss on election night, the pundits could only comfort themselves with denial. But there’s no denying that on November 4, the United States sent a powerful message to the Republican establishment and the international community, demanding a new direction in governance and a progressive face in the era of 21st century politics.

While the lengthy campaigning enabled voters to better engage in the political process, the desire for progressive action and rejection of conservative ideology was evident. Poll after poll indicates that Americans want universal healthcare coverage, income redistribution, financial regulation, energy reform, and a diplomatic approach to foreign policy. These issues are at the core of the progressive movement, and Obama’s campaign reflected these emerging goals. With the financial burden weighing heavily on his shoulders, Obama needs to be prepared to make short- and long-term investments to get the country back on track. He has to start by amassing a cabinet filled with innovative thinkers and like-minded intellectuals to help shape the new agenda.

While some recent appointees have been less-than-stellar selections, it is worth noting that Obama appears to be naming the most diverse cabinet in history, appointing bipartisan and pragmatic figures. Tom Daschle for health and human services secretary is a sound choice, as he has long been a fierce proponent of affordable public healthcare. Janet Napolitano, Obama’s nominee for secretary of homeland security, is a wise selection as well. As Governor of Arizona, a western state with illegal immigration woes, she could redirect attention to a domestic concern that’s virtually vanished from the news. Some in his economic inner circle, like future National Economic Council head Larry Summers and Treasury Secretary nominee Timothy Geithner, while holding impressive credentials, are proponents of financial deregulation, and arguably tied to the Wall Street scandal. Will they implement the right policies to get the country out of this mess?

President Bush’s defense secretary Robert Gates will retain his role in the new administration. A supporter of bloated military budgets, nuclear weapons, and an ongoing occupation in Iraq, his misguided Republican worldview may interfere with Obama’s plans for tough diplomacy. As the saying goes, only time will tell. However, forward thinking has not been forgotten. For the first time in history, the President-elect will appoint a chief technology officer to oversee the IT sector and maintain competitiveness with booming technology industries in Asia. Google CEO Eric Schmidt could put his ingenuity and tech smarts to great use by helping the administration into the 21st century. Obama has continuously stressed the need for a transparent and Internet/blogger-friendly government, and with plans to keep a laptop in the Oval Office, it is likely that the White House website will look more like Facebook than a stagnant collection of press releases and documents.

While he may value intellectualism and competency over ideology, Obama’s promise to turn the page on the old Washington and look ahead towards a new and improved country seems difficult to fulfill. As the transition rolls on and more names start to float in the news, the decisions Obama makes will ultimately define him, as an individual and as a president.

Making snow despite the elements

School seems a world away when your skis cut cleanly through a thin coating of snow, sending up a shower of fresh, white powder. But what if the temperature isn’t cold enough for snow to form? Could nature really sabotage the perfect ski holiday? Fortunately, today’s technology is so advanced that Mother Nature is no longer in complete control of snow distribution. Resorts use snow machines to extend the length of the season, while ensuring that snow is the right consistency for skiing and snowboarding.

Snow is naturally produced as cloud temperatures drop. Water vapour condenses into droplets, which remain in the atmosphere until they grow too large. Water doesn’t actually freeze at 0°C, but at much lower temperatures. In clouds, small pieces of dirt, bacteria, and other small particles called nucleators cause water particles to group together. These particles expend energy in their attraction to nucleators, causing them to cool until they form ice crystals. As the crystals drift within the cloud, more water molecules gather around them to form a snowflake, which begins to fall as it gets larger and heavier. The drop will remain a snowflake, provided temperatures remain cold enough. Otherwise, the drop falls as rain.

The snow produced by machines is the same as naturally-produced snow. Both processes require only water and cold air. Traditional snow machines, or snow guns, have two hoses: one connected to a water supply, and another that provides compressed air. This air pushes the water particles tightly together, reducing their ability to move. When the air is released, the particles spread, and can move more freely. As they are scattered through the air, they use up energy and absorb heat from their environment. Some resorts use airless snow guns, which employ nozzles to atomize the water stream into a mist. A powerful fan located inside the gun then blows the droplets into the air. This design is often preferred, as it doesn’t require a supply of compressed air.

