Commuters Kick Back

University College’s commuter students have a room of their own today, with the opening of the Leith Centre, a space dedicated to the needs of off-campus students. The centre, which includes lockers and a kitchen, with lots of space to study and hang out, has been in the works since 2004. Nona Robinson, UC’s Dean of Students, has been involved in the project since the beginning.

“I think all of us know that offcampus students don’t get the students, so this is something we’ve been thinking about for a long time,” she said.

The centre finally came together this year thanks to money from the university’s $20 million Student Experience Fund, with some funding by the college. Though it is shiny and new, the room itself isn’t one of a kind—Vic and New College both boast spaces and social programs for commuters. Still, the centre comes with a campus first: UC’s Commuter Don program, which will be housed there.

Deena Dadachanji, one of the two dons who will serve UC’s 3500-strong commuter population this year, discussed the new position.

“I wanted to be a don, but I didn’t really like living in residence. I really prefer living off campus, so I’m passionate about commuter issues,” she said.

The dons will be available to give advice to commuter students on academic or social issues, and they will also organize programming for the centre along with the UC Lit’s University College Off-Campus Commission and UC’s coordinator of student life, Renu Kanga. Ideas for the coming year range from a Thanksgiving social, to Bike Week activities, to career workshops.

With four times as many students living off-campus as in residence, University College is typical of U of T. A recent National Survey of Student Experience report highlighted the problems this majority faces in almost every area—commuter students are less likely to work with faculty outside the classroom, less likely to participate in co-curricular activities and more likely to “experience a sense of alienation” in first year. UC aims to close that gap, though the Leith Centre is open to everyone.

“We have no problem with non-UC students using it,” said Robinson. “There will be a lot of UC-specific events, but nobody is going to be asking for ID at the door or anything.”

Drop by and check out the Leith Centre (79 St. George Street, on the main floor of the Helen Gardiner Phelan Playhouse) at an open house all day today.

Calculating Caribou

Be careful the next time you silently curse the person next to you in class for chatting too much or hogging the armrest— they might just turn out to be a rock star. This dream is slowly turning into reality for U of T alum Dan Snaith, who performs under the name Caribou and has just released his fourth album.

The new record, Andorra, is Snaith’s first release on Merge Records, recently tipped by Rolling Stone as a potential breakout—not bad for a guy who spent the late 90s hanging out at University College and making music on a computer in his dorm room.

“I made my first and part of my second albums while I was a student at U of T,” said Snaith. “This was the first album I’ve made while I wasn’t a student at the same time.”

He looks back fondly on the time he spent pursuing not only a career in music, but a Bachelor of Mathematics as well.

“I was always doing both, which I really liked, because being a student is a flexible lifestyle. For example, I was a TA at U of T and didn’t have to work apart from that, so the student life was good to be able to make music without having to worry about working.”

Snaith released his first two records under the name Manitoba, but hit a major snag in 2004 when he was hit with a lawsuit by Handsome Dick Manitoba, singer of The Dictators, a 70s punk band from New York.

Snaith explained, “We were doing a gig in L.A. and I got served with a court subpoena just before we went on stage by a private investigator that the guy had hired. I couldn’t even believe it.” Choosing not to ring up the $500,000 legal fees that it would cost to fight the suit, Snaith decided to change the band’s name.

Ironically, it was on a trip through the province of Manitoba that he settled on the name Caribou, and the band’s profile has been rising ever since.

While his first few records were electronica-based, featuring heavy percussion and sparse vocals, Andorra is Snaith’s first venture into the pop realm. The record combines the percussive elements of Snaith’s electronic beginnings with a quickly developing pop sensibility.

“I felt I had never written proper pop songs before, so the real focus for me was making melodies and harmonies that were really strong.” Andorra sees Snaith singing more than ever before, and he stressed the importance that he placed on vocals when crafting the album.

“The voice is a totally unique instrument for conveying emotion and connecting with people. I wanted to give the compositions I was writing as much emotional weight as possible.”

The result of this new direction is an album reminiscent of 60s psychedelia, with an element of the Beach Boys’ baroque- pop compositions.

