Zero Heroes

As the afternoon closed on Varsity Stadium, Saturday had an unjustly indecisive air for both men’s and women’s Varsity Blues soccer as they came out of what was supposed to be a double-header against the Carleton Ravens.

“Unjust” because both teams are looking strong in the early season.

With the women’s team now 3-0-2 to Carleton’s 2-4-2, it would be reasonable to expect the Blues were anticipating their early-afternoon game until it was cancelled. As was later reported, Carleton suspended the women’s team the day before the game after the team broke the university athletics department’s code of conduct by holding a rookie initiation party where drinking was so excessive that one player was taken to hospital by ambulance. At game time, however, no explanation had been given to Varsity Athletics.

The men’s game, which did go ahead, was a more even match. It’s early going still, but the Blues are ranked second in the OUA East, and the Ravens, third. However, the reality on the field—that the Blues dominated for the majority of the play—didn’t translate to the board, with the game ending in a scoreless draw.

That it did end nil-all speaks to the strength of the Ravens defence, and especially goalie Samuel Hincks, who often had to step into the front-of-net maelstrom, smother the ball, and launch it midfield, only to have it returned to him shortly after. But Carleton showed trouble throughout the game with ball control. As one Blues fan and Ravens heckler noted, you’re supposed to keep the ball off the blue track that surrounds the field.

The Blues, by comparison, were all offense. Fourth-year striker Nordo Gooden’s fancy footwork set the game’s tone—and the fans’ hopes—early on as he showed the Ravens how it’s done, practically dancing the ball down the touchline. Gooden was a clear fan favourite of the game along with second-year midfielder Geoffrey Borgmann, who showed ease turning around an opposing play even while in a crowd.

The Ravens did bring their game back in the second half, though with the play waning on, it was clear the offense became increasingly frustrated. By the end of the second, Carleton had been issued three yellow cards to Toronto’s one, all of which were earned as players lost control in what were otherwise good aggressive maneuvers.

This isn’t to say that the Blues didn’t make their own mistakes. Their offensive strength didn’t count where it had to: on the scoreboard. Sloppiness at points showed a lack of focus and drive. Early in the second, Toronto narrowly avoided what could have become a heartbreaking own-goal as what appeared to be a daydreaming Scott Nesbitt passed to goaltender John Smits, who, caught unawares, was left scrambling to keep the ball on the right side of the goal line. The clearly shaken Smits didn’t appreciate the lack of communication from his teammate, as everyone in the stands heard.

The payback in sports usually comes only after a lot of legwork. On Saturday, the Blues did a lot of legwork, but once they got to the decisive moment, pulled back. With five minutes to go, the game could have been theirs after Gooden was scuffed by a Carleton defender in the penalty area, earning Toronto a penalty kick. But midfielder Vlejko Lukovic’s attempt soared so high over the cross bar, you had to wonder, did the Blues want it after all?

Blues lose, but remain optimistic

The Varsity Blues women’s rugby team hosted the McMaster Marauders at the University of Toronto’s Back Campus last Saturday. The Blues put up a strong defensive front, but were defeated 27-0. The Blues were able to demonstrate their skills in the second half, however, revealing that they boast many talented players on their roster.

The game got off to a decisive start when the Marauders scored their first try in the opening minutes. They quickly followed it up with four more tries and one conversion, bringing the score to 22-0 in only 40 minutes. The Marauders dominated the scrums thanks to strong forwards, and were quick to get the ball out to their wing line, who fed it down in a series of clean passes.

As the game progressed, U of T remained resilient. “We really gave it to them in the second half,” said Blues co-captain and hooker Sonya Kuwiz. The Blues tightened up their defence and began to react faster to the Marauders’ attempts to score. They caught onto Marauders’ eight-man Natasha Turner, and her repeated efforts to pick the ball from the scrum.

