Dress Like a Celebrity by Kathryn Finney

How does Sarah Jessica, Oprah, and Salma do it? They have a bottomless bank account and an army of stylists. We’ve got the dish for achieving star quality without breaking the bank. The key to looking like a million bucks is not found in a bunch of designer labels, but in how we wear an item. Here are three tips that celebrities (or should we say their stylists) use to create their star looks.

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Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia dies at 79

Sat, 13 Feb 2016 17:36:40 EST

WASHINGTON—Antonin Scalia, the influential conservative and most provocative member of the Supreme Court, has died, leaving the high court without its conservative majority and setting up an ideological confrontation over his successor in the maelstrom of a presidential election year. Scalia was 79.

The U.S. Marshals Service in Washington confirmed Scalia’s death at a private residence in the Big Bend area of West Texas. Spokeswoman Donna Sellers said Scalia had retired the previous evening and was found dead Saturday morning after he did not appear for breakfast.

Scalia was part of a 5-4 conservative majority — with one of the five, Anthony Kennedy, sometimes voting with liberals on the court. Scalia’s death leaves U.S. President Barack Obama weighing when to nominate a successor, a decision that immediately sparked a political struggle drawing in Congress and the presidential candidates.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, as well as Republican presidential candidates Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, said the nomination should fall to the next president.

Democrats were outraged at that idea, with Sen. Harry Reid, the chamber’s top Democrat, saying it would be “unprecedented in recent history” for the court to have a vacancy for a year.

Obama learned about Scalia’s death Saturday afternoon while playing golf in La Quinta, Calif., before a summit with Asian leaders, and offered condolences to Scalia’s family, White House spokesman Eric Schultz said.

Scalia used his keen intellect and missionary zeal in an unyielding attempt to move the court farther to the right after his 1986 selection by then president Ronald Reagan. He also advocated tirelessly in favour of originalism, the method of constitutional interpretation that looks to the meaning of words and concepts as they were understood by the Founding Fathers.

Scalia’s impact on the court was muted by his seeming disregard for moderating his views to help build consensus, although he was held in deep affection by his ideological opposites Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Elena Kagan. Scalia and Ginsburg shared a love of opera. He persuaded Kagan to join him on hunting trips.

His 2008 opinion for the court in favour of gun rights drew heavily on the history of the Second Amendment and was his crowning moment on the bench.

He could be a strong supporter of privacy in cases involving police searches and defendants’ rights. Indeed, Scalia often said he should be the “poster child” for the criminal defence bar.

But he also voted consistently to let states outlaw abortions, to allow a closer relationship between government and religion, to permit executions and to limit lawsuits.

He was in the court’s majority in the 2000 Bush vs. Gore decision, which effectively decided the presidential election for Republican George W. Bush. “Get over it,” Scalia would famously say at speaking engagements in the ensuing years whenever the topic arose.

Bush later named one of Scalia’s sons, Eugene, to an administration job, but the Senate refused to confirm him. Eugene Scalia served as the Labor Department solicitor temporarily in a recess appointment.

A smoker of cigarettes and pipes, Scalia enjoyed baseball, poker, hunting and the piano. He was an enthusiastic singer at court Christmas parties and other musical gatherings, and once appeared on stage with Ginsburg as a Washington Opera extra.

Ginsburg once said that Scalia was “an absolutely charming man, and he can make even the most sober judge laugh.” She said that she urged her friend to tone down his dissenting opinions “because he’ll be more effective if he is not so polemical. I’m not always successful.”

He could be unsparing even with his allies. In 2007, Scalia sided with Chief Justice John Roberts in a decision that gave corporations and labour unions wide latitude to air political ads close to elections. Yet Scalia was upset that the new chief justice’s opinion did not explicitly overturn an earlier decision. “This faux judicial restraint is judicial obfuscation,” Scalia said.

Quick-witted and loquacious, Scalia was among the most persistent, frequent and quotable interrogators of the lawyers who appeared before the court.

During Scalia’s first argument session as a court member, Justice Lewis F. Powell leaned over and asked a colleague, “Do you think he knows that the rest of us are here?”

Scalia was passionate about the death penalty. He wrote for the court when in 1989 it allowed states to use capital punishment for killers who were 16 or 17 when they committed their crimes.

The only child of an Italian immigrant father who was a professor of Romance languages and a mother who taught elementary school, Scalia graduated first in his class at Georgetown University and won high honours at the Harvard University Law School.

He worked at a large Cleveland law firm for six years before joining the faculty of the University of Virginia’s law school. He left that job to work in the administrations of Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford.

From 1977 to 1982, Scalia taught law at the University of Chicago.

He then was appointed by Reagan to the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. Scalia and his wife, Maureen, had nine children.

Zach LaVine defends dunk title on near-perfect NBA all-star night

Sat, 13 Feb 2016 23:16:40 EST

When Karl-Anthony Towns spoke of it he sounded like he had been to the promised land. He wanted to spread the good word, but he knew that the element of surprise would help his teammate, Zach LaVine, in the slam dunk contest on all-star Saturday night.

“He has some special things. I saw the secrets,” Towns said Friday. “The secrets are popcorn season.”

Towns knew secrets, but not all of them. He didn’t know he was part of it, or that the dunk contest in Toronto could make an argument for being part of the best all-star Saturday night that the NBA has ever put together.

Popcorn season started with Towns, a seven-footer, winning the skills challenge to get the night going. He was mobbed by his fellow forwards, ecstatic that they triumphed over the guards in an event where they physically looked out of place.

It continued with Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry, the two best shooters on the best team in the world, slugging it out in the final of the three-point contest. Thomspon won and matched Curry’s record-setting 27-points from last year with a buzzer-beating money ball.

Even the entertainment — five-foot-four Kevin Hart tying the Warriors’ Draymond Green in a three-point contest — was inspiring to anyone who’s ever tried to shoot 30 three-pointers in a minute.

And it grew to historic when LaVine and Orlando Magic forward Aaron Gordon engaged in a dunk contest that went to overtime (“It’s a dunk-off!” Zoolander fans would beam) that saw them trade six perfect 50s for the first time in contest history, before LaVine defended the dunk title he cruised to a year ago.

“Everybody’s probably going to say something about Mike and all them and Dr. J,” LaVine said of it being the best contest ever. “In my personal opinion, man, we did some things that nobody else did.”

What Gordon and LaVine put on brought life to an event that’s been an afterthought in the months leading up to all-star weekend. Everyone — fans, media, players taking part in Sunday’s game — has been happy to say that no one could touch LaVine in this contest.

Gordon, who vaulted with both legs over the Magic mascot en route to one of multiple legendary dunks (you may never see those again), will have a legion of backers for years, insisting that he was shafted in judging. LaVine was historic and electric in his own way, though, going between his legs from just inside the free-throw line to win it.

“You just watched history,” LaVine said. “I don’t know what we just did. That was creative. I think we should share the trophy. (Gordon) did stuff I’ve never seen before.

“I had to bring my A-plus, plus, plus game.”

It was an A-plus, plus, plus night, maybe the benchmark for all other all-star Saturday’s going forward.

Joe Alaskey ‚??was a living, walking, breathing cartoon‚??

Sun, 14 Feb 2016 07:00:00 EST

Sufferin’ succotash! Talk about big shoes to fill.

When cartoon voice deity Mel Blanc (Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, Tweety Bird, Sylvester the Cat) died in 1989, did the folks at Warner Bros. panic? After all, who would resuscitate these and other beloved staples of our childhood (and dotage)?

Actually, they were prepared.

Eight years earlier, Friz Freleng, one of the creators of Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies, called Joe Alaskey, an established comic actor and impressionist who had moved to Los Angeles in the early 1980s from his native Troy, N.Y.

“We’re looking for replacements,” Freleng announced. “Mel Blanc isn’t going to live forever.”

And faster that you can say “What’s up, Doc?” Alaskey stepped in when Blanc, in the words of Elmer Fudd, kicked the bucket.

Alaskey went on to salvage the careers of a slew of characters, from Bugs and Daffy to Sylvester and Tweety, Elmer Fudd and Marvin the Martian to Foghorn Leghorn and Pepé Le Pew. Expect all those players to sound a tiny bit different again, as Alaskey died of cancer Feb. 3 in Los Angeles. He was 63.

Bugs may well have been “that Oscar-winning rabbit,” but Alaskey won a Daytime Emmy in 2004 for the Cartoon Network’s Duck Dodgers and an Annie Award nomination for his Daffy in that year’s Looney Tunes: Back in Action.

His other voices included Grandpa Lou in the Rugrats series, Plucky Duck on Tiny Toon Adventures, Yosemite Sam in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and the voice of Richard Nixon in the film Forrest Gump.

Alaskey did such a spot-on Jack Lemmon that he was hired to dub the actor’s voice for sanitized TV and airline releases of Lemmon’s profanity-laced turn in the 1992 film Glengarry Glen Ross. There were precisely 62 expletives scrubbed.

Jackie Gleason was so impressed with Alaskey’s work that he personally chose him in the 1980s to re-record selected dialogue from “lost episodes” of The Honeymooners.

Bespectacled and moon-faced (Alaskey joked about having another head below his double chin), “he was a cartoon,” said veteran Toronto voice artist Rob Tinkler, who shared an L.A. agent with Alaskey. “If you saw him, the way he acted, he was a living, walking, breathing cartoon. He looked it and he acted it.”

“Within the industry he was a household name,” added Tinkler, a veteran of such cartoons as Numb Chucks, Care Bears and The Cat in the Hat Knows a Lot About That! “He was the guy we all looked up to. Wow! To be able to so graciously take the reins from Mel Blanc and replicate those (voices) is a huge talent.”

Perhaps, but “as far as I’m concerned, none of us came close to the genius that was Mel Blanc,” said Los Angeles-based voice actor Bob Bergen, the current voice of Porky Pig. “That said, Joe did a killer Daffy and Sylvester.”

