The Battle of the Flip-Floppers

As the Democratic presidential primaries have finally winded down, and as senators Barack Obama and John McCain proceed with their general election campaigning, those of us who have followed this phenomenal race with exuberance and anticipation have witnessed the candidates take some serious political punches from the left and right. If it wasn’t a preacher’s conspiratorial remarks, it was some conservative network unleashing false rumours within the blogosphere. Every statement has been publicly scrutinized and carefully investigated under the media’s microscope. We’ve watched the contenders grace our television screens on a daily basis, at times delivering rousing speeches, and at others making one too many gaffes. It’s not unusual for politicians to backtrack on certain positions, or simply refine their policies to suit their audience. That’s the nature of politics, where upholding integrity is low on the list of priorities and political expediency reigns supreme. While both candidates are vastly different, in terms of ideology, policy, and personality, neither has proven his innocence. Accusations of flip-flopping have already begun their vicious circulation in the news.

Senator John Kerry was famously characterized as a flip-flopper during the 2004 presidential election, which proved to be disasterous for the candidate. Although Barack Obama and his campaign are confident that they will not repeat past mistakes, his recent change on issues like public campaign financing, the death penalty, gun control, and illegal federal wiretapping are driving the media haywire. Being labeled the most liberal senator by the opposition didn’t hurt Barack Obama in the primaries, but now he faces the challenge of breaking away from the liberal progressive wing of his party to reach out to independents, a key constituency that may hold the fate of both candidates. Some identify this as a flip-flop, others as a move to the centre, but either way it’s a move towards the right. With a campaign built on progressive ideals and a strong anti-Bush sentiment, this strategy appears disingenuous.

His Republican counterpart doesn’t fare any better. John McCain has flip-flopped on almost every significant issue: tax cuts, abortion, the Iraq War, torture, public campaign financing, offshore drilling, and the list goes on. The senator from Arizona paints himself as the maverick from the Straight Talk Express, not afraid to stand alone from the Republican establishment. However, this political chameleon has reversed any and all moderate positions he once supported as a senator, and now as a presumptive presidential candidate, he has taken a hard-line Republican approach to policy. He’s denied any allegation of inconsistency, but his gaffes and slip-ups can be easily accessed via YouTube. As a self-proclaimed straight-shooter (but more of a sweet talker than anything else), John McCain has always been the darling of the media, while Barack Obama’s treatment is indicative of serious media bias.

A politician who changes their mind does not merit unyielding persecution. We should expect our political figures to remain open-minded and watchful of the changing global climate, and make their judgments accordingly. But when politicians shift sides frequently and then have the audacity to deny any changes of heart, the public has a right to question their sincerity and the media has an obligation to examine their political motivations.

The Kids Are Alright

A hysterical Dilbert look-alike flies by College Park, clutching the side of a taxi in pursuit of a misplaced pen. The flashing Silver Dollar Room sign cues the start of the next Buddy Cole monologue. Two lackadaisical cops talk nonsense by the Leuty Lifeguard Station. The Kids in the Hall have a cult following that spans continents, but Torontonians have the distinct pleasure of seeing their neighbourhoods used as a backdrop on one of the funniest, most original and daring shows to ever air on mainstream television. In a way, the setting was the most shocking part of the routine—people that funny rarely stay here. Perhaps they shouldn’t have.

You could argue that the Kids in the Hall show existed in a bubble—the Kids would have sooner performed a sketch about sausages than made fun of Brian Mulroney’s jaw. The first Canadian show to utter the word ‘fuck’ on television, they were bizarre, unscrupulous and sexually uninhibited, inspiring American and British imitators like Mr. Show and Chris Morris’s next-level Jam. Here in Canada, staid issues like equalization still provide the inspiration for many a prime-time joke.

The Kids in the Hall was kind of a flukey show in a sense,” says Mark McKinney, the Kid behind some of the show’s most beloved characters (the Chicken Lady, the Headcrusher.) McKinney is on a smoke break from his latest show, Less than Kind, on which he’s producing, not performing. Even in a sweatshirt and shorts, he’s a living myth to me. I had talked to him years before, when I approached him outside the Labyrinth Lounge to say that his show had “played a big role in shaping my psyche.” He backed away slightly, arched an eyebrow and told me that he hoped I was healthy. “We really got— and this is unheard of —kind of a playground to do whatever kind of sketch comedy we wanted for five years. It’s sort of irreproducible,” he says. McKinney has worked extensively in both Canada and the United States since KitH ended. Some of his projects have been great (Slings and Arrows, the Saddest Music in the World), others just big (Saturday Night Live, Spice World.) His fellow Kids Dave Foley, Kevin McDonald, Bruce McCulloch and Scott Thompson have charted similar career paths, performing, writing, character acting and occasionally nabbing starring roles. But unlike the cast of SCTV before them, none of the five have become superstars. Their work doesn’t seem to have impacted mainstream TV the same way it’s affected their rabid fan base and the hoards of alternative comics who venerate them.

