Monday, April 30, 2012

The Business of the Five Rings

There's no denying it - the Olympics are big business. Every two years, billions of dollars change hands over that international spectacle of sport, from logos that resemble Lisa Simpson giving head to sponsorship agreements that cover entire cities; just ignore the fact that much of the money comes from the tax coffers of already strained governments, governments that hardly seem to hesitate at the prospect of building mountains of money when day-to-day services go unfunded. Don't think about that - look over there! Haven't you heard that the world is going to be watching?

I can remember, back in 2000, my irritation at the fact that Beijing won the 2008 Summer Olympic Games over Toronto, because dammit, I wanted the world to be watching - that, and perhaps it would have motivated the city government to start work on a desperately-needed transit expansion that is even more desperately needed twelve years later. Nevertheless, in retrospect I'm pretty sure that the IOC did T.O. a favor - even though people can get pretty worked up about the supposed "prestige" of their city hosting the Olympics. Here, let me repost this video I shot in Daley Plaza in 2009 when Chicago was defeated in its bid to host the 2016 Summer Olympics.

For the past little while news of London's preparations for the 2012 Games have been filtering onto the internet, news like dedicated VIP lanes for Olympic officials or the widening of London's panopticon with face- and plate-recognizing CCTVs or a 5,000-volt electric fence separating the Olympic zone from the rest of London. It's practically an extended commercial for the high-tech security industry. For me, though, it was the news of the SAMs that did it. That's surface-to-air missiles, for the shooting-down of enemy - in this case, read "terrorist" - aircraft, and in order to ensure the security of the Games, surface-to-air missile batteries are being installed on top of apartment complexes surrounding the Olympics site.

Protecting the Olympics is, of course, not a new thing. I'm told the Canadian Forces had units around Vancouver in case someone tried to attack the Games back in 2010, and in London the centerpiece of the defensive efforts is going to take the form of an aircraft carrier positioned in the River Thames. It's just that for me at least, the whole "install missile batteries on top of residential buildings" factor pushed it into farce for me. Well, maybe not farce. It forces me to the conclusion, though, that there's something dreadfully wrong with how we conduct the Olympics today.

It's not about the sports anymore, if indeed it ever was. The Olympics are all about advertising. Sponsors advertising their products for the people in the stands and the ones watching at home. Security companies advertising their solutions to keeping vast public events safe. Cities advertising that they are safe. The sports are just window dressing, the stuff that gets the people in the door so that the money can change hands.

Can we break this cycle? Right now, it seems, there are a great deal of people who have a vested interest in the Olympics, and no shortage of cities falling over each other to beggar themselves by hosting a Games. What sort of solutions are there? A specially-designated Olympic Island, say, to which the games return time after time? A circuit of predetermined cities across the continents that pass off Games from one to the other? I don't know. It is, after all, big business - and big business doesn't change until it has to.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Photo: The Concrete Beach

When I was a student at Trent University's Champlain College, trying my level best to ignore all that "work" that my professors kept thoughtlessly assigning me, when you wanted to go outside and kick off there was one good place to start. We called it the Concrete Beach, a short series of concrete steps set between the edge of the grassy quad and the Otonabee River. Especially in the early evenings, it was a good place to sit, think, and while away the time - that, and if some idiot jumped off the footbridge as part of some undergraduate stunt, you'd have a front-row seat.

I was last back there in 2010 and captured this photo before I left. It's very stark, though. Very '60s. The architecture, I mean. Not the photo. No digital cameras in the world of Mad Men.

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Saturday, April 28, 2012

History in Harper's House

There are two important reasons, I feel, to have at least a basic familiarity with history. The first is the ability to avoid pitfalls by recognizing past mistakes and learning from them; the second, which doesn't come up quite so often but remains important, is being able to recognize when other people are trying to reinforce a bad argument with some claimed historical precedence. Whether it was through political calculation or sheer ignorance, the other day a reminder of the importance of that second reason was brought to the floor of the House of Commons, and from there to the country as a whole. As someone who actually holds a degree in history, it's something I care a bit about.

It started as an ordinary back and forth about Afghanistan, with NDP beard-in-chief Thomas Mulcair pressing the government about whether it had any intention to keep Canadian military forces in Afghanistan beyond 2014, the current projected end of the mission there - thirteen years after the initial invasion, and I thought the Soviets were in there for a long time! In response, Prime Minister Stephen Harper gave a calm, collected answer, justifying the faith Canadians have put in him and his majority govsnerk -- sorry, I couldn't keep that up. Here's what he actually answered Mulcair with.

"The leader of the NDP, in 1939," Harper said, "did not even want to support war against Hitler."

There's only one small problem with that, if you consider summoning Hitler's ghost for political points to not be a "problem" - the NDP, in 1939, did not exist. What did exist was the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, which would eventually disband and unify with the Canadian Labour Congress to form the New Democratic Party, sure - but in 1961.

You may have heard about this via the deluge of #HarperHistory tweets that followed after news of this made its way out to the world. "The NDP refused to come to the aid of men when Mordor invaded Gondor... The NDP didn't support the creation of the Magna Carta... The NDP cut down the last tree on Easter Island." The #HarperHistory hashtag continues to trend in Vancouver twenty-four hours after I first encountered it, though it seems to have fallen off the radar in the rest of the country in favor of Justin Bieber getting his twenty-one-millionth follower - because news, yanno? It's not the first time the Conservatives' antics have launched a satiric hashtag to mock them - shades of #TellVicEverything from a couple months back - and there are certainly going to be more before the Cons are turfed from power, because it's essentially the only opportunity the people have to make their voices heard under a majority government.

The NDP wants to correct the grammar on this war memorial plaque. I mean, who uses "liveth" anymore? #HarperHistory

I'd hoped I wouldn't have to live under a government that summoned the ghost of Adolf Hitler for cheap political points. What is Harper trying to say here? That if Canada doesn't stay the course, a charismatic dictator will rise to power in Afghanistan and attempt to build the Fourth Reich through conquest and bloodshed? The fact of the matter is that J. S. Woodworth, the CCF leader in question, was a committed pacifist and thus essentially alone in the House of Commons in his opposition to Canada's entry into the Second World War.

