The Gaza war in our own backyard

Never has the chasm between political debate and military reality been so wide. The ease with which one can whip an entire polity into war fever has grown past the point of humanitarian realism.

“Stop the rockets, start the peace,” read the signs as I walked through the Toronto for Israel rally in Dundas Square last Sunday. I was there to support a friend of mine, who delivered an outstanding introduction to kick off the event.

Across the street was a small counter-rally organized by Independent Jewish Voices, a Jewish group highly critical of Israel’s policies, whose mantra is “Not in Our Name—Jews Against Zionism.” I overheard some resentful comments while leaving the rally, people charging them as “self-hating Jews,” but for the most part, there were no serious clashes.

Despite the fact that I stood out like a sore thumb—an Arab at a pro-Israel rally—nobody harassed me. In fact, most of the protesters were friendly, and greeted me with more respect than I would expect a Zionist to receive at a pro-Palestine rally.

The event’s theme was “peace.” The speakers impressed upon the crowd an image of a courageous Israel, supported by the international community for fighting the good fight while being the only democratic state in the area, struggling to coexist in harmony with its pugnacious neighbours. What the demonstrators failed to see was that Israel has made a pariah of itself through its condemnable actions in Gaza and the West Bank.

It’s this kind of detachment from reality that makes it hard for someone of my background to comprehend the motive behind anything Israel does. Having lived in an Arab country that has been the target of terrorist attacks, I’ve grown to detest terrorism, and I’m not alone. The majority of Arabs are no fans of fundamentalist groups like Hamas, Hezbollah, or the Muslim Brotherhood. These are rogue terrorist organizations whose unmeasured actions put civilians at risk of reprisal.

But the retaliation exercised by Israel borders insanity. After 60 years, countless attempts at peace, and no less than 50 massacres, Israel should realize that answering violence with violence doesn’t solve the problem: it exacerbates it, and creates a vicious cycle of aggression. At the rally, I was truly disappointed that nobody mentioned how fundamental the peace process is to ending terrorism. Savaging a besieged Gaza does the opposite.

Halfway through the protest, the organizers delivered their bombshell: the evocative 15 Seconds in Sderot video, which sent a chill down my spine. The clip shows a girl, presumably playing hide-and-seek, counting down from fifteen while children run for cover before a rocket lands in the middle of Sderot. While I could find much more horrific images at pro-Palestinian rallies, I can’t deny that the horror of living in constant fear of rocket attacks struck a chord in me. But only for a few minutes.

As the crescendo of praise for Israel climaxed and the keynote speakers whipped the crowd into a frenzy, I wondered how the attendees would react if someone displayed a picture of a Gazan child maimed by a cluster bomb, or civilians charred to the bone by white phosphorus. WP is a highly controversial weapon, which burns everything in its vicinity, including human flesh. While it’s true that WP isn’t internationally banned, its use in one of the most densely populated areas on Earth is troubling.

To make matters worse, two medics with the Norwegian aid agency NORWAC have recently charged Israel with using Gaza as a “test laboratory” for new “extremely nasty” chemical weapons such as Dense Inert Metal Explosives (DIME), which have a carcinogenic effect on people within its blast radius. This is precisely where the self-defence argument falls apart.

A good portion of the people at the rally, including an Indian speaker of questionable credentials, probably weren’t aware of any of these facts. They were too busy extolling Israel’s efforts to battle “terrorism.” They probably didn’t consider the words of Israeli founding father David-Ben Gurion, who said: “If I were an Arab leader, I would never sign an agreement with Israel. It is normal; we have taken their country […] There has been anti-Semitism, the Nazis, Hitler, Auschwitz, but was that their fault? They see but one thing: we have come and we have stolen their country. Why would they accept that?”

Pro-Israel activists need to be made aware of Palestine’s raw deal. They’re already living in extreme poverty, under a virtual occupation. The illusion that Israel’s unilateral disengagement plan has effectively ended the occupation needs to be cast aside, as does the deep-rooted desire on the Palestinian side to “wipe [Israel] off the Earth.” To cut things short, the borders of hostility must be broken down before peace can arise.

