Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Dense Considerations

Yes, I know I said that this weblog would be transitioning into more of a photoblog. Doesn't mean I won't still make non-photo posts when I feel like it. Plus, this gives me a clean sweep in November.

So far this morning I've wrung a couple of hundred words from the stone that is "High Midnight," the story I have currently in the production queue, but it's not the only one I'm thinking about - and so that my fingers don't forget what it's like to type on a rapid and consistent basis, rather than having to spend interminable moments trying to figure out what happens next, I figured I'd write a bit about that as well.

It's about scale; something that may be jettisoned by writers in favor of making something look cool, but just as frequently it's because the writer in question just has no sense of the reality involved. This shows up so often in space-based science fiction that realism is unusual, but it goes beyond acting like fifty thousand kilometers is a real long way for a starship that can fly from one system to another in a matter of days. Closer to home, though, it can trip up creators if they're not careful because of the hard distinction between "oh, that seems reasonable" and what actually is reasonable, as determined by the cold equations.

See that? That's Annacis Island, one of a number of smaller islands in the Fraser River. Originally dominated by farmland, ever since the 1950s its 4.8 square kilometers have been one of Metro Vancouver's industrial centers. I walked across it in order to reach the Alex Fraser Bridge, and I've been in few places quite so odd; on Sunday afternoons, it seems, Annacis Island is dead. There are few sidewalks, only a handful of businesses that aren't industrial, and I would be very surprised if anyone lived there. Obviously, I concluded, it would be a great place to put a thriving cityscape, eighty years hence! Annacis Island, a thriving place of adventure where anything can be had for the right price - boasting the largest concentration of parahumans in the Pacific Northwest! And I could develop it without having to worry about annoying reality.

Population? Hmm... something like sixty thousand seems reasonable with enough density, no?

It wasn't until later that I had an opportunity to do the math - and sure, with sufficient density, Annacis Island could theoretically support a population of sixty thousand - but with a population density of 12,500 per square kilometer, twice that of Hong Kong. In some places this would be believable - but even with the Lower Mainland penned in by mountains on one side, ocean on another, and the United States on still another, there's plenty of room to spread out here - and very little motivation to densify to such a degree without an extremely good reason to do so.

So I haven't figured it out yet. It's not beyond the realm of possibility; hell, with the population density of Manila, Annacis Island could hold a population of more than two hundred thousand, though that would shatter suspension of disbelief like nothing. The important thing, when creating, is to think these things through - to figure out what makes sense above all, rather than build tales on foundations that wobble in the wind.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Photo: Stay Fast, Cables

A few days ago I was asked if Vancouver was famous for its bridges. I didn't have an answer then, but I do now - "no, but it should be." The number of inlet and river crossings here demand a lot of bridges to keep the traffic flowing, and they're something of an architectural grab bag: from the Lions Gate Bridge, a green reflection of its cousin in San Francisco, to my destination yesterday - the Alex Fraser Bridge, something I've frequently seen from a distance but never approached, spanning the south arm of the Fraser River between Annacis Island and North Delta. It's a cable-stayed bridge, with the cables being what's keeping the deck from collapsing into the river - I think this shot gives a good look at them.

Incidentally, it's not totally unique. While watching the latest episode of The Amazing Race, set in Hong Kong, I had to pause and do some fast research - Hong Kong's Kap Shui Mun Bridge, a successor for the title of "world's longest cable-stayed bridge," is also a dead ringer for the Alex Fraser.

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, November 28, 2010

A Change in the Method

I've been trying to make this weblog the best I can make it. Part of that has been the update schedule; I've strived to have something new up here every day, and I've kept that standard since April 2009. I don't know how many tens of thousands of words I must have written over the last nineteen months - and now, I realize, that's the problem.

Before I kept this weblog, I was a writer - still am, at that. But lately I've come to realize that the creative effort I expend on my posts, the amount of time that I devote to polishing concepts and typing out rants, jeopardizes that. I want to write more stories, and I feel like the way I presently maintain things is complicating that.

So I've thought, and this is my conclusion: effective today, Acts of Minor Treason will be converting into more of a photoblog, with every-other-day posting. From time to time I'll post more substantive things on the other days, depending on my ability to get them prepared - but not every day.

Thanks to everyone who's read, and who I hope will continue to read. Without that, there wouldn't be much reason for me to go on at all.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

PDP #318: Palms Out, Snow Down

Early this year, I wrote a first draft of a short story that took place in Los Angeles during a (very unlikely but not, to my understanding, theoretically impossible) raging snowstorm, mostly as revenge for it raining so much while I was there. Such a storm battered its way into the Lower Mainland the Lower Mainland on Thursday, and while I was taking in the sights of the blizzard I came by downtown New Westminster's palm trees.

It's not that often, in my understanding, that you have an opportunity to see snow-covered palm trees. Their respective climate zones tend to overlap in only a few places, of which the Lower Mainland is one. Personally, it put me back in the mind of that story, something I'd expect to see in the introductory splash picture like they still do in the magazines - hell, it probably wouldn't be the first time New West doubled as L.A., anyway.

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, November 26, 2010

Umbrellas in a Snowstorm

Snow in the Lower Mainland is not an unheard-of thing, but from what I understand it's not a particularly common thing either. The geography produced by the mountains and the Pacific gives this area a temperate climate, sure, but that also means that most of the precipitation comes down as slashing, stinging raindrops. This week, then, has been something of a departure from the norm. True snow came down in earnest last Friday, yesterday a storm blew in to reinforce what had made it through the early days of the week. It was a storm like the ones I knew back in Ontario: not bitingly cold, thankfully, but leaving the sky full of fat, dancing snowflakes. I couldn't see Surrey from my window or the North Shore from Waterfront Station - the walls of the world had closed in.

Back in Ontario, snow was always put up as one of those great shared Canadian experiences - and, to be true, it is. The oceanic climate of the Lower Mainland, a piece of England on the West Coast, is anomalous when set against the rest of the country, much of which is dominated by the humid continental. I'm coming to realize this means that while snow is still that great shared experience, the way we deal with it differs from place to place.

Here in the Lower Mainland, "dealing with it" implies a bit more than I'm used to. The salubrious climate here means that things aren't built with winter in mind; not a problem, of course, unless winter rolls in. What I find interesting, though, is how people go about dealing, and I had a chance to see some of that yesterday. I took the SkyTrain to Vancouver well ahead of schedule, since the Canada Line had already frozen up and I wasn't much interested in getting marooned in New Westminster, only to find that it was at 100% functionality.

