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Spotlight on: The Varsity Blues Wrestling Team

Wrestling is a very intense, physically demanding sport, requiring superior agility and strength.

The Varsity Blues Wrestling Team is comprised of only four men and three women who are actively competing. The teammates practice together and with non-Blues wrestlers.

“We have some international wrestlers,” says Blues wrestler Dene Ringuette. “Quite a few who are the best in Canada, who are almost uncontested.”

There is a maximum of six practices per week. Some practices are devoted to technique, while others are solely devoted to matches. The intensity of the practice differs depending on whether or not a tournament is approaching.

“You have volume training, and then you have high-intensity low volume training before major events. This basically mimics what you do at competitions,” says Ringuette.

Team members have the chance to improve their technique with members of other clubs who drop by to practice with the Blues. Teammates are supportive of each other, often acting like coaches for other wrestlers.

“At practice everyone works together,” adds wrestler Alyssa James.
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Although upon first glance wrestling may not seem safe, Riguette insists that, “Despite the fact that there are a lot of injuries, it is a very safe sport. I can’t think of one that is that safe for how intense it is.”

There are a few distinct styles of wrestling. Folkstyle wrestling is found in the United States and Cuba, while Greco Roman is most popular in Europe. The Varsity Blues wrestlers primarily compete in Olympic freestyle.

Folkstyle involves technique similar to freestyle, but with slightly different rules, while Greco Roman is entirely different. For Greco Roman, feet are not allowed to be used in any way — whether to take your opponent down or to escape a hold. Greco Roman wrestling involves more high-amplitude throws. Riguette won the Greco Roman Ontario Provincials last year, but his training is not focused on this style.

”It’s certainly done as an afterthought here in Ontario. I guarantee that all my opponents see it as an afterthought,” says Ringuette.

The team participates in up to eight tournaments per year within the university circuit, and in tournaments outside the circuit, including provincials and nationals. At every tournament, each match is best two out of three, two-minute rounds. Matches last between four and six minutes.

An exception occurs if an athlete executes a five-point takedown: this occurs rarely and only if the opponent’s heels go over their head during the course of the throw.

“The criteria for a five-point take down is that during the course of a throw or a leg takedown, their feet have made an arc, meaning their feet have gone head over heels,” says Riguette.

This takedown ends the match.
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Another possibility is the one-point takedown which is when you take the opponent down by grabbing their feet and putting them into a non-dangerous position, like on their back.

There’s also the two-point takedown.

“For two-points you’d have to expose their back to the mat while par terre (on the ground)” says James.

A three-point takedown is from “feet to back” — when you take the opponent by their feet, they must end up on their back.

If the score is zero-zero when time is up, the tie-breaks are decided by flipping a coin.

“One person gets to grab the other’s leg — if they score, they win. If they don’t score, the other person wins,” says Ringuette.

If the final score is a tie but not zero-zero then the last athlete who scored wins the match.

At both competitions and practices the Varsity athletes get to compete against and practice with players from all around the world, always learning new techniques and styles.

“Often I find that Russians are the best wrestlers. Their style is more balanced, more like a chess match,” says Ringuette. “They never seem to beat up an opponent. That’s more the American style. The Russians are focused on deception, and I find that it works better. It’s not about trying to sneak in there quick. Instead, they’ll set you up at the beginning.”

Both James and Ringuette say they enjoy wrestling because there are always new techniques to be learned, it is physically intense, and it is an individual sport. Although the team boasts some elite wrestlers, it also welcomes those who are new to the sport.

“If you want to join, just come to practice, and if you work hard enough, you’ll get to compete,” says James.

Elementary, my dear Watson

On February 14, 2011, Alex Trebek will play host to a battle of man versus machine.

In a special edition of Jeopardy, IBM’s deep analytics question-answer computer “Watson,” named after IBM president Thomas J. Watson, will play against top Jeopardy winners Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter. IBM researchers hope to answer the question of how a computer will fare in a competition of knowledge retrieval and natural language processing when it’s up against human players.

The rest of us are hoping for an answer to the question of whether a computer can ever be smarter than a human. Although it is tempting to pit this as a fight between artificial intelligence and human intelligence, it is much more important to consider it as an event with profound implications for understanding the nature of intelligence and what it means to be an intelligent being.

