Saturday, November 29, 2008

On the Grand Coalition

James Bow writes eloquently about why we should throw out the Conservatives:
In two and a half years, we have seen how Stephen Harper governs. He is not pragmatic; he is an opportunist. He believes in openness and accountability only when it suits him. Most importantly, he refuses to respect the democratic will of the Canadian people; twice denied a mandate to govern with majority power in the House of Commons, he has consistently refused to reach out to any party in the opposition to govern cooperatively. Government has been a battle for him, and his opponents, be they on the opposition benches or standing in the streets, are not Canadians with legitimate points of view of their own, but enemies to be crushed and humiliated.
That, of course, describes the problem only in the broadest way; James provides a thorough list of examples of Conservative hypocrisy, mismanagement, and general immaturity. I look forward to seeing Harper on the opposition benches and urge the Liberals, NDP, and Bloc not to back down.

Friday, November 28, 2008

May you live in interesting times...

Well, PM Stephen Harper certainly excels at setting traps for himself. I'd never have guessed that we'd be on the brink of a Liberal/NDP/Bloc coalition government this weekend, but we may well have one in time for Christmas:
Negotiations by Opposition parties to form a coalition began hours after the Harper government failed to introduce an economic stimulus package in its annual economic and fiscal update yesterday.

Instead, Harper proposed billions in spending cuts, the suspension of the right of public servants to strike, pay equity changes, and a small but significant reduction of public funding for political parties.
I think there are lots of good reasons here to bring down the government, but the public funding for political parties issue is probably the spark that lit this fire. (Each party annually receives $1.95 for each vote it received in the last election, which was implemented to lessen the impact of wealthy donors being able to disproportionately influence political parties, along with corporations and unions. The much larger indirect subsidy comes in the form of tax credits for people who donate directly to the parties.)

This proposal concerning party funding was bizarrely attached to the Harper government's otherwise Harrisite "fiscal update" (spending cuts? compounding a recession?), in what can only be seen as a naked attempt to harm the finances of the opposition parties, if not cause their outright bankruptcy. That this comes during an unprecedented global economic crisis when compromise and consensus are warranted in Parliament is despiscable. I don't think Canadians are terribly interested in Harper's game, but are at least a bit concerned with the tanking stockmarket and the looming collapse of the auto sector, to name only two things. In this regard, I do think the opposition is more in tune with "average" Canadians (i.e., though who aren't political junkie who live for Harper's games of chess). Instead, Harper's playing chicken with the fate of his own government:
Angered over the lack of an overarching spending package to kickstart the sluggish economy, the Opposition parties cried foul.

Now the Liberals say they will introduce a motion of non-confidence in the government.

NDP Leader Jack Layton and Stephane Dion have discussed "roles and responsibilities” in a new coalition, an NDP official confirmed.

It is expected that Layton would have a place in the new cabinet, and “various players would play different roles,” the official said.

Liberal finance critic John McCallum said a new government would roll out a stimulus package that was "a whole lot faster and a whole lot bigger than anything they would provide.”
Anyway, I'm not sure whether Dion would be the leader of this still-hypothetical coalition. It's a possibility, but since the confidence vote has been postponed (by Harper, a sure sign that he's attempting to buy time for some sort of last ditch attempt to save his government), I expect the Liberals will have sufficient time to figure out their leadership issues, at least temporarily, so that we'll soon be treated to the spectacle of a joint Liberal-NDP cabinet with tacit Bloc support. Interesting times, to be sure!

Monday, November 10, 2008

Still here

I've been remiss in posting lately, but I'm glad to say that I survived my anatomy exams (at least, I'm pretty sure I did - we don't get the actual results til later this month). After a brief respite, I'm back into the thick of it - and feeling very glad that I've taken genetics and biochem in the past. I find it a bit difficult to get out of the studying mentality and I feel I'm becoming mildly obsessed with being in the hospital - my elective is really just that interesting and fun. To maintain this feeling, I'm watching (and, sometimes, criticizing) House, though it's not really very good this season, and I've even tuned into the pre-emininent "medical" soap opera, namely Grey's Anatomy.

But how bad is Grey's Anatomy? Bad. The characters don't strike me as being anything approaching real people and, worse, they get away with things that even Gregory House would probably find unthinkable. Last week, in fact, several characters were dissecting cadavers in a storage room (for surgery "practice" I guess), unbeknownst to the senior resident. Where did they get them? Well, it turns out these bodies were simply unclaimed, so that the interns (shouldn't they have finished their residencies by now?) decided, hell, why not cut them up? Usually, of course, most cadavers used for dissection are expressly donated to science for that purpose, and otherwise there must be express authorization from the relevant authorities under laws like this. Setting aside the questionable ethics and the fact that they casually eat and drink in the same room (absolutely disgusting), the consequences consist entirely in a Stern Lecture from the senior resident about Why What They Did Was Wrong and Bad, Bad, Bad. To compare, at Dal, letting someone into the lab who's not unauthorized or otherwise removing *anything* from it would have "serious consequences" - expulsion quite probably. I guess we can say that they at least weren't experimenting on live patients.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Nitpicking...

So, I was just watching Homer's Triple Bypass for about the 50th time and I noticed an error in the final scene. After the operation, Homer's heart is beating away strongly, and we get a nice internal view of it. Except, the vena cava are red in colour while the aorta is blue, suggesting that Homer's heart is pumping in the opposite direction! That's what you get with Dr. Nick, I suppose.

Anyway, I'm less than two months into this and I'm already finding the more questionable things on "serious" dramas like House intolerable. It's most distressing. :\

Friday, October 3, 2008

Studying, Studying, Studying

Unsurprisingly, success in medical school requires a great deal of conscientious studying and work. And then some more studying. I am definitely learning a lot, but I'm never quite sure how much of it is sticking at a given time. I guess that just means I need to study more. I sure wish I'd taken some bio above the cellular level, even histology would've been a great asset. In truth, though, I've been distracted the past week and a half by having to do some final edits on my research paper from Waterloo - I'm relieved to say that it's all done now and submitted, and could easily turn into an actual publication.

So all's well - I'm really happy where I am, and aside from my great program, I love Halifax and I really did miss Nova Scotia in my year away. However, I feel the need to make a few complaints as well:
  • The Chinese cuisine available in Halifax, while good, is on the expensive side and lacks the sort of selection I am spoiled with whilst in the GTA. The prices for comparable dishes are half again as much and the portions about half as small - the result, it's about twice as expensive.
  • Was it really necessary that humans have not one, not two, but three circulatory systems? I mean, can't lymph notes just attach right to veins? Whoever came up with that never had to study this stuff. (Of course, I'll admit that the lymphatic system is relatively straightforward, that it follows the venous system, and eventually drains into the junction of the left subclavian and left internal jugular veins. Yes, I'm writing that so I remember it.)
  • Formaldehyde (by itself) is not really the worst smell in the anatomy lab.
  • The lines at Tim Horton's in the morning are totally out of proportion with the quality of their coffee.
  • The nervous system is too complicated. Fortunately we don't need to know all the details just yet.
  • Learning about the limbs is fun, and thorax and (to a lesser extent) abdomen are fairly straightforward. The pelvis is convoluted.
  • I wish I'd taken Latin. Or Greek. Or, better yet, both!
  • I frequently receive upwards of 30 (non-junk) emails per day.
  • South End Halifax is really a very pretty place to live. I suppose that's not really a complaint.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Unhappy

The new Radio 2 sounds like CHFI without commercials and more indie-ness.

