It’s time to protect Canadians abroad

The Iranian-Canadian community was in utter shock with the announcement in June 2003 that Zahra Kazemi, a Canadian photojournalist, was dead after three weeks in custody in Iran. She had been arrested for allegedly taking pictures outside a prison in the capital city of Tehran. Two years later, Ramin Jahanbegloo, a philosopher and professor at the University of Toronto, was also arrested in Tehran’s Mehrabad airport after being labelled an anti-government political activist by Iranian officials on flimsy pretences. He was held for 125 days in Evin prison, the same jail where Kazemi was beaten to death. Despite the diplomatic storm between Canada and Iran that followed Kazemi’s death, it appears that the Iranian government still has no commitment to protecting the rights, and ultimately the lives, of visiting Canadians.

Both Kazemi and Jahanbegloo were arrested because of their academic pursuits. Kazemi was in Tehran to photograph protests against the Iranian government, Jahanbegloo suspected for his academic papers criticizing the Tehran regime’s Holocaust denial. It is unacceptable that Canadians or anyone else should be subjected to imprisonment simply for participating in academic or artistic life.

Unfortunately, unexpected incarceration and harsh treatment is not reserved for visitors in Iran. The local population is subject to all manners of abuse by its officials. But we have a special responsibility to protect our citizens. We are risking the loss of brave, bright minds, and we must initiate change before it is too late.

The development of an international contract that shields professionals from abuse, incarceration and torture would protect citizens, especially those searching for information to further Western understanding of other countries. Travelling professionals must be protected under a contract from any further abuse. Even after crossing the border, you’re still a citizen, and professionals should not be discouraged from discovery. Unless visitors can be safeguarded from falling into the same harsh misconduct that was inflicted upon Kazemi and Jahanbegloo, we are breeding an ethnocentric future in research.

Inhumane detainment, torture, and death is a price no one engaged in academic pursuits should have to pay for their work. It’s time for Canadian government officials to propose an international treaty guaranteeing the safety of foreign academic research before even more intellectual writers, researchers, and journalists are discouraged from travelling abroad to study.

Not over the barrel yet

In past decades $100 for a barrel of oil had been touted by end-of-the-worlders as an apocalyptic event that would bring about the demise of modern industrialized civilization. That psychological barrier was surpassed on January 2, and while the mainstream media were quick to jump on the story and play up the drama, the real impact of this episode was minimal. If prices are to remain constant at the $90 mark—as many commodities analysts believe to be the new norm—there is no denying that associated costs will rise.

Over the past 100 years oil has become the life blood of Western civilization and our absolute dependence on this natural resource cannot be overstated. This is precisely why no matter how expensive oil becomes, people will still continue to behave as if it was business as usual. As much as any staple crop, oil has established itself as essential to our existence, thus the higher price of oil will not bring about a dramatic change in our behavior and attitudes. At least not quite yet.

While the $100 price does have a marked psychological impact on consumers and analysts, it’s more bark than bite. In real terms oil is still remarkably affordable to the middle-class in all industrialized nations, especially in North America where the cost of filling up a tank of gas remains less than half of what it costs to a person in Europe, mostly due to taxes levied by European governments. Even as North Americans complain about the rising costs associated with increasing oil prices, an elementary shift in our attitudes and corresponding changes in our lifestyles are still a long way away.

The good news is that North Americans, led by the infinite wisdom of Hollywood stars, appear to be coming about, embracing smaller, more fuel-efficient cars along with emerging alternatives such as diesel power and hybrids. However, even as a fringe minority in the West begins to demonstrate the first inclination to conserve and reduce our addiction to oil, they may already be too late.

The millions of people in China and India who are emerging into vibrant middle-class societies, yearn for the same things we in the West have taken for granted for so long. Nearly six million new cars will be on China’s roads in the coming year, and they will require millions of barrels of oil to fuel them.

To put things into context, global proven reserves (oil known to be in the ground) is estimated at nearly four and a half trillion barrels, which means that there exists 140 years’ supply of oil on this planet. Indeed extracting usable fuel from oil sands in Alberta as well as major deposits of oil shale in the U.S. requires a more extensive refinement process and will inevitably result in the continued rise of oil prices.

