Microsoft gives away software to students

Since well before the IT boom, the University of Waterloo has been jumping- off point for many of Canada’s best and brightest software designers, hackers and engineers. It’s no surprise, then, that Bill Gates made Waterloo his only Canadian stop on a tour of North America’s top computer science schools.

One talking point was the Dream- Spark program, which plies students around the world with free Microsoft software, including the Visual Studio programming suite for web and video game design, and Expression Studio, which provides tools for animation and photography. The download site comes with a large dose of lifestyle marketing, promising “access to the inside scoop about our products and life working inside Microsoft and information on cool things coming out. This is your community.”

Critics say DreamSpark is a last desperate attempt to win back a generation of programmers weaned on free, open-source software, but Gates is always well received at Waterloo. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation recently gave the university’s school outreach programs a $12.5-million boost.

“We want to do everything we can to equip a new generation of technology leaders with the knowledge and tools they need to harness the magic of software to improve lives, solve problems and catalyze economic growth,” said Gates.

In his speech, Gates highlighted the decreased interest in IT jobs after the high-tech boom fizzled out. “When we want to hire lots of software engineers there is a shortage in North America—a pretty significant shortage…It’s partly that the enrolment in the field is going down.” Gates commented that Waterloo is pushing the trend in the other direction: applications are up in fields like computer science.

John Gantz, chief researcher at the IT market research company IDC, emphasized the importance of IT jobs. “The emerging economies are forecast to drive over 25 per cent of the new IT jobs over the next four years. These jobs will be driven by an evolving, highly skilled labour force. Tech skills are key to employability.” According to a report by the Conference Board of Canada, 90,000 IT workers will be needed over the next five years to employ the wireless Internet business. Each unfilled position could cost the economy $120,000 a year.

¡VIVA LA RESIGNACIÓN!

To many Cubans, Fidel Castro is the father of their country, a strong, charismatic leader who overthrew the shackles of the corrupt Batista regime of the 1950s and ended American control over the island. To parts of the developing world, he is a symbol of self-government and justice in opposition to political and economic imperialism. Cuban troops and military aid have flowed to revolutionary movements from Angola to Nicaragua. Cuba has sent doctors and other professionals around the world to provide social services in regions that desperately need them. Even in the developed world, Castro has been the darling of the political left, helping to assuage the guilt for enjoying the fruits of an unjust world economy.

Since his retirement last Tuesday, many have been tempted to portray Castro’s legacy in this positive light. But history should judge him much more harshly.

Throughout Latin America, Castro has spread the dangerous myth that good intentions and central planning are the shortcuts to rapid and equitable economic growth. From Salvador Allende’s disastrous attempt to communize Chile in the 1970s (which sadly led to a brutal military coup), to Hugo Chávez’s equally destructive “21st Century Socialism,” Castro has inspired the replacement of liberal property rights with bloated bureaucracy and state-run cooperatives. On a more violent note, murderous guerilla groups like the FARC in Colombia and the Shining Path in Peru believe they’re following in Castro’s footsteps, bringing “progress” in their wake. As one of the few remaining communist regimes, Cuba instills a sense of hope among the radical left that the economic disasters of the Soviet Union and Maoist China were simply aberrations of socialist doctrine, and that their ideology will eventually be vindicated.

As the years go on, it is clear that the Cuban system is failing. The collapse of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s eliminated the subsidies that were propping up Cubans’ standard of living. Today, consumer goods are in severe shortage, caloric intake for the average citizen is low, infrastructure is deteriorating, and Cuba is increasingly dependent on Venezuelan oil revenues for foreign aid and cheap loans.

Castro’s system was flawed from the beginning. The lack of formal markets stifled private initiative and eliminated the price signals necessary to allocate resources efficiently and encourage innovation. Black markets emerged to replace some of these functions, but spawned corruption and inequality. Even the fabled achievements in education and health care become unimpressive when one considers that during the late Batista years, Cuba already ranked among the top countries in Latin America in both these categories. It even had an infant mortality rate lower than West Germany, France, and Italy. Today, the country hardly stands out at all. Some, the Cuban government included, predictably blame stagnant living standards on the United States for maintaining a trade embargo. By attributing their problems to a lack of international trade, the Cuban government only demonstrates the bankruptcy of communist economics that sees market exchanges as exploitive and emphasizes the need for self-sufficiency.

