Sunday, October 31, 2010

Quaff Review #9: Earthquake High Gravity Lager

I ran a bit of a project while I passed through the United States. As the route my father and I took through the northern states was one that I doubted I'd be along again in the foreseeable future, whenever I had the chance I picked up some local beer from the spots we stopped. Though I was able to find local, unfamiliar stuff in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Montana, other states posed a bit of a problem. In particular, the couple of hours I was in Chicago for were not nearly enough to find a store that sold local brews.

So instead I went to the very same 7-Eleven in the Loop where I bought a can of Hurricane High Gravity Lager more than a year ago now, and upgraded to what appears to be the Next Level: Earthquake High Gravity Lager, which is presumably marketed toward people who think Hurricane is for wimps. If Budweiser truly is the king of beers, as its advertising claims so, so often, then Earthquake High Gravity Lager is the Super Kami Guru. By which I mean it's massive, powerful, and insane. Presumably Drink Four Brewing Company in La Crosse, Wisconsin is naming its output after progressively worse disasters; there doesn't yet appear to be a "Supernova High Gravity Lager," but I'd say that's only a matter of time.

I thought that Hurricane's 710-milliliter, 8.1% alc./vol. hit me hard last year. As it turns out, what it packs is a love tap next to what's crammed in every can of Earthquake; a can that, mind you, seems like nothing but a comic overexaggeration of the American predilection toward bigness given form. It holds twenty-four fluid ounces of beer - to put it into perspective, that stein next to it holds one liter, and the contents of the can just barely fit in to it. It would appear, then, that the intention is for this to be drank straight from the can - because really, how many people have liter steins? Not very many, I can be telling you!

Oh, and there's also one other important note - this is an alcoholic beverage. A really alcoholic beverage. This is, in fact, the most alcoholic thing I've encountered that wasn't a kind of liquor or spirit. This can of terrors clocks in at 12% alcohol by volume. I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that this is an entire six-pack in one can.

So how's it taste, you ask? Horrible. Like how a train wreck must taste, pain and panic and engine oil blasted all around. At first drink I picked up a strong, sharp taste that seemed vaguely familiar, and it took me a while to realize that it was the alcohol, overpowering everything else in the brew. I had to wonder if drinking paint thinner felt like that. Plus, that was when it was cold: as it warmed up, the beer became more and more bitter and impossible to get down my gullet.

Plus, after only a few sips and a lot of introspection, I was getting seriously concerned that drinking so much beer with such a high alcohol content at one go might be legitimately dangerous. So I did what I'd never done before, but what I had to do - I tipped the greater whole of it down the drain and out of my life.

ANDREW'S RATING: 0/5. Do not buy this if you value your dignity or your health. Even if you don't I would seriously not recommend it.

Previous Quaff Reviews

Saturday, October 30, 2010

PDP #304: Fathom Five Sunset

When I was a teenager, I felt that this was one of the best photos I'd ever taken. Granted, I didn't take very many photos at that time, and I never really understood the 1970s Minolta Pocket Autopak 430E I used to take it beyond "PRES BUTAN," so even if I did take a photograph that was legitimately "good" with it it wasn't due to any ability on my part. But even so.

I took this sunset photograph in the early summer of 1996 during a school trip that included Tobermory, Ontario, on the tip of the Bruce Peninsula. I believe this was taken while coming back from an evening cruise around Flowerpot Island, part of Fathom Five National Marine Park.

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, October 29, 2010

A Singular Society

I've often thought that these are hard times for a just-starting-out science fiction writer like myself. While I wasn't there personally and thus am purely speculating, it seems as if the twentieth century was considerably more amenable to long-term speculation than the twenty-first; really, if you started by assuming that "there is no nuclear war and everyone doesn't die," you'd already be on a pretty good tack. For some authors that wasn't even necessary - see L. Sprague de Camp's Viagens Interplanetarias series, where a nuclear war propels Brazil to world leadership... and also where interstellar travel is fairly easily within the reach of a planet shattered by nuclear war.

Well, they didn't know all that much about the consequences of tossing up all the firecrackers back in the 40s and 50s, so I'll give a pass on that.

Now, though - it feels like back in the day, so long as you assumed that humanity would not toss the firecrackers around and start Armageddon early, things would continue to get better; bit by bit we'd crawl out of the muck of the past, make everyone prosperous and healthy, and defeat all the threats to our way of life like Francis Fukuyama said we did in 1989 and 1992. Whether that's actually *true* is something that only someone who was around for it can say. Whereas now, who can say *what* situation we'll find ourselves in even in the near future? Back in 2004, how many people could have, or for that matter would have, predicted the Great Recession? Its consequences are still rumbling and it's not dead yet - and thanks to Google, unsettling news is only a click away. What about the recent suggestion from economist Laurence Kotlikoff that the United States is, effectively, bankrupt?

Ten years ago that sort of claim would have been hilarious or ridiculous, pure hyperbole thrown around by opponents of whoever was in power. Now, though... now, when you take into consideration the groaning strain of Social Security, Medicare, and pension obligations, the tens of millions of people still out of work, and decades' worth of robbing Peter tomorrow to pay Paul today, the idea of a bankrupt US seems disturbingly plausible. At least to me.

There's no telling where we're going to be ten years from now. In a way, that sort of assurance has been with us for a while now, in terms of the technological singularity - at some point, so they say, the rate of technological advancement will increase exponentially until it's vertical on the graph you use to measure, at which point all bets will be off. That's what I feel like the world is like today, but in society. Like we've crossed the event horizon of a social singularity.

Things are changing fast - and not just in society. Sure, mores and attitudes are in flux and women are wearing miniskirts and mobile phones are transforming codes of conduct, but speculating about the consequences of those situations is the bread and butter of any sf author. From here, it feels like things are changing so fast that there's no assurance we'll be able to predict what things will be like once the cards fall into stable patterns - not even close.

Part of it stems from greater understanding. You could easily define history as being "a time in which people had less appreciation of the consequences of their actions" (something that applies just as easily to us, but that would be from the perspective of those who come after us, so there you are). Consider Viagens Interplanetarias, Star Trek, and all those other twentieth-century science fiction settings where nuclear war was, ultimately, no big thing. For me, writing about the future now feels like it requires the same sort of mental gymnastics you'd expect from a writer who, despite being well-familiar with the consequences of nuclear war, was crafting stories of a future utopia in October 1962.

I know that science fiction isn't supposed to be prophecy - that it always reflects the time in which it was made. That, if nothing else, explains why so much science fiction has been so damn pessimistic recently. We have no idea where we're going, we have no idea what the place will look like when we get there, and there aren't even any assurances that they'll let us in the front door.

