Marshall McLuhan ‘is still ahead of us,’ prof says

If Marshall McLuhan were alive today, there isn’t much that would surprise him – not the Internet, or Google, or Twitter, or WikiLeaks, or even the phone-hacking scandal now transfixing much of the UK, reported the Toronto Star July 16 in an article marking the 100th anniversary of the Canadian media guru’s birth.  

In broad outline, if not in precise detail, he predicted all of these and more.  

"In North America, for quite a long time, he was considered the most overrated media guru of all time," says B.W. Powe, a former student of McLuhan’s and now a professor of English at York University. Powe recently returned from a European speaking tour that included talks on McLuhan’s work in Naples, Bologna and Barcelona, among other cities.  

"McLuhan is still ahead of us," he says.  

His hotly debated star is likely as high now as it was during his glory years at the University of Toronto in the 1960s and 1970s.  

At that time, he was busily charting the topography of an electronically connected world that was a looming reality then and seems nearly all-pervasive now.  

"With any profound thinker who is ahead of us, there will be as many interpretations as there are people wandering in the desert," says Powe. "People forget his roots are in poetry, literature, the artifact of the word. He spoke poetically and aphoristically, and that leads to interpretation."  

McLuhan’s best-known book – with the seemingly prosaic title Understanding Media – appeared in 1964 and soon gave birth to an intellectual cottage industry that brought together pipe-smoking professors and leather-jacketed students in university common rooms and lecture halls around the world: Understanding (or Misunderstanding) McLuhan.  

This may seem almost obvious now, but the insight [the medium is the message] had the force of a lightning bolt more than 40 years ago when McLuhan divined the idea. 

"He realized that electronic communications were a second Creation," says Powe. "Electronic technology has radically altered how the brain functions."  

McLuhan may have possessed "uncanny prophetic abilities," in Powe’s words, but he was also a performer, a man who loved to invent riddles and games for public display, a penchant that was perhaps central to his genius.  

Toronto man charged in alleged sexual assault

A Toronto man has been charged after police allege two woman were sexually assaulted in a York University dormitory, reported the Canadian Press July 16, in a story picked up by regional and national print and electronic media last weekend. 

Police say a 30-year-old man got into the student residence Friday night and tried to find one of the alleged victims whom he had met previously on campus. Police say the man, who is not a York student, was able to find the woman in her room with the help of one of her friends. It’s alleged the man sexually assaulted both women inside the bedroom.  

Faizan Ali was scheduled to appear in a Toronto court to face two counts of sexual assault. 

In related coverage following the incident: 

  • Wallace Pidgeon, York University spokesperson, offered assurances that students were safe following the sexual assaults – which involved kissing and inappropriate touching – in an interview on CBC Radio’s “Metro Morning” July 19. He said there were 2,800 sexual assaults in Toronto and six at York last year. He said incidents of sexual assaults at York are down 31 per cent compared to last year. He said sexual assaults on campus are not just a York issue but a North American campus issue. On any given day there can be as many as 60,000 people on York’s campus. “York is a big place. It’s the third largest student body in Canada. We’re a city within a city.” York, he said, is a safe community. According to Toronto Police Services, York is seven or eight times safer than the surrounding community and the city as a whole, he said. Pidgeon’s comments were aired again later on CBC Radio’s “Here & Now”.
  • Vanessa Hunt, president of the York Federation of Students, told the Toronto Star in a story published July 18 that "York is doing the bare minimum of what they should be doing in communicating these incidents to the students."
  • “CTV Weekend News” reported July 17 that officials at York’s Norman Bethune Residence held a meeting with students and talked to University spokesperson Wallace Pidgeon.
  • Wallace Pidgeon, York spokesperson, Vanessa Hunt, York Federation of Students, and Yuqing Liu, a York student, were interviewed about the alleged assaults on Citytv’s “CityNews” July 16.

Prof to address police board about name badges

The Toronto Police Service is violating its policy requiring officers to wear name badges, the force’s civilian board will be told, reported the Toronto Star July 20.  

