Sunday, February 28, 2010

PDP #183: Photographic Action!

There were practically as many photographers, professional and amateur, at last month's anti-prorogation rally as there were ralliers. When the crowd was still packed into Dundas Square it was a bit difficult to tell, but once it began spilling down Yonge Street it became much more obvious who was there for what, exactly.

Personally, I was strictly ordinary, preceding the march down the middle of Yonge Street and Queen West. Other people went for whatever elevated angles they could get, despite how precarious the footing might seem to me - and with cameras like that, their shots probably turned out a lot better than mine.

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, February 27, 2010

A Historical Perspective: The Manchester Blitz

It was my grandfather, Les Parkinson, who started off my interest in history - an interest that eventually culminated in a piece of paper that says I have a degree in it, and which I really should get framed so that it stops collecting dust. When I was around 8 or 9 or so, I think, he gave me one of those starter books on the Second World War, an overview of the conflict from its origins to its end, and it fascinated me - to the extent that I have clear memories being greatly worried when the 1991 Gulf War started, because I thought all wars would have to be like the Second World War.

Now, though, I suppose that one of the reasons that he gave me the book was so I could get some understanding of what he'd been through. In turn, I suppose that I should try to spread that sense of understanding. My grandfather was in his mid-twenties for the bulk of the war, and while he finished it out as the motor mechanic of the Royal Navy motor launch RML 497, when it began he was a constable in the Manchester City Police. The war didn't make his job any easier - and neither did the Manchester Blitz, and though it may be overshadowed by the more popularly-known London Blitz, it was heavy enough that - if Wikipedia is anything to go by - the Nazi propaganda mills were spinning the complete destruction of the city.

The following is an extract from his memoirs, Me By Me: Memoirs of a Nobody, written in 1994. The dates aren't particularly specific, but I believe the raid he refers to at the end of this section was one of the ones that occurred between December 22 and 24, 1940.


The situation in Europe was bad. Hitler's army was camped on the Polish border, and we had unconfirmed reports that the Poles had attacked the German soldiers and killed quite a few. Hitler published photos of dead soldiers which he said had been killed by the belligerent Polish Army. On September 1st, 1939, Hitler informed the world that a state of war existed between Germany and Poland because of the unprovoked aggression by the Poles.

Because England had a pact with Poland, she was called upon to help the Poles. On that fateful day in September 1939, Neville Chamberlain announced that England was going to honour her pact and that a state of war existed between England and Germany. Because of a pact between England and France, she too was drawn into the war - so now we had a repeat of the First World War, that war that was supposed to end all wars.

It was expected to be a cruel and inhuman conflict, because of the weapons that were at the disposal of the two warring factions. All these weapons had been tried and tested in Spain a few years earlier when that civil war was in progress. One thing we did know was that this war would not be confined to the soldiers in the battlefield, but to those at home and all this was due to the development of air power. We knew that cities would be bombed from the air. This fact was so obvious for the preparations that had been and were being made on the home front.

The gas masks that I had helped assemble were issued to the public, and the police were issued with army-type steel helmets and gas masks. These we had to carry at all times, and we had to wear the helmets when on duty.

All persons had to have an identification card. Without one, you couldn't get food ration books and without them no food, so people were able to go to any police station or town hall and get the ID card. Me and my pal Jack Blackwood, a dour Scot, were assigned to this task, and with the aid of the Salvation Army officials and their hostels, we were able to get to most to the homeless.

Christmas, 1939 style was on us and we feared the worst, but the full effects of food rationing had yet to be felt, although it was in force.

When the first air raid on the city occurred, I was working the night shift - I was kept on nights for about six months. Each inspector that did the roll call told me that it was for my own good to stay on nights as I would get to know the city, but most of all would learn more about the job as all or most of the action took place during the hours of darkness.

On the first air raid we had, the warning went off at about eleven thirty and stayed on until morning. Just before dawn I saw a plane caught in the searchlight, then this awful noise like a banshee screaming and then a dull thud about two hundred yards away. I met up with other policemen and searched around. We later found an unexploded bomb behind the Palace Theatre. It had fallen in a space between two buildings and had not gone off. It was not big, about two hundred pounds. We reported the fact and the Bomb Disposal Unit came and removed their first UXB.

To save having too many men on the streets and to have a number of men available to be moved anywhere at a moment's notice, it was decided to have twenty men on standby during the night shift. We had to remain in the basement of Albert Hall, which was across the street from Bootle Street Station. So we alternated. We worked a beat one night, and the next went on standby. This was a blessing in disguise for on the nights there were no air raids, we were able to catch up on our sleep.

One night, though, we had to turn out and were sent to help the D Division, which had had some houses bombed and civilian casualties. In this incident a bomb, a powerful parachute mine, had landed in an entry that ran at the rear of two rows of terraced houses. The ensuing blast had blown down the entry walls and the rear walls of houses facing each other, and blew a car into the bedroom of one of the houses. The houses in direct line of the blast were flattened, and from these houses the remains of the occupants had to be recovered.

The inspector on the job used our men to look after the site while his men went about their business, as they were more familiar with the area. I was posted at the site where the remains of the dead people were located, and was instructed to take them to the mortuary when the van arrived. I had to see what I was looking after and it was a very grisly sight. Fortunately there was no fire to worry about, as the rescue teams were able to get on the job of making the area safe and searching for casualties.

This was not a full-scale raid. It was just the one bomb that was dropped. Perhaps it was a sort of joke from the Luftwaffe, to give us a sample of what was to come.

Shortly after this incident we in the city got hit real hard, first with firebombs and then the explosives. The incendiaries were dropped to illuminate the target for the following heavy bombers, and they did a good job. There were so many buildings on fire in the Piccadilly area of the back of the Gardens and small fires in the general area that it was pitiful to see the firemen just standing around, unable to do anything because there was no water pressure.

This was where the one and only policeman was killed in the whole of the war, although a few were injured. He died a horrible death, for the next day during daylight a complete search was made of the whole area for any casualties and we found bits of his uniform and body. We were able to identify him by the numbers on his uniform remains. It was a sad loss.

A system was set up that enabled towns hit with raids to get help from other towns. Those towns that needed help got it from the nearest towns, and then like a game of draughts everybody moved to fill in the vacant gaps. The system worked well.

During our rest from the first raid, lots of hose pipe was laid so that water could be pumped from the River Irwell. During the day most of the fires were put out, but when darkness came we expected the worst and we got it, another raid. This time with the high explosives, for the fires that were still burning served as markers for the planes. That was the biggest raid we had, oh, we had many others but not like this one.

A couple of nights later, Liverpool was hit hard and we had to send men and machines to help out, and while our firemen were helping out there we got hit again. This time it was in the area near to the cathedral. Exchange Railway Station was badly damaged and the Victoria Hotel was reduced to a pile of rubble. This raid upset me, for a week before I had ordered from the gramophone shop a hard-to-get record of Chaliapin, a Russian singer, singing "The Death of Boris" from the opera Boris Godunov. I had been notified that it was in, but Hitler didn't want me to have it for he bombed the shop.

