Friday, December 31, 2010

Photo: Pink to Blue

The best part of flying from Vancouver to Toronto was actually flying, rather than waiting six hours in Vancouver International Airport because the original plane was somehow damaged in transit over the Pacific. So it was the wing of an Airbus A330 that I saw whenever I looked out the window, and it's that wing that has the lights of the sky playing across it.

Good way to end the year? Maybe. I think so.

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Thursday, December 30, 2010

Freedom of the City

Like so many other things, it's that which you don't appreciate until after you've lost it. I was a Metropass holder for more than three years, and in that time I had the run of Toronto - I could go where I wanted, choosing my own route out of the ones available, with only a simple magnetic-striped card in my wallet. I didn't have to think ahead, really - I didn't have to plan intricate A to B to C jumps to make the most out of tokens or transfers.

Now, of course, that's gone. The day after I landed in Toronto, I thought it might be nice to ride the subway around the downtown U, from St. Patrick to Dundas - but then realized that it wasn't to be, not with no money in my pockets and TTC collectors most definitely unwilling to accept a TransLink 2-zone December monthly pass. I couldn't just descend into the system anymore at a whim, to let it take me where it may.

Even in Vancouver, it's similar. My 2-zone pass restricts my movements during the prime hours of the week; though Surrey is just across the river, close enough to see from my window, my freedom to travel there by transit isn't complete - I have to stop and plan ahead, if I'm ever presented a reason to go to Surrey or Coquitlam or the communities of Delta.

It's not something I ever really considered before - it was just my inability to pass through the TTC's gates with a swipe of my Metropass that really brought the realization down. It's heavy, in its way - something so familiar, yet unreachable.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Photo: Caboose Crossing

I didn't think that trains still made use of cabooses; I was under the impression that they'd been phased out in the last twenty years or so due to changing methods on the railway. I've finally got some evidence that I was wrong, though - from the downtown parkade in New Westminster, I took a shot of this very long freight train crossing Front Street with what's unmistakeably a caboose at the end.

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Tuesday, December 28, 2010

A Minor Mystery of History

History isn't something that's just written about in musty books in old libraries, or for that matter crisp books in new libraries. It's something that surrounds us every day, the building blocks of the present in every respect. Sometimes it's so close that we don't, or can't, recognize it for what it is. Sometimes there are even circumstances in which the Web is unable to shed more than a guttering light onto the unknown, whatever it may be.

For more than ten years now, my grandfather's old toolbox has been sitting in the garage. To call it a toolbox isn't entirely appropriate, though - while that may be what he repurposed it as, that's not what it was made to be. It was originally a Second World War ammunition box, intended to hold cartons of 9mm ball ammunition. Aside from that, I've not been able to determine much of anything of its provenance. I know it's old, I know it's historic - but I'm totally unable, as of yet, to figure out anything more than the obvious.

Whoever made this had access to yellow paint! Amazing!

In a way, history as a whole has been characterized by that lack of knowledge since the days of Thucydides. That which is known is always outweighed by the unknown - no matter how many perspectives are recorded, there will always be those that were carried only in one person's head. It's a puzzle with half of the pieces missing, and so fertile ground for interpolation, speculation, and back-and-forth theorizing about what really happened. For me, this is one of the pleasures of alternate history - to take that speculation and realize it.

I don't know much of anything about that ammo box - but it's still a piece of that puzzle, nonetheless.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Photo: Hercules in Flight

Back in September 2009, the Blue Angels were in Toronto to demonstrate their flying prowess at the Canadian International Air Show. If you live in downtown Toronto, the airshow's an event even if you don't go to the Ex to see it first-hand; the pilots perform practice flights above the downtown core on the days leading up to the shore, and on the days of the show itself the echo of roaring jets seems to fill the whole sky. I didn't exactly have a front-row seat in my old Parkdale apartment, but it wasn't unusual to see an F-16 or F-22 wheeling about outside.

A few days before the show itself, I captured the Blue Angels' C-130T Hercules transport, "Fat Albert," over downtown Toronto. I think the angle works out pretty well.

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Sunday, December 26, 2010

The End of Otter Loop

When it comes to history, there's a lesson that should not be forgotten: What may be a historical artifact tomorrow is frequently just an unregarded piece of trash today. It's impossible for someone in the now to judge what futurefolk will find interesting or illuminating, but we can always give them a hand by keeping items of historical provenance in the living world and outside the aged photographs or garbage heaps for as long as possible.

Toronto, it seems, has consistently struggled against the prospect of learning that lesson. Vast swathes of its heritage architecture was destroyed during the middle of the decade, in what then was seen as "progress" but which I consider to be considerably less so - even Old City Hall was at one point in imminent danger of being demolished in favor of the Eaton Centre's towers of glass and steel. Today, as much as we might want to believe that things are otherwise, the situation hasn't changed.

Back in May 2009, I launched my HisT.O.ry series with a look at Otter Loop, a former TTC bus transfer loop in North York that stood out because it still retained its original station structure, believed to be one of the last - if not the last - in the city. For several years, the site of the loop's been tied up with the "Heart Park" initiative. I've been firmly of the opinion that the structure should have been integrated with the park, and failing that for it to be disassembled in the interest of a future transit museum.

