Aliens: not human

Ever since the invention of science fiction, humanity has wondered if there is life on worlds other than our own. As of today, the results are inconclusive, despite many advanced missions from NASA and the ESA, costing billions of dollars. While the attempts at discovery are still relatively new, it’s outrageous that missions are done incorrectly.

Mars has repeatedly been the topic of discussion when contemplating the possibility of alternate life. We know that there are no tiny green men plotting to take humanity over, but we are still unsure of whether life has ever existed on Mars. One of NASA’s biggest foibles was the Viking missions of the 1970s. The Viking landers were part of a billiondollar project designed to research Mars and the history of its supposed life.

The Viking landers tested soil samples for evidence of dormant molecules. By adding water to the soil sample and allowing exposure to sunlight, the lander allowed any possible life in the soil a chance at photosynthesis. The basic principle of the experiment was that if there was activity detected, there was some kind of life on Mars. The results were negative.

Scientists have recently reviewed the Earth-centric design of this Martian experiment. Since the conditions of Mars differ dramatically from Earth’s, any life may be based on a chemical other than water. It is believed that peroxide, a chemical similar to water, is what Martian life could be based upon. The irony of the experiment is that it would have killed the very life it was trying to detect.

I am not proclaiming the existence of life on other celestial bodies, but we do need to change the way such research is performed. Human beings must realize that the universe is far too infinite to have only one type of life. As the Greek philosopher, Metrodorus of Chios, said in the fourth century BC, “It is unnatural in a large field to have only one shaft of wheat and in the infinite universe, only one living world.”

We may not find evidence of life during our lifetime, but searching for the wrong kind certainly doesn’t help.

A real grassroots effort for biofuel

We are in the midst of an energy crisis. The rate we consume fossil fuels today is unmatched in all of history. Within the past few decades, people have used more fossil fuels than all of humankind before us. The big issue set before us now is what to do when we finally run out of non-renewable energy sources.

Efforts have been made to reduce consumption of these resources through a variety of options, ranging from fueling automobiles with gas mixed with ethanol to driving cars run on electricity. But the problem with these options is that they really haven’t slowed the relentless consumption of the earth’s limited fossil fuels.

Numerous studies have pointed to bio-organic fuels—plant or animal substances—as a promising alternative to gasoline, coal, and petroleum. There are many potential biofuels, such as corn and sugarcane, used to address the growing crisis. The problem with many of these organisms is that they’re either too heavily reliant on fertilizers or pesticides or require a specific climate to flourish. This is where switchgrass comes in.

Switchgrass is a warm season grass native to central North America. It is also called tall panic grass, wild redtop, and tall prairie grass, to name a few of its aliases. In Canada, this plant is found in southern Manitoba and southeastern Saskatchewan during the summer months. Switchgrass can grow on marginal lands, needing little or no fertilizer to thrive. Moreover, it is a selfseeding crop. What’s so special about this grass? Well, switchgrass produces an endlessly useful biofuel called cellulosic ethanol.

One reason why switchgrass is an excellent candidate for replacing the gasoline in our pumps is it’s production of 500 per cent more renewable energy than it needs to be grown and processed. This is an astounding figure for something as ordinary as a prairie grass. Field trials were conducted in farms in the Midwestern United states over five years. From these studies, scientists estimated greenhouse gas emissions and energy inputs and outputs. According to their findings, the greenhouse gas emissions from switchgrass-derived cellulosic ethanol on farms were 94 per cent lower than that of gasoline.

According to scientist David Suzuki, “Biofuels alone are not the quick-fix answer to global warming. [Although] in the longer term, biofuels may certainly play an important role. Some technologies, like cellulosic ethanol, are very promising and they need to be supported by government and industry now, so they can be available on a larger scale in the coming years.”

In addition to its potential role as a gasoline replacement, switchgrass can also be made into pellets to be burned in stoves and furnaces to produce heat. Scientists say that an acre of switchgrass made into pellets will heat an average Canadian home for an entire year. It is already being used to heat small industrial and farm buildings in Germany and China.

So why make the switch to switchgrass? We have depleted much of the earth’s non-renewable fuel resources, but also climate warming, pollution, and greenhouse gas emissions can be reduced by making the change.

