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

Nobel prizes and ignoble deeds: the Fritz Haber story

The Prize:

The 1918 Nobel Prize in Chemistry to Fritz Haber for the “synthesis of ammonia from its elements.”

The Science:

Nitrogen is an important component of the rich, fertile soil needed for growing crops, though farming also depletes fields of this nutrient through plant uptake, leaching, and soil erosion. Farmers traditionally used crop rotation to maintain nitrogen levels in the soil, but by the early 20th century, farmers had responded to increased food demands with high-yield, single crop farming. Such farming practices require more nitrogen than can be fixed in the soil naturally. Stores of nitrate discovered in Chilean mines temporarily fed the agriculture industry’s appetite for nitrogen, but fears that the mines would run dry had many chemists wondering how to produce fertilizers chemically.

Nitrogen gas makes up over 78 per cent of our atmosphere but is relatively unreactive due to its strong triple-bond molecular structure. Chemists in the early 1900s struggled to use this vast source of elemental nitrogen to produce more useful nitrogen compounds like ammonia, a complex of nitrogen and hydrogen (NH3).

The first chemist to achieve this feat was the German chemist Fritz Haber. In 1909, Haber revealed the first Haber Synthesis machine, a “table-top” apparatus (engineered with the help of Robert Le Rossignol) that produced liquid ammonia at the rate of a cup every two hours. Once produced, ammonia can be oxidized to produce the nitrites that are useful as fertilizers.

The Haber synthesis of ammonia (NH3) from atmospheric nitrogen (N2) and hydrogen (H2) requires some extreme conditions: high pressure (~250 atmospheres), high temperature (~500˚C), and that the entire reaction happen over an iron catalyst. Even under these optimized conditions, the reaction is inefficient in terms of the amount of ammonia it produces, though the reaction is also exothermic, meaning that it releases energy on formation and this energy can then be captured and recycled to heat the un-reacted N2 and H2 continuing the process.

In 1913, the German chemical company BASF began industrial production of ammonia based on the Haber method. BASF enlisted Carl Bosch to convert Haber’s model to an industrial scale and Bosch subsequently won a Nobel in 1931 for his work. Today the industrial-scale reaction is known as the Haber-Bosch process.

The Significance:

Inexpensive, readily available ammonia changed the world of agriculture. The adaptation of modern agriculture to methods that require the use of nitrogen-rich fertilizers has been dubbed the “green revolution.” The high-yield production of corn, rice, and other food staples led many countries (including India and Mexico, which had previously been facing famine) to become agriculturally independent. Today, fertilizer manufacturers produce over 100 million tons of ammonia annually through the Haber-Bosch process. It is currently estimated that over one third of the global population relies on the Haber synthesis for its food.

The Haber-Bosch process also has a controversial side. Scaling-up the Haber process to an industrial level enabled Germany to mass-produce an artificial alternative to Chile saltpetre, the key ingredient in gunpowder at the time. During the First World War, the Triple Alliance controlled almost all the Chile saltpeter in the world, as most of the mine owners were British. Germany diverted most of the ammonia produced in its factories into synthetic Chile saltpeter and then into munitions. The Haber-Bosch process kept Germany in the war for years longer than would otherwise have been possible.

What you may not know:

Many were surprised when the Nobel was awarded to Haber in 1918. After developing the method to fix nitrogen, Haber joined the German war effort. Under Haber’s management, Germany developed its chemical warfare program and he personally witnessed the first use of poison gas at Ypres, Belgium in 1915. It is thought that his wife, also a chemist, committed suicide in reaction to Haber’s promotion of poison gas. Haber had a very successful career in chemistry in Germany, but in 1933 he was forced to step down from his position as a result of anti-Semitic Nazi laws. He died shortly afterwards.

Mental assessment ordered for hydrogen-van man

A Scarborough man will not face criminal charges over a bomb scare that evacuated a large chunk of northern Scarborough last Monday.

The problem began when a van belonging to 27-year-old Centennial College student Shaun Morris was towed from campus and moved to a lot on Markham Road. Police report that an agitated Morris soon called them.

“[He] was worried about the vehicle because it had some kind of alternative fuel engine,” said college spokesperson Rosanna Cavallaro. The vehicle, it turned out, was equipped with a home-made hydrogen fuel tank.

The situation escalated when police discovered that Morris had parked the van next to a propane tank. After consulting with Toronto fire officials, they evacuated everyone within a 1.6-kilometre radius of the van while a bomb crew disarmed the fuel tank.

Nobody was injured, and police later downplayed the threat.

Formal charges will not be laid against Morris, but he does have to stay in police custody for up to three days in order to perform a psychiatric assessment, in accordance with the Mental Health Act.

Source: Toronto Star

Blues lose in thriller

Drawing 1,832 spectators to the Varsity Stadium Friday night, the Blues made their fans proud. Despite a 53-25 loss to the Guelph Gryphons, the Blues held on strong, keeping the Gryphons close for most of the game.

Friday’s game stood in stark contrast to the last time the Blues faced the Gryphons—just under a year ago—when the Blues were shut out with an upsetting 30-0 score. The picture didn’t look much brighter after the first two games of the season, with a 36-0 loss against Laurier and a 30-3 loss against Windsor.

