Grants and grunts

This Wednesday, the provincial government finally unveiled a grant program promised during last year’s election, which offers every Ontario student $150 to help cover textbook costs. The grant is slated to increase to $225 in 2009 and $300 in 2010. But if you hadn’t heard about this program, you aren’t alone.

“It would be nice, definitely. I just dropped over $700 on books,” said Kaitlynn Roote, a first-year with a reading list of eight textbooks.

OSAP applicants are automatically considered for the grant, but others need to apply separately for the funding.

“I never saw that at all, to be honest,” said first-year transfer student Jason Batchelor, an OSAP recipient who regularly checks the financial aid portal. “If it’s [on their website] they’re not doing anything to make it obvious.”

The grant program was supposed to roll out on Sept. 1 of this year. The Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities has not offered an explanation for missing this target date.

“It seems to me at least that [the provincial government] made this promise without knowing exactly how to get it out to people so that they can actually access it,” said Dave Scrivener, the University of Toronto Students’ Union’s VP external. “It seems to be a program that they’ve quietly forgotten.”

Scrivener charged that the government kept important program details ambiguous until the last minute. Until Wednesday’s announcement, it was unknown whether students would need to save their receipts or purchase books only at authorized bookstores. The province has now clarified that neither of these steps are necessary. Shelley Melanson, chairperson of the Canadian Federation of Students’ Ontario chapter, confirmed that CFS-O has been in contact with the Ministry about the grant, “but basically we’ve been getting a lot of our [data] from the information that’s finally gone online today.”

On Monday, two days before the province’s official announcement, Admissions & Awards also had virtually no information to give on the grant. Asked by The Varsity whether students had come in with questions about the program, one OSAP counselor responded, “It’s news to me.” Another could confirm only that the government would unveil the grant within the next few days. When pressed, he admitted that he had been cautioned against speaking about the grant before the official announcement. “We don’t want to steal their thunder,” he said.

Scrivener contended that the program would have been more useful if it began before students had to pay the upfront cost for textbooks. “It would’ve been better if the provincial government could have got its act together and figured this out over the summer so that there was money for when people were actually buying the books,” he said.

Melanson expressed concern that the timing of the announcement, after books had already been bought and classes had begun, made it less likely students would go out of their way to apply for the grant. “The fact that it’s a ‘mail-in rebate’ is ridiculous,” she said. “How many people actually fill in a mail-in rebate and actually get [their money] back?”

“Well it’s a pretty complex thing,” said Karel Swift, the director of Admissions & Awards. Swift sat on a provincial working group that helped design the grant delivery system. “I have to give the government a lot of credit because they did a huge amount of work,” she said. Swift added that a patchwork of mutually incompatible student record systems at Ontario’s colleges and universities posed a major obstacle.

Swift told The Varsity that the university plans to publicize the grant with a link on the front page of the school’s website, and several other U of T web portals.

Predator alerts on need-to-know basis

Early in August, Stephanie Kloepfer was in a summer course lecture when a female classmate came to the front of the room to tell the class she’d just heard about a serial sexual attacker operating on campus. The woman had learned of the man’s presence from a CityTV reporter who asked if she had heard about his assaults. Another woman spoke up to say she’d been approached by him on her way to class earlier. Kloepfer soon heard that a third woman she knew had also been approached by the man.

Police call the attacker “Steve,” the name he sometimes uses to approach victims. News media soon reported that he operated by luring women to secluded areas under the pretext of shooting a school photography project, then assaulting and photographing them. No one Kloepfer knew fell for the man’s shaky ploy, but what alarmed her was that, short of rumours and secondhand accounts, no one knew to watch out for him.

“I did an Internet search and found out that the campus police had some sort of alert out, but I couldn’t find that alert anywhere on campus,” she said. Seeking information on the attacker, Kloepfer called the campus police and was referred to their media relations office. That office typically takes calls from news media, at best providing statistics and procedural background. Kloepfer left knowing no more than before.

She tried the Campus Safety Office next, and got some answers about U of T’s safety measures, but not about Steve.

Kloepfer recalled: “When I called the Campus Safety Office I asked ‘What are you doing to tell people about this sexual predator,’ and they’re like ‘Which one?’”

The safety officer explained the university’s policies in such situations and told Kloepfer what measures they were taking. The police were putting up alert posters in some high-priority areas, an internal alert had been issued to various university workers with safety responsibilities, and the campus radio station CIUT was broadcasting an hourly warning.

