Who’s laughing now?

The Writers Guild of America strike is entering its 10th week today, and while it might warm some hearts to know that a new American Gladiators is back in the making, most television viewers are beginning to tire of the onslaught of game shows and reality programming hijacking TV airtime. Adding insult to couch potato injury, last week it was announced that this year’s Golden Globes will be cancelled. This means no red carpet and no fashion magazine “best and worst of” lists in the weeks to follow. This strike is beginning to hinder all sorts of guilty pleasures.

Still, it’s hard not to side with the writers. Now that they’re gone, we’re realizing just how badly television needs them. Well-written shows like The Office and Big Love—two of the many programs whose production has been halted by the strike—are what keeps the ‘boob’ out of boob tube. More pressingly, this is a U.S. presidential election year. How on earth are we supposed to follow the campaign without Jon Stewart’s whipsmart coverage on The Daily Show to fill us in on all the dirty politics? New episodes have returned, but with Stewart doing all his own writing, they are of lesser quality.

On the other hand, Canadian-produced television shows remain unaffected by the WGA strike. Perhaps an ongoing strike would allow for a push of Canadian programming into a broader North American spotlight. Can’t you just picture families across America rushing home to see the latest episode of Corner Gas? Then again, maybe not.

There is a major downside to the strike for Canadian entertainers. Our Hollywood North economy is beginning to suffer tremendous losses from the cessation of American television productions. In British Columbia alone, more than a dozen series that had been filming in the province prior to the strike have closed operations. The two that remain are expected to follow suit within the month.

The strike is a nuisance, but fair is fair. This isn’t the first time American writers have gone on strike. Back in 1988, the WGA ended its five-month strike with an ill-forged deal that wound up costing them enormous home video and DVD residuals in the following years. Now, the writers’ concerns surround new media, specifically a share of internet-based media profits, which don’t add up to much today, but are projected to be worth billions in the future. Though it may seem mind-boggling, production companies that rely so heavily on the talent of their writers for enormous profits have long been reluctant to grant these writers a fair piece of the pie.

Hopefully the studio execs are paying close attention to the low-grade pap that’s being churned out on their networks, and realize that pretty soon we’re going to get tired of watching reruns of House, turn off the TV and, I don’t know, pick up a book or something.

Just compensation for writers is the obvious, ethical choice for the entertainment industry, even if it means viewers have to endure more of the same dismal programming until an agreement can be made. The writers have already been shortchanged. This strike is about making sure it doesn’t keep happening.

Blues rise in East

After a tremendous first half of the season, which saw the team win the first five games and put up a record of 7-3 overall, the Varsity Blues women’s basketball team must have been sad to see 2007 come and pass. The team can take solace that while the Gregorian calendar has already brought us into 2008, in the Chinese lunar calendar, the year of the pig, which officially began on Feb. 18, 2007, will not change until Feb. 6, 2008. So far the year of the pig has been nothing short of a blue-ribbon year for these “Beasts of the East.” Coach Michelle Belanger praised her team’s overall consistency this season, following an 89-48 route of the Ottawa Gee- Gees over the weekend.

“The players should get all the credit for our success this year. They’ve matured a lot, and are finally playing up to their ability. They’re taking things a little more seriously than they have in the past and it shows. They really want to win!”

The Blues have not only been consistent this season, but dominant. In wins they are outscoring their opponents by an average score of 75-58 (17 points per game.) First in the East in overall scoring per game, our team trails only high-powered Laurentian and Western in the OUA.

“We try to run a lot of back-screens, and play a motion offense,” said coach Belanger after Saturday’s blowout against Ottawa. “I think we did a good job today of scoring in transition and taking advantage of our speed. When we play in the half court, we want to move the ball really quickly, set some screens, then look inside to our post players. We did that today.”

Against the Ottawa Gee Gees, quick ball movement resulted in excellent shooting percentages and mismatches down low. Toronto finished the night shooting 46.4 per cent from the field, while going to the line 29 times compared to just 14 attempts for their opponents. Four Toronto players scored in double figures on Saturday: forward Laila Bellony had ten points and seven rebounds for the Blues, while Christine Cho and Allaine Hutton had 13 apiece. Any of these players could have easily grabbed Player of the Night honors, which eventually went to second-year guard Jessica Hiew who scored a season-high 16 points. Asked why this edition of the Blues has been so successful thus far, Hiew said, “I think it comes with playing a lot together. We’re starting to get to know each other’s games, what everyone can do, and that has helped a lot.”

