The music and the misery

“The lyrics came out about love, loss, and death. They’re the most poignant feelings anyone can have,” says White Lies drummer Jack Lawrence-Brown over the phone from Germany, where the band are in the midst of a sold-out European tour.

2009 has been a whirlwind year for the West London trio, whose album To Lose My Life, a gloomy collection of post-punk anthems, has taken the British album charts by storm. While the aforementioned subject matter is astonishingly dreary, White Lies have turned their obsession with death into a wave of hype that’s seen them become one of the most hotly tipped bands in the world.

Call it melodrama if you will, but in times of global crisis, gloom-rock is overdue for a comeback.

White Lies currently lead the charge, though they haven’t always been so unhappy. The trio came together in their teenage years, learning different musical styles as they went along. “We grew up together—we lived really close to each other in London. We decided it would be fun to start a band, really just to learn how to play our instruments,” says Lawrence-Brown.

They called themselves Fear of Flying, and during their early years released a collection of bright, funky singles that never garnered much attention in their native land. Frustrated with their lack of success, they regrouped and decided to alter their musical vision in favour of something darker.

“Fear of Flying wasn’t really going anywhere, and we’d lost a lot of love for it. Once we decided to let that go, we wrote a new song, [which] we realized was something different and it deserved its own vehicle. We felt like we needed a change.”

The song that altered their course was “Unfinished Business,” which opens with an ominous funeral organ that rises to a propulsive chorus. Singer Harry McVeigh conjures shades of Macbeth as he wails, “You’ve got blood on your hands, and I know it’s mine.”

Though bassist Charles Cave is responsible for the lyrics, Lawrence-Brown notes that the band aim to write about universal themes.

“He wanted to write lyrics that dealt with personal emotions, but they’re emotions that everyone can relate to. We wanted the songs to have a timeless quality about them.”

I suggest that while the subject matter may be dark, the hook-laden music is very uplifting. Lawrence-Brown immediately gushes, “I’m really glad you said that. There’s a storytelling feel to the songs that has been lost in recent years. I don’t think many bands try to tell stories or do something poetic with their music.”

While McVeigh’s baritone and refined British accent have drawn standard lazy comparisons to Joy Division’s Ian Curtis, Lawrence-Brown laments that White Lies have been likened to “loads of British bands from the early 80s. Bands who existed long before we were born. It gets frustrating when people say we’re influenced by bands like that when we definitely aren’t. But if we’re successful, maybe people will start comparing new bands to us.”

Should White Lies singles continue to chart, he may very well be right. Lead single “Death” is a slow-burning confession of fear that ascends into a power chord-driven menace that’s gothic in a traditional sense (more Edgar Allen Poe, less My Chemical Romance). “It takes about four and a half minutes to before it really kicks in. The song is constantly evolving, building slowly, and it’s a really uplifting song, though it takes a long time to get there.”

The wall of shimmering guitars makes “A Place to Hide” another highlight, as McVeigh reaches out to a loved one during an approaching Armageddon.

The hyper-emotional material, coupled with the massive chart success, has given way to a critical backlash in which their authenticity has been called into question. Marc Hogan’s haughty Pitchfork review claims the band lack emotional intensity, closing with the immortal line, “White Lies are boring and stuff.” Talk about insightful criticism.

But Lawrence-Brown refutes the allegations, saying, “It used to really bug us, but you can tell them 100 times a day that it’s genuine, and they still won’t believe you. If you take those kinds of things too personally, it’s soul-destroying. We know that the album we made was the most genuine, honest thing that we’ve ever done in our lives. If people don’t believe in it—that’s not our problem.”

“In a sadistic sort of way, it’s fun to see everyone either love us, or hate us. I quite like that we’re splitting opinion. Maybe seeing our live show would help people’s interpretation of how genuine it is, but at the end of the day, it doesn’t keep us awake at night.”