“No one listens to the radio anymore,” said Kloepfer, who thinks the university’s efforts to alert the community were too easy for students to miss.

“I don’t want to hear about every little thing,” she said. “But if somebody is sexually assaulting people, in my book that’s pretty serious.”

Steve has been around for years, according to Jane Seto Paul, an administrator at the Arts and Science Students’ Union. She said she first heard about the man soon after joining ASSU 18 years ago.

“Yeah, it’s been forever,” she said. Paul described an incident from early in her time here. “At one point they had an article about him,” she said.

“Someone actually came into my office and reported that this guy is over in the UC quad. I called the U of T police and said ‘This guy, the one that you’ve been looking for, he’s in the UC quad right now talking to some women.’ I can’t remember what was going on at the time but they were just too busy to check it out.”

She shared Kloepfer’s criticism about the flow of safety information on campus.

“It’s not like people don’t take things seriously, because we’re a huge campus in the middle of a large city, so anything that’s happening in the city, crime-wise, is probably happening here at U of T. Are we told about a lot of things that are happening here? No.”

At the time Kloepfer was investigating the campus safety network, Binish Ahmed was UTSU’s VP university affairs (Ahmed has since resigned.) When Ahmed heard from Kloepfer and several other female students who had encountered the attacker, she sent a concerned letter to U of T’s president David Naylor. That resulted in a meeting with Jonathan Freedman, the school’s deputy provost of student life. Ahmed went in to argue that the university wasn’t doing enough to inform students.

Rob Steiner, U of T’s assistant VP of strategic communications, spoke to that.

“At the university we get threats all the time,” Steiner said.

The university relies first on outside experts—police, firefighters, health workers and so on—to assess the risks and potential targets of a threat to the campus community. After hearing which people the experts think are endangered, a U of T crisis management team focuses its efforts on alerting those specific people, Steiner explained. According to him, this is both to speed up the alert process and prevent confusion.

“One thing you’ll learn if you’ve done this over and over again is that for every situation there are pros who can tell you what you have to do to ensure a safe environment,” he said. “There are professionals out there who know what safety means under different circumstances. Sometimes it means ‘get out of the building now,’ other times it means ‘stay where you are so we can get our fire trucks through,’ other times it means ‘don’t mention this to too many people because the public health guys have to focus on twelve folks and not be overwhelmed by 200 false alerts.’”

After meeting with Ahmed, Freedman took the extra step of emailing colleges, faculties, and other student hubs across campus, asking them to inform their students of Steve’s presence and mode of operation. They discussed implementing a multi-staged safety alert system, with such models as the AMBER child abduction alert network and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s colour-coded terror advisory chart. Freedman has since reached the end of his term as deputy provost. Contacted by The Varsity earlier this week, he offered to speak about campus safety plans next week after returning from a trip and consulting with other university staff. Regarding those ideas, Steiner—who sits on the crisis management team—said he was unaware of any current developments.

Ahmed said she plans to brief her successor on the issue when UTSU’s executive selects him or her. She remained displeased with the campus safety network’s philosophy on disclosing information about potential dangers.

“They don’t think it’s important to tell students these things as soon as they find out. I think it’s really important.” The low-key approach to disseminating threat reports, she argued, not only leaves students in the dark but also leaves them unfamiliar with the role campus agencies play in a crisis.

“What do students do if there is a safety risk?” she asked. “Do students know what they’re supposed to do? I don’t think that they do.”

Steiner contended that the professionals U of T counts on know when and how the public should be alerted to danger. As for Kloepfer, her encounters left her worrying the network of campus safety providers were not doing an acceptable job of deciding when students should and should not be informed, and, sometimes, that they weren’t adequately informed themselves.

For prof, grass is greener with biofuel startup

John R. Coleman, VP of research and graduate studies at UTSC, will be trading his red pen for a consulting job come Nov. 3. The veteran botany prof will begin work as Algenol Biofuels’ chief science officer.

“After being an administrator for 10 years, its time to go back to being a real scientist,” said Coleman, who will remain on staff at U of T’s downtown campus, teaching grad students in the department of cell and systems biology.

“His office has been a reliable resource to researchers and students in completing grant and research applications, and he has introduced a number of programs to assist faculty in expanding their research activities,” said Franco Vaccarino, principal of UTSC.