"The future, always so clear to me, had become like a black highway at night. We were in uncharted territory now, making up history as we went along." That's from Terminator 2, but it could just as easily describe what's in front of us today. No one knows where things are headed anymore.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

PDP #303: Goodfeather

There are a lot of pigeons down at the Granville Island Public Market; not a surprise, as even their tiny brains are capable of learning and remembering that the amount of people there results in a lot of discarded food for them. They roost along the edges of the awnings and eavestroughs of the buildings, but some are always on the ground wandering for morsels. Since they're so used to Granville Island, they also don't seem to be as terrified of humans as other pigeons I've encountered. It's been a while since I've been able to photograph one of them from an angle like this.

I never realized pigeon eyes were so damn orange.

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, October 27, 2010

To Brand T.O.

Forty years ago, Toronto had a problem. Back then, before the possibility of an independent Quebec sent Canada's captains of business and industry charging down the 401 to the shore of Lake Ontario, it had no pretensions of being a world city but was instead, as Unbuilt Toronto puts it, a "second-order metropolis" - occupying the same niche as, say, St. Louis or Cincinnati. It didn't have much to distinguish itself from its competitors. That's where Buckminster Fuller came in with his ambitious Project Toronto, which included a commercial district enclosed within a glass pyramid, a covered arcade parallelling University Avenue, and entire villages afloat on Lake Ontario.

Ultimately, of course, none of this got built. Politicians in the 1960s were no more willing to take leaps into the future than they are today. But the result is that Toronto has continued to flounder, and today is obsessed with whether or not it's really a "world city." Sure, it's got the CN Tower, but communications towers are not exactly uncommon. Even really tall ones. What Toronto really needs is a wide-spectrum campaign to establish itself.

It won't all have to come out of nowhere. I think Toronto already has the germ of part of such a campaign - its streetcars. Back in 1969, when popular wisdom saw streetcars as obsolete and the official TTC plan was for the last streetcar to have run by 1980, it wouldn't have been a consideration - and not particularly unique either, as at that time there would still be plenty of people who remembered streetcars on the streets of Chicago, Pittsburgh, Brooklyn, Los Angeles, Vancouver, Montreal, London... so on and so on. At that point, it's easy to conclude that they weren't anything special.

CLRV 4118 pushes toward the sun on King Street East

Forty years later, the pendulum has shifted. Now they _are_ something special, if only because they're the only transit streetcars, as opposed to heritage railways, left in all of Canada. Even expanding the view to all of North America, it's still not too common, and even then the exact types of streetcars the TTC uses are in service nowhere else in the world. They're part of Toronto, something it doesn't share with any city anywhere else. Torontoist has it the right way - the four silhouettes that site chose to represent its city were the CN Tower, City Hall, the otherworldly box-on-stilts of OCAD, and... a streetcar.

So it was with a sense of flickering hope that I saw an article on the Toronto Star late last night - "Ford won't ditch streetcars," the headline reads. Granted, none of the content comes from da mayor-elect himself, but from his campaign manager and brother Doug; I'd rather hear this from Rob. Considering that, according to Ford's transit plan, "Streetcars on downtown arterial streets will be replaced with clean buses that provide the same capacity on the same routes," and that much of the system can be considered to run on "downtown arterial" streets, something here is not telling the truth.

Nevertheless, this gives me reason to hope that a Rob Ford mayoralty will not detour wildly into the worst possible outcome. If he's willing to think and reconsider, he may do better in the mayor's chair than his opponents suggest - and if he's willing to really think about the opportunities they provide for Toronto beyond its borders, the streetcars just may come through the next few years unbowed and unbeaten.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

PDP #302: Transit to History

This past weekend, in those precious gaps between rainstorms that I understand will make all the difference in a Lower Mainland autumn and winter, I wandered down to Granville Island by land. I found something I hadn't expected there, or more appropriately, something I hadn't thought about - the Vancouver Downtown Historic Railway, out of action during my visit back in June but once again rolling between Granville Island and Olympic Village Station on the Canada Line. From what I understand, this coming weekend is the last it'll run before next May, weather permitting. On Sunday they were running #1207, a one hundred and five-year old interurban car late of the British Columbia Electric Railway.

Presumably, if hizzoner Rob Ford gets his way, Toronto's streetcar system will look much like this in the not-too-distant future. What I regret is that I won't be there to fight once more the fight that should have been won for good thirty-eight years ago.

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, October 25, 2010

Toronto 2010: On the Edge

It used to be that I knew what I was going to do today. By now I would've already dropped my ballot in its box, with "BARTON, ANDREW" or however my name would have appeared checked off. Now, though... from New Westminster I can only watch and worry about the decision the rest of Toronto will make today - whether it'll all work out in the end. How unfortunate that the status quo is, apparently, so reviled as to make its standard bearer Joe Pantalone poll a distant third between George Smitherman and Rob Ford. It's amazing, in its way, how a wide-open field with dozens of worthy candidates like, say, Himy Syed has been winnowed, mostly by media attention and ignorance, to the Last Dudes Standing. Even though they're not, really.

In the end, for me it's come down to an anti-popularity contest: I manifestly do not want Rob Ford to be Toronto's next mayor. I don't believe that he has the appropriate character for that position. Call me a single-issue wonk if you will, but as far as I'm concerned, Rob Ford reflects himself in his transportation plan, most specifically his view on the streetcars.

On one side streetcars, on the other the highway - where do you think Rob Ford stands? Incidentally, I'd have liked to accompany this with a photo of a streetcar passing City Hall, but predictably enough I don't have a single one.

Rob Ford has never, in the months he's been campaigning, been able to convince me that he cares at all about the long view. His endless recourse to taxpayers and criticisms of the "gravy train" suggest that his interest is focused purely on the immediate. So it's really no surprise that part of his platform is the removal of Toronto's streetcar system, a system that has been operating continuously, in one form or another, for one hundred and forty-nine years, a system that endured when almost every other city that had them tore the rails out of their roads. Of course, plenty of them are reinstalling them - look at Los Angeles; not only is the transit agency there expanding the existing light rail network, but there is an active project intended to return actual streetcars to downtown LA - but, of course, the lessons of other cities don't seem to matter one bit to him.

It's almost as if his streetcar policy is his campaign distilled to its purest ingredients. From the policies I've seen and the statements I've heard him make, he doesn't appear to be interested in building toward the future: instead, the appearance is that he wants to take what we have and discard anything that doesn't immediately serve his goals. Streetcars, he says, slow down traffic, and no matter if there are more people on the streetcar than in the cars being delayed by it - they've got to go, says he.