The bus shelter at Otter Loop - May 3, 2009

But then, my opinion doesn't matter. As part of its conversion into green space, the Otter Loop shelter was recently demolished. I found out only today, when the bus went past and there was only flat ground. Councillor Karen Stintz, who seems to be one of the prime supporters of the park in City Hall, puts it down to the city's preservation panel failing to officially desginate the shelter as a heritage structure. Personally, I'd really like to know why that particular action wasn't taken.

Sure, it's easy to see this as irrelevant. It was just a bus shelter that only a handful of folk even knew about, let alone cared about. In my post on it, I wrote that it was "ordinary history" - and I think that's at the core of it. This was something mundane, something quotidian, that nonetheless speaks about the nature of the people that built it. In the end, it's never a good idea to just pave over the past in our headlong rush toward the future, or else we may not like what we find once we get there.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Photo: Snow World

I suppose they designed Science World as a geodesic dome because such domes are futuristic and, thus, science-y. I've only been inside this particular one once, back in 1991, and I don't remember it. Still, it looks nice from the outside - save, of course, the evidence of renovation - and the snow helps with that a bit. Gives it that appropriate veneer of Christmas that's otherwise so lacking for me out here.

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Friday, December 24, 2010

Snowflakes and Needles

"For it was the first snow of the season, and as any child can tell you, there's a certain magic to the very first snow. Especially when it falls on the day before Christmas."

Aside from the thorough but short-lived dumping back at the beginning of the month, New Westminster has yet to see more than a scrap of snowfall. To be honest, from what I understand that's entirely normal for the area - it's just not normal to me. Sure, there have been times when it's rained on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day back in Ontario - most of these days have been within the last ten or so years, but I'm sure that's just a coincidence - but that was always wrong. Coming as I do from a snowfallen land, the end of December practically demands the ground made white.

The only snowy aspect of the season left, so far as I can tell, is my tree. I've had it for a few years now, and chose it specifically because I could conveniently carry it on the Dufferin bus. I don't have many ornaments for it, though - but it's one of the few things around here that's truly familiar, and truly reminiscent of what I remember this time of year to have been.

So have a good time at yours, wherever or whatever it may be.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Photo: Warning, Unstable Area

North Dakota can be a strange place. While the eastern portion of the state is practically the absence of geography, just flat plains reaching out to forever, the lay of the land begins to shift the closer you approach Montana. If you're following Interstate 94 like I was, eventually you'll reach Theodore Roosevelt National Park, and the badlands that it protects. Seeing that landscape out there, eroded hills and valleys of a sort I'd never seen before, was the first geographic clue that I was finally in the wide-open West.

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Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Three Laws and the SkyTrain

There are signs all over the SkyTrain that urge riders to hold onto the handrails at all times. The other day four cars' worth of people were reminded why when the train screeched to a halt in what still seems like an impossibly short distance, sending standers staggering. Whether there was an obstruction on the tracks up ahead or the next train was just too close for comfort, I never found out. But it did get me thinking.

As I said in my Tunnel Visions review of the system, Vancouver's SkyTrain is run by robots - it's driverless and automated. It made me wonder, based on the information available to me... as an automated system, does the SkyTrain operate in concurrence with the Three Laws of Robotics?

At least we know it's Y2K compliant.

1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.

This one is the closest to being realized in reality. SkyTrain platforms are studded with safety warnings against walking on the track, the cars themselves are equipped with further safety notices as well as emergency call buttons, and the doors will not close if they detect someone in the way - something that happens particularly frequently at Commercial/Broadway or Metrotown. Hell, they won't even open if the train is not at precisely the right position on the platform; I once spent ten minutes on a train stopped short well within Metrotown station, but its doors didn't open until it was cleared to move the final ten feet or so forward.

Given the current shape of the system, I'm not sure that much more than this can be done; even the quick deceleration I mentioned earlier falls into this, since hitting something on the rails would be a net negative for everyone on the train. People standing are expected to be holding the rails, and if they're not, they've taken their safety into their own hands.

2. A robot must obey any orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.

From what I understand, the SkyTrain system is monitored by humans from a central control area - I'm not sure if they can be driven remotely, but unless the cars all come with artfully concealed video cameras, it probably wouldn't be the best idea. Furthermore, considering liability issues I doubt the system would accept an instruction to close the doors on an obstruction or blithely drive over something on the tracks.

Nevertheless, the SkyTrain also most likely does not have a self-preservation drive - I would be highly surprised if it did. So the Second Law does not really work here.

3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

Here we really get into the distinction between Asimovian robots and robots like the SkyTrain. Asimov's were mechanical men with the ability to manipulate and affect the world around them. The SkyTrain's effect on the world is limited to its capacity to take people where they need to go when they need to go there, and also whatever wind currents get kicked up by its passage. It's incapable of protecting itself, either - the state of the art is still woefully insufficent for the SkyTrain's digital avatar itself to make the case for the Evergreen Line.

