Monday, November 30, 2009

PDP #138: Scramble! Scramble!

The scramble intersection at Yonge and Dundas has been there for long enough now that pretty much everyone in the area knows the score: as I recall, first north-south traffic gets the green light, then east-west traffic gets the green light, and then traffic in all directions gets the red light so that pedestrians can cross from any corner to any other corner. A similar interchange has been installed recently at Yonge and Bloor, but I've never been up there.

Considering the amount of foot traffic at Yonge and Dundas, the scramble intersection's more than worthwhile. It's also fun, and a good spot for fresh photographic perspectives. Once, while I was crossing, I saw a couple run out into the middle with a professional photographer trailing behind to snap a photo of them together in the intersection. That's the sort of idea I can get behind.

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, November 29, 2009

Common Words #9: Tranquility's Prologue

Tomorrow, National Novel Writing Month comes to an end, and today, there are doubtless thousands of people racing to slam out those last few hundred or few thousand words before the clock strikes 23:59. I participated in NaNo in 2006 and was one of those writers that brushed up against the deadline. My story, "Tranquility," was incomplete and got steadily worse, in my opinion, the further it went from the beginning. Some fragments of it are, however, serviceable - I've already posted one, a couple of months ago.

Today, what I'm posting is the first scene of the story, about 4,000 words that I wrote in the space of a day. At the time, it was extremely energizing. I don't think I ever hit that peak again. Also - I wouldn't describe Luna as having "jagged" terrain anymore.

Tranquility's Prologue
by Andrew Barton

Kyoko Kuznetsova felt the dusty regolith crunch beneath her boots as she kneeled to pray. The silence was unbroken, the tranquility perfect, and she let her words flow like a rushing river in a thirsty valley. Above her the stars painted constellations of unbroken splendor, and no matter how often she saw the sight she knew that it would never cease to fill her with awe.

The view around her was equally inspiring. To her left and right fellow shrinekeepers knelt in quiet reflection, and a phalanx of a congregation stood on the smoothed-out rocks behind her. The moment of personal prayer would be the only time during the service that she didn't face them. They were all in uniform vaccsuits, though none rivalled the degree of artistry with which Kyoko had decorated her own.

Only a handful, Kyoko thought. Nothing next to the crowds on Landing Day. Then again, society expected people to pay their respects on the anniversary. Only the diehards and true believers made the trip out to the shrine when there wasn't any special significance to the date.

Beyond them, the rugged, rambling landscape of Luna stretched all around. Jagged hills and cyclopean boulders cast shadows that might have been reflections of the sky, from the depths of their blackness. The hard, grey eminence of the land was not troubled by the works of civilization. The shrine itself was half an hour's walk distant, and even that seemed too close an intrusion on the sacredness of the place.

When she finished whispering her prayers, her body was lighter and her soul was energized, eager to face whatever challenges would come. Before she turned her attention back to the congregation, her gaze lingered on the spindly, spider-like legs and gold-foil body of the lander. It had been perfectly preserved since coming to rest so long before, first by the endless serenity of the land and later by Kyoko and her fellow shrinekeepers.

She couldn't ignore that it was incomplete. She had seen the old photographs time and again from the corridors of Krasnaya to the cloisters of the chapel, and what had been left behind was far lesser than the majesty of the whole. The frozen flag nearby stood as tall and proud as the day it had first been planted, but Kyoko often wondered if Tranquility Base was the only place where men and women still venerated that star-spangled banner.

"Men and women of Luna," Kyoko said, turning to the congregation. As the senior shrinekeeper present, and an accomplished student of the rites besides, the honor and duty of leading the service fell to her. "On this day, we are gathered here to pay our respects to those who came before us, to those who labored so that we can today remember their deeds."

The sea of faces was downcast, eyes fixed firmly on the lunar soil. None were tapping their heads, relieving the spectre of a recalcitrant radio from her thoughts. She'd found few things that could destroy the sacred atmosphere of Tranquility Base like an ill-timed malfunction.

"We have been through much anguish together, yet through the experience of our shared adversity we have been forged into greater examples of our kind," Kyoko continued, her arms spread wide. "Humanity is vital and strong. Luna has taught us strength, and fortified with that strength we find ourselves imbued with the wisdom of the universe and its architects."

In the past, some pilgrims had expressed dissatisfaction with the way the Tranquility Base services were conducted. In Kyoko's view, there was no room for a shrinekeeper to name heavenly names. Most of the Christian churches were under a united roof now, but the people of Luna did not bend their knees to the Holy Trinity alone. Tranquility Base, as far as she was concerned, was a place where every man and woman could find their own path to enlightenment.

"We must remember that this place is more than just a shrine, and that this lander is more than a simple machine," Kyoko said, motioning towards the silent descent stage of the Lunar Module. "This place is where the gap was bridged for the first time, and this lander was the ark that made it so. Just as Noah and Utnapishtim and Deucalion survived the floods that drowned all that they knew, so too have we survived."

She cast a glance upward, and the congregation followed her eyes. Blue, cloud-wreathed, silent Earth hung half in shadow, its night side scarcely brighter than the endless depths of space. From where she stood the planet seemed frozen in the firmament. For a moment she was again that little girl brought out on the surface for the first time, and the whole of that blue world seemed like something she could pluck out of the sky like a fruit from a low-hanging branch.

There's so much we don't know, Kyoko thought. The same thoughts rang throughout the corridors of her mind every time her eyes fell upon Earth. So much we've lost. If only we could hear something, just one word, even. Eighty years of silence is almost too much to bear.

Fortunately, Kyoko only entertained those thoughts when she had an opportunity to really think, to ponder outside the usual limits of her attention. In her day-to-day life, as it was for most of her fellow Loonies, Earth was just the world above. The ones like her, who had been born in Luna, could sometimes forget that men and women had once laughed and prayed and sung under its blue skies, and that it had been a home for all humanity.

Forty days and forty nights, she mused. At least those animals had warm air above and solid ground below. Sometimes I wonder if the waters will ever recede.

"Today, we stand strong, and today we stand free," Kyoko said. "Your sacrifices have made that strength and freedom possible. Keep that in your thoughts, and our people will remain an example of the best that humanity can achieve. God be with the Republic, and God be with you all."

The congregation applauded at that, and though there was no sound Kyoko drank down the feelings of adulation regardless. Appeals to patriotism always won the crowd, and with the Directorate rattling its sabre over the Imbrium question again, Kyoko wasn't inclined to shy away from an opportunity to boil some blood.

She turned and prostrated herself before the lander for a moment before returning to her appointed place with the rest of the shrinekeepers. Julian Nyariki, one of the new reverends from Krasnaya, stepped in to take her place in front of the lander. He was a tall, lanky reed of a man, and though his ancestors had come from Africa he had the same coffee-toned skin that had become predominant among Loonies. Earthbound ethnicities were little more than curiosities to Kyoko's generation.

Kyoko was thankful for her own aged-papyrus shade, just different enough that she didn't completely blend in with the rest. The prospect of vanishing within a crowd had never been comforting to her. She supposed that was why she'd been so eager to follow her dreams at Tranquility Cathedral.