Still, I congratulate the eventual winner - unless the eventual winner is Rob Ford. Narrow-minded dogmatism has no place in Toronto's city government. That's no way to build a city of the future.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

PDP #301: Sweeping Across

The other week I posted a photo of the Skybridge, which carries the SkyTrain south across the Fraser River to Surrey. Here's the bridge from a new perspective - just north of Columbia Street, where the elevated track sweeps out toward the river. In the lower-left extent of the photo you can see the orange girders of the Pattullo Bridge, where I took that other photo from.

This isn't the last time you'll see the Skybridge in a photo here, either. As one of the, in my opinion, more aesthetically pleasing things in New West, it will be coming back - I will try not to overload. If I'd had presence of mind at the time, I'd have waited until a train was crossing to take this picture.

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, October 23, 2010

The Bubbles' Effect

I never saw the Officer Bubbles cartoons when they first made their way across YouTube; it was only after they were removed and returned, and the newspapers started making a big deal of how Toronto Police Constable Josephs sued YouTube for defamation over it, that I checked one out - after all, if people want to suppress it, there's got to be something worthwhile about it. Afterward I went straight to the source, the original video clip from those chaotic G20 days that will lurk in Toronto's subconscious for years to come.

For those who aren't familiar with the background - during the G20, a knot of people were standing toe-to-toe with the Toronto Police at Queen Street West and Noble, just around the corner from my old Parkdale digs. A young woman at the front of the crowd was blowing bubbles toward the officers, and Josephs cuts right to the quick: "If the bubble touches me," he says, "you're going to be arrested for assault." Tension ramps up pretty quickly, and the video ends with the woman and a few other people being taken into custody, presumably bound for the Eastern Avenue EconoLodge.

I can understand that Toronto's police officers were under incredible stress over that weekend, and cracks were inevitable; the fact is, they shouldn't have had to be out there in the first place, and if Canadians were a people really dedicated to our principles, Stephen Harper would've gone back to Ottawa to find all his stuff scattered on the Parliament Hill lawn and a new lock on his office door. Still, it was ultimately their choice on how they conducted myself - and I believe that heavy-handed responses like Constable Josephs' not only kept tension high, but may well fuel a climate for disrespect of the police.

Mounted Toronto Police officers on Yonge Street, January 2010

What really got me thinking was whether you could, in fact, be arrested for assault for the high crime of blowing bubbles at a police officer - so I dove into the Criminal Code, something I haven't really looked at since Law class in high school. Section 270 covers "Assaulting a peace officer," so I went there first.

Assaulting a peace officer

270. (1) Every one commits an offence who

(a) assaults a public officer or peace officer engaged in the execution of his duty or a person acting in aid of such an officer;
(b) assaults a person with intent to resist or prevent the lawful arrest or detention of himself or another person; or
(c) assaults a person
(i) who is engaged in the lawful execution of a process against lands or goods or in making a lawful distress or seizure, or
(ii) with intent to rescue anything taken under lawful process, distress or seizure.

Assaulting peace officer with weapon or causing bodily harm

270.01 (1) Everyone commits an offence who, in committing an assault referred to in section 270,

(a) carries, uses or threatens to use a weapon or an imitation of one; or
(b) causes bodily harm to the complainant.

I see nothing in here about annoying police officers being an offence - which is good, because a law like that would be tailor-made for abuse. Nor do I believe a reasonable person would consider a child's bubble blower to be "a weapon or an imitation thereof," or that blowing bubbles would be reason "believe on reasonable grounds that he has, present ability to effect his purpose." So that leaves the first definition of assault, which occurs when "without the consent of another person, [a person] applies force intentionally to that other person, directly or indirectly."

You certainly could argue that a soap bubble does have potential energy while it's blowing in the wind, which on contact with a police officer would be translated into small, but measurable, kinetic force. Or you could argue, as Constable Josephs seems to, that a detergent bubble bursting in an officer's eye is the problem - and that would fall under "bodily harm," right? The Criminal Code has something to say about that: "'bodily harm' means any hurt or injury to a person that interferes with the health or comfort of the person and that is more than merely transient or trifling in nature."

I don't think you would easily be able to find a reasonable person who would argue that a soap bubble, even bursting right on the eye, would be more than a "transient or trifling" hurt or injury to a person. It would have been better for the officer to cite the specific section of the Criminal Code that our "mystery" woman was flirting with arrest under; not only would it have made the job easier on me, but it would not have looked the same way it does now - namely, an officer threatening to arrest someone for pissing them off.

Ultimately, what we seem to be left with is police officers who will arrest you because you're annoying them and they want to get you out of their faces. I couldn't find anything covering that in the Criminal Code: if I'm missing something important that totally blows the doors off my argument, please let me know in a comment. What I don't think I'm wrong about, though, is that the idea that police officers will capriciously arrest people for doing things like blowing bubbles at them will only lead to a climate of dislike, distrust, and opposition to the people who are meant to uphold the law. That's a place we really don't want to go.

Friday, October 22, 2010

PDP #300: What Is Your Profession

Milestones like this don't come around very often. Only once every two hundred days, in fact, the way I've been keeping my update schedule. Considering this particular milestone, though, I figured I had to do something appropriate. How fortunate I had a photo for it that I hadn't posted yet.

Back in January, if you'll recall, the group Canadians Against Proroguing Parliament staged rallies in cities across Canada in protest of Prime Minister Harper's decision to clap a padlock on the doors of the House of Commons. It was a cold January day, as is typical for Toronto - but that did not stop the Spartans Against Tyranny, two guys so dedicated to the art that they were at subzero Dundas Square decked out as Spartan warriors from 300. I said it back then, and I'll say it again; that's crazy, and therefore awesome.

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

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Municipal Exceptionalism

Toronto's municipal election is only a few days away now, and so it's no surprise that the various campaigns are furiously setting down their astroturf wherever it may stick in the hope of swaying even one more voter to their cause. It's become particularly acute in online newspaper comment threads; it was those that accompanied the Globe and Mail's recent article taking issue with Rob Ford's claims that tearing out Toronto's streetcar system would cost nothing, when all was said and done, that really got me.