Once I made it to downtown Vancouver, I was confronted with something decidedly outside my experience, something I had difficulty wrapping my brain around, something I had to come out here to see: people carrying umbrellas in a snowstorm.

It's a lucky thing that this trolley got its poles knocked off the wires, or I'd never have thought to take this photograph.

I didn't bother keeping count of the number of people I saw carrying umbrellas. What I was more interested in was trying to understand them, but I felt that going up to someone and asking "Why are you carrying an umbrella?" would be far more bizarre than carrying an umbrella in the first place. Mad5l5in5 echoed the only theory I had that made a lick of sense: that they just didn't want to get snow on their heads. Sure, I personally find it strange, and in twenty-seven years of living in Ontario I never saw anyone do it, but I can understand why people here - many of whom don't necessarily have winter clothes - would.

Fine for a fair chunk of people, but look again at the left-hand umbrella-holder in that picture. That person is obviously wearing a hat that provides a lot of coverage; earlier, I saw an umbrella-holder wearing a full balaclava. The "keeping snow off their heads" explanation doesn't work for me here; really, at this point, I'd say that carrying an umbrella is a liability. It's something other pedestrians might not think to be aware of and crash into, something that could go flying if the holder steps on a patch of ice.

So - alternate theories are in order. My favorite was that they were trying to make their disbelief rolls; that if they carried their umbrella like everything was normal and just wanted it enough, then the snow would change into the rain that's the hallmark of a standard Lower Mainland winter.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

PDP #317: Master of Its Domain

One thing I'm always on the lookout for is the inspiring sort of picture - something that knocks me back on my heels a bit, something that makes me say "damn, that's a hell of a picture." The big problem here is getting the camera's eye to see things the same way. Every once in a while, though, I come across something that works.

All told, I took twenty-three pictures of this gull - I think it's a gull, but I'm no ornithologist - perched on this girder along the pier in New Westminster, right next to where they're building Westminster Pier Park. That's the Alex Fraser Bridge off in the distance. This one is my favorite of all of them. It just has that sort of look; at least, I think it does.

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, November 24, 2010

Short SF Review #16: "The Great Gizmo Machine!"

"The Great Gizmo Machine!", by Pierce Rand and John Forte
Appeared in Unknown Worlds #37, February 1964

"Yessir, I've done big things in science. Helped Edison invent the electric light... Eli Whitney took the credit for the cotton gin, but it was really my doing... I was the first to split the atom -- and I followed up by inventing the atomic sub!"

Since I started doing these reviews back in the early days of this weblog, I've confined myself to straightforward short literature: stories from anthologies and magazines devoted to the form. But there's another avenue that the story-starved could explore to sate their hunger, one I never previously considered: the comic book. As I never read them when I was growing up, I must be some kind of sociological freak or something, I guess. So if I make any ignorant mischaracterizations of the comic form in this, please tell me, and please don't get pissed off.

Unknown Worlds, published by American Comics Group, was an anthology comic series that lasted from 1960 to 1967. As I've only ever seen one issue of it, and since in a surprising turn of events Wikipedia has no article on it as of this writing, I can't make any authoritative blanket statements about it. But I can infer, though - its style seems to harken back to the days before the Comics Code, back when the superhero comics that dominated the market for decades afterward shared the newsstands with horror, crime, adventure, science fiction, and fantasy comics, in that it contains independent stories unconnected by any larger universe. While Unknown Worlds #37 claims to offer "mystery thrillers," the contents are supernatural fantasy and science fiction. The third and last story of the issue, coming in just after an advertisement for a Jet "Rocket" Space Ship, was enough to get me to buy the issue with its title alone: "The Great Gizmo Machine!," with story by Pierce Rand and art by John Forte.

Now, the obvious question is this: just what is a Great Gizmo Machine? Is it a machine that makes smaller, even more unfathomable machines? Is this where mogwai really come from -- or is it something even more sinister? I'll tell you what this is - it's true Silver Age crazy.

This story's hero - specifically stated as such - is Joe Binks, a hair-slicked-back, unemployed dude who can never seem to find a job worth his talents - or, more precisely, what he considers his talents to be. Being a janitor at the zoo apparently isn't it. After being chased up a tree by a bear, he quits and strikes out to get a job with Science, because it's "all the rage today" - specifically, the Willis Scientific Foundation. There, he tries to seal the deal with a resumé of claims that make him sound like an escaped mental patient - I mean, it's one thing to call yourself a "nuclear maintenance engineer" because you cleaned the pipes at Pickering, but to take credit for something invented a hundred and seventy years earlier leads me to only two conclusions: either he's is trying to see just how ridiculous a story he can spin while still finding a job, or Joe-Joe Binks is just that stupid.

It comes off, in a way: he does get a job from Professor Willis. As a janitor. This time, though, he stays on the job for long enough to overhear Professor Willis talking to empty air in the Great Gizmo Machine's room - a machine that is being kept a total mystery, beyond the sheer fact of its existence. In an attempt to impress his girlfriend and keep the bow-tied dude who for some inexplicable reason is tagging along on their date - he's described as Joe's rival for his girlfriend's affections - from ending up with her, he sneaks into the Gizmo Machine's room and starts studying how it works.

Which means that, in the truest scientific tradition, he starts fiddlng with knobs and doodads to see what happens. What happens is that the machine starts making noises like "bicka-bicka-bicka" and things start flying around like it's a poltergeist factory. The next day, he witnesses his boss, the Professor, vanish into the machine. Probably due to the absence of a body, he avoids getting slapped with a murder charge and goes to give his girlfriend a present that is, perhaps, the single most prescient reference in this story - a "little gizmo machine" that "makes a lot of noise, runs a mile a minute and doesn't do a thing!" It may have taken fifty years, but we're on our way.

Still, the rival for his girlfriend's affections isn't too happy about Joe claiming to be an Awesome Scientist because he mops the floors in a house of Science, and neither is he impressed by the pre-Star Trek technobabble he resorts to in a desperate attempt to explain something he doesn't understand. The rival, of course, takes the opportunity to futz with the instrumentation and ends up winning over the girlfriend's affections - by default, as Joe gets sucked into the machine and down into a "dark, swirling vortex."

