Thursday, December 31, 2009

Looking Ahead to 2019

Where I sit, the last hours of 2009 and of this decade are upon us. We've come this far and we haven't even agreed on a name for it, but personally, I think "the Naughts" is most accurate - after all, it was not what we had expected, it was not pleasant, and it was not the gateway into the future. It was just the end of the long vacation from history that started when the Soviet Union's flag came down for the last time.

Now, perched on the edge of a new decade, there's ample room for forward-looking folk to feel hopeful, worried, or both. I don't make any claims at accurate prognostication, but there's just something about stretching your mind in an attempt to predict the future that feels rewarding. Honestly, I think it's something that more people should do - after all, if more people were concerned about the future - the real future, not just three or six or nine months from now - we'd be living in a better world. You can't run a decent marathon without ever taking your eyes off your feet.

NOTE: I use the word "will" in these not because I believe that these events will happen, but because that seems to be the way all prognosticators do their business.

    Thoughts and Anticipations for 2010 - 2019 (void if black swan)

  • Steampunk aesthetics and neo-Victorian fashions will gain a greater degree of mainstream acceptance.

  • The Arctic will be completely ice-free for multiple summers during this decade. While there is the possibility that this will prove to be a Pearl Harbor moment, galvanizing people and organizations to work toward a low-carbon future, there will still be those who think it's all a liberal plot.

  • The Conservatives will lose power in Ottawa, but it won't make much difference because the Liberals will take full advantage of the heavy-handed precedents they set. Conservatives will wail and gnash their teeth over the resulting "destruction of democracy," as if they believe people who follow politics have the memory spans of goldfish. The Green Party will not win a seat in the House of Commons, though they may have better luck in provincial legislatures.

  • Spacefaring states lacking their own manned spaceflight capability - as of 2009, all of them except the United States, Russia, and China - will begin to establish their own human presence in space by 2019, not by building up their own launch capability but by purchasing the equipment from SpaceX or similar private space company.

  • No nuclear weapons will be detonated in anger by state actors.

  • Hollywood will release a major blockbuster, in the vein of 300 or the remade Clash of the Titans, about the Battle of Salamis. It will be called Salamis.

  • The United Nations will select its ninth Secretary-General. He (and it will most likely be a man) will be from the Eastern European Group.

  • The PlayStation 5 will be totally awesome.

  • At least one major geoengineering project will be active by 2019. It will most likely involve the stratospheric injection of sulfur dioxide to increase the global dimming effect.

  • Population will begin to shift away from the Sun Belt in the United States, as energy becomes more expensive, water becomes scarcer, people are less able to afford the sort of house that is fashionable there. Major cities such as Phoenix, based economically on real estate and situated in environments unfavorable to low-energy urban living, will increasingly lose the ability to finance their own operations.

  • In 2019, there will have been at least serious discussion in Washington, DC to build a water pipeline from the Great Lakes to supply the Sun Belt.

  • I will still be around. Hopefully.
so long 2009, and good goddamn riddance

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

PDP #153: The Burning, Freezing Desert

Depending on the time of day, deserts flip one of two ways - it's either way too hot to survive comfortably, or way too cold. In that respect, I think this fits as my last posted photograph of 2009 and of this decade. In retrospect, having gone through this decade almost feels like having trudged through a desert, battered by burning winds. We live in a world that has greatly changed from the one we knew on December 30, 1999. Maybe it's because, much like the Star Wars prequels, the 21st century could not possibly have lived up to its hype.

But we've made it this far, and if we find an oasis before 2019, maybe we'll find out we're on our way out of the sands 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.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Words About Words: Naming Yesterday and Tomorrow

"Commander Lyons!" a red-faced, portly man boomed, grabbing his limp hand. "I am Abner Connaught, elected President of the World-State, in your absence. In the name of the peoples of Earth, I welcome you."
- H.L. Gold, "Hero" (1939)

People have known throughout history that names have power. The right name can inspire confidence, open doors to success, and clear the pathways to a charmed life. While names have become another method of personal or individual expression in the West today - witness the obsession some people have with coming up with "unique" or "original" names for their children - that doesn't mean they're any less important, or any less worth of careful consideration. This holds true for authors just as much as it does for prospective parents.

Character naming is an important step in the world-building process, and I think it should be done carefully - rather than just jam together the first personal name and surname that come to mind, I find it's worthwhile to take the extra time to figure out a name that works. I like names that have a resonance to my ear, carrying subtle meanings if I feel like putting down another layer, and which are either common or nonexistent on a web search. It's a reward of its own, putting together a name that no one else has.

Not all names are created equal, though. While some, such as John, Sarah, Andrew, or Mary, have been relatively popular and fashionable for centuries, there are others that are deeply associated with a particular time period. Take, for example, the quote leading off this post. The concept of a World-State is something that's always been a hallmark of an enlightened futuristic setting, but there it's set off by its leader being named Abner - a name which was prominent in the late nineteenth century, but unheard of today. The same is true of names like Horace and Mabel, Percy or Mildred - names which suffered a precipitous decline in popularity around the turn of the century, to the extent that they're almost entirely associated with the elderly segment of society. In 1939 it was a different story, sure, but seventy years later it's just another datum that dates the work.

Science fiction tends to be forward-looking and preoccupied with the future. That is, after all, one of its prime goals. It follows, then, that the names of people who inhabit these futures are important in setting the stage, and authors who want to avoid tying their future to a particular era overly tightly would do well to look at history, and the nature of how the popularity of names waxes and wanes. After all, what name sounds more believable for the square-jawed 21st- or 22nd-century science fiction hero, Peter or Cuthbert?

Of course, societies change. By 2100, "Peter" and "Cuthbert" could be equally out of fashion. If you're dealing with characters coming from a Western background, however, one potential source of names that have an "otherworldly" flair without historical baggage is the ultimate source for Peter and Abner both - the Bible. Though many popular names in Western cultures have Biblical roots, not all Biblical names are currently popular. Nehemiah, for instance, seems to have been at least somewhat obscure when Robert A. Heinlein chose it for President Nehemiah Scudder, the architect of a 21st-century American theocracy, in 1940's If This Goes On—. Rizpah, a feminine Biblical name, doesn't yet seem to have gained much popularity, but is one that could plausibly come into greater use in the future.

Names have been known to rebound, as well. Phoebe, for example, steadily declined in popularity over the course of the 20th century, only to spike with a vengeance in the 1990s, presumably due to the success of Friends. In a few more decades, many "old peoples' names" may have lost their current connotations and find newfound popularity - all it takes, after all, is one sufficiently high-profile character or celebrity baby to kick-start a name's rise or renaissance.