The Blues’ backs reorganized so that co-captain Hannah Ehrhardt remained at fly half, followed by centres Silvana Skoko and Charlotte Cooper, and Jana Davis moved to the wing. Gwen Kern continued to play strong as the Blues’ fullback. Although it was only a slight reconfiguration of the field, it proved incredibly advantageous. The backs worked well together to move the ball fluidly when they received it from scrum half Sarah Stainton, and were aggressive in their attempts to take advantage of the play.

The entire team was determined to stave off attempted tries by McMaster. The Marauders scored only one more try in the second half of the game—the result of an unexpected breakaway during the last five minutes of play.

Last season the Marauders played a close semi-final game against the 2008 OUA Champions Guelph Gryphons, losing by only 16 points. More recently, on Sept. 12, they blanked the York Lions 43-0. McMaster is recognized as a strong team and consequently the small margin of victory they had over the Blues is viewed with optimism. Head coach Shannon Smith was in positive spirits post-game and admitted that she was very proud.

The roster this season is composed primarily of new players—only 15 out of the 33 are returning from 2008. Although mostly rookies, the team demonstrates a lot of potential: they may just need a little bit more time to feel each other out. “[The women are working] to start playing as a team and get the cohesion up,” said co-captain Ehrhardt.

The season is short, but Ehrhardt has faith. One thing she hopes the team can accomplish this year is to make the playoffs.

The game against the Marauders proved that the Blues are more than capable of becoming a top-ranked team in the future. They displayed an abundance of talent from both the returning players and the newer members. Veteran Kern produced some near impossible catches as fullback, in addition to the fantastic tackles she made to stunt the Marauders mid-breakaway. Stainton, who was not on last year’s team, was aggressive and quick to react. She entered the game near the end of the first half, and within seconds had intercepted the ball, giving the Blues the advantage.

With the help of fan support, the team will be able to step it up a notch and reach their full potential.

UTM breakthrough could reduce chemo side effects

Cancer is one of the leading causes of death in North America today. The Canadian Cancer Society estimates that in 2009 alone, 171,000 Canadians will be diagnosed. While there is no cure yet, a recent discovery at U of T Mississauga may give chemotherapy an added edge in the ongoing battle with this disease.

Patrick T. Gunning, professor in the Department of Chemical and Physical Sciences at UTM, is currently working with scientists at the University of Central Florida and Princess Margaret Hospital to improve the treatment of human cancers.

STAT3 (Signal Transducer and Activator of Transcription 3), a protein present in cancer cells, causes drug therapy resistance when it pairs up with another copy of itself. Gunning and his team have developed a way to break apart this cancer protein pair, to possibly increase the effectiveness of chemotherapy. His research team has successfully developed inhibitor molecules that work to stop STAT3 protein activity.

“We have managed to develop small molecules that target STAT3–STAT3 protein complexes” said Gunning. Targeting the protein-protein interactions of STAT3 disrupts the protein’s biological function.

Increased STAT3 activity is observed in multiple human cancers and plays a key role in cancer progression. In healthy individuals, STAT3 activity is transitory and highly regulated, lasting only a couple of minutes to a couple of hours. However, in cancer cells STAT3 is for some reason permanently activated, resulting in the expression of genes that promote cancer growth, survival, and differentiation.

Gunning’s research team is currently working to increase the stability and effectiveness of the STAT3 inhibitor molecules. “Our global objective is to develop novel molecular therapeutics to target human cancers. In particular, our research has focused on targeting protein-protein interactions—a particularly difficult medicinal challenge,” Gunning explained.

Traditional chemotherapy induces cell death in both healthy and cancerous cells, resulting in devastating side effects. Gunning’s preliminary STAT3 inhibitors display impressive selectivity for cancer cells over healthy cells, and hold promise for improving the effectiveness of chemotherapeutic techniques.

The team’s discovery highlights the importance and targetablity of protein-protein interactions. Gunning explained, “Despite the important role STAT3 plays in biological function, targeting protein–protein interactions is still regarded as high-risk. We want to illustrate through our molecular therapeutics that these important interactions are targetable and that a greater effort should be made on investigating them. STAT3 protein-protein interactions should be targeted because, if successful, the potential benefits are huge.”