Friday, February 26, 2010

PDP #182: Big Blue Buildings

When you're dealing with areas that are outside built-up downtown cores, it's easy for the cityscape to be stocked with the simple, but aesthetically bland, pattern of 1970s apartment highrises and compact plazas or three-storey office buildings set well back from the street. I think this is true to a degree along Sheppard Avenue East, which I walked from Consumers to Kennedy last weekend.

It's doesn't entirely go the easy route, though. Just before the border between North York and Scarborough, the Atria office development rises from the south side of the street. I really liked the look of these two buildings, Atria II and Atria III - they kind of look like big blue teeth, almost. Kinda.

EDIT: I know, I know. They don't really look like teeth at all.

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

Thursday, February 25, 2010

I Strongly Disagree With Giorgio Mammoliti

Though we've still got eight months to go before the question of who Toronto's next mayor will be is settled, there's one thing I am sure of - right now, Giorgio Mammoliti is definitely the comic-relief candidate. I can't look at his platform - the pieces of it he's unveiled as of this writing, at least - and think anything else. His was the first platform the citizens of Toronto learned anything about; he laid down its first planks back in October, more than two months before the race got in gear, and if anything I think they've warped with time.

The idea of opening a red light district for Toronto, and plugging Toronto's budget gap with a "sin tax" and revenues from a casino he'd also like to site in the city, are Mammoliti's - though I don't imagine the people behind Casino Rama or the Niagara Falls casinos would look kindly on that. Since then, we haven't known much more about where he stands, except for an interest in corporate sponsorships or private-public partnerships. He's been pretty much harmless, then, advocating policies that no other candidates has come even close to touching.

After what I read yesterday, I'm going to have to amend that to mostly harmless.

On February 24, The Globe and Mail reported that Mammoliti's platform is to be revealed tonight, and gave us a sneak preview of what we can expect - and, in my mind, it's nothing good. The keystone of that article is a proposed pledge to eliminate property taxes for all Torontonians over 65. I know, I know, a politician pandering to a specific social group is totally unheard of, but I find this particularly distressing.

That Mammoliti would even suggest this suggests, to me, that he does not have the sort of perspective that a mayor of Toronto would require. In a city that has made being underfunded a way of life, in a city that is hamstrung by its provincial overlords about how it can actually raise the money it needs to survive, let alone prosper, Mammoliti wants to end property taxes on people over the age of 65 almost literally just as the first baby boomers start turning 65. That's a real genius maneuver, Giorgio. I'm sure that obligating the young generation to pay for the old will ingratiate you to people who plan to be alive in 2050. The only potentially saving grace is that, as an immigrant city, Toronto's population is still biased toward the young - the 2006 census, which gave the total city population as 2,503,280, indicates that 353,445 - approximately fourteen percent - were sixty-five years of age or above. Nevertheless, I still think this is a bad idea - just look at the Chicago Transit Authority, which not only is struggling with significant service cuts brought on by revenue shortfalls, has had its finances further compromised by an Illinois governmental initiative that gave seniors free rides on the CTA - estimated at $1 billion over the next twenty years.

Remember, though, Toronto is legally prohibited from running a deficit, so all that revenue that would have come from 65+ property taxes will have to be made up elsewhere. Good thing that his campaign gave us that info, too - "massive layoffs and more private-public partnerships." Hooray! Because as we all know, there isn't a problem in the verse that can't be solved by putting people out on the street. After all, the news keeps saying the recession is over! So why shouldn't we not only compromise Toronto's capacity to raise balanced budgets, but remove as many people as we need to from paying work? It's a new day in Toronto, people!

Also, just remember - these are only crumbs. We haven't even seen Mammoliti's real platform. Are you excited yet?

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

PDP #181: Trinity Gates

Despite living in the general area, I don't often find myself getting out to Trinity Bellwoods Park. I was there this weekend, though, and I definitely think now I should get down there in the spring or summer, when it's actually warm and green rather than cool, scraggly, and brown. I was surprised how many dead leaves there were on the ground, left over from autumn - I can't recall seeing so many in previous years. Maybe it's a consequence of Toronto's snow drought, or maybe I just can't remember what last February was really like.

My only regret is that the skies didn't become blue until a few hours later in the day, well after I'd taken this picture. I think I'll go back in a few months and retake this picture, to get a nice before/after thing going. Also, check out the Wikipedia article - it has a photo taken from the same angle as this one, but a hundred years ago. Pretty rad.

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, February 23, 2010

Bike Lanes and Car Claims

A year ago I wouldn't have imagined that bicycle lanes could become such a political lightning rod in a city like Toronto, but there you are - even after twenty years, this place keeps surprising me. Considering the degree that the project appears in the news, though, it seems to me that this may be something of a worthwhile litmus test for the mayoral candidates - how they react to it may tell us more about how they'd conduct themselves otherwise. We've learned a lot about Rocco Rossi that way, and through his speech last month at the Empire Club, which basically tells us that he thinks cars are awesome and transit is for nerds.

If you're unfamiliar with the situation, let me summarize. Jarvis Street is a rather well-used throughfare a bit east of the downtown core, running from Front Street in the south to Bloor Street in the north. It's one of the few roads in Toronto I can think of that has an odd number of lanes - five, to be precise, with the middle lane switching between southbound traffic and northbound traffic depending on the time of day. A plan approved by City Council in May 2009 would see Jarvis condensed into four lanes, two north and two south, with the rest of the space given over to bicycle lanes. As of 2009, twenty-eight thousand cars used Jarvis on an average day, and a key chunk of these are driven by residents of high-end neighborhoods like Rosedale, Lawrence Park, and Moore Park.

The elimination of Jarvis' fifth lane would, according to the articles I've seen, add something on the order of two or three to five minutes to these drivers' commute times. The horror...

For the record, I'm supportive of the Jarvis bike lane project. I've been on enough plenty of streets where I felt like by cycling along them I was taking my life into my own hands, even more so - Bayly Street in Pickering, which I traversed during my ride from Oshawa to Scarborough last September, is a sterling example of this in my mind. Plenty of roads are as hostile to two wheels as much of Los Angeles is to two legs.

It's a good thing, then, that we have Rocco Rossi to... talk as if this is an awesome thing. To put it bluntly, I don't trust Rossi at all on this. A Sunday Star article refers to a statement of his that "he’s not opposed to bike lanes in general" - but this runs completely counter to coverage of his speech at the Empire Club on January 22, where he was reported as saying that he is "prepared to look at removing existing [bike lanes]."

