Tuesday, March 31, 2009

PDP #20: Four Years Before the Ashes

I've always thought that the best photos to share are those that can't possibly be taken anymore. After maintaining my archives for six years or so, the typically turgid pace of history and events have made a few of those photos, thanks to construction or destruction, into windows into history. Some of my previous offerings, like the renovation of Regent Park or the 2004 Toronto skyline, fit into this category as well.

At the end of 2007, a fire tore through part of downtown Barrie and burned down half a block of buildings, including some of the city's extremely rare historical properties. When I was last there, nearly two months ago, the site is still a scar of rubble in the midst of the city's downtown core. I would honestly be surprised if anything new is ever built there - directly across the street is a concrete "urban park," to describe it charitably, left when a Sam the Record Man store there burned down around 1990.

Today's picture was taken on August 24, 2003, looking east along Dunlop Street West. The tall brown building at the end of the northern row no longer exists except for ashes and debris. Anyone could go back there at any time they pleased, but this picture can never be taken again.

I, the copyright holder of this work, hereby release it into the public domain. This applies worldwide. In case this is not legally possible, I grant anyone the right to use this work for any purpose, without any conditions, unless such conditions are required by law.

Monday, March 30, 2009

To Your Scattered Panels Go: Ad Astra 2009

This past weekend, the Crowne Plaza Hotel up by the Don Valley Parkway hosted Ad Astra 2009, Toronto's annual sf convention. I had wanted to put in an appearance at this one last year, but was unable to do so because of my night shift schedule - I had no such limitation this year, and so on a bright Saturday I boarded a 100 Flemingdon Park bus up to North York to see just what I might encounter.

It's been a while since I've attended a convention - my last was, I think, 1992 - but what I did learn on Saturday was that they're far better when you're actually with someone, and not just navigating through the crowd like a fish swimming upstream. Be that as it may, I attended a couple of events which I did find rather interesting, and picked up a fair shake of swag as well - including issues of Analog dating back to 1965. Wheee!

I had intended to attend a reading of Robert J. Sawyer's latest novel Wake, which I read when it was serialized in Analog last year. It was standing room only by the time I arrived, though that was primarily because I'd set my clock an hour ahead, and arrived just in time for it to end. Grumble, grumble says I.

My primary interest came right after that - a panel discussion on "Those Pesky Laws of Physics" which included Robert J. Sawyer, James Alan Gardner, and Marcel Gagné. As a bottom-of-the-ladder sf author, getting those details right is important to me, because on some level I really do want to believe in this stuff and suspend my own disbelief - because, really, if the author can't manage that, why should a reader?

More importantly, adhering to the laws of physics produces good, hard limits which help to frame stories and characters. When anything is possible nothing is forbidden, and when nothing is forbidden nothing is interesting. Sure, there's plenty of sf based on the "one free impossibility" to examine - H.G. Wells' time machine, for example, or Larry Niven's Ringworld - but that is the sort of thing that should be minimized.

One of the things that fascinated me during the panel, and which I looked up myself later, was Robert J. Sawyer's reference to a RAND Corporation study from 1964, "Habitable Planets for Man." This trove of planetary and astronomical data may be older than some countries, but the equations in it are no less relevant and can provide a great jumping-off point for aspiring authors. They've made it available as a free PDF for download on their website.

Nevertheless, I'd have to say that the highlight of the convention was the Steampunk Fashion Show. This was apparently the first year it was run, and I'd very much like to see it continued in the future - I love that style. Most of the costumes were dead on, but I'd have to give the trophy (had I one to give) to Phineas Flensing, Esq., traveller, inventor, and dinosaur hunter.

I daresay.

To conclude, some choice quotes:

"Skydiving in a skirt - that's daring." - Female presenter, Steampunk Fashion Show

"As soon as you've waved your hand about gravity, you've acknowledged you're writing fantasy." - Robert J. Sawyer

"Because I wanna go to Mars on a spaceship built by teenagers." - James Alan Gardner

Sunday, March 29, 2009

PDP #19: Streetcar Convoy

Streetcars are meant to operate alone. Being that they're limited to where their rails take them and there are very few places in the system where one can overtake another, it does no good to have one streetcar riding another's bumper outside of unusual situations, such as the crush-load crowds travelling from Bathurst station to the Canadian National Exhibition every August. That doesn't mean that it doesn't happen - far from it. Traffic snarls on streets shared between streetcars and automobiles tend to amplify themselves, so it's not uncommon to be waiting for considerably longer than the "ten minutes or less" service frequency posted during the daylight hours - I know from experience.

Every once in a while, though, something major will foul up a line, and full-on convoys are the result. Today's photograph was taken just west of the intersection of Dundas Street and Parliament Street, and no less than five streetcars make up this chain. It's almost beautiful, in its way, but I wouldn't want to be waiting for a streetcar anywhere further up the route.

I, the copyright holder of this work, hereby release it into the public domain. This applies worldwide. In case this is not legally possible, I grant anyone the right to use this work for any purpose, without any conditions, unless such conditions are required by law.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Creative Chunks #2: "Sixty-Ton Payload"

When I worked the night shift, I had a lot of time to think about the future, and a lot of time to put those thoughts into practice - even on the weekends I maintained my hours, and when your rise-and-shine comes at 2100 hours, there's not much else to do once the deepest part of the night comes. Last April, when I was just gearing up to write what ended up becoming "The Platinum Desolation," in a flurry of twenty minutes or so I hammered out a lunar-themed space shanty, "Sixty-Ton Payload."

What's a space shanty? It's like a sea shanty, a shipboard working song meant to synchronize repetitive physical movements, but for space. It was written with the tune of "Drunken Sailor" in mind, and there were a few occasions where the rhyming scheme tripped me up for a while. I unsuccessfully shopped this piece to Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine and Asimov's - both rejections came of no real surprise. Prose is what sells, it seems.

That doesn't mean it has to languish in silence on my hard drive, however. I'd like it very much for you to enjoy it under the terms of a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

The title, by the by, was inspired by the Ares V rocket, the heavy-launch component of Project Constellation, which in April 2008 was expected to have approximately sixty tons of payload capacity for lunar flights. Since then it has apparently been uprated to seventy-one tons, but that really breaks the rhythm, so I shan't change it.

"Sixty-Ton Payload"
By Andrew Barton

What do you do with a sixty-ton payload?
Nine million pounds of thrust in colony mode,
Boost it up to Luna; we'll mine that lode
Lifting from the Earth below.

We'll build a little habitat under the dust
Screening cosmic radiation, also we must
Grow some leafy plants or else we'll all go bust
Living free 'neath all the stars.

