Not quite conservative

At a recent news conference in Fredericton, New Brunswick, Prime Minister Stephen Harper remarked: “the Canadian public has become more conservative.” He noted that, 15 years ago, ideas like free trade and fiscal restraint were still divisive. Nowadays, these ideas are more likely to find consensus among the Canadian public—indicating, in Harper’s mind, a more conservative tilt in public opinions. After facing criticism from his opponents Jack Layton and Stephane Dion, Harper qualified his statements: “At the same time, I don’t want to say the Canadian public is overwhelmingly conservative, or that it is necessarily as conservative as everybody in our party.”

Such assertions reveal certain things about the state of Canadian politics. For one, Harper won’t have much luck if he wishes to govern in a fashion that is closer to his party’s ideological underpinnings. Canada may have grown comfortable with NAFTA and balanced budgets, but the perceived effectiveness of such policies is more important than shifts in public opinion. During the 1990s, both Canada and the U.S. saw economic growth and prosperity coincide with an inundation of free trade agreements and fiscal reforms. In 1994, both countries signed NAFTA. A year later the World Trade Organization was born. In Canada, the Liberal Party presided over a fiscal surplus, while down south, Democratic president Bill Clinton signed into law the highest number of free trade agreements in the country’s history. Whether these policies actually contributed to the economic upswing is up for debate—they gained public approval because of the prosperity of the decade.

Current attitudes on free trade provide further proof of this theory of post-ideological efficacy. Over the last two years, the United States Congress welcomed a slew of populist politicians who’ve been critical of free trade. In Canada, Harper says that his opposition has returned to “a pre-free trade, Cold War kind of approach to the economy.” Impending financial collapse aside, both American and Canadian wages have stagnated while economic growth has skyrocketed. The globalization of labour and immigration put competitive pressure on less educated workers. Just as Americans and Canadians approved of free trade in the 1990s when they associated it with boom times, the appeal is lost with a faltering economy.

Evidence of an ideological shift towards free market values would be visible in more “sacred” institutions. Currently, Canadians show overwhelming support of their social safety net, as evinced by the near-permanent institution of universal healthcare. While there was talk of privatizing Social Security in the United States, this has been minimal in Canada. Income and sales taxes are both higher in Canada than they are in the U.S. Perhaps Harper added that qualifier because he’s promised to “make sure that it [the Conservative Party] continues to govern in the interests of the broad majority of the population.”

Harper’s minority government was voted in because it promised a competent and clean government in the face of Liberal corruption. Voters wanted to see what the party could deliver, not witness a mandate worthy of Barry Goldwater. Harper’s record shows: in the past two years, only the 1 per cent shaving of the GST bears any resemblance to small-government conservative economic policy. If Harper’s own projections are to be taken at face value, the election in October will likely bring Harper only continued minority status.

As the federal election dawns, we must remember one thing: for the time being, Canada is far from the fiefdom of Bush’s Republican America (to the chagrin of some and the relief of many others.). Until Harper attains a majority government and can successfully implement more “radical” conservative policies without bringing about his own party’s downfall, we should feel confident that Canadian political ideology remains mostly unchanged.

Three strikes, you’re out

The Toronto Blue Jays’ quest for the playoffs ended in Boston this past weekend in the most anticlimactic fashion. The Jays dropped three of four games to the Red Sox with a blowout and a couple of close games on paper. During the series, the Jays were outmatched and beaten badly in all of the finer parts of the game. They were unable to hold late leads and add insurance runs, setting Toronto apart from the superior contending teams.

Even before the Boston series, the Jays had a slim chance of making the playoffs. They needed to sweep the Red Sox and pull within 2.5 games of the wild card lead. To cement their playoff spot, they would have had to sweep the Sox all over again during their three game series this coming weekend at the Rogers Centre.

Despite the disappointment following the Red Sox series, there are things to note about the Jays’ past and future. To even get to a point where the Boston series held any meaning, Toronto had to pull off a 10-game winning streak over the preceding 11. While a 1.000 winning percentage over ten games cannot be translated to an entire season, the quality of the team’s performance is close to what many analysts predicted. If the Jays achieved that level of play during the entire season, they easily could’ve clinched a spot in the playoffs.