Watson represents a big step in IBM’s long journey toward creating innovative intelligent machines. IBM’s previous landmark was a computer named “Blue Gene,” which scientists used to map the three billion base-pairs of the human genome. For Watson, the issue is instead to tackle a different but equally complex task: natural language.

“Language was an area that, even at the beginning of the computer era, people believed computers would be good at,” says Dr. Bill Murdock, a Watson algorithms researcher. “So far, computers have failed.”

From the beginning, the problem has always been “open question answering.” This problem is very different from a simple search task that everyday computers are built for. It also more closely resembles how humans actually communicate.

“People can understand language because we relate it to our own thinking and our cognition,” says Murdock. “Language is grounded in our experiences — not in a formal mathematical language that computers can only understand. Computers understand unambiguous things, not like human language.”

Indeed, one of the most curious and impressive challenges will be testing Watson’s ability to discern the many nuances, regionalisms, slang words, and short hand terms that run rampant in Jeopardy questions.

“Jeopardy is a playing field by which we can do some science,“ says Dr. Chris Welty. He explains that Jeopardy producers were at first hesitant about the idea, since they did not want the event to be a mere stunt or gimmick for their show. They reconsidered, however, when they realized the idea was not something to be passed off — a lucky break for IBM researchers, since Jeopardy provides the perfect conditions for testing a natural language processing machine.

“Jeopardy as the broad domain aspect asks all kinds of questions — something we really wanted to take on,” says Welty. “And you have to work quickly. Technology must be responsive. We needed to make a system that can extract unique information from a large amount of general information, and faster than a human can.”
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Early tests showed that Watson’s processing speed would be a major problem to overcome. Researchers used a process of putting as many algorithms as possible into the system, and then seeing which ones they could trust to provide a correct answer. The system works on parallel processing. Once Watson is fed a question, it activates all relevant algorithms, and cross-references them with the question. If there is a high degree of overlap or similarity between certain algorithms, this increases Watson’s confidence that it has found the correct answer.

Watson can also input answers into its own system to see if the Jeopardy question appears. This further reinforces its confidence in its answer, highlighting the statistical basis of Watson’s processing.

As one might guess, to be a competitive player at Jeopardy, Watson would need as many algorithms as possible, representing all available knowledge. Luckily, this obstacle was overcome thanks to the Internet, where vast amounts of information are now available digitally.

Watson represents IBM’s most ambitious foray into deep analytics and natural language processing. However, Watson’s early test matches were difficult for IBM researchers to watch:

Watson: “I Love Lucy for 800.”

Question: “It is Ricky’s signature tune and later the name of his club.”

Watson: “What is song.”

According to Dr. David Gondek, “Watson didn’t have a good notion of what the answer type was, or what it was even being asked.”

It would take two years for Watson to play at a competitive level. This was accomplished by building a computer the size of a classroom.

Dr. Eduard Hovy of the University of Southern California says the implications for such a machine will become more apparent and astounding once we can imagine a Watson the size of a PDA.

A more practical-sized Watson could be used in the healthcare industry. IBM researchers hope to build a Watson that can store all the medical information in the world — from illnesses to tried treatments — in order to provide information to doctors when treating patients. Doctors would be able to ask Watson to name all the treatments that have been performed for a particular ailment in the past, and choose one accordingly.

Lawyers could also benefit from Watson when searching for precedent cases, by asking it to name all of the cases similar to the one at hand. Watson would essentially make information retrieval more efficient using its ability to understand human language.

“Can you imagine computers communicating more fluently in natural language?” asks Welty. On February 14, we won’t need to.

The Varsity Interview: Lieutenant Governor David Onley

The Varsity: I just wanted to start off by congratulating you on almost four years in this office.

David Onley: Four years, yes. Well, three and a bit now. I don’t like to use the “four years” just yet.

TV: Why’s that?

DO: Well it’s just hard to believe that so much time has gone by. It really has — even to say three years is amazing to me.

TV: It must be all sort of a blur now, but what was it initially like to get that phone call from the Prime Minister?