A sixteenth of a gee isn't much to swing with;
When you mean to walk, you'll leap like Spring-Heeled Jack did,
Vacuum's not a pretty place to crack your suit's lid
Choking in the dark and cold.

Lunar living isn't cheap, it's really quite dear
Sleeping in a lighted cave for year after year
He was right who said there's no free lunch up here
The Reaper's at the airlock.

Now I hear they're worried NASA's budget's too crunched
To keep us here; and ESA says that they'd save a bunch
With cold 'bots to do our jobs - badly's my hunch
For rovers, nothing's beautiful.

They want to drag us down the well - what do they know?
Life in lunar gravity's not my kind of foe
Next week there'll be a hundred candles on my cake, so
I'll stay home in Luna.


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Friday, March 27, 2009

PDP #18: The Fall of Regent Park

Regent Park, a neighborhood at the eastern fringe of downtown Toronto, was the site of Canada's first experiment in social housing. Shortly after the end of the war rows upon rows of apartment blocks rose up between Parliament and River and Dundas and Gerrard, separated by landscaped greenways and served by narrow access roads that wound like sidewinders. As time went by, it became one of Toronto's most impoverished neighborhoods, with well over 60% of the population reported as "low income" in 2006.

Today, Regent Park is ground zero for a new experiment, the construction of a social housing center for the 21st century. Visit the intersection of Dundas Street East and Parliament today, and you'll find a silver tower rising. Before this new work could be built, though, the old had to be brought down.

I took today's photograph on July 17, 2006, through the gaps in a chain-link fence. The stubs at the left are all that remained of a building that otherwise looked essentially the same as the structure on the right; its turn for the wrecking ball was to come later.

I, the copyright holder of this work, hereby release it into the public domain. This applies worldwide. In case this is not legally possible, I grant anyone the right to use this work for any purpose, without any conditions, unless such conditions are required by law.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

We Could Do Worse Than Ride the Rocket

When it comes to public transit, there are two cities in the English-speaking world that are built upon that bedrock - London, with its historic, storied Underground, and New York City. There are few cities in the world which rely on public transit like New York does, thanks to its criss-crossing network of subways, bus routes, and commuter rail lines that bind Manhattan to the boroughs and the suburban metropoli of Long Island. Compared to New York's mileage, Toronto might as well be Poughkeepsie.

Nevertheless, despite the eleven million people that ride its rails and wheels every day, New York's Metropolitan Transportation Authority has been as clobbered as anything by this economic Grand Slam of ours. Yesterday's New York Times carried an article by William Neuman, "M.T.A. Votes to Raise Fares and Cut Service," covering the MTA's bid to remain solvent and workable with service reductions and fare increases which I can only describe as punishing.

Unless the state government in Albany can get its house an order and provide the MTA with additional funding, which would be raised by increasing tolls on bridges spanning the East River and the Harlem River, the MTA will cancel thirty-five bus routes and two subway routes to get its ducks in a row. Fares would also increase by fifty cents to $2.50, and a monthly pass would go up $22 to $103.

Predictably, there is a lot of argument and back-and-forth over this in Albany, where the issue of bridge tolls are the polarizing issue. Because, after all, people who drive cars into work naturally have less responsibility (!!) to pay for the services they are taking advantage of than do those who ride in on the rails. While I grant that I am not a maven of the New York public transportation system, it's easy to see that fare increases and service cuts of this magnitude would push people away from the system into their cars, thus increasing traffic and pumping yet more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

Here in Toronto, there are frequent complaints about the kind of service we get from the TTC. I've had plenty of experiences waiting for the 501, looking with frustration down the street as the clock ticks closer to the time I have to be at my desk, only for two - sometimes even three! - streetcars to arrive like a sunburned convoy, one after another. No system is perfect, though I've only been late because of it once or twice. What subway problems Toronto has usually takes the form of suspicious packages discarded at Jane Station or arguments over how much money Mel Lastman wasted by building a subway under Sheppard Avenue.

So how do the systems compare? For one, "service problems" for the TTC have been, of late, barely having enough vehicles to deal with rush hour demands. Ads rife with typos (well, one typo) have appeared all over the system, trumpeting that 80% of surface routes now run until 1 AM. Planning for the Transit City light-rail system is proceeding apace and shovels will break the east end of Sheppard later this year. In New York, they're rolling back, pulling up the drawbridge and hunkering down to see if they can outlast the siege.

A comparison of the two systems' fares is instructive. Here in Toronto, one ride on the TTC will set you back $2.75, so long as you're not hopping on a Downtown Express route or one that shuttles into York Region or Mississauga. A one-month Metropass can be had for $109, and even that is tax-deductible. Converted into Canadian dollars, the MTA would bury Toronto at $3.07 per ride, and for a New York City MetroCard you'd need to hand over $126.82 in loonies and spare change. As far as I know they don't work nearly so well as shields from the taxman.

I can understand the need for the MTA to maximize its revenue, particularly in the face of these economic conditions. New York's transit infrastructure is far greater in scope than Toronto's and as such requires a significantly greater investment - but the importance of sheer psychological impact can't be forgotten. This is the second year in a row New York's transit fares will have gone up, and this year they are going up in a big way - 20% per ride. Metaphorical punches like that are hard for people to take, and the effect can't be discounted. I would not be surprised to see a version of the Laffer curve come into play here - it's easy to envision a situation where higher fares prompt an exodus from the system, which necessitates further service cuts and fare increases to maintain what's left, and so on until equilibrium is finally reached in a system that is a shell of what it once was.

For the moment, while not flush the TTC appears stable, and if Dalton McGuinty delivers on expectations there will be cash laid out for public transit in Ontario's next budget. For the good of the city, I hope dearly that's the case.

I don't care how many times I have to wait by the curb wondering how much longer it'll be until the streetcar grinds into sight, I ride with pride. Because I know I'll get there in the end. Because I know I'm better off not having to worry about parking fees, and gas prices, and parking costs, and all the idiots on the roads and the Gardiner. Because I want to decouple myself from the myth that a car brings freedom.

The government of New York would be wise to recognize the necessities of the future, and fund New York's public transit system to the best of its ability. Somehow, I doubt that's going to happen.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

PDP #17: Downtown, Moss Park

Cities change, some faster than others. If I dislike returning to my hometown Barrie, it's because that city has had the gall and temerity to change since 2000. There are entire tracts of it now that didn't exist when I lived there, farmer's fields and wide green vistas plowed under for sprawling subdivisions where roads eat themselves like Ouroboros serpents. In others, common touchstones remain, so that even if aspects and details evolve, the core of what the city was continues to be.

