The ten-dollar wine snob

Henry Kissinger is rumoured to have said, “Academic politics are vicious because the stakes are so low.” I know that most of you only pick up this paper to read my column and see if there is anyone cute in the streeter photographs, but I can assure you — U of T student bickering can get more intense than during a Sample Sale in Say Yes to the Dress.

You know what would make student politics a hell of a lot less vicious and maybe even more interesting? Champagne! Yes, last week in this special two-week spotlight on champagne I told you about an amazing holiday present I received from our Associate Arts Editor, Ariel Lewis. This week, you’ll learn three amazing tips for enjoying bubbling wines to their fullest potential. But before I begin, you’ll notice that after dozens of letters and phone calls, my editor has relented and doubled the length of my column. To further commemorate this development, we commissioned a custom illustration from Barrie Sudbury native and distinguished sommelier-illustrator, Alex Nursall.
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Before you open your next bottle of champagne, notice the metal cap ensuring the cork remains attached to the bottle. Bet the people you’re with that you can guess the number of twists of the metal cap before it is fully unwound. I don’t know why, but every bottle champagne manufactured has exactly six twists to fully unwind the metal cap. Pretty cool, eh?

When it comes to pouring the beverage, for God’s sake be careful. After removing the metal cap, place your hand on top of the cork and slowly twist. Like unprotected sex, trying to pop the cork off is both dangerous and potentially messy.

When pouring the champagne, sommeliers will recommend that you keep the flute on the table and pour. If you’re feeling daring, try tipping the glass like you’re pouring a pilsner. At the risk of seeming unsophisticated, you preserve more bubbles and can pour the glass faster.

Altruism: Mutualism in disguise

February is recognized by Canada’s Heart and Stroke Foundation as Heart Month. Each year, hundreds of thousands of Canadians mobilize to campaign together in raising awareness and “life-saving” funds to improve the lives of heart and stroke patients across the country. Throughout the month, volunteers will be holding local fundraising events like “CPR-a-thons” and bake sales to educate the public and attract donors. At the end of the day, volunteers and donors alike should be commended for their good deeds. They have given up their own time and money to help complete strangers from whom they will never be repaid. Surely, these are acts of altruism, right? Not quite.

Altruism is defined as the selfless concern for others — that is, you are willing to help others at your own expense. Most acts of goodwill and charity would fall into this category. Heroic acts of self-sacrifice on the part of firefighters and soldiers alike would undoubtedly fall squarely within our definition. But are any of these acts truly altruistic? Many philosophers, biologists, psychologists, and sociologists think not. The simple reason? You were rewarded, and this is true whether you were aware of it or not.

When you donate money to a charity fund or volunteer time for a nearby hospital, do you feel good at the end? For me, it’s usually a warm, fuzzy feeling. In actuality, that feeling originates from the pleasure centers in your brain. In 2006, neuroscientists at the National Institute of Health provided the first evidence for the neurological underpinnings of seemingly altruistic acts. Their research showed that the mesolimbic reward pathway in the brain was activated when subjects made a monetary contribution to a charity. This pathway, activated in part by dopamine (the feel-good neurotransmitter), is the same pathway that usually lights up in response to food, drugs, and sex. This landmark study suggests that our acts of goodwill may not stem wholly from our sense of morality, but are instead an outlet from which we can derive pleasure, and in our case this is the reward.

Whoever said money can’t buy happiness?
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How can one explain the natural instinct of parents to sacrifice themselves for their children even at the cost of their lives? Surely, there’s nothing to “feel good” about when you’ve died. It turns out that the mechanical and utterly impersonal hand of evolution also dictates just how “altruistic” we are. According to evolutionary biologists, the goal of every living organism is to survive, and, in doing so, to procreate and allow for the propagation of that organism’s genes. To answer the last question, W. D. Hamilton, a prominent evolutionary biologist, proposed the theory of kin selection. Here, we imagine an individual as a carrier of a set of genes. If a mother dies in the process of saving four of her children, she will have saved twice the amount of her own genes (because each child inherits half of her genes). Her sacrifice, on a purely genetic basis, would allow her to pass on twice the amount of her genes to the next generation, which in her case is the reward.