...

Wasn't it supposed to showcase music that don't currently get played on the radio? I should add that the "Radio 2 Drive" program now ensures that I cannot hear any classical or jazz musicians (much less classical or contemporary composers!) after 3pm weekdays.

This sucks.

Now I'm be off to buy a selection of textbooks. More later maybe.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Sesame Street: Viewer Discretion is Advised

Apparently the earlier episodes of Sesame Street are suitable for mature audiences only:
Just don’t bring the children. According to an earnest warning on Volumes 1 and 2, “Sesame Street: Old School” is adults-only: “These early ‘Sesame Street’ episodes are intended for grown-ups, and may not suit the needs of today’s preschool child.”

Say what? At a recent all-ages home screening, a hush fell over the room. “What did they do to us?” asked one Gen-X mother of two, finally. The show rolled, and the sweet trauma came flooding back. What they did to us was hard-core. Man, was that scene rough. The masonry on the dingy brownstone at 123 Sesame Street, where the closeted Ernie and Bert shared a dismal basement apartment, was deteriorating. Cookie Monster was on a fast track to diabetes. Oscar’s depression was untreated. Prozacky Elmo didn’t exist.
Sounds pretty intense - from the miserable misanthropy of Oscar to the food addiction of Cookie Monster. I'm only glad that I didn't sustain irreparable emotional damage watching such inappropriate programming. Of course, one wonders how I managed watching something like Today's Special, which featured a store mannequin who would come to life when wearing a magic hat, a far more disturbing depiction of the fragility of existence than is appropriate for five-year-olds.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

A Sad Day

My favourite Radio 2 program had its last show today. After 23 years of mellow afternoons with Jurgen Goethe, DiscDrive ended today. It was a good show, with excerpts from past ones, but I was definitely more than a bit sad to hear the "Fanfarinette" theme for the last time on air. The CD is available here; I just ordered it.

As for DiscDrive's replacement, well, I'm not all that enthusiastic:
Radio 2 Drive, hosted by Rich Terfry. Airing weekdays from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m., Radio 2 Drive, is hosted by innovative Canadian funk/hip hop artist and passionate music fan Rich Terfry (he performs as Buck 65). The country’s premier destination for new music and emerging Canadian talent, Radio 2 Drive boasts 75 per cent Canadian content from a range of contemporary musical genres with a focus on singer-songwriters. From time to time, Rich will be joined in-studio by artists for interviews and live performances.
Given that I pretty much hate or am at best indifferent toward "funk/hip hop", I can't say this description appeals to me. A focus on singer-songwriters? Like who? I guess we'll see soon enough.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Tony Clement has Jumped the Shark

I said a while back that our erstwhile federal Minister of Health, Tony Clement, should resign. I stand by that statement, particular in light of this and this. In fact, I'd say Tony has simply jumped the shark, and like a TV series that undergoes major cast changes to ill effect, it's time that he was cancelled. In fact, it may be necessary to disband the whole network. Exhibit A:
MONTREAL - Health professionals who support Vancouver's safe injection site are unethical and immoral, federal Health Minister Tony Clement suggested on Monday.

"The supervised injection site undercuts the ethic of medical practice and sets a debilitating example for all physicians and nurses, both present and future in Canada," he scolded in an address to the Canadian Medical Association general council meeting in Montreal.

He called providing a safe injection site to drug addicts tantamount to offering palliative care to a patient with a treatable form of cancer.
So, we have the spectacle of health minister calling some 79% of Canadian physicians (and, one would presume, nurses too) "unethical" and "immoral" since they are doing the equivalent of witholding treatment from cancer patients.

Or so he claims - it is, of course, quite right that witholding care from patients for spurious ideological reasons would be profounding unethical, but that is exactly what Clement is calling for. The entire purpose of a supervised injection site is to prevent deaths due to overdose, limit the spread of blood-borne diseases through the sharing of needles, and provide access to treatment programs and counselling... and that's exactly what Vancouver's InSite does. In fact, Clement's position is all the more ridiculous since he supports needle exchange programs, in which intravenous drug users are provided with clean needles, with the aim of - wait for it - limiting or even preventing ths spread of blood-borne diseases through the sharing of used needles. A supervised injection site does exactly the same thing, except that there are nurses around to prevent fatal overdoses. Oh, and such a site provides an access point for referrals toward drug treatment, something that Clement putatively wants to see happen more.

And that's great - we absolutely should support expanded drug treatment programs - so when is Minister Clement and his government going to start funding them properly? Clement asks:
Is it true that supervised injections offer 'positive health outcomes?' I would not put it this way. Insite [Vancouver's safe injection site] may slow the death spiral of a deadly drug habit, but it does not reverse it. I do not regard this as a positive health outcome.
It's rather important to point out that intravenous drug users - assuming they don't contract and die from AIDS or Hepatitis - often die following a fatal overdose. Of course, Insite exists explicitly to prevent fatal overdoses.

Which is better, preventing a heroin user from overdosing, shooting up on the street, and subsequently referring him to treatment, or letting him OD and die in an alley?

In short, Clement's position is nonsensical and, at worst, downright unethical. The real motivation is clear enough, though:
The new Conservative ad campaign picks up where Mr. Clement's message leaves off with its call to "keep junkies in rehab and off the streets." It includes pictures of the party leaders and asks which of them is on track to fight crime.

The text reads: "Thugs, drug pushers and others involved in the drug trade are writing their own rules. For too long, lax Liberal governments left gangs and drug pushers to make their own rules and set their own criminal agenda. Those days are over."
My head is spinning from such dazzling rhetoric! Anyway, I don't know about anyone else, but I tend to agree that "junkies" ought to be off the streets. Rehab is an excellent alternative, but the facilities are not currently sufficient to the task, and since all "junkies" will not be able or willing to enter treatment immediately, it's better that they use clean needles and, say, not die due to an overdose. I'd think that's pretty obvious.

Unless you're a federal Conservative, that is.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Time Passes Quickly

I'm rather amazed that this year in Waterloo is nearly over. It's really flown by, especially since April. I suppose that shouldn't be surprising - the summer always flies by (though it's not quite over yet!). In exactly one month I'll have my first classes of med school at Dalhousie, with orientation beginning a few days before that. I think that's a bit surreal, not least because of how much stuff I still have yet to do (coursework is done; research paper and marking, not so much). Aside from work, there's the small matter of moving to Halifax.

I expect to keep this blog, but the title might become somewhat problematic. As much as I have complained about Waterloo in the past, the summer has been nice, and I can point to at least a few things I like, most especially the park-like area where I live, the ready availability of bike and walking trails, and some areas like Uptown which make for pleasant daily excursions. While I can't say that the selection of restaurants is all that great, the variety of different fast food outlets in the Plaza is pretty nice. And I like the Williams coffee shops, though they are admittedly not unique to Kitchener-Waterloo.

