UTM daycare centre overpriced, late Mississauga campus parents protest high costs of service

UTM is yet to begin construction on a daycare facility that was due to open this month, leaving student parents with a temporary, unlicensed service.

According to Saaliha Malik, VP equity of the UTM Student Union, the opening has been rescheduled several times since September 2007. It was most recently scheduled for February 2009, but in a Jan. 12 email to students, the administration said that they had been overly optimistic with their timeline.

“We’ve built a residence building, a library, and a gym in the last three years, but we can’t build a daycare centre,” said Malik.

Construction of the centre was delayed because the university was unable to obtain a city permit until Jan. 23 of this year. Construction plans have now been approved, but students are still waiting for the university to announce a new timeline.

UTM dean of Student Affairs Mark Overton said, “We can’t commit to an opening date yet but are working with the project’s architects, engineers, and contractors, along with the operator, to finalize one. It will be shared widely as soon as it is available.”

For now, parents have to rely on either off-campus services or the temporary child-minding centre at UTM. Malik claims this facility is not a substitute. “This is not a licensed facility, it was only a temporary service that should have only lasted four months.” She added that the centre has limited space and can only take in five children at a time.

She said student parents are concerned that their numbers are too small for the university to care about them. There are currently 30 students waitlisted for services at the new facility.

Parent students are also taking issue with proposed increases in the price of services. “Many parents can’t afford the new proposed rates. They are probably going to look for something off campus in the Peel region which is cheaper,” said Malik.

The temporary childminding centre costs parents $5 per hour with a maximum limit of $40 per day. The hourly rate will no longer be available at the new centre. Full-time students would pay approximately $49 to $75 a day. Part-time students would receive lower rates than full-time students, but they too would see their overall charges increased.

According to Overton, the matter is out of UTM’s hands. Rates are fixed by the daycare operator, U of T’s Early Learning Center.

Malik argues that the administration could have hired a less expensive operator from the Peel region.

Parents can appeal to Peel authorities for child care subsidies, and those who do not qualify may apply for funds from the university. UTMSU is creating a $5,000 bursary to help parents in need and is also looking into other ways to offer support.

Losing it with The Virgins

The Virgins spent 10 months of 2008 on the road, and as they embark on their first North American headlining tour, it doesn’t look like it’s going to slow down any time soon.

Born and bred in Lower Manhattan, the band’s sound is a relentlessly catchy blend of new wave and disco with roots planted between CBGB’s and Studio 54.

“It’s the music that was around when we were kids,” says guitarist Wade Oates over the phone from a stop in Minnesota. “We liked the whole white-rock disco thing that people were doing in the late 70s. Bands like The Kinks and The Rolling Stones would just try and fail at doing disco, which we thought was cool. But we also took a lot of influence from what Nile Rodgers was doing in the 80s with the band Chic.”

The Virgins were conceived on a photo shoot in Mexico when uber-hip New York photographer Ryan McGinley introduced Oates to frontman Donald Cumming. The pair got to talking about their various musical projects, and the band was born.

But Oates insists that modeling was never his dream. “That’s the one and only time I’ve ever done that, and if anything it’s just cemented the fact that I hate getting my photo taken.”

Oates, Cumming, and bassist Nick Zarin-Ackerman played together for a year without a drummer before Atlantic Records caught wind of their performances at downtown Manhattan parties and quickly signed them. They immediately held exhaustive auditions to find a drummer, finally settling upon Erik Ratensperger.

From there they marched into the studio, enlisting celebrated hit-maker Sam Hollander (Gym Class Heroes, Boys Like Girls) to transform the bedroom demos of their first EP into the glossy, radio-friendly pop of their self-titled full-length.

“Everyone had been telling us to do the gritty, downtown rock thing, and we thought, that’s been done so many times, especially over the last ten years. Let’s go with the radio guy. Let’s not go with the guy who records everything lo-fi. Whoever is the biggest guy [out there], let’s go with that guy.”

“He brought a lot to the table. There was a lot of butting heads—it’s harder to work with a guy who has his own vision. There were a lot of cooks in the kitchen, but in a totally positive way.”

Once the band had found their signature sound, their creativity began to take off.

“We kind of flourished in the studio,” says Oates. “‘Teen Lovers’ was written on the spot. The song was done in 22 hours. Donald and Nick had this idea of doing a Latin thing—it started as a Gloria Estefan song, but it totally didn’t end up that way.”

