Prescribing BlackBerrys to battle disease

For York University researcher and health psychologist Paul Ritvo, a professor in York’s School of Kinesiology & Health Science in the Faculty of Health, the BlackBerry has potential to help manage chronic diseases, such as Type 2 diabetes, wrote the Toronto Star April 18.

Ritvo has pioneered a study, currently underway, that hopes to explore how mobile technologies such as BlackBerrys can be used as a way of reinforcing good health habits by facilitating ongoing feedback.

Harvey Skinner, the dean of York’s Faculty of Health and a colleague of Ritvo’s, says “motivational drift” can make it difficult for people to continue with healthy behavioural changes. “We start off with good intentions, maybe initiate a change, say an exercise program, and then days later, weeks later, months later, we start encountering some challenges in keeping to our goal and in keeping to the routine.”

The key, Skinner suggests, is ongoing feedback, and mobile technologies are a tool with the capacity to provide that kind of around-the-clock communication between a patient and a health provider.

According to Ritvo, the goal of the “engaged health coaching program” is to make the patients, who are part of a community that reports high rates of diabetes, to “really feel there’s somebody who is very concerned about your health, and is giving you the best information you can get at the times when you most need it.”

In the long run, this kind of care has the potential to reduce the strain on the health-care system.

“I see this as the first step of trying to apply it to a whole range of health problems, including depression, for example, where there wouldn’t be a physical problem, but there would be ways where people could alter their lifestyles so as to support their moods,” says Ritvo.

Bialystok’s research helped change his mind on gaming

Fergus Craik, a leading cognitive psychologist based in Toronto and co-editor of The Oxford Handbook of Memory, is less skeptical on the subject of brain games in general than he used to be, wrote Canwest News Service April 16 in a story about studies that show the games can be beneficial. His perspective until recently, he says, “was that the market has almost totally been consumer driven – (capitalizing) on anxieties about forgetfulness and so on.”

What helped change Craik’s mind were various studies, such as those on bilingualism conducted by York University Distinguished Research Professor Ellen Bialystok, who helped prove that being fluent in several languages helped stave off dementia by an average of four years. (Her results were published in Neuropsychologia in 2007.)

York grad wins discrimination case

York grad Seema Saadi (BA ’99) brought a case of discrimination “on the grounds of race, colour, ancestry, place of origin, ethnic origin, disability, creed and sex” against her employer, a company that ran a federally funded program created to help immigrant women settle in Canada, wrote the Toronto Star April 17 in a story about Ontario’s newly streamlined human rights watchdog.

Born in Toronto, Saadi graduated from York University with a degree in sociology and environmental studies. She is a Muslim woman of South Asian descent who wears a hijab.

In May 2008, Saadi landed her dream job as a bilingual intake worker for new immigrant women at a company called Audmax. According to the tribunal decision, she sensed immediately that there were problems among some employees, including two Muslim women who also worked there. Like Saadi, the two Muslims were fluent in French and English.

Saadi tried to stay quiet and fit in, she later told the tribunal, but felt “shaken” by comments about her culture and long, modest clothing [and her curry lunch]. Two months after Saadi started working at Audmax, company owner Maxcine Telfer fired her. She was reportedly not a good “organizational fit”.

Saadi took her case to the tribunal and, with help from a lawyer at the legal support centre, won a $36,000 settlement against Audmax and Telfer. The adjudicator ordered Telfer to take cultural and sensitivity training. She also had to get an independent expert to review Audmax’s anti-discrimination practices.

Bluffs residents fight wind turbines

It’s an ongoing battle worthy of Cervantes, if he’d been an ecominded urban planner: A furious group of residents, tilting at a hypothetical windmill, wrote The Globe and Mail April 17 in a story about opposition to a proposed turbine project, which would set up windmills in Lake Ontario off the Scarborough Bluffs.

But the Don Quixotes of the Scarborough Bluffs are dead set against the suggestion…and their vocal opposition is putting local politicians on notice. Mayor David Miller, who has championed the city’s push towards renewable power, said opposition to the Scarborough Bluffs turbine is the exception, rather than the rule.

It would be “tragic” if fear of angering residents prevented the city’s politicians from pursuing much-needed renewable energy initiatives, said York University environmental studies Professor Mark Winfield.

“I think the potential is enormous and the benefits are enormous,” he said. “The biggest danger in some ways…is, frankly, the derailment of some of these efforts.”