Toronto is a funny city, but it rarely retains its talent. Comedians like Norm Macdonald and Harland Williams take their dirty jokes south, and the ones who stay behind build their careers on a secure base of Canadian political satire. Things were no different in the 1980s, despite the high volume of local talent. “There was a time at Yuk Yuk’s when you had Jim Carrey, Howie Mandel, Norm Macdonald and more, performing at the downtown club. And, in fact, the CBC’s casting office was across the street, and they never went and saw them,” says Andrew Clark, former EYE WEEKLY comedy columnist and author of Stand and Deliver: Inside Canadian Comedy.

Clark is also the Director of the Comedy Writing and Performance program at Humber College, the only such program in North America (and possibly the only field of study where using the word ‘cocksucker’ is part of the learning process). It says something about Toronto’s comedic aptitude, but more about how the city has finally come to embrace its character. Clark was the first comedy columnist in Canada; when he started writing in 1991, “comedy wasn’t really taken seriously as something that was worthy of comment or criticism,” he says. Yuk Yuk’s had been well-established as a haven for “edgy” stand-up comedy, but improv and alternative sketch had only recently emerged as viable genres, largely due to The Kids in the Hall show itself.

When the Kids in the Hall came together officially in 1984, Toronto comedy was a professional game; independent troupes like the Frantics were few and far between. “I remember the NOW Magazine comedy listings would be tiny, maybe five or six little events… now it can be half a page,” says Jane Luk, an actress and improv teacher with the Bad Dog Theatre Company. Like the Kids (and many others), Luk got her start at Theatresports Toronto in the early ‘80s. Held at Harbourfront and the Toronto Free Theatre, Theatresports was a game night in which improv teams competed for humour points. “Stand-up people didn’t associate with anyone in the improv community. Certainly the only game in town, as far as improv, was Theatresports,” says Luk.

In Calgary, where the events began, Theatresports’ star attractions were the Audience, a troupe featuring Mark McKinney, Bruce McCulloch, and future KitH writers Garry Campbell and Frank Van Keeken. The troupe moved to Toronto to pursue acting careers and joined their big-city equivalents, the Kids in the Hall, a teenaged troupe featuring Kevin McDonald, Dave Foley and Luciano Casimiri. Foley, an alternative school dropout and aspiring stand-up, met McDonald, a Humber Theatre School dropout, at a Second City workshop. The two were paired at random for an exercise; by the end of the workshop, they had decided to form a troupe. The Audience subsumed the nascent Kids, and the supergroup became crowd favourites at Theatresports nights. “Back then, when you heard the Audience were playing, you wanted to be there on that night,” Luk says. “This was before they were doing anything else—you just knew they were a good team.”

“I think everyone in the troupe had a different thing they were drawing on,” McKinney says. “Me, I’ve always been a fan of really good actors and Scorsese movies and stuff. Bruce probably draws a lot of his inspiration from punk music and Iggy Pop, and Dave and Kevin were comedy historians, steeped in [tradition] all the way back to 1930s movies. But the ultimate influence is whether you can make the other four people laugh, and that determined what got into the show and what didn’t. Synergistic style, I guess.” Everyone I spoke to insisted that McDonald was always the funniest. “Everybody always wanted to work with Kevin, because you’d know it would be funny,” says Casimiri, who, along with Van Keeken and Campbell, left the troupe in the early days.

Just as the group was dwindling down to a foursome, a young gay punk named Scott Thompson began vying for the troupe’s attention. Fresh out of theatre school and up for anything, Thompson had been performing sketch and playing in a punk band called Mouth Congress. “Scott kind of bullied his way in,” says Paul Bellini, a former writer for the show and Thompson’s former band and dorm mate at York University. Thompson’s brash personality was precisely the troupe’s missing element, and the five men began to provide each other with fierce competition to be funnier than everyone else. “Scott and Mark used to fight over wigs to the point where things would be thrown across the room,” Bellini says. “I’ll never forget, one time Scott kicked in a filing cabinet. I said why, and he goes, ‘Mark’s stealing my wig for that character!’ [I said], ‘Well, you know, you kicked in a filing cabinet.’ ‘Well it means a lot to me!’ I thought, wow, he’s crazy, but he’s sincere.”