Ultimately, it comes down to how the author wants the audience of the day to react to the world. If the story's set in, say, 2095, and the author wants it to come across as conservative and past-oriented in mindset, a good way to cement that feeling might be to populate it with Horaces and Ednas, Berthas and Wilburs.

Name popularity curve information in this post was derived from NameVoyager at the Baby Name Wizard, a tool which graphically represents the highs and lows of name popularity from the 1880s to 2008, presumably within the United States. It's pretty cool; you should totally check it out.

Earlier Words About Words:

Monday, December 28, 2009

PDP #152: Into the Sunset

I find that one of the better times to take photographs is in the late afternoon, when the sun has descended from the highest vaults of the sky and seems to have come a few million kilometers closer, if the intensity of the deep golden late-afternoon light is any indication. Here, traffic pushes along College Street past Bathurst, chasing the harbinger of dusk.

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, December 27, 2009

To Ride the Friendly Rails

The next time I visit the United States, I think I'll be taking the train.

After the recent attempted terrorist attack on a Northwest Airlines aircraft descending into Detroit, foiled primarily due to the incompetence of the erstwhile terrorist in question, the United States' Transportation Security Administration seems to have wasted no time in rolling out New Security Measures for all aircraft entering the US - I say "seems to" because as I write this, I can't actually find any details about it on the TSA's own website.

The New York Times report suggests that one of the new measures is that passengers will have to remain seated during the last hour of the flight, during which time they will also be prohibited from accessing their carry-on luggage - pretty much entirely because our would-be bomber accessed his carry-on luggage to assemble his pyrotechnic during the last hour of the flight. Whether or not this will prove to be a knee-jerk response, like the brief prohibition of all carry-on luggage in the immediate aftermath of the planned 2006 transatlantic aircraft bombings, or if it will join the removal and X-raying of shoes in the pantheon of American air travel security, remains to be seen.

Whenever one of these incidents takes place, though, I'm reminded of one truth - that This Is Why We Can't Have Nice Things. Airport security today is a silent war between screeners and terrorists, and security is a reactionary force. The mechanism is set up to prevent things that worked once from happening twice - for the terrorists, things only need to work once, and I don't think they're going to stop probing for the cracks in security any time soon.

If this goes on, I don't think the air travel industry as it currently exists will be tenable. Rising fuel prices have already wounded the airlines, and if security measures become steadily more onerous, there's going to come a time where people are no longer willing to put up with it all. Fortunately, the plane is not the only way to travel.

There's a joke that's made the rounds before and which, I think, has some truth to it - "How do you become a millionaire? Be a billionaire and start an airline." As I understand it, the modern dominance of air travel, particularly within North America, owes a lot to governmental subsidies that allowed the early airlines to undercut existing rail networks. While governments have a deserved reputation for making stupid decisions, even the most knotheaded won't throw good money after bad forever. If the mid-20th century was the Jet Age, I have a feeling that the early 21st century may turn out to be the Second Age of Rail.

Aircraft are fragile things - 36,000 feet above the ground with temperatures outside often Antarctic, small noises echo loudly - whereas trains, by their very nature, are less vulnerable to the midair sort of terrorism. Safety, not death, is on the other side of the window. One bomb could destroy an aircraft, but one bomb would not reduce an entire train to wreckage.

Today, air travel has the advantage of speed. In the years to come, though, it won't have a monopoly. The United States is currently looking into high-speed rail in a big way, and even if trains never are as fast as aircraft, that doesn't mean they're unsuitable for long-distance travel. After all, our ancestors managed it - and we have a wireless communications infrastructure that they didn't. Perhaps in the future, an ordinary trip from Toronto to Los Angeles won't leave from Pearson International Airport but from Union Station, and travellers will have their own allowances to work remotely and conduct their business in transit. For plenty of people, it'd probably be preferable to taking extra time off from work just to get there and back.

I recognize that as a Canadian citizen I do not have a right to visit the United States, merely the privilege. All I want is to be able to exercise that privilege in the least onerous manner possible.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

PDP #151: Low Ceiling, Fast Train

One thing I didn't miss about the TTC while I was riding the Red Line in Los Angeles was the low-ceiling ethos that pervades the system. A fight on the top of a moving train, like the one at the end of Speed, could never happen in Toronto because there's about a foot of clearance between the roof of the train and that of the stations.

At least they do come regularly, though. At St. Andrew station in the middle hours of the day, there'll be one showing up to go this way or that every two or three minutes. Still, even then people will show up on the platform just in time to watch their prospective train accelerate away.

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, December 25, 2009

To the Glory of the Unconquered Sun

I don't know how you all did it in your own homes, but growing up it was always the same for me. The evening of December 24th I'd be afire with anticipation, barely able to settle down in bed, and would always be awake at some ungodly hour like 6 AM because I'd done *more* than enough sleeping. It was time to deal with all the wrapped boxes that had materialized around the tree!

Now, I find the activities of the day more dignified, and no longer hot-blooded. I slept for ten hours this morning and rose well after the sun. Kids have those boundless reserves of hot-blooded energy, but once you start being an adult, sleep becomes even more rewarding than tearing apart the wrapping paper.

Nevertheless - it's the feeling that echoes down the years, of warmth and togetherness and all that, that I miss most about bounding down the stairs. It's something I can't really reclaim now. On December 25, 1989, when I found a Nintendo Entertainment System waiting for me down there, that was all I wanted - on December 25, 2029, I don't even know what will be. Appreciate it all while the opportunity's still here, and have it well.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

PDP #150: Yeah, I'll Take the Pink One

It's been a while since I've been in the same house as a real Christmas tree. I certainly don't have one of my own - my "tree" is about two feet tall, foldable, and bought because I needed something I could bring back on the bus. It's white, because my choice was between either that or a pink one.

The run-up to Christmas in Los Angeles was full of strange juxtapositions to me, such as the holiday music being pumped out of the stores lining Venice Beach, and the complete and total lack of snow. Apparently people still buy trees down there, though - but they don't limit themselves to just the green. At this particular LA lot, it looks like you can get whatever color you want - so long as you like white, pink, or blue.

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, December 23, 2009

All Hail the Almighty Tallest

Maybe one day you'll meet Taryn Tianxia Liang. She's the protagonist of one of the stories I'm currently developing and hopefully more down the road, one of the investigators and defenders of the half-familiar Earth of 2078, and the product of the TwenOneCen's "finest" genetic engineering. It's why she's so tall - 6'3", 190.5 centimeters. Perhaps not quite enough to become a basketball star, but sufficient to intimidate and stand above a crowd. The background, in-story reason was that her parents believed it would give her social advantages.