Instead, with its breezy yacht-rock vibe and a sweeping chorus hook, “Teen Lovers” turned out to be one of the album’s most irresistible tracks.

With their debut album complete, the boys got a massive boost in exposure from an unlikely source—the CW’s glamourously vapid teen drama Gossip Girl. In a twist of fate, the band and the soap opera turned out to be a perfect combination.

Tunes like “Rich Girls” and “She’s Expensive” document casual romances with vain heiresses, and the album’s subject matter fits Gossip Girl so well, it’s almost as if The Virgins had been specifically commissioned for Serena van der Woodsen and Blair Waldorf.

“It was really random,” says Oates. “When someone first told us about it, we thought it was the Gilmore Girls, so we were kind of weirded out. Once someone explained it to us, we thought, ‘Oh, that’s awesome and stupid and the right kind of weird. It’s a show about young kids that are rich and take drugs—sign me up!’”

“I remember the Twilight-looking kid (the brooding Chuck Bass) was listening to ‘Rich Girls’ while he was really bummed out. That was the most random thing I’ve ever seen. But they had him listening to it on his iPod, [portraying that] this character likes this band, which I thought was pretty cool.”

But life has funny way of mirroring art, and Oates confides that he too has experience with a debutante from the Upper East Side.

“I dated a girl that lived on 105th and 5th when I used to live on 13th and 5th. I used to ride my bike all the way up to her house. I was so tired that I used to fall asleep every day and she broke up with me.”

Does Oates imagine the band will call Lower Manhattan home forever?

“We’re gonna move to Nice and wear straw hats. That’s the plan, but not until we’re well into our 60s.”

The Virgins play the El Mocambo (464 Spadina) tonight with Lissy Trullie and Anya Marina. Tickets are $12.50 at Ticketmaster and Rotate This.

Four sit-in students to have their day in court

The crown is moving ahead with trials against four of the so-called “Fight Fees 14″. The trial date was set after the Crown withdrew charges against nine of the 14 originally accused of confining five administrative workers in their offices during a sit-in last fall.

A video taken during the sit-in shows protesters filling a hallway in Simcoe Hall and shouting at police officers trying to remove them from the building.
While the Crown has set a trial date for Sept 28, defense lawyers for the four say the Crown may have failed to disclose evidence that could weaken its case.

“We don’t think it’s complete, frankly. We think there’s other disclosure that’s outstanding,” said Mike Leitold, lawyer for three of the accused. “But the Crown takes the position that all things have been provided that are relevant.”

Nine other defendants recently signed the agreement in order to end legal proceedings. About 30 people participated in the Simcoe Hall sit-in last March, to protest a 20 per cent residence fee increase at New College.

The remaining four accused are Oriel Varga and Chris Ramsaroop, both employees of the Association of Part-Time Undergraduate Students, and Farrah Mirandah and Liisa Schoffield of the Ontario Public Information and Research Group. Leitold represents all of the above except Varga, who is represented by Selwyn Pieters.

Katie Wolk, an APUS staffer speaking on behalf of Varga, told The Varsity that the four have refused to sign a peace bond agreement—similar to a restraining order—which they consider an infringement on their rights under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The terms of the peace bond are that the individuals may not enter Simcoe Hall without giving 24 hours prior notice, and may not demonstrate inside of U of T buildings. The bond stays in effect for one year.

Previously, Varga was jailed overnight for refusing to sign highly restrictive bail conditions which, among other things, barred her from speaking to her co-defendants, with whom she works in her capacity as APUS executive director. Varga was successful in arguing down the stringent conditions.

There remains a fifth accused, a minor being tried in youth court, but those charges will be formally withdrawn later this month, said Leitold.

For the other four, the trial will proceed unless the Crown chooses to withdraw the charges.
Noting that charges might be withdrawn if evidence surfaced that weakened the Crown’s prospect of convicting the four, Leitold discussed what he characterized as gaps in the disclosed evidence.

“There are certain officers’ notes that we’re surprised are not in existence,” he said. “The [police] officer in charge of the investigation doesn’t have any notes, according to him, so I’m surprised by that.”

Leitold added that both he and Pieters held concerns over disclosure. “Mr. Pieters has list of things [missing from the Crown’s disclosure].”

Pieters declined to comment on the case before its resolution.

Urinetown a comedic whiz

A Port-a-Potty was placed conspicuously outside Hart House this week, hiding a pleasant surprise for all who dared to venture inside. Inside the stall awaited free tickets to Urinetown, the 2009 UC Follies production opening tonight at Hart House Theatre.

