Iran jails Toronto blogger

Popular Iranian-Canadian blogger Hossein Derakshan has been detained on accusations of spying for Israel, Iran confirmed on Dec. 30.

The U of T sociology grad was deemed the “Blogfather” ever since he ignited the blog boom in Iran in 2001, after publishing instructions online on how to type in Persian characters.

Judiciary spokesman Ali Reza Jamshidi told reporters that Derakhshan was charged with insulting religious figures.

Derakhshan also defied Iranian law when he made high-profile visits to Israel. His aim was to break taboo contacts with Israel, and to give Israelis a different view of Iran.

“Too bad, I don’t care,” Derakshan blogged afterwards. “I’m a citizen of Canada and I have the right to visit any country I want.”

Iran views Israel as its archenemy and states that it has forbidden Israeli spy networks in the country.The Toronto Sun reported that Derakshan could face execution. A foreign affairs ministry spokesperson said Ottawa is keeping tabs on the matter.

Inoculation not so innocuous

I’m certainly not the only one who’s been irritated by the barrage of government-sponsored Gardasil ads that littered our airwaves and newspapers throughout the past year. The tone of these ads is frustrating in itself, as the drug’s spokeswoman attributes her decision to take the vaccine to her superior intellect. “Because I’m smart,” she says—the implication being that non-vaccinated females must be the opposite.

Gardasil, of course, is not a medical label. Rather, it’s a product name, referring specifically to the cervical cancer vaccine produced by Merck & Co. In light of the extensive recalls and lawsuits surrounding its Vioxx painkillers, Gardasil has risen to become Merck’s bread and butter as far as revenue streams are concerned. The fact that our own government has paved the way for this revenue stream by providing Merck with a ready-made market monopoly and a young, non-skeptical consumer base is enough to suggest a strong ethical conflict.

The other side of the conflict is a strong case in favour of the product. Human papillomavirus (HPV) is conclusively shown to be a precursor of cervical cancer. As its ads prominently state, Gardasil is 100 per cent effective against strains of HPV that account for 70 per cent of cervical cancers. Since it is only effective if taken before one becomes sexually active, why should the government not want to administer such an effective vaccine to all young girls?

Cause for skepticism emerges when one looks at the numbers that Merck hasn’t reported in its promotional material. Approximately .06 per cent of those vaccinated with Gardasil were found to experience harmful symptoms, including paralysis and death. The drug’s supporters will say that this small rate of harm is justified by the greater good of nationwide vaccination against cervical cancer. Is it?

While cervical cancer is the second most common cancer in females worldwide, it is less pervasive in Canada. It comes in at a close tie for third, alongside lung cancer and behind breast and colorectal cancers. Overall, cervical cancer accounts for 4 per cent of the cancers that affect 2.8 per cent of Canadian women. Being 100 per cent effective against HPV strains causing 70 per cent of cervical cancers, Gardasil can, at best, help .08 per cent of all women in Canada. Subtracting the percentage should extend life by 64 to 136 years. Given that women are typically diagnosed with cervical cancer in their 40s, this is unlikely. One can also look of women that Gardasil is expected to harm or kill, this leaves .02 per cent of women able to receive the vaccine’s benefits without any offsetting harm. At this rate, one out of every 5,000 women will receive such benefits. As Gardasil is currently the world’s most expensive vaccine, this amounts to $1.8 million spent on every woman who actually benefits. Is this money well spent?

Statistics on the effectiveness of breast cancer screening suggest that each year of life saved by such measures is worth $13,200 to $28,000. To justify its cost, Gardasil at the opportunity cost of these vaccinations—what opportunities are forgone by spending this money on Gardasil? $1.8 million could be spent on 36 years worth of the best treatment for children with autism, or 31,000 goats provided to the international poor through Oxfam.

