Film Review: Love Happens

The opinions of audiences going to see Brandon Camp’s new film, Love Happens, can be easily depicted by the viewers who were seated to my left and right. My companions in the theatre were a sort of critic-version of the standard devil and angel, each whispering (quite loudly) mixed feelings into my ears. To my left presided a burly and cynical film critic with loftier aspirations than the latest Jennifer Aniston flick, and to my right an elderly couple who were moved by the intended flow of the movie, sobbing at the sad parts and laughing hysterically at the funny ones.

Love Happens stars Aniston and Aaron Eckhart and follows the path of a self-help guru who hypocritically doesn’t follow his own advice. Eckhart’s character, Burke, is still reeling over the death of his wife and coping with an alcohol problem. Aniston plays a florist, fresh out of a bad breakup, who is initially skeptical of both him and his practice. Antics ensue, and she proceeds to help him take the steps he needs to move on.

My devil to the left had no qualms about audibly sharing his disgust at the film, routinely grunting throughout. While he may have taken himself a tad too seriously, I did understand where he was coming from. Aniston’s character, Eloise—through no fault of the actress—is shallowly written and gains nothing from the storyline. While she helps Eckhart’s character through his problems, he does nothing in turn. Eloise’s issues mainly consist of a typical woman-screwed-over-by guys plot and she shows no other depth or complexity. An attempt is made to dive into Eloise’s history when she and Burke visit her mother, who appears to have a problem with alcohol herself (as is suggested by excessive beer bottles and a hint of crazy), but the movie never raises the issue again.

The only interesting aspects about Eloise are her quirks. She has a unique capability to continuously call out Burke on his hypocrisy in a humorous but blunt fashion. For self-gratification, she enjoys writing bizarre words (such as “poppysmic”) behind paintings in the hotel she works for.

Burke’s line of work often deserves a groan or two throughout the movie. At one point he stops Seattle traffic by dragging his workshop members into the middle of the street and forcing them to describe what they see, hear, and feel. When all of them describe things like “cars honking,” “a middle finger,” and “pollution” he takes them to the very top of an adjacent building and asks them the same question. This time, the responses predictably run along the line of “fresh air,” “the sea,” and “the sunshine.” The point of this exercise is to show that everything can change with a different perspective, even though they’re in the same place—a little “aw” inducing, but mostly cringe-worthy.

The character I found most fascinating was Walter, played by John Carroll Lynch, a gruff man struggling with the untimely and accidental death of his son at his construction site. Walter deals with a highly realistic but interesting combination of guilt and anger, a closed-off exterior, and a skepticism of Burke’s work that the audience can clearly relate to. As the film progresses, his character continues to shine. The moment when he is able to shop at a hardware store again, however small a moment it may be, is truly moving.

I would by no means label this movie a romantic comedy, but rather a romance with comedic bits—some of which fell very flat. Potentially the loudest “Oh, God!” produced by my neighbour came when each of the workshop members describe how they had been dealing with the deaths of their loved ones. One woman described how her late husband wanted her to have a plaster replica done of him, which seems a tad odd, but overall understandable. She then proceeds to explain that it’s of his genitalia, and that it was created so that they can still make love. The joke then becomes sick, twisted, and the potential subject of an entirely different, dark, underground indie film.

Despite these moments, the angels to my right continued to weep and break into hysterics on cue, lending support to my opinion that Love Happens is not as bad as I thought it would be. The film does attempt to have more depth than the average romance, and although at times I felt as though it was trying to be Elizabethtown without the authenticity, it succeeded in avoiding a completely superficial tone.

In the end, I left empathizing with both my devil and my angels. I genuinely enjoyed Love Happens, and although I can see much room for improvement, it exceeded my expectations.

What’s the 311?

Torontonians will soon be able to access city info at all hours, when the city’s 311 service opens to the public on Sept. 24. Callers will dial 311 for information and services, whether it’s to report that gaping pothole or a missed garbage collection.

311 is meant to improve accessibility to non-emergency city services, answering the majority of enquiries on the first call. It replaces Access Toronto, which directed callers to various departments. This system brings together many different computer work-order systems to streamline service delivery.

Callers can get a tracking number for some service requests. The list of trackable services is expected to grow as the 311 operation expands.