University of Toronto student Vikram Mulligan says he was so troubled by police failing to identify themselves at last summer’s G20 summit he began photographing officers without proper name tags.  

On-duty officers have been required to wear name tags since Dec. 31, 2006. But Mulligan said he’s witnessed officers obscuring or failing to wear a name tag on eight occasions since January.  

He will take his photographs and concerns to the Toronto Police Services Board on Thursday, arguing it must crack down on nameless officers.  

Harvey Simmons, a [retired York University political science] professor who helped establish the name badge rule, will also speak Thursday.  

"Once the principle is that police should identify themselves, every reasonable person would understand that to mean you have (a name tag) on every item of your uniform. Otherwise, why are we doing this?" he said.  

Swahili translation errors sink hearing

A woman claiming political persecution was on the verge of deportation to her native Kenya – after her testimony at a refugee hearing was deemed incoherent and evasive – when it was revealed a Swahili translator had "butchered" what she was saying, reported the National Post July 19.  

Last week, a Federal Court of Canada judge gave the woman another chance to state her claim – clearly, this time.  

That such potentially grave consequences stem from a translator deemed "incompetent" by other language specialists, and who has been previously removed for similar problems, highlights "systemic" problems with the Immigration and Refugee Board, critics say.  

Two other Swahili translators, including Oswald Almasi, a certified translator who teaches Swahili at the University of Toronto and York University, listened to a recording of the hearing. Both dismissed the interpreter as incompetent in sworn statements filed in court.  

"The interpreter makes mistakes about very elementary words in Swahili," said Almasi. "I do not believe he could be competent to interpret in any hearing."  

Are unpaid internships worth it?

As if shelling out tens of thousands of dollars for postsecondary schooling isn’t enough, an unpaid internship has become a rite of passage for many students, reports The Globe and Mail July 19.  

Some companies offer interns honorariums – sometimes just a few hundred dollars – to reward them for their work. But others avoid any form of compensation,  as it can be construed as payment that entitles the intern to "employee" status, explains David Doorey, a professor of employment law at [York’s School of Human Resource Management].  

"My sense is that many employers believe simply calling someone an ‘intern’ relieves them of all employment obligations," he says in an e-mail. In many cases, interns are completing the same work as paid staff – an obvious boon for employers.  

In keeping with Ontario’s Employment Standards Act, unless the training program is a degree or diploma requirement, "odds are the ‘intern’ is really an employee" – and thus should be paid, he says.  

Canada confirmed as a public health laggard

Despite ongoing calls by the corporate sector and conservative pundits for a weakening in the size and strength of the Canadian welfare state, it is well established that having a strong welfare state is an important determinant of a society’s overall health and quality of life, writes Dennis Raphael, a professor of health policy & management in York’s Faculty of Health, in an opinion piece published in the Hamilton Spectator July 19. 

For decades now, Canadian leaders have been bent on reducing our welfare state – that is, the benefits and services that Canadians get as a matter of right. Our declining rankings in a number of health and quality of life indicators compared to other nations have been the result. The recent Code Red series in The Spectator shows the concrete health effects of these public policy decisions.  

The evidence suggests Canada’s mediocre health outcomes are a reflection of its continuing to expend rather less resources toward citizen supports than other Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) nations through social governmental expenditures. This trend can be expected to accelerate with the recent election of a majority Conservative government. Continuing evidence of a decline in relative improvement in population health as compared to other OECD nations can be expected. The benefit of the meagre tax reductions the average Canadian receives from the reduction of the strength and scope of the welfare state comes at a dear cost.  

Is film school for suckers?

Job prospects are dismal, but applications keep going up, reported OnCampus July 15.  