It seems as if I've managed to wander down the right track. Yesterday, the New York Times reported on a growing interest among South Korean parents to ensure their children grow up to be as tall as possible, since apparently the idea in vogue there right now is that "height is crucial to success." Anything that might grant an extra inch or two is being tried - acupuncture, exercise, growth hormones - and an industry of growth clinics has sprung up to feed the demand, regardless of whether or not the solutions they sell will live up to the hype. It's fortunate no one seems to have resorted to borrowing Procrustes' bigger bed.

Whatever it is, I don't think it's some passing fancy. Height is a primal thing in the human psyche, signifiying strength and authority, and it's something people strive for. I mean, look at elevator shoes. Other than making the fashion statement "I am taller than you and therefore better," what possible reason could there be for these to exist? For a great many people, artificial aids are their only option to stand above the competition. For their children, though, the game is different.

So far, genetic engineering hasn't exactly been the runaway technological success that some people suspected - take seaQuest DSV, which in another instance of having the future come too soon postulated a "Dark Age of Genetics" from 2001 to 2003, or the genetically engineered superman Khan Noonien Singh, who came to rule a quarter of Earth in 1992 in the Star Trek universe background. Nevertheless, progress has been made since the turn of the millennium, most notably with the completion of the Human Genome Project in 2003. It's possible now to sequence an individual's genome. Though I personally doubt it'll lead to a situation like that in Repo! The Genetic Opera, I feel genetic technology is going to deeply influence the shape of the twenty-first century.

Probably its height as well.

I can see a way it could conceivably go. Where today we have chains of growth clinics that claim to add inches via conventional medical procedures, in the future we may deal with operations run by hack genehackers who, for enough yuan or euros or rupees, can promise parents that their children, born or otherwise, will grow tall and strapping like a mighty tree. What they may not do, on the other hand, is bother to improve their patients' hearts or lungs or general musculature enough to support the extra inches that will get piled on - after all, that's complicated and expensive. Tried-and-true genetic engineering will be the province of the wealthy and powerful for a long time - but the promise of tweaked genes will undoubtedly be enough for some parents, eager to give their children a leg up by any means necessary, to open their wallets and genomes.

Maybe basketball will become more popular, too.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

PDP #149: Hunter's Creek

Many cities have built-over waterways running beneath them. London has the River Fleet, Toronto has Taddle Creek, and Peterborough has Jackson Creek, which runs under the downtown core before draining into the Otonabee River. Back in September 2004, construction on Hunter Street West exposed that section of Jackson Creek to the light for at least a short time. Fortunately, from the environmental perspective, unlike the other two examples, Jackson Creek isn't used as a sewer. As far as I know.

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, December 21, 2009

Mired in the One-and-Twenty

I don't remember the 1980s - not really. Born as I was in 1982, and at the tail end of it, what I recall of the decade is isolated flashes, swatches of darkness and light, events that were significant to a child but none that give me perspective today. My first strong memory of the greater world outside of home was Operation Desert Storm, the opening of war against Iraq in January 1991. But I can look back at what was produced at the end of the decade, and when I do, I take from 1989 a sense of optimism. The Cold War had ended, the future seemed wide-open, and technology would transform the world for the benefit of all. Fusion, cold or otherwise, tended to crop up as one of the big game-changers.

Ten years later, in 1999, the West was flush from the collapse of the Soviet Union and the ensuing vacation from history which was the 1990s. The world was getting more prosperous by the day, it seemed, and liberal democracy had built a foundation that would weather any storm. The twenty-first century was upon us, and through it anything would be possible. I mean, look at it! It's the TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY! It's where all the hoverboards and robot buddies and starships and dashing hero captains live! We'd made it fifty years with nuclear weapons without reducing the world to a cinder! Aside from a bit of existential dread about Y2K, I remember 1999 as a time to be optimistic about the way ahead.

Today, in 2009, the game is different, and I don't think it's just me. TIME Magazine called the last ten years the Decade from Hell - I prefer "Decade of Broken Dreams," even though some people think it's an excessively purple term. We've seen the twenty-first century, and been blinded by the glare; tasted its fruit, only to have it turn to ashes in our mouths. I can't think of another decade that's ending on as sour a note as this one; of the future ever seeming so dark, I'd have to wear night-vision goggles.

For decades, the twenty-first century was implicitly the great beyond, the city on the hill, and there was no alternative to it being a good and decent place where technology would work miracles and all our petty twentieth-century problems would be solved. It was the gateway to the Grand and Shining Future. After all, the crew of the Enterprise didn't have to worry about nuclear war or STDs or poverty in Africa. This was supposed to be the time where we made the first steps toward solving the problems that have bedeviled humanity since the beginning.

Ten years, and we've hardly started. What these ten years have taught us is not only that things are worse than we thought, and getting worse faster than we thought they could get, but that people don't even believe things are getting bad - as if the slow death of the Arctic ice cap or the rising concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere or the ticking timebomb that is the tens of billions of tons of greenhouse gases in melting northern permafrost is on the same plane as the question of whether or not the Shroud of Turin is genuine. Then again, it's hard to care about the environment when you've been fired or laid off or made redundant or what have you and you don't know where you're going to find money for food or rent.

For me, the promise of a better future seems, for now, to be hollow. Maybe in 2019, we'll have found new reasons to hope for a better tomorrow.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

PDP #148: Meet the New St. Clair

For nearly ninety years, streetcars have rattled along St. Clair Avenue West in Toronto, and today it's the northernmost route in the streetcar network. For the last two years or so, they've been limited to a brief shuttle service between St. Clair and St. Clair West stations, but today the rebuilt right-of-way - removed back during the Great Depression, partly as a make-work project and partly because of course streetcars are obsolete and for nerds anyway - has officially opened for service as far west as Lansdowne Avenue. It's been a long time coming, so long that I've never seen streetcars run on that part of St. Clair before.

Yesterday, the newest portion of the line was served by the TTC's two remaining PCC streetcars, 4500 and 4549, on a zero-fare heritage charter. I don't know how long it's been since these vehicles have been on St. Clair, but they do look good there.

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

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Words About Words: Consistency Through Prereading

It doesn't take many careless slip-ups to make you look like a knownothing. For some readers, the slightest mistake screeches and jangles like a first-day violinist playing along with the orchestra, and they won't give you another chance to let them down. An author is the architect of a window onto a world, and one of the author's jobs is to ensure that the glass is polished and clear and without so much as a crack.