How many voices could Alaskey do?

“You’ll never get that answer from a true voice artist,” Tinkler explained, in a remarkably normal voice, because “as long as you can replicate the sound, the resonance and the texture of a character, you can mix and match those to create all new characters. So if you asked Joe, ‘How many voices can you do?’ he’d respond, ‘Tell me what voice to do and I will take a kick at it. I’ll do anything.’”

Being a voice actor is not about mere mimicry. “It’s more like capturing a (character’s) spirit, which is really, really hard to do,” according to Toronto-born Rino Romano, who has voiced Batman in the animated TV series The Batman, among a slew of other roles.

Blanc’s son, Noel, “could do a damn good imitation,” said Romano, who’s lived in Los Angeles for more than 20 years. “But it’s not really about imitation. Mel Blanc himself did not like imitators. For a guy like Joe to be able to pull it off, to do a convincing job, to capture not just the sound but the spirit … impossible, man.”

They may not make voices this protean anymore. Tinkler believes the proof of Alaskey’s legacy is that all the characters he voiced may now have to be divided among several actors.

“He had a calling and he found it.”

And th-th-th-that’s all, folks.

Laser attacks on Toronto-bound flights at record high

Sun, 14 Feb 2016 00:00:00 EST

In the first few hours of March 10, 2015, a WestJet flight returning from Barbados was on its final approach to Lester B. Pearson International Airport when a laser beam struck the cockpit.

The tightly focused light hit the eyes of the first officer, who, as part of the crew, was busy trying to land the plane safely. In a report filed later, the officer said the strike left him with a “headache, blurred vision, (and) dry eyes.”

Incidents similar to that happened 173 times in Toronto in 2015, a sharp increase from 2014, when the number was 114, the Star has learned in an analysis of flight occurrence data.

The numbers are pulled from the Civil Aviation Daily Occurrence Reporting System, which logs any abnormal event involving civilian aircraft in Canada.

Though Transport Canada treats CADORS as “preliminary and unsubstantiated,” and couldn’t confirm the numbers due to their “security-related” nature, independent numbers from Peel Region police confirm the rise in laser strikes in 2015. It’s a growing problem, one particularly hard for police to tackle, Acting Sgt. Jeffrey Sharp said.

“If you look at Transport Canada’s records, and you look at our numbers . . . it’s been a steady climb from 2007 forward,” Sharp said.

Peel police counted 111 reported laser strikes in 2015, compared with 49 in 2011.

Ian Smith knows the danger of plane laser attacks first-hand. President of the Air Canada Pilots Association and a former Boeing 767 pilot, Smith said his plane was once targeted by a laser while landing in Toronto. It blinded his first officer, and Smith had to take over landing the plane.

The way the laser stayed on them told Smith it was an intentional attack.

“(The laser) would have had to have been tracking the airplane,” he said.

Smith and Sharp said the lasers used in these attacks are not garden-variety laser pointers, like those used at presentations. The technology is usually much more sophisticated and uses green lasers, which have a more damaging effect on the human eye, Sharp said.

“The human eye absorbs about 28 to 35 times more green light than red light. So they’re perceived as being extremely bright,” he said.

When aimed at pilots during critical moments in flight — takeoff and landing — the laser can blind the pilot and endanger the flight, Sharp said.

“If the light has an impact on their vision, whether they’re looking outside of the cockpit or focusing on instruments, the effect is the same,” he said.

But police have a hard time tracking down where a laser attack came from. Where the laser hits and where it originates may be in two separate jurisdictions. Though Pearson airport falls under Peel police jurisdiction, and the Peel force takes reports on laser attacks, a laser striking a plane landing there could have been shined by someone kilometres away.

“The effective distances that these laser pointers will produce . . . creates an issue. The source location is difficult to establish,” Sharp said.

Even if the laser can be shown to have come from within Peel Region, the only information police have to go on is from the crew, who can only roughly guess the direction from which the light came as they were busy flying the plane.

“We’re certainly not going to request they take a good look,” Sharp said.

Instead, Peel police have focused on prevention techniques, and advocating for a priority response for laser strikes.

One avenue was trying to prevent the import of laser devices that don’t meet Canadian requirements set by Health Canada, but Sharp admitted it might be too late to make a big difference at this point.

“The genie is somewhat out of the bottle on this one. Certainly these devices should be controlled coming into the country, but there (are) already loads of these in Canada in the hands of people who might not appreciate the danger they pose,” he said.

The other avenue for police is awareness. Transport Canada has been rolling out a public safety campaign, warning of the charges someone could face if caught aiming a laser at a plane.

Under the Aeronautics Act, the maximum penalty is five years in prison and a $100,000 fine, but Sharp said the strictest sentence given so far is 14 days in jail and a $5,000 fine.

Smith said he wants law enforcement to have more teeth when combating laser strikes. He admits no strategy will be 100 per cent effective, but said the frequent strikes can’t be allowed to continue.

“We are starting to see movement. Whether or not it gets done this year . . . I’m hoping it gets done this year,” he said.

Oil crisis leaves the East barrelling out of control

Sat, 13 Feb 2016 14:27:00 EST

The contents of a family’s life — an oven, a side table, old magazines — are unloaded from a truck into a yard overflowing with pickups, snowmobiles, motorcycles, boats and trailers at Fitzpatrick’s Auctioneers.

The lot has become a graveyard for toys that were easily afforded in past lives built on oil money, an elegy for Newfoundland’s crude-tied boom.

“It’s amazing. You’d never think what the price of oil could do,” lamented owner Blair Loveless after surveying the stockpiles.

The crude crisis has devastated the livelihoods of hundreds of Newfoundlanders working in the industry, whether in the local offshore oil fields or commuting to Alberta’s oilsands.

With few work prospects at home, especially after a moratorium on cod fishing in the 1990s put some 30,000 people out of work, Newfoundlanders looked west, where Alberta’s energy sector paid six-figure salaries to attract desperately needed workers.

Some 10,000 Newfoundlanders migrated to Alberta, poured hundreds of millions of dollars back home into their island communities. At the same time, Newfoundland’s own offshore industry took off, solidifying the island’s ties to the global oil price.

Though Newfoundland is some 6,500 kilometres east of ground zero for Canada’s oil industry, the fallout from the swift and prolonged energy price dive has arguably hit the smaller, less-diversified province even harder than it has hit Alberta.

Both oil-dependent economies are in recession and are expected to contract again this year. But crude comprises a slightly larger share of Newfoundland’s GDP and provincial revenues.

These days, Alberta oil companies hire locals. One St. John’s business on kijiji is charging $30 a month to Newfoundlanders looking to “rent” an Alberta address and phone number to put on their resumes.

At Fitzpatrick’s, the auction, appraisal and liquidation business is up 30 per cent from last winter. About half of that is due to a loss of jobs in Alberta.

During the boom, Loveless couldn’t rent an SUV from the St. John’s airport, because they were all booked and paid for, on standby for fly-in executives.

Now he visits the airport to appraise trucks for resale, their keys left at an airport hotel by Alberta commuters who can’t afford the payments.

“It’s sad. These people never thought the day would come where a barrel of oil would be below $30 (U.S.),” he said. “They were just living for the moment and they were making a huge amount of money and just thought it would continue on.”

Everyone in St. John’s — from the repo man to the restaurateur to the food bank manager — knows the price of a barrel of oil.

The people in Newfoundland’s biggest city can pinpoint when the bottom began falling out of their economy. It was the summer of 2014, when oil began a decline as steep as the streets sloping down to the St. John’s harbour.

Newfoundland is clamouring to avoid becoming the next victim of the resource curse, an affliction that can debilitate booming economies that allow extraction to become the sole driver of prosperity.

Oil first flowed here in 1997, ushering in a new era of prosperity that lasted nearly two decades. Newfoundland became a “have” province in 2008 for the first time, and as the local industry grew, those working in Alberta were sending pay cheques back home. House and vehicle sales soared, construction took off and the benefits trickled through the economy.

Just like the workers who bought new homes and toys with their newfound oil money, the provincial government saw the sudden influx of revenue as a chance to spend on sorely needed infrastructure and social programs. It did not set aside a rainy-day fund, as Alberta had.

“The reliance on oil — and I would argue to the expense of the development of other areas of economic potential — hasn’t set us up well for the situation we’re in now,” said Newfoundland’s newly elected finance minister Cathy Bennett.

She outlined the grim situation the government faces to a group of 100 St. John’s residents attending a pre-budget consultation in a high school gym last month.

Citizens were asked to brainstorm how to shore up government revenues and cut expenditures, and how the province can innovate to diversify the economy.

The government has also asked departments to shave 30 per cent of their costs over the next three years, which could result in job losses.

The fallout from the oil crisis — compounded by potential government job cuts — could hit the province worse than the infamous cod moratorium of the 1990s, said Wade Locke, an economics professor at Memorial University.

“A 30 per cent cut in government expenditures over three years at a time when the economy is weak because of oil prices and less remittance income from people working in the oilfields in Alberta?

“Yes, it’s fair to say it could be harder than the moratorium,” he said.

Those affects are being felt now. Fewer blue and orange ice-class cargo ships leave the narrow entry to the St. John’s harbour, loaded with supplies for the rigs 350-kilometres offshore.

And with declining output from the three producing rigs and two of four exploration rigs temporarily shut down — two more are scheduled for shutdown in July — helicopters are bringing fewer workers back and forth right now.

Still, resilient Newfoundlanders are quick to list off the reasons they believe the downturn could be relatively short-term; that this is the bottom of a typical, albeit particularly painful, commodity cycle.