So, conclusion: no. The SkyTrain is not fully Three Laws compliant. Fortunately, though, it's got no will or volition either - thus making its non-compliance far less threatening than if it was an urban rapid transit system that could think for itself.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Photo: Some Kind of Bell Tower?

During the years I spent at Trent University, one of my enduring questions centered around the bell tower at Champlain College; just what is the deal with that thing? I mean, they call it a bell tower, but to the best of my knowledge there's no bell in it. In function it's practically more of a gateway, as you must pass beneath it to get to the parking lot. I like it as an architectural piece purely on its own merits, sure; I just wonder if it has any purpose beyond the aesthetic.

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Monday, December 20, 2010

Mayoral Musings

I'll be the first to admit that, when it comes to politics, I don't have much experience - okay, any real experience. Even when I was editor-in-chief of a university newspaper, it was the President that called the organizational shots. Combined with my total lack of fundraising it should not have shocked anyone that my quixotic campaign for Mayor of Toronto earlier this year was not going to go anywhere, and if I hadn't pulled out of the campaign to move to New Westminster, I would have been just another one of those names at the bottom of a list with a couple of hundred votes in favor.

Nevertheless. I'm going to go out on a (rather arrogant) limb and state my belief that, if the past two weeks end up being representative of the tenor of the next four years, I suspect that I may have made a better mayor than Rob Ford.

Arrogant in the extreme, I know. But really - take a look at Ford's actions so far. He's called for a halt to Transit City... because he personally doesn't like it. He believes that he can reduce taxes without decreasing services... because taxes are bad, full stop. He's packed his government with suburbanites to as great a degree as he can... because he won, even though David Miller did not similarly stack the deck in favor of downtown. When Don Cherry fulminated about the "kooks" and "pinkos" on their bicycles, Ford stood behind him. Ford, to me, displays a tendency of making up his mind and then sealing it up tight. I may not have any political experience, but neither do I have the experience of refusing to accept the possibility that valid ideas can come from people who do not agree with me.

It really comes down to an issue of character in the end, for me. Nonwithstanding his policy proposals, I don't believe that Rob Ford has the right character to be a good Mayor of Toronto. A good mayor would be willing to build bridges, to compromise, to work together with everyone in Council - because, first and foremost, politics is not a war to be won. I watched recently the troubles in the United States Senate, with the Republicans blocking each and every bill sent to them by the House of Representatives until President Obama caved on giving the super-rich another tax cut, with no small dread. Is that what we've got to look forward to here - politicians holding the system hostage until they get what they want?

I really hope that it doesn't happen that way in Ford's Toronto - but the question of Transit City still lingers, and if Rob Ford has to strangle Toronto's political system in order to yet again break the dreams of new, effective transit in Toronto, then given his actions so far I have no doubt that he will try.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Photo: Union Loop

It goes without saying that Toronto's Union Station is a busy transportation hub; GO Transit and VIA Rail trains depart from here to destinations as close by as Scarborough and as distant as Vancouver, not to mention the dozens of GO Transit buses that fan out across the Greater Toronto Area. The subway and streetcar systems meet up here, as well - from the subterranean Union Station Loop, you can catch a car up to Spadina or out to the Exhibition.

It was also one of the first places in the system that I was aware of to have a next vehicle screen installed - so at least when you were waiting around you could clearly see that there would be no cars for twelve more minutes, at which point three of them would show up bumper-to-bumper.

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, December 18, 2010

A Timeline of Various Things, Many Stupid

Building on my comments from Thursday - one of the biggest problems creators may face when constructing a timeline out of whole cloth, rather than letting it evolve naturally, is that will is not the only thing that determines how history unfolds. Sure, I'll grant that there are plenty of things that don't happen because people in positions of power don't want them to happen, but on the other side of the equation, things won't happen with no other motivation than people wanting them to.

Space exploration timelines, in particular, tend to get clobbered by this. While there are plenty of people who really want things to happen in space, that desire is not enough to overcome the massive expense of launch. Sure, things are changing, but not as quickly as many people probably would have liked. Take the last eight years - from 2002 to 2010, SpaceX went from being a new-minted startup backed by Elon Musk's internet money to the first private enterprise to launch its own spaceship. That's a great accomplishment in itself, but some timelines might have had SpaceX building O'Neill cylinder colonies by now - the optimistic mind doesn't have to worry about how the bills are paid. The big dreams of those who designed space colonies and cities in Luna were, in the end, ineffective rocket fuel.

Everything has a reason for happening, reasons that tend to reach well back into history. By contrast, it's easy for timeline writers to fall into the trap of acting as if there's no history to worry about - that the future is freestanding and self-supporting. But everything has a foundation.

For an example, I'll provide one of my old timelines, last modified on December 10, 2001. I have no idea where I was planning on taking it - I'd guess 2001!Andrew was planning on some kind of space-operatic setting - but I do know I was creating it in a vacuum, without any support. My suggestion: mocking of the timeline may be made easy and enjoyable by adding "For some reason." to the end of each entry.

Stern Seagull is not especially pleased by it.