The exorbitant cost of Gardasil begins to make sense only when one thinks of such pharmaceuticals as a futures market. Essentially, the government is betting that present-day young girls will grow into women whose cases of cervical cancer will cost more than $1.8 million each. Thus, money is saved by paying less now. In Gardasil, Merck provides the instrument for such a bet to be made, collecting significant profits from the government’s speculation in the process. The money circulates in this way, from taxes to government to pharmaceutical company, so long as cancer remains both expensive and abundant. While the effective monetization of the Internet remains a distant prospect, the monetization of cancer is well underway. With vaccines for prostate, skin, and colon cancer currently in development, Gardasil will soon have company in this new market. As housing markets fall for the first time in years, cancer is emerging as the next sure bet.

One nation under Ignatieff

Thanks to that YouTube video, “Yes we can!” has become an immensely popular phrase, even a slogan for Obama’s campaign. The catchphrase united Americans from radically different demographics, opinions, and viewpoints towards a single goal.

If only the Liberal Party had the same electricity. That Liberals, and left-leaning Canadians as a whole, are divided is an understatement. Over the years we’ve witnessed incapable leaders, backroom deals, in-fighting, plenty of bickering, and a general dissatisfaction.

Harper’s Conservative party, an amalgam of substantial right-wing groups, has capitalized on this division. Having created a false sense of solidarity, the Tories are raising dough and hammering into Liberal and NDP territory. Although the majority of Canadians disapprove of Harper, his opponents have become increasingly apathetic.

The left is fractured. But it isn’t broken.

On December 10 2008, Michael Ignatieff was formally declared interim leader of the Liberal Party, after Dominic LeBlanc and Bob Rae pulled out of the race. Although Ignatieff’s leadership will not be ratified until the May convention, it matters. The Liberals had scrambled to find a party head to replace Dion and lead the country in case the proposed coalition took over parliament.

Although some are upset that Ignatieff was not voted into his position, Iggy might be the only one to save the Liberal Party, the Left, and even Canada.

Harper is definitely unwanted. He has done little for our troubled environment, called elections despite laws and public opinion, mismanaged our economy, and created a dictator-style communication structure. Harper has led us to voter apathy, increased economic risks, less freedom of information, and a crippling environmental crisis.

Ignatieff “gets” Canadians. Unlike Harper, Ignatieff supports freeing Omar Khadr and giving American soldiers fleeing Iraq refugee status. He opposes ballistic-missile defence and advocates for better immigration policies and gender equality. And unlike Dion, he communicates well in both languages.

Ignatieff is who we need to bring environmental concerns back to the forefront of public policy before it’s too late. The Liberals are the right party to manage the economy. Many economists believe, in spite of the financial crisis, that Conservative spending will be the main cause of federal deficits.

Some have criticized Ignatieff for living abroad for over 30 years. But one can just as easily say he gained insight by experiencing other forms of government. Not only is he knowledgeable, he is free from the corruption that infects so many politicians as time passes.

At present, the Liberal Party is broke, divided, and bickering. If Ignatieff can find a way to unite his party, managing Canada should be a breeze. The upcoming months will prove just how willing his party is to come together for a common goal. Clashes between Rae and Ignatieff supporters escalated in recent weeks, just as Obama and Clinton camps waged war for months. This conflict has haunted the image of the party and affected their support. If they can heal this division, the Liberals may face the same victory as the Democrats.

Although no one will be able to match the excitement and emotional impact of Obama’s victory for decades, Ignatieff is a similar force. Both are intelligent, excellent speakers, with the ability to motivate others. Both have a fresh vision to share with their nations. And both would work together to figure out environmental solutions and reexamine trade agreements rather than bargain for Alberta’s tar sands like Harper.

In September 2007, Liberals were disappointed when the party won only one of three by-elections. Amid much finger pointing, Ignatieff urged his party, “united we win, divided we lose.” He is the leader who can unite the divided. But can we, after so much toil and frustration, come together as one? “Yes we can.”