The annual University College musical is a tradition dating back to the 1920s. According to director Neil Silcox, “people have really come to expect a quality production from the Follies.” Silcox, who recently played Edgar in Hart House’s King Lear, is one of the few professionals in a cast comprised largely of U of T students. Adds Andrew Knowlton, who stars in the role of Bobby Strong, “It’s a great match between those who are experienced in the world of theatre and those who are just getting started. It creates a really great energy.”

Of course, a certain vivacity is required to pull off a piece like Urinetown. “It’s a fun, hum-able script,” explains Knowlton. “Every song is an homage to a different musical, from Miss Saigon to Les Misérables. But at the same time, it’s meant to be a satire of the musical genre.” Whereas musical theatre tends to take itself quite seriously, the self-deprecating Urinetown isn’t afraid to make fun of itself.

The story centers on a village in which a prolonged drought has led the government to outlaw private toilets. When the corrupt Urine Good Company intervenes to create a pay-per-use public washroom, the right to pee becomes a privilege: those who refuse to pay for toilet access are shipped off to a faraway, unknown colony called Urinetown. Citizens are left wondering how they will possibly be able to relieve themselves from the dire situation.

“Clearly, there are lots of built-in jokes about urine,” laughs Silcox. “But while we could stick with sophomoric gags, we’re aiming for smarter sense of humour. So, when the occasional lowbrow joke comes up, it’s much more effective.”

The farce of the play owes much to the Neo-Futurist theatre troupe that first produced Urinetown in 2001. This Chicago group aimed for honesty and modernity above all, and Urinetown fit in perfectly with their values.

“This could be a true musical, set in the real world,” explains Silcox. “There’s no Hollywood feel. The ‘bad’ characters aren’t entirely bad, but the ‘good’ ones aren’t quite good either.”

Although Urinetown mines the hilarity of a world gone topsy-turvy over bladder concerns, it also presents a warning to where society may be headed. The concept of a water shortage rings true against current unease regarding limited resources and sustainability. “We do want people to think about environmentalism,” explains Silcox, “but we also want them to have fun. It’s a really fun show.”

A fun show, but not necessarily comprised entirely of light themes: Urinetown also delves into issues of corporate abuse and citizen rebellion, climaxing on a less-than-happy note. Will Silcox’s lighthearted approach translate well to the story?

“I’m enjoying the chance to play it ‘schmakedy,’ to play it big,” attests Naomi Skwarna, acting in the part of Soupy Sue. Accordingly, if Urinetown is fun for the actors, it’s bound to be a whiz for the audience as well.

Urinetown runs at Hart House theatre tonight through February 14. Tickets are $14 for students.

TAs ratify deal

The members of CUPE 3902 voted 97 per cent in favour of the new settlement reached last week between its bargaining team and U of T. The deal lasts three years and expires April 30, 2011, which throws a wrench into CUPE’s plans for a province-wide strike in 2010, when a number of university contracts expire. The union, which represents teaching assistants, contract course instructors and accessibility workers, will now start to implement the new settlement.

CUPE 3902 has announced their next objective: launching a drive to organize post doctoral fellows, one of the few remaining groups on campus who aren’t represented by the union. A launch event at Alumni Hall is scheduled for Feb. 10.

The details of the settlement:

  • Three per cent salary increase per year, starting September 2008, except for 2009-10, which will see .5 per cent. Payment will be made retroactively to cover the fall 2008 term.

  • For childcare benefits, the university will make a yearly increase of $60,000.

  • U of T will pay the union $2.4 million to run its own healthcare plan. The new HCSA will have maximum allocation of $500 for employees who work 50 hours or more.

  • Increased sick leave, which includes three days of full pay for TAs, and 5 days of full pay for course instructors.

  • New mothers can choose between two months’ paid maternity leave or an EI provision top-up of salary, which lasts up to 17 weeks.

  • A month of paid parental leave, which applies to adoptive parents, fathers, and mothers who wish to take added time off after maternity leave.

  • A new healthcare fund for international students. U of T has agreed to provide the union with a lump sum to offset UHIP expenses. International students can bring in receipts for added costs, and the union will disperse the appropriate funds.

  • A new Provost’s Working Group on the Undergraduate Tutorial Experience, consisting of four professors and two TAs. The group will assess the educational value of U of T’s tutorial groups and present a report by March 2010.

