York strikers to vote on latest contract

The 10-week-old TA and contract faculty strike at York University could end as early as next week if a vote passes to accept the latest contract offer from the school’s administration. CUPE 3903, the Union representing the striking employees, is asking the 3,300 striking employees to reject the offer, calling it “substandard.” York admin claim that the new offer effectively increases wages by 0.7 per cent through benefits such as child care and professional development. If the offer is accepted, students could be back in class by the following Monday. If not, the academic year may be in jeopardy for 50,000 undergraduate students. In the meantime, the York Federation of Students is offering financially distressed undergrads $100 each as part of a relief fund.

Jerry Springer: The Opera scandalizes Hart House

Perhaps most wouldn’t normally brag about watching four adulterous lovers shred each other to ribbons before a group of screaming onlookers. But Hart House’s Canadian debut of Jerry Springer: The Opera promises to bring prestige (or at least an inbred cousin or two) to the gladiatorial freak show of daytime television. The opera’s first section is exactly what you might imagine from the title, complete with a high brow musical squabbling between an aspiring stripper, diaper fetishist, and, of course, a dangerously enthusiastic audience. But the play takes a real turn for the freaky when the show’s host is drawn from the world’s underbelly to the underworld. Forced to mediate disputes between Biblical characters, Jerry and his legendary conflict resolution methods suddenly assume roles of Wagnerian grandeur.

So how do Jerry Springer and his guests, who inspire disgust and schadenfreude in all who watch them, become the subjects of such an aggrandized art form as opera? To make sense of it all, I sat down with soprano Jocelyn Howard, who will play such characters as “Baby Jane” and “Peaches” (don’t ask).

“It’s a show to force us to examine our current culture—what we value and what we tolerate, and what we see as entertainment,” she says. “The characters in this show are not just white trash—they’re complex.” One of Baby Jane’s songs, “This is My ‘Jerry Springer’ Moment,” looks into what’s behind their desperate exhibitionism and makes these characters not merely pitiful, but sympathetic. “A ‘Jerry Springer’ moment is your fifteen minutes of fame,” says Howard. “It’s your moment in the spotlight, and you want to make it as sensational, memorable, and shocking as possible. We see that with a lot of these characters. I think of it as a moment where people think, ‘Hey, this is what my mark is going to be. This trashy and tragic thing is the most important, most significant thing I’ll ever do.’”

But soaring arias and quests for immortality aside, the show drops a ton of F-bombs (BBC chief Mark Thompson estimated around 300 expletives in the evening’s entertainment). There’s also plenty of sex and gore. “Nothing was changed or removed for fear of offense,” says Howard. “We are as offensive as possible. In a sense, that’s what the show is about, because it’s forcing people to reevaluate what we put up with.”

Thankfully, it’s clear from reading any of director Richard Ouzounian’s reviews (he is, incidentally, the theatre critic at the Toronto Star) that he has high standards. “I was worried about that at my audition,” says Howard with a big smile. “Not only is he a big cheese in the critiquing world, but he’s a really high-profile director and an artist himself. So I was imagining someone pompous, self-centered, and demanding and all of that. But he is incredible. He is amazingly creative and he makes his decisions so clear to everybody. But at the same time, he knows how to work with actors and singers, because a lot of artists are very sensitive. He really encourages us to explore and experiment on our own.”

The idea of mixing sex, swearing, and song seems to evoke South Park more than Madame Butterfly. However, composer Richard Thomas’ treatment of opera is far from dismissive. “There is definitely some mocking of opera…but in order to mock, you really have to understand the genre,” says Howard, a fourth-year voice student at U of T’s Faculty of Music. “He has a wonderful command of classical composition. Some of the music is more contemporary…but there are fugues and there are really intense counterpoints, and choral settings that are very complex. And so he does knock opera, but he really goes all in and totally understands the form. I think that’s what makes it a successful satire.”

But it’s not just opera that Springer sweeps off its pedestal. The show’s previous productions in London and New York inspired massive protests for its not-so-subtle comparison of prominent Judeo-Christian figures as petty narcissists willing to literally poop their pants to get the attention of the masses. However Howard points out that the purpose of this plot point “is not to be jerks—it’s not to say, ‘Jesus is a shit.’ It’s to put them in a new light, and say, ‘We have to question these figures that people trust without caution.’”

