Tuesday, August 31, 2010

PDP #274: Atop a Box of Light

Rising on what once was a parking lot - definitely following the pattern for Toronto downtown construction - the Festival Tower condominium skyscraper is externally complete. With the Bell Lightbox at street level, this is where the Toronto International Film Festival will be held in future years, and I can only imagine that traffic through the Entertainment District will become even more interminable as a result. Sometimes I really think that if money was no object, it might be better to replace the 504 King streetcar - which runs directly outside this tower - with an underground LRT or ALRT system.

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

Monday, August 30, 2010

To Your Scattered Panels Go: Fan Expo Canada 2010

In all honesty, I've never been much of a comic-book fan. The childhood years that appear to be when the habit settles in for most people were, in my case, spent watching the complete VHS set of the original Star Trek and reading Star Trek tie-in fiction. I suppose it was for reasons like these that I have never before attended a "comic book" convention - but then, Fan Expo is not just a comic book convention. Now in its fifteenth year, it's a massive melange of comics, anime, sci-fi, horror and gaming - an electromagnet of geekery and nerddom that's totally unlike anything I've ever experienced before.

Looking back, that's probably one of the biggest obstacles I had in front of me. I went to Fan Expo with my memories of Anticipation and Ad Astra 2010 to inform my expectations. Sure, I knew that Fan Expo is a far larger and grander endeavour, something far more along the lines of the San Diego Comic-Con. I had vague ideas of scale, but I didn't know what to expect.

I had to stand in line for an hour just to get inside, a line that spanned a city block outside the Metro Toronto Convention Centre and was as easy for the two security guards to control and corral as it would be for you to steer a motorcycle with nothing but your tongue. This was the line for those who had bought their tickets online - and it was the initial ticket-buying process where Fan Expo distinguished itself from the other conventions I'd attended. It's just as simple as that - tickets. At Worldcon and the smaller conventions I've attended or researched, attendance is based on membership; you pay your fees and you're a member of the convention or, in the case of Worldcon, the World Science Fiction Society. At Anticipation and at Ad Astra, the registration staff had a big paper list that they crossed your name off when you showed up. For me, it had a real personal feeling.

Fan Expo, on the other hand, defined impersonal. Things didn't get much better when I entered the convention proper. The way it was set up, there weren't many neutral areas that I could find - for the most part, what I encountered was one massive, sprawling dealers' room, like I'd stumbled into the biggest and most crowded comic book store in the universe.

A handful of Fan Expo attendes maneuver on the main convention floor.

I've never had the chance before to discover how I fare in a massive, massive crowd. Fan Expo gave me that opportunity, and with the scale of the crowd forcing me to jounce and jostle for position whenever I wanted to make two steps, after fifteen minutes I felt like I was having trouble breathing. The press of bodies moving this way and that in a Brownian chaos, the warmth from so many human bodies leaving the air conditioning system a huge challenge to overcome, and the incredible sensory overload left me floundering. Every booth at Fan Expo, it seems, wants to get your attention, and they're all bedecked with STUFF!! for sale of the kind that you've never seen before and may never see anywhere else - Initech T-shirts, Japanese Zelda soundtrack CDs, and $600 ED-209 models - and you can easily lose yourself trying to keep track of it all. I certainly did.

Not that my opportunities for recovery were much. While the lower floor of the convention center was fairly open so early in the day, the Metro Toronto Convention Centre evidently does not pass up an opportunity for profit when it sees it: thus, the bottled water for sale cost the princely sum of $2.71. Locally sourced from Simcoe County. I paid three bucks for what is practically Barrie tap water.

As the day went on, the lower level became increasingly clogged. Two twinned escalators were the main access between levels, but by the time we were ready to head outside for open air and lunch, there was absolutely no clearance reserved around them. The end result was, of course, standing-room-only escalators depositing a steady flow of people into a space where there's barely any room for them. Had the people on the lower floor not moved, I felt as if I could have been stampeded down there. God forbid what would have happened had there been a fire in the building; with that kind of attendance, there's no such thing as an "orderly" evacuation. What was worse was that once people left, they had to line up again for re-admittance, which I hear took place only once an hour. Whatever the situation, the conrunners didn't do very well in communicating it to the people.

Nor was there really very much in terms of events that interested me - for a con that pulled in fifty-nine thousand people in 2009, it seemed like there wasn't even as much variety of programming as there was at Ad Astra 2010. From my look over the event list, what panels there were seemed universally to be Q&A sessions with celebrities or showrunners. The autograph area occupied a massive swath of the east side of the convention center, and I can only imagine how absolutely breath-catchingly crammed it would have been when there were people actively signing there.

Shredder and Bebop take a break from menacing New York circa 1987 to make an appearance at Fan Expo. As far as I could see, no mutant ninja turtles were in attendance - teenage or otherwise.

That's not to say that I didn't find anything to like about Fan Expo, though. The cosplayers really made it - one of the great things about conventions like this is the opportunity to identify the costumes, and there are a lot of costumes. From the usual suspects like Spider-man and the Flash, cosplayers ran the gamut from Ghostbusters to a Batman costume made entirely out of duct tape to Leeloo from The Fifth Element and Dr. McNinja. Some of them require a hell of a lot of dedication, considering the number of character outfits that Man Was Not Meant To Wear.

I was, thankfully, spared an encounter with an overly hairy, three-hundred-pound man in an ill-fitting Sailor Moon costume. They're always there, somewhere. Such a man was one of the first people I saw at Anime North in 2003, but in that case he was something like seven feet tall and with a lush beard.

Ultimately, the most important thing I took away from Fan Expo - aside, that is, from Initech and Blue Sun T-shirts - is that I'm really not the kind of person that conventions like these are marketed towards. Fan Expo is, first and foremost, a profit-making venture. You see it in the different grades of tickets, where some events are restricted to those who have a "Deluxe" pass and above. You see it in the corporate sponsorship - this year it was "presented by Rogers," and the dealers' room included an HMV outlet, a Rogers display area, and a demonstration of the Kinect for the Xbox 360. There didn't seem to be any sense of camaraderie or welcoming there except from the groups that came together - just a sense that you were meant to spend money, and a lot of it.

As for me, I left with bills untouched in my wallet. Thus, I suppose, I win.

Previous Convention Reports

Sunday, August 29, 2010


I braved the crowds of Fan Expo Canada 2010 yesterday, which is a story in itself and will be covered on this weblog later. One of the things I like about conventions like these is seeing how many identifiable costumes there are around. Some speak for themselves - like this Dalek that's the center of its own crowd.