Nyariki spoke at length about living a virtuous life. Kyoko had heard the sentiment enough that she didn't need to listen to the words, and they flowed smoothly around her as if she was a rock in the middle of a calm river. She dialed the radio speaker's volume down so that Nyariki's words were barely more than a buzzing in her ears, closed her eyes and communed with the universal symphony.

Even on a dead world like Luna she could feel the pulse of life. Three hundred thousand souls from horizon to horizon left a mark in the aether that she couldn't ignore. Though it was comforting to feel its presence, she couldn't shake the thought that the currents of lunar magic were nothing but streams compared to what had been. On Earth there had been billions of people and a green and thriving biosphere, but in Luna there was only that which men and women had carved from the rocks.

When the time came for the congregation to break and return to Tranquility Cathedral, Kyoko almost rocked back on her heels, scarcely aware of how she could have lost track of time. The hike back typically drove the pilgrims to grouse, but Kyoko revelled in it. It was a time for her thoughts to wander unencumbered by the concerns of day-to-day reality. There was only her and the starlit peace.

"Hey, Kyoko," said a voice crackling through her speaker. It was Pyotr, one of the newer shrinekeepers, a young, sallow-faced fellow from New Luna City who'd latched onto her like an unsuited man in a decompressed airlock. "I just wanted to say that I thought your benediction was great. Really something awesome to hear."

"Thank you for that, Pyotr," Kyoko said, making sure that they were on an independent channel. She wasn't a fan of broadcasting every word she spoke for the world to hear. "I try to find the words that'll hit the hardest. Otherwise there's not much point in doing it."

"No, no there's not," Pyotr said. He was silent for a moment, in what Kyoko took to be a moment of reflection. "That's the most important thing, it is. Getting across the significance of something. Everything happens for a reason."

"I used to believe that," Kyoko said. She shifted into a matronly schoolteacher's tone almost unconsciously, but she couldn't ignore that Pyotr's education wasn't quite complete, the way she saw things. "I can understand how it's comforting, but it just doesn't ring true for me anymore. Not after I've seen what I can see from here."

Pyotr's eyes went up to Earth without any further prompting. She could tell that he didn't see it the same way she did. Too many Loonies looked at Earth without really considering it, dismissing it like endless earthbound generations must have dismissed Luna throughout history. It wasn't really real to them, and the way some of them spoke, it might has well have been a painting hung from the constellations.

"It's too much to think about," Pyotr said, finally bringing his eyes back to the world again. "Too much to really consider. It's the kind of thinking that seems like it'd drive you to madness if you give it half a chance."

"It would indeed, Pyotr," Kyoko said. "But it's the kind of madness that's necessary. If we allowed ourselves to forget what happened, things would be far worse. Without the touchstones and remembrances, what do we have?"

She kneeled down and scooped up a handful of dust. Though the surface itself was solid, meteoroid impacts and, more recently, civilized agents had helped kick up a loose layer of dust that clung to the surface. It was black against the bright white of her vaccsuit, as dark as she imagined the void between the galaxies must be.

"We're more than this dust, Pyotr," Kyoko said, speaking in a soft but firm tone that was meant to bring the lesson home. "We can't forget that we have a duty beyond us, beyond Luna. We owe it to those who will come ahead of us and those who went behind to work towards a greater humanity, and we can't do that if we lose sight of what we have lost and will one day regain."

"That's... interesting," Pyotr said with a whistle. She ventured an unspoken guess that he'd never had the situation explained so directly. "Have you ever considered using that as one of your benedictions?"

"Pyotr, Pyotr," Kyoko said with a smile, "what do you think my benedictions are, if anything other than to figure out how to say the same thing in a hundred different ways? That's the real challenge of being a shrinekeeper. I'm surprised they didn't tell you about it in so many words."

They probably didn't want to scare him away, Kyoko thought. Pyotr had something of a natural timidity about him, and she wondered if it came from spending a life in the great urban warrens, seeing the sky about as often as a medieval noble had bathed. Tranquility might be a desirable state of affairs in theory, but in practice it seemed as if it bred fears where none had been before.

Kyoko lifted her eyes to the sky. Sometimes she worried for the future.


This story is distributed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 license. That means you are free to Share - to copy, distribute and transmit the work - and to Remix - to adapt the work - under the following conditions:

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Previously on Common Words

Saturday, November 28, 2009

PDP #137: Evening Rush

After much trial and error, I have discovered that my camera can in fact take somewhat serviceable photographs in low-light situations - as long as I'm careful about it. This means that I have to be facing the sunset, so it can take advantage of what light there is. If I'm facing east at twilight, the picture will be terrible. I know from harsh experience.

This photo was taken looking west along King Street West at Dufferin. Every second the light was getting a little bit dimmer. Opponents of streetcars may be chagrined to learn that, yes, they can build up such blinding speed that they're reduced to blurs. That's one reason I like them so much.

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, November 27, 2009

It's Personal: On Imagination

If you've been following this weblog for a while, you may have noticed that while I frequently write about my opinions, it's not often that I write directly about myself. Not only would it be, in my opinion, hopelessly narcissistic, it just wouldn't be that interesting. From time to time, though, things happen that I'd like to share.

Upcoming Event

On Sunday, December 6th, from 2 to 3 or 4 PM (I've heard both), I will be appearing with fellow authors Shauna Roberts and Ken Edgett at Mystery & Imagination Bookshop in Glendale, California, where we will be signing copies of Return to Luna, the anthology that contains my short story "The Platinum Desolation." I think this is the first Return to Luna-specific event that's been held, and considering LCROSS' recent detection of water on the moon, I think the timeline is pretty appropriate.

So, if you're in the Los Angeles area on December 6, come and see the three of us at 238 N. Brand Boulevard in Glendale. I will do what I can to ensure that it's totally awesome. Thanks go out to Christine Bell at Mystery & Imagination and Eric Reynolds at Hadley Rille Books for getting this event off the ground.


As I've said earlier, but which you may not have read, "The Platinum Desolation" is my first work of published fiction. When the announcement of the winning Return to Luna stories was made at Denvention 3 back in 2008 (I wasn't there, but I read about it on INTERNET), I was electrified. At the same time, though, it presented a problem - what if it was one of a kind? I've heard stories of people laboring to create a work of fiction for which they eventually manage to find a home, and never being able to replicate that. What if I couldn't make lightning strike twice?

I consider it good news for me that I don't have to worry about that anymore. Last night I received a self-addressed envelope with an Edmonton return address, containing a check for $175 (hard currency - Canadian) and a countersigned contract for my files. I can now comfortably announce that my short story "You Source of Tears" will be appearing in a forthcoming issue of On Spec. When? I'm not too sure; On Spec publishes on a quarterly basis, but hopefully it will be sometime in 2010. I will say more about it once I learn more about it.

It's taken me twelve and a half years, from my hamfisted completion of "Corona" on June 5, 1997 to this, to sink my writing foundations into the ground. In that vein, I have high hopes for what I'll be looking back on in 2022.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

PDP #136: Morning Cloud

The early morning is practically a different world. I was a visitor there for a little over a year, for the duration of my time on the overnight shift. While the streets of downtown at 7:44 AM are as familiar as any other time of the day, the atmosphere and sense of presence is totally different than what you'd find at a more reasonable hour. People, still groggy, are flowing into the downtown core like water coursing through an aqueduct, and the still-rising sun casts a strangely altered light on the new day.