The demand for oil in industrializing nations, driven by industrial and consumer demand in emerging economies, will only continue to grow. Many speculate that this competition between different societies for a finite resource will bring about World War Three. It just might, though definitely not in our foreseeable future. Meanwhile, in the coming months we will learn to cope with $100 oil, and just as surely we’ll kick up a fuss when we hit $200 a barrel a few decades from now. Maybe then the crisis will be for real.

It’s Not Rocket Science – Episode 5

Another day at the office

Except in this case, the office is a giant, futuristic research facility. This collection of pictures showcases some of the incredible structures built for research purposes, including the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico that makes a cameo in the James Bond film Goldeneye. I bet working at these cool places makes Mondays that much easier.


We’re not the only ones doing it (the world’s oldest profession just got older)

According to a recent study of long-tailed macaques in Indonesia published in Animal Behavior, they engage in what can be construed as prostitution. Male monkeys were observed grooming females in exchange for sex, getting twice the action on average compared to males who didn’t groom females. When there were more females available, the amount of time spent grooming decreased, suggesting a supply and demand relationship. Oddly enough, I don’t get the same results when I offer to groom the women I meet.


The coast is toast

Global warming is a familiar—and pressing—concern. Perhaps equally important is considering the effects of excess nitrogen input on aquatic ecosystems, a topic that has received little attention in the mainstream media. Fertilizer run-off from agricultural operations is the number one source of this nitrogen, but the dumping of untreated human waste and certain industrial processes also contribute to the problem. Once the excess nitrogen is washed into the ocean by streams and rivers, runaway growth by phytoplankton (algae) depletes the available oxygen, resulting in the death of fish and other marine life. Eventually, large “dead zones” with little biological activity are formed, such as in the Gulf of Mexico where the Mississippi River drains into the ocean. Recent research by the World Resources Institute brings very bad news: out of 415 identified affected zones, only 13 are recovering. I propose a ban on vegetables—that should reduce fertilizer run-off and make kids happy the world over.


The magic of stardust

NASA scientists have decided to take fairy tales seriously and look into stardust. After chasing down a comet and collecting samples of the dust blowing off its core, the Stardust spacecraft returned to Earth in January 2006. The samples it brought back have given researchers a good look into the past of our solar system, as the comet is thought to have formed 4.57 billion years ago along with our Sun and the planets. No word yet if such findings allow individuals to fly or make wishes come true. Link:

Probably endorsed by Mike Huckabee

The New Christian Science Textbook. Thankfully, it’s not real…yet.


Switchgrass may put corn out of a job

The first results from a large-scale trial using switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) to produce ethanol biofuel are extremely promising. Already, scientists are claiming that using switchgrass-derived ethanol can cut carbon dioxide emissions by 94 per cent compared to an equal volume of oil. As well, the team led by Ken Vogel of the U.S. Agricultural Research Service in Lincoln, Nebraska determined that switchgrass delivers 540 per cent more energy than is required to grow, maintain, and process it into ethanol. The U.S. Department of Energy seems to be onboard with biofuel, planning to build six biorefineries by 2010. Although not a solution to the growing climate change crisis, biofuels are a step in the right direction, allowing the developed world to wean itself off petroleum-based energy sources. The downside is the loss of food production from the fertile land used to grow biofuel crops. One per cent of the world’s fields (12 million hectares) is already being used for this purpose. Expect this issue to be a contentious one in the near future. Corn has already filed suit for wrongful dismissal and lost wages.


From the excessive technology files

Because a television set ain’t nothin’ unless it can be seen from space, Panasonic unveiled a 150-inch plasma TV at the recent Consumer Electronic Show in Las Vegas. Boasting four times the resolution of the best flatscreen sets currently on the market, this beast features almost nine million pixels. I am envisioning playing Halo 3 on this television and drooling…a lot.


These guys are real jerks

Even the insect world has do-nothing free-loaders. Alcon blue butterflies (Maculinea alcon) have evolved a unique method of ensuring that they get fed in their larval stage: they mimic the odour of young ants. Worker ants mistake the caterpillars for ants from their own brood and take them back to their ant colony where they are fed and taken care of. The caterpillars, to add insult to injury, eat some of the young ants they are surrounded by. Researchers working in Denmark determined that they caterpillars use scent molecules to accomplish the con job. The closer the caterpillar’s scents are to the ants own, the quicker they are picked up and taken back to an ant colony. The race goes not to the swift and strong, but to the clever cheaters in this case.