Although these powerful machines are credited with longer ski seasons and a greater variety of trails, there are limits to their snowmaking abilities. Just as particular ground-weather conditions are needed for natural snow, snow machines can only produce snow at certain temperatures and humidity levels. The most important factor in snowmaking is the wet bulb temperature. Also known as the relative humidity level, it determines the amount of water vapour in the atmosphere. When there is more vapour in the air, water or snow cannot evaporate easily, as the air is already saturated with water. As a result, it takes longer for water to cool under high humidity conditions, making it difficult to produce larger quantities of snow. Ideal snowmaking conditions necessitate temperatures between -10° and -20°C and low levels of humidity.

Snow machine operators have to consider more than just the environmental conditions. They must also monitor the proportions of water and air in accordance to the needs of the slope. The density of snow is chiefly determined by the size of water droplets created by the gun. Dry snow has a low amount of water, which makes it the best snow for skiing. Wet snow, which has a higher density, is used to build a foundation on the trails. It is produced twice a year to create depth, while trails are regularly coated with dry snow throughout the season.

Since temperature and humidity levels vary greatly across the slopes, snow makers must pay careful attention to the weather, and adjust each machine accordingly. Many ski slopes use central computer systems that are connected to weather-reading stations. These computers determine the best combination of water and air based on the data recorded.

Snow making technology is more widely used than you may think. Hollywood producers, agricultural engineers, and aircraft designers all depend on this technology. Although they require a great deal of power and water, snow machines are relatively easy to operate. So the next time you’re sitting in the chalet after flying down the slopes, you can impress your friends with your knowledge of the science of snow.

Provost’s democracy committee suspended

The Provost’s Advisory Committee on Democratic Processes in Student Government, appointed a month ago to create guidelines for student unions, remains suspended after the undergraduate and graduate student union presidents have boycotted it.

Interim provost and VP Cheryl Misak announced the committee in a memorandum to the U of T community last month. The committee would be charged with developing a framework for student unions to follow in order to receive their union dues. The provost met with student union leaders yesterday to convince them to get back on board.

“I have a few letters challenging the legitimacy of the committee. I’m meeting with the student leaders and will try and persuade them that this is a good thing. (But) if they continue to throw objections at the committee, I will just disband it,” said Misak, prior to the meeting.

Students say they were given until 5 a.m. to accept or reject the invitation to rejoin the committee. Misak asserted that she would create the guidelines regardless of whether she has an advisory committee. She could not be reached for comment after the meeting.

“It is grossly contrary to democracy for the university administration to assert itself as superceding democratic decisions made by a student union’s membership,” says Sandy Hudson, president of the U of T Students’ Union in a letter to the provost refusing to participate in its first meeting on Nov. 19.

All students pay levies to their student unions, collected and distributed by the university. University policies stipulate that if the provost has reason to believe that a student union is not operating in a democratic fashion, he or she may decide to withhold that union’s membership fees.

The committee formed after the provost, called to intervene in fraud of the Arts & Science Union elections, decided to withhold their levies until a proper election had been conducted.

“I don’t know if the university has the right to withhold fees if whatever they deem as democracy doesn’t take place. However if there’s gross misconduct, then obviously they’re going to have to take some steps to look into it,” said Terry Buckland, ASSU staffer and president of the Association of Part-time Undergraduate Students, who was also invited to sit on the committee.

All three major student unions on the St. George campus have rejected the administration’s authority to affect their internal affairs by withholding membership fees. They have pointed out that such a move would be illegal in the case of labour unions.

“They have in the past failed to remit fees that were democratically voted on by students,” said Hudson. In 2003, the administration refused to collect a levy for the Canadian Federation of Students after students voted to join in a referendum. This occured after the administration received complaints about the legitimacy of the referendum.

Hudson was concerned with the process by which the advisory committee was formed. She said it was inappropriate that she had been asked to participate as an “individual,” rather than as the student union president. “Student unions should appoint their own representatives to such a committee and report back, seek guidance, direction, and approval to such an important matter as policies that guide the collection of fees,” said Hudson.