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

Saturday, August 28, 2010

A Historical Perspective: A Yellow Warning

I've previously posted extracts from the memoirs of my grandfather, Les Parkinson, surrounding his service in the Royal Navy and the Manchester City Police during the Second World War. This is another one, detailing events at some point in 1940, when the situation was dark for England and kept so by weight of law; unshielded lights could, after all, provide reference points for bombers in the days before onboard radar.

The war was not going too well for England. In Europe the Germans seemed unstoppable as they were in North Africa. My younger brother Frank was captured at Saint-Valery and was taken to Stalag VIII in Poland, where he died of pneumonia later in the year. The miracle of Dunkirk happened and my older brother managed to get out. The mass air raids stopped and the raids we had were by one or two planes - more of a nuisance than anything else, but we were lucky for other towns got raided nightly. The lighter the nights got, the later the raids started.

We had an influx of recruits in the police. These were the nineteen years of age men who were too young to go into the forces. One night I had one of them with me, learning the job. As we passed the Air Raid Wardens' place, we used to call in and learn where the raids were and to learn if there was a yellow or red warning on. The yellow was a probable raid, and red meant imminent. On this night there was a yellow warning on, so we set about making sure there were no unscreened lights about.

On City Road above a fish and chip shop I saw a light on. The glass was covered with brown paper. As there was a warning on, we had the power to break into the premises to extinguish the light. The lad with me stood on my shoulders and opened the fanlight above the door, got into the shop and let me in.

We went upstairs and found a young woman lying naked on the bed, fast asleep. There was an open book at her side, so she must have fallen asleep whilst reading. We woke her up and went into the living room to wait for her. I told her what had happened and that she would have to go to court for having an unscreened light visible during an alert. When the case came for trial, she told me that the neighbours thought she was having an affair with the owner. His wife was her cousin, and she was only keeping a watch on the place while they were away. Anyway, she was fined ten shillings.

I enjoyed working down Hulme, for although the people were poor they were good people. One night I was called to a fish and chip shop on Stretford Road, right on the boundary. There had been a fight there. As soon as I entered, I remembered the advice of Freddie Driver. I showed them who was boss and soon got the situation under control.

After I got outside, a young woman came up to me and asked if I was a new policeman. I sand no, that I had been transferred from another division. She started stroking my chest and brushing off my uniform nonexistent dust and dirt, and invited me home for supper. I asked her what my sergeant would say if he found I was missing and having supper with a woman in her home. "Don't worry," she said, "Steve had his supper last night." Incredibly, Steve was Steve Ford, my sergeant! Anyway, I declined the offer and went on my way, saying a quiet thank you to Freddie for his words of advice.

We had a bloke, a nineteen year old that nobody liked. His father was on City Council. He boasted that he only joined the police because it was an easy job that would keep him out of the army. Walter Arnold - he wore A74 - was on the next beat to me. We decided to teach this boaster a lesson.

Right on the boundary with Stretford and on Chester Street, there was a pawnshop that was always being broken into. I told the kid that I would go in for supper first, that was at 1:15 AM, and he would work the beat on his own. I stressed on him the importance of this pawnshop and even took him there. One had to check the back door, for that was always the point of entry by the felons. To get to the back door, one had to go a zigzagging entry and at the best of times, it was a little scary.

When it came supper time, it was also time to check the pawnshop. Walter and I went first and lay on top of the wall. We saw him coming down the entry. He had his lamp in one hand and his truncheon in the other, ready for action. As he passed, Walter knocked the lad's helmet off. That did it, for the lad dropped everything, turned and ran. I thought, now we are in for a load of trouble, so we went to the station for supper.

When we got in the station officer, an old sweaty, big and fat man called Osbaldiston, called us in his office and said, "Now you buggers, what have you been up to." When we pleaded innocence he said, "Go and see the state of the lad." He was white and trembling with fear and told a story of how he had been assaulted as he was trying the back door of the pawnshop. We were instructed to go out and check the place out, which we did, and returned with the lad's helmet, flashlight and truncheon.

The lad refused to go out on the streets again that night, and slept in one of the cells. That was the last we saw of him, for he resigned and later registered as a conscientious objector. The station officer knew what happened for he knew Walter and I of old, but he couldn't prove a thing, and the incident was recorded as a policeman being assaulted. Unknowingly, though, I think Walter and I did the police a favour.

Past Perspectives:

Friday, August 27, 2010

PDP #272: Approaching the Core

Today, it's another Speeding Sunroof Shot for you all - this one taken on the Gardiner Expressway, looking west toward Toronto's downtown core. This was taken around 8 PM on a Sunday - ordinarily traffic would be thicker than this. It's a perspective that, thanks to the nature of the urban geography, probably isn't that common. But I have nothing to base that on, really, except conjecture.

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

Thursday, August 26, 2010

To Speak With Salutary Neglect

It's an old canard in science fiction and future forecasting that in years to come, the English language will experience drastic changes. The Euro-English joke, "ze drem vil finali kum tru," has been making the rounds for decades: I came across it in a 1950s Astounding letter column. For me, it's always been rather simple - if your idea for "improving" English makes it look like the person using it has no concept of spelling, I'll take a pass.

Nevertheless, there are always people railing against "impurities" in the English language - these people should be directed to James Nicoll, who put it in terms for the ages - and of the need to tighten up the rules of the language. With the rise to prominence of text messaging in the last decade, some of these people are becoming even more shrill: to some, it seems, the very foundations of English are being undermined.

Spelling reform, and the attendant regulation and "regularization" of the language, isn't the way to do this. Sure, English is an insane slapdash combination of French, German, Greek, and Latin with bits of almost every other major language finding their way into the mix somewhere, but that's what makes it dynamic, flexible, and integrative. It's a gift for a writer - its depth of vocabulary makes possible a panoply of words with a continuum of meanings. Also, it means I don't necessarily have to use the same word over and over and over. English doesn't have language regulators like the Académie française or the Rat für deutsche Rechtschreibung. It is a freewheeling anarchy of a language - and that capacity for integration is, I think, one of its great strengths.

Beyond that, I don't think that English as a language is suited to top-down regulation because of the number of "anchors" it has. It's not only the prime language of the United Kingdom but of the United States, Canada, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, and Guyana, and it's got a vast presence across India and other former components of the British Empire. So the question is, if you were to regulate English - what would be the basis? If you're trying to standardize spelling, what accent would you go with? Take a word as simple as "schedule" - would the regulated spelling take after my pronunciation, "sked-joule," or my coworker's "shed-joule?"

There would never be agreement - at the absolute best, you would probably see an even more formalized split between British English and American English, though barring a precipitous breakdown in the international system, we're still far removed from a situation where the United States speaks something that would have to be described as just "American."