The number of students taking on film and television majors has skyrocketed in the US. The University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts – which only accepts 300 students each term – saw applications jump from 2,800 to 4,800 in a single year, writes the New York Times

It’s a similar situation in Canada. Since 2006, the prestigious Vancouver Film School has had nearly 8,000 applicants for its 13 programs. The University of British Columbia says it gets an average of 75 applicants annually for a mere 20 spots in its film production program. And get this – York University in Toronto gets up to 17 applicants per spot for its film programs. 

Privacy commissioner should be given power to impose penalties

Perhaps the most interesting recommendation arising from [Canada’s privacy commissioner’s] report is not something from the commissioner herself, but rather from two legal scholars involved in the preparation of the latest Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act review, wrote the London Free Press July 18.  

The scholars – Lorne Sossin, dean of York’s Osgoode Hall Law School, and Prof. France Houle of the University of Montreal – recommended the office of the privacy commissioner should acquire limited power to make orders, including the ability to impose penalties such as fines. They also proposed explicit guideline-making power to assist with the fair and transparent implementation of new order-making powers. This controversial suggestion would significantly increase the power and authority of the privacy commissioner and will no doubt be the subject of debate during the 2011 review.  

‘Boozelorist’ traces America’s bar history in new book

In America Walks into a Bar, Christine Sismondo (BA ’96), [a doctoral student in history at York University] and a specialist in booze lore, has produced a delicious concoction of social history and mixology, begins a book review in the National Post July 16. She traces America’s love/hate relationship with beer and spirits from colonial times to Prohibition, its repeal and the gentrification of bars that, once closed to women and African-Americans, now welcome them.  

Sismondo’s path through bar history is built on the theory that drinking customs reflect and define their societies. She picks examples high and low: George Washington dismissed his troops and celebrated his election to the presidency at a grand bar, Fraunces Tavern, in New York. Then decorum gave way to frontier gambling joints and dance halls where card sharks and entrepreneurial ladies fleeced patrons. The sleaziest bars in the 19th century were barrel houses where patrons didn’t have to bother with glasses. They could sip hooch directly out of casks by means of rubber hoses. The booze was doctored with knockout drops. Unconscious customers would then be taken outside, stripped, robbed and beaten. Strong stuff, for sure.  

That one can find the once forbidden combinations of jazz and booze, blacks and gays, the bookish and the bookie, in the democracy of drink and the tolerance of law is a recent innovation. Cigarettes are gone from most bars – a victory for a new wave of anti-vice crusaders nagging behind the shield of health care – but one can go for a shot or a brew without fear. Tolerance has won, at least for now.  

Read the book and toast Sismondo. In telling the story of the rise and fall and rise again of the American bar, she has raised the study of barkeeping to serious history and told a terrific tale.  

MBA grad’s startup focuses on next-generation energy technologies

There are lots of young people like Derya Yinanc (MBA ’05, IMBA ’07) in Silicon Valley, running little teams in experimental-engineering labs that occupy low-rent industrial space, reported The Globe and Mail July 18.  

The difference is that Yinanc is in Calgary, not Palo Alto, Calif., and his hope for a technology breakthrough lies in natural or "primary" resources, not information technology. Whether or not this 32-year-old Turkish-born engineer unleashes disruptive innovation – his Quantum Ingenuity Inc. has yet to earn a speck of revenue – this startup presages a new era in oil and gas, as energy extraction becomes a technology-intensive industry and not just a matter of sticking a drill in the ground.  

What will separate you from the pack?
People usually have one idea at a time and try to commercialize that. We found that an extremely focused approach has absolutely no chance of success in this industry. So we take a portfolio approach, and that differentiates us. I have adapted it from my investment banking days. So we have prototypes in next-generation upgrading, oil sands mining, methane hydrate extraction, biodiesel and other technologies.  

Of all your technologies, what are you most focused on?
Methane hydrates extraction, without a doubt. By producing methane at a fraction of today’s cost, it would change the world as we know it – energy, transportation, everything would be different. Methane hydrates contain more natural gas than anything else on the planet.  