Sometimes in parts it gets purely steamy.

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, November 25, 2009

Short-Sighted Progress

Apparently Boise, Idaho is looking into putting in a streetcar. Boise's no stranger to streetcars, like most North American cities, but also like most North American cities, it's been a long time since it's had rails to ride - the original Boise streetcar system was decommissioned back in 1928, well before it became fashionable for cities to tear out the rails. The streetcar reintroduction project there is modest, just a couple of miles of track circulating through downtown, but already it's got detractors. One such opponent writes at the No Boise Street Car weblog, where streetcars themselves are castigated as "a regressive design... basically unchanged since their inception at the turn of the century."

Streetcars haven't changed in a hundred years? Okay, so where do I attach the horse?

Put the TTC's remaining Peter Witt heritage streetcar and a modern CLRV next to one another, and tell me how much is basically unchanged between them (protip: they both run on rails). By that logic, automobiles are equally regressive because they're still powered by internal combustion. But I digress.

Reading this reminded me of another note on the Transit Toronto website, regarding why Toronto still has a streetcar system of any kind. Sixty years ago, cities from Hamilton to Montreal and Vancouver to Ottawa operated, while now Toronto's are the last in the country. Toronto kept running streetcars not out of any sense of wisdom, but because it was "slow in embracing what was seen as the progressive trend."

I've written before about the Great American Streetcar Scandal that led to the demolition of streetcar systems in Los Angeles and other cities across the United States, but it does a disservice to think of that as the sole and solitary reason why most cities abandoned their streetcars. The scandal was only the most prominent expression of an idea which was commonly held at the time, that streetcars belonged to the past and not the future. It's only been in the last couple of decades that cities have realized the hollowness of this belief and begun to reinstate light-rail transit systems.

The problem is not streetcars, no matter how much whoever's behind No Boise Street Car rails about the supposed inferiority of streetcars when compared to buses that can be powered by "one of many propulsion methods - battery, electric, gasoline, diesel, biodiesel, compressed natural gas, or hybrid technology." Nonwithstanding that only two of those methods create no emissions, which is half the reason I ride the streetcar myself. No, the problem is the consistent willingness to believe that just because an idea, concept, or method is old, it is outdated and something new is automatically better just because it's new.

On the face of it, there's nothing intrinsically wrong with that kind of neophilia, but following it blindly is right up there in the hierarchy of poor decisions. Sure, some old methods lasted because at one point they were the only way to do things - like burning coal for electricity away from sources of hydroelectricity - but others lasted because they worked, and worked well. I don't think it's a coincidence that most public transit operators were grievously wounded when they stopped running streetcars. At the time, everyone was jumping ship for individual automobiles, and since buses were the Wave of the Future, that's what every city on the continent started running. Too bad that buses are widely stereotyped as "the last resort," full of strange people and stranger smells. There's a permanence and, yes, a sort of romance involved with the rails, elevating them a bit above the everyday. That's one reason why I think light-rail has been successful where it's been reintroduced.

Progress is all well and good, but like all things, it should be pursued with moderation.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

PDP #135: Concealable City

There are parts of the city laid out in such a way that it's easy for them to fall beneath notice. In Toronto, the Esplanade is one. Long and narrow, it's wedged between Front Street and the Gardiner Expressway, two arteries that are all too often thought of as riding one another's shoulders. To me, this area is like a time capsule of 1980s Toronto, before City Hall had to look after everything south of Steeles and when there were still things worth looking forward to.

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, November 23, 2009

A Fair Measure for Transit

Toronto is one of those cities that would grind to a halt without its public transportation system. The provincial government knows this; recall 2008, when the Toronto Transit Commission strike was settled by back-to-work legislation was pushed through in the space of a weekend, while only a matter of months later Ottawa's OC Transpo strike was allowed to drag on for fifty-one days before that city and its union reached a deal. Recall last week, when a subway shutdown saw so many commuters spill onto the sidewalks at Yonge and Bloor that the police had to be brought in for crowd control.

Transit is of extreme importance to this city. Everyone, including the people who do not set foot on the TTC, should recognize that. Many roads are strained already - the grid would not be able to absorb the million-plus people that ride the system every day. That's why I find it so frustrating that the TTC has to perform a desperate balancing act just to maintain itself, like riding a unicycle on top of a jagged boulder rolling steadily downhill. For most of the last twenty years the TTC has lurched from crisis to crisis, at times barely keeping things together. If Toronto is serious about establishing its bona fides as a city worth reckoning with, there's still a lot of work to be done.

One potential solution comes from Los Angeles. Transit in Los Angeles County was provided purely by buses for almost thirty years, following the total destruction of the original Los Angeles streetcar system, and that city is known for the magnitude of its traffic jams. Maybe that's exactly why Los Angelenos are willing to give transit a chance today - they know what the alternative is.

In November 2008, Los Angeles voters passed Measure R, a half-cent sales tax levied throughout Los Angeles County to finance transportation improvement throughout that jurisdiction's eighty-eight cities, towns, and unincorporated areas. In some places the money - they're expecting to generate $40 billion by 2039 - will be invested in road improvements, but in terms of public transportation, Measure R has provided the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority with a guaranteed income stream to finance service expansions. LACMTA's not sitting on its hands, either; the Expo light-rail line is on target for a first-phase completion in 2011, the Gold Line is on track for another round of expansion, and in the more long-term plan, the subway's Purple Line is to be extended west to the Pacific Ocean, bringing higher-order transit service to areas that lack it. Combined with the lavish governmental support LACMTA receives, the future for transit in Los Angeles looks bright.

Toronto could take lessons from this. Hell, all of Ontario could have. The biggest problem Toronto has is that the provincial and federal governments care nothing about the TTC except when it can be used as a job generator to make them look better. Thus, witness the federal support of the Sheppard East LRT, a white elephant that will only ensure that the Sheppard Line remains a stub unable to realize its potential, and provincial willingness to invest in big-ticket construction projects while refusing to provide a share of the money that will be needed to actually run and maintain those projects once they become part of the system.

Something like a municipal transportation tax could improve matters here, whether it's Toronto-only or province-wide. The latter might be the more palatable option, as it would enable the expansion of systems elsewhere and would eliminate the phenomenon of people hopping north of Steeles to buy their staples. A dedicated half-cent could do a lot to improve the stability of transit and transportation in this province.

Whatever the way it's done, that's what Toronto really needs - stability. A strong foundation. Without that, the TTC will continue to stumble from crisis to crisis, and a system that's devoting all of its time to keeping its head above water misses out on opportunities to innovate, to improve, and to really be the better way.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

PDP #134: The St. Clair Shuffle

I've lived in Toronto for three and a half years, and yet I've never seen a streetcar on St. Clair Avenue West running past St. Clair West station. The reconstruction of the street has, it seems, been a parade of bureaucratic errors. I've heard about instances where the streetcar right-of-way was completed, only for it to be torn up again for watermain repair, and so on. A project that was initially supposed to be finished in a couple of years is dragging on and on.