In my view, salutary neglect is the best way to treat English - none of this shrieking about how the language is being diluted. English has been around for a long time. It's just barely behind Spanish in terms of native speakers. It will be all right. Forcing the language into a Procrustean bed of regulation would do no favors - it would go against the freewheeling spirit that's made the language what it is today.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

PDP #271: The City and the Trees

British Columbia's current slogan is "The Best Place On Earth." Personally I've always found that rather arrogant because, really, it's a pretty bold statement - most likely one created by some government committee, and besides, if the Best Place on Earth is sitting next to a major seismic zone and suffering from pine beetle infestations and raging forest fires, that doesn't augur well for how good the rest of the world is. I like their other one better - "Super, Natural British Columbia." Super-ness isn't as much of a loaded term, and as for nature: you can't get away from it over there. Take this photo from Queen Elizabeth Park in Vancouver, taken on a day when it seemed like it was going to rain but it never got around to doing so. The city seems almost like it's haphazardly wedged into the green.

FUN FACT: The automatic file name my camera gave this shot was IMG_2271. I guess this really is its time to shine.

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 any entity the right to use this work for any purpose, without any conditions, unless such conditions are required by law.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Art and the Colonies

Art is powerful. For the vast majority of our history, it was only through art that individual perspectives on the world, from ancient cave paintings to the portraiture of the high Renaissance, could be preserved. Here I'm talking about the hands-on arts as opposed to photography, since although photographs can be art, cameras don't create what they see out of nothing. An artist who works with pencils or paint needs a keen imagination above all, to bring authenticity to a scene that may have no existence of its own.

This kind of art has been associated with space for decades. Before the world's space programs really got going, it was artists like Chesley Bonestell who brought the universe to our doorsteps. Artistic endeavors like these have, I think, made a great influence in the popular conception of space all the way to the modern day.

It's particularly evident for space colonies. Ever since Gerard K. O'Neill published The High Frontier in 1976, the prospect of building worlds in space has been an ideal of many proponents of further space development - despite more recent conclusions that such megaprojects would be far more difficult and expensive to build than it was thought thirty-five years ago. There are many reasons why there are no people living in L5 today, and it's not something that can be blamed just on the design compromises inherent in the Space Shuttle. Still, the ideas of these colonies are staggering; literal worlds designed, engineered, and assembled by humans, islands of life in the darkness. Of course they would inspire artists.

So, in the 1970s, the NASA Ames Research Center got some artists together to make artistic impressions of space colony designs, ranging from cylindrical colonies that would inspire the design of Babylon 5 to massive Bernal spheres. The one thing they have in common, besides being space colonies, is that they're completely outside all human experience - a place where art thrives.

Photo credit: NASA Ames Research Center

It's a good view, isn't it? Powerful and inspiring. When I first saw it, I had a tinge of disbelief - though that was brought about by what the painting implied. See, that's where hands-on art really parts ways with photography. Hands-on art is not limited by reality, or by economic likelihoods. Take a look at that image again, as well as one of the visual anchors: the suspension bridge crossing the lake. It works until you realize that this is a completely engineered environment. Is it really the best use of resources to build a bridge in a space colony? And it's not a small bridge either. From the look of it, it'd have to be at least a kilometer across. There are a lot of implications hidden in that bridge, I think - perhaps an assumption that life in a space colony would be a lot like life on Earth.

It really wouldn't. Space colonies pose problems that a lot of people just don't think of. They're potential paradises for dictators - how many regimes on Earth can turn off dissidents' air supply? Total Recall, of all things, showed us the way forward on this. These colonies may look nice, but the art conceals the vast challenges that would be intrinsic within them.

Monday, August 23, 2010

PDP #270: Leaside Sundown

One of the biggest drives I've experienced in terms of my photography is the search for fresh perspectives. It's in that act of choice, the shaping of exactly what the camera sees and does not see, that the creativity really enters photography. Last night, I had the opportunity for a new perspective and I took it.

This is the Leaside Bridge, spanning the Don Valley between Leaside and East York. There aren't too many photos of this bridge floating around, just because of the difficulty of accessing it from ground level; no roads wind through that part of the Don valley, just bike and foot trails. No roads, that is, except for the Don Valley Parkway.

The way I took this picture was simple: in order to avoid any windscreen reflection or blurring, I just held the camera up out of the car's sunroof. At 90 kilometers per hour, reaching up into the windstream really creates a lot of drag and a considerable roar. I have never held onto my camera so tightly, and the strap was wound securely around my wrist. I can only suggest this method when a) you have a mechanism to ensure that, if you lose your grip, the camera doesn't go flying, and b) you are not behind the wheel.

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 any entity the right to use this work for any purpose, without any conditions, unless such conditions are required by law.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Enhancing Character Awareness

One of the biggest problems a writer will face is convincing the characters to do what the writer knows is necessary. The fact is, characters aren't robots - whether or not they're empowered with a will of their own on the page, the fact remains is that their words and actions establish their perspectives, motives, and desires, and forcing characters to arrive at decisions through pure authorial fiat cheapens a work immensely. Good writers can manipulate the characters, make them believe that they're doing things for their own reason, seeing things with their own eyes.

Still, sometimes the temptation to use authorial intervention to solve an intractable or just difficult problem is too much. I notice it frequently in works of fantasy, where it almost seems to be a staple of the genre - prophetic visions or clairvoyant revelations that give the characters insight into the future, and also serve as easily-installed motives. Say that you've got this sorcerer in a far-off land who you plan to be the Big Bad of the series, but your characters have no reason to even be aware of him, let alone willing to challenge him. Sure, you could weave a complex plot together where the protagonist and the antagonist gradually come into each other's lives through ordinary circumstances and invent their own reasons to stand in opposition - or, you could just have some convenient soothsayer grant a character a vision of what this sorcerer will do when he achieves the power he seeks, and motivate the protagonist to prevent that vision from ever coming to pass.

Personally, I feel that pulling that particular trick out of the writer's toolbox cheapens the work. I believe that a protagonist should travel through the narrative and emerge victorious on their own merits, rather than because of some ineffable gift of second sight.

It's when this same line of thinking shows up in science fiction and other, more reality-rooted genres that I really start to get irritated. Fantasy gets a pass for a lot of things specifically because it is fantasy; the whole genre is practically a paean of longing for things we can't have because the universe is a meanie. To be perfectly blunt, I expect better from things that claim to be science fiction. I speak, specifically, of the Enhance Button.

Zoom in on A4 and rotate the bitmap around the Z axis all you want - the only thing that matters is that pixels gotta come from somewhere.

