Digital technology is changing the way writers tell their stories

The e-book is changing the publishing business, but will digital technology actually change the way we tell stories, the way writers write – for better or for worse? asked The Globe and Mail July 9.

Multimedia experiments often use short texts because readers seem unlikely to tolerate long passages of type in a video or interactive environment. "Maybe the chunk is not the chapter; maybe the chunk is the paragraph, and one paragraph can lead to more, different paragraphs," says Caitlin Fisher, Canada Research Chair in Digital Culture at York University [Faculty of Fine Arts], who used that approach in her 2001 multimedia novella These Waves of Girls. "People have been figuring out how to get their message onto a single screen. It makes some writing better and some writing worse."

York’s Fisher agrees that the issue is how to draw the reader through the text. "It’s interesting to say maybe people would navigate your novel like a game environment," she says. "People find a game environment compelling. [But] does it always have to be a puzzle or maze? Could great writing draw you through it?… We don’t have serious writers experimenting with it."

Fisher also notes how seductive video is, hoping books will not simply be replaced by some version of interactive film or augmented reality. "We have this push that all literature can become movies. Everyone can cheaply make and edit moving pictures. It is pushing out interesting experiments in writing."

"I’d be happy to purchase an $80 electronic novel that promised to take me places I hadn’t been before, but it’s a hard sell," says Fisher, who wants to see writers making technology work for them rather than technology shaping the form. "It is crucial writers be there asking what kind of tools might be useful…and not just accept what computer science hands them."

Ontario towns struggle to maintain downtown areas, says York prof

Mark Winfield, professor of environmental studies at York University [Faculty of Environmental Studies], says private-sector involvement is not a bad thing – as long as the city maintains strict bylaw control on the heritage buildings, wrote The Orillia Packet and Times July 9, in a story about public-private sector projects in the city.

Forming partnerships with private developers could work for the city if the developers are prepared to "retain the heritage character," Winfield said. "If a developer is willing to put in the effort and the money to do the refurbishment in a way that retains the heritage value of the building, then that’s not a bad thing at all."

The city can impose conditions through zoning bylaws and other bylaws to protect the buildings, Winfield said. But the situation gets "trickier" for a building that houses a museum, Winfield said. "A private developer isn’t going to come in unless there is some commercial viability of the building."

One of the struggles for smaller cities in Ontario is maintaining the viability of their downtowns, he said. "It’s very central to preventing the classical hollowing out that happens to downtowns – where you get the strip malls on the edge of town near the highway and the downtown ends up empty."

Using heritage buildings as destinations counteracts the "hollowing out" effect, Winfield said. "Turning it back into more of a destination is all very, very helpful and sort of counteracting those sorts of pressures."

MD inspires hope in Somalia

"Good news" and "Somalia" are not words often found together, wrote the Toronto Star July 9. Nor is "hope" used much to describe the country that has topped the Failed State Index list published by Foreign Policy for the last four years. That doesn’t apply, however, to the Somali state of Mama Hawa.

This is the oasis of peace about 20 kilometres outside the capital of Mogadishu, presided over by Dr. Hawa Abdi, a formidable 64-year-old obstetrician, gynecologist and lawyer known among Somalis as "Mama Hawa."  She runs a camp that has its own hospital, school, shelter and even a prison for men who abuse their wives, with her two daughters Deqo, 36, and Amina Mohamed, 30, who are also doctors.

This week, Hawa and Deqo brought what has been dubbed the "Somali Saints" tour here for their first visit to Canada, home to the largest Somali diaspora outside of Africa.

The Hawa fever had spread to Toronto even before the doctor duo arrived Saturday. On Tuesday night, a group of more than a dozen students met at York University’s main library to discuss how to fundraise for Hawa – and how to continue helping after her visit.

"When I see what Dr. Hawa Abdi is doing it’s just amazing. She’s very inspiring," said 21-year-old Toronto-born Amina Gurhan, the York University student organizer. "After I finish my master’s, it’s part of the plan," she said, adamant to get to her parents’ homeland to help. "I want to push forward development in Somalia."

Experts at odds over sentences for cop killers

An idea to change the way police deaths are prosecuted has garnered mixed reaction from legal experts, wrote the Aurora Banner July 8.

While one professor believes a federal majority government could easily change the Criminal Code to boost penalties in the criminal death of an officer, even if a lesser charge were laid, others believe there would be no marked increase in deterrence.

York University adjunct law professor and past Ontario Bar Association president James Morton, does not believe the law should be changed to make the on-duty death of a police officer tantamount to murder. The Crown must prove murder, be it first or second-degree and that the accused was aware the victim was a police officer, Morton said.

Instead, he supports laying the appropriate charge, along with changing the Criminal Code to ensure punishment takes into account the victim is a police officer.

Even in fatalities, drivers causing serious collisions escape jail

A momentary lapse in judgment or attention does not make a criminal, even if that lapse proves fatal, wrote the Toronto Star July 9, in a story about weak sentences or fines for drivers involved in fatal accidents.

"It’s always emotionally enticing to say, ‘Well, a death is involved, therefore your conduct must have been very reckless or very careless,’" says Richard Litkowski, a criminal lawyer and adjunct professor at York University’s Osgoode Hall Law School.

"You just can’t jump to the conclusion that the driving must have been dangerous because somebody died."

Harry Potter devotees are having trouble letting go

Although the last book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, was first published in 2007, the July 15 release of the second half of the movie version will effectively close the door to [author J.K.] Rowling’s fantasy world, wrote the Toronto Star July 9.