Future generations will judge us, not by how many people we killed to take revenge on our enemies, but by our endeavours to set our differences aside. Some time in the distant future, when these nations can once again live in peace with one another, they will look back on this point in time and decry our legacy if we don’t start making reconciliations soon.

Stealing the spotlight

Nikolai Fraiture claims it was never his dream to be a frontman.

The Strokes’ bassist, whose debut solo album The Time of the Assassins hits shelves on Tuesday, is insistent that his new project Nickel Eye wasn’t designed as any kind of ego trip.

“It was never my intention,” he says. “These were always words and ideas that never really had a plan—they were always just a way to let things out. With the time off, I was able to make them into an album.”

The result is The Time of the Assassins, a collection of acoustic-based folk tunes inspired by Fraiture’s appreciation of Neil Young and Leonard Cohen. There are glimpses of The Strokes’ driving rhythms, but the trademark ripping solos and snarling vocals are conspicuously absent—the new frontman is as understated as ever when he steps behind the microphone.

Fraiture’s reservations aren’t surprising. With The Strokes, he’s always been the quiet bassist, shying away from the spotlight in the long shadows of modern rock gods like Julian Casablancas and Nick Valensi.

In early 2007, after spending a year on the road in support of their third LP, First Impressions of Earth, The Strokes told dismayed fans that they would be taking an extended break.

Various solo albums have since followed, including two from guitarist Albert Hammond Jr., and Little Joy, the eponymous debut by drummer Fabrizio Moretti’s side project.

Yet with The Strokes weeks away from reconvening to begin work on album number four, a fact that Fraiture looks me in the eye and confirms (frustrated Strokes fans rejoice!), the oft-overlooked bassist has hit the road with a new backing band for what will be a very brief tour.

Why did he wait so long? It seems the creation of this record was designed simply as a way to pass the time.

“I had the basic words for quite a while, but most of the music was written during the two years we had off from The Strokes.”

Fraiture reveals he was frustrated by their lack of progress on new material.

“I think originally we [needed time off], and then Albert [began] concentrating more on his own project. It was by then that we wanted to get back together, and we tried, and for a while he wasn’t coming in so much, he was still focusing on his solo effort. We met up, all of us, and decided that February 2009 would be best [to get back together].”

Initially, Fraiture found time to finish an old project that had been lying dormant.

“It was this experimental film that I wanted to do for a long time with a friend from college. We had filmed it…in 2003 when we had a quick break back then. It’s based on French surrealist writing, mainly a few poems by Rimbaud.”

Fraiture met his new bandmates (which include guitarist Jamie MacDonald of the band South) unexpectedly while on vacation. “I was visiting my wife’s family in London for an extended period of time, and we all hung out. We started talking about music, they said they had a studio in Hackney, and we went in and recorded some demos.”

Though it’s been a while since Fraiture jammed with his most famous group of friends, he did call in a few hired guns—the album features guest appearances by Regina Spektor and Nick Zinner of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs.

True to form, Fraiture is modest about his new venture into the spotlight. “It [feels] the same, but with a twist. It’s the same kind of connection with the crowd, and I really enjoy that aspect of performing. It’s a little bit different of course, because it’s a different type of attention that you get.”

“The album’s not out yet, so it’s not that much pressure. People don’t know the songs, so they’re more just discovering a new band.”

With another successful solo album primed for release, Strokes fans are going to have to wait just a little longer for their heroes to return. In the meantime, they can tide themselves over by exploring this effort, which came as a surprise to everyone, including its creator.

Funny as hell

“I feel so dirty!” exclaimed the teenager next to me as Satan and Jerry Springer took their final bows. He wasn’t the only one: the older couple sitting to my right had left in disgust at intermission, dismayed at the show’s “utter lack of moral values.” (Just file theirs along with the other 50,000 complaints received when the play aired in 2005 on BBC Two.) Sure, in director Richard Ouzounian’s production, the F-bomb is dropped 297 times, while Jesus admits to being “a little bit gay” and the Ku Klux Klan tap dances with a Confederate flag. But even beyond surface-level controversy, Jerry Springer: The Opera succeeds as a challenging, rewarding piece.