The Jays’ record over the past few weeks is troubling. Why does the team seem to flop whenever they need a strong series? To a lesser extent, why does the team excel when the pressure is off (and playoff hopes are crushed) late in the season?

Critics of Jays’ general manager J.P. Ricciardi offer an answer. They explain that the team, while balanced on paper, lacks the intangibles and killer instinct of the playoff contenders. On the flipside, the Jays’ blistering pace of 10 wins in 11 games couldn’t have continued much longer. The Boston letdown was more a product of circumstance and impossible expectations than overall weakness.

Heading into next year, the fate of Ricciardi is the team’s biggest concern. It’s worth noting that since ex-manager John Gibbons and nearly all of his coaching staff were replaced by Cito Gaston and his handpicked coaches this June, the team has had a winning record. If the Jays performed all season at the level they did under Gaston, they would finish the year with 95 to 100 wins—certainly playoff territory.

Arguably, the change in staff has allowed Ricciardi’s team to reach its full potential. Given the public criticism of former hitting coach Gary Denbo by some players and the remarkable change in play since the coaching switch, it’s impossible to pretend that the previous coaching staff was close to ideal under Gibbons. While Ricciardi was criticized for waiting so long to fire Gibbons, the Jays’ recent winning streak will give the struggling GM a much-needed lifeline.

Remarkably, Ricciardi has already publicly guaranteed the jobs of Gaston and his staff despite being unsure of his own fate. Perhaps the biggest impediment to Ricciardi’s return is the fact that president and CEO Paul Godfrey—Ricciardi’s biggest supporter in the organization—has indicated that he is considering quitting his post after this season and pursuing other avenues (perhaps even bringing an NFL team to Toronto.) Should Godfrey leave, his successor may have trouble dealing with an eighth-year general manager who has yet to make the playoffs.

The past two off seasons in Toronto have been exciting, and the subsequent results unequivocally disappointing. Yet the near-universal belief that the Jays have a talented roster can’t be far off-base. With Cito Gaston at the helm, who delivered the Jays’ only two World Series in franchise history, Toronto baseball fans can look forward to 2009.

The little engine that should

Try to imagine the streets of downtown Toronto without the acrid haze of car exhaust fumes or the drone of motorized traffic. You might hear birds chirping, or the sound of the breeze against the cityscape. It would be almost, well, Zen-like.

A Toronto-based automaker has already entertained this utopian vision. The Zenn Motor Company is the proud manufacturer of the Zenn low-speed electric car, whose name is an acronym for Zero Emissions No Noise. The name is fitting considering the vehicle’s inherent environmental benefits, and the fact that—to quote Rick Mercer—“Zen is also the kind of meditation you have to use when dealing with a bureaucracy that refuses to support this made-in-Canada car.”

While the vehicle has been approved for on-road usage in the provinces of Quebec and British Columbia, 46 of the 50 U.S. states, and throughout Europe and Asia, Ontario Transportation Minister Jim Bradley won’t approve the Zenn car in its home province due to safety concerns. This summer, it was announced that Ontario would embark on an independent study towards developing safety standards for low-speed vehicles (LSVs). However, the project’s vague timeline suggests that the likelihood of seeing Zenn cars on Toronto roads anytime soon isn’t looking so good, and no one seems to know why.

Designed to reach maximum speeds of 32 to 40 km/h, LSVs such as Zenn are certainly not highway vehicles—a salient point for long-distance commuters. In the U.S., these cars are specifically referred to as “Neighborhood Electric Vehicles” (NEVs), denoting their intended use (residential areas rather than busy urban ones). Some cities, such as the eco-obsessed Lincoln, California, have constructed separate NEV lanes for their speed-challenged electric cars. But in Ontario, these cars are confined to provincial park roadways and private estates.

According to Jim Bradley, the issue has largely to do with speed: Zenn cars fall short of meeting Transport Canada’s safety standards for conventional cars because LSVs are slower. Yet this is also true of motorized bicycles and mopeds, which are allowed on Ontario roads.

One could argue that the Zenn car’s appearance poses an additional danger—the vehicles can be mistaken for higher-speed conventional cars while on the road. This is easily solved by enforcing the use of “slow moving vehicle” flashing lights and LSV-specific decals—solutions that have proven successful in parts of the U.S. If Zenn’s low speed is the best excuse Bradley can come up with for keeping the clean little car at bay, perhaps this isn’t an issue of safety so much as fear of change.