He comes to rest in a circle of light in what looks to me like a graveyard forest, something you'd expect to see as a set backdrop for a Halloween horror comic. He doesn't have much time to ponder his predicament before bodiless voices - speaking English, of course, since the Silver Age also specified that English is the universe's most efficient language, though I can't find the reference at present - start mocking his features and force him to sing love songs. Joe, using the astounding mental prowess that he has demonstrated throughout the story thus far, concludes that they're women - or, at least "real dolls" - and asks for them to show themselves after they cover him with kisses. Fair enough, they turn on their visibility and--



Yes, it turns out that what the Great Gizmo Machine is is a dimensional portal to the World of the Bobblehead People, also known as the 432nd Dimension for some unfathomable reason. He's taken before a bobblehead court where he encounters the missing Professor and discovers that the bobbleheads are naturally concerned about the Great Gizmo Machine being a potential invasion path into their world. So what do they do? Fortify in expectation of an invasion? Attack through the machine themselves? Kill the two Earthlings to keep a lid on the knowledge as best they can?

No! They let the Professor return to Earth because he promises to destroy the machine - and they've got to believe him for some reason or another - but they *need* Joe to stay behind! Joe, displaying the intellectual acumen that propelled him to the highest strata of Earthly culture, assumes that the bobbleheads are in desperate need of a leader with a neck that doesn't look like it's as liable to snap as a toothpick with a boulder balanced on the tip. It comes off, in a way - he is needed, as a janitor. The only man of Earth, trapped in an crazy alien dimension full of walking, talking bobbleheads half his size. THERE BUT FOR THE GRACE OF GOD GO WE!

Really - this was a simplistic story that might well have been written during the course of a coffee break, possibly when Unknown Worlds realized that the printer's deadline was coming up and it had nine pages to fill. What I do know that it didn't live up to its own hype; how could it have? The "surprise of a lifetime?" If this story had shown up in, say, Analog or Fantasy & Science Fiction, that would've been the surprise of a lifetime. This, is just... filler. That's absolutely what it is. Extruded Entertainment Product, meant for a quick bit of timefilling and later discarding. These stories weren't meant to last - they were meant to get the customer's twelve cents.

And, really, the whole reason I bought Unknown Worlds #37 was because I was fascinated by the idea of what the Great Gizmo Machine could be, and I paid a damn sight more than twelve cents for it - so even fifty years later, it's still doing the work it set out to. That, in itself, is worth recognizing.

Also, I totally want one of those Jet "Rocket" Space Ships now. I mean, only five bucks and it comes with a disintegrator gun and bomb bay, all the better to teach those goddamn aliens to fear the United States Air Force! How can you go wrong?

ANDREW'S RATING: 2/5 - the out-there craziness is just so earnest. It's almost endearing.

Previous Short SF Reviews:

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

PDP #316: Rolling Steel

The railway is a constant presence in downtown New Westminster; after all, it's the effective end of one of the lines. Frequently I'll hear a locomotive's whistle resound up the hill and across the Fraser while I'm lying in bed - reassuring, actually, almost as comforting as the rattle of streetcars on the road outside. Too bad the closest place I could reliably find that is Seattle. This past weekend I caught one of those long freight trains in the act, two BNSF Railway engines waiting to pull their load east just across from the River Market. Trains like this made British Columbia what it is today, made Canada what it is today. Something to respect.

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, November 22, 2010

Thinking Through Transhumanism

While it's still flying well below the radar, in my opinion the transhuman question is set to cause a great deal of dislocation and social upheaval when it finally gets to a state where it lets people do more than just talk about it; probably toward mid-century is my guess. The confluence of genetic technologies, cognitive technologies, and perhaps others that haven't got off the ground yet are set to upend what it means to be human, by providing us the tools to "improve" or "upgrade" ourselves - frequently upgrade, as if a hundred thousand years of slow development from the hot savannah is no more extraordinary than a buggy software release.

Yesterday Randy McDonald over at A Bit More Detail posted about the existential risks of first-generation transhumanism, peppered with quotes from other articles that have addressed the issue of transhumanism and the future. In particular, he quotes a post from Kyle Munkittrick at Science Not Ficton - a blog that, incidentally, I've never read before - arguing that improvement of the human mind is a necessity for the survival of our species: "to prevent SkyNet and global warming," in Munkittrick's words.

My view? Bullshit. Transhumanists may argue that a radical reengineering of the self is necessary to plow through the problems we've made for ourselves, but that's the key issue - they're problems we made for ourselves. The issue of climate change isn't one that people can't understand (frequently they don't want to understand, but that's neither here nor there), and the solutions aren't unfathomable. We know exactly what we'd have to do to combat climate change; the real problem is that no one, or at least no one in a truly meaningful position, is willing to do these things. Demolishing every last coal power plant in the world and salting their ruins would do a lot to keep those billions upon billions of tons of noxious shit from being spewed into the atmosphere, but no one is going to make a move that radical in my lifetime. Coal is cheap, and people expect electricity, and so China is building new coal power plants every goddamn week. We've done some great things with unupgraded hands and unimproved know-how; to start claiming that we need cognitive enhancement, in my mind, cheapens those accomplishments.

"you can't stop us. we can do anything we want because we can Think!" For a creature without opposable thumbs, this crow is surprisingly accurate.

I cannot stand by the argument that we need to reengineer humanity to survive. I cannot because I cannot abide by the implications of that argument; that we are so stuck in our rut, so unwilling to look at the consequences of our actions and take remedial actions, that we need to rebuild ourselves from the ground up in order to climb out of the muck we're in. Honestly, some of these arguments strike me as coming from a worldview even more cynical than my own - if you're suggesting that you need to genetically engineer ultra-ethical folks from the womb in order to produce a more capable and worthy politician, as Munkittrick does, then why the hell are we maintaining a political system where genetic engineering is necessary to get more than a handful of people into positions of power who are capable of looking beyond their own noses, who don't see politics as a damn game? If things are so bad, so unsalvageable, we shouldn't be rewriting genetic codes, we should be storming Parliament!

Now that I think about it - this reminds me a lot about growing up. When you're young you're a rebel, full of piss and vinegar and distaste for the established order and perhaps reading the Socialist Worker, certain that you're never going to work with the Man, that you're never going to join the Establishment... and yet, twenty years later, you find yourself with carefully-maintained hair in a nice suit in an office downtown. It seems to me that this concept of transhumanism springs from the same pool; that ordinary people would be absorbed by the Establishment, that we need to first make ourselves Extraordinary - that reengineering ourselves is a necessary prerequisite to reengineering our surroundings.

Personally, I can't abide that. That sounds far too much like surrender - like admitting the average person can't do a thing to change the course of the world, that we must be dependent on a few elevated folks, the best of us, to seize the wheel and turn the rudder. We created these problems; we can solve them with the tools we already have. It's just a matter of wanting to.

