Fringe Science: Testing telepathy

Ever pick up the phone and already know who’s on the other end? How about knowing what your friend is going to say before telling you? Imagine having this advantageous ability in an exam, allowing you to tap into the thoughts of the smart kid. These examples illustrate the apparent ability known as telepathy, or the ability to communicate information between organisms, disregarding visual, auditory, and somatic perceptual systems.

While extremely controversial, researchers over the past two decades have worked together to examine the possible validity of telepathic experiences. This culminated in the development of the Ganzfeld studies, a large group of experiments guided by protocols developed in 1987 by a partnership between telepathy proponent Charles Honorton and Dr. Ray Hyman, a skeptic of the phenomena.

This experimental protocol involved a “sender” who would view a randomly selected image on a computer screen, and mentally send the image to a “receiver” situated in a neighbouring soundproof room. Following the sending session, the “receiver” would choose between one of four images, with an expected hit-rate—how often the receiver identifies the correct image out of four possible choices—of 25 per cent given no telepathic effect. A meta-analysis conducted in 2001 revealed an overall significant hit-rate of 30.1 per cent, suggesting telepathic experiences may be valid.

Following publication, debate ensued due to a lack of converging lines of evidence, suggesting the significant findings may simply be statistical anomalies. To resolve this problem, scientists turned their attention to a different means of examining telepathy in relation to specific brain activity. Within the last few years, electroencephalograph (EEG) methods have been employed.

In 2005, lead researcher Dr. Leila Kozak and her team from the University of Washington and University of Bastyr conducted EGG studies that aimed to reveal if brain activity in one brain could cause activity in another. The experimental protocol involved pairs of people attached to EEG monitors, one being the “sender” and one being the “receiver.” The “sender” was placed in a soundproof room in front of a computer monitor that randomly presented images at different times. This technique was used to evoke a response, namely brain activity measured with the EEG. Throughout the duration of the trial, the “sender” was to keep the “receiver”—who was stationed 10 meters away in a different room—in his or her mind. If the “sender” saw an image or experienced brain activity, and the “receiver” experienced similar brain activity, it would suggest the occurrence of telepathic-like communication between brains. Furthermore, it would suggest telepathic communication is mediated in part by the brain. The results of the study revealed significant correlation between brain activity levels of the participants.

As of 2009, there has not been a meta-analysis conducted that has pooled all EEG telepathy experimental data, so it is difficult to be certain how common the results found by Dr. Kozak and her colleagues are. Nevertheless, her study was later replicated in three other labs worldwide and, combined with the results of the Ganzfeld experiments, builds a case that this phenomena may be legitimate.

Over the next decade, the telepathy debate will continue. With current research just beginning to explore telepathy with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), researchers may be able to determine which, if any, brain areas mediate the hypothesized telepathic effect. Moreover, if the phenomenon is to be accepted, it will also need an explanation detailing what is taking place physically. This is a tall order given contemporary physics is very powerful and does not explicitly have room for “spooky” energy travelling outside of the electromagnetic spectrum. Alternatively, telepathy may turn out to be a bunch of hocus-pocus.

Out of the frying pan

More word on the Fight Fees 14 legal case came from U of T on Monday, as the school announced it will consider reopening a probe on whether to start Code of Conduct hearings against the nine U of T students whose criminal charges were dropped last week. The news came from U of T’s Strategic Communications office, which released the school administration’s official response to news of the Crown’s withdrawal of charges related to a sit-in protest in March.

The only U of T student still charged is a minor who cannot be identified.

The nine students whose charges were dropped have entered a “peace bond,” an agreement similar to a restraining order. Under the terms of the peace bond, the nine students may not enter Simcoe Hall without giving a heads-up 24 hours in advance. They also may not demonstrate inside of U of T buildings. The peace bond stays in effect for one year.

“Very often a peace bond is a way of resolving a weak criminal case,” said the students’ lawyer, Mike Leitold.

The prosecutor had not disclosed all the evidence against the students. Leitold said that the Crown had only confronted the students with “a very frail case, but nonetheless the students decided to move their lives forward by getting these very serious charges dropped.”