“I believe that residents and businesses are entitled to high-quality, efficient, and easily accessible services,” said mayor David Miller. “311 Toronto ensures that every resident has direct access to a city employee who can help, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”

Initially, residents can contact 311 by phone, email, or snail mail. In the coming months, the 311 service will expand on the web at toronto.ca/311, and allow residents to make service requests and track the status of their requests online.

Fourth time is the charm for the service: after Miller first raised the idea in 2003, launch dates were set for July and September 2008. The launch date for this July was delayed because of the city workers strike.

The city will use compiled data from 311 calls and service requests to plan, forecast, and budget for improved service delivery. The call centre at Metro Hall on John Street is expected to field 7,000 calls per day, with 70 staffers at peak times and as few as five for overnight shifts.

Staff are available to respond in more than 180 languages, and there is TTY service for the hearing impaired. Staff were trained to learn 15,000 answers to 13,800 possible questions.

Season Preview: Being Erica

Being Erica is a television show that straddles genres: it’s not a comedy, but it can be wildly funny; it’s not a drama per se, but is at times very dramatic; it’s not a romance, but…well, you get the idea. Perhaps it is this broad spectrum that has allowed Being Erica to reach such a wide fan base and enter a second season.

The premise of the show is one that many of us wish we could experience. The titular character, Erica Strange (Erin Karpluk), is a charming and witty 32-year-old dissatisfied with her life and overdue for a change. Each episode, she magically goes back in time to fix one of the many mistakes she feels put her on the “wrong path.” Through these trips down memory lane, Erica works to find and come to terms with herself, largely through the help of her enigmatic shrink, Dr. Tom (Michael Riley).

The first season was a huge success and Being Erica has secured its place on CBC television’s line-up, despite fears budget cuts would put the new show on the chopping block. “Erica Strange” has even secured nearly 1,500 Facebook friends. (Not bad for a fictional character.) The show’s writing is fresh and fun when it needs to be, and poignant and emotional at particularly harrowing times in Erica’s journey. The casting also works effectively, particularly talented Canadian actors Karpluk and Riley. Karpluk, who has previously appeared on The L-Word
* and *Godiva’s
, brings an authenticity and vulnerability to Erica that make her relatable and easy to root for. On his part, Riley’s performance blows every preconceived notion about psychiatrists out of the water.

But maybe, just maybe, it’s the show’s setting that makes it come alive. Toronto serves wonderfully as the backdrop to this series—it has all the beauty and bustle of a big city, without the overused triteness of Central Park and Times Square (no offense to New York). After all the screen time Toronto has played substitute for other major cities, it is refreshing to see the city cast as itself for once.

The landmarks we all take for granted at U of T are shown in a new light. Places like the CN Tower, the Distillery District, and even the Starbucks in the Toronto Life Building become as much a part of the show’s fabric as its characters and plot lines. One episode, for instance, showcased the Toronto Islands. Though I have been there and done that (or perhaps because I’ve been there and done that), watching Erica relive her perfect day there eating funnel cake at Centreville made me take a longer look at how this city has shaped my own memories. (It also made me crave funnel cake.)

More important than the warm fuzzy feeling and the ability to say “I know where that is!” is how the rest of the TV audience sees Toronto and Torontonians. In every episode, there seems to be a genuine effort to share a bit of Toronto with the audience, from small complaints about the traffic on Bloor to more elaborate things like touring Casa Loma. It gives Toronto a good name, so to speak. Those watching in the States (and there are many) finally get to see a glimpse of Canada that is far from our typical maple syrup and hockey exports.

Season two of Being Erica, like season one, promises to be full of different challenges and harder decisions for the title character. The major problems she faced in the first season, such as finding direction in her career and being in a relationship, have for the most part been addressed, so it will be interesting to watch how the writers let the show evolve and find more nuanced issues to explore.

I would probably watch Being Erica regardless of its Canadian content. After all, a good show is a good show. But how can I not be a number-one fan when I see Ms. Strange participating in a Drop Fees rally at U of T and then head off to class at Vic?

The second season of Being Erica premiers on CBC Tuesday, September 22 at 9 p.m.

Copyright law shouldn’t restrict research: Academics

The Canadian Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences has released a proposal to reform the current Copyright Act in the context of digital technology in response to government-sponsored national consultations.