Ultimately, though, I think the real problem here is the act of catering to drivers above all else. Despite what some people may think, owning and running an automobile is not the be-all and end-all of existence, and cities should not be built or organized exclusively to suit their interests; unfortunately, that's pretty much what we've had for the last seventy years. It wouldn't be the first time the interests of motorists were enshrined above the interests of others in this city, either.

Take the St. Clair streetcar, for instance. What a lot of people probably don't know is that back in the day, it ran east of Yonge Street as well. This branch was known as the Mount Pleasant streetcar, and it extended north to Eglinton via Mount Pleasant Road - which, incidentally, is the same road that connects Jarvis Street with Rosedale, Moore Park, and the rest. Despite popular local suppot for the line, it was shut down in 1976 at the behest of the Metro Roads Department, acting "in response to complaints from car drivers about streetcars 'obstructing' their progress." This attitude, in my mind, is the pinnacle of self-centeredness, and I see small pieces of it every time a car zooms by a stopped streetcar with its doors open. What do I mean?

I mean that, in my mind, drivers are not the be-all and end-all. Generally, when I see a car on the road here, it's got one person in it - two at the most. The average streetcar, even on off-peak times, has closer to thirty, going up to more than a hundred with standing room only. To me, the conclusion is clear - streetcars are more important than cars. Not only that, but all else being equal, a car will beat a streetcar every time - hell, I've raced streetcars from Niagara to Yonge on my bicycle and won. Cars have enough intrinsic advantages already without having the deck stacked in their favor.

Monday, February 22, 2010

PDP #180: Bus in Shadow

It may have been for the best that I accidentally smashed my old digital camera on a concrete floor in Los Angeles, thus reducing it to an inactive lump of metal and plastic. The replacement I picked up down there is far, far superior at taking photos in low-light environments - environments such as the bus bays at Don Mills station, the starting point of my sojourn along Sheppard Avenue East yesterday afternoon. I like the juxtaposition here between the darkness inside and the light outside.

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, February 21, 2010

Ethics at Eighty-Eight Miles Per Hour

Again and again, people keep coming back to time travel. Stories involving time travel are popular because, in part, they tap into our common desire to fix the mistakes of our past, to take what we know now and get 100% completion. The TV series Quantum Leap, where Scott Bakula leapt from life to life striving to set right what once went wrong, is a sterling example of this. The Back to the Future trilogy leans more toward the temptations and dangers inherent in that premise. Yesterday, I saw the trailers for a new time travel movie, Hot Tub Time Machine, which - and I know this will shock you - is about a hot tub that is also a time machine.

This movie, incidentally, looks like it will be worth seeing, if only for the time travel and massive '80s-retro factor. Nevertheless, I can't help but ignore that with the trailer taglines "forget the present, change the future," it sort of rubs me the wrong way. Whether it's the guys of Hot Tub Time Machine ("We could combine Viagra with Twitter! Twittagra!"), Marty McFly with Gray's Sports Almanac in hand, the heroes of Chrono Trigger fighting to save the world from Lavos across sixty-five million years, or the time traveller of the day simply resolving to take advantage of future knowledge to reshape the way it all unfolds, all too often there's a massive elephant in the room that the writers either don't notice or refuse to address.

There are two fundamental theories for how time travel could work. The first, which is my personal preference, is that time travel would create a branching of timelines; at the point the time travellers arrived, a new timeline would split off from the one they left, allowing them to manipulate history and the future to their heart's content while their original timeline goes chugging on. The second, which was explicitly used in Back to the Future, postulates one single timeline. In this theory, time travellers actually enter their own history, and in so doing put themselves in a positions where their actions could delete their present and replace it with another, stemming from their actions in the changed past.

Where the elephant comes into play is that, if the second theory is the one that's used in the story, through the act of changing history the time traveller will effectively become history's worst mass murderer. The actions of Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, and all the rest are nothing compared to what one guy with a time machine in a single-timeline universe could do without even realizing it. Sometimes, of course, the time travellers do realize this - thus making this the Time Traveller's Dilemma.

Maybe it's because I don't put any stock in the concept of a "soul" that this rubs me the wrong way so much. Ultimately, though, I think this is a function of a rational outlook on the universe. Take even a situation where time travel is utterly necessary - say, without going back a few decades for some reason, the universe will be destroyed. In a single-timeline world, everyone but the time travellers would be killed regardless of whether they are successful - the only difference would be if they're killed by the event the time travel was meant to avert, or killed when the successful temporal intervention removes them from time.

The fact of the matter is, time travel is not only dangerous, it can easily cause headaches. For the good of everything, it's best to leave the time circuits off and to keep the flux capacitor from fluxing. Besides, if you're a really unlucky time traveller, you might avoid changing the future by stumbling into something that's far, far worse...

...a predestination paradox. I hate predestination paradoxes.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

PDP #179: Exactly What It Says on the Sign

Sometimes, not even stereotypes can prepare you for the oddness. A great case in point is Southern California. Everyone knows that Los Angeles is utterly built for the car in ways that put other cities to shame, but it took a while for that to be made absolutely clear, and technically speaking, it didn't happen in Los Angeles at all.

Brand Boulevard is one of the main streets of Glendale, California, long and straight and with plenty of room to install a streetcar or LRT system (but I digress). If you're travelling north from Los Angeles on it, though, in order to reach downtown Glendale you first have to traverse Brand Boulevard of Cars, which is a stretch of Brand Boulevard absolutely lined with automobile dealerships. To the extent that there are signs pointing to them in the median. Throw in a few inexpensive motels, tire salons, and wonderful, wonderful billboards and you'd practically have Judge Doom's dream made real.

That's what finally convinced me that Los Angeles really was a four-wheeled city.

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, February 19, 2010

The Fire and the Fussbudget

Earlier this week, the City of Toronto released its 2010 capital and operating budgets to no shortage of criticism. This is something that, unfortunately, the city has to live with. Unlike the federal and provincial governments, the city is required by law to balance its books every year and so cannot run deficits. Considering the way that Ottawa and Queen's Park have acted for basically my entire life, this is definitely a "do as we say, not as we do" thing. Because of this, though, the city frequently has to contort itself in painful ways to make the budget work.

I'm still going through the budget, and honestly, the thing is so dense and unapproachable that it'll most likely take a good while. But I have been poring through the new user fees, and while most of them are understandable if a bit galling - take childrens' activities at City recreational centers, formerly free, but now they'll be $15 per participant - there are some that I have no idea how the City can defend. Like, say, the new charge that is going to be rolled out for false fire alarms. From what I understand, this is a modification of an already-existing charge - but where it was originally slapped on repeat false-alarm offenders, now it's for every single false alarm, regardless of whether it's the result of idiot kids or drunks pulling the alarm or an overly sensitive smoke detector that doesn't like your cooking.