After all, there’s still a great deal of interest in Newfoundland’s offshore oil, which is cheaper and cleaner to extract than oilsands crude. A government land sale in the Flemish Pass basin took in a record $1.2 billion of new oil company spending commitments. There are an estimated 12 billion barrels of oil reserves in that area alone. The province believes the number of job openings will increase beginning in 2019, when it anticipates major project expansion will resume.

But Newfoundlanders like Gina Stewart and her husband Sheldon Fuller can’t afford to wait to see whether boom times return to her home province.

After being laid off within weeks of one another from well-paid trucking jobs in Alberta, the phone began ringing with calls from debt collectors. They filed for bankruptcy.

She figured there was nowhere else to go but home — a province that oil has smarted as badly as the one she left.

They took trucking jobs in Newfoundland, but work has been sporadic at best and have yet to see a paycheque that cleared $2,500.

They’ve stopped waiting for the dispatcher to call and decided to take a team-driving job hauling goods out of Brampton, Ont., where a low loonie is starting to help create jobs in Canada’s manufacturing heartland.

After two weeks of work, they’ve already made more than they did in a month in Newfoundland. But it also means being at home with their three children and her mother just a few days a month.

Stewart wrestles with whether they made the right decisions — to move home from Alberta and now to do long-haul shifts across North America — but the changing economic tides have left her little choice.

“If you had asked me 15 years ago if I thought the ass was going to fall out of Alberta, no, absolutely not,” she said.

“But it happened. It did. And a lot of people are suffering.”


The fisheries:

The fishing industry expects better prices for their products, about 90 per cent of which are exported. The industry saw its export price improve 10 to 15 per cent last year due to the lower dollar, and is optimistic a weak loonie will provide a boost this spring and summer.


Ask any St. John’s restaurant or bar owner, and they’ll tell you they’re optimistic that this summer is going to be booming with tourists as more Canadians opt for staycations due to the weak loonie and Americans venture north in search of travel deals.

The film industry:

St. John’s has seen an uptick in film and television shoots. The dropping dollar makes the picturesque province an even more attractive filming location. Jason Momoa, better known as Khal Drogo from Game of Thrones, is filming two projects in the city, and Ethan Hawke was in town in the fall.

Clean energy:

As the oil crisis rocks other energy producers, St. John’s-based utility giant Fortis Inc. is in expansion mode. It recently paid $6.9 billion (U.S.) for a Michigan-based power company, giving it a much larger footprint in the U.S. electricity market.


The Alberta worker

Albert Wakely moved his wife and three young children from Newfoundland to Alberta in 2012 with the promise of doubling his income as a truck driver. “The money was calling,” he said.

When Wakely was laid off from a scrapyard job at home, he used his last paycheque to buy a plane ticket to Alberta, with $40 and a credit card in his pocket. He says he was offered a $30-an-hour job “the minute I walked off the plane” delivering chemicals to pipelines to prevent them from freezing.

“We had everything,” he says of his family’s life in Innisfail, a town in central Alberta.

“I had two vehicles, a quad, a ski-do, a mini-quad for my youngest son. The only thing we never invested in was a new home because we had all the intentions of coming home.”

The situation seemed to turn dire overnight. Wakely and his truck driver friends were hearing about layoffs on the rigs last August, but figured their pipeline deliveries were still needed.

Then Wakely’s boss called the drivers in for a talk. He told them he didn’t want to choose who had to leave and who could stay, so he told them if they wanted to leave, he’d give them a layoff so they could collect EI.

Wakely volunteered. All the other guys were from Alberta; one was expecting a child. He had a life that his wife missed in Newfoundland and the option of finding a job at home.

He secured a job at a cleaning company in St. John’s before his layoff. He and his family moved in July to Conception Bay South, 20 kilometres south of St. John’s. He makes $16 an hour and his wife had to get an $11 an hour job to make ends meet. Their combined income is less than the $35 an hour he was making when he left Alberta.

He works overnight shifts and she works during the day so that someone is constantly with their 10-month-old.

Adjusting to living on less has been difficult. “The spending thing had to stop and that gets addictive, trust me,” he says.

The Newfoundland worker

Renee Pottle and her boyfriend had planned on starting a family soon — until a global oil crisis interrupted their plans.

Pottle, 37, was laid off from her job managing supplies for offshore rigs in September. Her boyfriend worked on the rigs and was laid off a year ago.

“Now I’m at this stage in life, at this age — we were in the process of ‘Let’s get a house and start a family’ and now that’s on hold.”

Now they’re both at home all day, together, looking for work. “I’m going up one wall and down the other,” she says.

For more than a decade, Pottle easily moved between jobs at some of the biggest names in the oil industry. After moving to Alberta in 2005, she climbed the ladder from a cashier at a car dealership to a manufacturing scheduler at Halliburton.

“If you didn’t like your job, you quit and you go down the street and you get another one. I’ve never witnessed anything like that before. They were coming at you from all different angles.”

Pottle moved back home to St. John’s in 2010 during the height of the province’s oil boom, and easily got a job in the industry — for better money than she was earning in Alberta.

She met her boyfriend at work and the two began dating three years ago. Their life was progressing toward building a family until mid-2014, when oil industry cost-cutting put the brakes on their plans. Offshore rigs shut down and her boyfriend lost his job.

Work slowed at her supply company, some co-workers left voluntarily, then eight others were laid off.

“The rest of us we stuck it out thinking ‘nah, this will bounce’ back but then it got worse … and worse … and worse and worse,” she said.

Now, she is competing for jobs she is overqualified for with 500 other applicants and nonenergy employers are reluctant to hire for fear she’ll leave the job once better paying oil gigs are available.

She has similar reservations about leaving her decade-long career in the industry.

“What if it turns around in the summer and I can’t go back because I’m in school? Or do I just hang around in case it comes back?”


On St. John’s touristy Water St., just down from the pubs holding nightly “screech-ins,” restaurants that once hosted swanky oil exec dinner meetings have shuttered.

Landlords can’t find tenants for their executive rental suites, while new home construction has dropped by 20 per cent. Charity events have been cancelled and the food bank faces a downturn in donations from Big Oil.

“A lot of businesses are telling us they don’t know if they’ll be around next year,” said Kim Keating, outgoing president of the St. John’s Board of Trade, where 72 per cent of members recently surveyed said conditions are worse than a year ago.

“They can directly link between their business and the price of oil because they’re not seeing the clientele they did a year ago.”

Here’s a look at how some local businesses have been affected:

The bankruptcy and accounting business

Insolvency filings are up 22 per cent over the last year at accounting and insolvency firm Noseworthy Chapman. “The trend is really people who were working away who have either had their hours cut or a layoff,” said partner David Howe.

“When you go from the salary that an oil worker is making to EI, there’s a huge impact on your cash flow.”

There hasn’t been a pickup in commercial insolvencies, but clients are feeling the squeeze from oil companies asking for price reductions. “A lot of times, that makes their margins too thin or non-existent, so then it’s a trickle-down effect because they have to find those savings elsewhere,” Howe said.

“So they’ve either got to cut stuff or go to their own suppliers to squeeze them a little bit.”

The cargo port

The number of ships supplying offshore rigs in the St. John’s harbour has fallen nearly 20 per cent in the past six months.

Cargo ships dock about 45 times a month to pick up supplies and drop off waste for the offshore oil rigs. But just six months ago, the number of ships was more than 50, said Geoff Cunningham, director of offshore operations at St. John’s A. Harvey Marine Base.

Two of the seven offshore rigs that the base supplied in 2014 have shut down temporarily. The marine base is taking a revenue hit, but so far there have only been a few layoffs, he said.

The pub

Erin’s Pub, a popular spot for traditional music, helped launch bands like Great Big Sea. Now there are nights with just five customers.

Bob Hallett, a member of Great Big Sea who bought the pub in 2012, said that just 18 months ago the bar and his restaurant Tavola were full of oil executives and engineers earning six figures and given big expense accounts. Because they didn’t have their families in St. John’s, they were eating out and going to the pub seven nights a week, he said.

“They were reliable, seven-nights-a-week customers, and then they disappeared.”

This winter has been even worse for business than the previous one, with business down as much as 25 to 30 per cent, he said. “New Year’s Eve was like a half-decent Friday.”

The restaurants

At Raymond’s, a gourmet restaurant consistently ranked as one of Canada’s top restaurants, oil industry Christmas parties were virtually non-existent this year.

“There’s so much tension right now,” said owner Jeremy Bonia, who believes the worst of the slowdown has yet to sink in.

It’s not just the high-end restaurants feeling the pinch. Rocket Bakery and Fresh Food has seen a drop-off in lunch catering orders, with fewer bookings of their upstairs meeting spaces from oil companies, whose offices are down the street.

“We really came when money was flowing,” recalls owner Kelly Mansell, who moved to Newfoundland from Toronto to open the kitschy café and catering company in 2011. “But in December, it was like the tap was turned off.”

The real estate business

High-end executive rentals are sitting empty, or being rented for far less than they fetched when St. John’s was booming with oil-related business. “In the executive rental market, the inventory is triple what it was even two years ago,” said real estate agent and landlord Larry Hann.

He’s been trying to find a renter for a condo that rented for $4,800 a month in 2014, and is now priced at $3,500. It has been on the market for seven months.

Home sales in St. John’s fell three per cent in December compared to a year earlier, while prices in the province fell 2.4 per cent to $267,093. Housing starts in 2015 were 20 per cent lower than the year before.

There are holes in the ground where condo projects have been shelved. Many for-sale signs have a “new price” sticker as sellers reduce expectations.

The food bank

There was a marked decline in cash donations at the Newfoundland food bank’s 2015 Christmas drive, with some oil companies cutting their contributions in half.

“A lot of these companies, the employees have been slashed so there’s less people to give,” said Egbert Walters, general manager, who checks the price of oil along with international news every morning.