Since the completion of Scotia Plaza in 1988, there have been few major additions to downtown Toronto's skyline. That is set to change. The Bay Adelaide Centre, killed by the last recession and barely squeaking by into this one, has risen from a concrete stump to a bright azure tower, due to open in only a matter of months. Donald Trump is building his own tower right across the street from it, and condominium towers have proliferated like dandelions on what was once blighted railway land.

This photo was taken from the grassy field of Moss Park between Queen Street East and Shuter Street on June 20, 2004. Five years on, the skyline doesn't look the same, but the core of what it is remains there today.

I, the copyright holder of this work, hereby release it into the public domain. This applies worldwide. In case this is not legally possible, I grant anyone the right to use this work for any purpose, without any conditions, unless such conditions are required by law.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Aren't You Being Just a Wee Bit Presumptuous

Last night I introduced a friend of mine to this weblog, after he concluded that there is no way I'd be making money from it considering the number of hits I get, so it's a good thing all around that I didn't bother with Blogspot's ad program. One of his comments resonated with me, in that it's something I've been carrying around in the back of my brain for a while now.

"I see you define yourself as a science fiction writer," he said. "Interesting."

How we define ourselves is of paramount importance in modern society. It's at the core of almost every philosophy and religion. In J. Michael Straczynski's Babylon 5, the Vorlon question - "Who are you?" - was one of the arc words that resounded through the series and bound it all together. Most of us define ourselves by our job, by what we do. He's a paramedic, she's a Member of Parliament, that guy over there is scrubbing ants off a sixtieth-story window. What am I, in that estimation? None of your business - I try to keep my work and my weblog separate. Nevertheless--

Roles have always been of great importance in human communities. Many Western surnames - Smith, Fletcher, Boatwright - have their origins in the responsibilities some distant ancestor held in some medieval town. For the vast majority of history everyone had to work, and work well. It was only with the development of agriculture, irrigation, and centralized communities that an aristocracy had the chance to quaff the sweat of the peasants. Today, for many people it's a simple, if unconscious, equation - your job is who you are.

Me, I tend not to follow that logic. In prosperous times, defining oneself by one's job always struck me as being somewhat hollow, and today it seems a road to needless stress and panic. For a long time I believed I'd be insulated from the recession, but now I've seen a bit of it in the distance, like the Cloverfield monster in Manhattan's metal mountains. It could come as just deserts for failure or it could come as a necessity, nothing personal, but there are only a handful of people who are really safe from losing their jobs.

I've read science fiction for as long as I can recall. During my childhood we had the entire run of Star Trek on Columbia House VHS, I burned through Ender's Game while I was still in grade school, and I only regret that I wasn't aware of the short-story magazines when they could really have given me focus. With the publication of "The Platinum Desolation" in December, I stepped over a threshold which, when I started writing seriously back in 1997, seemed as distant as the summit of Olympus Mons.

There are tons of bottom-rung science fiction authors like me, I know. All I have to my name is one short story in a well-reviewed book of short stories and the briefest of entries on the Internet Speculative Fiction Database - the latter of which I was as surprised as anyone to stumble upon. I still choose to define myself by that because I earned it, and because no matter what happens, no one can take that away from me.

you can't take the sky from me

Monday, March 23, 2009

PDP #16: Some Kind of Library

It's fortunate that time travel is currently unfeasible. Once those negative-matter cylinders start spinning at an appreciable fraction of lightspeed, and wormhole mouths start getting put on ships boosting out at high sublight, it's almost a certainty that aside from killing Hitler, people will use the opportunity for travelling into the past to beat the tar out of their younger selves.

I can relate. I look at some things I did then, watch some home videos I made then (for "remembrance" purposes), and am pained. Everyone's old shame is incarnated in their own past. Take, for example, today's photograph. Would you believe that I lived across the street from the Peterborough Public Library for two years, close enough that I could see it from my bedroom window, and this is the only picture I have of it?

Sometimes, I swear, effects can't precede their causes soon enough.

I, the copyright holder of this work, hereby release it into the public domain. This applies worldwide. In case this is not legally possible, I grant anyone the right to use this work for any purpose, without any conditions, unless such conditions are required by law.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Far-Out Futurism: "The Dominion in 1983"

Remember Wilfrid Laurier? Apart from his place of honor on the $5 bill, Canada's seventh Prime Minister is widely remembered for something he never actually said. "The twentieth century belongs to Canada!" Inspiring, yes, and the sort of words a fledgling nation-state caught between the United States and the British Empire needed just as much as good railroads and sound governmental policy - far more inspiring than what Laurier actually said one hundred and five years ago:

"As the nineteenth century was that of the United States, so I think we can claim that Canada shall build the twentieth."

The first decades after Canada's transition from a handful of British colonies to one British colony united as the first Dominion of the Empire were trying, troublesome ones. It's hard enough to build a country at the best of times, and the presence of a powerful neighbor who had just got over a destructive civil war and still held on to the national dream of Manifest Destiny only complicated the issue. As one Canadian wrote in 1883, there was "a settled conviction that it was 'the destiny of Canada to be absorbed in the States.'"

Those words were written by Ralph Centennius, the pseudonym of an author whose true identity has been lost to history, and whose extremely limited fame derives from a thirty-page pamphlet entitled The Dominion in 1983, printed in Peterborough in 1883. Set from the perspective of an author a century hence, The Dominion in 1983 takes a whirlwind look at how one hundred years of history shaped the development of Canada from "as prosperous and promising a young nation as the world ever saw" to a country that "came to take the lead among nations and [has] been able to keep foremost ever since."

Prediction is a notably spotty art, and the only sure thing about it is that the future that our descendants live in will resemble anything we can guess in only the vaguest stretches. The same is true for Centennius' 1983. Reaganomics, the last episode of M*A*S*H, and the Soviet threat are entirely absent from it. In some regards, The Dominion in 1983 can be read as our true history reflected in a funhouse mirror; in some respects it is completely off-base, with "living beings... observed in the countries in Mars and Jupiter" through powerful telescopes, in others sensible, and still others possessed of an ersatz prescience.

His twentieth century is one in which "war has ceased all the world over," after an incident in 1932 when "a monster oxyhydrogen shell" detonated at a meeting of "three emperors, two kings, and several princes... All the royal personages were blown to atoms, and were also many of their attendants. Their armies hardly had a chance of getting near each other, so fearful was the execution of the shells." Centennius wrote more than thirty years before the First World War really begun to make pacifism fashionable. It's not quite Global Thermonuclear War, but considering that radioactivity wasn't discovered until 1893, it's a version of the same that a nineteenth-century reader would more easily comprehend.

