Now screening at York: Noam Chomsky

The famous intellectual Noam Chomsky enjoyed a warm welcome at York University on Friday, even though he was there as a disembodied torso. Unable to attend in person, the linguist and sometime political theorist spoke to a packed auditorium for over an hour via video conference.

He spoke without notes, hunched in front of a nondescript wall somewhere at MIT. Students, though, were enthused: so many wanted to come that the event had had to be moved to a larger venue to accommodate the demand.

Event organizer Jennifer Rego was effervescent. “It was completely a success to have a packed house of approximately 600 people,” she said. Rego had reason to be happy—it took her and two other York students several months of emails and a trip to Boston to convince Chomsky to speak. “Persistence was our friend,” she explained. “He was enamoured by our initiative and he agreed.”

“I thought it was really interesting,” first-year U of T law student Brendan McCutchen said. “He’s just a really important voice in our society.”

Second-year students Isabel Medel and Tania Lukacsovies made the trek from St. George campus for the event.

“I know he’s an anarchist—I wonder how that will filter into his talk,” Medel said beforehand.

Sadly for Medel, anarchy lost out to the energy crisis in Chosky’s speech. The lecture stuck to three topics the organizers had asked Chomsky to discuss: nuclear weapons, DNA and biomass.

Chomsky listed the virtues of biomass, or organic byproducts, as a viable alternative energy source. He supported the idea in theory, but was quick to condemn the current U.S. pursuit of corn-produced ethanol, which he called “unfeasible economically” and likely to bring high tariffs against cheaper corn from other countries. According to Chomsky, this would ultimately drive up the cost of agricultural products and harm poor countries, with major agricultural companies as the only beneficiaries.

Energy policy provided a segue into Chomsky’s discussion of the socalled “DNA revolution” that brings the possibility to design energy-creating organisms. Modified organisms could have benefits, but the consequences could be dire, leading to, for example, bioweapons used by subnational entities.

The bulk of Chomsky’s talk concerned nuclear proliferation. He repeatedly stressed the “enormous gulf between public opinion and public policy.”

The treaties in place now are so widely violated that even today the “threat of something close to terminal destruction by nuclear war is very high,” said Chomsky.

He ran through a list of examples of how U.S. policy undermines global nuclear stability, such as a hardline approach to the newly-nuclear Iran and North Korea from the Bush administration.

Chomsky ended on a hopeful note, preaching public action on environmental degradation, corporate tyrannies, and government bullying.

“Students have played a leading role in protest and activism, and movements to progressive social change,” he said.

Manifest destiny: Kudzu and cheatgrass slowly creep north

We’ve undoubtedly transformed the earth through the extensive use of fossil fuels, but uncertain are the longterm effects that climate change will bring with it. An important—and most certainly overlooked—side effect of warmer climates is the advance of invasive species.

These species take advantage of warmer temperatures to spread beyond their natural habitats—opportunists in every sense of the word. Dr. Rowan Sage, a professor at the University of Toronto, works with invasive plants. He is currently researching the spread of kudzu and cheatgrass, two species that were intentionally introduced to the United States.

Kudzu, native to eastern Asia, was introduced in 1876 as a forage crop and ornamental plant. Farmers in the 1930s were encouraged to plant kudzu to reduce soil erosion, but under ideal climate conditions in the southwestern United States, the plant grew out of control and was officially named a pest weed in 1953. Normally, this pest weed would not be able to grow for long in Canada’s harsh climate. However, due to warmer winters and longer summers, kudzu is quickly becoming a potential threat.

Sage studies plant physiology and mechanisms of plant response to global climate change. More specifically, he looks at the mechanisms affecting productivity, competition, and species distribution.

“We’ve been studying kudzu to identify the physiological controls on its distribution and to ask a question: will it be a serious pest in Canada in the very near future? Will the climate warming that we’ve experienced and we will experience allow the kudzu to establish here?” he said.

After monitoring kudzu on a rooftop greenhouse at U of T’s Earth Science Centre, Sage found the plants did not die until late December. Due to increasing atmospheric CO2 levels, as well as increasing nutrient deposition from agricultural fertilizers, the kudzu plant has responded well to human activities across urban landscapes.