As for Skynet... there's an easy solution to that. Don't create artificial intelligences. But that's an argument for another day.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

PDP #315: SkyBridge in Snow

Forget what I said about the "snow" in New Westminster the other day. It was nothing, and by the time that day was done I knew just how nothing it was. The first significant snow of the season came down on Friday night, leaving a crisp veneer of snow over at least parts of Burnaby, New Westminster and Surrey. Of course, it didn't last long; this does not seem to be a land where snow will reliably accumulate, the way I'm used to.

So I had to go out early in the morning, shortly after sunrise, before it all melted. It was cold, but I think that the shots I got - including this one, of a King George-bound Expo Line train speeding onto the SkyBridge - was worth 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 anyone the right to use this work for any purpose, without any conditions, unless such conditions are required by law.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Light Rail's Persistent Albatross

It's easy to poison a group of people against something by delivering a flawed test case of it to their doorsteps. There's no shortage of folk out there who will take a look at something that's presented as "bungled," whether or not the truth is more complicated, and harden their hearts against anything else of its kind. In Toronto, one such albatross I see popping up again and again is light rail - specifically, the manner in which the St. Clair Avenue streetcar right-of-way was built. There's only one problem here: the 512 St. Clair streetcar is not light rail. This is a pernicious, galling assumption that I encounter time and again, and is common enough that TTC communications director Brad Ross had to begin a recent Rocket Talk article on Torontoist by clarifying that it is still part of the legacy streetcar system.

Yet the misinformation stubbornly refuses to go away. It reared its head again yesterday in the Toronto Star, when columnist Royson James described the St. Clair ROW as "Exhibit A in the case against light rail lines." I tend to take issue with this description, because - call me weird - shouldn't Exhibit A be an honest example of what it's _supposed_ to be, and not just what people think it is? Sure, I'll grant that there may be a public perception in Toronto is that the St. Clair streetcar is light rail; but that perception does not make it so. It's always been an issue of branding; for some damn reason the Harbourfront streetcar was branded as LRT when it opened in 1996, running with PCCs that have since gone on to new tracks in Kenosha - it was redesignated a streetcar not long after, and with good cause, because it's not light rail.

If St. Clair has to be tied into the LRT debate, it should be as an LRT precursor and not as an example of what a light rail system would actually look like. This is particularly important, as Torontonians seem to have no bloody idea what light rail is - one of the downsides of consistently operating a streetcar system for the last hundred and fifty years.

A Blue Line light rail train in Los Angeles. Does this look much like a streetcar to you?

It's not surprising, really. There are no well-known examples close by; Buffalo, New York has been running a light rail system since the 1980s, but for the average Torontonian Buffalo has no presence beyond the sprawling outlet malls that beckon drivers off the highways. The only significant light rail systems in Canada are those in Edmonton and Calgary. With no examples close at hand, it's easy for the concept to be framed as "streetcars plus" - but this isn't necessarily the right way to go about it. The rhetoric that came out of hizzoner Rob Ford's campaign is a signal that not everyone is satisfied with being on the rails.

There are plenty of folk out there who would love nothing more to frame the debate so that streetcars and light rail become one and the same in the minds of Torontonians; it would be so much easier, at that point, to stamp out any plans for transit expansion. Otherwise well-meaning articles that reflexively echo these incorrect labels only make the situation worse - something repeated often enough can be held up as the truth, whether or not it's actually so.

Even with St. Clair being used to poison the debate wherever an opportunity exists, I still find it funny - no one ever seems to complain about Spadina or Harbourfront, routes which have been running in their own traffic-separated rights-of-way for more than ten years, as being examples of the problems of light rail. They have just as much in common with light rail as St. Clair does; namely, they run on rails.

Friday, November 19, 2010

PDP #314: A New West Kind of Winter

There was nothing unusual about last night when I left downtown Vancouver. Sure, it was raining, but that's hardly unusual - I recall wondering if it would also be raining in New Westminster. I got off the SkyTrain at Columbia, climbed the stairs to the exit, and when I got a good look at outside I think my brain needed a moment to reboot. There was snow falling out there.

Granted, it wasn't the sort of snow I remember from Ontario. This stuff was just barely snow, just barely holding together, and the temperature wasn't near low enough to allow any kind of accumulation. So just as much sleet as snow, pretty much. But the reports I heard from elsewhere in New West, as well as Burnaby and Vancouver, are enough to settle the issue in my mind - this was snow, from a certain point of view. I know that it looks like rain in the camera's eye, but it didn't look that way to mine.

Now if only it was also winter - then the headline of this post would be accurate. But there's something special about the First Snow, no matter what form it arrives in.

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, November 18, 2010

The Minor Matter of Antimatter

Whether it's being used to power the Enterprise or destroy the Vatican, antimatter remains perhaps the most potent energy-producing substance for which we have a theoretical basis of understanding. In some respects, it seems almost tailor-made for the energy needs of a spacefaring society - almost the petroleum of the spaceways, if petroleum needed constant monitoring and intervention to keep it from catching on fire. You'd have to be absolutely insane to use it anywhere other than space.

So far, we've only been able to study antimatter in fits and starts - but this won't always be the case. Yesterday, CERN announced the successful trapping of antimatter atoms through the use of magnetic fields, presumably the first versions of the containment fields that always have to collapse before the warp core will breach. Sure, they hung around for less than a twentieth of a second, but it's a start. This is another step toward the frontiers of science, and I'm looking forward to many more.

One thing I haven't yet seen are far-out conspiracy theorists or 2012ers integrating this into their fantasies - but it's only a matter of time. I've already encountered people concerned at whether taming antimatter would add palm-sized city-busters to a terrorist's arsenal.

Technically - yes. But the reality is more complicated.

Antimatter needs to be contained within magnetic fields because if it ever encounters regular matter, the two will mutually annihilate in a burst of gamma rays and other fun things. This also liberates a massive amount of energy. How massive? One kilogram of antimatter annihilating one kilogram of matter would create a forty-three megaton explosion, not much weaker than the single largest nuclear weapon ever detonated - and the advantage of implosion-trigger nuclear weapons is that they will not accidentally detonate. Any antimatter warhead, or antimatter reactor for that matter, would require constant attention to ensure that the containment fields would not collapse. So, even if someone was able to cobble together a two-kilo city-buster, if they didn't build it right it might well go off in their face.

