More than just jack pines and canoe trips

Four years ago, Ross King (PhD ’92) took on an idea he admits was “a daunting brief” even for an acclaimed non-fiction writer on the visual arts – coming up with a fresh take on the Group of Seven, Canada’s most well known (perhaps too well known) art movement, wrote The Globe and Mail Oct. 9 in a story about the author of Judgement of Paris and the newly released book and exhibit titled Defiant Spirits: The Modernist Revolution of the Group of Seven.

Saskatchewan-born, with a PhD in English from York University but based in the UK for the last 18 years, King wasn’t worried because the Group was a well-worn subject…but at first he wondered if there was enough grist in the Group saga for an absorbing narrative.

But as befits our age, King’s narrative is a myth-buster rather than a myth-maker. It shows the Group’s art was hardly a brand new thing, the result of some direct, pure contact with Nature. In fact, for all their tuques and canoe trips, Thomson and Group were decidedly urban, urbane and worldly, skilled at what we now call branding.

And while their work broke with the pastoralism of Canucks such as Homer Watson and Horatio Walker, it was very much of a piece with Van Gogh, Matisse and Signac.

According to King, the Group “hid their modernism behind their nationalism; the nationalism was a stalking horse for the modernism…. Part of the myth of them going North, with ‘their minds as blank as their canvases,’ was that they wanted to say they were doing something distinctively Canadian, that the colours, the landscape was very different from Europe and America, and called for different artistic means. Which is true to a certain extent … But they also wanted to shake up Canadian art. Looking at the Ontario Society of Artists exhibitions, the Royal Canadian Academy stuff, they knew just how behind the times Canada was.”

Building a more resilient brain

A lifetime of speaking two or more languages appears to pay off in old age, with recent research showing the symptoms of dementia can be delayed by an average of four years in bilingual people, wrote The Wall Street Journal online Oct. 11.

Over time, regularly speaking more than one language appears to strengthen skills that boost the brain’s so-called cognitive reserve, a capacity to work even when stressed or damaged. This build-up of cognitive reserve appears to help bilingual people as they age.

“Speaking two languages isn’t going to do anything to dodge the bullet” of getting Alzheimer’s disease or dementia, says Ellen Bialystok, Distinguished Research Professor in Psychology in York University’s Faculty of Health. But greater cognitive reserve means the “same as the reserve tank in a car: Once the brain runs out of fuel, it can go a little farther,” she says.

Specifically, the advantages of bilingualism are thought to be related to a brain function known as inhibitory or cognitive control: the ability to stop paying attention to one thing and focus on something else, says Bialystok. Fluent speakers of more than one language have to use this skill continually to silence one language in their minds while communicating in another.

Big dreams brewing for female entrepreneurs

As more women become solo entrepreneurs, women now account for 36 per cent of Canada’s 2.7 million self-employed, up from 26 per cent in 1976, reported CTV News online Oct. 10.

Change is happening quickly. In 2008, 3.4 per cent of female workers were self-employed, up from 2.9 per cent in 2003, according to a report on the state of entrepreneurship in Canada compiled for the federal government by Eileen Fisher, professor of marketing and Anne & Max Tanenbaum Chair in Entrepreneurship and Family Enterprise in the Schulich School of Business at York University, and Professor Becky Reuber at the University of Toronto.

However, the same study found that female ownership of small-sized and medium-sized business has stagnated recently. In 2007, 35 per cent of businesses were at least half owned by a woman, down slightly from 37 per cent in 2004. Still, the study noted the figures are significantly higher than a country like the United Kingdom where the number stands at 25 per cent.

When do we stop looking for life on Mars?

Will we ever be able to say there is nothing alive on Mars? asked Stephen Strauss in a column for CBC News online Oct. 8. Will we ever be able to justify future missions to the red planet on some rationale other than the search for extraterrestrials?

This interpretation is not just media blather or the fallout of all those little-green-men-on-Mars science fiction stories. “All the Mars science is couched around the search for life, even if it isn’t explicitly stated,” says Professor Jack McConnell, acting director of York’s Department of Earth & Space Science & Engineering in the Faculty of Science & Engineering, who is one of the scientists behind the effort.

It is not clear what proving there’s no life on Mars would involve. McConnell told me, “My feeling is that if we find life, that is one type of answer. But if we don’t, someone will always say, ‘You didn’t look here, you didn’t look there, you didn’t look deep enough to find the fossils.’”

Canada aids in Thai arrest of Tamil migrants

Thai authorities have arrested more than 150 Tamil migrants in an immigration sweep that Canada had a hidden hand in, according to one security expert, wrote The Globe and Mail Oct. 12.

One law expert says that if Canada did have a hand in the Thai raids, the bust raises questions of whether Ottawa’s emissaries are doing end runs around refugee rules. “If Canada is part and parcel of urging that, then there is an issue of moral complicity,” said Osgoode Hall Law School Professor Craig Scott. He noted that many Tamils have a good reason to fear repression in Sri Lanka.

Students off to Barbados for York leadership program

Carla Vlaun (Learning Unlimited), Andrew Peterson (St. Dominic High) and Karan Mirchandani (Learning Unlimidted) are heading to Barbados on Monday morning to participate in the York University Emerging Global Leaders Program (EGLP), wrote St. Maarten Island Time online news Oct. 9.

The students attending EGLP were nominated by their schools. All nominees from the region went through a competitive screening process by EGLP organizers at York University in Canada for the available spots as there is only one EGLP program in the region this year as opposed to previous years whereby EGLP was held in St. Kitts and Barbados. St. Maarten students have been attending EGLP since 2007.

Reporting of misdeeds praised as positive step

Kudos have greeted the latest report by Ontario’s environmental watchdog that decries air quality loopholes, outdated sewage effluent rules and the loss of forest cover, wrote The London Free Press Oct. 8.

“Nothing is going to happen if somebody isn’t going to put it on the radar screen, that’s his job,” said Mark Winfield, a professor in York’s Faculty of Environmental Studies, reacting to the annual report released recently by Gord Miller, Ontario’s environmental commissioner.

But Winfield said the province is “moving in the wrong direction. We may be winning the occasional local victory here and there. It is a source of concern.”

He said the province backed off enforcing air quality standards when it faced “push-back” from industry and declined to enact stiffer standards for municipal sewage when municipalities argued they can’t afford them. And the province, said Winfield, is still using a long-outdated “flow-based” measure of contamination, relying on the notion “dilution is the solution to pollution.” Instead, a cap on total loading is what is required, Winfield said.

On air

  • David Dewitt, associate vice-president research, social sciences & humanities in York’s Office of Research & Innovation, spoke about spoke about the latest round of Middle East peace talks, on CBC Radio (Fredericton) Oct. 12.
  • Robert MacDermid, political science professor in York’s Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies, spoke about studies he has done on political contributions by land developers, on Rogers Cable TV (Oshawa) Oct. 7.
  • Alan Young, criminal law professor in York’s Osgoode Hall Law School, spoke about a recent court decision striking down some of Canada’s laws on prostitution, on Global TV Oct. 9.