Food banks in the province provide food to nearly five per cent of people in the province, the second highest level in the country. The February oil and gas food drive will be the real indicator of where budgets stand. There was a decrease in donations last year, when the impact of the oil crisis was just starting to hit. He thinks it could be worse this year.

The airport

Traffic at the St. John’s airport is down for the first time in more than a decade. The year-over-year decline in 2015 amounted to about four per cent, much of it due to a drop-off in traffic to northern Alberta.

The St. John’s airport had 10 weekly chartered flights to bring long-distance commuters from St. John’s to Alberta in 2014. But there have been none since April.

WestJet is also seeing a slowdown in demand for flights to Western Canada as fewer islanders commute for jobs. “Atlantic Canada is obviously suffering the same fate as Alberta because it’s so tied to energy,” said CEO Gregg Saretsky.

A daughter given up for adoption later nursed her dying mother without revealing her identity

Sat, 13 Feb 2016 10:30:00 EST

Phyllis Whitsell, adopted from an orphanage, grew up being told her birth mother had died. As an adult, however, she tracked her down. But by that time, her mother, Bridget, had been ravaged by alcoholism and was known in the local pubs as “Tipperary Mary.”

In her new book My SecretMother, Whitsell writes about the search, the eight years she spent caring for her mother under cover as a nurse and then the next 13 years she spent visiting Bridget in the care home, after she’d developed dementia. Her mother died in 2003, having never understood Whitsell was her daughter.

Whitsell, 59, mother of three grown children and a grandmother, now works as a nurse in a care home. She spoke to the Star about her unusual relationship with her birth mother from her home in Birmingham, England.

You’d been told your birth parents died of tuberculosis. Why didn’t you believe that?

It didn’t ring true. One died then the other, they were married, all very respectable. But there was a lot of whispering. My adoptive mother was hiding something. I had this sixth sense that my birth mother was in danger. As a child I prayed that her guardian angel would care for her.

When you met your birth mother, Bridget, why did you pretend you were there as a visiting nurse?

I was a visiting nurse. I did help vulnerable people. I’d been warned not to search for her, that she would disrupt my life. So what a good way, I could look after her and she’d benefit, without complications.

I desperately wanted to tell her but then I’d remember how damaged she was. You couldn’t reason with her. She would not have fitted into normal family life. She’d want to be totally involved in my life and I wouldn’t be able to continue the relationship. The only way was under cover.

For eight years, you cared for Bridget as a nurse before you confessed you were her daughter. How did she react?

That was the upsetting part. I thought there would be some recognition, at least a smile or a hug. But no, nothing. I’d left it far too late. Each time I visited I thought, “I’ll tell her today.” But then she was being very loud or argumentative, and I kept putting it off. I suspected she might have dementia and eventually she was diagnosed with it.

I do regret leaving it so late. I was not able to see the look on her face and to give her some happiness. But maybe it was best she never knew. The relationship might not have continued as long.

Did you love her?

Yes, I did. There is a mother and child love, a strong connection. She put me in the orphanage with the hope to come back for me. In her mind, she was coming back. The alcohol blocked the pain.

There were two times when I felt almost close to her. One afternoon after she’d been drinking heavily I visited for four hours and it felt as if she was opening up to me, like when you pour your heart out to a friend. Some of it, of course, didn’t make sense, but I felt a closeness.

The other time was when I took my 18-month-old son to the care home to see her. He looked very much like me as a baby. She stared at him, really looking at him, and I thought, she’s got it. But then anger came out. She couldn’t cope with the pain.

You had tough knocks in your early life: an alcoholic birth mother, four years in an orphanage, an adoptive mother who didn’t show you a lot of love. Yet you became a caring nurse, wife and mother, a solid citizen. What accounts for that resilience?

I must have had a strong character. I’m sure Tipperary Mary did too. She was quite feisty at times. My adoptive parents gave me the security and stability of family life rather than being brought up in the orphanage. Without them I didn’t stand a chance. Against all the odds, I was a happy, chatty little girl. I was upset at times and felt unloved, but I had an inner happiness.

How would Tipperary Mary have reacted to having a book written about her?

She loved to talk. But people stopped listening to her. She desperately wanted to be heard. I know there were things on her mind she wanted to try to talk through but because of the alcohol it was all muddled. At least now she’s been listened to. Sadly, this is her legacy really.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

My Secret Mother, Phyllis Whitsell, excerpt

Left as a baby at an English orphanage and later adopted, Phyllis Whitsell was told her birth mother died of tuberculosis. But the girl never believed it. At age 23, Whitsell started searching and learned the sad truth: Bridget, her birth mother, was an extreme alcoholic often in trouble with the law. Whitsell was warned not to contact her.

Determined to meet Bridget, she decided to do so not as the long-lost daughter but as a visiting nurse, her profession. Whitsell would go on to care for Bridget as a nurse for eight years.

From My Secret Mother, here is the story of the first time Whitsell met her birth mother.

As Bridget walked down the stairs, or rather banged down each step, with every thud I heard I knew that she was that bit closer to me. The moment I had anticipated for so long was now only seconds away. I couldn’t wait another minute, so I peered around the corner, trying to see if I could at least get a glimpse of her.

The light was poor and the stairs were steep, but I spotted her sitting on a step, as if exhausted. I stood back, and suddenly the door flung open with some considerable force and there she stood. My own mother was standing there in front of me.

It was as if she was someone else. Even though I had been told what to expect, for some reason I just couldn’t, or wouldn’t, believe that this poor crumpled creature was indeed my mother.

“Are you Bridget?” I asked. Half of her face was swollen and badly bruised, and her left eye was black, perhaps from a recent fight or a fall. Her hair was grey and smelled of stale alcohol and tobacco. It was thickly matted at the back, as if it hadn’t been washed or combed for months. She was wearing a semi-transparent short nylon nightdress in what had once been a luminous colour, revealing mottled rings on her legs caused by sitting too close to the fire. Her finger nails were filthy as if she had been digging up potatoes and I could see she was also a heavy smoker as she had yellow nicotine stains on her fingers.

I stood staring at her for a short time, almost in disbelief. Years of abusing her body had clearly taken its toll. I felt sorry for her. It was clear that alcohol was now completely controlling her life and that she had lost all self-respect and self-control. I peered at her face, looking for some similarity, some sign of myself in this human wreck. Yes, I thought, there is some likeness there — the cheekbones perhaps, the tilt of the chin. This was my mother, and I was determined to recognize her.

I felt very emotional, but I pulled myself up sharply. I needed to remind myself that this was Bridget Ryan, my patient, not my mother. Thankfully Bridget didn’t even seem to notice.

Bridget still had her strong Tipperary accent, despite having lived in England for over 28 years. She was delighted to have a nurse visit her. She needed people to talk to: people who were prepared to listen. She led me into a room with clothes all over the floor and dirty plates left from the previous day. There was rubbish piled in carrier bags, and the curtains were still firmly drawn.

As she launched into her life story, I hardly said a word, not a word. I just stared. She really liked to talk; maybe she did that all the time to anyone who was prepared to listen. I certainly was a good listener for her that day.

I wonder if it was some kind of strange telepathy because, within moments of our meeting, Bridget began talking about a girl she had given away once, called Phyllis.

‘Ah, she was a lovely baby, a lovely child. I miss her, even now I miss her.’ She told me about other children, but didn’t want to dwell on them and it all seemed rather muddled.

The one she kept coming back to was me. I thought maybe it was because she had looked after me for eight months and perhaps the others had been taken away from her much sooner. She rambled on about how much she wanted to find Phyllis again; how the orphanage had refused to tell her where her daughter was. She even told me about the letter she had written in 1973. She remembered the name of the orphanage and she remembered my birthday, which meant so much to me.

From My Secret Mother by Phyllis Whitsell © 2015. Published by HarperCollins Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

More Clinton emails released, 3 classified ‚??secret‚??

Sat, 13 Feb 2016 19:24:15 EST

WASHINGTON—The State Department released 551 more emails from the personal server of Hillary Clinton Saturday, including 84 with some or all of the messages blocked out because they contained information that has now been deemed classified. Three of those are classified “secret.”

Each of the secret emails included Clinton’s comments atop forwarded chains of messages discussing tensions on the Sinai Peninsula; a visit by John Kerry to Pakistan in the wake of Osama bin Laden’s death; and sensitive, back-channel talks between the Israelis and Palestinians.

The State Department has now classified as secret 21 emails from among 33,000 that were sent through the private server Clinton used while she was secretary of state from 2009 to 2013.

An additional 22 emails, mostly referring to the CIA’s drone strikes, officials have said, have been deemed to be “top secret.” Those are considered too sensitive to release to the public even with portions blocked out.

Secret is the highest level of classification the State Department can use; top secret is used by the nation’s intelligence agencies for their programs, information or sources of information.

The presence of classified information in the emails has become an issue in Clinton’s presidential campaign, as well as the subject of an investigation that the FBI’s general counsel, James A. Baker, acknowledged publicly for the first time last week.

The State Department took the unusual step of releasing more emails on a Saturday in the middle of a holiday weekend because of a court order last week that ensures a steady stream of releases between now and the end of February.

It is expected to be a period of intense campaigning in Clinton’s effort to defeat Sen. Bernie Sanders for the Democratic presidential nomination, with caucuses in Nevada and a primary in South Carolina. The final release of emails is now scheduled for Feb. 29, the day before voting in several states on Super Tuesday.

Clinton and her aides have said the State Department and the intelligence agencies are overzealously classifying information that was not marked classified at the time. The author of one of the emails marked as “secret” and released Saturday, Dennis B. Ross, agreed.

Ross, a former official at the State Department and National Security Council, drafted a two-page email to Clinton on Sept. 22, 2012, offering “a few thoughts for your upcoming meetings.” Ross had left the government but continued to act as an intermediary in back-channel talks between the Israelis and Palestinians, a role he discussed in a new book, Doomed to Succeed.