Kudzu is becoming more aggressive as it rapidly responds to changes in the global climate. In North America, kudzu is not subject to its native land’s usual biological controls, such as the predatory insects that prevent uncontrolled proliferation. It can overtake trees and fields, eroding entire forests and conquering established ecosystems by outcompeting native plant species.

Kudzu continues to climb northwards into the Mohawk River Valley in New York and is predicted to reach southern Canada within 10 to 15 years. A warmer winter in the Niagara region could jeopardize the state of its wineries, the area’s biggest agricultural enterprise.

As it turns out, geography has a lot to do with the problem of invasive plants.

“In Eastern Canada, we’re lucky because we have some significant geographical barriers—the great lakes and the St. Lawrence River,” said Sage. But, “because of the high level of commerce we have, there is an excellent probability it will come over the border, so you have to take more stringent measures.”

Cheatgrass is another invasive plant, spreading in western parts of North America, including British Columbia. It is interfering with winter wheat and other crops.

Fine, feathery, and brown, cheatgrass competes for moisture with other plant species by maturing quickly in the spring. In turn, this plant dries up quickly and becomes a fuel source for wildfires. Left uncontrolled, these fires can wipe out other vegetation and also pose a threat to rural communities.

The potency of pests increases in foreign environments where they become “super-invaders,” suppressing all native vegetation and resulting in an ecosystem collapse. Water and atmospheric quality decrease, dust and particulates are suspended in the air, and soil terrain becomes more susceptible to erosion.

Benefits of preventional measures easily outweigh the cost of dealing with invasive species once they arrive. With frequent commercial trading between the U.S. and Canada, monitoring the cross-border movement of invasive species becomes crucial.

“California has a very strict quarantine system in place,” Sage said. “At all the entry points on the highways, there are quarantine stations where you have to stop and declare anything you might have that’s a problem, mostly fruits and vegetable—so everybody there knows you can’t take certain things in.”

Canada has a program addressing this issue, but its aim is elsewhere:

“It’s more focused on keeping stuff out from Europe and Asia than it is dealing with what might be lurking out in the U.S.,” said Sage.

Critics say areas with problematic plant species should enforce more rigid quarantine measures. Border controls should also have stricter policies for importing soils and checking construction equipment, which can bring in unwanted plant seeds. The public should be made aware of the appearance of the invasive species and how to avoid their spread.

“Our hope, with this work, is that the Canadian government will institute more severe controls on kudzu and many other invasive species that are potentially moving up from the south,” said Sage.

But the professor appeared grim about the odds against plants such as kudzu and cheatgrass.

“Once you can actually see global warming, it’s probably too late— same with bio-invasives.”

Queen’s gives OUSA three more years

Seventy per cent of undergraduate students at Queen’s University have voted to remain members of the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance for another three years, after the student union organization fee came up for mandatory renewal in last week’s fall referendum, held by Queen’s Alma Mater Society. One of OUSA’s founding members in 1992, Queen’s AMS parted ways with the alliance in 1995 but rejoined in 2004, when students passed over the larger, better-known, Canadian Federation of Students.

According to Joey Coleman, a Macleans.ca blogger on education, OUSA suits the structure of Queen’s large and policy-focused student union, whereas those of CFS schools are smaller and more political.

OUSA has a strong research and policy implementation record, calling itself member-driven, as members make their own lobbying decisions. OUSA also has a history of forming relationships with government officials and bureaucrats.

However, CFS represents over 250,000 students in Ontario, 80 student unions across the country, and has a strong track record in attracting media attention for lobbying campaigns.

Last week, the university-produced Queen’s Journal published an article by Queen’s official representative to OUSA, Julia Mitchell, attacking CFS’s operational tactics and lobbying strategies. Mitchell wrote that the CFS’s messages are about “flashy taglines, not implementable ideas,” and that their tactics “have lost them a great deal of credibility in the eyes of both voters and decision-makers.”

The allegations in the piece left CFS’s Ontario chairperson, Jen Hassum, fuming and in shock. “It’s laughable to think that the Canadian Federation of Students doesn’t have credibility, and it’s essentially not the reality of what students are working on across the country.” she said.