I've also really enjoyed taking the train to travel back and forth between here and Toronto. Via Rail is not anywhere near as unreliable as it's made out to be, and the trains themselves are comfortable and spacious. With my ISIC card, it's no more expensive than the bus, but much more comfortable. It's unfortunate that I won't be taking the train much come September, but that speaks to the inadequacy of the passenger rail system across the country. Ah well.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

This is Funny

Concerning the idea of mandatory minimum sentences for certain crimes, I rather liked the scenario offered by a letter in the Star today:
Bill: Let's rob the local corner store. I'm short on cash.

Joe: Great idea. Let's go after 8, as that's when they have the most cash ... wait a minute, didn't you read the paper, there are new minimum mandatory sentences brought in by the Tories and they're tough.

Bill: You're right, it certainly dissuades me from this criminal activity. I'm going home to start applying for college.
Ah, the fallacy that is rational choice theory. Anyway, I'll have a report on my latest Tanglewood escapades later tonight, hopefully.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Annoying Trends

The sheer randomness of Judy's latest post has inspired me. I'm coming to be annoyed by several related trends, as regards things that are trendy. In no particular order, current "trendiness" requires that one first of all purchase a white Macbook with corresponding iPod. Next, one must spend the afternoon/early evening at the local Starbucks/Second Cup/Timothy's or, better yet, an independent fair trade coffee shop. Ordering black coffee is not permitted; instead an elaborate latte with shavings of cinnamon atop the non-fat milk foam concoction must be obtained for no less than $5.95, accompanied by biscotti, of course. At this point, one must appear to be working or, even better, writing, creatively, for it is surely necessary not just to be creative, but to be seen to be creative (with apologies to Family Guy). Of course, such writing must be done via Macbook, and checking the news on www.nytimes.com or Le Monde is a perfectly acceptable as an alternative - one needs inspiration after all! (Note that being able to read Le Monde in French is not really required - if you can't, you're simply learning.) A further essential past-time is the keeping an "artistic" photo blog.

Finally, in order to be as trendy as possible, one must pack the Macbook away and jet off to Vancouver - somewhere in the West End, False Creek, or, even better, Kitsilano. Repeat the above, and make Vancity your home, except now you'll spend 70% of your after tax income to live in a 600 square foot condo (hopefully not a leaky one) and spend an equal amount of your time complaining about it.

*****

Okay, I admit I don't know where I was going with that, but it was fun to write. Please note that it was not intended on impugning the motives of all Mac users (just a sizable number of them... ahem) or, for that matter, the veritably creative among us. Actually, there is someone I have in mind who fits this profile or at least soon will (though I'm not sure about the Macbook part). In order to reach his level, however, you'd need to start posting videos of yourself (badly) playing (bad) songs on YouTube. Links available upon request. ;)

Monday, May 5, 2008

Tony Clement Should Resign

As an addendum to my previous post, consider this excerpt from the Globe's editorial today:
[...] Researchers from the B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS detail what appears to be a deliberate attempt to suppress positive reviews of Insite from being released while its future is being decided.

Rather than extend federal funding for continuing research into the (InSite) facility, which had produced 22 (overwhelmingly positive) peer-reviewed studies over the preceding three years, Mr. Clement reportedly rejected his own department's advice and abruptly changed course in 2006. Further research, the authors write, would be focused on whether Insite complied with international drug control treaties - presumably in hope of demonstrating that failure to do so justified its closure. And researchers had to agree to delay the release of their findings until after the facility's current legal exemption had expired - a requirement that prompted University of British Columbia researchers to decline participation on the grounds that it was ethically unacceptable.

Mr. Clement, by all appearances, does not want more research. He wants research that conforms to the current government's antipathy toward supervised injection facilities, and provides the impetus to shut down Insite or at least reject applications for similar facilities elsewhere. In the absence of that research, he would prefer to have no research at all. Oblivious to the plight of addicts who may needlessly lose their lives as a result, Mr. Clement is keeping his blinders firmly attached.
Clement claims that he's open-minded on the safe injection side; one wonders why anyone not blinkered by morally bankrupt ideology would conclude that InSite is anything but a positive development for the Downtown Eastside. Whatever Clement's actual motivations - whether he is simply incompetent (a sure thing, in any case) or if he is also misguided thanks to a juvenile "Just Say No!" philosophy - his waffling on this issue does not merit the confidence of Parliament much less anyone concerned about public health. He should resign, though a better solution would be the removal of his boss as well.

Update: I suppose a more inflammatory headline would be something along the lines of "Conservatives Oppose Reducing AIDS Transmission" or, more succinctly, "Conservatives Support AIDS; Oppose Access to Addiction Services". That would be par for the course given past claims by Harper that the Liberals and NDP support child pornography.

Harm Reduction and Politics

Intravenous drug use has long been recognized as contributing to the spread of blood-borne diseases like HIV and Hepatitis - this results, of course, from the sharing of needles by drug users. The public health response to this specific problem - that is, infectious disease transmission via drug use - has been to set up needle exchanges where users can obtain clean needles. These have been in operation for some time, but the next logical step was to provide an environment where people can inject drugs safely and also access health and addiction services. The first such "safe injection site" in North America began operating in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside in Sept. 2003. According to Neil Boyd, a criminologist at SFU, it's been a resounding success:
"There is no doubt that InSite has made a positive impact for the individuals who use InSite, the residents, service providers and business operators in the neighbourhood, and for the greater public health of the community," said Professor Boyd.

Boyd's research, compiled for an advisory committee specifically selected by the Stephen Harper Government, highlighted many positive impacts of InSite's work, including:

  • InSite is strongly supported by business operators, service providers and residents in the neighbourhood surrounding the facility.

  • An intentionally conservative cost-benefit analysis demonstrated that there are significant savings to tax-payers as a result of InSite's work.

  • InSite has proven to have a positive impact in reducing the spread of HIV/AIDS, and the consequent costs of its treatment.
  • InSite prevents drug overdose deaths.

  • There have been no adverse effects from InSite on drug use patterns, crime, or public disorder.


"The research presented re-confirms the kinds of results obtained from the other Health Canada funded evaluation," said Professor Boyd. "Mr. Harper should respect science and its principles -- the findings are demonstrated consistently in independently peer-reviewed scientific journals."
So, it seems clear enough that InSite is working: reducing the spread of disease and providing addiction and health services, i.e. reducing harm due to intravenous drug use. However, since heroin, to take one example, remains an illegal drug, InSite can only operate subject to an exemption from a section of the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, an exemption which must be granted by Health Canada. One would think that a federal government which supports sound public health policies would have no problem with that. Well,
The federal Conservative government has allowed the clinic to operate under an exemption to the Narcotics Control Act, but Health Minister Tony Clement has refused to make the exemption permanent.

Clement has granted two temporary extensions to the permit, the latest of which expires at the end of June, but has not said whether he will grant a further extension.
In other words, Clement (who, in his previous incarnation as Ontario Health Minister, incompetently presided over the SARS crisis) evidently has some doubts about InSite, despite the rather obvious and substantive benefits. As his parliamentary secretary states:
Winnipeg MP Steven Fletcher, secretary to the health minister, has said science alone will not be the only factor in the Tory government's decision whether to extend Insite funding.

Mr. Fletcher said the science is conflicting, so Mr. Clement will have to assess what Mr. Fletcher calls the “realities of the situation.”