“Bring on the losers!” begins the first act, which serves as a faithful recreation of the daytime trash-fest that is Jerry Springer. An onstage “studio audience” of Walmart-clad rednecks lob insulting chants at Jerry’s guests. The stars themselves, including feces fetishists, an aspiring stripper, and countless adulterers, are no tamer than the usual guests on the television series. The only difference in this musical is the stars’ overwhelming earnestness and naïveté, enhanced by the operatic delivery of the dialogue. As she searches for fame in a “Jerry Springer moment,” the soprano lilt of regressive prostitute Baby Jane (Jocelyn Howard) makes her intentions seem almost pure.

The only redemptive character is Jerry himself, with impressive deadpan delivery by Byron Rouse. Jerry is set apart as the only non-singer, speaking his own lines with amusing awkwardness. While interjecting the fights with witticisms, quipping that “a broadcaster with less experience might feel responsible,” Jerry is occasionally faced with his conscience in the form of a Valkyrie (Sarah Parkin). His Nordic foil takes the moral high ground, criticizing Jerry’s apparent lack of concern for the well-being of his guests. Jerry remains unconvinced until the second act, when the same argument is provided in Hell by Satan (JP Bevilacqua) himself.

The show morphs into a parody of Paradise Lost as the boorish guests of the first act take on the roles of Adam, Eve, Jesus, and God. The analogy makes sense: if Satan was sentenced to damnation for leading Adam and Eve astray, can Jerry be accused of the same sin? Shouldn’t he be held responsible for glamourizing self-destructive lifestyles, dishonesty, and violence? Both on television and in the musical, once his guests’ 15 minutes of fame are up at the end of each episode, it is evident that Jerry has not changed their lives for the better.

As noted by Ouzounian, “If countries get the leaders they deserve, they […] get the TV shows they deserve as well.” Inevitably, a critical commentary on the Jerry Springer demographic extends to American culture as a whole. The outside view of life in the United States is full of contradictions: we endlessly lambaste their crass taste in entertainment, but also their fervent religiosity. This omnipresent dichotomy collides in Springer’s portrayal of the deification of television personalities. Dropping Jerry Springer into one of the most familiar Judaeo-Christian narratives provides a powerful illustration of false idolism.

Those looking for the addictive, cathartic humour of the television show (regardless of the lofty morals) will be similarly impressed by Ouzounian’s production. Hopeless Hawaiian-shirted cheater Dwight (Greg Finney) particularly stands out as a comedic force, especially when reincarnated as a preening version of God. But best of all is the studio audience, who don’t miss a single opportunity for a cheap shot, no matter how self-reflective their insult. Their most telling scene is a trance-like chant that aims to sum up existence: “Eat, excrete, and watch TV.” Surely, we the (real) viewers can get past such passivity in our interpretations of Jerry Springer: The Opera. Providing big laughs, Hart House’s bold production will have you cheering for Jerry, for better or for worse.

Jerry Springer: The Opera runs at Hart House through January 31.

Med postgrads lose funding

All postgraduate medical research awards at U of T will likely be cancelled, the school’s Postgraduate Medical Education Office told The Varsity. PMEO’s awards officer Gerard Nagalingam made the announcement last week, citing a major drop in the university’s endowment fund due to the global economic situation.

Nagalingam added that the cancellation must be approved by the faculty dean before it comes into effect.

“We are waiting for a confirmation from the dean before a memo is approved,” he said. “The awards come from endowments and there have been no payments. External awards are still available.”

According to Nagalingam, the faculty generally pays out between $250,000-$300,000 in such awards annually. Students in the program rely on these awards to help pay back debt accumulated over the course of their research.

These awards are the first to be cancelled in what may be a string of financial aid cutbacks, the university’s top financial executive has confirmed.

“Division by division, we’re going through to see how we can make choices with presumably the lowest impact. We have no choice but to cut back,” said Cheryl Misak, the university’s interim vice-president and provost.