Misak said she believes there was nothing controversial about the appointments. “It’s my committee. I can seek advice from whoever I want to ask advice from. I invited the people who I thought would be wonderful on it, including student leaders and faculty with the most expertise and progressive inclinations.”

“The first committee was gate-crashed by people who weren’t on it,” said Misak. The meeting was a closed-door meeting, and outsiders were not allowed to attend.

Hudson said that for the moment, she would respond by asking for more time to be able to take the matter to the board.


Oh Christmas tree

Christmas trees are ubiquitous during the holiday season. Currently, 30 to 35 million natural Christmas trees are grown each year, most of which come from farms or plantations. Tree farms currently consume over one million acres of land.

On average, Christmas trees grow for 12 years before they are harvested. Like other crops, the trees require fertilizer, as well as pest and weed control treatment. Unlike other crops, Christmas tree farmers spend a lot of time shearing their trees—cutting off leading shoot tips and the ends of lateral branches to control tree growth. This practise increases the number of branches as well as the density of the tree’s foliage. It also enforces the Christmas tree’s trademark conical shape.

Christmas trees are harvested between early November and mid-December, depending on climate and species. Some are helicopter-lifted from the farm to shipping yards, where refrigerated trucks are used to transport them to local retailers. When it comes to choosing a tree, consumers are no longer restricted to the species grown in their region, as trees can be ordered and shipped from across the country.

For trees shipped from farms to retail stores, freshness is largely decided by how they have been stored. The freshest trees will be found bundled and watered. The needles of a fresh tree should break crisply when bent, with the exception of pine trees. Pine needles do not break unless they are very dry. Another common test for vitality involves shaking the tree trunk; if a tree is fresh, it will not lose many needles.

A live tree can last five to six weeks. It should be watered regularly—the National Christmas Tree Association suggests one litre for every inch of the tree’s diameter—and kept away from vents, or other heat sources. The tree should be discarded before it completely dries out, as to allow the wood to be recycled.

Of course, there is a synthetic alternative to natural Christmas trees. When artificial trees were first introduced in the 1800s, they were modelled after their living counterparts, and made from wire and dyed feathers. Currently, most artificial trees are created from polyvinyl chloride (PVC). Artificial trees are often the only option for people with allergies to terpene, a chemical found in the sap of natural Christmas trees.

There is debate over which tree-type is more environmentally friendly. Surprisingly, real trees are considered better for the Earth, due to the PVC present in synthetic trees. After manufacture, toxic pollutants can remain in the material. Much of the substance ends up in landfills, as recycling it is difficult and unprofitable. In addition, lead is sometimes used to stabilize the PVC in artificial trees.

Natural Christmas trees can be recycled, absorb carbon dioxide, and create a habitat for small organisms while growing. However, they are sometimes treated with herbicides and pesticides, and are often transported long distances to retailers. For this reason, the environmentally conscious should consider buying locally, organically grown trees.

CAMH facing workplace safety charges

The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health is in court today and may have to pay four and a half million dollars in fines.

The centre has been charged with violating the Occupational Health and Safety Act for failing to make their work environment safer. In total, there were nine charges laid by the Ontario Ministry of Labour for failure to develop and implement violence-prevention procedures, as well as failure to protect workers.

If convicted, CAMH may be fined up to $500,000 per offence.

CAMH was ordered to improve workplace safety after two violent incidents occurred last year.

On November 12, 2007, a patient jumped over a Dutch door (which splits in half horizontally), entered a nursing station and attacked two female nurses, leaving one with a broken shoulder.

Five days later, a patient entered a nursing station and broke a male nurse’s jaw. Security staff didn’t have keys and a panic button was not working.

The Ontario Nurses’ Association, which represents 569 registered nurses at CAMH, claims violence at CAMH continued, with 23 attacks before the year’s end.

“In ONA’s opinion, not enough is being done to keep nurses safe on the job,” said ONA president Linda Haslam-Stroud.

U of T runs several research, clinical, and outreach partnerships with CAMH. U of T’s department of Psychology works closely with the cetre, often running programs out of CAMH.