After a while, Theatresports became a little too amateurish; the troupe developed a reputation for showing up audience participants who shouldn’t have bothered to take part. “Theatresports became like community theatre,” Casimiri tells me. “There weren’t a lot of rooms to play in like there is now.” By 1985, the troupe had begun performing weekly shows at the Rivoli, then the centre of the Queen West art scene. At the time, the notion of an alternative comedy scene was vague at best. A connection with the band Shadowy Men On A Shadowy Planet, old friends of McCulloch’s, made the Kids honorary members of the city’s alternative music community. “We did shows where Scott [Thompson] as Buddy Cole, long before they had a TV show, was a guest vocalist for us. Kevin McDonald did a magic show,” says Don Pyle, former drummer for Shadowy Men and a long-time veteran of the Toronto indie-rock scene. “I think for a lot of people, it was a very natural thing. Partly because the Kids in the Hall were very much acting like an independent rock band—I think they were accepted by a lot of people within the music scene.”

Shadowy Men, who were releasing records and playing alongside the likes of Fifth Column and Beat Happening, had a steady following. At the very beginning, the Kids did not. The alliance helped draw neighbourhood scenesters to the Kids’ performances, although they struggled to build an audience. “I think that we drew on whatever the Queen Street scene was back then. I mean, we did play, for years, to nobody—we had audiences of nine, 17,” says McKinney. “We tried lowering our price from three to two dollars—didn’t work. And then it just kind of caught on, we became the thing.” The Kids’ earliest superfan was Bellini, who made posters and worked the door every week. “When it came time to do the TV show, it was like, ‘Why don’t we take Bellini with us?’ It was like—you take the dog on a family trip. You just do!”

Whatever the door count, the Rivoli performances began to draw the right people. Word channelled back to Lorne Michaels, who had been looking for a Gen X-oriented show to follow up Saturday Night Live. Out of all the off-beat comedy troupes in North America, he chose five guys from Canada to fill the role. “You can’t underestimate the degree to which what the Kids in the Hall were doing was really new, and kind of edgy,” Clark says. Michaels whisked off McCulloch and McKinney to serve as apprentice writers on Saturday Night Live. When the Kids reunited in 1986, they played a sold-out run at the Factory Theatre. Michaels himself was in attendance, and he was impressed. He flew the Kids down for a year of comedy training in New York. “I remember when Kevin left, he was overweight. And when he came back, I didn’t recognize him,” Luk says. “He said to me, ‘Basically, I didn’t have any money to eat!’” When the Kids returned to Toronto, Michaels sent up talent from SNL to help the troupe make a pilot. Using his connections with Ivan Fecan, a former NBC executive and then Director of Television Programming at the CBC, Michaels secured the pilot a slot on Canadian television. Using his many connections in the States, he did the same with HBO. “When it aired on HBO, John J. O’Connor of the New York Times wrote a four-star review. And that four-star review bought us our first season,” Bellini says.

The Kids were on TV, but Los Angeles remained a different universe. They stayed in their ratty downtown apartments, drank beer on the Queen Street strip, and continued to make fun of its denizens. Despite the high-profile professionals backing the show, the Kids chose a low-key, sketch-centered approach to television, ensuring that their combined talents remained the show’s primary appeal. “The Kids in the Hall were very strong people, and very uncompromising little bastards,” Bellini says. “Even in their early 20’s, they thought they were the cat’s pajamas. And they had a very unshakeable vision. They went into that show—and would have done this with any producer—[with] certain things in mind…you had to accept their terms. And that’s probably one thing that makes them great, but it also prevented them from becoming more than successful cult comedians.” Plenty of characters were simply lifted from the stage show, including the Headcrusher and the mincing, smart-assed Buddy Cole, who had sprung from Thompson and Bellini’s handheld camera improvisations years before. Other characters, like the Chicken Lady, were hatched out of the show’s unusually high budget—at the Rivoli, the only costumes had been “a sweater and a wig,” Bellini says.

Toronto was, in many ways, a kind of sixth Kid in the Hall. Bumper videos showed the Kids goofing around downtown. Toronto sports teams were namedropped (“took me to a Leafs game” became a euphemism for gay sex), and one of Thompson’s characters read a magazine called Xcrete (an embittered take-off on Xtra). Even Bellini’s trademark character was borne out of a Toronto landmark: the Romans II Health and Recreation Spa, a police target during the 1981 Toronto bathhouse raids. Bellini had described his bathhouse routine to McKinney, who “laughed for about 20 minutes.” When the show organized its first contest, he suggested Bellini in a towel as the prize. “The Kids fought to stay in Toronto,” Bellini says. “The stardom never got to you, because there were no limos, there were no groupies, there were no parties with cocaine on the table.” Once, Thompson demanded Madonna tickets; an assistant bought them and pretended they were free. McKinney agrees that the show’s location was a blessing. “I think if we’d been in Los Angeles, by year three, somebody would have got an offer and split… I personally came out of Kids in the Hall incredibly naïve about how the business ran, and I probably paid the price. Because I just thought, well, you do whatever you want, right? And people give you money? No. I mean, that’s kind of what was unique about the show—we were allowed to stay business naïve for a long, long time.”