Are we going from the extraction age to the technology age in energy? 
We might be very close to it. The easy oil is depleted already. Right now, the cost of oil sands output from a new project is $75 (U.S.) a barrel. That is not sustainable with the world economy as it is. If the United States ends up in debt default, and oil goes below $60, a large number of companies in Alberta that started new projects will shutter them right away. They can’t afford it.

In Saudi Arabia, the cost is $4 a barrel and we are developing $75 oil up here. That cannot exist for long. The costs have to go down and it is through new technology. There is no optimization of engineering skill that will take costs from $75 to $4. New disruptive technologies are required. 

Biology students teach Nunavut park visitors about bugs

Park visitors around Nunavut got a little closer to nature during annual Parks Day celebrations Saturday, reported Nunatsiaq News online July 18. 

While some at Parks Day brushed up on the plant terminology, others discovered microscopic bugs along the bottom of Sylvia Grinnell River with York University biology researcher Chris Luszczek and Ray Riastoch, who are working with the Nunavut Research Institute in Iqaluit to monitor insect life in the city’s rivers. 

Many insects spend their juvenile life underwater before they emerge into the air, explained Luszczek as he poked along the Sylvia Grinnell River for samples. These feed off the algae in the rivers, and then in turn are eaten by local fish. So the health of the insects can indicate the health of the entire river system, Luszczek told a group of curious onlookers. “Bugs are intermediaries between the chemistry of water and the biological environment,” he said. “We can see change in the bugs before the fish.” 

Now, their goal is to pass their research skills onto local people and – judging by their keen crowd that slowly attracted adults and elders – there won’t be a lack of interest. 

“It will be a very powerful tool, giving local people the ability to detect changes in their local bodies of water, instead of always being told,” Luszczek said. 

Female jockey hopes to beat competition in first season at Del Mar

For years, jockey Chantal Sutherland [BA ’99] has wanted to ride a full meet at Del Mar, reported North County Times in California July 17. 

"When I was an apprentice, I wrote in a book all of my goals," said Sutherland, "and one of them was to ride in California and ride at Del Mar. I’m a planner. I always planned out things in my life, and that was one of my goals I wanted to check off." 

For the last three winters, the 35-year-old Canadian native has ridden at Santa Anita and contemplated staying rather than ride at Woodbine Race Course in Toronto, but when your horses are earning $16.1 million in purses in North America, and the majority of those winnings are coming from Canada, it can be a tough pill to swallow. Through Thursday, Sutherland ranked 45th nationally with $2.5 million in purse earnings. 

Then in March, the nearly unthinkable happened. Sutherland became the first female jockey to win the Santa Anita Handicap, surviving a 12-minute stewards’ inquiry to be declared the official winner aboard Game on Dude for trainer Bob Baffert. 

And now Sutherland has one of the favorites for Del Mar’s premier race, the $1-million Pacific Classic on Aug. 28, as the top three in the Gold Cup are expected to fight it out over 1 1/4 miles on the Polytrack. 

Food addiction mimics alcoholism, new study suggests

The term "chocoholic" might be dangerously close to truth. A new study suggests people can become addicted to foods and show behaviours similar to those of drug addicts or alcoholics, according to Toronto’s York University, the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health and the University Health Network, reported 24 Hours Vancouver July 18.  

"These results strongly reinforce the view that food addiction is an identifiable condition with clinical symptoms and is characterized by a psycho-behavioural profile that is similar to conventional drug-abuse disorders," said the study’s lead author, Caroline Davis [School of Kinesiology & Health Science, Faculty of Health].  

Same-sex marriage vows prove false

Next week marks the sixth anniversary of same-sex marriage becoming legal in Canada, wrote a columnist in the Winnipeg Free Press and Times Colonist (Victoria) July 16. 

In the run-up to Bill C-38 being passed, the naysayers darkly predicted the seismic crumbling of Canadian society as we know it; they said the "gay agenda" would undermine heterosexual marriage and families. None of it has happened.  