The incidents have sparked controversy and debate about mental health issues.

Last month, the Ontario Public Service Employees Union, representing non-nursing staff at CAMH, commenced a campaign of bus shelter ads. The ads, which have since been removed after complaints that it stigmatized patients, featured a woman with a bruised eye and the text: “No more excuses. The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health must protect its staff from violence. It’s the law.”

“Hospital workers deserve no less than a safe job environment,” OPSEU president Smokey Thomas said in a statement. “I don’t regret for a moment that ads were placed.”

“Nurses do face workplace hazards more serious than in many other professions,” said Haslam-Stroud, pointing to a CBC investigation which found nurses more likely to be assaulted and injured on the job than police officers and firefighters.

Eric Preston, vice-president of human resources at CAMH, told the media that CAMH had implemented a workplace violence prevention strategy and trained staff in time for a deadline this February.

“We have a lot of processes and training in place to make things as safe as possible,” Preston told the CBC. “Can we do better? Certainly. Can we do more? Definitely. Will we be doing more? Absolutely.”

ONA told The Varsity that although CAMH does have a violence prevention policy, it lacks such a program. This would entail in-depth risk assessments, routine equipment assessments and training staff.

While the ONA applauded the charges laid by the Ontario Ministry of Labour, many are critical of the charges which, if implemented, will affect an agency that funds research on mental health issues. Others wonder how much potential charges may affect funding for security and safety programs.

Gastronomy: Dessert

Following a hearty holiday dinner, many find themselves satiated, lethargic, and a little tight in the waistband. Nevertheless, this doesn’t stop us from devouring a generous serving of apple pie, or downing a glass of creamy eggnog. Despite having stuffed yourself to the limit, why is there always room for dessert?

Ghrelin, a hormone in the stomach responsible for stimulating appetite, is partly accountable. Hungry or not, ghrelin causes the brain to be more receptive to visual cues, such as appealing desserts. The brain responds and relays the sensation back to the stomach, often translating to the signal that stimulates appetite. For people with a sweet tooth, this craving is hard to resist.

Dr. Jay Gottfried of University College London conducted a study of the neurological impact of “selective satiation,” or what he prefers to call “the restaurant phenomenon.” MRIs were performed on 13 volunteers and live brain activity was studied in response to different stimuli. Volunteers were shown computer images while the sweet aromas of ice cream, vanilla, or peanut butter wafted past them.

“At various points before, during, and after scanning we asked them to give us pleasantness ratings for the smells,” said Gottfried. “Unconsciously, the volunteers began to associate the images with the smells.” The images that appeared when a pleasant aroma was present received higher ratings. When the volunteers ate the ice cream or peanut butter, brain images showed a strong emotional response. Additionally, the impact of the olfactory stimulus was weakened. “A person’s response to the peanut butter odour changed after eating some peanut butter, but a vanilla smell made the brain light up again. Eventually, the abstract picture associated with vanilla evoked the responses, but again they weakened after the volunteers ate,” explained Gottfried.

The study found that the amygdala—the area of the brain that processes emotions—and the orbitofrontal cortex were stimulated in response to the sweet aromas. Damage to either of these regions could cause Kluver-Bucy syndrome, whereby patients consume large amounts of food or attempt to eat non-food items. Abnormalities in these regions are speculated to have a role in over-eating disorders.

Another study conducted at Queen’s University suggests a somewhat bizarre alternative. William Ruddock and his colleagues investigated the hypothesis of an accessory dessert pouch either in, or attached to the stomach. While this pouch would not be localized in any anatomical record, Ruddock and his colleagues used a dessert-like substance termed chocoglucofructogalactomaltolactosucrografin (or Fudge-o-grafin) in an attempt to visualize it. Study subjects were winners of pie-eating contests who claimed to always have room for dessert. The results showed that there was a hollow out-pouching from the antrum of the stomach, ranging from 150 to 1600 mL in size, which they called the “Pot de Crème.”