Like any great band, White Lies have their haters. But given how quickly their Lee’s Palace show has sold out, it’s likely that when they finally fire up the church organs on North American soil, they’ll be preaching to the choir.

White Lies play Lee’s Palace (529 Bloor Street West) March 31 with Friendly Fires. Tickets are sold out.

Don’t stop the presses

If popular opinion is to be believed, we are witnessing the death throes of print, an industry assailed by a growing economic tempest, fundamental changes in reading habits, and cultural shifts of the tech-tonic sort.

Reports of poor returns are everywhere. The recent announcement that the Seattle Post-Intelligencer has abandoned print came mere weeks after the demise of the 150-year-old Rocky Mountain News. Magazine sales dropped nearly six per cent in the past year, a number buoyed largely by demand for celebrity gossip rags. Average profits for the Washington Post declined by 25 per cent in the last 15 years, while the New York Times saw a 50 per cent decrease. Publishing giant Random House shuttered whole imprints, and the equally prominent Houghton Mifflin Harcourt ceased acquisitions of new titles altogether.

During a phone interview with ECW Press publicity director Simon Ware, I wonder if the constant barrage of bad news has desensitized him. Perhaps it could account for the strange serenity in his voice, as he invokes Mark Twain and replies, blithely: “Oh, I think the rumours of print’s demise have been greatly exaggerated.”

In an industry beset with a surfeit of difficulties, a response like Ware’s is rare, if not inexplicable. He speaks not with confidence, nor stoicism, which belongs more to the set-jawed commander surveying the field oblivious to the shells exploding around him. It’s not the noble endurance of hardship taking place here, but rather a brazen, almost insolent, unwillingness to even acknowledge such a danger. Performance? Perhaps. Delusion? Not entirely out of the question. But there could be another explanation of his response, the wild possibility that perhaps he’s not actually worried.

Ware’s employer, ECW Press, is a midsized, independent Canadian publishing house, the kind that can afford to be a little cocky these days. Unlike larger publishing operations encumbered by huge print runs, bigger budgets, and make-or-break deals, this operation is smaller, sleeker, releasing only a modest number of titles each year, most of which are directed at a specific niche. ECW receives massive financial assistance from the government, and benefits from a small, dedicated readership. There are hundreds of operations like it in Canada that are well-equipped to deal with the winds of change, and may take it all in stride.

Indeed, in comparison to newsprint and magazines, Canada’s publishing industry seems relatively unruffled by recent events. “Two to three per cent is good,” says ECW’s co-publisher David Caron of his profit margin.

Evan Munday, publicist at the fabled Coach House Press, concurs, “Coach House hasn’t noticed any great impact of the economic downturn on our book sales.”

The health of small Canadian publishers is due in part to BPIDP. The Book Publishing Industry Development Program is a government initiative designed to help Canadian publishers. It doles out thousands of dollars, in some cases hundreds of thousands, in funding (U of T’s own UTP received nearly $225,000 this year alone) which helps to pay for everything from printing costs to small author tours. The grants are effective—they translate into larger profit margins. And with the program’s recent expansion, up to 75 per cent of a publisher’s costs related to exploring options made possible by new technologies such as the Amazon Kindle and Sony Reader are covered, ensuring their competitiveness.

But government assistance only goes so far. Indeed, more than funding, it may be an economy of size, in audience and operation, which proves to be the greatest boon to Canada’s small press. “We have something of a dedicated fan base,” says Munday. “Working with small budgets and small staff, small presses are already pretty good at adapting. The future will just bring more of that adaptation.”

There was a time when the publishing world wasn’t divided between niche and numbers. Differences existed, but not so extremely until 1991, when a now infamous legal battle began when Dillon’s, a British version of Chapters or Indigo, started offering books at a discounted price. In doing so, they challenged a long-standing price fixing agreement between publishers and booksellers. 1997 brought the end of the Net Book Agreement, which stood for nearly a hundred years. The result was the distortion of the book publishing industry’s calculus: warehouse-sized bookstores began to undercut independents and put them out of business while imposing larger, skewed run numbers on publishers. These publishers became less likely to wager on emerging voices whose lukewarm reception could mean the loss of millions, opting instead to rely on established writers with proven track records. The loss in richness of voices is a danger that looms now in the offing.

