Monday, May 31, 2010

PDP #228: If You Have A Problem...

The A-Team was one of the landmarks of 1980s television. Do not deny it; in your heart, you know it to be true. From Hannibal's disguises and love of when the plan comes together to Mr. T and the once-an-episode assembly of armored fighting vehicles from backroom scrap, it may have been cheesy but it was still also awesome. I'm not sure whether or not the upcoming major motion picture will turn out like so many other 80s TV show reboots, but I'll be seeing it anyway.

I encountered this van while going home on Saturday via the Carlton streetcar. It's turning onto College Street from Manning, and the only thing it's missing from the true A-Team van is the spoiler at the back. But I won't quibble. Deep down, many people want to be able to hire the A-Team.

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, May 30, 2010

The Wikipedian Candidate

If the Toronto municipal election thus far has taught me anything, it's the degree to which people feel as if they're qualified to talk about anything under the sun for the simple reason that they're going to have their name on the ballot. There are most likely a boatload of municipal issues that I lack a deep understanding of - but for me, to talk and act as if I know them as thoroughly as an expert on the matter would be disingenuous at best.

This strain of political action is particularly visible in terms of transit. It's probably the single most important issue in this election, and everyone has their take on it. What gets me about this is that it all sounds like a bunch of posturing and the drawing of lines on maps. I may be the only car-free candidate for Mayor, and I'll be the first to admit that I only have a hobbyist's familiarity with the TTC system. What would surprise me is if the other candidates know as much about the system as they purport to.

Case in point: "Furious" George Smitherman released his new transit plan on Friday. He is - get this, because this will shock and awe you - promising new subways. The Sun's coverage was eminently predictable. I first heard about it via transit guru Steve Munro's careful, detailed, point-by-point criticism of it. Here's the meat of what he'd do as Mayor, if you're unfamiliar:

- Extend the Sheppard Line west from Sheppard-Yonge to Downsview.
- Replace the Scarborough RT with an extension of the Bloor-Danforth Line from Kennedy to Scarborough Centre.
- Extend the Bloor-Danforth Line from its western terminus at Kipling to Sherway Gardens, a stone's throw from the Toronto-Mississauga border.
- Extend the Eglinton LRT tunnel to Weston Road.
- Extend the Sheppard East LRT to U of T's Scarborough campus, in preparation for the 2015 Pan Am Games.

He also includes the Spadina subway extension, the Finch West LRT to Humber College, and the Waterfront LRT in his plan as well - though this is disingenuous at best, I think, since those projects are either already under construction or well on the way to being realized.

While on the bus to and from furthest Etobicoke today, I had plenty of time to reflect on this plan - and something hit me. It seemed disturbingly familiar. It didn't take long for me to realize why: his subway plans are taken directly from Wikipedia. Check the revision for the Bloor-Danforth article from May 21, and that of the Sheppard Line from May 13. The westward extension of the Sheppard line is a particularly common meme, it seems, in the Toronto subway community. Granted, it would make that line a lot more pleasant, and it would slightly increase the crosstown utility of the Sheppard Line, but to champion these things of all things suggests to me that Smitherman is looking for solutions that "make sense" or are potentially popular, regardless of whether or not they will be worthwhile additions to the transit network.

Smitherman's plan is particularly teeth-grinding to me because it makes no mention at all of the Downtown Relief Line. The fact of the matter is that the subway network is dealing with serious capacity issues, and I'm surprised it's not hemmorhaging riders because of the sardine-like experience that is the subway downtown at rush hour. To talk about extending the lines further into the outer city while excess capacity is needed now in the downtown core - to my mind, transit-oriented it ain't.

The Downtown Relief Line is, I believe, an absolutely necessary component of Toronto's transit network. While I have no problem with the idea of extending the Sheppard subway west, or taking Bloor-Danforth further out into Scarborough and Etobicoke, these should not be priority projects. The proper time to start building the DRL was 1985. If we need any subway, it is that subway.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

PDP #227: Putting It Into Isometric Perspective

One of the most important inventions in the field of graphic arts was perspective: the ability for artists to render three dimensions on a two-dimensional field. Attempts to create the illusion of depth began in earnest in ancient Greece, but true perspective was often eschewed in ancient and medieval art for stylistic reasons.

Isometric projection is one of the simpler ways to create the appearance of three dimensions. Here, I'll show you; although, the limitations of ASCII pose additional challenges.

I recall the isometric perspective fondly for one major reason: it was in my video games. Civilization II relied on isometric, as did X-COM: UFO Defense and SimCity 2000 - just a few of many. It's not used quite as often anymore, since graphical rendering capabilities have increased to a point where other mechanisms for creating the appearance of three dimensions are feasible.

This three-quarters photograph of the TD Canada Trust Tower, part of Brookfield Place in downtown Toronto, is as close to isometric as I can reasonbly get to. For complete accuracy, I'd need to have a flying camera - isometric games generally went with the bird's-eye perspective.

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, May 28, 2010

If Rigs Drill Down--

I'm holding out a bit of hope that the recent ecological catastrophe - "oil spill" just doesn't work as a description when you're talking about tens of thousands of barrels of crude spewing out every day for more than a month - in the Gulf of Mexico will thoroughly discredit the idea of offshore drilling. Then I remind myself that I have to be realistic. There is money to be made in slurping up dinosaur stew that happens to be underwater, and as such we've got to get ready quickly for a constant struggle against politicians who place short-term enrichment - particularly, the favors that oil industry lobbyists and representatives give out to grease the wheels - over the long-term interests of those they ostensibly represent.

It's easy enough to see where the battle lines will be drawn next: the Arctic Ocean. At the rate we're going, in the next few years we will lose the northern icecap through the summer months, and all that open ocean with all its inferred oil resources - an estimated 90 billion barrels - is singing a sweet, sweet song in the ears of petroleum executives the world over. Shell Oil was even granted exploration licenses in the Beaufort Sea last year, but thankfully the issue has been tied up in the courts - as far as I know, there are no operating rigs up there yet.

That can't change. In my mind, we can't afford to allow these resources to be exploited. Notwithstanding the environmental impact of burning an additional ninety billion barrels of oil, or the degree to which access to such a bonanza would only encourage the continuation of our current situation, we cannot run the risk of a similarly devastating oil catastrophe in the Arctic Ocean.

Personally, if it was up to me - if I was World Archon, or whatever, because I like "archon" as a title - I would shut the rigs down to as great a degree as possible. We can't afford an oil spill anywhere, whether it's the Gulf of Mexico or the Pacific or the Indian Ocean. Devastation is devastation, no matter whose shores the oil washes up on. The problem here is inertia - existing offshore drilling operations have bit down pretty hard, and they're not going to be coming up easily.