Because, really, I don't think it's any kind of leap of logic at all to positively conclude that, yes, replacing a 150-year-old streetcar system entirely with buses would be anything but expensive. Forget for a moment that the Orion VII, the backbone of Toronto's present bus fleet, has less passenger space - one-to-one trades between CLRV streetcars and buses would lead to yet more overcrowded buses, not a good recipe for increasing transit use. Buses are _more expensive_ over the long term; they experience more wear and tear than do streetcars. The CLRVs are older than I am - the TTC's oldest in-service buses date from 1987, and even then they only see service out on the Island. The vast majority of its buses appear to be less than fifteen years old. There's no reason to think this life cycle would conveniently extend itself in the future, and so to consider the cost of tearing up Toronto's streetcars without taking into account the necessity of replacing the rolling stock twice as frequently is nothing but brass. If Rob Ford's so dedicated to cutting waste at City Hall, you'd think he'd be all against setting the city up to pay even more in the future.

But, no. TTC figures indicate that it would cost "hundreds of millions of dollars" to remove the streetcars, and considering they have access to all the information, they'd probably be the ones to know. What's more, this article has generated a flood of furious comments... and I find it disturbing to the very core that so many people (if they are, in fact, individuals and not sock puppets) can spew so much hate over the rails. They're a waste of money, they say. They're obsolete and inefficient and so must go.

You'd think, from this sort of commentary, that Toronto is the last city in North America to operate streetcars. It very nearly came to that, back during the darker days of the 20th century - but the fact is that not only do cities like Philadelphia, San Francisco, and New Orleans continue to operate streetcars and streetcar-descended networks, but cities that removed their streetcars as being "obsolete" and "inefficient" are now putting them back in. Kenosha's streetcar network, reinstated in 2000, is one of the bigger tourist draws in that Wisconsin city. The Portland Streetcar, a street-running system in the same vein as Toronto's, started service in 2001 and has not only been hailed as a vehicle of urban renewal since, but is fueling interest for streetcar systems in other cities across the United States. Even Boise is studying the prospect of a downtown streetcar.

CLRV 4119 pushes north along the Spadina Avenue right-of-way - September 17, 2010

In this climate, the claims from Toronto that streetcars are antique, obsolete, 19th century, whatever - all ring hollow to me. The internal combustion engine is just as much a product of the 19th century as is the streetcar, and I would much rather see the IC engine be consigned to the ash heap of history than the streetcar. To me it reeks not only of ignorance that the streetcar issue is not unique to Toronto, but of putting expediency over the long-term good.

And to everyone that complains about how streetcars are "slow" and slow down traffic: traffic does a good enough job of that without any help at all. Streetcars are not responsible for the traffic slowdown, it is all the cars, and one of the things that got me through three years of commuting by the 501 Queen and 504 King from Parkdale to Yonge was thinking about how fast my trip would be if it wasn't for all the fucking cars on the road.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

PDP #299: Spartan SkyTrain

One of the visually pleasing aspects, I think, of the SkyTrain system is the lack of uniformity in style. Whereas the systems in Toronto, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Montreal have settled on one look for their rolling stock and stick with it, here in Vancouver there's no one standard - some still have the old blue-and-red BC Transit-inspired livery, others have the more modern yellow-and-white SkyTrain logo style, and the Canada Line trains stand apart.

Until the other day, though, I'd never seen trains with nothing - well, nothing besides the TransLink logo, that is. But while I was waiting in Columbia Station for a train to take me downtown, that's exactly what I saw; two trains still factory-white save the logo and numbers. I really have to wonder what the deal is with 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 anyone the right to use this work for any purpose, without any conditions, unless such conditions are required by law.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Recyclable Deposits

Though I've only been in the Lower Mainland for a couple of weeks yet, already I've encountered many things that you just don't see back in Toronto. Things like Mount Baker thrusting up past the horizon, so massive and yet so distant that its lower reaches fade away into nothing. Oil tankers anchored in English Bay waiting to unload and whole wide logs in the Fraser River, destined for shipment to some far corner of the world. People digging through garbage cans with their bare hands, searching for bottles to turn in for the five-cent deposit.

It's not surprising that they're able to make a go at it; in my time in Vancouver and New Westminster, one thing I've not seen is public recycling bins. For a place that seems to be so devoted to reducing its environmental impact - my New Westminster 2010 Garbage & Recycling Calendar makes clear that recyclables are to be sorted three ways, bottles and jars and aluminum and plastics in the familiar blue boxes, newspapers in blue bags, and mixed paper and cardboard in yellow bags, rather than the "one box holds all" model that's the rule back in the GTA - this seems like a strange oversight. There are plenty of garbage cans though, be they the permanent, rather small grey ones along every street, or the "ring and bag" model that looks like it came right from the Toronto subway.

Google didn't help matters much, so I asked around at work instead. I was told that street-side recycling containers were put up in Vancouver during the run-up to the Olympics as part of a trial program, but as if to demonstrate why we can't have nice things, people just disposed of trash in them. Apparently, the "lip" present on Metro Vancouver garbage cans - the ones I've found in Vancouver and New Westminster, at least - is generally used as a recyclables-holder. Really, though, if I want to do the right thing I pretty much have to hold onto my cans and bottles until I can bring them home and toss them in the box.

A combination garbage-recycling bin in Toronto.

Contrast this to the setup I'm most familiar with, that of Toronto. Whether it's the older or newer models, the street-side refuse bins aren't particular - there's one slot for litter and another slot for all recyclables, feeding into two separate hoppers within the bin... although, on at least one occasion, I do recall witnessing both bins being dumped by a city worker into the same receptacle on a garbage truck. I'm not sure what to think about that. That they're both in the same bin may explain why there isn't the same issue of "garbage in the recycling" that seems to have scuppered Vancouver's experiment, if that is what happened - it takes a lot of balls to shove garbage into the recycling slot when the litter slot is right there, but if you've got garbage now and the only thing around is a recycling bin, you might not be choosy.

Nevertheless, I think that the apparent lack of even dedicated recycling bins on the street, let alone Toronto-style combination bins, is a severe oversight. At the very least, I'd argue that there should be separate garbage and recycling hoppers for sheer public health purposes; with the British Columbia bottle deposit, people are going to dig through for bottles they can return for cash no matter what hopper they're in. Wouldn't it be better off that they didn't have to dig up the city's garbage first?

Monday, October 18, 2010

PDP #298: The New West and Postapocalypse Railway

Metro Vancouver owes its existence, not to mention its prominence, to the railway. Without those twin tracks of steel wending their way east through the mountains, things would look rather different in the Lower Mainland.

That's not to say that the entire rail infrastructure remains in use. Like in many - most - other places, rail started experiencing hard times from the 1950s on. Last weekend I followed one such hard-luck line, seemingly abandoned since the middle of last century, along Stewardson Way in New Westminster, paralelling the BC Parkway and the SkyTrain. I'm not sure, because the map I found is handmade and rather old, but I suspect this track may be a remnant of British Columbia Electric Railway streetcar operations - either that or it's an old CNR line.