Endowments are funds created by the university for scholarships, bursaries, and research projects. They rely on donations, government funding and the success of U of T’s investments. All of those have taken a hit in recent months.

With less award money and an increasingly competitive job market, some students are concerned about funding their education and finding employment.

In a Jan. 17 article, The Globe and Mail reported a study conducted by economists with Statistics Canada, UBC, and Columbia University. The study found that it takes postsecondary graduates eight to 10 years to return to their normal earnings after a recession.

For its part, the university is trying to offer students some assurance that funding is not about to dry up any time soon.

“This is an extraordinarily difficult time and we’re trying to make the best decisions,” said Misak. “But we’re definitely committed to keeping with our contractual agreements and financial aid for students.”

This movie is on shrooms

Toronto-based filmmaker Ron Mann’s office looks like a comic book store. Located in a dilapidated building on Mercer Street, it’s sprinkled with a chaotic collection of assorted knick-knacks and doohickeys: a framed, original Doonesbury cartoon, a complete set of Pee-Wee’s Playhouse action figures, bobbleheads, old lunchboxes, and collectible memorabilia from his own films (I notice he has a Tales of the Rat Fink novelty mousepad).

With documentary films ranging from comic books (Comic Book Confidential), marijuana (Grass), Rochdale College (Dream Tower), early rock ‘n’ roll (Twist), and Woody Harrelson (Go Further), Ron Mann is invariably described in reviews as a “counterculture documentarian”—or, in some of the more conservative publications, a hippie. Mann acknowledges the truth to these labels.

“I see myself more as a cultural historian than a filmmaker,” says Mann. “What I really want to do is turn people onto different ideas and alternative culture that are not exposed in the mainstream media. Really, what I’m fighting is the status quo. And also, [I want] to resurrect history and document our times, so that there is a record of who we are that isn’t, y’know, mainstream.”

As the conversation progresses, Mann gradually moves from accepting the counterculture label. “I started to document what I was a fan of, and I was a fan of jazz music, because I worked at the jazz department at Sam’s, and the beat poets who I related to, and comic books—I mean, I grew up reading Mad Magazine. So I’m really more of a fan of the work that I’ve documented.”

Mann’s enthusiasm for his subjects can be seen in every frame of his films, not least with his latest, Know Your Mushrooms, opening for a limited engagement at the Royal on January 30th. While the topic is mushrooms, the film is fast-paced and entertaining in Mann’s typical fashion. In addition to their well-established food value, the hallucinogenic, aphrodisiacal, and medicinal uses of mushrooms and fungi are explored, as well as the thriving mushroom subculture (including glimpses of the Telluride Mushroom Festival).

Mann first imagined Know Your Mushrooms when editing a compilation of “mushrooms in the movies” with friend and director Jim Jarmusch. “He was encouraging me all along to make this movie, and he would say things like, ‘Did you know that the DNA of the mushroom is closer to a human than it is a plant?’ There’s these fungi facts that just flipped me out. And to go as an ethnographic filmmaker into this subculture…it turns out there are a lot of people who are attracted to mushrooms.”

The topic of counterculture rises again, but at this point, Mann has firmly established himself as an auteur—a director whose films are stylistically or thematically consistent. Stylistically, Know Your Mushrooms is as light and playful as Mann’s previous pop documentaries. Thematically, Mann depicts his subject as a bold piece of alternative culture, misunderstood by the fearful and ignorant status quo. He even finds two bona fide counterculture protagonists in Gary Lincoff and Larry Evans, a pair of colourful mushroom experts far outside the mainstream. Leave it to Ron Mann to create a polemic about mushrooms.

Like Mann’s other work, Know Your Mushrooms is a plea for adventure and open-mindedness, a spirit that Mann contends died with Reaganism. “I am nostalgic for that period,” he says of the 1960s, “mostly ‘cause, y’know, I was smoking pot and sleeping with women, and all the good things you go to university for.”

The laughter subsides, and Mann describes the torturous process of making Grass—three years, he claims, spent virtually isolated in a rat-infested office, sifting through countless vintage documents and propaganda films. He finished the film, he says, only out of the conviction that a movie like Grass had to be made. “There are only two real reasons to make a film,” he says. “It’s about something you really like, or something you really dislike.” Does Mann advocate for a return to the liberal values of the ‘60s, or is he just one of Canada’s pre-eminent fanboys? His answers suggest both.