In the third game of the season, the Blues really stepped it up.

For the first touchdown of the season, Zac Hord pulled Toronto ahead of the Gryphons after the first quarter, giving the Blues a 7-5 lead. When asked what was different this time, Blues player of the game and quarterback Andrew Gillis said, “We definitely executed today. We had a game plan and we followed through with it.”

The Blues maintained their lead until a field goal by the Gryphons with just under three minutes left in the half put the Blues narrowly behind with a score of 9-7.

Toronto was able to keep up with the offensive surge until the end of the third quarter, when a touchdown by Guelph with one minute left pulled the win farther out of reach, with the Gryphons leading 25-14.

Although the last quarter solidified Guelph’s victory, an impressive touchdown by Toronto was a highlight of the game—scored on an amazing 64-yard pass from back-up quarterback Jansen Shrubb to Jonathan Wright demonstrated the enormous potential of this year’s team.

However, it still wasn’t enough to keep up with the Gryphons. “The big thing is that we have to play four quarters. That’s something we have to work on, just like the coach just said in the lockers,” emphasized Gillis. “We have to stay in the game for 60 minutes and we can’t take any time off.”

Describing a lack of confidence as the team’s biggest challenge, Gillis asserted that a Blues victory could really give them the boost they need. “[The team] is still young, so we have a lot of potential.”

Despite a decisive loss, it is undeniable that there was an air of excitement in the stands from Toronto fans. Three games into the season, the Blues have shown that things are going to be different this year.

“Anything could happen,” said Gillis, looking forward to next Friday’s home game when U of T takes on the Ottawa Gee-Gees.

U of T student interns for Nelson Mandela

This summer, Victoria Hill went to Johannesburg as an intern for the Centre of Memory Project. Part of the Nelson Mandela Foundation, the project is committed to documenting, publicizing, and contributing to ongoing struggles for justice.

Hill, in the second year of a Master’s in information studies, worked on archiving materials, including a few thousand papers on Mandela’s clan’s role as mediator of the Burundi peace process.

“I’ve learned that archivists cannot shy away from politics and power struggles,” she told the Bulletin. Hill is working on establishing First Nations community-based records management and archives programs in Canada.

Source: The Bulletin

Blues refuse to be badgered

In a 3-2 loss to the Brock Badgers on Sept. 15, the Varsity Blues men’s baseball team proved to be inconsistent. The first run scored by the Badgers was caused in part by an error by the Blues’ third baseman in the second inning. This run was costly, and eventually proved to be the difference in the game.

“We made a good effort, but unfortunately we were on the wrong side of the score today,” said Blues starting pitcher Tyler Wilson.

Wilson looked strong, and would have pitched the whole game had other pitchers not needed the work. He showed character on the mound, steadily improving as the game progressed. “I felt more comfortable as the game went on,” said Wilson. “I started feeling better on the mound and my pitches improved as we got deeper in the game.”

On the offensive side the Blues looked overmatched by the Badgers pitching, not scoring a run until the seventh inning, despite enjoying a few good opportunities along with home-field advantage. Whether they were tired or overwhelmed, the Blues lacked intensity through the first five and a half innings. Only after the two-run outburst in the fifth by the Badgers did the Blues seem to come alive at the plate. Suddenly feeling a sense of urgency, team veterans held successive player meetings in the dugout during which they yelled “wake up!” at each other in an attempt to instill competitive spirit into the team. Although these pep talks led to Blues’ runs in the seventh and ninth innings, they weren’t enough to defeat the Badgers.

The lack of intensity was apparent not only in the players, but in the coaching staff. Down 3-1 with one out in the bottom of the seventh, Blues shortstop David Fallico laced a hit past the Badgers third baseman and into the outfield for a single. Fallico, who hasn’t been caught stealing this season, led the team with ten stolen bases (which was six more than the rest of the team combined). Shockingly, he wasn’t given the green light by the third base coach to steal second, and so remained planted on first. Having a runner on second base with one out would have eliminated the possibility of an inning-ending double play and a hit to the gap in the outfield would have easily scored the speedy Fallico. Plus, having a runner in scoring position capable of either stealing third or scoring on a single adds a potential distraction for the opposing pitcher. Whether the lack of a steal was a case of oversight or indifference, it has to call into question the drive of the coaching staff.

However, there are several reasons for fans to remain optimistic about the 2009 Blues squad. In a post-game interview, Wilson spoke of not having enough starting rotation spots to house all the pitching talent on the team. Although currently they are in the lower half of the standings, when asked about his team’s chances of making a playoff run, Wilson was enthusiastic and optimistic. On Saturday the Blues built on some of their potential by defeating the Laurier Golden Hawks 9-7 at home in Scarborough.

The Blues are a mix of young and old players in need of some support. Defensively, they were fairly shaky and inexperienced at certain positions. The coaching staff needs to train players to effectively approach each at-bat, as the hitters were often outclassed and did not recognize the umpire was calling all outside pitches as strikes. Finally, this Blues team needs support from the fans. Taking a trip out to the Scarborough campus is a majestic experience as the field is truly a diamond in the rough. The play on the field will soon catch up to the beauty of the surroundings. This team may go on a hot streak, and with their deep pitching staff, and potential for timely hitting, they will certainly catch on with the fans.