If there's ever an apocalypse, this is what the surviving rail lines will look like afterward.

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, October 17, 2010

A Historical Perspective: On the Manchester Beat

Even though my online access has, up to now, been rather spotty, I took an interest in the Greater Manchester Police's recent project to tweet twenty-four hours worth of 999 calls. Transparency isn't just good to forestall corruption or isolation from the public's needs whenever possible - it's also a way to get an understanding on how things work from the other side, and how many people abuse systems set up for emergencies.

After the Second World War, my grandfather returned to his job as a police officer on what was then the Manchester City Police, and carried its badge - and that of the subsequent Manchester and Salford Police - until retiring in 1969. He wrote down some of his experiences in his memoir, Me by Me: Memoirs of a Nobody, which I've posted wartime extracts from before. Today, I thought I'd share some of his reminiscences of his time there.

Also, if anyone out there knows what a "HORTI" is, please leave me a comment. Google just gives me a bunch of stuff about gardening.

It was nice being on regular days, especially during the winter, though I thought that the night shift was the best to be on. When on the beat at night you were on your own with none of the stupid public to bother you, especially the members of the city council. Some of them thought they were the best things to have happened to the city, and the attitudes they adopted were at times unbelievable. Those from out of town weren't as bad, but at times even they were objectionable.

One day I was on the bank patrol. In front of each bank's entrance was a no-parking area, to facilitate the loading and unloading of bullion. From the top of the street, I saw that a car was parked in front of the Bank of England. I took my time going down, hoping that the person would move off, but he didn't and a bullion van was forced to double park.

As I neared the car, I saw that it was a chauffeur-driven Rolls Royce. I asked the driver why he hadn't moved for the bullion van, and I pointed out the no-parking signs. He said that his boss had told him to park there whilst she went into a bank across the street. I told him that he was causing an obstruction, and pointed out the double parked bullion van that was loading cash.

While I was taking down the driver's particulars for a summons, this blarzy woman came and asked what was going on. I told her that I was reporting the driver for causing an unnecessary obstruction of the highway. She then tried to get on her high horse, but her attitude started to bug me. I told her to get into her car and wait until I had dealt with her driver, and then I would deal with her.

She raised her voice and told me that I shouldn't be talking to her like that, for she was the Mayor of Nantwich, and was chief magistrate there. Again, I asked her to get into the car and calm down. She then did the worst thing that she could have done - she threatened me.

She said that she would report me to my chief for having the audacity to treat a mayoral visitor the way I had done. I was losing my cool rather quickly.

"Madam," I said, "please get into your car and remain silent, or I shall have to arrest you and charge you with obstructing a police officer in the execution of his duty."

Those must have been the magic words, for she jumped into the back seat and sulked. When I had finished with the driver and told him that he was being reported, he smiled and said, "It's worth it to see her put in her place. She is always like that, a real snobby bitch."

I then opened the rear door of the car to speak to the woman. I asked her if she did order her driver to park there and wait for her. When she told me that she did, I asked her for her name and address and told her that she would be reported for aiding and abetting the commission of an offence. That made her mad, and she told me to get out of her car and told the driver to move out.

A few days later, I had the occasion to see the superintendent to explain some summons cases. When we came to this woman's, he had a story to tell.

"Oh, yes, this woman rang me up and told me that I had to withdraw the complaint," he said. "No outside person tells me how to run my division. The summons will go to court to be heard."

About a month later the case came up for hearing, and while the driver turned up she didn't. As the case involved a public figure, it was heard by the stipendiary magistrate. He found the cases proved and the driver was fined ten shillings, the maximum amount. In dealing with the woman, he had some words for me.

"I was pleased to see that the officer was not intimidated by this defendant," he said. "Being a public figure, she should have known better than to act as she did." She was fined five pounds, which was a good fine for such an offence. On the way out to the office, I met the driver as he went to pay his fine.

"You know, officer," he said to me, "she asked for what she got. She is always like that, a real bitch of a woman. I'm only glad that I just have her for the term of her office, as I am a town driver."

Les Parkinson with the band contest winner's trophy, 1966

Another deal I had with a motorist happened on Deansgate one Monday morning. Deansgate was one of Manchester's main thoroughfares, and no-parking regulations were in force along the whole of its length. This was necessary, as a lot of traffic used the road.

I was on the crossing at King Street West when I spotted a car being pushed outside the Times Furniture store. Shortly afterward, another car pulled up behind the first, and about twenty minutes later I was relieved by my patrolman. I went to the two cars, looked at them and then started writing in my book.

As I was doing this, I could feel eyes on me. Looking up, I saw a man at an upstairs window. He indicated that one of the cars was his, so I signalled him to come down. It took him about fifteen minutes to come to me.

I asked him if he had put the car there, and he said yes. I then asked him for his driving licence and certificate of insurance, as I was reporting him for parking in a No Waiting area. He then told me that I was wasting my time, and that got my back up.

As I was talking to the man the second driver came down, so I told him to wait for me to deal with him. I again asked the first man for his licence and certificate, and this time he said he didn't have them with him. A driver didn't have to carry these documents with him, but when asked to produce them he could do so at any police station in Great Britain.

To facilitate this, the officer would issue a HORTI form to the driver, and he would take it with his documents to a nearby station. Meanwhile, the officer would send another HORTI to that station, upon which was recorded the details of the documents provided by the driver, which had to be done within five days.

I made out a HORTI and gave it to the driver. He laughed, and as he tore the form up he told me that I was wasting my time, since his friend the superintendent would fix things for him. With that he drove away, leaving the torn pieces of the HORTI on the pavement.

I then turned my attention to the second driver, and his character was just the opposite. In fact, he told me that the first fellow openly boasted that he had never received a summons in the city, because his friend was the divisional superintendent. He said that the fellow had already received three summons for parking, and he would continue to park behind the untouchable's car until he went to court. I told the man that I would take him to court and, if he wished, I would show him as a witness against the untouchable.

"You get him to court," he said, "and I'll give you what I get fined, plus the amount of the fine." I submitted summons reports for both men later that day.

A few days later I had to go on the usual summons parade in the boss's office. I explained the No Waiting offence and the second offence of depositing litter on the pavement - the torn-up HORTI - and pointed out the identity of the witness. I could see the boss was not happy with what I was asking, so I told him that I didn't think it right for a member of the public to make it known that my superintendent was protecting a lawbreaker.

"All right," he said, "you can have your summons," but he wasn't happy about it. Later that week I went to interview the man to ascertain why he had not produced his licence and certificate, and I told him that a third offence would be held against him.