Today, the reconstruction is done as far west as Old Weston Road. Beyond that, there are parts where the rails haven't even been laid yet. Until they are finished, which is scheduled for spring 2010 sometime right now, this stretch of St. Clair west of Old Weston will continue to be slow-moving, bumper-to-bumper.

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, November 21, 2009

The Hollowness of Teleportation

Teleportation isn't ubiquitous in science fiction, but it is common enough for its more disturbing properties to get play. Star Trek popularized it, originally as a means to avoid the expensive effects shots that would be required to land the Enterprise on the Planet of the Week - it wasn't until later that the writers thought of shuttles. Today, the Stargate franchise keeps it up. Teleporters have been around from the beginning in that bundle of series. Nevertheless, I can't really look kindly on teleportation. I'm not the sort of dude to get behind a device which, when everything works properly, kills you.

The "take you apart, put you together" method of teleportation seems to be the most common in current use. The only example I can think of which doesn't use that method is the Battlestar Galactica jump drive, and only then because absolutely nothing was ever explained about its function. Admittedly, the dematerialization school is probably the simplest to imagine - a person is converted into energy and then re-converted into matter on the other end. That doesn't make it any more palatable for me. I've never really been able to understand the seeming obsession with this method of travel.

Still, what most people tend to gloss over in televised portrayals of this technology is that this isn't transportation - this is a gussied-up fax machine with a shredder attached. With these teleporters, what arrives at the end is the product of the same information - a result of the implementation of "how to build this dude from nothing" blueprints - but not the original. How could it be?

Personally, I prefer to stay well away from teleportation. I consider it to be a crutch for authors - it's unnecessary in written portrayals, where effects costs are irrelevant, and with ubiquitous computer-generated imagery the same is effectively true in visual arts. At this point it's more of a stylistic choice, and it's one that I'd rather avoid. Teleporters allow people to be dropped into danger or plucked out of it at the wave of a hat, and their existence tends to require justification on why they can't do X or Y so that they can't solve the problem of the day on their own.

There's actually only one really substantial advantage that I can think of which teleporters provide - they render the issue of differing relative velocities irrelevant. This is particularly important in the Stargate series, where the stargates on either end of the active wormhole may well be moving tens or hundreds of kilometers per second in different directions, relative to each other. This is also an advantage that, I don't think, isn't ever mentioned.

Friday, November 20, 2009

PDP #133: Up McCaul

McCaul Street isn't a particularly prominent road in Toronto. It may be most important now for providing access to the Ontario College of Art and Design - that weird structure that looks like a shoebox balanced on pencil crayons - and the Art Gallery of Ontario. Two streetcar routes that enter downtown from the east loop here, as well.

This photo was taken in May 2008, and the nature of the street has changed slightly since then. McCaul Variety is very much out of business, and the removal of its signs has revealed old, wooden "McCaul Cigar" signage that looks fifty years old.

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, November 19, 2009

The Convenient Coincidence

I've heard it said that once is coincidence, twice is happenstance, and three times is enemy action. To say it another way, if in a work of fiction something happens often enough it's preferable for it to have been planned that way by an actor within the story. When writing, I think that keeping one eye on this is important. Good plots should be moved by the choices of the characters who are caught up in them, and not by unlikely intercessors streaking out of the sky. There are very few instances in history where the lack of a coincidental occurence would have been enough to make events switch to an entirely new track.

I remember when I was first starting out with serious attempts at writing, twelve and a half years ago. Back then it was extremely tempting to make things happen just because, without rhyme or reason, so that I could do whatever I wanted and wouldn't have to justify it. Thankfully I left that particular habit by the wayside before I started sending submissions out to the markets in earnest. In retrospect, it's an attitude that works in a similar way as training wheels on a bicycle. With "easy mode" plotting, where things happen because Author Wants Them To Happen, beginner authors have the opportunity to assemble whole stories and start getting handles on the process. Once you have your sense of balance, though, those training wheels will only slow you down and trip you up.

There are probably authors who eschew the use of coincidences as much as possible - I can't think of any offhand, but I would be surprised if they didn't exist. If that's what a person is comfortable with, great. I can understand why some authors would want to banish that kind of capricious artificiality from their stories, so that the plot unfolds solely due to the actions of the characters. I don't go that far. There is room for coincidence in stories - and it helps get a better handle on characters. It opens up their fields of choice, because most people don't factor bolts from the blue into their everyday lives.

Despite the endurance of the old saw that says "there is no such thing as coincidences," I don't agree. I don't think there is any sort of plan for the universe. Things can, and will, happen that individuals just can't predict. That precise thing happened here in Toronto just yesterday. On Tuesday, the Toronto Transit Commission approved a fare increase, one which has resulted in many gnashing teeth and complaining complainers in the media, on Twitter, and elsewhere. On Wednesday, a third-party contractor putting in natural gas lines accidentally broke through into the subway tunnel, which the TTC shut down for a safety inspection - right through rush-hour. People were irritated at having to wait for shuttle buses, already frustrated at the 2010 fare increase.

Coincidences happen, and they can't be predicted. Every once in a while it's useful to drop one on your characters and see how they dance.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

PDP #132: The Centre

I am ill again today, regrettably, and so this will be short. Pictured today is Masaryk-Cowan Community Centre, one of the more historic structures of the former village and current neighborhood of Parkdale. It has particular meaning for me, as this is where I intend to get my H1N1 vaccination - as soon as I have the opportunity to do so.

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, November 17, 2009

2060: The Next Great Apocalypse?

There's a long - not necessarily "proud" - tradition of apocalyptic predictions throughout history. Witness the Millerites, who believed the world would end first in 1843 and then in 1844, or turn the page back to 1999 and look at some of the more hysterical guesses of what Y2K would turn out to be like. Today, the armageddonoids are expecting the world to end in 2012, and so it's no surprise that Roland Emmerich, one of the minds behind the horribly armageddonist The Day After Tomorrow, would capitalize on this by scourging the world in the film 2012.

It's hardly a surprise that this movie was made. It's been nearly ten years since Y2K, and the lack of anything more significant than website calendars clicking over to January 1, 19100 has left an apocalyptic vacuum. As we enter the 2010s, I think it's pretty much a certainty that we'll see more and more 2012er armageddonoids working themselves up into frenzies over "the end of the world," and more and more "apocalyptic entrepreneurs" cashing in on the phenomenon. December 21, 2012 might end up being a rather interesting day no matter what happens.

Come January 1, 2013, though, what's going to happen? History has shown that armageddonoids aren't strangers to the concept of a delayed apocalypse - the Millerites, for example, stood by their leader even after the first prediction of the Second Coming fizzled. I'm sure that some "astrologer" or "clairvoyant" or another will predict destruction and doom pretty much every year afterward, but there's one in particular that may well end up being the same kind of lightning rod that 2012 is today - 2060.

I'll be the first to admit that by the time 2060 actually rolls around, the world may well have far more serious problems than worrying about apocalyptic predictions for that particular calendar. Nevertheless, the human willingness to believe that the end is near and accounts will be settled is a strong one, and when people have a reason to believe that these forewarnings of doom are more rigorous than the predictions of astrologers, they'll probably pour that much more faith into it. 2060 is particularly vulnerable to that, as the date was established by none other than Sir Isaac Newton - probably the most widely-known scientist other than Albert Einstein.

And if a scientist said it, you know, it's got to be true.

