Building a Merritt-ocracy

Over his Magnetic Fields career, Stephin Merritt has never performed the same experiment twice. After creating the iconic break-up triple record 69 Love Songs, he put out the reverb-drenched Distortion, a Jesus and Mary Chain homage, which found a companion in this year’s Realism. Then there’s his Lemony Snickett soundtrack The Gothic Archies, and his work on last year’s Coraline off-Broadway musical. Through all this he has emerged as a distinct voice for a generation’s worth of heartbreak.

The Varsity: I remember an interview you did with Daniel Handler for the 69 Love Songs box set where he compared something you did to Simon and Garfunkel and you visibly cringed. But Realism is this eclectic folk album—has something changed, or is this a different kind of folk?

Stephin Merritt: I have nothing against Simon and Garfunkel—I quite like Cecilia. I just can’t stand Bridge Over Troubled Waters. I don’t particularly mind that comparison, but generally I don’t like being compared to anybody. I prefer to be eclectic enough that I’m not directly comparable.

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TV: It seems like much of your output has had a tension between romanticism and realism in a way. Do you think that’s fair?

SM: Well, I don’t believe in the category of realism in the first place. I use it as a general term, like Distortion. We use it as a false god—as is folk itself. I don’t believe in folk and I don’t believe in realism. That’s why I titled this record that way: I find the ideas of both of those things highly problematic. I think the marketing category of folk is essentially racism. It’s a way of selling white people singing English, especially in non-standard accents—things that are traditional or sound vaguely that they are traditional, and anything outside of the boundaries of that are called blues or world. Realism has its own problems, but it’s at least not that socially-, sociologically-constructed.

TV: I heard you were going to name the records [Realism and Distortion] True and False, but that you backed out on that. This goes back to that idea of coming up with imperial, binary categories.

SM: I thought it would be annoying to call the folk record True, and the distorted one was called False, but it would be cloying the other way around. So I went with Distortion and Realism, which are actually much better at describing what’s wrong with each record. I want the title to reflect what people are most likely to complain about. As with 69 Love Songs—Tom Lehrer says that 69 Love Songs was 65 love songs too many. He doesn’t like the idea of love songs, but how can you complain when the title is already 69 Love Songs? And with i, all of the track names start with the letter. You can’t complain about that because that’s the title of the record.

TV: I remember an interview you did with Guy Maddin where at one point you said that it didn’t make sense to try to represent oneself realistically in music or film. Do you feel Realism the record is like that?

SM: Actually, the realism of the title just refers to the recording process and if there is any additional resonance to that in the lyrics, it is entirely accidental. I’ve never tried to write autobiographically. Well, that’s not true. I tried to write autobiographically on one record and nobody noticed, so I have never brought it up.

TV: Do you think somebody could figure out which one that is someday?

SM: I suppose someone could delve deep. It’s the only record without any vampire songs.

TV: So it’s not a Gothic Archies record.

SM: No. But that’s pretty autobiographical in a certain way, because it’s about my voice and if that doesn’t reflect my personality, then I don’t know what does. In that way, it’s about me in some way. But it’s more about the three fictional children and the books that were written about them.

TV: With the Magnetic Fields, I find that your music is associated with unrequited love by a lot of people. Do you worry about people projecting their aspirations for what love might be onto your music?

SM: Well, I can’t control what people do with my records. I also don’t know what people do with my records. People write me fan letters saying “I didn’t commit suicide because 69 Love Songs is a good album.” I have no idea what that means.

TV: You have to understand on some level what that means.

SM: I didn’t commit suicide because 69 Love Songs is a good album. We almost all didn’t commit suicide because 69 Love Songs is a good album.

TV: A lot of people find something very personal in the idea of the Magnetic Fields, probably much more than most pop music, I think.

SM: Hm… I don’t know what to say to that. I think most people who’ve ever heard of Magnetic Fields are probably early adopters, who latch on to something they feel like they have found, as opposed to having something jammed down their throat. That probably gives me a more personal connection. But other than the fact that I’m not very famous, I can’t think of a particular personal connection. I don’t know what that is.