About a month later, the case finally came up in court. The witness turned up but the untouchable didn't. Instead he sent a letter that contained many excuses. He was ultimately fined two pounds for parking, two pounds for littering and five pounds for not producing his documents, and he had to pay the witness ten shillings in witness fees besides. The witness was in turn fined two pounds for his parking offence.

After the fines were paid by the witness, he told me that I was the best bobby on the force and offered me some money. He said that he was fulfilling his promise to give me the amount of the fines. I pointed out that my taking the gift could be construed as a bribe, and that if he insisted on giving the money he could put it in the poor box on the counter. So, in front of one of the clerks, he placed about ten pounds in the poor box, and everybody was happy.

Later on, the untouchable person became touchable and, because of the number of summons he later received, he moved his office to Salford. He was no loss.

Past Perspectives:

Saturday, October 16, 2010

PDP #297: The Center of the Universe

Having spent my life in the Toronto area, I was always sure that I knew where the center of the universe was - the intersection of Yonge and Dundas, to be precise, and I was well aware those Bostonians and their "Hub of the Universe" thing was just making the best out of a bad situation. What I've come to realize is that what you know isn't necessarily so.

You may never have heard of Wallace, Idaho. It's a small town off Interstate 90 not far from the Montana border, notable for its intact historic downtown - intact because the entire downtown was listed on the National Register of Historic Places to preclude it being demolished to make way for the interstate - and that it was the primary filming location for Dante's Peak. What I didn't realize is that it's also the center of the universe, apparently, according to the signs arranged all around the intersection of Bank and Sixth.

Nicolaus Copernicus could not be reached for comment on this matter, as he has been dead for four hundred and sixty-seven years.

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, October 15, 2010

Hornby for Structural Weaknesses

Before I moved out west I'd thought that things were different in Vancouver, that cycling was an appreciated and well-respected part of the urban fabric. What I'm learning now is that, like so many things viewed from a distance, the truth ain't necessarily so. The Vision Vancouver-dominated city government, fresh from the installation of separated bike lanes on Dunsmuir Street through downtown, recently started work on similar lanes along Hornby Street, a north-south, one-way road, on a six-month trial basis; nevertheless, the fact that city crews were at work almost immediately after the vote suggests that there wasn't really much of a chance that it wouldn't go ahead, regardless of what arguments rose up against the project.

It seems that in certain circles, no time has been wasted in firing fusilades at City Hall over this. A narrative's already begun to take shape in the media, and one of the things I see again and again takes me back to Toronto and the flap surrounding the glacial construction of the 510 St. Clair streetcar's right of way - the damage to local businesses. Yesterday, The Province reported on city councillor Suzanne Anton's opposition to the "Bike lanes make me Hornby" T-shirts being produced by Vision Vancouver to mark the start of construction, repeating concerns "that construction of the bike lane and permanent loss of parking will impact them."

Hornby at Dunsmuir, June 2010

According to what I've seen, the installation of this lane requires the removal of parking on one side of the street - that's reducing parking by half, for all you math majors out there. Local merchants do have a right to be concerned about how this construction will affect them; business is uncertain enough day to day without urban renewal programs thrown into the mix.

What no one seems to be talking about, though, is what these concerns expose, and it's equally valid in Vancouver, Toronto, and any other major city - an economic dependence on automotive traffic. The assumption I'm seeing again and again is that no matter where you seem to be, people brought in by foot or bicycle or public transit just aren't enough to sustain businesses, that cars are absolutely necessary for an area's well-being.

I'll admit that the way North American cities have been built over the last seventy years certainly encourage that sort of dependence - but, with the problems of an unstable twenty-first century staring right at us, what are we doing about it? We should be taking these issues as canaries in the coal mine of new urban problems. What if future oil shocks make private automobile ownership a prospect too expensive for the average person - would this result in unprepared businesses folding in droves, sparking an economic catastrophe even worse than what we just went through?

Perhaps - perhaps the situation will have changed by then. But we can't just lean back and ignore the problems until they're at our doorstep - at that point we won't have the luxury of time to even begin solving them.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

PDP #296: In the Misty Mountains

I've rarely seen the weather change as fast, and as starkly, as it did on the way through Washington state. Whereas the sun beat down on the eastern and central lands, on entering the mountains east of Seattle the clouds went up, the mist surrounded, and the rain beat steadily down. It was my first time going through a rainforest, even if a temperate one, and the name didn't disappoint. Neither did the pictures - this is the sort of thing you just can't experience back in Ontario, where mountains have been out of style for a billion years or so.

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

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Run It Up the Flagpole

"When Luna adops a flag, I would like it to be a cannon or, on field sable, crossed by bar sinister gules of our proudly ignoble lineage... a symbol for all fools so ridiculously impractical as to think they can fight city hall."
- Robert A. Heinlein, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress

Personally, I could never muster a great fondness for the flag design Professor de la Paz proposed for the Free State of Luna; I'm not really sure why. I've only ever seen it realized once, somewhere out there online, of the one that's described in the final pages of the book - the one described as incorporating the lunar motto "TANSTAAFL!" along the bottom. That, right there, is something I don't agree with.

Not the sentiment, mind you - the presence of writing on the flag. It wouldn't be a problem if it was limited to science fiction, but in this case as in so many others, the genre reflects the world around it.

It was Surrey that put me on this line, actually. There's a "Welcome to Surrey" setup on the far side of the Pattullo Bridge, just so the people know they ain't in New Westminster anymore, and it has three flags flying - the provincial flag, the national flag, and a Surrey flag - though it doesn't appear to be, on further research, its own municipal flag. It has an interesting symbol with it, probably intended to represent a cityscape alongside grasslands, but right next to it in big letters: "SURREY."

I wish organizations wouldn't do this. Writing on a flag is, for me and quite a few other people, like nails on a chalkboard; personally, I feel that it defeats the purpose of a flag. They're supposed to be clear, identifiable markers of whatever authority's flying it. Unless it's something like a regimental banner, if you have to squint and read the flag in order to tell for sure whose it is, I think that's a pretty good reason for the designer to go back to the drawing board. It's something I noticed a great deal in the United States - they tend to fly a lot of flags in the States, including the flags of the states. Problem is that most state flags are nothing more than the state's seal, slapped on a flag. So not only do they look backwards when you're looking at them from the wrong direction, there's that writing thing again.

Sometimes you can get away with it, thanks to stylization. The flag of Ottawa is based around a stylized "O," and while Toronto's flag was desgined to reflect City Hall it's not hard to see a "T" in there as well. But compare that to, say, the flag that Rwanda used up to 2001 - just a tricolor with an "R" stamped in the middle. Not that tricolors don't have their own problems, but that's not something for today.