Virtually all that followed in the message has been redacted, or blocked out, with the contents classified on national security grounds until Sept. 21, 2037. Clinton replied to the email with a short note: “Thanks, Dennis. Can you talk this morning?”

Although those talks were diplomatically sensitive and were not disclosed, Ross said in an interview that nothing about the discussion should be classified. He added that he had submitted the chapter of his book dealing with the talks for a security review and that it was cleared for publication.

“It shows the arbitrariness of what is now being classified,” Ross said.

One of the other emails classified secret included a lengthy chain of messages involving the Sinai Peninsula that was copied to a number of administration officials. It included messages written in August 2012 by David M. Satterfield, a former ambassador who was serving as director general of the international peacekeeping force in the Sinai. At the time, the region faced a growing insurgency after the ouster of Egypt’s president, Hosni Mubarak.

The subject line in the final message, which was forwarded to Clinton, read, “Molho on Sinai Tensions,” an apparent reference to the senior Israel security adviser, Isaac Molho. The contents have been redacted entirely.

The third “secret” email included a reference to Kerry’s wanting to speak to her. It was written during his visit in May 2011, when he was a senator, to Pakistan, where he sought to calm Pakistani anger over the secret raid that killed bin Laden.

In addition to those three, 81 other emails were classified at the lowest level, or “confidential.” One of those includes a chain of messages forwarding an article from The Telegraph newspaper in Britain detailing remarks from John Sawers, then the chief of that country’s intelligence service, MI6, about efforts to foil Iran’s nuclear weapons program.

“Most unfortunate on many levels to say the least,” the State Department’s chief negotiator on Iran’s program, Wendy R. Sherman, wrote in remarks that were not redacted. Clinton replied to the last forward, “Gobsmacking!”

The State Department has been steadily releasing the emails from Clinton’s server under the Freedom of Information Act. The process was supposed to have finished last month, but the department appealed to the U.S. District Court overseeing the case for an extension through February. It did so because of the lengthy and at times contentious process of having the nation’s intelligence agencies review all of the messages for classified information.

The next batch of emails will be released on Friday, followed by releases on Feb. 26 and 29.

Toronto‚??s NBA reputation is now set in sub-zero: Arthur

Sat, 13 Feb 2016 20:47:40 EST

There is no getting around this: We have to talk about the weather. It’s NBA all-star weekend, and Toronto is a great city full of brilliant restaurants and mind-blowing parties and beautiful people, though it’s hard to tell, because if the beautiful people are smart they are wrapped in a great pile of layers so that they don’t get frostbite. It’s cold. There, we said it.

“Yeah, this is bad. Yeah, nobody’s happy about it,” says Detroit Pistons all-star Andre Drummond.

“It’s all we’ve been talking about. The first question is, how are you staying warm?” says Indiana Pacers all-star Paul George.

“It’s worse than New York was last year, and New York was pretty cold. We’re definitely talking about it. It’s freezing here,” says Washington Wizards all-star John Wall.

Yes, they are talking about it. We’re all talking about it. This is Toronto’s moment in the NBA spotlight, an incredible confluence of celebrity and community and glamour, and if you are from Toronto, every conversation with a visitor is like a talk about erectile dysfunction in the movies: You know, I’m so sorry, this never happens, honestly. Saturday morning the temperature at Pearson Airport was measured at minus-26.0C, which was the coldest reading since January 16, 1994. People are soldiering through, but the local representatives are being asked about it.

“Every day,” says Toronto Raptors all-star DeMar DeRozan. “But nobody seems to believe me when I tell them this has been the worst. It’s been great. It’s been a great winter. Until these last couple days. But nobody seems to believe me.”

“I don’t believe him,” says George. “I’ve been here in January, and it was similar to this. When it gets below 10 (Fahrenheit) it all feels the same.”

That’s not strictly true. With the wind chill, it was forecast to reach minus-31C on Saturday night, and that’s about minus-24F, and that is panic cold. That is fumble-with-your-phone-before-your-hands-freeze cold. All-star weekend means parties: There were at least 13 big parties held in downtown Toronto Saturday night, and that usually means people in short skirts and other clubwear lining up outside. That is not advisable.

“I played here, but I can’t remember it being like this,” says former all-star and former Raptor Tracy McGrady. “Good Lord. For me, when it’s cold like this, I stay my a-- inside. You’ve got to layer up, put them clothes on, and then when you get to the club, you’re hot as hell. I’m not with that.”

Long before this weekend began, NBA commissioner Adam Silver told then Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment CEO Tim Leiweke that he didn’t want to have to deal with a second straight ice party, not after New York last year. Leiweke told him “Adam, I can control a lot of things, but I can’t control the weather.” It feels like a hilarious cosmic joke that temperatures will be above freezing Monday, the day everybody leaves. We need to tell people. It’s been a mild winter. It’s not always like this.

“Oh?” says Los Angeles Clippers all-star Chris Paul. “I thought it was like this often.”

Oh no. This is our reputation now. Toronto will never snag a superstar NBA player again. We are doomed, doomed. Sorry, Chris Paul. We The North Pole.

“I did not know that, and look, it falls on all-star weekend,” marvelled Paul. “Like, how often does it snow in Dallas? When (the game) was in Dallas (in 2010), there was a snowstorm. And I love Toronto. If you polled all the NBA players, I think it’s probably one of the top two, three NBA cities, as far as guys enjoy coming to. But I still stick that all-star weekend should be in warm locations.”

That’s fine, makes sense, but: wait: a top-two, top-three city?

“Well, I don’t go outside and run or anything like that, I’ll do my workout inside, I’m sure,” says West all-star coach Gregg Popovich. “But Toronto’s a great city. It’s so diverse, the food and wine are both great, the people are friendly. So it doesn’t matter if it’s cold or not.

“I can tell you, we look at the schedule when it comes out, we’re hopeful it’s not a back-to-back, so the night before the Toronto game we can go to dinner. So it’s one of our favourite cities. And usually, you can walk around. So in that sense it’s like New York, it’s like Seattle, it’s like San Francisco, it’s like Chicago, where you can walk around and enjoy the place.”

Do you hear that? Toronto is loved. This will not ruin our reputation in the NBA, probably. Yes, this weekend feels like it’s taking place in Regina. (Forecast Saturday overnight: minus-6C, feels like minus-12.) Hopefully, everything works out.

But we are a beloved city, and things are going fine. The Enercare Centre, the giant fan nerve centre featuring dozens of basketball courts, was packed with families and fans on Saturday, lining up to see NBA stars or just to shoot hoops, and they were as diverse as this great city. The events are proceeding. The parties abide. There is still the game Sunday night, and a wrap for this weekend that was swathed in steam and smiles and fun. You can’t see the smiles, because they’re wrapped behind scarves, probably. But they’re there.

Syrian refugees get taste of Canada, and of long road ahead

Sun, 14 Feb 2016 07:00:00 EST

The Bakours were among the first Syrian refugees to arrive in Canada. They came on Dec. 7, four days before Prime Minister Justin Trudeau greeted arrivals at the new refugee reception area of Pearson airport.

They were sponsored jointly by the Canadian government and by the Metropolitan United Church, through the Blended Visa Office–Referred program.

Their profile, on paper, is very similar to that of the government-sponsored refugees now crowded into hotels near the airport. If you have wondered who those people are, and what their stories are, meet the Bakours. The Star visited them over the past two months.

Hussein Bakour and his wife, Wahida Salameh, decided to flee their home outside Damascus as they were walking back from a burial.

It was about a year after the civil war started. Hussein had been tortured for three months in prison, and they’d spent days in the basement, shaking in fear during regular blasts when “rockets came down like rain.” Their nephew, just 9, had been en route to their home when a sniper’s bullet struck him in the head.

As they were returning from his burial, a rocket hit the home of the family’s neighbours. Hussein carried the mother and her son to the hospital.

“Her son died in my arms,” he says in Arabic.

They bundled their five children into their car, expecting to return soon once local fighting between the Free Syrian Army and the regime of Bashar Assad calmed. That was four years ago.

Their two-storey house, they’ve heard, has been levelled.

Before the war, Hussein, 35, was an electrician and pipefitter. He started working when he was 9, and by the time the war started, had a business with more than a dozen employees.

He met Wahida, now 34, when they were in their early 20s and he was called to her family’s home to fix an electrical problem.

They were married, built a home and raised children. Hussein dug a tiny pool in their backyard, where he also grew vegetables and raised ducks and sheep.

What follows is their story as they tell it. The Star has not been able to verify it, but Samer Abboud, a professor who has written a book about the Syrian war, says it is typical.

The anti-regime protests spread to their Damascus suburb in March 2011, but Hussein and Wahida didn’t join. “I was too frightened,” says Hussein. “I didn’t think there would be any benefit, except a bullet.”

Staying away from the protests offered no protection, however. In the summer of 2011, he was driving to get groceries when army officials stopped him at a checkpoint and demanded he give them his car. He refused and was hauled to prison for three months.

Over weeks of torture, his right hand was mangled — he can no longer use it to lift or carry things. Most of his teeth were broken. He was repeatedly electrocuted.

He still suffers from panic attacks and memory loss. (The family’s official refugee profile states Hussein was jailed for a year and a half, but Wahida and Hussein say it was three months.)

The family left Syria for Lebanon.

The Bakours’ sense of dates is vague. But it is clear they lived for at least two years in a tent Hussein built in a camp outside Anjar, a Lebanese town two-and-a-half hours from Beirut. They shared the space with Wahida’s father, stepmother and three of her half-siblings.

There, they received some financial aid from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the World Food Program, but not enough for food and rent. Hussein couldn’t work, because of his crippled hand and fragile psyche, so the family’s three oldest boys went into the streets to hawk Kleenex and napkins. The oldest, twins Ali and Fawaz, were 8 at the time. The most successful salesman was their little brother Mohammad, then 6.