This is a $350 charge. It's not a flat rate, either - it is $350 *per vehicle*! The next time that someone triggers the alarm in my building, then, at that rate there'll be more than a thousand dollars worth of fines idling on the street after a few minutes. The City plans to make $4,890,375 from this charge - which means that because of this, thirty-eight times every day people will not appreciate the whirr of the sirens approaching.

If I am elected Mayor, I pledge to eliminate this no-forgiveness false alarm charge, and return it to what it was before. I hope that the eventual winner, whoever it may be, keeps this in mind.

$350 for the first false alarm call. Thank you, City, for making the hard budgetary decisions.

I honestly can't understand what the City was thinking when it brought this in. Budgeting based on punitive fines that are, ultimately optional - in the sense that people can theoretically choose to avoid committing actions that would result in fines - is not good economic sense. More than that, though, in my mind it amounts to an assault on the common Torontonian, whose own fiscal resources are already being strained and don't have the liberty of imposing fines to find level ground. If this fine fell squarely on the shoulders of whoever pulled the fire alarm, then I wouldn't mind as much - personal responsibility is something that shouldn't be avoided.

I seriously doubt this is what's going to happen, though. I and many other Torontonians live in multi-unit apartment buildings, and it's rare that a month goes by without the harsh, wailing jangle of the klaxon waking us up and sending us down to the cold street way too friggin' early in the morning. I would not be surprised to see landlords simply turning around and charging their tenants to make up the cost of the fine. For a big building this isn't killer, but smaller buildings don't have many tenants to spread the pain between. What I worry about are the smaller fires that would previously have been caught, but won't, because people disconnect their smoke alarms to avoid accidentally setting off a false alarm.

This is purely a stopgap solution, and it shows. I don't think this is the sort of thing we should be pursuing, and it's not the sort of thing that Toronto should hold on to. We're a better city than that. Nevertheless, this sort of thing is going to keep happening. Governments of the last few decades were blinded by prosperity, thought it would last forever, and thus took no action whatsoever to prepare for times that would not be so good - except for Alberta and its oil-powered Heritage Fund. Wise governments would plan for that, and not simply scramble for whatever scraps they can find in the pantry.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

PDP #178: Right-of-Way

The streetcar right-of-way along the Queensway is one of the oldest in Toronto, built back in the 1950s as an adjunct to Fred Gardiner's sprawling road projects. It's also one of the only places in the city where Toronto's streetcars can do what they were built to do - accelerate to high speeds and fly like the wind, as I can't think of anywhere else that combines a private ROW with relatively low perpendicular traffic volumes like the Queensway does.

It also encourages development alongside it. This is a nice area, east of Windermere - the houses are all facing High Park and Grenadier Pond.

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, February 17, 2010

Short SF Review #13: "Second Chance"

"Second Chance," by Walter Kubilius and Fletcher Pratt
Appeared in Fantastic Story Magazine, September 1952

The picture changed - not so much in character as in location, for the mountains were not quite so steep here. But there was the same range upon range of smoking mountains, and from the side of one a slow flow of lava was making its way down to quench itself boilingly in a sullen grey sea.

We've always known, as a species, that we live on the edge of annihilation. Every nation, every civilization, every moment in history has had no shortage of doomsayers preaching about the end of the world. That pattern changed in the mid-twentieth century. After the Second World War, humanity went from living in a world that could end at any time to living in a world that really could end at any time. Stories of Ragnarok or Judgement Day are all well and good, but Mutually Assured Destruction puts them all to shame. It's no surprise that postwar science fiction struggled with the implications of the shadow that had fallen across the world.

In "Second Chance," set in an otherwise undescribed late 20th or early 21st century, Earth is groaning under the strains of the Fourth World War. Grains are effectively extinct. The Western Alliance and Cominworld, presumably descendants of NATO and the Warsaw Pact, have been driven into underground cities, and are wholly dedicated to the war against each other - the concept of total war is taken to its logical conclusion here, with "every man, woman and child in the territory of the Western Alliance... engaged either in the production of war materials or in providing food for those who do produce them."

The exception, as always, is the leadership. "Second Chance" focuses on General-of-the-Armies Alvin Weinburger and his philosophical conflict with Clifford Dayton, leader of the Civilian Authority, the civilian government that's come to rule what remains of civilization in the Western Alliance. As the story begins, the military sees an opportunity - to launch a massive ballistic missile strike against the underground cities of the Cominworld, destroy them utterly, and thus pave the way for the Fifth World War.

The problem here is that Earth is on its last legs. Constant exchanges of "hydro-bombs" - presumably hydrogen bombs, the first test of which took place several months after the publication of this story - have shattered the planetary environment. Though they didn't predict nuclear winter, the authors' image of a post-nuclear world is not particularly pleasant. For some reason, the nuclear exchanges activate or create volcanoes, pumping carbon dioxide and other gases into the atmosphere in such quantities that the sky is always dark. The ice of Antarctica has melted, drowning the Eastern Seaboard of the United States and flooding much of the Mississippi Valley. This is a world where positive feedbacks have taken control, and Earth is fast becoming a tropical planet unsuitable for the maintenance of human civilization.

Of course, there's an out - in these stories there's always an out, which always makes me gnash my teeth because there is no corresponding out in the real world. The same ballistic missiles with which General Weinberger seeks to destroy the Cominworld could also be used as spaceships to ferry colonists - not to Mars, which in a surprising bit of accuracy for a 1950s pulp skiffy story, is described as not habitable - to Venus, which is potentially habitable. To his credit, one of the generals chews out the scientist presenting the plan for having made no effort to determine if Venus has oxygen, water, or anything else necessary for human survival.

When General Weinburger learns that the civilian government has been working with its opposite numbers in the Cominworld in support of the Venus colonization proposal, he also learns how limited his authority really is - that through the Western Alliance's practice of total war, "the military has been swallowed by civilian necessity." Had I been writing this story, this is probably where I would have ended it, with a bit of fluffing on the earlier parts as well. Not Kubilius and Pratt, though; they've still got three pages.

What happens now is that the Venusians arrive. Really. A fleet of spaceships descend into the atmosphere, establish mathematical communication with Earth on the basis of the Pythagorean Theorem, and after what seems to be about five minutes, the cryptographers decode the Venusian language. Considering that there are purely human languages which have yet to be deciphered, I find that rather hard to swallow - though, on the other hand, exactly the sort of thing I'd been led to expect from less disciplined Golden Age writing.

The Venusians have come to Earth begging - they've ruined their own world, and they seek permission to settle Earth's "swamps and volcano-lands." They fought a war, you see, that scrubbed the carbon dioxide from Venus' atmosphere, and biological warfare turned their crops into "wholly inedible hard grains... there is even ice at one of the poles."

How conveeeeeeeeeenient. It honestly seems like nothing but a tacked-on "happy ending" so as to not leave the readers with a ruined Earth and an uncertain, but extremely precarious, future. There's good seeds of potential in there, I think, but I don't think they were realized. Aliens inhabiting the solar system is just par for the course when it comes to Golden Age science fiction. Nevertheless, too much of the resolution depends on superscience and convenient happenstances.