Lead inhibitor compounds are now in pre-clinical trials. Gunning hopes that knocking out STAT3 will make cancer cells more susceptible to antineoplastics, thus reducing the dosage required and subsequently lowering the adverse side-effects associated with aggressive chemotherapy.

The results of this study can be found in the September issue of ChemBioChem: A European Journal of Chemical Biology.

Nova Scotia entices grads to stay home

Nova Scotia is introducing a graduate tax incentive that will offer community college and university graduates up to $15,000 in order to keep skilled young people in-province. Although it is the second-smallest province in Canada, Nova Scotia’s university enrollment per capita is the highest. The Memorandum of Understanding on University Funding and Tuition Fees has also announced its plans on freezing tuition fees for university students for the 2010-2011 academic year. Working closely with post-secondary institutions, the government also plans to make the best use of the Nova Scotia Crown Share University Infrastructure Trust Fund.

Source: Throne Speech from Sept. 17, 2009

More money, more problems

This weekend, President Obama did something deeply self-interested, though it may not appear that way. When speaking to reporters from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the Toledo Blade, the president raised an issue that few media analysts expected, suggesting he would support a financial bailout package for print newspapers.

On the surface, Obama appears to be speaking imprudently. Given the recent news of imminent collapse at the New York and LA Times, The Chicago Tribune, The Boston Globe, and almost any institution that puts ink to newsprint, a bailout would have to be another substantial contribution to the already enormous American deficit. And one can imagine fiscal conservatives already weary of paying for public infrastructure projects and health care loathing to give any money to the “liberal media elites.”

However, Obama’s comments on the topic reveal his own political self-interest in the matter: “I am concerned that if the direction of the news is all blogosphere, all opinions, with no serious fact-checking, no serious attempts to put stories in context,” worried the president, “what you will end up getting is people shouting at each other across the void but not a lot of mutual understanding.” In other words, he was shielding himself.

More than any leader in history, Obama has faced the consequences of the digital echo chamber. Blogs have been ground zero for disinformation about the black, progressive president. In a lot of ways, the rebound of institutional journalism would be a great boon to the Obama presidency.

More to the point, is a newspaper bailout really the best way forward for reviving the health of journalism? If Obama’s predictions—that Internet reporting is fundamentally flawed, and that blogs will never achieve the rigour of established media institutions—hold true, then perhaps. But more importantly, a single bailout would not address the structural issues facing newspapers today. Given the changes in technology, it’s unlikely newspapers will revert to the old modes of readership again, meaning one bailout couldn’t turn the tide. Unless the government wants to be in a position of funding print journalism indefinitely, it has to address the greater structural issues at play.

As with any problem of national importance, there’s no shortage of bad ideas on how to solve it. The forthcoming lawsuit against Google News being mulled by the Associated Press—aiming to prove that Google has been using their content illegally—would be a thoroughly counterproductive measure that only stands to make the traditional media even more irrelevant. So too would be the idea of developing an anti-trust exemption that would let news organizations get together to fix the prices of articles online, which would result in the end of free web content. Putting the digital locks back on will only drive more readers to the hyper-partisan sites already offering their wares for free.

Given the revolutionary change in how citizens consume news, only a genuinely revolutionary business model will suffice. For example, little has been said about Senator Benjamin Cardin’s suggestion of allowing large print dailies to operate under a non-profit model. This would remove the profit imperative that have driven recent cuts and would not require newspapers to embrace a technologically digressive attitude. While critics of this plan dismiss the possibility of a newspaper funded by the public as being beholden its donors, this is likely a preferable option to being beholden to corporate advertising and shareholders as the news media is today. Whether or not this solution could be workable is up for debate, but given the circumstances, we have to try something.