Heavy Rotation

2008 was a year of dizzying highs and terrifying lows. While the United States elected their first black president and the economy took a nosedive, the year in music yielded similarly mixed results. Given the number of disappointments (we’re talking to you, Guns N’ Roses, Weezer, Oasis, and many other fading ‘90 superstars) and pleasant surprises, to call 2008 an unexpected year would be an understatement. Who could have predicted that Toronto’s two most important musical exports would be a stunningly melodic hardcore band and an electro twosome peddling alienating video game grooves?

Elsewhere, our local indie scene continued to thrive, and the influence of world music on mainstream culture grew so heavy even The Killers picked up on it. And of course, the Internet continued to play mind games with the music industry, as it reacted to Radiohead’s online distribution experiment, an idea that spawned many imitators (Nine Inch Nails, Bloc Party, Girl Talk).

If there was one discernable movement, it was that every smash hit in waiting had to be ready for the dance floor, making 2008 the year that indie rock finally got its groove on.

1. Vampire Weekend—S/T (XL)

It was a good year to be a hyper-literate indie rock nerd, as a bunch of khaki-clad Ivy League grads took their obsessions with chamber pop and African music and recycled them into a sugary collection of three-minute pop ditties. From the opening strains of “Mansard Roof” to the collegiate exuberance of “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa” to the raging sock-hop of “Walcott,” Vampire Weekend summed up the sweetest parts of academic life, adding an assortment of references to faraway lands that you’ll long to explore after graduation. Their debut album was a simple, escapist pleasure, one that’s even more valuable when you’re trudging across a snowy campus, trying to differentiate Barthes from Descartes.

2. Fucked Up—The Chemistry of Common Life (Matador)

If you caught their bathroom-destroying performance on MTV, you’ll know that Toronto’s Fucked Up don’t mind wreaking a little havoc. But as they growl about sex and drugs, their massive, layered guitars unveil an intensely melodic swagger. Before Fucked Up, I didn’t think hardcore could get this accessible.

3. Glasvegas—S/T (Columbia)

I picked Glasvegas to break out in 2008, but their lack of North American tour dates has left them unknown on this side of the pond. I’ll let my stubbornness get the best of me and say it again—look for this Glaswegian post-punk outfit to take their chilling anthems to proper heights when they finally hit our shores in 2009.

4. MGMT—Oracular Spectacular (Columbia)

Truly great albums are the ones that best sum up a year, and who among us didn’t spend many a drunken night on the dance floor with this Brooklyn duo providing the soundtrack? Whenever you need a shot of 2008 nostalgia, turn on “Electric Feel” or “Time to Pretend” and you’ll be walking on air.

5. Deerhunter—Microcastle (Kranky)

With Microcastle, Bradford Cox and co. streamlined their trademark shoegazer sound and delivered a brilliant, challenging pop album. Having discarded the jam-outs in favour of shorter, driving rockers like “Nothing Ever Happened” and “Never Stops,” it barely qualifies as noise rock—but who cares, it makes you feel good.

6. Crystal Castles—S/T (Last Gang)

They inspired a lot of love, a tidal wave of hype, and then the kind of massive backlash that only happens to the most buzzed-about bands. Nevertheless, our twitchy hometown anti-heroes turned distorted 80s video game sounds into an NME “Coolest Person of the Year” award for Alice Glass. It’s time we canned the hate and gave them some much-deserved applause.

7. Lil Wayne—Tha Carter III (Universal)

The most anticipated album of the year was worth the wait, selling nearly three million copies and yielding the inescapable singles “Lollipop” and “A Milli.” In the process, Tha Carter III cemented Lil Wayne as a hip-hop mastermind who plays up his own eccentricities instead of reaching for the instant crossover smash. Dr. Carter may lean heavily on Auto-Tune, but he doesn’t pander. Hear that, T-Pain?