According to the Zenn Motor Company’s product overview, the car costs about one penny per mile to operate, with a gasoline equivalency of about 245 miles per gallon. They typically sell for a reasonable $12,000 to $16,000. It’s too bad we won’t be able to drive them.

Employee testing doesn’t cure drug use

The TTC is considering random drug and alcohol testing for employees who hold “safety sensitive” jobs such as drivers, mechanics, and maintenance workers. The idea arose from a recent report detailing almost 40 instances of intoxication among TTC employees, including Tony Almeida, who was killed by a subway car on the job; post-mortem analysis revealed that he had been smoking marijuana during his shift.

TTC Chief General Manager Gary Webster, believes that it is necessary to test employees in order to ensure the safety of the general public. Amalgamated Transit Union President Bob Kinnear feels that drug testing violates the privacy of employees.

According to Statistics Canada, the rate of marijuana-related crimes has increased by at least 34 per cent since 1991. Cocaine offenses are also on a steady rise. Drug overdoses account for the deaths of nearly 1,300 people per year, and half of all reported cases of HIV infection occur among drug users.

These statistics show that substance abuse is not a an issue confined to the TTC, but a societal dilemma. Launching a drug and alcohol testing program for employees in safety sensitive jobs will not cure the evils of drug use in our society.

Ensuring the safety of our citizens is a top priority, but our biggest concern should be whether or not drug testing will bring an end to drug use. There should be a zero tolerance policy towards intoxicants on the job. Drug use is not acceptable under any circumstances, whether one is employed by a transit company in a major city, or working a job with less public importance. The principle behind this drug testing initiative (i.e., eradicating drug use on the job) suggests that drugs are acceptable, as long as employees are not on duty. Additionally, defining a job as “safety sensitive” is problematic. Safety is a major priority with every job, regardless of the institution.

Our society needs to approach drugs in a different way, and employer-enforced drug and alcohol testing won’t eradicate the billion-dollar illegal industry thriving in the Greater Toronto Area. The TTC drug testing initiative seems to condemn drugs only when they compromise work safety, but illicit drug use is wrong at any time.

Highly Evolved

Have you ever wondered why you solemnly bow your head upon hearing Paul McCartney’s somber yet hopeful vocal turn on “Let It Be?” Or why you can’t help but move your body to the opening guitar lick of “Satisfaction?”

If you’ve ever pondered the science behind the effect of music upon the human brain, Daniel J. Levitin’s book The World in Six Songs: How the Musical Brain Created Human Nature might have the answers you’re looking for.

The book accomplishes more than a simple explanation of our reactions to certain songs. Through neuroscience in combination with evolutionary biology, Levitin attempts to provide a scientific explanation as to why we sing around the campfire, why music plays such a big role in religious services, and even why we whistle while we work. He cites these and countless other musical activities as being essential to the way human beings evolved.

The study of how the brain responds to music is a relatively new interdisciplinary science that’s received significant press in the last few years. Levitin got the ball rolling in 2006 with This Is Your Brain on Music, and celebrated British neurologist Oliver Sacks addressed the subject a year later with his book Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain. Levitin admits in his chapter on joy that the concept of music therapy—based on the connection between singing and the release of endorphins in the brain—has not yet been conclusively proven, but he makes an argument in favour of it anyway.

Levitin is not only an accomplished author and a professor of Psychology and Behavioral Neuroscience at McGill University, he’s also a former sound engineer for Santana, Chris Isaak, and Jonathan Richman, the former president of San Francisco’s 415 Records, and the kind of music junkie who posts his entire iTunes library on his website.

At his lecture at the U of T Faculty of Music on Tuesday afternoon, Levitin gave a packed house of psychologists and music lovers a brief introduction to the six categories into which he divides the whole of music history.

The six types of songs don’t fall along any musical genre lines; instead they are grouped thematically to sum up the reaction elicited in our brains. They are as follows:

Friendship—Sharing a song leads to the creation of trust, which is essential to social bonding, synchronized labour, and battle.

Joy—“Music tries to take [the listener] on an emotional ride and encapsulate the many human emotions. When people listen to music they like, it activates the ‘reward centres’ in the brain that modulate dopamine (the brain’s feel-good hormone).”