Realistically, though, there's one thing that stands in the way of anarchists hurling around antimatter bombs: the expense. Just as it's the most potent substance known to humanity, it is also the most expensive - in the ten years between 1991 and 2001, the antimatter synthezised by CERN, one whole nanogram, cost "hundreds of millions" of Swiss francs - and you'd just need 999,999,999,999 more in order to build your city-buster. Remember that CERN is studying individual atoms of the stuff. It may well be far, far more economical to send spaceships to harvest the antimatter that occurs naturally in the Van Allen belt.

What this all does mean, though, is that as antimatter becomes marginally easier to collect and retain, it will have to become the single most controlled and restricted substance in civilization. Cost is the biggest barrier, but you can't count on a big cover charge keeping everyone out. For the foreseeable future, worrying about antimatter attacks is pointless; anyone who would be able to assemble enough antimatter to be a threat would also be able to buy a nuclear arsenal, pretty much.

Until then, may your warp cores never breach.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

PDP #313: Get to the Gate

Although my second visit to Chicago wasn't nearly as long as my first, I did get the opportunity to wander about Millennium Park; a tonic after almost twelve hours on the road. It was a finer day than most of the ones that came up during my time there in 2009, and the blue skies reflected well on Cloud Gate. I'd never seen it photographed from this perspective before - all of the pictures I've seen are a lot closer to the bean - and I think it underscores that while it entirely stands apart from its surroundings in terms of design, to me it still feels like it belongs 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, November 16, 2010

Municipal Narcissism

How we choose to describe ourselves can tell others a lot about us, especially things we don't necessarily intend - like how I call myself a "scientifictionist," rather than "dude who writes science fiction," out of a desperate attempt to seize some small piece of a vanished past by using an archaic term with which few people are familiar. It happens with places just as much as people. Most places have mottos, and the phrase they choose to symbolize themselves can reveal a lot of things - inadvertent things.

I used to think that the city of Vaughan's motto, "The City Above Toronto," was rather overweening; technically true, if you consider north to be up, but rather smug-seeming. Since moving to British Columbia, I no longer think of it that way, because I've seen what mottos there are out here.

I mean, take the current branding motto of British Columbia: "The Best Place on Earth." When I first encountered that stamped on the side of a new model SkyTrain, I couldn't believe it - couldn't believe, to be blunt, the sheer arrogance that must have gone into that motto. I mean, sure, I like British Columbia. If I didn't I wouldn't have moved out here. I like how the sky seems bigger and the mountains on the horizon and the evergreens that make it look not quite as horrid out when it's overcast. But if this is the Best Place on Earth... why the hell does it rain so much? Why is it right next to a megathrust earthquake zone? Why is its largest city within a hundred kilometers of a potentially active stratovolcano? Are we to believe that these are qualities required to achieve excellence?

Sure, I haven't been everywhere on Earth, so I can't use my own personal experience to dispute the claim that this province is the best place on it... but it's a fair bet that the people who did decide on this motto did not have personal experience of everywhere on Earth. Every once in a while I see hints of an earlier motto - "Super, Natural British Columbia" - which I think is far better in every respect. It displays pride in one's home without being insufferably proud. I know I'm not alone in this; back in 2008, an unscientific poll conducted by the Vancouver Sun found that nine out of ten disapproved of it.

Really, the "Best Place on Earth" motto is no surprise from a government that's had a majority in Victoria for nearly ten years. What grumbles me is that this isn't an isolated incident.

There is no way you can convince me that the placement of these two logos was not completely intentional.

Canada Line trains remind me of a child's sticker album; there are tons of logos on the cars, and every time I walk across the Waterfront platforms there seem to be new ones pasted on. I found the above last night on an out-of-service train... and really? Richmond's motto is seriously "Better in Every Way"? I can disprove that just by citing geology! Hell, I can claim that Vancouver is better than Richmond because there is only one other city called Vancouver and at least three named Richmond, so it's more creatively named! Sure, maybe I'm going about this all wrong, but I was always under the impression that mottos are not supposed to be statements of arrogant superiority! Really... when did mottos change from a way to show common pride to municipal masturbation contests?

I mean, look at Toronto's motto. If it followed the same philosophy as British Columbia or Richmond, you'd expect it to be "The Centre of the Universe" or "The Best Part of Canada" or "Toronto is So Awesome That to Comprehend It Would Be to Reduce Yourself to Charred Ashes." Instead, what is it? "Diversity Our Strength." Something meek. Something unassuming. Something that says why the city thinks it's good without making the implicit claim that everywhere else is worse.

What we say about ourselves says a lot. What we don't say says even more.

Monday, November 15, 2010

PDP #312: Double Rainbow

It wasn't until very recently that I ever heard of this meme, but now that I have I'm seeing them everywhere - double rainbows, that is. There was a pretty awesome one arching over downtown Vancouver last week. While I wasn't able to capture that one, I did take a photo of another double rainbow; this one over the South End of Barrie, around 1996 or so. That's the problem with film photographs; depending on where you get them developed, there's no assurance there'll be a date stamp on the back.

But, still. Double rainbow.

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, November 14, 2010

The Year 2010 (Peak Oil) Problem

I needed something to read on the SkyTrain yesterday; how fortunate I was able to pick up a copy of the Georgia Straight right outside Columbia Station. What I found in there was one of the sort of articles that make me glad that I take the SkyTrain instead of a car - and since it's also available on the Straight's website, I don't have to stumble around describing it. It's about reaching for greater self-sufficiency - which is hardly something to scoff at, since everything you can make yourself frees up money you can spend on more important things, like pornography or booze that isn't bathtub gin - in the context of preparing for a post-peak oil world.

It's worthwhile to pursue, even if it's only for the immediate advantages it affords; if you can grow fresh vegetables in the comfort of your own home, why not? What concerns me is the direction from which I've seen the possibilities of peak oil approached in the past, the direction in which this article marches. How fortunate it comes out and says it right at the beginning.

"What if you woke up one day and found that the world as you knew it had ceased to exist?"

Well, that's an opener to get attention - but it almost made me stop reading the article from its sheer disingenuousness. Sure, peak oil is set to upend a great deal of the assumptions we take for granted today - but it's not Y2K. It's not an apocalypse in and of itself. It would not be a bolt from the blue; peak oil marks the beginning of constantly diminishing returns. It does not mean that the world has run out of oil. It is an event that can only be recognized in hindsight.

Perhaps in a post-peak oil society, surplus gas stations might be converted into covered markets. But an attendant wouldn't punch out one night and return the next only to find the tanks empty and the pumps ripped out.