Oh, the humanities

Thinkers and scholars got their 15 minutes in front of a packed audience at Trinity’s George Ignatieff Theatre on Monday evening. The crowd came out for a panel on “Humanities for Inhumane Times,” discussing key issues facing the study of humanities and what contribution the humanities can make. The speakers were John Ralston Saul, Canadian essayist and novelist; Avi Lewis, host of Faultlines on Al Jazeera English; Chad Gaffield, president of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council; and Jill Matus, U of T English professor and vice-provost student life. Each spoke for 15 minutes before holding a roundtable discussion, moderated by philosophy prof Robert Gibbs.

“The roots of humanism have to be re-examined profoundly,” said Saul, tracing North American humanities’ roots primarily to Europe, a civilization, he noted, that managed to kill 150 million of its own people in less than 50 years. He added that Canada isn’t making an effort to save its over 50 Aboriginal languages from extinction. The languages, in offering new ways to think about people and place, contain essentially humanist philosophies that are not taught inside mainstream Canadian philosophical systems. Saul reiterated, both in his speech and during discussion, that the purpose of the university was first and foremost to create citizens.

Matus highlighted the lack of understanding in how the humanities are perceived. Sometimes they are mistakenly equated with the performing arts, she said, or viewed as antiquarian, indulgent, and “obviously not useful in an economy driven by accountability.” She argued that the major roles of the humanities—criticism, analysis, and evaluation—are largely overlooked.

“All the interesting questions on the minds of people today are at the heart of what we do,” said Gaffield, a historian by training. The real value of research, whether in humanities or science, lies in what interests the populace, he said. Gaffield added that the case for the humanities needs to be made more compellingly to the world.

Lewis, a documentary filmmaker, stressed the need to examine the socio-political context of the discussion on humanities. “There has been a fundamental victory for the vision of education as a necessary investment in one’s economic future, rather than as the process of building critical subjects that make a democracy work,” he said.

“An engaged academia is at the heart of every democratic movement in society,” said Lewis, portraying the economic crisis as a new opportunity for the humanities to redirect the conversation to “the impact of policies on people, rather than look to the smart guys with their infallible models who proved [to be] so colossally wrong.”

Lewis echoed Saul’s support for free undergraduate education in Canada, a topic that made for the main highlight of the discussion session. “The question of paying for education is […] a huge responsibility of the only people in society who have been guaranteed jobs for life…you guys with tenure!” he said, pointing to faculty members in front-row reserved seats.

“There are almost no consequences. You can advocate revolution, for chrissake!” he added, as the theatre filled with applause and laughter.

‘Give yourself permission to write’

Lauren Kirshner was 10 years old when she attended her first Word on the Street Festival. As she wove in and out of readings, she dutifully filled out a ballot for every contest held among the booths. She promptly forgot about these entries until weeks later, when she was called and informed that she had won a complete set of Margaret Atwood’s books.

In the years to come, Kirshner would read and become deeply influenced by novels such as The Handmaid’s Tale and The Edible Woman, but this significant first encounter with Atwood would not be her last. In her second year as an M.A. student in the Creative Writing Program at the University of Toronto, she found herself sitting across from Atwood, her new mentor.

Kirshner recalls this first meeting: “I kept thinking, ‘I am sitting here having tea with a legend.’” Atwood would oversee Kirshner’s M.A. thesis project, a 20-page short story about a girl named Lucy, which would eventually become her debut novel. Since its release last spring, Where We Have To Go (McClelland & Stewart) has had a tremendous reception in Canada, and was recently sold to major publishers in Holland and Germany.

Where We Have to Go is the touching story of Lucy Bloom, the spunky, smart, and loveable teenager who adores two things: her cat Lulu, and the television character ALF. Lucy’s coming of age, set against the familiar backdrop of Toronto in the 1990s, combines rich and vivid characters with evocative imagery to tell a compelling tale of adolescence: suffering through high school, her family’s breaking apart, ceasing to eat as she struggles to become the “right” shape, making and keeping friends, and coming to terms with herself.