2002 - George W. Bush assassinated, Dick Cheney ascends the Presidency. US warplanes begin bombing Somalia.
2003 - An attempt on the part of terrorists to release smallpox fails.
2006 - Chinese taikonauts orbit Earth.
2009 - Kim Chong-Il, longtime dictator of North Korea, is assassinated by revolutionaries along with most of his government. In the resultant chaos, Chinese forces sweep across the Yalu and install a puppet regime in Pyongyang.
2010 - Regional tensions inflame into the Final Indo-Pakistani War. The world is brought once again to the brink of nuclear annihilation as eighty-eight warheads scorch the Indian subcontinent with atomic fire and kill a billion people.
2011 - German is declared to be the official operant language of the European Union.
2013 - Quebec seperates from Canada.
2018 - European Space Agency establishes launch center at Nairobi.
2026 - After an eighteen-month journey, three internationally-crewed vessels arrive in orbit of Mars. Cosmonaut Alexei Voroshov is the first human to set foot on the Red Planet.
2028 - Alberta and British Columbia admitted to the Union as the fifty-first and fifty-second states.
2031 - Vietnam becomes a dependency of China.
2035 - Building off initial NASA research discarded from lack of funds, Chinese scientists build the Earth's first example of a functioning ion drive (quai fei).
2042 - In a demonstration of the sheer velocity provided by the quai fei drive, a Chinese vessel arrives at Mars after a journey of three months.
2047 - Development of practical nuclear fusion reactor.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Photo: 4119's Seen Better Days

Yesterday there was an accident at Dundas Street East and River Street in Toronto - a streetcar, CLRV 4119, apparently derailed and was struck by a Greyhound bus, getting its front end thoroughly smashed up but thankfully not causing any serious injuries among the passengers. Things like this don't happen very often - this is only the second streetcar derailment incident I can think of in the last four years, at least, and the last time it only caused traffic snarls.

Back when I was still living in Toronto, one of the goals I had in mind was to take photographs of every streetcar operated by the TTC - so last night I spent some time pawing through the thirty thousand digital photographs in my archive for shots of 4119 in non-smashed up times. As it happens, one has already appeared on this weblog - back in October, accompanying my Municipal Exceptionalism post.

As it turns out, I did have another photo of it. It was the last daylight photograph of a Toronto streetcar I've been able to take - I caught it on Dundas Street East in downtown, the day I left for Vancouver.

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Thursday, December 16, 2010

Keeping the Time in Line

With tensions in Korea higher than I can recall them being at any point in my lifetime, I thought it would be instructive today to talk about timelines - specifically, where it's so, so easy for them to go so, so wrong. These two things may not seem to be related at first blush, but they are; I was put on this kick when I saw the latest trailer for the upcoming game Homefront, based around a near-future conquest of the United States by North Korea.



The most withdrawn pariah state the world has ever known, a cult of personality masquerading as a country that's teetering on the brink of famine and social collapse, is going to conquer even a portion of the United States. And we'll all be dining in open-air cafés along the canals of Mars by 1965. Of course, even the creators of Homefront haven't taken sufficient leave of their senses to think this is possible now. Instead they produced a timeline detailing the years from 2011 to 2027, when the game is actually set - I reproduce it here from the game's Wikipedia page.

2011: North Korea's weapons program grows significantly, leading to sanctions by the UN
2012: Kim Jong-il dies. He is succeeded by his son Kim Jong-un
2013: Kim Jong-un reunites North Korea and South Korea under North Korean rule.
2015: Gas prices rise to $20 a gallon in the United States, destabilizing the country
2017: The US Dollar collapses and the US Military begins to downgrade its foreign presence
2018: Japan surrenders to the Greater Korean Republic, forming an 'alliance' (i.e. being capitalized into a vassal state of sorts)
2022: The United States' economic system collapses totally
2024: Koreans annex many nations in East Asia
2025: GKR attacks the US
2025: An EMP hidden in a communications satellite is used to completely disable US infrastructure
2025: GKR forces seize Hawaii
2025: Cyber attack takes down hardened sites
2025: Korean troops control San Francisco
2026: US military is scattered

When I was still a callow youth, I dabbled in flights of creative fancy that I thought, at the time, were perfectly rigorous - mostly because I hadn't yet considered asking myself "if this is so believable, why didn't it happen?" One such one that still sticks in my mind was a very, very bare-bones alternate history centered around Jean-Bédel Bokassa's Central African Empire. In reality, it lasted a little less than three years before it fell apart. In my Totally Legitimate Timeline, on the other hand, it somehow became a super-powerhouse, conquering much of northern Africa and the Middle East by 1990... somehow. Presumably I thought it would work in a similar fashion as Command & Conquer.

Timelines aren't a necessary component in any setting; indeed, some work even better by providing no timeline at all, just hints and implications that come up as the story's told, building the history of the world as it's experienced. Where problems can arise, though, is when you're writing a timeline to arrive at a specific goal - and that's where I think the Homefront timeline falls desperately, dreadfully short.

I mean, it's full of stuff that happens just for the sake of happening, things that go completely against the way of the world as it's currently organized. Take its 2013 reunification of the two Koreas, under the North. This could have been a possibility for speculation back in the 1960s and 1970s, when North Korea's economy was actually outperforming the South's, but in a history that diverges from our own in what's effectively the present day, it's about as believable as the United Kingdom joining the Soviet Union in 1985.

