‘Sideways’ room probes how to keep astronauts oriented

To help NASA and the Canadian Space Agency deal with the disorienting effect that zero gravity has on astronauts, York University’s Centre for Vision Research lab has created a “sideways” room, a space designed to study the way people distinguish up from down, reported the National Post Jan. 29. Heather Jenkin, a research associate with the centre, has decorated the eight-foot-square room with potted plants, a table, chairs and shelving units, all starched, glued and nailed to the walls to create a complex optical illusion. “We’re looking for clues to orientation, how you know which direction is up,” explains psychologist Lawrence Harris, the centre’s associate director who is running the project with the help of Jenkin and a graduate student.

People rely on three cues to determine which way is up, he said: vision, gravity and the direction their body is pointing. The sideways room is designed to separate those elements so their relative contributions can be studied. “We know that astronauts get very disoriented,” Harris said. “This can be a safety hazard in an emergency situation when they have to quickly orient toward specific instruments or to get toward an escape hatch or something. When you take away gravity, the only thing you can manipulate is vision.”

Harris says most people eventually lose their orientation. “In fact, if they’re here for a long while, they do forget that that’s the true up, they tend to drift toward the visual,” he said. “If you ask someone which way is up, they’ll try and make some high-level guess,” Harris added. “So what we want to try and do is extract what the brain really thinks. So we do a task that depends on your perception of up, but you’re not aware of it.” Jenkin said some people, such as elderly men and women whose inner ears are no longer capable of orientation, already rely heavily on visual clues to help them gauge direction.

Reality soap opera, Renaissance style

The enormous explosion of micro-histories in the last 30 years has put a postmodern spin on pre-modern stories. Take a few shreds of paper from an archive far away, flesh them out with some facts from social history, tie them together as if they were a murder mystery, set them going with a good narrative pace, and there you have it: a hook whereby to hang a tale, writes Globe and Mail reviewer Konrad Eisenbichler Jan. 29. In Love and Death in Renaissance Italy, historian Thomas Cohen of York’s Faculty of Arts does just that, and he does it brilliantly. Years of archival work in the various repositories of the Eternal City and of its little sister, the Vatican, have endowed him with keen insight into Renaissance Rome and its chaotic society. That insight is a must if one is to expose the underpinnings of the murder mysteries or understand the dynamics of the rape trials from the records of the Governor’s Court. The documents are admittedly faulty: They are incomplete, they speak in a babble of voices and you don’t know whom to believe. But they tell stories that could easily find a place on reality TV or on the best (the worst?) of daytime television.

Former York VP to head Ryerson

Veteran academic Sheldon Levy (BSc ’72, MA ’73), who has served as vice-president at three universities as well as president of Sheridan College, is expected to get the nod as the new president of Ryerson University, reported the Toronto Star Jan. 31 in a story picked up by Canadian Press. Levy, 56, once recalled being a struggling young newlywed math professor in the early 1970s at York University, his alma mater, when his flair for setting budgets on the then innovative computers caught the eye of university management, which pressed him into a welcome second job working for the administration. He has never looked back. The straight-talking math whiz became York’s vice-president for institutional affairs in 1988, president of Sheridan College in 1997, the University of Toronto’s first vice-president of government relations in 2000 and vice-president at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology last February.

Political prisoners in Iran often stay silent

There were rumours about what happened to prisoners at Evin prison in Iran. But neither her husband Andre nor her family asked Marina Nemat about her time there, and she never told them, reported the Toronto Star Jan. 30. She couldn’t bring herself to talk about the torture, the isolation, the marriage she was cornered into, and then the loss of that marriage when her husband was killed. “There are a large number of those who were political prisoners in Iran, many of them women, many of them silent,” said Saeed Rahnema, an author and a professor of political science at York University. “The tales are so horrendous you would not believe (them).” Only recently have stories by Iranian women come to the fore – in part because of their compelling narratives, but also because of the emerging profile of Iran and its place in US President George W. Bush’s “axis of evil.”

Rahnema also discussed the election in Iraq and Iraqi Canadians taking part in the vote, on CBC TV’s “Canada Now” Jan. 28.

Merger will suck Molson’s profits out of country

Marketing guru Alan Middleton, a professor at York’s Schulich School of Business, has warned the Coors Molson merger will suck Molson’s profits out of the country to finance its ventures elsewhere, much as InBev has done with Labatt, reported the Toronto Star Jan. 29.

Financial Times ranks Schulich’s MBA program 22nd in world

York University’s Schulich School of Business followed Rotman both in Canada and globally, where it ranked 22nd overall in the Financial Times MBA 2004 survey, reported the National Post Jan. 31. Schulich scored highly in value for money, salary percentage increase and the career progress of its alumni. The survey said these ratings indicate the school caters to younger, less-qualified managers.

Welcome to Queer Tango

Queer Tango, a new dance class created for gays and lesbians is the only one of its kind in the city, reported the National Post Jan. 29. Kym Bird, English program coordinator at Atkinson’s School of Arts & Letters, and Frances Latchford, teaching assistant in York’s Philosophy Department, say they searched in vain for a class like Queer Tango when they began their relationship three years ago. Last winter, the two women took a straight tango class in Toronto where the instructor addressed partners as ladies and gentlemen. “I said to him, ‘You can probably see that Frances is no gentleman’,” Bird says, laughing. “We just don’t fit into that model.”