How effective this switch would be and how long it could take to implement depends on numerous factors. We may need to more research to see how feasible this option is in terms of applying it on a nationwide—let alone worldwide—scale, but the shift to more environmentally-friendly alternatives and the growing awareness about ecological issues is definitely a step in the right direction.

It’s Not Rocket Science – Episode 6

Skimming the surface: NASA attempted a very close (and very risky) flyby of Saturn’s moon Enceladus using the Cassini spacecraft this Wednesday. The purpose of the maneuver allows the probe’s instruments to sample the plumes of giant geysers that erupt from the moon’s south pole, spewing out ice particles, carbon dioxide, methane, and other substances. It is believed that liquid water may exist on this moon and scientists are excited to see the data the probe gathers. At its closest point, Cassini will only be 50 kilometres from the moon’s surface.


Rock and roll robots:

Computer scientist Graham Grindlay has developed a device that teaches humans how to drum. Named HAGUS (short for Haptic Guidance System), the robotic music instructor uses motors to move a drumstick that guides the student’s hand. The device was tested on individuals with no prior drumming experience, who subsequent to the test became more accurate developed with slightly better timing than those who hadn’t used the system. Drummers around the world now fear for their jobs as robotic drumming technology improves.


How global climate change makes fish deaf:

As the scientific community studies global climate change more closely, some very unexpected (and downright bizarre) side effects are observed. The Australian damselfish is a pertinent example. It is known that the temperature and acidity of the ocean are increasing, alongside rising atmospheric carbon dioxide levels. It is expected that more damselfish will be born with defective ear bones because of this. Increased acidity of the world’s oceans causes less dissolved calcium to be available for growing fish to absorb and use to form bones. Damselfish use their acute sense of hearing to navigate a their way back home, so those born with defective ears are thought to be more likely to get lost at sea and die. Hearing aid manufacturers take note: a new market may open up.


The price of Eastern progress:

It has been calculated that within two years, greenhouse gas emissions from China will surpass the combined reductions achieved by the countries signed to the Kyoto protocol. Researchers from the University of California predict that China’s emissions by 2010 will be 600 million tonnes greater than measured in the year 2000. By contrast, the U.S. Energy Information Agency calculates only a 115 million tonne reduction of emissions achieved by the Kyoto protocol countries in the same time period. Chinese carbon dioxide emissions are estimated to increase 11 per cent per year—more than doubling previous estimates that topped out at five per cent.


One step forward, six thousand steps back:

Bill 2211, recently approved by the Oklahoma House of Representatives Education Committee, may open up a whole new can of worms if passed. Essentially, the bill allows students in public school not to be penalized for expressing a religious point of view regarding any topic taught. Reading between the lines, if a teacher asks how old the Earth is on a test, and a student writes down six thousand years, they won’t lose marks for their scientifically incorrect answer. Other states, such as Texas, have introduced similar bills with mixed results. Maybe it is time to introduce a separation of church and education.


If you are what you eat, we’re screwed:

Although slightly alarmist, this article from is a thoroughly entertaining run-down of some of the disturbing things we unknowingly eat. Hidden behind disarming names, such as “natural red no. 4.” are some interesting (and somewhat gross) products. I don’t recommend reading this if you’ve just eaten.


Evidence of an overmedicated society:

Those resourceful people at the Associated Press decided to investigate the water supplies of Americans—and came up with some intriguing results. At least 41 million Americans have some type of pharmaceutical drug in measurable quantities in their water. In five months of study, drugs were found in 24 metropolitan areas. The drugs cover a wide range, from anti-convulsants to antibiotics, from mood stabilizers to sex hormones. While the concentrations of these drugs are very low—measured as parts per billion or trillion—many question the effects of long-term exposure to these compounds. Already, the AP probe has set a series of senate hearings in motion. It seems you can’t drink the water anywhere, these days.


More Hobbit skeletons found (scientists still searching for Gandalf’s body):

There was buzz surrounding the discovery of several tiny skeletons (about three feet tall) on the Indonesian island of Flores in 2004. Some scientists argued that the skeletons represented a new species of human they called Homo floresiensis. A recent finding of similar skeletons on the Pacific Islands of Palau calls this hypothesis into question. The remains, ranging from 900 to 2,800 years of age, seem to be modern humans that grew smaller over many generations due to living on an island. This phenomenon, known as insular dwarfism, has been seen with other species, such as now-extinct mammoths and elephants living on various islands around the world.