As well, Centennius gets it halfway right by subverting another thread that seems to have been common in futurism predating the Wright Brothers, dismissing "the old idea that balloons would be used in this century for travelling" as "a delusion." Travel in 1983 is based upon rocket-cars made of "a metal less than a quarter the weight of iron, but as strong and durable" - which sounds a lot like titanium by any other name to me - and capable of traversing the distance between Toronto and Victoria in fifty minutes, which works out to a speed of little over four thousand kilometers per hour. It's a world where our fossil fuel worries simply don't exist, because the "solidification of oxygen and hydrogen by an easy process" has made it "as simple a matter to buy a hundred horse-power over the counter as a pound of sugar."

That's not to say that Centennius wasn't naive in other respects, though. He takes the idea of a world without war one step farther, and postulates Canada in 1983 as without "the shadow of a standing army, nor a single keel to represent a navy... no power except the United States would ever attack us, and... they could only annex us by so improving their constitution, as to make it plainly very much superior to ours." The complete abandonment of human nature so that everyone can stand on a hill and sing about Coke may be common to a great deal of future timelines, but that doesn't make it any more believable - at least as far as I'm concerned.

Nevertheless, while 1983 was most likely meant to be a utopic dream to his contemporaries, its background betrays his nineteenth century origins. What caught my eye at the very beginning was his scorn for democracy, and his castigation of Canadian citizens as having "had a perfect mania for being represented," as if representative government was something to be avoided. Supposedly, the Parliament of Canada in 1983 functions "splendidly with only fifteen members (one for each Province) and a speaker," and the various provincial parliaments and legislatures no longer exist at all. Fifteen representatives for a country of ninety-three million, and for whom "the honour of the position is sufficient emolument" - which is to say, they aren't paid so much as a Voyageur dollar - strikes me as nothing less than a return to the days of barely-restrained monarchy, and certainly not a democracy as we would recognize it today.

Nor are all the clouds bright in 1983. While the "Anglo-Saxon race" has steadily increased its dominion over the world, it is threatened by a still-formidable Russia - or, as Centennius describes it, "the Sclavonic race" - possessed of "brutish disposition and ferocity in the midst of all the civilizing influences of modern times." The author laments over the prospect of an inevitable, devastating war between the Anglo-Saxons and "Sclavs," which with the technologies of 1983 would result in "destruction of life... hardly possible to conceive."

Now that I think about it, aside from the unvarnished racist comments, it actually is rather reminiscent of the actual situation in 1983.

Fundamentally, The Dominion in 1983 is a wish-fulfillment fantasy, an attempt to put into words the belief that the Canadian experiment would succeed to the great reward of all those who participated in it. Although many of its details are off-base, mostly thanks to Science Marching On, it remains a compelling window into Canada's culture of the mind in 1883, and a guidebook to a country's hopes for tomorrow. If you're interested in reading the whole thing, the ebook is available from those wizards at Project Gutenberg.

"No man," Centennius concluded, "can despair who ponders the position of the Dominion in 1983."

Saturday, March 21, 2009

PDP #15: One of These Things -- Not Like the Others

National exceptionalism is a common thing. In any group there's always the temptation to think that you, as a whole, are better than your competitors when it comes to governance, cuisine, manifest destiny, or the like, or that the rules that apply to them don't shackle you. States, particularly powerful states, are where that exceptionalism tends to wear its starkest masks.

This photo was taken at a rest stop along the northbound I-75 in Ohio, somewhere north of Cincinnati and south of Michigan, on February 27, 2005. I don't read Japanese, but even so, I get the weird feeling that the English text doesn't quite agree with the rest of the languages.

I, the copyright holder of this work, hereby release it into the public domain. This applies worldwide. In case this is not legally possible, I grant anyone the right to use this work for any purpose, without any conditions, unless such conditions are required by law.

Friday, March 20, 2009

My Canada Includes Separatism

There's a horrible, terrible joke that made the rounds of schoolyards and high school halls in Ontario, or at least my miniscule patch of it, in the years shortly after 1995. That was a strange time for my generation, when for the first time a lot of us really became aware of this this thing called "Canada," and that for whatever reason Quebec didn't want to be a part of it anymore. Here's how it goes, more or less:

A Newfoundlander, a Quebecker, and an Ontarian are walking along the beach. They find a lamp sticking out of the sand, and when they polish it a genie emerges in a puff of smoke.

"Thank you for freeing me!" says the genie. "In return, I will give each of you one wish." First he points to the Newfoundlander. "You, what is your wish?"

The Newfoundlander's clearly been waiting for this moment for a long time. "I wish," he says, "that the Grand Banks would be full of cod again like they were in my grandfather's day, and that no matter how many fish we catch they'll never go empty again."

"It is done." The genie snaps his fingers and the Newfoundlander is teleported to St. John's, where he immediately puts a down payment on a new trawler.

Next up is the Quebecker. "What wish shall I grant for you?" asks the genie.

"I wish," the Quebecker says, "for Quebec to be surrounded by a great wall, one mile tall and a thousand feet thick, so that nothing can get in or out and we can finally defend our great language and culture from the Anglo menace."

"It is done," the genie says, and the Quebecker disappears in a flash. He turns to the Ontarian. "Now, what do you wish for?"

"So let me get this straight," the Ontarian says. "There's a giant wall around Quebec, one mile tall and a thousand feet thick?"

"There is."

"And nothing can get in or out?"


"Fill it with water."

Tasteless genocide-by-drowning aside, I think it taps into an important part of the discussion of independence vs. unity. In particular, it's a manifestation of the angry shock and bewilderment that some group might actually want to leave This Great Nation, and the belief that anyone who does want to leave deserves solely punishment and scorn. Nor is this unique to Canada. I suppose it's a result of political evolution, inasmuch as the successful states were those that did not permit secession.

Secession - now there's a word that, with its close cousin separatism, is halfway dirty, somewhere between "frig" and "fuck." To secede is to peek behind the curtain of the state, to reveal to the world that beneath all the bluster and platitudes and ceremonies of government it is, at its core, an artificial expression. Nations are real things, but states are fundamentally artifice. They're aware enough of it, too, to lash out without prejudice at any group that wants to go its own way.

"Fuck it. Let's be vindictive," writes Will Ferguson in Why I Hate Canadians, on the subject of a successful play for independence by Quebec. "...I say, scorch the earth! Salt the fields! Unleash the hounds! If we have to negotiate the breakup of our nation, let's go kicking and screaming all the way. Let's make the separatist bastards pay. Let's go out with a bang, not a whimper."