The university had previously launched an investigation to decide whether to charge the U of T students among the FF14 with violating U of T’s Code of Non-Academic Student Conduct. The code governs student behaviour outside of the classroom, and allows expulsion, an option the school has exercised in the past. According to the administration statement, the investigation was suspended to await further evidence, which was expected to surface during the criminal trial. With that trial now out of the question, the office confirmed that the investigators will now deliberate on whether to resume the probe or close it for good.

FF14 media spokesperson Gabi Rodriguez, herself among the nine students who signed the peace bond, reacted to the news, saying the administration had already promised in writing not to restart the investigation.

“[The administration] were informed of the peace bond terms before they were signed, and agreed that the terms were satisfactory,” said Rodriguez. “It’s kind of why the peace bonds were signed.” According to her, the FF14 feared their charges would be dropped only to have the Code of Conduct procedures resume, and that they sought and obtained the administration’s assurance that this would not happen.

The FF14 had already turned the charges’ withdrawal into an attack on what they called the administration’s use of scare tactics against campus protests, saying the dropped charges were a sign that the university had exaggerated the case against them. A press release issued last March by U of T’s president David Naylor called the sit-in a case of “thuggish tactics by mobs,” and publicly alleged that students at the protests had committed serious crimes including assaulting U of T staff and uttering threats of bodily harm against police officers and their families.

U of T stood by its account of events, denouncing the FF14’s statements as containing “very serious errors” and proposing to set the record straight. The university maintains that staff at Simcoe Hall were “confined against their will and were subjected to abuse and harm” at the sit-in.

“Administrative allegations of harm were not reflected in the charges laid,” said Rodriguez. “The lack of meaningful evidence which led to the dropping of charges seems convincing that our administration is willing to make empty allegations that are entirely political in nature.”

“From our perspective, we see this as the case beginning to crumble,” said Leitold, characterizing the peace bond deal as “a reflection of the weakness of the criminal case and the fact that these were political actions, not criminal actions.”

Both sides of the dispute capped off their respective declarations by taking shots at one another. “The University hopes that, in future, issues of concern will be brought forward in a responsible manner and it will continue to listen and to respond through the various means that exist for responsible dialogue between the University and its constituents,” reads the U of T’s statement.

Rodriguez responded that “frankly, the students hope that in the future the administration will be more responsible. Their entire case fell apart.”

Oldest known turtle swam with just underbelly armour

Turtles are charismatic and recognizable creatures that sport a unique characteristic: a shell comprised of two parts. Their shell features a carapace that covers the dorsal or back side of the animal, and a plastron, the flat belly. This design has long served a line of creatures that witnessed the flowering and fading of the mightiest of the giant dinosaurs’ rule on Earth. However, until now, all previously known prehistoric turtles possessed the same body plan, creating a puzzling origin to the lineage.

According to U of T Mississauga biology professor Robert Reisz, the discovery of 220-million-year-old fossils in marine deposits in southwest China has “opened up a new chapter in the study of the origins and early history of these fascinating reptiles.” Belonging to a newly identified species named Odontochelys semitestacea, meaning “toothed turtle with a half-shell,” they are now the oldest known species of turtle. The 35-centimetre long Odontochelys has expanded dorsal ribs and possesses the expected flat belly plastron. However, on its back it has no bony upper carapace. These traits enabled a research team led by Chinese biologist Chun Li, who unearthed the creature, to infer that shell evolution was a two-step process for an ancestral aquatic turtle, whereby the plastron developed before the carapace. This fits with the observation that the plastron develops first in turtle embryos.

In an article by Reisz, co-authored with UTM biology professor Jason Head, an alternate interpretation was offered. The two scientists argued that the shell morphology of Odontochelys is not the primitive state for the turtle lineage. Under this view, Odontochelys is a more advanced animal whose carapace was much reduced and softened, as a secondary or derived adaptation from a land-dwelling ancestor that lived even earlier. The study noted that the sea-going Odontochelys’ ecology closely resembles modern creatures such as freshwater soft-shell turtles with heavily reduced shells, as well as many sea turtles and snapping turtles whose shells have become somewhat unhardened. “Up to now, all the evidence suggested that the oldest turtles are terrestrial,” explained Head. “With this interpretation, that the turtle could indeed be aquatic, we may be pushing the frontiers of turtle origins further back.”