“(People) gave me money without taking anything,” he says proudly.

The boys and their parents never felt secure in Lebanon. On the streets, they were often cursed at, they say. They were threatened by the Lebanese military, who detained people with expired residency permits.

The Bakours got the first call from the Canadian visa office about being accepted as refugees more than a year ago.

When they boarded the flight to Canada — their first trip on an airplane — they knew very little of what would await. Their hearts were heavy, as they left the rest of their family behind.

“I’d never thought of Canada before,” says Wahida.

They attended a daylong workshop by the Canadian visa office in Beirut a few days before leaving. From it, they gleaned a grab bag of ideas about their home-to-be. One: there was a big waterfall. Two: there was snow. The third one, however, left the biggest impression. It’s the one they offer a reporter, asking what they knew of Canada before arriving.

“It’s banned to hit your kids,” says Hussein. In Canada, “if you ever hit your kids, the government will take them away.”

The kids’ first day at school

Inside the Bakours’ new home near Danforth and Pharmacy Aves., the four oldest children are by the front door, excitedly pulling on their new winter jackets and boots.

It is their first day of school — for all intents and purposes, ever.

There was a school for refugees not far from their tent in Lebanon, but they rarely attended because the teachers flogged them with a thick whip, they say. Besides, they had to earn money.

They have already toured nearby public schools, which allayed any fears about corporal punishment here.

“I swear, it’s beautiful,” says twin Ali, 10, who attended one year of kindergarten before the war. “We are going to learn to read!”

Hussein walked the two-block route twice last night, practising for this morning.

“I hope (the kids) will be doctors and offer free medicine to everyone,” he says, as they step out the door. The children will attend two adjacent schools, Oakridge Junior Public and Samuel Hearne Middle School. Both are part of the TDSB’s Model Schools for Inner Cities program, which provides extra support to students and their families. There is a parent literacy centre, a community support worker and a settlement worker who helps newcomer families find housing, training, jobs and doctors.

Every Friday, the schools send many kids home with backpacks full of food. There’s a free halal breakfast program.

Most important, since 86 per cent of the schools’ students speak English as a second language, there are extra ESL teachers and the Literacy Enrichment Academic Program (LEAP), designed for newcomer children with little schooling experience. There, they are taught not just English, but the routines of school and essentially how to learn.

The Bakours ended up in this school catchment area by chance.

Just before the morning bell, the family makes its way to the administration office.

The principal at Oakridge, Heather Groves, is waiting, along with Grade 1 teacher William Assaf. Assaf shakes 6-year-old Malak’s hand and says good morning to her in Arabic.

“Would you like to come and see the classroom?”

Up on the second floor, she quickly settles in at her desk, and is instantly surrounded by students saying hello.

Things don’t go as smoothly for Mohammad, 7.

His Grade 2 teacher, Kelly Lunn, sits on a rocking chair surrounded by her students on the carpet.

“Boys and girls, this is Mohammad. He’s come a long way to be here,” she says. “We are going to be helpful, but not aggressively helpful.”

He kneels awkwardly on the edge of the carpet. But when he sees his father and brothers leave the class, his face crumples. He races after them into the hall, crying.

Vice-principal Rod Zimmerman tells Hussein many students have first-day problems. The school has also found Mohammad an Arabic-speaking buddy to play with at lunch and recess.

By 9:27, Hussein is exhausted after dropping the twins off. He, too, is learning a new ritual as a parent.

The parents’ first day of school

The scene replays itself three weeks later: kids pulling on coats, a nervous excitement in the room.

A routine is forming in thin layers, like the snow drifting down outside.

Mohammad is happy now. He lists his friends in class: Karim, Abierto, Abdullah.

It’s his parents who are nervous. Hussein and Wahida are going back to school after a 20-year gap.

Hussein finished Grade 6 on paper, but really left at age 9 to work. He never learned to read or write. Wahida made it through Grade 4, but she, too, cannot read Arabic.

They take the subway to WoodGreen Community Services, carefully counting the stops since the letters on the station walls are like hieroglyphics to them.

The centre at Danforth and Coxwell is an official English language centre, funded by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada. Here, landed immigrants and those with refugee status are offered free English classes and settlement services until they are sworn in as citizens, usually in three or four years. There is a free daycare for 2-year-old Rahaf.

Four Syrian refugees are starting classes today. Two are in advanced language classes for professionals — a gynecologist and an MBA student, both from Aleppo and fluent in English. The Bakours are at Level 1.

They are ushered into a bright classroom, where desks face one another in a square. Most classmates are Chinese grandparents, but there is a woman in an Ethiopian shawl and a Spanish speaker.

Teacher Cindy Law tries to keep the class fun and welcoming. She is wearing bright red lipstick to match her shirt, and beside her whiteboard she’s pinned a poster with “Don’t worry. Relax. Have Fun!” written in cherry red.

She gets the students to go around in a circle, repeating the days of the week and the months. Wahida shakes her head, smiling. Hussein looks stunned.

Law goes over the same material every few months since there is continuous enrolment. Today, it’s back to seasons. She asks the class to describe things they see in a picture of summer, and notes each word on the whiteboard. Apples. Blanket. Flip-flops.

Students copy the words in English, then in their native tongue, so they can study later.

Hussein and Wahida follow suit, carefully copying the strange scratchings they see on the board. But how will they study? Since prison, Hussein’s memory is terrible. “I don’t know what I’m writing,” he says.

With hard work, newcomers can learn enough English to function in a mainstream job in their field in two or three years, says Maisie Lo, WoodGreen’s director of immigrant services. But that’s assuming they are literate in their native language.

For people like the Bakours, “it will be many years,” she says. Essentially, they have to learn how to learn — “how to organize and analyze information, and create new knowledge. These are all skills we learned in school, that we take for granted.”

But Hussein and Wahida have come from a war zone. Sitting in a class and watching a kind lady speak a strange language seems a wonderful change. They love it.

Says Hussein: “I feel like I’m becoming a very little kid again.”

‘It seems they’ve been here forever’

Fawaz’s right calf is in a cast.

The 10-year-old either broke his foot or badly sprained it slipping down the stairs. His father and mother hustled him to a nearby clinic, from where they were dispatched to hospital in a taxi.

In the emergency room, they were greeted by an Arabic translator the hospital had called.

“She brought us back home,” Hussein says with a huge smile. “She even gave us her phone number, if we need anything in the future.”

You can understand why he says Canada is full of “the best people I’ve ever seen.”

If integration is a two-way process, so far Toronto has proven very amenable to this family. The Bakours have felt welcomed at just about every corner. Strangers have offered baked goods, stuffed animals, job opportunities, dinner dates …

But the family has also adapted remarkably well.

In an emergency, they got themselves to a doctor’s office on their own. They take the subway daily. Their vocabulary is expanding. (“See you tomorrow,” “no problem,” “crazy.”)

The principals at both schools give positive reports on all four children. They are engaged in class, they say. Ali and Fawaz were playing soccer at recess, before Fawaz’s injury.

When asked what she loves most about Toronto, Malak replies: “My teacher loves me very much.”

On a recent day, Karen Scott, one of the family’s sponsors, was driving the children to visit the beach, when Mohammad yelled in English to stop. His sister had taken off her seatbelt. Considering he moved here from a place with spotty traffic regulations, Scott puts this in the category of “adapting exceptionally well.”

“It seems to me they’ve been here forever,” she says.

In two months, her group has ticked off most of its obligations as private sponsors to the Bakours. They found lodging, registered the family in school and English classes, set up bank accounts, found doctors and dentists. The notable exception is employment.

When the sponsorship term expires at year’s end, ideally, one of the parents will have at least a line on a job, so the family can support themselves. Typically, privately sponsored refugees land jobs faster than government-assisted ones, because of sponsors’ contacts. (While 70 per cent of privately sponsored refugees have jobs by the end of their first year, their average annual earnings are only $18,500, according to government statistics.)

A job using his trade skills might be obvious for Hussein. But he would need the full use of his right hand. Initial consultations with doctors have left him pessimistic. Wahida has never worked outside the house and, so far, Hussein opposes the idea.

Traditionally, refugee scholars have considered finding meaningful employment to be the prime indicator of successful settlement. This might prove elusive for the Bakours for some time.

“It’s a five- to seven-year process,” says Fawzia Haji, the settlement worker with Thorncliffe Neighbourhood Office who works at Oakridge and Samuel Hearne schools. “It takes that long for people to feel settled.”

There are other problems. The three boys are showing signs of trauma, their mother says. Ali, one of the twins, will only sleep under his parents’ bed.

“Ali has seen something in Syria probably, something we don’t know about,” Wahida says, adding she has spoken to a school counsellor.

(The same counsellor provided Wahida with some Canadian-style discipline techniques, such as confiscating the iPad when the children misbehave. “I tried, but it didn’t work,” she says. “The kids are giving me a hard time.”)

For her, the most difficult part has been worrying about her family back in Lebanon.

The members of the Metropolitan United Church refugee sponsorship committee are committed to the family for the long term. They raised $47,000 — more than twice as much as needed for a combined government-private case. If the Bakours need financial and settlement support after a year, Scott intends to provide it.

“Morally, if there are still challenges, (abandoning them) will not be an option for me,” she says. Of the committee members, she has spent the most time with the Bakours. She delights when the children run to her for a hug at the door. The experience has pushed her to examine a career change, from IT management to refugee settlement.

“I can’t imagine my life without that little family,” she says.

Over the past two weeks, Wahida’s father, stepmother and three of her siblings followed her path from the informal refugee camp near Anjar, Lebanon, to Pearson airport. However, they are government-assisted refugees with no private sponsor, and are being settled in Hamilton.