Despite the fact that he explores new territory with each Caribou disc, Snaith is determined to continue writing, performing and recording every part of each album by himself. He claimed that working alone simply comes naturally to him, saying, “I’m so used to working this way. It would almost be strange for me to be with a band in a proper recording studio. I’ve never really recorded in that environment at all.”

Having completed his Ph.D. in Mathematics at Imperial College London, Snaith is now living in England, and it appears he has put academia aside, at least for now.

“It was really hectic when we were touring a lot more and the albums were getting a higher profile, taking up a lot more of my time. Being a student was getting to be a bit crazy at the end.”

Who’s watching whom?

Can privacy exist in an age where technology enables more and more information to be collected about us on an ongoing basis? Details like an individual’s genetic make-up can be extremely useful for medical practitioners to better treat patients, yet can also provide insurance companies and employers with information you may not want them to have.

“This information has to be protected like Fort Knox in certain circumstances, and must flow very readily in other circumstances,” said Dr. Ann Cavoukian, Ontario’s Information and Privacy Commissioner, at a Sept. 24 conference called The Privacy Prognosis in an Era of New Health Information Technology.

Hosted by Cavoukian at the MaRs Centre, the conference on the relationship between technology and privacy was attended by delegates from around the world.

U of T’s Trudo Lemmens, associate professor at the Faculty of Law, discussed the need for new regulatory and legal tools to protect individuals, families, and communities from the information that genetic mapping might reveal.

Lemmens explained the concerns of many individuals that their genetic data could be used against them.

“[Some worry that] the rise of genetic discrimination and the detailed level of information that would become available as a result of the human genome project would be used by employers, insurance companies, immigrations officers, and perhaps even by banks when you apply for a loan,” Lemmens said.

The consensus among attendees was that our understanding of the human genome opened possibilities for remarkable medical breakthroughs.

Knowing one’s genetic make-up can help predict certain health problems. Those who learn they are particularly susceptible to heart disease, for example, can alter their lifestyle to minimize the risk of heart problems down the road.

Lemmens cautioned, however, that this same information can have unfortunate consequences if it falls into the wrong hands.

The government of Ontario established the Provincial Health Information Privacy Law three years ago to control the spread of sensitive health data. The law is based on the concepts of implied consent and explicit consent, Cavoukian explained.

“When you go to see your physician, that physician should not have to spend any time with you getting your consent for the collection of the information you’re about to disclose. It’s clear you’re there because you want help,” she said.

But, added Cavoukian, as soon as that information leaves that health care sector, “everything changes.”

Such applications require the explicit consent of the individual whose data is being used.

The conference’s second focus was technological, because, organizers contended, privacy laws are only useful if the equipment used to gather and transmit sensitive data is secure.

U of T’s newly established Identity, Privacy and Security Initiative graduate program considers these issues. The IPSI, directed by Professor Dimitrios Hatzinakos, concentrates students and faculty from disciplines such as engineering, public policy, and business to analyze matters of public information security.

Hatzinakos hopes to build privacy directly into new technologies, a concept Cavoukian calls “privacy by design.”

“We have to think how we can build privacy into the technology so that it can be that much more effective” said Hatzinakos. He added that these technologies could be readily applied to other sectors, such as commerce and the legal system.

Solo Scenester

Since it seems like every member of everyone’s favourite sprawling local indie-rock collective Broken Social Scene is busy with their own various musical pursuits, it makes sense that their charming slacker frontman, Kevin Drew, would finally put his name on an album of his own. But look a little closer at his recently released record, and you’ll notice that even though Spirit If… is a solo effort, it’s still being billed as “Broken Social Scene Presents” (the band is also hoping to put out solo releases by bassist Brendan Canning and drummer Justin Peroff down the road). Not that Drew would have it any other way—in fact, most of the extended BSS family lends a hand on Spirit If…, and much of the old crew will come together again to act as the backing band for his live shows in support of the record, including a sold-out hometown gig at Lee’s Palace this week. The Varsity chatted with the affable indie icon last week over pints on a local patio as he chain-smoked, text-messaged, and chided idling drivers. —

Tabassum Siddiqui: Once you decided Spirit If… (which was initially born out of BSS recording sessions with pals/producers Charles Spearin and Ohad Benchetrit of Do Make Say Think) was going to be a solo album, did that change your approach to things?