I'm well aware that Ferguson is exaggerating the situation for comic effect, but that sort of attitude is not an exaggeration for some people. There's always a patriotic corps that will not hear a word spoken against their country, that will fight tooth and nail to prevent it from being torn apart.

It all begs a question, though, one that's rarely asked louder than a whisper -- why would that necessarily be a bad thing?

Civil wars are one thing, and if they solve any question it's always with the same sort of answer the Romans gave Carthage. This was until recently the twentieth century, the age of democracy, and if a group democratically decides to separate itself from the greater state, who are we to say they can't? Confederation in Canada began as an amicable assembly of four provinces united for the common good, but where in the British North America Act or the Constitution does it say that Canada is a straitjacket? If Quebec wants to separate, if the people of Quebec decide that they'd rather take their chances on their own and under their own flag, let them go and good luck to them.

Personally, I'm satisfied that separatist sentiment in Quebec seems to be, for now, on the ebb. I have no doubt that tide will rise again soon, particularly if the economy keeps taking its lumps like a punch-drunk boxer. Though we're thankfully far from having soldiers in the streets of Montreal a second time, not all countries are as blessed with stability as Canada is. Last summer in South Ossetia, we saw the problems that come with clamping down on dreams of going one's own way. The Tamil Tigers have been trying to carve out a slice of Sri Lanka for themselves for years, and earlier this week tens of thousands of Tamil demonstrators clogged the streets of downtown Toronto in support of them.

In my opinion, we have to draw the line somewhere. There's no such thing as a sacred country. The sooner we realize that, the better, because from where I stand it looks like the twenty-first century is going to be the time when a lot of nations decide they want to have their own nation-states after all.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

PDP #14: Eglinton West

Being on the night shift for thirteen months gave me a lot of opportunity to see more of Toronto - by which I mean I made myself go out regularly with camera in hand so I wouldn't have to worry about Vitamin D deficiency. The city is an interesting place in the morning, especially when that morning is the end of your day. There's a wide-open bustle to it that just isn't around once the sun's climbed high in the sky.

This photo was taken on Eglinton Avenue West at Venn Crescent, in the old city of York, on the morning of July 25, 2008. Those were still good times.

I, the copyright holder of this work, hereby release it into the public domain. This applies worldwide. In case this is not legally possible, I grant anyone the right to use this work for any purpose, without any conditions, unless such conditions are required by law.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Short SF Review #3: "The Saturn Game"

"The Saturn Game," by Poul Anderson
Appeared in
Analog Science Fiction/Science Fact - February 2, 1981

"The game, the damned childish game," he muttered, too low for his companions to hear. "Was nothing saner possible for them?"

One of the continuous threads that runs through the tapestry of the human experience is the constant desire to ignore, or deny, reality. You can see it in people who sit at the same slot machine for hours because it's overdue for a hefty payout or among the Cold War leaders who insisted there was such a thing as a winnable nuclear war. You can see it in roleplaying games like all those set in White Wolf's Old World of Darkness setting, where mages struggled against a "consensus reality" in which brazen paranormal acts were forbidden because people didn't believe in magic, and that belief made it so.

That sort of concept, while common in fantasy, doesn't belong in science fiction as far as I'm concerned. In science fiction, reality is the implacable judge. Poul Anderson's "The Saturn Game" is one of the places where those two conceits converge into one.

The story follows four crew members aboard Chronos, a spaceship launched to conduct a thorough exploration of Saturn and its moons, an eight-year journey from Earth. Their specific responsibility is to survey the moon Iapetus, as the last robotic probe sent there ceased transmitting shortly after landing. Anderson does well in his descriptions of Iapetus, a moon rimed with ice and boasting natural architectures that endure solely because for millions of years, there's been no one around to break them.

At the core of the story is how the crewmembers deal with the stress and isolation of being so far removed from Earth. For three of the four focus characters, the answer is a "psychodrama," which at first reading I took as a LARP but is actually a diceless, GM-less role-playing game on the starkest face of it. Here Anderson is able to build bridges between science fiction and fantasy, with the players diving into an imagined fantasy world to keep themselves entertained. For eight years they continue their game, and when they arrive at Iapetus having based many of the background details of their psychodrama around what they expect to find, they find themselves caught between their fantasy and the implacable reality around them.

Enrapturement stories have been written for ages, within the boundaries of sf and without. What makes "The Saturn Game" stand a bit above the rest of them, in my opinion, is that its enrapturement is entirely self-inflicted. If that same story was to be written in 2009 instead of 1981, more likely than not the author would have the crew dive deep into something like an MMO or the old standard of too-perfect virtual reality.

Here, Anderson makes clear the dangers of separating oneself too far from reality. In space, the briefest inattention or distraction could be deadly; building a second layer of unreality around that, like a pressure hull made from melted butter, would only hasten the judgement of nature.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

PDP #13: The Folly and the Hope and the Future

While walking down Harbord Street in the University of Toronto one warmer-than-usual late winter afternoon, I came across a small, but hardly utilitarian, concrete structure that didn't appear to be doing anything at all. It was the sight of the plaque on it that drew me in. In my experience, only sites of some significance are so equipped. Sure, 99% of Toronto's history has been turned to ash or bulldozed for progress, but that last 1% can appear where it's never expected.

It was history -- but not old history, our history. History for the future. The structure marks the burial location of a time capsule cold in the soil for nearly forty years now, placed there by Pollution Probe's Donald Chant on October 14, 1970 - "Survival Day," as per the plaque. Despite the changes the world has experienced since then, the concern behind the words is still as real as ever:


Nuclear war and "pollution," in the traditional sense, no longer bedevil us. Our worries now aren't just longer-term, they're harder to see. When I was young the great concern was the hole in the ozone layer, and it seemed as if the world did recognize the environmental dangers and so banned the use of CFCs. I'd be surprised today if a teenager had ever heard of CFCs or the ozone hole. Today, climate change is our great threat, made even worse by all those who prefer to believe that the science is flawed, that the actions of all of us are not nudging our civilization just a little bit closer to crisis and catastrophe.

I, the copyright holder of this work, hereby release it into the public domain. This applies worldwide. In case this is not legally possible, I grant anyone the right to use this work for any purpose, without any conditions, unless such conditions are required by law.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Stars of Other Worlds: HD 98618

Astronomy has always been an interest of mine, even though in my youth I was far too lazy and unmotivated to actually carry that $300 telescope outside when it could just gather dust in the basement. Among the books that shaped and informed my youth, one of the most important was Terence Dickinson's Nightwatch, a spiral-bound practical astronomy companion that contained twenty-odd pages of starcharts covering the northern celestial hemisphere. It taught me the Greek alphabet and it taught me the wonder of the stars, or at least those I could see on the fringes of a night-drowning bedroom community.