Coleman said he believes CFS and OUSA are two halves of a whole, and both are necessary for effective student lobbying. According to Mitchell,suggestions that Queen’s AMS join both OUSA and CFS have never been seriously considered.

Using tough toads for biological control— and failing

The Bufo marinus is perhaps the most well-known invasive organism. It is seen either as a successful colonizer, or as an extreme nuisance with the potential to devastate an ecosystem. This species, more commonly known as the cane toad, has invaded many countries, most famously Australia.

The cane toad is originally native to Central and South America. Imported to other countries for the toad’s effective control of pests that devastate sugar cane, cane toads now form naturalized populations in Australia, the Philippines, Japan, Barbados, and Hawaii.

The cane toad integrated itself smoothly into ecosystems when introduced to Hawaii in 1932. Meanwhile, sugar crops in Australia were under attack by greyback and Frenchi beetles. These insects’ larvae feed on the roots of sugar cane plants, causing the plants to collapse. Because of the successful introduction of the cane toad in Hawaii, optimistic Australian naturalists brought a number of toads into Queensland, Australia as a preliminary experiment. Over 40,000 young toads were released into the wild in August 1935.

This optimism proved naïve when the toads’ introduction severely impacted the Australian ecosystem. Because the toad has no natural enemies on the continent, the population grew unchecked. Though there are few objective reports of the extent of the devastation, the effects on predators are well known. Native snakes have been virtually eliminated from toad-infested areas because of the poison that coats the toads’ skin. One study estimates that 30 per cent of Australia’s snake species will be at risk by 2030. The toads are also blamed for the decrease in waterfowl in Australian swamps.

They might not even have performed their intended task. The seasonal habits of the toads and the beetles they are supposed to consume do not match up properly. The toads usually only emerge when the beetles are old enough to fly and escape the toads. Most Australian sugar cane fields now use chemical pesticides for pest control.

Historically, cane toads in Australia were also used for a practical— if slightly curious—purpose: the detection of human pregnancy. Hormones in the urine of a pregnant woman, when injected under a toad’s skin, stimulate sperm cell release in the toad. Toad pregnancy detection was commonplace in Australia up until 1965.

So what state are the cane toads in now? One research group in Australia found that the most rapidly advancing toads are evolving longer legs. This might be good news for pest control, because the toads are also developing arthritis in their longer limbs. Some species of birds in Australia have also learned to attack the toads’ bellies instead of their heads, where the poisonous glands are. These might be reasons for the toad’s slower-than-expected spread westward across the island continent.

There is an urgent need for methods to control the cane toad population, so scientists and naturalists must be creative. The move to build a cross-national fence was widely criticized because of the cost. Also, if even a few toads crossed the barrier, they would breed easily, making the effort useless and wasteful. Male sterilization was considered, but also found to be too expensive and not effective enough. Right now, the best potential strategy seems to be biological control, such as the introduction of a virus or parasite that would naturally control the toad population. But this solution could cause further problems. After all, the introduction of a new species to control a pest is what started the whole mess in the first place.

Editorial: Black-focused schools a mistake

It should not come as a revelation that Toronto’s black students face challenges that other young people do not. It is estimated that at 16 years old, more than half of this city’s young black males have fallen behind in school, and as a result, they are much more likely to drop out.

In one way or another, our education system is failing these kids. The situation is so dire that the Toronto District School Board is seriously considering creating “black-focused” schools to cater specifically to the needs of the city’s black students. This would be a huge mistake.

Creating “afrocentric” schools will only entrench the cultural barriers that the TDSB is looking to address. A separate school system will divide students into artificial categories that do not reflect the realities of their identities or backgrounds.

The idea that all Toronto’s black people share a common heritage and therefore should share the same education is ludicrous. The term “African- Canadian” is completely inadequate because it ignores the incredibly diverse backgrounds of black people in this city. Are we to believe that people from Jamaica, Zimbabwe, France, or Halifax share the same culture simply because they have the same skin colour? To lump together all black people would be to accept the fundamental basis of all racist ideologies—that culture is essentially biological. That what someone believes, or how someone acts or learns, is basically ingrained in their genetic lineage.