The reason that the Golden Age of Science Fiction is so fondly recalled today is because a lot of stories like this have been forgotten.


Previous Short SF Reviews:

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

PDP #177: River Sunrise

Back in 2005, when I had a radio show, I had to get up early to prevent the possibility of dead air at Trent Radio House. My route took me north from downtown Peterborough along the west bank of the Otonabee River, the dividing line between Peterborough "proper" and East City. Depending on what the morning was like, the way the sun rose above the river could be rather inspiring.

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, February 15, 2010

Toward a Greener Toronto

Last week, the Toronto Environmental Alliance announced a list of priorities it believes the next mayor of Toronto should incorporate into his or her governing strategy. The TEA's news release gives the priorities as follows:
  • Build Transit City and fund it

  • Achieve 70% waste diversion by 2012

  • Buy and support locally-produced green products

  • Build transportation infrastructure everyone can use

  • Implement the City's Sustainable Energy Strategy

  • Provide tools to prevent pollution
It's good to see organizations taking an active interest in the environmental chops of prospective mayors. I think we've come to a time where urban environmental strategies are as important a component of governance as development strategies or justice strategies. For too long it's been ignored. After looking through these suggestions, I believe they're valid and would greatly assist in the improvement of Toronto's lot. I'll be more than happy if I'm not the only mayoral candidate who believes this, because this is an issue that transcends petty, everyday municipal politics. Far more than the question of, say, a bike lane on Jarvis or a redesigned Roncesvalles, the actions this city takes on the environmental front from now to 2014 will echo greatly.

In particular, I think the supporting and encouragement of locally-produced products will be of key importance in the years ahead. Since the amalgamation of Metropolitan Toronto in 1998, we've seen the province and the federal government offload more and more responsibilities onto the city without providing it the means to pay for it - and it's not as if they're jumping at the chance to take those responsibilities back, or to give Toronto more capability to adequately finance them.

I think that as the years go on, self-reliance will become the name of the game in more and more respects for cities around the world. That's hardly a bad thing. Local producers can be far more responsive to local requirements and demands than producers a province, a continent, or an ocean away - and what's more, the growth of local green businesses will not only go a long way to putting a serious dent into Toronto's emissions, the development of that sector of the economy will see more tax dollars staying in Toronto.

The Toronto Environmental Alliance also draws attention to the transportation issue, probably the key issue of this campaign. I stand with it in my conviction to not only see Transit City completed, but for transit to be extended and expanded to even more corners of the city, and thus realize "a transportation infrastructure that everyone can use." It's not that difficult for me to conceive of that necessity, since I don't own or use a car - therefore, there's a great deal of infrastructure that's effectively unusable to me. There are, for example, extremely valid reasons you do not see bicyclists on the Don Valley Parkway. The danger of bicyclists being injured by angry motorists hurling heavy things at them as they weave through traffic jams is only one such reason.

In that vein, then, we don't only need Transit City. We need the Downtown Relief Line. Beyond that, we absolutely need a mechanism for the TTC to have a source of reliable funding, so that the organization does not constantly lurch from year to year with hat in hand, always perched on the precipice of fare increases and service cuts. Something like Los Angeles County's Measure R, a half-cent sales tax funneled toward transportation initiatives - which includes roads as well as mass transit - would be greatly useful here. I'd love to say that I'd implement something like that as mayor, but I can't - the City of Toronto Act prohibits the city from levying its own sales taxes. Thus, this is probably something that would best be taken to the province by a coalition of cities - something which I would support.

Ultimately, it's good to see more and more people and organizations taking an interest in the environmental implications of this election. Until very recently, the issue was ignored. I can't abide that any longer. At twenty-seven, I may well be the youngest of the twenty-three candidates - which means that whatever policies are put in place, I'll have to live with for that much longer.

I'd much prefer that they be good ones.

Interested in my campaign? Become a fan on Facebook! That would be totally rad.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

PDP #176: Unjogging Dufferin

The Dufferin Jog Elimination Project, connecting Toronto's Dufferin Street into a coherent whole after more than a hundred years, has been going on for a while not too far from me. Now that the focus of construction has moved from the eastern bridge to the western bridge, it's a great deal more obvious. When it's complete, Dufferin Street and Queen Street West will form a clean, uninterrupted intersection. For now, it's just weird to see that bridge leading to sky.

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, February 13, 2010

A Predisposition to Consider

Given that one of my favored protagonists for the stories I write is genetically engineered, it shouldn't come as much of a surprise to people who are familiar with what I've written so far that I think genetic technologies are going to be one of the defining factors of the twenty-first century. We will, most likely, see humans getting their genomes tweaked, both to correct flaws and to improve from the baseline. We will probably see genetic modification going far beyond food crops, regardless of how much the European Union wails, to the extent that I would be surprised if the next few decades do not see the creation of engineered plant strains tweaked to, say, increase their carbon dioxide intake.

If that's the case, though, there are real cultural issues that are going to have to be dealt with as genetic engineering technologies move into the fore - and these are issues beyond the basic "playing God/Frankenstein" ones that tend to dominate the debate today. It's a safe assumption, I think, that in the next few decades those concerns will have been put to rest, and that future generations will be more comfortable with genetic engineering than we are. So what do they have to worry about?

Taking responsibility for genetic predispositions, perhaps. In the article "Cyber trails make it harder for politicians to escape scandal," the Toronto Star's reporter Olivia Ward took note of research which indicates a specific gene - RS3 334, to be specific - has an effect on pair bonding, to the extent that men with "two copies of the gene had more turbulent marriages and more likelihood of divorce." As geneticists continue to unwrap the human genetic code, it's certain that this sort of discovery will not be a one-time event.

What disturbs me is the prospect is that people will use this as an excuse to avoid having to take responsibility for their own actions. "Oh, it's not my fault I'm an alcoholic," John Smith of 2050 may say as he reaches for the next bottle. "I've just got bad genes." I'm absolutely certain that this is going to happen. Too many people today are already servants of their baser instincts, whether they realize it or not; widespread knowledge of these genetic predispositions will only encourage them.

Genetic predispositions are exactly that: predispositions. All other things being equal, someone with gene X is more likely to undertake action Y than someone who lacks gene X. Humans are more than just chemical machines, moving this way and that because our genes echo in our ears. The real mark of a person is to be able to climb above that, to have the willpower and the intellectual strength to recognize these actions and choose. There's no value in being swept along with the tide. We need to learn to ignore the primal voices that resound in our minds, to use our minds to evaluate and understand. We must do the impossible so that we will be mighty.

Friday, February 12, 2010

PDP #175: Building Tomorrow, Today!