Ultimately, though, this does not come down to the corporations alone. Sure, corporations may be doing all they can to get authorization to drill in the Arctic, but while they have the money they do not have all the power necessary to do it on their own. The final word rests with governments. As far as I am concerned, any government that allows offshore drilling in the Arctic Ocean - taking into account the recent disaster, as well as the need to radically transform the way our civilization is fueled if we're to make it through the twenty-first century in hale and hearty shape - would demonstrate that it is more concerned with the prospect of immediate enrichment than with the long-term interests of its people and of the world as a whole. And as such, in my mind, any government acting in such a manner would lose the moral authority to govern.

We give power to governments so that they can coordinate the things individuals can't, so that they can help ensure we live in peace and plenty. What we needs is a firmer awareness of the concept of the Mandate of Heaven. A short-sighted leap toward the paradigm of the twentieth century is something we can afford only slightly more than another ecological catastrophe.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

PDP #226: The Night Car

A few nights ago the lights were on at Allan Lamport Stadium, significantly brighter than they usually are at that time of night - on the opposite side of the street, still bright enough to read or take photographs by. I was surprised how long I had to wait for the streetcar to enter the frame, though - at the time it was taken, 501 Queen streetcars were diverting onto King, but just tell that to the service frequency gods.

I'm so happy to have a camera that actually takes decent night shots.

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Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The Rule of the "Best," Ruled By Prestige

We like to believe that the aristocracy is a thing of the past, that in the modern world people ascend to the high strata of government and society based on merit and skill and not blood, and that any one of us can grow up to be the President someday, so long as you're a natural-born American citizen - because, let's face it, "you can be anything you want to be, even Secretary-General of the United Nations" doesn't quite have the same resonance for a kid. Maybe, in some limited respects, it's even true.

Ultimately, it doesn't make a difference. Whether we have an aristocracy of blood, an aristocracy of wealth, or an aristocracy of talent, human nature means they will all act in broadly similar ways - whether it's enriching themselves at the expense of the ordinary people, doing favors for their friends even if society as a whole would be harmed as a result - witness Prime Minister Stephen Harper's championing of a renewed Bill C-61, something the big American entertainment conglomerates love - and generally acting as if their own interests are of more value than the interests of society.

Next month's G20 summit, taking place right here in downtown Toronto, is putting this all into stark perspective for me. I'll admit that the summit organizers are at least dimly aware of and thus somewhat responsive to the city that will be hosting their meeting - witness the relocation of the "free speech zone," itself a wonderfully democratic innovation, from the residential Trinity-Bellwoods Park on Queen Street West to Queen's Park.

Nevertheless, the fact remains that because the world leaders, or the organization coordinating their meeting, are so wedded to "traditional" ways of getting things done, the people of Toronto are going to have a sneak peek at what a police state looks like. From what I've heard there will be three-meter-high fencing downtown, security screenings for pedestrians and drivers entering the downtown core, cameras everywhere, and $1-billion in security spread between Toronto and the G8 summit in Huntsville. Where, I have to ask, is the justification for all this? In what universe is it acceptable to throw down the locks on a city for no other apparent reason than that cities are always where conferences happen?

In the past, aristocrats were always about appearances. They had to be, because otherwise no one would know who was in charge and who was lesser, and who could run a kingdom like that? Take, say, Louis XIV of France. In that painting on Wikipedia he looks, to me, like a laughable fop - that's what three hundred years of fashion shift will do, and I have little reason to hold monarchs in any esteem - but at the time, what he was wearing was stylin'. Mainly because he was wearing it. Today, it's somewhat different - the business suit is a remarkable leveller - but only somewhat. Prestige is still important, and prestige is one of the few reasonable explanations I can think of as to why the federal government would choose to hold the G20 summit in downtown Toronto rather than something more easily secured, like Exhibition Place or a military base.

Whether or not it's a desire to avoid a "loss of face" that would occur if the G20 was held somewhere reasonable and not a major metropolis, or something else entirely, I can only speculate. It doesn't matter, though. The aristocrats will almost always get their way.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

PDP #225: The House of Caecilius

Plenty of people find it odd when I mention that while I stopped studying French in Grade 10, I studied Latin all throughout high school. There are some schools that do still offer Latin programs, and Barrie Central Collegiate in the late '90s was one of them. The curriculum was based on the Cambridge Latin Course coursebooks, focusing first on a family living in the last days of Pompeii - Lucius Caecilius Iucundus, his wife, his son, their dog and their slaves.

Caecilius, at least, was a real person, though more recent discoveries suggest that he died a considerable time before the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 0079. While in Pompeii back in 1998, one of the places we stopped at was his house on Stabiae Street, where two thousand years ago Caecilius in horto sedet.

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, May 24, 2010

An Antidote to Anti-Light Rail Venom

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a post that dealt in part with the bad rap that light rail unjustly has in Toronto. One comment I got on Twitter, in response to the question of why it seems conservatives exalt subways over light rail, was that "LRT only looks cheaper - [it] destroys businesses over short and long term, [and] destroys neighborhoods with grade separation." This is hardly a unique perspective; back in March, the National Post reported on a coalition of merchants along St. Clair Avenue West suing the City of Toronto for $100-million for gross negligence, public abuse of authority, and so on.

The true problem is that even though this is that, rather unfairly, the overruns and delays surrounding the St. Clair West right-of-way have become closely associated with the entire idea of light rail in the minds of many Torontonians, particularly those who weren't that closely acquainted with it before. What I take issue with is the casual assumption that this is the way it always has to be - that it's impossible to build new streetcar or light rail lines without causing street chaos for years on end. Fortunately, we don't even have to leave Toronto to find a counter-example.

South of Front, north of Bremner, this doesn't look like a destroyed neighborhood to me.

Spadina Avenue has a long history of streetcar service, going back to the late nineteenth century, but in two distinct ages. In 1948, the original Spadina streetcar gave way to the Shuffle Demons' beloved Spadina bus, and in 1966 all track on Spadina except that between King and College was ripped up. That was the situation until the 1990s, when work began on a reactivation of the Spadina streetcar and its extension south to Harbourfront. Spadina merchants don't seem to have welcomed it with open arms at the time - Transit Toronto reports that busineses "were concerned over the loss of parking" and believed that the right-of-way - itself a rather simpler and more unobtrusive design that would be built on St. Clair West two decades later - would "act as a 'Berlin Wall' down the middle of the street."

If you've been to Spadina recently, it's clear that the worst fears of merchants along it did not come to pass. Spadina remains heavily travelled by pedestrians, motorists, and streetcars, and thirteen years after the completion of the right-of-way the streetscape seems to be chugging along. Similarly, by 2023 I would hope that opinions will have cooled regarding the right-of-way construction on St. Clair West.