According to Statistics Canada, "the number of marriages in the country was 149,236 in 2006, down nearly 2,000 from the previous year, but up from 148,585 in 2004."  

Indeed, a November 2009 report titled Divorce: Facts, Causes and Consequences, by Anne-Marie Ambert, [sociology professor emerita, Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies], found that "divorce rates have gone down substantially during the 1990s and have remained at a lower level since 1997, with minor yearly fluctuations."  

Putting the accent on speech

Michel Ricard knew he was facing a hurdle when he couldn’t say his employer’s name properly in English, reported The Globe and Mail July 16. 

Although he considered himself fluent in English, his accent seemed to be tripping him up. "It was very frustrating, very stressful. I felt like I wasn’t doing my job properly."  

So three years ago, Ricard’s supervisors brought in Bonnie Gross, a Toronto speech pathologist, to help him smooth his accent. Gross is president and founder of Speech Science International Inc., which has been helping executives smooth their accents and polish their presentation skills since 1997. Her long list of clients include people from IBM Canada Ltd., Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, Research In Motion Ltd. and Royal Bank of Canada.  

York University’s Schulich School of Business brought in Gross to help some of its MBA students with communication skills. The school said her courses have proven popular.  

"Some of the consistent feedback we were getting from our recruiters was that some of our students were selling themselves short in interviews," explained Lisa Pierosara at Schulich’s Career Development Centre. "It’s not so much about getting rid of your accent, or improving your articulation of a particular sound," she said. "It was more about English clarity and presentation skills."  

York enters rover prototype in Canadian robot competition

Six teams of competitors went sensor-to-sensor in Huntsville, Ont. on Tuesday in the Innovation Nation Robotics Competition, reported “CBC News” online July 19. 

The entrants included robots for mining on the moon, a guide wand for the visually impaired, a multipurpose rover and a miniature car and two robots designed to compete in a game.  

York’s entry was a rover prototype named Helios. In both 2010 and this year in Hanksville, Utah, the team placed second in the Mars Society’s University Rover Challenge, using different rover prototypes. 

The Oakville Trafalgar High School robotics team won. 

Thanks to ILP, York student no longer uses wheelchair

When 19-year-old Kurt Reid joined the Independent Living Program (ILP) in 2009, he was dependent on therapy and a wheelchair, reported the Oakville Beaver July 15. Through the program, Reid learned to become independent and now wishes to help others do the same.  

Two years ago, Reid had a blood clot in his left leg that caused neuromuscular damage and he was unable to move it. With the help of ILP and therapy, Reid was able to achieve his initial goal of walking on his own for 15 to 20 minutes a day. Reid is no longer using a wheelchair for mobility.  

Reid is now going into his second year at York University in environmental studies, while concentrating on urban planning.  

NotaBle Acts promotes New Brunswick plays

This year is the biggest yet for the NotaBle Acts Summer Theatre Festival – 15 plays through July 31, reported the New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal July 16. Along with the now annual main stage production, one-acts, 10-minute street theatres and readings, for its 10th year the festival has commissioned new, site-specific short plays from regulars Jill Connell, Ryan Griffith and Bruce Allen Lynch.  

NotaBle Acts is the brainchild of Falkenstein, his wife Sue Fisher, Ilkay Silk – St. Thomas University’s director of drama – and Colleen Wagner, now an associate professor at York University.  

Moms still smoke

In an opinion piece decrying moms who smoke published July 19 in Kamloops This Week, the writer cites a 2010 survey conducted by York’s School of Kinesiology & Health Science that found 10.4 per cent of pregnant women in Canada continue to smoke, with an average of seven cigarettes wedged between the lips of moms-to-be each day.  

On air

  • Michael Riddell, a professor in York’s School of Kinesiology & Health Science, Faculty of Health, talks about the sports camp he organized for diabetic children, on “CTV News” July 18.
  • Barbara Heron, social work professor, Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies, participated in a panel discussion of voluntourism, on TVO’s “The Agenda” July 15.