Monday, March 29, 2010

Protest the Hero’s Dostoevsky grin

^I did not take this photo. Image rights reserved by the respective author.

Last Thursday Protest the Hero came to the University of Guelph and I got a chance to interview the band's bassist and lyricist, Arif Mirabdolbaghi. All I can say is that the guy was really laid-back and that he was totally down with doing the interview. He also loves his Dostoevsky. Here's the article I wrote for The Ontarion:

Protest the Hero’s Dostoevsky grin
Math-metal quintet hits The Brass Taps
by Tom Beedham

Long before MuchMusic’s disBand and before Lights and Stereos were signed to his record label, in 1999 Mark “London” Spicoluk’s Underground Operations was but a small nexus that consisted of a fistful bands that you only knew about from word of mouth, hours spent on Myspace, or from watching George Stroumboulopoulos’ The Punk Show. While many of the bands that originally supported Spicoluk’s label have since left to pursue other things in life and the face of Underground Operations has certainly changed, one group has only changed its name. Once known as Happy Go Lucky, Whitby mathcore act Protest the Hero maintains its association with Underground Operations still to this day, despite having gained worldly success and being signed on to the monolithic Vagrant records since 2006.

In an execution of reifying their contemporary name, last Thursday Protest the Hero took a night off from their freshly embarked upon Jagermeister-sponsored and more commercially attractive Snocore tour to headline an intimate, 350 person capacity show put on by the University of Guelph’s metal club at The Brass Taps.

Assaulting fans with an arsenal of songs mainly from their 2008 studio album Fortress, but also including tracks like “Blindfolds Aside” and “Heretics & Killers” off of their 2005 album Kezia—which combined with a 2006 signing to Vagrant records also brought the band success in the States—Protest unleashed a performance that went against what lead vocalist Rody Walker anticipated about the band at the time of Fortress’ release. In a 2008 interview with MTV, Walker described Protest the Hero as ADD Metal, making reference to how the band gets bored easily and how at the time of Fortress’ release, there wasn’t any desire to play songs off of Kezia ever again because the songs were routine and they wanted to perfect their new and more complicated work. Bassist and lyricist Arif Mirabdolbaghi confirms that when PTH plays tracks from Kezia, it’s mostly for the fans, but also maintains that when Rody did that interview, his responses were indicative of “a time in [the band’s] life where we were feeling this sort of musical frustration.”

The band’s reverence for undertaking onerous tasks might have something to do with its influences. One of Protest’s most overt lyrical influences—especially in pre-Kezia material—is Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky. Even the title of one of PTH’s songs, "I Am Dmitri Karamazov and the World is My Father" is a direct reference to The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky’s last novel, which is—in only a few words—about struggling with intellectual stasis.

In 2004, Mirabdolbaghi was even invited to (and attended) the 12th Symposium of the International Dostoevsky Society at the University of Geneva in Switzerland. Reflecting on the Russian thinker, Mirabdolbaghi admires the fact that “[Dostoevsky’s] mind rebels stagnation” while also contending that there is no way he could ever cease to be influenced by him, despite while “perpetually turning into someone else.”

Despite the band’s self-acknowledged short attention span and while tens of thousands of students prostrate the fruits of their hard-earned labour to the university every semester, bassist and lyricist Arif Mirabdolbaghi said that even though the band has made some obscure rider requests in the past—including birthday cakes, underwear, wallpaper imported from China, Persian carpets, and films by Dennis Quaid “because we think he’s a comic genius, even if he doesn’t realize it”—on Thursday Protest played it modest and didn’t ask for anything special to play at the U of G. Mirabdolbaghi also insisted that, “Our rider isn’t ‘make it or break it’ in the sense that if we don’t receive what we request we’re not going to play a show.”