But mistakes happen. No matter how detailed your research, no matter how familiar you are with an aspect of the story, some nit will inevitably slip through. That's why prereading - reading over the story with an eye to content, before it crosses the desk of someone who might be inclined to buy it - is so important. It's a lot harder to take an author's world seriously when the author bends or breaks reality without realizing it.

When I was younger, I always wondered how writers could let contradictions and errors scuttle in from the cold. Weren't they as interested in the story, the background, the nature of the world as I was? Didn't they care to take care about what they were putting together, to make sure it was solid? That was, of course, before I started writing in any serious way. Now I know better, because even though I am interested in the story, the background, and the nature, that doesn't mean it will be perfect on the first pass, or the fifth.

Part of it's just down to the way writing is done. In a good story, the seams where the writer kicked off for the night and picked up the next day won't be visible, but psychologically they're there. Sometimes a writer might establish something offhandedly in one paragraph, but by the next day it's slipped from the brain. Other times, it's the result of a subconscious tug-of-war as to how a scene should be presented. I've run into this error myself in a story that's still searching for a home. One scene I'd vaguely envisioned as wintry, though I'd never specifically established that, and additional description written the next day - people lying on the grass, a man taking his miniature horse for a walk - suggested, upon later reading, something at least autumnal.

What made this worse was that I didn't discover this until the story had already been rejected from the first place I sent it. While I know that there's no way a story would be bounced if that was the only consideration - editors, after all, change words all the time - it left me with a bad taste in my mouth.

That wasn't the only time I made that mistake, either. In another story, two characters have no choice but to escape a stricken space station without spacesuits, or any other kind of protection. As neither of them are Batman, and thus cannot breathe in space, I spent a while gathering information on vacuum exposure in order to make it as accurate as possible for someone who's never been more than 40,000 feet above sea level. One of the key facts of vacuum exposure, and one that I didn't want to flub, is that the "common sense" maneuver of taking a big, deep breath before jaunting into the vacuum is actually a really, really bad idea, as rapid decompression would create pressure differentials that would seriously damage the lungs. To say the least.

So, if rapid decompression is going to happen, the best thing to do is to totally empty one's lungs of air. This is what I had my characters do. What I also had my heroine do, unfortunately, was count out the seconds until she triggered the airlock and created the rapid decompression event. This didn't strike me as off at the time, but a few days later I tried it myself. (Talking after emptying my lungs, that is, not experiencing rapid decompression.) The result wasn't even so much as a croak - croaks, at least, are audible. I edited the scene slightly so that someone else was giving the countdown over the radio.

Errors can slip in anywhere. You've got to always be vigilant if you want to get ahead of them. So after you've finished something, leave it for a while and read over it again with fresh eyes. The nitpickers will always have things to complain about, but it's not an author's job to make things easy for them.

Friday, December 18, 2009

PDP #147: Cloud Mountain Valley

I've heard it said about California that it contains an example of every environment on Earth, from rainforests to deserts to the Mediterranean climate that makes Los Angeles stand apart from the deserts just over the mountains. Looking out from an aircraft is an excellent way to see this, and to see things that just couldn't be taken in at once from ground level.

Based on the flight path of my Los Angeles - Toronto flight, I believe this picture to have been taken somewhere over the San Gabriel Mountains, but I can't get any more specific than that. I think it stands fairly well on its own.

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, December 17, 2009

Quaff Review #7: Sparks Plus

It was obvious that the clerk at this particular 7-Eleven in North Hollywood doesn't often reckon with Ontarians who wander off the Metro Orange Line to buy one can of beer. He peered and squinted at my driver's license for what felt like a minute but was probably half that, and in the end told me to rattle off my birthdate before he was satisfied the ID was legitimate. I can understand - if, when I'd been working at one of my gas station jobs back around the turn of the millennium, someone had tried to pick up a pack of smokes with a California license as proof, I'd have probably needed to stare at it for a while myself.

Nevertheless, in the end it was all good, and I got my alcoholic drink. I'm hesitant to call it "beer," because I'm not sure if that's what it actually is, if only in the technical sense - the label calls it a "PREMIUM MALT BEVERAGE WITH NATURAL FLAVOR, CERTIFIED COLORS & FD&C YELLOW NUMBER 5." What I am sure of is that Sparks Plus, a product of Steel Brewing Company - a brand of Miller Brewing - in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where the can asserts it is UNION MADE, is totally unlike any other beer I've ever had. What a surprise that this revelation would come out of the United States of America.

When I first took a drink, I found the name appropriate - an "appropriately electric taste" was my thought at the time, though it seemed more like a soft drink than a beer. After thinking on it for a while, I realized it wasn't a soft drink that this reminded me of, but an energy drink like Red Bull. Wikipedia not only tells me that I'm correct in this realization, but that until last year it was far more of an energy drink than a drink drink - before December 2008 it contained caffeine, while the 7.0% alcohol by volume content was merely a sideshow.

But "electric" covers a lot of ground. I found it to have something of a carbonated, citrus taste, and it went down smooth with no lingering aftertaste - always a plus in my book. It also struck me as the sort of beer that would taste horrible when warm. The head doesn't last long, though, and even when I poured more it wasn't rejuvenated.

This 473-mL (1 pint/18 fl. oz.) can cost me a little over $2 USD at 7-Eleven. I've never seen it for sale in Canada, and based on the way it blurs the line between energy drinks and hard drinks, I would be surprised if I ever did. It was only recently that caffeinated Mountain Dew became legal to sell here. For a quick drink in the United States, though, it was pretty good. I'd have it again, sooner if I didn't have to cross an international border to do so.


Previous Quaff Reviews

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

PDP #146: The Flight of Pigeons

Here in Toronto, in my experience pigeons tend to be meek creatures, walking through a crowd only when no one in it is moving and bursting into flight at the first major sign of human activity. Their cousins in Los Angeles seem to have different habits; maybe it's because they never have to worry about the cold. At the corner of North Vermont and Melrose, I stumbled through and stirred up a flock of pigeons that took to the air all around me. I've never before had to worry about urban birds dive-bombing me, but in those few seconds I thought it was a distinct possibility.

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, December 15, 2009

A Short Circuit in the Electric Sewer

In a lot of cities, rapid transit isn't - at least, with my experience and expectations created by the Toronto Transit Commission's operations, that's how it often seems to me. On Toronto's three subway lines and the Scarborough RT, trains run so close together that if one's pulling out right as you hit the platform, you'll only have to wait 5-6 minutes for the next one. It's not often, in my experience, that the scheduling seriously breaks down. What I've come to realize is that this is unusual, as far as North American cities go. Though the rapid transit systems in Montreal, Chicago, and Los Angeles beat out Toronto in some respects, in my opinion none of them stand above the TTC in terms of this dedication to timely service.