After that, politically, things really seem to go off the rails. Japan becomes a vassal state of the united North Korea... for some reason. Korea annexes "many nations in East Asia" - somehow. While the use of an orbital electromagnetic pulse to shred the North American infrastructure is actually a good concept, but military hardware is specifically shielded against EMP. Not to mention that an EMP would be treated as a weapon of mass destruction and answered in kind. Not to mention that China would not be particularly pleased at seeing Korea all up ins its sphere of influence. Not to mention the massive investment that would be necessary for Korea to secure trans-Pacific transport capability for its armies. And so on and so on...

The timeline of a setting is the foundation of that setting. If it's based on ridiculous premises, it's not going to unfold in any direction except a ridiculous one.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Photo: It's Seen Better Days

You may or may not recall that back in 2000, hundreds of moose sculptures appeared in what seemed to be every corner of Toronto as part of the Moose in the City program. I honestly can't remember what the motivation was. Most of them are gone now, having been auctioned off and scattered around the world, but a few still remain... not necessarily in fine shape, though. This past summer I found one of the remaining moose outside the Wheat Sheaf at King West and Bathurst, and it was clear that this was one moose that time had not been kind to.

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, December 14, 2010

Some Sense of Direction

From the time I first landed in Metro Vancouver, but especially since I started actually living here, there's been a consistent nit with the transit system that's consistently annoyed me: the way bus destination rollsigns are dealt with here. I've become accustomed after long use to the system that prevails in Toronto, where streetcar and bus rollsigns all incorporate three key pieces of information - the route number, the route name, and the current destination.

I'm beginning to realize this practice is far, far less common than I'd originally believed - thinking about it now, the only other city I can recall doing it in this manner is Madison, Wisconsin. It's not just Vancouver, but places as far afield as Los Angeles, Spokane, Chicago, and Barrie don't include any route details; in Billings and, to a limited degree, Peterborough, they don't even include a route number.

I've never understood why - it's a simple way to make pathfinding easier, particularly for people who don't ordinarily take the bus. Say you're in downtown Vancouver and you want to get to Granville Island... except your phone's out of power and you don't have a map. If you asked enough people, you might find out that you'd need to take 50 FALSE CREEK S... or, the perfectly reprogrammable digital rollsigns employed by TransLink's bus fleet could be modified to add "TO GRANVILLE ISLAND" on southbound runs.

It should be easy to get around on a transit system. It's not a puzzle to be solved, and the more difficult a thing is to use, the less willing people will be to hang up their car keys for it.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Photo: Scimitar of Clouds

You may have noticed that this post is going up rather late in the day - hell, it's almost tomorrow in the Eastern time zone already. This is because I was not feeling too hot for most of the day. Still -

I got to saw a lot during the transcontinental journey from Toronto to Vancouver - some of them things that have been there for decades, centuries, or millennia, and others utterly evanescent. Montana clouds fall well into this category. I caught this particular cloud arrangement from the Interstate east of Billings, edging on close to sunset.

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, December 12, 2010

I Present the Data, Nothing More

The recruitment of Sarah Palin as the Republican vice-presidential nominee back in 2008 took plenty of people by surprise. Before August 29, when John McCain announced her as his pick, she was pretty much unknown about Alaska - the only reason I was aware of her was from coming across a few articles around the Alaska Public Safety Commissioner dismissal issue.

There are few things that will make your name widely known faster than being tapped to be a major figure in a major leadership campaign. I can illustrate this, to a degree, with Google search results. Specifically, the number of hits that came up from a Google search of "Sarah Palin" + MILF. Why this specific term? I can't remember anymore - most likely I saw someone make a reference to it in some forum and thought it would be funny to track its progress across the net. It has the advantage of not necessarily including traditional media sources - unless, of course, you count the comment threads - because I doubt any serious newspaper would refer to a candidate like that in its own pages.

I conducted my first search with those terms at 11:29 AM Eastern Standard Time on August 29, 2008, so within a matter of hours of the announcement itself. That search gathered 3,190 hits - it's up in the air as to how many were done by Alaskans. By 12:19 AM on August 31 it stood at 4,580, down from 5,040 twelve hours before; but Google must have done a fresh round of webcrawling that day, because by 10:54 PM on the 31st, there were 13,400 hits for that phrase.

Things picked up steadily after that. By the morning of September 30, Google came up with 167,000 hits. Ultimately, on the morning of November 4 there were 752,000 hits for the phrase, and that's when I stopped tracking - but people didn't stop spreading it. As of this writing, Google pulls up nearly 1.9 million hits. By comparison, "The Hawley-Smoot Tariff" only gets 89,300 hits... but it would make a good name for a band.