It's a staple both in modern science fiction and police procedural/mystery shows for the magical computer to take a small, grainy, poorly-resolved image and transform it into something of perfect sharpness - generally it's a key clue or deciding piece of evidence for the main characters, and without it they would be flailing about like a fish on the dock.

This is nothing more than an expression of the same motives that lie behind fantasy's prophetic visions - and, hell, science fiction frequently incorporates prophecy like it's no big thing. Look at Minority Report - without precognition, the story would fall completely apart. More recently, you can find it in StarCraft II's reeling, staggering narrative with the Ihan crystal missions.

What crystallized this for me was a two-part episode of the mystery series Castle, which I can watch thanks to CTV streaming it on their website. In the second-season episode "Boom!," the NYPD is on the trail of a crazy killer who has sent a video of himself with a captive to taunt them. Fortunately, the characters have a magical computer at their disposal. Not only are they able to zoom-enhance a light-drowned corner of a window into a recognizeable image of a New York City bridge, they're also able to completely strip out parts of the audio track with a few keystrokes, thereby isolating the sound of a passing elevated subway train. They then use the sound and the angle of the bridge view to establish precisely where the killer was holed up - and all this in barely more than sixty seconds.

What makes this even more hilarious is that, from the way the rest of the episode unfolds, the killer had expected the police to discover exactly this.

I know from experience that one of the hardest parts of writing is making a worthwhile villain, because they don't have the decency to make some elementary, stupid mistake that the protagonist sees through in an instant. But to create a villain that does cover his bases and have the protagonist make her way to him because of revelations from a magical computer or a prophetic vision doesn't do a work justice.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

PDP #269: Flying in the Sunlight

A couple of weeks ago, as I posted about previously, the southwest corner of the Yonge and King intersection was redressed to become New York City. A common tactic I've seen in making Toronto look more like the United States is to fly American flags wherever there's a flagpole - which, to be perfectly honest, is essentially the same thing you'll see in the actual United States. I'm not sure what the difference in flags per capita is between Canada and the US, but it's gotta be pretty wide.

Still, it looks good in the light - and from this perspective, I can see how the unfamiliar could be convinced that Toronto is, in fact, New York City. Or whatever place it needs to be.

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 any entity the right to use this work for any purpose, without any conditions, unless such conditions are required by law.

Friday, August 20, 2010

So I've Withdrawn From the Election

Since I know the newspapers don't particularly care, as I was always a quixotic fringe candidate whose chance of winning was not impossible only because, in science, something has to have exactly a 0% chance of occuring to be considered "impossible," this is probably the only real notification that's going to come down the pipe about this - so here it is. Effective Thursday, August 19, 2010, I have withdrawn from the 2010 Toronto municipal election. I am no longer a candidate for office.

I'd like to extend my thanks to those of you who followed my campaign, such as it was, and who gave me words of encouragement. Your interest and support was invaluable to me when I was starting out. I only wish that I could have sustained the energy I had, such as it was, back in January. I'm sure that you've noticed how I've not said very much about my campaign in recent weeks. Part of that comes from the natural division between mainstream and fringe candidates, absolutely, but for the rest I have only myself to blame.

Nevertheless, thanks for your interest in my candidacy and in Toronto's political future, and I sincerely hope that on October 25 you'll cast your vote. If you're wondering who I'm going to support now - well, that's a decision I'll have to make over the next few weeks. It was so much easier before; I was going to vote for myself.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

PDP #268: Highland, High Ceiling

One of the things I really liked about the Los Angeles subway system is how aesthetics was taken into account during design and construction; as a result, while Toronto's first subway stations tend to resemble neglected 1950s bathrooms, the stations along the Red Line and Purple Line have open, soaring designs that strikes me as a great deal more welcoming. That style's easily seen here, on the Hollywood/Highland station platform, where the roof reflects the tunnels below.

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 any entity the right to use this work for any purpose, without any conditions, unless such conditions are required by law.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Rollsigning Comprehension

Despite the stereotype of the man who refuses to stop and ask for directions, it's generally best to know how to get where you plan to go - in much the same way as it's generally best to consume food to fuel your metabolic functions. The stereotypical man's problem isn't that he doesn't know where he's going. For some reason, that awareness seems to fall off for some people when you remove them from the driver's seat.

I commute to downtown every afternoon on the streetcar, typically the 504 King as it is, generally speaking, far less erratic and unreliable than the 501 Queen. For the last two months, King streetcars have been running along Queen Street west of Shaw owing to water main reconstruction around King and Jameson. I don't find it too bad, since it increases the frequency of cars along that corridor. Still, whenever the streetcar approaches Shaw and the operator announces that this is a King streetcar and will be turning south on Shaw and east on King, there are almost always people who are shocked or surprised and have to alight and wait for the next car to Neville Park.

Sure - maybe these are people who use the streetcar only infrequently, if at all. Maybe it's their first time waiting at the stop and climbing those stairs. Maybe they don't know about the diversion, and just assume that since the streetcar is currently on Queen, it will remain along Queen.

That's all well and good, except that in 99% of cases, the streetcar's rollsigns accurately explain where it's going - and riders have to walk right under one to board. The other 1% occurs when the operator doesn't switch the rollsign when they reach one end of the route, but in my experience that's an unusual circumstance.

Three guesses as to where this streetcar is going.

I suppose I just have difficulty understanding where these people are coming from. The way I see it, it behooves travellers to have at least a basic understanding of their surroundings and their route - it's one way to mitigate the "absolute dependency" issue some people seem to have with public transit, in that once you pay your fare you're on the rails.

Note that I'm not talking about people who know where they're going, but have to ask the operator if this particular streetcar will get them there; that's just good sense. I've had to do the same thing myself - last June in Vancouver, after conquering the Lions Gate Bridge on foot, I staggered onto the first bus I found and asked if it went to Lonsdale Quay. I think most of the North Shore buses do go there, but I hadn't studied that part of the network - and unlike Toronto streetcars and buses, TransLink buses only indicate what route they're running, not where they're heading.

Realistically, though, at its core I think this is just a symptom of a similar problem: many people just don't read, unless it's something they believe has direct applicability to them; at least that's how I envision it, because there's got to be some kind of reason. You'll encounter it time and again if you follow sites like Not Always Right. It's just... it doesn't take all that much effort to know that "501" means Queen Street and "504" means King Street. I mean, if you were trying to get up north to a buddy's cottage, would you just go along the first highway you found because a highway is a highway?