Despite their differing views, both groups of scientists feel that the fossil is the most primitive turtle. The discovery demonstrates how important new fossils are, as well as their ability to transform how we look at the course of vertebrate evolution. “This fossil discovery has brought up a new perspective and has given us new ideas and challenges,” said Reisz.

Prior to this discovery, the oldest known fossil turtle was the larger land-dwelling Proganochelys found in Germany. A metre-long beast with a spiky clubbed tail, it lived about ten million years after Odontochelys.

Jewish women occupy Israeli Consulate

A U of T student was among eight Jewish and Israeli women that occupied the Israeli Consulate yesterday for about two hours to protest the ongoing Israeli invasion into Gaza that has killed more than 700 people.

“It was an action in solidarity with the people of Gaza, we were there to demand that Israel stop its massacres,” said Jennifer Peto, a Master’s student at OISE. Peto was one of a group of ten women, led by Ryerson professor Judy Rebick.

The reasons for the protest were two-fold, said Rebick: “One was to bring attention to the fact that many Jews don’t agree with Israel, and that we’re only hearing one voice. The second is that we’re really upset about the assault on Gaza right now.” The Israeli Consulate responded by calling in the police.

Toronto Police seized the protesters for trespassing and causing a disturbance. “They handcuffed us and put us in a paddy wagon, I guess we were handcuffed for about an hour and a half, and then they let us go,” said Rebick.

Peto said they had no problems getting into the building in smaller groups, at around 10 a.m. “We had had valid reasons to get in, we are all Jewish so we were treated quite respectfully,” she said. “Israel is an apartheid state, so if you’re white and Jewish, they treat you extremely well. Some of us speak Hebrew and were able to do that. They treated us amazingly… At least until we sat down on the floor.”

Before the police entered the scene, said Peto, the consulate security grabbed her and tried to drag her out. “One of us was taking pictures,” she said. “He slapped her camera and she got hit in the face.”

The communications office at the Israeli Consulate did not return The Varsity’s phone calls.

Judith Deutsch, president of activist-prof group Science for Peace, was unable to get into the building. “All of us also felt that there was insufficient attention to the complicity of Canada not calling for a cease-fire,” said Deutsch. “Actually being the first country to withdraw funds in 2006 [when Hamas was elected] and not recognizing the government that was elected.”

Rebick pointed to Conservative MP Peter Kent, who blamed Hamas for Israeli shells that killed 40 Palestinians, including children, at a U.N. school in Gaza this week. She said the protest aimed to challenge the media’s distorted portrayal of the conflict. “It’s portrayed as a war between two equal forces, and the Israeli forces are overwhelmingly more armed more soldiers, they are disproportionately reacting to rockets that came before this happened, and they are killing civilians left, right and centre, and it’s not justified.”

Whoa, Canada!

On January 5, twenty-two teenage Canadians lit up Ottawa’s packed Scotiabank Place as they beat Team Sweden 5-1 to capture their fifth straight gold medal at the World Junior Hockey Championships. The tournament, which saw the puck drop on Boxing Day, glued hockey fans firmly onto their couches for the past ten days. For many, it’s a holiday tradition that rivals the turkey dinner on Christmas day or over-consumption on New Years Eve.

But when the competition is held in one of the European hockey countries, such as Russia or Slovakia, the fans share the same enthusiasm as they do for a Saturday morning peewee practice. Why is it so different in Canada? Why do we care?

It’s a matter of pride. As the Great White North is constantly overshadowed by the beast beneath us, there’s little to call our own. We don’t produce eight time gold medal winners at the Olympics, we don’t challenge for the World Cup (or even compete for it), but hockey is ours. It’s what we do, and it’s what we do well. It doesn’t matter whether it’s Mario Lemieux scoring the ’87 Canada Cup winner, or Jordan Eberle netting the tying goal with only 5.4 seconds left, as he did last Saturday night, paving the way for a dramatic Canadian shootout win against the Russians. In hockey, Canadians can feel as though they’re on top of the world.