Every once in a while you come across a building that looks like it's been plucked out of the future. Toronto City Hall has a bit of this aspect even after fifty years, considering that it's pretty much totally unique in terms of design. In Vancouver (Burnaby, if you want to get pedantic and technical), the campus of Simon Fraser University is frequently used as an alien parliament or research center; off the top of my head, I've seen it in an episode of Battlestar Galactica and several times in Stargate SG-1.

This building, 1 Niagara Street in Toronto's Fashion District, has that same sort of vibe to me. It's done in such a way that it doesn't look quite like anything I've seen before, as if the architect was taking cues from 2050.

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, February 11, 2010

The Ninety-Fifth Rule

Considering that it's all but certain now that NASA's plan to return to the moon is dead in the water, it's hardly a surprise that the peanut gallery would erupt with the rabble of people who think this is a good thing. Who think that human space exploration is a waste of money, a ridiculous luxury, or purely obsolete. These are all goddamn ridiculous opinions. I've written about my opinion on this before, and I don't know how more clearly I can state it than this:


In my opinion, the point of a space agency is to arrange things to get humans off Earth. Robotics is acceptable as a means to that end, but it has no right to be an end in itself. To people who say that space exploration is a ridiculous luxury, I say that you have no business subsidizing research for research's sake on the public dime. I'm vociferous about this because, in the end, the equation is simple.

Either we go to space, or we die.

See how simple that is? Eight words that sums it all up, and all the goddamn telemetry in the world won't change the fact that all the money pumped into deep space probes will have been wasted if we just step back from the brink, circle our wagons around this planet, and wait for some asteroid or comet or major solar flare or environmental collapse to finish us. Because one of those will happen. With the right timescale, the certainty of anything approaches totality.

I'm not saying that by going to space we assure our survival as a species - space, you know, is a dangerous place. But that is the only choice that allows for the possibility of our survival being assured. Sooner or later, no matter how well we take care of it, Earth is going to become uninhabitable. I have no interest in the extinction of the human race if this can possibly be avoided - which, thankfully, puts me in a different category than Charles Stross, who believes that the opinion I'm expressing here is "an appeal to sentimentality," because "the future extinction of the human species cannot affect you if you are already dead: strictly speaking, it should be of no personal concern."

I have to wonder if this idea isn't in some way hitching a ride on the modern-day fallacy of economics - the idea that infinite growth is possible in a finite system. We're already running into the failings of that particular philosophy. It's easy for a person to think people can live on Earth indefinitely; I mean, look how BIG it is! These tend to be the sort of people who don't think through the implications of their actions or ideas.

I will close on a clip from the first season of Babylon 5, which sums up what I've been trying to say.

Also, anyone who recognizes where I got the title for this post gets an egoboo.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

PDP #174: I'd Recognize That Spaceship Anywhere

Public murals, I find, are a good indicator of a healthy urban culture. They help to bind the neighborhood fabric, and put a human stamp on one's surroundings. It's one reason I'd like to see the railway bridges of the Queen Street Subway, which presently form Parkdale's eastern border, revitalized in such a way once the Dufferin Jog Elimination Project is completed. I found this particular mural on Jones Avenue; what made me remember it was the presence of Spaceman Spiff, one of Calvin's alter egos from the comic strip Calvin and Hobbes. I'm talking about the red flying saucer there, and not the one being flown by a cow - a cow that is obviously mad as hell about aliens abducting and mutilating cattle, and is out for some payback.

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, February 9, 2010

Stopping the Gap: A Downtown Relief Busway?

I'm fortunate that I don't have to enter or leave Toronto's downtown core during rush hour. My schedule takes me in and out of there in the mid-afternoon and the late evening. Most people, however, are not so lucky, and every day tens or hundreds of thousands of people make that journey on systems that are either rapidly approaching, or have already exceeded, capacity. It's particularly bad, from what I hear, on the subway. A friend of mine who commutes with the rush told me recently that he might get two rides every couple of weeks where he wasn't crammed like a sardine in a tin - and that they wouldn't necessarily both fall on the same day.

This can't go on forever. Overcrowding breeds resentment, and resentment breeds frustration with and the eventual abandonment of transit. The installation of automatic train control in the next few years will help with this, reducing the spacing between trains so more trains can be run in the system, but that won't address the underlying issues. This overcrowding is one of the major reasons why I believe the absolute most necessary goal for future TTC expansion is the Downtown Relief Line. If completed to its full extent, this line would funnel riders to the downtown core by branching off the Bloor-Danforth line at Pape in the east and Dundas West in the west. It would reduce the pressure on the southbound Yonge line, as well as the 504 King and 505 Dundas streetcar routes.

Today, considering the degree to which it's discussed in the media, the Downtown Relief Line is closer to realization than it's ever been - which, honestly, is saying a lot, considering that it's only lines on a map. The appropriate time to start building it was the late 1980s, after the Network 2011 plan was presented, but of course the governments at the time had no will to do it. So now we're left with an overcrowded system and vague promises that the DRL might be built in the future - but not before 2020.

We can't keep looking to the future with expectation, hoping that the money will shower down from somewhere and that all of a sudden we'll be able to make all our transit dreams reality. We can't just wait for the DRL to be built (or not built, as the case may very well end up being). We need alternatives, at least for the short term.

A LACMTA Metro Rapid bus waits at a traffic light on Vermont Avenue in Los Angeles, California

If the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority knows how to use anything to its advantage it's buses, because buses were its predecessors' only option from 1963 to 1990. The Metro Rapid system is the latest expression of this, and it's something the Toronto Transit Commission might well take a hint from. Metro Rapid is, essentially, light bus rapid transit, and while Metro Rapid buses run in mixed traffic like ordinary buses, they stop only at major intersections and are equipped with transponders to hold traffic lights green as they approach. They're not as fast as subways or dedicated light rail, but on congested roads they'd at least have a speed advantage over streetcars.

One thing I've not heard about the TTC investigating, but which it perhaps should, is the possibility of instituting Rapid-like service, on a temporary or permanent basis, along key rush hour corridors in Toronto. Imagine the current 97 Yonge route being supplemented by a rush hour only articulated express, or buses departing from Pape station and travelling south and west to downtown. The TTC would just have to get over its apparent conviction that articulated buses are just things that other transit agencies operate, and that Torontonian exceptionalism prevents their use here. I tell you what, articulated buses running on the 29 Dufferin route would probably spare a great deal of overcrowding and grief.

As far as I see it, when it comes to the current system we can no longer afford to coast. We've been coasting for decades, ever since the opening of Kipling and Kennedy stations in 1980 marked the effective end of significant subway construction in this city. We've run out of time to rest on our laurels, and though it'll take time for permanent solutions to solve the dawning transit crisis we're in, we've not got time to waste anymore.