TV: Do you consider yourself to be a romantic?

SM: No. I don’t think I know what that means. There’s confusion between the Romantic period, the Romantic movement, and lower case “r” romantic. I don’t know where to begin untangling that. Sorry.

The Magnetic Fields play tonight with Laura Barrett at The Queen Elizabeth Theatre.

Give us your cells!

This Wednesday, the student group Stem Cells 4 Life will campaign across three campuses to raise awareness of stem cell transplants and encourage students to register in the Stem Cell Database.

Stem cell transplants involve the transfer of bone marrow stem cells, benefiting patients with blood cancers, such as lymphoma or myeloma, and those with immunological and metabolic disorders. It is usually an alternative and last resort treatment to cancer therapies such as radio, chemo, and gene therapy.

“Of Caucasian patients in need of stem cell transplants, there is an 83 per cent chance of finding a matching donor; whereas Chinese patients—or really any ethnic minority—they only have at most 1.4 per cent chance of finding a matching donor,” said Darryl Houang, president of Stem Cells 4 Life.

Houang said that potential donors could be discouraged by inaccurate information, and sought to distinguish stem cell transplants from controversial embryonic stem cell research. “Stem cell research is done only on embryonic cells. Our stem cell registry is for only bone marrow transplants,” he said.

The Canadian Blood Services reports that 233 Canadians received transplants in 2007. Most of the transplants—77 per cent—were imported from other countries. The selection process for matching stem cells is far more rigorous than finding a match for blood types. At most, 30 per cent of patients are able to receive transplants from their own family members. To better match donors and recipients, the group OneMatch works in association with the CBS to create a database.

Donors are asked to send in four cheek swabs. If a patient is a match, the donor is contacted and the cells are either drawn through blood or from the hip. Stem cells are regenerated within two to six weeks.

Stem Cells 4 Life will be at the Medical Sciences building at St. George, the Meeting Place at UTSC, and UTM’s student centre on Feb. 10. For more information or to register, head to

Are all disasters created equal?

In the event of a human tragedy where there is a significant loss of life and entire cities are reduced to ruins, how should one respond?

In the case of Haiti, where a 7.0-magnitude earthquake killed over 212,000 people and caused billions of dollars in damages, there has been no shortage of charitable benefits or people opening their wallets to help the devastated nation. At the University of Toronto, our student union has started a fundraiser with the goal of raising $50,000, hopefully to be matched by the administration. Also, UTSU’s Board of Directors unanimously approved donating between $500 and $1,000 of student levy money to Partners in Health, a charitable organization that works in Haiti.

However, it seems not all human tragedies are created equal.
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Last year, UTSU’s Board of Directors decided that they would use money raised from UTSU-sponsored events in support of Palestine to send to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency schools in Gaza, after the Israel Defense Force launched a series of air strikes on the Gaza Strip, killing roughly 1,300 Palestinians and injuring 5,500 more. However, this past summer, UTSU decided not to send money to Sri Lanka after the deadly civil conflict between the Tamils and the Sinhalese. The conflict in Sri Lanka saw over 20,000 civilians killed between January and May of 2009, not including the casualties incurred in over 26 years of fighting between both groups. Moreover, no relief had been sent to Mumbai in the wake of the November 2008 terrorist attacks that killed 176 people. Four human tragedies, three of which are the result of conflict, the other caused by natural disaster.

Some would say that we should approach each disaster on a case-by-case basis. However, this principle is far too inconsistent. A consistent rule needs to be applied to each instance of human tragedy.

One principle that can be used as a guide is moral philosopher Peter Singer’s argument for the obligation to assist. The argument has the following principle as its foundation: if we can prevent something bad from happening without sacrificing anything of comparable moral significance, then we ought to do it. This principle de-politicizes tragic events and forces us to recognize that no matter what the circumstances, if we can contribute something to alleviate suffering without causing ourselves to suffer, then we should do it.