The biggest problem here is that this criticism of the NDP through the actions of its predecessors is being done through a modern lens. The subconscious thought process is probably something like, "Hitler was an evil man. Hitler wanted to conquer the world and killed millions of Jews and was the greatest monster in history. What sort of person would not want to stand fast against him?" If the NDP had been retroactively criticizing Canada's participation in the Second World War, this line of attack may have had some foundation. But it wasn't.

To use present-day knowledge in our assessment of history is, essentially, cheating. If you wanted to be honest about Woodworth's motives, put yourself in his place in early September, 1939. It's twenty-one years after the end of one of the most devastating wars in history, a war that saw 67,000 Canadians die and another 150,000 wounded, a war that churned up countries and beggared nations and killed millions over muddy patches of a European quagmire. In 1939, Hitler's Final Solution had not even been agreed upon by the Nazi hierarchy - where the camps existed they were for the imprisonment of the Jewish population, not their annihilation - and while there were severely anti-Semitic laws in Germany, Canada was not particularly fond of Jewish people either; witness the voyage of the MS St. Louis and its nine hundred and seventy-three Jewish refugees, which Canada refused to allow sail into Halifax, or the sort of cultural antisemitism that gave rise to people like Adrien Arcand and reinforced restrictions on Jewish immigration.

In 1939, to Canadian eyes - particularly a pacifist Canadian's eyes - what was Hitler? Just another manifestation of German militarism and expansionism, a latter-day Kaiser Wilhelm II or Otto von Bismarck, who would no doubt grind Europe back into the dirt it had spent two decades getting out of. Until Hitler's attack on Poland, when the last line had been crossed and alliances brought the United Kingdom and France into the war, Canada had no dog in the fight. At the time it was an ordinary war; it wasn't until the 1940s that evidence of what the genocide being engineered by the Nazis filtered back to the Allies.

This trap is an easy one to fall into, that of criticizing historical figures for actions they took based on information they did not have, but dammit I expect better of our government than this. It's the fact that this majority government evidences its lack of understanding or respect for history, or for that matter Godwin's Law, that particularly irritates me.

Look on the bright side, though - back in 1917, it was the Conservative government of Robert Borden that brought in the income tax as a "temporary measure" to pay for the war. If the NDP can be attacked for the actions of its forebears, the Conservatives can certainly be attacked for their own.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Photo: The Frances Street Remnants

Vancouver in the early twentieth century was, like many North American cities, a streetcar town. Also like many other North American cities, after the war Vancouver removed the streetcar infrastructure it did not repurpose for the trolleybus routes, and today there's not much evidence streetcars ever rumbled there - but there still is some.

Frances Street is an ordinary residential street in East Van, unremarkable save for the cobblestones that run through its median west of Commercial Drive. Seventy years ago, Frances Street was part of a British Columbia Electric Railway line that took streetcars into downtown - now, of course, there are no streetcars here anymore. In two years, this is the only remaining piece of the original Vancouver streetcar system that I've encountered. Just cobblestones.

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Thursday, April 26, 2012

Short SF Review #23: Ministry of Space

"Ministry of Space," by Warren Ellis (writer), Chris Weston (artist), Laura Martin (colorist), and Michael Heisler (letterer)
Originally published as Ministry of Space #1-#3, April 2001 to April 2004

"I must have had one too many brandies at lunch. Because, you know, I could have sworn you said missiles and space rockets to my bloody face as if I were stupid."

It was the Second World War that brought the world to the edge of space, and it was London where the first seeds of a human future in space fell - granted, though, they were not seeds so much as V-2s. Those checkered rockets from Peenemunde killed thousands in London and Antwerp, but they were also the first things made by human hands to go beyond the sky and touch what waited beyond. The V-2 designs and the rocket research team, headed up by Wernher von Braun, were spirited away to the United States and played a key role in getting the American space program off the ground.

But did it have to happen that way? One alternative that could result in a rather different Cold War might have the Soviet Union take the lion's share of men and materiel from the German rocket program, leaving the United States to catch up with whatever it could scrape together. One could find interesting stories in there stemming from the desperation of the nascent American space program, searching for an edge to let them beat the Reds at their own game... but in the end, it'd likely end up being like real history, only more so.

In Ministry of Space, Warren Ellis rejected that possibility. Instead, he weaved together a world where the spoils of German rocket science went not to the United States, not to the Soviet Union, but to the United Kingdom - a world where a Britain battered by six years of war looked upward to reinvigorate itself and its empire - not just a world where the UK participated independently in the Space Race, but a world where the UK independently conquered space. Since we're now living in a world where there is at least one company actively planning to mine asteroids, I figure it's appropriate and instructive to look at a world of might have beens.

Ministry of Space follows the rise of the titular British space agency, from its formation at the end of the war thanks to an unorthodox black budget, through its first satellite launch in 1948 to the first man in space in 1950, flying a spaceplane that seems to take no small inspiration from the Gloster Meteor, from the assembly of a space station and a direct ascent lunar landing in 1960 to a fleet of dozens of ships claiming Mars for Queen and country in 1969. The primary conflict is found in the "present day," 2001, when protagonist and Ministry founder Sir John Dashwood is finally confronted with the truth of what he did in order to give space to the British.

In his afterword, Warren Ellis is clear about where Ministry of Space came from - it was an attempt to figure out how a world like the one inhabited by Dan Dare, Pilot of the Future could come about, a world where the big dreams of 1950s science fiction and rocket scientists like von Braun weren't dashed by the pursuit of more and bigger ICBMs, but were planted in rich soil and allowed to bloom, a world of riveted space stations and helibackpacks and a shiny jetpack England at the turn of the twenty-first century.

Ministry of Space seems to inhabit a kind of wishful-thinking neverneverland in that respect, a world where nothing blocks Britain's path to the stars, where the Cold War is just something that happened to other people. It's a strange world to get one's head around, but it does dovetail well with the sense of postwar wistfulness that Ministry of Space was meant to channel - that after the destruction of the First World War, the deprivation of the Great Depression, and the destruction of the Second World War, the world in general and the United Kingdom in particular had earned the right to look up, to go beyond. Outside of the prelude, I don't think the Soviet Union is even mentioned anywhere in the story.