The recent TTC fare increase is, in its way, emblematic of that. Adam Giambrone has stood firm against the prospect of service cuts to make up the budget hole, and in so doing, the TTC is one of the few major transit systems on the continent that's taken that option off the table. In New York City, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority is staring into a budgetary abyss, stemming from a $200-million shortfall in a recently-enacted transit payroll tax as well as reduced support from the New York state government. Yesterday the New York Times reported the shortfall as $383-million in spite of a 25-cent fare increase in May, a far more sobering amount than the expected $106-million gap the TTC hiked its fares to fill.

Ultimately, as it turns out, an extra twenty-five cents per ride doesn't seem to have been enough to stabilize the system, and the MTA has been forced to slash service in order to stay afloat. Two entire subway lines, the W and Z, will be cancelled - unlike in Toronto, where "line" and "track" are synonymous, in New York multiple subway lines can use the same track - while off-peak service would be reduced and discounted student fares would be eliminated. Its version of Wheel-Trans would be cut to the absolute minimum. The budget which would force these cancellations hasn't been passed yet - it goes before the MTA board tomorrow for approval - but this isn't the first time I've heard tidings of budget armageddon coming out of Manhattan, and the MTA only has so many saving throws against recession.

Cutting service is, fundamentally, a short-term solution that creates long-term problems. The usefulness of an urban transit system comes not just from its length but from its capacity for connections. One subway line may feed multiple bus routes, and the passengers that transfer off those buses filter through the system according to their individual needs. Service cuts inevitably break these connections, and the echo of a scissors' snip will be magnified as it resounds across the system. A frequent transit rider whose bus route is cancelled or chopped into an inconvenient schedule may well find it easier, if not cheaper, to drive and find their own route on their own merits.

A certain level of complexity is necessary, I think, for a truly functional and reliable transit system. Sufficient service grants the system a robustness that would allow it to weather damage and continue functioning. For example, I feel that the Downtown Relief Line should be a far more immediate project for the TTC than the current Transit City system. Not only would the new subway line spur new ridership, by extending higher-order transit service to areas of the city that currently lack it, it would give the system resiliency. A DRL that reached north to Eglinton Avenue would have been invaluable last month, when an accidental tunnel breach shut down a four-station section of track that left tens of thousands of commuters in the cold.

While it may be necessary in the short term, a transit agency cutting service in order to survive runs the risk of cannibalizing itself - service cuts decrease the connections of the system, which drive potential passengers away, and if enough are driven away farebox revenue is insufficient to sustain the system, which in the absence of government assistance necessitates further fare increases or service cuts - in much the same way as the protagonist of Stephen King's Survivor Type. Though I hope that the MTA can come out of this pit as soon as possible, I'm thankful that the TTC is so far refusing to consider the kind of drastic measures that could lead to another lost decade for transit in Toronto.

Monday, December 14, 2009

PDP #145: That's No Trolley

Seventy-five years ago, dozens - perhaps hundreds - of North American cities operated streetcar systems, though in the United States they're also known as "trolleys." New Orleans is the only American city that operates a traditional streetcar system today, and it's only a fragment of Toronto's. Nevertheless, the trolley - streetcar - whatever you want to call it still has a place in peoples' hearts down there, most often as a nostalgic throwback to when days were less complicated. Only a few American cities today utilize streetcars for serious peoplemoving.

The Los Angeles Department of Transportation operates its own downtown-focused transit service in addition to that provided by LACMTA's Metro Bus and Metro Rail systems. One of these routes is the weekend-only Observatory Shuttle, which provides people an alternative to driving or hiking to the top of Griffith Park to see the observatory. These shuttles are buses that echo the old-timey streetcar shape, the same way as Hard Rock Cafe shuttle/tour buses do in Toronto.

But they're not trolleys.

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Sunday, December 13, 2009

No Such Thing As Free Sequestration?

The major thing now that a lot of big corporations are talking about to make themselves sound like they've got environmental credibility is carbon capture and storage. On paper, what it means is that where power plants, factories, and other large carbon dioxide producers would previously emit the gas into the atmosphere, with CCS they would capture much of the carbon dioxide before it can be emitted and then sequester it, either deep underground or in the soil cycle, where it wouldn't contribute to climate change.

So the theory goes, anyway. Big businesses are beating this drum for all it's worth, even though there hasn't been so much as a pilot project to tell us whether or not it actually works - and not only if it works, but if it can work economically. It's one of the environmental hot potatoes right now, and personally, I hope that it works: I think we'll need all the avenues of mitigation we can find in the years ahead, and that's not even taking geoengineering into account.

What worries me, though, is the potential nature of these subterranean carbon dioxide reservoirs, and what happens if they're breached - either inadvertently by human activities, or as part of natural processes. The first is simple enough to avoid. I would imagine that carbon dioxide reservoirs would be sufficiently deep underground that some guy with a shovel wouldn't need to worry about breaching one, but nevertheless, I can see governments creating no-dig zones in and around these reservoirs to eliminate, or at least seriously reduce, the chance of a breach.

What I find more concerning is the prospect of these reservoirs in earthquake zones. The planned CCS schemes I've seen are rather local to the point source of the emissions, and so unless actual CCS programs end up taking a rather different shape, planners and engineers will have to reckon with the local geography and geology.

This could be an issue in earthquake zones. In California it's not too much of an issue, as there are only a handful of small coal-fired power plants within the state itself, but elsewhere it's a different story. The necessity - if it does turn out to be a necessity, depending on how CCS takes shape - of insulating these reservours against seismic shocks might well make CCS far less of a deal than it seems at the moment. The Los Angeles subway system cost considerably more to build per kilometer than comparable subway systems due to the need to reinforce the tunnels against earthquake damage, and governments or concerned citizens' organizations might demand that carbon reservoirs be similarly reinforced. Los Angeles spent billions building the 28-kilometer Red Line and Purple Line subways, but I don't imagine it would take very long for a coal plant running at full tilt to fill them up with gas.

It's probably for the best that there aren't yet any active CCS demonstrations. I think there are a lot of biting questions that remain to be asked.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

PDP #144: One City Hall

Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle described Los Angeles City Hall as "phallic" in their novel Oath of Fealty, but I don't really see it - if this is a phallic building, than any building taller than it is wide is a phallic building. It's certainly dominating, though, and representative of an entirely different architectural school than both Old City Hall and New City Hall in Toronto. For nearly forty years after it was completed, it was the tallest building in the city of Los Angeles. The Cicero quote, I think, gives a touch of class, and it's one that I think more politicians should take seriously.