Life is everywhere

The list of crazy places bacteria are known to inhabit now includes the outside of space shuttles, super-hot thermal vents at the bottom of the ocean, and samples of ice from Antarctica. The newly discovered bacterium Microbacterium hatanonis was found contaminating hairspray. Scientists analyzed the bacteria’s genome determined that it is an entirely new species. A related species, named Microbacterium oxydans, was also found in hairspray, but was originally discovered inhabiting hospital environments.


Talk about extreme marketing

Apparently unsatisfied with the over six billion people on Earth, Doritos has decided to beam a 30-second ad into outer space. The publicity stunt is targeted at the Ursa Major constellation, where it is believed the necessary conditions for life exist in certain solar systems there. If any aliens see the ad, I hope they aren’t led to believe that a tortilla chip company governs the Earth.


A slap in the face

As Chris Avenir walked out of Tuesday’s appeals committee hearing, the 40 or so students gathered behind a sea of reporters erupted in cheers and applause.

“I feel pretty confident and optimistic about the meeting,” said Mr. Avenir smiling. “I don’t have any regrets about what happened inside.”

The committee, composed of three professors from the engineering faculty, will now have up to five days in order to render a decision on the charge of academic misconduct against Avenir.

They can completely exonerate Mr. Avenir, expel him, or propose a broad range of other disciplinary measures. If the appeals committee recommends Avenir’s expulsion, the case is automatically sent to the school’s senate. In this case, it could take up to a month for Ryerson to reach a final decision.

“We are hopeful that they will render a fair decision, which is to exonerate Chris,” said John Adair, Avenir’s lawyer. Ryerson regulations barred Adair from speaking on Avenir’s behalf at the hearing.. “We are tremendously disappointed in the process. The university’s rules preclude Chris from being represented by a lawyer today. We think this is akin to requiring Chris to respond with both hands tied behind his back.”

Mr. Avenir is charged with one count of academic misconduct, for being the administrator of the Facebook group “Dungeons/Mastering Chemistry Solutions,” which, at its peak, had 147 members from Ryerson’s first-year chemistry class.

“From what we know of the case there is nothing to indicate that students were doing anything that was inappropriate,” said Nora Loreto, president of the Ryerson Students’ Union. “The evidence against Chris at this point is literally the [existence of the] group, the description of the group, and the members of the group.”

Another problem in Ryerson’s case is the question of what constitutes an academic offence. Although James Norrie, a Ryerson spokesman, summed it up pithily as “cheating,” many have a hard time seeing how Mr. Avenir’s case qualifies as such.

The Facebook group discussed the lab section of the course, which was evaluated based on individual problem sets assigned to students. Each student got the same questions, but with different numbers so that they would each hand in different solutions.

Avenir’s defenders say the university is unreasonable in claiming that a member of the Facebook group would have benefited unfairly from seeing the solutions to a problem different from their own. Furthermore, Avenir has claimed that no full solutions were actually posted.

“I’m getting emails, phone calls from students saying, ‘you’ve got to be kidding, there’s got to be something else in the case. He must have done something.’ No, quite literally, it was a study group and they talked about how to understand the formulas,” said Loreto.

Among students, sentiments of dissatisfaction or downright outrage with Ryerson’s actions have spawned a number of sympathy groups dedicated to supporting Avenir. One of these,, sells tshirts and hats advocating that particular view. On Facebook, the group “Support Chris Avenir” had 1210 members as of press time. Avenir himself posts regularly.

Ryerson has also been accused of being backward-looking on issues surrounding the Internet. Other universities have moved to integrate the Internet into their teaching approach to better cater to students’ needs and regulate web use. At the beginning of this academic year, the University of Western Ontario set up 25 universityrun Facebook study groups for large first-year courses in order to centralize and oversee much of the online activity among those students.