Google Stats for "Sarah Palin" + MILF

August 29, 2008 (1129 ET) - 3,190
August 30, 2008 (0117 ET) - 4,640
August 30, 2008 (1218 ET) - 5,040
August 31, 2008 (0019 ET) - 4,580
August 31, 2008 (2254 ET) - 13,400
September 1, 2008 (1249 ET) - 13,500
September 2, 2008 (0849 ET) - 13,700
September 3, 2008 (0829 ET) - 20,800
September 4, 2008 (0812 ET) - 21,000
September 5, 2008 (1057 ET) - 33,600
September 6, 2008 (0839 ET) - 33,500
September 7, 2008 (0924 ET) - 33,200
September 8, 2008 (2155 ET) - 52,100
September 9, 2008 (0832 ET) - 52,300
September 10, 2008 (1237 ET) - 52,100
September 13, 2008 (0723 ET) - 63,400
September 14, 2008 (0926 ET) - 81,500
September 15, 2008 (1231 ET) - 82,100
September 16, 2008 (1153 ET) - 90,500
September 17, 2008 (2128 ET) - 93,300
September 18, 2008 (0831 ET) - 93,300
September 19, 2008 (1033 ET) - 93,800
September 22, 2008 (1201 ET) - 91,000
September 23, 2008 (2124 ET) - 91,300
September 24, 2008 (1224 ET) - 92,000
September 25, 2008 (1051 ET) - 169,000
September 26, 2008 (0856 ET) - 175,000
September 27, 2008 (0900 ET) - 175,000
September 28, 2008 (0930 ET) - 179,000
September 30, 2008 (0954 ET) - 167,000
October 2, 2008 (0824 ET) - 167,000
October 3, 2008 (1829 ET) - 186,000
October 5, 2008 (0758 ET) - 186,000
October 6, 2008 (1504 ET) - 194,000
October 7, 2008 (0953 ET) - 194,000
October 8, 2008 (1323 ET) - 207,000
October 9, 2008 (1002 ET) - 206,000
October 10, 2008 (1131 ET) - 214,000
October 11, 2008 (1617 ET) - 207,000
October 13, 2008 (1843 ET) - 206,000
October 14, 2008 (1253 ET) - 207,000
October 16, 2008 (1331 ET) - 208,000
October 17, 2008 (1111 ET) - 214,000
November 4, 2008 (0939 ET) - 752,000

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Photo: Between Two Shores

I've mentioned before that the Columbia River is one of the mightiest rivers I've ever seen first-hand; it was going across it that really cemented that idea. The Vantage Bridge carries Interstate 90 over the river, and I took this shot looking east while crossing the span.

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A Mote of Alternate History to Consider

An idea: the nations of the world in Ralph Centennius' The Dominion in 1983 are completely devoid of nuclear technologies not because radioactivity wasn't discovered until thirteen years after it was written, but because the aliens of Mars and Jupiter - because in the late nineteenth century, you were practically crazy if you didn't believe there was life on Mars - are maintaining nuclear dampers in Earth orbit.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Photo: Snow Pigeons

I'm finding now that I'm beginning to miss the familiarity of Ontario - in particular the Ontario winter, as I'm given to understand the snow has been coming down very stridently and deeply in many parts. The uncharacteristic snowfall here in the Lower Mainland a couple of weeks ago helped a bit with that, but the fact that my winter will in fact be characterized by endless rain is something I've still got to get used to.

So here's a picture from the day of the big snowfall, of a bunch of pigeons hanging out on Westminster Quay at River Market.

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, December 8, 2010

Tell the Stars Goodbye

If all you ever do is stare at your feet, while you may not trip over anything you're liable to smash right into something fast or sharp or heavy that you never saw until it was right on top of you. The problem is that for a lot of people, it seems like they're comforted by knowing exactly where their feet are, and damn what's ahead. This is true of governments and organizations as well as individuals - attempts to honestly practice foresight tend to fall by the wayside because, hey, screw the future, right?

Sometimes, though, you'll come across a spectacularly bad example of a failure in forecasting - something that makes you wonder if the people in charge of it waited until they were on the way to the office before deciding what they would wear that day. An example such as, say, Project West Ford.

I'd never heard about this before I discovered the reference on Wikipedia - whether or not it's because the people involved have a vested interest in not talking about such a boneheaded project, I can't say. West Ford was a product of the early 1960s drive to start taking advantage of the opportunities presented by space: communications in particular. At the time, the free world relied on undersea cables for intercontinental communications, but these could theoretically have been cut by the Soviets. A more secure method was needed.

Obviously, the most straightforward solution was to create an artificial ionosphere capable of repeating radio transmissions by launching four hundred and eighty million miniature copper dipole antennas into orbit. This was done in May 1963, and the initial ring would have been supplemented by two more if it proved successful - incidentally also cluttering up orbit with more than a billion potential bullets.

Project West Ford didn't work out, something for which we should all be grateful; low Earth orbit is nealy choked with debris as it is. The legacy of Project West Ford is one of big ideas over good sense; of engineers staring at their shoes and insisting they're on the right path. I mean, sure. If there wasn't any alternative for space-based communications on the horizon, it's understandable that West Ford could have been considered "clunky but necessary." The idea of the Kessler syndrome doesn't seem to have occured to anyone at the time, either.