Everything we do and every action we take is driven by a motive. Otherwise, we would not do it. Arguably, we would never do anything that would harm or disadvantage us without knowing that the eventual payoff will be greater than the undertaken cost. Over the years, social psychologists have depicted many forms of such payoffs that we inadvertently reap from our “selfless” behaviours. Assisting a colleague with their assignment builds our self-esteem. Good deeds help us neutralize our guilt; they earn us a good reputation with our friends and family and, as Friedrich Nietzsche would point out, they give us a taste of power along the way. They also solidify our legacy and win honour for our family. What does this all mean? It means that mutualism is as good as we get: you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours. There’s really nothing wrong with that. Perhaps, on a pragmatic level, it doesn’t matter why we give, as long as we do give. Just ask the 60 year-old grandmother waiting for a heart transplant.

U of T faculty receive Order of Canada

It was a very happy new year for two University of Toronto faculty members.

On December 30, Linda Hutcheon and Anthony Lang were named officers to the Order of Canada, our country’s highest honour for a lifetime of outstanding achievement. They were among the 54 individuals appointed by Governor General David Johnston. Hutcheon, Professor Emeritus of English and the Centre for Comparative Literature, has spent over 30 years working in the humanities. She has been known to describe herself as “intellectually promiscuous” because of the cross-disciplinary approach her work employs. A prolific writer, Hutcheon has published over a dozen books, reflecting her many interests. Although Hutcheon specializes in postmodernist culture and society and was granted the Order of Canada for her contributions to the fields literary criticism and theory, she has also dabbled in Canadian Studies and Opera.

Hutcheon told The Varsity she was rather overwhelmed to receive the award. “It was totally unexpected, but a delight. Everyone from my colleagues and my students to the entire university administration has responded with incredible generosity of spirit.”

But the Order of Canada is not the only award Hutcheon has ever received. Her achievements have also included a Killam Prize for the humanities, and the 2010 Molson Prize in the social sciences and humanities. Her prominence in the field also prompted her to be elected as the 117th president of the Modern Languages Association in 2000, making her the third Canadian and first Canadian woman to ever hold the position.
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Since 1988, Hutcheon has been enlightening students with her theories on irony, parody, and adaptation. She is very dedicated to her role at U of T, and is focused on constantly improving the programs and opportunities offered to students. Although she is very honoured to receive the Order of Canada, Hutcheon would rather have the spotlight shine on the university that helped make receiving the award possible.

“I take this as a positive vote for the health of the humanities at U of T,” she said. “We all had a rather difficult year, with the threats to various interdisciplinary centres and language and literature programs, including the Centre for Comparative Literature (one of my ‘homes’), so it feels only right that the new year should bring us something more positive.”

Dr. Anthony Lang also has high hopes that the new year will bring good things. He has a passion for researching cures and treatments for movement disorders, and for the past three decades, has been driven by a belief in the importance of providing the highest quality patient care.

Lang was granted the Order of Canada for his influential contributions to the field of movement disorders, most notably for advancing the therapeutics of Parkinson’s disease. As the Jack Clark Chair for Parkinson’s Disease Research, he has focused much of his attention on a research program directed at attempting to solve the “Parkinson puzzle” at many levels, which was developed at U of T’s Centre for Neurodegenerative Diseases. The program is aimed at learning what the causes are, improving the accuracy of diagnosis, preventing and/or slowing the progression, as well as treating the later stages more effectively.

“I have been a leader in clinical research in many other aspects of movement disorders and myself and my colleagues at Toronto Western Hospital and the University of Toronto have made many important contributions to our understanding of these diseases,” said Lang, who is also director of the Morton and Gloria Shulman Movement Disorders Centre at Toronto Western Hospital.

He may not have solved the puzzle, but many pieces have been found and placed together, and Lang is confident his research will continue to lead to new developments. And he intends to make a difference internationally. During his time as president of the International Movement Disorders Society, Lang developed the pan-American section of the society in order to advance the field of movement disorders in Latin America.

“I oversaw and encouraged a number of international academic and educational programs with the ultimate goal of improving the care of patients with movement disorders around the world,” he explained.

With Lang’s spectrum of involvement within the community, his dedication to his work is obvious. He attributes winning the award to his determination but also credits his colleagues for helping him make progress in his research.