The Blues haven’t only gotten familiar with their teammates in the New Year, but will be renewing hostilities with old foes the RMC Paladins and Queen’s Golden Gaels. The teams will be squaring off this Friday and Saturday at the Athletic Centre. Toronto opened 2008 with two victories on the road against them, and Hiew expects a dog fight this time around: “RMC and Queen’s are probably looking for revenge ’cause we beat them just last weekend. Especially Queen’s, because that was quite a close game. RMC we beat by quite a lot, but they’ll be looking to improve this time around as well.”

With another pair of victories, the Blues could creep closer to the top of the standings. Their current record, following a sweep of Ottawa and Carleton, stands at 11-3, good for second overall in the East behind the York Lions. The Blues are on pace statistically to win 17 games this season, their best total since 2003 when the team went 18-4. All coach Belanger wants to see is a hard-working team that learns from their past successes and failures.

“I just hope that we get better after every game we play, and I think that we have improved a lot in some areas. The goal is to put it all together by February so that we’ll have the total package.” The year of the pig isn’t quite over yet, and neither is the Varsity Blues season, so it’s possible that the 2007/2008 campaign will indeed be their year.

No thanks, your kidneys are too gay for me

Last week, Health Canada announced controversial new regulations surrounding protocol for organ donation. The new rules, which have been harshly criticized, list sexually active gay men as unsuitable donors because of the risk of HIV infection. This has, of course, angered many activists who have fought for years to erase the idea that HIV is an exclusively homosexual disease.

Surely, homophobia and discrimination are nothing to laugh at, but this is definitely not a fight that the Stonewall rioters could have imagined having to take up. “We’re here, we’re queer, harvest our organs!”

I’m not sure organ donation is a right per se. The right to actually keep all your organs inside your own body is probably more important. But still, in a society free of discrimination, everyone should have the right to be treated equally, in life and in death, regardless of sexual orientation.

However, these regulations didn’t appear out of the blue. The experts at Health Canada object to sexually active gay donors on health, not moral grounds. It’s not as if they’re worried that non-gay patients will have their innards infected by the sinful tissue of blasphemous sodomites. They’re worried about disease control. The reality is that sexually active gay men account for 51 per cent of all Canadians living with HIV in this country, and 45 per cent of new infections.

Besides male homosexual sex, the new regulations also take into account other high-risk sexual practices, like taking money for sex or having sexual contact in jail. But some health officials are saying that Health Canada may be overlooking other risky practices among heterosexuals.

Gary Levy, director of the multi-organ transplant program for the University Health Network in Toronto, had this to say: “The fact is, if someone has 62 partners, whether it’s heterosexual or homosexual, there still is a risk [for HIV transmission].”

So apparently, sluts aren’t suitable organ donors either. But how could we weed them out? “I’m very sorry for your loss Mrs. Jones, but before we donate your daughter’s heart to this dying man, could you tell us, was she, you know…loose? How about unprotected anal sex, did she have a lot of it?”

In any case, Health Canada is in a tight position. The results of an inadequate screening process would be disastrous, and the risk is very real. In Chicago alone, four people contracted HIV from donated organs last year. With the memory of the fatal tainted blood scandal still a painful memory in this country, Health Canada has a duty to make sure they don’t accept organs from high-risk populations. But is it discrimination to link HIV with a certain marginalized population? It’s taken decades to dismantle the idea of HIV/AIDS as a disease exclusive to homosexuals, and to hear the opposite from Canada’s most important health institution seems to be a huge step backwards.

The good news is that these regulations are not blanket interdictions against homosexuals. Gay women are considered safe donors, as are any homosexual men who are not sexually active. Gay men who are mostly monogamous, and whose partners have no communicable diseases, will also be allowed to donate.

Although these regulations are troubling, they probably say more about the worryingly high rates of HIV among Canada’s gay men than they do about homophobic attitudes among our health professionals. The reality is that HIV infections continue to grow at a startling pace among gay men, and it’s this problem that our health system and gay activists alike should be desperately trying to tackle. We should be trying to keep gay Canadian men alive for longer, rather than arguing over what to do with their organs once they’re dead.