Economic disaster crowds grad schools

Grad school applications are pouring in as the economic downturn prods many to continue their education instead of entering an uncertain job market. With entry-level job postings down as much as 25 per cent, U of T has received 12,631 grad school applications so far this year, a nine per cent increase from last year according to grad student dean Susan Pfeiffer. Applications to Queen’s MBA program have doubled since last year, and undergrad applications are also at record levels.

Gregg Blachford, McGill University’s director of career planning services, remains encouraging. “There are still jobs and […] opportunities out there, especially for university graduates,” he told the Globe and Mail. Many experts agree that the downturn will likely only delay career advancement, before evening out when the situation improves.

Making the connection between genes and diet

Imagine a diet specifically designed for you. It has all of the nutrients you need and all of the foods you love. But it doesn’t end there. The nutrients in this diet are at an optimal level, so their interactions with your genes result in positive health outcomes, providing the opportunity for a healthier lifestyle. The foods are unique to you—your favourite tastes based on your unique genetic makeup. This diet may not be as far off as it sounds.

Dr. Ahmed El-Sohemy, an associate professor in the Department of Nutritional Sciences and Canada Research Chair in Nutrigenomics, studies how diet interacts with genetics to produce health outcomes. He is also the project leader of the Toronto Nutrigenomics and Health Study, which involves the construction of a database of individuals and their diet and genotype information. Despite being one of the leading nutrigenomics researchers in the world, El-Sohemy has a background that most life science students can identify with. The Varsity sat down with Dr. El-Sohemy to discuss his educational experiences, and why he loves what he does.

The Varsity: Can you tell us about your background and how you became interested in research?

Dr. El-Sohemy: I did an undergraduate degree in nutritional sciences at the University of Toronto. At the time I thought I wanted to go to medical school, along with just about everybody else in the program and in the life sciences. I did some summer research, as a way to improve my application to medical school and [it] turns out I was really fascinated by research.

TV: What was fascinating about it?

D E-S: Just the idea that we were working on a problem and addressing it in a way that no one else anywhere in the world was. The opportunity to provide new knowledge—rather than applying information from a textbook, we would be creating the knowledge that would go into future textbooks. From there I decided to go to graduate school and I made some very interesting, yet unexpected, observations in the area of cholesterol and cancer that resulted in a couple of publications for me in the first year of graduate school, which again heightened my enthusiasm even more for research. So I switched from the Master’s program, reclassified straight into the PhD program. From there I became interested in how genetic variations could affect our response to different dietary factors. It was kind of an observation we’d made using animal models, but I wanted to study it in humans. So I went to Harvard for a post-doc, where I worked with a group there that was one of the few labs in the world that was exploring human genetic variation in response to diet.

TV: What would you say is the most rewarding part of being a scientist?

D E-S: Certainly the opportunity to create new knowledge that improves our understanding of how the foods and beverages that we consume effect our health is very rewarding. Making discoveries that no one else has ever made, that ultimately will improve the health of individuals and populations. There are other rewarding aspects. The research community is very global, and so there are many opportunities to meet other very interesting scientists from all over the world. I am collaborating with researchers from Costa Rica, Korea, the U.S., and Europe, and I have been invited to so many countries that I’ve lost count.

TV: What are some of the challenges you’ve faced in your career?

D E-S: One challenge from a research perspective is moving from being trained in basic research towards epidemiology, and to establish recognition in that area. I think a challenge was getting new ideas accepted in terms of getting grants funded. My first grant was not funded, I think in part because the idea was very novel and not widely accepted. But eventually, it did get funded and we published some very exciting results. It was a bit discouraging to have some reviewers of my grant say that this avenue of research was not worth exploring. So I basically ignored that advice and proved them wrong.

TV: Was there ever a person or situation that was particularly inspirational for you, or had some impact on you that led to you becoming a scientist?