For all of that, Ministry of Space is also a work of social commentary - and while there are hints scattered throughout, it doesn't become evident until the very last panel. It's an important question that many people would have considered; if the United Kingdom had managed to replace its fading colonial empire with an empire of the solar system, what would it not have had to address? If you make yourself busy and stay busy, it's easy to avoid looking in the mirror. Sure, thanks to the Ministry of Space 2001 England has "her free electricity and cheap food and her glorious, unchanging aspect," with ships at Saturn and biodomes on Mars, but the big question remains - "was it all worth it?"

At its core, despite the label on the spine Ministry of Space is a science fantasy. The UK was clobbered by the war, and even after it ended rationing remained in place to such an extent that there were restrictions on how much furniture one could buy. I have difficulty seeing the British people cheering on a Ministry of Space when every spaceplane launch meant bombed-out houses that weren't being rebuilt or empty store shelves that weren't being restocked - perhaps that's just my cynical 21st-century character showing through.

Ellis openly admits its fantastic flavor, but it's a peculiar kind of science fantasy at that - one that reaches into the barely vanished past for its resonance, and which builds upon those haunting whispers of what if and if only. It's not supposed to be plausible, but not in the sense that space magic and superpowers are supposed to be plausible. I feel that its nature as a comic series works in its favor and lets us ignore this - after all, we're already used to suspending disbelief with the comic form to the extent of accepting flying bulletproof people in tights. Compared to most of the stories you'd find on the racks today, a 1969 British expedition fleet to Mars straight out of von Braun is the very picture of rigor and plausibility.

My only real complaint is that it could have done with being longer - Ministry of Space offers a rich world full of possibilities, of which we see shards and shadows. It seems to me that there are a lot of stories to be told there... but considering that Ministry of Space is a creator-owned work, something that is regrettably rare in the comics world today, there may yet be more tales of the Ministry down the road.

To tie it up, Ministry of Space is something I heartily recommend. The original three-issue miniseries has since been collected in a single volume with foreword, afterword and extras, and set me back only $12.99 plus tax. If you're interested in "nuts and bolts" visions, this one will work for you.


Previous Short SF Reviews:

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Photo: Terminating the Vista

When it comes to city layout, a terminating vista is what you get when a straight road ends with a structure. They're commonly used to lend an air of importance to civic structures; in Toronto, both Old City Hall and Queen's Park terminate the vistas of Bay Street and University Avenue, respectively. In Vancouver, the Marine Building does this for West Hastings Street once you're past Cambie.

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Tuesday, April 24, 2012

To Mine the Heavens

It's been a long time coming, I'll say that much.

You may have seen the headlines popping up in the past week, headlines that look like they're from some science fiction universe, headlines having to do with asteroid mining. There are millions of asteroids in the solar system, ranging from dwarf planets like 1 Ceres to the irregular chunks of rock left over from the condensation of the planetary nebula four and a half billion years ago. Owing to their nature, asteroids have the potential to be mining bonanzas - miniature worlds made of iron and copper, with comparative pebbles containing more gold and platinum than have ever been mined in the history of humanity.

There's just one problem: the economics of space. Right now, the biggest stumbling block to any presence in space is the cost of getting there - presently, you're going to pay somewhere around $10,000 per pound of material launched into orbit. Efforts to bring this cost down have historically been complicated by the fact that for the last forty years, space missions haven't ventured past Low Earth Orbit and have been limited to satellite deployment and repair and space station resupply - not exactly a fertile market to breed competition, though now that SpaceX is in the game things may be changing.

With the arrival of Planetary Resources, things may be changing even more. The company - backed by billionaires such as James Cameron, Ross Perot, and Larry Page and Eric Schmidt of Google - is going to be officially unveiled today at a press conference in Seattle's Museum of Flight, with a goal to "revolutionize current space exploration and help ensure humanity's prosperity for generations to come." It's an idea whose time has long since come - one of the only ideas that can break the cycle that we're locked into, an alternative to the economists' folly of unlimited growth in a limited world.

As people have been saying for decades, there just are not enough resources on Earth for everyone to live a prosperous lifestyle - it's not a question of will, it's a question of mathematics. The obvious solution, then, has always been to expand the equation - to bring in resources from off Earth.

The asteroid 4 Vesta, one of the largest Main Belt asteroids, as photographed by the Dawn spacecraft. The asteroids Planetary Resources eventually intends to work are much, much smaller than this.

The idea of asteroid mining isn't new. Peter Diamandis, the man behind the X-Prize and co-chairman of Planetary Resources, wanted to be an asteroid miner when he was a teenager - a notion pulled from the fertile fields of science fiction, where roughneck belters in their spaceships leapfrogging from rock to rock has been a staple for decades. The cover story of the September 1963 Analog is all about asteroid mining and asteroid industry. It's not something that's come out of nowhere.

That is, at least, for people like me who follow this sort of thing. In scrolling through newspaper comment cesspools for the Planetary Resources stories, it's been interesting to see the reactions of people to whom this is all a bolt from the blue, people who never considered the notion of mining the sky. There are people who see it as hubris, that mining and moving asteroids will inevitably destroy us. There are people who pick up that nails-on-a-chalkboard environmental sanctimony, about how it's not enough that we're wrecking our own planet but now we're going to wreck other ones (note: asteroids are not planets; they are lifeless chunks of rock). I've seen people worried that using asteroid-mined metals on Earth would change its orbit because of the extra mass. I've even seen one person - thankfully, universally downvoted - who suggested that we get more experience by landing on the moon first.

Of all of that, the pseudo-environmentalism infuriates me the most. Sure, asteroid mining is expensive - it's going to be a long road before Planetary Resources gets to there from here - but what's the environmental cost to mining on Earth? Can you put a dollar value on a toxic tailing pond that may or may not be straining at its banks? What about the mining operations where mountains are flattened to get at the resources within? If it was up to me, I'd establish an infrastructure of asteroid mining with the goal of ending large-scale extractive mining on Earth. Asteroid mining is something that environmentalists should be behind, if only to provide an alternative to Earth mining.

Admittedly, this isn't a sure thing. It is expensive, and the value of all that gold and platinum locked away up there would plummet dramatically once it was brought to market on Earth; not that it would be a bad thing, because now you can use gold and platinum in manufacturing and industrial processes that were completely uneconomical before - imagine electric wiring made out of gold or silver, or cheap fuel cells to bring a revolution in electrical generation. But the possibilities of a successful asteroid mining program are such that as long as we have the capacity, it would be foolish to not even try. Nothing ventured, nothing gained and so on.