Not so in Canada.

“Canada’s small press keep the literary scene vibrant and fresh,” says Munday, citing author Christian Bok, whose book of experimental poetry Eunoia has become one of its best-selling titles. Coach House Press published the early works of Margaret Atwood, Gwendolyn MacEwen, and Michael Ondaatje among others, long before they went on to form Canada’s literary vanguard.

“Bigger publishers can’t take the kind of risks that make for exciting literature,” he says. “But there is a market for ‘risky’ books. The small presses help Canada’s literary scene evolve and grow.”

“We hear news from the U.S.,” says ECW’s Caron. “Layoffs at Barnes & Noble, Borders cutting back on stock, a 25 per cent reduction in orders from Baker & Taylor—and we worry.”

“But sales remain steady,” he says.

South Asian Studies moves to Munk

Due to dwindling enrolment, the South Asian Studies undergrad program is moving in with its graduate counterpart at the Munk Centre’s Asian Institute. Longer-term plans include eliminating SAS majors and specialists.

Starting September, the course-code prefix NEW for South Asian Studies courses offered from New College will be replaced by SAS. The change comes with a shift in the program’s priorities.

“This is a good time to rethink what we want the program to do,” said Chelva Kanaganayakam, program director of Munk’s grad program. “We feel the program should make [students] more competitive in the workplace.” He said the program should take the market into account.

“Undergrads who take this program are not necessarily going to do South Asian Studies as a career. They aren’t going to do an MA and a PhD in SAS and become professors. They might join an NGO, or a bank. What do they need?”

Kanaganayakam’s answer: a program that is “smaller and more robust.” With limited resources, some courses will have to go. Introductory Sanskrit will be axed next year. Intro to Bengali is on the chopping block after next year, pending community funding.

“Given our resources, do we put that money into languages, or do we offer more broad-based courses on certain topics that will lead to a coherent program?” asked Kanaganayakam.

“It has now become increasingly clear that South Asia is an important player in global economics […] I wonder, if students were given courses that dealt with current economic, political, and social concerns, would they respond to those courses more favourably?”

Kanaganayakam expressed hopes that better-attended courses will convince the community to come forward with funding for more courses. But for now, a draft of the centre’s four-year plan states that the major and specialist programs will be eliminated between 2011 and 2014. Such a move will require approval from the Faculty of Arts & Science Council.

The Peace and Conflict Studies program is also moving to Munk, though its offices will stay at University College for now.

Migration to the Munk Centre won’t solve SAS’s basic problem of not having its own department. The 25 South Asianists on campus are paid by various departments, whose priorities they have to consider ahead of the SAS centre.

SAS offers few courses itself, its major and specialist requirements comprising mostly courses from outside departments. Equity Studies, African Studies, and Caribbean Studies, which are among the programs that will remain at New College, face the same restrictions.

Alissa Trotz, director of Caribbean Studies, said that these programs all lack recognition from the Faculty of Arts & Science as “theory-producing” areas.

“Shoestring funding exists for programs like ours that are at odds with the demand for courses, which could be greater if we had more resources,” said Trotz.

“With the current financial climate, I don’t think we can go to the university and ask for more resources,” Kanaganayakam said. “It would be futile to even attempt something like that.”

For now, the rest of the New College programs are staying put. “We work well with our colleagues at the Munk,” said Trotz. “But Caribbean Studies is quite happy in New College at the moment. The kind of social justice and equity concerns that are at the heart of the New College intellectual mandate are also central to the Caribbean Studies program.”