“The crux of our argument is that we need a fair-dealing clause that is as clear as possible,” said Ryan Hill, a spokesperson for CFHSS, which represents 75 universities and colleges.

Fair dealing is a set of possible exceptions to an existing copyright law and is found in most common law jurisdictions.

The proposal recommends two main revisions to Section 29 of the Canadian Copyright Act. The first calls for the use of phrases like “such as” to make the current list of fair dealing defenses suggestive rather than exhaustive.

The second revision supports the integration of the 2004 ruling of the Supreme Court case Canadian Limited vs. Law Society of Upper Canada. In what is considered a landmark case, the court unanimously held that photocopying material for researchers did not constitute copyright infringement.

These changes would make the Copyright Act similar to the one existing in the United States.

The proposal also calls for using digital locks to block academic material online only if locks are broken for dubious purposes. Digital locks, also known as Digital Rights Management, are software designed to control how online media is used and prevents unauthorized copying.

According to CFHSS, the use of digital locks restricts free dealing mechanisms that allow for some unofficial use of copyrighted material, such as independent study and critique.

“Digital locks are not a good idea,” said professor Andrew Clement of U of T’s Faculty of Information. “When Digital Rights Management is used to lock entire pieces of work, it is detrimental to scholars.”

“Academics work for the most part from the public purse. All our writing should be made available to the public,” Clement said.

According to Clement, the advent of digital technologies has opened up more opportunities for scholars to share their work, but presents publishers with the challenge of developing a business model to monopolize control and access to online material.

The CFHSS recommendations are a result of nationwide public consultations on copyright issues held by the Canadian industry and heritage ministries. Responses were collected online and during a series of town hall meetings between July 20 and Sept. 13.

Why so smog?

With autumn weather here and midterms around the corner, it’s hard to think that summer was in full force last month: the flip-flops and sunscreen, the trips to the beach, and the smog days that made breathing difficult. But smog is not a thing of the past: a new study in the July issue of Atmospheric Environment confirms that come May, it will all be back.

Professor Jennifer Murphy, Canada Research chair in atmospheric and environmental chemistry, and graduate student Jeff Geddes have found that the last decade has seen no overall smog reduction in the GTA, despite programs enacted by municipal and federal governments.

Their study analyzed atmospheric nitrogen dioxide (NO2), ozone (O3), and volatile organic compound levels, finding that while both NO2 and VOC have decreased between 30 and 40 per cent across Toronto since 2000, the amount of tropospheric ozone, a major component of photochemical smog, has remained relatively unchanged. The lack of tropospheric ozone change is somewhat unexpected in light of Toronto’s clean-air efforts.

“Local clean-air efforts have focused mainly on reducing traffic and vehicle exhaust, which has led to dramatic reductions in nitrogen oxides and hydrocarbons—two key precursors to smog,” says Murphy.

The study reviewed NOx, O3, and VOC data available from the federal and provincial cooperative National Air Pollution Surveillance network. NAPS researchers measure NOx and O3 using automated continuous chemiluminescent and UV absorption analyzers respectively, and update the data annually.

Data collected by NAPS, however, is completed with the “mandate to answer ‘are we above or below a threshold?’” says Murphy. “They don’t have the research mandate to interpret the data.” After analyzing the data themselves, Murphy and Geddes concluded that smog-reduction efforts simply are not as effective as anticipated.

Murphy is an assistant professor of chemistry whose research focuses on ground-level air pollution. Her interest in photochemical ozone began during her PhD work at the University of California, where she studied the difference in nitrogen oxide levels on weekdays versus weekends, a difference predominately due to changes in diesel car traffic.

The Ontario government and City Hall have implemented several efforts—including improving vehicle technology, regulatory initiatives, and incentive programs—to control emissions of ozone-precursor compounds such as NO2 and VOC.

In 2000, the Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment adopted a Canada-wide standard for particulate matter and ground level ozone. By 2010, ground-level ozone measurements in all Canadian jurisdictions should not exceed 65 ppb (parts per billion) over an eight-hour period. The formal recognition of the impact of smog on human health began in the early 1990s, when the CCME responded with a plan for the management of nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds. The initial plan featured over 16 codes of practice for reductions from various sources.