We are introduced to her eccentric mother, Joy, who was once a beauty queen in suburban Bulgaria and now loves shopping at Salvation Army stores, collecting mannequins, and teaching ESL. Her father, Frank, ever-clad in his brown parka, once had dreams of being a famous photographer but now attends AA meetings and works in a travel agency. Kirshner’s whole cast of artfully drawn characters maintains consistently compelling voices.

We follow Lucy over eight years of her teenaged life, through familiar Toronto streets and landmarks. Kirshner uniquely captures with levity and humour the familiar (and painful) experiences of growing up different at an age when it is imperative that one aims for similarity.

The title of the novel was adapted from a poem by Theodore Roethke, which appears in its original form on the opening page. Kirshner explains: “It’s about perseverance and navigating the acrobatics of life. I had it tacked to the wall in front of my desk while writing.” She struggled with the title initially: “We considered calling it ‘Odd Girl Out’ but I disliked it because I wanted the female characters to be more dimensional than simply ‘odd’ or outside of the norm.” In fact, the narrative presents many facets of female adolescence, exploring the complexities of family, friendships, and self-discovery that occur in, as Kirshner puts it, “the chasm between childhood and adulthood.”

Kirshner thought it was important to write in a new way about an issue that affects some young women; although she portrays Lucy’s struggle with anorexia, it isn’t the only thing that defines the character. Kirshner is concerned that teens are subjected to a proliferation of images of how to be, or what beauty or goodness is: “Lucy is an average teen growing up in a digital, culture-saturated age who constantly compares herself to these images.”

Kirshner refers to her own adolescence as a time when she was “learning how to say ‘yes’ and ‘no’ to the world.” She is often asked if the novel is autobiographical, and her response is that it’s more about “a feeling than an actual event. Parts of me are there, on every page.” Like Lucy, Kirshner described herself growing up quite shy: “I liked to feel undetected, like wallpaper.” She was 23 when she began writing the novel and says she had to be conscious of not writing about her own development, instead letting Lucy have her own: “We were so close in age, it was difficult to write her as she got older. But I felt good about leaving her at 19. I feel like people begin their lives at that time.”

A captivating aspect of the novel is the role that storytelling plays in Lucy’s life. Kirshner explains that “stories are a way for Lucy to tell true things about herself.” A touching instance of this occurs when Lucy slips a letter about her hero ALF under her parents’ bedroom door during a pause in their frequent fighting: “I love ALF because no one expects him to make a difference. I love ALF because when he sees a problem that needs to be solved, he takes responsibility.”

Kirshner comments on how Lucy’s fictions explore truth: “Does truth have to be something that actually happens, or is it something inside ourselves that becomes apparent in the way we live?” One of the most tender moments is the story Lucy and her mother invent together at her mother’s bedside. After so many years of withholding their true feelings from one another, they experience a precious instance of being on the same page as they bask in their newfound words and intimacy. They discover, through unspoken agreement, that storytelling is a way for them to connect and for truth to pass between them.

Kirshner, who graduated from U of T’s Creative Writing Program in 2007, describes her time as an undergrad as a very different, somewhat alienating experience: “I felt lost in the mix. I was a silent observer who always left class with a knot in my throat.” But she describes meeting professor and author Rosemary Sullivan—who also heads the M.A. program in Creative Writing—in her third year and being inspired. Kirshner says it was during her graduate studies that she was able to find her feet as an author: “The program gave me the permission to be a writer.”

Kirshner’s thesis project, which evolved into Where We Have to Go, was conceived inside the classroom but also throughout the U of T campus, including around King’s College Circle. She also wrote for hours in the Victoria and Trinity libraries: “I would take breaks in the Trinity cafeteria,” she remembers and then laughs. “You could get a huge plate of food for eight dollars.” Food was important. Kirshner describes intensive, non-stop writing sessions: “The character of Lucy first came as a voice, loud and clear, and it was unlike anything I had encountered before. I just stayed up writing for three weeks straight. Lucy was good company.”