Mr. Clement himself said Monday that a decision on the fate of Insite will be made by the end of June. However, he rejected suggestions that the government has already made up its mind to say no.

“We're the government that actually wants more research . . . because we want to make sure that this decision is the right decision for Canada, the right decision for addicts the right decision for the community in Vancouver,” he told the Commons.
More research? It doesn't seem that way:
(BC) Provincial Health Officer Dr. Perry Kendall said ongoing research at the clinic is being jeopardized by the unstable situation.

"Closing down Insite would immediately put a stop to the research. Allowing Insite to continue would allow more valuable research to be done," said Kendall.
And just what will these other non-scientific factors be? Why, political ones, of course! As to Clement's putative support for research:
An article published in the International Journal of Drug Policy charges that the Conservative government interfered in the work of independent scientific bodies, attempted to muzzle scientists and deliberately misrepresented research findings because it is ideologically opposed to harm-reduction programs.

"From a scientific perspective, it's despicable," said Evan Wood, a research scientist at the B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS and lead author of the study. "Governments should not hand-pick grants based on ideology."

[...]

Since (2003), Dr. Wood said, there have been 22 peer-reviewed papers published on the program and they have all shown a positive benefit to users, such as reduced rates of transmission of HIV-AIDS and greater use of rehabilitation services.

An independent scientific review led Health Canada in the spring of 2006 to recommend that funding for the project be extended and that similar programs be tried in other cities.

But federal Health Minister Tony Clement intervened, saying there were too many unanswered questions and placed a moratorium on this type of research. The journal article says that was done at the behest of police organizations and based on political concerns, not sound public health policy.

Rita Smith, a spokeswoman for Mr. Clement, told The Globe and Mail yesterday this claim is "completely inaccurate." [Actually, it's entirely accurate.]

[...]

Ottawa subsequently offered money for additional research, but with the proviso that investigators refrain from disseminating their findings until after the exemption for the safe injection site expires. [In other words, they'll only fund further research (that will almost certainly reconfirm the public health benefit of InSite) if it's released after the centre is forced to close.]

Dr. Wood said this amounts to "muzzling researchers." The University of British Columbia deemed that condition ethically unacceptable and so its researchers did not apply for the grants.
Now, Clement says that the government "cares about addicts and cares about those who would otherwise be twisted on to these very dangerous drugs", but I think Neil Boyd puts their ideological waffling on this issue in perspective:
The alternative is that they shoot up beside dumpsters. The alternative is that they cost us all more because there are higher rates of HIV, Hepatitis C, violence.
While it's true that InSite does not specifically combat drug addiction, it's not actually meant to do that; it does, however, provide a safe environment where people can inject drugs, so as to reduce disease transmission, overdoses, and, yes, even provide access to addiction services so that they might break the habit. As it stands, there is ample research that InSite is doing exactly that.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

A Dream of Spring

Winter ended almost without notice. One week it was hovering near zero everyday, the ground was still snow-covered, and the sun had yet to warm the chilly winds that are omnipresent in Kitchener-Waterloo. The next week, well, the sun felt warm on my face, I could hear birds chirping, and the damnable Canada geese were more active than they've been in months. Spring has come at last.

Arguably, I should change the name of my blog accordingly, but it shall remain for the time being. In the meantime, I'm in the midst of exams (two down, one to go), and I have ample projects of various sorts to attend to as well. Sigh. This will also mark the first time that I've had a summer academic term: two courses + reseach + TA. I plan to do much of my work at home rather than in the office, so that I might benefit from (a) natural light, (b) fresh air from my window, (c) CBC Radio 2 while it remains (during the day at least) reasonably intact.

Yes, the bafflingly unresponsive and out-of-touch-with-their-listeners radio executives are planning to cut in half the current amount of classical programming on Radio 2, so that we might have more jazz and Joni Mitchell. This will entail, among other things, the cancellation of Disc Drive (a show which has for some two decades provided a mix of classical... and jazz, pop, and folk), along with the demise of Music and Company (what will I wake up to now??), Sound Advice, and the current incarnations of request show Here's To You and the ever intelligent Studio Sparks (which, also, frequently features jazz and other quality music). These changes follow up on the introduction of the syrupy mediocre pop jazz of Tonic from 6-8pm weekdays, the cancellation of the excellent jazz program After Hours, and the removal of In Performance in favour of the concert program Canada Live, the latter of which seems to feature largely torturous world music.

So, no, I'm not happy about these changes one bit. Nor are over 14,000 Facebook users. Oh, and the CBC Radio Orchestra is to be disbanded, with its current funding supposedly going to commissions.

Supposedly, those of us who are against these changes are elitists who cling to music which, though admittedly well-established, is simply old and, certainly, not altogether accessible for the great unwashed, who are assumed to be incapable of appreciating Sibelius and can't take anything more challenging than the best known Beethoven symphonies and Diana Krall. And Feist. Of course, I'm a good example of someone who was only exposed to many less "accessible" pieces via Radio 2, and the question must be asked whether the less "accessible" music which will now be downplayed is less "accessible" primarily because it's not played all that often.

I'll grant that much new "serious" music from the 20th Century and beyond has eschewed melody for abstract atonal structures and, of course, heaps of dissonance, but that doesn't explain why only "the most popular and accessible classical music, including Mozart, Beethoven and other favourites" should be emphasized. This would turn Radio 2 into nothing more than a commercial-free version of Classical 96, a station which plays little more than "classical pops" (and far, far too much Mendelssohn).

Supposedly, "the more challenging classical music — the new composers, etc. — will still be there on The Signal and on the Sunday afternoon program where we're playing pieces live with a lot of discussion". Now, I listen to The Signal, and 95% of it consists of new electroacoustic music and, for lack of a better way to put it, weird stuff. It's good. But it falls far short of exploring new concert music, much less new Canadian concert music. Indeed, will the new 10am-3pm classical show play anything by Christos Hatzis, whose music is arguably more immediate and accessible than any austere Handel symphony? Somehow I have my doubts - the new policy would evidently banish anything "challenging" or new to the abyss of the 10pm-1am slot or, worse, Sunday afternoon. It's bad enough that I can't listen to concert music (or decent jazz!) in the evening - now they'll take it away in the morning and afternoon as well.

Possibly the worst part of these changes (and the previous ones) is that most of the new shows play highly consistent styles and musical genres - Canada Live is particularly bad in this regard, as we may be treated either to an evening of traditional Persian music, Maritime folk, folk-rock/pop from Victoria, or Saint-Saƫns. It really doesn't work. And neither will these new shows. With any luck, the highly grassroots movement against these changes will have some success - at the very least, when Radio 2 suffers another precipitous drop in listenership, the CBC big-wigs might have a change of heart. It's *possible* at least.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

The ROM in Review: Epilogue

In my last two posts, I spend some time criticizing the ROM's recent renovations, with regard both to their form and their function. I was, suffice it to say, unimpressed. That being said, I was not against renovations and other changes in principle; as ever, though, it's all in the execution. It's also nice to see a major cultural institution benefit from private philanthropy without the cost of a big Scotiabank or Shoppers Drug Mart logo plastered on the side of the building.