The storylines were enthralling, said Laura Stanley, who started reading the books when she was 10. She’s now reread the first six books 10 times. "It’s not a typical kind of kids’ story," said Stanley, now 19 and a York University student. "There are twists and turns. J.K. Rowling has kept it so interesting. You want to keep going. You want to know what’s happening…. It’s the end of our childhood, really. I keep saying that."

  • David Beckett Padbury only got through the first Harry Potter book and halfway through the second; then, he reckons, he either got too scared to go on or his father got tired of reading them aloud, wrote the Ottawa Citizen July 9.

For Padbury, the Potter books didn’t instil a deep love of reading. And though most people he knows have read at least one of the books five times, Padbury isn’t sure that passion extended to other books. "I don’t think it really pushed kids into reading more and more other things. I think that Harry Potter kind of became a self-contained exception to the no-reading rule."

Padbury isn’t against the books, though he does think the vast empire they created is "a little absurd," and he sometimes feels judged for not having read them. But he does believe they will endure "the same way books like (The Chronicles of) Narnia do, the same way books like The Lord of The Rings do. Will I ever read it? I’ll probably read it to my kids. And it’ll be a fresh experience, unlike any other parents reading it to their kids."

Fringe winner blurs reality with fiction

"My sisters and I would play a lot of games of pretend when we were little. We always had elaborate storylines and strange plots."

Stephen Near [BFA Spec. Hons. ’94] is talking about how he became a playwright, wrote the Hamilton Spectator July 9, in a story about the York grad’s new play Interface.

"Pretending I was someone else at recess during school, or at night in my own back yard, led me to role-playing games. Those, I think, were what caused me to write plays."

Though he studied directing and dramaturgy at York University [Faculty of Fine Arts] in Toronto, Near discovered it was the homework part of theatre he liked best. The research and development aspect of drama were more appealing than directing actors at rehearsal.  "Research, scene breakdown, character intentions were what appealed to me most. But then I’ve always been a writer. I’ve always been interested in telling stories. And for me an essential part of storytelling is having an audience. That’s why I’ve never really written a lot of prose or short stories."

Near says dialogue is an important part of his writing. "A lot of it just emerges when I’m walking around, talking out scenes between characters in my head. I like theatre that makes you think," he says. "I also like to call into question the line between reality and fiction onstage. I also like ghosts and otherworldly shadows being a part of a story in some ways."

Near is pleased his play is being produced at the Fringe by his company Reaching Symmetry Theatre.

Wage growth lags behind rising costs

Canadians are being squeezed at either end, trying to keep pace with rising costs as their pay levels lag, wrote The Globe and Mail July 9, in a story about a Statistics Canada report released Friday.

Darshika Selvasivam, a 27-year-old campaigns and equity coordinator at the York Federation of Students in Toronto, and also a part-time student at York University, knows just what Holt means. "It is really difficult to make ends meet, especially living on your own," she said. In order to absorb rising food prices, she splits groceries with a roommate, hunts for bargains, seeks produce from community gardens and is even considering growing her own vegetables.

Bartender pumping for national bikini title

With a tiny sequin-studded bikini, buckets of spray tan and a ravenous appetite, Natalie Palmer will board a plane for Saskatchewan this month, wrote July 10.

The Richmond Hill resident and Ontario Physique Association bikini champion will bring her beach body to the prairie province and battle other bikini-clad contestants to be named national champion.

A fitness aficionado and former York University health & society student, she was crowned Ontario champion last month, in just her second competition.

Along with bartending six nights a week at the Moxies restaurant in Newmarket and working out four days per week, Palmer, 24, is able to keep a sense of humour, while maintaining her toned physique and, most importantly, a dark tan. "It’s hilarious at a competition, because we all look like oompa-loompas," she said with a laugh, referring to how competitors’ spray-tan skin tones make them resemble characters from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. "The bright lights wash you out on stage, so when you look at all the girls, it’s just a sea of orange," she added.

"I figure, I’m 24, (so) why not give it a go and if it doesn’t work out. Then it’s back to school for business courses, so I can own my own gym one day," she added.

No room for improvement here

You don’t go to school expecting full marks in every subject, wrote the Toronto Star July 11. But if you are David Marrello, you can do it.

The Bishop Allen Academy high school graduate just completed his final year with a 100 per cent average, and has scooped a four-year President’s Award of Excellence scholarship.

The 17-year-old said the secret to his success at school lies in being extremely curious. He thinks of himself as a perfectionist, always wanting to get things right. "I ask a million questions," he said.

Come next year, Marrello, who is fluent in Italian, is eschewing the possibilities of studying abroad to enrol in the Schulich School of Business at York University.

Escape from the killing fields

Sorpong Peou‘s last memory of his father Nam had been watching the Khmer Rouge throw the elder man into a blue truck in 1975 to be taken to execution in the killing fields of Cambodia, wrote the Winnipeg Free Press July 11, in a story about the University of Winnipeg professor.

Peou [MA ’90, PhD ’95] was 17 and terrified he would soon die just like his father. And seeing him hauled away was his last memory of Nam Peou until the two embraced in Phnom Penh last month. For 36 despairing years, the father thought his wife and seven children had been murdered; the family believed their father and husband had died.

Peou and his mother and six siblings made it to a refugee camp in Thailand, and came as refugees in 1982 to Ottawa, where they all became Canadian citizens, and he began his climb to academia through a PhD at Toronto’s York University.

On air

  • Laurie Wilcox, psychology professor in York’s Faculty of Health and a research member of 3DFlic, spoke about an international conference on 3D film making being held in Toronto, on G4TechTV July 8.
  • Laurence Harris, psychology professor in York’s Faculty of Health, spoke about experiments he and colleagues in York’s Centre for Vision Research designed to be conducted on the space shuttle, on CBC News July 9.