DO: It was an amazing moment. There is a process that you have to go through when you realize that you’re on the short list and you’re actually interviewed for the job. So the last Thursday of June of 2007, just prior to the Canada Day weekend, I was called by the Prime Minister’s office, [and they said] that they wanted to interview me. […] The interview was scheduled to go on for 45 minutes, but the way [the interviewer] was sitting, every once in a while I would catch a glimpse of his watch, and [the interview] was 10 minutes shy of 90 minutes. […] [On] Wednesday, it was 20 minutes to 5 and this gentleman called. And the first thing he said was the Prime Minister needs to talk to you. […] I was driving, at the top of the Don Valley Parkway. And I thought to myself, Lord don’t let me hit anybody, just keep it straight in this lane.

TV: The Governor General, in his installation speech, mentioned three pillars he wanted to address during his time in office: families and children, learning and innovation, and philanthropy and volunteerism. At the onset of this journey, what were the goals that you personally set for yourself?

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DO: The primary one is the whole concept of accessibility within our society. And it’s an issue that I’ve been promoting through my whole term in office. It is something that is more than just for people with disabilities, who [constitute] 15.5 per cent of our population. When you take into account the immediate family members, the mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, children of those disabled people, it is now comfortably over 50 per cent of the population who are affected. And with the aging boomer population, who just by virtue of aging will be encountering more issues, accessibility is no longer an option, it’s mandatory. […] I’ve made a series of good allegiances and alliances and contacts with a range of communities, whether it’s the Black History association or the Monarchist League or children’s hospitals. [It’s important to] reach out to many different ethnic communities who have come to Canada and to whom the monarchy is a new experience.

TV: You mentioned your father’s faith. What’s been the role of spirituality at this stage in your life?

DO: Well for me, as a Christian, it’s been a fundamental part of my life. There are issues and there are problems in life that you just simply can’t answer with traditional mathematics, chemistry, physics, languages. The issues of suffering, the randomness of bad events — as the title of that famous book many years ago said — bad things do happen to good people. And why is that? When I got polio at three and a half, I wasn’t a bad person, but it happened. And why was the police officer killed a week and a half ago? And why was the congresswoman shot in the US? And ultimately the questions we all wrestle with are where do we come from, why are we here, and where are we going. And I think it’s important in life to not ignore those questions.
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TV: Obviously being visibly disabled comes with its own burdens and pain, but I was wondering what advice you’d offer those who feel emotionally trapped or inadequate or discouraged?

DO: I think somehow, within ourselves we have to realize that there’s no one that’s perfect. Society can airbrush all they want and present images of perfection. But even if you don’t have any immediate imperfections, it doesn’t mean you won’t get cancer or be struck down by MS or get hit by a car. I saw a picture in the newspaper today and there was a gentleman in an electric wheelchair speaking at the TTC hearing about the changes to bus routes. When I saw the picture I thought, “well, good for him.” He’s out there, doing more than so many people. He’s making his voice known and his opinions heard. I think that, regardless of your religion, we are made in the image of God, and some of us have issues or difficulties. If you’re judging a person’s value or worth based on what disease they’ve encountered or on a birth defect, these are not descriptions of character.

If there’s any overall criticism of the way our society markets things, it’s that we put a ridiculous overemphasis on the peripheral and on imagery. Far too little on the core values of what it is that makes a society unique, why we have the quality of life that we have, despite its imperfections, and its heartache, and its miscarriages of justice. In comparison to just about any other country in the world, we’re doing very well. I like to tell the students in elementary school that these things didn’t come about by accident, that slavery had to be done away with. We had slavery in the province of Ontario in 1791 until the first lieutenant governor took the steps to get rid of it and create the court system that we have. Such a fundamental concept of freedom happened in 1791; it didn’t happen in the States until a war was fought over it. There’s a quality of life and values that didn’t happen by accident and those values are far more important than any transient image.

I know I’m combining two elements together in terms of motivation, and I don’t expect that someone struggling will be motivated because of the experiences of John Grave Simcoe in 1792. But at the same time, it is possible. There are more opportunities here than anywhere else.
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TV: What’s been a particularly poignant moment from the past three
and a half years?