According to Mirabdolbaghi, after Snocore and an appearance at New Jersey music festival The Bamboozle at the start of May, the band—which hasn’t put out any new material as far as songs go since Fortress in 2008—is looking forward to getting back into the studio and recording new work, which they’ve already started writing. Apart from his work with Protest the Hero, Mirabdolbaghi is further pursuing his interest in Dostoevsky. In collaboration with an actor friend, Mirabdolbaghi is currently in the process of interpreting a Dostoevsky work for a string bass piece, the performance of which will premiere in Toronto at the end of April.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Varroa mite is the fiend behind the disappearing bee: Guelph professor Ernesto Guzman explains the root of colony collapse disorder

Imagine a world where bees are extinct: a world without bee stings; culturally abandoned apiphobia; and—most importantly—a world entirely void of natural food. That’s the world that Canadian author Douglas Coupland presents readers in his latest take on the future, Generation A: where contact with even a single honeybee (Apis mellifera) warrants abduction by hazmat suited troops and weeks of interrogation and blood sampling. It is undoubtedly a radical interpretation, but for the last three years, honeybees have been dying fast enough to earn the phenomenon the moniker of colony collapse disorder (CCD).

Perhaps well founded, Coupland’s prophecy might never come to fruition (much to the delight of beekeepers around the world). With funding from the Ontario Beekeepers’ Association; the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs; the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council; and the Inter-American Institute for Co-operation on Agriculture, University of Guelph environmental biology professor Ernesto Guzman believes he’s figured out the problem.

In a study published last month in the biology journal Apidologie, Prof. Guzman noted that Varroa mites (Varroa destructor) were the cause for over eighty-five per cent of honeybee deaths in Ontario. Varroa mites are typically 1-1.8 mm long by 1.5-2 mm wide, eight-legged parasites that thrive on the blood of honeybees. In leeching off of honeybees, Varroa mites are indifferent to viruses their prey might contract—like deformed wing virus—from which victims can lose use of their wings—or even contract paralysis—and are ultimately left with a reduced life span. But the Varroa is also a parasite by the virtue that it has been sucking life and money out of the beekeeping market and food industry, bite after bite.

The Varroa mite has been a problem for roughly twenty years, but Guzman says, “it’s becoming a stronger problem…because mites are developing a resistance to the chemicals that are being used to treat colonies against them.” In Ontario, colonies have been reducing in size by one third for the last three years, and Guzman recognizes that “It’s not economically sustainable to keep on losing [bees at that rate] and […] to purchase bees or to split colonies in half in order to make up for losses.”

“If they have to do that every year, they’ll be out of the business very soon.”

“It’s important to underscore that one third of the food that we eat in western societies is produced thanks to the pollinating services of bees,” Guzman says. He adds that there is no natural alternative to honeybee pollination. “It would have to be manually or mechanically, which would be more costly.”

For Guzman, the Varroa mite is among three main factors contributing to the disappearing bee phenomenon. He also attributes the mortality rates to insufficient winter food supplies within colonies, as well as splitting colonies too late in the season (fall). Guzman notes that while bees live longer throughout the winter months, splitting colonies in the fall is particularly problematic because queen bees stop laying eggs for the winter, “and in order for a colony to make it to the next season, you have to have sufficient bees in the colony.” Guzman says that is when the Varroa mite is particularly problematic, “in the summer months, there are still plenty of bees being produced by the queen […] to replace those bees that die from the infestation of the mite, but if they shorten the lifespan of those bees by half during the winter, […] they will never see the spring, and there are no replacements.”

While the findings in Guzman’s study are concerned with data from Ontario, he maintains that, “I’m sure the Varroa mite is among the three main factors causing the mortality of bees all over the world.”

With the source of CCD in the know, Guzman’s current project is finding an effective treatment, and he’s not focused on finding a miracle pesticide. “I mean, many more synthetic pesticides can be developed to control the mite, but eventually, [the Varroa] might develop a resistance to all of them.”

Guzman has been working on natural compounds that mites will be less likely to develop resistance to and won’t contaminate the honey, listing thymol and oregano oils as products that have been “very effective” at controlling the mites. Guzman also suggests using bio-control agents like fungi that are naturally occurring in the environment, which agree with bees but not with the Varroa. “A third way of approaching this problem […] would be to develop genetically resistant bees—bees that are naturally resistant against the mite.”

Also published at The Ontarion