Awareness is a necessity. Without it, you might end up lost somewhere you've never seen before, with no idea how to get back to the familiar.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

PDP #267: Behind the Blue Wall

It's been a long time since Toronto's garbage strike - over a year now, thankfully. We were fortunate that the weather was so mild; in a summer like this, that much garbage left strewn on the streets would have made the city rank until December. Still, we shouldn't forget about what happened during the course of it, either. I took this photo at Gzowski Park along the lakeshore last August - this was one of the many dumping sites the city opened on parking lots and in parks across Toronto. It really puts things into perspective when you can see it all there - and this, I believe, was taken after the strike had ended. There was a lot of garbage to ship away.

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

Monday, August 16, 2010

Invasion Anxiety

It's rare for a new genre to appear on the scene. What's more common is for genres to wax and wane in popularity, receding from the public eye for years or decades and then returning with a fresh perspective. It might be argued that science fiction is undergoing something like that now - I keep hearing about how the modern generation is more interested in fantasy instead, and that science fiction has fallen from the heights it occupied a couple of decades ago. That would probably be worth a post of its own one day, assuming I can find evidence for it other than hearsay and conjecture (even though those are kinds of evidence).

So what genres might become popular in future years, as the tastes of society turn away from magic knights and elves and vampires? The zeitgeist would influence what gains staying power, and after a bit of thought, I have a theory. Depending on how things shake out, we may see a resurgence of invasion literature: a genre that had its original bout of popularity from 1871 to 1914, dealing with hypothetical invasions by foreign powers. The prototype was an invasion of the United Kingdom by Germany, but the concept found solid purchase in countries around the world until the First World War made all those speculations of conquest just a bit too real.

The world has changed in the last hundred years; there's no longer a massive groundswell of anxiety in mainstream society about whether the Stars and Stripes or the Union Jack or whatever flag you choose to fly is about to be lowered for the last time. This may be less true in Australia: yesterday I saw a trailer for the upcoming movie Tomorrow When the War Began, which appears to be nothing if not Red Dawn down under, and Red Dawn itself is being remade with the Chinese, not the Russians, as the invaders of America.

If invasion literature does come back in a big way, though, it won't be the same as the original nineteenth-century wave; it'll be informed by the fears of the present. What I wouldn't be surprised to see is a new wave of invasion literature based around the idea of the developing world invading the developed.

In a work of future invasion literature, these cargo ships in English Bay would most likely prove to be full of starving refugees with guns, and also tanks for some reason.

It was the story of MV Sun Sea, a vessel loaded with hundreds of Tamil refugees that made landfall on Vancouver Island last week, that got me thinking along these lines. Refugees are always a hot-button issue, and there will always be people who agitate for them to just be sent back where they came from - the fear of strange Others coming to your land unbidden from over the sea is, like Michael Valpy wrote in the Globe and Mail, a kind of primal xenophobia. It's also something we're going to have to learn how to deal with, because unless all our projections are off, the incipient climate and food and water crises of the next fifty years are going to generate a massive tide of people desperate to escape the privations of the developing world.

I can easily see a new wave of invasion literature tapping into the undercurrent of xenophobia that this would generate: stories about how these other, impoverished countries are trying to "steal" the developed world's wealth, and probably also their women - because, honestly, invasion literature would probably be a man's genre. Hell, I can even see the possibility of "liberal" invasion literature, tapping into the developed world's culpability in keeping the developing world depressed and vulnerable to climate shocks.

Personally, I'd rather that science fiction get more time in the sun. It's at least got the opportunity for optimism - not something that invasion literature really shares, unless it's optimism about how "we'll throw them back into the sea."

Sunday, August 15, 2010

PDP #266: Some Kind of Frog

Acts of Minor Treason's Critter Week, something that was unplanned until just today, continues with this photograph of some kind of frog, toad, or whatever - one of those hopping amphibian things. I'm not a zoologist and when I saw it I thought "frog." It was taken on the walkway to my old home in Barrie, back in July 2009. It's comforting to see animals like this around - to know that they weren't all killed when the suburbs rolled in and tore up their habitats out from under them.

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 any entity the right to use this work for any purpose, without any conditions, unless such conditions are required by law.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

The Ways We Frustrate Kessler

Like I mentioned the other day, the biggest stumbling block to a consistent human presence in space beyond laboratory outposts in low Earth orbit is cost - but justification is right behind. No one is going to invest the vast sums of money required into space development without a damn good reason. Whether or not such reasons exist depends on your viewpoint; from time to time, I've come across people who don't believe that there's any reason for humans to leave Earth. Personally, I think those people are just the necessary polar opposite of those who think that we're on the cusp of a space gold rush to exploit lunar helium-3 reserves - despite the fact that, as Charles Stross wrote about recently, helium-3 could just as easily be manufactured on Earth.

Oh, and we're decades away from actually being able to use it for anything. Justifying lunar development with helium-3 is akin to Columbus going to the New World to look for petroleum.

A NASA concept of a lunar base, circa 1977, equipped with a mass driver for payload launches - and presumably bombardment of Earth with lunar rocks in case the Loonies want to make a go for independence.

So the question becomes this - why develop the moon at all? What could be worth the cost? Different people would have different answers, but one of mine is this: resilience. A human presence on Luna could insulate Earth, and assist with remedial efforts, in the event of a Kessler syndrome, another thing I've mentioned before.

The Kessler syndrome is a result of cascading levels of orbital debris - since everything in orbit is moving at multiple kilometers per second, even incredibly small fragments have incredible kinetic energy behind them, and objects as innocuous as lost screws could severely damage something like the International Space Station. Debris unchecked creates more debris, and while limited atmospheric drag could clear out low Earth orbit in a matter of years, other orbits - like ones used by portions of the Earth satellite network - would be choked with debris for long spans of time.

Launching through those clouds of debris would be an abortive proposition at the best; it's expensive to get something into orbit as it is, without ships needing the mass of armor proof against high-velocity impacts. In the event of a Kessler syndrome the satellite network would gradually but surely be crushed to nothing, and no new launches from Earth would be forthcoming; it wouldn't take long for replacement satellites to be shredded and their wreckage to become part of the problem. Even if some satellites in very high orbits were insulated from the main debris fields, they woudl eventually cease to function and couldn't be replaced or repaired.

So, fancy living in a world without satellites? Without the comsat constellations that provide you with mobile phone service or weather forecasts or hurricane warnings? It's only a few steps more preferable than a world without zinc.

Installations on Luna could sidestep this problem. At the very least, installations there and in the Lagrange points could serve as communications relays if the satellite network was gone. More importantly, a presence on Luna could enable remediation of the problem; while launching from Earth would be prohibitive due to debris danger, no similar problem would exist for lunar launches - and the low lunar gravity would make launches far less expensive in terms of propellant necessary to achieve escape velocity.