So I can't get behind those who portray it in this way. The only person who could wake up to find that peak oil has made the familiar world cease to exist is Rip van Winkle; for the rest of us, if the worst forecasts are realized, it'll be a steady but gradual decline away from current standards of living - and with good cause. Over the last seventy years, North American society especially has been built on the assumption that energy would be cheap forever - and when those builders thought of energy, they probably thought of petroleum.

This temptation to spin an immediate apocalypse out of something that's manifestly gradual reminds me of another issue we're still dealing with now, actually; the "forecasts" of global cooling back in the 1970s and suggestions that we were on the cusp of a new Ice Age. I've never found any official studies from the time that actually suggested this; everything I've found suggests that the "global cooling" meme was spread mostly by the news media, with people latching onto it from there. Today, our cognitive ecology is filled with its spores.

There's a very thin line to be walked in situations like this. It never pays to be too strident and assured when you're dealing with a complex event still a ways off from the present day. Just look at Y2K.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

PDP #311: One of the Guns

On Thursday I attended the Remembrance Day ceremony at Victory Square in Vancouver. It was significantly larger than any ceremony I'd attended in Toronto, perhaps because people in Vancouver do not necessarily need to choose between Remembrance Day and a work day. Part of the ceremony included a twenty-one gun salute by the 15th Field Regiment, Royal Canadian Artillery - something I'd never encountered in Toronto, as there aren't many places in the downtown core where it would be safe to fire off howitzers while having them audible at Old City Hall.

Though most of the crowd dispersed while the soldiers marched off after the ceremony, I stayed to watch them go - and am glad I did, because after they left, the howitzers came through. It's not very often you get a chance to see one of the regiment's 105mm C3 howitzers get towed past the cenotaph along West Hastings Street.

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, November 12, 2010

Save Space for the Pirates

It's been said again and again over the years - science fiction is a difficult genre to do right, thanks to the breadth of knowledge it demands from struggling creators. Otherwise, as David Gerrold suggested in The World of Star Trek, you've just got science fantasy. Admittedly, that does have a strong appeal, perhaps for similar reasons that the standard fantasy genre has enjoyed such enduring popularity... but I'm not going to get into that today.

The biggest problem with avoiding that science fantasy status, assuming at the outset that you're trying to avoid it, is that in space our experiences betray us. A lot of what we know just isn't so out there, because things work differently on a planet and in vacuum. Not that I'm talking about space being magic - it's more the casual assumptions we make so often that it takes a special effort to recognize them and look past them.

Like, say, if you're far enough away from something, that thing can't see you. Correct on Earth, but not nearly so in space - where the only horizon is billions of light-years away, a time-delayed shadowplay of the creation of the universe. It may be that we naturally assume it's easy to hide in space because it's so easy to hide at night - but just because one is a reflection of the other, they don't have all that much in common. But it's tempting to overlay familiar things onto the void anyway, without consciously thinking about what works and what doesn't.

Take, say, space pirates. A staple of the genre going back decades - ruffians for the square-jawed Interstellar Patrol to bring to heel, marauders who stand to take away everything our crew of intrepid space merchants holds dear - because they're easy villains easily understood by the audience, a transposition of Earth onto the stars. But the model that's so frequently used, that of space pirates shrieking in out of nowhere to fall upon a rich cargo, plunder the craft and disappear with the booty in their hidden base, doesn't work. All it would take is one person looking through a telescope in the right direction... and a spacefaring society wouldn't be conducting skywatches with just one person looking through a telescope. Nor could they shriek in out of nowhere; unless they have a point-to-point FTL, which brings up a raft of its own problems for organized societies, the target ship would see them coming from quite a long way off. Nor would they be able to hide; the anomalous heat signature generated by a pirate base would be easily detectable by a patrol.

Sure, there are ways around it if you think through the implications, but they do restrict the author's freedom - or, more appropriately, they act as a reminder that you can't just make "Earth in Space" if you want anything more than a tincture of believability.

I was talking through this recently to a friend who's participating in NaNoWriMo and who is reckoning with space pirates. During the course of the talk, I hit upon a concept I've never seen used before; pirates operating out of a hot Jupiter.

What a hot Jupiter may look like.

Hot Jupiters are something that science fiction never really thought of in a big way, but since the first one was discovered orbiting 51 Pegasi in 1995, they've upended our understanding of how solar systems can be built. They're gas giants that can orbit their parent star well closer than Mercury orbits Sol, and as a result they're superheated and volatile. The scientific interest alone is undeniable, assuming you have the ability to get there - preferably through an "only works at specific locations" FTL like the Alderson drive, at least in my books. What I figured is that these hot Jupiters could also provide space pirates with new Spanish Mains.

There's an important assumption here, first: that starships can refuel themselves with hydrogen, or other gases present in gas giant atmospheres, and that they are capable of entering them in order to collect them. If that's the case, space pirates don't need to be space pirates at all, technically speaking; they can be air pirates, striking at starships as they descend into the atmosphere to refuel. Inside the atmosphere, there is a horizon and stealth is possible. They could operate from aerostat habitats in a relatively calm portion of the atmosphere, if such a thing exists, and limit their attacks; in that way, a ship's disappearance could easily be put down to violent weather conditions.

Sure, it's not limited to hot Jupiters - you could probably do it as easily with a regular gas giant. But the point is that this thinking, this walking through the situation and looking around at the possibilities that the situation implies - rather than making things work the same way they work back home, and that's that - is where good stories come from.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

PDP #310: I Remember

Whenever Remembrance Day comes around, I think of my grandfather most of all. He went and served, and unlike so many others he made it back. He was the one who set me on this path, and he was the one who wrote it all down so it could be remembered, now that he's gone.

So for today, I'm posting a photo from his files, a photo of him on the march in Southampton, England in the summer of 1937, when he was part of the 22nd Battalion of the 22nd (Cheshire) Regiment. It doesn't exist the way it once did; it was folded into the Mercian Regiment in 2007. But I remember, and that man in the middle, I won't forget.

This United Kingdom artistic work, of which the author is unknown and cannot be ascertained by reasonable inquiry, is in the public domain because it is a photograph which has never previously been made available to the public (e.g. by publication or display at an exhibition) and which was taken before January 1, 1940.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Future Commutes From Here

It's not hard for me to think about Surrey; I can see it from my bedroom window. What I didn't appreciate until recently was its situation. I know this may come as a shock to some of you, but it appears that some people are attracted to the suburban lifestyle - a far cry from Ontario, where the entire population happily lives in towering, arcology-like apartment blocks with rooms seven feet square. What I didn't realize were the numbers - it's been five years since the last census, when Surrey's population was just shy of 400,000, and development hasn't slowed down. It's well on course to passing Vancouver as British Columbia's most populous city in the near future.