Newton's writings of the end of the world didn't come to light until 2003, when previously unpublished papers were unearthed indicating that Newton had "calculated" that the apocalypse would start no earlier than 2060, a figure which he arrived at through Biblical references. Newton also wrote that the apocalypse would happen no later than 2344, but I don't expect people to pay much attention to that. One of the great scientists of history, the man who "discovered" gravity, says the world might will end in 2060. That's good enough for them!

Fortunately, we've got a long way to go before phrases like "NEWTON WARNED US" start appearing on billboards and posters. Come the 2050s, though, unless the world has degenerated and civilization is on the brink, I expect there to be people going on and on about how the end is almost at hand and we need to use our remaining time to get right with everything.

Actually, now that I think about it, if civilization was on the brink that would only give even more credence to the idea that Newton Was Right After All.

Monday, November 16, 2009

PDP #131: L'éléphant blanc

I first saw Montreal's Olympic Stadium from the air, while the plane was descending into Trudeau International. It was built as the centerpiece of the 1976 Summer Olympics, though it was not completed until 1987, and when taking repairs and cost overruns into account, by 2006 the bill for the place was more than $1.5 billion. Olympic Stadium is one of the symbols of why I hope Toronto will not land an Olympic Games - all too often I see the Olympiad ride into a city and leave massive debt and half-finished temples to sport in its wake.

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, November 15, 2009

Go For the Gold Line

Until recently, when I thought of transit cities, Los Angeles was far from the top of the list. Much of that is due to it being the first great auto-centric metropolis, as well as constant reinforcement in popular media that Los Angeles is a city where you absolutely need a set of wheels if you want to be taken seriously. The fact is, though, in the last twenty years it has made substantial strides. Los Angeles, it seems, operates one of the few modern mass transit systems in North America - primarily because the oldest parts of the current system date back to 1990. Now that I've looked into the matter more deeply, it seems to me that mass transit in Los Angeles has a great deal of promise, and that its future is bright.

I remark on this because today marks the official opening of the Gold Line Extension, nearly ten kilometers of new track that extends the existing Gold Line - one of Los Angeles' three light-rail lines - from Union Station into East Los Angeles, an area that has been without higher-order transit since Los Angeles tore up its streetcar system in the mid-20th century. My upcoming Tunnel Visions: The Los Angeles County Metro Rail, which should appear on this weblog in December or early January, will take a close look at this new portion of the line. From what I've seen, it seems greatly reminiscent of what Toronto plans to do with its Transit City project, but on a greater scale.

Los Angeles media, from what I've seen, seems to be enthusiastic about the extension, something that is encouraging to me. For a long time I've had this idea of Los Angeles, thanks to its deep and abiding love affair with the car, as emblematic of everything I stand against - pollution, sprawl, alienation from the cityscape. Now, though, it gives me hope - if Los Angeles, of all places, can invest in a proper, well-used mass transit system, then we may have finally turned the page on the twentieth century.

Still, though - if Los Angeles can build a proper mass transit system, what's keeping Mississauga from doing the same? Its population of nearly 700,000 makes it the sixth-largest city in Canada, and yet Mississauga Transit is limited to being a bus operator. Even Hamilton is looking into installing a light-rail network - if light rail would not work in Mississauga because of problems of density, that's purely the fault of the city planners there. Mississauga always struck me as the kind of city that wanted to be Los Angeles when it grew up; in some respects, it's seeming more like Los Angeles than the actual Los Angeles.

Finally, there's one thing I'd like to share with you - a video produced by LACMTA regarding pedestrian and vehicular safety for the Gold Line Extension. By my count, twelve people died during the course of it. Parts of it, like the scene where a car crosses one set of tracks and barely avoids an oncoming train, only to be smashed by another train coming from the opposite direction, strike me as darkly comical.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

PDP #130: The Edge of Etobicoke

The Humber Bay Arch Bridge is, in my opinion, one of the better unsung features of Toronto's architecture. Its position, spanning the Humber River just north of Lake Ontario, is such that the average person's only experience with it is seeing it in their peripheral vision while they speed down the Gardiner.

Last month I posted a photo from within the span itself. This photo is looking the opposite direction, from Etobicoke into Toronto. I didn't realize at the time that the Queen Elizabeth Way Monument, that crown-topped obelisk to the left of the bridge, was visible in this shot. It's yet another thing many Torontonians seem to not be aware of.

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, November 13, 2009

We Could Still Do Worse Than Ride the Rocket

It seems to me that over the past few years, the Toronto Transit Commission has developed a particular talent for attracting complaints. It may be that these grumblings were already around, but only achieved their current prominence in the public discourse after the 1990s cuts gutted service. A great many of them are, in my opinion, completely unfounded. Say what you will about the TTC, but if you're one of those people who thinks it's the worst transit system in the world, all you're doing is exposing the depth of your ignorance and the lengths to which you'll go to attack something you don't personally like.

The impending fare increase has been generating more complaints, and even a protest in the form of today's TTC riders' strike. The question I've never seen answered by opponents of the fare increase is this: if not a hike, what are you willing to give up? I think the most important thing to have and to retain in this situation is perspective. The TTC is a major transit system, but it's not the only major transit system, and we can learn a great deal through comparison. It was true back in March, when I looked at the potential service cuts and fare increases faced by New York City's MTA, and it's still true today.

The Chicago Transit Authority, which operates that city's 'L' rapid-transit system and an extensive bus network, is right now giving a lesson in what could have been. The recession has been hammering transit agencies across North America, Chicago's included, and I think the TTC is fortunate to have come through in the state it's in. Here, the TTC has been selling the fare increase as a necessity in order to maintain and expand current levels of service. Yesterday Chicago barely avoided fare increases of its own, but at no small cost.

Chicago's rapid transit network is considerably more extensive than Toronto's, a result of much of it having been built by multiple competing private companies in the great age of transit before the automobile came and ruined everything. One thing I did notice during my analysis of the system was the relative infrequency of trains - in the Loop, at least, this is moderated by the sheer number of lines that pass through it, but further out from downtown the situation is different. In Toronto, unless something is seriously wrong the longest you'll wait for a train is 5-6 minutes - and that's on off-peak hours on a Sunday. Chicago's frequencies rarely come close to equalling that, even in rush hour.

And now the waits are going to get even longer. The Chicago Tribune reported today that fares in Chicago will remain at their current $2.25 per ride rather than increasing to $2.50 for bus fare and $3.00 for rail and express bus fare, thanks to a $166-million infusion from the Illinois state government, but at the expense of layoffs and service cuts. Nine of the CTA's express bus routes will shortly be cancelled and service frequencies will be reduced on more than two-thirds of the city's bus routes as well as 'L' trains - to the extent that outside rush hours, frequencies will be reduced to every 20-30 minutes.

This might not be so bad if you're waiting in a comfortable subway station. If you've never been to Chicago, you might not realize that the 'L' has very few of those. It's called the 'L' because the vast majority of it is elevated. In a response to my Tunnel Visions: The Chicago 'L' post last month, Chicagolander Strannik commented on what it's like to wait for a train in the winter:

About as unpleasant as you make it sound. All elevated stations are equipped with heater lamps, but there is usually not enough lamps for everyone. During the winter, you often see clumps of people huddled around heat lamps while everybody else looks on jealously. Oftentimes, the heat lamps don't even function properly. Blue Line Irving Park 'L' station is particularly notorious for heat lamps that do absolutely jack to warm the riders. Some stations do have indoor spaces where you can wait for the train to arrive (they're colloquially known as the "waiting rooms"), but they are rare.