However, what troubles me is a seeming shift in the ROM's purpose, particularly with respect to who it is evidently meant to serve. In the late 1990s, the public subsidies to the museum were cut (by the Ontario government under Mike Harris, among others). This had one immediate consequence in the closure of the McLaughlin Planetarium. In the meantime, adult admission has since risen to $20, and while memberships still offer notable savings, such costs are rather exhorbitant for what is still, ostensibly, a public institution.

I'm not sure the ROM's current management believes this, however, and this is amply demonstrated by their continuing push to tear down the empty planetarium and replace it with nothing less than a luxury condo tower. Yes, that's right - public space was to be literally privatized for the use of those wealthy enough to live in "luxury" in Yorkville. Unsurprisingly, this was opposed by many local groups, notably the Faculty of Music at UofT, which is located directly behind the planetarium. Considering how the project was introduced, the opposition was not surprising:
Architect Brian Brisbin introduced the project. The tower will feature 42 storeys of residential condominiums atop a four-storey podium and provide for underground parking for 160 cars with access from Queen’s Park.

“The tower tells a story,” he said. “It’s like an obelisk, marking the skyline from the top to the bottom. It symbolizes the area and district, creating a significant identity for the ROM and the museum district.”
Of course, the condo tower (at 42 stories, no less) would clash with the surrounding area in both height and scale generally. And when I think of what symbolizes the ROM, I think of the rotunda (to be turned into a cafe, apparently), the totem poles, and the exhibits themselves. I don't follow how condos "tell a story", much less symbolize the area (unless the idea is to symbolize Yorkville... because what we really need is for a public institution to build a monument to signify conspicuous consumption and snobby restaurants and shops).

When I was growing up, never for a second did I doubt that the ROM's mission was to make natural and global history accessible and fascinating to the general public, while also providing support for scholarship and research. In light of funding cuts, it's not altogether surprising that the mission seems to have shifted. Yet I can't say I'm not offended by the ROM's evident orientation toward those over on Bloor who complained that, when Winners opened in the old Bloor Chapters location, it was the "wrong sort" of store for the area (yes, one person interviewed on the news actually said this... I suppose if one cannot afford Holt Renfrew or Cartier, one shouldn't expect to be able to shop on Bloor West?). It is, after all, still our museum, and with any luck, it will start to feel that way again some day.

*****

For the record, the ROM's self-described mission is as follows:
The ROM will be a world leader in communicating its research and collections to increase understanding of the interdependent domains of cultural and natural diversity, their relationships, significance, preservation, and conservation.
And, yes, the ROM remains an agency of the Government of Ontario. It should probably start acting like one.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

The ROM in Review: The Galleries

In my previous post, I criticized the Michael Lee-Chin Crystal addition to the Royal Ontario Museum. It is neither impressive as an example of contemporary architecture nor well suited for the galleries it is meant to house. Although several notable galleries have remained essentially unchanged since the renovations, many others - such as the dinosaur and pre-historic mammal collections - have been entirely redone. But does this represent an improvement over the old galleries?

The Galleries: The new exhibitions are frankly a mixed bag. Some I like... some I really didn't. The new galleries include revamped dinosaur and mammal exhibits, several redesigned galleries of world culture, including China, Korea, Japan, South Asia, and the Middle East, and galleries devoted to Canadian historical artifacts and art and to Canada's First Peoples.

I'll start with the good. The new style of most of the ROM's exhibitions is one of minimalism. Dramatic dioramas have generally been eliminated in favour of bright, open galleries with most items mounted on walls or in glass cases. While this has mixed results, it serves to brighten up some previously easily overlooked galleries. This is especially the case with the Canadiana and First Peoples galleries, both of which were previously looked in the ROM's first basement, literally below the radar of most visitors. While the First Peoples gallery cannot compete with the scale of a recreation of a West Coast native villiage, it's well done and informative. For the most part, I didn't spend much time inspecting either of these Canada-centric galleries closely, their presentation is vastly improved. Thumbs up.

The ROM's galleries of Chinese culture, including stunning collections of temple art and sculpture, have always been highlights, and I'm pleased to say that the revamped galleries are quite successful. The Gallery of Temple Art especially is a vast improvement - previously, the impressive murals had been housed in a large but dimly lit hall, hardly the right showcase. Thanks to the minimalist (and, certainly, brighter) presentation, the collections feel more accessible. They are still grouped according to their respective dynasty, and the brighter lighting is appreciated - the previous incarnation of the exhibit could be rather gloomy. A further kudos should be given to the new arrangement of the Ming Tomb, which is now housed in an interior atrium and lit dramatically by indirect flood lights. All in all, I was impressed. Note that the similarly mounted galleries of Korea and Japan are essentially unchanged from before.

So far I have not actually described any new galleries in the Crystal. So here goes. The new galleries of Middle Eastern and South Asian culture, on the Crystal's third level. I didn't spend much time looking at these exhibitions; their presentation is minimalist, much like the galleries mentioned above, but the bizarre angles of the Crystal are simply distracting and only serve to reduce the amount and flexibility of interior spaces.

Now... what about the dinosaurs? The best I can say is that they now have more skeletons and fossils on display. However, as we all know, quantity is not quality. The picture below shows how one of the allosaurus fossils was previously mounted. Note the dramatic background; in this display, two allosaurs were depicted attacking a stegosaurus. I loved it. Indeed, the philosophy of the previous dinosaur (and mammal) gallery was to present the fossils in dramatic poses in colourful dioramas.

Photo by Dylan Kereluk via Wikipedia
Things have changed, though. The new philosophy of the exhibit is to eliminate dioramas entirely. We are given the fossils simply as they are, which is admittedly in keeping with evidently minimalist presentation of the other new exhibits. The picture below shows a fearsome T-Rex. Note the white drywall in the background.


It goes without saying that I don't like the new galleries at all. Thanks to the Crystal's design, they are disjointed, cramped, and oddly shaped. Whereas visitors previously journeyed first through the age of prehistoric mammals and then into separate halls depicting massive (and scary, as they were mounted to give the impression of still being underwater) aquatic reptiles, hadrosaurs mounted as if only recently unearthed in the Badlands, a scene of mostly herbivorous dinosaurs from the Jurassic, and, finally, the aforementioned (Cretaceous) scene of a stegosaurus menaced by a pair of allosaurs. Along the way, there were smaller exhibits concerning the La Brea Tar Pits, the evolution of the horse, and, of course, our own species and our recent ancestors.

The new galleries lose any sense of a "journey through time"; everything is a mish-mash, and the minimalist presentation and brighter lighting actually detract from the experience. While I'll grant that, with some imagination, the dramatic scenes characteristic of the previous galleries can be brought out in one's mind's eye, that frankly doesn't cut it. Simply put, kids will always be the most enthusiastic visitors to a gallery of dinosaurs, and the dramatic and visceral the gallery, the more captivated the children will be. If the old gallery was akin to Jurassic Park, the new one is rather like a collection of photo stills from a paleontologist's catalogue; still quite interesting (and I'm sure kids will still like it quite a bit), but not as exciting.