Still, the fact that newspapers are talking about asteroid mining with straight faces feels otherworldly - and not in the literal sense. I suppose I've just become accustomed, so inured to the drudgeries of the everyday that I never thought something like this would actually make the jump from science fiction to reality. Sure, I live in a world where people carry computers in their pocket that link to a vast global communications network, but it's still fundamentally a world, as if existing apart from the rest of the cosmos.

Some part of me keeps thinking that Planetary Resources shouldn't be real. That it can't be real, That it's just some big joke at the expense of people like me, people who are still willing to look up and believe in what might come if we got our collective acts together. "No, you don't get it!" says that annoying little voice. "You're not supposed to do this! You're supposed to jaw about coming together to work for a better future while never actually doing anything to bring that better future about!"

Fact is, this is the future. It's about time we started making it look the part.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Photo: It's A Trapp!

New Westminster's Trapp Block, built more than a hundred years ago and now one of the many surviving heritage structures along Columbia Street, is not long for this world in its current form. It's on the Canadian Register of Historic Places, but with only a ground-floor store holding down the fort, it's been left mostly empty to deteriorate and decay for a while. The back of the building in particular, facing onto Front Street and the parkade, looks like something you'd expect to find in a postapocalyptic ruin.

For now, nature has reclaimed its upper reaches, with tufts of grass and small trees sprouting from the ledges. Soon, it'll be the site of activity - the facades of Trapp Block and the adjacent Holbrook Block will be retained, like that Art Deco building at Granville in Robson in Vancouver, but a new condominium complex will be rising up behind them. It's probably for the best... the way Trapp Block looks now, I doubt it would be able to survive the next earthquake anyway.

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Sunday, April 22, 2012

Magical Thinking, Magical Healing

If there's an ultimate truth of the human condition, I would not be surprised if it was something along the lines of "a fool and his money are soon parted." A willingness to believe in foolish things is one of the things that makes us human, and that willingness is expressed in a million different ways in modern society, from Ponzi schemes to poorly-written emails from Nigeria. Most of us, after all, want to become wealthy and powerful, and when what seems to be an opportunity presents itself a lot of people are unable or unwilling to appraise it critically. After all, opportunity knocks and so on.

Then there are the ones that prey on our health, one concern that everyone shares. You see it in homeopaths, who dilute remedies in ordinary water by thousands and thousands of times and claim that the resulting snake oil is just as efficacious as ordinary medicine because the water "remembers" what was diluted in it. You see it in antivaxxers, whose wild obsession with the idea that vaccines cause autism has resulted in a disappearance of herd immunity to diseases in some areas, as in the case of Dana McCaffery. You see it faith healers, who take advantage of people desperate or eager to believe that they can be cured by something as simple as a laying on of hands.

Then you have the ones that, while apparently harmless, are just out there. A few days ago I found an account in the Vancouver Sun about Braco the Gazer, a "healer" who has reputedly healed people of "cancer, cardiovascular illness, financial wows, addictions, depression, allergies," and a host of other things. How does Braco do this?

By looking at you.


The Braco website, which is chock-full of New Age mystical shit, goes into detail about the "gazing sessions" he offers. Apparently he's "like a conduit for a remarkable gift that has been proven through the testimonials of those who have been helped," because who needs the scientific method when you've got hearsay and conjecture on your side? He can help you find "a new life outlook, a physical healing or transformations in [your] relationships" - not only that, but he can help your loved ones, and they don't even have to be there! Seriously, all you need to do is let him stare at a photograph of a person, and "transformation, and even miracles" will ensue!

Dang, maybe I should give this a go. Meet my photographic gaze. Meet it, be healed, and send me your MONEY. Non-sequential large bills, please.

This isn't the first time I've encountered this idea, but it is the first time I've seen it in the wild. Again, I'm thankful that my mom got me a copy of Carl Sagan's The Demon-Haunted World when I was young and impressionable, so that I could immunize myself against things like this. When I hear of "healers" like this I immediately think of the 1988 Carlos hoax, and I reflect on how some people are so desperate for relief that they'll latch onto anything that even pretends to offer it to them.

But, you might be asking yourself, what's the problem? So he helps other people, so he brings them feelings of wellness and contentment. What could be the problem with that? If he was actually advertising himself as that, there wouldn't be. But he isn't. He is presenting himself as some kind of conduit for some kind of energy or positivity that helps people while he gazes at them, and in the limited information I've found doesn't shy away from going into detail about what ills he can help cure just by looking at you.

Do me a favor - go back toward the top of the post again, and read that litany of things that his press release claims he can cure. What was the first thing on the list? Yeah, that's right, cancer. A very destructive, very dangerous condition. There are people close to me who have reckoned with cancer, and even with the full array of modern medicine at hand, cancer can sometimes be a close-run thing. Now, what if they had gone not to a hospital, but to someone like Braco? Perhaps the placebo affect would take hold - they'd feel better because they expected they were supposed to feel better, but only for a time. A man's gaze cannot destroy tumors. "Healers" like this not only give false hope, but redirect people from actual, efficacious treatments to mystical performances based on magical thinking.

Some people just want to believe, and sometimes it is at their peril. Magical thinking like this is a remnant of our ignorant, superstitious past, and it will kill if we let it back in the door.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Photo: The Almighty Tallest (Building)

The tallest building in British Columbia, the recently-completed sixty-two-storey Living Shangri-La tower, is something I was almost entirely ignorant of for ages after moving to Vancouver. Sure, it's the most skyscraping of Vancouver's skyscrapers, but unless you've got a good viewpoint such as Queen Elizabeth Park or somewhere on the North Shore, it gets hidden by the smaller but much more numerous towers you'll find around it. Hell, the first time I visited, I was entirely unaware of its existence.

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Friday, April 20, 2012

Seeking Justice in Norway

One hundred and twenty-three years ago today, a boy was born in the Austrian town of Branau am Inn. Fifty years later, the man that boy became launched the bloodiest, most destructive war in the history of the world. Tens of millions died trying to bring him to justice, but in the end he took his own life beneath the ruins of Berlin before justice could catch up to him. There's no physical trace of him left today - the Soviets made sure of that - but in spirit, Adolf Hitler will always be with us; a midnight presence just beyond our vision, an echoing reminder of what humans can do when they sacrifice their humanity. We can't forget him, because to do so would be to invite him back into the light and allow his cycle to start all over again.