Michaels took a laissez-faire approach to the show, but his name (and the support of American networks) made all the difference. The show had “so little censorship it’s ridiculous,” McKinney says. There were coke binges, cold-blooded murders, naked asses galore and sex scenes complete with very believable sex faces. A scene in which Thompson (after declaring himself “not gay”) received a blowjob from Casimiri was cut —but only in the States, Casimiri says. The hardest jokes to get past the censors were questionable due to social taboo—abortion, religious jokes—ironic, considering the Kids’ steadfast rejection of topical material. Canadian content was also deemed inappropriate for American audiences. In one skit, McDonald and Foley make reference to Canadian cities—“Regina, Saskatoon, just really goony Canadian names. Medicine Hat! And they said we couldn’t do that—there has to be an American version,” Bellini reports. A sketch called “Screw You Taxpayer,” a riff on the CBC’s public funding, was cut in the States for being “too Canadian” —but not due to either McCulloch’s risqué portrayal of a Chinese rickshaw driver or the skit’s allusions to necrophilia.

As Bellini points out, the show’s ending was far from glorious. The movie Brain Candy was meant to be a grand exit; it was a belly flop instead. Foley was offered a starring role on News Radio right before production started, and several of his parts had to be re-shot. The script was rewritten multiple times, McDonald’s wife left him, and almost every member longed to desert the project. McKinney was the only one who wanted to soldier on. He had reason to; Kids in the Hall quickly proved to have been one-of-a-kind. “We had a vote at the end of the fifth season, who wants to do another year, and I was the only one with my hand up because I really liked doing sketch comedy. So I went on to SNL, but I found that sort of a different experience—it was harder to do my stuff there.”

You might compare the Kids in the Hall to the Velvet Underground—as the old adage goes, not many bought their records, but everyone who did started a band. The Kids’ ingenuity meant that they were nowhere near as big as they could have been. But everyone who watched the show was inspired by it—from the fans riffing on its lines to the alternative comics, in Toronto and elsewhere, who have sprung up in its wake. “Someone said our audience is narrow but deep. In other words, our fans are real fans, but there’s not tens of millions of them,” McKinney says. The troupe’s latest tour (and the two tours that preceded it) provided ample proof that the show still has a steady base of admirers, not to mention posthumous momentum thanks to syndication and DVD. “They all thought they’d go to the next level and become big stars, and it never really happened. No one hit that Adam Sandler level, like a hundred million dollar opening for a comedy. It just didn’t happen, and it’s kind of sad, but what are you going to do?” Bellini says. “They’re still together, they can still perform, they can still write. You’re still interested. It’s been 20 years, you know? So it worked out okay. I just wish we were all richer.”

Fringe Benefits

Through rain, heat and more rain, the 20th Annual Toronto Fringe Festival threw down a mixed bag of theatre, dance, and comedy this year. The annual juried fest is bound to offer up its hits (and misses), but this round saw a remarkable variety of talent from here and abroad. Some say that the growing selection of performances makes it harder to solidify one’s fringe-ing addendum—nevertheless, we here at The Varsity had fun and plenty of it! Even though there were some skip-its, nothing beats a good find—and that’s all part of the hunt.

The Swearing Jar

Tarragon Theatre Mainspace

With a completely loveable cast and witty dialogue, Kate Hewlett’s latest offering is sweet but ultimately unsatisfying. The script only begins to mine interesting questions surrounding truth and intimacy between a married couple—Simon and Carey—without getting closer to the difficult aspects. Instead, Hewlett provides a lot of banter and character details that make for a warm but uncommitted play. Particularly compelling is the performance of Chris Stanton, whose portrayal of Carey’s romantic interest, the bookstore clerk Owen, reaches new heights of appealing awkwardness. —NS

Rating: VVV

Putz

Tarragon Extra Space

It’s difficult to explain writer/performer Andrew Bailey’s strange charisma. It has something to do with the incredible vulnerability he shares with the audience in this hour-long one-man performance. Under the strong hand of director (and, um, “artist”) Jacob Richmond, Putz tells the stirring and hilarious story of Bailey’s journey from boyish naiveté to a more mature state of mind. Particularly effective are the scenes where Bailey recounts events by saying something inappropriate (“If I only had the man juice…”), or his interpretation of God blowing his own mind after having only been alive for one minute. A few moments feel almost stifling in their intimacy, but Bailey’s risks pay off because he never leaves the spectator stranded within his own world. —NS