Floyd Mayweather Jr. considering switch to uFC

2007 was a renaissance year for the sport of boxing. It brought back old fans, created new ones, and gave us a sports star that gets people talking. When Pretty Boy Floyd jumped into our televisions he created 2.4 million PPV buys for his first fight of ‘07, and over 500,000 buys in the states alone for his December bout. Sure there were better knockdowns, but unlike past years, Floyd Mayweather Jr. never failed to deliver the goods.

Rumours of Maywhether plunged inside a cage to fight in a Mixed Martial Arts match abound. The undefeated six-time world champion in five different weight classes, he also earns over 30 million per match. His self appointed nickname is “money” and UFC will never be able to cough up that sort of dough now.

Even if officials find 50 million for a Mayweather fight, we still won’t see him in a UFC cage as a fighter. While skeptics might see professional boxers as intellectual lightweights (thanks to multiple concussions), Mayweather is to the contrary. He understands that he is in a business where a small slip up equates to being hurt seriously. No matter how supremely gifted an athlete is, it’s a struggle to switch from your chosen sport and try competing at the highest level. That clip of Michael Jordan striking out flashes in our minds. And unlike baseball, you can’t afford to swing and miss several times in a UFC fight. Getting an armbar placed on you and having your limb broken would probably hinder a Jordan-esque comeback in boxing as well.

What would Floyd prove by doing this? What would he gain? As boxing royalty, he is the sports’ biggest draw, plus his style doesn’t suit MMA. If you plan on boxing your way to victory, then you need to be a knockout artist. Floyd is a boxer in its purest sense, he dances around ring throws to blow extremely accurate punches. Entering a sport where clinches won’t get broken up, use of elbows won’t disqualify, and falling on your back will not result in a timeout means Mayweather won’t be converting to Mixed Martial Arts anytime soon. The only way you will see him inside a cage is if Mayweather decides there is money to make and starts promoting young, talented, destined for MMA fighters.

I don’t know where people get these crazy ideas. Maybe its their desire to see that brash, arrogant, cocky, money flaunting Mayweather get beaten up. But that’s not going to happen inside the ring anytime soon.

We’re richer than they think

Toronto’s rich are getting richer and its poor are getting poorer— such are the findings of a study on the city’s economic divide done by U of T’s Centre for Urban and Community Studies. Since 1971, rich neighbourhoods have seen average incomes rise, while 36 per cent of Toronto’s poorer neighbourhoods have seen them fall by 34 per cent.

The culprits? “Changes in the economy, in the nature of employment (more part-time and temporary jobs), and in government taxes and income transfers,” says the report. This criticism sounds like the typical indictment of capitalist economics for leaving employment up to the market and cutting social programs, while lowering taxes for the rich.

Before we go and lead the proletariat into revolution, remember that there is little evidence that this polarization is caused by structural inequality or a lack of upward mobility among the general populace. It is far more likely a reflection of Toronto’s role as a top destination for new immigrants.

The first problem with the report’s argument is that the study focuses on the average income trends of Toronto neighbourhoods, not of individuals. When it comes to poverty, we should care about the plight of people, not of arbitrary geographic areas. That said, the fact that average income in a certain area went down doesn’t say anything about personal welfare. Upon closer inspection, there’s actually nothing in the study to back the claim that poor individuals have gotten poorer.

For example, picture a neighbourhood that initially contains a mix of high and low income residents. Now, let’s say that the richer residents move away and an influx of residents with lower incomes arrive. Statistically, average income drops. But this doesn’t mean that individuals in the neighbourhood are getting any poorer. In fact, who’s to say they didn’t get richer? It’s entirely possible that those who stayed in the neighbourhood saw their incomes rise, while newcomers improved their situation relative to their place of origin.

Since Toronto is the primary destination for new immigrants, there is good reason to think that this is what’s happening. It’s no coincidence that the neighbourhoods classified as poor also have the highest concentration of immigrants. Of the population in these areas, 62 per cent is foreign-born and 42 per cent arrived in Canada only after 1981. In 1971, native-born Canadians were the predominant group.