Now that I live in downtown Toronto, even when it's dark out I don't have much opportunity to stargaze. Every once in a while, I can make out a couple of constellations and a handful of bright stars, and aside from massive power outages, the rest of the sky is drowned. Still, they're old, familiar friends, and it's good to see them unchanging every time I look up. For example, consider Orion, perhaps the single most recognizable pattern of stars in the Northern Hemisphere apart from the Big Dipper.

Before the dawn of astronomy as a science, people believed the stars were fixed points in the sky and were sources of magical power. The essence of Capella could be captured in sapphires, mugwort contained the power of Regulus, and so on for all of the fifteen Behenian fixed stars. Today we know that they change over time, that five thousand years ago Thuban instead of Polaris was the North Star and that Gamma Cephei will take that mantle a thousand years from now. But the constellations themselves don't, barring supernovae, change in any time frame short of the geological.

At least, they don't change from our present perspective. Once you hop on one of those wonderful starships and head over to the verdant vistas of some other star system, they all fall into new, interesting, and inspiring patterns that may yet be filled with meaning by some other species, or by our own descendants living their lives under distant suns.

One such sun might be HD 98618. Located thirty-nine parsecs from Earth in the constellation of Ursa Major, toward the right-hand edge of the Big Dipper, it's come under some scrutiny recently because of its close correspondence to our own sun in terms of mass, luminosity, temperature, metallicity - except, apparently, a somewhat higher abundance of lithium - and the like. If you're going to be making a setting where Earth-like planets other than Earth exist, "solar twins" such as HD 98618 and 18 Scorpii are fairly natural places to put them, since we know it's already happened in those conditions once.

When you get thirty-nine parsecs away from home, the sky tends to rearrange itself. Thanks to the electronic planetarium Celestia, which no astro-fan with an internet connection should allow themselves to be without, I can travel to that distant vantage point and take a look at some old friends wearing new clothes. Here's a screenshot of a few in particular that should be familiar.

What, you don't recognize them? I didn't either, at first, but that pattern's unmistakable. Swords tend to have a purity of appearance to them. There are a handful of constellations in the sky that actually bear a passing resemblance to what they're supposed to be - Aquila, for one, as well as Crux and the Big Dipper, though that's more appropriately an asterism. Here's the same image, labeled with star names and constellation lines.

From a hypothetical inhabited planet orbiting HD 98618, it's a distinct possibility that this sword would be the single most striking constellation in the sky, as full of bright stars and mythological importance as Orion has been. There's a good reason for that beyond its shape - all of its stars, except for two, are the same ones that make up Orion.

You may recognize Betelgeuse, the bright red supergiant that gives the impression of a ruby buried in the hilt, as Orion's right shoulder. Alnitak, Alnilam, and Mintaka, which from HD 98618 form the sword's pommel and hilt, are the stars of Orion's belt. The Orion Nebula would likely figure into this constellation as well, but the version of Celestia I have does not include nebulas in its database - or if it does, I can't figure out how to display them.

It's the sort of constellation that stories about which stories would be told. Someday soon, when the stars are in the proper alignment, perhaps I will.

As for a name? That'd all depend on the background, history, and psychology of whatever sophonts are observing it. Should it be humans on that hypothetical world, though, I've been thinking something along the lines of "the Heavenly Scimitar."

Sunday, March 15, 2009

PDP #12: Never Give Up, Never Surrender

I can't help but wonder why the Conservative Party of Canada even bothers to run candidates in Toronto ridings anymore. Back in the heyday of the Progressive Conservative Party things were, of course, different, but that was before Brian Mulroney charged through the political landscape like a one-man Mongol horde. Sure, Stephen Harper's new Conservatives have got the keys to the House of Commons again after a thirteen-year wilderness walk, but south of Steeles they're every bit as relevant as the Bloc Quebecois.

In my riding, Trinity—Spadina, I saw a grand total of two Conservative campaign signs; one of them affixed to a rusting railway bridge spanning Avenue Road, and the other actually representing a candidate in the adjacent riding of Parkdale—High Park. It wasn't until four days after the election, when I was beating feet on Markham Road in Scarborough, that I found a political display that just didn't want to give up.

There are never any prizes for second place in politics. In Scarborough—Rouge River, where this photo was taken, Conservative candidate Jerry Bance won second place by a margin of 14,556 votes. It looks like someone was really hoping things would be the other way around.

I, the copyright holder of this work, hereby release it into the public domain. This applies worldwide. In case this is not legally possible, I grant anyone the right to use this work for any purpose, without any conditions, unless such conditions are required by law.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Tailor-Made for Tyranny

"What do the rebels want?"
"Oh, the usual. More money, more freedom, more air."
- Total Recall, 1990

There's nothing democratic about nature, and space takes that argument to its ultimate conclusion. Every form of government humanity's ever lived under is an artifice, of course, but democracy takes that to the next level. As "unnatural" as it might be for humans to form civilizations of tens or hundreds of millions of people, the maintenance of democratic principles that often run counter to deep-seated human nature - the lust for power, vengeance, security, and supremacy for you and the lust for denying them to your competitors - layer another layer of artificiality on top of that.

Barring some kind of transhuman or posthuman renaissance - which I doubt would make things any better, only make a lot of things a different kind of bad - this is not going to change. I run counter to the Roddenberrian ideal that the advancement of technology will change human nature. Human nature is what fundamentally makes us human, and changing one would by necessity change the other. As long as the people going out into space are human, they'll carry these imperatives with them.

The cold truth about space is that there aren't many places to live, the vision of it as some kind of free and libertarian frontier nonwithstanding. Space is the harshest environment that can be plausibly reached. At least in our solar system there are no second Earths waiting for us, nowhere we could alight from our colony ships and breathe the clean, free air of a new world.

It'd probably be full of alien viruses against which you would have no natural immune defense, anyway. Pity the first scouts who go in without environmentally sealed encounter suits.

As far as the solar system is concerned, the settlement of space will take place in artificial environments, be they colonies drilled into the lunar regolith, domes on Mars, or space stations surrounded by the great, enveloping dark. There have been a few space colony design proposals over the last few decades, most notably the Stanford torus, the O'Neill cylinder, and the Bernal sphere. The advantages offered by artificial colonies over planetary bases aren't anything to sniff at, either.