Knowledge—Levitin argues that our ancestors used music to preserve important information and teach children basic lessons like the alphabet and number systems.

Comfort—“In every society we know of, mothers instinctively sing to their children.” Levitin stressed the importance of lullabies and our tendency to take solace in sad songs like the blues.

Religion—Music is used in religious ceremonies to create a sense of ritual that remains firmly entrenched in our memory.

Love—“What binds together [different] forms of love is a deep sense of caring. We respond to that, it’s a uniquely human quality. It’s one of the things that characterizes us as a species, and it’s [a topic that is] written about so often in music.”

As he describes the countless effects of music upon the brain, Levitin’s thesis determines that music is not only a form of entertainment, but a central force in all our lives. He makes reference to over 350 songs, and snippets of lyrics are printed to provide a clear illustration of this core belief. Levitin’s theory drives the urge to qualify one’s favourite songs under one of his six stated types. Starting with the two previously mentioned examples, it quickly becomes clear that qualifying each track is no easy task because the greatest pieces of music elicit multiple emotions.

The driving instrumentation on “Satisfaction” could easily qualify it as a song of joy, but Mick Jagger’s lyrics make it more like a song of comfort, specifically self-comfort, as Jagger laments society’s state of meaninglessness and his own personal “losing streak.”

It would be easy to call “Let It Be” a friendship or love song, but the combination of church organs and “Mother Mary” references make it practically a religious hymn.

Levitin references Johnny Cash’s “Walk the Line” three times, deeming it a friendship song, love song, and knowledge song. At his lecture, he clarified this distinction, saying, “It’s a knowledge song. I think he’s writing this song to himself to remind himself not to cross that line of infidelity.” If nothing else, Levitin’s categories spark an interesting debate.

It’s possible that our evolution as a species will continue to develop in tandem with music, but if our songs are indeed a measure of humanity’s evolution, should Soulja Boy’s “Crank Dat” be considered a sign of a coming apocalypse? It’s a scary thought.

Daniel J. Levitin’s book The World in Six Songs: How the Musical Brain Created Human Nature is published by Penguin Books and is available now. His book tour will see him return to Toronto twice this fall: for an interview at Indigo Books, 55 Bloor St. W., on Oct. 2, and the Royal Conservatory of Music on Nov. 4.

Preserved zebras and sharks smash Sotheby’s records

British artist Damien Hirst is known for defying expectations in his artwork—his signature pieces are animals soaked in formaldehyde and skulls coated with jewels and precious metals. This week, however, Hirst changed the face of visual arts through economics. His newest collection of preserved animals, stuffed cabinets, and butterfly paintings, titled Beautiful Inside My Head Forever, garnered £111 million at Sotheby’s ($168 million CAD) —the highest earnings for a single-artist auction. This is also the first time in Sotheby’s 250-year history that the auctioneers have sold new work. Choosing not to showcase his collection in galleries before selling it, Hirst claims this process is more ‘democratic.’ The record-breaking profit from Beautiful Inside My Head Forever seems strange as art sales continue to stagnate and global financial markets seem to implode. 20,000 art lovers attended the London auction, but only a handful of bidders were seriously contesting Hirst’s work. Not so democratic, perhaps—but do you really need that gold-plated bullock or a cupboard full of cigarette butts and diamonds?

ASSU goes bottom-up

Within the span of two days, the Arts and Science Students’ Union has lost its student fees and its president.

Interim VP and provost Cheryl Misak has decided to withhold ASSU’s funding for the time being after she reviewed their two controversial elections from last year, as she informed the union Tuesday. On Wednesday, Sept. 17, ASSU president Ryan Hayes resigned via an emailed statement.

Both decisions came after The Varsity uncovered the collaboration between then-candidate Hayes, elections chair Ausma Malik, and then-exec Alanna Prasad on elections procedures and reports. Leaked emails and chats cast doubt on Malik’s neutrality, showing that Hayes and Prasad decided to put forth Malik as a candidate for election chair.

As chair, Malik threw out the initial election that Hayes’ rival, Colum Grove-White, won. The second election was pushed as far into the exam period as possible to “avoid an appeals process after the elections,” reads an email message from Prasad. Malik also asked Hayes and exec Alanna Prasad for input on her decisions and let them edit her verdict and the election report. When Grove-White lost the second election, he appealed to Jim Delaney, director of the Office of the Vice-Provost, Students. The investigation was handed over to Misak because Delaney is a claimant in an unrelated investigation involving ASSU executives.