D E-S: There was my PhD mentor Dr. Archer, chair of our department, who gave me the freedom to explore by letting me have a major say in the direction of the research. You start off working in the lab, working on a problem that’s assigned to you as a graduate student, but then depending on the lab and I think your supervisor, some may be more limited in terms of the opportunities to explore different ideas that were not originally part of the grant. He really gave me the freedom to do that, and provided a very supportive research environment.

TV: What are you currently working on in your lab?

D E-S: We’re working on a number of different problems, but all of them centre around understanding how common genetic variations influence the foods that we select, as well as our response to those foods. So with that we’ve developed the Toronto Nutrigenomics and Health Study, which currently has data on over 1,300 individuals, and we’ve collected a variety of information on dietary habits, food preferences, as well as genetic variation. My grad students are all working on very different problems. Because this area of research is so fertile, there’s so much that hasn’t been explored, so many interesting problems that we can address, in a way that has never been possible before. Because the integration of genomics into nutrition research is so new, there are very few people doing that, and this gives us an opportunity to be the first to make many important contributions to science.

TV: Can you tell us a little more about nutrigenomics?

D E-S: Nutrigenomics is a science that deals with the interaction between nutrients and food bioactives with the human genome. It enables us to understand why some people respond differently than others to the same dietary factors, and also to understand how genes influence, or explain our likes and dislikes of certain foods.

TV: Can you give us some examples?

D E-S: Well, one example is sensitivity to caffeine. For some people, a small amount—just a few sips of a caffeinated beverage—will make them very nervous and anxious. So they limit their consumption. Others can drink several cups a day and not have a problem falling asleep within an hour. Another is metabolism of vitamin C. If you give two individuals the same amount of vitamin C, one person’s blood levels will shoot up, and another’s will barely go up.

TV: Is there any advice you can give to aspiring researchers?

D E-S: Research can be very rewarding. I think it’s very exciting to have the opportunity to solve an important biological problem, or address an important health issue. But it involves a different way of thinking from what you might be used to as an undergrad. I think the only way to know whether research is for you is to give it a try. But also recognize that there are very different kinds of research going on in different labs across campus. If your first research experience is not particularly fulfilling, you may want to give another lab a try because the experience might be very different. I was very fortunate that in all of the labs I’ve worked in have been very rewarding experiences.

Are profs overstaying their welcome?

Although the university has publicly attempted to assauge concerned professors, George Luste, the president of the University of Toronto Faculty Association has expressed his concerns over what he calls the “inconvenient truths” of the school’s pension plan, in his Information Report.

“Thinking about your pension plans probably ranks right up there with thinking about your next visit to the dentist for a root canal,” Luste comments in the latest edition of the UTFA newsletter. “For the year ending June 30, 2008, our pensions plan investments lost about $177 million […] At present, as U of T pension plan members, we have virtually no say in the governance of our pension plan.”

In a time of economic turmoil, professors are reconsidering when they should retire. Until recently, the “ultimate nerd-dream” came to an abrupt end with a mandatory retirement that forced scholars to bow out of university service at age 65. The University of Toronto abolished this clause in June 2006 in response to Ontario legislation as well as changing attitudes towards ageism.

The trend has been evident across Canada. Most major universities have eliminated mandatory retirement—to mixed results. There is a small contingency of professors taking early retirement, but one-third of professors in Canada currently take their retirements at a later age.

If faculty maintain their status in their current universities, do they inevitably stunt the progress and dynamic thinking that defines academia? One professor of economics at the University of British Columbia finds the problem to be moot, instead citing a change in demographics that works to the short-term advantage of long-standing faculty members. In his opinion, there is an ongoing surge of available professors, as the echo boom have yet to complete their education.

In his fifties, the professor plans to retire at 65 to pursue his interests in writing and continued analysis.

Mark Kingwell’s comments about taking time off over the winter break seem to sum up the mindset of most professors. “I don’t know what I’ll do without you guys,” he jokingly commented to his Introduction to Philosophy class, “I’ll probably wander the streets from 12 to 1 p.m. every week, like a crazed man, begging people to listen to me talk about philosophy.”