I can't help but think of Hitler when I read of the trial of Anders Behring Breivik, the self-proclaimed "Justicar Knight" responsible for the murder of seventy-seven people last summer because, in his fundamentally broken mind, he was fighting "anti-European racism" generated by "media and the Marxist elites." I can't recall if the media had enough power by the 1920s for Hitler to fulminate against it in Mein Kampf, but it nevertheless sounds starkly familiar. During his latest day in court, Breivik described hunting down teenagers on Utoya, specifically searching for ones hiding themselves away.

What's clear enough is that Breivik is cold and Breivik is remorseless. There's no question on the verdict that will be handed down at the end of the trial. On Wednesday, articles began to surface that Breivik only sees two "just and fair" ways for it to go; either acquittal, which is about as likely as Germany deciding to celebrate Adolf Hitler Day, or execution.

Hey, just because they said you're going to hang by the neck until dead, it doesn't mean you can't do it in a colorful way. Also, I suspect this might actually be a shoelace.

Norway, like most of the world, has rid itself of capital punishment - for peacetime cases such as Breivik's, judicial executions have been off the books for more than a hundred years, but exceptions were made for cases such as Vidkun Quisling, leader of the collaborationist Norwegian government during the war. Nevertheless, when I first heard of this, my first thought was that Breivik was right in his way, that the only just thing would be to execute him. That he was no longer fully human by virtue of his actions, that he was a monster, a thing that walked and talked and looked like us but was not one of us anymore and could never be one of us again, and that it became our responsibility to deal with him the way one would deal with a rabid dog.

But--I had forgotten that old Klingon proverb, that revenge is a dish best served cold. To say that there will be no measure of revenge in the punishment that's handed down on Breivik would be to ignore the way humans work. But to feed his twisted idea of what is "just and fair" would only let him win, the way Hitler "won" all those years ago. Execution isn't justice, not really. Execution is revenge, and execution enables the condemned to escape justice.

Let's go back to the end of the Second World War. Imagine if things had gone just slightly different... if Adolf Hitler had been captured alive by the Allies. He would have been brought to Nuremberg, he would have been the main event of Nuremberg, and there's absolutely no question that when it was over, Adolf Hitler would hang. Understandable, really - but not full justice, either.

Imagine a different world, where Hitler was captured, tried, and imprisoned for the rest of his life - say a fortress in Scotland or on St. Helena. If Hitler lived to be eighty, he would have died in 1969 - time enough to see the division of Germany, the rise of the Warsaw Pact, the construction of the Berlin Wall. He would not only have seen his dream of a thousand-year empire crumble, he would see Germany ground down and have to live with the knowledge that it was his fault - and only then would he die, an solitary old man, broken and powerless, hated and mocked but never forgotten.

To give Breivik what he wants would be a miscarriage of justice. The only just thing is to do what the law already sets down - to imprison him, and once he's behind bars he won't ever see freedom again. What he will see is a country and a world that goes on, that moves beyond him... that forgets about him. Breivik is no Hitler; while those who died at his hands deserve to be remembered and memorialized, the only just punishment for Anders Behring Breivik is for him to grow old knowing that he was a failure and that he will be forgotten.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Photo: Lakes of Michigan

You get an elevated perspective when you're in flight, sure - the only complication is that once you're at cruising altitude and your departure airport has gone beyond the horizon, it can be difficult to realize what it is you're looking at. I caught this lake view while flying back to Vancouver from Toronto last summer, but it wasn't until I was able to pore over Google Maps that I figured out what I'd been looking at. As best as I can tell, this is the south coast of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, a bit northwest of the Straits of Mackinac. The small body of water in the middle-left is Brevort Lake, and that's Lake Michigan beyond it with the sun-gold water.

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Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Here's To Thirty Years of Independence!

Canada Day is coming up in just a couple of months, and with it the hundred and forty-fifth Canadian birthday; only a few more years until the centennial and a half, no? National anniversaries have always done their bit to attract attention and dominate the news cycle. Even I can manage some vague recollection of Canada 125, back in that swingin' summer of 1992 when, in retrospect, it may well have seemed like the country would not last to see Canada 150.

At least, 1992 was what people agreed was Canada 125. But like Napoleon said, what is "official" history but a set of lies agreed upon?

If you don't follow the media or aren't very familiar with the structure of Canada's government, it would have been an easy thing to miss - yesterday marked the anniversary of Constitution of Canada and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms being passed into law, at last giving the country a written constitution that Quebec didn't - and still hasn't - signed on to. You may have heard of it in the context of our Dear Leader doing nothing to mark it, because he's awfully busy gutting environmental protections and working the zippers for oil industry lobbyists. You might have figured it's not that important... if you did, keep in mind that sometimes the most important things hide in plain sight.

In school, the teachers tell the students that Canada was founded on July 1, 1867, when Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia came together to establish the core of the Dominion for mutual benefit, trade, and defense. After all, the Union had just finished curbstomping the Confederacy, and the White House wasn't too impressed with the tacit support that the United Kingdom had shown to the CSA. What many of them don't tell is that this is a simplification of history. Canadian independence didn't happen the way it did down south, with the flourish of signatures on a declaration and clouds of gunsmoke wafting across the battlefield, but was a work of degrees that happened over many, many years.

If you want to be really persnickety about it, you can easily make the argument that Canada did not truly gain its independence until April 17, 1982; hell, if Canada was a person, one could make the argument that we should have only now stopped trusting it.

That, of course, will depend on how far a given person can throw it.

Up until now, I was willing to go along with the 1867 date - while it took time for the trappings of independence to appear, such as the 1931 Statute of Westminster which finally gave Canada control of its own foreign policy, or the adoption of the national flag; it was not until well into the twentieth century that government buildings within Canada flew even the Red Ensign rather than the Union Flag of the UK. Slowly and by degrees, Canada edged away from being a colony. But independent... really?

What really made me start to question this long-held assumption of Canadian independence since 1867 was the recent news, now known thanks to the efforts of the UK's National Archives, that back in 1981 the passage of the Constitution and the Charter was not the slam dunk that I had always subconsciously assumed it to be. In fact, memos made public indicate that Margaret Thatcher's cabinet was concerned that the British government might well reject them - after all, at the time the United Kingdom still retained authority to legislate for Canada under certain conditions, and even after things were settled in Ottawa, the Parliament of the United Kingdom still had to pass its Canada Act 1982 to tie up the loose legal ends.