At UTSC, Coleman conducted research in molecular biology, genetics and plant biology, specializing in cells and systems biology. His expertise in algae will come in handy at Algenol when he supervises research to create ethanol from algae. The company’s method, said Coleman, creates ethanol that does not divert food sources and is safe for the environment. He will try to make the process more efficient.

A successor won’t be chosen for several months, according to Mary Anne Gutton, communications director at UTSC. Plans to fill the role will be announced at a later date.

John Shavluk and political Darwinism at its finest

British Columbia Green Party candidate John Shavluk was pulled from the running late last week after a blog post surfaced in which he had written anti-Semitic jargon. The 2006 post, which appears to be a directionless rant about the Iraq War, drug laws, and 9/11 conspiracy theories, alluded to U.S. government involvement in “the attack on [their] shoddily built Jewish world bank headquarters.” In case there is any confusion as to which towers Mr. Shavluk was referring to, the entry elaborates: “you know ‘the two towers’ (who has the ring I wonder) better invade there too eh, oh no oil?…”

This incident has prompted something of a backlash in the blogosphere, particularly among Mr. Shavluk’s associates, who insist the remark was taken out of context. Of course, Shavluk is the first to insist that he’s no anti-Semite, claiming that his remarks were meant to echo statements made by a documentary film and that people reading his blog entry would have understood the reference. If this is true, then is John Shavluk simply another victim of our reactionary, overly-P.C. media machine? Did he deserve to lose his candidacy over a single instance of loose lips—or, in this case, idle typing hands?

The answer to both questions is yes.

John Shavluk made an irresponsible remark—actually, an irresponsible series of them. Referring to the fallen twin towers as the headquarters of Jewish bankers not only plays upon outdated racial stereotypes, but it encompasses a whole series of claims made in bad taste. Addressing outlandish arguments made by a documentary film is one thing; addressing outlandish arguments with rhetoric so poor that no casual reader could decipher the film’s ranting from Shavluk’s own—well, that’s just sad.

Our society has grown intolerant of intolerance—arguably, to the point of hypersensitivity—but that’s the way things are and we’re better off because of it. Yet I don’t think anti-Semitism is really the whole cause of Shavluk’s predicament. The real issue is that John Shavluk is an ass.

It’s hard to read the infamous post, which was originally published at enMasse.ca, without feeling embarrassment. After all, what respectable political hopeful would devote the time and energy to creating a blog post without even bothering to run a simple spelling and grammar check? Candidates should know better than put out such incomprehensible drivel for public consumption. Shavluk’s true intentions in writing that post determine whether or not he has integrity as a human being. But, as we all know, integrity is never really the bottom line in politics. The bottom line is presentation, and no presentable politician would ever write anything like that.

It’s not just the stupid things you say, it’s the stupid way you say it,

Alleged Hezbollah threats are likely a fear tactic

In the cloud of hysteria that surrounds the post-911 world, scapegoating is commonplace. Foreigners have increasingly been portrayed as crusaders for the destruction of Western civilization. Sometimes the threats are real, other times they’re exaggerated, and more often than not they’re used solely as a fear tactic to push forward an agenda—harsher immigration laws, for instance. In some cases, scapegoating can frame certain groups as victims of a campaign against their own kind. The “fear card” seems to be at work here in Toronto: Israeli officials and news outlets claim that a Hezbollah cell has been monitoring the actions of El Al crew members in the city.

It is difficult to tell if any of these threats are verifiable, especially when the security and intelligence unit of the Toronto Police Service, which maintains contact with the RCMP and CSIS, has stated that there’s no evidence that the surveillance took place. Of course, these threats were assumed, not substantiated. These threats aren’t clear, which shows that intelligence agencies do not want to make any assumptions that would cause mass panic and hysteria. Thus far, a convenient measure has been to portray groups as threats to global prosperity. Sure, there are real threats in some instances, but causing panic and hysteria over an unproved rumour is something which is all too common these days.

The likelihood of Hezbollah launching an attack outside of the Middle East is questionable. Judging by the historical tendencies of militia or resistance groups like Hezbollah—unlike al-Qaeda, they do not strive for international political recognition—targets remain at home, not abroad. In the unlikely event that Hezbollah will attack targets outside of the Middle East, the attackers would likely be splinter groups. It seems unrealistic for Hezbollah to initiate attacks that aren’t directly related to their goals.

The possibility of a Hezbollah attack in Canada is overblown. It is easy to speculate on an attack from a group that is widely criticized. However, there is a difference between suspicion of a threat and evidence of one. It goes without saying that intelligence agencies and services should take action on imminent threats, but this assumed threat lacks any substance.