Press play

Last night saw the launch of this year’s U of T Film Festival at Innis Town Hall. Inaugurated back in 2002 by Hart House Theatre to celebrate and promote student talent in filmmaking, the fest is also part of this year’s first annual U of T Festival of the Arts. In the past, U of T has seen films screened by both students and luminaries such as Atom Egoyan, David Cronenberg, and Don McKellar. This year, it widens its focus to include more student films across a variety of media including animation, music videos, and avant-garde. The festival culminates with the Hart House Film Board Gala Saturday night. Here’s a sneak peek at some of the festival’s offerings.—Jordan Bimm


4:29 is an interesting non-narrative piece. The images are almost exclusively black and white, as ghost-like figures are depicted and coupled with eerie sounds.—AVA WELLMAN

Rating: VVVV

And What Could’ve Been

It appears that lack of money to pay rent is a common topic for this year’s U of T Film Festival given that The Stand includes this as its initial trigger, and is also present in And What Could’ve Been by Todd Harris. However, this short film is also a love story. It concerns Lydia, a girl who is unable to deal with her boyfriend’s lack of responsibility and commitment and kicks him out of their apartment. Moments later, she regrets it and calls Sherry, her best friend, who tries to cheer her up. The story’s plot twist creates an aura of simplicity, hope, and love. It keeps it charming and simple.—ANDR EA CAN TÚ

Rating: VVVV


This fictional film consists of an awkward interview with “the world’s only happy woman.” The dialogue is trite and verbose. Still, I must give merit for technical competency when the actress goes from live action to simple animation.—AW

Rating: VVv

Crush Me

As Isaac Newton elaborated on the concept of gravity after being hit by an apple while sitting below a tree, so too is Robert, a student who just can’t focus on his thesis, struck by this life-changing fruit that brings out his inner pop music desires. Adding a magical overtone to Crush Me, director Steven Pukin mocks psychological explanations and pop music haters. Like Will Ferrell’s character in Stranger than Fiction, Harold Crick, Robert hears a repetitive and annoying melody inside his head that drives him mad. Rather than have Emma Thompson’s omnipresent voice determine his fate, he hears the music genre he dislikes the most: pop music. Ironically, while Robert’s consciousness detests mainstream music, his unconscious seems to compose the next hit single: “Crush Me.” The film’s mystifying overtone leaves this an open mystery.—AC

Rating: VVV

Dreams of the Cheddar Fiend

If you like claymation, you will probably enjoy this movie. It is technically good, and at times visually interesting. Running long at five minutes, new changes in the images largely keep the movie going.—AW

Rating: VVVv

Fear/Less: Opening Minds About Schizophrenia

Fear/Less, a 25-minute documentary short deals with society’s reaction to schizophrenia, families coping with an afflicted relative, and the experience of patients themselves. Through several interviews, the film attempts to create awareness and eliminates the misleading myths that lead many to fear patients who suffer from this mental illness. Director Dagny Thompson provides scientific answers from the Schizophrenia Society of Ontario, and clear, objective definitions of schizophrenia and psychotic breaks that make this audiovisual message not only persuasive, but also informative. The film presents facts in a clear and concise way without overplaying the visual and audio film techniques— such as slow motion, extreme close up shots, or moving music—that appeal to emotion. Jesse Bigelow, a patient, and his mom discuss their experiences facing the illness. SSO executive director Mary Alberti blames the media as the agent responsible for people’s fear towards schizophrenic patients: “We hear the bad news, not the good stories,” she says. “Fear it less and understand it more” is the strong argument this film proposes.—AC

Rating: VVVV

He Knows About You

This film was part of the 54-hour movie contest. It consists largely of an actor dressed in a mask that is an absurd caricature of George Bush, spoofing one of Dubya’s State of the Union Addresses. It succeeds in being bizarre, creepy, and silly.—AW

Rating: VVV

Her Music Led

This is a film about a sad, beautiful woman who plays her flute alone in the forest, luring men into her lair. Featuring many crisp, picturesque shots of snowy woodlands, its creators take full advantage of the scenery. The movie is quite slow and sentimental, the mood is enhanced by soft music. The female lead’s costume is elaborate, and the performances are good.—AW