Monday, February 8, 2010

PDP #173: A Subway in Style

One of the advantages the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Agency has, being an agency that's only existed for twenty years, is that it doesn't have as much historical inertia or preconceived notions to overcome as transit agencies in other cities. Case in point: its subway stations. I've recently heard grumbling over the TTC's preferred designs for the six stations of the Spadina extension into York Region - and they're eminently understandable. Take the plans for Highway 407 Transitway station, one of the two stations to be located outside Toronto. It will be huge, incorporating a surface bus terminal serving York Region Transit and GO Transit buses with plenty of space underground for passenger movements. What may end up drawing negative attention is that the costs for this station are estimated at $134-million, when the budget for construction is a mere $95-million.

Beyond that, have you ever been to the area where the station is going to be? I haven't, but if the map photos I've seen online are anything to go by, it's desolate. You would think a better plan would be to build a smaller station capable of being expanded to serve higher traffic volumes if/when necessary, but that's not how this is going.

Los Angeles has a better idea, I think. The only parts of Metro Rail subway stations that are on the surface are their entrances, and they don't look drab, either. Take today's photo, the main entrance to Vermont/Santa Monica station.

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Sunday, February 7, 2010

Can't You Hear, Can't You Hear the Thunder

Music has been an elemental touchstone of humanity for tens of thousands of years, a cultural force that helps bind us all together. Before there was such a thing as literature, and when art was nothing more than stylized animal paintings within cave, humans made music. The concept is something special, practically something sacred. That's why I'm so dismayed at the recent news to come out of Australia.

Back in 1981, the band Men at Work found they had a hit on their hands with the song "Down Under," an intensely Australian piece that's since become a patriotic song. Incorporated within it is a short but memorable flute riff, and it's that riff that has been causing problems now. On Thursday, an Australian court ruled that Men at Work plagiarized this riff from "Kookaburra," an Australian folk tune written by Marion Sinclar and which was the winner of a 1934 Girl Guides competition. Today, of course, it's owned by a corporation, Larrikin Music, and corporations aren't too shy to release the legal hounds.

I'll admit that, on the face of it, it's understandable. I've listened to "Down Under" and "Kookaburra" both, and the flute riff does significantly echo the opening of the earlier song. The problem in this case, though, is that there seems to have been no thought by the ruling judge about the implications of this. I've thought about them, and I certainly don't like them.

I suppose that the charge of plagiarism gains its energy from the fact that "Kookaburra" seems to be shorter than "Down Under," and so a comparatively large portion of it was incorporated into the song as the flute riff - though due to its age and nature as a frequent choir song, it's not particularly easy to get an official running time. "Down Under," for its part, is three minutes and forty-one seconds long. I listened carefully to the song, and I heard the flute riff at four separate points: 0:13 - 0:15, 0:54 - 0:56, 1:56 - 1:58, and 2:01 - 2:03. Eight seconds. By my reckoning, this amounts to four percent of the song.

What's ridiculous is that the Star article where I learned about this references Larrikin's lawyer as saying that the company "might seek up to 60 per cent of the royalties 'Down Under' earned since its release." I find this offensive for two reasons - first, as I said, the "Kookaburra" flute riff occupies a tiny fraction of the song. Second, in what I think is a far more damning turn of events, Larrikin Music did not acquire the rights to "Kookaburra" until 1990, following the death of Marion Sinclair in 1988. To me, this is yet another example of a corporation overreaching common bounds and common decency because it's picked up the scent of money in the water. If anyone other than Men at Work should be getting royalties for this, it's the estate of Marion Sinclair or the Girl Guides, the two entities that actually owned the rights to "Kookaburra" when "Down Under" was written.

Beyond that, though, what this really comes down to is yet another assault on the perceived public domain. The average person has always had a different view of copyright than the law does. Even a song as basic and fundamental as "Happy Birthday" is thought to be under copyright - not, of course, that anyone actually cares, and any serious attempt by a claimed copyright holder to assert rights would practically fire off a revolution. Songs like these are held by people as part of the culture and the common trust, something that is owned by everyone and no one, regardless of what corporations might think.

Creativity has always been about incorporation and remixing. It's not possible, after tens of thousands of years of human culture, to create something truly original anymore. Memes migrate through minds and are installed as patchwork into new creations. When I see cases like this, I see corporations trying to build paddock fences around these concepts and keep them out of the common. It's a concept that can't be allowed to continue, or our culture will inevitably be the poorer for it. Copyright is a means to help ensure that artists can make a living on their work - it was never meant to be a method to keep essential cultural memes under lock and key.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

PDP #172: Snow on the Queensway

It's been an anomalously snowless winter for Toronto so far. While Washington, DC is groaning under thirty to fifty-three centimeters (12-21 inches) of snow, to such an extent that parts of the Washington Metro have been completely shut down and hundreds of thousands of people are without power, Toronto has only seen a handful of flakes since November. Considering that last year's snowfall was one of the biggest on record, that may ultimately be for the better. But, dammit, it doesn't feel like winter with just cold and concrete.

On one of the few occasions when it actually was snowing, I was out on the Queensway.

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, February 5, 2010

507 to Dundas West

I've written previously about the advantages afforded by a large, integrated transit network - the more connections there are, the more opportunities there are to deliver better service without needing to invest in infrastructure. The Toronto streetcar system can deliver those kind of opportunities. Even though it's not as expansive as it was sixty years ago, the connections in the network are such that we don't necessarily have to limit ourselves to the eleven routes that are currently run.

Many people may not be aware of the 507 Long Branch streetcar route. It was in fact the last streetcar route to be abandoned by the TTC, making its last run in 1995. At that time it was the only remaining route that operated outside the old city of Toronto, and ran from Humber Loop just off the Queensway to Long Branch Loop a few minutes' walk from the Mississauga border. In 1995, it was folded into the 501 Queen route, and for the last fifteen years Queen streetcars have rolled from Neville Park to Long Branch, except when they're short turned, and that's hardly an uncommon situation.

I used to rely on the 501 Queen streetcar to take me downtown, but now I exclusively use the 504 King, even though it's a bit further of a walk to the stop. Why? Because the Queen streetcar is, sad but true, erratic and unreliable. There would be times where I would arrive at the stop and have to wait thirty seconds for the streetcar, and there would be times where I would arrive and wait twenty-five minutes. The Queen streetcar's utility as a crosstown route is severely compromised by a schedule I found that I just couldn't rely on. Last year's test splitting of the route into two didn't seem to have found the sort of results the TTC was looking for.

There's another way. Re-establishing 507 Long Branch service would, I think, improve the frequency and reliability of service along the entire line. Sure, the Queen line may be one of the longest in the world, but this is a transit service, not a competition. The line's biggest problem is that, since it operates almost exclusively in mixed traffic, minor delays echo down the line. The more kilometers the streetcars have to deal with, the more opportunity they have to get delayed or bunched by traffic or people stubbornly alighting at the front doors when they could use the back doors perfectly well.