First, and most important, is gravity. Earth has the highest gravity of any rocky planet in the solar system, and while Venus has only a bit less pull at .904 g, the sulfiric acid clouds and daytime temperatures to melt lead will put a significant damper on colonization for the near future. Martian gravity is only 30% of Earth's, and Luna's is half again as low. An artificial habitat can avoid the problems of low-gravity living by using centrifugal force to create a sort of artificial gravity - not exactly the same as what we've got here on Earth, but pretty good nonetheless.

Second, an artificial habitat would have total control over its environment. There would be no snowed-out school days, no blistering 45 degree humidex summers, no monsoons, no tornadoes, and no hurricanes. Artificial habitats built as orbital farms would experience year-long growing seasons with a climate fine-tuned to all the needs of a farmer. A starving world could be fed by those plowing fields where the sun never sets. Heinlein used that theme as one of the foundations of lunar settlement in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.

Still, the total control necessary to maintain an artificial space habitat brings with it some disturbing implications, particularly in view of how humanity has abused total control when it has been available in the past. Considering the vast number of challenges and the tendency of humans to take the easiest path, maintaining a free, democratic society in an artificial habitat would make the task of Sisyphus seem like a relaxing peck of exercise.

Unlike societies on Earth, artificial habitats in inclement biospheres are wholly dependent on technology to survive, and any serious deterioration in the population's ability to maintain that technology would result in the death of them all. Space is the harshest of mistresses and it doesn't tolerate even the most minor slipups. Governments in artificial habitats would, by necessity, have to control a great number of systems to ensure that the habitat remained viable, and they would do so most importantly by controlling life support - doling out air.

I've seen a proposed Stanford torus design that portrays the interior of the station as being like a long, narrow valley ringed with greenery, buildings and homes, but in reality I don't believe a successful torus design would be nearly that open. Without an external atmosphere, space habitats are gravely threatened by meteoroids which would be burned up high in Earth's atmosphere. Compartmentalization is as necessary in a space colony as it is on a ship, or one breach would doom it all.

Compartmentalization provides the dubious opportunity, for anyone desperate enough to take advantage of it, to deactivate life support functions in a specific part of the station in response to defiance, protest, or open rebellion. Oppressive dictatorships are nothing new on Earth, in an environment where humans can survive without any technical assistance. In light of the crackdown on protestors by the ruling junta in Myanmar, I find it very conceivable that a threatened government would use and abuse their control over the artificial environment to advance its policies and goals.

Freedom of mobility is a key component of a healthy democratic state. Until September 11th, and until this June, crossing the Canada-U.S. border as a Canadian citizen was a perfunctory matter of flashing a driver's license and answering a few questions from the guard. In the Soviet Union, on the other hand, ordinary Soviet citizens required special passports to travel from one city in the USSR to another, let alone leave the country. The strength of a dictatorial state is inversely proportional to the mobility of its population and the capability of its population to place their state in context with the rest of the world.

In a space habitat, controlling the population is almost criminally easy, since there's no place to go. Spaceships and reaction mass would be as affordable to the typical citizen of the future as a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier would be for a modern-day white-collar worker. You might manage to get a space suit and slip out of an airlock, but -- there's nowhere to GO. Even in a densely-settled region of space, habitats would be tens of thousands of kilometers apart at the least, and as far as space goes that's functionally equivalent to a row of townhouses with no space between them at all.

Communication, too, would be simple for a tyrannical government to restrict. The crews of visiting spaceships, doubtlessly restricted to those bringing vital suppliees, would themselves be restricted in areas where they would encounter no one save the elite of the habitat or those specifically trained to deal with them. The components to build radios could be hoarded by governments as "vital tools for survival." With a modicum of effort, it would be very easy to create a captive society with no way of hearing about the outside world and no way to see it themselves, short of a telescope.

The heirs of Kim Jong Il may yet build their twisted utopias of command and control out in the darkness of space.

Friday, March 13, 2009

PDP #11: Super Mario Bross. Fast Foods

Though this photo's in the public domain, the subject matter sure as certainty isn't. I took this picture through the window of a northbound 29 Dufferin bus on October 3, 2008, only because I didn't think anyone would believe such a brazen violation of intellectual property would be emblazoned on a storefront with only one letter added - as if that would make Nintendo's lawyers go away. "Super Mario Bross," indeed. At the time this picture was taken, the eatery in question was at the intersection of Dufferin Street and Glencairn Avenue in North York; I haven't been up that way in some time, so I've got no way of knowing if the copyright lawyers have appeared to shut the place down.

I'm no fan of copyright straightjackets, but realistically, there are some lines that it's better not to cross.

I, the copyright holder of this work, hereby release it into the public domain. This applies worldwide. In case this is not legally possible, I grant anyone the right to use this work for any purpose, without any conditions, unless such conditions are required by law.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

PDP #10: The Way to the Zoo

Don't think that because there's two posts I've made today, I won't be giving you another photograph tomorrow. That's just how I run, you know.

Over at Torontoist, the above-the-fold story as of the time I'm writing this is "Parking in a Time Warp," with a look at a City-maintained parking lot that refers to the horribly-named Sony Centre for the Performing Arts by its original - and far better - name, the O'Keefe Centre. This isn't an unusual circumstance in Toronto. Plenty of our landmarks have had their names changed. The SkyDome is the most major and still rankles, but fortunately there's still plenty of signage in Union Station that has no truck with that "Rogers Centre" bunk.

The amalgamation of Metro Toronto in 1998 required a great deal of renaming. Even though it's been eleven years, not everything has been replaced, and I wouldn't mind if it never is. Every now and again I'd like to be able to believe I'm still going to the Metro Toronto Zoo, as it's called by this sign hanging from the roof of Kennedy station in Scarborough.

After all, why change it? The 86A does still go there.

I, the copyright holder of this work, hereby release it into the public domain. This applies worldwide. In case this is not legally possible, I grant anyone the right to use this work for any purpose, without any conditions, unless such conditions are required by law.

Two Cars in Every Garage and A Pool in Every School

I was not what you'd call an athletic kid when I was in elementary school. Rather, I was the one who'd poke around the spinning bookshelves during slow times in class, sit on a bench all recess, and spend the evening playing Nintendo after jumping off the bus. Now that I have a fuller understanding of how difficult it is to turn around habits firmly established in childhood, I think there is an important place for physical education in the school system. Just because I was a lump didn't mean gym class still wasn't fun; there was a network of boxy, concrete storage rooms known collectively as "the bomb shelter" under the gym itself, and games like Zach's "nettball" were fun and energetic distractions from actual schoolwork.