Along with the Order of Canada, Lang’s resume consists of many other awards including the American Academy of Neurology’s Movement Disorders Research Award in 2004 and the Donald Claine Lectureship from the Parkinson Society of Canada in 2008.

Three U of T alumni were also recognized for their achievements, joining the order as members. Mary Vingoe, an actress, playwright, and producer, was recognized for her contributions to the Canadian theatre community. Robert Bourdeau, a self-taught photographer with a keen eye for capturing captivating landscapes, architecture, and still life, was cited for his contributions to the field of visual arts. Anthony Comper, a former chair of Governing Council and chair of the Campaign for the University of Toronto, and his wife Elizabeth, were honoured for their role as constantly active volunteers and philanthropists.

The Order of Canada was founded in 1967 as a method of honouring Canadians who have made notable contributions to society in various fields. The order’s motto is “Desiderantes meliorem patriam,” Latin for “They desire a better country.” There are three levels of membership — companion, officer, and member — designed to honour accomplishments that vary in scope and influence, but have, in some way, touched the lives of fellow Canadians and taken steps toward making Canada a better place.

Prof recognized with research innovation award

The University of Toronto’s Dr. Rebecca Wong, professor in the department of Radiation Oncology, exhibited the strength of U of T’s medical faculty when she was granted the first Canadian Radiation Oncology Foundation/Sanofi-Aventis Research Innovation Award in December 2010. The award, which provides $140,000 for research in colorectal and prostate cancers, is to be split among seven Canadian projects.

Dr. Wong is the head of the Palliative Radiation Oncology Programme at Princess Margaret Hospital. She also chairs a committee for the National Cancer Institute of Canada Clinical Trials Group, where she leads the development and conduct of clinical trials designed to improve cancer symptom relief and treatment.

Dr. Wong’s research focuses on brachytherapy, the insertion of radioactive material directly into the body, which has been proven effective in relieving the symptoms of cancers. She hopes to improve the medical world’s understanding of how this method can be used in colorectal cancers in the pelvis. She mentioned that, ultimately, it is possible that her research could lead to progress towards curing colorectal cancers, which are the fourth most common cancers found in Canadian adults.

Dr. Wong, who was trained in England and at Ontario’s Queen’s University, feels strongly about the excellence of U of T’s research facilities. “Arguably, [this is] the strongest centre in Canada, and certainly one of the strongest in North America,” she said.

She also describes the medical environment at U of T as dynamic. “In addition to [having] amazing colleagues to work with, we also have bright minds to challenge us in our day-to-day practice.”

According to Dr. Wong, U of T both attracts great minds and puts up few research barriers. It is clear that this combination encourages innovation and brilliance.

“Princess Margaret Hospital and the University of Toronto help to translate ideas into realities,” she explained. She continued to describe how the university does not hesitate to get students involved in research as early as possible, making them a true part of many ground-breaking projects.

Dr. Wong did say that the institution’s research funding isn’t as high as some researchers may hope. “It is relatively frugal compared to some North American centres,” she admitted. However, she went on to explain that she and her colleagues take the finite pool of money in stride. They focus on projects that ask important questions, but are not necessarily expensive to run.

Dr. Wong’s vision is that the pilot funding from the CASARIA award will help her team’s project grow into a much larger programme involving multiple institutions. While the leaders of the team will be professional clinicians, therapists, and physicists, there will be a component enabling students and medical fellows to get involved.

After receiving the grant, research will certainly take up an increasing amount of Dr. Wong’s time. However, teaching remains one of her top priorities. Direct experience with talented medical professionals, Dr. Wong thinks, is extremely important for those hoping to pursue medicine.

“Our [students] are our future colleagues, and we [as doctors] have knowledge that we can share,” she said. Her enthusiasm for teaching and passion for her work makes Dr. Wong an example of the high calibre of U of T’s medical staff.

Dr. Wong describes the satisfaction that she feels when a future doctor is fascinated with her field. “It does give great pleasure when I have students look at my practice,” she said. “At the end of the day, if they say they want to be a radiation oncologist, I did okay.”

Suspicious activity at Science Research Building

UTSC is increasing security in the Science Research Building after a mysterious man asked for a dangerous chemical substance on campus for the second time within three months.

Last Monday around noon, the man approached a faculty member in the building and requested the chemical.