Much ado about neurons

Understanding how the brain works is one of the greatest questions facing biologists today. Speaking to a group of students and professors, Dr. Bryan Stewart described the formation of neural synapses, which is an interesting step in brain development. Dr. Stewart is the Canada Research Chair in Molecular Genetics of Neural Communication and Professor of Biology at the University of Toronto Mississauga. His lab is interested in how these important cellular structures of the brain and central nervous system originate.

Neural development can be divided into a number of highly controlled steps. It starts with the transformation of stem cells into neurons, the extension of axons and dendrites into the body (two cell protrusions required for neuron function), the recognition of a target cell by the neuronal axon, and finally, the formation of the synapse, where communication takes place. Each of these steps is important in the development of the brain and central nervous system. Without each one, the complex tasks the brain performs, like moving muscles, would not be possible.

Communication between a neuron and its target cell—a muscle cell, a gland cell, or another neuron—requires the release of message molecules known as neurotransmitters from the tip of the neuronal axon into a junction known as the synapse. The neurotransmitters can then diffuse across the synapse to receptors on the target cell to effect a change. For example, the release of neurotransmitters at the neuromuscular junction (NMJ) and the synapse between a motor neuron and a muscle cell causes the muscle to contract.

To determine how the neuron develops to form a complete and functional synapse between its axon and the target cell, the Stewart lab uses the fruit fly as a model. The fruit fly NMJ is remarkably similar to the NMJ of other animals, including humans.

So how does the neuron know when to make a synapse? Dr. Stewart believes that the N-Ethylmaleimide-sensitive fusion protein 2 (NSF2) is involved. NSF2 is a large protein that is ubiquitous in the fly and is a member of the large family of proteins known as the AAA ATPases. NMJs of fruit flies that have mutations in the NSF2 protein display strange morphologies: the NMJs are longer, more branched, and have a characteristic circular pattern. This observation led to the hypothesis that NSF2 may be involved in controlling how the synapse forms.

In support of this, Stewart’s group was able to show that the protein NSF2 specifically interacts with Highwire, a protein known to be involved in limiting synaptic development. Taking a multi-pronged approach involving genetics, immuno-precipitations, and fluorescence microscopy, Stewart believes that his group has shown that NSF2 is a regulator of a pathway that leads to synapse development.

He believes that NSF2 helps the protein Highwire to perform its function of controlling synapse formation. Highwire has been shown to act at the top of a complex cellular signaling pathway that is responsible for synapse formation. Highwire actually turns this pathway down and prevents synapses from over-growing. By positively regulating Highwire, NSF2 may be important in keeping synapse growth in check and explains why NMJs with mutant NSF2 have large, disordered morphologies.

Stewart’s group’s most exciting results suggest that when the signaling pathway is turned off, protein filaments that are important for synapse structure cluster much more intensely than synapses that have normal levels of pathway activation. As filament restructuring at the nerve terminal is almost certainly important for the formation of a synapse, Stewart’s group may be on the path to determining how the pathway actually outputs to the formation of a synapse.

Atheist bus ads roll into Toronto

Toronto commuters are already asked to question their cell-phone plan and sexual performance. In two weeks, they’ll be challenged on existence of God, too.

The TTC will begin posting advertisements reading, “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.”

The campaign, funded by the Freethought Association of Canada and individual donations, aims to advance public dialogue on secularism and society.

“We want to raise awareness of atheism and give atheists a place at the table when it comes to social discussions,” said Chris Hammond, who heads the Canadian campaign.

Last June, The Guardian humour columnist Ariane Sherine saw a London bus advertisement with a Bible quote informing non-Christians they would “spend all eternity in torment.” Sherine wrote a column suggesting readers donate five pounds each for a counter-campaign. A political blogger approached her to start the fund, prominent atheists signed on, and donations poured in.

Since the January launch in the U.K., similar campaigns have started in Spain, Italy, and Australia.

Hammond, a York University political science student, started a website before approaching FAC for support. Although $7,000 by May was the initial fundraising goal, $34,000 came in just over two weeks.

Not surprisingly, the ads have seen a mixed response.

“It’s interesting that they equate God with worry. I would argue people of faith would say the opposite; that faith in their life brings them joy, peace, hope,” said Neil McCarthy, director of communications at the Archdiocese of Toronto. “[The advertisements] will likely prompt discussion around faith and personal beliefs. Done respectfully, this can be a very healthy thing.”