Last July, while the logistics of the Queen split was still in the works at the TTC, Steve Munro suggested the re-establishment of 507 Long Branch service, but not along its historical route. Whereas the original 507 ran between Long Branch Loop and Humber Loop, Munro's proposed 507 would instead continue beyond Humber Loop, travelling north along Roncesvalles to Dundas West subway station. It's subsequently been mentioned by Spacing, considerably more recently, though I can't seem to find the link.

I agree with this idea. Short-haul riders - people travelling not particularly far - are important to the health of the system, and the 501 Queen route as it currently stands is not particularly welcoming to them. Decoupling the Queen streetcar from the trackage in Mimico, New Toronto, and Long Branch would improve frequency there as well as the remainder of the shortened Queen route. It would likewise provide another connection between southern Etobicoke and the subway system.

Building a strong transit network doesn't necessarily mean we just have to lay new rails. We also have to take advantage of the ones we already have.

POSTSCRIPT: The Spacing link has been added. Props to Jordan Teichmann in the comments.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

PDP #171: Between the Towers

The Toronto-Dominion Centre represents some of the first "modern" skyscraper development in downtown Toronto. The Toronto-Dominion Bank Tower was the tallest building in Canada when completed in 1967, and the complex was advertised as "a city within a city... conceived as a setting of space and beauty, of grass, trees, pedestrian walks, statues, and benches." Whether or not it's lived up to that over the last forty years is a matter of interpretation.

In this photo, the sun is caught between the Toronto-Dominion Bank Tower on the left, and the Royal Trust Tower on the right.

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Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Mighty Good Curse

Recently I finished reading Melissa Scott's 1990 novel Mighty Good Road, set in an unspecified future where colonized space is linked together by a network of space warps around which are built titanic space stations known as the Exchange Points. They're tied together in a network called the Loop - which meant I had to make a lot of effort not to just think of it as Chicago IN SPACE! - and the railway metaphors are wholeheartedly indulged. What got my attention, and got me thinking, was that Scott didn't seem to just take inspiration from the great age of railways in terms of getting from point to point.

Victorian culture was notoriously modest and proper, and that's been carried into the culture of the setting. To quote an inquiry console in the latter half of the novel, "immodest language is not permitted within the Loop. Visitors are advised to remember local custom." What this means is that if anyone swears or curses within these stations, they're immediately assessed a fine. Unlike the 1993 film Demolition Man, where the similar Verbal Morality Statute is meant as yet another indicator of the tightly controlled nature of San Angeles, Mighty Good Road's use of it seems to be nothing more than background detail.

Nevertheless, it made me think. Space, like no other environment on Earth, is dangerous. Few mistakes are forgiven there, and while there are grand opportunities in its vastness it's not for the timid. Extended time in space, particularly beyond the low-orbit laboratories that have been the sole dominions of our astronauts for the last forty years, is stressful. Life on a space station would likewise test the body and mind. Things have to be done well and done right the first time. Does it really make sense to make a method of even mild stress relief into a legal infraction, just so some busybody's virgin ears don't have to be offended?

I suppose the real issue here is that people not only don't make sense and never have, but frequently impose rules that go against sense - or, at least, that is a general feeling. To my mind, forcing someone to constantly watch what they say under penalty of fining will only lead to mental stress, both from the effort needed to keep rogue words from slipping out and from anger when rogue words do slip out. Stress may be intrinsic to life in space - I think enough so that people don't need to go looking for other reasons to stress their fellows out.

After all, one of the best anaesthetics after walking full-speed into a closed door is a simple, hearty swear.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

PDP #170: The Bugmobile

The Annex is a place where strange and unexpected things can happen. Therefore, it didn't surprise me much last October when, while waiting for the lights to change at Bloor and Bathurst, one of the cars backed up at the intersection was absolutely covered with insects. Plastic insects, mind you, but still insects. It was the sort of picture I could not possibly pass up.

I'd never seen it before, and I haven't seen it since. If not for this photographic evidence, I might not believe I'd seen it at all.

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

Monday, February 1, 2010

Rossi: Campaigning Against Our Interests

If transit is going to be a major issue in the Toronto muncipal election, so be it. Good transit is one of the measures of a great city, and we should be focusing our attention on it. I can't speak for my fellow mayoral candidates, as I don't really know their attitudes or interests, but I myself am a dedicated transit user. I do not own a car. I do not want to own a car. I have a G1 driver's license that is used as identification while purchasing beer and entering bars. Transit is thus an important issue for me, as it is for many Torontonians, because it's how I get from one place to another when it's too far, too cold, or too much of a lazy day to walk.

So you can imagine how I reacted when Rocco Rossi, one of the present frontrunners in this embryonic race, revealed the first plank of his platform to be an opposition to transit initiatives. In fact, you don't have to imagine it, because I wrote about it when it happened. Since then, I've been thinking about it more and more.

A few days ago I read a story on the BBC dealing with the popular response to President Obama's health care proposals in the United States, with the author trying to determine why so many of the people who would be helped by the proposed program were so vehemently against it. One of the main conclusions, as I recall, was that the people in question resented being told what they needed by the government, rather than arriving at that conclusion themselves.

In much the same way, I resent Rossi's suggestion that transit is something that can, or should, be simply put on hold, his implication that the current state of transit is adequate for Toronto. It isn't. We are still coasting on projects that were begun in the 1970s. That we've waited decades to begin a new system expansion like Transit City is bad enough - to bury it because Rossi wants to score some emotional points with people who are fed up by the TTC is indicative of a perspective that looks backward, not forward. That's the kind of perspective this city cannot afford to have in power. It's the twenty-first century - we will get nowhere contemplating the twentieth.

Realistically, transit is absolutely essential to Toronto, full stop. Because that's exactly what would happen to the city if transit was unavailable. We saw it back in 2008, in the provincial government's lightning-quick response to the TTC strike - within forty-eight hours the union was legislated back to work. Contrast this to Ottawa's experience, where OC Transpo, the city's public transit operator, was on strike for fifty-one days before the situation was resolved. Toronto could not last fifty-one days with its transit stopped. I'd be surprised if it could last 5.1 days without things getting seriously squirrely.

Beyond that, I believe that limiting public transit options is an assault on freedom of choice. Every once in a while I see people fulminating about how public transit is a waste of money, how no one uses it, and it'd be better off gone, and it's hilarious. No one is herding people onto buses, subways, or streetcars at gunpoint. If anything, the opposite is true; the planning decisions that have been made over the last seventy years across North America amount to forcing people to use cars, as most North American cities are completely unsuited for transit.

In Toronto, we have an opportunity many cities lack - to have a city where transit is a comfortable, reliable alternative. To have the choice of not having to take the car. To throw that away would be to abandon the wisdom of those who refused to gut the TTC when every other city thought automobiles were the future, and of those who kept the Spadina Expressway on the planning maps where it belongs.