The competition provides a much-needed break from the mid-season monotony of the NHL. A third of the way through the season, the already drudging league falls into a dull routine. NHL-ers put forth a half-decent effort, earn their paycheques, travel to the next city, and do it all over again. But with the injection of the World Juniors, fans are given a taste of hockey that’s untainted by professionalism. Not earning a single cent, the boys play with nothing but passion, excitement, and national pride. Through sheer determination (and quite a bit of skill), John Tavares single handedly got Canada back into the final round robin game against the Americans by scoring two straight goals to bring the team within one of the tie. P.K. Subban revved up the crowd with his boisterous energy even more than he did with his all-star performance. And Dustin Tokarski, a kid that was told he would never make it, backstopped the team to their victory. The eager glint in the players’ eyes that often fades after years in the NHL shined bright during this tournament.

But what really keeps Canadians glued to their televisions is a sense of the familiar. The players aren’t from some lofty realm of athletic elitism, inaccessible to the common Joe. They’re our brothers, our cousins, our sons, and our high school classmates. If you grew up in Canada, chances are you’ve known someone just like six foot six defenseman Keith Aulie from Rouleau, Saskatchewan, or Chris DiDomenico from Woodbridge, Ontario, who was once overlooked by the OHL because of his size. Perhaps you went to school with an Angelo Esposito from Montreal, rejected three years in a row by Team Canada before finally making the cut, who scored the gold medal-winning goal in Monday night’s game. The team inspires the next generation of young players to believe that it doesn’t take divine intervention (or corporate endorsements) to make it. They salute all the regular people who’ve helped them along their way. They may be from the other side of the country, but they strike close to home.

One couldn’t help feeling a sense of national sentiment when the 1,800 square foot Canadian flag surfed over the Ottawa crowd. The tournament is more than a showcase of sport. It’s a reinforcement of our pastime, and an expression of our social fabric.

What really keeps Canadians glued to their televisions is a sense of the familiar. The players are our brothers, our cousins, our sons, and our high school classmates.

TA negotiations update

A positive strike mandate seems to have yielded some positive results for members of CUPE 3902. The union and admin have settled on improved maternity leave, and introduced parental leave for fathers and adoptive parents. Other agreements include an additional hour of paid training and some release time from work duties around major academic deadlines for TAs. Assistant invigilators will enjoy a better wage rate. The university has also agreed to strike a task force to investigate ballooning tutorial and class sizes.

“It’s already looking good. We hope undergrads are paying attention to negotiations and will encourage U of T admin to bargain fairly with us,” says Chantal Sundaram, staff representative of CUPE 3902.

Several issues remain unresolved. The union wants U of T to cover pricey premiums of the private University Health Insurance Plan for international students, where costs can run up to $3000 per year for one family. So far, the university has said that they would like to see UHIP discontinued but haven’t agreed to lower the cost in the short term. Other sticking points include childcare assistance for student parents, improved health benefits, tuition assistance, better funding packages for grad students, and the duration of the new contract. The union will want a two-year contract that ends at the same time as TA contracts at other universities, in order to boost future bargaining power.

“Maybe the U of T administration is going to learn from the mistakes of York and offer a dignified contract,” said Farshad Azadian, member of Students in Support of CUPE.

“The situation at York is very different,” countered U of T VP human resources and equity Angela Hildyard. “CUPE 3903 at York is negotiating on behalf of TAs, stipend instructors and research assistants; at U of T, the bargaining is for TAs only.”

“We remain optimistic that we’ll be able to reach an agreement without the need for work action,” said Hildyard.

Upcoming mediated negotiations are scheduled for the last two weeks of January. The University of Toronto Students Union will be holding an Undergraduate Town Hall on TA Collective Bargaining, on Weds, Jan. 14 at the Bahen Centre.

Blues spike back

The Varsity Blues women’s volleyball team hosted the 18th annual National Invitational Tournament on January 2-4 at the Athletic Centre.

The Blues finished in second place with a 2-1 record, behind tournament champions the York Lions, who finished with a perfect 4-0 record.

In the tournament’s opening day, Toronto defeated the Winnipeg Wesman with a total of 3-1 (25-20, 20-25, 25-17, 25-22). On Saturday, U of T lost to the York Lions with a score of 1-3 (25-21,18-25, 16-25,19-25). The Blues finished the tournament with a 3-1 (26-24, 18-25, 25-17, 25-19) win over the Saint Mary’s Huskies.