What it comes down to is that construction overruns like this are not an intrinsic property of on-surface urban rail construction. It's a problem that has many generators, from a laundry list of inefficient contractors to poor coordination to a lack of central planning and the eight-month judicial freeze slapped on the project at the behest of Save Our St. Clair. We can't let one poor flavor poison the debate forever.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

PDP #224: Ready to GO

GO Transit operates one of the largest commuter rail networks in North America. Unsurprisingly, it takes a great many trains to service that network. This past Friday, while on my way to Harbourfront, I found a veritable army of GO rolling stock camped out at the North Bathurst Yard under Spadina Avenue, waiting for the afternoon and evening trips to Richmond Hill, Barrie, Stouffville, and so on. It really made me appreciate the scale of the operation; when all you usually see is one train pushing into or out of a station, it's easier to take it for granted.

Fun fact: there are eighty seventy Bombardier Bi-Level Coaches in this photograph - more than the total inventory of any single agency operating them, save GO Transit itself and Metrolink in Los Angeles.

EDIT: I miscounted - one of the trains was counted twice. Still, the fun fact holds: the third-largest inventory of Bi-Levels is held by Sounder Commuter Rail in Seattle, which operates fifty-eight of them.

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Saturday, May 22, 2010

Farming Up, Plowing Under

One aspect of the future that didn't show up very much in science fiction, but which is lurching toward reality at an increasingly rapid pace, is the concept of vertical farming - that is, agriculture conducted not on a traditional farm, but within a purpose-built skyscraper. The true effectiveness of large-scale vertical farming is still up in the air, owing to the newness of the concept, but if it lives up to the possibilities it may well revolutionize patterns of development in the twenty-first century. If we're looking to build a resilent society, bringing food production into the city is a necessity - municipalities today do not maintain strategic food reserves.

What I've been thinking about recently are some of the other potential consequences of a shift in agriculture from traditional rural to controlled urban methods, particularly in terms of land use. It can be argued that, in addition to their agricultural role, farms also end up serving as "land banks" - just as banks will give you interest on your savings account in exchange for letting them work with your money in the meantime, farms reap rewards out of the soil until some developer comes along, buys out the farmers, and slaps down a soulless cookie-cutter subdivision with streets all named after the sort of things that used to grow there. This happens again and again in Ontario - just recently, a pioneering project to stem the town of Markham's sprawl into adjacent farmlands was rejected, thanks in part to the ceaseless pressure of developers who, it seems, won't be happy until every patch of green is plowed under.

A large-scale shift to vertical farming, should it live up to expectations, could upset this balance in many ways. Farming is, to be blunt, not the sort of profession that makes a person rich. If agriculture starts moving away from farmers' fields into controlled environments, it might not take long to reach a tipping point where farms become valuable only for the land they're sitting on - perhaps sparking a land rush among developers jockeying for the best territory on which to put their empty suburbs. That, in turn, could bury any shot at suburban densification.

It wouldn't necessarily have to be that way, though. Ontario already has a provincially-protected Greenbelt and has made an attempt at conserving the environmentally-sensitive Oak Ridges Moraine, although admittedly the enforcement of that protection has been spotty at best considering 200,000 people already live within it. A sufficiently forward-looking government could buy up the land ahead of the developers, perhaps to set up a network of provincial parks and secure the land against the relentless pace of development. There's no reason other governments in other jurisdictions couldn't do similar things.

The plowing-under of nature is, regrettably, one of the things that did frequently appear in science fiction, and which has long since become science fact. If urban agriculture does lead to the contraction of rural farmland, if we move fast enough we may yet stand in the bulldozers' way.

Friday, May 21, 2010

PDP #223: A Bird in the Fence

Plenty of animals have adapted to the city life. Whether it's birds that have learned how to ride the subway or the incredibly fat pigeon I found just chilling in London Victoria station in 2004, their presence enriches the city - think about what it would be like if there was no birdsong echoing along quiet streets. I'm no ornithologist, so I have no idea what kind of bird this is, but I know it looked perfectly in its element while hanging out in the middle of a chain link fence at Monarch Park Collegiate along Coxwell Avenue.

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, May 20, 2010

Don't Trust the Signal

A progressively more common element I've been noticing in modern future forecasts is the idea that interconnection will make it easier for people to live their lives without leaving their houses. An early example occurred in Oath of Fealty, where one of the Todos Santos residents made a living by remote-driving lunar construction equipment. As the web becomes more and more ubiquitous and capable, it's not only going to revolutionize telecommunication - it's got the potential to revolutionize life in general, our work time and our leisure time both. The important question is whether or not it should revolutionize things to the degree that it can.

One of the themes I tend to revisit is this: "there's no substitute for reality." This is something I wholeheartedly believe - that experiencing something through the intermediary of a glowing screen or words on a page can never measure up with direct experience. I wish I didn't have to state this, as it seems incredibly obvious - but what's obvious to one person is not necessarily so to another. Moreover, I can already see today the beginnings of reality manipulation. Take augmented reality, for instance. Today it's purely ordinary - you hold up an iPhone in front of your face, and you see a bit into the electronic world - but how long will it be before augmented reality devices not only become more immersive, but become capable of editing things out of a wearer's view of the world?

Imagine a world of cheap vacations, but where you never leave your house - you "go on vacation" remotely, a probe your proxy. did something like this for their April Fool's gag this year, Virtual Vacations - it took me a few minutes to realize that it was fake, because it's the sort of thing I can imagine people actually paying for. Who needs the mind-opening experience of going to new places, experiencing new situations first-hand, when you can just sit in the comfort of home and watch it on your screen? For that matter, who's to say what you're even watching is accurate? Video feeds can be tampered with, and "vacation remotes" can be set down in Potemkin tourist zones. Why should the destination risk any chance at a poor remote vacation? Do the remote vacationers really have to know they're taking their vacations in some soundstage?

Dynamism depends on challenging boundaries. We can't expect to maintain a vibrant and dynamic society if more and more people become more and more content with the prospect of staying in their homes all the time. If people are to live, they can't do it through intermediaries - it really should be direct, or not at all.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

PDP #222: Running Off the Rails

It may well be the easternmost limit of Toronto's streetcar system. On the east side of Victoria Park Avenue, extending a few meters into Scarborough, one set of streetcar rail continues along Kingston Road until it comes to an abrupt end. It's one of the only remnants of historic streetcar service in Scarborough - the rails originally continued a fair distance beyond this point, enough so that I'd have crossed them during my Oshawa-to-Toronto ride last year, but they were withdrawn to Victoria Park in 1954. The only strange thing about the rails here is the modern-seeming concrete they're embedded in; I was under the impression that at that time, the TTC still sank its rails into cobblestones.