Anita Bromberg, a legal counsel for B’nai Brith Canada, took a less benign view. “I don’t get the point and wonder why they wasted their money. The majority of society questions God’s existence daily,” she said. “Religion gives moral values. I’m not sure if this campaign’s helpful in building an inclusive, respectful society.”

Ronald de Sousa, a philosophy professor emeritus at U of T, called the campaign “an amusing, provocative, and timely response to sanctimonious tip-toeing around religious belief which most people seem to feel it’s polite to indulge in.”

“It’s not really an attack on people of faith,” said Yusuf Badat, executive director of the Canadian Council of Muslim Theologians. “We live in a democratic society and see many things we may not be comfortable with. Everyone is entitled to their own view. When people who firmly believe in God look at these ads, it reinforces their own faith.”

Despite some endorsement, there have been setbacks.

“One of our campaign workers has received death threats that she’ll be beheaded in the name of Allah,” said Hammond.

Charles McVety, president of Canada Christian College, criticized the campaign as an “attack [on] what other people believe.”

Hammond said people like McVety “don’t realize that advertising isn’t a one-way street. If they can run their religious advertisements then we have every right to advertise a non-belief advert.”

The ads will appear on buses, downtown streetcars, and along the Yonge-University-Spadina subway line. The campaign is targeting Calgary, and tackling a Halifax transit rejection.

Last weekend, the United Church of Canada launched national print advertisements asking readers to choose between the original message and another one: “There’s probably a God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” Readers can vote in an online poll.

The Ingenuity Gap of the 21st Century

The Graham lecture series were established in 1930 through the generosity of UC alumnus Mr. Neil Graham, with the aim of bringing a visitor of international importance to the University of Toronto every year. This year, our very own professor Kim Vicente— author of The Human Factor and Cognitive Work Analysis, E.W.R. Steacie Memorial Fellowship recipient, and founding director of the Cognitive Engineering Laboratory—was invited to give his take on our technologically advanced world and to share a view he has appropriately dubbed “Human Tech.”

The educational objective in engineering, according to professor Vicente is “to achieve technical excellence.” Simply put, if you do not design for the real physical world, things do not turn out so well. As an example, consider stove controls and the ingrained human tendency to expect things beside each other to control things near each other. If you have an ‘old-school’ four-burner stove, however, this may not be the case. In fact the very opposite is true: you will find that the two knobs near each other control burners that are diagonally separated. According to professor Vicente, “Once in a while, you may make a mistake.”

Granted, that is intuitive. Yet, as professor Vicente points out, the implications for us progressing deeper into the age of technology are great. In Canada, between 11,500 and 23,500 preventable deaths that stem from medical error owing to a defunct human-technology interface occur annually. In the United States, $10 billion is spent every year on accidents in the petrochemical industry owing to inadequate human-technology integration. At present, human errors lead to inefficiency, frustration, alienation, and a failure to exploit potential of both people and technology—and nobody is immune. The proper functioning of the local petrochemical plant or nuclear reactor, as witnessed by the Chernobyl disaster, is dependent on proper human-tech interaction. Transit system operations and avoidance of accidents depends on the human-tech interaction. Surgical procedures, airline traffic control systems, emergency response systems, and many other things in our day-to-day lives depend on this interaction, as well. Technology now is far more complex than we have seen in the past and the pace of change is groundbreaking. In the most serious situations, “human error leads to threats to safety, accidents, litigation, clean-ups, disasters, injuries, and deaths.”

So where does the problem originate? According to professor Vicente, it comes from humans adopting one of two perspectives: either the humanistic, focusing primarily on people, or the mechanistic, focusing on machines and information technology. And now more than ever, there exists an ingenuity gap between these two perspectives. The ingenuity gap principle was initially introduced by Canadian academic Thomas Homer-Dixon. It is as much a statement as a reflection of the complexity of problems faced by our society and our underachieving abilities to solve them.

Before we try and implement solutions we need to face the questions. Assume that man and machine function as one system. If you are not sure about this assumption, take a moment to realize how technology-dependent we are. What exactly is the role of technology in the system? And what is the role of people in this same system? Does technology extend or replace human capabilities?

There is no easy answer to these questions. What we do know is that technological progress is rapidly ongoing and will continue to do so. With that fact in mind, professor Vicente extends the engineering perspective from achieving technical excellence to doing so with the human factor in mind: engineering to help solve social problems. After all, says Vicente, “if technology doesn’t work for people, then it doesn’t work.”