Businesses pare packaging to cut costs

Homeowners have embraced recycling, wrote the Toronto Star April 17. More and more are limiting their use of plastic and paper packaging. And, ever so slowly, businesses are joining the green movement, cutting back on the waste they create before proposed Ontario government regulations force them to take action.

Not only is it popular with green-savvy customers, but packaging reduction is especially good for the bottom line. [But] not everyone believes that corporations are jumping at the opportunity to reduce.

Mark Winfield, a professor in York’s Faculty of Environmental Studies, said remarkable changes have been made in individual households, but producers of the packaging are not as evolved. “We haven’t been thinking about why so much of this stuff is moving through the process in the first place,” Winfield said. “That is where the next level in the conversation needs to go. We haven’t made that much progress there,” he said.

“And that is a more difficult conversation because it backs into a series of questions about designers and packaging use that are basically out of the control of the consumers and very much in the hands of the brand owners, the people who put the stuff on the grocery shelves.”

Official slams hydro price surge

A $2-billion program aimed at shifting home energy use to off-peak hours is about to fail, says the province’s chief environmental watchdog, wrote the Ottawa Citizen April 17.

Gord Miller, environmental commissioner of Ontario, says millions of so-called smart meters will be useless unless the government changes course and sets a sufficiently low hydro rate to convince people to do their laundry and dishes at night and on weekends.

Rate increases announced this week show a “disturbing” move in the opposite direction, says Miller. Energy police expert Mark Winfield, a professor in York’s Faculty of Environmental Studies, agrees: “It sends a potentially contradictory signal.”

Toronto heritage wall must be preserved

This clarification states, in reference to the patient-built wall at the Centre for Addiction & Mental Health (CAMH), that a small portion of the heritage wall at the northeastern corner of the site may be removed with the intent of making Shaw Park more inviting to the public , wrote Geoffrey Reaume, professor in York’s School of Health Policy & Management in the Faculty of Health, in a letter to the National Post April 19 about a published correction to a story. Given the central location that this wall has held since 1888-1889, it is essential for it to be preserved where it has stood for over 120 years to allow as many people as possible to learn about its history and contemporary relevance.

Efforts are currently underway by psychiatric consumers-survivors in collaboration with CAMH to raise funds for plaques to be installed along the length of the patient built walls, with the main descriptive plaque to be placed at the corner of Queen and Shaw commemorating the lives of the unpaid patients who built these walls, and who worked, lived and died behind them.

It is important that CAMH continues to support efforts to preserve and publicly interpret the 19th-century patient-built walls. It is also important that this particular corner of the wall remains intact, to invite people to contemplate the history that this wall represents in a way that can change attitudes for the better about people who live there today as well as in the past.

Biology prof’s prose on birds beguiles, says reviewer

Animators romanticize birds; they project human emotions and behaviour onto them, wrote the Winnipeg Free Press April 17 in a review of The Bird Detective. Bridget Stutchbury, a York University biologist and distinguished research professor in the Faculty of Science & Engineering, is more interested in demythologizing them. Birds are not cute or goofy or lonesome or cocky.

Stutchbury is, after all, a Yale PhD. She conducts experiments to figure out exactly what birds are up to and determine what causes them to act the way they do.

Stutchbury’s special gift is to be able to describe her work in fascinating and graceful prose that will beguile even those who can’t tell the difference between an eagle and an egret. To do this she enlists the help of a worldwide network of students and colleagues.

Her previous book, 2007’s Silence of the Songbirds, established her credentials as a popular stylist and serious ecologist. It focused on the alarming rate at which birds were disappearing and was shortlisted for a Governor General’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction.

Lower mandated prices may stifle generic drug production

The Canadian generic drug industry grew out of a 1969 amendment to the Patent Act and was cultivated by the emergence of provincial public drug plans in the 1970s, wrote the National Post April 17.

Ontario set the model which others would later follow. It paid pharmacists the lowest listed drug price available, effectively eliminating the incentive for generic drug manufacturers to compete on price.

Instead, companies had to jockey for shelf space by offering rebates to pharmacies, which amounted to the difference between the price the government would pay and the lowest amount the manufacturer would be willing to accept.

“It gives the store owners a very heavy club to use on the generics companies,” says Joel Lexchin, a professor in York’s School of Health Policy & Management in the Faculty of Health, who studies the pharmaceutical industry’s relationship with the medical profession.

Over time, those rebates became an essential source of revenue to pharmacists, Lexchin says. For decades, the province tolerated the rebates, but held dispensing fees low.