Rating: VVVVv

A Hero’s Advice

This silly comedy was made in 48 hours. A nerdy teenage wannabe superhero with an underdeveloped ability of creating fog is taken under the wing of “Military Man,” his idol. Military Man’s training of his protégé, shown in a fast-paced montage sequence, is the film’s strongest point. While it features an interesting use of music, the dialogue is sometimes garbled.—AW

Rating: VVVv

The Housecall

The Film Board Farm Project shot The Housecall, a highly condensed psychological thriller, at Hart House Farm. The Movie breaks apart the continuum to bring a film full of suspense and an unpredictable ending. The film develops around two main characters: a doctor and a paranoid, potentially violent patient. Dr. Sullivan arrives at the patient’s house, and circumstances lead to an unexpected fate for the doctor. Creative in its blend of point of view and flashbacks, this movie should astound viewers.—AC Rating: VVVV

Milk Matters

A strange, anarchistic documentary in support of unpasteurized milk. Although pedantic, it was still somewhat entertaining.—AW

Rating: VVV


Described by the filmmakers as a “docufantasy,” this 38-second movie goes by in a blink.—AW

Rating: VVV

The Movie Race

Written and directed by David Eng, The Movie Race is a short film that pays homage to several archetypal moments in modern cinema history. Shot in one scene, outdoors and in the light of day, a woman sitting on a bench tries to write a screenplay. While the anxious lady attempts to drum up with some ideas, a “movie- tagline” jukebox man sits besides her. This man pays tribute to famous quotes from notable flicks, including Indiana Jones (“Snakes! Why does it have to be snakes?”), Silence of the Lambs (“What did you see, Clarice?”), and Darth Vader’s unforgettable heavy breathing. The enjoyable script is a humorous tribute to classic movie moments.—AC

Rating: VVVV

Nappy Heads

An upbeat celebration of African-American hair, the film is nicely shot in crisp black and white, and looks quite polished. At three minutes long, it gets a bit repetitive, but an inspired music selection keeps it going.—AW

Rating: VVVV

Never Different

A contemplative, slow-paced film shot primarily in orange tones, containing some charming cinematography (particularly the one that completes the film). It’s no wonder that when the credits roll, God is listed as responsible for the photography.—AW

Rating: VVVv

Not Altogether Fool

This movie shows a guy alone, laughing hysterically for one minute. Period.—AW

Rating: VVV

The Prescription

The Prescription is an innocent and hilarious short story that makes clear the many ways to name someone’s posterior. Andy goes to visit a doctor and receives a prescription for a suppository. Apparently, neither Andy nor his companion have a clue what this item is, nor the sufficient knowledge of where the suppository should be placed. Despite the doctor’s multiple attempts at explanation, she discovers there is only one colloquial way of making him understand.—AZC

Rating: VVVVV

Psychiatric Survivor Pride Weekend

This documentary does a good job in its attempt to overcome prejudice. However, it would be stronger if it were fact-driven.—aW

Rating: VVV

The Stand

Remarkably unusual for our times, Steve Figueiredo presents The Stand, a silent comedy movie alluding to the humor of Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd. Two noticeably clueless and bankrupt young adults need money to pay their apartment’s monthly rent when they come up with a brilliant idea: selling one-dollar lemonade at a sidewalk stand. To their misfortune, their potential buyers are captivated by a couple of very successful younger competitors. After acquiring business expertise through the teachings of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, they realize discounted lemonade won’t do the trick. Instead they sabotage their rivals’ business, but end up paying for their trickery. Filmed using a handy-cam, the simple and entertaining script washes away the fact that it lacks production values.—AC

Rating: VVV

A Stone’s Throw Away

When a man is invited by a little girl to play hopscotch, he is transported to different areas of Toronto with each jump. His travels include the exteriors of the Sky Dome, the CN Tower, and the St. Lawrence Market before returning back to the girl. Optimistic and simple, the film maintains good pacing, the actions accompanied by music that combines the sounds of a fiddle with stronger beats mixed in.—aW

Rating: VVVV


This is a beautiful non-narrative work. The film’s intriguing images, such as desert landscapes juxtaposed with snowy winter scenery are accompanied by an interesting, fragmented soundtrack. Though the film is primarily live-action, it contains some animated sequences. It is abstract, meditative, and quite long.—AW