I grew up in Barrie, a city on the very northern fringe of the Greater Toronto Area, but which is in reality a town of 30,000 people with suburbs for 90,000 more inexpertly stapled to its ragged edges. Our complaints with the Simcoe County School Board were confined essentially to the unnecessarily expensive elegance of their headquarters, hidden away in a Midhurst forest, and the fact that the air conditioning systems for all the schools were remotely controlled from that central office. What we never complained about was a lack of pools.

Since moving to Toronto, one of the regular stories I've noticed in the media's rotation is the Toronto District School Board mulling over whether to close school pools to bring its budget under control. This is always - surprise! astonishment! - opposed by the union representing Toronto's school teachers, CUPE 4400. The union put out a press release yesterday criticizing the TDSB for, among other potential terminations, gearing up to shutter thirty-nine school pools "to avoid a deficit of just about 1%" of its budget.

"Every year we go through the same fight," the union's president said in the release. Every year I hear about the tragedy and horror of Toronto's schoolchildren not having access to pools. Every year I hear this and I wonder -- why? Why is it so important, so vital, that Toronto schools have pools?

My classes included some swimming from time to very occasional time, and when it was necessary to toss a pack of Grade 5s into the water, we would all trek up the streets to the local YMCA. Other times, we would load up a bus and make our way down to the Allandale Recreation Centre, home of what must've been the biggest pools in Barrie. These were dedicated areas, focused on maintaining pools in good quality, and what they did was worth it.

It's my own belief that organizations should focus on what they're best at. Despite the budget problems of last year, the City of Toronto still operates dozens of public pools throughout the city. Why should it be a school's job to maintain pools when that money could go toward hiring more teachers or buying new textbooks or educational equipment? This is something I've never understood.

I can understand why the union would raise hell about the possibility of its members being thrown out of a job, particularly in this kind of economic climate. Realistically, though, I can't see any reason why schools should be in the pool business to begin with. There's no shortage of pools in schools listed on the City of Toronto Parks and Rec department's website - if that's the case, it should be the City's responsibility to maintain them, and not the board of education.

As a non-parenthetical aside, the transpiring frood known as Tesseract has started up his own weblog, Screaming Through Static. I offer you the possibility of reading it to see what he comes up with.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

PDP #9: 40 Junction

I'm convinced that pedestrianism and public transit are two absolutely necessary foundations for a city that wants to remain functional as the 21st century unfolds. That'd be a more hopeful statement if the developmental orgy of the post-Second World War era killed it almost everywhere. The demise of streetcars in all but a handful of North American cities, the spread of suburbs like a fungus over prime country land, and a fundamental sense of decoupling between people and the world they inhabit have left us standing in a rather unenviable position, steeling for the task ahead.

I don't get that here, in Toronto. For all of its ills, and for all the complaints that are made by the suburban fringe, I still think that this is a city that works. Its differences and diversity make it strong. Outside of the downtown core and shared-blueprint suburbs of Scarborough, it was not built to the same plan with the same goal. Former towns like the Junction, Leaside, Long Branch and and Port Union all contribute to the shape of the whole.

This photo I took on November 29, 2008, possibly one of the last good days of that year, before the snow had started to pile up. It's at the intersection of Dundas Street West and Indian Grove in the Junction, and there's something about the light and shadows that makes it real to me.

I, the copyright holder of this work, hereby release it into the public domain. This applies worldwide. In case this is not legally possible, I grant anyone the right to use this work for any purpose, without any conditions, unless such conditions are required by law.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

"Pravda" Means "Kitsch"

The other day my roommate came home from the antique shop with an unexpected prize; an ushanka, the stereotypically Russian fuzzy hat meant to insulate the head and ears from the harsh winters that have made Russia half of what it is - a succession of harsh rulers are responsible for the other half. What was most striking about it was the polished, prominent hammer and sickle of the USSR, fixed square above the forehead. From what I've told, this ushanka probably sat in some Russian warehouse for decades, and perhaps in a grimmer world would have warmed a Soviet conscript as he charged with his tanks through the Fulda Gap. Here's a picture of it.

That genuine Soviet military gear is now being sold in Canadian antique and surplus stores may be one of the starkest proofs that the West won the Cold War. I doubt most people who adorn themselves with the Soviet crest in such a manner think about it so deeply. I didn't think about it much myself until a chance encounter on my lunch break yesterday thrust it into the forefront of my attention.

Not many paces east of Toronto's central core, on Wellington Street East just short of Church, there's a place called the Pravda Vodka Bar. I've never been inside it, but their website and the decor visible from streetside both luxuriate in retro-Soviet kitsch appeal. It's not just vodka bars where these attitudes are present, either. It's in every pre-faded hammer-and-sickle T-shirts marketed to teenagers who weren't even sperm when Gorbachev gave up the reins and every soi-distant dreamer who believed Soviet communism really might be the better way - which, by the way, is ridiculous. Everyone knows that the TTC is the Better Way.

Are these attitudes really appropriate? The Soviet Union wasn't just some slumbering monster over the hill. The only reason the Soviet Union didn't walk away with the championship belt for Most Horrific Government of the 20th Century is that the Nazis made all their competitors look like rank amateurs. The Soviets were no slouches when it came to killing. The Gulag system killed at least a million people, and that's according to the USSR's own numbers - there's not much reason to believe the true number is that low. Is that all right because they were Soviet citizens, and because they were accused of crimes against the state? And besides, who do you know who's read Solzhenitsyn? Millions starved to death during the Holodomor, as a result of Soviet government policy - is it not as bad as the Holocaust because the victims were Ukrainians? Because its victims weren't herded into gas chambers, is it any less of a genocide? (No.)

Wouldn't anyone see the hypocrisy if the next hot spot to open on King Street West was the Völkischer Beobachter Bierhaus, complete with iron swastika-and-eagle over the door?

It's been said by wiser people than myself that what we choose to forget is more enlightening than what we remember. What we forget today is that the Soviet Union was not a teddy bear. It's easy to see that now, in retrospect, when the Iron Curtain is down and the archives are open. After the Second World War, there was a great span of time where the USSR was an enigma to the West, a cipher inscrutable to all but the most skilled Kremlinologists. Is it any wonder that fluffy thoughts about the Communist ideal tended to obscure, and still obscure, the brutal bloodthirst of the Soviet regime?

When it comes down to the difference between the hammer and sickle and the swastika, I think they're really not so different as one might think.

I, the copyright holder of the photograph contained within this work, hereby release it into the public domain. This applies worldwide. In case this is not legally possible, I grant anyone the right to use the photograph contained in this work for any purpose, without any conditions, unless such conditions are required by law.