As if facing the consequences of faulty economic dogma wasn’t enough, Cubans are subject to some of the most oppressive political conditions in the world. The Internet is effectively illegal, while the media is dominated by the state. Criticism of the government is punished harshly. Many human rights organizations have documented the imprisonment and torture of dissidents. Lacking individual rights, it is hardly surprising that many Cubans prefer the hard life of an illegal immigrant in the United States to this so-called island paradise, health care and all. Tens of thousands of political and economic refugees have made the dangerous trip through shark-infested waters on homemade boats. Tragically, many have perished.

Economic realities since the mid-1990s have forced Cuba to implement minor market reforms. Fidel’s retirement may lead his brother and successor Raúl, who has suggested the need for “structural and conceptual changes,” to pursue further modification. With any luck, as the economy liberalizes and people become more autonomous from the state, pressure for political reform will rise. The United States should help push this process along by lifting the trade embargo and encouraging Cuba to integrate into the global web of trade, investment, and communication.

After a half-century of Castro’s social experiment gone bad, Cubans deserve a change.

Shame on all the Nader haters

Despite the criticism he’s faced since unveiling his presidential campaign last week, Ralph Nader has every right to run for president. The idea of him as a “spoiler” obscures more important threats to American democracy, such as faulty voting machines and a populace largely too apathetic and alienated from the political process to vote. The man is not a pointless candidate—he brings a diversity of ideas to a political arena often grossly lacking them.

As just one of many examples, Nader is the only candidate to promote single-payer health care, a model favoured by many doctors and nurses, but ignored by Democrats and Republicans. While Americans fear involvement in another catastrophic war with Iran, Nader is the only candidate willing to take military force off the table once and for all.

Though Nader may sound like a wacko conspiracy theorist when he talks about the “corporate” Democratic and Republican parties, he raises an issue that mainstream candidates aren’t even willing to debate. The reality of Washington politics is that politicians get most of their fi nancial support from powerful private sources, i.e. corporations. Their loyalty to working- and middle-class Americans, who cannot possibly compete with major companies’ financial influence, is cast into doubt. Barack Obama may be the recipient of more small donations than anyone else, but he still isn’t willing to level the playing fi eld by making a public fund for campaigns like John Kerry suggested in 2004. Nader is the only candidate still talking about it.

Candidates with similarly progressive views exist in the Democratic Party—Dennis Kucinich comes to mind—but are inevitably shelved for more moderate (read: conservative) candidates. Is it any wonder that many liberal Americans are fed up with the Democratic Party? If the Democrats want to gain more votes, they should use their Congress majority to stand up to Republicans, and nominate better candidates. Barack Obama’s current surge is a sign that the Democrats may have learned the latter lesson.

The idea of Nader luring liberal voters away from the Democratic Party is absurd. This denies a voter their right to choose, something that is sacrosanct for a reason. Americans may not always know what is best for them (the past eight years show that clearly enough) but they have the right to vote for who they want to run their country. Giving them one more candidate to choose from won’t spoil the election.

There are far greater threats to the electoral process. Take voting machines, for example. Experts say machines in many districts are faulty, and could be used to manipulate election results without leaving any evidence. There’s your spoiler.

Mind over grey matter

Studying cognitive pyschology is an exceedingly self-referential task. It also poses an interesting question: when using one’s own brain for study, do different observational methods hold any relevance? I’ll be frank—I started writing this article as I read over my second year cognitive psychology text. While I found other topics interesting, such as the basic cognitive structures, I could hardly remember anything about brain-scanning methods. Maybe there’s something in that.