In 2007, Toronto put together a Climate Change and Clear Air Action Plan committed to cutting back by 20 per cent locally-generated smog-causing pollutants from 2004 levels with a deadline of 2012. The city is also peppered by a slew of additional air quality initiatives, including an idling control by-law, cycling promotion initiatives, and participation in the Greater Toronto Area Clean Air Council.

The Ontario environment and health ministries estimate that ground-level ozone costs the province several billion dollars in human health impacts and an additional $200 million in agricultural crop damages each year.

The continued presence of tropospheric ozone is largely due to it being a secondary pollutant, making its atmospheric levels difficult to predict and control.

“Ozone doesn’t come out of a tailpipe, it gets formed in the atmosphere from other pollutants that we emit. It’s not as easy to control as other things because it’s not a one-to-one relationship. So you can’t just stop driving and everything goes away,” says Murphy.

The study also reaffirmed a previously established correlation between smog days and high temperatures. “The number of days where the temperature is above 30 degrees Celsius is strongly correlated to smog days,” says Murphy.

Toronto is not alone in the battle with smog. The study points to long-term monitoring data in Japan and Taiwan that report steadily increasing ozone levels despite the implementation of clean-air efforts.

Does this mean the battle with smog is in vain? “Absolutely not,” says Murphy, “It is good to reduce the precursors of smog, but you can’t expect it to drop down immediately.”

Wanted: Interns for war crimes court

Students eagerly filed into the solarium room at the law faculty last Thursday to hear from Sidney Thompson, an associate legal officer in the Special Court for Sierra Leone that is presently trying former Liberian president Charles Taylor for war crimes.

Thompson is one of the five lawyers in the Taylor case chamber and who, among other duties, is in charge of drafting legal documents and ensuring just trial proceedings. Although she could not talk about confidential elements of the trial, Thompson discussed previous SCSL cases, including those dealing with rebel groups such as the Revolutionary United Front and the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council.

The Special Court was created as a bilateral agreement between Sierra Leone and the UN to try war criminals for crimes against humanity during the Sierra Leone Civil War, which was fought from 1996 to 2002.

This July, the SCSL became the first international court to sentence militia leaders for using child soldiers.

Thompson, described with nuance some of the most brutal and violent crimes she had ever come across, refraining from giving grisly details about her cases. Some experts estimate up to 100,000 people died during the civil war, with thousands more affected by acts of violence, including sexual violence.

Thompson emphasized the importance of maintaining a connection between the Court and the people of Sierra Leone. “The SCSL was designed to remain in situ, and facilitating access to the civilians is the one of the main responsibilities of the tribunal,” she said.

“[They’re] very dedicated,” Thompson added, describing the tribunal’s outreach programs. “[They’re] managing radio talks, one-on-one sessions, field trips with local school groups and having them walk through court grounds so children as young as nine or 10 can understand what’s going on and such.”

Thompson spoke of international criminal law as an expanding area of practice, and encouraged students to follow the ongoing Charles Taylor case, which is being broadcasted online.

She also urged pursuing an internship with the SCSL.

“We need you. There is so much evidence, so much work that we rely a lot on our interns,” Thompson said. She should know: she started out as an intern in 2005.

For more information on the Special Court of Sierra Leone, visit http://www.sc-sl.org or contact Sidney Thompson at thompsons@un.org.

Brain Feign

The human brain is a complex organ with functions and processes that remain a mystery for modern day science. Neurological dysfunction is often used as a measure (and is sometimes a cause) of a magnitude of disease, and deciphering the brain’s complex chemistry and function could enable a leap in our understanding of brain physiology and the approaches to treatment.

Randy McIntosh, a psychology professor at U of T, is leading an international project to create the world’s first operating virtual brain.

McIntosh is a senior scientist at the Rotman Research Institute, which has teamed up with scientists from Australia, France, Holland, Spain, and the United States to create a virtual brain that will copy patterns of brain activity when people are involved in a thinking task.

This project is made from software running on a Linux cluster and is similar to the genome project in several ways. “First, it catalogues the important dynamics of the human brain for a wide range of cognitive functions, and second, it provides a new perspective to understand why brain damage and disease have their particular effects,” explains McIntosh.