8. The Last Shadow Puppets—The Age of the Understatement (Domino)

The biggest surprise of the year was this star-studded side project from Arctic Monkeys’ singer Alex Turner and The Rascals’ Miles Kane. The duo drafted James Ford (Simian Mobile Disco) to produce and man the drum kit, and our very own Owen Pallett (Final Fantasy) to take care of the string arrangements. The result? An orchestral wonder that’s as stylish and suspenseful as a ‘60s caper flick.

9. The Gaslight Anthem—The ‘59 Sound (SideOneDummy)

The ghost of Bruce Springsteen dominated indie rock back in 2007, but these Jersey shore punks call back to the Boss with the most authenticity. The ’59 Sound is a ragged, gutsy collection of heart-on-sleeve tunes that didn’t deserve to fall as far under the radar as it did.

10. Cut Copy—In Ghost Colours (Modular)

This Australian trio ruled the dance floor by moving your feet and tugging at your heartstrings with “Lights and Music” and the gorgeous “Feel the Love.” Blending indie rock and electro with a dash of ‘80s synth flavour that’s most evident on “Hearts On Fire,” Cut Copy had the secret recipe for success.

Fringe Science: Testing telepathy

Ever pick up the phone and already know who’s on the other end? How about knowing what your friend is going to say before telling you? Imagine having this advantageous ability in an exam, allowing you to tap into the thoughts of the smart kid. These examples illustrate the apparent ability known as telepathy, or the ability to communicate information between organisms, disregarding visual, auditory, and somatic perceptual systems.

While extremely controversial, researchers over the past two decades have worked together to examine the possible validity of telepathic experiences. This culminated in the development of the Ganzfeld studies, a large group of experiments guided by protocols developed in 1987 by a partnership between telepathy proponent Charles Honorton and Dr. Ray Hyman, a skeptic of the phenomena.

This experimental protocol involved a “sender” who would view a randomly selected image on a computer screen, and mentally send the image to a “receiver” situated in a neighbouring soundproof room. Following the sending session, the “receiver” would choose between one of four images, with an expected hit-rate—how often the receiver identifies the correct image out of four possible choices—of 25 per cent given no telepathic effect. A meta-analysis conducted in 2001 revealed an overall significant hit-rate of 30.1 per cent, suggesting telepathic experiences may be valid.

Following publication, debate ensued due to a lack of converging lines of evidence, suggesting the significant findings may simply be statistical anomalies. To resolve this problem, scientists turned their attention to a different means of examining telepathy in relation to specific brain activity. Within the last few years, electroencephalograph (EEG) methods have been employed.

In 2005, lead researcher Dr. Leila Kozak and her team from the University of Washington and University of Bastyr conducted EGG studies that aimed to reveal if brain activity in one brain could cause activity in another. The experimental protocol involved pairs of people attached to EEG monitors, one being the “sender” and one being the “receiver.” The “sender” was placed in a soundproof room in front of a computer monitor that randomly presented images at different times. This technique was used to evoke a response, namely brain activity measured with the EEG. Throughout the duration of the trial, the “sender” was to keep the “receiver”—who was stationed 10 meters away in a different room—in his or her mind. If the “sender” saw an image or experienced brain activity, and the “receiver” experienced similar brain activity, it would suggest the occurrence of telepathic-like communication between brains. Furthermore, it would suggest telepathic communication is mediated in part by the brain. The results of the study revealed significant correlation between brain activity levels of the participants.

As of 2009, there has not been a meta-analysis conducted that has pooled all EEG telepathy experimental data, so it is difficult to be certain how common the results found by Dr. Kozak and her colleagues are. Nevertheless, her study was later replicated in three other labs worldwide and, combined with the results of the Ganzfeld experiments, builds a case that this phenomena may be legitimate.

Over the next decade, the telepathy debate will continue. With current research just beginning to explore telepathy with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), researchers may be able to determine which, if any, brain areas mediate the hypothesized telepathic effect. Moreover, if the phenomenon is to be accepted, it will also need an explanation detailing what is taking place physically. This is a tall order given contemporary physics is very powerful and does not explicitly have room for “spooky” energy travelling outside of the electromagnetic spectrum. Alternatively, telepathy may turn out to be a bunch of hocus-pocus.