Complicating community ecology

Assistant professor Karl Cottenie of the University of Guelph has a bone to pick with the way some ecologists calculate an ecological community’s complexity.

Complexity is a measure of how many species can be found in a habitat and how these species interact with one another. A general rule is that complexity decreases as distance from the equator increases. For example, compare the ecological density of a tropical rainforest to that of the arctic tundra.

To understand how complex a habitat is, one can take a reductionist approach and look at a single food-chain stratus, also known as a trophic level. Alternatively, a larger local guild—all the organisms sharing a common resource or niche—can be analyzed. The challenge for ecologists is to combine trophism and local guilds to evaluate the complexity of an entire community.

This is necessary because community ecologists are interested in understanding which community-shaping factors can be linked to variations in complexity. For instance, how does the depth of a pool influence the complexity of the community living within it? This requires the ability to assess complexity under different conditions.

Many researchers in this field use the calculated value “species richness”—a number calculated from a variety of factors, including the number of species found, the area of the habitat, and other factors influencing complexity—to describe the complexity of a community. Dr. Cottenie disagrees with this approach. His work disputes the validity of the species richness term in an effort to “formalize a rant [he’s] had for the last decade.”

Cottenie explains that he can’t see the advantage of reducing a complex web of species interactions to a single number. He believes that the species richness formula ignores a great deal of information about community dynamics that is critical to a comprehensive understanding of community ecology.

In a seminar room filled with students and faculty of the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Cottenie asked who in the audience had used species richness as a dependent variable in a graph. A few sheepish hands rose amid laughter.

“There are certain aspects of that reduction that [when performed intelligently] make sense,” he said. But throughout his talk, Cottenie tried to convince listeners that a more detailed analysis is required to properly explain community ecology.

Cottenie believes scientists should use a multi-variate approach, breaking communities down into components such as environment, the number of species that can be found around a habitat, and the connectivity to other habitats. Only then can the complexity of a community be analyzed for the diversity contributed by a number of variables. By breaking down species richness into various sub-factors, Cottenie believes that more information can be extracted about a community’s structuring forces than by reducing the set to a single “species richness” calculation.

Cottenie confessed that he is one of the few ecologists who hates field work, so his case studies draw upon work performed by collaborators, including work from the fields of Belgium, the marshlands of Spain, and the wetlands of Southern Ontario. In total, he’s analyzed 156 datasets using both the species richness and the composition approach.

Through this statistical analysis, Cottenie showed that the composition approach was often able to find patterns of variation the species richness approach would miss. He found that the composition approach is better equipped to detect the nuances of influence imparted by each of the contributing variables.

Cottenie admitted that species richness was able to predict some aspects of population variation, but it was ineffective at capturing the effects of spatial variables. Therefore, applying species richness as a dependent variable can prevent researchers from observing important processes.

“My take from this is that species richness is often fiction,” stated Cottenie.

Instead, he believes ecologists need to embrace the complexity they are trying to study, not hide behind the single, catch-all figure of species richness. To understand complexity, it must be studied as a whole.

While this analysis is useful to community ecologists trying to understand existing communities and the forces that shape them, it has practical applications as well. This type of examination is important in planning the expansion of threatened habitats and dealing with the devastating affects of invasive species.

“Community ecology is in an exciting time,” said Cottenie. Describing the discovery of new tools that make variation decomposition easier than ever, Cottenie wants to convince ecologists to banish species richness from their y-axes.

Can Saskatchewan pay you to move there?

Saskatchewan is hungry for grads. This week, its premier, Brad Wall, heads to Toronto this week to promote his province’s offer: up to $20,000 to move to Saskatchewan and stay there for seven years. Wall will hit the National Job Fair and the Grab-a-Grad fair on Tuesday and Wednesday, in his second recruitment drive in seven months.

Saskatchewan’s Graduate Retention Program offers tuition rebates to students from approved universities and programs in the form of tax credits.

