Monday, August 31, 2009

Climate Change's Last Generation

My single most infuriating experience at Worldcon came at a panel I attended on geoengineering - technologically modifying the ecosphere in order to stave off the negative effects of climate change. There was an old man seated a couple of rows ahead of me who criticized the entire concept of climate change, and when anyone made a comment on the necessity of geoengineering in order to avoid dangerous climate change, he harrumphed and humbuged more than loud enough for the room to hear.

Leslie Kaufman's August 28th article in the New York Times, "A Sometimes Lonely Trek for Global Warming Awareness," reminded me of that day again. It follows 65-year-old Greta Browne, who's walking from New Orleans to upstate New York to raise awareness of climate change - and that, on its own, discourages me greatly. It's 2009. People shouldn't have to be made aware of climate change anymore. We have known about this for decades. Back in 1991, when I was in Grade 4, there was enough awareness already that I didn't have any trouble getting books out of the library to write an essay on what was popularly known then as the greenhouse effect. We just haven't done anything.

What's refreshing is seeing an older person like Ms. Browne bringing attention to this, because the rest of her generation is often pulling in the other way. Too often I encounter elderly people like the man in the Worldcon panel who seem to believe that climate change is a myth with a convert's zeal. This absolutely infuriates me. What I'd really like to say to these people is that, in this respect, they do not deserve a voice. Why? It's simple. Not only are they responsible (if an individual member of a society can be held responsible for greater trends, at least) for the problem we're finding ourselves in, no matter what roadblocks they put up, by the time things get really bad they will be dead. People like me are the ones who will have to deal with it.

Maybe it's a subconscious reaction. Maybe when people think about these things, when they start to realize that the way they lived their precious little lives mean that their grandchildrens' lives will be tarnished and broken in comparison, they don't want that guilt. Maybe denying climate change is a desperate grab for absolution - "nothing bad is happening, so it's not my fault at all."

It could be I'm reading too much into this.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

PDP #93: Rising Towers

Though it finally appears as if we've begun moving out of the last great economic recession, the skyscraper-construction industry in downtown Toronto might not have noticed it at all. The brick of concrete and exposed steel you see here is the Trump International Hotel and Tower, tentatively scheduled for completion in 2010. The blue tower behind it is the first tower of the Bay Adelaide Centre, originally scuppered by the last big recession back around 1990.

By bits and pieces, the skyscrapers are making their way north.

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, August 29, 2009

No Senate for Old Men

Stephen Harper is sending more Conservative loyalists to that red-cushioned reward on Parliament Hill, and is consequently giving all of us another chance to wonder why Canada has a Senate to begin with.

I'd be hard-pressed to think of an extant legislative body more useless than the Senate of Canada. In theory, the Canadian Parliament is a bicameral system with the Senate acting as the place for "sober second thought" toward the bills sent up by the popularly-elected and far more relevant House of Commons, but in reality it doesn't work that way. Unlike the United States Senate, the Senate of Canada is not an elective body, because to be perfectly honest those in charge weren't all seriously jazzed about the concept of democracy back in 1867.

In my opinion, the Senate of Canada is irrelevant today as it currently exists. Its only function in practice is to provide cushy seats with which Prime Ministers can reward their friends, the ne plus ultra of Canada's political patronage culture. There has been some agitation for an elected, more representative Senate in the past - former Reform Party leader Preston Manning in particular.

Personally, I can't remember the last time the passage or failure of a bill into law hinged on the Senate's involvement. The Senate is disconnected from the political system at large; it has been one hundred and fifteen years since a Prime Minister derived his authority from a Senate seat. There's plenty of grumbling about doing away with the Senate entirely, which wouldn't change much politically speaking, but which no Prime Minister would ever do because, really, can you conceive of a Prime Minister of Canada willingly relinquishing authority without any immediate reason for doing so?

There is an alternative, though, for a Senate more responsible to the people - by making it a Senate that includes the ordinary people. What I would like to see, what I think would be a positive step for more democracy in Canadian government, is a Senate that is at least partially filled through the same mechanism as jury duty.

The idea of the "accidental politician" goes back a long way, and for good cause. Having a person stumble into a position of power without really shooting for it, or without the person having any expectation of success, is one of the most effective ways to maneuver someone into a position of power who is not preoccupied with the manner in which they'll exercise that power.

There are presently one hundred and five seats in the Senate. Even if only forty of these seats were cleared for "citizen senators," who could serve a limited term and then return to their civilian lives, our Prime Ministers would still have a final reward for the people who scratched their backs. Forty senators who came into the office not because of party loyalty or governmental favors, by contrast, might be able to make the chamber into one of "sober second thought" after all.

I was planning on writing a story about this a while ago now, but I never could piece together a plot. Pity.

Friday, August 28, 2009

PDP #92: The Autos' Route

One thing that really surprised me about Montreal was the nature and number of its urban expressways. Toronto has only the Gardiner Expressway and the Don Valley Parkway, and given the plans Metro Toronto intended to follow, the city is better off without the remainder of the once-planned network. Montreal, by contrast, is criss-crossed by urban expressways, though they don't necessarily have the same liabilities as those in Toronto.

This is Autoroute Ville-Marie, looking north from a fourth-floor window in the Palais des congrès de Montréal. I didn't recognize the significance of it at the time - it wasn't until I had boarded the shuttlebus to Trudeau Airport that I realized the southbound lanes of the autoroute, the roofed-over portion I had originally thought to be part of Place-d'Armes station, are actually tunneled directly beneath the Palais, and a great deal of downtown Montreal besides.

A tunnelled Gardiner wouldn't be that bad of an idea after all.

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, August 27, 2009

Tunnel Visions: The Montreal Metro

One Dude's Comparison (Rather Exhaustive, It Seems) of the Merits and Flaws of the Toronto Subway and Montreal Metro

There's a joke that makes the rounds about Toronto and Montreal, a joke that's been going around for so long I don't know who first told it. Toronto and Montreal are like two brothers, one of whom is an accountant while the other is a womanizing alcoholic, and both cities know full well which one is which. It's something that can be seen in their cultures, in their architecture, and even in their transit systems.

Toronto and Montreal are the only cities in Canada that operate subway systems, although the Vancouver SkyTrain fills the same transit niche with primarily elevated rail. Both have been the "first city" of Canada, and both rely on public transit to a degree that's not reflected in many other North American cities. I've always felt that you can learn a great deal about a city from its public transit system.

When it comes to public transit systems themselves, though, you can't understand them in isolation. You need to be able to compare them to each other.

I recently had the opportunity, thanks to the 67th Worldcon, to spend five quality days in Montreal. While I was there, one of my goals was to explore the Montreal Metro as much as I could, to compare and contrast it with what I was familiar with in the Toronto subway system. While both systems have their positives, they also have their flaws. I like to think that I'm being fairly objective, for a Torontonian; if anything, the novelty factor may well bias me toward Montreal.