Without any guides or translators, the Bakours made their way to that city by subway, train and bus to greet them at their hotel.

“I feel so, so, so happy,” says Wahida.

Two streams of refugees

The Bakours are more typical of government-assisted Syrian refugees (GAR) than of privately sponsored refugees arriving in Canada. Private sponsors bear the costs of supporting a refugee or family for a year. The Bakours arrived on the Blended Visa Office–Referred (BVOR) program, in which Ottawa financially supports the family for six months and their sponsors pay the remaining costs and oversee the first year of settlement. So far, only 1,173 of the 16,565 Syrian refugees who have arrived in Canada are in the BVOR program, and for statistical purposes, Ottawa considers them similar to GAR cases.

Family size

  • Government-sponsored: 53% of applications have 5-8 people.
  • Privately sponsored: 52% of approved cases involve just 1 person.
  • Age

  • Government-sponsored: 56% of cases in progress involve people 14 years of age or younger.
  • Privately sponsored: 31% of cases in progress involve people 14 or younger.
  • Language

  • Government-sponsored: 85% of cases in progress involve people who speak neither French nor English.
  • Privately sponsored: 38% speak neither language
  • Education

  • Government-sponsored: In 40% of approved cases, 14 years of age or younger, the refugees have no education. In 8% of approved cases, age 15 or older, they have some post-secondary education.
  • Privately sponsored: No data available.
  • Sources: “Syrian Refugee Profile: Addendum — January 2016,” Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada; “Welcome Refugees: Key Figures,” Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada.

    The frailties of memory can be a sword or a shield to the defence

    Sat, 13 Feb 2016 07:52:28 EST

    Memory “can sometimes be used (in court) as a shield and sometimes used as a sword,” observes defence lawyer Marcy Segal.

    “In the Ghomeshi trial, it was used as a sword: if you say it happened, you’d better remember correctly,” she said.

    As part of their closing arguments, the defence argued that the complainants could all recall “rich detail” from the time of the assaults, but could not form a consistent or coherent narrative of the assaults themselves — all of which goes to show the complainants are unreliable.

    In the trial of Officer James Forcillo, memory was also a key part of the defence strategy, but in a different way. The defence consistently pointed out inaccuracies in the memory of eyewitnesses to the traumatic shooting, leading up to Forcillo himself testifying that he remembers — it turned out clearly mistakenly — seeing Sammy Yatim sitting up after being shot three times, leading him to fire another six shots.

    “It’s don’t blame these officers for not remembering everything, it was a traumatic event and sometimes your memory plays tricks on you,” Segal says.

    Why we remember certain details and not others, why our recounting of memories can change in fundamental ways over time, and the impact of stress and trauma on memory are all areas that arise frequently in the courts and have been and continue to be closely studied.

    Memories of Trauma

    When someone is in a traumatic situation, the body prepares for “fight or flight,” and prompts certain changes, like an increased heart rate. It also results in the part of the brain that captures explicit memories being deactivated, leaving only part that captures sensory memories.

    That means memories of a traumatic event are not processed as a narrative, explains Toronto-based clinical psychologist Lori Haskell, who researches trauma and sexual violence. Instead, they are “sensory fragments: smells, images, sensations in the body.”

    The perceptual field narrows, focusing only on what is needed for survival, she says, sometimes resulting in extremely vivid “super-encoded” memories.

    She recalls a case where a woman was sexually abused as a teenager by a group of men. She could clearly remember what each man was wearing during the assault, though she could not, when asked by the defence, recall other details about the day like what she had for breakfast, Haskell said.

    But witnesses may not understand why they can’t recall certain things and can get into trouble is in trying to answer questions about details they cannot remember.

    “They don’t know they’re making s--t up,” Haskell observes. “We all fill in the blanks.”

    Haskell, who teaches Crowns and police officers across the country about how traumatic memories are processed and how to question someone who has experienced trauma, suggests that Crowns spend more time in court asking the witnesses to share their visceral memories of the key event.

    “What that moment felt like, how did she make sense of it, how did she experience it.”

    Sharing as much detail about the sensory memories, like what the witness smelled or what the witness focused on in the room, can make the testimony more credible, she says.

    “We have to get away from this narrative of peripheral details, it is just not how the brain is wired, it is not how memories are encoded. And there is a lot of attention on that.”

    Related:Jian Ghomeshi trial shows legal system is unforgiving to the uninitiated: Menon

    Could Jian Ghomeshi trial have turned out differently?

    Jian Ghomeshi lawyer Marie Henein doesn’t relish spotlight

    Why memories change over time

    “People do believe that memory works much more like a video-recording or a DVD or some kind of high-fidelity recording of our experience than it actually does,” says Christopher Chabris, a psychology professor at Union College in the U.S. and co-author of the book The Invisible Gorilla: How Our Intuitions Deceive Us.

    “Memory is even more changeable than people realize and it can be distorted over time even without our being aware of it. So a memory we retrieve one month, one year, ten years later can be a very inaccurate representation of what actually happened with people being completely unaware of that.”

    When giving a police statement or testifying in court, people can’t just press play on their memories, he says.

    “What you are doing is reassembling and reconstructing the memory at the time when you are retrieve. And each time you retrieve the memory you are recreating it fresh as though you had to go to a bunch of different books and look up all the facts instead of just reading it out of one book.”

    That means events that happened at another time, or another piece of information can get mixed in, leading to different versions of a story being told. It’s like a game of broken telephone, he says, where a memory is being passed along through a series of people, changing a little each time in the retelling.

    “I don’t think there is a solution to this,” he says. “You really need to go back and find other corroborating information in the past.”

    Another issue is that people can express great confidence in their memories even when they are incorrect, says Chabris. So even though accurate people are more likely to be confident, confidence is not the most reliable indicator of accuracy.

    Aaron Benjamin, a psychology professor researching human memory at the University of Illinois, notes that “repeating the same information over and over again, perhaps under consistent questioning, can make you more confident in the information you produce, but the accuracy of the information isn’t changing at all.”

    Both researchers point to the importance of other forms of evidence to the justice system — such as cellphone videos, and perhaps even more so with the introduction of police body cameras.

    Eyewitness Identification

    A string of high-profile wrongful convictions centring on an eyewitness confidently — but wrongly — identifying the perpetrator of the crime has led the courts to “clearly acknowledge the frailties of eyewitness identifications,” as a federal Department of Justice report that recommends ways to prevent miscarriages of justice puts it.

    In both the widely watched Netflix documentary series Making a Murderer, and in the oft-cited case of Jennifer Thompson, rape victims sincerely and confidently identified their attackers, only for DNA evidence to show they were wrong years later.

    But this doesn’t mean eyewitness identification, often critical evidence for the prosecution, should never be relied upon.

    John Wixted, an experimental psychologist at the University of California, San Diego, explains that there is only one chance to test the memory of an eyewitness — so making sure the testing conditions are adequate is crucial. If the memory is contaminated through a biased lineup or some kind of suggestion, it can never be tested again.

    But, he argues in his latest research paper, if the test is conducted right with an uncontaminated memory, and there is a “high confidence” identification, it can be considered reliable.

    “Perhaps even more important to understand is that low confidence ID’s are unreliable. Think of it like an inconclusive DNA test,” he says.

    Wixted also suggests that, contrary to what may be commonly thought, a confident eyewitness initial identification given six months after a crime is no less reliable than one given shortly after.

    Hard times for China‚??s ‚??rent-a-foreigners‚??

    Sun, 14 Feb 2016 07:00:00 EST

    BEIJING—To take stock of the Chinese economy, you can look at any number of traditional measures: Gross domestic product is growing at a slower pace, the equity markets are plunging, the currency’s value is ebbing.

    And now there’s another indicator of change: The rent-a-foreigner market appears to be weakening, and going downscale.

    Just a few years ago, foreigners who came to China to study or teach English were in high demand. Agencies hired them to pose as scientists, architects, engineers and models to lend an “international,” high-class flair to press conferences, meetings and sales pitches, thereby goosing business transactions. The phenomenon was in many ways a symptom of — and further fuel for — go-go growth built on dubious foundations.

    The jobs were often absurd: One expat, Mitch Moxley, was paid $1,000 to pose as a “quality control expert” representing a nonexistent California-based company; he chronicled his experience in a 2010 piece for the Atlantic headlined “Rent a White Guy.”

    A few years ago, “professional foreigners” in Chengdu could make $160 to $220 “for just a few hours of standing around” — enough to cover a month’s rent, said David Borenstein, the director of a TV documentary about the phenomenon called China Dreamland.

    But times are changing.

    “The slowdown in the foreigner industry has made it really hard for a lot of good people who were supporting their families as professional laowai,” said Borenstein, using the Chinese word for foreigners. He calculates rates have fallen by as much as 75 per cent.

    In China’s so-called “first tier cities,” the casual gigs that expats are getting have become more campy and lowbrow. Last summer, a company called Sweetie Salad grabbed attention when it hired dozens of foreign men to dress up as Spartans — wearing skin tight-shorts, sandals, capes and little else — to promote its delivery service in Beijing.

    The appliance retailer Suning — sort of a Chinese Best Buy — made headlines this month with a PR stunt in which foreigners were hired not as faux Ph.D.s, but for the menial job of delivering packages ahead of the busy Chinese New Year holiday.

    In both cases, Chinese authorities were not amused. The Spartan spectacle was quickly brought to an end by Beijing police, who detained the performers for “disrupting public order.” And publicity around the deliverymen gigs prompted immigration officials to investigate whether Suning’s temp workers were violating the terms of their student visas.

    Still, in a racially homogeneous society like China’s, and particularly in smaller cities, foreigners still are objects of fascination. Suning’s marketing stunt grabbed the attention of the Chinese press, which seemed intrigued by the notion that expats might stoop to delivering packages.