DO: I have an enormous sensitivity to basically any time I’ve presented a memorial cross to the families of soldiers who have died in Afghanistan. That’s been just really powerful. […] [Furthermore] the three police funerals I’ve been to. One for the OPP officer in Ottawa, Officer Czapnik; Officer Hack, who died in a car crash in pursuit of a suspect; and most recently, Sergeant Ryan Russell. I was the only person not affiliated with the police who spoke. Those were deeply moving moments that I’ll never forget. […] On the positive side of things, [there have been] just amazing moments: meeting the Emperor and Empress of Japan and having them here in the suite [of the Lieutenant Governor]; having Queen Elizabeth visit there, the first monarch to visit since before the war; meeting Hu Jintao; meeting Prince Charles when he came; and people in the world of entertainment like Dolly Parton and Don Cherry. Probably the mot significant memory I have that I’ll always take away with me would be at the Prime Minister’s dinner for the Queen, held at the Royal York. […] She made eye contact with me, came over and started to talk about what a wonderful evening she had, and how she’d be seeing me tomorrow and how she rather looked forward to it.

Sororities and fraternities targeted by Vaughan

Members of U of T’s fraternity and sorority houses are crying foul after receiving a financial hit.

As of late January, the houses are subject to a zoning bylaw that classifies most as “rooming houses,” requiring them to obtain a licence and close if too many noise complaints are issued.

Adam Vaughan, Councillor of Ward 20, Trinity-Spadina, spearheaded the changes last June, citing noise complaints about frat houses lining Prince Arthur Avenue, a street otherwise filled with private condos and townhouses.

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Vaughan is also moving to prohibit the houses from renting out their property for lucrative movie shoots. He alleges the profits, which can amount to $7,000 per day, are used to fund parties that prompt noise complaints. Options for the ban will be discussed this month.

“The idea isn’t to chase them out of the neighbourhood, the idea isn’t to close them, the idea isn’t to stop them from providing cheap, affordable housing,” Vaughan told the National Post. “The idea is simply to find a way to say to the ones that are holding parties at four o’clock in the morning where they’re peeing on people’s cars and doing all kinds of bizarre stuff in the parks, could you just please get on with your neighbours?”

Fraternities and sororities at U of T aren’t affiliated with the university, and most are located off-campus.

“I can’t speak to the relative legitimacy of complaints that Councillor Vaughan may or may not have received,” said Adam Carson, speaking to the Toronto Sun on behalf of local frat houses.

“I can say though that we don’t feel that licensing and regulation is a necessary step that’s required by the city Any of the issues that the councillor has brought up […] are addressed and covered by the existing municipal code.”

Councillor Karen Stintz has moved to re-evaluate the zoning changes, and study if sufficient consultation took place beforehand.

With files from the Globe and Mail.

Playing duopoly

In a devastating blow to the Internet as we know it, the Canadian Radio-Television Telecommunications Commission tried to rule that Internet service providers who own telecommunications infrastructure (ex. Bell Canada, Rogers Communications) could charge the ISPs who rent it for every byte they use. This scheme was known as usage based billing. In essence, the prices of small ISPs would be the same as the large. In contrast, the current pricing regime has the smaller companies renting the lines and buying bandwidth at a flat rate and allowing the small ISPs to differentiate their prices from the larger ones. The implications of such a move were dire, unless you were a shareholder of Bell, Rogers, or Shaw. They included the drastic draining of your bank account, a decrease in quality of service for you as a consumer, a decrease in quality from those who deliver content via the internet (YouTube, Facebook, etc.) and a decrease in quality of television service.

You may not have heard of Teksavvy, Acanac or Primus. Where you might have had your bandwidth usage capped at a paltry 25 gigabytes a month by Bell or 60 gigabytes a month by Rogers, subscribers of these smaller internet service providers have been enjoying caps of 200 gigabytes per month since their inception. This is the main difference between the small and large ISPs in Canada. It is the reason why anyone would sign up for service from a small ISP. The removal of this difference would turn these small ISPs into subsidiaries with the result being a duopoly. In Ontario, this duopoly would consist of Rogers and Bell. Those of you who have paid your own cell phone bills for years know that choice is never a bad thing. Prior to the birth of Wind Mobile, being gouged by Telus, Bell or Rogers was practically a requirement for being a Canadian citizen. This duopoly would not be restricted to your ISP service.
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The soft cap to be imposed on wholesale buyers of bandwidth by Bell stands at 25 gigabytes. This amounts to less than half an hour of high quality (1080p to be specific) video per day. Beyond that, a charge of $2 a gigabyte would be incurred. Compare to this your television service where you can leave it on 24/7 with the only extra cost being that of the electricity used to power it. With Bell, Rogers and Shaw owning television networks in Canada, this is a conflict of interest. By making it artificially cheaper to watch TV on your television than on your computer, many viewers will opt for the couch. This translates into in an increase in TV subscriptions and an increase in revenue for Bell. If allowed to stay, UBB will mean the end of TV on your computer. But, what if live television or syndicated programs were never your thing. What if you preferred Hollywood instead?