I've divided my evaluation of the two systems into four categories: System, looking at the underground network as a whole; Stations and Wayfinding, looking at the designs of stations themselves; Equipment, looking at the rolling stock used by the two systems; and Ease of Access and Ease of Use, looking into the ease of getting into and navigating within stations.

For the purposes of this comparison, in Toronto I'm basing my opinions off the Yonge-University-Spadina, Bloor-Danforth, and Sheppard subway lines, but not the Scarborough RT, as nothing equivalent to it exists in Montreal. My experience with the Montreal Metro was of the Orange Line less the three Laval stations and those west of Bonaventure, save Lionel-Groulx and Snowdon; the Yellow Line, less Jean-Drapeau station; the Blue Line, less the three stations from Édouard-Montpetit to Côte-des-Neiges; and the Green Line, less Angrignon, Lasalle, Charlevoix, Atwater, Guy-Concordia, Peel, Place-des-Arts, Saint-Laurent, and Beaudry. This works out to thirty-six of sixty-eight stations, slightly more than half of the total system.

If you're interested in looking into these systems yourself, two invaluable sites I've found are Transit Toronto and Le métro de Montréal - Montreal by Metro.


For the first twelve years of its operation, 1954 to 1966, the Toronto subway - such as it was, a single line and twelve stations from Union to Eglinton - was unchallenged in Canada. This may well have redounded to the Montreal Metro's advantage. All the time I was there, I couldn't help but imagine that in the early 1960s, a delegation from Montreal had travelled to Toronto, rode the subway, and said to themselves, "okay, let's not do what they did." As a result, while subway service in Toronto began with a mere fragment of the current system, Montreal's first straphangers could choose from three different lines to speed them around the city. An accurate map of the system can be found here.

Montreal operates four subway lines to Toronto's three, three of which are "downtown" while the Blue Line is "suburban," broadly similar to the Sheppard line if it had been built in the 1980s and ran beneath St. Clair Avenue West. The U-shape of the Yonge-University-Spadina line in Toronto's downtown vaguely echoes the manner in which the Metro's Orange and Green lines serve downtown Montreal, but to far less of an extent. The Yellow Line, a short three-station link between Montreal and the mainland city of Longueuil, can't be easily compared to anything on the Toronto subway.

The hub of the Montreal Metro is Berri-UQAM station in the heart of downtown. Passengers can transfer between three of the four lines here; nowhere in the Toronto subway system is this kind of interchange even remotely possible, given the current layout of its three lines. It is tightly integrated, with line transfers possible at four stations, and the Green and Blue Lines effectively bridge the east and west arms of the Orange Line. Montreal's metro network appears to be the denser of the two, but it is also geographically restricted to downtown Montreal and its immediate environs; much of Montreal Island lacks metro service.

The Toronto subway system

By contrast the Toronto subway, described by the Sydney Morning Herald as "efficient but somewhat skeletal," extends more limited subway service to the city as a whole - at least one subway station exists in each of the six former cities of Metropolitan Toronto. Toronto also lacks a heavy-rail connection between the eastern and western arms of the Yonge-University-Spadina line north of the Bloor-Danforth line; early TTC plans suggested a westward extension of the Sheppard Line to Downsview station to remedy this, but this seems to have been superceded by the city government's interest in the Transit City light rail plan.

Unlike the Toronto subway, the Montreal Metro operates entirely underground. This is because its trains run on rubber tires which were not intended to handle the extremes of Montreal winters, a technological limitation which led to the cancellation of the planned Red Line. A significant portion of the Toronto subway operates on the surface, most notably the section of the Yonge-University-Spadina line between Eglinton West and Wilson stations.

Both cities are served by interurban commuter railway systems, GO Transit for Toronto and the Agence métropolitaine de transport for Montreal. One thing I noticed in Montreal is that the Metro seems to be far more closely integrated with the AMT network than the Toronto subway is with GO's network, to the extent that AMT routes are marked on the Montreal Metro route map.

One definite flaw I found early on, though, was the difficulty in getting between Montreal-Trudeau International Airport and downtown Montreal via public transit. In Toronto, regular service to Toronto Pearson International Airport is provided by the 192 Airport Rocket bus, which runs an express route departing Kipling station every twenty minutes. By contrast, in Montreal the 204 Cardinal and 209 Des Sources buses connect the airport with the AMT station at Dorval, where a traveller would either have to pay an additional AMT fare ($4.75, as of this writing) or transfer to another bus, which in turn connects to the Metro system.

It seems to me that the Montreal Metro is less integrated with its bus system than the Toronto subway. Most subway stations in Toronto have dedicated bus terminals; the only bus terminal I found in my Montreal travels was the AMT's Terminus Longueuil, attached to Longueuil—Université-de-Sherbrooke station. Montmorency and Angrignon, termini on the Orange and Green Lines, respectively, also have attached bus terminals, but they seem to be the exception to the rule. The Metro-to-bus interchanges I saw were limited to on-street transfers.

Toronto also has the advantage in headways - that is, the separation between trains. While riding I observed a seven-minute headway between Angrignon-bound Green Line trains at 2:40 PM on Friday and a ten-minute headway between Blue Line trains in both directions shortly after noon on Saturday and another ten-minute headway between Green Line trains in both directions on Sunday morning, between 9 AM and noon. The longest scheduled headways in Toronto are on the Sheppard line, with a 5-6 minute frequency.


Préfontaine station on the Green Line

Considering that Montreal is a UNESCO City of Design, it shouldn't come as a surprise that stations on the Montreal Metro are, for the most part, well-designed. No two stations are built to the same design, and there's none of the "mid-20th century bathroom" aesthetic that characterizes many of Toronto's earlier stations.

Where Montreal is a city of churches, Montreal Metro stations are practically cathedrals of transit. Experimental architecture and public art was integrated into the Metro system from the very beginning, and it runs the gamut from monumental stick-figure statuary at Monk station to Olympic designs at Pie-IX and stained glass at McGill.

One thing immediately distinguishes Montreal Metro stations from Toronto subway stations: their scale. I only visited a handful of stations that could not, in a pinch, be used as bomb shelters. The Honoré-Beaugrand-bound platform at Charlevoix station is, at 29.6 meters (97.1 feet), the deepest platform on the line. Most of the stations I visited required multiple sets of elevators from the platforms to the surface.

Montreal's stations are also very open; Monk and Crémazie especially stick in my mind for their high, high roofs and vast internal volume, whereas most Toronto stations are tightly-built with only a couple of feet of clearance between the roof of the subway train and the roof of the tunnel. As a result, I found that the Montreal stations had far weaker wind gusts as a result, as the greater open volume provides more space for air displacement.

If you're familiar with the Toronto subway system, St. Clair West station is, in my mind, the station most reminiscent of the Montreal Metro aesthetic, and perhaps the only one in Toronto that could be dropped bodily into the Montreal Metro system and not stick out too much.