The virtual brain will catalogue dynamics of brain activity when performing mental tasks. The catalogue comprises a large sample of healthy brains from people of a wide range of age groups. Comparing patients’ brain activity with the corresponding healthy sample could help determine whether or not (and where) a person has a neurological problem.

The new machine utilizes cutting-edge technology and is a predictive modelling tool that will enable doctors to evaluate many brain disorders, such as cognitive impairment caused by Alzheimer’s disease.

The machine will work by allowing clinicians to effectively experiment with how a person’s brain would react under certain conditions. A patient’s unique neural structure is loaded into the virtual brain to find out how the model responds to the disruption of normal patterns and how it tries to re-stabilize. Looking at this reaction, a clinician will then try to identify the best options for treating the affected areas of the brain.

According to McIntosh, the process of creating this complex model has so far been slow but rewarding. “The collaboration has given us new insight into the relation between brain structure and function that we did not know before,” he said.

The project brought together a multitude of resources and data, including functional MRIS, structural MRIs, and demographic information. The team then archived the data in an accessible database, and integrated it with the computational model.

One of the most formidable challenges for McIntosh will come when the team starts creating virtual models that capture mental functions, such as seeing, hearing, and remembering.

“We will be able to identify the structural foundation and have the virtual brain produce the exact same pattern for hearing a piece of music that you would see in a human. The question is, does the virtual brain experience that music the same way the human does? This gets into a philosophical realm that we always face in this business.”

The different parts of the virtual brain are located at most of the collaborating sites, while the database is stored in the RRI. The virtual brain is currently only accessible by scientists, but will be available to a broader audience if it reaches the stage when it is comparable to a real human brain.

A similar project called the Swiss Blue Brain models cortical columns (structured columns composed of thousands of neurons), while the virtual brain models the interaction between several cortical columns. “It is a race of sorts, but we are not heading for the same finish line,” explains McIntosh.

How to help students graduate

U of T is middle-of-the-road, according to the author of a study released last week on the generosity of Canadian universities’ course-withdrawal and tuition-refund policies.

When asked about U of T’s tuition refund policies compared to other Canadian universities, Brock professor Felice Martinello said, “U of T was virtually right in the middle in the schools I looked at. However, you’ve got to bear in mind that you’ve got different [refund policies] across different faculties. I concentrated only on Arts and Science.”

“Tuition refunds are fairly complicated schemes,” he added. “Generally speaking, however, refund generosity did decrease over the years.”

Martinello’s study shows that students attending post-secondary institutions with later course withdrawal dates and more magnanimous tuition refund policies are more likely to switch between programs or schools before second year.

In other words, schools that want to increase persistence and degree completion in students’ first-year programs—and keep them from going elsewhere—should set early withdrawal deadlines and offer limited opportunities for tuition refunds. But more relaxed policies may ensure that more students complete university.

These factors “allow students to make adjustments to surprises and shocks, while learning about PSE [post-secondary education],” the paper reads. The study was done as part of the Measuring the Effectiveness of Student Aid project.

Students’ year-to-year persistence was also estimated to be higher in larger universities. “Despite higher competition, students were less likely to leave larger universities,” Martinello said. “Even though I adjusted the data for entering averages, you still get higher-quality students, and hence more competitive peers. Data showed that instead of wilting, students improve the standards of their own work to meet those of their peers.”

Competitive peers can also be intimidating. “The fact that there are so many more people who have a lot more industry knowledge than me is actually quite demotivating, as I realize that even if I study twice as hard, I will still only be average,” said Ruba Ayyub, a second-year specialist in finance and economics.

Another study, conducted by professor Matthieu Chemin of L’Université du Québec à Montréal, investigated the effects of a student assistance policy change in Quebec in 2001-2002, which decreased the student and parental contribution requirements for student loans.

More students received grants and entered into post-secondary education as a result of the reform. But the study documented that “despite findings of increased persistence due to the reform, no corresponding increase in graduation rates was observed.” This suggests that students who are able to access university education through financial aid may need other systems in place to reach graduation.

Martinello cautioned that his paper is only a pilot study. “Results are fragile, meaning that if you change the specifications, the results change a lot. This is basically just a preliminary report as no one has done anything like this for Canadian universities before,” he said.

U of T’s tuition refund schedules can be found at fees.utoronto.ca