Rating: VVVV

Tide Force

The best part of Tide Force is the ukulele that accompanies the closing credits. The rest of the movie is loosely organized and best appreciated as moments between characters, rather than for story or visuals. The footage is largely dark and grainy, and would have likely benefited from a more structured narrative.—AW

Rating: VVV


“Get ready for the ultimate gaming experience!” This initial tagline catches the audience’s eye as Walter’s adventures are about to begin. Walter, a short film directed by Stavros Vassos, presents an amusing but, then again, clichéd idea that will definitely attract the attentive gamer. Paying homage to Nintendo’s gaming legacy through the use of a real-life man, Walter represents a pseudo replica of Super Mario World. Walter must overcome certain physical obstacles, in order to fulfill his mission and obtain “the key.” The great sound design, which includes quirky and comical game effects, only adds to the enjoyment.—AC

Rating: VVV

Temporarily at the top

Cheryl Misak is a longtime professor and administrator at U of T. A member of the university’s philosophy department, she has held top admin posts at UTM and the St. George campus. Now, with VP and provost Vivek Goel departing, Misak is gearing up to take on U of T’s senior academic post. The Varsity caught up with her one wet and chilly morning.

I show up at Simcoe Hall just in time to carry Cheryl Misak’s things for her. Misak, who has just been appointed to U of T’s second-highest office, leans out of her car and propels herself upright, steadying herself on a pair of crutches on the slushy ground. Then she hands me a book and what looks like a goldfish bag full of ice cubes and freezing water.

The cold bag, I gather, is for her right knee, held slightly bent in an impressive leg brace thanks to a nasty tennis injury. On our slow way up the stairs, Misak boasts that she’ll be walking crutch-free by the time she returns from an upcoming trip to a conference in Cape Town.

Misak’s appointment was announced last week just after U of T confirmed that Vivek Goel, U of T’s VP and provost for the past four years, will be leaving to head the new Ontario Agency for Health Protection and Promotion. As his interim replacement,

Misak will be U of T’s top dog for all matters academic and budgetary when she takes office in July. Misak’s husband is from South Africa, though they met in grad school at Oxford. Both of them decided they wanted to teach at U of T—and made it to tenured positions here, together, in under a decade. Some people.

In recent years, Misak—whose field is American philosophy—is spending more time handling administrative matters at increasingly higher levels. “I’ve found myself drifting closer and closer to central administration in the last 10 years. I enjoy it very much but also still enjoy philosophy and try to keep my hand in,” she said.

After acting as principal of UTM for a year, and then serving as acting dean at that campus, Misak moved downtown this fall to help fill in for departing VP students Dave Farrar. When Farrar left, his portfolio was divided into two separate positions

“I took over a slice of [Farrar’s] portfolio,” Misak modestly insists when we reach her office. The room is dominated by a massive black painting covering an entire wall. Dimly brushed in the foreground is what appears to be a Greek amphitheatre fl oating in space, with a greyhound, or some kind of weasel, running circles around it forever.

“Isn’t that hideous?” she chimes in. “I think it’s about Sisyphus or something else about the futility of life.”

It might sound a bit glib, but Misak’s chain of “acting” or “interim” administration jobs make her career seem unsettled. “The interim propositions are always vague. I believe the appointment is for a year or until a provost is found,” she says. “The deputy provost position I’ve got for another four years.”

Misak’s upcoming provostial term may be temporary, but she’ll be stepping into a number of ongoing disputes. To mention one, the Association of Part-time Undergraduate Students is fighting an administrative order that it vacate its current office space in the Margaret Fletcher building, slated for demolition to make way for the proposed (and hotly debated) Centre for High-Performance Sport. At the most recent Governing Council meeting, Goel took the unusual step of circulating a public letter to APUS in which he charged that they had known all along that the building’s days were numbered.

Misak was, understandably, not anxious to comment on the issue: “What I think I need to say about that is, let’s see how that unfolds over the next few months,” she said. “I will inherit that and a number of ongoing situations and take stock when I take the position on July 1.”