Montreal earned a great deal of points from me for having a consistent signage motif. In Toronto, station name and signage text vary from the unique system font visible in older stations, to Helvetica and Arial, all-caps and sentence-cased. Montreal's station names aren't written on the platform walls, just on narrow bands at the top of the walls, but they're effective and don't change from station to station. The lack of this consistency in Toronto is something that the Joe Clark who wasn't prime minister has been complaining about for a while now.

One aspect of Montreal's station design that struck me was the nature of the garbage cans. In the Toronto subway, "garbage can" is a misnomer; it's more of a "garbage frame," with a see-through bag secured to a metal lid. Presumably this is to prevent bombs from being hidden there. The Montreal Metro instead uses solid metal garbage cans, firmly affixed to the platform walls.

The Montreal Metro is also ahead of Toronto when it comes to video advertisements. Around the end of July, Torontoist reported on a video ad screen installed in Bloor-Yonge station as a TTC Marketing test project. Montreal doesn't limit itself to piddly wall-mounted screens, barely more than the size of a man; they project their video advertisements on patches of the walls, like this one I encountered at Lionel-Groulx station.


It was the last day of Worldcon, comfortably into a Monday afternoon, and my friend Alex and I were rushing from Place-d'Armes to Berri-UQAM in order to catch the next shuttlebus to the airport. We boarded the train, already crammed with people, and Alex summed it up thus: "It says something about a subway when you step onto it, and the air immediately becomes hazy."

To be blunt, Toronto won this category hands-down. Toronto's rolling stock is, in my opinion, superior to Montreal's in every manner that matters. This can be traced back pretty easily to the age of the two systems' equipment - the oldest cars still in operation date from 1974, while the heavily-used T1 cars were delivered from 1996 to 2002. By contrast, Montreal still uses the same Canadian Vickers MR-63 cars as it did when the Metro was opened in 1966, and its newest cars were delivered in 1976.

As a result, to the best of my knowledge, there are no air-conditioned cars on the Montreal Metro. In Toronto, a subway car that lacks air conditioning is a relic and a rarity. This was especially galling when my Blue Line and Green Line photo tours consisted of alighting from one train, dashing to the surface to take photographs, and dashing back to the platform before the next train arrived - aside from cost savings, this is actually the only direct advantage I can think of for the Metro's long headways.

While the Toronto and Montreal cars aren't greatly different in terms of size, they do differ greatly in seating. Though I didn't do a comparative count and thus can't be totally certain, my impression was that there is far less seating room in a Montreal Metro car than a Toronto subway car, and standing-room-only trains are far more frequent.

I mentioned previously that Montreal's is a rubber-tired metro, whereas Toronto's is a steel-wheeled heavy rail subway. What that means is while Toronto subway cars look and act just like ordinary trains, Montreal Metro cars instead have this:

There's nothing objectively wrong with rubber tires as opposed to steel wheels, but they distinguish Toronto and Montreal trains in three main ways. First, they're quiet, and coupled with station architecture that makes incoming trains enter uphill and the more open nature of Montreal stations, they can easily sneak up on waiting passengers. Second, they're a lot bumpier than Toronto trains when in motion. Finally, on powering up their traction motors produce a three-tone sound reminiscent of thunderous applause following a trumpet solo, or the first three notes of Fanfare for the Common Man. It's particularly evident in the next video, though you may want to turn your volume down a touch before starting - my camera's microphone is a bit sensitive.

One of my greatest acts of stupidity on the Toronto subway came some time ago, charging down the stairs to the Bloor-Danforth platform at Bloor-Yonge station where a westbound train had already halted. I hit the platform and the first chime rings - no problem! I can make it! I dash madly toward the still-open doors, and hold that thought until the doors close on me, half in and half out of the car. I make a sound like "gawooof" and stumble aboard after the doors automatically reopen.

Toronto subway trains all have guards aboard who are responsible for opening and closing the platform doors. Three chimes, the TTC's equivalent to the Montreal Metro's departure sound, signify that the doors are about to close. Metro trains, in my experience, had neither of these. The only time I've ever heard Metro trains chime is when they're about to depart from a terminus station. Automatic train control in the Metro means that the trains drive themselves and the operators open and close the doors, but I never saw one observe the platform the way Toronto subway guards do.

Moreover, on the subject of doors, one slightly disturbing thing I noticed was that the car doors frequently opened before the train had come to a complete stop. This would've been interesting enough on its own, but at no point in my travels on the Montreal Metro did I observe new boarders wait for people to get off the train before trying to get on themselves.

The interior of Metro cars have some interesting differences from their Toronto counterparts, beyond seating. There is far, far less advertising. This may, however, be counterweighed by the Alstom Telecite video passenger information and advertisement system installed in some, but not all, cars. When departing stations it displays next-station information, accompanied by an audio announcement, and between stations it plays advertisements.

If I'd done this comparison only a couple of years ago, Montreal would've earned more points from this category. Though the Toronto subway has ubiquitous audio next-station announcements today, Montreal has had its Telecite screens in service since at least 1993.

Ease of Access and Ease of Use

My first real experience with the Montreal Metro was making an ass of myself at one of the turnstiles. In Toronto, if you're not paying with a Metropass or token, you drop your fare into the farebox at the collector's booth and push through the turnstile. Not so in Montreal. When I, still slightly addled from the flight, dropped my $2.75 into the farebox at Berri-UQAM, I was presented with a paper card with no immediate significance.

Maybe this is my proof of payment, I thought, and made for the turnstile. Locked, as I found out with a thunk. I look around for a moment and find a slot in the turnstile, just the same size as my card. I push the card in, turn to the turnstile, and thunk again. It was only then I noticed the card sticking out of a second hole on the top of the turnstile. Removing it unlocked the thing, and I was able to proceed without anyone laughing at me. They probably, I figure, see it all the time.

Getting around with my three-day tourist card was substantially easier - I had only to show it to the collector, who opened a specialized turnstile-gate. On the whole, it seemed a bit more complex and hands-on than the Toronto subway's method.

Where the Montreal Metro really shines, though, is its signage. Practically the only standard on the Toronto subway I can think of is that signs are white text on a black background, and sometimes not even then. Simple, direct wayfinding is important in Montreal for two reasons. First, its bilingual population, even though the exit signs only say "SORTIE," and second, the fact that at transfer stations like Lionel-Groulx, the two sides of a center platform serve trains running on entirely different lines. Montreal's line interchanges are laid out vertically, unlike horizontal interchanges in Toronto - at St. George station, for example, northbound and southbound Yonge-University-Spadina trains are on one level, and eastbound and westbound Bloor-Danforth trains run on the other.