What's more, recall that $166-million from Springfield? It doesn't come for free. It is, in fact, a loan. The Tribune's Clout St blog outlines it - the Regional Transportation Authority, which oversees the CTA as well as Metra and Pace, commuter rail and bus systems, is to pay off this loan at a rate of $15.3-million for the next two years, and $10-million a year until 2039. Even then, the CTA still has a $100-million deficit to solve.

The TTC has its problems, yes, but those problems are not structural. It's taken ten years for the system to climb back up from the lows of the 1990s, when provincial subsidies were removed and it was forced to reorganize and chop in order to survive. I still think the TTC is the better way, and I'll be riding it today.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

PDP #129: Some Kind of Bird

The birds are brave in the Distillery District. It's not surprising - cars can't enter that area, and pedestrians generally don't make a habit of attacking birds for the hell of it. The last time I was there, back in the end of October, a couple of birds hung out on the next table over. I got a few pictures, but I like this one the best for the way my camera focused in on the street in the background and left the foreground out of focus. It seems to have some of those "artistic" qualities that only rarely show up in my works.

I believe the bird may be a sparrow - but I don't know birds.

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, November 11, 2009


One of the most important questions in the world, I think, is this: "what do you want?" It's a question for which every person has a different answer. Today, what I want is simple - I want the Second World War to always be known as "the war." Conflicts come and go, and while in the future we may wring our hands about the war in Iraq or the war in Afghanistan or the war in Venezuela or the war on Mars, the blood of 1939-1945 is such that it should never need any further explanation than "the war."

My grandfather, Les Parkinson, served in the war. After having the extraordinarily good timing to leave the British Army in June 1939, he endured the Blitz as a Manchester policeman and joined the Royal Navy in 1943, where he served as motor mechanic of RML 497, a Fairmile Marine Motor Boat tasked with coastal patrols. That boat still sails today as The Fairmile, on passenger ferry service in southwest England.

Before his death in 1999 my grandfather set down his memoirs, and as I read them they hinge upon his service in the war - the ultimate of extraordinary backdrops for ordinary men. Today, I think it appropriate to present two scenes of that conflict, from a man who went through it all without once firing a gun.

The first story involves 497's participation in a commando raid against the German-occupied Channel Islands at some point in 1944 - from context, it appears to be prior to D-Day. I have been unable to locate any information about this raid in any online source.

One afternoon a troop of Royal Marine Commandos came aboard 497. They were led by a Lieutenant who had been a Metropolitan Policeman before the war, and he wore a pair of carpet slippers with sponge soles. He said that he always put them on before going ashore on a raid.

There were eight commandos in all and they had four kayaks to get them ashore, wherever "ashore" was. We slipped our moorings and sailed out. The skipper was glad to go on this patrol, as he was after a chest full of medals and here was a chance to get one, so he hoped.

Once we cleared land we were briefed, and we learned that we were going to take the commandos over to the Channel Islands, occupied by the Germans, to try to take some prisoners. The Officer-in-Charge of the Marines told us that they had information that a top brass conference had been arranged on one of the islands by the Germans, and that his crew was going to spoil it.

The plan was that we would take them in to about a mile or so off shore. If we got in undetected, they would then go ashore in the kayaks. One of the kayaks would return to us with, they hoped, a captured sentry, who would be left with us. Then we could leave the area, only to return at five thirty in the morning for rendezvous, that being just before dawn.

As we neared our objective, the OIC said, "Just look at that." We saw what looked like a car travelling on a road then stop, and then a door open and close. All the lights were visible, none were screened like they were in England. That building, the OIC said, was the object of our attention.

The raiders had, by this time, blackened their faces and were ready to go. The kayaks were launched and away they went and thus started our vigil. After what seemed to be a long time we heard someone hailing us, and after recognition signals had been exchanged a kayak came alongside. Bound and gagged and tied across the kayak was an unconscious figure in an army uniform. He was only about seventeen years old, and had been the sentry on the quayside. We took him aboard and the men left to return to their mates.

The prisoner was carried below and was fastened to one of the bunks, where he finished out his sleep. Our sick berth attendant was his guard. Meanwhile, the rest of the crew were on deck as lookouts. We started our engines and sailed away to a safe distance to await the rendezvous time.

We saw what we thought was a door open and then close, and then an explosion. We surmised that the commandos had succeeded in blowing up the building, thus interrupting the conference in the manner the Marines wanted it done. After a while, small arms fire could be heard.

At two o'clock we started back to meet the commandos. They were all there except two. The Lieutenant told the skipper to head back to port, but to my surprise he refused. He said that it was his understanding that we would wait until two thirty, and it was not that time yet. The engines were cut and everybody was ordered to be quiet.

After what seemed an eternity, we heard a muffled "ahoy." A return "ahoy" was made and then the last kayak came into view. A body was tied across the bow. We took them aboard and found that one of the men was dead. He had ripped his leg off at the knee on the underwater defences and had lost so much blood that he had died. His mate said that he was determined not to leave his mate behind for "Jerry," and if we hadn't waited he would have tried to reach England himself. He was eventually awarded the Military Medal for this action.

We started the engines and left in a hurry. Radar must have picked us up, for the big guns started shooting and we saw the muzzle flashes. We soon got out of their range, so we thought. Suddenly the top of our mast "fell off." We didn't know if it was a direct hit or a bit of shrapnel, but something had hit us and that was scary. Once again my guardian angel was with me. That was the only time we faced enemy gunfire during the whole of the war. We were lucky.

We returned to base safely. On the trip back there was a big row in the wardroom between the Royal Marines Lieutenant and the skipper over his failure to leave at the set hour. As we neared port he came to me and said, "I don't envy you with that skipper, he's a bloody idiot." That was the only real commando raid we ever did.

I often thought of that poor prisoner who we had aboard for a few hours. I wondered what he thought when he came to and realized where he was and what had happened. I should think it was a night that he would never forget and would have never thought that it would happen to him - such is war!

The second story takes place in late 1944 or early 1945. "E-boat" was the wartime Allied term for the German Schnellboot, a type of motor torpedo boat.

One day when we were off on standby, we got a call to put to sea at about five in the morning. During the night there had been an action of the Dutch coasts when the MTBs had attacked a German convoy. There had been a shootout between the defending E-boats, R-boats and flak ships and our MTBs, MGBs and the mother ship, the frigate HMS Dakins. During the battle, the Dakins had been had been hit with a torpedo below the waterline. We had to go out to help, if necessary, and to bring in any wounded and survivors.

A frigate normally had fourteen feet of freeboard amidships, but when we saw the Dakins limping home, she only had about two feet of freeboard. She had taken in so much water that had it not been for damage control she would have sunk, of that there was no doubt. Damage control was a system whereby parts of the ship could be isolated by closing watertight doors.