That's more or less all I have to say on the new galleries. I should note, though, that exhibits relating to human evolution (or evolution in general) are conspicuously lacking in the new galleries. The cynic in me wonders whether such subjects are deemed too controversial, as the old evolution gallery itself often seemed to be neglected too. It's unconscionable that a musuem purporting to emphasize natural history would neglect such a unifying biological concept. A few other things bothered me:
  • The Gallery of Reptiles would do well with some freshening, or at least some new signage. It's a perfectly serviceable exhibit, but it doesn't appear to have been maintained with sufficient care during the renovations.
  • The entrance of the Bat Cave has been changed. In fact, it's been shortened, as the foyer, painted and decorated like a South American jungle, has been eliminated. This sadden me, especially since the change has no evident purpose.
  • The insect (well, arthropod) gallery is gone entirely. It had better be restored at some point, unless the ROM's management believes that the largest phylum of animals should be ignored by a museum putatively concerned with educating visitors about the natural world.
  • The corridor displaying various stuffed mammals is gone as well. It was kind of interesting (there were anteaters along with more traditional lions and wolves), and again I cannot figure out why it was removed, as nothing has replaced it.
I should mention, though, that much of the natural history galleries are currently unfinished - doubtlessly, some of the above changes and disappearances will doubtlessly be incorporated into the new biodiversity gallery, which won't actually open for a year (this may mean that the reptile gallery is simply awaiting some more profound changes). Likewise, an earth sciences gallery is upcoming, as is a temporary exhibit about Darwin (which, frankly, still doesn't make up for the evident lack of a dedicated evolution gallery).

All in all, the galleries new and old still prove that the ROM's collections are remarkably impressive. It's simply unfortunate that the Crystal's design is unsuited to giving these magnificent collections the best possible environment in which to experience them. I'll have an epilogue on the new ROM tomorrow or early next week.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

The ROM in Review: The Building



About two weeks ago I visited the Royal Ontario Museum for the first time in a year or more. It marked the first time I'd visited since the completion of the Michael Lee-Chin "Crystal" (shown above), among other major renovations. I'll admit - I was skeptical about these renovations from the very start. Previously, the ROM had undergone a major renovation in the 1970s and 1980s; the space between the original neo-Romanesque wings had been enclosed, giving rise to grand halls lit by natural light as well as terraced galleries on the Bloor St. elevation. That's the ROM I grew up with; with only small exceptions, it remained pretty much the same from the late 80s until the current renovations began.

I won't lie and say that nothing should have changed, but I remain very attached to the ROM as it once was; growing up my grandparents frequently took me, my brother, and my cousins there on Saturday mornings, and it goes without saying that those visits made a strong impression on me. So, my review of the "new" ROM should be read in light of this, but I will say that my feelings on the renovations (and changes to some of the galleries in particular) are based on a more objective assessment. The ROM I knew is gone; so how does the new ROM stack up?

Well, first I should point out that not everything has changed. The Galleries of Birds, Reptiles, Ancient Egypt, Greece, and Bronze Age Aegean Art are all exactly as they were, as are the Samuel European Galleries, which continues to house arms and armour as well as a history of European decorative arts from the Middle Ages to the present day. The totem poles haven't moved, and the rotunda is as beautiful as ever. Additionally, since the original Crystal renovation plans were considerably scaled down, due to a variety of engineering and cost considerations (evidently, large amounts of glass to form such a Crystal are not just structurally unsound, but nightmarish for heating and cooling and, of course, the protection of fragile artifacts), the southern half of the 1984 renovation is completely intact. I daresay that even the washrooms haven't warranted an upgrade.

What's gone? Well, every single other gallery has been redone and moved. The Crystal structure has taken over the northern half of the building, and, bizarrely for a building with no fewer than five levels open to the public, the escalators appear to be gone permanently. For reasons I cannot fathom, the long-standing entrance on Queen's Park Crescent, which welcomed visitors into the stunning rotunda, has been abandoned in favour of a Bloor entrance, which provides visitors with an excellent view of a lot of white drywall. I may as well discuss the Crystal itself first.


The Building: I think the best I can say about the Crystal is that it's not nearly as bad as I thought it would be. The design has been considerably scaled down, as I noted above. Originally, the Crystal would've stretched nearly all the way back to the Planetarium; now, it just looms over Bloor, giving the impression that a Goa'uld mothership has landed on a mission to enslave Yorkville.

The idea behind the Crystal was to make the ROM into a "distinctive new symbol of Toronto for the 21st century" by embarking upon "one of the most important architectural projects of our time". Thus the dawn of the "Crystal Age" would make the stately old museum into the country's "premier cultural and social destination". Yes, they actually used this language to describe the renovation. The "new age" was to be ushered in by "starchitect" Daniel Libeskind, most of whose buildings display decidedly unconventional ideas, with all manner of strange sight lines and angular ceilings and walls. Of course, it would be more unconvential if this sort of post-modern architecture weren't so excessively trendy.

Inside the Crystal, you will indeed find all the hallmarks of Libeskind's angular designs. However, since the amount of glass had to be drastically scaled down (too much natural light in a museum is a bad thing), the interior consists of large swaths of white drywall. In fact, from some of the open spaces inside, it looks as though an iceberg has lodged itself into the side of the building, sort of like a Lawren Harris painting brought to life (only with less colour). The drywall is rather boring, though, and I cannot figure out why new escalators were not put in. There is at most one new elevator and, of course, a new staircase, but it seems ludicrous that crucial issues of accessibility were evidently overlooked. It's not just a matter of helping out the disabled or those with arthritis - carting around a bunch of kids is easier, I think, when they don't have to be crammed into elevators frequently.

Indeed, much about the new design veers far in the direction of "form" as opposed to "function". The angular walls are problematic for the efficient use of space in the second and third floor galleries of the Crystal especially; not only are the galleries cramped and disjointed, but the large amounts of angular white drywall create lots of useless open space that detracts from the exhibits aesthetically. At the same time, different sections of the upper levels of the Crystal are connected by walkways and short staircases, the surfaces of which are actually metal gratings that feel only slightly more stable than those that run over subway vents. The gratings are noisy and, to be blunt, ugly. I don't know what they were thinking, though I'm hoping that they're just temporary. In any case, one of those runs incongruously right into the arms and armour exhibit, so that the Crystal connects to some of the older sections of the building. This comes at the cost of an entire section of the exhibit (the antique firearms to be precise).

So, in sum, I don't much like the Crystal addition. It's definitely not very practical, but I could somewhat forgive that if it were actually impressive on the inside. It isn't, and I can conclude that Libeskind is tremendously overrated as an architect. That's not to say that I dislike contemporary modern architecture - just the opposite - but the new ROM is completely lacking in the seamless unity of form and function that is present in, say, the Canadian Museum of Civilization or the National Gallery. Now those are magnificent buildings. So, incidentally, is much of the existing ROM (as were the terraced galleries razed to make way for the Crystal), but the Crystal neither works with the original structures nor is it adequate taken by itself. The work is not done yet, though, so perhaps it will yet improve.

Since this post is already very long, I'll write a second post entirely about the galleries tomorrow.

Monday, March 3, 2008

A Brief Foray into Politics...

Generally speaking, I've preferred to steer clear of matters political on this blog, but this merits an exception to that rule. In a word, the Conservative Party, with the knowledge of then-Leader of the Opposition Stephen Harper, is alleged to have attempted to bribe the late independent MP Chuck Cadman into voting against the government on a crucial budget vote in May 2005. Had this occurred, the government would have fallen. The allegation surfaced via a soon to be published biography of Cadman, and is attested to by Cadman's widow as well as his daughter and her husband. The "financial incentive" offered was, according to Cadman, a "million-dollar life insurance policy", though it's not absolutely clear that that's what it was. Still, something was offered and the evidence comes from none other than Harper himself.