Furthermore, unlike the Toronto subway, the Montreal metro never defines platforms by cardinal direction. For example, rather than being signed as eastbound and westbound, Green Line platforms are signed as Honoré-Beaugrand-bound or Angrignon-bound. Even where the Toronto subway does this, in antiquated roof-mounted flipper signs originally installed due to a short-lived interlining experiment in the 1960s, the signs are compact and easy to miss. By contrast, it's hard not to see a directional sign in the Montreal Metro.

Directional signs at Joliette station (Montreal) and Rosedale station (Toronto)

Where the Metro fails completely at ease of access, though, is disabled accessibility. The three Laval stations, designed and built in the 21st century, are currently the only ones in the system with elevators. Coupled with the extreme depth of many Metro stations, the barriers to disabled persons' access to the system are significant. At least one new elevator, in Berri-UQAM, is currently under construction with completion scheduled for September, but it'll take a lot more than that for the network to become truly accessible.

Bicycle accessibility is another issue that both cities, with substantial transit-using cyclist populations, have to grapple with. In Toronto, bicycles are allowed on the subway at all times save the morning and evening rush hours on weekdays, with no other limitations. On the Montreal Metro, not only are the bicycle blackout periods on weekdays longer, but bicycles are restricted to the first car of the train, which can only accomodate four at a time.


I came into this enamored with the novelty and newness of the Montreal Metro, of all the ways it differed from the Toronto subway sytem and how superior some of those differences were. I still think that way, in some respects - there are some ideas, particularly in terms of consistent signage and design motifs, that the TTC would be well-advised to adapt. Neither of them are, in my opinion, greatly superior to the other. They both have their strengths and weaknesses, and everything balances out.

Now, if the benefits of both could be combined into one system and their failings dropped, the result would be like two turtles duct-taped together: unstoppable.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

PDP #91: Humberfalls

To take this picture, I only had to go as far as Etobicoke - just a short ride north of Eglinton Avenue. The Tommy Thompson Trail winds through the Humber River valley from the river's mouth at Lake Ontario to Cruikshank Park in Weston, and though I've only cycled the northern section of it, there's such a peace there it seems impossible that a metropolis is all 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.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

To Your Scattered Panels Go: Anticipation

For an event oriented toward the world as a whole, it was surprisingly cozy. Anticipation SF - the 67th World Science Fiction Convention - was fairly lightly attended, with only a few thousand people navigating this way and that through the wide and very long halls of the Palais des congrès de Montréal in downtown Montreal, Quebec from August 6th to 10th. It was a place where one could easily find oneself sharing an elevator with Larry Niven or shaking hands with Cory Doctorow, and I should know, because that's what I found - among other things, to be sure.

This was the first time I've attended a Worldcon, and considering that the next two are in Melbourne and Reno, it may be the last for a while yet. It was the closest I've ever been to science fiction fandom as a unified force. Though its attendance was a drop in the bucket next to the Fan Expos and Comic-Cons of the world, that's all right with me. While I was at Worldcon I felt like I was rubbing shoulders with the genre as a whole, from its elite grandmasters down to everyday fen.

Everyone gets something different out of a convention. For some it's the costuming and masquerade, and others find themselves amid the crowded tables of the dealer's room. Personally, I was most interested in the panel discussion. There were panels held every day of the convention, from 9 AM to 10 PM - some even went head-to-head with the Hugo Awards presentation on Sunday night - and even if I had slept five hours a night and spent every waking moment in the Palais, I wouldn't have been able to attend all the ones I was interested in.

It wouldn't have been as fun of a convention either, at that rate. I'd have never been able to tour the Montreal Metro - but that's for another day.

The panelists for Saturday's Is Climate Change Storyable? panel


The first panel I attended set the tone for much of what was to follow. Intellectual Property and Creative Commons, held on Friday the 7th at 10 AM, included Cory Doctorow among its panelists and he had a great deal to say, as well as a great many questions from the audience to answer. I'd not considered the idea of a Laffer curve in copyright, but from what the panel said meshes with my own experience, not to mention common sense - beyond a certain point, additional rights reserved to creators or rightsholders do not translate into a greater incentive to create.

Later that evening I attended the presentation for the 2008 Sidewise Awards for Alternate History, and compared to the Hugo Awards presentation ceremony two days later, it was brief and informal and, to me, reminiscent of what science fiction itself might have been like a few decades ago, before it hit the mainstream in a big way. It was nice. Only twenty-five people, approximately, were in attendance, and not even the two winning authors - Mary Rosenblum for "Sacrifice" and Chris Roberson for The Dragon's Nine Sons - were among them. Both were accepted by sf author and editor Lou Anders. The program had budgeted it an hour slot, but it wrapped up after fifteen minutes.

I came to the conclusion, while in that room, that I'd like to win a Sidewise one day. All I need to do is write something that's worthy of one.


My first priority on Saturday was to tour the Montreal Metro, and that ate the whole morning. Once that was settled, I returned to the Palais for the Alternate Canadas panel, looking at alternate history in a specifically Canadian vein. This was the first of two panels I attended that included S.M. Stirling - who, when questioned on the Draka series, answered "I wrote that in law school. I was full of anger and hate." Which, if you've read or even heard of the Draka, explains a great deal.

What I took out of this panel is that there are a great deal of potential points of divergence, but only a handful of well-known ones. AHs that include, say, a successful Quebec referendum in 1980 or 1995, or the success of the Avro Arrow, tap into issues that are relatively familiar to the public at large. The way I see it, there is great potential in Canada's more obscure history. Possibilities like a Huguenot exodus to New France - which would have completely upended the manner in which Quebec and Canada developed - no expulsion of the Acadians, the settlement of Prince Edward Island by Norse seafarers in the 11th century, a Canada bilingual in English and Swedish, or the survival of Sir Isaac Brock and Tecumseh all have great potential, but are only rarely used because of the general lack of familiarity with Canadian history.

One thing that's always galled me is a tendency in science fiction to look gleefully into a future where cities are obsolete, and the people scatter like seeds into a new rural lifestyle made possible by new communication or transportation technologies - Sir Arthur C. Clarke had his personal helicopters, and Transhuman Space has the ubiquitous Web. The City of the Future panel took a long, hard look at this issue. The panelists traced possible roots of this idea to the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, when cultural nostalgia for vanished village life led to the increasingly common portrayal of cities as dystopias. I don't have any truck with that kind of belief, and it was refreshing to find that the panelists didn't seem to, either - cities are far more efficient in energy use per capita, and there's nothing more isolating than rural life. I learned that while travelling through Amaranth Township.


The first panel I attended on the last full day of Worldcon flowed smoothly from the day before. Which Histories Get Alternates? was even better-attended than Alternate Canadas, and explored the same subject matter on a grander scale. One of the ideas presented was that the frequency of alternate histories that focus on the American Civil War or Second World War, and the lack of ones that explore differences in, say, the Napoleonic Wars or the First World War, stem from a lack of "blazing moral questions" in the latter two conflicts. It's easy to cast the Civil War as a war against slavery, and the Second World War as a war against Evil, and they're both intensely familiar to a story's potential audience. That doesn't mean writers and readers shouldn't try things they're not as familiar with, though.