On that note, the dozen or so of you who read this weblog on a regular basis may be interested to know that I intend on registering to run for Mayor of Toronto in 2010. Yes, seriously. It's not as if I'm the first to talk about throwing a hat into the ring.

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, December 11, 2009

Think of It as Evolution in Action

Despite the way they tend to attract sf writers, there are a great many stumbling blocks in the path of anyone who dreams of building an arcology. Aside from the financial gymnastics that would be required to build and maintain a hyperstructure inhabited by tens or hundreds of thousands of people, it's a safe bet to say that the underlying technology to build a city in a box does not exist as of 2009. It's an equally safe bet, however, that solutions to those problems will be found during the course of the twenty-first century - so long as industrial civilization remains sufficiently intact to capitalize on them.

The threat of environmental degradation and collapse, as I wrote on Wednesday, may be one factor that spurs the construction of arcologies or arcology-like habitats over the next hundred years. It's hardly the only one. In a 2004 comment on the nature of Todos Santos, the arcology at the center of affairs in the Larry Niven/Jerry Pournelle novel Oath of Fealty, James Nicoll had this to say on what happened to drive people into the City in a Box:

Fear is what happened. Todos Santos existed because there were a lot of white folk and black people of a particular sort who were terrified after the riots that cleared the ground TS was built on. Once there was a huddling place for them to flee to that wouldn't cost them their jobs, they ran to it.

This probably means even without the unfortunate events of 9/11 a lot of cities couldn't build up the head of pressure needed to make people live in a society like TS (One that combines the worst aspects of a small town, a condo and a stockage deep in enemy territory) and so whatever Lord Haw Haw thinks while drinking himself blind Toronto just isn't going to be able to generate the fear to make people ignore the downsides of living in a big box. The future of TS style enclaves is in nations where sharp divides exist between groups, whether it's rich/poor, ethnic divisions or other visible differences. Think Sao Paulo, not Minneapolis.

When Oath of Fealty isn't following the brave, upstanding, forthright, free-willed, yadda-yadda "heroes" of Todos Santos as they work to suck Los Angeles dry, one of the continuing subplots involves a visiting Canadian governmental official investigating possibilities for a new arcology to be built up north. The novel ends with those possibilities being set in motion, for a northern Todos Santos that might not stand apart so sternly from its neighbors.

I think the idea's ridiculous, though considering that said Canadian official sported an honorific ("Sir") of the sort that's been verboten since 1935, at least Niven and Pournelle seem to have given Canada an even coat of paint from the unrealistic brush. While the traditional idea of the arcology has a certain attractiveness in a land with such punishing climates - the 1883 pamphlet The Dominion in 1983 described many Canadian cities as being similar to the modern concept of the arcology - I agree with James Nicoll, and I don't think that the psychological necessity is there. There's nothing to run from in Canada. Cities like Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver don't have the same undercurrent of tension or separation that seem to pervade cities like Los Angeles. From the gilded mansions of Beverly Hills to the low-slung, barred-windowed, chipped-paint neighborhoods of Boyle Heights or South Central, there are subtle indications of a "class system" in LA - something which would be fertile ground for a fear-driven isolationist impulse, but which does not exist to nearly the same degree up north.

Los Angeles isn't unique in this respect, though. If the "fear model" of arcologies does get off the ground, I suspect that many of them will be built in Europe. European states tend to have a fractious relationship with their immigrant populations - while the idea of a Canadian ethnicity or "Canadian blood" (as opposed to First Nations, that is) is faintly ridiculous to me, countries like France, the Netherlands, Germany, Denmark, and so on have been ethnically homogeneous for most of their history - and as more and more people from Africa and the Middle East seek sanctuary in Europe, I imagine there's going to be more and more backlash from the people already there.

In France, the habitation à loyer modéré subsidized housing projects are where nearly 25% of that country's population resides, and the inhabitants seem to be disproportionately immigrants. A similar undercurrent of tension exists between the "ethnic Francais" and the immigrant community, most recently manifesting in the 2005 and 2007 civil disturbances. If arcologies could feasibly be built, I would not be surprised at all to see Arcologie Toussaint rise atop a burned-out chunk of suburban Paris, a secure refuge for "pure" French culture.

There seems to be, I think, a similar undercurrent of alienation in the United Kingdom. It goes at least as far back as Enoch Powell, who in 1968 made a speech where he described the UK as "busily engaged in heaping up its own funeral pyre" for allowing continued immigration. Today, the Daily Mail is Britain's bastion of anti-immigrant rhetoric - I didn't have to look far to find an editorial there decrying "Labour's open-door immigration policy putting Britain's burgeoning population on course for a Black-Hole-Of-Calcutta nightmare of 70 million." If All Saints, or maybe New Camelot, or Albion, ever went up in the green and pleasant land, the Mail would probably be sponsoring it.

To me, it's something I have difficulty wrapping my brain around. That may come from my upbringing, since as the most cosmopolitan city on Earth, Toronto is effectively the antithesis of an arcology - open, rambling, full of different people and different viewpoints. Arcologies may well come to dominate skylines in the years ahead, but I don't think many - if any - will rise under the maple leaf.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

PDP #143: La Cienega Sunset

Los Angeles has a much-deserved reputation for being built around the automobile. As a result, the city spreads lazily over a vast tract of land that feels like it could swallow multiple Torontos - two, to be precise, but that doesn't take into account LA's equally sprawling metropolitan area - and sees punishing traffic jams that turn streets into seas of brakelights and high-beams. The varied geography of Los Angeles, built as it is in and around a low valley, provides many opportunities for fresh perspectives on this.

When I first saw this sight, it took my breath away. This is La Cienega Boulevard, looking south and extremely downhill from its northern terminus at Sunset Boulevard, just before 6 PM. It's a river of light worthy of the Don Valley Parkway.

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, December 9, 2009

Architectural Ecologies

The arcology, a single massive building that amounts to a city in its own right, has occupied the imagination of visionary architects and science fiction writers alike since the twentieth century. In part it's the extension of the twentieth century experience to its ultimate conclusion; after a period shaped by people moving from rural to urban or semi-urban areas, the idea that the vast, rambling city could be boiled down to its essence within just one set of walls seems like a natural endpoint.

In theory, arcologies are great. They're the absolute antithesis of sprawl, since by their very nature they must be efficient in order to prosper. While today a city can expand by annexing land from rural neighbors and throwing open the floodgates to suburban development - this is pretty much the way Mississauga went from a cluster of small towns to a city of 700,000 in fifty years - adding on to an existing arcology would be a major construction project, extremely taxing in time, effort, and money, and so rewards would naturally stem from working within its limits to the best possible degree. Arcologies would, by necessity, advance the frontiers of knowledge in sustainable living.