The TDSB has already begun piloting “afrocentric” social studies courses to teach students in grades six, seven, and eight about African culture. Considering Africa is a continent made up of dozens of countries, thousands of language groups, and millions of people, it is difficult to understand what is meant by “African culture.” Students who go to existing black-focused schools in the U.S. are taught Swahili rituals. This seems ridiculous when one considers that most black Americans trace their lineage to West or Central Africa, not East Africa, where Swahili is spoken. In creating an “afrocentric” curriculum, the TDSB seems to imply that the 900 million people of the African continent share a common culture.

The belief that vague, artificial categories like “African” can define an individual are precisely the misconceptions that put black students at a disadvantage. Our school board should not reinforce these ideas.

Proponents of black-focused schools say it is vital to teach black students that black people in this country can and have been successful, that they can contribute to society and to history just as anyone else can. But isn’t it equally important that students of all backgrounds learn this lesson? Maybe if the history of the world’s numerous black and African societies were better understood by everyone in Canada, our teachers wouldn’t be so quick to dismiss black students as incapable. Our schools need to change. They desperately need to address the high dropout rates of black students, but this should be done through specialized, community-sepcific curricula, not ones based solely on race and a vague idea of “African culture.”

All members of society contribute to the ideas and attitudes that hold these students back, and accordingly changes should come to every school in the city. We all need to learn that “black” or “white” or “African” doesn’t adequately describe the culture, needs, or abilities of anyone.

Paris lights up Laurier

When a team has won their first two games of the season, it’s difficult to argue that they’ve lost more than they have gained. But after starting point guard Mike Degiorgio left Saturday’s game against Laurier with an injury, the Blues were faced with a major loss to their long term objectives. Degiorgio, the remaining starter from last years team is a dynamic point guard and brings everything one could desire: leadership, court awareness, and basketball IQ. Already without 2006 starters Ben Katz, Mike Williams, Mohammad Safarzadeh, and Dwayne Grant, who have maxed out their elgibility. Degiorgio, also currently in his last season with the Blues, was the one player the team could not afford to lose.

“Mike’s a leader at the point, and we had to struggle [during Saturday’s game] to find leadership and guys who could make plays. I’m concerned because we have to find or develop somebody who can play the point guard psoition,” said Blues head coach Mike Katz.

The Blues might get a taste of life without Degiorgio earlier than expected. as the ankle injury he sustained over the weekend may keep him out of games against Lakehead and McMaster this week. The Blues could have a completely new starting lineup from 2006, as they hit the road against some tough opponents. “Every road game is going to be difficult no matter where it is, so this trip should test our mettle,” said Katz following Saturday’s 73-64 win over Laurier. Without Degiorgio, Blues backcourt partner Rob Paris stepped up big time for the Blues. Paris, who won tournament MVP during the Naismith Cup tournament in exhibition play, scored 22 points on an efficient 10-16 shooting. After the game he was quick to shower praise on his teammates “I thought our big guys played exceptionally well. Nick Snow, Ahmed Nazmi and Andrew Wasik can crash the boards with the best of them. Their rebounding is very important for our team , as many of our Guards rely on their rebounding for easy transition baskets,” he said. Paris benefited from quick outlet passes from Toronto forwards as he leaked out on the break for easy baskets. He also hit two key three pointers late in the game to keep Toronto ahead. His defensive zone coverage was just as important, he was a ball hawk on defence and finsihed the game with two blocks and one steal.

Paris will have to shine again this weekend if Mike Degiorgio does not suit up for the Blues. Degiorgio who had a near-triple-double [12 points, eight rebounds, and 12 assists] against Waterloo in the Friday opener is the catalyst for the Blues offence.