TA negotiations update

A positive strike mandate seems to have yielded some positive results for members of CUPE 3902. The union and admin have settled on improved maternity leave, and introduced parental leave for fathers and adoptive parents. Other agreements include an additional hour of paid training and some release time from work duties around major academic deadlines for TAs. Assistant invigilators will enjoy a better wage rate. The university has also agreed to strike a task force to investigate ballooning tutorial and class sizes.

“It’s already looking good. We hope undergrads are paying attention to negotiations and will encourage U of T admin to bargain fairly with us,” says Chantal Sundaram, staff representative of CUPE 3902.

Several issues remain unresolved. The union wants U of T to cover pricey premiums of the private University Health Insurance Plan for international students, where costs can run up to $3000 per year for one family. So far, the university has said that they would like to see UHIP discontinued but haven’t agreed to lower the cost in the short term. Other sticking points include childcare assistance for student parents, improved health benefits, tuition assistance, better funding packages for grad students, and the duration of the new contract. The union will want a two-year contract that ends at the same time as TA contracts at other universities, in order to boost future bargaining power.

“Maybe the U of T administration is going to learn from the mistakes of York and offer a dignified contract,” said Farshad Azadian, member of Students in Support of CUPE.

“The situation at York is very different,” countered U of T VP human resources and equity Angela Hildyard. “CUPE 3903 at York is negotiating on behalf of TAs, stipend instructors and research assistants; at U of T, the bargaining is for TAs only.”

“We remain optimistic that we’ll be able to reach an agreement without the need for work action,” said Hildyard.

Upcoming mediated negotiations are scheduled for the last two weeks of January. The University of Toronto Students Union will be holding an Undergraduate Town Hall on TA Collective Bargaining, on Weds, Jan. 14 at the Bahen Centre.

Oldest known turtle swam with just underbelly armour

Turtles are charismatic and recognizable creatures that sport a unique characteristic: a shell comprised of two parts. Their shell features a carapace that covers the dorsal or back side of the animal, and a plastron, the flat belly. This design has long served a line of creatures that witnessed the flowering and fading of the mightiest of the giant dinosaurs’ rule on Earth. However, until now, all previously known prehistoric turtles possessed the same body plan, creating a puzzling origin to the lineage.

According to U of T Mississauga biology professor Robert Reisz, the discovery of 220-million-year-old fossils in marine deposits in southwest China has “opened up a new chapter in the study of the origins and early history of these fascinating reptiles.” Belonging to a newly identified species named Odontochelys semitestacea, meaning “toothed turtle with a half-shell,” they are now the oldest known species of turtle. The 35-centimetre long Odontochelys has expanded dorsal ribs and possesses the expected flat belly plastron. However, on its back it has no bony upper carapace. These traits enabled a research team led by Chinese biologist Chun Li, who unearthed the creature, to infer that shell evolution was a two-step process for an ancestral aquatic turtle, whereby the plastron developed before the carapace. This fits with the observation that the plastron develops first in turtle embryos.

In an article by Reisz, co-authored with UTM biology professor Jason Head, an alternate interpretation was offered. The two scientists argued that the shell morphology of Odontochelys is not the primitive state for the turtle lineage. Under this view, Odontochelys is a more advanced animal whose carapace was much reduced and softened, as a secondary or derived adaptation from a land-dwelling ancestor that lived even earlier. The study noted that the sea-going Odontochelys’ ecology closely resembles modern creatures such as freshwater soft-shell turtles with heavily reduced shells, as well as many sea turtles and snapping turtles whose shells have become somewhat unhardened. “Up to now, all the evidence suggested that the oldest turtles are terrestrial,” explained Head. “With this interpretation, that the turtle could indeed be aquatic, we may be pushing the frontiers of turtle origins further back.”