If UTSU truly wants to be an organization that promotes social justice, then it should not take the myopic view that only some tragedies are significant while others are not. UTSU should be giving the same amount of support it’s giving to Haiti to Sri Lanka, Darfur, Palestine, Mumbai, Zimbabwe, Ethiopia, Burma, and other regions that have experienced natural or man-made disasters. If not, then it should drop its social justice role and just focus on being an administrative council. It could then empower clubs that focus on these issues by giving them more funds to raise awareness among U of T students. Either they treat each tragedy equally or they stop their social justice activities altogether.

Only by applying a consistent moral principle to each case would they be considered just.

Correction: this article originally read that the “Israel Defense Force launched a series of air strikes on the Gaza Strip, killing over 14,000 Palestinian civilians and injuring over 400,000 more.” The true numbers are roughly 1,300 killed and 5,500 injured, and the article has been updated to reflect this. The Varsity regrets the error.

Teens: Argumentative

The best high school debaters in Canada came to U of T last week to fine-tune their skills before the 2010 World Schools Debating Championship in Doha, Qatar, which will take place from Feb. 8-18.

Team Canada consists of the country’s top nine debaters: Sarah Levy, Andrew Morrison, Sophie Bird, Vinayak Mishra, Iqbal Kassam, Jonathan Carson, Keenan MacNeil, and Veenu Goswami. Head coach Tracey Lee has been teaching and coaching debate for over 16 years.

The team flexed their rhetorical muscles in a show debate at St. Hilda’s College, Thursday, debating the resolution that doctors should report evidence of marital abuse to the police.

The pro side argued doctors’ moral obligation to provide the best possible treatment meant they should report any sign of spousal abuse, as such measures would reduce abuse. “The law should be a sword for the victim rather than a shield for the oppressor,” said one debater.

The opposition responded that the measure would destroy the concept of doctor-patient confidentiality and drive people away from seeing their doctors: “Trust is required for truth, and truth is required for treatment.” They added that individuals should have the right to make their own decisions.

Afterwards, some of the team members talked about how they got their start in debating.

“My brother hated debating, so naturally I had to do it,” Mishra said with a smile. Bird was sent to debate camp in grade seven, where she overcame her fear of public speaking. “For me, debating started in Grade 8 as a school club I wanted to be a part of,” said Morrison.

“My first position was to fill in for a teacher on maternity leave, and she coached the debate team,” Lee said.

MacNeil recalled the lighter side of debating: in-jokes like quoting “challenge accepted” in the manner of a character from How I Met Your Mother or the practice where over-eaters were said to have “dangerously high masses.”

As for the business of winning, teamwork and cohesiveness factor in. “Everyone has a specific role to fill,” said Goswami. “All of them are equally important.”

“It’s more like volleyball than basketball. In basketball you can have one person win you the game,” said MacNeil. “In volleyball, if one person drops the ball, the whole team loses.”

How to win an argument

1. Prepare your case: You should be able to argue both the affirmative and opposing side of the case, so you’ll be ready to argue for your side and prepare counter-arguments.

2. Develop a compelling thesis: This should be a summation of your main argument and should get right to the point.

3. Watch the clock: Debaters get penalized for going over their time limit. Keeping your argument to the bare essentials will ensure you don’t wander from your main point.

4. Ask your opponent questions: In most debates, the other side is allowed to ask questions, called points of information. Team Canada says teams are expected to take at least two questions. Good questions show that you are engaged and can reveal weaknesses in the opposing side’s argument.

5. Know your audience: According to Team Canada, judges from Australia and New Zealand enjoy good time splits while judges from Ireland and England look for good style. Although all judging is subjective, knowing some of their prejudices and tailoring your argument accordingly can make or break a case.

U of T gets a B

The College Sustainability Report Card—arguably the most comprehensive survey on American and Canadian universities’ environmental commitments—has consistently placed the University of Toronto in and around a B average. Despite what seemed to me like a fairly progressive agenda and my readiness to make excuses for my university, U of T truly is a B student.

Beginning with a B- in 2007, it seemed to show improvement with a solid B in 2008, but then dipped back down into a B- in 2009, only to settle again with a B in 2010. The newly installed solar thermal heat recovery system at the Athletic Centre is what catapulted the grade to a B this year.