Netflix is a company which offers movies streamed through your computer or gaming console. For $7.99 a month one receives unlimited viewing privileges. A single movie from Bell’s Premium Movies subscription costs $5.99. These movies take up bandwidth with your one and a half hour movie at high definition taking up 3 gigabytes. If this bandwidth is free, Bell’s business model is obviously untenable. That is, until you add the $6 Bell wants you to pay for the bandwidth consumed. With a movie taking up 3 gigabytes and Bell’s pricing of each gigabyte at $2, a movie from Netflix costs $6 plus the $7.99 a month. Bell is attempting to make itself relevant not by offering better products or services, but by abusing its position as the owner of the infrastructure. However, this does raise the question of the right of ownership. After all, Bell owns all the phone lines our bandwidth travels through and took upon itself the risk in building them. It should be able to do whatever it wants with them, right?

Connecting a country is never easy. For a country as large as Canada, it is even harder than most. In order to deliver internet and phone services, a company needs to build the physical network of wires used to deliver the service. The upshot is an extremely high barrier to entry into the telecommunications industry. In Canada, this barrier is so high that no company ever surmounted it alone. This includes Bell Canada, as it was (and still is) heavily subsidized for the very purpose of setting up and maintenance of this network. Bell Canada would never be in the position it is in today without the help of the Canadian people. The cables which run across our country are just not Bell’s, but our (as well as Bell’s) network. To see them attempt to cheat their partners in such a manner is not only disgusting but damaging.

Fortunately, the government has decided to overturn the CRTC’s ruling on usage-based billing due to the huge public outcry. However, the CRTC’s recent efforts to institute UBB should be a reminder of how vigilant we need to be when confronted by the duopoly of Rogers and Bell.

An election in our midst?

Parliament resumed on January 31. They were talking about you, your family, and our future, and the chance that we will be given an election. While the current government claims it will not call nor provoke an election — as of the newest parliamentary session — we’ve probably all learned to interpret most political promises with jaded reluctance and a now-calloused tongue-in-cheek reaction. With the Liberals already indicating they will vote against the government’s budget upon its tabling in March, Harper will have to woo either the Bloc Quebecois or New Democrats to survive a confidence vote. Perhaps this is news to you — if the budget doesn’t pass, we will be heading to the ballot box. This is the time of year where parties will jostle positions and stances for inclusion on the budget and then vote on said elbow-rubbing. If an election was called today, the following is probably what we could expect each party to include in their respective campaigns. I’m no expert, but a little research and a desire to understand the “powers that be” has led me to the following (in no particular order):

We can expect the Conservatives to focus their energies on year two of their five-year economic action plan, which has been branded rather effectively (you know those signs?). This trickle-down model should create jobs, they say. They might not be good jobs, per se, but a job is a job. We can also expect significant defence expenditures on those American-made fighter planes, as well as a renewed commitment to a police-state: new prisons, revamped crime prevention, and renovating the backlogged justice system.

The Liberals will likely focus their rhetoric on ending corporate tax cuts — which they supported in the 2007 budget. In terms of the economy, Ignatieff likes to talk about creating jobs through investments in education and training. Free education? Don’t hold your breath. They’ve also been known to support long-term health care. I do love Medicare.

During the 2008 leaders debates, Gilles Duceppe accurately stated that no one really expects the Bloc Québecois to form a government. They really serve the purpose of representing Québec’s interests in Ottawa. To this end, they’ve effectively stated that they will accept a $ five-billion bribe, in order to support the government‘s upcoming budget. Go Nordiques.

The New Democrats, for their part, will heckle the corporate tax cuts, as well as focus on Senate reform. It won’t happen tomorrow, but small steps, working families, and good jobs — that’s the NDP.