    Akmal Abdurakhimov, 21, a Muscovite enrolled at the China University of Petroleum, indicated that the work had an almost minstrel flavour: “People open the door, see me and go, ‘Laowai!’” he said, recounting how customers reacted to his presence as some sort of exotic practical joke.

    Which, in some sense, may have been true.

    Trump amplifies personal attacks in latest GOP debate: analysis

    Sun, 14 Feb 2016 00:06:05 EST

    GREENVILLE, S.C.—In a few boisterous minutes, the Republican presidential race was crystallized around the question that has been asked for months: Can anyone stop Donald Trump, or will the New York billionaire bulldoze the party elites with tough talk and a no-quarter anti-establishment message that has allowed him to dominate the GOP race for months?

    Rarely has the division between Trump and party elites been more apparent than it was on the debate stage Saturday night at the Peace Center here. Refusing to bow to party orthodoxy or even politeness, Trump trashed one of the most revered families in Republican politics and made a big political bet that standing his ground is better than backing down, no matter how much he is under fire.

    Drawing boos from an audience that appeared stacked with supporters of his rivals and fans of the Bush family, Trump did not flinch. But whether he will be punished or rewarded by voters here in next weekend’s primary was the unanswerable question.

    Over the objections of former Florida governor Jeb Bush, who issued a sharp defence of his brother, former president George W. Bush, Trump pressed his case that the war in Iraq was a disaster for the United States and for the Middle East.

    This was by far the rowdiest of any of the GOP debates, with Trump accusing Texas Sen. Ted Cruz of being a liar and with Cruz and Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida tangling again over immigration. The action became so heated that Ohio Gov. John Kasich called for an end to hostilities lest the party risk losing the general election to the Democrats in November.

    Kasich’s words held little appeal on a night when so many candidates had so much at stake, but what was most striking was the degree to which Trump, who sometimes has stepped back a bit as others squabbled, turned hostile and aggressive. He held special enmity for Bush, who has staked his candidacy in part on his attacks on the front-runner as a man trying to insult his way to the White House.

    The debate came just a week before a critical primary in a critical state and just two days before the former president arrives here to campaign on behalf of his brother, who badly needs a strong finish in South Carolina to keep his candidacy alive. Trump’s decision to go straight at Bush on the Iraq War—and on the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks—raised the stakes for that appearance and for the outcome here next weekend.

    One big question for Republican voters is whether they are prepared to overlook or play down questions about whether Trump is sufficiently conservative for a party that has moved further to the right during President Obama’s administration.

    His views on some domestic issues have already put him at odds with hard-line conservatives, and on Saturday he decided to highlight as never before his differences with many in the party over the decision to invade Iraq. And on the day that Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia died, Cruz warned that Trump would not nominate conservative justices to the high court as president.

    The exchange over Iraq, which came in the opening hour of the debate, proved to be one of the most contentious and tension producing of any in the campaign. With insults and sarcasm, Trump flayed a family that has produced two GOP presidents and whose members are still among the most admired people in the Republican Party.

    Trump didn’t just disagree with the decision to go to war in Iraq—a long-standing view that he has enunciated many times. This time he made it personal, accusing Bush of lying about the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq as the pretext for the 2003 invasion. “They lied,” he said over catcalls from the audience and protests from Bush, who said he was “sick and tired” of Trump “going after my family.”

    The debate put the issues facing Republican voters front and centre: What kind of candidate do they want to lead them? Trump has proven his ability to rally at least a portion of the Republican electorate, but whether he commands enough support to win the nomination hasn’t been answered after just one primary and one caucus.

    The next seven days are likely to see some of the most intensive and negative campaigning so far in the Republican race, with several of the remaining candidates battling for political survival.

    South Carolina has earned a reputation for picking winners, which heightens the stakes here this week. The surprise victory by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich in 2012 was a rare departure in an otherwise unblemished record since 1980 of South Carolina Republicans foreshadowing the outcome of the GOP nomination contest with their primary.

    As the first state in the South to hold a primary, South Carolina also serves as a gateway to later contests across a region that has become the home base for the modern Republican Party. That too gives South Carolina special prominence as a key test in the early calendar.

    Republican candidates will make a brief detour to Nevada for caucuses on Feb. 23, but for the most part they are pointing to the big round of contests on Super Tuesday on March 1. On that day, 11 states—seven in the South or Southwest—hold primaries or caucuses. A total of 595 delegates will be at stake, more than four times the combined number of delegates at stake in the first four states.

    South Carolina’s standing as the first-in-the-South was designed to be the protector of the candidate of the Republican establishment against a surprise rival and over the years the eventual nominees have used the primary to put themselves on track to the nomination.

    This year, however, South Carolina could play a different role. If Trump prevails, the Palmetto State could provide a crucial boost to the anti-establishment insurgent battling a badly fractured party establishment. Victory here would not make Trump unstoppable, but it would heighten the pressure for anti-Trump Republicans to coalesce around one of the three establishment candidates still in the race.

    Trump has led the polls here since last summer, shortly after he formally announced his candidacy. The Real Clear Politics poll average currently shows Trump with the support of about 36 per cent of GOP voters here—roughly double that of Cruz, his nearest rival. The only other candidates with an average in double digits are Rubio and Bush.

    Trump’s current strength here serves as a warning to other candidates and to those in the GOP establishment who worry about the consequences for the party if he were to become the nominee. After his double-digit victory in New Hampshire last Tuesday, the New York developer would gain valuable momentum with another sizable win here.

    Cruz won the Iowa caucuses on the strength of his support among evangelical Christians and has long been pointing to South Carolina and the Super Tuesday contests in the South as his moment to break away from his rivals.

    Kasich conceded South Carolina almost immediately after his second-place finish in New Hampshire. He has arrived here with some momentum and is eager to win some delegates by attracting votes along the seacoast. For Bush and Rubio, the stakes could not be higher. Each stands in the way of the other and it’s not likely either can survive a disappointing finish for too long.

    Until the competition among the three candidates who are seeking to consolidate mainstream conservatives is clarified, however, the dynamic of the race will continue to favour the outsiders. But with his performance on Saturday, Trump has raised the stakes for everyone, and no one more than himself.


    Romance algorithm tries to predict marriage outcome

    Sat, 13 Feb 2016 18:02:19 EST

    ST. LOUIS—When Rashied Amini’s girlfriend wanted to break up two years ago, he wondered if he could mathematically prove that they should stay together.

    Amini was working as a systems engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the time. He knew how to build predictive models about space missions using algorithms.

    Maybe he could apply the same approach to matters of the heart.

    He returned to his alma mater to pursue a doctorate in astrophysics at Washington University, while also developing a romance predictor.

    On Friday, he launched Nanaya.co, an online site that can predict the user’s chances of finding an ideal match, where it’s most likely to happen, when you should settle down and how happy you’re likely to be in the relationship. There’s also a section on how to change your current behaviour, such as where and with whom you socialize, to increase your odds of meeting your ideal match. The site is currently free.

    “As a theorist whose job it is to come up with models that represent reality that you can make decisions from, I thought I could do this,” he said. The idea of making personal decisions based on information and science has been around for a while. But because romance is so subjective it can be the hardest problem to solve simply based on data.

    On the site, users begin by taking a romantic personality test. Then, there are questions about lifestyle preferences, values, future goals and one’s experiences being single. It also takes into account your deal breakers in a future partner.

    It’s different from the plethora of dating or matchmaking websites, some of which also use algorithms to match users with likely partners. Nanaya’s predictions are based on the user’s responses in relation to all the other data collected from the rest of the users in its database. Currently, about 22,000 people have taken the personality test, which enabled him to design the beta.

    Before Amini adds the “stay together or break up” feature in the reports, he wants to reach at least 100,000 users to make the results more reliable. The site is aimed at people in their 20s and 30s who are wondering whether to stay in a relationship or continue to play the field.

    Roman Solowski, 33, filled out an early version of Amini’s questionnaire to help out his buddy from college. At the time, Solowski had been dating his girlfriend for nearly a year and a half. His results indicated that until age 35 he would be happiest in a relationship with her, but after that age he would be happier single.

    “How are you supposed to interpret that?” he said.

    Solowski proposed anyway. So far, he says things are going well.

    “Maybe you should ask me two years from now,” he said. Solowski, an attorney in Chicago, never shared the results with his wife.

    “I don’t want to cause any trouble,” he said. “I don’t think anyone is going to take it very well.”

    Amini said Solowski’s results do not predict that he and his wife will break up eventually. The analysis suggests that there were favorable odds that Solowski could have met a better match years down the line.

    “The main feedback is merely to consider it. Not because it’s the truth, but just food for thought,” Amini said. “I like to think this a vehicle for self-awareness more than anything else.”

    Bill Wing, co-founder of the Relationship Center of St. Louis, says most people get “a little itchy” around age 35. It may be a good time for anyone to work on their relationships, he said. Wing sees value in using Amini’s tool as one part of a decision-making process.

    “I think it’s an excellent idea” when considering a potential life partner, Wing said. “So many times we stay with people because they are familiar.”

    “You don’t want to settle because you are fearful or worried about whether there is anyone else out there,” he added. Wing, who has counselled hundreds of couples over a career spanning more than 35 years, cautioned that regardless of whom a person marries, two-thirds of differences that arise will be perpetual and unresolvable. The couple’s long-term success lies in how they deal with those differences.

    “I’m not sure if there’s an algorithm for that,” he said.

    As far as Amini’s relationship that inspired the site, it ended regardless of what the math advised.

    Amini, 30, plans to defend his dissertation this summer and rejoin the engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. While working more than 100 hours a week on this site and his doctorate, he didn’t have time for dating. But his own Nanaya analysis says he should settle down between 31 to 32 years old.

    So, he will be back on the market soon enough looking for the stars to align.

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