Welcome, 2016.

Happy New Year!

If you’re reading this, congrats! You’ve survived all 365 days of 2015. Whether last year was a great one, a bad one, or a mix of both, I hope you welcome 2016 with open arms and optimism for what’s to come in this new year. Feel free to leave some goals for 2016 down in the comments if you’d like.

Let’s make 2016 a great year, U of T!

Sadly, I don't have a picture of any fireworks from NYE. I hope this picture I took from this year's Cavalcade of Lights makes up for it!
Sadly, I don’t have a picture of any fireworks from NYE. I hope this picture I took from this year’s Cavalcade of Lights makes up for it!

Band Aid: A Lovesong for First Aid Kit

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Yes, they’re Swedish. No, they don’t sound like ABBA.

Sisters Klara and Johanna Soderberg make up the remarkable folk duo First Aid Kit, singing their bittersweet, narrative-rich songs in tight, country-twanged harmonies. The pair skyrocketed to fame in their teens as an online sensation with their polished cover of Tiger Mountain Peasant Song in 2008. The sisters demonstrated their serious artistic chops with their follow-up album The Big Black and the Blue (2010), completed while Klara was still in high school. They followed this gem with The Lion’s Roar (2012), its lead single “Emmylou” noted as one of the top 10 singles of the year by Rolling Stone.

“Lots of people write storytelling songs…set to acoustic music and do pretty harmonies, but First Aid Kit transcends that cliché. Their songs sound like they’ve gone away and seen too much and come back tired but still alive”, writes Tavi Gevinson in Rookie.

Klara’s clear, voice-throwing lead vocals and finger-picking guitar lines are complemented by older sister Johanna’s rich harmonies and accompaniment on the keyboard and autoharp. Upbeat tempos drive mature, sometimes melancholy lyrics. Similar to how the 22-year-old T.S Eliot convincingly took on the persona of a self-conscious middle-aged man in The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock, the sisters (22 and 25 respectively) belt out tales of female characters coping with adultery (Tangerine), struggling to love again (Blue), and searching for themselves (Waitress Song) with a startling authenticity. As well, country music’s familiar trope of celebrating faith in God is both thoughtfully and provocatively undermined in the songs Hard Believer and Heaven Knows.

“We want our music to work as a means of consolation, as a way of making life a bit more bearable for people. A First Aid Kit for the soul,” the sisters explain of their group’s name.

Graduating from the minimalism of their début album (recorded in Johanna’s bedroom), their music’s wall-of-sound lushness soars in their third studio album Stay Gold (2014), proving the depths and versatility of the sisters’ talents. Together, they’re at the forefront of a revival in folk music appreciation for a new generation.

So go ahead. Take a chance on these Swedish sisters.

His Story: My Family and the Great Wars

A British soldier reads up on Sicily, the target for the next Allied invasion, July 1943. NA 4105 Part of WAR OFFICE SECOND WORLD WAR OFFICIAL COLLECTION Keating G (Major) No 2 Army Film & Photographic Unit
A British soldier reads up on Sicily, a target for WWII Allied invasion in July 1943.

It’s during the holidays when families tell their stories. The cold and snow (or this year, rain) lure people indoors, silent nights filling with tales of those both present and long passed.

Having recently completed a course on the military’s role in shaping modern society, I wanted to learn more about the impact war has had upon my own family.  Over the course of a single one-hour conversation with my grandfather (we call him Nonno), I heard the story that I share with you today.

My grandfather was sixteen when Allied forces invaded Sicily.

His North-Eastern hometown of Francavilla, isolated from the combat raging in the South, was used by occupying Fascist and Nazi forces as a transportation hub for arms, food, and materiel. It was the Nazis that my grandfather spoke of as most cruel. They killed women and children who refused to part with scarce rations, and caged residents of entire neighborhoods without food or water in livestock pens watched over by machine-gun carrying guards for days. Fascist forces accosted my grandfather as he picked oranges in his family’s orchard, demanding to know his age and if he was a defector masquerading as a civilian, a practice which grew more common as the war waged on.

The Allies announced their presence with swiftly-passing planes which bombed transport  vehicles and killed nearby civilians with each drop. Despite the carnage, the attacks on Axis supply lines were effective;  my grandfather described pairs of patrolling Fascist soldiers forced to share one rifle between them. Fleeing Germans passed through their town towards ships bound for the continent, blowing up bridges and planting land mines in their wake. Nazi reinforcements in the Mediterranean were met by Allied Jeeps and machine guns in their attempts to reach the Sicilian coast.