I've recently started reading Oath of Fealty, a 1981 novel by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle set in and around Todos Santos ("All Saints"), a massive, hulking, fortress-like arcology built upon a riot-ravaged residential neighborhood somewhere in Los Angeles ("Los Angeles") of the near future. Though I can't say which side the authors come down on, having only made it to page 125 out of 324, I can't say their speculations about what life in an arcology might be like are off the mark. Todos Santos is a society tightly controlled by custom, its inhabitants under the constant possibility of surveillance, and absolutely ruthless in dealing with what it perceives as threats to its security.

Part of Todos Santos' reason for being is described as practice for starships - in a world without the possibility of faster-than-light travel, starships would out of necessity need to function as self-reliant, sustainable, entirely self-contained societies. Other arcologies arose out of a belief that denser and denser populations would be the wave of the future - this is their primary function in SimCity 2000, for example, as they allow mayors to gain a large source of tax revenue with a small physical footprint, or as a means to combat overpopulation, as in Robert Silverberg's The World Inside.

Personally, I don't think either motivation will be particularly strong, should arcologies ever be built - particularly not for overpopulation, for exactly the same reason that space colonization would not solve that problem. What I think could spur arcologies is simple - the need for security in an environmentally unstable world. GURPS Terradyne follows this trajectory in some respects - set in 2120, on an Earth that is suffering from environmental degradation, many states operate "complexes" for the poor that amount to arcological slums that police will not enter.

Should environmental degradation continue into the future, I can see the concept of the arcology becoming more and more attractive as a means to potentially create islands of social stability. In Oath of Fealty, Todos Santos is portrayed as something of a vampiric parasite on Los Angeles, sucking whatever jobs and wealth from the city it can while constantly planning new methods to come out on top. It might be more appropriate to cast a twenty-first century Todos Santos as the castle of the feudal lord and Los Angeles as a village of serfs, with LA dependent upon the rigidly controlled, self-sufficient arcology for its own stability and survival. In other environments, social stratification and separation between arcologies and neighboring cities could result in rich, powerful arcologies with feral cities, metropolitan centers devoid of central authority or security - effectively, extending Mogadishu to its ultimate conclusion - just beyond their walls.

So far, no one has solved the multitudinous engineering and ecological problems that would constitute the foundation of a successful arcology. Pioneering efforts such as Biosphere 2 and Arcosanti have not necessarily lived up to their expectations. Nevertheless, no matter how much of a positive or negative effect an arcology would have on its surroundings or the people within it, the underlying technologies and concepts are still worthy of investigation and development. We've come to a point where, for good or ill, humanity is actively managing the planetary ecosystem. Knowing how one works in miniature would be a boon to understanding the whole of Earth.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

PDP #142: Yes, It Rains in Southern California

Yesterday, it seems, Los Angeles flipped its collective shit about the weather. It really doesn't rain much here - particularly not recently, as I believe the city did not receive so much as a raindrop over the entire month of November. That came to an end today, when Southern California's first winter storm crashed in from over the mighty Pacific. What was a winter storm here, though, would be an ordinary rainfall in Toronto. Aside from an hour or so of moderately heavy rain around noon, the precipitation was light enough - or, for that matter, nonexistent enough - that I didn't have to crack open my umbrella once while I hiked along Wilshire Boulevard from Vermont to Western, a little less than 1.7 kilometers.

One odd thing I noticed on my way was the number of streetside umbrella vendors - usually just a guy with a bucket full of umbrellas he'd try to hock to passing pedestrians. Thinking about it, though, it's not too surprising - since it hardly ever rains, most people would probably find it easier to just buy a cheap umbrella when necessary. I found this umbrella vendor outside Hollywood/Highland station, a little while after the rains had pushed on.

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Monday, December 7, 2009

Not A Moment Unsung

Yesterday my digital camera died - I killed it, to be more precise, by accidentally dropping it on a hard concrete floor - and today I feel incomplete. I picked it up on April 25, 2008, and in the time since I've taken more than eleven thousand photos and videos with it. The vast majority of the Public Domain Photography photos I've posted here over the last year came from it. I've been able to document my world with it, to preserve old and fresh perspectives alike while the capability still exists to record them. Now, everything that passes by just passes by, unable to be appreciated and soon forgotten.

Personally, I can't abide that. There are too many fleeting things in this world to go uncaptured, too many pieces of life that deserve to be remembered. Look at the present gulf between the film photography past and the digital present. While almost every house have albums upon albums of vacation, holiday, and family photos, most of these are left sandwiched between the pages and rarely ever see the light.

Other times it's difficult to find a photograph of something that's since been destroyed. For example, a while ago the city of Barrie demolished the historic Barrie Arena, home of hockey since the 1930s, so that a new fire station could be built on the site. It was demolished in 2008, well into the era of digital photography, but nevertheless only a handful of decent photos of the place exist online. UrbEx Barrie has the best ones I've found. Two photos out of a seventy-four year history. I have just as many photos of a soft drink called Leninade, the last photos I took off my camera before its untimely death.

The camera that photographed this tall, sparkling glass of Leninade is now as dead as Communism.

The present proliferation of cameras, in the form of cell phones and digital point-and-shoots alike, may help to end this. Whereas in the past cameras were bulky, had limited capacity and film development required a significant investment - a friend of mine still has fifteen or so undeveloped rolls of film from a trip we took to the United Kingdom in 2004, because he couldn't justify the cost of developing it since I'd taken a digital camera - modern cameras can hold hundreds of pictures that can be disseminated around the world cheaply and easily.

Nevertheless, just because capacities are there, it doesn't mean that the documentary inclination is. People generally photograph things that interest them personally, and I don't think the documentary inclination doesn't interest the average person. I certainly don't know anyone else offhand who would think to collect photographs of city buses or station nameplates in the Red Line. How many people, upon landing in Los Angeles, would practically salivate at the prospect of riding the Gold Line Extension?

Not everyone's doing it. That's as good a reason for me to keep on with it, no matter how many cameras fall along the way.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

PDP #141: I've Seen This Downtown Before

I arrived in Los Angeles yesterday and have already started exploring. It's always a rush, I find, landing in a totally new city with a totally new subway system and wandering around until the street grid starts to imprint itself in my brain. My first such started at Union Station and, through no intention of my own, I wound up climbing W 1st Street to Civic Center station.