In addition to her thesis project, Kirshner’s writing took other forms during her time at U of T. In 2005 she departed from fiction to collaborate with her sister, actor and author Mia Kirshner, on the book I Live Here (Pantheon), an interdisciplinary project that tells the story of globalization. Mia asked Lauren to write a chapter entitled “20 Poems for Claudia” about Claudia Ivette González, a young woman who was murdered in Juárez, México in 2003. The result is a beautiful and gripping piece that blends non-fiction with poetic prose. She was also the Arts Editor for The Newspaper in 2006.

Born and raised in Toronto, Kirshner speaks animatedly about her city, praising its eclectic arts community. Though she admits that the cityscape is very different from when she was a teenager, “gentrification is not necessarily a bad thing, but it makes the city look different—it’s an ineffable quality. Like Gerrard Street where the Salvation Army ‘By the Pound’ shop used to be. The old Toronto is slowly being hidden beneath the new.” Her only criticism: “I wish rent was lower. I wish it was easier to make a living as an artist, but it’s a choice you have to make, you just may not buy a condo or be a surgeon like your mother wants you to be.”

Currently, Kirshner is in the early stages of her second novel: “It’s about the experience of a group of different artists in their twenties. Some of it is set in Toronto. It explores themes of identity and how one makes their way in the world.”

“Oh,” she adds, “and it has lots more rock and roll.”

Her advice to young writers? “Give yourself permission to write. Don’t let anything get in the way of that. It’s a private permission. Stop talking or explaining about being a writer and just go ahead and be. Write without explanation.”

Lauren Kirshner will be reading at the Word on the Street Festival in Queen’s Park on September 26.

What’s a self-torturer to do?

A person has an electrical torturing device attached to his body, and gets paid $10,000 for every increase in intensity level. That’s the premise for a philosophy puzzle introduced by Warren Quinn in 1993. On Monday afternoon, professor Sergio Tenenbaum presented his take on the puzzle as part of the Centre for Ethics’ seminar series. The paper, called “Vagueness, Plans, and the Puzzle of the Self-torturer,” was co-authored by professor Diana Raffman.

Back to the self-torturer: according to the orthodox Rational Choice Theory, the self-torturer would prefer to stop at the higher of two consecutive settings. (Since the increments in current are tiny, he can’t distinguish between adjacent settings anyway.) The theory states that choices are rational if they come from a transitive preference over alternative choices.

But the self-torturer can distinguish between settings that are far apart, and he knows there is a setting at which he would experience unbearably excruciating pain. (He knows this because once a week he is allowed to explore the various settings. But afterwards, he has to return to the setting he was at before.)

The self-torturer understandably doesn’t want to live in overwhelming pain, even for a lot of money, so he would also prefer to stop at the lower of two consecutive settings lest he hit the level that would cause too much pain. That’s the crux of the puzzle, and the challenge to Rational Choice Theory.

One of the responses to RCT is that because the self-torturer’s preferences are intransitive, he is irrational and must revise his preferences. Professor Tenenbaum called this response the “hard-nosed solution.” He argued for an unorthodox solution, centred around “non-segmentation.” According to Tenenbaum, a solution satisfies non-segmentation if it permits or mandates that the self-torturer stops at a certain level when facing a series of choices, but always recommends moving to the next level when there’s only one choice.”

The talk, which contained jargon and very fine-grained philosophical arguments, was mostly attended by philosophy students and faculty. A few people without philosophy backgrounds showed up, too. Among them was Ori Barbut, a graduate student in engineering, who said that he appreciated the mental exercise. Barbut added that the event provided students with a great opportunity to learn about a field of study different from their own.

Professor Tenenbaum’s research interests are in ethics, practical reason, and Kant. He is the author of Appearances of the Good (Cambridge UP, 2007).