Home truths

It’s been a long day. Your feet are killing you and winter is setting in. You’re not sure where you’ll sleep tonight, or when your next meal will be. You’re tired of relying on acquaintances for favors. You’d rather be able to go home like anyone else. Most kids might wish for an ipod this Christmas, but all you want is a pair of clean socks. Last night’s shelter wasn’t as friendly as you had imagined. How long will this go on?

For youth on the streets, survival is an art. It requires resilience, creativity, and luck. Becoming homeless isn’t an easy choice—sometimes it’s not even a choice. Many young people won’t, or can’t go home due to an abusive or absent family. Yet the longer they stay on the streets, the harder it is to leave.

Mental illness is not uncommon. Whether the cause of their original flight or an outcome of the stresses of street life, depression and substance abuse are widespread. St. Michael’s Hospital psychiatrist Dr. John Langley specializes in homeless youth. He estimates that five to 15 per cent suffer from severe mental illness. Since most psychiatrists for children treat patients up 16 years of age, and psychiatrists for adults will normally treat those 25 and up, few practitioners are trained to treat youth between the ages of 16 and 24. This significant gap is an important transition time for many young people, when it is easy to feel vulnerable. Perhaps more significant, It is also the onset period for some severe mental illnesses like bipolar disorder.

According to Langley, of the approximately 32,000 individuals who used homeless shelters in 2002, 6,000 to 7,000 were youth. These statistics don’t include the young people living under the proverbial bridge. There are 12 youth shelters in Toronto, ranging from the less restrictive YMCA to the structured, long-term Covenant House. Beyond basic services, programs directed at homeless and at-risk youth aim towards job training and continuing education. Phoenix Print Shop provides accommodation as well as training in the printing business, giving youth the skills and confidence to pursue work later on.

Toronto United Way President Frances Lankin praisesd these initiatives for their “holistic” approach. “All of them are focused on kids who are struggling in their life, and for whom the traditional mainstream institutions of secondary school and regular employment centres are failing them. There’s more challenges in their life, and more supports that they require,” she said.

Rudy Ruttiman, Executive Director of SKETCH, also finds institutional systems limiting. “We have built services and systems and schools on the lack in people […] as opposed to the asset-based [approach],” she said. SKETCH is a Toronto-based arts initiative, providing drop-in studio hours, art supplies, and lunch to at-risk youth. SKETCH staff help participants turn inborn talents into real-life skills, creating opportunities for jobs and further education. Work from SKETCH artists has been featured in galleries across the city. Founded 1996 by Phyllis Novak, the initiative began as a workshop for women battling drug addiction. One of SKETCH’s first culture-makers is now earning her PhD.

“Because of what they’ve been through, whatever led them to making the decision to live homeless, means they’re quite resilient, they know how to get by on very little,” said Ruttiman. “We know they’ve got a lot to offer, we know they’re incredibly creative.”

Many ignore the potential of young people categorized as homeless, seeing them as more of a nuisance than an asset to the community. The stigma surrounding life on the street is a limiting factor for youth looking to reorient their lives. “When we see someone on the street, we automatically make decisions about who they are,” says Ruttiman. “The myth is that they’re choosy and they’re lazy and they don’t want to get a job.”

“When we work with people in the community, we find people who really want a normal life,” Lankin added. Building skills and confidence in the arts is one way SKETCH starts its participants on a path to greater stability and self-sufficiency. Originally from Lima, Peru, Rosa (last name withheld) came to Canada eight years ago. Now 25, she has studied fashion design at the Toronto Institute of the Arts, learning silkscreening, collage, and installation through SKETCH. She hopes to start an online business in secondhand clothing designs and accesssories. Before entering the program, Rosa says she felt rejected by mainstream employers because of her unusual appearance. “People shouldn’t judge by the way you look, just how you act and relate to other people,” she said.

For youth still struggling, the solution doesn’t come easy. Langley points out that the major gap in care is a lack of long-term youth addiction treatment centres. No such programs exist in Toronto, and addiction centres throughout Ontario have waiting lists of up to six months. Ruttiman points to a need for preventative and rehabilitative care. “They’re doing the only thing they know how to do in those big infrastructures. They’ll put a band aid on it […] but it doesn’t stop the root of the problem.” Lankin argues that a lack of affordable housing perpetuates the problem.