Previously, when I encountered this in history classes I'd always thought of it as a formality - a lot of people probably did, since those memos weren't yet public and the people who were directly involved weren't talking. This information forced me to reevaluate what I knew in another light, a light that said it wasn't just a formality. What it really comes down to is this - if one country holds legislative authority over another, can that second country really be said to be independent? Was Canada really independent between 1867 and 1982, or was its Dominion status somewhere between a province and an independent state?

Realistically, Canada's been de facto independent for nearly a hundred and fifty years... it's had a strange way of showing it, though.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Photo: Wheels Up From the Water

Although planes from Vancouver Harbour Water Airport only fly to Whistler and a few destinations on Vancouver Island, it can be a busy place nevertheless - seaplanes accelerating across the waves, landing with a thrash of whitewater and the roar of engines being throttled back, leaving the city and mountains behind. Last weekend I caught a Harbour Air seaplane picking up some speed as it buzzed by Canada Place - enough that even in the fraction of a second the shutter was open, the plane moved enough that the spinning blades of the propellor left afterimages of themselves.

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Monday, April 16, 2012

Quaff Review #22: Asahi Black

When possible, I endeavor to break out of the everyday when it comes to beer and try something outside my experiences; it's a bit difficult when local beers are always the easiest to find, but if you're dedicated you'll turn up lesser-known labels here and there. In particular, I'm always interested in seeing what the state of the quaff is like in other lands - and if I don't have to leave Metro Vancouver to discover that, so much the better. That can be a bit of an irritating road when you find that a great deal of "foreign" brands are actually just brewed by license in Guelph; it kind of defeats the purpose, at least the way I see it. At minimum it's not even the same water, and the nature of the water you use for anything has a great influence on it.

That being said, in one of my recent lookarounds I was intrigued to find a bottle of Asahi Black, produced by Asahi Breweries Limited of Japan. It's not an unfamiliar name - another one of their brands, Asahi Super Dry, is commonly sold in beer stores across British Columbia and Ontario, and there's a big advertisement for it opposite one of the escalators down to the Granville Station platform, but like I said, it's produced under license in Guelph. This bottle of Asahi Black is different - the real deal, imported from Japan. I can tell because the back label is nothing but Japanese writing.

I tried my hand at translating some of it. Unfortunately for me, written Japanese involves a damning density of kanji, imported Chinese characters that are rather opaque if you don't already know them. I was able to recognize a few terms, like chigaimasu, so Asahi Black is different from something - perhaps Asahi's other beers - and it's possible that its taste is without rank, if I'm reading it right. Also, it contains hops and starch, has an alcohol content of 5%, and is an Asahi beer.

Yep, I'm only a few steps from mastery of the Japanese language now, for sure. Ganbatte!

My first thought on pouring it was "man, that's a deceptively small amount for a bottle that size." I doubt it would even have filled my San Francisco Living Sober 1991 coffee mug, except I wouldn't try, because that would be disrespectful. It's a 334-milliliter bottle, which gives it less drinkable content than even an ordinary can - looking at it now, it is significantly more tapered than North American bottles, but it was never obvious until it came time to pour. I would not be surprised for breweries over here to cotton onto this - charging the same price for less - eventually, so keep your eyes open.

Not that your eyes can tell you much about Asahi Black other than that, well, the name is appropriate. It's very dark, opaque even when held in front of a light, and had a vague woody smell. As for the taste, well...

It took me by surprise, because it wasn't there. I found Asahi Black to be a particularly watery beer, and though I thought there'd be some twist of flavor or a hint of bitterness - I've never had a Munich-type beer, to my knowledge, so I wasn't sure what to expect - there was nothing. No taste and no aftertaste. I might as well have been drinking alcohol-infused water, assuming my tastebuds did not all choose that moment to malfunction.

Asahi Black is a strange beer - it doesn't match what I would have expected at all. Where I expected taste, I got no taste. Where it has the look of something heavy and viscous, it's instead smooth and light. This is the first from-Japan Japanese beer I've had; I'm not sure if it's representative of the state of the brew over there or not. I think this calls for additional research.

ANDREW'S RATING: 2.5/5 - mostly for the questions that it raises.

Previous Quaff Reviews

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Photo: Through the First Narrows

Burrard Inlet is one of the finest natural harbors on the world - that's what it says right there on the interpretive plaque - and the First Narrows, spanned by the Lions Gate Bridge, is where the relatively calm waters of the inlet meet English Bay and the beginnings of the wild Pacific. "Narrows" is right - it's only about four hundred and fifty meters wide at the narrowest point, about a third of the size of the Golden Gate into San Francisco Bay. Every ship bound for the port of Vancouver has to pass through here, and on Friday, I was there while the cargo ship Wren Arrow steamed under the bridge after a long, long sail from Shanghai.

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Saturday, April 14, 2012

Wake Up and Smell the Wildroses

For the last couple of weeks, the news cycle has been in love with Alberta's Wildrose Party. They're branding themselves as "conservative alternative" in what is easily Canada's most conservative province; the Alberta PCs have been in power continuously since 1971, but with the way the polls are turning, it doesn't look like they're going to get the chance to finally knock Ontario's Big Blue Machine off its pedestal. Over a very short while, Wildrose has gone from tilting at windmills to demolishing those windmills; the latest polls suggest that Wildrose is poised to secure a comfortable majority come April 23rd.

For my part, it's a bit refreshing to write about an election that, for once, doesn't directly affect me - still, I wouldn't be surprised if it did in the end. When I first heard of Wildrose, it was in the context of them eventually growing into a federal conservative alternative and once more splitting the right, the way it was back in the 1990s, bringing some balance back to elections. After all, if Harper could no longer count on Albertans voting Tory blue en masse, he might just have to work for a living.

Fact is, though, I don't know much of anything about Wildrose except that they're Alberta's conservative alternative and that Danielle Smith wants to give a fifth of all oil and gas royalty surpluses to the Albertan people. Still, even if there's no chance that Wildrose ever challenges the Conservatives federally, Alberta is still British Columbia's rowdy next-door neighbor, and the Rocky Mountains only block so much of the noise. Aside from a few offhand references here and there to how the party has something of a libertarian bent, the media hasn't been too helpful in explaining what Wildrose is actually about. So I went to their website to get it straight from the source... and what was the very first thing I saw?