You want a lunar flag? I made one as part of the background material for Tranquility, the novel I cracked 50,000 words in as part of NaNo 2006. In that setting the Republic of Tranquility controlled the scattered lunar settlements, and was really the only organized power in existence. You might think that'd obviate the need for a flag, but some habits die hard. It don't need words.

I went the understated route here - a flag for a politically independent lunar state could arguably want to establish itself as "on its own," and depict itself as alone against space. If I was to redesign it, I'd likely incorporate a starfield; the sheer blackness does make it apt to be swallowed when the light is low.

What's important in flag design is clarity and, to put it bluntly, beauty. A flag should be nice to look at. When words go on to a flag, I feel like it goes against its nature. The image should stand on its own, say all that needs to be said. Sometimes it's better that words don't do the talking.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

PDP #295: Greetings From New Westminster

I don't know if there are postcards specifically for the City of New Westminster; I haven't been looking, really, and chances are good they'd be subsumed by the massive Vancouver market just next door. Besides, even though it is the oldest city in the West, it's less than sixty thousand people and there's just not much here that's widely-known and iconic. If it does have postcards, though, I'd be very surprised if the Skybridge wasn't on them.

If this bridge hasn't yet appeared on Caprica, I'd be slightly surprised; if the series finishes its run without a shot of it, I'd be astonished. Once again, it looks like it comes from another time. It's a transit-only bridge, carrying the SkyTrain's Expo Line across the Fraser River from New Westminster to Surrey. I took this photo from the neighboring Pattullo Bridge, the only fixed traffic link between the two cities.

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, October 11, 2010

Controlling Connections, Freakishly

I've been somewhat out of touch with the wider world recently; it's an inescapble fact that comes with my setting down new roots here in New West. My landline telephone service won't go active for another couple of days yet, and it'll be about another week before my internet service goes live - until then, it's purely through wi-fi at Starbucks and the public library. I won't say it leaves me floundering, as there's a lot that goes into setting up a new place that the internet is merely a distraction for.

Making sure that you've got a can opener kicking around is a pretty big one.

It may be that need to go out and find a connection, rather than having one available at home whenever I need it, that amplified my reaction to Douglas Coupland's recent article in The Globe and Mail, "A radical pessimist's guide to the next 10 years." Much of it is what you'd expect, given the situation in which we find ourselves: a disappearing middle class, a world made smaller from resource shocks and oil crunches, and so on. Buried within it is one particular prediction that doesn't deal with either of these: instead it looks at one of the key factors of science fiction, how technology influences society.

33) People who shun new technologies will be viewed as passive-aggressive control freaks trying to rope people into their world, much like vegetarian teenage girls in the early 1980s

1980: “We can't go to that restaurant. Karen's vegetarian and it doesn't have anything for her.”

2010: “What restaurant are we going to? I don't know. Karen was supposed to tell me, but she doesn't have a cell, so I can't ask her. I'm sick of her crazy control-freak behaviour. Let's go someplace else and not tell her where.”

For one, I find it difficult to believe that there were restaurants in 1980 that did not sell anything that wasn't once part of an animal, but that's neither here nor there, and for that matter in 1980 neither was I. What bothers me is the assumptions behind Coupland's prediction number thirty-three, and the worry that he might be right on that account.

Yes, it's still got usefulness in it today. No reason to look surprised.

I've probably brought it up time and again on this weblog, but once more for the record - I do not own a mobile phone, nor have I ever. That likely puts me in something like a 1% minority of the population in my age bracket, and if I continue living like this I will increasingly look like an out-of-step luddite. I'm well aware of that, and I accept it.

What I don't accept is the prospect of mobile phones twisting the culture to such an extent that I'm demonized because of a simple choice to do without. I mean, look at the example above. Karen is a control freak because she does not have a cell, thus requiring the party to - gasp - decide on a plan of action before embarking on it, rather than just going from the seats of their pants? To my mind, that's the opposite of such behavior; shouldn't a control freak love always being in command of every particular of the situation, being able to change it at a moment's notice if it fits their fancy? Or am I completely misreading the situation in general?

Just because a new technology, or a widely-used one, can change cultural standards is not a reason why it should: what I get from this prediction of Coupland's is concern that forward-thinking might, by and by, filter out of the average person's consciousness - after all, why plan ahead when things can be made on the go?

I don't think I like the routes that might take us down. One could argue that we're standing where we are today precisely because of decisions that were made on the fly, with no time spared for planning and without regard for the future.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

PDP #294: A Moving Blade

Unless you're a fan of farmlands, there's not much to see in eastern North Dakota. I learned that while my dad and I passed through it en route to Vancouver. Every once in a while, though, interesting things presented themselves - like this truck carrying a decidedly oversized load. I'd be very surprised if it's anything except what it looks like: the blade of a wind turbine. They're so high up once they're mounted, it's easy to think of them as smaller than they really are.

Incidentally, that's the van's antenna at the right side of the photo. I had to hold the camera out the window to get this shot.

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, October 9, 2010

Have They Choson To Launch

In the community of nations, North Korea stands on its own in essentially any category you'd care to name. It's an isolationist, paranoid, communist family dictatorship, a cult of personality with borders, the most rogue of the rogue states. The inevitable weight of history, combined with the massively quixotic choices of its leadership, have left it with a greater population than Canada but a gross domestic product smaller than Saskatchewan's. It's a garrison state unlike anywhere else in the world, armed and bristling like an ornery porcupine. Such a wonderful world it is when a country like North Korea has nuclear weapons - but that's all in the past.

What I'm thinking about is the future. I've talked about this a couple of times, on and off, with Randy McDonald of A Bit More Detail - he came up with the concept that North Korea may end up becoming an economic colony of the South: even if the Korean Peninsula ever does reunify, the differences in development are far, far vaster than those that separated West and East Germany - and even twenty years later, the seams are still discernible in the brave neu Deutschland.

The big problem with speculating on the future of North Korea is an intrinsic part of its nature, though - due to its isolation and secretiveness, it's almost impossible to have any real idea of what North Korea will do, but there are dozens of avenues it could take.

It might be primed to turn down a new one in the near future, as leadership is primed to be passed off to a new generation - yesterday Kim Jong-un, third son of current dictator Kim Jong-il, was confirmed to be heir. While there's no way of knowing when Kim Jong-Il will vacate his current office - presumably, he won't do so until he's put in a box and wheeled away - the rise of a new leader often puts states down new paths.

So what might North Korea do in the years ahead? Maybe, possibly, plausibly, seek to become the fourth country to launch a human into space.