Although it may not be for everyone, Howard encourages skeptics to take a chance on the play. “I’m hoping that lots of different kinds of people come to it. I think it’s really important that we get an audience whom we can challenge.”

Get paid to go to school

Education think-tank says cost of education should consider tax rebates

The full length of the bars (above) represent what each student paid in tuition from the years 1997 to 2008. The Education Policy Institute argues that the real cost is denoted by the black portion of the bar—what students don’t get back from tax rebates.

The cost of education is not rising as fast as your student union would claim, says a recent study published by international think-tank, Education Policy Institute. Adjusted for inflation, Ontario university fees have risen 31.2 per cent on average since 1997-98. That number drops to 22 per cent once you subtract tax rebates available to students. Last year, the rebate for full-time students in Ontario was $2,073. The study argues that the real cost of university education is better reflected in a measure it refers to as the “ENT” or Everybody’s Net Tuition—total tuition with available tax returns deducted. By this measure, Manitobans were paid $51 to go to school in 2007-08.

UTSU VP external Dave Scrivener doesn’t agree that the ENT figure is a more effective measure of the cost of education. “The upfront cost of education is still what students are paying and what they’re seeing on their bills and what’s effecting people and what people have concerns over […] The cost of education’s going up and it’s still going up faster than inflation in a lot of ways,” he said. Scrivener adds that many students didn’t actually go through the procedure of claiming tax returns.

The dinosaurian roots of fowl fatherhood

Repeated discoveries of well-preserved dinosaurs in breeding postures atop their nests have long fascinated palaeontologists. These fossils wield strong evidence that dinosaurs incubated their eggs in a bird-like manner. However, a recent study lends evidence to an even more intriguing suggestion—that the egg-sitters were males.

David Varricchio of Montana State University and researchers from three other institutions reached this conclusion through information gathered from the creatures’ egg clutch volumes and bone tissue. Their results have been published in the journal Science.

To deduce what dinosaur parental behaviour would have been like, scientists examined modern birds, their closest living relatives and descendents of small, feathered dinosaurs. They also looked at dinosaurs’ next-of-kin, the crocodilians. The team noted that the ratio of adult body mass to total egg volume in these animals can be related with statistical significance to which sex was the primary caregiver.

The scientists studied Troodon, Oviraptor, and Citipati, three fleet-footed, bipedal, and bird-like dinosaur species that made nests. These dinosaurs laid batches of 22 to 30 big eggs, a similar number as birds that display predominantly paternal care, as opposed to those that have maternal care, or where both parents share the job. The species that engaged in full-time fatherhood had more voluminous egg clutches than the other two parenting styles.

Although statistics support the paternal care idea, they do not determine whether the dinosaurs sitting on their eggs were actually male. However, bone histology offers a clue. Laying eggs is a heavy drain on calcium and phosphorus resources. Female reptiles, such as crocodiles, extract these minerals from their bones. This leads to the formation of re-absorption cavities in the bones when their eggs are developing. In the case of mother birds, calcium and phosphorus is stored by depositing a complex of irregular bone tissue along the inside surface of long bones, called medullary bone. Although mostly reabsorbed for use during the egg-formation and laying, some of this bone tissue can linger for days to weeks afterward.

Medullary bone has been found in the bones of female dinosaurs as well, including species such as Tyrannosaurus and Allosaurus, which are less related to birds than the dinosaurs focused on in the study. When the team analyzed long bones from eight nest-brooding adult Troodon and Citipati specimens, and no medullary bone or reabsorption cavities were found, the egg-sitters were concluded to have been either male or non-reproducing females. This is consistent with male care and at the least, does not falsify the fatherhood hypothesis.

The idea that dinosaurs were dutiful dads supplies some answers to questions about the evolutionary history of bird parenting. It has been observed that birds seem exceptional among vertebrate animal groups in their degree of male care. In only five per cent of mammal species—even fewer in non-avian reptiles—do fathers help raise offspring at all. For 90 per cent of birds, both parents contribute.

A particular group of predominantly flightless birds belonging to the superorder Palaeognathae, which includes ostriches and kiwis, is unique for a behavior system in which males mate with many females and then take responsibility for the eggs the females leave behind. This set of birds is the most primitive living branch of the avian family tree. Consequently, scientists wonder if their reproductive behaviour was present in the original ancestor of modern birds. This recent study of dinosaurs may suggest a paternal role in egg-rearing was not only an ancestral state, but one that evolved early in the line of dinosaurian ancestors leading to birds.