“The generic companies are not going to be hurt by this to any significant extent,” Lexchin said about Ontario’s plan to cut drug prices.

Why beauty queens are smarter than you think

Both CBC News host Jacquie Perrin (BA ’71) and former Toronto supermodel agent Judy Welch credit their turns as pageant winners for giving them shapely legs up in life, wrote Antonia Zerbisias in the Toronto Star April 18.

Perrin, who, as Miss Dominion of Canada 1969 ended up in a whirlwind year competing at Miss Universe in Miami, Miss World in London, Miss Queen of the Pacific in Melbourne and Miss International in Osaka: “I personally didn’t get much money out of it. I did get a huge amount of world travel and the ability to meet a vast array of people. I really learned a lot.”

The downside was, when she returned to York University, back in the days of “bra-burning” women’s lib, she felt the harsh judgment of some of the other students.

York mothering expert rethinks dislike of cellphones

The Saturday afternoon before Easter, York Professor Andrea O’Reilly was in Toronto, expecting to meet her 20-year-old daughter, Casey O’Reilly-Conlin, wrote the Toronto Star April 19 in a story about a scare O’Reilly experienced when Conlin went missing for two days, prompting a search by friends and police.

The younger woman, a student in English and women’s studies at York University, shared an apartment in the city with her older sister, Erin, also a student at York.

A professor of women’s studies at York, O’Reilly is an expert on the topic of mothering. She is founder-director of the Association for Research on Mothering, co-founder of the Museum of Motherhood, co-founder of the International Mothers Network, and editor of the Encyclopedia of Motherhood. She has a long list of book and monograph titles to her credit, all dealing with the confounding, often exhausting and sometimes terrifying subject of being a mother.

At first, when her daughter failed to phone, O’Reilly blamed technology – or its absence. Casey O’Reilly-Conlin was possibly the only 20-year-old in Toronto who did not possess a cellphone. At about 4pm on Sunday, Conlin at last logged onto a computer to check Facebook…and OMG. “She realized the whole world was looking for her,” says her mother.

To O’Reilly’s credit, she did not allow the risk of professional embarrassment to interfere with her judgment. “A lot of the time, parents don’t go for help because they’re afraid they’re going to be judged,” she says. “But, if you think your kid’s in trouble, pick up the phone. Who cares about your image? What matters is our kids…. I’m kind of an anti-cellphone person,” says O’Reilly. “But I’m rethinking that. I’ve told my daughter she’s getting a cellphone.”

‘Bad guy’ wrestler outlasted the good guy

There was an endless argument, never settled, about whether or not the great hate shown between 1950s-era professional wrestling bad guy Gene Kiniski and and his nemesis, perennial good guy Whipper Billy Watson was real, or the blood was real, or the choreographer would ever let Kiniski win, wrote the Ottawa Citizen April 19 in a story about the death of Kiniski last week.

Most of us probably didn’t know Whipper Billy’s real name was William Potts, and he died at his Florida vacation home in 1990 at age 74. During his active life, he was awarded an Order of Ontario and an honorary degree from York University in 1984.

York analyst questions Canadian Forces’ move to cut recruiting staff

“Just because the Canadian Forces is now close to its goal of 70,000 in the regular force, should it be easing up on recruitment?” asked the Ottawa Citizen’s David Pugliese in his blog Defence Watch April 19.

I don’t have the answer for that myself, but cutting back on recruiters has been questioned by some defence analysts like Martin Shadwick of the York Centre for International & Security Studies and the Department of Political Science at Glendon College.

Barb Boyes to be doubly honoured in May

Barb Boyes will have earned a good night’s sleep by the time May 28 rolls around, wrote April 16.

Boyes, an Oshawa resident and teacher at Donald A. Wilson Secondary School in Whitby, will be among the five inductees celebrating the Oshawa Sports Hall of Fame’s 25th anniversary on Wednesday, May 26, at the General Motors Centre.

She’ll likely still be riding that high the next night, when she will take her place in the York University Sport Hall of Fame.

The kudos at York are due to her excellence as a hockey player, where she starred from 1980-1985. She captained the team at one point, won a provincial title and still owns the Ontario Women’s Intercollegiate Athletic Association record for goals in a game after scoring six – as a defenceman, no less – against Guelph in 1981.

On air

  • Bernie Wolf, economics professor in the Schulich School of Business at York University, spoke about Toyota’s latest recall, on CTV News April 17.