He is believed to be the same man who requested the substance from students on November 15, when police responded to an emergency call about “a suspicious male” on campus.

He is described to be between 19 and 24, approximately 5’7″, tall with a brown complexion. It is unknown whether he is a UTS student.

Tom Downing of 43 Division, who is in charge of investigating the case, did not want to reveal the name of the chemical in question, but said it is a dangerous substance “that’s not at the school.”

Downing said the man did not say why he wanted the substance.

“He just asked for the chemical and when he was told he couldn’t get it, he walked away,” said Downing.

UTSC media spokesperson Laura Matthews said the university is taking the second incident seriously.

“Police certainly see it as an issue of concern. [The chemical] is a dangerous substance and the nature of [the man’s] behaviour was not normal,” she said. “So put those two things together. […] We want to know who this person is and talk to him.”

Although campus security will now be more visible in the Science Research Building, it may not be enough for some students who feel uneasy about their safety on campus as a result of the two incidents.

“It’s alarming. I feel as though they have been complacent in dealing with the matter,” said fourth-year neuroscience and psychology student Jordanne Amos.

“This person could do serious harm. I guess it goes to show that we need a better way to monitor who comes on campus.”

Management student Stephanie Thevamanorathan appreciates UTSC’s immediate email alert to students following the incident, but said security cameras need to be installed on campus.

“I think that the safety measures taken on campus are adequate, but UTSC needs to have more cameras outside, so that if such situations happen again, there would be a better chance of identifying the [person] by his photo.”

The man was last seen wearing a black coat with red and white stripes running down either side. He was also carrying a black knapsack.

Students are asked to be vigilant and call Campus Police at 416-287-7333, Toronto Police Services 43 Division at 416-808-4300, or Crime Stoppers at 416-222-TIPS if they notice any suspicious behaviour on campus.

The University of Toronto General Assembly

Let us open with two different conceptions of what the University of Toronto is. Firstly, the interests of students, staff, faculty, and others on campus are intertwined. We meet at this site to share and learn, to arrive at something better for ourselves and collectively facilitate this process. In this scenario, the interests of students may not immediately align with those of faculty or staff. However, together, we decide what and how to negotiate. We are the university. To ignore, or fail to account for any group on campus is to act against the best interests of the university.

Another conception of this university has students elected to the Governing Council to prioritize the long-term wellbeing of the institution above the broadly articulated needs of students. As a result, we become suspicious of demands for better working conditions and resigned to program cuts. However, our fees continue to climb amid the underfunding of programs and casualization labour. The familiarity of this scenario should indicate what kind of university we currently find ourselves in.

When students, faculty, staff, and groups within these do not combine their interests, we weaken ourselves and give more power to governing bodies at U of T. These bodies exist to undermine the needs of students. Many groups and individuals came together to oppose, flat fees, the Faculty of Arts and Science proposed Academic Plan, the G20 campus closure, restrictions to space booking policies on campus, and contracts with corporate sponsors that threaten academic freedom. Though we come in numbers, our bodies are blocked and our voices are ignored.

The misbehaviour of our governing bodies is no accident. The Governing Council for instance, is structurally predisposed to ignore student, staff, and faculty interests. Of the 50 GC seats, only eight are reserved for students; the majority are reserved for university and corporate appointees. The minority of students and faculty on GC cannot sway a group of CEOs to consider the needs of the students they are supposed to represent.

Substantive change cannot come from cajoling the GC — trust us, we have tried. It is time that we stop investing our power in the GC, and take governance into our own hands. It is time that we break from inhabiting a familiar conception of the university that does not benefit any of us. Rather than hoping that these governing bodies will finally make one decision in our favour, we need to redefine our relationship to each other and reclaim our autonomy.

The crisis in education is not limited to U of T, and cannot be separated from broader political trends in our province, country, and abroad that increasingly deny access to education and the chance for a good life among a majority of the people on our planet. The good news is that we are not alone in our revolutionary project. Students in the US, UK, Ireland, Spain, Italy, and even Quebec, have recently mobilized in unprecedented numbers to protest the increased privatization of education.