Along the way, I passed by an empty pit that was once an office building of some kind and will, if I recall the sign correctly, be the site of a courthouse. I took this photo, looking towards the skyscrapers of downtown Los Angeles, through one of the gaps in the chain-link fence that surrounds the site. As soon as the construction workers go in and the building goes up, this is a perspective that might not be possible anymore. But I've seen it before - most of us have, whether it's in the establishing shot of a movie or beneath an alien death ray.

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, December 5, 2009

A Real Long Shot: The Barrie Streetcar

Everyone's got fantasies. Maybe you want to be Emperor of Earth, or to marry the person of your dreams, or if you're Zefram Cochrane, to retire to a tropical island filled with naked women. They're all totally understandable desires, but they're not likely to happen, either - look at divorce rates today, for one. Personally, I wouldn't mind going to space, and if I stay alive long enough and have enough money in the bank, so long as Virgin Galactic lives up to its promises that one's actually within the realm of possibility.

In the end, I'd say some of the most compelling dreams are the ones you know can't be realized barring extraordinary intervention. I've got one myself, and all I'd have to do to realize it is win a few hundred million (preferably a few billion) dollars in the lottery. If that happened, and I got bored of financing climate change mitigation projects or other worthies, I'd like to build a streetcar system in my old hometown, Barrie.

Barrie's Five Points intersection. Just imagine tracks on the street here, and wires overhead. And people on the sidewalks.

I'll admit that on the face of it, the idea of a streetcar system in Barrie seems rather ridiculous. Forty years ago, had the money and political will been in place, it might have made more sense, but Barrie is no longer the small, relatively centralized community it was back then. No, today it's a hub of its own, with fattened spokes of suburbs stretching out in all directions, a city of 30,000 with suburbs for 100,000 more stapled on at the edges. Only sheer distance has thus far prevented it from being reduced to an appendage of Toronto. This is a city that, from all appearances, desperately wants to be Mississauga when it grows up.

Nevertheless, while running a modest streetcar system in Barrie seems beyond the pale, it's not unthinkable, either. Kenosha, Wisconsin, a suburban outpost of Chicago and itself smaller than Barrie, has done it already. For nearly ten years now, Kenosha Transit has been operating a 2.7 kilometer streetcar line with five refurbished ex-Toronto Transit Commission PCC streetcars, Art Deco streamliners that still loom large in the imagination. It connects Kenosha's Metra commuter rail station with downtown Kenosha and HarborPark, a transit-oriented development area, and has been sufficiently successful that there's a possibility of further expansion down the line.

Regardless of Barrie's increasingly suburban focus, the downtown core does have potential. Over the last ten years, seemingly half a dozen condos have gone up on what was once empty land, and Allandale Station, left shuttered and silent since the removal of CN's lakeshore railway in 1996, is on track to once again become the northern terminus of GO Transit's Barrie line as early as 2011. I believe that the ingredients are there for downtown Barrie to truly thrive, to be a destination in its own right, to offer the same kind of urban, comfortable, walkable living that can be found in Toronto and elsewhere.

Could it be done, reasonably? From what I understand, Kenosha's streetcar line cost only $4 million to build. As for vehicles, Toronto's streets will see the new Flexity Outlook streetcars rolling along them in a few years. The current CLRVs are thirty years old and will be phased out once the new rolling stock arrives over the course of the next decade. Barrie probably wouldn't have to pay too much to rescue a couple of Canadian Light Rail Vehicles that would otherwise end up in the scrapheap. Five or so would probably be sufficient for a modest line similar to Kenosha's.

A TTC streetcar rolls west along its right-of-way on the Queensway, moving with the dawn. Now just imagine it in blue and white.

What I envision is a route confined to downtown Barrie, once of the few parts of the city where I think dense transit-oriented lifestyle could be credible - a looping downtown circulator, like Kenosha's system or the system currently under consideration in Boise, Idaho. It would begin and end at a loop adjacent to Allandale GO Station, off Lakeshore Drive east of Tiffin Street, and would proceed west and north either along Lakeshore Drive itself or in a right-of-way to the immediate west of the roadway, and would be the only double-tracked portion of the line. The route would then turn northwest along Toronto Street to Dunlop Street West, the indisputable "main drag" of downtown Barrie.

Turning east on Dunlop, the route passes close by the Barrie Bus Terminal, Barrie Transit's central hub and the prime arrival point for intercity coaches. It would continue past the Five Points intersection and the city's war memorial at Fred Grant Square until reaching the intersection of Dunlop, Lakeshore, and Mulcaster, at which point it would turn south and rejoin Lakeshore Drive. This is the only part of the line that I'm not entirely sure could be feasibly engineered - it's a fair hill going south from Dunlop here, but not a big one. Streetcars in Toronto regularly climb and descend worse hills, like where Bathurst Street climbs over the Lake Iroquois shoreline, but not in revenue service.

From there, Barrie's streetcars would pass by Heritage Park, the Spirit Catcher, and the northern extents of the city marina before rejoining the existing Lakeshore Drive track and completing the loop south to Allandale GO. The total length of this route, figured with the Gmaps Pedometer, is 3.2 kilometers - just short of two miles.

So that's my fantastic dream - to go to my hometown again and leave streetcars running behind. Is the project itself feasible? I don't see any reason why it wouldn't be, so long as there was sufficient force behind it. A better question is, is it worthwhile? I don't know, really. It's been more than eight years since I lived in Barrie, and the city's changed a lot since 2001. If by "worthwhile" you mean "would it be anything other than a money pit" then I, personally, think the answer is no. A Barrie streetcar, in my mind, would be more than anything else a symbol of dedication by the city's leaders to move away from the focus on suburban sprawl that's taken Barrie to where it is today.

I know there are some people who think streetcars are relics of the past. I prefer to believe that they're commitments to the future.

Friday, December 4, 2009

PDP #140: To Far Away Spots

A while ago I discovered, entirely by accident, that the bridge that carries Kipling Avenue above Highway 401 is a pretty good place for planespotting. It's a stone's throw from Toronto Pearson International Airport, and in the short time I was there about half a dozen aircraft went by overhead - both big jets and smaller turboprops. I'd have liked to get some head-on shots of the jets as they approached, but the thing is you can't really hear them until they're practically overhead. Today's photo is part of Air Canada's fleet, what I believe is a Boeing 767, on descent near Etobicoke North GO Station.

I'd also like to take this opportunity to put out a reminder - this Sunday, starting at 2 PM Pacific Time, I and fellow authors Shauna Roberts and Ken Edgett will be signing copies of Return to Luna at Mystery & Imagination, 238 N. Brand Boulevard, in Glendale, California. If you're in the Los Angeles area, I encourage you to stop by. I personally believe it will be awesome.

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.