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, May 18, 2010

The Illusion of Isolationism

It's really no surprise that the United States has, throughout its history, held the concepts of isolationism and non-interventionism in such high esteem. The last sixty-five years are anomalous in terms of the greater sweep of history - the United States became active in the world at large in 1945 to prevent Allied victory from being swept away, and has remained active since 1991 out of inertia and self-interest. Nevertheless, the world has changed substantially in the last twenty years, and as time goes by it seems more and more believable that the world's policeman might hang up his badge.

The concept of American non-interventionism stretches back to before the Revolutionary War, though perhaps its most significant signal boost was made by Thomas Jefferson in 1801, when he called for "peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none." At the dawn of the nineteenth century, that was an eminently practicable philosophy. The young United States had all the resources and dynamism of a pioneer society and was poised to explode west over the Appalachians. National self-sufficiency was far simpler to manage, as the Industrial Revolution had yet to start chugging on when Jefferson took office, and the wide borderlands and vast seas gave the United States all the defense it needed.

Things have changed a bit in the last two hundred years. Thomas Jefferson never had to worry about pandemics or ICBMs or environmental disasters. But that hasn't dislodged the concepts of non-interventionism and isolationism from what seems to be a uniquely privileged place in the American world of the mind. I, personally, can't think of any country, except for Imperial China, that thought that way.

But it's not dead, IN AMERICA! Rand Paul, son of lolbertarian-favorite 2008 presidential candidate Ron Paul, is reportedly now the man to beat in today's Kentucky Senate primary. On his website he cites Jefferson's address and suggests that "allegiance to foreign institutions sacrifices our autonomy as a nation by transferring our legal authority to unelected and unaccountable leaders." Personally, if that's the case, my answer would be that the problem is with how those institutions are organized, not with the institutions in and of themselves.

Just because the other shore's too far away to see, that doesn't mean it can't affect you.

The twenty-first century has created a world in which distance is no defense; the Atlantic and Pacific may as well be puddles for all they can prevent enemies reaching North America's shores. Nor do we live in a world where countries can rely on none but themselves. Take titanium, for example: during the Cold War it was an absolutely vital for advanced aerospace construction, and the United States needed as much of it as it could get.

We're also living in a world of grander problems than those Jefferson had to deal with. Take your pick from nuclear non-proliferation, environmental remediation, international stability, global patent and intellectual property regimes, or any of dozens of other issues that cross borders as freely as the air. Modern-day problems are of global scope, and while we live in a world where collaboration across countries and continents is becoming easier, it's also becoming more and more necessary.

The future is potentially bright, but the world has grown into a state of such complexity that no one state has the resources to chart a course through the rocks and shoals on its own. The age of being "in the world, but not of it" has, I think, passed forever. Cooperation and coordination is what will let us realize the best of the futures.

Monday, May 17, 2010

PDP #221: Stairway to Green

The thing about Toronto's ravines is that it's easy to overlook them or edit them out of our mental maps of the city. I didn't know about Glen Stewart Park myself until I stumbled upon the staircase leading down into it off Kingston Road this weekend. When I went down, the sounds of the city were muffled to nothing and it was like I was up north on a Cub Scout campout again. It was a living piece of nature, a reflection of what the whole city would have looked like a few hundred years ago, and an important anchor to the natural world. It's easy to forget about green when you live in the concrete jungle.

It feels like I should set a short story there or something.

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, May 16, 2010

Doublethinking About the Future

I've recently begun writing a new science fiction story, set mostly in 1980. As something set before I was born, it's actually a rather comforting departure from the more distant bits of the twenty-first century. It's not just that I don't have to do any worldbuilding for 1980 - though the peppering of hints that the story is not set in the twenty-first century is reminiscent - but I know how things turned out. I do not have to worry about the prospects or possibilities of a global thermonuclear war in 1995, but an author sitting in 1980 and writing about the twenty-first century would be forced to confront that before moving on.

I can still remember when the twenty-first century was supposed to be a golden time of wealth and opportunity. The role-playing game Transhuman Space, set at the threshold of the twenty-second century, strikes me as an embodiment of that expectation and, as such, strikes me as more and more dated with each passing year. The last ten years have taught us that the twenty-first century will not be a golden age. It will just be an age, and if we're lucky and skillful we'll come out of it better than when we went in.

One great problem for forecasting and envisioning the shape of the future world is not only the flux of events, but their apparent solidity until the tide comes rushing in to destroy all our sandcastles. Take Toronto's Transit City light rail project, one of the city's biggest nods to the future in recent years. It was announced back in 2007, a network of six lines extendng rails throughout the city and simplifying transit for tens of thousands of people, with funding commitments made and repeated by the provincial government again and again. The whole project was supposed to be completed in 2018.

Three years later, it'll barely be started in 2018. The economic crunch and Ontario's debt load have given the province all the excuse it needs to cut the project to the bone - the half of it, that is, that still has funding commitments as I write this. Three years ago we budgeted for plenty. Now we're all in penury, or at least our governments are, and things that need to be done are falling by the wayside.

It's easy to forget that the future is expensive. Whether they're new transit lines or space stations or a truly green economy, so many of the things we habitually associate with the future remain so today because their cost couldn't be justified to politicians in days gone by. It's not inferior technology that prevents us from living in cities in the moon today but the astronomical cost of building and maintaining those cities. Though these things are always assumed to be part of the future, I worry that they'll remain that way explicitly because no one has the will to bring them out of the future into today. The Toronto subway is another example of that; it's an excellent transit system for a city of 600,000 in 1980. The only problem is that's not what it's serving anymore.

The concept of doublethink was popularized by George Orwell in Nineteen Eighty-Four, and it consists of holding "simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them." Thinking about the future feels like doublethink to me sometimes. On one hand, we're dealing with a great many threats - social, environmental, technological, economic - that all need to be dealt with while we have only limited resources to deal with them, and on the other hand I have to believe - for the purposes of my stories - that Earth of 2078 was able to solve them all, one way or another.

I'm not saying it's impossible to solve these problems. But it nevertheless seems a bit incoherent to say that we'll have people working in space stations and spacing off to Mars when right now we don't even have the stones to build a few kilometers of light rail.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

PDP #220: Rising on the River

As I mentioned yesterday, I got myself all educated at Trent University in Peterborough. While I was there, its major project was the construction of Peter Gzowski College, housed in the Enweying Building on the east bank of the Otonabee River. It ultimately opened in 2004, and in terms of residential style it blew all the other colleges away. I took this photo in October 2003, a little more than a year before Enweying's official opening.

The most surprising thing about it was that that yellow paneling actually ended up part of the finished exterior.