The Dakins refused our help, as she said that she could make it back to Harwich under her own steam, so we were sent for survivors in the water. We searched around for hours until we finally found one body in the water. When we got him aboard, he was dead, and it turned out that he was a German sailor.

He was Obermachinist Pigorsch, and he had been a mechanic on a sunken E-boat. He must have been due to go on leave when he returned to his base, as he had a small suitcase fastened to his body. That's how we learned who he was. It contained some bars of ersatz soap, the metal parts of a scooter and a photo of him, his wife and a five or six year old boy. So we took him back to base with us.

When we got back to base, we fuelled up and prepared for the next day's regular patrol. As we were about to leave harbour the next day, we were ordered to tie up at the main jetty. There we saw a padre in his clerical rig and a body draped in the German flag. We were told that it was the body of the dead sailor we had brought in, and that we were going to bury him at sea in sight of his homeland. The padre was to spend the day with us.

We knew roughly where the E-boats were, a place called IJmuiden in Belgium. It was the nearest German base to our patrol, so that was where the skipper headed. The sea was calm and we had a very quiet crossing. We must have been within the three-mile limit of the port when an E-boat was seen racing toward us at high speed, as we must have appeared on their radar.

The padre was on the bridge, the flag-draped body was on the quarterdeck and our ensign was at half-mast, so it was obvious what we were doing. The E-boat came within a hundred yards of us. The crew, we could see, were at their action stations. The skipper no doubt had his glasses on us, for we saw the crew leave their action stations and line the deck. Then the German skipper hailed us on his PA system. His voice, I am sure, was that of the chap we saw and heard at the buoy off Weymouth whilst I was in training.

He asked who we were burying, so he was told, and he came nearer and threw a heaving line over to us, on which we fastened a bag containing Pigorsch's possessions. We were then ordered to follow them and I thought, "here goes, time in a POW camp," but I was wrong, thank goodness.

About a mile offshore we stopped, placed the boat in such a position as to allow the dead sailor to face the coastline, and were ordered to proceed with the funeral service. We had no bugles. They fired a volley as the body sunk to the shrill whistle of the bosun's pipe. After it was all over, the German skipper told us to follow him out to sea. He escorted us part of the way back.

Before leaving us, he thanked us for what we had done. He spoke in a very cultured voice, like that of a BBC person. His final words to us were "I hope we don't have to meet again under different circumstances." Then the E-boat sped away. After he had gone we all said a little prayer with the padre and breathed a huge sigh of relief. It was plain to see that the E-boat captain was not a Nazi fanatic. Had he been, we may have ended up being guests of Adolf Hitler.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

PDP #128: Just Another Brick From the Wall

Twenty years and one day ago, the Berlin Wall came down. I don't have any memory of it; at six years of age, I had other things to pay attention to, and my first news-event memory that's stuck with me wouldn't come around until 1991 and Operation Desert Storm. Randy McDonald at A Bit More Detail wrote a good piece yesterday on how the fall of the Wall meant the end of the existential fear of annihilation (which, personally, I still can't fathom how it didn't drive older generations somewhat insane) - you should read it.

But its fragments are still around, to remind us. While in Montreal last August, I found a tall and narrow slab of the Wall set up in part of the RÉSO underground network, in a place of honor in the middle of a corridor where it couldn't be missed. Toronto has its own piece, but it's a bit harder to find.

The "Freedom Arches" are three metal arches that span the reflecting pool in Nathan Phillips Square at the foot of City Hall, "dedicated to the millions who struggled including Canadians, to gain and defend freedom and to the tens of millions who suffered and died for the lack of it." At the foot of one of these arches you'll find what looks to be an ordinary piece of concrete, but the mounted plaque tells that it's something more. This is Toronto's piece of the Berlin Wall.

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, November 9, 2009

A Hand, Reaching to Space

It's easy to look up at the stars and be disappointed at how we've managed. For decades we've been told of the promise that's waiting for us up there, of the opportunities and possibilities inherent in space, and every year that goes by only pushes those dreams another year into the future. The vast disconnect between what we could have had and what we do have, as well as the consistent unwillingness of governments to appropriately fund space agencies in times of economic plenty, never cease to demoralize me. I've heard rumors recently that President Obama will not be giving NASA any more money - and if that's the case, we can say goodbye to the idea of a renewed lunar landing program from 2020.

The one spot of brightness in all this is that despite all the foot-dragging, we're rapidly approaching a point where space will no longer be the exclusive preserve of NASA and the Russian Space Agency. Yesterday Yahoo! News, via Agence France-Presse, posted a story covering what appears to be the Japanese government's serious interest in the construction of a solar power satellite network to ensure Japan's energy sercurity.

This plan is huge. Colossal. And that's the best way to do it. For too long we've been content with a handful of pressurized apartments rocketed out of the well, and tossed back into the atmosphere once funding or interest ran out. Space-based solar power stations would be massive - square kilometers, we're talking about - and would be in geosynchronous orbit, farther out than any human has been since 1972. They would be a truly zero-carbon source of power, and would be able to continue providing electricity regardless of the state of the planetary environment.

Research on this initiative has been underway since the late 1980s, when the 1973 energy crisis was still relatively fresh in the minds of governments around the world. If things continue on schedule, in eleven years Japan will be boosting a 10-megawatt proof-of-concept generator, and should it function well with no complications, they aim to have a station capable of generating one gigawatt of electricity in orbit by 2030.

It's not the biggest, yes. A nuclear power plant like Pickering Nuclear Generating Station produces considerably more electricity than that, and the mammoth coal-fired Nanticoke Generating Station, one of the single largest sources of pollution in Canada, dwarfs it with a generating capacity of nearly four gigawatts. Still, how much are you willing to pay for a method of power generation that has no environmental impact at all?

What's more - if this project does get off the ground, it would be incredibly meaningful for the future of space development. Systems that big need maintenance, and despite what starry-eyed opponents of human exploration would have you believe, robots are inflexible and poorly suited to situations that can't be planned and tested days in advance. A solar power station in orbit would require humans on the scene in order to ensure any problems were dealt with swiftly. The proliferation of space-based solar power could give greater impetus to initiatives to begin clearing orbit of dangerous debris - here, another thing that I do not believe robots could effectively do. There are still many things that require the human hand.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

PDP #127: Old Town, New Town

Compared to other major cities in eastern North America, Toronto doesn't have much of an "old town." A lot of this can be traced back to the Great Toronto Fire of 1904, which ravaged the downtown core, and subsequent governments' skewed view of "progress," much of which involved demolishing older buildings because old buildings suck and only nerds care about things like urban aesthetics.

Today, it's sufficiently low profile that one could be forgiven for thinking it doesn't really exist. As it is, it barely does. The majority of what remains of historic Toronto is east of Yonge and south of Queen, anchored by St. Lawrence Market. Here, at King Street East and Sherbourne, a historic bank building has a new lease on life as the anchor for a shining condominium tower.

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, November 7, 2009

A Good Will for the TTC

When I came up with the idea for this post last week, the situation was a great deal more stable. The announcement of potential fare increases since then have exposed what appears to be a very rich seam of discontent toward the Toronto Transit Commission and the way it's run. I can't say for sure if other major cities hate their transit systems the way Toronto seems to, but the negativity I've been picking up recently seems to have a distinctly Toronto tinge. Whatever that is.