Prof jailed in Iran returns to U of T

In April 2006, while passing through Iran en route to a Belgian conference, U of T professor Dr. Ramin Jahanbegloo was arrested, blindfolded and carried off to Tehran’s Evin prison. For the next 125 days, the Iranian-Canadian Jahanbegloo was confined to Evin’s Ward 209, frequently used for detaining political prisoners. Other than the three brief visits from his wife, he was held in solitary confinement.

Today, Jahanbegloo is busy teaching two courses and settling into an office at the university’s Centre of Ethics, a stark contrast to the two-by-three-metre cell that held him 18 months ago.

“My first reaction was like any normal human being. It was half fear and half astonishment as well as the uncertainty of not knowing what was going to happen to me.”

He was never charged with a crime or allowed to speak to a lawyer.

“I had to create my own rhythm of life by reading anything I could get my hands on, doing exercises, fighting against depression, and somehow trying to build my confidence and hope for the future,” explained Jahanbegloo.

During the first 40 days of his imprisonment, Jahanbegloo was only allowed two blankets to sleep on, no reading material, and was blindfolded whenever he left his cell for showers or bathroom breaks.

During interrogations, Jahanbegloo discovered that he was suspected of spying for foreign powers and inciting a “soft revolution” against the Iranian regime. the Calgary Herald reported speculations that the suspicions stemmed from an article Jahanbegloo wrote criticizing Iran for denying the Holocaust. Jahanbegloo, however, said that his mere participation in intellectual life was held up as evidence of treason.

“They were telling me that the fact that I had been going to conferences was somehow spying and working against the security of the Iranian state. I never thought going to a conference was spying. I never wanted to spy for anybody, but yes, I had been to conferences and meeting with Canadians and Americans,” said Jahanbegloo.

After over four months in prison, Jahanbegloo was told family members had reached a “bail agreement” with the intelligence ministry, and he was released. His Iranian and Canadian passports, confiscated by the Iranian Revolutionary Court, were never returned.

Since the release, Jahanbegloo has published a book based on notes he wrote on scraps of cardboard in jail, and lectured all over the world, but has not returned to Iran.

“Now that I’m back at U of T, I’m really happy. I’m looking forward to going back to teaching and seeing my students.”

Jahanbegloo teaches two poli sci courses at U of T. Next year, he will offer a new course, Politics and Non-violence.

Though he said he believes his arrest was fueled by his academic work, Jahanbegloo vowed not to censor himself, adding that his experiences as a political detainee have most definitely influenced his work and outlook.

“I will continue with my work of dissidence as a philosopher. I think that my days in prison have given me a new view of humanity and also of ethics and what can be ethical in the 21st century,” he said.

Paying back the sandman

With the spend-happy attitude surrounding the recent holiday season, the arrival of financial strain and buyer’s remorse has arrived for many. As personal collections of plastic cards were processed faster than gifts could be wrapped and financial balances monitored, most students were oblivious to a new form of debt they quickly racked up: sleep debt.

A student’s daily sleep requirement averages between seven to nine hours of uninterrupted sleep a night. Skipping it results in an accumulation of sleep debt, or lost sleep. Sleeping only six hours a night earns us one to three hours of sleep debt. Repeat that for a week and it grows into seven to 21 hours of lost shut-eye that has to be reclaimed.

With North American culture demanding extended work and social schedules, allotting time for snoozing seems self-indulgent when those extra hours could be used for completing more work. Stepping away from the books and paying closer attention to your needs, however, will have your body thanking you through improved concentration, motor skills, and overall mood and motivation.

Even with the benefits associated with obtaining enough sleep, most students, according to the Journal of College Student Development, ignore the need to doze. Often, they are unaware of its influence on academic, social, and emotional problems.

Ignoring the problem will not eliminate it because of the unusual way sleep debt functions. Unlike financial payments, there is no way to save up on sleep to pay something that may be accumulated later. Establishing good habits is the only way to prevent it.