Bucks for smarts

Ontario’s budget comes out this spring, and student groups hope to cash in.

The province’s Standing Committee of Finance and Economic Affairs welcomes budget suggestions from groups and individuals until the end of the month. Both the upcoming provincial and federal budgets will face tough scrutiny under the current financial recession.

Yesterday, the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance called for the McGuinty’s government to shift its focus and funds towards a knowledge-based economy.

In its report, OUSA called for up-front access grants, regulated tuition, and a rehaul of the OSAP system. It also suggested a one-time additional funding package to help universities deal with increased enrolment from recently laid off employees returning to post-secondary education.

The report continually mentions that Ontario’s government contributes less to universities than any other province. But Ontario isn’t the only government being pressured.

Last Tuesday, the Canadian Federation of Students took part in pre-budget consultation in Montreal by presenting an open letter to Minister of Finance Jim Flaherty. That same day, the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations posted its own open letter with similar suggestions on its website.

Demanding a way of halting tuition increases, CFS proposed a tuition regulation system similar to the Canada Health Act with provincial and federal involvement. It also called for an increase in graduate research funding, to be issued indiscriminately as programs such as the humanities currently receive less than sciences.

The letter, which applauded the Harper government for replacing the Millennium Scholarship Foundation with a grant program and increased funding for the Canada Social Transfer, also suggested funding summer jobs to stimulate economy and a redesign of RESPs.

CASA suggested that the grants be targeted to low-income families hit by the recent financial crisis.

In a December 30 Toronto Star commentary co-written by Roger Martin, Dean of the Joseph L. Rotman School of Management at U of T, tuition freezes were strongly discouraged.

“This simply reduces the resources available to develop our future skills,” said Martin. He also proposed new efficiency systems.

“We need to find ways of getting more students in our crowded post-secondary schools. Can administrators extend classroom hours or use weekends? The province ought to consider special loans and grants for qualified high-school students to register at specific schools.”

Understanding the genomics of brain diseases

Imagine personalized medicine, where treatment is created specially for your own genetic makeup. Think of the possible eradication of certain diseases like cancer or AIDS, or of foods designed to protect us from disease. While the study of genetics is highly controversial, it could provide the solution to many issues facing modern society.

McGill neurologist Guy Rouleau specializes in identifying and cataloguing the genes associated with brain diseases. In a recent lecture at the University of Toronto, he described his current project, nicknamed Synapse to Disease, or S2D for short. This study deals primarily with schizophrenic and autistic patients in an attempt to identify the genetic components contributing to these diseases.

S2D is based on the hypothesis that brain diseases are caused by “de novo” mutations—gene expressions that have never previously occurred in the family. Rouleau postulates that these mutations prevent the synapse from functioning properly, resulting in neurodevelopmental diseases. The study collected DNA samples from patients with no family history of mental disease, low age of onset, and the availability of parental DNA. The expectation predicted that afflicted individuals would prove to have a gene that was not transmitted from their parents, but instead the result of a mutation.

Once the appropriate models were selected, the S2D team reduced the expression of the gene in order to obtain a physical expression of the sample in the form of a protein. They experimented using normal human genes to rescue the patient’s gene. If the protein continued to function improperly, they would try to rescue it with a mutated gene. If the second rescue was a success it was a sign that a mutation had taken place in the gene, thus contributing to the disease. Using these methods, Rouleau successfully identified and catalogued a number of genes associated with neurodevelopmental diseases.

Although the S2D program has yet to be completed, it is estimated that the results could be significant to the genomics field. After only two years, scientists have already identified 10 to 20 genes associated with schizophrenia and autism. Rouleau predicts that by the time the project has finished, his team will have identified 3.4 million genes, including 11 stop genes and between 34 and 126 de novo genes.

Rouleau hopes that diagnostics could be vastly improved due to the development of new technologies. The accuracy of diagnoses is essential, providing peace of mind to patients suffering from a known and definable disease—a reassuring thought when dealing with afflictions of the brain. Accurate diagnoses also ensure that the proper treatment is given and early intervention may be possible. It is also possible that treatment of particular diseases may be able to aid affiliated diseases that share essential brain mechanisms.

Genetics counselling would be affected, as many family members are interested in the risk of transmitting diseases to their offspring. Currently, these inquiries receive limited response due to technological constraints and insufficient professional assistance.