Later that evening I shuffled to the Is Climate Change Storyable? panel, which is of particular interest to me. It's the sort of thing writers are going to have to acknowledge in their visions of the future, or those visions will soon look as anachronistic as stories set in 1999 which include a prominent Soviet Union and vacuum-tube computers. Geoffrey Landis was there, and his comment on potential mitigating solutions for climate change was instructive: "There are quick solutions, and they're usually stupid and wrong."

What issues are there to be explored with something like climate change? The panel discussion came up with a few - what happens when environmental Quick Fixes go awry, what happens if developing states "leapfrog" the 20th century, political and cultural issues that stem from the decentralization of power generation, or the consequences of the Midwest drying up due to water depletion - Landis advised Great Lakes cities like Chicago and Toronto and Montreal to start building walls now. I think he was only half-kidding.

Saturday night was dominated by the presentation of the Hugo Awards, held in the single largest room in the Palais and filled to the brim by most of Worldcon's attendees. I was there for a short while, but ducked out; I'd been on my feet most of the day, and I'm not really an awards-show kind of dude. It really was science fiction's Academy Awards, though, and the scope and scale was impressive.

Monday, the final day of Worldcon, was more of a whirlwind for me. As we had to check out of our hotel room by noon at the latest, my roommate and I spent the last couple hours just hanging out in the Palais, like I'd seen so many people do beforehand. The last event I attended was a reading by Robert J. Sawyer, where he read a "prose poem" he did for the Harbourfront Centre and his short story "Mikeys." Once the applause came up, that was it for me, and I was hustling towards Place-d'Armes metro station to get to Berri-UQAM and the Central Bus Station on time.

It'll be difficult to forget, Montreal will. I just can't figure out, though, what the convention guide cover illustration - an anthropomorphic skunk playing hockey - has to do with Montreal.

Previous Convention Reports

Monday, August 24, 2009

PDP #90: The View from the Islands

I see in today's Star that the Toronto Port Authority is making noises about using federal stimulus money to dig a pedestrian tunnel from the mainland to the Island Airport. It's not a bridge, hey, but it's good enough, and considering that the TPA has spent almost ten million dollars on ferries that will only go back and forth across the 150-foot Western Gap, it's a better use of money and would reduce carbon dioxide emissions, given that the ferries would become obsolete. I've said before that the Island Airport is not a monster.

Mayor Miller didn't waste time making his opinion known - "It's amazing how it keeps coming back." Proposals for a bridge or tunnel to the island go back to the 1930s. Well, Mayor Miller, maybe it keeps coming back because the alternative, running a ferry back and forth on an endless 150-foot route, is a goddamn stupid idea.

Nevertheless, the ferry did give me the opportunity for this shot of the Toronto skyline after I'd returned from Montreal earlier this month. So long as the presence of a tunnel enables returnees to take photographs like this, I won't have a problem with it at all.

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, August 23, 2009

Weblog Democracy

It may be a good thing, in retrospect, that I missed the awakening of the blogosphere. Five years ago, when neither Acts of Minor Treason nor its unlamented predecessor were so much as drifting concepts, the blogs rose to the fore and the prediction was that the mainstream media would be ground to dust and scattered to the winds by these brave citizen journalists.

Things didn't really work out that way. The newspapers and 24-hour news channels still dominate the news cycle, for better or for worse, and as David Olive pointed out in the Toronto Star earlier today, prominent bloggers are increasingly joining with mainstream media sources and becoming "slaves to conventional wisdom," as the media was commonly seen back in the wild and hairy days of 2004.

My own opinion is that the concept of weblogs replacing traditional journalism entirely is something akin to madness. Media organizations have what bloggers don't, and that's global reach with global infrastructure. News agencies like Reuters or CNN or the New York Times, even with the recent painful contractions in the newspaper industry, have correspondents and field offices across the world who go out and look for news. Many bloggers, on the other hand, use stories originating in the media as a jumping-off point for commentary and analysis.

This, I think, is the real strength of the weblogging movement. Its future doesn't lie in replacing journalism, but democratizing journalism. In the past, the flow of news was effectively one-way, from the Media to the People. Today, blogs provide the people a tool to hold up a mirror to the media, to bring greater exposure to stories that aren't front-page material and to challenge the media when things don't add up - witness the Killian documents scandal back in 2004.

Unlike the mainstream media, the barrier to entry in the blogosphere is effectively nonexistent. A blogger's greatest challenge is gathering and maintaining an audience.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

PDP #89: A Line to the Islands

One of the consequences of the thirty-nine day city workers' strike that characterized Toronto's summer of 2009 was the cessation of ferry service to the Toronto Islands. It's a brief ride from the York Street terminal across the harbour, extremely popular with locals and tourists alike on nice summer days, and the strike allowed the buildup of a massive, pent-in demand.

On August 3rd, the Civic Holiday and a statutory holiday, I had the idea to take my bike to the Islands and go around. Way more people than me had the same idea.

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, August 21, 2009

Keeping Iqaluit's Lights On

There are probably a few people in Nunavut who would rather it hadn't happened. Prime Minister Harper's recent tour of the Canadian Arctic, an overdue demonstration of governmental interest in the country's vast northern hinterland, was jolted on Wednesday morning by a widespread power outage in Iqaluit, the territorial capital. Until Wednesday, it's a fair bet that most southern Canadians probably didn't know if Iqaluit even had electricity.

The problem is that, until recent Russian and Danish noises and activities around the North Pole and Greenland alerted Ottawa to the fact that sovereignty can't be propped up with words alone, the federal government didn't really care about the north. The territory of Nunavut is slightly more than thirty thousand people spread across more than two million square kilometers of ground, and there are few people in the government who speak for them. Iqaluit's electrical generation capacity is, according to the Globe and Mail, a fifty-year-old plant housing four diesel generators. A recent Qulliq Power job posting for a Journeyman Diesel Mechanic in Iqaluit suggests that they're rather small, with generating capacities between one and six megawatts.

It's understandable why Iqaluit's electrical generation infrastructure is based on diesel generators - it's easy to use them, and that would especially have been the case fifty years ago. The twenty-first century poses new challenges, however, and if we're to credibly build up the Arctic to a new standard, finding reliable and effective sources of electricity for its cities will be key above all.

The thing with diesel generators is that they tend to drink their fuel fairly fast when you're powering a city with them. I wasn't able to find an exact breakdown of how many megawatts Iqaluit's generators can put out, individually or in tandem, so I'm fudging it a bit. My numbers are coming from the approximate diesel fuel consumption chart at Diesel Service and Supply Inc., and though my suppositions may be way off, I'd like to think they're at least in the ballpark.