The first step for students who have accumulated a large sleep debt is to reduce it. For many, the weekend is a good time to catch up.

Counsillors Christopher Hurst and Ling Ling Hui host Counselling and Learning Skills Services’ “Sleepless in Toronto” workshops to help sleepdeprived students, suggest obtaining two days of unrestricted sleep on a weekend as an effective way to reducing sleep debt.

Establishing and maintaining regular sleep and wake times, even on weekends, can help to regulate the biological clock. Setting a routine conditions the body to expect sleep and wakefulness. Getting the same amount of sleep every night becomes easier if the body knows that those hours are designated for it.

Some additional tips to obtaining quality sleep include exercising regularly (although avoid it within three hours of sleepytime) and to have limited naps of 15 to 20 minutes early in the day to avoid disrupting nighttime rest. As well, avoiding caffeine, alcohol, and heavy meals before sleeping is a good idea.

Taking proper measures to ensure a good night’s dreams, and erasing sleep debt as soon as warning signs present themselves, is the key to maintaining a balanced and healthy lifestyle. Although sleep may not be on most student to-do lists, staying in bed a few more hours may be the solution students are looking for by obtaining a quality sleep to gain a quality performance.

To sleep is human—to sleep in, divine.

Time to CA$H in

University of Toronto commerce students are bracing for this Saturday’s Battle for CA$H competition, sponsored by the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Ontario.

There, 39 teams of undergraduate business students selected by student societies from 18 universities across the province will aim to out-fox each other for rewards that include impressing future employers, and also a respectable pile of money.

Evgenia Volodarski, one of this year’s competitors, was also involved in last year’s competition, in which U of T excelled in technical aspects, but lost out in peer judging of their ethics.

“Maybe we were a bit big-headed,” she allowed, promising to be “more humble” this year and “win with decorum and class.”

Team spirit is strong among the first-year students of St. George’s highly competitive commerce program. Andrew Lenjosek, a commerce freshman, said he hopes to beat competing schools to “keep up the U of T pride.”

Beyond bragging rights, prizes include major resumé material, according to competitors.

“I’m really looking forward to representing University of Toronto, the amazing networking opportunities, and the chance to meet other students from their respective universities,” said Belinda Chiu, a junior ambassador for the Accounting Society of U of T.

“It is a great way for students in all years to not only develop their teamwork and interpersonal skills, but also […] a chance to interact with leaders in the accounting industry—notably experienced representatives from the Big Four accounting firms,” added Chiu’s teammate, Boyan Zhao.

All teams will aim to beat last year’s CA$H champs—UTSC—for the $3,000 first place prize and the additional $1,000 that goes to the winning university’s accounting club.

According to Bessie Qu, a second-year commerce student involved in several committees of ASUT and the Commerce Student Association, CA$H allows U of T students to see how they measure up against students from other universities, especially in skills not taught in the classroom.

The competition, which will take place at ICAO’s offices in Toronto this Saturday, will focus not just on arithmetic, but also problemsolving, teamwork, and strategizing.

“All the math skills in the world cannot help without these competencies,” said Perry Jensen, of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Ontario. “[CA$H] is also a chance for major employers to talk about what they are looking for and a chance to win money. And who doesn’t love money?”

Listen Up!

The big story of 2007 was the escalation of a number of trends that have been brewing in the underground for quite some time. Indie electro—which fuses rockist aggression with 80s synths and dance beats—continued to rise in popularity, making flirtatious advances on the mainstream by way of cell phone ads featuring Justice and Digitalism plus a massively hyped world tour by Daft Punk back in the summer. Independent record labels also flourished, keeping executives at the majors nervously wondering how far the music business paradigm could shift without cutting them out of the process completely. Radiohead’s split with label EMI/Parlophone and subsequent DIY, pay-what-you-want online distribution experiment highlighted the sea change which is currently underway. And amongst all this indie rock managed to hold its own, offering up some of the best work yet from veterans The National and Kevin Drew as well as splendid debuts from newcomers like Miracle Fortress, Fjord Rowboat, and Black Kids.