Kevin Drew: It changed the idea of how things were going to sound for me. It made me do things where I didn’t care so much. Anything that was embarrassing intrigued me even more. When it’s yours, you have a free speech where no powers that be are going to tell you what to do; you don’t have any allegiance to making sure that other people are getting heard and stuff like that. So having a different outlook on things, different opinions, was wonderful.

The ‘Broken Social Scene Presents’ series kind of came up as a way of keeping our name within us, and we also start up a new way of filtering out more music that doesn’t have to go under what BSS has now become— this big band with all the people and the guests and the strings and the urgency and all that shit.

TS: You’ve mentioned that you prefer the writing and recording process over touring.

KD: My dream for me is to find peace with being on the road all the time— to find peace with being away from my love, find peace with not having a house half the time and always running around… I fought it for the past year and half, and I lost. So now I have to accept my defeat and realize that if I want to continue to do stuff like this, I have to find some peace with it.

TS: And now that you’re about to head out on the road again in support of this album, how are you going to deal?

KD: The drinking has to stop, because that just gets introduced to you in a way where you’re like, ‘Wow, I just made a couple hundred bucks tonight and now I’m going to drink!’ I have a lot of friends who drink a lot because it’s just constantly there for you all the time, every show. So that’s the main element that I have to tackle, because I can’t sing every night and get drunk every night—it’s just not good for the body, mind, and soul.

Broken Social Scene plays Kevin Drew’s Spirit If… at Lee’s Palace Friday, Sept. 27. Sold out.

Collection plate could be cut off

Home to three Catholic student clubs, one Catholic college and a number of faculty connected to this issue, the University of Toronto is no stranger to the questions posed by religious education. With public funding of denominational schools becoming a wedge issue in the provincial election campaign, debate on the matter has started to swirl on campus.

This past Friday, campus secular club the U of T Secular Alliance co-sponsored a public lecture with the Freethought Association of Canada and the Centre For Inquiry entitled “Catholic Public Schools: Constitutional Right or Archaic Privilege?” at St. George campus’s Medical Sciences Building.

The event focused on merging the current public school system with the separate Catholic school system to form a single school network, a cause championed by the One School System Network, which helped advertise the lecture.

Jan Johnstone, a public school trustee with the Bluewater District School Board, touted the benefits of a single school system while tallying, at length, the drawbacks of the current education system in Ontario as she saw it. Johnstone objected to the overlapping finances of the current system, which she called wasteful.

Currently, Ontario’s separate school system represents 46 Catholic school boards and one Protestant school board.

A staunch opponent of the Christian school boards, Johnstone said the idea of creating of even more publicly funded school boards for other religions was “crazy.”.

Many students and faculty at the lecture were concerned about the controversy over faith-based schools currently taking place in Ontario’s public forums, including last Thursday’s televised debate between Liberal premier Dalton McGuinty and challengers John Tory (PC) and Howard Hampton (NDP), where this issue was debated.

Also speaking at the event was Justin Trottier, president of the Freethought Association of Canada and director of Ontario’s Centre for Inquiry, both foundations devoted to advocating for a secular public sector.

Much of the current wave of dispute over this issue was raised by the Progressive Conservative party’s plan to publicly fund religious schools, with the aim of including all religious groups in the separate school system, not just Catholics and a small group of Protestants.

Trottier, a member of the Green party, was among the opponents of the PC plan at Friday’s lecture. The UTSA, FAC and CFI have stated that the public school system in Ontario is inclusive of all students, regardless of religion. They argued that public funding of religious schools would drain money from the education system, leaving the provincial government with the moral dilemma of deciding which religious denominations qualify for funding and which do not.

Johnstone noted that Quebec, Newfoundland and Manitoba have all recently switched from denomination school systems to a “one school system” model.