Recent immigrants face high language barriers, and are often disconnected from the social networks necessary to find high-paying employment. This makes their labour market incomes lower than the average Canadian. Newcomers are also typically concentrated in the same neighbourhoods, due to the presence of shared languages and familiar cultural products like food and entertainment. It would be nothing short of a miracle if average incomes in these localities stayed constant over the period studied in the report.

The good news is that, according to a 2003 Statistics Canada study, “initial [immigrant] settlement is in disadvantaged immigrant enclaves from which longer-term, more successful migrants subsequently exit as they purchase homes in more affluent neighbourhoods.” But as these established immigrants move away and are replaced by more recent arrivals, neighbourhood average incomes, of course, drop—reinforcing the illusion of the poor getting poorer.

Beneath this bleak tale of neighbourhood inequality is a serious success story. Over the past few decades, hundreds of thousands of people from less fortunate places around the world came to Toronto in search of a better future. Migration significantly improved their opportunity and standard of living. As they settled in, their incomes rose and many moved out of ethnic ghettoes, only to be replaced by a new group of people looking to do the same thing.

There is an inevitable trade-off here. We can’t accommodate a massive influx of new immigrants and expect our demographics to remain constant. Torontonians have shown that they believe in the right of people to come here in search of a better life, but this makes our city’s neighbourhoods less economically similar, as waves of newcomers slowly adjust to life in Canada. In the end, we need to stop focusing so much on income equality and ask a fundamental question: are the living standards of individuals rising over their lifespan? If the answer is yes, we should be proud.

Talking Heads: Do you pay too much for required textbooks?

Clockwise from top-left

Steven, 1st-year Industrial Engineering and
Mizuk a, 1st-year Chemical Engineering:
Her—Me too!

Aroni, 1st-year Economics, Yeah. I buy
used textbooks ’cause I can’t afford
new ones. They’re half price and they’re
still too much.”

Kevin, MBA, Yeah, of course I do. The
real problem is all of these multiple
editions that add no value.

Michelle, 3rd-year Commerce, Yeah!
I do! Some of them don’t even have a
buy-back program ’cause they go into a
separate edition. If students can’t use the
old textbooks, the university should be
responsible for buying them back.

Perspectives from Persepolis

Fearing social suicide, I very seldom use the word “nifty.” Yet when faced with the task of describing the animation style of Persepolis, it seems like the only word that will do. The characters are drawn in a stylishly minimal black-and-white and move in a herky-jerky way that is defiantly 2-D in a Pixar-dominated animation marketplace. When characters move, they often look like paper puppets— one part of the body will be flailing while the rest remains absolutely stationary. In the rare instances when 3-D is used, it is employed in a way that simulates a pop-up book. It looks like one of those Robert Smigel cartoons from Saturday Night Live filtered through German Expressionism.

Persepolis is based on two graphic novels by Marjane Satrapi about her own adolescence in a war-torn and increasingly oppressive Iran, and her subsequent tumultuous, soul-searching journey through Europe. The books and the film are also a pretty effective history lesson, summarizing years of Iranian war and revolution. Despite the difficult subject matter, both the graphic novels and the film are surprisingly whimsical and occasionally touching, and they have the same sort of irreverent humour one might find a comic written by a kid during class.

Unlike most literary adaptations, the Persepolis movie is co-written and codirected by the original author. “I never wanted to make a movie, and I always thought that was a very bad idea to make a movie out of the comics,” said Satrapi in a phone interview. “I had the possibility to make exactly the movie I wanted without making any compromise, and as an artist it doesn’t happen every day when people tell you, ‘Oh you can do whatever you want’—it was really an intellectual and artistic challenge for me.”

The challenge of the Persepolis movie was to take two rambling, tangential graphic novels and turn them into a relatively conventional 95-minute movie while still maintaining their spirit. “When I made the book, the story is linear: it starts at one point, it finishes at one point, and I had all the space to express whatever I wanted. When you a one-and-a-half hour movie of course you cannot put everything, otherwise you’ll find yourself with five movies in one, which is a complete disaster.