Rating: VVVV

The Exploding Breakfast

Factory Studio

Sometimes you haphazardly stumble upon an unexpected gem. At 11:30 p.m. on a Wednesday night, Perth, Australia’s Ingle Knight seemed surprised to see a very small gathering at the Factory Studio. Nevertheless, his lively storytelling of a true-life stint at a playwright’s unit in Johannesburg was part Tom Robbins, part Samuel Beckett—as Knight expertly portrayed a cast of characters so vivacious and intriguing you never wanted him to stop. —CL

Rating: VVVV

Gameshow: The Musical

Royal St. George’s Auditorium

For sheer fun, Gameshow takes the cake. It may not feature the greatest vocalists, but the cast is uniformly energetic, maintaining a keen sense of irony throughout the performance. Following the rise of Bobby, a small-town gameshow enthusiast, the musical scrolls through a bunch of comical situations including a memorable trip to the library. The set and costumes are fantastic, with all the characters dressed to the nines in primary colours. Gameshow’s good acting and tight writing more than make up for the fact that three-quarters of the cast don’t have strong singing chops. The co-dependent relationship of the Spiker twins is the play’s definite highlight, as their one-liners keep the audience in the palm of their hands. Gameshow: The Musical has been selected for NOW Magazine’s “Best of the Fringe Festival” series going on at the Diesel Playhouse, which means there will be two more performances on July 20th and 27th at 5:30pm. —NS

Rating: VVVV

Jew for a Day

Royal St. George’s Auditorium

Oy gevalt—I don’t even know where to begin. A charming idea is marred here by some of the most patently heavy-handed writing in combination with surprisingly bad acting. The play itself is about a 13 year-old boy named Fred who decides he wants to be Jewish due to his outsider attitude. The problem with the script is not its premise, but the earnest and reductive way in which the whole topic of religion and identity is treated. If there’s one bright spot in the production, it’s when Rabbi Jacobs (played by writer and director Mark Farmer) relates to Fred his desire to be a Mountie, complete with red serge jacket and felt hat. Other than that, skip this play unless you have an unshakable desire to hear the worst Yiddish accent of all time. —NS

Rating: Vv

Rum and Vodka

Tarragon Extra Space

Ever had one of those weekends where you drink too much, do some unbelievably stupid things, then drink a little more? Believe me, it won’t hold a candle to the anti-protagonist in Conor McPherson’s gritty diatribe. Tightly directed by Shaun McComb, Rum and Vodka unspools three drunken days in the life of a young Irishman, sick of his petty office job and domestic life. Funny and darkly honest, it is Matthew Gorman’s violently controlled performance that gives the play its urgency and pace, rather than simply relying on the frenetic tone of the text. This production lives up to the reputation of its titular drink that, as one character suggests, has the ability to revive the dead. —NS

Rating: VVVV

Lupe: Undone

Honest Ed’s Alley

Tucked away in a garbage scented alleyway behind Honest Ed’s, Lupe, a spicy Ticket King salesgirl and part-time mattress stuffer, waits for her “boyfriend” David Mirvish with a saucy surprise. Instead, she’s greeted by 40 dumbfounded Fringe-goers shielding themselves from the rain. But when life gives you lemons, you apparently give the audience chips and salsa. While veteran actress Melissa D’Augustino was a charming and able-bodied character actor, it’s hard to relate to a plot where literally nothing happens. Too much of Lupe was spent on set pieces—shimmying to Gloria Estefan, asking the audience for feedback on her self-esteem (“Should I learn to love myself? Ole!”), Charo-esque displays of othered culture. A unique Fringe experience, but not a great one, these writers need to learn that when your show rests on one titular character, it’s good to have some development. —CL

Rating: VV

Totem Figures

Glen Morris Theatre

TJ Dawe’s most recent autobiographical monologue is fashioned around what Dawe describes as his own personal mythology and the characters that exist as a motif within his life. An interesting, although painfully derivative piece, it’s not exactly impressive that the most compelling parts of his story are anecdotes about the likes of Charles Bukowski and John Fahey—two of his personal “totem figures.” Dawe is a friendly and charismatic performer that strikes upon moments of real poignancy, but the subject of retrospective self-monologuing comes off as unsatisfying. Dawe wants us to think about ourselves and our own totem figures, to try and piece together the people and things in our lives that would go on our own personal Sgt. Pepper album cover, as he so charmingly called it. —NS