I know it's expensive. Cost is not the only arbiter of necessity. A thing that needs to be done, but costs a lot of money, still needs to be done.

Friday, August 13, 2010

PDP #265: Flutter By, Butterfly

It's easy to disregard the natural world when you live in most cities - the only "nature" you see on a regular basis is that domesticated, controlled kind that exists at the suffrance of city planners. Even then, if you look carefully you can find it, and the best times are when you never expected to. It was Randy McDonald who first noticed this butterfly landed on the flowertop, and he's likely got some good pictures of it from different angles. As it is, I've got no idea what kind of butterfly it is, but - it's the sort of picture I don't often get.

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 any entity the right to use this work for any purpose, without any conditions, unless such conditions are required by law.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

To Boldly Go

If my string of 1v1 multiplayer matchups in StarCraft II have taught me anything - I mean, aside from the fact that I'm a weak micromanager and it's a really big risky to go reapers in the early game with only one barracks - it's that expansion is a necessity. With a limited and diminishing supply of resources, you can easily be outflanked by rivals who are more willing to take a chance and spread themselves widely. That's been the case throughout history - in the nineteenth century it was practically a way of life for the imperial powers of Europe, for whom the entire world was the field on which they jockeyed for resources, prestige, and power.

We're conditioned by our environment and our limited perspective to believe that Earth's resources are inexhaustible, and in fact economics seems to take that tacit assumption to heart - that we will always be able to increase the size of our economy without expanding the source from which that economy is fueled. Fewer than six hundred people in all of human history have ever been directly confronted with the folly of that assumption by travelling to space. Earth is only large when compared to those who ride on its back. Nevertheless, it's still possible, and quite easy, to understand - we cannot remain only on Earth forever.

Stephen Hawking knows this. Recently he made another statement regarding his opinion that "the long-term future of the human race must be in space." He points to the existential dangers we've faced in the last hundred years, such as the Cuban Missile Crisis - itself only the most well-known instance of a narrowly-averted nuclear war - and how population pressures, resource pressures, and climate pressures over the next hundred years may seriously exacerbate international tensions and again bring us to the doorstep of doom. Hawking's solution is for humanity to spread out from Earth, and within the next two centuries to settle new worlds - to break our fate from that of our homeworld.

Earth and Luna photographed by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter's HiRISE camera, alone in the black.

It's a big thing to consider. Hell, I'm only moving apartments, and that's still daunting - colonizing another planet, or building workable space habitats, would be an immense project of such complexity that no other enterprise in our history would match it, with the possible exception of the Second World War. It's absolutely difficult and absolutely expensive, I agree - but that doesn't mean it's not absolutely necessary, either.

But how to do it? After only ten years, it seems as if the twenty-first century has quite thoroughly jossed all of the great expectations that eighty years of science fiction created - instead of flying cars, moon bases and robot butlers we've got a damaging dependence on oil, entire subdivisions in foreclosure, and unemployment levels that haven't been seen in decades. That it's the United States at the center of this makes it even more difficult to think about space colonization with any seriousness: if the Americans are returning paved roads to gravel, turning off streetlights and shutting down public transit systems because they cannot afford to maintain them, what does that say about the chances of a few billion dollars for Barsoom?

It is, I think, partially a problem of understanding. Space is distant from the average person, and it's simplicity itself for it to be pigeonholed as a waste of money that could be better spent on Earth - as if NASA's mandate is to stuff its rockets full of dollar bills before launching them off. It's easy to decry investment in space as a luxury - but the fact is that investment in space represents one of the few truly forward-looking, future-focused, constructive, and almost entirely peaceful investments a government can make.

Between 2000 and 2010, the world has changed. The boundless optimism of the millenium has been ground to dust by the fear of terrorism and the dislocations of poverty and recession. What we need is a means to inspire the people, for us to look up at the sky again and imagine how far we can reach - not stare at the ground and think about how we can never hold on to what we grasp.

I think it could work. I think it's worthwhile to try.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

PDP #264: Ducks in a Row

I couldn't resist the opportunity to put up a photo with this title; so here it is. Four ducks, I believe two male and two female, standing on a plastic boom that extends into Kempenfelt Bay, the arm of Lake Simcoe that Barrie is built around. So there you go. Just what you've always wanted. A picture of ducks.

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 any entity the right to use this work for any purpose, without any conditions, unless such conditions are required by law.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Phototour: Scott Pilgrim's Finest Hour

This is a follow-up to my earlier Scott Pilgrim-age, a phototour I did earlier this year visiting the locations that appeared in Volumes 1 to 5 of the Scott Pilgrim series. If you haven't seen it, you should totally check it out. You should also totally check out Mad5l5in5's Flickr tour, which visits the same places but has tons more photos and also panel comparisons. It is totally rad!

Yes! On the eve of the general release of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, I went out and assembled a tour of the Toronto locations featured in the sixth and final volume of the graphic novel series, Scott Pilgrim's Finest Hour! That's just the kind of guy I am!

I'm of mixed feelings now that the final volume is out and the movie is about to hit theatres. It's almost over. No more anticipation of what's to come, no more epileptic trees being planted by the fan base, no more speculation on what side of Toronto Bryan Lee O'Malley will choose to shine his light on next - because I presume he draws with some sort of awesome laser pencil. Personally, I had to grumble a bit that it jossed my theory for the climax - I was hoping for the final battle between Scott and Gideon to be a swordfight on top of the CN Tower in the middle of a lightning storm - but what we got is still good.

One thing I did notice while going through Volume 6 is that there's not that much of Toronto in it that we haven't already seen. Gideon's Very Definitely Final Dungeon occupies much of the book, and it doesn't exist - except for the part that does, which was already covered in the previous phototour. But there are bits and hints of clues that I was able to track down. So here's another look at Toronto, through the lens of Scott Pilgrim.

Vol. 6: Scott Pilgrim's Finest Hour

19. Cameron House

I've never been in here - I'm familiar with it because the Queen streetcar takes me right by it, and because of the distinctive design on its facade that was modified somewhat for its appearance in Volume 6 - I'm not sure if it was a copyright issue or what, but the woman's face on the front of the building doesn't quite look the same. The ant is real, though - there's a veritable army of large white ants clinging to the walls of the building, no doubt preparing to be welcomed as our new overlords.

The appearance of the building along the side street where Scott and Knives have their talk - Cameron Street, appropriately enough - reflects the fact that Scott Pilgrim appears to be set in 2005 and 2006, from what clues I've been able to pick up in the dialogue and art. At the time, I believe it read "PROPOSAL: TILT THIS BUILDING TEN DEGRESS TO THE RIGHT," but recently it's been repainted into a large, smiling, toothy mouth.