A man, a plan, a planet: Mars Direct

Dr. Robert Zubrin is an ambitious man with an equally ambitious idea: he not only wants to see humans on Mars in seven years, he also has a workable plan to make it a reality.

After flexing its technological muscles with the 1969 moon landing, it seemed only logical that NASA would next aim for Mars. Once our lifeless moon was scoured and analysed from every angle, the possibility of sending astronauts to the potentially life-filled surface of the red planet seemed within grasp. With its apparently dry riverbeds and ice-capped poles, Mars has remained a tantalizing target for space programs and the governments that fund them. What happened? Why aren’t we there yet?

As far as Zubrin is concerned, we should be able to get there soon. He expressed the nature of the problem using a simple analogy:

“In principle, it can take any amount of rope to connect two posts separated by 10 metres. The issue is whether you want to connect the posts or sell rope.”

In other words, a bare-bones mission designed to keep costs low while still sending people to Mars is feasible but unappealing to the numerous corporations contracted by NASA to design and manufacture the necessary equipment.

Politicians also complicate the issue. Bush has declared that before America goes to Mars, there must first be a launch pad on the moon. A notso- subtle land grab, the lunar base also carries a huge price tag of U.S. $450 billion. But there’s another problem with Bush’s plan: it just doesn’t make sense.

“Flying to the moon before going to Mars is like flying to Saskatoon on your way to Chicago,” said Zubrin.

Zubrin’s plan is much more elegant and direct. Rather than building Deathstar-sized space ships or lunar Cape Canaverals, his proposed five-year mission plan would involve launching unmanned ships to prepare for a manned vehicle. The beauty of the idea is that it can be accomplished using current technology and allows for four different backup plans should something go wrong, which is all too often the case in space exploration.

Contrary to common perception, the biggest hurdle that we face in the race to Mars is not the distance. With today’s spacecraft, the voyage to the planet would last only 200 days. Instead, the challenge has to do with weight: specifically, how to get our astronauts off the launch pad with enough supplies to make it there and back. Zubrin’s plan sidesteps those constraints. Rather than launching one huge ship, Mars Direct is broken down into several smaller launches. First off the ground would be an unmanned vessel containing an Earth-return vehicle and a nuclear-powered surface vehicle designed to run atmosphereprocessing machinery. Martian atmosphere is 95 per cent carbon dioxide, a chemical that can catalyze a series of chemical reactions to produce methane, the fuel that would get astronauts home. This ability to make propellant on Mars would allow the Earth-return vehicle to be launched from Earth with empty gas tanks. This key step, which has already been successfully tested at full scale, is critical to the potential success of the mission.

Says Zubrin, “You have to ask yourself: why is the Mars mission so heavy in the first place? 75 per cent of what they are shipping to Mars is the propellant to come home. That’s what makes the [Mars Direct] mission sing: 95 per cent of your return propellant comes from Mars.”

The window of time suitable for launching a mission to Mars opens up once every two years. This means that by second ship’s launch time, NASA would already know if there would be enough propellant to bring the astronauts home safely. This second part of the mission would launch four brave souls towards the red planet, a voyage lasting six months. After landing on Mars, the crew would spend 18 months conducting research and thoroughly exploring the planet. The astronauts would then use the fully fuelled return vehicle to travel back to Earth. As a backup, a second Earthreturn vehicle would be launched during the astronauts’ time on Mars, in case the original did not work. If this Earth-return vehicle is not needed, it could be used by future missions.

Another safeguard built into the mission design is a methane-powered rover, complete with habitat module. With a range of 1,000 kilometres, the rover would allow the team to reach the additional Earth-return vehicle if it happened to miss its designated landing spot.

These safeguards—critical for a mission so far from home—are a big step forward from the original Apollo missions. The abort protocol for those missions was simple: “If anything goes wrong, you quit and go home,” said Zubrin.