1. Radiohead – In Rainbows (Independent/XL)

The band’s best work since 2000’s Kid A, In Rainbows made headlines back in October for its unpredictable musicality and for its novel online release scheme, which allowed buyers to set their own price for the album’s 10 tracks. From the spastic, snare-heavy opener “15 Step” to the haunting comedown closer “Video Tape,” In Rainbows shows no shortage of creative accessibility— something especially evident on the album’s standout single “Jigsaw Falling into Place” and the downbeat gem “All I Need.” The best albums are perfect soundtracks to the season they are released in, and fall 2007 was all In Rainbows.

2. Justice – † (Ed Banger)

No band was more hyped in 2007 than French electro duo Justice. The masterminds behind the ubiquitous remix single “We Are Your Friends” dropped their first full-length album † back in June on Parisian label Ed Banger. Featuring massive, dirty synth riffs and killer club-influenced production, it’s no surprise that rockers and ravers alike spent the summer freaking out to tracks like “D.A.N.C.E.,” “DVNO,” and “Let There Be Light.” Justice also takes home the prize for Best Musical Iconography, planting a telltale Christian cross front and centre on the album’s artwork and at their live shows. They should expect a lawsuit from Jesus Christ as soon as he gets back.

3. The National – Boxer (Beggars Banquet)

After 2005’s Alligator propelled this NYC quintet from indie obscurity to “buzz watch” status, scene watchers knew their next album would make or break these sensitive rockers. When Boxer dropped in late May the response was virtually unanimous—The National had arrived. Singer Mark Berninger’s unique lyrical style—he comes off like a cross between Ian Curtis, Morrissey, and Bruce Springsteen—proved to be one of the album’s strongest elements pushing songs like “Start a War” and “Brainy” into the realm of bona fide genius. Also worthy of praise is drummer Bryan Devendorf, whose creative beats naturally rise to the top on “Squalor Victoria” and the exquisitely arranged “Fake Empire.” Other songs that helped make Boxer a real contender for indie-classic status include the single “Mistaken For Strangers” and “Guest Room.”

4. LCD Soundsystem – Sound Of Silver (DFA)

Sound of Silver is a one-man electro tour de force. Here, James Murphy shies away from populist dirty synth sounds to concentrate on building banging rhythms from the ground up. From the energetic opener “Get Innocuous” to the chilling electro-ballad (yes, these exist now) “Someone Great,” which is heavily steeped in 80s angst, to the tongue-in-cheek “North American Scum,” Sound of Silver has cemented Murphy’s reputation as one of the best indie-dance producers around. It now goes without saying that Daft Punk will one day actually play at his house.

5. The Tough Alliance – New Waves (Summer Lovers Unlimited)

This Swedish duo combined tropical rhythms with surging synthesizers to create one of the summer’s best singles “Silly Crimes.” Backed by “Mine Was Real” and “25 Years and Running,” New Waves makes for picture-perfect beach music, and features my favourite album artwork of 2007. Keep an eye on these guys to do something big in 2008.

6. M.I.A. – Kala (XL)

After wowing the world with her spunky debut Arular back in 2005, M.I.A. (her real name’s Mathangi Arulpragasam) returned in August with a more focused and better produced offering, Kala. Drawing on elements of grime, dancehall, and electro, M.I.A.’s agitprop lyrics and creative use of samples for percussion (cash registers and gunshots on the album’s best track “Paper Planes”) received rave reviews while drawing attention to political issues like immigration and the relationship between the first and third worlds.

7. Chromeo – Fancy Footwork (Vice)

A modern-day Hall and Oates? It’s too soon to tell. But right now this Montreal duo is red hot and on the path to achieving a sexy and cheeky form of world domination. Drawing on the best of 80s funk pop and the current trends in electro, Chromeo makes songs that are funny and packed with air-tight beats and hooks. If the title track, “Tenderoni,” and “Bonafide Lovin’” don’t make you want to get up and dance, then you probably hate dancing and are no fun at parties.

8. Miracle Fortress – Five Roses (Secret City)

While losing Canada’s Polaris Prize to label-mates Patrick Watson might have been an injustice, listening to Miracle Fortress’s enthralling melodies, perfect harmonies and pristine, Brian Wilson-style production on Five Roses makes me believe that they’re not the bitter, angry, jealous or vengeful types. With shimmering guitars and dreamlike songwriting, Miracle Fortress were easily one of the best musical surprises of 2007.