HOW TO GET THERE: The 501 Queen streetcar goes right past it, with stops at Spadina to the east and Augusta to the west. Additionally, the area is served by the 510 Spadina streetcar north from Union Station or south from Spadina Station, which may be the route Scott is depicted as using to get there.

20. Queen and Spadina

The coffee shop where Scott meets up with Envy Adams, and the area where he tags along with Wallace Wells to a going-out-of-business bookstore, is roughly thirty seconds' walk from Cameron House, being on the east side of the Queen Street West and Spadina Avenue intersection. I've never been inside a Lettieri franchise, but I presume they sell... coffee? And baked goods? I guess.

HOW TO GET THERE: The 501 Queen and 510 Spadina streetcars will take you right there.

21. The Royal Theatre and the Gideon Encounter

The first time I read this, I had no idea where it took place - I only had a vague notion that it might be on Queen Street West, because the buildings looked right for it and because Scott and Envy had been there only a few pages before. After more thought and careful research, I was able to pin it down: the spot where Gideon Gordon Graves emerges from the crowd and confronts Scott Pilgrim for the first time took place on College Street, just east of Grace in Toronto's Little Italy neighborhood. It was the distinctive facade of the Royal Theatre that let me pin it down. I couldn't replicate the exact perspective that the book had, though; from what I could tell while I was there, I'd have to be standing in the middle of College Street in order to replicate it perfectly. Now that I'm putting it together, I notice the version in the book omits the crown on the Royal Theatre's sign - I wonder why that was done.

The triangular add-ons to the streetlight visible in the scene, incidentally, are actually miniature Little Italy flags.

HOW TO GET THERE: The 506 Carlton streetcar stops right at College and Grace, for those who want to alight into the heart of the action.

22. The Great White North

The thing about Toronto is that it has a huge, huge hinterland. Population here is predominantly clustered around the shore of Lake Ontario, owing both to historical patterns of settlement and the inescapble nature of the Canadian climate. Sure, there's a dense band of suburbs north of the city, but after an hour's drive on the highway you hit Barrie, and beyond there the suburbs fade away into the countryside. The largest cities beyond that are Sudbury and North Bay, each of which are hours away. While it's not too hard to get there during the warmer months, during which traffic jams and Ontario Provincial Police drunk-driving spot checks are common, during winter it's an entirely different story. Scott's lucky that the series didn't end with another April blizzard.

I don't have a comparison photo because, really, it's a big place and I have no idea where O'Malley got his inspiration. I can't even begin to guess where Kim Pine lives in Volume 6 - the only clue I can find in the text puts it somewhere between Sudbury and Thunder Bay. Unless, of course, that was an exaggeration. Seems likely.

HOW TO GET THERE: Bus station, man.

Hey, I said that this would be a light update - it's only covering one volume, and it didn't hit many new places. But this is not the end! Stay tuned for a third and final installment of the Pilgrimage, where I will not only go back and fill it out with sites that I missed the first time around, but I will integrate what I can from Scott Pilgrim vs. the World - appearing in theatres very, very soon!

Monday, August 9, 2010

PDP #263: Berczy Park By Night

A few short decades ago, Toronto's Berczy Park was a parking lot. A bit more recently, I believe it was where Johnny Five landed after his hang gliding adventure around the towers of Toronto City, New York in Short Circuit 2. It really adds something worthwhile to the character of the neighborhood, and even this late there were a good number of people there enjoying the mild weather and the start of the weekend.

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 any entity the right to use this work for any purpose, without any conditions, unless such conditions are required by law.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

A Robot Must Obey

Yesterday I lost a multiplayer match of StarCraft II because my computer turned itself off to install automatic updates. To be honest, it ultimately was my fault - it had been needling me to do so for days, but I'd kept on just clicking "postpone." The installation of automatic updates requires that the computer be rebooted a few times, and I dislike rebooting unnecessarily. The problem is that when it happened, it came completely by surprise. The computer restarted after a fifteen-minute countdown, but a countdown that popped under. Since I was busy trying desperately to find a tactic that would end with my opponent not standing atop the broken remnants of my base, my first indication of its presence was when programs started shutting down of their own accord.

Without giving me a chance to save, either.

Over the last few decades our civilization has been computerized to a great degree, and this is a trend that's only going to gain strength in the coming years. We're at the point now where armed military robots are no longer science fiction, but are being used in theatres of operation at this moment. If that's going to continue to be the case, we can't just let our current operating procedures stand. My issue was minor - it meant my opponent could find someone else to smash sooner, and I lost a few points on the division ladder - but it arose from the computer's programming telling it to embark on an action unless that action was specifically countermanded.

The attention of a human in a serious issue is important, but humans can only divide their attention so much - and sometimes, be it through information overload or programming defect, the computer's message to the operator may be missed. If we're not careful, this could lead to a future where automated systems put dangerous wheels in motion because no human contradicted them in time. Things are stressful enough without a ticking clock, especially one that has no reason to be there.

This is the sort of thing that creeps in, a bit at a time. No one's ever going to sit down and say "you know what? Let's make it so that computers figure out what we're going to do." No, they'll automate control of low-priority systems, always intending to keep humans in the loop, but as things go on and as the organization paying the bills realizes that automated decision loops mean that they can get by with fewer humans on the payroll, people may gradually but steadily get crowded out. It happens by degrees - the sort of transition that humans are the worst at perceiving until it's too late, or nearly so, to do anything about. I've heard stories of automated stock trading that's caused a company's share price to crash utterly because of the decisions some computer program made - I can't recall now if it actually happened or is just an urban legend, but the danger is there just the same. It would certainly make it harder to make those systems Three Laws-compliant.

Freedom of choice is one of the most valuable things in the universe. If we invest the course-choosing mechanisms of our civilization in machines that will act unless specifically instructed otherwise, well - at that point, whose civilization is it _really_?

Saturday, August 7, 2010

PDP #262: Toronto City, New York

As TV Tropes says, the City With No Name is often Toronto. Just as frequently, though, Toronto is standing in for some more well known, but less conveniently filmable, city - in the last year alone it's been Detroit, St. Louis, and Geneva in Warehouse 13. Still, when the film crews come in, it's a fair guess that they're remaking a slice of New York City.

On Thursday evening, the crews got to work on the southwest entrance of King subway station, redressing it into the New York City Subway's Fulton Street Station as part of the background for Alphas, a crime thriller pilot for NBC. By Friday, when I took this photo, the transformation was complete. I have to admit, it looks authentic - but then it's been nearly ten years since I've seen a New York City Subway station with my own eyes. Perhaps to a New Yorker, this is obviously wrong.