Even though the report card has not seen an A in its four years, I was still curious to know what was causing our university to consistently hover in the realm of the lacklustre.

The report said that only the newly built Exam Centre on McCaul meets the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design for Existing Buildings—a set of performance standards that ranks sustainability measures in buildings already constructed. Because of this, the university received a C under the green buildings criteria. But then again, the nature of retrofitting a sprawling campus with enrollment nearing 50,000 cannot occur overnight. I then noticed a glaring F under the shareholder engagement criteria.

However, a few positive notes caught my eye. The Sustainability Office maintains seven full-time staff, has diverted 62 per cent of recycled waste from landfill, and has been successful with the Lug a Mug campaign.

To compare, I decided to peer into how three other universities—all known for their good green doings—were scoring.

First up was College of the Atlantic—“devastatingly progressive” as one graduate put it—situated in Bar Harbor, Maine.

Long known for sustainable practices matched only by the progressiveness of its curriculum, COA traded in incandescent light bulbs for CFL ones long ago. All its electricity now comes from hydropower, with all landscaping done through organic methods. Aside from the (now) standard use of bicycles and composting systems, the college has chosen to ban bottled water (hurrah!), and serve up strictly grass-fed beef and confinement-free eggs from adjacent farms.

How do they do it? I took one glance at their endowment and enrollment ($15 million and 300), and decided that this alternate universe of compost toilets and waterless urinals (yes, they are what you think they are) was only possible for such a small campus.

I decided to shift my gaze to Maine’s neighbour two-over, Vermont. Middlebury College, long known for its outstanding language courses, has now become the poster child for campus sustainability. Many of its graduates have gone on to run global environmental campaigns and win fellowships for new approaches to solving social problems.

Middlebury has pledged to go carbon neutral by 2016. In so doing, it has purchased solar arrays, thermal heating, and a demonstration wind turbine. Much of its reduced energy record is owed to a cogeneration plant (an energy recycling system that makes use of biomass or other municipal waste) fuelled by woodchips, and the purchase of so-called “cow-power” (glorified farm manure). They even have a sustainability-themed residence. My mind immediately wanders into a fantasy world featuring twenty-somethings toasting their own granola, making their own jam, and playing the banjo by their garden patch of tomatoes and zucchini.

Middlebury has also shown remarkable campus cooperation: used vegetable oil from the dining services is donated to the athletic department, which in turn uses the waste to fuel a vehicle for the ski team. I pause to wonder if it’s these small pockets of carbon neutral spaces that will “solve” climate change—or at least make a valiant attempt at it—instead of fruitless meanderings of multilateral diplomacy. I again take one look at Middlebury’s endowment and enrollment ($691 million and 2,500) before dismissing it entirely.

My next stop is the University of British Columbia. With over 30,000 students and an endowment around 1 billion, it serves as the most apt comparison to the University of Toronto. With its B+ worthy green acts, I also figured that they might serve as a vision of what we could aspire towards.

UBC has pledged to go carbon neutral by the end of 2010 through a climate action plan that contains measurable strategies for emissions reductions. Much of its produce comes from campus farms and the school offers a sustainability minor in all disciplines.

Toronto may not have the same amount of yoga studios and health food vendors lining its streets to promote green living as the new modus operandi. We probably can’t milk our own cows by King’s College Circle, or install compost washrooms at Robarts. But we can make structural adjustments big and small, that take into account our urban setting, the size of our student body, and the constraints of our financial endowment. My next few articles will address some of the areas where we do have legroom.

FNUC loses funding

Saskatchewan has cut off funding to Canada’s only native university after weeks of scandal over alleged mismanagement and misspending. Provincial funding accounts for $5.2 million at the First Nations University of Canada, one fifth of the school’s operating budget.

FNUC asked Saskatchewan to be patient, as the university’s board of governors prepared a report on how to fix the problems plaguing the Regina-based school, to be completed by the end of January.