Eager to look forward she may not be, but Misak is quick to point to her history as an administrator. “When I was dean at UTM, I put together a dean’s advisory committee. We had students in there, we had some of the best teachers, we had chairs of departments—so we all sat down together and asked what we could do in a concrete way to improve the student experience.”

The committee resulted in 28 separate pilot projects that, over four years, introduced writing components to programs whose students, like UTM’s math undergrads, felt their academic writing instruction was somewhat lacking.

“There are also things like student space, that…that’s a more general umbrella thing, right?” she says. “It’d be great if we could have a student commons. We need to do that kind of thing as well: from the bottom up, you get ‘a thousand different flowers blooming,’ and also from the top down you get some of these big projects off the ground.”

July 1 is a day to watch for at U of T, then. “All articulation of all views,” Misak promises, laughing. Before then, it’ll be tough to pin her down.

When I ask Misak to weigh in on Area Studies—regionally-focused programs like American or African studies which are pushing U of T to give them more resources and attention—she waxes a bit philosophical about academic flexibility and emerging disciplines, and then stops and smacks both palms on the desk in front of me.

“But, boy, the dean of Arts and Science would not be happy if the provost made comments on this,” she exclaims. “The short answer is, Arts and Science is working this out!”

Ask her about ancillary fees, a contentious issue that Ontario student unions are currently suing over, and again: “I really need to see how these things unfold, and July 1 is when I’ll be a full participant on these files.” It was worth a try.

If Misak is reluctant to go on the record with her views on the challenges ahead, it’s not a lack of enthusiasm keeping her in check. Look for her come July—she’ll be the one jogging up the steps at Simcoe Hall.

Film critic Will Sloan’s top five picks

1. American Immigrants (By Taha Tabish, Shanele Soaras, Nasir Husain)

This entry in the festival’s UofTube lineup explores the implications of YouTube technology, divided into three sections. The first features a student of Indian descent ranting to the camera about American immigrants taking jobs away from hard-working Canadians. The second is another student’s angry rebuttal. The third I will leave for you to discover. A highly effective film, its power stems from the fact that any of the three segments could easily be mistaken for the real thing. Disturbing stuff.

2. Purity (By Tony Del Rio)

A 21-year-old virgin is about to have sex with his girlfriend in this surprisingly sensitive film. Del Rio includes several highly stylistic touches (primarily on-screen text), but the result never feels ostentatious.

3. The Pit and the Pendulum (By Marc Lougee)

I’m a sucker for claymation, so this atmospheric version of the Edgar Allen Poe tale, employing that charmingly primitive animation style, had me at hello. The exaggeratedly gothic visual style is appropriate for the material, and at times it looks like one of Roger Corman’s old Poe adaptations through a funhouse mirror. No less, it’s been executive produced by stop-motion legend Ray Harryhausen.

4. The Engagement Party (By Mark Raso)

Mark Raso pulled a Scorsese and filmed this in a single, carefully choreographed, 15-minute take. His roving camera follows about a dozen people through an engagement party as seemingly innocuous small talk masks darker secrets. Strong acting matches Raso’s directorial virtuosity.


Vanguard to the Cold War (By Daniel Neuhaus) One of the festival’s most ambitious films, this abstract, multipart work reveals the relationship between propaganda and the Cold War. Combining archive footage with newly shot material, it is visually, aurally, and intellectually arresting. Immediately following on the schedule is E.L. Santonato and Malcolm Sweeny’s Too Dangerous. Oddly enough, I think they’ll make for a fascinating double-bill.

Paging Dr. Lam

Dr. Vincent Lam burst into bookstores across Canada in 2006 with his debut collection of short stories, Bloodletting & Miraculous Cures. The series of connected tales about the trials and triumphs of medical students and doctors won the Giller Prize, Canada’s richest and most prestigious literary award. Lam, an emergency physician in Toronto, is now working on a novel. He spoke with The Varsity about his work and the challenge of multiple careers.

The Varsity: You’ve probably heard this question many times before, but how do you manage to be a doctor and a writer at the same time?

Vincent Lam: You know, it’s really quite busy. But emergency medicine is quite self-contained. […] You don’t take a lot of paperwork home with you, whereas in other specialties you do end up taking more home with you. The other thing that helps is that it’s shiftwork, so you often have shifts that start in the afternoon or evening, which means that you can write during the day.