“This is a serious situation when our best and brightest could be lost to us forever,” Conservative leader Bob Runciman told the Canadian Press. He added that workers were already leaving Ontario because they could not find jobs. Without government incentives to keep them here, the brain drain would only worsen, Runciman said.

Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty begged to differ. CP reports that McGuinty said 100,000 jobs in Ontario remain unfilled, despite the loss of 160,000 jobs since October and a higher unemployment rate.

“My competition is not the rest of Canada,” McGuinty said, pointing to states like New York, Michigan, Massachusetts, and California.

Wall will attend the job fairs with his delegation, which includes Regina and Saskatoon mayors.

The National Job Fair takes place March 31 and April 1 at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre. The Grab-a-Grad Fair takes place April 1 at Ryerson, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.

More information about the Graduate Retention Program can be found at

What are the odds?

It’s “Rrroll Up The Rim To Win” season again, and many Ontarians may be surprised to learn they’re less likely than other residents across the nation to win a car in the contest.

Commencing in February and concluding at the end of May, Tim Horton’s “Roll Up The Rim” promotion has been popular in Canada and the United States for the past 13 years. In 2006, it was revealed that the odds of winning a prize—particularly a Toyota—were skewed in favor of Quebec residents, whose chance of winning a car was reported to be one in four million. Ontario residents had a one in 11 million chance at the grand prize.

The “Roll Up The Rim” website assures everyone that the odds are the same everywhere, by mentioning that the odds in favor of winning any prize in Canada are 1:9. Based on the detailed account of distributed cups and prizes among the eight different regions, U of T mathematics and statistics professor Jeremy Quastel commented, “This makes sense: they just divided the total number of cups distributed by the total number of prizes in order to obtain 1:9 odds.”

The website adds that “Tim Hortons audits the 1:9 odds daily while producing Roll Up The Rim To Win cups. Auditor reports are monitored weekly to ensure odds are always 1:9.”

“How do they audit the cups produced? There are so few winning cups, especially for the Toyota,” commented Quastel. “How do they manufacture these? For the small prizes it’s easy, because so many of these winning cups are manufactured, but how do they produce the cups with the bigger prizes, like the car? And how do they decide which stores will receive the winning cups? How do they get these cups into the store? Someone must sneak in at night and mix these cups with all of the others.”

As well, the 1:9 odds are only based on the sum total; when the numbers are examined individually for each region, it is clear that there are inequalities.

The numbers released by Tim Horton’s showed the odds were in favor of those purchasing cups in the “Alberta, Saskatchewan, Northwest Territories, and Yukon” (ASNTY) and “Atlantic provinces, Gaspesie, Iles-de-la Madeleine” regional groupings. Participants in these groups are two times more likely to win a Toyota than those in Ontario.

Individual statistics for each region showed the number of cups distributed in each and the odds of winning each of the prizes. In British Columbia, two winning Toyota cups were distributed in 2006 and the odds of winning were one in 7,990,500. In the ASNTY regional grouping, four Toyotas were distributed in 2006 and the odds of winning were one in 6,077,750.

In Ontario, however, the odds were not as good. Eight Toyotas were distributed and the odds of winning were one in 11,353,500. The probability of winning in the Quebec and Labrador regional group were one in 4,037, with four Toyotas distributed.

Looking at the “Rules and Regulations” section of the Tim Horton’s website, not much has changed since 2006. The number of cups distributed to each region has increased and so has the number of prizes. Therefore, the proportion of cups to prizes for each region has remained the same as it was three years ago.

For some consumers, this reality may make “Roll Up The Rim” less exciting, and they may be less inclined to purchase coffee at Tim Horton’s, particularly in Ontario.

Greg Skinner, a spokesperson for Tim Horton’s, told the CBC in 2006, “There are only 30 cars. If it was all equalized, some places, like P.E.I. or New Brunswick, might not get one at all. This is just about trying to create some excitement.”