Now, we might ask whether this sort of thing is commonplace, whether this is "business as usual". And perhaps it is. But a bribe is a bribe, and justifying it along the lines of "but everyone else does it!" is hardly acceptable. Plus, offering "financial incentives" in exchange for votes is illegal, pure and simple. While it's debatable whether there is enough evidence for making a criminal case out of this, trial by election does not require proof beyond a reasonable doubt, and it seems amply clear that a financial offer of some sort was made. That's enough for me.

Monday, February 18, 2008

A Few Quick Reviews

With the Oscars coming up on Sunday, I feel that some capsule reviews are in order:

Juno

This is a sweet little movie about a controversial subject, namely teenage pregnancy. Juno, a 16-year-old played with verve and confidence by Halifax's Ellen Page, finds herself pregnant after a night of somewhat random intimacy with her best friend Paulie Bleeker (Michael Cera). She decides to have the baby, but give it up for adoption to a well-off couple, Vanessa and Mark (played by Jennifer Garner - who gives an emphathetic and moving performance - and Jason Bateman). I've read some criticisms of the film to the effect that it's not a realistic portrayal of teenage pregnancy - Juno's amusingly quirky parents (J.K. Simmons and Allison Janney) are too accepting and helpful or some such - but this is thankfully not an "issue" movie. But Juno is a very entertaining and light-hearted film, which brings a certain wry humour to a touchy subject and nonetheless manages to portray multifaceted characters and, crucially, genuine emotion. Now, while some of the hipster dialogue is a bit over-the-top (particularly in the beginning) and the indie folk soundtrack is a bit too... indie, I can find few real faults with Juno. I'm not sure it deserves the best picture Oscar, but since it's the only nominee which I've actually seen, I suppose I'll be rooting for it nonetheless.

Beowulf

What can be said about Beowulf... well, first, it was an entertaining ride, though I didn't actually see it in 3D as was available. Second, this represents the first computer animated film I've seen which attempts to create "realistic" human characters and largely succeeds in avoiding their looking creepy or distracting. Third, though the story departs significantly in a number of ways from the original epic poem on which it is based, I think, as an adaptation, the writers did a quite decent job in turning a somewhat scattered text into a coherent film. A brief note on the story: Beowulf (Ray Winstone) of the Geats arrives at Heorot, the great hall of King Hrothgar (an amusing Anthony Hopkins) of the Spear Danes, which is being menaced by the grotesque, vicious, and ultimately rather pitiable monster, Grendel (Crispin Glover, not that you'd ever recognize him). There's more to it than that, as Grendel's mother (Angelina Jolie) becomes involved. The story is not altogether complex, but it's fun enough, and there's a climactic sequence with a dragon that's quite something. Among the supporting players are Robin Wright Penn as Hrothgar's queen Wealthow, the always dependable Brendan Gleeson as Beowulf's comrade-in-arms Wiglaf, and John Malkovich, exhibiting one of his more bizarre and distracting (for him) speaking styles, as Hrothgar's Wormtongue-esque advisor Unferth. Something of a mixed bag then. Still, it's enjoyable enough, though it's not what one would call a "thinking movie".

(There are some nice touches, though, such as the gradual introduction of a syncretic Christianity into Norse culture over the years of the story, but I'm not sure most viewers will care. It's a nice detail for those of us who had to read the poem in its rambling entirety in university.)

Tales from Earthsea

Ursula Le Guin's first Earthsea book was not exactly my favourite read back in Grade 9, but reading some of her other books has forced my to reconsider my reaction way back then. Tales from Earthsea is a loose adaptation of some of the later books in her series, and is directed by Miyazaki's son, Goro. There is reportedly some degree of tension between them, and however much that might have affected the movie, it shows all the signs of having been rushed through production, which was apparently the case. The plot is simple enough - Prince Arren, after committing a horrible crime in his home country, goes into self-imposed exile, eventually gaining a travel companion in "Sparrowhawk" aka Ged, who is the Archmage and a wizard of some repute. Over the course of the film, Arren is literally forced to confront his inner demons, while meeting a seemingly unremarkable girl named Therru and the evil sorceror Cob along the way. Unfortunately, there is one major plot hole that plagues the film's resolution, and the script feels underwritten in other respects as well. But it does look breathtakingly gorgeous, with cityscapes clearly inspired by Rome, and the production and voice acting are excellent, as we should expect from Studio Ghibli. Tales from Earthsea is definitely a very pretty film, and while it's good overall, it's also seriously flawed. Le Guin herself has rather mixed feelings, but I'd say it's still worth seeing (assuming you can find it - it has yet to be released in North America... I obtained my copy from, shall we say, unofficial sources).

Application Anxiety Disorder

Now, I will state first that I am not currently suffering from Application Anxiety Disorder (AAD), but the same cannot be said of many of the people here who, aside from being keeners in the extreme, are highly concerned with email interview invites, admission statistics, personal "stats" (read: GPA, MCAT scores, extracurriculars, etc.), and, of course, the variable and seemingly illogical admissions policies of Canadian medical schools.

As an applicant myself, I've avoided most of this anxiety by, well, staying away from such forums and similar websites. For the moment, I lurk at this "premed" forum now and then, but I figure that avoiding registering there much less posting is a very healthy way of adding to my own stress levels. Admittedly, since I have at least two more interviews (for a current total of three chances to win), I'm well past the greater part of the uncertainty, but this forum is a testament to the overwhelmingly stressful and, well, excessive admissions process.

There are essentially a few givens for getting to the interview stage, at which point your "personal characteristics" (and subjective judgements thereof) start to matter a lot more. You'll need reasonably high marks and an MCAT score that's "high enough" and also balanced among the four categories; if you ace the science portions of the MCAT, but screw up the verbal reasoning or writing sections, your chances of getting an interview fall precipitously. Naturally, though schools like Queen's and UofT post "cutoffs" for admission, the rules are not as hard or fast as they might seem, and the process is by any reckoning opaque. However, since schools have varying cutoffs for students from different regions or backgrounds, an applicant might have an excellent chance at one school within her region and no chance at one in another province. Of course, if the justification for high academic standards for admissions is that people with high marks would make better physicians, then all this regional favouritism seems more than a little odd.

In any case, the process used to be much simpler - my dad, whose information is over thirty years out of date, doesn't recall having an interview at all to get into UofT. However, admissions appear to have become considerably more competitive over the years with the result being that academics are no longer enough - you need a certain array of community involvement (e.g. volunteering in hospitals or with sick/disabled people), extracurriculars, good references, and, often, research experience. Moreover, you need to sell yourself effectively in essays and, of course, at the all-important interview, where must demonstrate an ethical sense, critical thinking skills, strong communication skills, and "knowledge of the Canadian health care system". In short, you must pour yourself into the process, sell yourself in your essays, spend several years working away at getting lots of A's and A-'s, all while being well-rounded with some degree of community involvement and evidence that your life does not entirely revolve around schoolwork. And if you don't want to severely limit your application choices, you need to write the MCAT too, an ordeal which generally deserves its reputation as the most grueling of all standardized tests.