I have no idea what's going on in this North Korean propaganda poster, but it must be a hell of a thing. Look at all the speed lines around that rocket!

A couple of years ago I would have thought this faintly ridiculous, but a couple of years ago I hadn't heard of Copenhagen Suborbitals, the private rocket group out in Denmark that attempted a suborbital launch last month. The Tycho Brahe rocket, which is only still Earthbound because a $15 hair dryer's batteries died, cost only in the neighborhood of $50,000. This is something even a small municipality could finance; even with a starving populace, bloated military and crumbling industrial infrastructure, I don't doubt North Korea could throw the necessary amount of resources toward this sort of project.

Too, it would have a motivation: to make the rest of the world take it seriously. Recall that North Korea has had nuclear weapons since 2006, and consider that much of the motive force behind the original space race was to develop the infrastructure for an intercontinental ballistic missile force. Granted, I don't think it would be the most intelligent thing for North Korea to do; it's one thing to threaten to turn Los Angeles into a lake of fire, and it's another to start building rockets on top of that rhetoric. Neither China, Russia, nor the United States would see very much to like in a North Korea with that sort of equipment.

Beyond that, I doubt it would end particularly well for North Korea's first astronaut. Even the Tycho Brahe isn't going to be as safe as American or Russian craft - for a North Korean suborbital craft, safety would not likely be high on the list, because that costs precious money and resources. There are probably millions of potential astronauts who would jump at the opportunity to become a hero of North Korea and never come home again - so might go the thinking in Pyongyang, at least.

Nevertheless, I can see it happening before 2019 - much later, though, and North Korea may run into serious structural problems that impair its basic functions. The next space "race" may well be between Denmark and North Korea, and that alone is enough indication for me that we're living in the future.

Friday, October 8, 2010

PDP #293: Again, Total Science Fiction

There are some things that are undeniably products of their time: anything designed in the 1980s, for instance. On the other side of the equation there are things that not only look nothing like their contemporaries, but look so futuristic that in a hundred years people will probably still think of them as reflections of the jetpack future. Toronto City Hall is one of these things; another is the Marina City complex in downtown Chicago. Though designed in the 1950s and built in the 1960s, I think those towers have a uniquely timeless look about them.

I can't believe I didn't notice these buildings the first time I was there - the only reason I can think of was that it was raining pretty hard when I was in their neighborhood, and umbrellas greatly restrict city viewing. This photo was taken when my dad and I stopped there on our way to Vancouver. It was the carports that really did it for me. Imagine someone slams the gas on in one of those spots while the thing is on reverse... presumably there's something that would prevent them from taking a quick trip into the Chicago River.

Seriously, though. This place looks like where you'd expect George Jetson to have found his first apartment.

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, October 7, 2010

To the Stars, Through Simplicity

When I was young and unfamiliar with the ways the world worked but had stars in my eyes for science fiction anyway, I came up with a concept called the "impeller drive." This was meant to be a sublight drive for starships that worked through the amazing, incredible means of glowing. You know, just like the impulse engines on the Enterprise-D - they glow red and it goes forward, presumably because the red ones go faster. Though I wasn't aware of the name at the time - moreover, I wasn't aware of its violation of many of the laws of physics - I was pinning my hopes on a reactionless drive. It wasn't until fairly recently that I expunged the last bits of it from my brain, because really - not only is the reactionless drive such a compelling concept, it seems to dovetail with what we experience in our daily lives.

Fact is, the closest a lot of us will get to the vacuum of space in our daily lives is a Roomba. It requires knowledge, familiarity, and a curiosity-driven thirst to understand in order to really get a grip on how things work beyond the atmosphere. It's unfortunate that most of what passes for experience - popular entertainment in the mold of Star Trek, Star Wars or Battlestar Galactica - perpetuates the idea of stardrive prostitution; drives with no visible means of thrust.

Nevertheless, it's understandable for the average person to hold these ideas, because really, the average person probably won't be presented with a situation where they become relevant. It's different for creators. When I had the notion of writing space-based stories, I started digging into research and came across wonderful things like brachistochrone equations. Understanding is, in all things, key. I'd expect to find it guiding the people who help to shape culture - people like Canada's queen of science fiction (although she vehemently denies being such), Margaret Atwood.

What sparks this? The other day I came across an article in the Technology section of The Province, another dip into the murky swamp of the "lunar hoax" - I don't think I'll ever comprehend why so many people are so willing to believe that one of humanity's greatest achievements was instead the work of a bunch of guys in a soundstage in Nevada. It makes reference to a 2009 interview wherein Atwood discussed questions about the moon "hoax," focusing around why "they haven't done it again if it was so easy."

All right, first off, if I could use any word to describe the Apollo program, "easy" would be in the same rough neighborhood as "putrescent." With a final cost of $25.4-billion as figured in 1973 - according to the Inflation Calculator, this works out to $121-billion in 2009 US dollars - reaching the moon was not easy, particularly when you consider that it involved the design and development of entirely new technologies, the construction of some of the most sophisticated machines ever assembled by human hands, and an environment vastly more dangerous than anything under the sky.

But why does Atwood suggest suspicion? Because of computers. Yes, the big question as per this interview is why no one has walked on the moon since Apollo 17 in 1972, when computers back then were massive and now they're not. Musings about dangers from the Van Allen Belt or "those strange shadows and why the flag rippled" are, in my mind, sideshows. The idea that lunar missions should be easy because we have microchips now is just staggering.

A key to Luna? I don't think so, me.

The biggest cost of spaceflight is climbing out of the deep, dark well we call Earth. More efficient computing hardware is chump change in the rocket equation - it doesn't change the fundamentals of how chemical rockets work. If you don't know how chemical rockets work, I urge you to research the matter in the way you feel best; but to summarize, they work because they throw stuff out the back, and the act of throwing pushes them in the opposite direction in accordance with the Newtonian principle of action and reaction.

What really worries me, though, is the cultural impact of casual ignorance like this. Studies have made clear that the public conception of spaceflight, NASA in particular, is far out of kilter with reality - a 1997 poll found that, on average, people believed that NASA took 20% of the federal budget, twenty or forty times greater than what it actually gets. How much of the opposition to space comes from this mistaken belief that space is easy to get to, and that NASA is just wasting taxpayers' money shooting robot rovers to Mars?

Misinformation is poison. It's our responsibility to correct it and struggle against it wherever we can. The challenges we face today are manifold and manifest, and without a clear view of our options and the possibilities ahead we may as well be fighting Lavos with a Wood Sword and Hide Tunic. The future would not be thankful, and it would refuse to change.