Nevertheless - take a look also at the Telstar project, a pioneering advance in communications satellite technology. Though prototypes, the Telstar 1 and Telstar 2 satellites successfully transmitted pictures, phone calls, and television feeds intercontinentally. Oh, and Telstar 1 was launched nearly a year before Project West Ford's successful needle-spraying; and for that matter, Telstar 2 was launched the same month. It's not as if comsats represented a bolt-from-the-blue technology; Arthur C. Clarke had written about the possibilities of comsats stationed in geosynchronous orbit in 1945, and if anyone was familiar with that, engineers working on a space-based communication systems should have been.

It's not as if it's over, either. Project West Ford, that is. Though some of the needles have been reentering since the 1970s, many of them are still up there in orbit - each one a potential bullet moving at eight kilometers per second. The legacy of a project that never should have been started, that would have jeopardized orbital flight far beyond the advantages it provided had it fulfilled the original plans.

Sometimes the best thing to do is to look up.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Photo: Fallen Woodlands

Just past McBride Boulevard at Royal in western Sapperton, you'll find the Victoria Hill development - seeming almost like a "neighborhood in a box," with townhomes and condo towers dotting the hill that slopes down to the Fraser. In the middle of it, you'll find a field enclosed in barbed wire, an expanse of hard dirt and meltponds and the standing skeleton of what was obviously a much greater building one day. I didn't know what it was at the time; the only writing on it now is graffiti left by those who defied the No Trespassing signs.

It was the Woodlands School, closed in 1996, but it first opened its doors in 1878 as the Provincial Lunatic Asylum - and apparently it had something of a reputation as being haunted, not to mention a great deal more prosaic horrors. Whatever may have been there, it was reduced to ashes in the summer of 2008 by what CTV British Columbia described as "the biggest fire in the history of New Westminster" - and considering that the Great Fire of New Westminster burnt down much of downtown back in 1898, it must have been damn big.

This is all that's left standing today.

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Monday, December 6, 2010

Counting Out Launch Costs

One of the big problems with space is that created by decades of television shows, films, and literature based on the idea of casual interstellar travel; these all have left spores in our cognitive ecology that say, more or less, that space is easy. I know that was the case for me personally, and it took a deal of reading and research to come to the understanding that, no, space is actually really hard. The supertech of Star Trek and its like conceals a lot of the very real problems involved with spaceflight, and together they create a large barrier to passing beyond the atmosphere.

The single biggest, I think, is the issue of launch costs. Many people probably don't appreciate just how blasted expensive it is to put stuff into orbit; thousands of dollars per pound. There are a bunch of reasons for this - Earth's escape velocity is high, and rocket prices aren't exactly being driven down by economies of scale - but any space program needs to deal with it honestly.

Science fiction writers don't always deal with it the same way. Sometimes there are good reasons why - the Mass Effect series, for example, postulates an element which can reduce an object's mass, thus making launches from planets to space trivially easy. Other times... not so much. I got to thinking about this while reading a timeline of Jerry Pournelle's Future History.

Disclosure: the only thing I've read that fits into this is The Mote in God's Eye. So some of my concerns may have been addressed elsewhere; otherwise, it may just be an issue of an insufficiently-detailed timeline. But nevertheless... this is a timeline that was originally put together in the early 1970s and slightly revised to account for the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union. In it, the faster-than-light Alderson Drive is developed by 2008; by 2010, there is an active effort to suppress research into technologies with potential military applications. By 2020 people are flocking to extrasolar colonies, and by the late 2060s some of these new colonies are starting to build their own space fleets.

Yes - after only forty years, entirely new societies taking shape on virgin worlds somehow have enough technological and industrial capital to start building space fleets. Now, if the timeline doesn't cover a few key technological breakthroughs, my complaints do go away like smoke in the wind. But as I read it, taking into account the ban on research instituted in the early 21st century, I couldn't help but see this vast interstellar civilization being built on the backs of Space Shuttle descendants.

Ultimately, I know that's probably not the case. Based on what else I've read of Pournelle's writings, one of the assumptions was probably that we'd have fusion power and starship fusion drives by 2000. In this case I'm willing to put it down to an insufficiently detailed timeline that raised my hackles. Still - that doesn't mean that other creators all act this way. It's easy to miss the foundational problem of launch costs because, hell, space launches happen already! They're ordinary... but not sufficiently ordinary. They happen just enough to give the false impression that they're easy.

Until launch to orbit really is cheap and easy, I don't think all that much will happen in space that wouldn't have happened anyway.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Photo: Dusky Twilight Mountains

Usually when I get outside it's either still light or pitch dark; it's not too often that I'm about and out during the blue hour. The other day, I took an opportunity to wander around downtown Vancouver a bit around 4:30 or so, and took advantage of the remaining light and the clarity of the sky. Between the snowcapped North Shore Mountains and the fog over North Vancouver, I think it works pretty well.

I just don't know if it was taken at twilight or dusk.

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, December 4, 2010

To Go Through All the Unfamiliar Places

When I go out on urban wandering expeditions, there are always two things I make sure to carry with me: a Metro Vancouver mapbook in my backpack, and a fold-up TransLink Metro Vancouver transit map in my pocket. I still lack the instinctive familiarity of the street layout in this area, and while "head toward that bridge way over there" can work on a macro level, it's also an extremely easy way to get lost while you think you're heading in the right direction.