So, for the purposes of argument, let's assume that Iqaluit's four diesel generators are each capable of generating two megawatts of power, and that they're always operating at half load. At this rate, each generator consumes 273.3 liters of fuel per hour. Running twenty-four hours, as they very well might during winter months when the night lasts for twenty hours, they would burn 26,236.6 liters per day, and 183,647 liters per week.

Iqaluit is an expensive place to live in because so much has to be imported. Expensive enough, I say, without having to ship up tens of thousands of liters of diesel fuel every week just to make sure the lights stay on. If Ottawa is looking to build a new Arctic for the twenty-first century, I think they should look at twenty-first century solutions like nuclear battery power.

From the first time I heard of it, I was fascinated by the concept of the Toshiba 4S, effectively a miniaturized nuclear reactor optimized for situations just like Iqaluit's, needing only limited staffing, capable of generating 10 megawatts of power, and theoretically capable of going thirty years between fuelings. Toshiba is already working to use it at the proposed Galena Nuclear Power Plant in Galena, Alaska, a central Alaskan community far removed from the state's grid.

Providing for Iqaluit's energy needs with such a reactor would, I think, be a significant and appropriate investment in the future of Canada's Arctic. It would clean the local air and provide constant, reliable, emission-free electricity. I know that the current government has little interest in environmental issues, given its actions, but this sort of initiative could strike a blow for the environment while simultaneously investing in Nunavut's future.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

PDP #88: Nordheimer Trail

If you stick to the streets, it's easy to miss the existence of Toronto's ravine system. Geological legacies of the Ice Age, the ravines are bands of almost primeval forest winding through the city, and entering one is practically entering a different world.

Today's photo is of Nordheimer Ravine, south of St. Clair Avenue West - less than a hundred meters south of St. Clair Avenue West, as point of fact. When I went down the staircase that connected the sidewalk to the ravine trail, the temperature dropped by ten degrees or so and the wall of trees shut out the urban sound completely. There's a similar spot on the bike trail through the Humber Valley, a bit south of Lawrence Avenue, as well as some sections of High Park.

It's good to have somewhere to go where it's quiet and cool and green.

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, August 19, 2009

The Fulcrum That Walked Like A Man

There's an old theory that the tides of history ebb and flow from the influence of Great Men. This theory, popular in the 19th century but today unwelcome in the halls of academe, is based upon the degree to which the actions of singular influential "historical heroes" determine how events played out. Going by it, the American Revolution was won by the skill and fortitude of George Washington rather than the logistical and strategic challenges which the American environment posed to a military accustomed to Old World combat. I can see, in some respects, why its fall from grace took place. Individual actors are not the only ingredient in the grand scope of history, and in many cases it doesn't make an incredible difference who's running the show.

This is one of the most critical considerations for any aspiring author of alternate history.

On the battlefields of the First World War, say, individual generals can be seen as caught up in the current of history and the dominating philosophy of the times, which reduced soldiers to so many pawns thrown away for little or no gain.

And yet, even then, there were individuals that nudged things the other way. Witness Sir Arthur Currie, commander of the Canadian Corps in 1917 and architect of the Battle of Vimy Ridge. If someone like Field Marshal Haig was in charge instead, I find it distinctly implausible that a more traditional British general would have taken the steps that won Vimy Ridge for Canada.

GURPS Infinite Worlds is probably one of the most dedicated sourcebooks on alternate history we'll get for a while, and it includes three lenses for game masters building their own parallel worlds. The first is that of the Great Man, as above. The second is the Great Moment, which gives the most weight to greater social forces - the example it provides is that if Adolf Hitler had died in a 1917 gas attack, say, the postwar situation of Germany was such that "Julius Streicher or Joseph Goebbels or some unknown street fighter might have become dictator and launched World War II and the Final Solution." The third is the Great Motherland theory, which draws a great deal of inspiration from Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel, where history is based primarily on geographic factors and environmental adaptation.

Nevertheless, the Great Motherland theory is a blunt instrument if there ever was one, and is best suited for exploring the Grand Sweep of history; any closer, and it's like using a telescope for reading glasses. Bear in mind that a world in which western Eurasian civilization is dominant would, under this theory, describe our world and one in which Nazi Germany rules Europe equally well.

In my own opinion, all three lenses work, but at different resolutions of history. Right now, I'm working on an alternate history short where Pierre Trudeau was killed in 1968, jumping off the point of divergence I looked at in "To the Gallows" in January, and the question of how one man's absence would alter history is weighing heavily on my mind.

It wouldn't destroy Canada. Neither would it make it a utopia. Countries are bigger than individuals, even when those individuals lead them, and from a distance a Trudeau-less Canada in 2009 would likely be broadly similar to our 2009 in terms of population, wealth, industries and so on.

Getting closer, though, Trudeau shaped Canadian society to an extent that few others have, before or since. It was Trudeau that pushed through official, nationwide bilingualism and the National Energy Program - two moves that other Prime Ministers in his place might not have done. The culture of an Alberta that never asked for those Eastern bastards to freeze in the dark would, again, be broadly similar to our Alberta - it would take something on the order of global thermonuclear war to keep people from exploiting the tar sands - but would likely be noticeably different.

Furthermore, there's the issue of Quebec. There's no telling how a different Prime Minister in 1970 would have dealt with the October Crisis. The world is a fundamentally chaotic system, and from time to time individuals do have a long enough lever to move the world.

You may notice I used a lot of words like "possibly" and "likely" and so on in this post. For that, I only have recourse to S.M. Stirling, who quite rightly observed at a recent Worldcon panel that "alternate history is the ultimate non-falsifiable hypothesis."

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

PDP #87: Rails Exposed

For the last couple of years, the middle lanes of St. Clair Avenue West have been torn apart in order to rebuild a streetcar right-of-way - the original was torn up in an oh-so-farsighted Depression-era construction project. It's at the point now where I'm not sure if it ever actually will be finished, but nevertheless, work goes on.

Here, just east of Dufferin Street, the lanes have been prepared and the rails have been laid down. Everything but the rails themselves will be buried before this part of the line reopens for service.

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, August 17, 2009

Who Stands Up For Canadians?

Recent days have seen the long-overdue return of Suaad Hagi Mohamud to Canada after spending nearly three months trapped in Kenya. She was taken into custody at Nairobi's Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in mid-May because, apparently, her lips didn't match her four-year-old passport photo. When faced with a Canadian held in custody for such a reason, how did the Canadian consulate react? Obviously, it accused her of being an impostor and ever-so-helpfully voided her passport so that the Kenyan government could prosecute her for, among other things, being in the country illegally.

A simple DNA test could have - and, eventually, did - solve this problem. Nevertheless, there wasn't even the beginning of action on this front until the end of July, more than two months after Mohamud's initial detainment. It's not as if it's an expensive option, as the Toronto Star reported that the government would bear the $810 cost. For a government, that's less than loose change in the couch.