Rating: VVVv

The Pharmaceutical Affair

Robert Gill Theatre

While there was much to appreciate in this innovative approach to the classic Tintin model, the young company of The Pharmaceutical Affair, comprised of students from King’s College, had difficulty moving beyond an immature approach to the canon. Concerned with stopping the evil Hanz Von Sanchez (Tim Butters) from launching a dodgy new drug called Gagex, the story bordered on cheesy, but not excessively so. Although some of the acting felt a bit belabored, an excellent touch was Peter Gorman as DJ Peter Mozza Sticks, providing music and occasional French narration. While The Pharmaceutical Affair never lacked in imagination and energy, it would have benefited from a stronger satirical hand in both the script and staging. —NS

Rating: VVV

One-Woman Show

Robert Gill Theatre

Playing with the conventions of oh, 30 per cent of the current Fringe lineup, was the Shehori Brothers’ (Swiss Family Robinson) satire of the old theatre standby: the empowered female actress’ realization that self-acceptance is the greatest gift of all. Playing 37 year-old Eileen Louise Kennedy was Marco Timpano, clad in Mark’s Work Warehouse and noonday scruff, with a flutter of the wrists and a lithe gait. While the jokes about PMS and reducing the number of men you’ve slept with (apparently it has to do with carrying the one and making a threesome divisible by pi) were standard fare, Timpano’s delivery and the whip-smart writing did Gloria Steinem proud. Full marks! —CL

Rating: VVVV

Nuclear energy for the scholastic masses

* How did you get interested in environmental issues?*

It was by accident! Well, not really by accident. I grew up in this rocky coastland in the west of Ireland known for its karst, a barren limestone landscape encompassed by underground rivers, caves and sinkholes. The historical richness of this barren area, such as the presence of man-made structures aging approximately 5,000 years, and the occupation of the British in the area gave me the introduction to nature.

Tell us about your current projects.

What I am working on right now is a book on the politics of nuclear energy called Inheriting the Nuclear Genii. You can read all the books you want on how the atom splits to produce energy, and that is great! But I wanted to write about the political side of it as well. So, what I have done is really an attempt to not be objective. All that people read about nuclear energy is some guy trying to make a nuclear bomb and that they cannot do it because they are not friends of ours. This whole issue of friends and enemies, like this one, confuses kids. So in my book, I present politics, such as nuclear management and studying the consequences of nuclear reactors, through studying the radiation they produce. This is something that our students are not well exposed to or educated about. I am attempting to address more of the educational aspect of the potential risks of nuclear energy, and understanding the place we live at and how it could be seriously affected by radiation.

One other thing I am currently involved with is producing a documentary, done by students and my leadership. The Ontario Power Generation has been very helpful. I should stress the point that this is not intended to be scary, but rather an educational documentary that deals with real world issues. Also, we have tried to look into the history of nuclear energy and the scientists, particularly Canadians, involved in these projects around the world. However, I also have attempted to have a glance at the scary world for the next generation in the book concerning nuclear energy issues. But this is not the main purpose.

Do you have any advice for students who may be interested in environmental issues?

I would suggest that the students who are interested in environmental issues step out a bit and get involved in the local politics. This is a necessity. As one of the opportunities for students to get involved, I would like to be able to receive some help from students who are doing physics, chemistry and nuclear physics to give me a hand on some of the chapters of my book.

Interested students can contact Tony O’Donohue at tonyodonohue@yahoo.com

NASA satellite captures landmark supernova images

What’s so ‘super’ about a supernova—a naturally occurring stellar explosion equivalent to the detonation of a few octillion nuclear warheads? Recent news indicates that this occurrence is nothing short of super and definitely far from ordinary. On January 9, 2008, the Burst Alert Telescope, a device built into NASA’s Swift satellite, recorded an exciting supernova observation seen by team leader Alicia Soderberg of Princeton University. The star SN 2008D exploded, creating a supernova 100 billion times brighter and 20 times larger than the size of the Sun.

Soderberg reveals that, “the probability of that happening is about one in 10,000. It was really exciting. We caught the whole thing on tape, basically.” Astronomers usually catch the after-effects of stellar explosions, but this is the first time that a star has been caught in the act. “For years we have dreamed of seeing a star just as it was exploding, but actually finding one is a once in a lifetime event,” says Soderberg.

Supernova SN 2008D lasted only seven minutes but during that time it illuminated the galaxy with blinding light. Researchers concluded that this star was most likely 20 times the size of the Sun and expanded at 70 per cent the speed of light. This occurrence strengthens many theorists’ current astrophysical models of supernovae which hypothesize that when a massive star burns all of its nuclear fuel, its iron core collapses under its own gravity causing an implosion. As a result, a forceful shockwave manifests, detonating the star and releasing numerous flashes of x-rays into interstellar space. “Seeing the shock break out in x-rays can give a direct view of the exploding star in the last minutes of its life and also provide a signpost to which astronomers can quickly point their telescopes to watch the explosion unfold,” reported Edo Berger of Princeton University.