“It was a great way to start the second season, especially since there was some tough sets that we won. We rose to the challenge, and in the finals we demonstrated our ability to play,” said head coach Kristine Drakich. “We felt very good; everyone put in a real team effort, everyone contributed. This helped us to get focused and prepared for the second half of the season.”

Fifth-year Blues star Caley Venn was named the tournament all-star for her incredible play throughout the weekend.

In the game against Saint Mary’s, Venn and Heather Bansley tallied 14 and 13 kills respectively.

Bansley is currently leading in the OUA, and second in the CIS, averaging 5.64 points per game. She has been selected to be part of the Canadian National Beach Volleyball team.

Club Profile: Medieval martial arts

A few mornings ago I was walking down a busy downtown street during rush hour. The world felt slow; cars crawled towards an unending stream of red lights, drivers planted in their seats. Out of nowhere, two young men on svelte road bikes appeared, weaving in and out of traffic. They were challenging one another, taunting and shouting, grinning maniacally all the while. Their enemy was the environment, and sure of victory, they approached the fight with reverence and respect. But make no mistake: they were enjoying the hell out of it.

Meeting David M. Cvet was kind of like seeing those two young men racing down the road: he is all sureness and energy, bound together in an enormous 6’7” frame. The progenitor of the AEMMA (pronounced ‘Emma’), or Academy of European Medieval Martial Arts, Cvet’s organization is dedicated to recreating the philosophies and combat techniques of l´arte dell´armizare, based on an early 15th-century manuscript by Fiore dei Liberi. It details in both verse and illustration various combat and defence techniques using weapons common to a medieval fighter: daggers, swords, spears, and poleaxes.

Cvet saw the manuscript while on contract work in Italy in the late 1990s and instantly realized he could combine his fascination of medieval history with his love of steel weaponry, especially swords. “I wanted to do a martial arts activity that is not a re-enactment,” he says, referring to places like Medieval Times, the suburban spectacle that has more in common with theatre than combat. Instead, he aimed to reconstruct the art from scratch, and to adhere to its concepts as closely as possible.

When he got back to Canada, Cvet recruited a few like-minded friends and began applying what he knew of the manuscript to his own training. He soon retired from his day job as an IT specialist and dedicated his life to spreading medieval martial arts throughout Toronto. AEMMA has since grown into a non-profit school where history buffs and weapons nuts alike can pursue the strengthening of one’s mind and body. A dedicated group of about 25 men and women now train several times a week. “It has to be a lifestyle choice,” says David. “My wife refers to AEMMA as the other woman.”

Like many of the Eastern martial arts, AEMMA incorporates three elements into its rigorous training: books, brain, and brawn. “Eighty per cent of fighting is inside your head. You want to look for opportunities to take advantage [of your opponent] and not turn it into a brawl.” Many of AEMMA’s members spend as much time wielding bookmarks as they do broadswords, and, according to Aaron Bolarhino, both are equally important.

An AEMMA member for four years, 21-year-old Aaron has received the rank of scholler, or scholar, an accomplishment earned by enduring savage bouts against several provosts¸ or masters, with a range of weapons of his choosing. He currently heads AEMMA UofT, and, with Cvet’s help, is recruiting on campus. “AEMMA is one of my favourite courses at U of T,” he says, referring to the heavy emphasis on studying the many theories associated with Fiore’s manuscript. He commutes from Kitchener twice a week to attend university, and to practice. Lean, muscular, and goateed, he comfortably embodies both the scholar and the martial artist persona that AEMMA nurtures. But, he assures me, it is the sheer exhilaration of the fight that keeps him coming back.

“Human beings are inherently violent,” says Cvet, smirking. “Here is a chance to turn that violence into something useful. It helps you grow as a person, and I tell you, when you get into a free play fight, and you’re doing armoured fencing with swords, with spears, it’s freakin’ intense. But you know what, all the while we’ve got a big smile on our face. It is just so much fun.”

Watch for AEMMA UofT around campus, and check out a real tournament on Saturday, March 21, at the ROM.