We have not yet seen such large-scale collective action in our province or at our university, which prompts us to ask why, given the magnitude of poor decision making at U of T. The most satisfactory reason that we have arrived at pins the blame on a default level of disengagement and disconnection. It is common to feel like a number on this campus. Many students find it difficult to speak to their professors, TAs, or the people they sit beside in class. Others find that they have nothing in common with the people that they’re surrounded by. We are all in someway disconnected from each other, so we trust a third party to mediate between us. This third party facilitates disconnection so that it continues to have a reason to exist?

Some have suggested that commonalities in ethnicity and a more coherent class identity contribute to why mobilizations in Europe, as well as at the City University of New York and the University of California, have been so much more powerful than elsewhere in North America. Whether true or not, I think that connecting to each other should be both a part and the goal of governance reform at this university. To this end, a group of concerned students, staff, and faculty have called for the first U of T General Assembly to happen on Wednesday January 19, from 5-8 p.m. in the Multifaith Centre.

Make no mistake — we want action. We want to build and articulate commonalities across populations and interest groups. We want to generate strategies and campaigns to combat looming threats to our education, and want as many people as possible to shape these. We also want something that may be less concretely measurable, which is an entirely different university, where the power to govern is in all of our hands.

Zexi Wang, Johanna Lewis, Patrick Vitale, Vivien Endicott-Douglas, William Nakhid, Faraz Vahid Shahidi, Alex Conchie, and Daniel Vandervoort are members of the U of T General Assembly Organizing Committee and contributed to this article.

Toxic politics

Whatever motivation Jared Lee Loughner had in the attempted assassination of U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords — an event that left six dead and 14 wounded — his actions have caused a long overdue examination of the implicitly violent rhetoric that has long dominated debate in the United States.

This rhetoric certainly hit a crescendo in 2009, when town hall meetings about health care reform were reduced to shouting matches and congressional offices — including Giffords’ being vandalized. It has abated only now, in the wake of tragedy. Most mainstream media outlets in recent days have, appropriately, begun to discuss the implications of the vitriol that has come to dominate political discourse.

The Republican Party and its allies in the media, including Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and Sarah Palin, have rightly been criticized for their use of violent imagery and metaphor in the arguments they use against their opponents. Their attempts to remove themselves from any responsibility for their words and actions is both deceitful and reprehensible.

Whether it was Beck musing about how he wanted to assassinate documentary filmmaker Michael Moore, or Palin placing a gunsight over Gifford’s district and telling her supporters not to “retreat, but to reload,” these statements were irresponsible, dangerous, and contributed to a toxic political environment. Sharron Angle’s musings on “Second Amendment remedies” or Jesse Kelly’s now infamous gun event ad: “Get on Target for Victory in November. Help remove Gabrielle Giffords from office. Shoot a fully automatic M16 with Jesse Kelly,” are further instances of the implied violence Republicans have directed against their opponents.

Palin, who many have floated as a possible Republican presidential nominee in 2012, received most of the criticism. After a few days of silence, she came out with a seven-minute video attacking her critics, accusing them of what she called “blood libel.” She said that incidents like the Tucson, Arizona shooting “begin and end with the criminals who commit them, not collectively with all the citizens of a state.” In her statement, she emphasized that both parties have used maps to illustrate areas with a high concentration of swing votes. However, she failed to address the fact that she was alone in placing crosshairs above opposition districts.

Trying to find a causal connection between Loughner’s actions and violent political rhetoric is the wrong approach. Laying the blame squarely on particular people (i.e. Palin, Limbaugh, or Beck) or movements (i.e. the Tea Party) is often counter-factual and is perhaps inappropriate considering the atmosphere of heightened emotion. The real story is that it took an attempted political assassination to shed light on the dysfunctional state of US political discourse; a discourse which often features conservative pundits and politicians suggesting their opponents are both “un-American” and that mildly liberal government policies are equivalent to a fascist takeover of the country. These kind of combative tendencies were evident in Palin’s statement, where she spent the majority of her time lambasting her critics as opposed to offering leadership amidst widespread anxiety. Contrastingly, President Obama memorialized the victims in a speech that had him lauded by political commentators for his sympathetic tone and high emphasis on healing and restraint from squabble.

New Yorker Staff Writer George Packer was right when he wrote in his personal blog: “[T]he tragedy wouldn’t change this basic fact: for the past two years, many conservative leaders, activists, and media figures have made a habit of trying to delegitimize their political opponents.” In the discourse of Limbaugh, Beck, Palin, and the Tea Party, liberals are not just wrong; they are traitors and enemies of the country.