Elizabeth May and the Greens are off the map, unfortunately, especially under the electoral system we currently employ. She did peep up on the subject of political morality with respect to the Conservative attack ads that ran in December. Release the hounds.

Amidst all of that, where do Canadians stand? Ipsos-Reid recently published that the top priority of Canadians was health-care. While polls can be dubiously-framed and interpreted, here is the point: take a minute to identify your priorities. Really, take a minute and think “Gee, what do I value and what is important to me?” How much do the issues of our parties matter to you? Where do you stand? Wait. Do you even stand at all? Even the possibility of an election should serve as a call to understand our role — as citizens, and not merely “taxpayers” — in the democratic process in Canada; not merely an “X” every whenever-the-prime-minister decides, but a consistent and engaged involvement.

Don’t be surprised if you feel out of touch with the political system. In fact, it hasn’t gone unnoticed. Elections Canada has recently endeavoured to understand what’s up with the low youth voter turnout. They said it just like that, I’m sure.

Don’t complain if you’re not contributing. Perhaps that was harsh. It can be daunting to get involved. There isn’t a handbook, though Local Motion: The Art of Civic Engagement in Toronto provides evidence that even the smallest steps create the largest change. Sign a petition; search for political information; attend a public meeting; boycott/choose a product for ethical reasons; contact a newspaper or politician; participate in a demonstration or march; or volunteer for a political party.

Get involved. For you. For your family. For our future.

War, what is it good for? (Good filmmaking?)

There is a new director in Canada. He is quiet, unassuming, and young. He graduated from York University and his name is Ryan Redford. (No, he is not related to Robert.) He just made his first film, Oliver Sherman, starring Canadian thespians Garrett Dillahunt and Molly Parker, along with Donal Logue, who I am told is semi-American, but he “had been born in Ottawa and lived there for a couple weeks, but that counts,” says Redford, referring to the requirement of a Canadian film to have Canadian cast in order to get Canadian money.

The film itself is a meditative look at the life of a couple of war veterans seven years after their service is finished. Why would a young, unassuming Canadian director want to make a movie about the experience of North American war veterans? “I don’t see it as a political movie. I can’t help if people are going to see that within it,” says Redford. “Throughout the making of it there was some call from various people to make it a definitive Canadian Coming Home movie, because I guess there hasn’t really been one, but that didn’t really interest me.” (Redford is referring to the classic Hal Ashby movie, starring Jane Fonda and Jon Voight, about returning Vietnam veterans). “I think it would be really arrogant and irresponsible of me, who doesn’t have any experience with that, to attempt to make some definitive statement about it.”

In Oliver Sherman, the title character (Dillahunt), suffering from PSTD, makes an unexpected visit to the house of a fellow former soldier, Franklin (Logan). Where Sherman is obsessed with war and cannot seem to get over it, Franklin has gotten married, raised children, and lives a functional life. In keeping with Redford’s goal of not making a political film, it keeps many things vague or unsaid. We never learn when or where it’s set; specific signifiers like license plates were altered give the film universal generalized feeling. “In order to keep it universal and in order for it to have this weird lyrical quality to it, I felt we had to strip that away.” Redford adapted the screenplay from the short story “Veterans” by Rachel Ingalls, which displays a similar quality. “The short story is actually set after the Korean War, but otherwise, her stuff, and even that story, aside from the Korean element… in a good way there’s this generic timeless quality to it.”

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This style is a hallmark of Redford’s days as a student filmmaker at York and a director of short films in the years that followed. When talking about these films, he claims “they all had a very rural and other worldly lyrical quality to them. Between those five or six movies, they had maybe fifteen lines of dialogue,” but his first feature film isn’t quite so sparse: “I guess the leap was dialogue; it has more dialogue. That said, the dialogue is pretty stylized; it’s not realistic dialogue, it’s pretty austere literary dialogue.” This austerity extends to the manner in which the themes of the film unfold. Redford wanted to question the “validity of violence as a way of life.” The film deals with men who are capable of great violence and the potential for violence within the characters seems always to be lurking behind the performances, but Redford made a conscious decision not to depict any violence on screen. “There are two ways you can go about creating tension. You can be very graphic about something and you can underline it. You can have a score that’s telegraphing it and telling you to feel intensely… or you can do the opposite, which is what I did, which is to constantly withhold and to exercise restraint and to take away. It was a decision from the get-go to never show anything happening on screen.”