In her decision, Misak invoked the Policy for Compulsory Non-Academic Incidental Fees, which allows her to withhold funding “if the Office of the Vice-Provost Students has reason to believe that a student society is not operating in an open, accessible and democratic fashion.” Her office, the Office of the VP and Provost, is responsible for U of T’s academic and budgetary matters.

Part of the dispute over the initial election stemmed from ASSU’s lack of official written rules for its elections. Hayes said he operated under past practice that disallowed campaigning. “Those were always the rules,” he said. Grove-White received written rules from an ASSU staffer stating that campaigning was permitted. Hayes and those who ran alongside him have claimed that ASSU staff, who are in the midst of a labour dispute with the execs, were not neutral in the election and supported the Grove-White slate. Misak’s letter to ASSU exec Sheila Hewlett, dated Tuesday, Sept. 16, voiced concern over the lack of written rules. “There was an absence of specific rules or procedures that might have brought openness and democracy to the situation,” the letter reads.

In an interview that took place immediately after he resigned yesterday, Hayes rejected the validity of the policy governing ASSU’s funding from student fees, which he said has a vague definition on the student society’s undemocratic conduct.

“They only need reason to believe, not definitive proof. The administration as an entity is biased in a referendum or election. The administration has interests because we negotiate with the administration,” he said. “The point that was made to her was that procedures already exist within ASSU to deal with any disputes.” The ASSU constitution states that instances not covered would be addressed by Bourinot’s Rules, parliamentary-style rules of order and procedure. Misak’s letter said referring to Bourinot’s is insufficient.

Sandy Hudson, president of UTSU, agreed with Hayes. “Under no circumstances should the administration withhold funds based on internal student union governance matters,” she said. “When there are electoral improprieties, it is the members, that is the course unions of ASSU, who have the responsibility to ensure that the organization is running smoothly.”

Grove-White called Misak’s decision “a double-edged sword.”

“On one side it will result in a transparent democratic process,” he said. “But on the other it jeopardizes funding for those course unions who really work on behalf of their students.”

In her letter, Misak said the ASSU constitution does not describe “a clear procedure for dealing with complaints from members” and later noted that “ASSU has no rules for the conduct of elections for President.”

When asked whether ASSU should have specific rules for complaints and the election, Hayes said, “If you want to do something, whether it’s a complaint, or something else, it’s the same policy. It’s all the same, because it’s all democratic. It would be redundant.”

Hayes’ written statement of resignation does not admit any unethical behaviour on his part. “This [the leaked emails] has resulted in sensationalized reporting largely revolving around petty personal politics and gossip, which I feared would be used to distract from the important work of ASSU for the remainder of my term,” it reads.

According to ASSU’s constitution, the exec can select a replacement for vacated positions until a by-election can be held. Regularly scheduled elections for four exec positions will take place next Monday, Sept. 22. Exec Edward Wong said the presidential election will not be held on that date, because there is little time for nominations. At press time, the chief elections officer position has not been filled.

Grove-White isn’t sure if he will run. “I think I need to talk to some course unions,” he said. “I’m a little worried because of ASSU’s current predicament and about who is willing to step up to the plate if I don’t.”

Both of ASSU’s remaining execs, Wong and Hewlett, declined to comment on Hayes’ resignation and the fund freeze. Wong said the execs would meet and would respond to Misak’s letter, as requested, by noon on Friday, Sept. 19.

Pink Floyd’s Richard Wright Dead at 65

Classic rock fans across the globe shed a tear on Monday when Richard Wright, the keyboardist for Pink Floyd, passed away. Wright co-founded the band in 1965 and was integral in the composition of many Pink Floyd classics, such as the landmark albums Meddle, Dark Side of the Moon, and Wish You Were Here. Due to mounting tension with Roger Waters, Wright opted out of The Wall recordings, but continued to play with the band in live shows. He officially re-entered Pink Floyd in 1988 and contributed to the band’s final album, The Division Bell, in 1994. Wright also released two albums as a solo artist, Wet Dream (1978) and Broken China (1996). Wright passed away from cancer in England on September 15th at the age of 65. Before his death, Wright was working on a new album composed mainly of instrumental pieces.