The oldest method for eavesdropping on the brain is termed electroencephalography (EEG). The EEG technique measures fluctuations in electrical activity over time. The experimenter puts electrodes on the head to accomplish this task. While spatial resolution is poor, due to representing a flow of data, temporal resolution is excellent. It also has an advantage that many researchers find appealing: it is inexpensive. Many later developments, such as event-related potential and magnetocenphalography, are variations on EEG.

Professor George Cree, of UTSC’s department of pyschology, gave some insight into the progression of brain examination.

“Functional neuroimaging techniques have really taken off in the last decade as a means of peeking inside the human brain, while it is working, to try to figure out how the brain gives rise to the mind,” said Cree.

Positron emission tomography (PET) is perhaps the most interesting. To perform the PET scan, a radioactive isotope is injected into the blood of the individual. Considered invasive and expensive, this method measures how much blood is detected in the brain when it is active. Like a car’s engine, the brain draws in more blood the higher it functions. As blood flow increases to different areas, the machine picks up the radioactive elements introduced into the blood. These measurements are run through a computer program that constructs a three-dimensional image.

“The research has become really interesting now that researchers have moved beyond ‘mapping the brain’ (i.e., trying to figure out what each region ‘does’) to more interesting questions, such as how different regions work to produce complex cognition,” said Cree.

A well-known technique for studying various parts of the body, magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI, was originally designed to assess structural, rather than functional, components. This tactic is expensive but non-invasive. Researchers also claim that MRI spatial resolution is as good as its temporal resolution. MRI uses magnetic fields to alter the alignment of specific sub-structures. The next step is to distort the alignment, and measure the output as the atoms move back to their original position. Recently, something called fMRI replaced PET to peer into our thoughts. Based on structural MRI, this method follows activity in the brain.

The most current brain observation technique was welcomed to the University of Toronto in the summer of 2007 with the addition of Professor Laura-Ann Petitto, a world expert in Near Infrared Spectroscopy (NIRS).

“[NIRS] combines the strengths of fMRI and EEG to produce excellent spatial and temporal data regarding processing in cortical tissue,” said Cree.

While many find these correlational methods robust, the highly technical methods involved can be difficult to grasp. Correlational methods themselves make claims about their limitations, namely the famous “correlation doesn’t imply causation” argument. As well, there is a lesser-known lesson from behavioural statistics: two variables that appear correlated could have absolutely no effect on each other—they may just be activated simultaneously.

Which brings me to another point: is there a double dissociation between my long-term memory for this material and my recall? I hope not.

Born to be Wilde

One’s real life is often the life that one does not lead. —Oscar Wilde

When history is made in Hogtown, it’s a pretty big deal to Torontonians. From the city’s cameo in the Oscar-nominated I Met The Walrus to becoming the final stop on the Spice Girls’ farewell tour, Toronto becomes more established with each historical notch on our belt.

A lesser-known Toronto story is explored in Martin Hunter’s production Stephen and Mr. Wilde, which opens at Hart House this Thursday. The play centres on British author Oscar Wilde (Jonathan Schuster), and his 1882 lecture tour through the United States and Canada. This was the journey that made Wilde notorious for his wit and decadence, a reputation that remains unchallenged even today. Stephen and Mr. Wilde, however, imagines the role of the writer’s intellectual equal—his African-American valet, Stephen Davenport (Drew Ngomba).

During the 24-hour period fictionalized in the story, Wilde is beleaguered by reporters from the Toronto Chronicle and the Toronto Empire, forerunners of today’s Globe and Mail. Already, critics were ridiculing Wilde for his role in Aestheticism, an art movement already gasping for air. The drama sets in, though, when one journalist accuses Davenport of being a fugitive murderer. Through a combination of truth and fantasy, the strain of the relationship between Davenport and Wilde is deeply examined.