And so, after answering all manner of vaguely invasive personal questions in the essays and spending literally hundreds of dollars in application fees and transportation and hotel costs, you must remember that you still stand a better-than-even chance of being rejected. Most schools, at least, won't leave you hanging too long, and they'll send you a polite but firm email informing you that you didn't quite make the cut for an interview. At least one school, which shall remain nameless, won't have the courtesy to tell you anything, even after the interview dates have passed.

As for me, well, I'm not letting myself worry too much. I'm old enough to feel a bit more laidback about the whole process, but then I'm also lucky that I feel fairly confident of getting in somewhere. I don't think this confidence is misplaced, but this is far from a sure thing. In any case, Dal remains my best bet - the interview went well enough, I thought - but I won't find out until at least the end of this month and maybe much later. I could easily know the answer before either my Queen's or McMaster interviews, so I'm hoping it's the "right" answer. We shall see. I'm still waiting on UofT, and while I should be able to get an interview there, it's possible that a certain technicality will cause problems.

So, I'm not suffering from AAD, thankfully, but the process makes me wonder why that's not the case. It's certainly not fun!

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Chinese Movies Without Martial Arts

I decided a few days ago that I want to start writing movie reviews again. I wrote a couple at Lion's Den some ways back, and I've been itching to do it again. In the future, I'll review the Vengeance Trilogy, recent films like Juno and Beowulf, and, eventually, Miyazaki's complete works for film. For now, though, I'll be giving my attention to a pair of Chinese films: Raise the Red Lantern and The Emperor and the Assassin.

Gong Li as Songlian
In Raise the Red Lantern, Gong Li plays Songlian, a young university student in the 1920s. Her father's untimely death leaves her family without any income, forcing her to abandon her studies and leaving her with little choice but to become the fourth wife of a wealthy landowner, who we know in the film only as the Master (Ma Jingwu). Each of his four wives has her own house and servants, and each night the Master indicates which wife he wishes to spend the night with by lighting a red lantern above her door.

By family custom, the four wives are meant to eat together every night and interact harmoniously, though it would be more accurate to characterize their relationships as civil, at best. First Mistress (Jin Shuyuan) is indifferent to Songlian; she is old and has an adult son, but the Master is only interested in his younger wives. Second Mistress (Cao Cuifen), Zhuoyan, has a young daughter; she immediately befriends Songlian and warns her about Meishan (He Caifei), the Third Mistress, a former opera singer and the mother of the Master's younger son. Immediately upon arrival, then, Songlian enters an insular world of subtle competition for the favour of the Master. Meanwhile, Songlian's servant Yan'er (Kong Lin) is not without her own motives.

Perhaps not surprisingly, all is not what it seems in the house. Songlian uncovers dark secrets and betrayals, affairs and hopeless dreams. In describing the film, it almost sounds languid and talky, yet director Zhang Yimou crafts each scene with such care and eye to detail that a superficially simple scene can take on harrowing drama. After Songlian's arrival at the Master's house, the entire film takes place within its many courtyards and walls. Throughout the camera looks down from the roof into the courtyards, lending a claustrophobic feel to the setting. Of particular note is how Zhang depicts the Master; he is seen only in wide shots, his voice heard, but his face left unseen. His presence is always noted, yet he is deliberately remote, someone whose favour is sought by the four women as an end in itself. There is no love here, just the competition. Without spoiling the twists of the plot, the film's ending is at least doubly tragic, but the greater tragedy is the situation itself.

The performances, not just by the incomparable Gong Li but by the other actors as well, are note-perfect and subtle. It's no wonder that Raise the Red Lantern is often hailed as Zhang Yimou's finest work. His distinctive visual style is evident throughout; the camera work is eye-catching but not distracting, with wide, medium, and close shots chosen carefully for each scene, lending the film a sumptuous visual appeal. It's simply riveting. It's unfortunate, then, that Zhang Yimou has spent much of the past several years making a martial arts "trilogy" of sorts: the decent Hero, the uneven but serviceable House of Flying Daggers, and the simply abominable Curse of the Golden Flower. While each of these films allowed Zhang to paint within increasingly colourful backdrops of costumes and sets, none made use of his strengths as a filmmaker, namely the bringing together of brilliant craftsmanship and authentic drama that is so exemplified by Raise the Red Lantern.

*****

I had meant to review The Emperor and the Assassin in this post as well, but I believe I'll save that for another day, either tomorrow or later in the week.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

The Return

I'm back in Waterloo after a very welcome and needed respite in Toronto, Ottawa, and Halifax. Thus far I have little work to do, which has given me time for much needed cleaning around the apartment. But that's fairly boring to read about it, isn't it? There's been much in the news in the meantime. First, regarding Acadia, there is much good news:
The president of Acadia University is calling it quits, more than a year earlier than expected.

Gail Dinter-Gottlieb announced Friday she was resigning from the Wolfville school’s top job effective Feb. 29. The university had expected Ms. Dinter- Gottlieb, who receives an annual salary of $244,377, to stay until the end of her term, in June 2009.

"It has been a genuine privilege to lead Acadia University through a time of tremendous change in the post-secondary education sector," Ms. Dinter-Gottlieb said.

"I believe Acadia’s reputation is well-deserved and I have enjoyed working with our wonderful students and alumni, our faculty and staff and our network of supporters."

"I’d say it’s a surprise for the Acadia community at large," university spokesman Scott Roberts said Friday

Ms. Dinter-Gottlieb, who has been president since 2003, told the university’s board of governors at its August meeting that she did not want to have her contract renewed.

At the time, she said she was tired of commuting to see her husband, a researcher and faculty member at the University of Buffalo.

Mr. Roberts said Friday her early departure has to do mainly with "family and other personal reasons."
A while ago I started a Facebook group calling for Dr. Dinter-Gottlieb's resignation, so I'm pleased to see her leave well ahead of the end of her term. Her time at Acadia has been marked by two acrimonious faculty strikes, administrative upheaval and disarray, the departure of most of the senior administration, and significant declines of enrolment. To whatever extent she can be held directly responsible for these events, they did happen under her watch, and my hope is that Acadia will soon have a new president who can set a sound direction for the future in conjunction with faculty.

Meanwhile, plans for high-speed rail between Windsor and Quebec City are being made:
Ontario and Quebec are reviving old plans to run high-speed trains between Quebec City and Windsor, Ont., the premiers of both provinces announced Thursday.

Dalton McGuinty of Ontario and Jean Charest of Quebec said they will spend $2 million to study the project and expect to have a report ready in a year. It will focus on the development of a high-speed rail system linking major cities such as Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal.

The federal government has agreed to participate in the study, the premiers said, speaking at a joint news conference in Ottawa.
As a frequent rail traveller, this is most welcome news. Assuming this project goes forward, however, it would be years and years before it was complete. The cost, pegged at $23 billion, might seem steep, but as a point of comparison the subway extension planned in Toronto to York University and beyond to Vaughan will cost $3.5 billion. In any case, I'm starting to love train travel - the more (and the faster), the better!

*****

I can add yet another politician to my previous list of those I've seen while travelling: former NS premier John Hamm. He's pretty tall in person.