School officials then said the report would not be ready until mid-February. Rob Norris, advanced education minister, responded, “Quite simply, that’s not acceptable for us.” FNUC has missed several deadlines for reforms.

The day after the funding announcement, the controlling board of FNUC, the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations, dismissed the board of governors and put many senior staff on administrative leave. FSIN is expected to appoint a new board this week.

Some students say the issue goes beyond mismanagement, and many vented on Facebook. “The mistake has always been letting the issues at FNUniv stay an ‘Indian issue’—education is an issue that is important to all of us,” reads one post.

FNUC students and some chiefs from FSIN are demanding that Ottawa step in and fill the void left by the Saskatchewan government, but federal Indian and Northern Affairs Minister Chuck Strahl announced this weekend that the federal government will not be adding funding.

Strahl noted that the $7 million in federal grants given to the school are now under review.

“When the province says they’ve lost confidence and will not support the university moving forward, it’s hard to misinterpret that. It’s pretty unequivocal language,” said Strahl in an interview with the CBC.

Strahl told the CBC that he has had numerous discussions with FSIN about the issues at FNUC over the last two years—there have been allegations of mismanagement and misspending since 2005—with little progress.

The latest incident came to light when FNUC’s chief financial officer, Murray Westerlund, left his post in December 2009. The departure follows a report in which Westerlund alleged hundreds of thousands of dollars were misspent. He has filed a wrongful dismissal suit.

Over $250,000 was doled out in unclaimed vacation pay in the last four years, with most of it going to senior staff. An additional $215,000 was spent on consultation fees for the construction of a teepee veterans’ memorial. There were also questionable university-paid staff trips to Hawaii and Las Vegas, among other places.

In January, a former member of the FNUC Students’ Association was charged after allegedly defrauding the association of $35,000. Blue Pelletier, 31, is alleged to have written student council cheques to himself between August 2006 and February 2007. He is facing one count of fraud and one count of theft over $5,000, and is scheduled to appear in a Saskatoon provincial court in June.

FNUC was federated in 1976 as the Saskatchewan Indian Federated College and is the only university with the majority of leadership coming from the Aboriginal community. There are a total of 769 students enrolled at its main campus in Regina and its satellite campuses in Saskatoon and Prince Albert.

From the physics lab to the Four Seasons

Mezzo-soprano Lauren Segal exemplifies the diverse routes a U of T student can follow after graduation. Segal is currently playing the role of Mercédès in the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Carmen, but the opera singer recently obtained a Master of Science degree from U of T’s Department of Physics.

“I sometimes think of singing opera as being like building a laser,” Segal told The Varsity last week. “I was constructing one for my Master’s and everything had to be in the perfect position for something to come out which was much greater than what was put in.”

Opera singers are known for their unique ability to sing without amplification over the volume of orchestras and into large opera houses. This requires an extremely disciplined technique. The body must be perfectly aligned, the tongue, jaw and facial muscles in place, the intercostal muscles expanded, and a steady and energized breath moving from the diaphragm.

“That’s my strange way of thinking about it,” Segal continues. “The body is this big laser. Everything has to be in the perfect spot and it amplifies itself, and that’s how we can sing over orchestras.”

An opera singer’s technique takes years to develop and training usually begins in the mid-teens. Bachelor and Master degrees in Music Performance typically follow. Lauren Segal, however, discovered the art form later in life.

“I did my undergrad at York,” the mezzo explains, “and in my second year I joined the choir so I could get some sort of music back in my life—I was studying science. I started listening to opera there because of my friends in the choir who were studying it and loved it.”

This love led to Segal’s decision to begin training. She started taking vocal lessons in the third year of her undergrad and continued throughout her undergrad and graduate years. Eventually, Segal had to choose between a opera or a PhD in physics.

“I couldn’t really do both properly at the same time anymore,” she admits. Finally, she decided that the science-student phase of her life was complete. “I just chose opera. My heart pulled me there.”

Yet Segal’s heart didn’t pull her to immediate success. An opera singer needs an extensive knowledge of languages, a solid technical command of his or her vocal chords, as well as connections and professional recognition.