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Friday, May 14, 2010

A No-GO for Peterborough

With the budgetary situation as strained as it is, there are a lot of people in Ontario and Canada who won't always get what they want. The recent postponement and foreshortening of Toronto's planned Transit City LRT lines is one of the more talked-about examples in the media, but Toronto's not the only city that's having to deal with 2010's new normal. The city of Peterborough, a regional center of 77,000 people 125 kilometers northeast of Toronto, has as of late been trying to become more integrated into GO Transit's regional transit network. It's something that's already begun - there's currently a GO Bus route that connects Peterborough with Oshawa GO Station, an alternative that didn't exist when I lived there. In the early 2000s, the Greyhound down the 115 was pretty much the only game in town.

Nevertheless, as even people with a passing interest in transit may have noticed, there's a large chunk of people out there who just don't ride buses. Plenty of these people will, however, ride trains - be they streetcars, subways, or the commuter rail system that forms the backbone of GO Transit's regional network. With that in mind, Peterborough MP Dean Del Mastro of the Conservative Party has recently been championing the establishment of regular commuter rail service between Peterborough and Toronto.

Metrolinx threw cold water on that prospect on Monday, when it released a report suggesting that "the most basic commuter rail service" in 2016 would come with a price tag of $541-million, with the most thorough service calculated to cost $1.5-billion - greatly in excess of the $150-million each the provincial and federal governments committed in 2008, contingent on the findings of Monday's report. Del Mastro is, unsurprisingly, not taking it sitting down. "It's not possible that this would cost $25 million a year to operate," said Del Mastro as quoted by the Peterborough Examiner - because, you know, an MP with no apparent background in railway planning absolutely knows what he's talking about more than the people who actually do this sort of thing for a living.

Beyond that, though, I have to ask a question that everyone else involved in this situation seems to be taking for granted - would Peterborough be better off with a direct commuter rail link to Toronto? I, personally, would say no. As I mentioned before, I lived in Peterborough for three years while attending Trent University, and it was a good city. In part, I liked it because it was seemingly preferable in all respects to Barrie, a similarly-sized city that even then was dominated by sprawling subdivisions. I didn't find many Barrie-style suburbs at all while I was in Peterborough. Peterborough seems to be a regional center to a far greater degree than Barrie is - and it doesn't seem as easy to live a commuter lifestyle there. Peterborough's more than an hour and a half by car from Toronto on the best days. Barrie is significantly closer.

If this issue was about extending all-day rail service, the arithmetic would be different. But it's not, and there's no way I can support what Del Mastro's pushing. To put it bluntly, when municipalities around the province are running up aganst deficit walls and being told to forget the promises made to them, he's still gung-ho about spending $300-million so that a small number of people can work in Toronto and buy big houses in Peterborough. This is not the sort of thing the government should be encouraging! The fact that he's crying out for this when a number of people greater than the entire population of Peterborough is being left in the lurch by the cuts to Transit City is just icing.

There's a time and a place for everything. If this was something else - say, a Peterborough Light Rail demonstration project, or something else of direct public benefit, I'd likely be behind it. As far as I'm concerned, the time is not now and Peterborough isn't the place. It's too nice of a city to be ruined by easy commuting.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

PDP #219: Green Trees, Blue Sky

A couple of weeks ago, the trees in Toronto finally started to go green. I'm not sure how many days they were like that before I stumbled into a forceful realization that - my god - there are leaves here now while I was on my way to the streetcar. Now that they're back, photographs are going to be even better. Though I don't mind the photos I picked up while tromping through Cedarvale Park last month, I do think they would've been more powerful with a canopy of green instead of bare, scraggly fingers.

Here, a pair of trees rise below the Atrium on Bay, on Edward Street just off Yonge.

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, May 12, 2010

Banking on an Incentive for Art

You may never have heard of Banksy before. To put it simply, he's a British street artist of mystery - the people who know who he is aren't talking, you see - responsible for guerrilla artworks that have appeared on the sides of buildings across the United Kingdom and abroad since the 1990s, though it's only in the last ten years he's come to a greater prominence. Whoever he is, Banksy was in Toronto this past weekend as part of the launch of the new "street art disaster" movie Exit Through the Gift Shop, and while he was here some local buildings became his latest canvases - the first time his art has hit Toronto's streets. I've not seen them myself, but Torontoist did report on them with photographs.

It may be that I won't be able to see them in person. Subsequent to the initial announcements of the art's appearance, Torontoist noted in an update yesterday that they have begun to be painted over, presumably by the owners of whatever property they were painted on. I understand that this is perfectly within the rights of the property owners, but to me, it seems kind of short-sighted; like there could be a better way of going about this. I was thinking for a while yesterday, and by the end I had a new plank for my mayoral platform.

The idea of urban beautification is something that I've been at least trying to mention since I started running for mayor - one of my first posts on the subject dealt with it, and I also briefly discussed it in my interview with CP24, which will presumably be hitting the internet Real Soon Now (you know, after they sort through the sheer weight of outtakes produced because I kept stumbling over my own words). Here, we've had a stab at bringing life to otherwise empty concrete, and not all of it meets with a paintbrush slathered in white or grey. For example, I don't know whether or not it's an "official" mural, but this painting on the back of one of the industrial buildings just north of Lawrence East station on the Scarborough RT is, in my opinion, one of the true highlights of the route.

Trust me, it's even better when the sun is out and there's not a barbed-wire fence in front of it.

What I'm suggesting is an expansion of the current system. The City of Toronto already runs its Economic Development Mural Program, intended to help "local businesses and communities create an attractive and positive identity for their commercial areas." It offers funding of up to $5,000 for the installation of a mural, but it's also commercially-focused: eligibility is restricted to Business Improvement Areas, business associations, and "community groups that include strong business participation."

My concept is something that runs in parallel with this - call it a "Mural Incentive Program" for now. Under this program, a property owner could apply to place a mural on the side of their building - commercial, residential, or industrial, as long as the zoning laws don't take issue with it - and while the City wouldn't provide any funding to install it, the completed and maintained mural could instead be counted as a property tax deduction. Tax credits, in my experience, are a crackerjack way to encourage the sort of things you want to encourage.

It's the details of this plan that would have to be hammered out. City Council is a governing agency, not a panel of art critics, and I'm sure there are a lot of people who would take issue with the government deciding what is and what is not "correct" art - but on the other hand, there has to be some kind of approval process for this system, in order to ensure it's not abused. Here, maybe, we could take it to the people of Toronto themselves and crowdsource the approval. It could be, then, that when a property owner takes a mural design to the Mural Incentive Program for approval, that design is put up on a website where Torontonians can vote on whether or not the design should pass muster - and if it does, they're on their way.