Frightened of the bombings and German scouts, my grandfather, his family, and crowds of townspeople hid in an abandoned train tunnel in the mountains, leaving its safety only to scavenge food and game in the hills.  A dead man had been sprawled on a sidewalk when the town made its flight; when they returned four days later, certain that the new forces they saw in town where Allies and not Axis, the body had remained untouched.

When the Allies arrived they swept Francavilla for remaining Axis soldiers, finding one Nazi in a countryside shack. The town’s cemetery, used by Axis forces to store drums of gasoline, was set ablaze. Pamphlets were distributed calling for hiding Fascists to surrender at the local church, the crowd which congregated there then taken prisoner. American GIs led the POWs on a side road toward an Allied base outside of town. Crossing one of the town’s few remaining bridges, a land mine was triggered and every man on it was killed.

My grandfather concluded his story here, adding that his family was lucky not to have lost anyone or have been solely dependent on rations, having a farm and livestock to supplement the 150 grams of bread allocated to each citizen per day.

Francavilla di Sicilia
Francavilla di Sicilia and it’s famous ruins of a Medieval castle

He went on to speak of his father, a World War One veteran. Having immigrated to Montreal in the early 1900s, his father answered his nation’s call to arms and returned to Sicily to serve in a volunteer Special Forces storm trooper battalion known as the Arditi (“daring ones”) on the Western Front. These troops were responsible for breaching enemy lines to pave the way for a broader infantry advance to follow. According to the Wikipedia, they “were successful in bringing in a degree of movement to what had previously been a war of entrenched positions. Their exploits on the battlefield were exemplary and they gained an illustrious place in Italian military history.” The Arditi were the most elite force in the Italian army. Some historians consider them to be the modern world’s first true “special forces”. Pretty neat.

His father often told him the story of the Special Forces mutiny which arose following a territorial advance that had quickly been reclaimed by the German line. Exhausted and only just returned to camp from their effort, their commander informed them of the news and demanded that they immediately return to the Front. In response to the ensuring rebellion, the commander lined up the battalion and executed half at random. Rather than quelling rebellion, it infuriated the surviving men who had been forced to watch their comrades die. They were eventually forced to fight by their commander, standing behind them with a pistol pointed at their backs.

The rest of his Special Forces unit was killed in a shelling attack, my great-grandfather surviving under the body of a friend. On the fiftieth anniversary of the Italian victory in WWI all living soldiers who had fought for at least six months were awarded the order of Cavaliere (knight) in recognition of their service to the Italian Republic, including himself.

A sample Cavaliere di_Vittorio Veneto Diploma. My great-grandfather's was issued July 30 1947 under the name Antonio Mazza.
A sample Cavaliere di Vittorio Veneto Diploma. My great-grandfather’s was issued under the name Antonio Mazza.

I highly encourage you to ask your elders about how war has impacted their personal history. You never know what stories you’ll keep to commemorate for another generation.

A Lesson Learnt from Architecture: Technology and Social Media

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We speak of technology as though it has its own character, with its own will and right to make choices. But too often we forget that technology and social media are mere gadgets and tools that channel the intentions of people, good or bad.

Technology and social media, like the right to vote, are placed in the hands of both wise and foolish people. Similarly, how technology and social media impact us and our society depends on in whose hands they’re in and how they’re used.

The world of social media is a web of contradictions. Websites are some of the most popular haunts on the Internet and have revolutionized the way people communicate and socialize. French philosopher Michel Serres claims that “for the first time in history, the voice of almost everyone can be heard”. Yet how clear can each person’s voice be as an individual?

I believe that in today’s connected world everyone can speak up but not everyone can be heard. In the brouhaha and din of social media, individuals’ voices are lost. How easy is it to write a post to raise awareness about a certain issue, and how easy is it to report that very post and have it removed instantly?

Technology and social media are extremely powerful tools in the hands of humans. Like the remarkable thunderbolt of Zeus, the relatively smaller gadgets in our hands are much stronger than we are; we cannot underestimate their potential to work with us and their potential to have authority over us.

Free Entry to Grad School Information Fair!

Whether you’re ready to fast-track your career with a Masters or PhD or simply curious about what programs and opportunities are available, check out the QS World Grad School Tour returning to Toronto on January 30.

This event brings together the world’s top grad schools and gives you the opportunity to meet face-to-face with admissions directors, learn about the best graduate programs in the world, apply for exclusive scholarships, and attend complimentary info sessions from industry experts.