9. Fjord Rowboat – Saved The Compliments For Morning (Independent)

Reviving shoegazer, a short-lived and under-appreciated genre of Brit-rock, Toronto’s Fjord Rowboat deliver a solid album of extremely well-crafted songs. Drenched in reverb, these boys practice fantastic melody making, but frontman Craig Gloster and bassist Ian MacKay keep things dark enough to pass muster with even the most dour anglophile hipsters. Saved The Compliments For Morning is a great listen from start to finish and features standout tracks “Taking the Pass” and “Carried Away.” Watch for a new EP from Fjord Rowboat to drop sometime this year.

10. We Are Wolves – Total Magique (Dare To Care)

Montreal trio We Are Wolves brings brass balls to electro rock. Singing in both French and English, WAW layer garage bass lines over dance beats, distorted vocals, and analog synths to create a pulsating, dirty, energetic sound. Anyone who thinks electro is for wusses should listen to “Psychic Kids,” “Magique,” or “Fight and Kiss” off Total Magique—these guys kill.

Honourable Mention The Postage Stamps – This Ugly Arrangement, Kevin Drew – Spirit If…, Digitalism – Idealism

Students at locked-out school demanding refunds

St. Thomas’ University has achieved a dubious record. The small liberal arts school in Fredericton, New Brunswick, is the first post-secondary institution in Canada to lock out its faculty in anticipation of a strike vote.

The school’s nearly 3,000 students, who expected to return to class on Jan. 3, have had the start of their winter term postponed indefinitely, and some are demanding compensation.

“To have to pay back a student loan on an education I didn’t receive would actually make me very angry,” third-year student Laura Darrow told the Canadian Press.

In an open letter released on Dec. 31, STU’s president Michael W. Higgins called the lockout “an effort to fast-track our negotiations and minimize the impact on our students.”

Higgins’ letter laid blame for the lockout on the Faculty Association of the University of St. Thomas, for not accepting the university’s latest offer and voting to leave the bargaining table. Faculty, however, have said that the offer ignored their stated concerns and that the union did not leave negotiations, but only announced a strike vote and asked for extra time to consider the university’s proposal.

Dawn Morgan, an English professor at STU and spokesperson for the FAUST, blamed the university for bringing negotiations to their current impasse. “We are ready to bargain, once the administration considers our concerns and priorities beyond their final offer,” she said.

The Students’ Union of St. Thomas University supported the delayed start of term. SUSTU president Colin Banks told students in a Dec. 18 letter that the move will prevent individuals from hijacking class time to advocate their views on the negotiations. He also applauded the extended break for “preclud[ing] either Faculty Association or the University from using students as leverage during this situation.”

The university announced the lockout on Dec. 26, when negotiations over a new contract broke down. STU has sought to put its latest offer, which faculty negotiators rejected, to a direct vote by the union’s membership, allowable under New Brunswick law. According to Morgan, the union has never moved to block the member vote, but believes it a waste of time because they have advised their constituents to reject the offer.

Morgan accused the university of not being earnest at the bargaining table. “We met with them on Thursday and Friday but they didn’t negotiate. They yelled, taunted and employed sarcasm,” she said.

STU administrators have said that FAUST’s demands are impossible to meet. Higgins claimed that they amount to a 43 per cent increase in salaries and benefits over three years, which he translated into an “immediate revenue requirement” of $1,450 per student. Morgan has said the union is only demanding parity with faculty salaries at peer institutions in the Maritimes.

Throughout negotiations, the union has pushed for health insurance and office space for the school’s 59 part-time faculty, who have no supplemental health care plan and who all share a single office. It is also demanding a reduction of its members’ mandatory teaching load from three to two full courses per term.

STU employs 106 full-time and 59 part-time instructors, most of the latter sessional teachers. The Canadian Association of University Teachers paid FAUST $1 million from their defense fund to support faculty and cover costs, largely those of renting temporary office space in downtown Fredericton.

On Monday, the 167 locked-out faculty voted to go on strike. FAUST released a letter to its members telling them that striking would strengthen their position at the bargaining table by giving them control over when classes will resume.