There's an old truism that actions speak louder than words, and through their conduct of this case the ruling Conservative government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper has been hollering to wake up the dead. Hollering about what they think of citizenship, and the way in which they view the people to whom they're accountable. I used to think that it was a government's responsibility and duty to support its citizens when they're in scrapes overseas, that that was part of what citizenship meant. A government has an obligation to protect the people who live under its jurisdiction, because otherwise, what's the point of a government at all?

A government that can't do this is sad, a tragedy. A government that won't do this is something else again. I can buy a brief delay because, really, things only slowly move through bureaucracies, and there are few denser bureaucracies than in the parliaments and congresses of the world. But _two months?_

What really got my goat about all this was that while going to work the day news broke that Ms. Mohamud was coming home, I passed an outdoor television that flashed a headline along the lines of "Conservatives maintain slight lead in poll." I can only hope that this was referring to the latest EKOS Research Associates poll, conducted on July 21st, which put the Conservatives at 32.8% to the Liberals' 32.5%, because otherwise, we have a government whose supporters don't care that it left a Canadian citizen to languish in limbo for two months. In its actions, Canada's government has demonstrated a contempt for citizenship, and the fact that no heads have yet rolled speaks volumes.

I recently got my passport renewed, and I flew with it to Montreal and back with no problems at all. Nevertheless, the picture on it was taken in May. For the purposes of comparison, here's a photo of me taken on July 28, 2007, and my previous (heavily redacted for posting) passport, which was still valid at that time. I'm even wearing the same shirt in both photos. Nevertheless, if I had a passport photo like this now, I would not feel comfortable travelling on it given Ms. Mohamud's experience.

So what's the deal? Should we have to renew our passport photos every year so that we can't be as easily arrested for our lips looking wrong, or having different glasses, or losing or gaining enough weight to change the shape of our face? Or should we look to the government that has, by its actions, devalued a document that is meant to "allow the bearer to pass freely without let or hindrance and to afford the bearer such assistance and protection as may be necessary" - a direct quote from the first page of my passport.

There's no such thing as tiered citizenship in Canada. The Charter of Rights and Freedoms is very clear about this - every individual is equal before and under the law.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

PDP #86: Orphan Tracks

Though the Toronto streetcar system is still the most extensive in the Western Hemisphere, it would have been even larger if not for the streetcar abandonment policy that dominated the twenty years after the opening of the first subway. Most of the old system has vanished in the years since it was pulled up, as is the case on Rogers Road, but here and there some reminders hold on.

Today, tracks remain on Wychwood Avenue just south of St. Clair, but have been disconnected from the rest of the system for decades. Originally they were non-revenue trackage linking the St. Clair Carhouse to the remainder of the system. Streetcars will never come here again. I think, personally, that the rails should stay. It's always good to have a reminder.

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, August 15, 2009

Augmenting Reality

The subject of augmented reality recently came up on one of the forums I visit, and predictably, the thread was full of people squeeing over how awesome it would be to be able to delegate more and more and more memory and comprehension tasks to their phones - not exactly in those WORDS, mind you, but I feel it's most honest to get my own personal feelings about the whole things out the door soonest.

Augmented reality promises to be the killer app of the early 21st century. The BBC recently reported on an in-development AR application for the iPhone, currently the alpha and omega of AR functionality, that uses the phone's camera, accelerometer, and GPS to display directions to the nearest Underground station when the phone is held up.

Sure, it has the promise to revolutionize the way we interact with people and the world. What concerns me is that it won't necessarily do that in a good way. Frankly, the implications of augmented reality becoming widespread scare the shit out of me.

Privacy, even the extremely basic expectations of privacy one has in the public sphere, has the potential to be even further eroded by the wide availablility of AR systems. Facial recognition technology is proceeding apace even now; for the last two years, adding the string "&imgtype=face" to a Google Images search will reprocess your search request with Google's facial recognition technology. Sure, it's not foolproof; when I searched "toronto" and appended the string, the eighth hit was an ordinary picture of the Toronto skyline, but technology always marches on.

Twenty years from now, when reasonably mature AR systems are available, I have no trouble imagining rigs that run with facial recognition software that, upon seeing a passer-by on the street, could scan the internet for matching photos and slap their name above their head in a virtual space that only the AR-user could see. You wouldn't have to go to Cheers for everyone to know your name. What further worries me about that prospect, though, is that there are people who cheerlead it.

I'm sorry, but my preference for every stranger with an augmented reality system to not be able to know who I am probably outweighs your desire to not have to worry about forgetting someone's name and being embarrassed by that. I'd rather not have to walk around in public wearing massive sunglasses in order to not be recognized, thank you.

Augmented reality is one of those big topics I'll probably be returning to again and again. I foresee it being the "cell phone craze" of the 21st century, and if that's the case I can take comfort in the knowledge that I'll most likely remain an outside observer - I don't have a cell phone, let alone a smart phone, so why would I need AR?

Unless, of course, they start redesigning society so that mechanical assistance of that sort is mandatory. Happiness is mandatory, citizen. Praise Friend Computer.

Friday, August 14, 2009

PDP #85: A Sense of Subway Style

The thing you have to understand about the Montreal Metro is that, unlike the Toronto subway, it has had an aesthetic component since the very beginning. Whereas most Toronto stations were built to practically the same blueprints and varied only in whether their tiles were pearl grey, English eggshell, or primrose in color.

This is one of the entrances to Square-Victoria metro station in downtown Montreal. The gate is one of the same kind that is used on the Paris Métro, the Montreal Metro's spiritual ancestor. The equivalent here would be for a TTC station to incorporate design elements inspired by the London Underground - but no. See, that might look appealing. Not for the likes of Torontonians, I suppose.

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, August 13, 2009

Australia, Vanguard of Doom

While at Worldcon in Montreal earlier this week, I had the opportunity to attend a couple of panels dealing with the subject of climate change: one explored potential ways to mitigate it through geoengineering, and the other investigated whether or not it was "storyable." Though I did get a few interesting ideas from it, the single overriding concept I left the two panels was this: we're fucked.1

The news I see after having returned home isn't much better. Australian newspapers have been charting the course of a potential emissions trading scheme in that country for at least the last few weeks, if not more, and nothing of what they're reporting looks good. On August 13th, Australia time, the Sydney Morning Herald published an article entitled "Doubters attend lecture as ETS bill heads for doom," with a simple message: this bill is fucked.

The proposed ETS is the work of Malcolm Turnbull, leader of Australia's Liberal Party and thus Leader of the Opposition in the Australian Parliament. Having never seen him in action, I've got no idea how Mr. Turnbull compares to Stéphane Dion in the charisma department, but I'm already seeing disturbing correspondences with Canada's own wrestling match with environmental legislation, after Canada's Liberal Party fought and lost an election with environmental issues as one of their prominent planks.