"Wildrose is under attack!"

Oh, Alberta... oh, boy.

Fortunately it has not got so bad yet that they've needed to activate Calgary's hidden city walls. They up the defensive value of any military units in the city by three times when attacked by land units!

There's such difference in tone between Wildrose's video about the Alberta Accountability Act, in which Smith calmly lays out her plan to increase government transparency, accountability, and roll back recent 30% pay raises for cabinet ministers, and the description for that video that it's mental whiplash. "The same people that caused the Liberal Party of Canada to be in power for 13 uninterrupted years now have Wildrose in their crosshairs." Who are they talking about here? Presumably we're supposed to assume that some shadowy, backroom cabal of big-government, ivory tower manipulators have been influencing federal elections, and now they've come to Alberta. The fact that Wildrose is willing to resort to tactics such as this at this stage in the game... for me, at least, it doesn't reflect particularly well on them.

Look, Wildrose - I get that you're a new party, I get that you're eager to put your stamp on the province, I get that for a new party with no government experience things can get a little dicey. But is it really necessary to start building up the siege mentality at this stage of the game?

As for what else they're about - it's no surprise going to the "Energy" section of an Albertan political party's platform and being greeted with a big, sharp picture of an oil derrick. While Wildrose says it wants to "encourage" a shift from coal to natural gas for electricity - at least natural gas isn't as bad as coal - its "Environment" section is rather uncomplicated to my eyes, and beyond that, I can't really square any active efforts at environmental stewardship with the royalty surplus handouts. Once something like that comes into play, and the average Albertan has a personal financial stake in the success of the province's extraction industries, how likely do you think it is that there'll be any rollback?

Though I wish Wildrose well in cleaning out the deadwood of Alberta's government - a party that's been in power for four decades has long since passed its sell-by date - I'll freely admit that I don't really understand Alberta politics. It's just as well, then, that I don't have to live there.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Photo: The Big Orange Railplow

When I was but a lad, my grandfather took me to see the trains - if not riding them from one place to another, then just going to the quiet sidings on a weekend and taking a look at the cars waiting to go somewhere. My hometown Barrie was on a main line between Toronto and northern Ontario before the rails were lifted in the mid-1990s, and on a weekend it was easy to find plenty of boxcars, hopper cars, tanker cars, cabooses, and so on adjacent to what's now Allandale Waterfront GO Station.

There were also, on occasion, more unique cars - ones like this railway snowplow, which could be pushed along by the locomotive if the drifts were too heavy to power through. They're not seen as often anymore, I understand; for one, 21st century locomotives have more power than a lot of 20th century workhorses. Pretty eye-catching, though - and that's me standing by it, for a sense of scale. This photo is actually a framegrab from a camcorder video my grandfather took, made on March 16, 1991.

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Thursday, April 12, 2012

To See the World Through Google-Colored Glasses

If you've never heard of Google's Project Glass before, well... now you've heard of Google's Project Glass! It's something that's been in the science fiction pipeline for more than a decade, and its imminent emergence is just another data point confirming that we now live in the future. Project Glass is a wearable augmented reality interface; present prototypes look like ordinary glasses frames with the lenses removed and replaced by a small screen; once this technology matures, it will probably be integrated into more ordinary-looking designs. This idea is nothing new to me - I've been using it in the stories I've been writing for a few years now, but it's something else entirely to see it leaking out into reality.

If you're not up on augmented reality, it's a process that adds computer-generated input to your view of the world. Right now, it's only available via smartphone - if you have the right app, you can hold your iPhone up to the street and it can splash information from, say, Google Maps on top of the "real" layer. It echoes some of the things that were being predicted about VR back in the mid-90s, but is distinct in that while virtual reality systems are difficult to find outside of amusement park arcades, augmented reality has been hitting the streets for a while now.

Google is aiming to take Project Glass as far beyond the modern state of the AR art as the SkyTrain is beyond Catch Me Who Can, likely attempting to beat Apple at its own game. At this point, I don't think that simple descriptions really work best - check out the promotional video Google made for Project Glass, aking us through a day in the life of a New York City hipster dude whose life has been immeasurably improved by augmented reality and demonstrating a product that will blur the lines between the artificial and the real to a degree that I don't think anyone is really prepared for.

On the face of it, it's all techno-wonder. Look how easy it makes things! They prompt you when you've got appointments to go to, give your friends a seamless way to get in touch with you no matter what you're doing, lets you adjust your plans on the fly without you having to lift a finger, simplifies meetups and removes that "just hanging around" time by allowing you to broadcast your location, and even lets someone else see through your own eyes, practically. It's vastly beyond what smartphones are capable of, at least in terms of the relative cumbersome nature of smartphones; I mean, you have to hold them up, you have to press buttons, you have to get your digits involved. With augmented reality glasses, it seems, all you really need to do is talk, blink, and move your head.

Part of me can't help but feel that it makes things too easy - that the sort of AR implicit in Project Glass will undercut the formation or practice of certain skills because it's easier to have the glasses handle them. Take, for example, the map issue; wayfinding is not going to become any less important in the future. I was raised in a way that made me want to pay attention, to understand where I was going even though it was my mom behind the wheel and to know the many ways I could get from point A to point B. Today, when I find myself in a strange city, my first order of business is to wander around downtown until I've seen enough that I can make connections and carry a map around in my head.

Some people didn't have those advantages growing up - some people were just driven around by their parents and didn't have any say in what route they took to get where they were going, some people weren't able to wander around and explore, and as a result some people end up with poor wayfinding ability, unable to conceptualize the street grid and easily able to lose their way. The active maps that Project Glass makes available would be a boon to people like this, sure - but I can't help but think that those maps would also guarantee more generations of people who are severely lacking in the internal wayfinding department. I can imagine kids only being let out of the house with their augmented reality glasses on, ordered by their parents not to deviate from the route they suggest or else. Not every kid would be capable of cracking the parental controls, either.

Likewise, it suggests possibilities for abuse, if people come to rely on those active maps. Imagine a situation like Toronto's G20 - remember the kettling at Queen and Spadina, and how plenty of the people caught up in it were just folks going about their business until police are everywhere and they're not letting them go? In an AR future, the police wouldn't need to kettle; they'd just need to pull a "public safety necessity" thing and see to it that the active maps, when prompted for some kind of escape route, lead straight to a police checkpoint and processing zone.