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As a BlogUT reader, you’ll get in FREE (a savings of $15) by pre-registering online here and saying “BlogUT promo” at the door.

From expanding your network to increasing your lifetime earnings, graduate school can be a major game-changer for your career. The QS World Grad School Tour Toronto page has the full list of attending grad schools, complimentary seminars, and events agendas.

Event Date & Time:

Saturday, January 30 2016, 12:30pm-6pm, Metro Toronto Convention Centre, North Building 255, Front Street West  Level 200

Capstone Shatters Headstone: How to Take Full Advantage of Graduate School

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In a recent interview with Dr. Alice Eriks-Brophy, the Graduate Coordinator of the Department of Speech-Language Pathology in the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Toronto (SLP), an interesting yet unfamiliar requirement was mentioned for its Professional Master degree: the Capstone Project. As a trainee in the basic medical sciences, I was intrigued by what exactly this project was.

Dr. Eriks-Brophy is a down-to-earth and kind woman. Her positive attitude and warm voice break down the alienating exoskeleton separating professors and students, making me want to call her “Alice” five minutes into our interview as she explained this unique requirement and long tradition of the SLP department. Before the internet, the department asked students to submit their Capstone Portfolio in paper format. Nowadays, Alice simply receives them in Power Point files which she treasures like rare gemstones. The graduating class must prepare a 20-slide presentation to summarize their achievements and readiness to embark on their next endeavour as they leave academia and enter society. The project is meant as a strategy for students to plan their academic progress and better align their education with their career objectives post-graduation.

Alice mentioned a graduating student who presented her entire Capstone Project by unfolding an origami paper crane. The paper crane was her first slide, portraying herself at the moment of graduation. The head of the crane showed her pride at satisfying the requirements for the best SLP program in Canada. The outwardly stretched wings showed her maturity and readiness for a real job. Even the tail pointing to the sky showed her happiness at earning her degree. As her slides progressed, she marked the different folded grooves as her skills obtained, abilities improved, speciality perfected, and prizes awarded. In the end, the unfolding of her paper crane represented the chronology of her journey through the SLP program.

This conversation made me to reflect – If not through origami, how can I represent myself? Continue reading Capstone Shatters Headstone: How to Take Full Advantage of Graduate School

Study Areas at UTSG for Those Who Can’t Study in Silence

Dog Sleeping in her Notebook after Studying
Me after Studying

If you’re like me, the silence of a reading room in a library is terrifying and soul-diluting. You sit there without sound, yet still surrounded by many fellow human beings all of whom you know are capable of making noise. You struggle to read the next word of your textbook, but wait- was that a gust of wind blowing? No, it was merely that guy two tables over exhaling slightly louder than usual. Oh dear heavens, now you need to turn the page, but you’ll disturb EVERYONE in that room with the little waves of air caused by that single second of rotating a piece of paper 180 degrees. What to do? This is bad. You hear thumping sounds now- are you hallucinating? This place is suppose to be silent, and- oh gosh, that’s your own heartbeat. What if they can hear it?! Why are your thoughts suddenly yelling? Get out! Out before you disturb the peace! OH NO, PACKING YOUR THINGS UP IS CREATING DEAFENING DISTRACTIONS THROUGHOUT THE ROOM. No choice but to just sit there immobile until EVERYONE ELSE LEAVES.

So I never study in a silent zone. In fact, I also try to avoid the abyss of Robarts. Some people feel the dreary opaque walls that confine you inside and away from the sunlight helps them focus. But not I. I can’t handle such places of emptiness.

On occasion I will choose to study on campus regardless. Normally I’d invite a friend or two so as not to feel so lonely. But you can’t talk in libraries- so I’ve gone out of my way to find my top three study locations on campus where talking at an audible volume is totally okay.

E.J Pratt Lounge

I hesitated to mention this gem of a study spot because I’ve always considered it my special little under-rated hideaway. But no more. You can eat, talk, study, and more in the Pratt basement; there are even meeting rooms you can use without appointment. Bonus for the insanely comfy couches and chairs.

The Buttery, The Larkin Building

Good food (Pizza Pizza) and good drinks (Starbucks) in addition to tons of seating make this a great study area for prolonged cramming with friends. For more privacy, there is a separate seating area for reading and the occasional self-conscious nap.

The Two Study Areas in Sidney Smith

I didn’t even know how to get into these rooms until second year. But that’s just me. Now I find myself in Sid Smith studying more than anywhere else on campus. I always manage to find a place to sit, and there is always just the right amount of hustle and bustle to keep me studying without falling asleep to the lulls of strangers breathing.