Based on the play by Toronto writer Jim Bartley, performances of Stephen and Mr. Wilde have remained limited to the Canadian stage. It premiered in 1993 at Saskatoon’s Persephone Theatre, then made it to Toronto in 1995 and Stratford in 2000 for a CBC-sponsored performance. This production, directed by Hart House veteran Martin Hunter, has given the play a chance to shine once again on a prominent Toronto stage. Hunter, who started out acting at Hart House Theatre in the 1950s, has a long history here. In 1967 he saw his first play Out Flew the Web produced there, and in 1969 directed a production of Sergeant Musgrave’s Dance. Soon after, Hunter became Hart House Theatre’s artistic director. His last stint at Hart House saw him direct 2006’s superb production of Timothy Findley’s The Stillborn Lover.

Hart House’s revival of Stephen and Mr. Wilde arrives just in time for U of T’s Festival of the Arts, which runs through March 20. Just as students and faculty emerge from the depths of winter and midterms, all three campuses are participating in a celebration of creative culture with music, literature, dance, film, and more. Stephen and Mr. Wilde launches the festival on a charming, homegrown note, setting the stage for over 100 local pieces and performances over the course of the month.

Be sure to travel back in time this week to a different, yet oddly familiar Toronto with Stephen and Mr. Wilde. You may just find yourself heading over to the lobby of the Four Seasons with a copy of The Importance of Being Earnest. Let Oscar Wilde’s Toronto story become yours as well.

Stephen and Mr. Wilde runs from Thursday through March 8. Tickets are available at uofttix.com or at the Hart House Theatre Box Office.

McMaster ban on phrase ‘Israeli Apartheid’ stirs protest

A massive protest is set to take place this Friday after a McMaster University administrator banned the phrase “Israeli Apartheid” from being used by student clubs.

According to a press release issued by the Coalition Against Israeli Apartheid, the protest is a response to a decision by McMaster University’s provost and vice-president academic Ilene Busch-Vishniac, which CAIA called an “unprecedented attack on the right to academic freedom and the right to organize.”

“At McMaster, they have a very strong code of conduct to protect their students, many who complained and said they felt intimidated and harassed by terms,” said Tilley Shames, the associate director of Hillel of Greater Toronto. “While I recognize the right to freedom of speech on campus, it can’t be abused to intimidate and harass others.”

“Even if even if the term is outlawed, the discussion is going to happen anyway,” said Liisa Schofield, a volunteer and programming coordinator with the Ontario Public Interest Research Group at U of T.

UTSU has booked two buses to leave Hart House at 8:30 a.m. Friday morning with the additional support from CUPE and the OPIRG. York and Ryerson’s student unions will also send contingents to the protest.

In a movie posted to Google Video, a member of the group Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights at McMaster University accuses Busch-Vishniac, as a long-time supporter of Israel and the Zionist movements, of a conflict of interest in his decision.

Diary of the Dead suffers from rigor mortis

George A. Romero is a living legend. Having pioneered the zombie subgenre with Night of the Living Dead (1968), one of the best horror films of all time, he returned to undead territory with three alleged sequels, Dawn of the Dead (1978), Day of the Dead (1985), and Land of the Dead (2005), a big-budget studio production. Following the last film’s box office failure, Romero has returned to his independent roots with George A. Romero’s

Diary of the Dead, a reboot to the already tenuously connected series. It’s also his weakest zombie movie to date: dull, tired, and very mistaken in what it thinks is profound. Diary of the Dead comes advertised as “a new vision of terror from the legendary filmmaker.” This “new vision” is the decision to structure the story almost entirely from the perspective of the protagonist’s video camera (he’s documenting the action). Sound familiar? To be fair, Romero’s film made its festival debut several months before a certain J.J. Abrams monster movie did the same idea better. (Back then it only looked like a Blair Witch Project rip-off.)

Apart from this creaky structural innovation, the monotonous plot should be familiar stuff: a group of college students making a cheapie horror flick learn that the dead have risen. They hop into an RV and head for sanctuary. When they arrive, they find zombies, and someone dies. Repeat.

Romero has never been an actor’s director. While this film’s unknown cast don’t exactly humiliate themselves, they recite their awkward dialogue stiffly, the characters painted with such broad strokes that very few make an impression. The unfortunate exception: Scott Wentworth as a middle-aged British professor in charge of delivering ominous pronouncements. He evoked quite a few titters from the audience I saw the film with. Is Wentworth trying to do camp? It certainly doesn’t work within the solemn context of this film.