What these glasses really connote to me is the further commodification of our time, of our existence. Watch the video carefully - except for a brief moment looking out the window, from the instant the glasses boot up at the beginning, Hipster Dude is always doing something. Realistically, it's because we're watching a video and we want to see the interesting bits, but art - if this can be called "art" - does influence life. I know that waiting around for something to happen can be boring, but that sort of boredom has been with humans since we've been human. Sure, it was probably exciting for our ancient hunter forebears to chase down a deer with lots of meat, but waiting for that deer to show up? Less so, I would imagine. Useful things can be extracted from quiet times; by putting your circle of friends perpetually in your face, innovations like these threaten to drown out that quiet.

I can't imagine that that would be good for everyone.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Photo: The White Blossoms of Granville Square

It's finally, finally, finally spring in Vancouver, and it feels like we've got more sunlight and blue skies in the last week than in the last month before that. All over the city the cherry blossoms are appearing, like flowers growing out of thin branches, and some have already begun to fall on the sidewalks. The cherry trees down at Granville Square are producing starkly white blossoms this year, almost a last gentle reminder of winter.

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Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The End in Sight

Sooner or later, unless things are allowed trail off in an unsatisfactory manner that fails to resolve the central conflict, every story ends. It's the ultimate result of the protagonist's actions and should bring closure to the narrative. It's key for all writers to have a firm understanding of how they most effectively create, but even for those who just start writing and wait to see where the unfolding story takes them, my own opinion is that when it comes to writing a story, the single indispensable thing is a solid sense of how it is going to end.

It's not that you necessarily need a blueprint before you start writing; in my experience that's just needlessly constricting, though I imagine that there are some writers out there who use that sort of method successfully. It's important just to know roughly where you're going to end up before you start off; that way, elements like foreshadowing can be employed throughout the story, and the ending becomes a natural result of the story as it's unfolded. Personally, I need to know the general way my stories will end before I can start writing them - I need to have that destination, even if the route I'll take to get there is unclear. When I've written stories that fell apart or were abandoned, generally they were because I didn't know how I was going to end it when I started, and as a result my notion of the plot changed substantially through the course of the writing process - producing something that bent under pressure.

Whoever wrote Mass Effect 3 evidently did not follow anything remotely like this advice. Perhaps you've heard of the controversy that's been brewing since the game's release last month, the vociferous hatred of the game's endings among the fanbase that demonstrates the pitfalls inherent in a participatory narrative like the Mass Effect series. Encountering a weak ending in a book or movie is one thing; you had no role in the events as they unfolded, and in the end you only had to invest a few hours. In Mass Effect, which since its 2007 release was championed as something where your choices in one game would shape events in the next and where you could easily spend seventy-five hours guiding Commander Shepard from the opening scene to the final options, investment is vastly higher; it's more appropriate to say, I think, that players experience a participatory narrative, and as such there's a far greater necessity to provide a satisfactory conclusion.

It's somewhat understandable in its way - I can't think of any other series, offhand, that has been this audacious when it comes to an overarching participatory story. So it's not that much of a surprise, in retrospect, that Mass Effect 3 thoroughly fumbled the conclusion to such an extent that I swore at the system when the credits started rolling - and it wasn't even the whole conclusion, either. Just the last ten minutes.

Please note that there are SPOILERS AHEAD for the Mass Effect 3 ending, in the event that you still wish to experience it firsthand.

Also note spoilers for The Winter's Tale up there, for all those of you who are still waiting for tickets to the Globe Theatre.

Mass Effect follows your character, Commander Shepard, as he or she learns of and works to defeat the Reapers, a fleet of staggeringly ancient, incredibly powerful machines that pass through the galaxy every fifty thousand years and destroy all advanced civilizations, a cycle that has been continuing for tens of millions of years. Fundamentally, the story is about breaking the cycle of history; about doing the impossible, doing what's never been done before, surviving in the face of astronomical odds. In the third game, the Reapers arrive to annihilate civilization, while you work to unite the disparate species of the galaxy and complete a superweapon left in the archives that survived the previous cycle of destruction, in order to destroy the Reapers once and for all.

The final component in this weapon, a component you've been searching for throughout the game, is ultimately revealed to be something that's been present from the very beginning - the Citadel, an ancient, massive space station, the center of galactic society. You fight across the killing fields of London and ultimately, near-death, board the Citadel, dispatch the antagonist, and wait for the weapon to do its work...

...and then the starchild appears. Okay, it's an ancient AI resident in the Citadel, but it controls the Reapers. It recognizes that the cycle has been broken, and gives Shepard three different choices to end the game with. Different in what way? Well, in one choice the explosion is red, in one the explosion is blue, and in one the explosion is green. Those are the only fundamental differences between them, unless you didn't do enough sidequests and preparation, in which case all life on Earth is also annihilated.

The problem is that throughout the entire series, this starchild was barely even hinted at - from what I understand, there is one reference in the third game to something greater controlling the Reapers, but even that can be missed depending on which dialogue options you choose. What's more, it effectively invalidates the ending of the first game. My specific problems are that it's literally a deus ex machina resolution - BioWare did everything but animate the crane that the starchild was brought down on - and that the nature of the resolution is, in a setting that up until then was rather rigorous, purely Space Magic.

Even then, Space Magic isn't necessarily the problem. The problem is that at no point in the series was the existence of Space Magic hinted at. Imagine if the last episode of M*A*S*H had instead involved Athena appearing before Hawkeye in his tent and filling him with divine power, enabling him to send out a wave of peace and understanding across the world so that the soldiers would put down their weapons, the politicians would sign on the dotted line, and the Korean War would be over and everyone could go home. That'd be a pretty shitty ending, wouldn't it? Do you think a conclusion like that would have been remembered as fondly?

Mass Effect was planned as a trilogy from the very beginning - it's inexcusable that BioWare did not already know how it would be ending, and did not work toward that ending for the start. It should be a lesson to writers, both in participatory and non-participatory mediums, to not disregard the ending.

After all, once the story ends, that ending is what's freshest in the mind - it's what will stick with someone, and a hamfisted ending can sour even the most stellar storytelling.