SKETCH was one of the arts programs threatened by the Conservative government’s proposed funding cuts. Homelessness affects 300,000 Canadians of all age groups, a statistic that prompted the Toronto Disaster Relief Committee to declare homelessness a “national disaster” a decade ago. Creative initiatives offer new approaches to community development and rehabilitation. When asked about her solution, Rosa’s answer is simple: “Support the arts!”

Top researchers are developing hockey helmets to better protect players from concussions

The image of a dazed and confused hockey player carried off the ice on a stretcher may soon be a thing of the past.

Researchers from the University of Ottawa’s Neurotrauma Impact Laboratory have developed an ice hockey helmet testing system that measures the level of angular acceleration—or rotation—of the head during a concussion.

Blaine Hoshizaki, director of the lab and chair of the International Standard Committee, which deals primarily with certification standards of hockey helmets and facial protection, says historical research points to angular acceleration of the head as a predictor of concussion.

He’s optimistic that once helmets are designed to manage angular acceleration, the amount of concussions in hockey will decrease.

“Then there will probably be standards that require a certain level of angular acceleration management by the helmet,” said Hoshizaki.

In the next five years, he envisions the engineering of more complex and sophisticated energy absorbing structures by Nike and Reebok, the two biggest hockey equipment manufacturers.

“They both have very sophisticated development labs. I put them in so I should know,” said Hoshizaki. “That’s the nice thing […] once you develop these tools for [the manufacturers], they will put them into play very quickly.”

World renowned injury prevention specialist Pat Bishop has spent nearly 40 years serving on various Canadian Standards Association (CSA) technical committees. With projects that include the evaluation of head protection in hockey, Bishop thinks changing the system of padding in the helmets could be a useful suggestion.

Bishop says this may reduce the magnitude of the impact force, which in turn reduces the vector component of the rotational force.

“The question then becomes, what’s the padding?” said Bishop. “How thick does it have to be, how massive does it have to be? Those questions are trying to be addressed by some people.”

Ryan Ouckama, a PhD student at McGill University, is trying to improve the protection of hockey helmets by investigating their local pressure distribution. Ouckama launched hockey pucks on to the sides of helmets and measured the corresponding acceleration of the head form in the helmet.

What he found was that even relatively low accelerations had pressures capable of causing bone fracture in the skull.

“You sort of had contradicting measures: you had acceleration measures saying it was well below these current standards of what’s considered a dangerous impact, yet it was still obviously dangerous to possible [hockey players] that could be wearing it because of these relatively high pressures,” said Ouckama.

Elbows, punches, sticks, and shoulders to the head are just some of the instances that can lead to angular acceleration of the head in hockey.

Picture a hook punch to the jaw in boxing, which causes the head to rotate on two planes: coronal (head moving up or down) and sagittal (head moving left or right). When this happens, rotation of both the brain and brain tissues occurs, disrupting its nerve axons and causing concussion.

Currently, the predominant North American system for testing helmets measures only linear acceleration during impact.

This testing involves a guillotine-like apparatus in which a sculptured head wearing a helmet is guided from a defined height on to a flat rigid surface. When traveling down, the helmeted head form moves in a straight line, prevented from rotating.

Once it strikes the ground, it quickly decelerates from its impact velocity to zero. This deceleration is taken as the linear acceleration.

The numbers that come out of helmet testing through linear acceleration determine whether or not a helmet, under current standards, is safe.

“And by safe we mean that it’s not going to produce things like skull fractures and brain bleeds,” said Bishop.

He agrees with Hoshizaki that angular acceleration appears to be the culprit in causing concussions. Designing a helmet that reduces it may lead to fewer concussions.

But Bishop still remains skeptical.

“It’s a challenge. If it can be done effectively, it is a step in the right direction,” said Bishop. “I’m not sure myself if it can be done. But they said you couldn’t put a man on the moon either. Never say never.”

The big problem, according to Hoshizaki, is that the industry doesn’t usually invest in research that tries to improve on equipment safety standards.

“It’s up to us at the universities to undertake it and make sure these standards becomes safer and [in this case] result in safe helmets.”