It's a minor thing, I know. It's not something that will shake the foundations of the city. Sometimes, though, the incremental changes are among the most important.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

PDP #218: Queen West, Rain in the Night

Last Friday evening there was an accident at King and Spadina - hopefully, not as bad as it seemed - right on the streetcar tracks. As a result, if I wanted to get home I needed to truck north to Queen, through the rain. It had let up a bit by the time I made it to this stop, but I was still thankful for the shelter there. I didn't even mind that the Queen streetcar was erratic as usual, and that after I'd been waiting in the cold for an unusually long while two of them showed up bumper to bumper, as usual.

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, May 10, 2010

Common Words #12: Sparrowstrike

Here's something new. You may recognize some names in here if you've read previous bits of my work, particularly #11. As it turns out, this was the prototype for that one - while it uses the same characters, it was written three months before, in September 2006. My mind is, unfortunately, rather empty today, and I know it's not right for me to leave an equally empty day in the log.

The primary difference between this story fragment and "A Scene from the West" was that, in the latter, the setting was shifted to Montana. Here, things take place in southeastern Arizona, 1876. Not exactly the wettest place around.

I can't remember where I got the title from, or what it means, either.


The man had to be mad. Siobhan Cameron tilted the brim of her hat down, wishing it could keep the sweat as well as the light out of her eyes, and regarded him with a long stare, as if enough attention would make him fade from existence like the mirage that he was.

Whoever the man was, he was persistent, and steadfastly refused to disappear.

"Well, this don't look all that usual at all, Brendan," Siobhan said, one hand stroking her horse's thick brown mane. "How's about we make a stop, see if we can find out what the deal is, and give you a couple minutes of rest as part of the bargain? You'll like that, you will. Go on now, Brendan."

Siobhan urged her horse forward at a slow walk and leaned forward in her saddle, squinting as if she was staring into his soul. The man didn't seem to have noticed her presence yet, or if he had, he wasn't giving any hint of it. His attention was on some device Siobhan didn't recognize, what looked like a solid brick of iron on the end of a metal pole, that was connected by a tangle of wires to his backpack. He moved in a straight, regular pattern in a square of land, never going over his footsteps in the time Siobhan watched him, moving like a horse lashed to a plow.

He was a white man, that much was obvious. For all the savagery of the local tribes, Siobhan knew that none of them would be crazy enough to let themselves roast under an unforgiving sun.

As she approached the man, more details emerged from the bright glare that seemed to make the very air around him glow. He was modestly attired in clothes that gave him the look of a seasoned operator, and his boots were worn and coated with the dust of many miles. His hair was a tousled brown mop, visible despite the hat he wore, and he carried himself firm, without the hint of a slump.

He still hadn't taken notice of her approach. Siobhan said a silent prayer, thankful that she had found him before some vainglorious highwayman. She had learned from hard experience that the desert was not a place to lose touch with one's senses, lest death hide in one's shadow.

"Pardon me, sir," Siobhan said, taking up an oft-practiced respectful tone. "Do you know if Silverbridge is far?"

The man stopped in his tracks and his head spun toward Siobhan at an unnerving speed. Words died in her throat as she looked at the man, who regarded her in the cool and distant manner that a falcon might gaze across a valley from its perch. His face was placid and his chin was shaven, but she could see a quiet determination in his steel-grey eyes.

"Is that a lady's voice I hear?" the man asked. He was a New Englander from the sound of it. "Or is the heat boiling my brain?"

"I am a woman, but I can't speak for the state of your brain," Siobhan said, dismounting her horse with practiced grace. She retreived a water canteen from her saddlebag and offered it to the man, whose face overflowed with rivulets of sweat like miniature Mississippis. "Siobhan Cameron is my name. What might yours be, sir?"

"No need for 'sir' out here, Miss Cameron," the man said, taking the canteen in his free hand. He took a brief swig before handing it back. "Do I look like a duke or a general to you? The name's Morgan, Samuel Morgan, and I can tell you it's a pleasure indeed to meet someone like yourself in this wasteland. I know there aren't that many people who would share their water with a stranger."

"Likewise, Mr. Morgan," Siobhan said. "I could hardly ride by, knowing what the sun does to people under it. I can't help but wonder what it is you're doing out here all alone, though, and with that contraption of yours as well."

"It's simple, really," Morgan said. "I am a man of science, and these are my tools. Speaking of which, you wouldn't happen to be hiding a couple of batteries under your blouse, would you?"

Siobhan frowned and crossed her arms. Her experience across the coarse-tongued frontier nonwithstanding, such words never became easier to weather. To hear an educated man speak that way only made it even more painful. She would have expected him, at least, to have some politeness in him.

"The only cannon I have is the one that Mr. Colt provided, and as for what's under my blouse, that's not for you to know," Siobhan said as a great deal of her curiosity toward the device evaporated. "Not that I can see what a man of science would need with artillery."

"I mean electrical batteries, not cannons," Morgan said, holding a hand to his temple. "People always... no, it doesn't matter. I need electrical batteries to power my contraption, as you call it, and it drinks them dry like a shootist in a hot saloon."

"I've certainly got none of those," Siobhan said, frowning at him now. "Nor do I appreciate being spoken to in such a manner, Mr. Morgan. This may be an uncivilized land, but I will be damned if I allow myself to be dragged down to its level, or to yours."

Morgan's eyebrows shot up, as if her statement took him by surprise. Siobhan had to take a step back at that. Surely he wasn't so far removed from reality that he hadn't realized how she would react to his words, was he?

For a moment he floundered under her arrow-straight gaze, unspoken justifications or apologies dying as they met open air. She noticed the sweat starting to run down his forehead anew, despite the brief wind that had kicked up around them.

"I didn't mean you any disrespect, Miss Cameron," Morgan said, staring at the ground. That much wasn't a surprise, as she'd dealt with plenty of men who would rather be buried to their neck in the desert than apologize. "It's just, you know, I don't have the opportunity to talk to ladies like yourself, decent ladies, all too often. Not that many of them left in these parts anymore, either."

"Is that an apology?" Siobhan asked, eyebrow upraised. "What a fine work of camouflage. Here I thought you menfolk had all the subtlety of an artillery barrage."

"It... yes, Miss Cameron," Morgan said, still unwilling or unable to look her in the eye. "I... I apologize. It's just that... well, stay out here for long enough, and you'll feel the courtesies of the civilized world start to just fly away."

"That's something I'd prefer to avoid, thank you," Siobhan said. "I accept your apology, Mr. Morgan. Try not to be so uncouth in the future, though... or is it thoughtlessness?"

"Probably some of both," Morgan said. "Look, Miss Cameron, I'm sorry we got off on the wrong foot, and I'd hate to lose out on your acquaintance because of one stupid remark. You're headed for Silverbridge, right? It's only a couple of miles down the road."