Rouleau’s research affects more individuals than just those suffering from autism or schizophrenia. The field of brain diseases includes epilepsy, bipolar disorder, and even migraines.

The Star tours TO’s cheap textbook market

The Toronto Star has reported on 10 copy shops near U of T and Ryerson University who photocopy textbooks for students in violation of copyright laws. While the Star suggested that high tuition costs are the reason students might head to copy shops instead of bookstores to get their required reading, the article went a long way towards incriminating the employees of the offending copy shops.

Published Saturday, Jan. 10, the Star’s investigation found 10 copy shops near U of T and Ryerson who were willing to photocopy entire textbooks, or at least assist in binding the pages together.

Students quoted in the article called photocopying textbooks “stealing” from publishers, but argued that they had no other choice due to financial reasons. New textbooks, as any student knows, can be a major expense, sometimes exceeding the $1,300 estimated by the Star.

Publishers claim that they lose $75 million annually in revenue to piracy, amounting to a full quarter of their business. The Star did not report any independent figures.

NFL Playoff Review: Duel in the Desert

The Arizona Cardinals have been underdogs all season. Even their most die-hard fans were unsure how far the team could make it in the playoffs. Atlanta and Carolina’s strengths fit Arizona’s weaknesses, yet the Cardinals managed to defeat them both. Now they’re one win away from going to the Super Bowl, facing the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFC championship game.

Arizona will have home field advantage in Sunday’s game. The team already boasts one playoff win at the University of Phoenix stadium, beating Atlanta at home two weeks ago. Arizona fans are more excited than they’ve ever been, meaning the Eagles will have to contend with an extraordinarily loud crowd. On top of that, Philadelphia will be on the road, a prospect no team relishes, especially when it comes with a two hour time difference.

In their last meeting, Philadelphia beat Arizona 48-20. However, if this year’s playoffs have taught us anything, it’s that the regular season means very little anymore. Arizona is a different team now, playing a completely different, better type of football

The Cardinals’ regular season wins were mostly due to quarterback Kurt Warner and their explosive offense, namely wide receivers Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin. Their defence was unreliable and inconsistent. But when they hit the post-season, they somehow found a way to make everything click. In last weekend’s game against Carolina they were able to stop the run—something they struggled with during the regular season—shutting down one of the league’s best running back tandems. They also racked up five interceptions.

In order for Arizona to move on to the Super Bowl, DT Darnell Dockett, CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, FS Antrel Rolle, and the rest of the defense are going to have to continue to come up big. They’ll need to put pressure on Eagles QB Donovan McNabb. If he’s forced to throw when he doesn’t want to, they’ll be ready to pick him off. Andy Reid likes to call more pass plays than run plays, but the Eagles will likely try and get the ball to RB Brian Westbrook, as they’ve had post-season success with the ball in his hands. However, if Philadelphia can get the running game going, they won’t be forced to throw the ball downfield. That could be bad for Arizona, as the Eagles would be able to bypass the strongest part of the Cardinals’ defense.

Philadelphia boasts a tough, blitz-happy defense that will have their sights set on Warner. Thus far, the Cardinals’ offensive line has kept the pressure off of their quarterback. However, if they can’t stand up against FS Brian Dawkins and the Eagles’ defense, it will put Arizona in a potentially ruinous position. They’ll need to avoid third-and-long situations, as that’s when the Eagles are guaranteed to bring the blitz. They’ll also need to get the ball deep, forcing Philadelphia to abandon the blitz in order to drop players back into pass coverage. Arizona will then have the opportunity to run the ball, handing it off to veteran RB Edgerrin James.

Things to watch for: Keep your eyes on Fitzgerald. Look for him to run deep crossing routes, which Arizona used successfully against the Panthers multiple times last week. On defense, watch for Dockett, and his uncanny ability to get up field to defend the run and put pressure on the opposing quarterback. Look for McNabb to put a few drives together that involve short-yardage passing—they’re tailor-made for his arm strength and accuracy, as proven in last weekend against the Giants’ defense. Expect CB Asante Samuel to make some great plays, as he’s known for getting critical interceptions in big games.

Final word: This championship match-up will likely hinge on whether or not Arizona’s defense can stop the run. If they play as well as they did against Carolina, they’ll make the trip to Tampa Bay.

Pick: Arizona Cardinals