What I learned at TIFF ‘08

The Varsity recently sent film critic Will Sloan to his first Toronto International Film Festival, and he came back a changed man. We’ve seen the pictures and read the reviews. It’s a movie lover’s paradise, from the whirlwind of gala screenings to the A-list parties. We asked him to describe what it’s like off the red carpet and behind the scenes. As a public service, he has agreed to provide some words of wisdom in the form of the life lessons he gleaned from our city’s annual film extravaganza. One thing is for certain—he’ll never look at the entertainment industry the same way again.

  • In my estimation, the best thing about TIFF is the glory of the press pass. It separates you from the unwashed masses that stand for hours on end outside Yorkville hotels and, if they’re lucky, eventually might get to see the top of John Malkovich’s head. With a press pass, you are different—you are special. Be sure to wear it around your neck at all hours of the day and night. Sleep and shower in it too. Stare lovingly at yourself in the mirror with your press pass and say, “Hot damn, I am one bad-ass film critic.”

  • Don’t get too excited when your press pass comes with a Pizza Nova “mystery gift card”—mine was only worth two dollars. I wonder how much Ebert gets? The guy’s got an appetite.

  • Big crowds tend to form outside the InterContinental Hotel, easily the most star-studded hub during festival time. When you exit the front doors, don’t take it personally when the hundred-strong crowd of gawkers gazes up at you hopefully and then quickly looks away, disappointed that you’re not a celebrity.

  • It’s time to face the facts: Kevin Smith just isn’t a very talented director. Stop clinging to the fact that Chasing Amy was a fluke. Zack and Miri Make a Porno is only slightly funnier than Hotel Rwanda.

  • Don’t even dream of asking Adrien Brody where he keeps his Oscar. He’ll only glare at you and say, “I don’t discuss that.”

  • Brad Pitt was staying at the Park Hyatt. Sorry you missed him.

  • At press junkets, journalists will not always ask the most penetrating questions. I actually heard someone ask Brothers Bloom director Rian Johnson if his con-man movie was inspired by the fraud scandal surrounding Anne Hathaway’s fiancé. (I had one of my better TIFF moments when I then immediately asked Johnson if all his films are inspired by National Enquirer headlines. His response: “Yes!”)

  • Don’t even think you can get rush tickets to the big Hollywood movies. It’s not happening. I did things no man should have to do to get my JCVD ticket.

  • I misinterpreted Deepa Mehta’s Heaven on Earth. Deepa Mehta told me so herself.

  • Varsity favourite Mark Ruffalo promises to move to Canada if John McCain is elected President.

  • Having Bill Maher and Larry Charles look you straight in the eye and respond angrily to your criticism of their film Religulous is a terrifying experience.

  • Best movie at TIFF ‘08: Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York. Best excuse to re-watch a great one: Wong Kar Wai’s Ashes of Time Redux.

  • If you can make a roomful of journalists and Rachel Weisz laugh, it’ll pretty much be the best moment of your life.

Larger than life

Wouldn’t it be great if one resource, containing everything you’ve ever wanted to know about any species, was a single click away? That’s the ultimate goal of the Encyclopedia of Life (EOL), an ambitious and deceptively simple enterprise aimed at creating a single website that brings users face-to-face with reliable information about species ranging from the tiniest bullet ant to the giant helicopter damselfly.

Comparable to an online field guide, the EOL is home to a set of intuitive web pages, each of which provides information about the natural history, conservation status, habitat, and evolutionary history of the species. By typing the common or scientific name into the search box, users will be directed to that species’ page. Alternatively, users can explore the database by classification, such as animals, fungi, or plants. If you’re not looking for something specific, browsing the EOL is sure to reveal an interesting species you never knew existed.

Each web page offers interactive illustrations, maps, sound, and video clips. Currently available in English, French, German, Russian, and Ukrainian, the encyclopedia is catered towards the general public. However, links specifically intended for scientists, geneticists, specialists, and academics alike will provide access to more complex material.

Since its May 2007 launch, the EOL has established 30,000 web pages. It is estimated that at the time of completion—approximately 10 years and $70 to $100 million dollars from now—1.77 million pages will have been created. Currently, the EOL’s 30,000 web pages contain information about fish, amphibians, and plants. Twenty-four prototypes have also been created to demonstrate how much information such a service can generate and contain.