Despite their differing views, both groups of scientists feel that the fossil is the most primitive turtle. The discovery demonstrates how important new fossils are, as well as their ability to transform how we look at the course of vertebrate evolution. “This fossil discovery has brought up a new perspective and has given us new ideas and challenges,” said Reisz.

Prior to this discovery, the oldest known fossil turtle was the larger land-dwelling Proganochelys found in Germany. A metre-long beast with a spiky clubbed tail, it lived about ten million years after Odontochelys.

Out of the frying pan

More word on the Fight Fees 14 legal case came from U of T on Monday, as the school announced it will consider reopening a probe on whether to start Code of Conduct hearings against the nine U of T students whose criminal charges were dropped last week. The news came from U of T’s Strategic Communications office, which released the school administration’s official response to news of the Crown’s withdrawal of charges related to a sit-in protest in March.

The only U of T student still charged is a minor who cannot be identified.

The nine students whose charges were dropped have entered a “peace bond,” an agreement similar to a restraining order. Under the terms of the peace bond, the nine students may not enter Simcoe Hall without giving a heads-up 24 hours in advance. They also may not demonstrate inside of U of T buildings. The peace bond stays in effect for one year.

“Very often a peace bond is a way of resolving a weak criminal case,” said the students’ lawyer, Mike Leitold.

The prosecutor had not disclosed all the evidence against the students. Leitold said that the Crown had only confronted the students with “a very frail case, but nonetheless the students decided to move their lives forward by getting these very serious charges dropped.”

The university had previously launched an investigation to decide whether to charge the U of T students among the FF14 with violating U of T’s Code of Non-Academic Student Conduct. The code governs student behaviour outside of the classroom, and allows expulsion, an option the school has exercised in the past. According to the administration statement, the investigation was suspended to await further evidence, which was expected to surface during the criminal trial. With that trial now out of the question, the office confirmed that the investigators will now deliberate on whether to resume the probe or close it for good.

FF14 media spokesperson Gabi Rodriguez, herself among the nine students who signed the peace bond, reacted to the news, saying the administration had already promised in writing not to restart the investigation.

“[The administration] were informed of the peace bond terms before they were signed, and agreed that the terms were satisfactory,” said Rodriguez. “It’s kind of why the peace bonds were signed.” According to her, the FF14 feared their charges would be dropped only to have the Code of Conduct procedures resume, and that they sought and obtained the administration’s assurance that this would not happen.

The FF14 had already turned the charges’ withdrawal into an attack on what they called the administration’s use of scare tactics against campus protests, saying the dropped charges were a sign that the university had exaggerated the case against them. A press release issued last March by U of T’s president David Naylor called the sit-in a case of “thuggish tactics by mobs,” and publicly alleged that students at the protests had committed serious crimes including assaulting U of T staff and uttering threats of bodily harm against police officers and their families.

U of T stood by its account of events, denouncing the FF14’s statements as containing “very serious errors” and proposing to set the record straight. The university maintains that staff at Simcoe Hall were “confined against their will and were subjected to abuse and harm” at the sit-in.

“Administrative allegations of harm were not reflected in the charges laid,” said Rodriguez. “The lack of meaningful evidence which led to the dropping of charges seems convincing that our administration is willing to make empty allegations that are entirely political in nature.”

“From our perspective, we see this as the case beginning to crumble,” said Leitold, characterizing the peace bond deal as “a reflection of the weakness of the criminal case and the fact that these were political actions, not criminal actions.”

Both sides of the dispute capped off their respective declarations by taking shots at one another. “The University hopes that, in future, issues of concern will be brought forward in a responsible manner and it will continue to listen and to respond through the various means that exist for responsible dialogue between the University and its constituents,” reads the U of T’s statement.

Rodriguez responded that “frankly, the students hope that in the future the administration will be more responsible. Their entire case fell apart.”