TV: Do you find that being a doctor drains you emotionally or mentally in terms of writing?

VL: Well, there are different kinds of demands. I find that both medicine and writing are quite draining, actually. Medicine is much more external; medicine is all about taking care of other people’s problems and me using my professional skills to help people. Writing is very internal, and it has a lot to do with figuring out how I see the world, and me figuring out what I think about things, ultimately. And that’s draining in a different way. A lot of people ask me whether writing is a good break from medicine, and I wish it were, but actually it’s not, it’s actually a lot of work.

TV: I find it interesting that you say medicine is external and writing is internal. You’ve clearly successfully made the transfer from the external medical world into your writing in Bloodletting. How important is it for you to write about what you know, to take your environment and put it into your writing?

VL: It’s probably simpler in some ways to write about the environment that you know because you have access to all the details, and you understand how things work. Do I think that people should always write what they know? I’m not so sure. I think that it can be helpful, but depending on the kind of writer, and depending on the kind of book they want to write, it could be a help or a hindrance. It’s actually very important to distinguish between the world that one knows, and that being actually different from the fictional world. Most writers who write about the world that they know will tell you that as a writer you have to make a break. You have to be able to say, “You know what, even if such-and-such would be in the world that I know, that’s not what I’m doing in my fiction because it just doesn’t work as well in the fiction.”

TV: You’ve traveled Vietnam doing research for your upcoming novel Cholon, Near Forgotten. Why did you go, and was it difficult to find what you were looking for?

VL: Well, my own family background is the Chinese community of Vietnam, and so I’m very interested in that community. In a sense it’s very hard to find, because the era that I’m writing about, the community that I’m writing about, basically no longer exists. And this is not an uncommon problem for fiction writers, especially those who write historical fiction. You have to kind of deal with the shadows of the past.

TV: Who are some of your literary influences? Which authors influenced you at a young age when you decided to be a writer?

VL: Tough question, too many to list. I try to give a different answer every time. And so my influences today will be David Malouf and Michael Ondaatje. I probably decided I was going to be a writer when I read Hemingway. I was always amazed at how much I would know in something that he wrote without him having said it, which always seemed all the more vivid. I have to say I enjoy reading a lot of people whose styles are basically totally different than the voice I would ever use. And in some ways it’s probably because their voices are so different.

TV: You went to the creative writing summer program at U of T’s School of Continuing Studies. Did that kick-start your career, or did it simply polish your writing?

VL: I was early in working on this collection at the time. And it was encouraging just to meet other writers. Writing is quite lonely, so it was very encouraging just to know, “Okay, other people are out here doing this, and we’re all kind of struggling away, and that’s what one does.” I think most of the work, me as a writer, remains work alone. It’s just nice to know that there were other people out there who were doing the same thing, that I wasn’t just crazy.

TV: How has winning the Giller Prize changed your life and work, if at all?

VL: I’ve become far more busy doing readings, traveling, and speaking. And so the whole thing about writing being alone, there’s a certain border that gets blurred. Ultimately the writing is still alone, but I spend more time communicating about the books in a way that is public, in a way that is not alone.

TV: Has this infraction on your aloneness been a negative influence?

VL: I think there’s some, that as a writer I have to be careful to manage. At first I was very busy and saying “yes” to everything, and then I began to realize that meant there was less alone mental space, while also balancing a medical career and family life.

TV: Do you have any advice for students who want to be writers, or who are trying to decide between writing and a professional career?

VL: I would say that it’s not totally necessary to decide between them. Even before I went into medical school, what I said was I wanted to write and I wanted to do medicine, and a lot of people were skeptical. I don’t think that it’s necessary to feel that one has to be in place of the other. And I don’t think that I’m alone, you know. There are quite a number of doctor-writers, lawyerwriters, engineer-writers who are out there. If you scratch the surface you’ll find a lot of other things going on.

The tricky thing once you have a profession is that you do have the potential to earn a fair bit of money, in some professions, and so it can be very tempting to not do your art, and to make money. Actually, people who do have a profession should look on that as an opportunity to work less, earn a little bit less, and have time to consider art.