Considering the grimness of the story, I couldn’t help but wonder what it must have been like on set. I remembered seeing a set photo of Mel Gibson filming The Passion of the Christ with a red clown nose on. “If it’s grim on set, it’s not grim because of the subject matter,” he assures me, “it’s the money that’s going out the window, the weather’s horrible and you need to get your scenes… Because of the subject matter was it grim on set? No.” Well, that’s good news, I suppose.

Regulation for the win

Regulation vs. Deregulation. This is a hotly contested topic that has been given intensive media play in the wake of the global economic crisis and the practices that are alleged to have led to it. The arguments for and against both positions are built on a lengthy history, and people are fundamentally divided. Of course, the issues pertaining to government regulation are vastly more complex. At the risk of presenting an over-simplified, Elle Woods-style case, the bottom line is that regulation is good and deregulation is bad, especially when it comes to the economic and financial sectors, as demonstrated in recent events in the U.S. and Canada during the global financial crisis. If only it could all be so simple. That valuation may be fine and dandy, but are all the Canadian regulations in place serving us well? What does it even mean, really?

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines deregulation as, “the act or process of removing restrictions and regulations.” In terms of economics, regulations are outlined and enforced by governments in order to exercise some degree of management over market forces. They are intended to protect institutions like banks, to insure healthy competition in markets in order to protect consumers, and generally prevent complete economic collapse. Deregulation does not mean killing laws against fraud, but easing government control of business operations that constitute a more laissez-faire, free market. It is not to be confused with liberalization, which involves introducing more entities into markets, because liberalization can maintain government regulations and protection of consumer rights whereas deregulation involves the removal or relaxing of such controls.
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Alan Greenspan, chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve from 1987 to 2006, has been attacked for the deregulatory policies he implemented. Many economists and politicians blame deregulation for the financial crisis, arguing that the whole debacle could have been prevented. The Fed is equivalent to the Bank of Canada, our nation’s central bank, which operates under the mandate “to promote the economic and financial welfare of Canada.” Both are responsible for monetary policy, federal currency, and overseeing the financial system.

The difference is that in Canada, our central bank has maintained a policy of regulation and has successfully avoided the level of economic hardship experienced in the U.S.. A report released at the end of January by a bipartisan U.S. investigative panel serves as a harsh criticism of the deregulation policies Greenspan advocated. The report quite clearly states that the government had the ability to avoid the 2007-09 financial crisis that has had global repercussions; it just decided not to. Illustrating the highly contentious nature of this issue, the report was only endorsed by the six Democratic members of the Commission. Three Republican members published a competing report that states: “U.S. monetary policy may have contributed to the credit bubble but did not cause it,” and the fourth Republican member issued a report that finds the actual root of the crisis lay in U.S. housing policy adopted in the early 1990s. So the merits of regulation as opposed to deregulation are very much tied to ideology, yet clearly all sides agree that deregulation policies were a factor that contributed to the economic collapse. And there is no disputing as to the severity of the financial crisis. In 2009, current U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman and Great Depression expert Ben Bernanke said, “As a scholar of the Great Depression, I honestly believe that September and October of 2008 was the worst financial crisis in global history, including the Great Depression.”

While Canada obviously suffered, we fared much better than our southern neighbour. In an interview with Prime Minister Stephen Harper in 2006, a Fox News host noted that Canada’s strict banking regulations ensured that no Canadian banks needed a bailout — the only Western country that fared so well. He also asked if Harper was concerned that regulation was impeding the innovation and risk-taking that occurs in a more free market, the main argument of deregulation supporters. Harper’s answer helps prove the point that regulation is best. As he stated, in reality Canada emerged from the financial crisis “probably with the only truly free market financial system in the world.” Those of you who have signed the petition to prevent ISPs from switching to Usage Based Billing, paying for every byte you use, have regulations to thank for its expected success. Although the CRTC made the recommendation, if not for the policies of regulation in place in this country, ISPs would be able to make any changes they desire without limitation. Like grounding a misbehaving teenager when he or she disobeys the rules, regulations work to protect consumers from big corporations, and protect financial institutions from themselves.