Venturing farther into the reaches of space presents a unique set of challenges. The most hazardous parameter to consider is not one that would immediately spring to mind for most people: radiation. Solar flares are a large source of radiation and can deliver fatal doses in a matter of hours. Frustratingly, they occur about once a year on an irregular basis. The Mars Direct plan has a convenient way of dealing with this problem. By storing their food and water around a small room in the centre of the living quarters, the astronauts can hide out during solar flares, with the solid matter blocking deadly radiation. “Our pantry becomes our storm shelter,” says Zubrin. With advanced warning from Earth-based monitoring systems, the astronauts would be given plenty of time to reach their safe haven. Another type of radiation, the mysterious “cosmic radiation,” is less serious in nature. The exposure levels that the astronauts are expected to endure would increase their likelihood of getting cancer by only one per cent.

If the price tag for the Mars Direct mission seems astronomical—a cool $20 billion to $30 billion— it seems less so when compared to the inflation- adjusted $135 billion cost of the Apollo program. Considering NASA’s 2007 operating budget is over $16 billion, Mars Direct seems affordable, even if sizeable cost overruns were to occur.

With improving technology and a quickly-filling planet, the case for sending people to Mars grows stronger. More than just a scientific curiosity, Mars could potentially prove profitable in the long run. With rich mineral deposits, including large amounts of deuterium (a valuable nuclear fuel), mining and resource exploitation will be an important aspect of humanity’s future endeavours on the red planet. Even more pressing is the imminent overcrowding of Earth and the eventual food shortfall. A terraformed Mars capable of growing crops could support and provide space for the human race.

All of this hinges on actually reaching Mars, of course. If Zubrin had funding for the project today, he is convinced that we could set foot on the planet by 2014. It may well be wishful thinking, but the point that Zubrin wanted to get across was clear.

“If used correctly, the same resources that make Mars interesting can make it attainable.” For more information about future Astronomy and Space Exploration Society events, visit

A tale of two education policies

Since Progressive Conservative leader John Tory announced this summer that his party would support the expansion of public funding to non-Catholic religious schools, Ontario has been gripped by heated debate.

Tory’s flawed “solution” to the faith schools debate should be opposed by Ontarians on three grounds: on principle, on consequence and on economic basis. In the first, the PC leader’s disregard for secularism in favour of shameless populism is appalling. Equality can only be achieved by governmental indifference to religion, which in addition to not favouring one religion over another, includes not marginalizing the non-religious. This aside, while promising to fund “all” religious schools may sound reasonable, I question whether Ontarians would wish to see public funds diverted to Scientology or Satanist schools. Tory’s seeming inability to comprehend secularism appears to have blinded him even from the irony in proposing to have former premier Bill Davis (the man responsible for exaggerating the problem by extending full funding to Catholic secondary schools) implement the policy.

In terms of social utility, the segregation of our children according to religious faith can only have detrimental effects by breeding inter-communal alienation and mistrust. Tory may claim to want to bring the approximately 53,000 private school students “into the fold,” when in reality his plan will only serve to send more kids out. And all this in the name of a bastardized version of that quintessentially Canadian sentiment, multiculturalism. To top it off, the plan will deprive an already strained public education system of much needed funds.

Not surprisingly, premier Dalton McGuinty has positioned himself in opposition to the PC plan, ostensibly on these grounds. While hypocrisy is hardly new to politics, McGuinty’s stance on the issue of funding faith schools is steeped in it. Yet his defense of the status quo ignores the already discriminatory dual system that exists: the continued funding of Catholic school boards by taxpayer dollars. This practice has been twice condemned by the United Nations as a breach of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (in 1999 and 2005). Public funds continue to allow Catholic schools to discriminate against non-Catholic teachers, including those who are homosexual. The bureaucratic redundancy of the dual systems also continues to drain hundreds of millions of dollars from education. The stalwart argument supporting this hypocrisy is that the funding is a constitutional guarantee of the BNA Act, when in fact Section 93 permits its elimination as demonstrated in Manitoba and Quebec, both of which eliminated funding to Catholic schools years ago.