This rare celestial phenomenon occurs approximately once every 50 years and is the ultimate outer space explosion. Supernovae have the potential to radiate the same amount of energy the sun emits in its lifetime, and emit a shockwave of gas and dust up to a tenth the speed of light into the abyss of interstellar space. And they don’t just put on a spectacular light show. Their explosions also generate elements heavier than iron which ultimately create other stars and planets.

“Novae are ordinary stars that increase in brightness, while supernovae are even brighter. They are explosions of white stars that can be eight times the mass of the sun,” says Chris Matzner, Assistant Professor in the Astronomy Department at the University of Toronto. He distinguishes between the two main types of supernovae: type I and type II. Generally speaking, type I supernovae result from white dwarf stars rich in carbon and oxygen. In most situations, white dwarf stars accumulate a large amount of matter, becoming increasingly dense and, as a result, the carbon and oxygen fuse causing the star’s explosion. Type II supernovae usually occur when a considerably large star is near death. When its nuclear fuel is depleted, it no longer has a supply of energy to support it. The star’s iron core then collapses giving rise to a supernova.

Ultimately, the really super aspect of supernovae may be their ability to teach us about the cosmos. As Soderberg puts it, “This newly born supernova is going to be the Rosetta stone of supernova studies for years to come.”

Dinosaurs invade Toronto

Dinosaurs are still alive. At least, they were for about 90 minutes at the Air Canada Centre on June 18. For a week in mid-June the BBC, in collaboration with The Creature Production Company, presented a life-sized version of their 1999 television documentary series Walking with Dinosaurs.

The show opened with Liliensternus, a small, raptor-like creature from the Triassic Period, stalking hatching Plateosaurus eggs. The dinosaur’s bumpy gait and extra (although well disguised) set of legs were the only clues that there was a human involved in its movement. The audience sat captivated, waiting to see whether the hunter would capture its vulnerable prey.

Huxley, the paleontologist host, gave geological context to the scene, revealing that the Earth’s land was concentrated in the single supercontinent Pangaea.

Before the show, I had wondered if, like in the movie Jurassic Park, scientific integrity would be sacrificed for dramatic impact. Fortunately, the BBC did an excellent job of weaving scientific facts into the show while maintaining the roaring horror that the young audience members expected.

The dinosaurs were introduced chronologically: first the Triassic Period, followed by the Jurassic and Cretaceous Period dinosaurs. During the introduction of each period, Huxley would remind the audience of the continental circumstances and their effect on weather patterns and plant and animal life.

After the Triassic Period the continents were separated and ocean currents diverted, shifting rain and storm patterns. Changing weather conditions forced the evolution of all kinds of species, from plants to mighty dinosaurs. Huxley didn’t forget about the importance of insects during these massive changes. Insects and plants dramatically affected each other’s evolution; plants provided food for insects while insects acted as crucial pollinators. Plant evolution also changed the food and camouflage available for the dinosaurs, guiding their evolution.

Even though the science was accurate, there was something missing from the dinosaurs’ interactions. In the opening sequence, the Plateosaurus hatchling was rescued by its mother. Afterwards, every herbivore being hunted by its coeval carnivore managed to escape. I kept waiting for the carnivore to win; after all, they have to eat too. Although one scene featured some Utahraptors feasting on fresh meat, the writers avoided onstage kills, probably to prevent too many young tears.

Only one non-terrestrial dinosaur, the flying Ornithocheirus, made an appearance that night. Aquatic dinosaurs were sadly missed. The deep-diving Icthyosaurs would have made a splashing hit.

Overall, the show put the story of dinosaurs in perspective. Instead of learning about individual species, the audience learned how geology, weather and species interaction guided global evolution. This kind of comprehensive thinking is vital when considering the process of evolution; considering any problem without context is futile. Current concerns, like the sudden disappearance of bees or the serious decline in shark populations, will affect humans even if it’s not intuitive how.

Walking with Dinosaurs accomplished the difficult feat of knitting an awesome, breathtaking performance with realistic and relevant science. Well done.

Rating: VVVVv

Tennis regains the advantage at this year’s Rogers Cup

As Rafael Nadal sprawled across the All-England Tennis Club’s grass centre court after his dramatic Wimbledon win, the scandals plaguing tennis seemed all but forgotten.