“It was really a book that I made to give another point of view to the world. I didn’t want the movie to become a political or a historical or a sociological statement, and I thought to make it universal it would be much better to concentrate on the story of one person, a very individualistic [structure] and humanistic point-of-view. And just to show how it is as a human being when you are in a place and how [cultural norms] become so much bigger than you as an individual and pressed down. And how do you leave? How do you grow up? I thought that was an interesting angle.”

Persepolis has received almost unanimous critical and popular acclaim. It has been selected as France’s official entry for the Best Foreign Film Oscar, beating out much-hyped candidates like La Vie en Rose and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, and at last May’s Cannes Film Festival it won the Jury Prize. “The Cannes festival is like the day of your wedding,” said Satrapi. “Everybody enjoys it except you.”

But the film’s North American release is especially notable for coinciding with an unprecedented level of negative American media coverage about Iran. Considering the increasing tendency to label Iran, rather simplistically, as part of an “Axis of Evil,” Satrapi’s human story is particularly valuable.

“It is important that people don’t forget that the government is one thing, and the people are another,” says Satrapi. “I mean, even me, when I came to America for the first time, I missed [the fact] that American government and American people are not the same until I saw them, and I saw how people were…and American people are often not George Bush, thank God!”

“But most of the time people forget that, because every day 200 people die in Iraq, but nobody cares about it. They talk about it like it’s a dog dying. They have forgotten that those people [Iraqis] are just people like them, they have family and friends and hope and love, but they are reduced to some kind of abstract notion—‘Axis of Evil.’ So it’s very important that we put the human being at the centre of interest. It’s so obvious what I’m saying, but I feel that it can never be repeated enough.”

Books, by hook or by crook

With the winter term of classes only a week old, students at U of T, as across North America, are flocking to bookstores in search of required reading. As an inevitable result, students’ budgets are busting at the seams. On average, undergraduate students spend approximately $1,000 per year on textbooks. When all is said and done, the price of textbooks represents five to six per cent of the cost of education.

Textbooks are more expensive than novels, non-fiction, and other published material for a variety of reasons. Expensive binding and paper can drive up costs, as can detailed colour graphics and the so-called supplemental materials packaged alongside, which are often used to justify price hikes. Demand for textbooks is much lower than for mainstream books, further increasing their price as publishers must charge a high premium on the limited- run books in order to make their desired profit.

Third- and fourth-year textbooks are often much cheaper than for first year courses. This is in part due to the fact that first-year instructors are often not tenured faculty members. CD-ROMS, instructor packs and other supplementary materials are very handy tools for such instructors, but unfortunately it is students who pay for such materials.

U of T’s campus bookstore gets about 22 per cent of each book’s sale price as profit, compared to publishers’ 64 per cent.

Nevertheless, the cost of textbooks at campus bookstores has students seeking more affordable options. Many are using websites such as Ebay and Amazon.ca more than ever before. The benefits of shopping online vary on a case-by-case basis, however. Some textbooks are significantly less expensive, but others are priced exactly the same or higher than those on campus.

Students have also taken it upon themselves to provide each other with textbooks. Founded in 1998, the Toronto University Book Exchange provides students across the GTA a place to buy and sell textbooks. Its website, tusbe.com, is run by students, and has grown at a tremendous rate in the past few years, climbing from 10,000 book sale posts in 2002 to over 75,000 in 2007.

David Mazza, a fourth-year biology major, has used TUSBE for two years and said he loves it. “I can find all the books I need at a fraction of the price at the university bookstore,” he enthused.

High prices have even spawned an underground textbook market. Enterprising students of shaky ethics have found a profitable industry in selling illegally photocopied textbooks. Photocopied textbooks show up on TUSBE, too, sometimes as cheap as $25—still a large profit for their manufacturers.

In December, Canadian students, bookstores, and university administrators took part in the National Roundtable on Academic Materials. The first of its kind, the conference addressed concerns over the costs of textbooks, and found that students, who can be counted on to buy the textbooks, are only a minor factor in publishers’ calculations.

David Simmonds, VP university affairs for the University Students’ Council at UWO told the Gazette “One of the things that came out of the conference […] was that students have never been acknowledged in the textbook industry as the primary consumer of textbooks.”

With prices growing almost as fast as alternative options and piracy, it remains to be seen who will get the last word in the textbook industry.