Without the fifth-year point guard handling running the offence on Saturday, the Blues seemed out of sync at times. The Golden Hawks, who trailed 19-5 to begin the game, would capitalize trimming Toronto’s early lead to 19-16. Nick Maglas was thrust into Degiorgio’s role as ball distributor and played admirably. With the score 37-21 in the second quarter, he executed an excellent pick-and-roll that forward Drazen Glisic finished with a lay up. He also had a productive game overall with seven points, five rebounds and five assists. But his new role took him away from his strength of scoring and hitting shots from the perimeter, as he shot an uncharacteristic 3-12 from the field. On Saturday Laurier proved to be a young and inexperienced team. With a11 players in their first and second years, they relied mainly on their length and athleticism to keep the game close. They hounded Toronto with full-court pressure, forcing 18 Blues turnovers, and kept pace in rebounds with their more experienced opponent 36-39. In the end Toronto relied on brains over brawn, using smart play and good ball movement on offense to get easy baskets and open shots. The Blues had 21 assists to only 11 for the Golden Hawks, and shot 50 per cent from the field to 35.1 for their opponents. With the win the Blues are now 2-0 to begin the season. It was Laurier’s first trip to Toronto in 2007, but after their loss this weekend dropped them to 0-3 on the year, they will have a hard time forgetting Paris as well.

Our man in Pakistan

The “War on Terror” is touted by its proponents as an epic struggle between religious fanaticism and secular, democratic civilization. However, the striking lack of any real promotion of democracy in the West’s policy in parts of the Middle East brings to light the inconsistency between bellicose rhetoric and political reality.

The latest example is the West’s response to Pakistani General Pervez Musharraf’s imposition of emergency rule on Nov. 3. Despite arresting thousands of his political opponents and forcibly detaining his main rival in her home, the West’s only reaction has remained one of muted protest. This reflects poorly on the Bush administration’s commitment to promote democracy in Pakistan, a country ravaged by a petty dictator for eight years. Our politicians’ cowardice undermines the bravery of Canadian troops dying in Afghanistan to support a democratic regime that is faithful to its people.

Pakistan has been a key ally in the United States’ campaign in Afghanistan, developing a regime that has been rewarded handsomely. In fact, Musharraf’s very survival as a leader is dependent on the financial support from the superpower. Since the terrorist attacks of 9/11, Pakistan has received about $10 billion in U.S. foreign aid, consisting of direct cash transfers that are not subject to any oversight. It is estimated that only 10 per cent goes towards developmental aid and humanitarian assistance—even after the devastating earthquake of October 2005 that killed some 75,000 people.

It must be understood that improving the living conditions of Pakistani citizens, particularly those in the tribal regions, is vitally important in the struggle against religious fundamentalism. Musharraf’s mismanagement of these funds, directed towards increasing literacy and building basic infrastructure, contributes to the hostility of these tribal communities towards a government, and its Western backers, that shirks off any responsibility to improve the lives of its citizens.

It‘s obvious that the tin-pot dictatorship, to satisfy its western backers, is contributing only the bare minimum to the NATO mission in Afghanistan. How else can we account for the pitiful state of Pakistan’s 80,000 strong Frontier Corp, often equipped with little more than “sandals and bolt-action rifles,” whilst the enemy carries AK-47s and RPGs. It is little wonder that nearly 300 of these ragtag soldiers were captured by thirty Taliban fighters without firing a single shot earlier this year. The vast majority of the military aid provided to Pakistan is spent on big-ticket items such as harpoon missiles designed to sink warships, F-16 fighter jets, and howitzers that have to be towed into position; none of these weapons are used to root out the militants within Pakistan’s borders, and have been purchased with another target in mind: Pakistan’s traditional enemy, a democratic India.

The real danger of supporting Musharraf at this juncture, especially when Pakistan’s middle class is adamantly resisting his dictatorial authority, is to potentially nurture a whole new generation of disenfranchised youth, ones who resent the West’s support of the tyrant who oppresses them. Ordinary people across the world notice the hypocrisy in play even if we in North America pay little attention to it. This double standard damages the credibility of the West and hinders our ability to promote democratic ideals elsewhere. What keeps the leaders of the Burmese junta from validating their regime on the basis of this inconsistency?

One only has to look back a few decades to see how this scenario will play out. Iran’s Islamic Revolution of 1979 stemmed from over two decades of American support for the Shah, who brutally oppressed his people. Repeating this mistake with nuclear-armed Pakistan will undoubtedly have graver consequences. As long as the West aids Musharraf in denying the country’s people their rights, we are set on a very dangerous course. The Middle East’s moderate majority, not its military dictators, needs to be supported by the West. Failure to do so risks the ascendance of extremism as the only political vehicle left available to the oppressed. In the epic struggle that dominates our generation, the forces of rationality must triumph.