As Nobel Laureate Economist Paul Krugman argued in his January 9 op-ed in the New York Times, there is a difference between insult and incitement. It’s one thing to see your opponent’s views as confused or ridiculous. It’s another to insinuate violence against them or prescribe motives of tyranny. And while employing the language of violence is common in any competitive arena — consider the world of sports, as an example — political discourse carries an extra layer of importance: the state of people’s lives is almost always the topic of discussion.

All the dirt on Dirty Rotten Scoundrels

About halfway through the first act of Hart House’s production of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, the song “All About Ruprecht” begins. Laurence, a charming con man with an English accent, sings “Ruprecht’s all about sun and soda pop” to Jolene, a jovial Oklahoma heiress. She flits and dances across the stage, her shrieks of laughter reaching immeasurable octaves. “Ruprecht’s all about hugs and valentines,” Laurence continues. Meanwhile Freddy, the less-aged, less-suave con man begins to hump Laurence’s leg. The orchestra is buzzing with upbeat show tunes and Jolene’s high pitched squeals continue. With this high energy, in-your-face tone present from the very beginning, it doesn’t take long for Jeffrey Lane and David Yazbek’s Dirty Rotten Scoundrels to wear you down.

Based on the 1988 film of the same name, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels first premiered in 2004 and came to Broadway a year later. Of the recent surge in film-based musicals, this one certainly comes out on the better end of the scale. Set on the French Riviera, Scoundrels channels the Fred Astaire era of Hollywood musicals with its jewel-encrusted set, swaying palm trees, and an endless number of wealthy socialites ready to pass their time through song and dance. The humour is cheeky, the mood is fun, and the thin plot is there purely as a means to set up each coming musical number — the very definition of the phrase “frothy romp.” However, where Flying Down to Rio and Top Hat run at approximately an hour and a half, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels nearly doubles that, and this lengthy musical rarely seeks more low-key moments. By the end of the first act few words have been spoken without the orchestra’s accompaniment of jazzy show melodies, an effect that soon becomes overwhelming. Unfortunately Yazbek’s music and lyrics, while melodious and tuneful, have no catchy quality, and none of the 24 music numbers stand out amongst the rest.

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However, for a musical with weakness in plot, the Hart House Theatre cast and crew, as usual, offer excellent performances straight to the end. Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is the story of two con men: Laurence (Neil Silcox) is a seasoned con artist whose suave and sophisticated act scores him big money from rich heiresses; and Freddy (Evan Dowling), a hustler whose unrefined etiquette brings him smaller sums throughout his travels. The two meet by chance and eventually fall into a bet, the loser of which must pack up and leave, never to con in the area again. With the musical’s endless array of bubbly characters, Neil Silcox’s calm, smooth demeanour served as an anchor throughout the production, his deadpan delivery contrasting well with the excitable personality of Evan Dowling’s Freddy. The two actors shared great chemistry, feeding off each other to ramp up the comedy. Another strong performance came from Cameron Johnston, as the crooked French cop Andre. The character serves as Laurence’s confidant and wise cracking foil. Johnston’s performance is nicely nuanced and his stage French accent is spot on. The three female leads had lovely, well trained voices and were quite competent actors. However, as the story requires three easily duped victims, the subtle differences between the three characters are overwhelmed by the general tone of gullibility.

It is in movement and action that Scoundrels needed to find moments of lower energy. Ashleigh Powell’s choreography was something quite spectacular. Each number exceeded in inventive qualities and was performed beautifully by the skilled chorus of dancers. Statues came to life and, for a play set in France, mimes were used accordingly. However, Powell’s creative choreography would have been better accentuated had it been contrasted with moments of stillness and quiet. Instead, it became overshadowed by the abundance of glittery costumes and sparkling set, and the sheer volume of action happening on stage.

Near the end of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels the plot thickens and the audience is offered something to hold on to. Characters develop, the musical finds its ups and downs, and the ending is fulfilling. Had the orchestra and action been toned down, the musical may not have had quite the same overwhelming effect. The lengthy but simple story could have cut out much of its endlessly boisterous setup in act one, leaving the audience dazzled instead of frazzled.