However, Ontario residents may not see their lesser likelihood of winning as “exciting.”

Court orders Quebec profs to back down

Striking professors at the Université du Québec à Montréal are to tone down their tactics in the last days of the semester, the Quebec Supreme Court ruled last Wednesday. Judge Jean-François de Grandpré granted a 10-day injunction that bans any attempts to intimidate students, staff and faculty, or to block them from entering campus buildings.

UQAM professors are demanding wage increases of 11 per cent over three years and the employment of 300 additional staff. The injunction came after recent one-day strikes and a five-day strike last week, which shut down classes Wednesday and Thursday. Professors have been without contract for nearly two years. Their union, SPUQ, rejected an offer two weeks ago. The offer promised 25 new hires and an immediate four per cent wage hike, according to UQAM.

Last week, online commentators expressed outrage that professors are striking for higher wages during a recession.

“We’re not going to be able to support this [influx of students] so this is the time to invest,” said Carey Nelson, a UQAM language instructor and SPUQ negotiator. Nelson told The Varsity that student enrolment generally increases in difficult economic times, when chances of employment are scarce.

Cries for funding also come in the wake of a 2007 audit that found UQAM on the edge of bankruptcy, due to badly planned real estate undertakings that cost up to $750 million. UQAM professor Beatrix Beisner recently told the CBC that these losses should not have affected professors’ salaries, which she said fall short of their counterparts at other Quebec schools.

“Why should the university suffer as a whole—in terms of its major mandate, which is education—why should that suffer?” Beisner asked.

UQAM has reassured students that classes taught by lecturers, who are represented by a different union and are not striking, will keep running and that the trimester will end as planned. Negotiations between professors and university administration are scheduled to resume after April 6, when professors will return to the university.

With files from Hilary Barlow

Gastronomy: Natural Laxatives

There is a vast array of bathroom-friendly literature available to North Americans. Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader series comprises nearly one hundred books, and begs the question: why are North Americans spending so much time in the bathroom? The “constipation epidemic” is common in developed countries, though many choose not to actively address the issue.

According to the International Foundation for Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders, “[It’s] estimated that constipation affects nearly 15 per cent of the North American population, or 42 million persons in the United States alone.” Poor diet is generally the cause, evidenced by the wide range of laxative products on the market today. There are numerous adverse side effects to laxative use, such as electrolyte imbalance, dehydration, and altered nutrient absorption. Many natural dietary alternatives provide the same benefit while posing no health risk.

Throughout history, some common cures have included aloe vera, buckthorn, basil leaves, dandelion, chamomile, flowering spurge, cinnamon, peppermint, wild indigo, and tamarind. Many of these plants are still used today, commonly incorporated into teas, cooking, and supplements.

Prune juice is one of the most well known and, similar to figs and dates, their laxative effect can be attributed to high fibre content. Bananas, prunes, walnuts, and seaweed are all examples of foods that lubricate the intestines. Papaya, sweet potato, and figs promote bowel movements. Flaxseed and psyllium seed are examples of demulcent herbs that reduce bowel irritation. Fennel, bran, senna leaf, ginger, and cayenne pepper also promote digestive health. In general, a high-fibre diet, fresh juices, and plenty of water act as natural colon cleansers. Foods to avoid include fatty, fried, and processed foods—all of which have come to play a huge role in modern diets.

“Natural laxatives help stimulate peristaltic effect on the large intestine to get rid of the digested residue,” says family physician Dr. Meenaz M. “Regular cleansing not only helps improve digestion and absorption of nutrients, but also raises your energy levels.”

Paying better attention to gastrointestinal health can prevent a myriad of illnesses. Laxative abuse can result in a wide range of complications, such as gastritis, irritable bowel syndrome, liver problems, and bowel ulcerations. Some of these digestive diseases are virtually unheard of in developing nations such as Africa, where intake of fruits and vegetables is high. Embrace some of these foods into your daily diet—your colon will be thankful.