I mean, disregarding the streetcar behind it.

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 any entity the right to use this work for any purpose, without any conditions, unless such conditions are required by law.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Wheels of Liberty

Politics tends to bring out the unusual in people. Whether it's a young, dynamic reformer eager to unlock the halls of power and bring a fresh perspective to leadership or a quixotic campaign based around, say, the hidden health benefits of colloidal silver, you don't have to look very hard to hear politicians, or hopeful politicians, say rather odd things. I've been trying to hold my tongue on that account since January. It'll always happen, though, because one of the greatest things a politician can have is recognition, and for some there's no such thing as bad publicity.

Take, as the latest example, Mr. Dan Maes, who is carrying the Republican banner in the 2010 Colorado gubernatorial (that is, for governor) election, and who seems to be positioning himself as the Tea Party candidate. Yesterday the Denver Post reported on Maes' "warning" that Denver was at risk of being converted "into a United Nations community," whatever that is - and why? Well, because of B-Cycle, Denver's four-month-old, Bixi-like bicycle sharing program.

Wait, what?

Apparently, Maes sees international conspiracies hidden within Denver B-Cycle's magic bikes. It's because Denver is a member of the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives, you see - whether it is or not I can't easily tell, but the truth would have little effect here. Apparently, encouraging the people of Denver to ride bicycles more, as current Mayor John Hickenlooper has done, is in Maes' world something that "could threaten our personal freedoms."

Not that he, you know, explains why this is the case. From what I can see, this is a statement that's supposed to stand on its own, and it's supposed to be obvious that biking = less freedom. I may have failed math all through elementary school, but even I know that that equation on its own does not add up.

Pictured: A modern-day instrument of the United Nations' sinister bicycle-based takeover of stuff.

Things like this remind me that, despite the great similarities that come from sharing a continent for centuries, there do remain significant divergences between Canadian and American culture. What I get out of Maes' comments on the bike issue - one which, by the way, he only mentions once on his website, and that in criticizing the spending of stimulus funds on bike lanes - is a reflection to the sense of fear that has been present in the United States, whether hidden or in plain view, for years.

After all, it's been a long time since the US was unquestionably the top dog, standing atop the broken corpse of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Its victory in the Cold War has led it to an anemic economy, political polarization, and a time of great worry as to whether it will stay on top. The United States has been compared to the Roman Empire for decades, but the nature of that state's fall seems to reverberate loudly today.

Even beyond that, it could be a simple issue of conservatism. For decades society, particularly American society, has been based around car ownership as one of the great goals for everyone. The Denver Post, in its article on Maes, also reported that Hickenlooper took some flak from automotive dealers for openly speculating about how Denver could "wean ourselves off automobiles." I don't necessarily buy that part of it, though. Conservatives are supposed to be about individual rights and freedoms - at least, that's how I always thought they tried to position themselves. A bicycle-sharing system provides people with more choices as to how to get around. How is a greater freedom of choice injurious to freedom?

None of it makes sense to me. Maybe it's for the best. Maybe I wouldn't want to understand.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

PDP #261: A Gate of Princes

It's not the only way into Exhibition Place, but the Princes' Gate - not the Princess Gate, an artifact of people who decide things are named after what they sound like - is pretty much the property's main entrance, if only because of the ornate presence of the structure, built in 1927 and full of the heavy architectural artistry that was common in that era. Here, at night, the contrast between the lit stone and concrete of the Gate and the sky beyond is striking, to say the least.

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 any entity the right to use this work for any purpose, without any conditions, unless such conditions are required by law.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

A Book Always Works

Last night while I was coming home on the streetcar, I saw a man reading off a Kindle. Ereaders aren't exactly common in my life, so I took the opportunity for a glance or two at it before my stop. While I freely admit that I'm interested by the whole science-fiction aspect of them - these are devices that have been included as "window dressing of the future" time and again for decades, and they're finally here - I take a somewhat dim view of the implications they carry. One of my first substantive posts on this weblog, back in March 2009, dealt with my misgivings and I haven't changed my mind on the subject since.

Also last night, because I am a creature of habit and schedule, I didn't stay awake long enough or wake up early enough to see the aurora borealis. I understand it was visible at least as far south as Lake Simcoe, thanks to a powerful coronal mass ejection that heralds Sol's upswing into a new solar maximum phase.

We're accustomed to thinking of the sun as a friendly presence in the sky, a life-giving source of heat and light that will burn like a nice, reliable campfire for a long time to come. This isn't an accurate assessment of the situation. For one, the sun doesn't burn - it's a natural nuclear fusion reactor. Beyond that, the sun does have spots of bad weather. The coronal mass ejection that caused last night's aurorae is a reminder of that. This time it wasn't very powerful, but there have been worse. Significantly worse. In 1859, the world was hit by a powerful coronal mass ejection that brought the Northern Lights as far south as the Caribbean, and created a geomagnetic storm caused chaos in the telegraph network across two continents.

Fortunately, events such as these are rare - on the scale of multiple centuries, by the numbers. But modern civilization is far more dependent on electronics than it was a century and a half ago, and unless we're headed for a precipitous and calamitous collapse of civilization in the next few decades, I don't see that state of affairs changing much. A sufficiently powerful geomagnetic storm could knock out our electrical infrastructure and leave us scrambling.

The saving grace is that I haven't found any evidence to suggest that such a storm would also create an electromagnetic pulse - that would be even more fun to deal with. But powerful geomagnetic storms can induce ground currents that melt copper wiring. This could be a problem. Particularly if, by the time such a storm hits, technology has "progressed" to the point that electronic books are dominant.

These books may be musty, and some of them may not have been signed out since the 1970s, but if everything falls apart you'll still be able to read them so long as the simplifiers don't burn the building down.

Ereaders are a sterling example of our willingness, our eagerness even, to replace a reliable medium with a more delicate one because it is convenient. That's practically what Western civilization is based on - with innovations like just-in-time strategies having spread throughout the business world, we sacrifice resiliency for immediate gains. In the same way, you might have five hundred books on your reader, but if the electrical infrastructure's gone and you don't have a solar panel with which to charge it, it's worthless once its onboard power dies. Ereaders assume, presume, and require the existence of a functioning technological civilization to support and maintain them.

Books, on the other hand, presume that someone has a bunch of stuff to write on, something to write with, and something with which to hold it all together.

I know how alluring the convenience aspect of an ereader is. I'm looking at a move very soon in my future, and I'm not looking forward to boxing up my bookshelves. Still, I'm not willing to trade the security and ruggedness of something physical for a more functional, but far more delicate, electronic version. A book always works. They're rather like knives, in that respect.