So I'm going to be living next to the Mississauga of the West. So long as its sprawl stays on its side of the Fraser, that's fair enough for me; I can't really do anything else. Inertia is powerful when it comes to cities, and geographically massive cities like Surrey or Mississauga wouldn't easily be able to reinvent and densify themselves, aside from pockets here and there.

What concerns me when thinking about the future, though, is that all the plans I can find regarding the future expansion of public transit in Metro Vancouver seem to be focused purely on the Burrard Peninsula, with no thought for the cities south of the Fraser. Of the two major transit pushes on the horizon, the Evergreen Line will only bring service to the Tri-Cities if TransLink can somehow scrounge up the money from somewhere to build it, and the Broadway Line would take the rails, or streetcar tracks, or bus rapid transit, to UBC - again, pending some source of funding. But as the years go on without necessary expansion in the rapid transit infrastructure, the SkyTrain especially is going to show the strain.

I'll admit to a bit of a bias: one of the reasons I moved to New Westminster was so I could reliably get a seat on the SkyTrain. Boarding at Columbia I can never tell if the westbound train I'm on is Expo or Millennium, but they're always fairly well packed even at that point. Eastbound Expo trains are frequently nearly full at Columbia even at 9:30 or 10 PM on weekdays, so it's obvious there's no shortage of Surreyans (Surreyites? Surreygonians? Surreyfolk?) taking the train out to Vancouver and back.

The SkyBridge between New Westminster and Surrey represents a major transit bottleneck in Metro Vancouver; it carries the only rapid transit link between Surrey and Vancouver. How much more population growth in Surrey will be necessary before trains are full by the time they leave Scott Road - and how many people would be willing to deal with jam-packed trains, day after day? While I don't shed tears over the absence of a municipal expressway system in Vancouver, that lack does mean that rapid transit and bus transit would need to pick up a larger share of traffic than in Toronto or Montreal, which both have major expressways adjacent to the downtown core.

There are options, some more radical than others. If not a bus rapid transit system or an incredibly expensive and possibly unjustifiable eastward extension of the Canada Line across Lulu Island to Surrey or - to export one of Toronto transit guru Steve Munro's ideas - swan boats on the Fraser River, are there any methods that could keep transit working into the future?

Perhaps, I think - commuter rail.

A West Coast Express train in downtown Vancouver - June 2010

The West Coast Express is Metro Vancouver's commuter rail system, operating since 1995 and currently consisting of one line through the northern Burrard Peninsula, from Waterfront Station through the Tri-Cities and ultimately to Mission in the Fraser Valley Regional District. It doesn't operate nearly as many trains or routes as GO Transit back in Toronto, the network I'm more familiar with, but that can be excused by its relative newness and the smaller size of the population it serves. But neither of those things will endure forever - and I can't help but wonder if a new West Coast Express line, connecting Waterfront Station to Surrey, could relieve some transit pressure in the years ahead.

So I did some looking and followed the rail lines. Much like the SkyTrain, there's only one heavy rail link between New Westminster and Surrey - the route over the Westminster Bridge, oldest of the three trans-Fraser bridges at downtown New Westminster, and currently used mostly by freight trains. From there, the lines branch to the east and west; while the western line passes through industrial areas in western New West, ultimately to terminate in Vancouver at West 1st and Fir, right near Granville Island, after some meandering the east line links up with track already used by the West Coast Express, near Port Coquitlam Station.

Running a railway is a game of timetables and of negotiation. The most important infrastructure, the rails, are already there, and some of those rails go as far afield as Abbotsford. The more peripheral nature of the existing rail lines wouldn't matter as much - commuter rail stations by their very nature have larger catchment areas than rapid transit stations, and while it would be idea for a commuter rail station to be in a walkable neighborhood, GO Transit is proof that this isn't a necessity.

The most difficult thing would, ultimately, come back to this: money. Would it be worth TransLink's while to extend commuter rail service south of the Fraser? The SkyTrain, as an ICTS system, can only carry so many people.

Now, in 2010, probably not - otherwise more people would be talking about it. Ten years ago, though, the Canada Line was just a dream. Who can tell what the transit situation will be like here in 2020? It may be worth thinking about.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

PDP #309: Bridging Land and Sky

Granville Island has always felt vaguely weird to me, as if it doesn't quite occupy the same world that we live in... actually, no. That's a stupid poeticism; if it didn't occupy the same world, it wouldn't show up on satellite maps and the Granville Street Bridge would collapse into False Creek, which would hardly do wonders for Vancouver's already-congested traffic situation. It's more that it's an odd juxtaposition that I've never encountered elsewhere. An artists' colony, effectively, on an old industrial island - one that still has a working cement factory, mind you - with a roof in the form of the arching steel of the Granville Street Bridge's underside.

Granville Island feels more like where two different worlds intersect - and, like Monster Island, it is actually a peninsula.

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, November 8, 2010

Learning to Shoot

Every second there are things that are forgotten, things that slip beneath notice or things that can only be carried in the memories of whoever witnessed them. Our capacity to rescue some of these things, these fleeting moments, and give them an endurance of their own is only as old as the first photograph. Sure, I know that people regularly depicted things by hand before that, but it's difficult to give a sketch or painting the same tincture of reality that a photograph has merely by existing.

Now, of course, we live in a time where more things are recorded than ever before. It's unusual now for someone to be out and about without a camera, a side effect of the ubiquity of mobile phones. That, I think, has really changed the photography game and made the notion of "recording the world" possible - at least for people like me, with more than ten thousand digital photos in my archive. But digital photography teaches its own lessons, and if you want to juggle the old and the new, there are some you will have to forget or at least interpret in a more narrow light.

Take the photos themselves, and the ease of taking, collecting, and retaining them. That's only really become feasible within the last few years, thanks to the convergence of digital photography and advancements in information storage. It's probably for the best that my Hanimex 35SE film camera doesn't fit in my pocket, unlike my digital; I'd say that the second-most important lesson I learned about using film was photographic discipline. If I'm out and about with my digital, I'd think nothing of taking a hundred and fifty shots over the course of an outing, generally anything that catches my interest. Film cameras present bottlenecks that don't exist with digital cameras. At the most you'll likely have thirty-six exposures before you need to change out your film, and even then you won't know how well the photos turned out until you get them back from thelab.