These days, it feels like I'm one of an increasingly small group of old-style navigators. With mobile phones ubiquitous among everyone except me, and with the integration of web-browsing and specifically Google Maps functionality into modern phones, there's increasingly less necessity for people to carry physical maps around with them.

Or, at least, it seems to me that there's the increasingly common perception that that's the case. As that perception becomes cemented in society to an ever-greater extent, we unwittingly provide ever-greater opportunities for us to get into trouble. I started thinking this through after watching a video by Tom Scott, an Ignite London presentation about how flash mobs can stumble into horrific things. It's embedded below - I seriously recommend that you watch it. Sure, it's a story, but one with real teeth - ten or fifteen years ago, it would've been firmly science fiction.

In Tom Scott's tale, the sudden arrival of hundreds of mobile-using flash mobbers crashed the local network, and its transformation into a flash riot may have been precipitated - at least in part - by all of these people who had got there by following directions on their phones, and in the absence of those internet-based geographic tools had no idea where they were in relation to what they were familiar with, and no idea how to get out. That's a frightening situation, that. Ignorance feeds fear, and when fear gets high enough, rationality goes out the window.

Nevertheless, navigation by mobile phone is not the problem. In fact, for many people it's a godsend; some people aren't able to hold a coherent map in their heads, and in cases like that phone-maps fall into the niche of "external brains" that's been batted around in science fiction for decades. No, the problem is choosing to get around with phone-based navigation in an unfamiliar area and not having a backup plan.

For me, it's relatively simple - I find the nearest transit stop and board the first bus that presents itself. While not all bus routes in Metro Vancouver link up with the SkyTrain, the network's extensive enough that even without a guidemap I'd be able to blunder my way to familiar territory eventually. The biggest issue I have with mobile phones is my perception that they've begun to influence thinking at a cultural level, that they may help lead to a seat-of-the-pants culture where things are dealt with only as they arise.

I may be wrong. I hope to be wrong. Nevertheless, whenever I go out I'll always make sure I have that map in my backpack.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Photo: Steam Clock in Snow

When the snow started falling in earnest over Vancouver last week, Gastown was one of the places I checked in at. It was the first time I'd been there since my original visit back in June, and the snow made a truly stark distinction. Here, it looks like I wasn't the only one who had the bright idea to take a picture of the steam clock while the snowflakes were coming down.

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, December 2, 2010

Crayons in Winter

You don't need much to be a successful political candidate: in the final analysis, it all boils down to lots of money and charisma. It's not like you need to have good ideas, or even know how things work. Sometimes you don't even need charisma, and if you want to be an unsuccessful political candidate, you don't need the money either. Take it from someone who knows first-hand!

And you need even less to be an Internet political commentator. Again, take it from someone who knows. This tends to be most obvious in newspaper comment threads, and with hizzoner Rob Ford locked into the levers of power back in Toronto, there are plenty of reasons for commenters to display ignorance that make the most assheaded politicians look like Renaissance men.

Right now, the big deal is hizzoner's right-out-the-gate statement that Transit City, Toronto's ambitious light rail construction program, is dead and the idea of a subway to Scarborough should be the TTC's prime concern. Refreshingly, this is not being accepted everywhere; even the Toronto Sun recognizes that it's a stupid idea. Many of the commenters - less so. Take this comment that I pulled from the Toronto Star yesterday.

Sure, I admit that the current surface transit routes can be rather erratic; that's exactly why I switched my commute from the Queen streetcar to the King streetcar, back in that other life where my postal code didn't have a V in it. I admit that it is unpleasant to wait in inclement weather for a transit vehicle; I've done it many a time, though I'd counter that it's far more unpleasant to have to drive in inclement weather. But this - "subways really are the only choice for a city with our climate"?

This actually ties in to what I wrote the other day about population density. In the same way that it seems reasonable that you could get sixty thousand people living on Annacis Island, it seems reasonable to state that cities with harsh winters naturally favor subways over surface-running systems. All I gotta say is... have you ever been OUTSIDE of Toronto? Say, to Calgary, where if you may recall it was snowing and -35 degrees Celsius a couple of weeks ago, and incidentally the home of a light rail transit system that runs on the surface for eighty-seven percent of its length?

Politicians have been criticized for making transit plans that amount to crayons on a map. Criticisms like that don't stand up to even that quality.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Photo: Streetcar's Turning

I still sometimes have difficulty believing it's real, but I've got to accept it - hizzoner Rob Ford is officially Mayor of Toronto. Predictably enough for a conservative, his first real action has been to deny the freedom of choice to the people he represents by declaring that "Transit City's over." Because, really, only idiots use any form of public transit other than subways, and only total dumbasses spend billions of dollars to build 120 kilometers of light rail lines when they could instead spend those billions to build a few kilometers of subway.

So, in recognition that hizzoner is now at the levers of power, I present a photo of perhaps his greatest nemesis: a streetcar turning left.

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.