The only solution to this mess is the creation of a single, secular public system. To this end, a number of secularist and religious groups (including the Hindu Conference of Canada and the Muslim Canadian Congress) formed the non-partisan, umbrella organization known as the One School System Network (OSSN) on May 26 of this year. This group respresents the roughly 60 per cent of Ontarians who desire a secular public school model. But apparently this popular sentiment makes no difference to the Conservatives and Liberals, both of whom seem hell-bent on compelling Ontarians to choose between an archaic system of discrimination and the further balkanization of our society.

Schreiber Pereira is Vice President Advocacy of the Freethought Association of Canada and a member of the One School System Network.

Delta Biotech Society: a change in attitude

A 2006 report on biotechnology noted that, on the whole, Canadian entrepreneurs in the field are risk-adverse. Recent development projects such as the MaRS Discovery District research centre on College Street are attempting to break the ice, but more work remains to be done. A group of students at the University of Toronto took note of the report’s findings and developed what they thought would be an effective solution to the problem: get Canadian students involved in biotechnology while they are still young.

Undergraduate students at U of T often find themselves streamed into specific career paths, and rarely have an opportunity to interact with students outside of their area of interest. For life science students, career paths such as attending medical school or pharmacy studies are overemphasized and seen as the only choices available. A new student-based initiative known as the Delta Biotech Society is setting out to change these attitudes at the undergraduate level.

Justin Chakma, one of the group’s founders, explained: “We found that the majority of our colleagues desired to enter medical school. There was little passion for the subject material, or understanding of the broader purpose or point to it. Most students were completely unaware of this whole other realm of development in biotechnology. One-on-one patient care is enormously rewarding and important, but what if you could help a million patients in one go by joining a biomedical start-up?”

Chakma and his co-founders, Tim Zhao and Ray Guo, are trying to introduce students to the possibility of pursuing a career in biotechnology and give them an appreciation for entrepreneurship through three different activities: seminars, case studies, and a magazine published by the group.

The seminars allow students to get up close and personal with CEOs, venture capitalists and scientists, and learn from their experiences firsthand. In the case studies, students try their hand at running a theoretical biopharmaceutical company. They prepare by critically analyzing 20 to 30 page long scenarios that include drug descriptions, product development information, and financial statements.

The group’s new magazine, Bio- Synergy, features interviews from such names in biotechnology as Dr. Daniel Vasella, CEO of Novartis, and Stephen Scherer of the Hospital for Sick Children. Student-written articles covering issues from gene therapy to personalized medicine are also a part of each issue. The magazine was inspired by Chakma’s previous experience with the USbased Journal of Young Investigators, which had undergraduate students across 16 countries writing science articles.

Delta Biotech Society’s activities caught the eye of David Naylor, who asked them to follow up with a report on undergraduate biotechnology education describing initiatives at Stanford and other universities. This report started discussions among department chairs over how to revamp the current biotechnology-related course offerings at the University of Toronto—to the point where Terry Amburgey, a professor at the Rotman School of Management, is attempting to create a course that brings together undergraduate life sciences and commerce students in a class format similar to MBA programs.

“Biotechnology requires both scientists and businessmen,” said Amburgey. “You’ll often have the science students explaining to the businesstypes why this particular protein interacts with this receptor the way it does, and the implications for drug development. On the other hand, the business-types explain how cash-flow models work and why they’re relevant to biotechnology.”

Such efforts to move beyond a career- centric environment are also reflected in a new U of T curriculum report that urges a move away from the British-style career-focused system towards a more American liberal arts education. It may be the case that early interactions between students from various programs could help improve the often complicated relationships between doctors, scientists and investors.

Chakma is confident in the group’s initiatives.

“We believe our grassroots movement for entrepreneurship complements broader initiatives to bring together scientists, venture capitalists and entrepreneurs. Undergraduate, graduate, engineering, commerce, medical—all kinds of students are coming together because they want to make a fundamental difference to humanity through biotechnology. Our dream is to catalyze the birth of the next generation of biotech pioneers. People say that entrepreneurs are born. We disagree. All it takes is a little bit of exposure.”

The Delta Biotech Society will be holding a general meeting on Thursday, September 27 at 5:30 p.m. in the MaRS building (101 College St). For members of the public interested in participating or learning more about the group’s activities, further information is available at