Romero is known for infusing his horror films with social commentary— Dawn of the Dead famously attacked consumerism by having hordes of zombies heading mindlessly to a shopping mall. At the TIFF Q&A session, Romero said he was interested in exploring a culture that, with the proliferation of YouTube, MiniDV cameras, and blogs, gives everyone the power to be a reporter. Still, Romero does little more than point out that an increasingly democratized media exists. The film hits its lowest points when Romero includes voice-over narration to hammer a few simplistic ideas home, for those who thought the image of zombies in a shopping mall was too subtle.

But what about the zombies? Well, there are some good, gory attacks here and there (dig the flesh-eater that gets his skull burned by acid) but the suspenseful/ horrific moments are shockingly sparse and flat. It breaks my heart to accuse Romero of being behind the times, but compared to something like 28 Weeks Later, the shenanigans of Diary of the Dead feel downright sedate.

While Romero isn’t the subtlest of social commentators, he’s proven himself to be one of the best that the horror genre has, and the clever Bush-era satire of Land of the Dead showed that he still has teeth. The Weinstein Company has expressed interest in making another entry in the Dead series, and as a longtime admirer of Romero’s films, it would be nice to see him get his undead mojo back. As it stands, Diary of the Dead is a stiff.

You deserve a better mark

“Everyone should have his/her own opinion, don’t you agree?” This witticism, written on the blackboard by my Canadian literature professor, hit home. It seemed particularly relevant to student-instructor communication, especially since none of my classmates, of the forty in that lecture, had vocally disagreed with the professor all semester.

This is not to say that every professor discourages students from expressing their thoughts, or that every student should always have a chance to express themselves constantly— English majors are all too familiar with the lone speaker who insists on turning everything into a phallic symbol. Yet increasingly, my experience at U of T involves regurgitating my instructors’ opinions back to them, instead of articulating my own, whether in class discussion or in an assignment.

This year, I took a chance. I was inspired by the subject matter in one course, and thought thoroughly about the topic. Excited, I found myself starting the essay long before my usual night-before dash to the finish. When I turned it in, I felt a strange sensation not familiar to many procrastinators: pride. The result? I was slapped with a low mark and the comment that the paper didn’t adequately reflect the positions represented in the course.

My first instinct was, naturally, to sulk. I pouted my way across Sid Smith before I remembered something: a student can contest a grade on an assignment. After asking around, I was shocked to find that surprisingly few of my fellow students (myself included) had any knowledge of the actual details of this process. In my three years at U of T, no professor or teaching assistant had even mentioned it as an option, and heretofore I was resigned to harbouring quiet resentment towards my professors after a bad mark. But the method exists. There is another way.

Contesting a paper is done through the department that offers the course in question. Initially, they recommend that you attempt to discuss the paper with the person who marked it. I contacted my professor, wrote out a list of disagreements to her comments, and met with her in person. She stood by her mark. Next, go to the department with a copy of both your graded and ungraded papers, where they will be submitted along with your request to be reevaluated. If they find your reasons sensible, an impartial third party will re-mark your work without knowing your original grade.

But contesting a paper is a gamble. Once you ask for a re-mark, you must accept the grade your second marker awards, whether it is higher or lower than the original. While many papers I had written certainly had not been worth a re-mark, I had faith that this particular paper had been substantially undervalued. A month later, the department contacted me. They had raised my mark over 10 per cent, resulting in a completely different letter grade in the course.

This was satisfying, but more rewarding was the knowledge that my professor’s opinion was not the be-all and end-all of the university experience. Sure, profs and TAs are usually rather brilliant (that PhD has to be good for something) but they’re not almighty, and they can be challenged. The sad truth is that most students aren’t aware of the processes to defend their academic position. There’s no use for students to suffer in silence. If you think you’ve done good work, show that prof who’s boss.