In early August of last year at the Sopot Open in Poland, tennis became the subject of uncharacteristically bad press. The fourth seeded player Nikolay Davydenko was cruising for a set and a half against the relatively unknown Martin Vassallo Arguello with no reason to question his eventual victory. However the odds on the popular British gambling website Betfair did not see it that way. Millions of dollars poured into the site from just a few users on Davydenko’s opponent, pushing the odds in Arguello’s favor. Davydenko went on to retire in the third set complaining of a foot injury. Betfair cancelled all bets on the match as the integrity of the gentleman’s sport was abruptly thrown into question. The Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) launched a probe into the matter while several players reported to journalists of incidents in which they were approached to fix matches.

Such corruption was the top story despite so many engaging developments: the meteoric rise of Serbian youngster Novak Djokovic, the clay court domination of Mallorca’s Rafael Nadal, and the first signs of aging shown by Swiss maestro and world number one Roger Federer.

The Rogers Cup begins as tennis represses the memory of the Davydenko scandal. As the physical and rhetorical grace of Muhammad Ali once rescued boxing from its reputation as a sport dominated by mafiosos during the 1970’s, the Wimbledon Final between Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer was so pure in its athleticism that sports fans could concentrate on something other than the strains of corruption

The top ten male tennis players have all expressed their intent to travel to Toronto to compete at the Rexall Centre at York University beginning July 19. Djokovic, Federer, and Nadal have each won the tournament the last three years respectively and will be the overwhelming favourites once again. However, with each of the top players desperately vying for a gold at the Beijing Olympics, one or more may withdraw from the tournament at the last second, or ‘tank’ an early round match to prepare for the two-week tournament in China.

The early disappearance of a few of the top seeds would be a welcome sight for Frank Dancevic, the lone Canadian in the singles draw, who will try to become the first Canadian to win in Toronto. Last year, the Niagara Falls native made it to the quarter-finals before ultimately succumbing to his nerves against Nadal in a tight three set match. Dancevic has had a disappointing year thus far, failing to advance past the second round of a Grand Slam. But Dancevic has recently shown signs of returning to last year’s form with an upset win over former Wimbledon finalist David Nalbandian and a quarterfinal appearance at the Hall of Fame tournament in Newport, Rhode Island.

The best chance for a hometown victory, however, is on the doubles court. Toronto’s Daniel Nestor is coming off his first Wimbledon victory, completing a Career Grand Slam, and staking claim to the title of greatest-ever Canadian tennis player. Nestor won the Rogers tournament in 2000, partnering with fellow Canadian Sebastien Lareau, and now returns in 2008 as the number one doubles player in the world anchored by a big serving partner, Serbia’s Nenad Zimonjic.

If you have some free time and a few extra dollars on hand this July, take the TTC up to York to catch some world class tennis. Dozens of nations will be represented, from Argentina and Chile to Russia and the Czech Republic, each trying to capture the momentum going into the Olympic Games.

Read and destroy

On June 12, the Conservative government introduced Bill C-61, aimed at decreasing illegal file-sharing over the Internet. The bill is an attempt to renew Canada’s already existing copyright laws and bring it closer to American intellectual property laws.

“The Copyright Act, even with the changes proposed by the government […] remains anti-student,” said Christopher Tabor, the manager of Queen’s Bookstore.

According to the legislation, it will be illegal to download documents and PDFs from online databases. Files accessible through university library systems must be deleted within five days of downloading. Violators of these regulations could be fined up to $500.

Libraries such as Robarts would have to guarantee that only one copy of any document, print or online, can be created per student. Even legal reproductions of a document cannot be transferred to another individual.

As well, libraries would be forced to lock up files and prohibit interlibrary loans through electronic delivery, requiring users to wait for paper copies of documents to be delivered to their library.

“Bill C-61 attempts to provide balance, but misses the boat for ordinary Canadians and over 21 million library users,” said Rob Tiessen, chair of the Canadian Library Association Copyright Committee.

Online lecture notes will be available for a limited amount of time, to students and teachers of the course only, so that it will be illegal to share notes with students in other sections or semesters. Once a course has ended the lecture recordings, notes, and past exams will be destroyed. The bill states that paper documents cannot be reproduced if in an electronic state and digitally encrypted. This will dramatically decrease the efficiency of researching and simplicity of online databases. Copying copyrighted material such as CDs and Powerpoint presentations to portal devices will also be banned. Unless illegally downloaded, consumers are looking at costs of up to 60,000 dollars to fill a portable music player, and none of those songs can be transferred to another computer, Ipod or CD.

“Students recognize the importance of maintaining and enforcing strict policies for copyright infringement,” said Zach Churchill, the director of the Canadian Alliance of Students Associations. “However, these new proposals could seriously stifle an institution’s ability to teach and a student’s ability to learn”.

The bill may never see the light of day. With a possible election in the fall, the bill could die on the order paper of parliament before becoming law.