"I am," Siobhan said. "In a manner of speaking. I go where the road takes me, and if Silverbridge lies along it, so much the better."

"What's left of it," Morgan said, shaking his head. Sadness? Regret? Siobhan couldn't tell from her limited interaction with the man. "All right. There's a place there called the Blue Castle, and it's a good enough spot to get your bearings. Tell the barkeep that I sent you along, and he'll treat you right. Once I get back to town, maybe we can try so start from the beginning again."

"Fair enough, Mr. Morgan," Siobhan said. "You do seem a conscientious sort, after all. As long as you keep from disrespecting me in such a way, I'm sure we'll get on well."

"I'm already looking forward to the opportunity," Morgan said. "I know enough not to waste second chances. Just be careful in Silverbridge... the place isn't exactly enlightened, you know."

"I know all too well," Siobhan said, mounting her horse once more. "Sometimes I wonder if there's any room for enlightenment at all out here."

"Only what you can carve out for yourself," Morgan said. "It's something, but it's hardly ever enough."

"Perhaps, Mr. Morgan, but if there was enough, there'd hardly be any thrill to the challenge, would there?" Siobhan asked, winking at the man. "I'll see you in Silverbridge, then. Good luck with... whatever it is you're doing out here."

"Only the business of necessity, Miss Cameron," Morgan said. "The most important business there is. I've almost got this problem beat, too. Then everything'll be right as a trivet again. Just you see."

"Perhaps I will indeed," Siobhan said. "Till next we meet, Mr. Morgan."

"Same to you, ma'am," Morgan said, tipping his nonexistent hat. "Safe journey."

Siobhan glanced back at Morgan as her horse trotted down the road. He'd already turned his back to her, once more consumed in the pattern of his movements, guiding his contraption over the dirt like a plowman steering a horse.

"That Mr. Morgan seems like an odd duck, doesn't he, Brendan?" Siobhan asked, stroking her horse's mane. "Good enough man, though, considering."

Something did seem unusual about him, though, in a way she'd seen in only a handful of people before. There was something strange about the way he spoke and the way he moved, as if he wasn't entirely tethered in reality. She wondered if it could be that he was one of the few...

No, Siobhan thought. He can't be. I know the Art. I would have been able to tell.

But then, to Siobhan Cameron, used to the orderly farms and bustling cities on the fair side of the Mississippi, the vast expanses of the West had always had the air of the unreal.


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Sunday, May 9, 2010

PDP #217: A Wide, Open Perspective

The local geography of Los Angeles is, I think, a bit of a mixed bag. While the surrounding mountains mean that it doesn't get as much air circulation as cities in flatter regions, they also provide crackerjack photographic vantage points. This particular one was taken from a lookout just off Mulholland Drive in the Hollywood Hills, looking over the Hollywood Bowl to Hollywood itself with the skyscrapers of downtown LA just visible in the distance.

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, May 8, 2010

A Historical Perspective: Victory in Europe

Sixty-five years ago, the guns in Western Europe fell silent and the curtains closed on one theatre of the Second World War. Victory in Europe Day, or V-E Day, marked Germany's unconditional surrender to the Allies. With the United Kingdom overwhelmingly invested in the fight against Adolf Hitler - the war against Japan in the Pacific was disproportionately shouldered by the United States - it was a day of feverish celebration as six years of conflict came to a close.

Yesterday would have been my grandfather, Les Parkinson's, ninety-fourth birthday. I've previously posted extracts from his memoirs dealing with his service in the Manchester police force during the war. In 1943, he stepped out of his police uniform and served as a motor mechanic aboard the motor launch RML 497, where he served for the remainder of the war.


From the news releases it was obvious that the war was going well for the good people - us - and the speculation was about when it would all end. We carried on our patrols and spent a lot of time at sea with the spring of 1945. We had nice sailing conditions, and we were able to enjoy reasonably warm weather. The thought of being able to go on watch without wrapping up in all sorts of clothes to keep warm was uppermost. Around April the rumours started again, and the time of peace, it seemed, was at last in sight.

We finally got the news that an armistice would take place early in May. On the afternoon of May 6th, there was a broadcast from the base PA system that no boats would go out on patrol that night, or any other night, as an armistice had been arrived at and hostilities would cease at 0230, May 7th. What a birthday present that was for me.

During the afternoon of May 7th, Peter Scott, the SO of the SGBs, escorted an E-boat into the harbour. Aboard this boat was a high-ranking German naval officer, whose only purpose was to surrender his fleet of E-boats to the Royal Navy. These boats were beautiful to look at, and once they were cleaned up, we were allowed to look over this one.

The crew's quarters were dirty compared with ours, but the wardroom was scrumptious and nicely fitted out. The E-boat was powered by three Daimler-Benz diesel engines. They were huge, and it was no wonder they could outrun our boats.

They had one snag, though, if you could call it one. Whilst they were moored, they had to have a "Jenny" pump hot water through the main engines to keep them warm and ready for immediate use. Also, they had no gearbox. When the engines were started, the boat moved at three knots and was in direct drive. To go astern, the rotation of the camshafts had to be reversed.

The German crew trained one of our crews to handle the boat. Then our men took the E-boat on a tour of the bases on the east coast that had played host to our own boats during the war.

With the war in Europe over, we had to wait to see what was going to happen. One strange thing did happen, though. On the night of May 7th there was no order broadcast at sunset to darken ship, as had been the case for the last five years. It was a strange sight that night. All the lights in the harbour were on, and lights could be seen on all the boats as the hatches and portholes were not battened down.

It was a wonderful, almost forgotten sight. Most of the crews of the boats went up to London that night, and everybody celebrated. As the coxswain was from London, I stayed aboard on watch and let him go to see his family. I went ashore the next night and had my photo taken with my two stokers, Biff and Monty.

Les Parkinson, Biff, and Monty - May 8, 1945

We were detailed for one more patrol, and that was to take a person from Trinity House to check all the buoys in the area. This took us three days. We returned to base each night, and each night we saw fewer and fewer boats in the harbour. They had all gone to be decommissioned and paid off, and we knew that it wouldn't be long before we were paid off.

One of the nicest orders in the Navy was "Harbour Stations," and it was given when entering or leaving harbour. All the crew lined the deck facing the base and stood at attention as the skipper saluted the duty officer. This was to allow the crew a last look at land as they left, in case they didn't return, and as they entered it was to allow them to be thankful for their return. I did like it, although I never participated, as I was always below in the engine room.

The day we left for Dartmouth I watched the land disappear and had a lump in my throat. Why, I didn't know, but I knew that I was leaving something behind. We were on our way to pay the boat off and go home.