“It’s going to have everything known on it, and everything new is going to be added as we go along,” said EOL honourary chairman Dr. Edward O. Wilson. Over the next five years, the EOL plans to create one million species pages, digitize a considerable amount of biodiversity literature, and build an educational resource for schools, scientists, and specialists. They hope that by completion the EOL will be in use as a resource to generate new scientific analyses. “Once we get all the information in one place, think of the impact this will have—available to anybody, anywhere, anytime,” commented Wilson.

Although the EOL’s headquarters are based at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC, it is a global enterprise involving a multitude of experts, scientists, and institutions from around the world. Similar to Wikipedia, the Encyclopedia of Life is edited by volunteers, combining the collaborative efforts of experts and amateurs. Contributors help out in a variety of ways; by donating funds, becoming volunteer curators for species pages, or creating related content for submission. Each species page will have two contributor sections: one that a scientific editor verifies, and another that will be available to members of the public.

The EOL’s goals are far-reaching. They also want to transform science and inspire scientists, engage a wide and curious audience, and increase the collective knowledge of life on Earth. Some scientists are not convinced the EOL team can reach these goals. As University of Toronto biologist Daniel Brooks told the New York Times, “I have seen 20 years of good ideas go nowhere.”

On the other hand, proponents of the Encyclopedia of Life believe that its “encompassing scope and innovation will have a major global impact in facilitating biodiversity research, conservation, and education.” “You’ll be able to download a personalized field guide,” said Dr. James Edwards, executive director of the EOL. “You can say, ‘I’m going to go to this preserve in Thailand—what do we know about what might be here?’”

Already, one group of scientists will use the EOL for original research by comparing different species to further understand the biology of aging. Edwards notes that completion of the EOL will not be easy; especially considering the project is far from finished. Wilson, however, takes a less conservative approach. “It’s going to be a fun adventure for the next few decades,” he said.

Check out the beta version of the Encyclopedia of Life at www.eol.org.

Third CT scanner makes UHN international leader

University Health Network (UHN) is now the proud owner of three fully operational 320-slice computerized tomography (CT) scanners, more than any other establishment in the world. This is good news for patients at Toronto Western, Toronto General and Princess Margaret Hospitals as these scanners represent the finest in CT technology.

In a CT scan, image “slices” of the body are taken by rotating a thin x-ray beam in the region of interest. A computer interprets the information gathered by the x-ray beam and produces detailed, three-dimensional images of the scanned areas. The 320-slice CT scanner is capable of taking 16-centimeter-wide image slices in approximately one second. By contrast, a 64-slice CT takes ten seconds and can only capture a 3.2-centimeter-wide area. The large slices of the 320-slice CT make it possible for entire organs to be imaged in very little time. This makes it easier to detect and diagnose medical conditions like blood vessel blockages and tumours.

“The 320-slice CT will allow us to measure breathing-induced motion of both tumours and normal tissues within the patient,” said Dr. David Jaffray, Head of Radiation Physics at Princess Margaret. “With this information, we can accommodate for movement and develop highly precise radiation treatments that induce minimal side-effects.”

Uniquely situated in the emergency department, the newly operational scanner at Toronto Western Hospital can be used to quickly diagnose patients who are exhibiting stroke symptoms or have undergone severe trauma. Toronto Western’s Medical Imaging Site Director Dr. Karel Terbrugge believes that having the 320-CT in the emergency department will allow medical professionals “to more accurately [treat] triage patients.”

The 320-slice CT scanner at Toronto General Hospital has been in clinical operation since 2007. Given that the scanner can scan the entire heart in very little time, it has aided in the diagnosis of heart conditions. In addition, the dose of radiation required to treat cardiac patients has reduced over the last year.

“Breathing artifact, which causes image blurring, has been reduced with the 320-slice CT. This means that we have better diagnostic confidence,” said Dr. Narinder Paul, Medical Imaging Site Director at Toronto General. “We’re at the point where we can start to look past anatomy and start to look at [the pumping of organ fluid].”

Physicians hope that these advanced CT scanners will continue to help pinpoint tumours and cardiac complications, as well as reduce wait times for people with stroke symptoms.

“We have always been pioneers and early adopters of cutting edge CT technology,” said Chair of the Department of Medical Imaging at the University of Toronto Faculty of Medicine Dr. Patrice Bret. “Embracing this technology represents the next step in a continuum of technological advancement.”