“After my Master, I realized I didn’t have the same background that most of the other singers had through their studies,” Segal explains.

She caught up through hard work. Segal took language courses in French, Italian, and German, studied music history, and carried on with her lessons. It wasn’t until she started doing workshops, auditions, and competitions that she slowly worked her way into the business.

The first major recognition of Segal’s talent came with her acceptance into the COC’s Ensemble Studio. The ensemble is an elite training program for young professionals that has produced some of Canada’s most celebrated singers. Members perform small roles in COC productions and understudy larger roles, while receiving full-time schooling.

“They have very intensive training,” she describes. “Lots of coaching, lots of role study opportunities as performances … you work a lot and you learn a lot.”

Despite Segal’s lack of a music degree, she believes her physics training helped her as a singer.

“My background was in optical physics,” Segal says, “and light and sound behave in the same way. When people talk about singing resonance, I think about it in the scientific definition.”

What Segal is referring to are the vibrations of sound waves against facial acoustic cavities that happen when singing or speaking. Opera singers resonate over orchestras by producing sound waves that vibrate at a very high frequency, through manipulation of the throat and well-developed technique.

Lauren Segal is not the only Canadian opera singer who has pursued studies in a seemingly unrelated field, and at U of T to boot. Internationally renowned soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian completed a Bachelor of Biomedical Engineering here before joining the COC Ensemble. Segal still credits not pursuing a music degree as being to her advantage.

“I think it’s very easy when you’re in a music program to get bogged down in some things,” she ventures. “I think pursuing something different allowed me to have a fresh outlook.”

And is there any fresher image than an opera singer who can draw on her experience building lasers to explain her unconventional success?

Lauren Segal can be seen in the COC’s Carmen, which runs at the Four Seasons Centre through February 27. For more information, visit

Bones laid bare

On Friday, the Royal Ontario Museum’s dinosaur specialist took the stage to discuss new directions in dinosaur research. David Evans, the associate curator of vertebrate paleontology, gave the concluding talk to “Discoveries Around the World,” a day-long colloquium where the public was invited to hear curatorial staff present research and recent discoveries in natural history and world cultures.

The ROM has been collecting and researching dinosaurs for over 100 years. Evans joined the ROM in 2006, when he was 26 years old. Since then, he has traveled to northern Yukon, the Gobi Desert in Mongolia, Golden Gates Highland National Park in South Africa, and the Milk River region of southern Alberta. He is the first dinosaur specialist the museum has employed since the 1950s.

Evans spoke of techniques like CT scanning and powerful visualization programs. “[They] lead us to a much better idea of what the function of the bizarre crests in some of these dinosaurs are, what senses were more important than others in a dinosaur’s everyday life,” said Evans. These techniques also help reconstruct evolutionary relationships in better detail.

Bone histology is a method Evans compares to “rings in a tree.” Researchers read the annual growth rings in the microstructure of bones, visible under a microscope, to reconstruct the life history of a dinosaur. Thanks to a grant, the ROM is setting up its own bone histology lab.

“We’ve collected over 20,000 pounds of field jackets of dinosaur bones and we’re just starting to prepare the fossils, but we’re coming up with some really interesting results,” said Evans, adding that new dinosaurs could be added to the collection. “We have the world’s oldest dome-headed dinosaur, the oldest member of the Ceratopsidae that we know of from Alberta, and probably the world.” His team also found the skull of a duck-billed dinosaur that is “almost certainly a new primitive flat-headed dinosaur.” The ROM has seven complete skeletons of duck-billed dinosaurs (also called hadrosaurs), Evans’ specialty.

“When you name the dinosaurs, are you going to name them after yourself like the other paleontologists?” asked one of the kids in the audience. Evans smiled before saying, “No. Definitely not.” He could not divulge possible names, but said that the world shouldn’t expect to hear about a recently discovered Evansaurus.

Evans and his team hope their research will raise awareness for the Dragon’s Tomb site in the Gobi Desert, to protect it from fossil poachers. Poachers steal skulls, teeth, and claws, which fetch a high price on the black market.