All we had to be careful of was that we didn't hit a mine. There were plenty around, but the minesweepers were already hard at it, clearing the minefields and reopening the channels to shipping. To be sure we didn't hit a mine, a lookout was posted up forward and lay on the deck over the bullring in the bow.

Our first stop was at Newhaven, where we spent the night. There, there was a thirty-two foot rise and fall tide. The boats were rafted, and the inner boat was moored to a pontoon that was fastened to the bollard on shore. As the tide went out the watchkeeper had to release and let out the ropes mooring the pontoon to the shore, and the reverse was done when the tide was on the flood.

The watchkeeping was done by men from the base, allowing the boat crews to get some much-needed rest. To get ashore when the tide was out, one had to cross the pontoon and climb up a series of ladders, like the wall bars of a gymnasium, to get ashore.

That night I went ashore to celebrate, and celebrate I did. It was my one and only real bender. We started off with beer and cherry brandy chasers, and what a night it was. The last thing I remember happening was slapping Jimmy the One on the back in a pub and telling him it was time he bought the crew a drink. Everything else was a blur until I woke up in my cabin aboard _497_. From what I was told, I flaked out and the crew carried me to the base, lowered me down the ladders and onto the boat, where they put me on my bunk.

The next morning we put to sea, and I didn't know which was greener, me or the water. The coxswain had had to remain in Felixstowe, so one of the ratings was made acting swain and I was in charge of the crew. As we put into Torquay, I asked the skipper if there was shore leave for the crew. "Yes," he said, "but not for you. You had enough last night." I didn't intend going ashore anyway.

The next day we left for _497_'s final resting place, Dartmouth. The River Dart was the graveyard for many, many Motor Gun Boats, Motor Torpedo Boats, and Motor Launches. There were dozens of them tied up. We tied up to a jetty, and there a work crew removed our guns, ammo, depth charges and CSA gear, while the crew unloaded their own gear.

We could leave nothing aboard. I shared my stock of cigarettes with the crew. From the bridge I took the ship's badge, which I had made, as a keepsake and reminder of my days aboard _497_. As I left the boat I felt a little sad, as it had been my home for so long.

Past Perspectives:

Friday, May 7, 2010

PDP #216: Round and Round and Round Again

As I write this there are only six seats left to be declared in the United Kingdom's election, but at this point it's not going to change much. David Cameron's Conservatives have dethroned Gordon Brown's Labour, yes, but while it's not by the thinnest of margins, it's not enough either - and so, it appears that the UK is looking at the prospect of a minority government. After their most recent experience with it, I have a better understanding of why they call it a "hung parliament," but it's worked out well enough for Canada over the last four years. The fact that the Conservatives are sounding out a coalition government with the Liberal Democrats - who, from my perspective, appear to approximate Canada's New Democratic Party - just underscores the weirdness here. I would have expected Labour and the Lib Dems to go it together, myself. If for no other reason than to provide Stephen Harper with a reminder that a coalition government between multiple parties that, between them, control a majority of the seats in the house, even if neither of them have the most seats individually, is not a coup d'etat.

I expect it's going to be a bit interesting from here on. So I think that this picture of the London Eye, a rather large Ferris wheel just a stone's throw from Parliament, is appropriate. Would you believe, though, that when I went to London I did not take one single photograph of Parliament itself? For shame.

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, May 6, 2010

A City, Not In Transit

I had hoped this wouldn't happen, but given the way governments have acted over the last thirty years, it's absolutely no surprise at all. Due to the province of Ontario's massive debt load, itself a result of the recent economic crash and a spate of stimulus spending to keep the lid on things, the deferment of Transit City has begun in force. At this point, it's plausible that the plan Mayor Miller envisioned in 2007 - and for which the province promised support, giving us another lesson in the value of the province's promises - will never be built to its original design.

What we will have instead is an abbreviated system that will not be completed until 2022, and even then will not be "completed" the way it should have been. The airport will still be without fixed transit service, many of the originally planned lines won't be built at all, and the prospects for a Downtown Relief Line look dimmer and dimmer. Once again, Toronto transit is getting the shaft, presumably with the unspoken assumption that transit is a "nice to have" and not a "need to have."

Even this foreshortened plan is becoming the target of critics and candidates alike. Rocco Rossi, who has described Transit City as "Streetcar City," recently unveiled a "Transit City Plus" plan focused around new subway construction. Sarah Thomson's idea of tolls on the Don Valley Parkway and Gardiner Expressway would go toward financing subway construction. It seems like you can't throw a plastic bottle in Toronto without hitting a proponent of subway construction.

There's only one problem - subways are expensive, yet I keep seeing them being championed over light rail solutions like Transit City. In a tweet two days ago, Jennifer Hassum put it into perspective - "why do conservatives favor expensive subways and the left affordable light-rail?"

A light rail train on the Los Angeles Metro Blue Line, in operation since 1990, connecting Long Beach with downtown

The truth of the matter is that somehow, LRT has acquired a bad reputation in Toronto. I just wish that I knew how, because it would make dealing with it so much easier. Part of it, I think, stems not only from the basic unfamiliarity with the modern expression of light rail - the Scarborough RT is the closest thing Toronto has to a modern light rail line, and even then I wouldn't call it an adequate comparison to LRT as it's practiced in other cities - but because, unlike other cities, we have streetcars to reckon with. LRT is descended from the streetcar, but in the vast majority of cities LRT was only installed significantly after the streetcar systems had been removed. Here, we don't have that psychological remove, and it may be that it's easier to think of LRT as "streetcars plus." If former mayor Mel Lastman really said that "real cities don't use streetcars" - I can find quotes across the Internet, but no source - that may be one explanation.

I suppose one reason could be that subways are perceived as being fast and direct, and LRT meandering and slow. This is a mischaracterization based on equating LRT with streetcars. I have ridden on an LRT system - the Los Angeles County Metro Rail is primarily LRT, with only the downtown spine of the system served with subways - and aside from its separated rights-of-way, there's nothing in Toronto that compares to it. My experience with it was of a mode of transit that was fast and effective (though Angelenos who use it on a regular basis may have some words about what may be a rosy view).

The whole point of LRT is that it acts more like a subway than a streetcar - stations rather than stops, and widely-separated stations at that - but because of its surface-running and more limited infrastructure, is cheaper than a subway. This is the paradigm that Transit City should be built upon.
In the end - across North America, more than twenty cities are building or planning light rail systems, whereas only New York is planning new subways. There's a lesson there, I'm sure of it.

Ultimately, though? Much of the vitriol against light rail transit may well stem from two simple sources - first, a general unfamiliarity with LRT in Toronto allows it to be mischaracterized in arguments, and second, Mayor Miller has taken the idea of LRT and made it his. Attacking the man's plan may be, for many people, an appropriate substitute for attacking the man himself.