It's the lab that makes photographic discipline necessary - or, more appropriately, the expense of developing that roll of film into glossy prints. Unless you're a professional or independently wealthy, you've got to practice photographic discipline if you want to see any of them again. Six years ago, when I travelled to the United Kingdom with a friend, he brought a film camera while I carried my first digital - and it's good that I did, because as far as I know all those rolls of film he took were never developed due to the expense. If I was to take ten thousand film photographs, the development costs would be somewhere in the neighborhood of five thousand dollars - and that's not even taking the cost of the film itself into consideration.

Already, it seems to me that film is an intensely more personal medium than digital. It's easy to share digital pictures, easy to take them, easy to store them... but when I picked up that envelope filled with the prints off that fourth roll of film, I couldn't help but think that it was those photos that had the greater tincture of reality.

It's a problem on both sides, perhaps. For a long time, the expense of taking photographs restricted the camera to "special occasions," whatever they may be - I wish time and again that teenage Andrew had gone around Barrie with that old Minolta, taking pictures of interesting bits of the 1990s that I could look back on now - while the most prosaic things are captured time and again on digital. It's hard to overcome the attitudes I've built up in seven years of digital photography, hard to keep the Hanimex socked away until I encounter something worth photographing. That, in itself, is something I don't like having to think about; the idea that something is not worth photographic by dint of existing.

The advantage, though, is that if there's ever a sufficiently powerful electromagnetic pulse in these environs, those hard-copy photographs will work just as well the day after as they did the day before.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

PDP #308: A Millennium for Railway Day

Canada was built by the railway. So far as I know, there was no Canadian version of the Oregon Trail, no pioneer wagons creaking their way across the Prairies toward new lives and new opportunities; outside the Red River Valley in Manitoba, the Canadian West was not settled in earnest by anyone except the First Nations until the transcontinental railway was completed.

That was one hundred and twenty-five years ago today - on November 7, 1885, the Last Spike of the Canadian Pacific Railway was driven in Craigellachie, British Columbia, and those iron tracks bound us together from the Atlantic to the Pacific. It was by the transcontinental railway, though the northern CPR route, that I first went east from Vancouver in 1991. This year, the government of Canada has recognized November 7 as National Railway Day, commemorating the role that the railway has played and continues to play in Canada's growth and development. Does this mean that the Conservatives will invest in the national rail infrastructure? Maybe, maybe not; gestures like this are cheap. Still, it's good to see the government acknowledge it.

Railways have come a long way since the days of Craigellachie. Last week I captured a SkyTrain Millennium Line train maneuvering through the Expo Line junction with my Hanimex 35SE, and that fourth roll of film developed without a hitch. The SkyTrain may look smoother than those first trains that rumbled to the Pacific, but the principle's the same. Whether it's a country or a metropolis, I still feel that it's the railway that really binds us together.

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, November 6, 2010

The Folly of Dueling Disasters

Threats to our existence are everywhere. Sure, that's been the case for as we've existed, but unlike our ancestors we're unable to live in blissful ignorance. We know how hostile the universe is, no matter how much we try to put it out of our minds and go on with our lives. But those threats still lurk. We do what we can to address them, when we can - and some more exotic threats, like that of a gamma-ray burst, are so beyond our control that there's no point concerning ourselves with them.

We know that there are many, many swords hanging over the throne of Damocles. It's when people start arguing over which existential threat is more deserving of attention that things start to get on my nerves.

On Thursday the New York Times printed a letter entitled "Asteroids and Global Warming," a response to an earlier op-ed by Apollo 9 astronaut Russell Schweickart advocating the investment of more attention and resources into a planetary defense campaign. Defense against impact events, that is. Considering that they tend to punch hard, hard enough to bruise Jupiter, I've always known it's a worthwhile consideration. The dinosaurs probably would have as well, had they been aware of their situation.

An artist's impression of the Chicxulub asteroid impact, sixty-five million years ago

Not so our letter writer, Travis Madsen out of Santa Barbara. He seems to take umbrage at Schweickart's proposal while global warming threatens.

Anyone who's read this weblog for long enough will know that while I haven't been talking about the environment as much recently, I am not a climate change skeptic. Indeed, it's one of the big elephants in the room that will likely shape near-future culture to significant degrees, contributing to the whole "we have no idea what the future will look like" issue I kicked around a while back. I agree that we need to do what we can, while we can, to mitigate our effects on the climate - a combination of inertia, foot-dragging, and the crop of skeptics and deniers recently sewn in Washington all lead me to the conclusion that we're not going to get our act in gear until it's way too late - but the wonderful thing about a civilization is this: it can do more than one thing at the same time.

Choosing between planetary defense and climate change mitigation is not an either/or proposition - and neither is it beyond our reach, despite language that seems rather belitteling to me. We're not just "staring off into space," we're exploring vital ways to protect the planet. It won't matter if we've sworn off fossil fuels and made the whole world green if a six-kilometer bolide wants to say hello. We cannot pretend that Earth exists apart from the rest of the universe. There's nothing out there for us to hide behind.

What's more is that, to be honest, I'm damn glad that the existential threat we're dealing with is climate change. It's probably the most tolerable of the whole bunch, in that even now, we are capable of dealing with it, and for one very simple reason: it moves slowly. Sure, humanity is transforming Earth in an eyeblink of geological time, but our advantage is that we're able to adapt far faster than purely natural systems. Even as we change the environment, we can rearrange it. There's an opportunity there to salvage the situation, to pass through the eye of the needle and emerge stronger on the other side.

Not so for disasters like impact events. In all the history of Earth, the capacity to intervene in the celestial clockwork has existed for well less than half a century. Before that, all anyone could do would be to watch as the doom in the sky grew brighter, drew closer. Such disasters are immediately transformative: there's no mitigating an impact event once the crater's been dug.

Besides that, honestly, it's going to be easier to establish a true planetary defense network than it would be to kick the oil and pollution habit. Why? Well, because armageddons aren't good for the bottom line, and a program to keep asteroids from hitting Earth does not upset any huge corporation's applecart.

Mr. Madsen ends by suggesting that we take "meaningful action to reduce pollution now" and save the world. Sure, I'm all for that - but what action? Asteroid deflection would insulate Earth from one of the many dangers that confront it. We can't solve all our problems with a wave of the wand - but that's no reason we shouldn't investigate solutions when they come.