It doesn't have to be this way.

There's a lot the TTC could do to recapture the goodwill of the people upon which it depends. For this, service just isn't enough; even increased service as we've had over the last few years isn't enough, as it's happened so gradually that it's not really visible to those who have their noses up against the glass every day. It needs to engage with the people, to shed the bureaucratic manner in which it deals with so much - to enter the 21st century. To connect. The semi-regular Rocket Talk column on Torontoist is a good start, but that's just it - a start.

I've recently been reading the website for the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, preparing for a new Tunnel Visions post in the tradition of Chicago and Montreal that should appear here sometime in late December or early January. What I see on that site is a public transit operator that's doing its damnedest to engage with the public, because it has no alternative. The Los Angeles rail transit system is still in its infancy; light rail has been running there for only nineteen years, and heavy-rail subways for sixteen. It's still building itself from the ground up and dropping down foundations into the cityscape. One of the things that caught my eye was The Source, a LACMTA-run weblog billed as "daily transportation news & views." In Los Angeles, the transit system appears to be actively engaging with the people.

Toronto, on the other hand, has been a transit city for a long time. The TTC, originally as the Toronto Transportation Commission, has been around since 1921. That's a lot of time for it to establish itself in the urban fabric, but what's more, it's a lot of time for the organization to start taking its position for granted. I still believe that the TTC is the Better Way, but I know there are a lot of people disagreeing with me today.

The TTC needs to engage more with the people. How can it do that? That's the sort of answer that would best be generated, I think, by the people, and I've got one. Maybe you do too. The more we have, the more potential breakthroughs there are.

I've been a Metropass buyer since June 2007, and while I admire the ease with which it lets me get around the city, I generally don't admire the photographs that the TTC chooses for each month. For me this came to a head in February 2009, when the best photograph the TTC could come up with for that month's Metropass was three seats. In my opinion it was, really, a farce.

There are plenty of photographers in Toronto, amateur and otherwise. I should know; I am one. One thing the TTC could do to engage more with the populace is fling open the doors - announce a Metropass Design Contest. This could run the length of a year, or be a permanent thing, where the TTC solicits submissions for photographs to appear on a future Metropass - with the prize being at least a free Metropass, the same - albeit unanticipated - prize that Syrus Watson and Randal Medford got for their "I Get On (The TTC)" last year.

Toronto is a creative city, and I think that a little two-way interaction between its people and its transit system might go a long way to repairing goodwill and encouraging more people to ride the rocket.

Friday, November 6, 2009

PDP #126: Reading Room

I've written before on what I consider to be the vital necessity of libraries in maintaining and reinforcing the foundation of modern civilization. It's something that was reinforced for me five years ago, during my February 2004 journey to the United Kingdom.

Among the attractions in the British Museum is the British Museum Reading Room, dating back to 1857. Until the late 1990s it was part of the British Library, until that organization moved out of the Museum to its own digs. History was made in this room. Karl Marx wrote Das Kapital here.

It's pretty striking, and to me, a reminder of the immense value intrinsic in places like this.

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, November 5, 2009

The TTC: An Un-Fare Perspective

If you live in Toronto, you have most likely already heard that the Toronto Transit Commission is considering a fare increase for 2010 - from $2.75 to $3 even for individual rides, and from $109 to $126 for unlimited-use monthly Metropasses. This would hit me directly, as I have been a consistent Metropass user since June 2007, and would be the second fare increase since I started relying on the TTC - the first, back in 2007, saw fares increase from $2.50 and Metropasses from $99.

You know what? I'm not that broken up about it. I can understand that the TTC is in extremely unstable financial straits, and that ensuring the maintenance and expansion of an effective transit system takes money. If the comment threads at the Toronto Star, the National Post, or Twitter are your guide, though, you would be justified in concluding that I am the only man in Toronto who feels this way. Steve Munro wrote about it yesterday, and takes issue with what seems a lot like the TTC trying to make those Metropass users, on which it is supposedly "losing money" to pay their "fair share," however they may justify it.

Despite this potential increase, which may well be rejected, the TTC is still worth the money. Whether it's for $2.75 or $3, for $109 or $126, it is all I need to get anywhere in Toronto. "Take the Car," I hear them say. Maybe, just as soon as you tell me how much you pay a month for gasoline, and parking, and insurance, and maintenance, and whether or not it makes you feel good to know that you're doing your part to spew a little extra bit of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

The TTC is incredibly, unbelievably, obscenely dependent on farebox revenue compared to any other major urban transportation system in North America. The National Post cites it as 70% of its $1.4 billion operating budget. The only places where this sort of dependence is feasible is in urban major urban cores in Europe and Asia, particularly Asia, due to the presence of massive centralized populations spread over a wide area. This is greater than any other system in the North American continent - of the systems listed on Wikipedia, the only ones that are more dependent on farebox revenue than the TTC are in London, Hong Kong, Osaka, Taipei, and Tokyo. The subways of New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles in the United States do not recover even half of their operating revenue from fares.

Why is this? Mike Harris is why this is. There was a time, back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when even if the federal government did not stand behind the TTC, the provincial government did. The Common Sense Revolution and Harris' insatiable appetite for undemocratic "cuts" and "savings" ended that. Check the TTC's 2008 Annual Report sometime. Buried on page 15 to the Notes to Consolidated Financial Statements, you can find the following note: "However, between January 1, 1998 and December 31, 2003, the Province did not provide operating subsidies for public transit."

Public transit does not exist to make money. If it did, it would still be provided by private companies, as was the case a hundred years ago. They exist to provide a public service, to make it possible to get through life without being chained to a car. I recognize that there are some people who use the TTC and whose budgets are on a knife's edge, and that this increase would be disproportionately punishing. It's not fun. Still, I get the impression that most of the chatter comes instead from people who could afford the increase; they just don't *want* to.

One of the most surprising things I've learned in the course of my transit research is that, when compared to cities of its caliber in North America, Toronto operates one of the best transit systems there is. There, I've said it. I have to wonder how many of the people jawing about how much TTC service sucks have only suburban or small-city bus operators like Barrie Transit, Peterborough Transit, or Niagara Transit to compare it to.

But you say you don't want to pay that much? Well, then, they'll need to cut service. Maybe they'll go whole hog and shut down the Sheppard Line like they were saying they might have to back in 2007. They could shut down all those bus routes as well. Wait! I know how they could save money - halve the number of trains on the subway and reduce headways to bring them in line with pretty much every other city in North America. Fancy waiting ten minutes between trains on the Sheppard Line, or eight minutes elsewhere, even in rush hour? THIS IS WHAT EVERY OTHER SUBWAY SYSTEM IN NORTH AMERICA SAVE NEW YORK ALREADY HAS TO DEAL WITH.

It seems to me that people are allowing this announcement to drown out their perspective - assuming they had any, as perspectives on transit systems are not very widely held, which is one reason why I started writing the Tunnel Visions posts to begin with (covering Montreal and Chicago, and soon to include a study of the Los Angeles County Metro Rail). It's easy to paint the TTC as some greedy government organization concerned with nothing but its own profit. I see people crowing about how service sucks, or how the TTC is the worst mass transit system in the world. My answer to you is - the world includes North America.