Golden Hawks bite the dust!

After Saturday’s game against the University of Laurier, a somewhat subdued Amanda Van Leeuwen sat nursing a bloody elbow as teammates celebrated their fourth victory of the season. Moments later a Blues assistant coach would arrive on the scene to provide the best kind of medicine—laughter. Van Leeuwun, fresh off a gutsy 14-point and sevenrebound performance against the Golden Hawks, had no idea how she had gotten the awful gash on her arm in the first place until the coach told her, “You knocked out a Laurier players tooth.” The Blues forward couldn’t help but chuckle. She was an interior force for Toronto the entire evening, crashing the boards on the defensive end and clearing space on offense. She and fourth-year Laila Bellony (11 points, nine rebounds) provided much-needed toughness for a team that largely relies on the strong perimeter play of guard Allaine Hutton and the versatility of Christine Cho.

The team certainly has all the ingredients needed to make a title run this year: experience, talent, and good coaching, but players like Bellony and Van Leeewun are often termed “glue players” because they help keep all the puzzle pieces together with their rugged play and hustle.

“I feel like this team has such great chemistry,” said Van Leeuwen following Saturday’s 78-69 victory. “We come into games strong, confident, fearless, and wanting to win. We know we’re facing some really good teams in the future, but we always go out and give it our best effort.”

The effort has been there for the Blues this season, a 4-0 record can attest to that. Michelle Belanger, in her 27th season as coach, is happy with the team’s progress thus far, but remains outspoken about the need for consistency as they prepare to face their first major tests of the season, against Lakehead and McMaster on the road.

“Our team expectations are high,” said the Blues coach. “We want to get to nationals and win a championship. There are some great elements on our team, we just need to play consistently day in and day out, because that’s the sign of a championship team.”

Lakehead, the weaker of the two western division opponents after finishing 9-13 in 2006, currently sits in second place with a 3-1 record to start the season. They will play U of T in the Friday match-up. Saturday’s game against McMaster will be the ultimate measuring stick in this meeting of unbeaten teams. McMaster (4-0 this season) was 21-1 in 2007 before losing to York in the OUA final. Coach Belanger provided a report of their opponents: “We expect a very tough game. McMaster is a well-seasoned team with many veteran players. For us, it’s going to be about defending and getting rebounds for second and third shots on offense. I think we did well on the boards [against Laurier] and we just need to bring that same kind of effort.”

In Saturday’s game against Laurier, the Blues’ will and desire were also tested. The Blues ended the first half with a narrow 41-37 lead, but in the second, the Hawks would try to scratch and claw their way to victory. At 2:11 of the third quarter, Blues guard Illana Weisberger would be injured on a fl agrant foul from Laurier’s Kandace Baptiste. Weisberger would stay in the game long enough to hit both free-throw attempts, but would have to leave the game without returning as the Blues medical staff placed her left arm in a sling. With a key reserve down for the game, Allaine Hutton would pick up the slack as she has all season. The 2006 all-star would finish the game with 20 points and six assists, but also with six turnovers. After a Hutton steal lead to an uncontested layup for the Blues, Laurier would call a timeout to try to slow her, and it seemed to work. Coming out of the huddle, the Golden Hawks began to employ the full-court press, which threw the Blues out of sync. Instead of making smart passes out of the trap, the Blues guards often tried to dribble their way through, leading to a game high 26 turnovers for Toronto, compared to only 18 on the Laurier side.

“I thought my guards were a little apprehensive [against the trap],” said the coaches after the game. “We were over cautious and consequently we were turning the ball over because of it. We didn’t adjust well and got caught in all the wrong areas.” Van Leeuwen echoed these sentiments. “We’ll just have to be a little more aware and adjust quicker.”

Despite the late surge by the Golden Hawks and sloppiness on Toronto’s part, the Blues would go on to win 78-69 through some scrappy hard-nosed play. They simply outworked and out hustled their opponents, finishing with 40 rebounds to Laurier’s 32, and added four blocks, two from forward Laila Bellony. Laurier’s record is now 3-2 in 2007, while the Blues are 4-0 to start the season.