Granted, Australian PM Kevin Rudd's no Stephen Harper - though both their Wikipedia pages are, as of this writing, "semi-protected to prevent libelous additions." For one, Rudd actually seems to think that climate change is a problem, and has been making noise about Doing Something. Hell, his first official act as PM was to sign the Kyoto Protocol for Australia.

The problem here is one of coordination and correspondence. Sure, most countries say that climate change is a problem and that they want to do something about it, but none of them actually will until someone makes the first move. Rudd has delayed the introduction of emissions trading in Australia until at least 2011 for this very reason.

Predictably, the coal companies are throwing their weight around in this debate, and Australia is uniquely vulnerable to coal companies. It's a dry continent, so there are few rivers substantial enough to dam for hydroelectric power - only 6.8% of its electricity is from hydro sources, according to the World Nuclear Association - and while it is not quite as crazy as neighboring New Zealand, there is still enough anti-nuclear hysteria in Australia that nuclear power generation has no presence at all.

The end result is that Australia is utterly dependent on coal to a degree practically unmatched anywhere else - even China has a more diversified generation portfolio. According to the Australian Coal Association, more than eighty percent of Australia's electricity is derived from burning coal. Australian coal plants produced nearly 200 million tonnes of carbon dioxide per year in 2007. How can anyone down there possibly entertain fantasies of environmental stewardship without totally ignoring that?

The problem with governments is that governments have to, have to, govern with the status quo in mind, because if they rock the boat too much an angry electorate will throw the bums out. The problem with the status quo is that the assumption that goes along with it is that we have unlimited time to change things around, that we could keep burning fossil fuels at our steadily-climbing rate until the 22nd century or beyond, and that nothing bad would happen.

Science does not bear this out. Carbon dioxide concentrations are increasing, the icecaps are melting, and the permafrost is beginning to thaw - and the methane currently sequestered in the permafrost, the methane that has the potential to kick global warming into a seriously high gear, is the elephant in the room that no one is talking about.

At least in places like Canada, the United States, France, and even China, dirty and dysenvironmental coal-based generation is not the only source of power. Australia, handcuffed as it is to the fortunes and filth of burning coal, has a lot further to go.

1 For example, a solar shade with 8% reflectivity, stationed at the Sol-Earth L1 point to reduce solar impact on Earth by 0.25% and temperatures by 2 degrees Fahrenheit, would be a good way to create a "planetary thermometer" for environmental regulation, if only there was an easy way to build thirty-seven million tons worth of solar shade up there.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

PDP #84: Hydrant of Blue

I found this blue hydrant along rue Berri in Montreal while I believed I was walking south, but was in fact walking north; if not for Henri-Bourassa metro station, I might've ended up in the Rivière des Prairies. It's not as if red fire hydrants don't exist in Montreal; I saw a few of them while I was there.

If any Montrealers know what the function of this is, or whether it's just an ordinary fire hydrant that happens to be blue instead of red (and, if so, why), that'd be pretty awesome, actually.

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, August 11, 2009

Quaff Review #5: L'indépendante

"Quebec is different, very different," said the Right Honourable Brian Mulroney, the single least popular and most hated Prime Minister in Canadian history. "It is not strange or weird, it is just different."

Its beer is also different. In fact, I am led to believe that it will never submit.

Much of Quebec's recent history with regard to the rest of the country has been bound up in its 1980 and 1995 attempts to go its own way as an independent state, though the recent silence on that front looks to break the fifteen-year cycle of referenda before it really had a chance to begin. The Parti Québécois hasn't been in power for six years, and the current Liberal majority in the National Assembly seems to be keeping things on an even keel with little talk of separation.

Not everyone is satisfied with this. Thus, enter L'indépendante, a new craft-brewed beer produced to raise awareness of and support for Quebec independence. A portion of profits from the sale of L'indépendante are, according to Google Translate, "used to promote the country of Quebec."

That's right - this is separatist beer. Naturally, once I learned of its existence, I realized I couldn't go all the way to Montreal and not try some. For the purposes of reviewing it, you understand. It doesn't make me a bad Canadian. Besides, this is one beer that will be found on the shelves of an LCBO around the same time as I have the chance to vote for a Bloc Québécois candidate in Trinity—Spadina.

The first thing I found is that L'indépendante is hard to find. Apparently it hasn't been selling as well as its creators hoped, and as an independent beer it doesn't have quite the heft necessary to get into the limited cooler space of Quebec's depanneurs and grocery stores. I found it at La Fromagerie Marché Atwater in Montreal's Atwater Market, a cheese store with a rather wide selection of beers - many of which were local Quebec beers that I'd never seen before. If I'd had more time in the province, I would have tried some of them out as well.

It took a few minutes of careful searching to find the L'indépendante; as far as I could see, the six-bottle case I picked up was the only one they had in stock. All told, it cost me $15.49 CDN, which included a $0.60 bottle deposit charge ("depot bouteille"), $0.66 GST, and $1.04 in Quebec sales tax. For purposes of comparison, a six-bottle case of Antigravity Light Ale is $11.95 at the LCBO before Ontario's interminable sales taxes.

L'indépendante, though it has its charms, is no Antigravity Light Ale.

love that lens flare

I found that the beer builds up a good head of foam when poured, but that it also clears very quickly. I can only describe its smell as "beer," having nothing in that regard I'd find unusual, and it has a wheaty sort of taste to it that doesn't hit very hard. Strange, that; considering that it's a beer devoted to Quebec independence, and that its labels and marketing play that angle to the hilt - I mean, par Dieu, its logo is a closed fist!

Nevertheless, while it doesn't have an extraordinary or even unusual taste, L'indépendante goes down smooth, and I'd put it in the same hammock-in-summer category as Antigravity. Since my hotel room didn't have a refrigerator and the ice machine was out of ice half the time I went there, I found that it actually tasted rather good when warm, a point in its favor. Most beers make me want to gag when they're warm. The box says that it is best served between 5 and 12 degrees Celsius.

The box says a lot of things, actually, but with my limited command of French I cannot reliably read it. The sole and solitary English word that appears on the packaging is "beer," and I would bet that's only because they're required to be bilingual in at least that respect. Otherwise, this beer appears to be targeted at the Quebécois and only the Quebécois. I was very careful to speak only French while I was buying it.

So, if you're in Quebec, you're not from Quebec, and you're interested interested in something you'd never get back home, you could do worse than give L'indépendante a try. I drank it without regret - my own feelings on Quebec separation, should it come to that, are on the record. I am not a bad Canadian.

I have to say, though, that Quebec independence probably would have a hell of a lot more mileage if it was fronted by attractive young women like the one on L'indépendante's label and not angry old dudes like Jacques Parizeau.


Previous Quaff Reviews